Category: carrier

Blog Like It’s 2007

What with all the North Korea excitement, I thought it might be time to check on what the US Navy’s aircraft carriers are up to. This is always a useful way to distinguish “loud media yelling” from “something that might actually happen”. This information is helpfully collated here, but is in no way secret. To appreciate it, it’s worth understanding that the carriers have a very well-defined operating cycle that is linked with all kinds of other industrial and career processes.

Roughly speaking, a carrier is expected to deploy for six months out of every 24 months. Out of that six months, a bit less than a month is spent on passage between the home port and the area of operations. To avoid a gap, this means that the relief has to sail a month ahead of time. About every five years, the ship undergoes a really massive three-year overhaul, known as a RCOH for Refuelling and Complex Overhaul, during which the nuclear reactor is shut down, maintained, and refuelled. Half-way between RCOHs there’s another, six-month drydocking.

This establishes a cycle of readiness states – the ship comes out of dockyard hands, completes sea trials, works up through various levels of training, receives and re-qualifies its air wing, trains as a unit with the air wing (called a COMPTUEX), trains as a unit with the wider task force (called a JTFEX), and finally deploys. Having come back, the ship is available as a reserve for a while before the inexorable timetable demands that major maintenance begins and renders her immobile.

It’s possible to put maintenance off, but this is borrowing from the future – one of the reasons why carrier availability was very low at the time of the 2006-2007 war scares was the massive surge deployment at the end of 2001 and its partial continuation through 2003. It’s also possible to bring it forward, but this is very, very expensive (the RCOH is itself a multi-billion dollar project. The price of admiralty is high) and is subject to critical path restrictions. If, for example, one ship is on the slipway, obviously you can’t put another ship there. More subtly, the short-supply tradespeople employed on one ship can’t get to the next one until they’re done, and expanding the workforce is a long-term project.

On the other side of the book, the USN tries to maintain three major requirements – a carrier in the Middle East, another in the Western Pacific, and a third in Japan, which is permanently based there. As there are ten carriers, this should be possible within a classic one-out-of-three rotation, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that because of the possibility that the major maintenance periods may fall at the same time.

So what’s up at the moment? Stennis, Truman, Reagan, and Lincoln – i.e. 40% of the force – are all in deep maintenance periods of one kind or another. It’s important to note that Reagan is the carrier based in Japan and is therefore logically the first to respond to any crisis in North-Eastern Asia. Her maintenance phase, or Selective Restricted Availability, was planned for four months from the 10th of January, so the fact she’s still tied to the pier may mean the work is dragging on, or more problems have been discovered during the work. Bush is deployed in the Persian Gulf, with a good three months of her deployment left to run.

Vinson, the one everyone is excited about, has been operating all year in the Western Pacific. Like Bush, she is mid-deployment and due to head for home towards the end of June. She recently headed back to the Western Pacific from a port call in Singapore.

Of the rest, Nimitz is working up the readiness cycle. She recently completed the COMPTUEX, which took the best part of a month. On this basis, assuming no sudden hurry, she is probably going to relieve either Bush or Vinson in June, sailing at the end of May. Roosevelt looks likely to be the next out, as Washington doesn’t have an assigned air wing. Eisenhower is the most recently returned, but that wasn’t very recent, as she arrived in Norfolk on the 30th December. She was at sea during February and March on occasion, providing training for reserve air crew, but as she has been back at the pier since the 24th of March I would think it’s getting time for some leave and some maintenance.

To sum up: out of the three routine tasks for carriers, one is covered by Bush while Vinson is doubling up on two of them. Overall availability is not unusually low, but it is not high either, as there is one carrier immediately available as a reserve while two reliefs will be needed for sailing dates in May. Vinson‘s recall to the Western Pacific may be more of an indicator that Reagan‘s return to availability is delayed than anything else.

Obviously, even one CVN is serious business. But just as in 2006-2007, there is no evidence of a mobilisation to match the talk.

