Monday, January 23, 2012

Iran-US Standoff: The Crisis in the Strait of Hormuz - II

Maintaining political stability and the free flow of oil to the global economy have been the primary objectives of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf for almost half a century. The U.S. Navy has been one of the primary instruments of that policy, in both peace and war. These twin objectives have not changed much in the last several decades.

Before examining the nature of deployment of US forces in the area, it is necessary to throw light on a relatively less known but a significant battle that took place between the US and Iranian Navies in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War.

Operation Praying Mantis

On 14 April, 1988 one of the US naval ships a guided missile frigate, USS Samuel B Roberts struck a mine while deployed in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will, the 1987–88 convoy missions in which U.S. warships escorted re-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks. The explosion blew a 25-foot (7.6-meter) hole in the Roberts's hull and nearly sank it. The crew saved their ship with no loss of life, and Roberts was towed to Dubai on 16 April. After the mining, U.S. Navy divers recovered other mines in the area. When the serial numbers were found to match those of mines seized along with the Iran Ajr (Japanese-built landing craft used by Iran to lay mines) the previous September, U.S. military officials planned a retaliatory operation against Iranian targets in the Persian Gulf.

Three days after the mine blast, forces of Joint Task Force Middle East executed the American response -- Operation PRAYING MANTIS. During a two-day period, the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force units of Joint Task Force Middle East destroyed two oil platforms being used by Iran to coordinate attacks on merchant shipping, sank or destroyed three Iranian warships and neutralized at least six Iranian speedboats. 

Operation Praying Mantis exposed the weakness of the Iranian naval forces in the event of a conventional conflict. Iran too, must have learnt a lesson or two from this battle. Iran would try and avoid an overt encounter with the US forces. Instead, Iran may adopt irregular warfare in the form of ‘hit and run’ using fast patrol boats and/or try to ram explosive-laden boats against US vessels. The US on its part needs to maintain constant vigil and frustrate Iranian attempts at mine-laying and neutralize speed boats approaching US ships or other commercial vessels in the area. The US given its sophisticated Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability would be able to effectively counter threats posed by Iran’s diesel submarines. (It is worth mentioning that in the early 1980s, the U.S. Navy began development of a new mine countermeasures (MCM) force, which included two new classes of ships and minesweeping helicopters. The vital importance of a state-of-the-art mine countermeasures force was strongly underscored in the Persian Gulf during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, and in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 when the Avenger and Guardian ships conducted MCM operations. Meanwhile the Iranian semi-official FARS news agency reported that its navy’s sub-surface vessels possessed capabilities to confront enemy’s threats and that its submarines were capable enough to ambush and hit enemy vessels, especially the US aircraft carriers traversing the Persian Gulf.

US Deployment in the Persian Gulf

The Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya. It shares a commander and headquarters with US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT).

In the light of the impending crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, the top US commander on the ground heading the CENTCOM, Marine Corps General James N Mattis warned that additional troops may be required to deal with Iran. In response to the commander’s warning, Pentagon is reported to have quietly approved deployment of additional troops in the Gulf region.

Officials said that the deployments were not to be construed as a buildup to war, but rather was intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the standoff with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The new deployments include two Army infantry brigades and a helicopter unit, a substantial increase in combat power after nearly a decade in which Kuwait chiefly served as a staging area for supplies and personnel heading to Iraq.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson joined the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Arabian Sea recently, giving commanders major naval and air assets in case Iran carried out its recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.

US Navy officials have been saying that Iran might be able to temporarily block tanker traffic through the strait using anti-ship missiles, mines and other weapons, but U.S. commanders say they would be able to re-open the waterway quickly if need be.

U.S. officials are divided over how much to publicize the deployments. Regional allies tend to dislike public discussion about their cooperation with Washington. But the Pentagon wants Iran's rulers to know that the U.S. still has adequate forces available in the event of a crisis.

They include the Army's 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade, which shifted to Kuwait from Iraq when the last U.S. forces left last month. The brigade, which has more than 4,500 soldiers and is equipped with tanks and artillery, has been designated a "mobile response force" for the region, according to Col. Scott L. Efflandt, the brigade commander.

According to a US Navy Spokesperson, the U.S. also have deployed a marine expeditionary unit and a group of landing warships, including the Makin Island groups and the USS New Orleans and Pearl Harbor amphibious transport dock ships, to the Persian Gulf.

The sailors, marines and airmen aboard the ships will be reinforced by a general support battalion and attack helicopters. They are to replace U.S. warships and Navy troops who have been patrolling the area for the last 10 months.

A National Guard brigade from Minnesota has been in Kuwait since August, and a combat aviation brigade arrived in December. Another major unit is heading to Kuwait shortly, though officials would not provide details.

Despite the buildup in Kuwait, the total number of U.S. troops in the region has declined with the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and the drawdown of U.S. troops that began last summer in Afghanistan.

Sometime in the beginning of this year, Iran’s Army Chief Ataollah Salehi is reported to have warned the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis against returning to the Gulf. The carrier had left the area prior to the commencement of Iranian naval exercises. The state news agency IRNA quoted army chief Ataollah Salehi as saying that "Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf." In response, the Telegraph reported that Britain, America and France delivered a pointed signal to Iran, sending six warships led by a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier through the highly sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz. USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered carrier capable of embarking 90 aircraft, passed through the Strait and entered the Gulf without any incident on January 21-22, 2012. HMS Argyll, a Type 23 frigate from the Royal Navy, was one of the escort vessels making up the carrier battle-group. A guided missile cruiser and two destroyers from the US Navy completed the flotilla, along with one warship from the French navy.


Australia in the Indian Ocean said...

Hi Kumar

Interesting post. New or threatened trade and monetary sanctions against Iran appear attempts to goad Iran into military retaliation. If Iran upped its miltary reponse the US, Israel and others would have a plausible reason to launch the long awaited airstrikes on Iran's nuclear related facilities and industries.

The US drawdown from Iraq and by August this year from Afghanistan will certainly free up more forces to cower or even strike Iran.

The US appears to rely on Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain as the main base and HQ for the Fifth Fleet. This "Naval Support Activity" is an oddly innocuous name for a huge base probably larger than Guam and Diego Garcia combined. The leaders of Bahrain and the US downplay the fact that such a large base is in such a small country. The US position that the US had no involvement in limiting the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain is therefore hard to believe. see



Kumar said...

Hi Pete,

Thanks for the comments. What I did not write, which you have alluded to, is the fact that there is a possibility that in the event of Iran's grave provocation, like closing the Strait, US and allies may use it as a pretext to launch full-scale attack on the Iranian nuclear installations. Iran, in all probability would retaliate in some manner, so to speak. But given the superior firepower of the US forces, it is anybody's guess what the outcome would be.

One only hopes that wiser counsel prevails on Iran and it does not do something foolish.