The Navy is sharply increasing its military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, shifting more vessels, aircraft, and powerful weapons amid ongoing tensions with Iran over its nuclear program.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told reporters on Friday that he plans to double the number of mine-sweeping vessels in the Gulf from four to eight, add four additional mine-hunting helicopters, and deploy next-generation underwater mine-neutralizing drones.
Greenert said all U.S. ships that pass through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important oil-shipping routes, would also be given new infrared surveillance equipment and short-range guns and missiles for potential use against smaller Iranian vessels.
The admiral, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that existing U.S. armaments--which were designed for long-distance fights against other powerful vessels--wouldn’t necessarily work in the narrow waterway. Pentagon strategists have long worried that Iran would try to swarm U.S. vessels with small, fast-moving attack boats as a way of countering the stronger and larger American warships.
“It’s like having this high-powered great rifle, but you’re in a small area,” Greenert said. “Maybe what you need is a sawed-off shotgun.”
The comments come at an uncertain moment in the rocky U.S. relationship with Iran. Israel, Washington’s closest ally, is openly warning of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran doesn’t abandon its apparent quest for a nuclear bomb. President Obama recently warned that the U.S. would also consider such strikes if Iran continued its nuclear push.
At the same time, the U.S. and its allies have reopened negotiations with Iran amid what seems like a concerted push by both Washington and Tehran to reduce tensions and to step back from the brink of a military confrontation.
Greenert said that the planned expansion came after he had traveled through the Strait of Hormuz on the USS Stennis and discussed the potential Iranian military threat there with Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of the military’s Central Command.
Still, Greenert said that the Navy hadn’t detected any increased Iranian military activity in the Strait. Iran has previously said it would try to close the Strait if Israel or the U.S. struck its nuclear facilities, but American officials have consistently said they have no evidence Iran is capable of doing so or is actively preparing for such a hostile act.
“The Iranian navy has been unto itself professional and courteous,” Greenert said.
The U.S. push to bolster its capabilities in the Gulf could provide a mini-boost to large American defense contractors. Greenert told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on Thursday that he expected to spend roughly $250 million in fiscal 2013 to retrofit American vessels with new weapons and surveillance systems and shift additional drones, helicopters, and mine-hunting ships to the Gulf. He said he expected many of the systems to be in place by the end of the year.