ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS – American warplanes screamed off two aircraft carriers Tuesday as the U.S. Navy staged its largest show of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, launching a mammoth exercise meant as a message to the Iranians.
The maneuvers with 15 warships and more than 100 aircraft were sure to heighten tensions with Iran, which has frequently condemned the U.S. military presence off its coast and is in a face-off with the West over its nuclear program and its capture of a British naval team.
While they would not say when the war games were planned, U.S. commanders insisted the exercises were not a direct response to Friday’s seizure of the 15 British sailors and marines, but they also made clear that the flexing of the Navy’s military might was intended as a warning.
“If there is strong presence, then it sends a clear message that you better be careful about trying to intimidate others,” said Capt. Bradley Johanson, commander of the Stennis.
“Iran has adopted a very escalatory posture with the things that they have done,” he added.
Meanwhile, oil prices shot up nearly 8 percent in a matter of minutes in after-hours trading Tuesday, topping $68, as rumors spread that Iranians had fired at a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf and that Britain had taken action to free the captives.
But both the U.S. military and the British government denied the rumors.
Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet told the Associated Press that all ships in the Gulf had been checked and the rumors were untrue. Britain’s Foreign Office said its military had not taken any action.
F/A-18 fighter jets roared off the Stennis’ flight deck all day, mounting a dozen rapid-fire training sorties against imaginary enemy ships and aircraft. A second task force with the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower also took part in the drills.
“These maneuvers demonstrate our flexibility and capability to respond to threats to maritime security,” said Navy Lt. John Perkins, 32, of Louisville, Ky., as the Stennis cruised about 80 miles off the United Arab Emirates after entering the Persian Gulf overnight.
“They’re showing we can keep the maritime environment safe and the vital link to the global economy open.”
At the headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said the maneuvers would last several days. He said U.S. warships would stay out of Iran’s territorial waters, which extend 12 miles off the Iranian coast.
The Stennis strike group, with more than 6,500 sailors and Marines, entered the Gulf late Monday or early Tuesday along with the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the Navy said.
The Stennis, which had been supporting military operations in Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea, joined the strike group led by the Eisenhower.
It is the first time two U.S. aircraft carriers have operated in the Gulf since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Aandahl said. The Eisenhower was operating off the coast of Somalia in January and February.