Part II: Five Fleets: Around the World with the Nimitz

By Lieutenant Commander William R. Bray, USN

It wasn't later than 0530 on 2 October, the morning the Nimitz was scheduled to leave Hong Kong, when I was awakened by the intelligence watch officer with news that the battle group had just received orders to proceed straight to the Arabian Gulf—skipping the planned 6-10 October port visit to Singapore. We had anticipated such an order for several days, after learning that Iranian jets bombed anti-Iranian insurgent camps inside Iraq on 29 September, a move that prompted Iraq to violate the southern and northern U.N.-mandated no-fly zones.

Without the Singapore port visit, the most pressing initial challenge was not tactical but logistical. Thousands of pounds of supplies and spare parts, scheduled to be loaded in the ships at Singapore, had to be flown onto the Nimitz in a three-day period as she steamed past Singapore and into the Strait of Malacca. Such an undertaking would have to be coordinated with a small contingent of Navy logistics and supply experts stationed in Singapore, a command that grew after the 1992 closure of Subic Bay Naval Base.

With the Singapore logistics flow and planning for Arabian Gulf contingencies consuming the next few days, our passage through the South China Sea was a transit without history, two legs of a long track with little or no meaning to most of the sailors beyond the time it took. Today, most of the Navy is populated with post-Vietnam sailors and officers, with no immediate connection to perhaps our greatest national tragedy this century. All they know is what they've read, heard, or remembered from their childhoods.

Moving through the Strait of Malacca, the battle group faced an especially difficult navigation problem as forest fires raged in Malaysia, blanketing Singapore and much of the Strait in a thick, smoky haze that severely restricted visibility in the heavily traveled waterway. The battle group was through the worst of the Strait in fewer than 40 hours, and the final personnel and logistics transfers were flown to the Nimitz from Butterworth, the old British airfield near Penang.

We entered the Indian Ocean on 6 October, and even though there was a chance that the Indian Navy or Air Force would pay us a visit, our focus clearly was on the Arabian Gulf—suddenly only days away. South Asia remains a relatively unknown quantity to us. To the layman, it seems odd that the U.S. Navy doesn't have a closer relationship with its Indian counterpart—after all, India is the world's largest democracy. Yet both countries still live in the shadow of their Cold War choices.

In the early 1960s, after the Sino-Soviet split, India's war with China drove New Delhi into the arms of the Soviets. Then, the United States developed a close relationship with Pakistan, using northern Pakistan as a base for supporting the Mujahadin—the Afghanistan rebels—in their guerrilla war against the occupying Soviet forces during the 1980s. Pakistan is India's greatest security threat, and Washington's friendship with Islamabad has never set well with the Indians.

As we rounded the bottom of India and headed through the Maldives into the Arabian Sea, it was clear that issues concerning India, Pakistan, and even the civil war in Sri Lanka were nothing more than a passing curiosity. They would have no operational effect on the battle group. The passage through the Seventh Fleet area of responsibility was a blur, and we finally were approaching the region for which we had trained. On 9 October, we were nearly halfway across the Arabian Sea and had officially switched from the U.S. Pacific Command to the U.S. Central Command, where we were destined to spend most of our deployment.

The Arabian Gulf

There arises from an extended stay in the Arabian Gulf—in which one has ample opportunity to mix with the local populations—a feeling that no one takes the need for an U.S. military presence as seriously as the Americans. The Gulf Arabs don't dismiss the threat posed by Iraq and Iran, but they also conclude that the Americans bring money to the merchants—so their presence can be tolerated, although not necessarily enjoyed. There is a different sense of time in the Gulf, and a different sense of the proper order of things.

It is not quite right to say that the Arabian Gulf has become a quagmire for the United States. Our Navy is paying an enormous price, as the sanctions and inspections regimen drags into its seventh year with no end in sight. The Arabian Gulf is approximately 450 nautical miles long and 160 nautical miles wide—hardly an ocean—and the share of the world's oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz will only increase over the next two decades. Thus, as long Saddam Hussein and like-minded thugs wield considerable power in the region, the United States will be forced to maintain a significant force presence. Furthermore, ostensible allies such as Saudi Arabia are unlikely to allow us to operate from their soil much longer; thus, the U.S. Navy will assume an even greater share of the peacetime burden in the future. It is not to say that at least one aircraft carrier battle group routinely operates in the Gulf without good reason—the United States has serious national interests at stake in the Arabian Gulf. Nevertheless, we must admit one reality: In the 1990s, the U.S. Navy has become a Gulf navy.

Except for the very junior officers, most officers in the the Nimitz Battle Group were making at least their second trip to the Gulf; it has become a way of life for our deploying Navy—especially for sailors assigned to West Coast ships and aircraft squadrons. Time in the Gulf is long on work and short on fun. Respecting Muslim customs and sensibilities, liberty in the Gulf is highly restricted, compared with what sailors enjoy in Europe or Asia. Thus, morale and even retention suffer from the Navy's burdensome presence in the Gulf. Sailors used to reenlist for the next deployment. Now, they dread it.

