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Thursday, December 21, 2006

U.S. and Britain to add ships to Persian Gulf in signal to Iran

The New York Times

Published: December 21, 2006

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 American-led pressure.

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.
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