Fifth Fleet ready for Iran attack, experts say
Military experts say the Fifth Fleet has come a long way since Iranian gunboats crippled it within hours in a notorious war game five years ago.
In fact, says John Pike, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Security Web site, the Navy was well on its way to solving the challenge of fending off the swarming swift boats before the war game began.
In that test, an enemy "red team" headed by retired Marine Corps Gen. Paul Van Riper deployed the gun boats and propeller-driven suicide planes to paralyze the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
It took Riper less than two hours to knock it out of commission.
Key to the shocking result was Van Riper's strategy of neutralizing the American advantage in big guns and cruise missiles by getting in close before hostilities began.
But the Navy now has the MK 182, “the mother of all shotgun shells,” fired by 5-inch guns deployed on every major ship in the fleet, says Pike.
“To the extent there was a material deficiency” at the time of the 2005 war game, Pike said in an interview, “this took care of it.” The weapon had been under development since 2002, he said.
“The doctrinal problem of when you pull the trigger” still exists, he added.
Over the weekend the New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had warned the White House in a memo that the U.S. did not have sufficient military plans in place to deal with Iran should diplomacy and sanctions fail to blunt its nuclear ambitions.
Gates later issued a statement saying, "The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the President's national security team. Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."
In the 2005 war game, enemy boats were able to sneak in under the Navy’s guns. But that’s not likely to happen again, if a late 2008 incident is any guide.
On Dec. 19, 2008, the USS Whidbey Island fired a warning at a small Iranian boat that was rapidly approaching it. The boat veered away.
The Iranians also boast of their arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles.
But “the Navy doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about” them, says Pike. It has equipped its ships with a variety of “close-in weapons systems,” or CIWS, which are essentially Gatling guns firing 20-millimeter shells.
But naval historian Norman Polmar, a frequent consultant to the Pentagon, cautioned that the outcome of a battle “depends on how it starts, what intelligence you have, and having astute commanders who make the right decisions” -- or, in a less fortunate scenario, bad ones.
Polmar recalled a conversation he had years ago with Adm. William Crowe after the retired Joint Chiefs commander came back from a visit in Moscow with his Russian counterparts.
Polmar asked Crowe how he thought the U.S. Navy would have done against the Soviet fleets.
“It always depends on how it starts,” Polmar said, quoting Crowe. “It’s all about opening gambits.”
There are some U.S.-Iran conflict scenarios, he said, in which “we sink all of their ships and we get a shrapnel scrape” on the side of one of ours.
But history is replete with other scenarios, he cautioned, in which a superior force has been taken completely by surprise.
“It always depends on how it starts,” he repeated.
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