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.
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.
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."
A little older and a lot saltier, Command Master Chief Joe Curtin said his crew tries to ignore congressional sniping. "Most people in Congress don't have any idea how things work in the military," said Curtin, who manages morale and human resources issues for the Stennis' enlisted personnel.
Under Curtin's charge is Matthew Hepburn, 24, a communications specialist who has served in the Navy for barely a year. When the Stennis sailed from Bremerton on Jan. 16, banner-waving families crowded onto the pier to wave tearful goodbyes. But only a few sailors embarked in San Diego and, as the first tinge of dawn fired the western sky, only Hepburn's mom and dad stood shivering in the sea-salt chill.
Wearing a "Navy Dad" ball cap, Alan Hepburn said those in Congress who say they support the troops but not the mission sound like double-talkers in a parent's ears. "I don't like it at all," he said when asked about upcoming anti-war resolutions. "It tells the troops over there that the country's not really behind them."
Sandy Hepburn, meanwhile, stands beside her husband, struggling with an emotional tangle of pride and sadness. "One minute I'm smiling and telling everyone about Matthew, and in the next moment suddenly I just start crying," she said, holding back tears. "But I know he's doing something he wants to do." Twenty miles west, the sun peeks over the mountains of Mexico, brushing low clouds with gold. The water in San Diego Bay is smooth and silver as the tugboats nudge the Stennis away from Pier L toward the deep channel that will take the Hepburns' son to war.