Assuming that the United States joins France and other European allies in an intervention in Syria, the U.S. Navy Sixth Fleet is the U.S. first responder. In Syria the regime has clearly used poison gas on civilian populations in rebel held areas killing innocent men, women, and children in large numbers. There is an international demand for an intervention to stop the slaughter. NATO allies like Turkey, and Italy could be heavily impacted by the unrest in Syria, France is leading the demand for action. The U.S. is bound to most of the concerned parties by the NATO treaty and organization. The U.S. has serious concerns with going in, most importantly, while the Assad regime is despicable, the opposition is heavily infiltrated by the even more heinous al-Qaeda organization. The United States is moving with the caution associated with the high probability of some very undesirable unintended consequences. As analysts with naval backgrounds we find trying to predict the actual negative unintended consequences to be a bit beyond our competency. What we are far better at is determining the assets available for the fight, our other naval commitments, other naval hot spots, and the adequacy of our resources relative to our total naval commitments. In a nut shell, a Syrian intervention is going to be a serious strain.
First the Sixth Fleet has no aircraft carrier task force that is designated to full time service to the Sixth Fleet."Task Force 60" is the title of any U. S. carrier task force that enters the Mediterranean. Such a task force may be composed of one or more Aircraft carriers with an accompanying compliment of two to six cruisers or destroyers, its "screen". We simply don't have enough carriers anymore to keep one or two in the Mediterranean on permanent assignment. "Task Force 60" is now part of the carrier shell game. Whatever carrier task force we designate for the Syrian job is one less carrier task force for containing Iran, or providing a suppresive element to China's aggressive tendencies towards the islands and ocean exclusive economic zones of its neighbors two of whom we have defense treaties with. A typical air wing associated with a carrier task force is between 65 and 85 aircraft. We can also reach Syria with U.S. and allied air force aircraft from some NATO bases in Southern Europe. While we don't have a standing Sixth Fleet Carrier Task Force rest assured one will be dispatched to the area if the balloon goes up, and it looks like it will. But that carrier and its task force will be taken from somewhere else where it is needed, but not as critically as in an ongoing actual combat operation.
The Sixth Fleet does have other dedicated naval assets. Destroyer Squadron 60 (DESRON 60) is a permanent standing and ready asset. Stationed in Rota, Spain DESRON 60 has four destroyers capable of launching Tomahawk land attack missiles and of area anti missile defense. DESRON 60 is about to be joined by two more destroyers from the Atlantic fleet. However these additional vessels were supposed to be reliefs. The ships that were due for relief are being held over for the Syrian crisis. This means delayed maintenance and protracted crew stress, costs that will have to be paid in ship availability down the line. While the Sixth Fleet has at least four destroyers in the area at all times, these are rotational assignments from the Atlantic fleet. The only ship permanently assigned to the Sixth Fleet is the USS MOUNT WHITNEY stationed in Gaeta, Italy and serving as fleet flag ship. On paper and in terms of shore side support and logistic staff the sixth Fleet is organized to include the following task forces:
TASK FORCE 60- Carriers and their screens when assigned
TASK FORCE 503- Amphibious forces
TASK FORCE 504-Landing forces
TASK FORCE 505-Logistic forces
TASK FORCE 506 -Special Operations Forces.
At any given moment certain ships that would fit into any of these task forces are in fact "chopped" temporarily to Sixth Fleet control, but are ultimately subject to reassignment by the Atlantic Fleet. So we anticipate at the moment that the U.S. contribution to the effort will include a Carrier Task Force, Six destroyers in addition to the task Force 60's screen, the USS Mount Whitney, and a small mix of such ships as may be available for the other types of task forces noted above. Despite anticipated heavy naval commitments by France and Italy, and such other contribution as the rest of Europe can muster, the U.S. Sixth Fleet will be the center piece and the bulk of the fire power. It will also come out of hide not fat. Whatever is off of Syria can't be in Northern European waters, or the High Arctic , or the Caribbean, or off of the East Coast of South America or the West Coast of Africa if needed. Neither are they available to beef up defenses off of Korea, or to keep the peace in the China Seas, check Iran's attempts at sea control on key shipping routes or participate in counter piracy patrols. To be sure all those things will go on while the Syrian intervention is in progress. But we didn't hear any enemies agree to abstain from ratcheting up pressures while our cobbled together Sixth Fleet is tied down off of Syria. Meanwhile the U.S. Fleet continues to be billed a disproportinate amount for our self inflicted sequestration non budget, and our partners in Europe continue to cut their defense spending. The fact that no two nuclear powers are faced off angry eye ball to eye ball at the moment hasn't lessened at all the need for conventional forces in the world. So here is what our cobbled together Sixth Fleet may look like:
USS MOUNT WHITNEY
Anticipate four of these destroyers with the other two arriving probably taking up station and duties in Rota where the usual four are providing part of the missile defense for Western Europe.
The USS NIMITZ leads a U.S. Carrier task force similar to what will make up TASK FORCE 60 of the sixth Fleet.
The Sixth Fleet as configured for the Syrian Operation will probably have one or more U.S. Submarines assigned, most probably in support of special operations.
The USS WASP, an amphibious warfare ship, anticipate at least one of these if we commit marines .
Basically what we've depicted for you is a sixth Fleet virtually in being, we probably have this much naval power in the Mediterranean as we write. We can pour in more. We won't be alone. But what exactly is it that we are supposed to do? That is yet to be determined. The United States and its allies have the power to do something, but what? And while France, Italy and others will make impressive contributions these are regional navies designed to do exactly that. We are a global navy shrinking down to a ship count that looks more like a regional navy but for the reach and fire power of our ships. But these dangerous times remind us of a refrain often repeated in the pages of the U.S. Naval Institute's PROCEEDINGS "...sometime quantity has a quality all its own.