Message To Iran: Navy Sends Guided-Missile Submarine On Rare Trip Into The Persian Gulf (Updated)
This is the first time one of these Tomahawk missile-laden submarines has been in the Persian Gulf in eight years.
The U.S. Navy has publicly announced the transit of USS Georgia, one of its four Ohio class guided-missile submarines, or SSGNs, from the Gulf of Oman into the Persian Gulf by way of the highly strategic and often tense Strait of Hormuz. This is the first time one of these boats has sailed into that body of water in eight years. These four submarines are among the most in-demand across the service's submarine fleets and Georgia's rare appearance in the region would seem to be, at least in part, a signal aimed squarely at Iran and its regional proxies.
Georgia passed through the Strait of Hormuz on Dec. 21, 2020, accompanied by two Ticonderoga class cruisers, USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea. This trio traveled into the Persian Gulf following the movement of the supercarrier USS Nimitz, and elements of its carrier strike group, further south in the Arabian Sea to support Operation Octave Quartz, the repositioning of the bulk of U.S. forces out of Somalia.
The Ohio class SSGNs are best known for their ability to carry up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. However, they typically only carry around 100 of these weapons – a still impressive amount – and are actually multi-mission platforms capable of carrying special operations forces and other highly specialized equipment, including various unmanned platforms, all while acting as discreet underwater intelligence fusion nodes and command centers.
In the pictures of the boat heading into the Persian Gulf, a dry deck shelter, primarily for deploying special operators underwater, including in mini-submarines, is visible mounted behind Georgia's sail. The SSGNs can carry up to two dry dock shelters at one time to support relatively special operations contingents that can be deployed aboard. You can read much more about these submarine's unique genesis and capabilities in this previous War Zone feature.
"USS Georgia (SSGN 729) is supporting routine maritime security operations in the region," Navy Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokesperson for the U.S. 5th Fleet, which oversees the service's operations in and around the Middle East, as well as in parts of the Indian Ocean, told The War Zone. "The U.S. Navy, alongside our partners, maintain a constant state of vigilance to ensure the critical waterways remain safe for the free flow of commerce."
"Georgia’s presence in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations (AOO) demonstrates the U.S. Navy’s ability to sail and operate wherever international law allows," an official news story also said. "As an inherently flexible maneuver force, capable of supporting routine and contingency operations, Georgia’s presence demonstrates the United States’ commitment to regional partners and maritime security with a full spectrum of capabilities to remain ready to defend against any threat at any time."
Though the Navy has described Georgia's activities as being in support of routine operations, it is still highly unusual that it would make light of this transit at all. Commander Rebarich told The War Zone that this is the first time the service has publicly announced the arrival of an Ohio class SSGN in the Persian Gulf since 2012, when the USS Florida sailed in via the Strait of Hormuz. USS Georgia had also previously made a public trip into that body of water in 2009.
The service is typically very tight-lipped about releasing information about the movements of its submarines, in general, and is even more secretive about the more specialized boats it has in service. That Georgia made the transit through such a sensitive area on the surface, where it would draw more attention, but also be at greater risk, is noteworthy, as well.
It's also not clear how long Georgia was in the general area before heading into the Persian Gulf proper. In September, the submarine made a port visit to Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean that hosts major U.S. air and naval bases. The month before that, that boat stopped at Naval Station Rota in Spain, which sits on the Atlantic Ocean right at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.
Now that it is in the Persian Gulf, Georgia's diverse capabilities give the Navy a powerful tool to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions along the Iranian coastline, as well as throughout the rest of the body of water, while remaining largely hidden from potential adversaries. This is extremely beneficial given the constrained nature of this body of water, which inherently presents greater risks for ships operating on the surface. Iranian forces, including shore-based anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, small boat swarms, small submarines, and naval mines, among other capabilities, present very real threats to American and other warships in the region.
