Gulf fleet navigates sea of problems. US warships more vulnerable than oil tankers to Iranian mines

The United States must be prepared to accept casualties as it carries out plans to escort reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf. This is the view of diplomats and other sources here, who asked not to be named.

Despite current US-Iranian tension, these sources say, Iran is now unlikely to launch direct attacks against US warships and the tankers they escort. But, they add, Iran will probably try to disrupt the escort operation and capitalize on opposition to it in the US by planting mines in the convoys' path.

These comments come as the US is considering ways to include a mine-detecting capability - perhaps using special helicopters - in plans to re-escort the damaged supertanker Bridgeton back down the Gulf later this week. The 401,382-ton oil tanker struck a mine last Friday off the Saudi Arabian coast during the US Navy's first attempt to safely escort reflagged tankers to Kuwait.

``They are in for more such incidents when they take such a high profile,'' warns one diplomat.''

Another diplomat asks, ``How long can the US Navy continue to escort every tanker? It is going to be a big headache for the United States.'' He predicts the US escorts may have to continue for as long as the Gulf war continues.

The US was fortunate, analysts here say, that it was the huge supertanker that struck the mine rather than one of the escorting warships. Large tankers are better equipped to survive a mine blast because of their sturdy construction and compartmented cargo hold. US Navy officers concede that modern warships are much more vulnerable to mines.

``The story would have been very different if it had been one of the warships that hit the mine,'' a source says. ``It could happen at any time.''

It is still unclear whether Iran planted the mine that rocked the Bridgeton, but US officials suspect that it did. The presence in the Gulf of old mines that have drifted south from the Iran-Iraq combat zone complicates the task of assigning responsibility. Last Saturday, several rusty mines were spotted drifting some 60 miles south of where the Bridgeton incident occurred. Before Friday, mines had never been seen in the area where the Bridgeton blast took place.

The US has an estimated 17 warships in the Gulf region, including 10 assigned to the US Middle East Force that operates out of facilities at Bahrain. At present, none of the US ships are minesweepers.

Yesterday, the US Coast Guard gave initial approval for the Bridgeton to load to two-thirds of its crude-oil cargo capacity for a return trip through the Gulf to a spot in the Gulf of Oman where the crude will be transferred to other tankers. The reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Gas Prince is expected to travel in convoy with the Bridgeton.

Kuwaiti and US officials were considering whether to load the Bridgeton with oil or to send it down the Gulf empty to a shipyard for repair. The tanker is currently anchored near Kuwait's Al-Ahmadi oil-loading facility.

Officials want to load the Bridgeton as a demonstration of US resolve to stand up to Iran in the Gulf. But questions have also been raised about the extent of structural damage to the tanker and whether it will be safe at sea with even a partial load of oil.

Temporary repairs have been made, but the combination of oil cargo and mine damage will force the convoy to cut its speed to below 9 knots, down from the 16 knots traveled en route to Kuwait.

Ships sailing to and from Kuwait have increasingly come under Iranian attack since last year. Iran is attempting to pressure Kuwait to end its support for Iraq in the Gulf War. Last winter, Kuwait asked both the US and the Soviet Union to help protect its shipping from Iranian attack. Kuwait chartered three Soviet tankers, and re-registered half its 22-ship tanker fleet under the US flag. As part of the arrangement, the reflagged ships were to receive US warship escorts in Gulf waters.

One Gulf diplomat noted that in the wake of Friday's Bridgeton mine blast the US is now locked into what may become a long-term, high-profile role supporting Kuwait. He says that any move by the US to scale down its commitment would be viewed in Tehran as a US retreat.

Another diplomatic source says that if the US demonstrates its resolve to remain in the Gulf, Iran will have lost. ``If the United States goes on with their policy, it shows Iran is not able to stop it,'' the diplomat says.

The difficulty, analysts say, is that with UN peace efforts currently in limbo, there is no end in sight for the US's estimated $1.7-million-a-day escort operation.

They add that if the only indication of the operation's success is safe Gulf journeys, Iran retains a tactical advantage over the US, because it can pick the time and place for a mine or other incident. If such incidents occur on a regular basis, a diplomat says, they will raise questions about the value and competence of the US Navy as a source of stability in the Gulf.

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