When US President George W. Bush talked to reporters at the White House Wednesday, Oct. 11, he touched lightly on the nuclear interchanges Iran and Syria had held with North Korea. Although the conference was wide-ranging, he omitted to mention the US naval exercise an official in Washington announced a few hours later would begin in the Gulf of Bahrain on Oct. 31.
The exercise, said the official, was designed to “interdict ships carrying weapons of mass destruction and missiles.” Also taking part are Bahrain, Kuwait, France, Britain, Canada and others.
Between the presidential news conference and the announcement of the exercise, a third statement was released in New York disclosing that the five Security Council powers had agreed to hold a council session next week to begin drafting a motion for sanctions on Iran for refusing to give up uranium enrichment.
This chronology points to a Bush decision to move first against Iran before tackling North Korea. While the Washington official who announced the exercise did not specify which US naval units would take part in the exercise, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources fill in the gap with a detailed rundown of the naval, air and marine strike force making their way to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the eastern Mediterranean since Oct. 2.
Two exercises – two Titans face to face
Some 35,000 US troops made up of marines and US naval troops are their way aboard the incoming naval units, raising the US naval presence in the Iraq and Persian Gulf region by 50%. The Gulf concentration is also backed by the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
President Bush ordered the entire force to be in positions by Oct. 21, ten days before the projected exercise.
An exclusive DEBKA interactive map attached to this article illustrates the deployment of these units and their locations.
Military might on this scale, armed with tactical nuclear weapons and backed further by hundreds of fighter-bombers at the US air bases in Iraq and Oman, is clearly in excess of the needs for war games or enforcing sanctions. It is being deployed cheek by jowl with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards units, whose Blow of Zolfaqar war games in the Persian Gulf has been in progress since August, and which is still on a high state of war preparedness.
The last days of October and early days of November (US midterm election season) will be fraught with menace. Whether or not the two Titans clash in the crowded waters around Iran’s shores depends on the will of two men: President Bush and his sparring partner in Tehran, supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Either can opt for the offensive – the US President to take out Iran’s oil installations and its economic infrastructure, the Iranian ruler to pre-empt an American strike. Neither “exercise” has a closing date.
Three colossal task forces
The USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group sailed out of port in Norfolk and is due in the Persian Gulf on October 21. Led by the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear battleship, it consists of the USS Anzio, the guided-missile destroyers USS Rampage and USS Mason, the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Newport News (SSN 750) and supply ships.
The USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier which is a US Navy flagship is already deployed in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. It includes the warships and vessels of the Carrier Strike Group 12 (CSG 12) Destroyer Squadron 2 (DESRON 2) and Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW 1).
Their mission is “to conduct naval security operations and aerial mission in the region.”
It is said to be part of the US-led “War on Terror” under “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Other warships in the Enterprise Strike Group include the destroyer USS McFaul, the war frigate USS Nicholas, the battle cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, the attack submarine USS Alexandria and the fast combat support ship USNS Supply.
The USNS Supply is also capable of confronting Iranian Persian Gulf forces in close-quarter combat. It has the speed to respond to lethal Iranian missile and anti-ship missile attacks. The Iranian-made C802 shore-to-sea cruise missile was used with deadly effect against an Israeli missile frigate off Beirut last July in the Lebanon War.
The USS Enterprise carries the infiltration, aerial attack and rapid deployment units: Marine Strike Fighter Squadron 251, Electronic Attack Squadron 137 and Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123. It will be the task of Squadron 123 to detect Iranian missiles and alert the US fleet to their danger.
On the decks of the USS Enterprise as part of this strike group is Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 11 whose specialty is combat against submarines. Persian Gulf waters are home to the Iranian submarine fleet.
The Eisenhower was supposed to relieve the Enterprise force but both are expected to stay for the coming exercise/operation. Eisenhower will be positioned in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea south of Iran, while the Enterprise will be deployed in the Persian Gulf, facing Iran’s coast.
Also steaming toward the Persian Gulf is Expeditionary Strike Group 5 from its home port at Naval Station San Diego carrying more than 4,000 US sailors and 2,200 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit which is capable of rapid deployment using large landing craft stowed aboard the strike group’s warships. They are thus a potential landing force able to set up beachheads on the Iran coast for a large-scale invasion. A Marine air wing of 38 helicopters is on board.