Churchill was wrong for most of his career, you know…

This Ha’aretz piece is interesting for the insight it gives into Israeli policy and especially into process, but also for a couple of other things. Notably, it’s remarkably frank about the Obama administration deliberately trying to stop Netanyahu going to war, and the role of dodgy casino guy Sheldon Adelson in both US and Israeli right-wing politics, and it provides the new information that the Americans have given up on the formal diplomatic channel and concentrated on influencing the Israeli military directly, on a brasshat to brasshat basis. The implied conclusion is that the IDF leadership are interested in external reality while Bibi is too busy being Winston Churchill, and further that they are interested in getting information from the Americans about what their own prime minister is thinking.

Also, Netanyahu considers himself an expert on US politics. The danger here is that the America he is an expert on may not be the same America everyone else is dealing with. If, as I suspect, he is getting a lot of his information from his Republican contacts, he’s living in an alternate universe. In so far as people like Sheldon Adelson are impressed by US politicians who know Bibi Netanyahu personally, his contacts are literally being paid to tell him what he wants to hear. It’s ironically similar to Bush before the Iraq war, just with the stove-pipe reversed.

However, I was astonished by this quote:

While the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is operating in the Straits of Hormuz, just as the Pacific Fleet was anchored at its home base near Honolulu on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, the two instances are not really comparable.

Well, no, they’re not, are they? Some tabloid journalists keep a few paragraphs of general-purposes “sexy” in a file they can drop into a story as required and just change a couple of parameters to fit. This sounds like the same thing, but with Churchill!

Meanwhile, Colin Kahl, and this. It does look like there’s a coordinated push-back against the bullshit, which is good news for those of us who remember 2002. The US Navy bombs Iran…with love. Of a purely Platonic form between comrades of the sea. Oops. while also bringing the carrier back.

US policy does look like it’s trying to achieve three goals – 1) no war with Iran, 2) reassure the GCC countries (so they don’t start one), 3) restrain the Israelis (without pressing so hard they freak and start one). These are partly contradictory, but then what isn’t? Certainly, the combination of being ostentatiously nice to Iranian sailors while also sailing a giant carrier up and down the Gulf does fit the needs of 1) and 2).

big war postponed, small war still on the menu

So what about those North Koreans? As the SWJ put it, a small war in Korea was postponed. I’d query “small”, especially in the special sense they use it – it wouldn’t have been particularly small and it would have been defined by high-intensity battle – but perhaps they are really thinking of whatever would happen after North Korea, as in David Maxwell’s paper I linked to. (Maxwell turns up in the comments thread.) The postwar is reasonably certain to show up; the big question is whether Korea has to go through the big war to get there.

It’s worth noting that the North Koreans took care to be seen to be alert and causing trouble during the exercises off Yeonpyeong, but without doing anything that would be unambiguously hostile. It’s also interesting that they seem to have used electronic warfare as a way of signalling their continued determination to fight in a field that wasn’t a direct challenge to the South Koreans and their allies.

Actually, all parties to the conflict attempted to find alternative forms of confrontation in order to exert power while trying to keep control of the escalation dynamic. I recently saw somewhere on the Web a reference to the idea that having multiple independent forms of power or status was an egalitarian force in society as they could balance each other. It’s certainly an important concept in international politics. North Korea’s original bombardment of Yeonpyeong was a direct and physical, kinetic, attack on the disputed border – at one level, they hoped that if there was no response from the South, they would have set a precedent that South Korea could not treat the island and part of the surrounding sea as entirely its own territory. More strategically, it was a demonstration that they were willing to cause trouble in order to extract concessions, and that they were willing to escalate significantly.

From the Southern side, there were serious restrictions to the possible response. Anything they could do in the same context would either have involved risking bringing about the big war, or else risking a disastrous fiasco – a major raid over the border would have been too much, a commando operation to destroy the guns facing Yeonpyeong would have risked ending up with prisoners in North Korea. There is not much at the moment they could do to put pressure on North Korea economically, and the North Koreans often respond to economic problems by provocations designed to get economic concessions. The North Koreans held escalation dominance – they could choose whether to go further, without necessarily having to go for the ultimate deterrent.

