U.S. Navy Flexes Muscles in Persian Gulf

http://apnews.excite.com/article/20070327/D8O4M5O81.html

By JAMES CALDERWOOD and JIM KRANE

ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS (AP) - 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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James Calderwood reported from aboard the Stennis and Jim Krane from Dubai.