In position for hit-and-run assaults on Iran’s nuclear sites
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report this tactic would make it possible for special operations forces or Marines to carry out hit-and-run ground assaults on nuclear installations and withdraw to their vessels via the same beachheads.
The warships will be joined by the Seattle-based Coast Guard and a Canadian frigate the HMCS Ottawa.
The Canadian frigate departed its port in British Columbia in September. It will be fully integrated into the Expeditionary Strike Group 5 which is to be deployed in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman opposite Iran’s western and southern shores.
The Coast Guard is of crucial importance for an invasion. Its vessels are fast, can put into ports which are inaccessible to warships and thus secure the bridgeheads. The Coast Guard also specializes in maritime search and rescue operations for which the Navy and Marines are not qualified. A certain number of destroyed and heavily damaged vessels in distress are believed unavoidable should a conflict flare with Iran’s armed forces.
The ESG 5 vessels led by the USS Boxer as flagship, the USS Dubuque a dock-landing vessel, the naval transport ship the USS Comstock, the battle cruiser the USS Bunker Hill, the guided missile-hauling destroyer the USS Benfold and the guiding missile-hauling destroyer the USS Howard.
The group’s command and control structure will be separated from the vessels for maximum flexibility.
Before heading out to the Persian Gulf, the group will have performed anti-submarine drills and operations in the Pacific Ocean, preparing to combat the Iranian submarine fleet in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to the south.
Three Israeli Dolphin-class submarines armed with nuclear cruise missiles are deployed in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman.
The Persian Gulf deployment is also backed by NATO’s Eastern Mediterranean deployment including units from France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Greece assembled under the UN flag by Security Council Resolution 1701
On Sept. 4, debkafile disclosed the makeup of the greatest sea and air armada Europe has assembled since World War II: two carriers with 75 fighter-bombers, spy planes and helicopters on their decks; 15 warships of various types – 7 French, 5 Italian, 2-3 Greek, 3-5 German, and five American; thousands of Marines – French, Italian and German.
They are joined by the USS Mount Whitney which exercises command over a task force of 1,800 sailors, Marines, Air force medical and other personnel serving aboard the USS Barry the USS Trenton, HSV Swift and USNS Kanawha.<I<I<I<I
Might America block Hormuz?
France has deployed its nuclear-powered 38,000-ton Charles De Gaulle carrier which leads a task force of 7 warships carrying 2,800 French Marines; and Italy its aircraft-helicopter carrier Garibaldi, whose fighter-bombers and sea-choppers are designed to attack submarines and missile ships.
Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Spain have also contributed various types of vessel to this Mediterranean fleet.
About 15 small Israeli missiles ships permanently cruise these waters.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that while the ships and men building up the Persian Gulf forces are formally there for routine duties and a naval exercise, their three zones of operation clearly indicate their real functions.
1. The Persian Gulf – in proximity to Iran’s western shore, including Iran’s strategic locations at Bandar Abbas, where the Revolutionary Guards have their headquarters and bases, and opposite central Iran where most of its nuclear installations are situated.
2. The Gulf of Oman – where the American force is kept handy for defending Saudi and Gulf emirates’ oil fields and installations, as well as for controlling the narrow Strait of Hormuz through which Arabian and Iranian oil reaches outside markets.
A potential Iranian threat to blockade the strategic strait and so choke off this vital oil lane has been often bandied about. However, the US fleet has the same option; Washington may decide to block Hormuz against Iranian oil exports to bring about an Iranian economic crash.
China and Russia would be starved of oil, but US war planners say that since both are expected to take Tehran’s side in any conflict, they will have to take their chances.
3. The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to the south of Iran – notably the stretch of water between Jask just south of the Hormuz Strait and Chah Bahar further east near the Iranian-Pakistani border.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that in recent weeks Iran has moved large naval and air forces, including shore-to-sea missiles, to this strip of coast for two goals: To break up their dense Persian Gulf concentrations and scatter them across a larger area to diffuse American targeting; and to prevent the entire force being from bottled up in the Persian Gulf and free to harass US forces in case the Americans decide to cork up the Strait of Hormuz.