Computer terminals glow in the darkened Combat Direction Center of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower as they process feeds from sensors tracking any air, surface or underwater vessel within striking range.
The center is dominated by a Ship Shelf Defense System made by Raytheon Co. that would display the first signs of an Iranian threat, such as a Silkworm anti-ship missile, a submarine or a swarm of fast patrol boats speeding toward the 1,092-foot-long aircraft carrier and its crew of more than 6,200 men and women.
“No problems at all” have been detected so far as the carrier and the cruiser in its strike group, the USS Hue City, made three transits through the Strait of Hormuz since arriving in July from its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Commander Steve Wyss told visitors to the carrier in the Persian Gulf.
The Eisenhower is the largest instrument of U.S. power in the gulf, aimed at reassuring allies and keeping open the Strait, through which as much as 20 percent of traded oil is shipped daily, in the face of intermittent threats by Iran to mine it, sink a tanker, or make other moves to close it.
“We still think it’s an international strait,” and “we will continue to move in and out of it,” the Eisenhower’s commander, Captain Marcus Hitchcock, told reporters on his bridge during a Sept. 18 visit to the carrier in the middle of the Gulf about 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Iran.
Iranian officials periodically have threatened to close the Strait, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, in response to economic sanctions from the U.S. and allies aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program, as well as Israeli threats to mount a military attack.
“If a war takes place in the Persian Gulf with one side being the U.S. and the West, it is natural that the security of the Strait of Hormuz will be harmed,” the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said Sept. 16, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. He also said that “nothing will remain” of Israel if it attacks.
So far, oil markets remain unmoved by the Iranian threats. Brent oil for November settlement fell $3.84, or 3.4 percent, to $108.19 a barrel yesterday on the London-based ICE Futures Europe. It was the lowest close since Aug. 2. Brent, a benchmark for more than half of the world’s oil, has risen from $89.23 on June 21, which was the lowest settlement since December 2010.
The Eisenhower is providing air cover for a mine-clearing exercise in the Persian Gulf involving the U.S. and 29 other nations. The Eisenhower alternates on duty in the Gulf with the USS Enterprise, which is in the Arabian Sea providing air support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
For all the tension over Iran and warnings from its officials, “we deal with the Iranian navy and Revolutionary Guard almost on a daily basis. They are very professional navies,” Hitchcock said. “We have not threatened. They have not threatened.”
The message was repeated in a briefing for reporters by Rear Admiral Michael Manazir, commander of Carrier Strike Group 8, and in a message he delivered later to the carrier’s entire crew over the Eisenhower’s public-address system.
Should the situation turn hostile, officials said, they’re well-trained and equipped to handle a swarming attack by some of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy’s small boats.
“Fast-attack craft -- they are small, they are maneuverable, they carry explosives, they carry small arms,” Manazir told reporters. “They are a threat, but we train to that threat and we can address them with our surface ships, helicopters, and our fixed-wing aircraft.”
The Navy also has accelerated delivery to the Gulf of specialized Griffin missiles made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon and machine guns with laser trackers to upgrade U.S. coastal-patrol vessels to defend against the boats.
Manazir, who served on the carrier USS Nimitz in the Gulf and studied the U.S. Navy’s response in 1986 and 1987, when Iran mined parts of the Gulf, said the threat “is essentially the same.”
“What has gotten more sophisticated is the actual weapons systems and guidance systems,” he said. “Those boats have gotten more capable, and they’ve bought more of them or produced more of them,” he said.
The Pentagon’s 2010 assessment of Iran’s military power listed four midget submarines, 80 patrol craft and 18 guided missile patrol boats under control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy. The IRGC also “controls hundreds of small patrol boats,” it said.
Since the 1990s, the Guard navy has purchased Italian-made speedboats and has been making them domestically, according a 2009 report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.
It also has Chinese-built C-14 missile boats and North Korean-made “semi-submersible” vessels that can carry two torpedoes.
“When you have a lot of boats” they must be defended against in a multifaceted manner because that’s “a rather difficult threat,” Manazir told reporters. “But we train against it. We have weapons that are effective against them, and I think we would do just fine.”
“It’s very difficult for Iran to operate small boats in high seas,” he said, referring to the Gulf’s sometimes heavy seas. “Sometimes the conditions out here don’t lend themselves to small-boat operations.”
Asked if Iran’s capabilities have made the Eisenhower more vulnerable, Manazir said, “We provide protection around the carrier, either carrier defenses” or “the umbrellas around it” from the 42 Boeing Co. F/A-18 Hornet aircraft on board and the four vessels of the strike group.
“When we go through the Strait we are very well-protected,” Manazir said. “I don’t think the threat changed to the point were we say we can’t bring the carrier in here.”
“These are fairly big ships,” he said. “You start moving an aircraft carrier 33 knots -- pretty difficult to catch.”