On Watch in the Arabian Gulf: What the U.S. Navy Faces Against Iran

James Stavridis

When oil tankers were bombed in the Persian Gulf two weeks ago, my thoughts turned to the summer of 1987 when I sailed through the narrow Strait of Hormuz for the first time as the Operations Officer in a brand-new Navy Cruiser, the U.S.S. Valley Forge. She was the fourth of the vaunted AEGIS-class guided missile cruisers, and our job was to protect the aircraft carrier carrying the admiral in command of our forces in the Arabian Gulf. Like today, tensions were elevated with Iran as a result of their attacks on merchant shipping, carried out largely through dumping mines in international waters – part of the so-called “Tanker War.” Several oil tankers were hit, passage through the Strait was problematic, and the international community sought to keep the Strait open to allow some 30% of the world’s oil that moves through it. That became the Navy’s mission.

Over the next 18 months, a reasonably effective convoy system was put in place, but more tankers hit mines and were attacked by Iranian gunboats, further elevating tensions. By spring 1988, the U.S. had attacked the Iranian Navy, sinking several warships and destroying naval bases in Operation Praying Mantis. While we have not had equally active combat with Iran over the three decades since, the US Navy has continued to have a very troubled relationship with both the Iranian Navy and the maritime arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Since that summer, I deployed five more times to the Arabian Gulf, and have sailed in and out of the Strait of Hormuz in command of destroyers, cruisers, and a carrier strike group as a Rear Admiral. It is dangerous, stressful and exhausting duty for our sailors.

While President Donald Trump correctly called off the strike against Iran last week over collateral damage concerns, the US warships in the Gulf remain at the highest state of readiness and combat alert. Led by the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the current strike group will be prepared to resume offensive operations if diplomacy does not work. They will also be keenly aware of their vulnerabilities to Iranian attack, and will be taking significant steps to repulse anything that manifests hostile intent toward them. The crews of those warships, from the Admiral on the carrier’s Flag Bridge to the youngest sailors in the depths of the engineering plant, would have known a strike was about to be launched. Having a launch pulled back at literally the last moments is rare. While we do very occasionally stop strikes due to collateral damage concerns — and we should — it always creates further uncertainty in crews already poised on the edge of combat. All of that adds to the tension.

The Iranians have a highly capable asymmetric warfare capability, meaning they know they cannot match the pure firepower of a US strike group – with its 80+ combat aircraft, hundreds of long-range cruise missiles, and sophisticated air and subsurface defensive systems. Instead, they will focus on smaller, less expensive systems that can attack the warships in ways that potentially could spoof the high-powered US systems designed for major combat against a peer force. These Iranian systems include using mines, both floating and implanted by special forces (as they did against half-a-dozen tankers over the past six weeks); launching “swarm” attacks by small, high-speed gunboats, often with surface-to-surface missiles; employing stealthy, diesel powered submarines which are very quiet, hard to detect, and carry torpedoes; or barrages of cruise missiles capable of being launched in a concentrated attack at a single US warship.

Each of the U.S. ships, including the carrier, will have a high percentage of the crew up and at combat stations around the clock. While simply remaining at General Quarters 24/7 (everyone at their battle stations) is tempting, it simply burns out the crew too quickly. So the ships will be at a modified level of battle station manning, rotating for rest periods. Maintaining the highest level of surveillance around the surface of the ocean, below it, and in the air will be at the top of the crew’s priority list. This will be accomplished by linking into the vast U.S. satellite surveillance system; tapping into Iranian command and control via cyber work of the National Security Agency; relying on the U.S. intelligence community (including the CIA) for human intelligence “tippers;” and employing all the organic sensors of the strike group itself. This means flying surveillance aircraft on long patrols; sending out helicopters with sonar systems that dip into the water and listen for Iranian submarines; using the sophisticated radars on all the warships, especially the AEGIS ships; and listening with sophisticated electronic warfare receivers to pick up an early indication of Iranian fire control radars being employed.

The cat-and-mouse games in the Arabian Gulf will continue in the weeks and months to come as both sides attempt to position their maritime forces advantageously to conduct both offensive and defensive operations. The US holds an additional advantage in that we have a network of allies and bases in the region (in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain – the latter being the home of the headquarters of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet). We also have a long history of naval operations in the region, as well as more pure firepower at sea. But we cannot underestimate the danger of Iran, which likewise has deep experience in this type of operation, a highly motivated naval force, extensive bases on their own territory, and a sense of anger over the US sanctions which are crippling their economy.

On every US warship, the officers and crew understand the danger and the importance of their work. They are well aware of the decades of tension with Iran, and the Navy’s long and proud history in the Gulf. In their few hours off watch, they see the political and diplomatic twists and turns on CNN like other Americans back home. But for them, the stakes are deeply personal and very high indeed. Godspeed to them all on a dangerous summer mission in the steaming waters of the Arabian Gulf.