Pentagon Seeks Carrier Deployment as It Exits Afghanistan, in Sign It’s Readying for a Fight

In recent years, aircraft carriers, which act as sovereign American territory at sea, have increasingly been used for flexing military power against adversaries.

For example, in January, the Pentagon reversed itself and ordered the aircraft carrier Nimitz to remain in the Middle East because of Iranian threats against President Donald J. Trump and other American officials, just three days after ordering the warship home as a signal to de-escalate rising tensions with Tehran.

The acting secretary of defense at the time, Christopher C. Miller, abruptly reversed his previous order to redeploy the Nimitz, which he had done over the objections of his top military advisers. The military had for weeks been engaged in a show-of-force strategy to deter Iran from attacking American personnel in the Persian Gulf.

In the end, the nuclear-powered warship did not return home until late February, some 10 months after it departed its home port in Bremerton, Wash. The sailors, pilots and crew aboard had witnessed an unfolding pandemic, a contested presidential election, a riot at the Capitol, and civil protests around the death of George Floyd, all while at sea.

Now, lawmakers are raising questions about the extended carrier deployments in recent years. In a letter this month to Mr. Austin and the deputy defense secretary, Kathleen Hicks, members of the House Armed Services Committee cited the “need for increased prudence and scrutiny” when it comes to requests for deployments. The lawmakers spoke of services “scrambling at a time when they need to rebuild the health of the force.”

“At this rate, the desire to solve every immediate problem regardless of its strategic prioritization, may hollow the force for the next generation,” the letter said.

Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan.