First off, news came today that the American flagged cargo ship Maersk Texas was rescued by Iranian naval combatants from a swarm of marauding pirates. This happened in the Gulf of Oman, a familiar hunting ground of pirates operating out of the Horn of Africa. This is one of those “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of occurrences that are more commonplace than one would imagine in the Middle East. Yet after the rash of recent naval “mutual aid” events between US and Iranian flagged ships maybe there is an opportunity here to melt the steely facade between the two nations that has been galvanized recently by brash sabre rattling and a very precarious nuclear stalemate.
Often times the best form of true diplomacy is not directly diplomat to diplomat, but instead military to military. Fighting forces have more in common than they have not. Often times two countries can “hate each other” on the international stage, yet bonds between their military apparatuses, especially on an individual level, can keep communications flowing, and even ovoid an outright war. A conflict between Iran and anyone allied with the US would be an economic and geopolitical disaster of huge proportions. One which the “wildcard” factor of escalation cannot be predicted in the least. Seeing as the two prominent naval powers in the Gulf, the US and Iran, have suddenly been given some serious common ground for which to build some sort of talking relationship, I think every single piece of the US national security and diplomatic system should try to get the two forces together.
Although counter-intuitive at face value, such a meeting and continued dialogue could prove priceless. For instance, piracy and mutual support of ships in distress is one thing that America and Iran seem to agree on. This has been proven time and time again by valuable actions, not words, which are cheap in that part of the world. With this fact in hand the very top of the US Navy should reach out to the top of Iranian Navy to talk about these specific common interests that are not highly controversial to either government. Putting forth some sort of agreement between the two Navies pertaining to these issues may be a show of good faith on the US’s part, regardless of if such an agreement gets ratified or not. This way a foundation for communication and even understanding can begin to be laid down. Over time, depending on the personalities involved, this could blossom into something more. Even just a degree of mutual respect amongst opposing military branches would be highly valuable at this point in relations between the two powers. If this unique opportunity is not seized upon and such overtures are not being made in light of the current events on the high seas, regardless of what past diplomatic experiences between the two nations may be, than I really worry about the motives behind such discarded opportunities and question the US governments true commitment to avoiding what will be a bloody, no-win, conflict for both sides and the world.
Meanwhile, earlier this week a very unique ship apparently sailed into the Persian Gulf as part of a multi-national flotilla. Seen in the picture below, dated May 19th 2012, is the USNS Invincible being escorted into the area buy a US Navy Destroyer. The USNS Invincible is a very special asset for the DoD, it is a trawler that has been converted to house the “Cobra Gemini” dual-band theater ballistic missile tracking radar. Although the Invincible and her larger, soon to be replaced, cousin the USNS “Observation Island,” are used for missile test range duties and monitoring test launches made by possibly hostile states, North Korea being the most recent client, they can also act as important pieces of America’s ballistic missile defense puzzle. The USNS Invincible was built specifically to be used for tracking sub-intercontinental ballistic missiles, her sister ship, the larger USS Observation Island, was intended to track intercontinental ballistic missiles using it’s larger “Cobra Judy” phased array radar system.
Although these ships are basically telemetry vessels at first glance, they can also play a very important role in real ballistic missile defense. Capable of patrolling well over a thousand miles from it’s possible targets, the Invincible’s radar would remain silent, thus the ship’s true nature and capability would be hard to detect. If a ballistic missile is launched, it would first be detected by the Space Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS), a large constellation of early warning infra-red scanning and tracking satellites orbiting the planet which can detect a ballistic missile launch due to it’s large heat signature during it’s initial boost stage. SBIRS can even continue to track the missiles warhead after separation under certain conditions. Once the Invincible gets alerted to a launch it would use it’s powerful radar array to track and classify the target. It would also immediately data-link it’s high-fidelity data to an Aegis class ballistic missile defense Destroyer floating in the gulf. The Invincible’s long-range and high quality telemetry data can aid Aegis BMD equipped ships greatly in making a quick decision to commit interceptors to the target if it is deemed a threat. In other words, the Invincible’s synergistic capabilities can result in faster decision making, a higher probability of kill and more possible targets engaged for the interceptor bristling Aegis BMD capable missile boats.
What does the Navy’s commitment of such a unique asset to region mean for the Iran-US-Israel nuclear standoff overall? It’s not exactly clear but it surely shows that either Iran is about to test a new ballistic missile, or America is preparing ever more for the inevitability that a conflict in the Gulf is imminent. We have discussed at great length the medium range ballistic missile threat posed by Iran to US and allied bases in the region and their possible use in a retaliation strike after an Israeli attack. Additionally, recently we have seen fairly unique deployments of high-tech weapon systems to the region. Many of which have no role in the ongoing Global War On Terror. Just in the last few weeks F-22 raptors and F-15 Eagles were sent to the region on an operational deployment, a move that is fairly unprecedented. Further, the Invincible has only one role, it is not a ship that carries out minesweeper, sea control, or support duties. It’s only reason for being in a location is to gather telemetry and aid in ballistic missile defense command and control functions.
Maybe the ship’s deployment is also part of the increasing wall of pressure on Iran to give up it’s nuclear aspirations. Just days after the ship sailed into the region six party talks were being held in Baghdad with Iranian officials. The allied party’s proposal to end the Iranian nuclear standoff was outright rejected by Iranian officials and the talks closed without resolution. With all this in mind it seems more and more clear that the US is preparing to turn a blind eye to an Israeli alpha strike against Iranian nuclear development facilities, and in preparation for such an event it appears that the US is moving key defensive assets into the region literally by the boatload…