The US Navy today began its largest demonstration of force in the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, deploying two aircraft carriers and conducting simulated aerial attacks.
Manoeuvres involving 15 US warships and more than a hundred planes were certain to increase tension with Iran, which has frequently condemned the US military presence off its coastline.
The exercises began only four days after Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines whom it accused of straying into Iranian waters near the Gulf. Britain and the US Navy have insisted the British sailors were operating in Iraqi waters.
Aboard the carrier USS John C. Stennis, F/A-18 fighter jets rocketed off the deck in one of a dozen rapid-fire training sorties against enemy shipping and aircraft.
“These manoeuvres demonstrate our flexibility and capability to respond to threats to maritime security,” said US Navy Lt. John Perkins as the Stennis cruised about 80 miles off the United Arab Emirates.
“They’re showing we can keep the maritime environment safe and the vital link to the global economy open.”
At US 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, US Navy Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said the US manoeuvres were not organized in response to the capture of the British sailors – nor were they meant to threaten the Islamic Republic, whose navy operates in the same waters.
He declined to specify when the Navy planned the exercises, but added they would last several days.
Aandahl said the US warships would stay out of Iranian territorial waters, which extend 12 miles off the Iranian coast.
A French naval strike group, led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, was operating simultaneously just outside the Gulf. But the French ships were supporting the Nato forces in Afghanistan and not taking part in the US manoeuvres, Aandahl said.
Overall, the exercises involve more than 10,000 US personnel on warships and aircraft making simulated attacks on enemy aircraft and shipping, hunting enemy submarines and finding 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 destabilising effect, it’s Iran’s behaviour.”
The US drills were the latest in a series of American and Iranian war games. Iran conducted naval manoeuvres in November and April, while in October the US Navy led a Gulf training exercise aimed at blocking nuclear smuggling.