The U.S. Navy on Tuesday began its largest demonstration of force in the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, deploying two aircraft carriers and conducting simulated aerial attacks.
The maneuvers, involving 15 U.S. warships and more than a hundred planes, were certain to increase tension with Iran, which has frequently condemned the U.S. military presence off its coastline.
The exercises began only four days after Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines whom it accused of straying into Iranian waters near the Gulf. Britain and the U.S. Navy have insisted the British sailors were operating in Iraqi waters.
Aboard the carrier USS John C. Stennis, F/A-18 fighter jets rocketed off the deck in one of a dozen rapid-fire training sorties against enemy shipping and aircraft.
"These maneuvers demonstrate our flexibility and capability to respond to threats to maritime security," said U.S. Navy Lt. John Perkins, 32, of Louisville, Kentucky, as the Stennis cruised about 80 miles off the United Arab Emirates.
"They're showing we can keep the maritime environment safe and the vital link to the global economy open."
At U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said the U.S. maneuvers were not organized in response to the capture of the British sailors — nor were they meant to threaten the Islamic Republic, whose navy operates in the same waters.
He declined to specify when the Navy planned the exercises, but added they would last several days.
Aandahl said the U.S. warships would stay out of Iranian territorial waters, which extend 12 miles off the Iranian coast.
A French naval strike group, led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, was operating simultaneously just outside the Gulf. But the French ships were supporting the NATO forces in Afghanistan and not taking part in the U.S. maneuvers, Aandahl said.
Overall, the exercises involve more than 10,000 U.S. personnel on warships and aircraft making simulated attacks on enemy aircraft and shipping, hunting enemy submarines and finding mines.
"What it should be seen as by Iran or anyone else is that it's for regional stability and security," Aandahl said. "These ships are just another demonstration of that. If there's a destabilizing effect, it's Iran's behavior."
The U.S. drills were the latest in a series of American and Iranian war games. Iran conducted naval maneuvers in November and April, while in October the U.S. Navy led a Gulf training exercise aimed at blocking nuclear smuggling.
In January, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Stennis strike group was being sent to the Mideast as a warning to Iran that it should not misjudge America's resolve in the region.
Iran has grown increasingly assertive in the Gulf as the U.S. military has become bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian officials have publicly called on America's Gulf Arab allies to shut down U.S. military bases and join Iran in a regional security alliance.
Gulf Arab leaders have grown increasingly uneasy with the aggressive U.S. stance toward Iran, believing it could provoke an unwanted war that could bring attacks on their own soil. But none has shown interest in an alliance with Iran.
In February, then 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh said he had assured Arab allies that Washington was trying to avoid "a mistake that boils over into war" with Iran.
The USS 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 the Afghan war, joined the strike group led by the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first time two U.S. aircraft carriers have operated in the Gulf since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Aandahl said. The Eisenhower was operating off the coast of Somalia in January and February.
Each carrier hosts an air wing of F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, S-3 Viking anti-submarine and refuelers, and E-2C Hawkeye airborne command-and-control craft.
Also taking part were guided-missile destroyers USS Anzio, USS Ramage, USS O'Kane, USS Mason, USS Preble and USS Nitze; and minesweepers USS Scout, USS Gladiator and USS Ardent.