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U.S. Navy Prepared for New Gulf Threat, Cohen Says

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

ABU DHABI, Bahrain, June 20, 1997 – U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf are nothing new; they've protected vital American interests in the region for almost 50 years. But today, defense officials say, they have to deal with a new threat.

"Over the last few years, Iran has concentrated on developing a more robust anti-ship missile capability," U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said at a press conference here June 17. Iranians are boasting about their ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, he said.

Cohen met with U.S. Navy leaders and local government officials here during a five-day, five-country trip to the Middle East June 14 to 18. Local leaders in all five countries offered solid support for the U.S. containment policy toward Iran and Iraq, he said. They also expressed growing concern about Iran's ongoing weapons buildup.

After talking with U.S. Navy officials in the region, Cohen said he is satisfied the United States "is fully capable of defeating an operation the Iranians might launch against us or our allies."

During the 1980s, Iran had mines and a navy of small boats armed with rocket-propelled grenades, a DoD official said. It acquired land-based cruise missiles about 10 years ago and last year put Chinese C-802 cruise missiles on board its ships. Today, about 20 patrol boats are armed with missiles that have a range greater than 20 miles. Iran's military also sharply increased training launches of sea-based missiles from about 20 last year to 60 so far this year. In early June, it successfully tested Chinese air-launched cruise missiles for the first time.

"Does that mean we're scared and we're going to leave the gulf? Obviously not," the official said. "We have some of the most capable [defense] systems in our ships out here -- the Aegis destroyer, for example -- designed specifically to handle a cruise missile threat."

A carrier battle group and an amphibious ready group with about 15,000 U.S. sailors and Marines aboard 25 U.S. ships generally patrol in the Persian Gulf, a Navy official said. Another thousand or so soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and are stationed at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama. Their overall mission is to deter conflict among local nations and keep the gulf's waterways free so the region's oil keeps flowing.

Cohen told about 800 sailors, family members and civilians at Fifth Fleet headquarters here June 16 they are fulfilling one of the most important missions the U.S. military has.

"If Iraq were to try to attack Kuwait again and if the Iranians were trying to shut down the gulf, then we have to be prepared to open it again," he said. "If you shut down that pipeline, the world economy would go into a real tailspin. Most of the industrialized world depends on the oil flowing out of this region."

Stationing American troops in the gulf tells U.S. allies "that we're there, that we are strong, that we are ready and that we are reliable," he said. It also sends a signal to any potential enemies: "Don't mess with the United States because you are really going to take on the finest fighting force in the world," he said.

Cohen also told the audience gathered in the base gym about the recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review, which proposes streamlining the military through modest troop cuts, base closures and business reform. The goal is to cut back in some areas so the military can pay for modern weapons and equipment.

"We have to start designing systems now that won't come on line for another 10 to 15 years," he said. The Air Force C-17, for example, took about 17 years from when it was designed as the military's next transport plane to getting it on the runway, he said.

While advanced weapon systems and high-tech equipment are crucial to the warfighting trade, Cohen said, they are not his top priority.

"The first priority that we place in our entire military structure is not the system. It is not the F-22 or the joint strike fighter or the aircraft carrier. The first thing we place priority on is people. If we don't have you, if we can't recruit you and equally important, if we can't retain you, it doesn't matter how good our equipment is because we won't have you to operate it.

Cohen said he was meeting with troops throughout the region so he can take their concerns and needs back to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Quality of life, he said, is key to recruiting and retaining quality people.

"We want to take that into account when we talk about how we deploy individuals," he said. "How long are they going to be? What kind of quality of life are they going to have in places like Bahrain?

"Compensation, bonuses, family housing, daycare -- all of that is taken into account because we want you to remember we place you number one. First come people, secondly comes the resources, and third comes preparing for the future -- the machinery, equipment and weapons."

He said everyone in the military knows "the last thing you want to do is to have to go to war, but you have to be prepared to go to war in order to prevent it from breaking out."

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