The destroyer USS Sterett escorts the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday.
ABOARD THE USS CAPE ST. GEORGE – More than 31,000 ships transit the Strait of Hormuz every year, traveling between the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea. Among those are U.S. Navy warships, operating throughout the region to conduct exercises and to support the war in Afghanistan.
But don’t let the numbers fool you … while transiting the Strait is common, it is far from simple – especially as tensions with Iran continue to rise.
Since the Strait of Hormuz is only about 24 miles wide, the critical waterway is both contentious and dangerous to cross. Countries can claim up to 12 miles off their shores as their own territorial water – and since the strait is wedged between Iran and Oman, it is a particularly tricky zone.
Three U.S. Navy ships traveled through the strait together on Tuesday: the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the destroyer USS Sterett, and the guided-missile cruiser USS Cape St. George. NBC News was there and got a first-hand look at the careful, deliberate Navy maneuver.
The transit actually began inside the Persian Gulf, went through Oman’s territorial water, traveled through the so-called "knuckle" (the nickname for the narrowest part of the Strait which includes a sharp turn where Oman sticks out), and continued in to the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea. At a speed that ranges between 20 and 30 knots, the entire route took more than 10 hours to complete.
An Iranian patrol boat approached a U.S. aircraft carrier, backing down within two miles from the USS Abraham Lincoln. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports from the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Beyond the challenge of navigating the Strait, the recent escalation of rhetoric and increasingly tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran has brought even more concerns for the Navy as they operate in the area. Iran recently threatened to close the strait in retaliation for tighter Western sanctions.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy operates submarines and war ships throughout the Gulf, and they often send out small boats to harass U.S. Navy ships.
These Iranian boats, which the U.S. Navy calls FIACs, are just small motorboats with mounted machine guns. Despite the fact the U.S. warships literally dwarf these tiny boats, U.S. military officials worry that just one of these FIACs loaded with explosives could do significant damage to a U.S. aircraft carrier. The cruiser and the destroyer provide protection for the carrier – they are the muscle.
On board the USS Cape St. George, sailors manned their stations as early as 2 a.m. to prepare for the day of the transit. Gunners took up their positions around the ship. The Cape St. George also has a massive missile capability (cruise missiles,harpoons, and more), so it was prepared to strike at threats both in the air and on the seas, if necessary.
Around 7 a.m., one of the ship's helicopters took off from the Cape St. George to provide surveillance during the mission. The helicopter was loaded with half a dozen Hellfire missiles when it took off.
The USS Sterett took the lead, staying about 2,000 yards in front of the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln. Tasked with protecting the carrier, the USS Cape St. George stayed about 2,000 yards behind the Lincoln, ready to react to any threats.
The first several hours were uneventful. The three ships passed several commercial cargo ships along the way. All the while U.S. helicopters flew ahead, warning the ships of any threats.
Just as the ships closed in on the most difficult part of the transit – the so-called knuckle – a U.S. Predator spotted an Iranian F-27. Just minutes later, the Iranian surveillance plane flew along the starboard side of the ship. While this is fairly routine, as soon as the surveillance plane came in to sight, sailors all across the bridge grabbed binoculars and ran outside to catch a glimpse.
The F-27 flew right by the ships without any incident.
Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters
A helicopter from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln hovers over an Iranian patrol ship during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday.
After the plane disappeared, an Iranian patrol boat appeared as just speck on the horizon.
A sailor on the bridge of the Cape St. George estimated the boat was at least five miles away. "It's heading right for the Abe," another sailor said, referring to the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Suddenly the bridge was buzzing with energy again. Some sailors held binoculars and studied the ship, while others picked up phones and radios. U.S. helicopters headed toward the boat and radioed information about the craft. Suddenly, when the boat was just about two miles away from the U.S. ships, it changed course and headed away from the carrier.
Despite the fact the potential threat seemed to be over, the bridge continued to buzz and binoculars remained pointed in that direction for several minutes after the boat disappeared.
Aside from the occasional direction to change speed or check how far the Cape St. George was behind the Abe, the bridge quieted a bit. Minutes passed without incident. A minute turned into an hour. The crew ate fruit and pop tarts Pop Tarts and drank coffee.
Then the radio crackled, a phone rang, and someone said that six or seven fast boats were heading right for the Abe.
The tiny boats were tough to see as they went speeding along the horizon, disappearing every few seconds when they found the bottom of a wave. In fact, the easiest way to keep track of the boats was to look for the U.S. helicopters overhead.
Several of the boats sped right in front of the Sterett. One sailor said they cut less than 2,000 yards in front of the destroyer. After they made it to the other side of the U.S. convoy, one of the boats, lagging behind, tried to cut in between the Sterett and the Abe.
That was a little too close for comfort, so a helicopter fired off a flare in the direction of the boat, causing it to turn off and away from the carrier.
The bridge was alive with excitement. Were they Iranian boats? Were they Revolutionary Guard? Several minutes passed before the captain said they were likely smugglers and did not appear to be armed. But just about every sailor on the bridge was smiling at the excitement.
The transit was nearing the end and the crew seemed to take a collective deep breath. About one hour later the ship’s Capt. Don Gabrielson, addressed the ship over the PA system, congratulating them for a job well done.
The sailors returned to their normal duties and began to prepare for their next mission, conducting flight operations over Afghanistan. They were scheduled to begin flights the very next day.
Despite the fact the transit was safe and somewhat uneventful, the sailors seemed pleased.
“I got to see fireworks!” one sailor said, referring to the flares and smiling wide.