U.S. Beefs Up Naval Forces In Persian Gulf
The seas of the Persian Gulf have gotten just a little more crowded:
WASHINGTON — The United States has quietly moved significant military reinforcements into the Persian Gulf to deter the Iranian military from any possible attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz and to increase the number of fighter jets capable of striking deep into Iran if the standoff over its nuclear program escalates.
The deployments are part of a long-planned effort to bolster the American military presence in the gulf region, in part to reassure Israel that in dealing with Iran, as one senior administration official put it last week, “When the president says there are other options on the table beyond negotiations, he means it.”
But at a moment that the United States and its allies are beginning to enforce a much broader embargo on Iran’s oil exports, meant to force the country to take seriously the negotiations over sharply limiting its nuclear program, the buildup carries significant risks, including that Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps could decide to lash out against the increased presence.
The most visible elements of this buildup are Navy ships designed to vastly enhance the ability to patrol the Strait of Hormuz — and to reopen the narrow waterway should Iran attempt to mine it to prevent Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters from sending their tankers through the vital passage.
The Navy has doubled the number of minesweepers assigned to the region, to eight vessels, in what military officers describe as a purely defensive move.
“The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ” one senior Defense Department official said. “Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the gulf.” Like others interviewed, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the diplomatic and military situation.
Since late spring, stealthy F-22 and older F-15C warplanes have moved into two separate bases in the Persian Gulf to bolster the combat jets already in the region and the carrier strike groups that are on constant tours of the area. Those additional attack aircraft give the United States military greater capability against coastal missile batteries that could threaten shipping, as well as the reach to strike other targets deeper inside Iran.
And the Navy, after a crash development program, has moved a converted amphibious transport and docking ship, the Ponce, into the Persian Gulf to serve as the Pentagon’s first floating staging base for military operations or humanitarian assistance.
The initial assignment for the Ponce, Pentagon officials say, is to serve as a logistics and operations hub for mine-clearing. But with a medical suite and helicopter deck, and bunks for combat troops, the Ponce eventually could be used as a base for Special Operations forces to conduct a range of missions, including reconnaissance and counterterrorism, all from international waters.
This isn’t the first time the United States has had a significant military presence in the Gulf, of course. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s, we sent a task force into the region to protect shipping and the Straits of Hormuz. Among the incidents that occurred thanks to the close quarters and hair trigger tensions at the time were the USS Stark being hit by an inadvertently targeted by Iraqi jets equipped with Exocet missiles, and a 2008 incident in which the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet that had been identified as an Iranian fighter. One hopes the possibility for such errors has been taken into account this time around.