Adm. Jonathan Greenert could see for miles from the bridge of the USS Stenis on a rare clear day as it exited the Strait of Hormuz. And the Navy's top admiral wasn't satisfied with the view.
Shortly after becoming chief of naval operations last September, Greenert decided he needed to get a firsthand view of what Iran was up to in the Persian Gulf. He also wanted to form his own opinion of what kinds of U.S. ships and other hardware might be needed should tensions escalate into conflict.
Greenert decided the U.S. needed more ships designed to locate and destroy enemy mines laid on the sea floor--the Iranian navy has used this tactic in the past. The CNO, working with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis, decided to double from four to eight the number of mine-hunting vessels in the region.
All American Navy ships that move through the strait soon will be equipped with special infrared and other sensors intended to help their crews see every Iranian vessel or other platforms that might pose a threat, Greenert told reporters Friday during a breakfast meeting in Washington.
Greenert also has ordered that the destroyers, cruisers, and other vessels that escort U.S. aircraft carriers through the Strait of Hormuz, a key transit point off Iran's southern coast that Tehran has threatened to close, will have Gatling guns mounted on their decks. The Navy is studying whether it makes sense to also mount the guns, which can fire hundreds of rounds in just one minute, on aircraft carrier decks.
That move reflects a long-held worry among Pentagon planners that Iran might use multiple small, fast vessels to attack U.S. warships. Because the Iranian navy cannot match up against the highly advanced U.S. fleet, Pentagon officials believe it would use non-conventional tactics in a conflict.
Naval officials are examining whether it can place short-range missiles on some of its smaller ships, Greenert said.
The waters of the strait are narrower than those of the open seas, and Greenert compared it to fighting in an alley.
"It's like having a high-powered … rifle, but you're in a small area," the CNO said. "Maybe what you need is a sawed-off shotgun."
The idea is to make American warships "more lethal and more effective," Greenert said. Naval officials have asked Congress for permission to shift monies within its budget to pay for some of the necessary ship modification work.
"It is clear … the U.S. military, specifically the Navy, is seeking to reduce risk against growing Iranian capabilities, including their large quantity of fast-attack craft and increasing ability to saturate existing U.S. systems," says Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate staffer now with the American Enterprise Institute. "The Navy is also working overtime to improve its mine warfare capabilities and readiness levels now. Mine force readiness has slipped dramatically over the past decade."
Still, the Pentagon is trying to avoid a misstep that could lead to a miscalculation, Eaglen says.
"U.S. Central Command leaders are wary of taking any steps that appear provocative or signal even a small U.S. military buildup in the Arabian Gulf," she says. "For example, U.S. training has been reactive and of a defensive nature only in the region of late."
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, says "the United States is not building up forces in the Persian Gulf." Rather, it is in the midst of a shift from a presence there that was largely land-based in Iraq for nearly a decade to one where its weapons are located on ships and aircraft carriers, Thompson says.
"The kind of weapons the CNO wants to send to the Persian Gulf are not suited to an invasion of Iran, they're mainly for protecting friendly forces and sea lanes," Thompson says. "The Pentagon has no stomach for invading Iran, and doesn't believe such a rash move would be required to meet U.S. security objectives. Its main goal is to block Iranian plans to acquire nuclear weapons, a goal better met with a combination of intelligence and precision munitions."