France today formed a mine-sweeping task force of five vessels and placed it on standby alert to go to the Strait of Hormuz if needed.
French officials insist that there is no central coordination of the Western allied effort to keep the old shipping lanes out of the Persian Gulf open but that France decided on its own to designate vessels for Indian Ocean duty because the French Navy had noted in absence of mine-sweeping capability in the U.S. naval presence in the area.
France already has about 20 ships in the Indian Ocean, six more than its normal complement.
The additional five-vessel task force is made up of two refitted U.S. Navy mine sweepers normally based at the Mediterranean port of Toulon and two advanced mine hunters based at the English Channel port of Cherbourg, plus a command-and-control vessel.
French Defense Ministry sources say the United States has mine-detecting helicopters in the area but no such ships. The Cherbourg vessels can detect mines in 200 feet of water and destroy them with teleguided underwater charges.
Some French Defense Mninistry sources said that the French decision to form the mine-sweeping unit indicated France's acceptance of a mission as part of a coordinated allied assignment of naval roles in the Indian Ocean area. Sources close to the French presidency insisted, however, that the only coordination was purely technical exchange of information between admirals at sea in the region.
Defense Ministry sources said that if the danger arose that oil tankers might be sunk in the gulf, French ships there would also act as naval escorts. m
There was a suggestion from some ministry sources that a U.S. admiral would assume command of all allied naval ships in the area in an emergency situation. But the Elysee Palace rejected any hint of anything that might be interpreted as French acceptance of military integration -- a concept considered politically unacceptable in France ever since Charles de Gaulle took France out of the military organization of the Atlantic Alliance.
Presidential sources also indicated concern as the French presidential election campaign gets under way that President Valery Giscard d'estaing should be seen to take steps to deal with all contingencies in the gulf and elsewhere.