Cover Story

Sailing into harm's way

"Sailing into harm's way" Continued...

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

Unimpeded by terrain and supply-chain limitations, its carrier air wings can fly sorties in support of ground operations while its ships mount precision inland strikes of their own. In addition, the Navy can intercept shipping that might be moving terrorist contraband, or launch direct strikes on terrorist cells.

As Quinn noted, his strike group can launch such missions in Somalia. On Dec. 28, with the backing of American forces, Ethiopian fighters there recaptured from Islamic radicals several central and southern towns, including Mogadishu, the capital. Now, the transitional Somali government must replace Ethiopian troops with a security force whose makeup is yet to be determined, and is negotiating with Malawi, Nigeria, and other African countries that have yet to commit to the task. With Mogadishu situated on the coast, the Stennis also can play a security role as the new government tries to stabilize itself. Or it can target al-Qaeda operatives who escaped during the December battle and are still at large.

But can U.S. naval power truly be useful in a ground war on terrorists? Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., believes it can be a waste of American naval power. "For Somalia, yes, you could use a little bit of carrier air power here and there, but there will be a target only once in a blue moon. Groups of al-Qaeda might become visible and then you would want to hit them, but that's as far as it goes."

Meanwhile, Luttwak believes using the Stennis strike group in Iraq would be "a very extravagant use of carrier air" because of the distance of the country's most violent war zones. "In theory, it could be useful, but we don't actually need more air power there . . . we're not using a fraction of what we have because the targets are elusive."

But if suitable carrier targets are elusive in Iraq and rare in Somalia, they are abundant in Iran. The country mandates compulsory military service for 18-year-old males. It fields a regular army, navy, and air force, as well as the 125,000-strong Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), or Pasdaran. Formed under the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Pasdaran quickly grew into a formidable force that now commands a "people's militia," the Basij, and also supports its own navy, according to GlobalSecurity.org. By 2000, the IRGC Navy was using small "naval guerrilla" formations to attack shipping operations in the Arabian Gulf.

That, combined with U.S. seaborne response to Ahmadinejad's bellicosity has Congress, some Arab states, and Iran itself worried that a U.S. strike, perhaps against Iranian nuclear sites, is imminent. With a second carrier parked near Iran, U.S. forces can hit Iranian targets without relying on local base support from Arab allies like Qatar or the UAE. And it is clear that some Arabs want no part in any such attack. "What we are not interested in is another war in the region," Mohammed al-Naqbi, head of the Gulf Negotiations Center, told Undersecretary Burns.

In Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings earlier this month, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on whether the Bush administration was planning to invade Iran or Syria.

"Nothing is off the table," Rice said.

Luttwak noted that the West has known for years about Iran's nuclear program and let it develop unchecked under the "suave and polite" rhetoric of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami. Also, unlike the West's murky understanding of Iraq's WMD program, America and its allies hold the exact geographic coordinates for Iran's nuclear development sites, Luttwak said. "There is total clarity here. Even governments that want to weasel away from confronting the problem have Iran's massive nuclear program thrust in their faces, both by Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric and the intelligence flow."

The Bush administration's increasing focus on Iran-now underscored by the imminent arrival of the Stennis strike group-has some in Iran calling for Ahmadinejad to be quiet. Iran's most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, publicly condemned the president's defiance of the West: "One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom. We should not provoke the enemy."

Meanwhile, Adm. Quinn and the 6,200 men and women that people his strike group remain focused-despite regional threats and congressional debate-on carrying out their mission.

Increasing anti-war rhetoric from Congress "is not the first time a military solution has been looked down on," said Stennis spokesman John Perkins, standing at Pier L as port workers buttoned up the Stennis for departure. Navy personnel view the debate over national policy "with high interest," he said, "but that's what we do-we go over there to protect that debate."

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