ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS — American warplanes screamed off two aircraft carriers Tuesday as the U.S. Navy staged its largest show of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, launching a mammoth exercise meant as a message to the Iranians.
The maneuvers with 15 warships and more than 100 aircraft were sure to heighten tensions with Iran, which has frequently condemned the U.S. military presence off its coast and is in a faceoff with the West over its nuclear program and its capture of a British naval team.
While they would not say when the war games were planned, U.S. commanders insisted the exercises were not a direct response to Friday’s seizure of the 15 British sailors and marines, but they also made clear that the flexing of the Navy’s military might was intended as a warning.
“If there is strong presence, then it sends a clear message that you better be careful about trying to intimidate others,” said Capt. Bradley Johanson, commander of the Stennis.
“Iran has adopted a very escalatory posture with the things that they have done,” he added.
The exercises began four days after Iranian forces detained the 15 Britons for allegedly being in Iranian territorial waters near the northern end of the Gulf. U.S. and British officials insist the team was properly searching cargo vessels inside Iraqi waters.
F/A-18 fighter jets roared off the Stennis’ flight deck all day, mounting a dozen rapid-fire training sorties against imaginary enemy ships and aircraft. A second task force with the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower also took part in the drills.
“These maneuvers demonstrate our flexibility and capability to respond to threats to maritime security,” said Navy Lt. John Perkins, 32, of Louisville, Ky., as the Stennis cruised about 80 miles off the United Arab Emirates after entering the Persian Gulf overnight.
“They’re showing we can keep the maritime environment safe and the vital link to the global economy open.”
At the headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said the maneuvers would last several days. He said U.S. warships would stay out of Iran’s territorial waters, which extend 12 miles off the Iranian coast.
None of America’s naval coalition partners in the region joined the maneuvers.
A French naval strike group, led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, was operating just outside the Gulf in the Arabian Sea. But the French ships were supporting NATO forces in Afghanistan and not taking part in the U.S. maneuvers, Aandahl said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Navy routinely conducts exercises when its forces are deployed near each other.
“The exercise should reassure our friends and allies of our commitment to security and stability in the region,” Whitman said. “We are not interested in confrontation in the Gulf.”
The war games involve more than 10,000 U.S. personnel mounting simulated attacks on enemy aircraft and ships, while hunting submarines and looking for mines.
“What it should be seen as by Iran or anyone else is that it’s for regional stability and security,” Aandahl said. “These ships are just another demonstration of that. If there’s a destabilizing effect, it’s Iran’s behavior.”
The U.S. drills were the latest in a series of competing American and Iranian war games. Iran conducted naval maneuvers in November and April, while in October the Navy led a training exercise aimed at blocking nuclear smuggling.
In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Stennis strike group was being sent to the Mideast as a warning to Iran that it should not misjudge America’s resolve in the region.
Iran has grown increasingly assertive in the Persian Gulf as the U.S. military has become focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian officials have publicly called on America’s Arab allies to shut down U.S. military bases and join Iran in a regional security alliance.
Leaders of Arab nations around the Gulf have grown increasingly uneasy with the tough U.S. stance toward Iran, believing any outbreak of war would bring attacks on their own soil. But none has shown interest in an alliance with Iran.
In February, the 5th Fleet’s then-commander, Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, said he had assured Arab allies that Washington was trying to avoid “a mistake that boils over into war” with Iran.
The Stennis strike group, with more than 6,500 sailors and marines, entered the Gulf late Monday or early Tuesday along with the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the Navy said.
The Stennis, which had been supporting military operations in Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea, joined the strike group led by the Eisenhower.
It is the first time two U.S. aircraft carriers have operated in the Gulf since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Aandahl said. The Eisenhower was operating off the coast of Somalia in January and February.
Each carrier carries an air wing of F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighter-bombers, EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, S-3 Viking refueling and anti-submarine planes, and E-2C Hawkeye airborne command-and-control aircraft.
Also taking part were six guided-missile destroyers, the Anzio, Ramage, O’Kane, Mason, Preble and Nitze; the frigate Hawes; amphibious assault ships Boxer and Bataan; and the minesweepers Scout, Gladiator and Ardent.
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