What’s behind the significant build-up of US firepower in the Gulf

Last few weeks have seen a sharp build-up of American combat power off the coast of Iran.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, front, and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea during a Strait of Hormuz transit [File: Elliot Schaudt/AFP]

The last few weeks have seen a sharp build-up of American combat power in the Gulf.

Already home to the formidable 5th Fleet – based in Bahrain – the US Navy recently sent a powerful Ohio-class submarine, the USS Georgia, escorted by two guided-missile cruisers – the USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea – through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf.

The USS Georgia is nuclear-powered, specialises in attacking targets deep inland and has an inventory of 154 Tomahawk Cruise missiles, each delivering 450 kilogrammes (992 pounds) of conventional warhead up to 2,700 kilometres (1,677 miles) away. Designed to fly low under radar cover, they can destroy strategic targets with little to no warning.

The cruisers accompanying the USS Georgia are also heavily armed, each carrying a powerful mix of land attack, air defence and anti-ship missiles.

They are also capable of tracking hundreds of moving objects with their advanced Aegis Radar suites and both are able to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

These three naval vessels could destroy every single target of note right across Iran, prevent Iran from using its ballistic missile force and devastate Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) coastal installations.

The USS Georgia is also capable of landing dozens of special forces soldiers who would assist in intelligence gathering, sabotage and act as forward air controllers, guiding air raids and relaying battle damage assessments back to their centre of operations.

The US has significantly upped its firepower in the region, with the emphasis on attacking potential targets on land.

Not only that, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, due to be rotated out back to its homeport at San Diego, California was ordered to remain close by in the Arabian Sea.

This, coupled with high profile B-52 bomber flights from the US to bases in the Gulf, has served to send a clear message to Iran’s leadership that any military action by Iran or its regional proxy forces would be met with an overwhelming response by the US and its regional allies.

Regional allies

Iran is no stranger to military build-ups off its coast.

An attack against Iran has been discussed, developed, refined and threatened for decades and Iran has prepared itself.

In terms of straight combat power, it is highly doubtful Iran could prevail under such an onslaught but there are some tough nuts to crack.

Iran has dispersed its nuclear sites and buried them in hardened bunkers deep underground. Only specialised munitions have a chance of doing any damage to these sites and even then success is not guaranteed.

These sites are surrounded by capable air defence missile systems and are garrisoned by well-trained elite troops.

Iran’s air force is small and antiquated but its ballistic and cruise missile programmes are well developed. Comprehensive sanctions against the country have meant Iranian scientists have had to develop weapons, boosting its military-industrial complex, producing increasingly advanced designs.

Despite the formidable resources arraigned against Iran, it would be almost impossible to intercept every single Iranian missile, were they to be launched en masse in salvos.

Added to that is a rapidly maturing Iranian UAV or drone fleet that increasingly flies in swarms, overpowering enemy defences and striking targets with precision.

There are also Iran’s IRGC’s special forces and mini-submarines, designed to operate undetected in the shallow waters of the Gulf. They could do significant damage to a fleet off Iran’s coast.

The US’s regional allies have also been building up their forces.

Israel sent a Dolphin attack submarine openly through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea with Egypt’s approval. Able to stay submerged for weeks, it is super-quiet and carries torpedoes as well as land attack and anti-ship missiles.

Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia escorted US B-52s part of the way from the US in a public show of support.

All this sends a clear message to Iran’s leadership that any reaction to the assassinations of its chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh or General Qassem Soleimani would not be tolerated.

However, President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to authorise any military action against Iran and has appointed William Burns, career diplomat and instigator of back-channel negotiations with Iran, as director of the CIA.

Netanyahu has always been a vocal advocate for military action against Iran, claiming repeatedly that Iran was about to finish building a nuclear weapon.

But this has failed to materialise in the 28 years he has been saying an Iranian bomb was about to become reality.

Hamstrung by corruption scandals at home, it is unlikely Netanyahu will be in power for many more years and an incoming Biden administration is already considering renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran agrees to limit its nuclear development in exchange for the easing of sanctions.

Iran announced it resumed enriching 20 percent uranium at its underground Fordow nuclear facility, a sign of its frustration with the lack of progress the JCPOA promised. It is still a long way off from reaching the 90 percent level needed to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Last Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the bold assertion that al-Qaeda’s new base was in Iran, failing to back up the claim with any evidence.

He also claimed Iran was and is aiding al-Qaeda and providing them with shelter and logistics.

This is important as, under the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, the president does not need Congressional approval for any military action aimed at al-Qaeda, which is considered an international organisation not tied to any country and can therefore be targeted anywhere.

All the pieces are now in place for military action against Iran. As with every other serious plan for an attack on its nuclear facilities, there is no guarantee of success, the possibility that another war in the region would unleash as the war in Iraq did in 2003.

But there is little doubt Iran’s leadership will be among those breathing a collective sigh of relief when Biden is inaugurated on January 20.

Source: Al Jazeera