Center for Strategic Communication

The U.S.S. Ponce, recently transformed into a new Afloat Forward Staging Base, in port at Norfolk, Virginia on June 1. Ships like these are the future of the Navy’s Mideast fleet, according to the Navy’s top admiral. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Navy is eager to build up its presence in Asia and the Pacific. But the so-called “Asia Pivot” doesn’t tell the full story. Over the next four years, the Navy will conduct a greater ship surge in the Middle East — which is also where it’ll send its newest, latest kinds of surface ships.

That’s what Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s top officer, told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday. The Pacific “rebalancing” — the Pentagon doesn’t call it a “pivot” anymore — is still on. But in order to move its traditional aircraft carriers, destroyers and cruisers to the far East, the Navy’s going to put its newer kinds of surface ships in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, over the next few years, the Navy’s biggest muscle movement will be to the Gulf, not to the Pacific. Between now and 2017, the Navy will add nine more ships to the Gulf and northern Indian Ocean; it’ll add five to Asia. By 2020, the Navy will bring an additional three ships to the western Pacific, and add no more to its anticipated hyper-modern Gulf fleet.

“What you’ll see here [in the Middle East] is the evolution of the Afloat Forward Staging Base coming online, combined with Littoral Combat Ships coming online and deploying, combined with mobile landing platforms coming online,” Greenert said. “So these are newer ships and different ships that will add to the [Persian] Gulf inventory.”

The arrival of those newer ships to the Middle East will enable a “metamorphosis” of the Navy’s Asia presence, Greenert continued. Into the Pacific go aircraft carriers — more on them in a second — destroyers, cruisers and minesweepers. Littoral Combat Ships, with their plug-and-play modular payloads of sensors and weapons, will come into the Gulf, along with the new Afloat Forward Staging Base like the retrofitted U.S.S. Ponce, a new kind of ship that can ferry commandos, helicopters, drones and Osprey tiltrotors.

But it would be wrong to say the Mideast gets all the new ships and Asia gets all the old ones. Singapore is going to provide a home port for Littoral Combat Ships in a few years. And despite the “metamorphosis,” Greenert said that at all times in the foreseeable future, the Navy will keep at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf. One carrier “is the plan, and we’ll take it from there,” surging more if the U.S. Central Command chief needs it.

Similarly, “the capabilities that will bring to the Arabian Gulf today we will sustain,” Greenert said.

“The theory is this,” the chief of naval operations explained, “if I have Arleigh Burke [-class] destroyers or I have cruisers conducting counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden or in and around Somalia today and I can do this mission with a Littoral Combat Ship — which I can — in the future, or another vessel, such as an Afloat Staging Base using aircraft from it or rotary-wing from it, then I can supplant that mission and I can now deploy that Arleigh Burke elsewhere, and the Asia-Pacific [region] would be an option.”

Another caveat: Greenert only discussed surface ships, not submarines. The Navy won’t discuss where its submarine fleet goes.

Still, the Navy’s Mideast moves are consistent with its current surge in the Gulf. The Navy is speeding everything from minesweepers to drones to missiles, plus commandos, to Mideast waters. Most importantly, for the time being, it’s sustaining two aircraft carrier battle groups in and around the Gulf, to send Iran an unsubtle message. The upgraded stuff will simultaneously maintain that pressure and implicitly tell Gulf Arab allies that the tilt to Asia won’t come at their expense.

But the move raises questions about whether the Navy’s newer surface fleet in the Gulf will perform at the same level as the current one, Greenert’s assurance notwithstanding. Fewer aircraft carriers and cruisers in the Gulf mean fewer Harriers, F/A-18 Super Hornet jets and missile defense capabilities. When (and if) the Navy finally gets its carrier-ready F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, they’ll be too large for the Afloat Forward Staging Bases in the Gulf, since they don’t host jets. And as much as the Navy wants the Littoral Combat Ship to be its new minesweeper, there are question marks around its survivability.

Accordingly, the Pacific fleet of the future will be familiar, but it’ll arguably be more capable. It will inarguably be larger by 24 ships — nearly twice the size of the Gulf fleet, same as today. In the Pacific, the Navy will “lean forward in air-to-air [attack], electronic attack, electronic warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and our capabilities in anti-ship ballistic missile and anti-ship cruise missile defeat,” Greenert said — just in case there was any doubt about where the Navy’s focus will be in the years to come.