Small vessels in Persian Gulf seen as threat to escort ships. On USS Fox, lookouts watch for speedboats

Mines and Iran's Silkworm antiship missiles are not the only threats that concern the captain of the USS Fox - one of three United States Navy ships escorting two oil tankers through the Persian Gulf. Capt. William W. Mathis acknowledges that the hundreds of small vessels that criss-cross the Gulf are potential problems. Some speedboats, for instance, carry Iranian revolutionary guards.

The cruiser Fox, a destroyer, and a frigate began their journey yesterday as escorts to two Kuwaiti oil tankers now flying US flags. The tankers, heading for Kuwait, will travel in line about one nautical mile apart with the three Navy ships maneuvering around them.

Captain Mathis, a Vietnam veteran who has skippered the Fox for 14 months, said that amid all the small vessels traversing the Gulf, it is difficult to defend against attacks launched from such boats. ``The trick is to zero in on the guy who's zeroed in on you,'' he said. ``Some of them are just sightseers.''

To counter this threat, Mathis said, eight lookouts will be stationed on the Fox during the voyage.

Small ships aren't the only problem: ``We have such a proliferation of military ships here right now. It's a little bit like operating in the Mediterranean during a NATO exercise,'' he said. ``We keep a `Jane's Fighting Ships' up here on the bridge -- all my lookouts can recognize the ships,'' Mathis said.

The captain said the May 17 accidental Iraqi attack on the frigate Stark, which killed 37 sailors, helped convince his crew of the dangers they face. ``Nobody is under any misconceptions that the threat isn't real out here.'' At least 24 empty tankers, some of them damaged in previous Iranian and Iraqi attacks, were anchored around the convoy before it started through the Strait of Hormuz.

``It's a bad environment to work in,'' Mathis said of the humid and dusty Gulf region where temperatures of 120 degrees F. are normal. On Monday, a barge pulled alongside the Fox and doused it with 3,000 gallons of fresh water to rinse off the dust that blows in from the surrounding desert. The process is repeated roughly every 10 days to prevent the fine grit from clogging sensitive electronic, mechanical, and air-conditioning gear.

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