DEBKAfile Special Report February 19, 2017, 10:04 PM (IDT)
Donald Trump marked his first month as US President with two major military gambits in the Middle East, Asia and the South China Sea. Early Sunday, Feb. 19, the US Navy said that the Nimitz-class USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and strike group had begun patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. With them are three air squadrons coming from their Naval Air Station Lemoore: the USS Lake Champlain guided missile cruiser and two guided missile destroyers, the USS Michael Murphy and the USS Wayne E. Meyer.
The deployment comes after Beijing’s warning that a US naval unit sailing near the disputed Spralys, where China has built islands and a military presence, would be seen as a violation of sovereignty, which the US and Japan refuse to recognize.
The Trump administration’s move therefore opens up a potential arena of confrontation between the US and China. It also caries a message for North Korea, which Trump has called “a big, big problem and we will deal with that very strongly.”
A week ago, on Feb. 12, North Korea launched a missile, using new “cold eject” technology which makes it possible to fire a missile from a submarine. Military experts in Washington and Jerusalem estimate that once Pyongyang has perfected the system, it will be passed to Tehran, an eventuality covered in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s White House talks with President Trump last week, our sources reveal.
Our military sources add that while Washington has publicly announced the transfer of a naval-air force to the South China Sea, the deployment of the large 11th Marine Expeditionary Combat Unit to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea is being kept low key.
The conventional thinking until now was that, in the event of an Iranian clash with the US or Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Tehran would push back by blocking the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Today, American forces have been placed in position to prevent Iran from blocking the Strait of Mandeb, and so choking the main sea route used by oil and merchant shipping sailing to and from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, by posting missile bases on Yemen’s western Red Sea coast.
The 4,500-strong contingent of MEC marines and sailors is supported by the fighters and attack helicopters on board the USS Makin Island amphibious assault ship, the USS Somerset amphibious transport and the USS Comstock dock landing ship. Their task is to keep the strategic waterway open and safe.
The deployment of the USS Cole destroyer around the strait was announced on Feb. 3, days after a suicide boat attack by Yemeni Houthi rebels on the Saudi frigate Al Madinah off the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah.
DEBKAfile’s military analysts note that the deployment of these naval and air forces in two international maritime arenas offers President Trump a flexible operational scenario. He can order one of those forces to go on the offensive as a warning to hostile elements in the other one – or go into action in both simultaneously – for example the US could strike North Korean and Iranian targets synchronously.
In line with these moves, a US flotilla departed its Arabian Sea base at Duqm in Oman on Feb. 12 and is sailing towards Bab Al Mandeb.
Tehran reacted Monday, Feb. 20, by embarking on a large-scale three-day military exercise titled Grand Prophet 11. Gen. Mohammed Pakpour, commander of the Revolutionary Guards ground forces, announced that the drill would include missile launches, without specifying their types or ranges.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that they would not allow American warnings to deter them from their missile program, any more than Pyongyang hesitated to fly in the face of those warnings. Those warnings are now backed up by America’s sea and air might in combat positions.