WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is taking the first steps to organize an international coalition to protect ships from tanker attacks from Iran in the Persian Gulf — ideally without any U.S. ships involved.
The U.S. would provide intelligence, surveillance and other support to the escorts under the plan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday night.
If the operation is successful in the Persian Gulf-Strait of Hormuz-Gulf of Oman area, it could be expanded to establish similar protection in other waterways, primarily the Bab el Mandeb strait at the far southern entrance to the Suez Canal between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. U.S. Central Command considers that strait the most vulnerable.
“We’re getting ready now to move out,” Dunford said Tuesday night prior to a ceremony at Fort Myer, Va. “We have a pretty clear concept of what we want to do.”
The ceremony was for his Finnish counterpart, Gen. Jarmo Lindberg. Dunford presented a Legion of Merit for Lindberg’s leadership and efforts to strengthen defense relations with the U.S. and NATO.
No nations were named as participants in the escort fleet. Dunford said participants should be known in several weeks. Any escorting of commercial ships would be done by military vessels flying the same flag of the commercial ship, he told reporters.
The idea was first aired publicly two weeks ago by Mark Esper, the acting defense secretary, during NATO meetings in Brussels. Dunford said Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the idea. Pompeo has been pushing a similar idea code-named Sentinel.
“(Central Command) come back to us with a pretty good concept of operations and so now we’re able to talk with some degree of specificity with our coalition partners,” Dunford said.
Creation of an escort fleet comes in the aftermath of attacks on tankers in the region, attacks that are blamed on Iran.
They also come as a British tanker remains at dock in the Persian Gulf to avoid possibly being seized by Iran in retaliation for the British marines taking control of an Iranian oil tanker en route to bust sanctions in Syria.
“We haven’t had any activity against U.S. forces since the downing of the remotely piloted aircraft earlier in June,” Dunford said. “And so we are watching that very carefully. I think it’s too early to draw our conclusion about the last couple of weeks.”