The Reagan Administration is planning a massive increase in U.S. firepower in the Persian Gulf and is considering sending a battleship and its escorts to the troubled region, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday.
"Threats to American warships and the protected (Kuwaiti) vessels do exist" but the risks involved "are moderate," the Pentagon said in its long-awaited report to Congress outlining plans to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers through the gulf. "A detailed review of the advisability of battleship battle group operations in the area is being conducted."
The Administration's policy is designed to underscore U.S. determination to keep open international sea lanes carrying oil from the petroleum-rich gulf. However, opposition to the policy has mushroomed in and out of government since the May 17 Iraqi missile attack on the U.S. Navy frigate Stark, which killed 37 sailors.
Replacing 6 Warships
The Defense Department said Tuesday that it plans soon to replace the six U.S. warships now in the gulf, including the Stark, with eight destroyers, cruisers and frigates. In addition, the Associated Press reported, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that a battleship force should be sent to the gulf.
If the plans disclosed in the Pentagon report are approved, the ship most likely to be deployed would be either the New Jersey or the Missouri, both based in Long Beach. The ship ultimately chosen would not arrive in the gulf before the beginning of August.
However, the plans were already drawing criticism Tuesday as even some of the Administration's most loyal supporters on Capitol Hill voiced serious doubts about them. Reagan has "put American credibility on the line" with his agreement to escort the Kuwaiti ships, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said. "We shouldn't make any further deals like this."
Even More Critical
Democrats were even more critical, attacking the Administration for appearing to side with Iraq in its 6 1/2-year-old war with Iran and for failing to obtain sufficient support from American allies. "I do not think it ought to go ahead now," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said. "There's a real breakdown of diplomacy here."
The Administration announced in May its decision to begin escorting the tankers under the U.S. flag, saying that Kuwait's ships were endangered by Iran because of Kuwait's ties to Iraq. It warned that the Soviet navy would protect the Kuwaiti vessels if the United States did not do so. The Soviet Union has already leased three of its own tankers to Kuwait for use in the gulf, U.S. officials said.
The Pentagon report said that no field commanders in the gulf will have the authority to order retaliatory actions without approval from Washington. The rules of engagement under which the ships will operate will allow them to use "only that force which is required" to neutralize "an immediate threat" or to "prevent a hostile act," the report said.
Those rules provide that American ships can commence firing whenever an intruding plane or ship either "maneuvers into a position where it could fire" or implements a "radar lock on . . . that can guide missiles or gunfire," according to the report.
New Procedures Due
Before the attack on the Stark, the pilot of the Iraqi plane did "light up" the ship with his radar but, under the rules of engagement that were in effect then, the ship did not treat that as a hostile action and open fire, the report said. The United States and Iraq are working on new procedures to keep Iraqi pilots away from U.S. ships, it added.
In addition, the report noted that U.S. diplomats have been in contact with the Arab states in the gulf to obtain support for the escort mission. The negotiations are aimed at making those nations' "military operations and cooperation with us more visible," the report said. "These arrangements . . . have been kept highly confidential for domestic political reasons in the Arab countries concerned."
Among the items that are being discussed, Pentagon officials have told members of Congress, are additional Saudi Arabian fighter support for U.S. AWACS surveillance planes and rights for U.S. planes to fly over the territory of gulf states such as Oman, which currently do not allow such flights.
The escorts for the Kuwaiti tankers are expected to follow a pattern similar to the convoys now provided for U.S.-owned ships plying the gulf. Under this plan, the tankers will be escorted by at least two warships from the Gulf of Oman--which connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea--through the Strait of Hormuz and up the full length of the gulf to Kuwait. The escort is expected to be done in daylight hours to minimize the chance of misidentifications.
No American Crews
The reflagged Kuwaiti ships will not carry American crews but will be piloted by an American master. They will be subject to inspection to guarantee that they carry no contraband, such as war materials bound for Iraq, according to the report.
Congressional leaders received the classified report describing the Administration's military plans in the gulf early Tuesday. Later in the day, an unclassified version was released, and sources said it contained the bulk of the material.
Congressional sources confirmed that no escorts of Kuwaiti tankers will begin before mid-July at the earliest. Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims refused to estimate when the Navy would begin its convoys.
The U.S. ships now being sent to the gulf left East Coast ports in recent weeks and are expected to reach the area by early July. The Navy has said that it also plans to move the aircraft carrier Constellation and its accompanying ships northward from its current post in the Arabian Sea to a position from which its airplanes could reach the gulf.
A battleship, however, could hit land-based targets with its guns without endangering the pilots of attack jets. Such a deployment also would underline the Administration's intention to retaliate if American ships in the gulf are attacked.
Use for 16-Inch Guns
For example, a U.S. battleship's 16-inch guns could be used to attack the Chinese-made Silkworm missiles that Iran apparently plans to base on an island near its Persian Gulf coast. The missiles, which the Pentagon report said are capable of sinking large ships, could hit targets across the full width of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the gulf.
The Pentagon report noted that ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz will do so with their crews at full battle stations, a higher alert called for partly because of the threat from the Silkworms.
Pentagon officials, however, have told members of Congress that the military considers Iranian use of the Silkworms only a remote possibility. According to the report, the main threat to American forces in the gulf will come "from unconventional methods of attack," such as possible Iranian suicide air missions.
The military "is heavily focused on the conventional threat," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said in an interview Tuesday. Failure to plan for a "no-fingerprints attack," such as a suicide mission, is a "serious omission," he said.
As the Administration discovered in Lebanon--where a battleship was similarly deployed off the coast to deter attacks on American forces--massive firepower is of little use in the absence of a clear target. The possibility that the United States may be heading for a repeat of the Lebanese experience has repeatedly been raised by congressional opponents of the Persian Gulf policy.