This is why the navies were so important. Although they were constrained in what they could do in one context, the Peninsula, the US Navy and its allies were not so constrained in bringing ships into international waters in the area. The response was to move the focus of the conflict into a different context. Also, cooperating at sea allowed Japan and South Korea to demonstrate alliance unity in a way that they could not otherwise – nobody would bring Japanese troops to Korea, for example, but there is no such objection to Japanese, US, and South Korean ships (or aircraft) cooperating. This is still true even though the US-made or US-inspired equipment aboard those ships permits them to cooperate very closely indeed, with radars aboard one ship, aircraft from another, a command centre in yet another, and missiles aboard a fourth being internetworked.

Also, there was very little the North Koreans could do about it without taking unacceptable risks (even for them). The biggest concern for the allied ships was that the North might lay mines in the narrow seas west of Korea. Paradoxically, the North Koreans were probably self-deterred from doing this – had they got lucky and sunk the Jimmy Carter while she was spying around Yeonpyeong, the consequences would probably not have been ideal from their point of view.

Another parallel form of conflict was the nuclear issue. North Korea had just revealed its new uranium enrichment cascade when it started shelling Yeonpyeong, after all. Bill Richardson’s officially-unofficial mission to North Korea brought back the offer to sell North Korea’s stock of plutonium to the South. This sounds better than it is, precisely because they now have the capability to use uranium rather than plutonium. On the other hand, accepting it is sensible – it’s a matching concession to de-escalate the situation, less plutonium in North Korea is probably desirable, and it moves the nuclear debate onto the slower “enrichment track”.

The nuclear debate also provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to play the role of turning up late but bringing a solution. If the 12,000 rods do leave North Korea, a big question is where they would go. The Chinese might buy them and might even offer fuel of some description in return, a replay of the 1994 framework agreement.

business in great waters

Meanwhile, this is good news. As more and more ships from various parts of the world – like China and Iran – arrive in pirate country, somebody’s made vaguely sensible arrangements to put them on trial in Kenya, which is what has been done with the ones captured by Northumberland. This is a much better idea than returning them to the tender mercies of Somali rivals, or alternatively to their home base, or any evil nonsense promoted by tiresome Internet hard men. (You know who you are.)

I’m not sure whether to be pleased, or worried that China and Iran are apparently cooperating in an exercise designed to be more law-abiding than some British courts, and far more so than whole swaths of the US defence establishment. This is incredibly important; I keep saying that a primary reason for the success of some Islamist movements is that they offer some form of legal order, rather than Franz Neumann’s Behemoth.

After all, dogs have an innate appreciation of justice, so we should surely accept that it matters for human beings too. As a modest proposal, now the EU has taken over the lead in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, could we perhaps give the naval task force a further mission – to compel EU-flag fishing vessels to respect the Somali EEZ? (We wouldn’t have legal authority to stop anyone else without a UN resolution, but it’s a start.) I agree they have plenty on their plate, which is why I’m going to make a second modest proposal.

Rather than frigates, EU states participating in this could instead deploy some of their sizeable fleet of amphibious assault ships, with a deckload of helicopters, a dock of small craft, and a tankdeck containing a mix of marines for boarding parties, and medics, engineers etc to support the UN’s aid activities.

The Guardian Is Not Serious About CVF

There hasn’t been much progress on my long-term beef with Martin Kettle for a while. But it’s worth remembering that if the Guardian has a major leading article that isn’t a business/economics story, it’s probably him. And Saturday’s second lead (behind a rather competent finance story) bears the Kettle hallmarks.

Forty years ago the Royal Navy came up with a wheeze to persuade the government to buy a new fleet of aircraft carriers – it claimed that they were actually “through deck cruisers”. There was no need for pretence this week when the £3.9bn order for two superships was signed in Govan. The vessels, to be named after the Queen and her son (another naval wheeze – would any government dare axe Her Majesty?), should come into service from 2014 as the oceanic embodiment of British power.

