The Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier to replace one of two carriers currently serving in the Middle East, but it is possible that very soon, the Navy will have only one carrier in the region.
The Navy has had two carrier strike groups in the Middle East since a decision earlier this year by the Bush administration to send a message to Iran that the United States would not stand for an Iranian disruption of the region's vital oil shipping lanes.
Over the weekend, the USS Enterprise carrier strike group departed Norfolk for a six-month deployment to the region. The Enterprise and its accompanying vessels will swap out with the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group, the original second carrier in the Gulf.
After the swap, the Enterprise will join the other carrier, the USS Nimitz, in operations in the region. But not for long, as the Nimitz is expected to return back to the United States by late September and is not scheduled to be replaced.
This means the Navy will return to the one-carrier presence in the Middle East that had been the norm since the invasion of Iraq.
A Defense Department official said the Pentagon did not foresee an open-ended two-carrier presence in the region.
During the swap, there will not be a three-carrier presence in the Middle East.
The Enterprise will enter the Centcom region via the Suez Canal at the same time that the Stennis exits the region to the east bound for its homeport in Bremerton, Wash. This is the same plan used when the Nimitz replaced the USS Eisenhower in early May.
Since the decision was made in January to dispatch a second carrier to the region, a two-carrier presence in the actual Persian Gulf had occurred only twice. Both times were during highly visible exercises that were publicized by the Navy, in part to prevent any misinterpretation by Iran of their intent.
Vice President Cheney visited the Stennis in early May and delivered a speech that was very clear in explaining why a second carrier had been deployed to the region with Iran in mind.
"With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike," Cheney said. "We"ll keep the sea lanes open. We'll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We'll disrupt attacks on our own forces. We'll continue bringing relief to those who suffer, and delivering justice to the enemies of freedom. And we'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."
The two-carrier deployments affected the Navy's normal carrier rotation. The Enterprise had just returned home in November from a previous rotation in the Middle East.