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Posted at 1:18 PM ET, 04/19/2010

Fifth Fleet ready for Iran attack, experts say

By Jeff Stein

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.

By Jeff Stein  | April 19, 2010; 1:18 PM ET
Categories:  Military  
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Oh goody, you've sunk all the Iranian ships. And then what do you do? They can still attack shipping from land, you've got a hopping mad Iran and probably international condemnation. What do you want to be that they fire off a salvo of missiles at US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan? If one, just one gets through, you have massive casualties.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | April 19, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

If the Iranians were smart--and they are--they'd ignore the US Navy and go after oil tankers. Stopping the flow of oil through the Straights of Hormuz is a greater threat to the West than sinking naval vessels. Iran would need only sink or damage a few oil tankers and the price of oil goes up to $7 per gallon. That would tank our economy.

So did the war games go through that scenario? If yes, what were the results. If not, then why not?

Posted by: Garak | April 20, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

It is good to hear that we are constantly improving our efforts to conduct safe and effecient operations with the changing world. Never underestimate the abilities of an enemy to wage war.

Posted by: dinfosflannery | April 21, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully the Fifth Fleet will serve solely as a force of deterrence to show the Iranians that we are aware of their actions. Continuously improving our technology will help save lives in the long-run.
-2ndLt Lindsay Pirek, USMC

Posted by: boarderchik108 | April 21, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

“Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ secret communication to National Security Adviser James Jones indicates that the Pentagon is thinking some serious measures on Iran. It can be a deliberate leak to put pressure on Iran but this trick was tried a number of times and it would never work. Although, it seems unlikely to resort to a full-fledged, a limited covert operation cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, Pentagon needs cooperation from Iran’s neighbours including Pakistan. Senior Pentagon commanders recently surveyed a Pakistani airbase for exclusive use in the coming days. Pentagon is also willing to oblige to heed to Pak Army’s conditions to help vis-à-vis India to facilitate American agenda in Afghanistan, and probably any other help that it may be called to render in launching operations into Iran. Iran unveils air defense system as U.S. defends policy
At Iran's annual Army Day parade, various air defense and missile systems are displayed and touted. U.S. officials, responding to a leaked memo, say Iran policy is not being reassessed.

Posted by: aslam_k72 | April 22, 2010 2:26 AM | Report abuse

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