patrol ship on alert in
Amid tensions with Iran, a small Navy craft looks to a
task force's arrival in the region.
By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer
Angeles Times" -- -- ABOARD THE USS FIREBOLT — Every day the 30 sailors on this coastal
patrol ship in the Persian Gulf are on alert. At 170
feet in length, the Firebolt and similar craft are the
smallest and possibly the most lightly armed vessels in
the U.S. Navy.
Soon the Firebolt will be joined in the region by one of
the Navy's most heavily armed behemoths: the
1,092-foot-long carrier John C. Stennis, with a crew of
5,000 and more than 80 warplanes. The Stennis will head
a strike force of destroyers, cruisers and submarines
deployed to the region by the Bush administration amid
heightened tensions with Iran over its nuclear program
and allegations of Tehran meddling in Iraq.
Despite their differences in size and weaponry, the
Firebolt and the Stennis share a stated mission: deter
the Iranian navy from hostile acts in an area vital to
oil shipments by showing Tehran that the strength of the
U.S. military remains formidable despite its
entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran, for its part, has begun an air and naval exercise,
and has announced that it has tested a missile capable
of sinking a large ship. In November, the Iranian navy
released pictures of mines it said could be used to deny
access to the Persian Gulf by ships considered
Although there is no denying that the Stennis and its
strike force bring with them the ability to attack
Iran's nuclear sites, officials in Washington and Tehran
appear to be focusing on the near-term threat of a naval
Such a clash could be disastrous for the world's oil
supplies, 40% of which pass in tankers through the
Strait of Hormuz, a 34-mile-wide choke point at the
southern edge of the 600-mile-long gulf.
Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, commander of the U.S. 5th
Fleet, based in Bahrain, said the Iranians, by
conducting live-fire missile exercises near the strait,
had created "an environment of intimidation and fear"
among gulf nations.
"We will continue to stand by our friends in the
region," Walsh said in an e-mail to The Times.
The Iranians, however, view any American presence in
gulf waters as a provocation and security threat, and
have repeatedly issued warnings that they have the
ability to attack U.S. ships by using drone aircraft,
small boats and missiles.
In testimony before Congress two weeks ago, Admiral
William J. Fallon, President Bush's nominee to be
commander of U.S. Central Command, said it was clear
from the Iranians' recent military acquisitions and
showy exercises that their main strategy was to "deny us
the ability to operate in this vicinity."
Asked by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) whether the
Iranians had the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz,
Fallon responded that he would be glad to answer — in
Iran has deployed mines in the gulf before. In April
1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the
guided-missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts nearly sank
after hitting a mine while escorting oil tankers. After
determining the mine was Iranian, the U.S. sank two
Iranian warships and six armed speedboats in what was
called Operation Praying Mantis.
In July of that year, the guided-missile cruiser
Vincennes, which had been sent to the gulf to protect
the Roberts as it left the waterway, mistakenly shot
down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. The
Vincennes' captain said he believed the airliner was a
military plane attempting a strike.
Analysts suggest that Iran's current strategy might be
to trap U.S. ships in the gulf by laying mines at the
Strait of Hormuz, or by launching an attack using its
The Iranians have boasted that their Russian-built
diesel-powered submarines are so quiet that the vessels
have been able to operate within striking distance of
U.S. ships without being detected. The chief of the
Iranian navy is a submariner.
But analysts say that closing the Strait of Hormuz, even
briefly, could prove economically disastrous for Tehran,
given its dependence on its oil exports.
"They may be religious enthusiasts, but they're not
stupid," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org,
which analyzes military trends. "They play things so
close to the line that without oil revenue, they could
Part of the Iranian strategy is to have, in effect, a
navy within a navy. The Revolutionary Guard's navy,
which acts somewhat independently of the regular navy,
has hundreds of boats that could be used to "swarm"
American ships, analysts say.
Although the U.S. could sink many of the boats quickly,
some might be able to inflict enough damage to allow the
Iranians to claim a symbolic victory, analysts say. But
in recent years, the U.S. has armed its smaller ships
with weapons that can repel smaller craft.
Any pledge to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, Walsh
said, "must have sustainability, visibility and muscle
for it to be credible." To provide extra muscle,
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ordered the Stennis
to join the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in the region.
Technically, the Navy will not confirm that the Stennis
will be in the gulf, suggesting that it could be
stationed in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait
of Hormuz, or much farther south, off the Horn of
While it awaits the arrival of the Stennis in the
region, the Firebolt's crew keeps a wary eye on the two
Iraqi oil terminals in the gulf. Crew members are
convinced that if the U.S. and Iran are headed for
confrontation, they'll be in the middle of it.
"If we have to go to close quarters, we're going to see
a lot more than the guys on the big ships," said sailor
Douglas Stevenson, 28, of Erie, Pa. "This is why we
signed on the dotted line."
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington
contributed to this report.