Well, he could have mentioned that the “new fleet of aircraft carriers” weren’t designed as aircraft carriers, either; the Invincible class originally only carried 5 fighters, intended to chase off Soviet Bear reconnaissance planes rather than to provide serious air defence, and their main mission was as a base for anti-submarine helicopters. The Invincibles’ role as light fleet carriers was originally a desperate hack for the Falklands, which the Navy realised could be built upon.

(And if you want a good story about the CVA-01 decision, why not mention the fact the RAF promised they could provide air cover to British forces anywhere on earth, producing a map to support this on which Australia was about 300 miles north-west of where conventional wisdom would suggest?)

The government is proud, the navy thrilled and the army jealous. The problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the ships are intended to do or how they will be paid for.

Wrong; they will provide fleet air defence, the same for British or allied landing forces, close air support for troops ashore, and a significant air strike capability, with secondary ASW, command and control and logistic roles. They are budgeted for in the defence equipment programme. That is a cheap criticism, though. If Kettle means that we won’t ever need the use of an aircraft carrier, or that they are morally appalling in all cases, why doesn’t he say so?

Nor is it clear what sort of plane, if any, will fly from their decks: the Joint Strike Aircraft, which they are designed to carry, will not be ready in time (and will cost a further £12bn), even if the United States goes ahead with the necessary vertical takeoff version, which is not certain. In the meantime the navy will have to make do with its ageing Harriers.

It’s perfectly clear. Harrier until the F-35 ISD in 2014, thereafter F-35. You’ve just said so yourself. Further, note that Kettle is complaining that the Fleet Air Arm’s Harriers are “ageing” and also complaining about replacing them, within the space of two sentences. Is he even aware, I wonder, that there are Harriers in the RAF as well? And that they are no newer? The argument that the cost of replacing Harrier is all the fault of the Navy is dishonest; the Harriers will wear out, whether they are flying from Illustrious and Ark Royal, the future Queen Elizabeths, or land bases.

And if you’re worried about the Army (they are “jealous”, remember), you should be aware that the Harrier force’s central mission is to support the infantry. The aircraft itself was designed back in 1969 as a specialised close support aircraft, a sturmovik as the Russians would say, one that would be small, manoeuvrable, with a lot of space for weapons, and no requirement for airfields at all. This was why the US Marines, probably the most CAS-minded air force in the world, bought them. Letting the Harrier force go isn’t an option – because we already cut half the RAF’s CAS aircraft two years ago when the Jaguars were decommissioned, and the press didn’t really notice.

For a government facing a tricky byelection in Glasgow, led by a prime minister from Fife, it is easy to understand the attractions of ships built partly in Govan and Rosyth. Last year’s Commons statement giving the go-ahead was greeted by MPs cheering news of work going to their constituencies. What was lacking – and has been since the 1998 strategic defence review set out plans for the vessels – was a discussion of why the ships are needed, or how they can be afforded

And you’re not going to get one here. Viz:

No one doubts the importance of carrier fleets in certain circumstances – Britain could not have fought the Falklands war without Hermes and Invincible. Floating off some future conflict zone or humanitarian disaster, the new ships will prove valuable. But so might many other forms of military resource, some of which will be sacrificed to pay for these aircraft carriers. The army lacks secure patrol vehicles and helicopters, but the Future Lynx helicopter programme looks likely to be scrapped in order to bail out a defence budget that is already overspent and must now fund naval gigantism.

