U.S. reduces muscle in Persian Gulf region Carrier heads for Hong Kong

June 25, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews | Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Amid growing signs of renewed Iraqi defiance of the West, the United States has dramatically cut its military muscle in the region by withdrawing its only aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf for at least a month, senior Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The departure of the USS Nimitz came over the objections of the United States' Persian Gulf allies, who feared that it might send a message of weakness to Iran and Iraq, a source said.

The carrier left the gulf last Thursday at the end of a planned six-month overseas tour, a move defense analysts saw as part of the Navy's calculated effort to show the Clinton administration what sacrifices must be made by having a smaller fleet of carriers.

The removal of the Nimitz comes at a time of friction between the military and the administration over a variety of issues. But, an admiral familiar with the deployment strategy denied that the Navy was trying to pressure the administration to back off plans to cut the fleet to 10 carriers instead of 12. But he said the Navy flatly told the administration "to make a decision by June 18" between extending the Nimitz's six-month tour in the gulf and sending the crew home.

Defense officials and analysts agreed that the month-long absence of a carrier and an air wing of up to 80 warplanes effectively reduces U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf -- and President Clinton's options for military action -- if Iraqi behavior continues to take a turn for the worse.

Iraqi authorities have become increasingly hostile to United Nations weapons inspectors lately, prompting a U.N. Security Council warning last Friday of serious consequences if Iraq refuses to cooperate with international attempts to monitor Iraqi missile test sites.

Revenge for alleged plot

Mr. Clinton also is under mounting pressure to retaliate militarily for Iraq's alleged plot to assassinate former President Bush during Mr. Bush's visit to Kuwait in April. Mr. Clinton has put off any decision on a response until after he reviews a final report by the FBI, which is expected to reach the White House in a matter of days.

In addition, there were conflicting reports yesterday about heightened Iraqi military activity that U.S. officials interpret as intended to bolster Baghdad's defense against an Iranian attack or a possible strike by the United States and its Western allies.

Although a Pentagon spokesman, Bob Hall, discounted a New York Times article about Iraqi troop movements near the Iranian border, saying that no Iraqi military action appeared imminent, another U.S. official said that Iraq did place its air defenses on "a higher degree of alert status."

The gap in U.S. naval presence also appears to dilute the administration's expressed resolve to maintain military pressure to contain potential aggression by both Iraq and Iran. The policy was forcefully described as one of "dual containment" in a speech May 18 by Martin Indyk, Mr. Clinton's top national security aide on the Middle East.

A diplomat who pays close attention to developments in the region said the United States had enough air power based there to combat any immediate threat. But he said "the timing is rather strange," given continued volatility in the Persian Gulf and widespread concern among America's allies worldwide about a pullback in U.S. military force.

The remaining U.S. military presence includes two cruisers and two destroyers in the gulf and dozens of F-15Es and other Air Force warplanes based in Saudi Arabia.

Delayed 'hand-off'

The Nimitz will go to Hong Kong to "hand off" its mission to the USS Abraham Lincoln, which will not reach the gulf until July 22, a knowledgeable defense official said.

For nearly two years, the Navy has been grappling with strategies to carry out its missions with fewer aircraft carriers in three traditional areas of operation: the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The service, which deployed six carriers to fight the Persian Gulf war, now has 14 carriers but is slated to retire two of them this year.

Last Thursday, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the chief of naval operations, openly complained about Defense Secretary Les Aspin's still-developing plan to cut the carrier fleet from 12 to 10. The Navy would have either to reduce its coverage of world trouble spots or extend the usual six-month tours of sailors, a step that could be devastating to morale and combat readiness, the Navy's top-ranking officer said.

The disclosure of the carrier movement came as Mr. Aspin

signaled to an Air Force audience that he was ready to slash the number of aircraft carriers and rely more on Air Force fighter squadrons and long-range bombers to provide an overseas military presence.

But the admiral who spoke to The Sun, who asked that his name not be used, said the Navy brass thinks Mr. Aspin actually dropped several hints that the administration might reconsider cutting the carrier fleet.

Aspin's views

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