A photograph of the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City in late editions of yesterday should have been credited to Agence France- Presse. (Published 8/10/87)
KUWAIT, AUG. 8 -- Under cover of secrecy, surprise and possibly some calculated confusion, a U.S. Navy-escorted convoy of reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers slipped through the Strait of Hormuz in early-morning darkness today and sailed into the volatile Persian Gulf.
The second convoy of U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tankers to enter the Persian Gulf under U.S. Navy escort was spotted moving single file this afternoon about 26 miles north of Dubai, according to shipping sources in the United Arab Emirates. The convoy consisted of three Kuwaiti tankers and three Navy warships.
The convoy's departure from its anchorage at Khor Fakkan, outside the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman, last night about two hours after Iran ended four days of naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf came as a surprise.
Only two days ago, it was reported from Washington that Defense Department sources had indicated the second convoy would be delayed up to a week to allow the arrival in the gulf of the helicopter-carrier USS Guadalcanal and a detachment of special mine-sweeping Sea Stallion helicopters.
Western diplomats here said the leaked reports of a departure delay were an apparent "calculated deception" to confuse the Iranians, who repeatedly have voiced threats against the U.S. Navy ships operating in the gulf.
"There is no point in telling the Iranians the trains run on time," said a senior western official here commenting on the apparent deception. "That wouldn't be too smart, given all that has happened before."
In the United Arab Emirates, the government newspaper Al Ittihad reported that indications from Washington about delaying the convoy had been "only a bluff," Reuter reported. In Bahrain, a source quoted by The Associated Press described the surprise start-up of the convoy as "a major attempt at deception by the United States."
Pentagon spokesmen in recent weeks have made it clear that they will not make public statements about convoy movements because of the danger to the ships, and there was no explanation today about why the convoy got under way without the additional mine-sweeping protection that is reportedly still en route to the gulf.
But one diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Associated Press in Bahrain that the U.S. Navy may have decided to move quickly as the Iranians were relaxing a bit.
"The Americans seem to have decided to take advantage of Iranian bonhomie after they ended their naval exercises and retired home," he said.
However, the reflagged tankers and their escorts were under apparent surveillance by an Iranian aircraft during the transit through the strait, Pentagon officials said. An Iranian frigate also was observed steaming in the area "on routine patrol," Pentagon officials said.
To reach Kuwait, the convoy must run a 550-mile gantlet that includes Chinese-made Silkworm surface-to-ship missiles emplaced on the Iranian shore just north of the strategic strait, a fleet of fast motorboats equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns and operated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. There also is the possiblity of more mines in the shipping channels of the sort that damaged the supertanker Bridgeton during the first U.S. convoy July 24.
Western officials here said that, although the main U.S. mine-sweeping force onboard the Guadalcanal would not be in the area for a few more days, mine-hunting operations of an undescribed nature would be conducted in front of the convoy as it moved toward Kuwait.
In Washington, Pentagon officials said the Navy's nine-ship Middle East Task Force has mine-sweeping capabilities now but declined to discuss details. Pentagon sources said U.S. officials have been considering using Kuwaiti tugboats or other vessels for mine-sweeping protection on this convoy.
The task force does have sonar mine-hunting equipment onboard fleet helicopters, but the equipment is not as effective and sophisticated as that aboard the Sea Stallions.
Shipping officials also noted that because the tankers in this convoy are far smaller and of shallower draft than the 401,382-ton supertanker Bridgeton, they will not be confined to the deep-water channel off Iran's Farsi Island, where the Bridgeton struck a mine.
The largest tanker in the group is the 81,283-ton Sea Isle City that was spotted this afternoon leading the convoy, apparently because tankers are less vulnerable to mine damage than the relatively thin-hulled U.S. escort ships. Apparently following the same tactic that the Navy escort ships used with the Bridgeton, the convoy was moving single file behind the Sea Isle City, with a Navy warship behind each of the commercial vessels. The 79,999-ton Ocean City was third in line and the 46,723-ton Gas King fifth, and a final Navy ship trailed behind.
"These tankers have a lot of flexibility," noted a western diplomat here, referring to their shallower drafts. "They have a lot of choices of routes."
Shipping sources in the United Arab Emirates said the tankers refueled at Khor Fakkan yesterday afternoon, then weighed anchor last night and joined their escorts for what was described as "an exercise."
Instead, the ships lined up before dawn and, with full radio silence, steamed north through the 40-mile-wide strait. Shipping company sources said the warships jammed Iranian radar while the convoy was in the strait, The Associated Press reported.
Radio silence was broken only when the ships had entered the Persian Gulf this morning. One of the escort ships, the guided missile frigate USS Crommelin, began broadcasting a warning to all ships and aircraft to remain well clear of the convoy. The other warships in the convoy were the guided missile frigate USS Jarrett and the destroyer USS Kidd.
Shipping sources here said the convoy could be expected to arrive off Kuwait Sunday night or Monday, depending on how trouble-free it finds the gulf.
Under normal conditions the trip through the gulf takes about 48 hours. But because the convoy can be expected to take evasive action, such as speeding up and slowing down at times, the voyage might take longer, shipping sources said.
The United States last month extended the protection of its flag and its Navy to 11 of Kuwait's fleet of 21 oil and liquefied gas tankers in response to Kuwaiti government requests for big-power protection. For more than a year, Kuwaiti ships have been singled out for attack by Iran because of the support facilities and economic loans it extends to neighboring Iraq, Iran's enemy in the 7-year-old gulf war.