U.S., Allies to Stage Persian Gulf Region Minesweeping Drill

The U.S. and 20 allies will stage a minesweeping exercise in September in the Middle East as tensions build in the region over Iran’s nuclear program.

Planning was completed last week for the exercise that will focus “on a hypothetical threat to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement to be released today.

The maritime exercise won’t extend into the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Some Iranian officials threatened earlier this year to close the Strait, the transit point for one-fifth of the oil traded worldwide, in response to international economic sanctions over its nuclear program.

The U.S. and allies continue to press Iran in stalemated negotiations, and Israel has threatened a military strike. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Jerusalem that while the U.S. prefers a diplomatic solution, “we will use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian use.

The military moves, intended in part to deter a military confrontation between Israel and Iran, come as the Obama administration and Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee for president, jockey for position as supporters of America’s longtime Mideast ally. Romney is scheduled to visit Jerusalem on July 29.

Carriers Deployed

The tensions in the region were underscored yesterday when security personnel on a U.S. Navy oiler vessel opened fire on a fishing boat off the coast of Dubai after it ignored warnings not to approach, U.S. officials said. The shooting killed one Indian fisherman and wounded three others, according to India’s foreign ministry.

The Pentagon also announced deployment schedules yesterday that will keep two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region until at least late-March. The Pentagon previously had said the two-carrier presence would end Sept. 30.

The planning and execution of the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 “demonstrates the international community’s ability to work together to ensure free and secure trade,” Marine Corps General James Mattis, commandant of the Central Command based in Tampa, Florida, said in the statement.

‘Extensive Cooperation’

“Of the approximately 40 bilateral and multilateral exercises we’ll conduct this year, this exercise also represents the extensive cooperation we enjoy with our international partners -- both in and outside the region -- with mutual economic and security interests,” Mattis said. “We’ll finish this exercise with even stronger relationships with our partners.”

The laying of mines in the Strait of Hormuz would disrupt tanker traffic until the explosive devices were cleared and also could prompt insurance companies to raise rates on tankers using the waterway, leading at least temporarily to higher oil prices.

Oil prices declined today after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said progress in reducing unemployment is likely to be slow. Crude for August delivery fell 69 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $87.74 a barrel at 10:38 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange after rising to $89.28. Prices have declined 11 percent this year.

U.S. officials who follow Iran for the Central Command estimated in 2008 that Iran had as many as 5,000 mines. That compares with 1,000 in the 1980s during its conflict with Iraq and the “tanker war” with the West, when it attempted to block vessels.

Underwater Drones

The U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain took delivery on June 23 of four minesweeping vessels, doubling the number in the Persian Gulf.

The Fifth Fleet is also starting to deploy Seafox underwater drones designed to detect and neutralize mines, Commander Jason Salata, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. Avenger-class ships and MH-53E helicopters in the Gulf are capable of employing the SeaFox, he said.

Mattis asked for the drones in a request to Congress this year that included permission to shift money to cover their purchase.

Mattis also plans to bolster military capabilities against Iran by fielding new laser target-trackers for machine guns, enhanced sensors for underwater vehicles, improved protection against drone attacks and upgrades of U-2 spy planes, according to budget documents.

Patrol Craft

Congress approved plans to accelerate installation on coastal patrol craft of the “MK 38 Mod 2” system, which includes the laser-tracker for precision aiming of machine guns. Lawmakers rejected the planned source of $4 million in funds so the Pentagon’s comptroller is looking to other sources, according to one of the documents.

The congressional defense committees also are reviewing a shift of $8 billion that includes additional Persian Gulf upgrades such as $9.6 million to buy missile launchers from Raytheon Co. for five patrol craft. That would allow installation of Griffin missiles “to protect vessels and personnel from the increased threat of hostile fast-attack craft” used by Iran, according to the document.

The request also includes $6.4 million to buy 40 additional Griffin missiles for installation on Navy patrol vessels in the Gulf.

The Pentagon plans to spend $30.2 million on the Raytheon system through 2017 because it was urgently requested by the U.S. Central Command, according to the document.

The Defense Department also is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, citing U.S. officials it didn’t identify.

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