December 21, 2006
U.S. and Britain to Add Ships to Persian Gulf in Signal to Iran
By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 — The United States and Britain will begin moving
additional warships and strike aircraft into the Persian Gulf region in a
display of military resolve toward Iran that will come as the United Nations
continues to debate possible sanctions against the country, Pentagon and
military officials said Wednesday.
The officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was expected this
week to approve a request by commanders for a second aircraft carrier and
its supporting ships to be stationed within quick sailing distance of Iran
by early next year.
Senior American officers said the increase in naval power should not be
viewed as preparations for any offensive strike against Iran. But they
acknowledged that the ability to hit Iran would be increased and that
Iranian leaders might well call the growing presence provocative. One
purpose of the deployment, they said, is to make clear that the focus on
ground troops in Iraq has not made it impossible for the United States and
its allies to maintain a military watch on Iran. That would also reassure
Washington’s allies in the region who are concerned about Iran’s intentions.
The officials said the planned growth in naval power in the gulf and
surrounding waters would be useful in enforcing any sanctions that the
United Nations might impose as part of Washington’s strategy to punish Iran
for what it sees as ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. And the buildup
would address another concern: that Iran could try to block oil shipments
from the gulf in retaliation for United Nations sanctions or other
Steps are already being taken to increase the number of minesweeping vessels
and magnetic “sleds” carried by helicopters to improve the ability to
counter Iranian mines that could block oil-shipping lanes, Pentagon and
military officials said.
As part of future deployments after the first of the year, the British Navy
plans to add two mine-hunting vessels to its ships that already are part of
the international coalition patrolling waters in the Persian Gulf.
A Royal Navy news release said the ship movements were aimed at “maintaining
familiarity with the challenges of warm water mine-hunting conditions.” But
a senior British official said: “We are increasing our presence. That is
only prudent.” Military officers said doubling the aircraft carrier presence
in the region could be accomplished quickly by a shift in sailing schedules.
As opposed to ground and air forces that require bases in the region, naval
forces offer a capacity for projecting power in parts of the world where a
large American footprint is controversial, and unwanted even by allies. Many
of the ships could be kept over the horizon, out of sight, but close enough
to project their power quickly if needed.
Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, commander of naval forces across the military’s
Central Command, said that while “Iranian tone and rhetoric creates an
environment of intimidation and fear,” the United States “must be careful
not to contribute to escalation.” In an interview from his headquarters in
Bahrain, Admiral Walsh declined to discuss the specifics of future
deployments. “To assure our friends, we have to have capabilities to secure
the critical sea lines of communication,” he said.
“They need reassurances that we expect to be part of the effort here for the
long term, that we will not run away from intimidation and that we will be
part of the effort here for security and stability at sea for the long
term,” he added. “Our position must be visible and it must have muscle in
order to be credible. That requires sustained presence.”
Other military and Pentagon officials did describe specifics of the planned
deployments in order to clarify the rationale for the movement of ships and
aircraft, but they would not do so by name because Mr. Gates had not yet
signed any deployment orders.
Pentagon officials said that the military’s joint staff, which plans
operations and manages deployments, had recently received what is called a
“request for forces” from commanders asking for a second aircraft carrier
strike group in the region, and that a deployment order was expected to be
signed by the end of the week by Mr. Gates. That specific request was
mentioned in various news accounts over the past few days.
The aircraft carrier Eisenhower and its strike group — including three
escort ships, an attack submarine and 6,500 sailors in all — entered the
Persian Gulf on Dec. 11 after a naval exercise to practice halting vessels
suspected of smuggling nuclear materials in waters across the region. A
carrier had not been inside the gulf since the Enterprise left in July,
according to Pentagon officials. The next carrier scheduled to sail toward
the Middle East is the Stennis, already set to depart Bremerton, Wash., for
the region in late January, Navy officers said.
Officials expressed doubt that the Stennis and its escorts would be asked to
set sail before the holiday season, but it could be ordered to sea several
weeks earlier than planned. It could then overlap for months with the
Eisenhower, which is not scheduled to return home until May, offering ample
time to decide whether to send another carrier or to extend the Eisenhower’s
tour to keep the carrier presence at two.
Doubling the number of carriers in the region offers commanders the
flexibility of either keeping both strike groups in the gulf or keeping one
near Iran while placing a second carrier group outside the gulf, where it
would be in position to fly combat patrols over Afghanistan or cope with
growing violence in the Horn of Africa.
But these same officials acknowledge that Iran is the focus of any new
deployments, as administration officials view recent bold moves by Iran —
and by North Korea, as well — as at least partly explained by assessments in
Tehran and North Korea that the American military is bogged down in Iraq and
incapable of fully projecting power elsewhere.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, has made the case that the
United States should seek to create “a thousand-ship Navy.” That would be
impossible for the United States alone given current budgets, so instead it
would be accomplished by operating more closely with allied warships to
better cover critical areas like the Persian Gulf.
He said that such a cooperative naval concept would be a “global maritime
partnership that unites navies, coast guards, maritime forces, port
operators, commercial shippers and many other government and nongovernment
agencies to address maritime concerns.”
As an example, at present there are about 45 warships deployed in the
Persian Gulf and waters across the region from the Red Sea to the Indian
Ocean, with a third of those supplied by allies, which this month include
Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Pakistan and Britain.