Many other forms, eh. Fortunately the Matra-BAE Dynamics Ideological Handwave appears to be cheap and available off the shelf. The FLYNX project ought to be scrapped anyway, because it’s a procurement zombie – it’s been going on for ten years, not a single helicopter has been procured, but no less than three different sets of capability requirements have been written, at astonishing cost, and the current solution is to buy another lot of the same helicopters, which don’t actually cover the LIFT element of the requirement (which is the bit about racing to the succour of the wounded in Afghanistan, Minister), and are rather large and expensive for the FIND element, which is about sneaking about spying, and could better be done by robots, more smaller and cheaper helicopters, or by ones big enough to cover the LIFT requirement with the spooky gear bolted on.

Regarding the “secure patrol vehicle” thing, here’s Armchair Generalist. Sure, everyone would like to see more of them. But they are relatively cheap, and in fact the government keeps buying more of them. Which is a pity, because they are completely useless for anything other than Iraq and some missions in Afghanistan (the ones where you don’t need either heavy metal, or mobility). But politicians love them because they show We Care. As far as Army procurement goes, the generals are more concerned about the FRES project, which is costed at £14bn and has already spent hundreds of millions of pounds without building a single vehicle. Many people think it is actually physically impossible.

Further, the Invincible class lasted 30 years; HMS Fearless was laid down in 1964 and managed to launch Chinooks full of SBS men into Afghanistan in 2001. Will we be in Iraq or Afghanistan in 4 years, let alone 14 or 40?

So we didn’t get a serious discussion of why the ships are needed, did we? Oh well, space constraints. What about the solution?

This does not mean Britain should not have access to carriers; only that it cannot afford to build and support two new ships, three times the size of its current ones, without doing harm to other capabilities. The answer would have been to share the cost of construction and operation with France, which has just pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet. Talk of this last month led to silly tabloid headlines about an EU navy. But a shared fleet and a capable military to back it up would do much more for global security than two big British ships and a cash-strapped army – even if it meant that the red ensign had to fly alongside the tricolour.

What does “access” to carriers mean? I hate this “access to” meme – it’s a long standing government way of saying “something other than what you need”. Rather than poverty, unemployment, or a terrible diet, your problem is that you “struggle to access finance, employment, and fresh foods”. I fully expect to hear a government minister explain how they “are taking forward an initiative to improve our counter-terrorist capability’s access to ammunition”.

More seriously, how can we possibly “share the cost of construction and operation” with France when France has just “pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet”? The French government wants to make some quite impressive cuts in its defence budget, and has decided to put off building a ship, so why would they give us money to work on ours? This “answer” is actually self-refuting.

In fact, the French are likely to get assurances of some sort of the use of the British ships for training when the Charles de Gaulle is in dock, and perhaps also of support if something comes up. Presumably they will offer something in return. This is roughly what Kettle is suggesting, but reversed; but it’s impossible for both Britain and France to do this, just as two people with no money cannot help each other out by lending to each other.

And on top of this, we finish with what sounds like a call to revive the European Defence Community of 1954, which is…different. After all, the Guardian’s policy is not actually to support the creation of a single European state, the last I heard. Nobody actually wants this, and there is no evidence the French do. How it would work, who would command it, who would task it…all this is handwaved away.

Worse, this is a common fault of much discussion of British defence policy. On the Right, the assumption is usually that we don’t need a policy because the Americans will provide. On the Left, it’s usually that we don’t because the Europeans will pay, as if there was a great pool of available funding or forces over there. It makes as much sense as assuming that “the Boche will pay” did in 1919.

Here, it’s driven by Kettle’s addiction to Neither-Nor Criticism. He wants to appear decently anti-militaristic and concerned – this is the Manchester Guardian, after all – but he also doesn’t want to accept the policy consequences of this. After all, he’s a sodding Decent! How can you be a fan of humanitarian intervention and the war in Iraq, but also be opposed to having a blue-water navy? If you don’t think we need a navy, or you think that we don’t need armed forces at all, go ahead and make a case. If you think we do, then please suggest a shape of the forces and a foreign policy that would reliably not need the carriers. But he refuses to go anywhere near either. So, what we get is a sort of tepid soup of unexamined assumptions, with the extra feature that he seems to be desperately underbriefed on the issue.

Alternatively, the reason why he dislikes the carrier project is that it might confer too much independence of the United States. Now, this would indeed be consistently Decent. Some sort of half-baked “access to carriers” would be far more likely to prevent independent British – or European – action, and far more likely to compel a future prime minister to march because some ally wanted it. George Orwell attacked the “shabby kind of pacifism common to countries with strong navies”, in a passage much quoted by the Decents. But how much worse is a shabby kind of militarism that doesn’t want to pay for the Navy?

Send – the envoy!

Last week: Two-thirds of Israelis want talks with Hamas. Not just that, but former secret-service chiefs were in the press arguing for it. Here’s Efraim Halevy talking to old-school TYR ally Laura Rozen. And here’s the data: ;not only did 64 per cent of Israelis support direct talks, and a majority of Labour and Kadima voters, but a plurality of Likud voters did as well.

Now; first, an air raid in fabulous Khan Yunis that kills five people including a couple of Hamas leaders. The inevitable retaliation; rockets hit Ashkelon and its various network-industrial nodes (oil terminal, power station, etc). A truly impressive amount of linguistic escalation. And a bloody punishment expedition.

Talks, even with the PA, are off. And this is worrying, even though the source is low credibility with a capital S. The whole thing has a kind of Lebanese feel; a mixture of extreme violence with a very low commitment to its actual aims. Consider the US Navy surface-action group that is annoying the Lebanese government; it’s not by any means a credible threat of effective intervention, so what is it doing there? (There is only one US aircraft carrier away from home; and she’s in the Arabian Gulf, not the Med.)

It also has a nasty echo of the incident back in 2002 that led Alistair Crooke to be blown as the SIS station chief in Tel Aviv; you may recall that he had secured Hamas agreement to a truce when, after some days of calm, an Israeli air raid intended to kill a Hamas man destroyed a block of flats and some children. A major suicide bombing instantly followed; shortly after, Ma’ariv was leaked Crooke’s identity and likeness and he was forced to quit.

What’s interesting here is that the war doesn’t seem to matter to the respective leaderships any more; it’s a second-order issue. (Amusingly, I remember that back in tha day Laura was asking for advice on how to buy euro-denominated bonds just after Bush’s re-election; more recently, this post. Turns out she didn’t.)

Let’s lay this one to rest

Says Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Mottaki:

“America, today, in the international system is facing a serious challenge … Americans are in a very, very difficult situation.

“The people of Afghanistan would not allow America to use Afghanistan against any country. This is our … belief,” he said.

Mottaki said Tehran’s findings from three rounds of talks with U.S. officials on the situation in Iraq was that Washington was facing “very serious” difficulties there.

Washington has no exit strategy from Iraq and is bogged down in the conflict there. He said the U.S. had not managed to deliver on its promises to the Afghan people either.

“Therefore, we do not see such a probability that the Americans would want to attack … another country in the region. They are not in such a position.”

You can’t fault the guy for clarity. Or realism. Let’s cut to the carrierwatch, shall we? Here we are; Enterprise is on station, the only US carrier currently deployed. Hardly the Guns of August. The others? Kitty Hawk is back in Yokosuka; Ronald Reagan in San Diego catching up on her interrupted maintenance schedule. Washington is gradually working-up, having done her sea trials at the end of August. Lincoln‘s most recent task was Fleet Week in San Diego. Washington is doing a similarly steady return from dockyard hands. Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt are in deep refit. John C. Stennis has joined them, having returned from her short-notice deployment and gone straight into drydock. Nimitz is in Pearl Harbour after a long and slow return trip.

Harry Truman is probably the highest-readiness ship, having already done a COMPTUEX and a JTFEX over the summer; however, she’s currently employed doing carrier qualifications off the mid-Atlantic coast. Washington returned as late as the end of May.

