Cover Story

Sailing into harm's way

With an abrupt change of orders, a Pacific carrier group heads to the Persian Gulf, doubling U.S. naval presence just as more Mideast tension flares

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

SAN DIEGO-Floating pier-side and cloaked in a pre-dawn chill, the USS John C. Stennis looks almost friendly. Atop the aircraft carrier's towering super-structure, signal flags the color of gumballs flutter near radar antennas that spin like ice skaters tilting toward the stars. Just below them, white lights outline a giant "74," the ship's hull number, casting a welcoming glow on the sailors working on the wharf below.

The Stennis stretches more than three football fields along Pier L at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. From the officer's brow, a brass bell double-clangs three times and a loud-speakered voice echoes into the dark: "Commander Carrier Strike Group Three, departing."

Recruit-poster-perfect in service dress blues, Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, the strike group commander, strides down the brow and across the pier. Thick, gold braid wraps his blazer cuffs. Five rows of ribbons march across his chest. Smiling at camera crews and reporters assembled to record the Stennis departure, the admiral looks as friendly as his ship. But just behind the twinkle in his eyes lies a hint of steel.

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Where he's going, he'll need it. The Stennis sailed from its home port at Bremerton, Wash., on Jan. 16 and arrived in San Diego only to pick up its air wing. The strike group's original destination was to the 7th Fleet's area of responsibility in the western Pacific, with en route ports of call planned for Hawaii and Guam. All that changed in December, when the Stennis was redirected to the Persian Gulf. "Centcom [U.S. Central Command] came out and asked for a two-carrier presence and we're looking to do that as quickly as we can," said Stennis spokesman John Perkins.

And just like that, the prospect of tropical liberty calls went overboard. Now the Stennis strike group-along with its 6,200 sailors, 85 aircraft, and six auxiliary vessels-is steaming east to join the Eisenhower battle group, on station in the Gulf since October. A redoubled Navy presence comes just as Centcom also changes command and for the first time is headed by a naval officer, Adm. William J. Fallon.

The change of orders for the Stennis coincides with President Bush's much-debated "surge" plan for Iraq. Indeed, Adm. Quinn told reporters his group was deploying "in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Horn of Africa operations" in Somalia. But while it is true that doubling American naval force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea region can support all three objectives, the tactical magnet attracting such firepower is clearly Iran.

"The Middle East isn't going to be dominated by Iran," Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a Jan. 23 address to the Gulf Research Center, a think-tank based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "That's why we've seen the United States station two carrier battle groups in the region."

U.S. grievances with Iran are piling up, raising the possibility of an American strike. Not only is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad locked in a nuclear standoff with the West, his regime is supporting and encouraging the terrorist-group-cum-government Hezbollah in Lebanon, facilitating Hezbollah's training and support of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr in Iraq. Earlier this month, U.S. forces seized six Iranian gunrunners operating in Irbil, Iraq. Last week Iran refused to admit 38 International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, as required under a month-old UN resolution.

On Jan. 23 during a meeting with Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, Ahmadinejad again vowed destruction, saying "the United States and the Zionist regime of Israel will soon come to the end of their lives." He also said that unrest in Lebanon was part of a wider plan to aid Israel's destruction. "The U.S. intends to cause insecurity and dispute, and weaken independent governments in the region to continue with its dominance over the Middle East and achieve its arrogant goals," he said.

Underscoring the rhetoric, Ahmadinejad's forces conducted short-range missile tests during the first of five days of military maneuvers southeast of Tehran. His top national security adviser, Ali Larijani, has called upon Gulf Arab states to kick out American forces and join Iran in forming a regional security alliance.

Adm. Quinn, for one, is unimpressed. "We don't need a hall pass or permission slip" to operate in Ahmadinejad's back yard, he said. "We can sustain ourselves at sea and operate with tremendous firepower and capability almost indefinitely."

If the Army and Marine Corps are the rook and bishop of warfare-advancing and conquering on the ground-the Navy is its nimble knight. Under cover of a battle in Washington over ground troops in Iraq, the Navy is quietly positioning itself to meet regional challenges not only of supporting the Iraq War but responding to other mounting tensions.

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