As U.S. tensions with Iran rose last week, 17 ships from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Australia launched a major war game just 50 miles from the Iranian coast. The ships steamed together in wedge formation in the first rehearsal of the exercise dubbed “Unified Trident.”
HMS Ocean, a British amphibious assault ship carrying about 750 personnel, 150 of them Royal Marines, led the way. About 500 yards behind was the French destroyer FS Forbin, and about 500 yards behind was the U.S. destroyer USS Mahan. Another 500 yards behind was the Australian destroyer HMAS Arunta. Each carried about 300 sailors. Another destroyer, an Aegis cruiser, a supply ship, mine sweepers, patrol boats, and Coast Guard cutters made up the flanks.
The USS Mahan fired three warning shots at four Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack vessels as they attempted to harass the destroyer last month in the Strait of Hormuz. The Mahan was escorting two other Navy vessels and an oil tanker. The last provocation of a U.S. warship by Iranian vessels occurred in August.
The incident appeared to be a part of the exercise commanders were now conducting, even as they denied it had anything to do with Iran. “It’s not a show of force to the Iranians at all,” the exercise’s logistical planner, British Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ant Wallace, told the journalists aboard the HMS Ocean on the first day of the exercise.
Commanders emphasized that the multilateral exercise, which had never been done before, was an opportunity to work on their mutual capabilities and enhance cooperation. The exercise featured two fictitious regional rivals, Redland (RL) and Grunland (GL), which bore close resemblances to Iran and the U.S. “Historically the RL Maritime Militia (RMM) have threatened merchant traffic in the Strait of Hormuz to pressure GL and the wider international community. Increasing aggressive interactions between Coalition and [Redland Maritime Militia] units, including warning shots.
The day before journalists embarked on the Mahan, the crew had had an opportunity to fire all its weapons, including a massive 5-inch turret deck gun, another called the CIWS but pronounced “Sea Whiz,” a deck gun whose fire is so fast it sounds like a lawn mower engine, and its .25 mm guns, which are manned by one sailor.
This time, Iranian boats were nowhere to be seen, even though Iranian leaders had slammed the exercise in advance, with its navy’s commander Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari warning, “They would not dare enter Iran’s territorial waters,” according to the Tehran Times. Although the exercise was planned eight to nine weeks ago, it coincided with an escalation in U.S. tension with Iran last week, and underscored the growing risk of a potential military flare-up.
On the Sunday before the exercise began, Iran fired a ballistic missile in defiance of international law. On Monday, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea rammed a boat into a ship belonging to Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally in the region. On Tuesday, the exercise began.
On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the U.S. was officially putting Iran “on notice.” On Thursday, Trump said “nothing’s off the table,” when asked about a military response to Iran. On Friday, he slapped a new round of sanctions on Iran’s missile program, while Iran said that it would not allow U.S. wrestlers into Iran to participate in a tournament after an executive order that barred visas from Iranians and seven other nationalities.
On Saturday, Iran reversed its decision to bar the U.S. wrestlers from entering, but kicked off its own military exercises, defying the new sanctions and signaling continued defiance of the international community. The Trump administration has warned it may take further actions against Iran for its ballistic missile development.
Some experts argued the Trump administration’s actions are putting the U.S. on a “dangerous escalatory path with Iran without any diplomatic approach or exit strategy.” “Sooner or later, given the numerous tensions with Iran around the region, this escalatory dynamic risks spiraling into war,” the National Iranian American Council said in a statement. Other experts argue that not responding out of fear of escalation only plays into Iranian hands. “They want us to be self-deterred, thereby normalizing unacceptable Iranian behavior and encouraging further provocations,” said Alexander Alden, Senior Fellow for U.S. strategy at the Center for the National Interest.
“That’s the only way to avoid actual escalation and potential conflict, to make it abundantly clear to the Iranian regime that if push comes to shove, they will be on the wrong side of the escalation dynamic, and that they don’t really want to go down that road.”
Iran’s recent provocations follow a string of incidents during the last months of the Obama administration, despite the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran last year that was supposed to help improve U.S.-Iran relations. The number of “unsafe and/or unprofessional interactions,” as the U.S. Navy calls them, with Iran have risen in the last few years, despite the Iran deal. In 2015, of 327 total interactions, 23 were deemed unsafe and/or unprofessional. In 2016, there were 527 interactions, with 35 deemed unsafe and/or unprofessional. Officials say so far this year, there have already been eight interactions with the Iranians, with at least one unsafe and/or unprofessional interaction.
President Trump has vowed that any Iranian vessels that harass the U.S. Navy “will be shot out of the water.” The good news is our military is finally going to be allowed to do their jobs with the full support of the new administration. You can see it in their enthusiasm, their readiness in these exercises show it. Lookout Ali Khamenei, here comes “Mad Dog” and the U.S. Navy.