So, yes – Mottaki is quite right. Enough for the description of things as they are, though; what about things as they should be? Daniel Levy, writing in Ha’aretz, is sensible. He points out that the US and Israeli strategy towards Iran is hopelessly confused; the aim is left open between regime change and nonproliferation. The chief motivation for investing in nuclear technology is to prevent regime change, but no-one is willing to offer the regime security in return for nonproliferation; so why would they stop proliferatin’? And if they don’t stop, where is your regime change then?

This is pretty basic international relations theory; it’s all about people, states, and fear. States invest in fearsome weapons because they believe that the fear of them increases their security (i.e. reduces their own fear); if you want them to abstain from these weapons, you need to offer a substitute form of insurance. In the Cold War this was thought of in terms of a combination of deterrence and reassurance; one version of reassurance being “self-deterrence”, making it clear that you yourself recognised the principle of non-provocation that you expected the other side to observe.

The Americans have frequently tried versions of this with Israel; trying to buy territorial concessions with substitute deliveries of weapons. So far as it goes, there is quite a lot to be said for this; it’s better that Israel should look to its wooden walls, or rather its aluminium walls, for security than that it should try to grab more and more territory as a static defence, which increases the chance it will need all those jets. The problem is that they never get to the flipside of this, which is that US military aid should come with conditions. The result is an unhealthy dependence of the Israelis on the Americans, and an American inability to insist on Israeli moderation for fear of weakening them. It’s a ratchet; the more people the Israelis alienate, the more arms they need to deal with the worst case scenario consequences. And the more arms they get, the more able the forward school in Israeli politics is to alienate more people.

Anyway, Levy proposes a twin-track diplomacy based precisely on these principles; one track would concern non-proliferation, the other a broad security agreement dealing with the entire perimeter around Iran. Essentially, each track addresses one party’s fears. This is roughly what the Baker -Hamilton commission recommended. Levy’s original contribution, however, is that the Israelis should press the Americans to open such talks. I think it’s an excellent idea, and Olmert is probably scared enough about his political future to be receptive.

The moment is also good; the British army’s move back in southern Iraq, as well as the relaxation in US naval operations, are all helpful in reducing the degree of fear.

Meanwhile, we have an amusing study in outdated thinking. Via Yglesias, a thinktank suggestion that “an Islamic Republic accountable to its citizens would not divert billions into uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles”; so, of course, we’ve got to fight them because of the corruption/malinvestment/whatever. This is silly, but it was very common in 2003-2005; such and such a country’s government was corrupt, and the oil (or whatever) money was being wasted, so call forward the Marines! It goes without saying that this sort of thing is fear-generating, in so far as anyone takes it at all seriously.

It’s especially stupid, because we know what Iranians do when they believe their government to be corrupt; they change it. That was how Khatami got elected; it was also how Ahmadinejad got elected. And that was also how the revolution got started.

Any Other Indicators

In my last “there will be no war with Iran” post, I asked if there were any other indicators I ought to be watching. Having given it some thought, I have indeed been looking at some others; for a start, I would expect that before such a strike the US Government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be well in line for some filling. Who knows what might happen? Better to stockpile early and often. If they were especially keen, they might also be chartering oil tankers, possibly to use them as floating storage.

There are also some financial indicators. Specifically, I would expect the issuance of Treasury bills to rise sharply in advance of any such event; as they are bank reserve assets, banks can lend against them and also discount them with the central bank. Therefore, if there was an expectation of possible crisis, it would make sense to substitute T-bills for government bonds, thus topping up banking sector liquidity and also building up the government’s cash balances.

So how are they looking? Well, I looked up the SPR figures, and I was a little surprised to see that there was no sign of faster filling before the Iraq war; far from it. The stockpile was filled significantly in 2003-2004, and reached a peak of 700 million barrels in the summer of 2005 before being drawn on after Hurricane Katrina. Since January 2006 it’s been gradually restocked; it should pass the 2005 value any minute now. But there is no sign of unusual haste.

Tanker rates are lower than at any time since August, 2003, with >lots of ships in the Gulf and few going to North America.

