ABOARD USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the North Arabian Sea -- The 5,600 men and women aboard the nuclear-powered USS Abraham Lincoln do not venture near Iranian waters, despite a warning from President Donald Trump's national security adviser that the warship is in the Middle East "to send a clear and unmistakable message" to Iran to steer clear of U.S. interests in the region.
Instead, it is the Lincoln that has steered clear of Iran. In the past four months, the ship has entered neither the Persian Gulf nor the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial oil-tanker highways it is supposed to protect.
"We recognize that tensions are high, and we don't want to go to war," said Capt. William Reed, a fighter pilot who commands the ship's air wing. "We don't want to escalate things with Iran."
The Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East but in the least provocative way. Just where to station the Lincoln -- one of the country's 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers -- is a decision made by the Navy's 5th Fleet, which has its headquarters in Bahrain. The fear is that sending an aircraft carrier through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, right when Trump has turned up the heat on Tehran, could provoke exactly the kind of conflict the Pentagon wants to avoid.
"Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly," said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for NATO. "It becomes vulnerable to diesel submarines, shore-launched cruise missiles and swarming tactics by small boats armed with missiles" -- all parts of the Iranian arsenal of weaponry and tactical maneuvers.
So the Lincoln remains in the North Arabian Sea and at times more than 600 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz. Often, the Lincoln is off the coast of Oman, not far from Muscat. The men who populate Iran's southern beaches need not worry about seeing the Lincoln on the horizon.
In the North Arabian Sea, with its huge waves and fierce undertow, fighter pilots on a recent Saturday battled wind gusts to catch the wire as they landed on the pitching carrier. Unlike the far calmer Persian Gulf, the North Arabian Sea at this time of the year is ferocious. The ship has been dealing with a succession of monsoons.
Navy officials say there is nothing that they can do in the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf that they cannot do from the North Arabian Sea.
"We can reach Iran from here easily," said Rear Adm. Michael Boyle, commander of the carrier strike group, in an interview on the bridge of the Lincoln. Five levels below, F/A-18s were catapulting off the flight deck and headed toward Iran, but they would make sure to stay away from the 12-mile border that encompasses Iranian airspace, Navy officials said. To get to the Persian Gulf, the warplanes fly above Oman and other Persian Gulf allies, not over Iran.
Boyle said the planes can strike Iran as easily from the North Arabian Sea as they can from the Persian Gulf, but he flagged a crucial difference: "They can reach us when we're there. When we're here, they can't."
When tensions are lower, U.S. aircraft carriers are regularly deployed to the Persian Gulf. The John C. Stennis was there in March, and the Nimitz was there for a prolonged deployment during the summer of 2017, when fighter pilots used the ship to strike Iraq and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State. The Theodore Roosevelt was in the Persian Gulf fighting the Islamic State during the summer of 2015, when Navy fighters bombarded targets in Ramadi, Iraq, and elsewhere.
During each of those deployments, the carriers routinely tangled with Iranian fast boats. Both sides constantly watched each other. U.S. naval ships openly roamed the waters along Iran's 1,100 mile-long southern coastline, their radars trained on the Iranian shore and on Iranian ships leaving their harbors. Iranian fighter jets patrolled the skies, keeping an eye on U.S. combat planes taking off from the Roosevelt every time an Iranian jet came close to the ship.
But Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, including his withdrawal from an agreement meant to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions and the imposition of crippling sanctions, has sharply increased tensions between the two adversaries. The Navy has sent smaller warships through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, but Navy officials say privately that an aircraft carrier could prove too tantalizing a target for Iran to resist.
"I wouldn't say we are sitting ducks because we have offensive capability," Boyle said. "But as you get further out into the North Arabian Sea, they just can't see us."
Still, there have been tense moments. On the night that Trump ordered a strike against Iran for its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone -- but then abruptly called it off -- the pilots, sailors and Marines on the Abraham Lincoln got ready for action.
"I stayed on shift that night," said Reed, the fighter pilot. "You're preparing for the offensive but also have to be ready to play defense." He likened it to being in "the eye of the tiger."
The ship was prepared to launch strikes on Iranian targets on the ground. Enlisted sailors and officers had rehearsed and drilled countless times, but suddenly this was the real thing.
"You could feel the stress in the younger sailors," Reed said.
In the carrier's command center, Boyle and the ship's officers were waiting, too.
"All the systems were on; all the lights were green; we were waiting for the order," he recalled. "And the order didn't come."
The president had changed his mind. It was early morning in the North Arabian Sea when the Lincoln got the call from headquarters in Bahrain to stand down.
"Relief? Yeah," Boyle said. "Whatever caused us not to have to push the button, we're happy."
A Section on 08/24/2019
Print Headline: U.S. carrier prowls outside Iran's reach