The Gulf is a chasm filled with the sorrows and pressures of a place where time is passed by marking days, hours, minutes—never knowing for sure when you'll get out. Most of the time it's boring and routine, and at least half the year it's the hotter than Hades in July. Three months in the Gulf can feel like three years—and sailors can become tired and bitter. The Arabian Gulf is the modern naval professional's abyss, where dark moments and a catharsis of emotions await even the most prepared. There's strength to be found from having been there, but it's tough medicine. The smartest and the weakest go once; the rest of us keep going back.

The Strait of Hormuz

News that the Nimitz had been ordered to the Arabian Gulf two weeks early broke quickly, but the media had the wrong spin on the reason for the change. In the early morning of 29 September, four American-made Iranian F-4 Phantom jets took off from the western Iranian airfield of Hamadan on what looked like a routine training mission. Instead, the jets, probably flying at a fairly low altitude, zipped across the border and bombed two anti-Iranian insurgent camps in eastern Iraq. Iraqi air defense commanders were asleep at the switch and never knew what hit them until the jets were back into Iranian airspace. Saddam ordered his air force to begin violating both southern and northern U.N.-mandated no-fly zones, claiming that the no-fly zones prevented Iraq from defending its sovereignty. By 4 October, most major news sources were reporting that the Nimitz was ordered to the Gulf in response to the Iranian attack.

In reality, the Nimitz Battle Group was ordered to the Gulf early to augment the Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) with a sea-based air option that could operate without permission of such host countries as Saudi Arabia. The JTF-SWA runs Operation Southern Watch—the enforcement of the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. Bringing the Nimitz in early was designed to help deter future violations by beefing up forces prepared to engage additional violators in air-to-air combat. But for a day or so, the media had it wrong, and the misperception fed a jittery Iranian paranoia.

In early October, the Iranian Navy was making final preparations for its showcase event, the annual Victory exercise, which began in 1989 and has grown in size and complexity each year. This year the exercise was to be held in the northern Arabian Gulf, adjacent to normal U.S. aircraft carrier operating areas used to launch planes for sorties into Iraq. No aircraft carrier had been scheduled to be in the Arabian Gulf during Victory VIII, but the Nimitz 's arrival was scheduled for 12 October, the exact date the first operational phase of the exercise was set to begin. Iranian rhetoric was highly critical of the decision to bring the Nimitz to the Gulf early, and there is little doubt that the Iranians felt the Nimitz 's presence to be, at least in part, an attempt to upstage Victory VIII.

Thus a climate of tension was prevalent as the battle group entered the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility on 9 October and headed for a midnight transit of the Strait of Hormuz 11-12 October. The Strait of Hormuz is the most important choke point in the world. It also is one of the best defended, because the Iranians have invested heavily to ensure they maintain the ability to control or even close the Strait in time of conflict.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, by 1994 an average of 14 million barrels of oil traveled through the Strait of Hormuz each day—nearly 20% of the world's daily oil consumption. Approximately 65% of the world's known oil reserves—650 billion barrels—are in the Persian Gulf and its littorals. The consensus among economists and oil analysts is that demand will grow faster than alternatives can be designed, financed, and built. This means the percentage of the world's oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz will only increase over the next two decades.

The disruption or complete blockage of this flow—even for a relatively short period of time—would severely destabilize the world oil market, driving the price of oil up to an astronomical level and potentially throwing the world's major industrial economies into a devastating recession. Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which effectively removed Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil from the world market, drove the price of oil to more than $40 a barrel—more than twice its earlier level. The result was that countries such as the United States were spending more for oil and less on savings, investment, and the purchase of consumer goods critical to the health of their domestic economies. This brought on the economic recession of the early 1990s, with its failed businesses and loss of thousands of jobs. Yet what happened in 1990 was miniscule—compared to what would happen if the Strait of Hormuz were to be partially or completely closed. What's really at stake is the quality of human life, not just in the United States, but around the globe. Access to adequate supplies of energy is critical to such quality—for better or worse.

The Iranian fortification of the Strait of Hormuz is impressive. Mines, cruise missile-capable patrol boats, diesel submarines, and land-based cruise missiles lead the list of threats posed by Iran in the Strait. The most recent additions to the arsenal are the three Russian-built Kilo-class diesel submarines and several Chinese-built C802 coastal-defense missile batteries. Iran has yet to attain technical and tactical proficiency in submarine operations, but the newer C802 missile batteries are a significant technological improvement, because they are more mobile and have a substantially reduced set-up time. From Jask in the east to Sirri Island in the west, there are several known coastal defense sites covering the Strait of Hormuz, but the 65-mile-range C802 can be set up and fired from any fairly level piece of ground. In a closely confined littoral, the C802 is a substantial force-multiplier against a militarily superior foe.

