Columnist

America’s military muscle in the Gulf

Ronald Dowdell was on the starboard side of the bridge, looking toward Iran, as his vessel passed through the Strait of Hormuz on July 18. He’d been monitored by Iranian helicopters and speedboats, but now a drone was closing fast.Dowdell ordered his crew to disable the drone because it “looked like a potential threat,” he said in an interview on that same bridge Tuesday. The danger signs were the drone’s proximity to the Boxer, its closure rate and the profile detected by the ship’s sensors. The Boxer also targeted a second Iranian drone, but Dowdell’s crew couldn’t confirm that it was destroyed.

This incident, the closest the U.S. has come to a strike on Iran since the confrontation in the Gulf heightened in early May, is often described as a “shootdown.” But nobody aboard the ship describes any shooting. Some crew members say they weren’t even aware of the incident when it happened.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who as Centcom commander is Dowdell’s boss, wouldn’t discuss any detail of the Navy and Marine systems aboard the ship that were used. “We brought the Iranian drone down. That really is about all I can say,” he said in an interview aboard the Boxer Tuesday. McKenzie is concluding a 10-day trip through the region. (Another reporter and I are accompanying him.)

The downing of the drone without firing a normal kinetic weapon is one more sign of the measured response the U.S. has adopted through the confrontation with Iran. When Tehran downed an American surveillance drone last month, the U.S. didn’t retaliate by firing missiles on Iranian targets, as many had expected. But it reportedly did launch an invisible cyberattack on some of the Iranian military systems that might have been targeted in a retaliatory strike.

It was a steamy summer morning as we arrived on the Boxer with McKenzie and his team aboard V-22 Osprey helicopters from Kuwait. The 90-degree water temperature (around 32 C) here is almost as hot as the air. The Kuwait coastline is visible to the northwest, and Iran is perhaps 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast. There are about 1,000 sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship, which basically is a baby aircraft carrier. Many members of the Marine Expeditionary Unit the ship supports have landed in Kuwait for training.

Our visit here shows some of the military muscle that the U.S. has moved into the Gulf to deter Iran. But it also shows the restrained way in which those forces have been used so far. Crew members say the ship isn’t on any special alert status that’s different from what it normally adopts in international waters. Sailors are lifting weights in a big gym below deck. It’s “Taco Tuesday” in the officers’ wardroom. A sign on a bulkhead wall warns sailors against wasting water with long showers: “This Isn’t Hollywood!”

McKenzie comes on the ship’s loudspeaker to address the crew. He thanks them for their “professionalism” and says “you did exactly the right thing” in downing the menacing drone. But this isn’t a speech about fighting Iran. He warns the crew to “expect the same thing when you’re going out” of the Gulf.

During the passage through what the Navy calls the “knuckle” of the strait and surrounding waters, the crew maintained its normal rotations, and the members illustrate how the Navy is integrating women into command positions. The officer of the deck at the time of the incident, on the bridge with the captain, was Lt. Taylor Burleson, a woman in her 20s. An hour after the drone was disabled, she was replaced by Lt. Jasmin Valencia, 23, who has been in the Navy two years. “By the time I got on watch, the excitement was over,” she says.

As we’re about to leave the Boxer, McKenzie tries to explain the low-key strategy the military has adopted in this potentially explosive showdown in the Gulf, where Iran often seems eager to provoke an American response.

“We want to be the calm, steady part of the equation,” he says in an interview. “We don’t want to be the irresponsible actor. We don’t seek conflict with Iran, we don’t seek to exchange fire with Iran. What we want them to do is modify their behavior and become responsible.”

How will this end? Here’s how McKenzie answers: “We have the assets in place right now to make them think twice about further irresponsible actions in this theater. Only time will tell if that message settles.”

David Ignatius is published twice weekly

by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2019, on page 6.

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