As Israel begins to cross the border into Gaza in larger forays beyond tactical reconnaissance and surveillance operations, China is reminding the world of the existence of its six-ship naval task force in the Middle East region.
The six ships appear to be two destroyers (Zibu and Urumqi), two frigates (Jingzhou and Linyi), and two large supply and refueling vessels (Qiandaohu and Dongpinghu). The three-ship cell consisting of the Zibu, Jingzhou, and Qiandaohu was designated the 44th Escort Task Force (TF) and had already been in the Gulf of Aden for six months, while the Urumqi, Linyi, and Dongpinghu arrived as the replacement 45th Escort TF. Still, now, the two Task Forces appear to be operating together as a larger force.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) navies, is not so transparent and cooperative with the international standard of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) for ships at sea. Hence, it’s a little difficult to track where the combined PLAN 44th/45th Escort TF is at this time.
The U.S. Navy is more compliant, but as the tension of regional conflict heats up, the reports can be a bit lagging on where the USS Ford Carrier Strike Group is at—but the Ford appears to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, close to the immediate combat zone of the Gaza Strip. The PLAN 44th/45th Escort TF seems to be around the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Oman, about seven cruising days away from the Eastern Mediterranean, if they received priority access, northbound through the Suez Canal.
2 US Aircraft Carriers Now Committed to Middle East
An additional U.S. carrier is moving at high speed toward the Eastern Mediterranean. The USS Eisenhower has now passed the Straits of Gibraltar and appears to be headed toward the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, but may take a right turn at the Suez to provide a presence in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea Area of Operations. This will take approximately a week at 25 knots—without nuclear surface ships for escort, the Eisenhower Escort TF will have to move slower to moderate the fuel usage of the non-nuclear destroyers and cruisers.
The U.S. Navy dispensed with its nuclear-powered escort vessels during the 1990s—one more capability that should be looked at as the Navy is under legal direction to grow the fleet to over 350 combat vessels. Once the Eisenhower Escort TF is in place, they will be in the approximate operating area of PLAN 44th/45th Escort TF.
The combat power matchup between the PLAN and the U.S. Navy will still be weighted in favor of the American TF. PLAN 44th/45th Escort TF has only a few helicopters assigned, but beyond that, it will not have the all-important air power to project surveillance, reconnaissance, and, if necessary, missile attacks 2,000 miles or more away from the Task Force.
A historical analogy is when the British sent the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse without air cover to reinforce Singapore in December 1941 and were quickly sunk by Japanese aircraft—a shocking development. An approximate missile count of long-range surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is roughly 500, while PLAN 44th/45th Escort TF will have perhaps 150 similar weapons. The Eisenhower TF will have about 100 combat aircraft and helicopters.
One noteworthy advantage for the Chinese: Their ships are much newer, whereas most of the Eisenhower TF vessels, including the Eisenhower, are elderly, which is being kind. All of this is shared not to intimate that a naval showdown is imminent but rather as a rough comparison of capabilities. The Ford TF in the Eastern Mediterranean can provide the capability to reinforce Israel and attack Iranian proxies in Gaza, Southern Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while the Eisenhower will be present and sending a message to Iran, the prime backer of Hamas.
Naval ARG Pulled off Station From Iran Sends Wrong Message
In the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, the U.S. Navy did have the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable, about 2,000 Marines) when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The ARG is normally a three-ship element with the Bataan (LHD-5) as the lead, essentially being a medium-sized aircraft carrier.
Although characterized as a sophisticated “distributed” operation, some translation of Pentagon jargon is needed. In this case, economy of force, another military term, is a better expression, or even more simply put, the U.S. Navy does not have enough force structure to project a presence close to Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean simultaneously—not a good position or message.
Pulling the Bataan away from Iran before the Eisenhower is in position also leaves a vacuum in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Gulf of Aden—something Iran and PLAN TF 44/45 could exploit and step into. During the passage of the Bataan and Mesa Verde, north through the Red Sea, the USS Carney shot down three missiles fired by Houthi Forces in Yemen—another proxy of Iran. The Houthi missiles seemed to be an adjunct of the Gaza Strip warzone and fired in support of Hamas at Israel (or maybe Saudi Arabia).
One key enabler that the Chinese have in the vicinity of the Red Sea is the fortified base camp at Djibouti, which also has a dedicated Chinese naval support facility. Across town, the American forces have an airfield and special operations base camp but not a dedicated, secure naval facility—a very important and lacking attribute for the American forces in the region.
Putin, Xi Plan for Next Steps of No Limits Partnership
After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled from Moscow to Beijing to attend the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road International Forum and also to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This gathering was also a statement to the American-led sphere of the world that the “no limits” partnership between Beijing and Moscow was growing stronger, and their mistrust of the West was deepening. With this partnership, the buildup of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian naval elements in the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Mediterranean can be expected. One component of the naval component has not been discussed so far, and that is submarines.
With the Chinese naval facility established in Djibouti, the possible presence of Chinese non-nuclear submarines is plausible, using Djibouti as a forward operating facility. Ship spotters would likely report them if seen transiting the Suez Canal. Russian submarines from the Black Sea may be allowed to slip through into the Mediterranean with the tacit approval of Turkey, which has happened recently (those Russian submarines that have survived the Ukrainian attacks on the Crimea naval facilities).
Chinese nuclear submarines have the range and capability to transit to the Indian Ocean area of operations and all the way around the African continent through the Straits of Gibraltar. So far, no public reporting has appeared on this matter, but with the buildup of naval forces and tensions, their presence should not be discounted.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now, Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. He is author of “The Nation Will Follow” and “War Against the Deep State.” ColonelRETJohn on Substack, GETTR, and Truth Social