Iran's ability to threaten shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz is indeed a powerful military deterrent. Some 40 percent of seaborne oil and 20 percent of liquefied natural gas pass through the strait, which is just 39 kilometers (24 miles) wide at its narrowest point. Iran's ability to disrupt traffic would raise the cost of intervention for the United States and its allies. Even a very short closure or mining of the strait by Iran would rock global oil markets.
This threat has constrained the United States and forced it to attempt to deal with the Iranian nuclear program through political and economic means, but the Pentagon has still been preparing military backup plans. An integral part of U.S. strategy toward Iran is signaling the United States' willingness to strengthen its allies and act militarily if the need arises. The second round of minesweeping exercises, which come shortly after U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced several weapons deals with allies in the Middle East, are as much about encouraging restraint from Iran as about prudent military contingency planning.
Inconclusive 2012 Exercises
Tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated at the beginning of 2012 following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, when Iran staged naval exercises in the strait. In response, the United States ramped up its military preparations for possible closure by deploying several mine-hunting assets to the region, including four additional Avenger-class ships, minesweeping helicopters and the USS Ponce, a retrofitted amphibious transport dock that serves as a mother ship for the region. Another round of talks with Tehran that failed to produce a solution led the United States to reinforce sanctions against the country.
A hastily planned, U.S.-led joint naval exercise in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula called the International Mine Countermeasure Exercise 2012 soon followed. Lasting from Sept. 17 to Sept. 27, the training operation involved 33 nations and some 3,000 personnel and was the largest of its kind ever to occur in the region. The exercise was separated into two parts: The first focused on exchanging ideas and familiarizing personnel with new anti-mine technologies at a symposium in Bahrain. The second focused on mine-clearing training and collaboration through several joint maneuvers in the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
For the United States and its allies, the exercises served as a warning to Iran that Washington will not take threats to close the strait lightly, that the Pentagon is adjusting its force posture to be able to mitigate Iran's key deterrent and that the United States can quickly garner international support for military action in the Strait of Hormuz. From a military angle, however, the success of the exercises was questionable. The U.S. Navy said it had accomplished its operational training goals, but it was reported that fewer than half of the 29 simulated mines were found. In an area as sensitive as the Strait of Hormuz, this success rate would fail to soothe international markets or allow shipping traffic to resume at a regular pace.
Goals of the 2013 Exercises
The upcoming joint training operations will take place only eight months after the previous round — an unusually short interregnum for large international military exercises — but the need for the drills is strong. Clearing the strait of mines while under threat from anti-ship missiles hidden onshore, mini submarines and swarms of small boats would be complicated. Trying to accomplish such a task with a large international coalition would be even more difficult. With more than 30 countries again participating in the drills, considerable practice and collaboration is necessary.
The drills can also be diplomatically useful in a politically sensitive time for Iran. With traditional diplomatic solutions doing little to curb Iran's nuclear program and upcoming presidential elections in June, the United States and its allies can employ "gunboat diplomacy" in the Persian Gulf.
Adding urgency to the exercises is the fact that many of the U.S. anti-mine assets are aging. This is, in part, because niche capabilities like mine hunting have been largely ignored since the end of the Cold War. The war on terror called for a different form of naval support, so the U.S. Navy spent much of the past decade prioritizing assets and funding for that purpose. The United States is trying to compensate for this problem by developing new assets such as the littoral combat ships equipped for minesweeping, but these are still a few years from deployment.
In the meantime, the United States is relying on stopgap purchases of off-the-shelf minesweeping assets such as SeaFox devices, which arrived in theater after the 2012 drills. But even these assets will take time to incorporate into existing operational systems. Personnel have to be trained for each system, each must be tested in an operational environment and procedures must be formulated to ensure an appropriate fit into the overall mission. Elaborate, relatively realistic drills help accomplish such tasks and provide feedback about how the new systems will affect the mission itself, allowing planners to tweak future assessments. Further, these drills signal to Tehran that the United States is ready to counter any Iranian threats around the Strait of Hormuz.