The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, detailed the Navy’s build-up in the Persian Gulf today, but he downplayed the prospects of any immediate conflict with Iran – even as the fleet develops new weapons for coastal combat and plans to double its deployment of minesweepers and upgunned patrol craft to Bahrain.
“I will tell you the Iranian Navy has been professional and courteous, they’ve been good mariners, they’ve operated in accordance with the rules of the road,” Adm. Greenert told reporters at a breakfast talk in Washington, D.C. By contrast, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operates its own naval forces independently of the regular Navy, “has on occasion violated decorum and rules of the road. Those are the incidents you read about in the paper where small boats get too close,” he said, “[but even] they’re not ramping up.” Though there are “occasional” minor provocations by the Guard Corps, overall Iranian military activity is at normal levels, Greenert said.
In January, Adm. Greenert rode the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Stennis as it sailed close by the Iranian coastline on its way out the critical Strait of Hormuz. “It was a very clear day,” he said. “I got a good look at the situation. A lot of the Iranian Navy was out there… not really threatening but being vigilant.”
That hardly means the Navy is counting on Iranian goodwill. The Navy variant of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, BAMS-D (for Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator), still nominally a prototype, already scouts out the Straits before any surface ships pass through. “We use it on every strait transit,” Greenert said. “The theater commander loves it.”
The Navy’s traditional preference for long-range missiles and airstrikes makes it vulnerable in the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf; Greenert likened the situation to a man with a sniper rifle going down a dark alley – “maybe you need something more like a sawed off shotgun,” he said. So the Navy is emphasizing new weapons and sensors for a short-range fight. Carrier commanders have concerns about transiting the narrow straits in fog or at night, Greenert said, so the Navy will install a new package of electro-optical and infra-red sensors on every ship entering the Gulf. The Navy also plans to install Gatling gun-style multi-barreled weapons on escort ships and possibly on the carriers themselves to fend off small boats.
First to get the guns would probably be the Navy’s Cyclone-class patrol craft, 179-foot-long vessels currently armed only with conventional machineguns and grenade launchers. Adm. Greenert also wants to experiment with installing short-range missiles on the Cyclones. Currently five of the Navy’s Cyclones are based in Bahrain and the other five in the United States; Greenert wants to add the new weapons to the U.S.-based craft and send the upgunned boats to Bahrain. “If we’re able to get the maintenance done, the funding approved, and the installations [of the weapons completed], the goal would be to get three by the end of the year, ’12, and two by the end of ’13,” Greenert said.
The Navy is also beefing up its capacities for mine-clearing, long a neglected area. While work proceeds on unmanned underwater vehicles to seek out mines and on the mine-clearance module of the new Littoral Combat Ships, for now the mainstay of the fleet remains its small force of aging Avenger-class minesweepers. As has been widely reported, the fleet will send four more Avengers to the Gulf – joining four already in Bahrain – as well as four more MH-53E mine-clearing helicopters, although Adm. Greenert emphasized it might be a matter of two or three months before these reinforcements arrive. “We intend to send them over there for one notional deployment,” he said, about six to eight months. “How long they stay,” he added, depends on the state of tensions with Iran.