What about the financials? Well, the US Treasury website wouldn’t let me get at the stats, but our superior technology rendered their crude oppression meaningless. You can get the data here; if they’ll let you. Otherwise you’ll have to use an SSL-based pr*xy, which is just what I did. If you look at page 7 of the charts for August, 2007 (the latest), there’s an interesting comparison between the same quarters in different years. The figures have a strong seasonal variation, due to the financial year; the third quarter always sees a big reduction in T-bill issuance.

But it does look as if the period from October 2002 to June 2003 saw a swing from bonds to T-bills, and from long maturities to short. Also, the summer and autumn of 1990 saw a sudden lift in the percentage of bills as opposed to bonds in issue, which was considerably greater than the year before or after; as did the autumn of 2001 (page 10 of the document). We’re currently seeing quite the opposite; even taking the seasonality into account, US bills are being withdrawn and refinanced with bonds. Of course, there are other factors that affect this, specifically monetary policy and the yield curve.

Even More Carrierwatch

In the light of renewed War! War! War! fears, it’s clearly time to check out the indicators; currently, there is one US Navy carrier group in the Middle East (Enterprise and Co). This is down from two for most of this year, and is the lowest for some time – although not quite, as there were a couple of days in early August with no carrier. Stennis left the Gulf heading east on the 11th of July and was due in Bremerton on the 31st August; Nimitz left on the 23rd of July and is making a leisurely passage back to San Diego. On the other side of the balance, Enterprise sailed on the 7th of July and made a notably quick passage (less than two weeks) to her only port call en-route, Cannes, and then took not much less time to reach her station. So, there was a gap from the 23rd of July to the 12th of August.

As before, Vinson, Roosevelt, and Washington are all in dockyard hands. Lincoln is in the early stages of workup, having done flight deck and carrier qualifications in July. Eisenhower took part in a JTFEX during July, but please note that as she only returned from deployment in May, she probably has significant yard time in her future. The next ship in the cycle is therefore Harry S. Truman, whose JTFEX it was, and who has also recently done her COMPTUEX.

Kitty Hawk is on her way back to Japan from the Valiant Shield exercise off Guam with the two returning carriers. Note that she is due to return to the US and head for the breakers’ yard at the end of the year, to be replaced by Washington. Note also that the Reagan had to dash off to Japan in the spring to cover her beat, breaking off her own maintenance and training schedules because Kitty was inoperable; presumably her joints are no less creaky than three months ago, so there is a possible commitment to replace her at any time.

That gap, now. I recall reading (possibly at Pat Lang’s) that some of the GCC states had expressed much concern at this maritime no-bicycle; if there is a crackerjack indicator for a war with Iran, I reckon it would be the movement of Patriot/Arrow/whatever SAMs/ABMs to the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Not only are they allies, and extremely vulnerable, Qatar is the seat of CENTCOM and various air bases, Bahrain of the US 5th Fleet’s Middle Eastern logistic support, and Dubai is both the general political-economic centre, a hugely important port, and the seat of the only shipyard in the region with the hope of taking in a major warship (and, as in the Iran-Iraq war, making a fortune patching up tankers). Saudi oil installations need no introduction, but they (like Israel and Kuwait) have their own.

I recall a minor blogfroth about this two Iran scares ago (ie January 2007 – the rate is a little higher than Friedman units.) As far as I can make out they went to Qatar, but I am not at all sure; the unit was the 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery. Here’s a photo of one of this outfit’s soldiers being annoyed with stupid questions, by “business leaders” flown in for a look-see. It’s given as “Southwest Asia”, but the matching press release makes it clear that it’s a huge great airbase, the location of a Combined Air Operations Centre; realistically it’s got to be Al-Udeid in Qatar. So no new information in that. An alternative would be to deploy Aegis cruisers.

Any others I should watch? (Oh yes, if you’ve read this far you ought to read this too.) What gets me is that Newsnight is quite happy to spend its whole allocation of airtime grammarchopping What Bush Said without one word regarding the facts.