Should a conflict arise, Georgia could engage a wide array of targets with Tomahawks, including ones deep inside Iran or those belonging to Iranian proxies, while remaining better protected below the waves. Basically, draw a 1,000 miles circle around the boat's location and any suitable targets that lay inside of it are potentially within reach of its cruise missiles. The submarine could also launch special operations teams to conduct raids, gather intelligence, or conduct other missions ashore, as well.
This would not be the first time an Ohio class SSGN has appeared in a region in the midst of increased geopolitical friction. In 2017, another one of these boats, the USS Michigan, stopped in South Korea's port of Busan at a time when rhetoric, at least, between the United States and North Korea was quickly heating up.
Georgia's public arrival in the Persian Gulf comes amid a spike in tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as Tehran's regional proxies. Just overnight, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq launched rockets at the sprawling Green Zone area in the country's capital Baghdad, which contains the U.S. Embassy, as well as various Iraqi government buildings, killing at least one innocent bystander.
Rocket attacks in Iraq targeting U.S. military and diplomatic personnel have been a regular occurrence for years. However, this latest strike on the Green Zone does come as there has been something of an uptick in such incidents after various Iranian-backed groups announced earlier this month that they were ending a truce they had previously declared with American forces. At least one group has now claimed multiple attacks on logistics convoys supporting elements of the U.S.-led coalition in the country. All of this followed the Pentagon's announcement of plans to withdraw additional forces from Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, in November.
"All those are factors that make it prudent to have a strong defensive posture right now in the region," a military official told Politico earlier this month, but added that, while there were “troubling indicators of potential attack preparations" in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, there were no clear "offensive" movements at that time. “There is no plan here [on the U.S. part] to act, there is a plan to portray a strong defensive posture that would give a potential adversary pause.”
Friction between Washington and Tehran has also been heightened in recent weeks following the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November, which Iranian authorities have blamed on Israeli operatives. Just days before Fakhrizadeh, the Navy had sent the USS Nimitz and elements of its carrier strike group into the North Arabian Sea, on the other side of the Strait of Hormuz, ostensibly to be in a position to support the troop withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan. As noted, that carrier is now operating off the coast of Somalia to support the withdrawals there.
Since then, the Air Force has also sent B-52 bombers on two separate long-range round-trip sorties to the Middle East. Those were missions were also framed as strategic messages aimed at officials in Iran.
Georgia's appearance in the Persian Gulf also comes as the parties to the controversial multi-national deal over Iran's nuclear program have declared that Tehran is now violating the most significant restrictions imposed by that agreement, including how much enriched uranium it can have and how pure that uranium can be. There have also been reports that Iran appears to be pursuing new nuclear-related construction, including of underground facilities that would be better protected from airstrikes or other attacks.
Hard-line elements in Iran have been pushing for expanding uranium enrichment activities, which the United States and Israel fear could speed up the process of Iran building a nuclear bomb, should it choose to do so, for months now in response to the U.S. government's "maximum pressure" campaign, which has included ever-more crippling sanctions. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has expressed interest in returning to the Iran Deal, which President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from in 2018. As such, this posturing by Iran could also be an effort on part of the regime in Tehran to improve its negotiation position before the formal transition of power in January.
All told, Georgia's presence in the Persian Gulf is a clear signal to Tehran of the U.S. government's willingness and ability to respond to any acts of aggression in the region and it also provides a valuable platform to monitor for potentially malign activity in the meantime. If a conflict were to erupt, the relatively unique submarine's massive arsenal of land-attack cruise missiles would be called upon to rain destruction on Iranian air defenses and critical infrastructure during the very opening moments of such a conflict.
UPDATE: 3:15 PM EST
The U.S. Navy has declined to tell The War Zone whether or not USS Georgia had to transit the Strait of Hormuz on the surface, either due to the depth of the waterway or relevant laws and regulations. The depth of the Strait is variable, but is said to be around 90 meters, or 295 feet deep, on average. It is also heavily trafficked by commercial vessels, as well as warships, with approximately 20 percent of all the world's oil exports passing through it each year.
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