ABOARD THE USS FARRAGUT IN THE PERSIAN GULF – In the darkest of darkness, surrounded by a glass-smooth sea – thousands of miles from home – an American voice reads a statement over a VHF radio frequency primarily used for international distress calls.
“Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité: Good morning all ships. This is a coalition warship conducting maritime operations in the (Persian Gulf) in support of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. If you observe any suspicious or illegal activity, or require assistance, contact the nearest coalition warship.”
The announcement, repeated at regular intervals throughout the night and day, is read by a U.S. Navy officer from the bridge of the USS Farragut, a 510-foot Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named after America’s first admiral, David Farragut.
Farragut served in the War of 1812. He helped secure victory in the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, and a year later he led a successful attack with the now-iconic order: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” according to the U.S. Navy, although there appear to be some conflicting accounts about in which campaign he uttered the phrase.
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The U.S. Navy’s statement is aimed at any number of troublemakers who operate here, from modern-day pirates to Houthi insurgents from nearby Yemen.
But really its intended audience is Iran.
In particular, the network of heavily armed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels the country has used to obstruct commercial shipping and seize foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf after increased friction between Tehran and Washington after the Trump administration withdrew from a nuclear accord between Iran and world powers and reimposed economic sanctions. Tensions have intensified in recent days after the Pentagon killed a senior Iranian general in a drone strike in Iraq and Iran responded by launching a missile attack on two bases in Iraq that are home to U.S. troops.
Additionally, Tehran admitted Saturday that its military may have accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner around the time of the attack.
For now, the White House has appeared to indicate it won’t be seeking immediate military retaliation, and amid the fallout the House of Representatives approved a resolution to limit the White House’s ability to take further military action. A similar resolution is expected to be considered for a vote in the Senate next week. The Trump administration issued additional sanctions on Iran on Friday, in its first official retaliation for Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases.
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“They hardly ever answer. But we know they’re out there,” said Cmdr. Eric E. Meyers, the Farragut’s executive officer – Meyers is second-in-command – as he surveyed the Persian Gulf’s coal-black horizon from the ship’s bridge one evening late last year.
During hours of darkness, the Farragut turns off most of its external lights to help avoid detection, adding to the impression of total darkness as far as the naked eye can see. Below deck, only red light is used because it doesn’t travel as far as white.
USA TODAY spent a few days aboard the state-of-the-art, combat-ready destroyer as it patrolled the front lines of U.S. efforts to thwart Iranian aggression at sea in a body of water in western Asia that is in the heart of the Middle East. It is also one of the world’s most strategically important choke points for transporting oil.
More than 9,000 vessels operate in the area each day, and one-sixth of global oil production and one-third of the world’s natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf that Iran claims as its territory.
For the past few months, these waters, an extension of the Indian Ocean to the southeast, bordered to the north and east by Iran, north and west by Iraq and Kuwait, and to the south and west by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, have been relatively quiet. That’s because, according to the U.S. Navy, since late last year the U.S. has partnered with six countries – the United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Albania – to form the International Maritime Security Construct, or IMSC. The 290 officers and enlisted sailors of USS Farragut are part of this “construct,” which provides escorts and various forms of sentry assistance to some of the approximately 42,000 ships that transit through the area every year. The IMSC says that since its establishment in September there have been no recorded incidents at sea of what the U.S. Navy calls “malign activity” or “kinetic actions” by Iran.
Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey, the U.S. commander of the IMSC, said in emailed comments that the unit is “designed to be defensive … conducting benign surveillance and documentation of nefarious activity, with … intentions transparent to all mariners.”
IMSC “represents a stabilizing and de-escalatory presence,” he said.
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While analysts say Iran may feel satisfied that it has exacted its revenge for the killing of its general while at the time avoiding U.S. deaths, the situation remains fluid. The U.S. has about 62,000 military personnel spread across land and sea in the broader Middle East region, and Iran has repeatedly said they remain a target. (In an unrelated incident Friday, the U.S. Navy said a Russian warship “aggressively approached” the Farragut, ignoring warnings and risking a collision. The Russian vessel eventually altered course.)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed “severe” reprisals after the U.S. killed Qasem Soleimani, a commander of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards Corp, a powerful organization that wields control over Iran’s economy, security and intelligence apparatus and finances and trains pro-Iran militant groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.
The Trump administration considered Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – the Iraqi leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, killed alongside him – terrorists. Since his killing, the Pentagon has deployed more troops to the Middle East to protect U.S. assets in the region: bases, embassies, ships, contractors.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. Maritime Administration warned that “there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests,” such as the USS Farragut, across the Middle East as a result of the Soleimani operation.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued emergency commercial airspace restrictions over the Persian Gulf amid the downing of the Ukraine plane.
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Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013 and who served at every level in the Persian Gulf, including commanding an aircraft carrier, said U.S. military personnel and installations in the region are now more at risk of attack because of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran.
“The one line the Iranians haven’t crossed yet is they haven’t killed anyone. But they are going to continue to escalate because they feel they are in a box.”
Stavridis said the standoff between the U.S. and Iran was “unsustainable.”
Still, American Navy ships such as the Farragut are often shadowed by Iranian ships, and the two nations’ vessels come into contact on a near-daily basis. In July last year, U.S. Marines jammed an Iranian drone Washington said was swooping near the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship in the area that, like the Farragut, was operating out of the U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Manama, Bahrain. In May, four commercial ships were sabotaged with mines in the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah. A month later, two oil tankers were damaged by explosives in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. blamed Iran for the attacks. Iran disputes the claims. The evidence is not conclusive either way.
The U.S. Navy also recently confirmed that multiple small Iranian boats sailed alongside the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships from a U.S. strike group as they sailed through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman in December.
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In 2016, 10 U.S. sailors were detained by Iran after their small patrol boats drifted into Iranian waters during training. They were held overnight and released.
USA TODAY did not see any Iranian ships while aboard the Farragut, whose motto on its coat of arms is “prepared for battle.” The ship is designed to operate in what the U.S. Navy calls “extreme air, surface and undersea threat environments.”
USS Farragut has 96 missiles aboard and a large gun mount that can accurately fire 16 to 20 rounds a minute to ranges in excess of 13 miles and a shorter-range weapons system that can fire 4,500 rounds a minute to ranges in excess of 2 miles.
Below, the ship has systems that enable it to make potable water and compress air for missions or repairs that require scuba divers and a series of airlocks between decks to guard against biological or chemical attacks. It is outfitted with a small emergency medical room, a barbershop, a U.S. Post Office, a bank, a ship’s store, a laundry and a gym.
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“Every deployment is different, and everyone finds out something different about themselves, as a man, as a person,” said Roy T. Garcia, the Farragut’s senior enlisted sailor – his formal title is command master chief – in response to a question about what it’s like to spend so much time at sea preparing to fight an enemy who might be minutes away or never materialize.
Cmdr. Jason N. Lester, the Farragut’s captain and commanding officer, said he was confident “that the Iranians don’t have anything that can touch us,” and he was not worried, for example, about Iranian submarines or other advanced craft.
“We have more missiles than some nations have in their entire arsenal,” he said.