DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — As geopolitical tensions reverberate across the Arabian Gulf, the US Navy has no plans to back down, a top naval official said Sunday.
As the tip of the spear, the Navy has its most advanced weapons technology ready for use in the Gulf.
The 5th Fleet is operating a powerful laser weapons system, capable of destroying or disabling targets with dazzling accuracy, just off the coast of Iran, according to Vice Adm. Kevin "Kid" Donegan, commander of Naval Forces Central Command. The new laser, deployed from the Afloat Forward Staging Base Ponce, is a pivotal asset to defend against ballistic missiles, small attack boats and UAVs.
Donegan told Defense News in a Nov. 8 interview at the Dubai Air Show that his commanders have permission to use the weapon if a critical situation arises. He would not specify the rules of engagement for the laser, but indicated the Navy is ready to use the weapon to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.
In addition, the Navy is aggressively adding ships to the Gulf region in the next few years. By 2020, the 5th Fleet will grow from 30 ships to 40 ships, Donegan said.
"We are definitely not leaving the region," he said. "You are not going to see the Navy leaving this region anytime soon."
The Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (ASB(I) 15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf in 2014.
Photo Credit: John F. Williams / US Navy
Donegan's comments come at a critical point for US relations in the region, with critics openly accusing the Pentagon of pulling out of the fight against the Islamic State.
The number of reported airstrikes by the US in Syria dropped after Russia began flying in the region, going from an average of seven strikes a day in August to less than four strikes a day in October. The Pentagon has denied that Russia's presence has been the driver for that dip in strikes, instead blaming a series of factors including an increased focus of US airpower on Iraq and environmental factors.
Adding to the perception that the US is drawing down forces in the Gulf, the Navy currently has no carrier presence in the region. The USS Theodore Roosevelt left the Gulf in October, marking the first time since 2007 the Navy hasn't had a carrier deployed to the 5th Fleet's area of operations. The Roosevelt's relief, the USS Harry S. Truman, isn't expected to arrive in the Gulf until this winter, leaving a carrier gap of at least two months.
Some see the Roosevelt's departure as a blow to anti-ISIS operations. The Roosevelt carrier strike group carried out 1,812 combat sorties and expended 1,085 precision-guided munitions against ISIS, according to the Navy. Commanders can't completely replace the capability the carrier and its airwing bring to the fight, Donegan said.
But the Navy is working hard to mitigate the impact of the temporary carrier gap on anti-ISIS operations, Donegan said. Between US and coalition ships, for instance the French Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the Navy has about 30 vessels to 40 vessels in the region, in the CENTCOM US Central Command area of responsibility, he said. This includes amphibious strike groups — which can deploy fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft — Aegis ballistic missile defense ships, mine-sweeping vessels and 10 coastal patrol ships.
"You can't completely replace what that kind of ship and airwing bring, not just in firepower but in situational awareness, understanding the operational picture, but we've been able to do a pretty good job mitigating it," Donegan said.
French leaders last week said it would deploy the Charles de Gaulle carrier and a carrier strike group to boost its operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Donegan said the US has strong cooperation with the French.
"Absolutely we are coordinating with the French. Each country that comes to the region, we work with them because we have some common interests and where we have common interests we work together," he said. "Their team is very experienced in this region and in fact this will be the second time in the same year they've been back."
On whether the de Gaulle's presence will fill the carrier gap, Donegan said the coalition nations are working to coordinate their schedules.
The two navies also have an agreement to operate their aircraft from each other's carriers, Donegan said.
"We actually have a program where we they land on our ships and we land on theirs, so we've been doing that for a while," Donegan said. "So we have really good interoperability with the French."
The US Navy may also look to the UK in future to help protect the region. Speaking at the Dubai Airshow on Nov. 8, Phillip Dunne, UK defense procurement minister, told reporters that the Gulf will be a focus of the upcoming Strategic Defense and Security Review, and indicated it will likely contain an emphasis on increased presence in the region, which could eventually involve the UK's two new aircraft carriers.
"I point you again to the [SDSR], to see what more will be done, not just in this region but elsewhere within areas of NATO operations, for the UK to play a leading role," Dunne said. "As you know, we are in the process of building two aircraft carriers, which — when they are operational — will restore a very significant carrier strike capability to the armed forces, which will give us potentially a full spectrum response."
Asked whether that means the UK could fill some of the "void" left by the United States' perceived withdrawal from the region, Dunne was flat in his opinion.
"We don't see the US as having left a void in the region," he said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair also argued that the Pentagon's presence in the region has increased, despite the Roosevelt's departure.
"The strategic agreement with the United States has not changed. The American presence in the region has in fact increased whether an aircraft carrier has been withdrawn or not," Al-Jubair said at the Institute of Strategic Studies' Manama Dialogue earlier this month, adding that the number of US troops in the region is almost at a record high. "I would say America's commitment to Gulf security when we measure it by what the US is doing and providing and how the GCC states and the US are working, is at an all-time high. I would not measure it by one aircraft carrier leaving the Gulf."
The US and Gulf nations are also now implementing agreements to intensify cooperation, in cybersecurity, military cooperation, intelligence sharing, ballistic missile defense and maritime security, Al-Jubair said.
Aleksandar Jovovic, principal at Avascent, said the optics of the Roosevelt's withdrawal from the Gulf are "less than optimal," but the ship's departure does not indicate the US is drawing down from the region.
"I don't think the US government has any intention of disengaging from the region anytime soon," he said. "All signs point to the US wanting to maintain that pressure on ISIL."
In another sign of the US cooperation with Gulf nations, an intelligence unit working directly under Donegan is providing operational intelligence to the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, he said during the interview.
"As you know our country is supporting the GCC countries with intelligence information-sharing and logistics, so we have a coordination cell that works for me that's called the JCPC, the Joint Coordination Planning Cell, and that cell is commanded by a two-star Marine who works for me," he said.
The cell, Donegan stated, is the main window of coordination between 5th Fleet intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and the Arab coalition to facilitate information-sharing as well as operational assistance such as logistics, refueling of airplanes, among other things.
"That's the cell that does the coordination back and forth with the intelligence sharing the information sharing and can coordinate logistics like refueling of airplanes and things like that, so the communications method is through that," he said.
Donegan was selected in June as the US 5th Fleet commander. He was formerly the acting deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy. Donegan served as director of operations for U.S. Central Command before moving on in 2012. He served his first operational assignment with the "Wildcats" of Strike Fighter Squadron 131, the fleet's first F/A-18 squadron.
He was one of the first Hornet pilots to deploy from the East Coast, a cruise that culminated in successful airstrikes against Libya in 1986.He has clocked more than 3,800 hours in 30-plus types of aircraft, including 800 traps on 15 different carriers, according to his bio.