The Nimitz Battle Group entered the bottom of the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2030 on 11 October. The Iranians had been expecting the Nimitz for several days and probably detected the carrier several hours earlier with a coastal air-surveillance radar based at Jask when the Nimitz recovered a logistics flight from Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. By midnight, the Nimitz and her escorts were into the traffic separation scheme at the top of the Strait when the lead ship, the Port Royal (CG-73) , was queried by an Iranian Navy oiler patrolling the Strait that evening. As always, the interaction was eerily cordial as the Iranians sought to determine the makeup of the U.S. force entering the Gulf. Other ships were queried as well, but the overall Iranian posture remained well within norms for a carrier battle group entering the Gulf. As intimidating as the Strait of Hormuz may seem, the peacetime execution of the transit is almost exclusively a navigational problem, not a tactical one.

Victory VIII

The greatest concern about the Nimitz operating in close proximity to such a large Iranian exercise was the possibility of a misunderstanding escalating into an untoward incident. The exercise was held just west and south of the northern Iranian port of Bushehr and involved nearly 40 ships and two Kilo-class submarines which, along with about half the ships, transited to Bushehr from their Strait of Hormuz homeport of Bandar Abbas. The U.S. Task Force Commander made it clear from the outset that all ships and planes were to avoid any provocative or potentially confrontational activity when operating near an Iranian unit.

For their part, the Iranians probably were more nervous about a chance mishap than the Americans. For one thing, the Iranian leadership has less confidence in its commanding officers' ability to operate safely in a dense operating environment. Second, there are two things the Iranians don't do very often or very well: fire live missiles from air or naval platforms, and fly tactical sorties over water, especially at night. The live-firing portion of Victory VIII was scheduled for 12-13 October in designated areas abutting the most northern U.S. aircraft carrier operating area. Fortunately, the Nimitz spent 12 October off Bahrain busy with arrival briefs and liaison meetings with staff officers from the U.S. Fifth Fleet and did not move to its northern operating area until late 13 October.

The Iranians were equally concerned prior to simulated air-to-surface firing runs by Bushehr-based F-4/Phantoms, the only Iranian aircraft with a dedicated anti-ship mission. The attack profile only took the jets 5 to 10 nautical miles over water, but the Iranians were so concerned about a mishap they sent a helicopter into the Nimitz Task Force's operating area just prior to the evolution, probably to give the Victory VIII exercise headquarters a positive location on both Task Force cruisers, the Port Royal and the Lake Champlain (CG-57). A U.S. cruiser normally defends the force against any air threat, a doctrinal tenet the U.S.-trained Iranian naval leadership undoubtedly understands. Clearly, the Iranians were not comfortable putting the F-4s over water on an attack profile without knowing where the cruisers were, lest the training run be interpreted as an attack.

The most important and dynamic phase of Victory VIII took place 15-16 October and involved a probable war-at-sea scenario, where exercise participants divided into an attacking Orange force and a defending Blue force. As in previous years, the Blue force represented the Iranian Navy, and the strategic principles stressed were almost all defensive in nature. The exception was one small amphibious landing, which may have represented the attempted recapture of one of the Iranian-occupied southern Gulf islands.

Iranian rhetoric during the exercise stressed the "illegal presence" of foreign navies in the Gulf and promised that Gulf states could form their own collective-security arrangement without outside interference. Other statements, including those by the former Iranian Chief of Naval Operations, were consistently critical of the U.S. presence, even accusing the United States of polluting the Gulf with its exercises and nuclear-capable ships.

A reduced U.S. military presence in the Gulf is clearly in Iran's interest, and its rhetoric has reflected this long-term goal. Yet the actual operating profile of the exercise participants was professional and nonconfrontational. This is an Iranian Navy that has matured considerably since the 1980s, and it doesn't appear that the Iranians are under any illusion that they could build a force powerful enough to give Tehran an offensive option against the U.S. Navy.

Instead, Iran is committed to building a professional, technologically modern littoral navy that can probably accomplish three missions critical to Iranian security: First, if attacked, Iran wants a navy strong enough to inflict a significant level of damage against a powerful foe such as the United States. Although the Iranian Navy probably will never grow strong enough to be considered a credible deterrent, the Iranians understand the U.S. public's queasiness over high body counts. Second, Iran has by far the strongest Gulf navy, and Tehran wants to maintain this advantage. If the United States and other Western powers ever do leave, Iran probably would seek to form a collective-security alliance with the other Gulf states, and would want to do so on its terms. Finally, Iran wants to maintain the ability to close or control the Strait of Hormuz if that option ever serves its interest.

Victory VIII ended on 17 October with religious ceremonies and the redeployment of forces to Bandar Abbas. The Nimitz Battle Group had operated in a professional and unhindered manner in close proximity to perhaps its most vocal enemy. The Iranians had demonstrated some improvements in some warfare areas, such as submarine warfare.

By the third week in October, the focus was back on the aircraft carrier's reason for being in the Gulf in the first place—Iraq. Iran later would return to the forefront in a much different way. At this time, however, developments in Baghdad and New York were about to come to a head—and change the texture of our cruise decisively.

Lieutenant Commander Bray serves as the assistant intelligence officer to Commander Carrier Group Seven in San Diego.

 

 
 

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