Wednesday, October 16, 2019

This US warship threatens Iran (from 600 miles away)

  • >>Helene Cooper, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-08-24 02:09:34 BdST

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the North Arabian Sea — Out here, deterring Iran means avoiding Iran.

The 5,600 men and women aboard this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier do not venture near Iranian waters, despite a warning from President Donald Trump’s national security adviser that the warship is in the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message” to Iran to steer clear of US interests in the region.

Instead, it is the Abraham Lincoln that has steered clear of Iran. In the past four months, the ship has entered neither the Persian Gulf nor the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial oil-tanker highways it is supposed to protect.

“We recognize that tensions are high, and we don’t want to go to war,” said Capt. William Reed, a fighter pilot who commands the ship’s air wing. “We don’t want to escalate things with Iran.”

In short, the Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East but in the least provocative way. Just where to station the Lincoln — one of the country’s 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — is a decision made by the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which has its headquarters in Bahrain. The fear is that sending an aircraft carrier through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, right when Trump has turned up the heat on Tehran, could provoke exactly the kind of conflict the Pentagon wants to avoid.

Ordnance handlers move air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to F/A-18 Super Hornets on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way.

Ordnance handlers move air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to F/A-18 Super Hornets on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way. "Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly,” said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

“Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly,” said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for NATO. “It becomes vulnerable to diesel submarines, shore-launched cruise missiles and swarming tactics by small boats armed with missiles” — all parts of the Iranian arsenal of weaponry and tactical manoeuvres.

So the Lincoln remains in the North Arabian Sea and at times more than 600 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz. Often, the Lincoln is off the coast of Oman, not far from Muscat. The men who populate Iran’s southern beaches need not worry about seeing the Lincoln on the horizon.

In the North Arabian Sea, with its huge waves and fierce undertow, fighter pilots on a recent Saturday battled wind gusts to catch the wire as they landed on the pitching carrier. Unlike the far calmer Persian Gulf, the North Arabian Sea at this time of the year is ferocious. The ship has been dealing with a succession of monsoons.

Navy officials say there is nothing that they can do in the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf that they cannot do from the North Arabian Sea.

Sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, exercise in the carrier's hangar deck, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way.

Sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, exercise in the carrier's hangar deck, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way. "Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly,” said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

“We can reach Iran from here easily,” said Rear Adm Michael E Boyle, commander of the carrier strike group, in an interview on the bridge of the Lincoln. Five levels below, F/A-18s were catapulting off the flight deck and headed toward Iran, but they would make sure to stay away from the 12-mile border that encompasses Iranian airspace, Navy officials said. To get to the Persian Gulf, the warplanes fly above Oman and other gulf allies, not over Iran.

Boyle said the planes can strike Iran as easily from the North Arabian Sea as they can from the Persian Gulf, but he flagged a crucial difference: “They can reach us when we’re there. When we’re here, they can’t.”

Still, there have been tense moments. On the night that Trump ordered a strike against Iran for its downing of an unmanned US drone — but then abruptly called it off — the pilots, sailors and Marines on the Abraham Lincoln got ready for action.

“I stayed on shift that night,” said Reed, the fighter pilot. “You’re preparing for the offensive but also have to be ready to play defense.” He likened it to being in “the eye of the tiger.”

An F/A-18 Super Hornet is catapulted from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way.

An F/A-18 Super Hornet is catapulted from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, in the North Arabian Sea, on Aug. 10, 2019. The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way. "Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly,” said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

The ship was prepared to launch strikes on Iranian targets on the ground. Enlisted sailors and officers had rehearsed and drilled countless times, but suddenly this was the real thing.

“You could feel the stress in the younger sailors,” Reed said.

In the carrier’s command centre, Boyle and the ship’s officers were waiting, too.

“All the systems were on; all the lights were green; we were waiting for the order,” he recalled. “And the order didn’t come.”

The president had changed his mind. It was early morning in the North Arabian Sea when the Lincoln got the call from headquarters in Bahrain to stand down.

“Relief? Yeah,” Boyle said. “Whatever caused us not to have to push the button, we’re happy.”

c.2019 New York Times News Service