MANAMA, BAHRAIN, NOV. 27 -- Kuwaiti officials, fearful that the U.S. Navy cannot adequately protect the largest oil tanker placed under the American flag, have pulled the supertanker Bridgeton off convoy duty in the Persian Gulf, according to a knowledgeable official in the region.
The Bridgeton, struck by a mine on the U.S. Navy's maiden convoy in the gulf July 24, spent two costly months being repaired at a drydock in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
When the 401,382-ton Bridgeton was refloated in late October, it steamed out of the gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, leading to speculation that it would soon reenter the gulf under U.S. Navy escort to resume service.
"No, she's going to stay outside the gulf," the official said, adding, "It's not worth the risk, why expose her again?"
The uncertainties of mine-clearing in the gulf, despite increased efforts by the United States and allied navies -- coupled with the symbolism attached to the Bridgeton attack as Iran's first victory against the U.S. escort operation -- induced Kuwaiti officials to take the ship out of harm's way, the official said.
"The Iranians might have their finger on her," the official said. "They might want to hit her again for the publicity."
The official said the Bridgeton would be used to take on crude oil from non-U.S. flag tankers coming out of the gulf and transport it to Kuwait's extensive refining and marketing network in Europe.
The Bridgeton would not receive a U.S. Navy escort outside the gulf, and the official did not say whether it would remain under the U.S. flag.
The Kuwaiti decision to take the Bridgeton out of service in the Persian Gulf also removes one of the main original rationales for the U.S. reflagging operation here. The Bridgeton was the only reflagged Kuwaiti tanker capable of carrying crude oil, and its withdrawal highlights the impact of the costly U.S. escort operation on Kuwait's oil exports, the bulk of which continue to move on non-U.S. flag tankers.
The other 10 reflagged Kuwaiti tankers are designed to carry refined petroleum products, such as gasoline and liquefied natural gas. One of them, the Sea Isle City, was hit by a Silkworm missile Oct. 16 and is undergoing repairs in Kuwait, leaving nine available for convoy duty.
At the start of the escort operation, Kuwaiti officials planned to use the Bridgeton as a shuttle tanker to ferry most of Kuwait's crude oil exports to safer waters beyond the Strait of Hormuz.
The escort program, formally called Operation Earnest Will, is lagging far behind the original Pentagon goal of sending about 10 U.S. convoys a month through the gulf. The Navy was caught unprepared for Iran's extensive mine-laying and its use of Silkworm missiles. In the first four months, it has run a total of 18 convoys, fewer than five a month.
Kuwaiti government officials believed from the outset that the Navy could guarantee safe passage for the 11 Kuwaiti tankers placed under the U.S. flag in July and August, after Kuwait sought U.S. and Soviet protection for its oil exports from Iranian speedboat attacks.
The Bridgeton is the only reflagged ship that the Iranians have been able to damage while under U.S. Navy escort, but the threat of mines continues to bedevil the U.S. military mission in the gulf.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members who recently visited the gulf said in a report, "Current estimates are that Iran has sown three mine fields in the gulf with a total of 60 mines."
Although U.S. and western minesweepers deployed to the gulf since late summer have made progress in mine detection and detonation, serious questions remain over whether the western fleets will be able to halt Iran's mine-laying operations, according to some military analysts.
"There have been alarming indications both that the Iranians are building new mines and that they may be acquiring new, so-called influence mines from Libya which can be activated by sound waves or the vibrations of passing ships," the Senate staff report said.
Still, western mine-hunting efforts are intensifying. Belgian and Dutch mine-sweepers entered the gulf last week to assist British mine-sweepers in clearing a suspected mine field off the coast of Qatar.
In their first major operation, the U.S. contingent of Korean War-era mine-sweepers, which belatedly arrived from Hawaii and South Carolina, located and blown up seven mines near Iran's Farsi Island last week.