An armada of US and British naval power is massing in the Persian Gulf in the belief that Israel is considering a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme.
Battleships, aircraft carriers, minesweepers and submarines from 25 nations are converging on the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in an unprecedented show of force as Israel and Iran move towards the brink of war.
Western leaders are convinced that Iran will retaliate to any attack by attempting to mine or blockade the shipping lane through which passes around 18 million barrels of oil every day, approximately 35 per cent of the world’s petroleum traded by sea.
A blockade would have a catastrophic effect on the fragile economies of Britain, Europe the United States and Japan, all of which rely heavily on oil and gas supplies from the Gulf.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most congested international waterways. It is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point and is bordered by the Iranian coast to the north and the United Arab Emirates to the south.
In preparation for any pre-emptive or retaliatory action by Iran, warships from more than 25 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will today begin an annual 12-day exercise.
The war games are the largest ever undertaken in the region.
They will practise tactics in how to breach an Iranian blockade of the strait and the force will also undertake counter-mining drills.
The multi-national naval force in the Gulf includes three US Nimitz class carrier groups, each of which has more aircraft than the entire complement of the Iranian air force.
The carriers are supported by at least 12 battleships, including ballistic missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers and assault ships carrying thousand of US Marines and special forces.
The British component consists of four British minesweepers and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay, a logistics vessel. HMS Diamond, a brand-new £1billion Type 45 destroyer, one of the most powerful ships in the British fleet, will also be operating in the region.
In addition, commanders will also simulate destroying Iranian combat jets, ships and coastal missile batteries.
In the event of war, the main threat to the multi-national force will come from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps navy, which is expected to adopt an “access-denial” strategy in the wake of an attack, by directly targeting US warships, attacking merchant shipping and mining vital maritime chokepoints in the Persian Gulf.
Defence sources say that although Iran’s capability may not be technologically sophisticated, it could deliver a series of lethal blows against British and US ships using mini-subs, fast attack boats, mines and shore-based anti-ship missile batteries.