Aboard USS Bunker Hill
It didn’t take Chief Warrant Officer Jason Echevarria more than a glance through the ship’s binoculars to figure out what the Iranian-flagged dhow 3,400 yards off the starboard beam wasn’t doing.
For one thing, the gaily colored boat was larger than the dhows that typically ply the confined waters of the Persian Gulf. Its deck was clear of netting and tackle, and the paint job seemed fresh. The Furuno radar was another giveaway. And it was shadowing us, coming at one point within a mile.
“If that’s a fishing boat, I’m a monkey’s uncle,” said Mr. Echevarria, a native of Melbourne, Fla. Later, the boat would be photographed flying the colors of the IRGC-N, the naval branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Nobody on the Bunker Hill—a 567-foot, 9,800 ton guided-missile cruiser serving as the principal surface escort for the nearby carrier USS Carl Vinson—was surprised by the arrival of the Iranians. With Aegis radar, Seahawk helicopters and electro-optical scanners, Bunker Hill had been tracking the dhow long before it became visible in the morning haze. Michael Ford, the ship’s captain, had been watching the Iranians even longer, ever since he first deployed to the Gulf some 20 years ago. Tension with Iran, he says, “ebbs and flows in terms of the rhetoric, but the reality of the interactions is still relatively routine.”
That’s the point that nearly every senior officer I’ve met with on this trip seems most eager to make. On Jan. 3, Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the head of the Iranian military, made headlines world-wide by warning the departing carrier USS John C. Stennis not to re-enter the Gulf. Since then, however, two other U.S. carriers have come here without incident, and the Navy continues to deal with the Iranians—tower-to-air; bridge-to-bridge—generally on the basis of mutual professionalism. Far from being a flash point, the Gulf may be the only place where the U.S. and Iran have something like a functional relationship.
But functional isn’t friendly. Vice Adm. Mark Fox, the commander of the Fifth Fleet, stresses that the Navy is “absolutely prepared” for any contingency.
At the same time, he offers a long list of the ways in which Iran has in recent years developed capabilities purpose-built to challenge U.S. maritime dominance: ship-killing missiles; midget submarines of the kind that sank a South Korean corvette in 2010; mines (“the maritime equivalent of an IED,” he says); and thousands of fast inboard attack craft—basically, armed Boston Whalers meant to swarm larger U.S. ships. “I respect their capability,” says Adm. Fox dryly.
In the face of the asymmetrical threat, the Navy’s first defense is an unmatched degree of situational awareness. From the Bunker Hill’s blue-lit combat information center, Capt. Ford can see, identify and track everything that moves on or above (and probably below) the Gulf. Any departure from what the Navy calls “pattern of life” on the sea would be noticed long before the Iranians peak their head over the horizon. At that distance, the firepower a ship like the Bunker Hill can bring to bear could defeat almost anything Iran can muster.
But the Navy has its own vulnerabilities. Iranian ships could lawfully come awfully close to the Bunker Hill before revealing their intentions, leaving Capt. Ford little time to deter and defend. Last month, The Journal reported that Pentagon war planners had identified “gaps” in military capabilities and needed to spend $100 million to fill them. One such gap: The Vinson currently lacks the Phalanx Close-in Weapons System, a high-powered gatling gun used to stop incoming missiles (or fast boats) at close range. The Navy insists it’s covered by other defensive systems, but the absence of such guns was one reason the British Navy lost so many of its ships in the Falklands War.
There’s a deeper vulnerability. In our interview, Adm. Fox mentioned he had some 42 ships deployed, including two carriers. But between the Fleet’s anti-piracy mission around Somalia and its aerial support for operations in Afghanistan, there are only two major U.S. surface combatants in the Gulf—the Vinson and the Bunker Hill—plus two nuclear attack submarines, four minesweepers and some smaller patrol ships. Were the Iranians to mine the Strait of Hormuz, the ships could be trapped in the Gulf for at least as long as it took the minesweepers to clear the way.
How long would that take? In 1991 it took a year to clear up 1,300 mines in the Gulf. Today Iran is estimated to have some 5,000 mines.
The Navy doesn’t like to advertise this, but it is trying to fulfill its traditional global role with a fleet of 285 ships—the smallest it has been since before the First World War, even if modern warships are more capable than ever before. That number is likely to decline further under President Obama’s proposed budgetary cuts. If you sleep better at night knowing that a powerful American Navy ensures the freedom of the seas in places like the Gulf, the time to start worrying about the Navy’s future is now.
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