MANAMA (Reuters) – A U.S. aircraft carrier is heading to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet area of operations, which includes the Gulf, but the Pentagon said on Tuesday there had been no decision to increase naval power in the region.
U.S. defence officials said the deployment of the USS Enterprise was a routine measure to replace one of two U.S. Navy carriers now in the Fifth Fleet area.
Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said the Enterprise was expected to arrive within weeks in its area of operations, where the U.S. has been flexing its muscles in a standoff with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme that has stoked regional tensions.
“There is a scheduled swap of carriers that is part of the routine deployment of the Enterprise,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters in Washington.
“Has the department made a decision for three carriers in the Gulf? No,” he added.
The U.S. Navy declined to comment on the future movements of the USS Stennis and the USS Nimitz, the two carriers currently deployed in the Fifth Fleet area.
The area includes the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.
A Pentagon official said there was a possibility the Navy could go down to one carrier in the region.
The United States sent a second carrier to the Gulf at the start of this year. U.S. officials said that move was designed to reassure U.S. allies concerned about Iran’s increasing influence in the region.
In May, a flotilla of U.S. warships sailed through the Gulf to hold exercises off Iran’s coast in a major show of force that unnerved oil markets.
The U.S. Navy said in a statement that the Enterprise would provide “navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour of some countries,” and take part in anti-submarine, anti-surface, anti-mine, air and missile defence and air strike operations.
“These operations are not specifically aimed at Iran… We consider this time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability in the region,” Navy spokeswoman Denise Garcia said, citing tensions in Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The West suspects Iran of secretly seeking to build a nuclear bomb and wants Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment activities. Tehran insists its atomic ambitions are peaceful.
Earlier this month, commercial satellite imagery showed Iran was building a tunnel facility inside a mountain near a key nuclear complex — a move nuclear analysts said could be an attempt to protect nuclear activity from aerial attack.
Tension over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has raised regional fears of a military confrontation. Iran has dismissed previous U.S. drills off its coast as morale-boosting exercises, and has said it had missiles that could sink big war ships in the Gulf.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington)
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