Vice Admiral Patrick Walsh, commander of naval forces across the U.S. military’s Central Command, said that while "Iranian tone and rhetoric creates an environment of intimidation and fear," the United States "must be careful not to contribute to escalation."
One purpose of the deployment, they said, is to make clear that the focus on ground troops in Iraq has not made it impossible for the United States and its allies to maintain a military watch on Iran. That would also reassure Washington’s allies in the region who are concerned about Iran’s intentions.
The officials said the planned growth in naval power in the Gulf and surrounding waters would be useful in enforcing any sanctions that the United Nations might impose. Washington says Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons and is seeking to punish it for that.
The buildup would address another concern: that Iran could attempt to block oil shipments from the Gulf in retaliation for UN sanctions or other U.S.-led pressure.
Steps are already being taken to increase the number of minesweeping vessels and magnetic sleds carried by helicopters to improve the ability to counter Iranian mines that could block oil-shipping lanes, Pentagon and military officials said.
As part of future deployments after the first of the year, the British Navy plans to add two mine-hunting vessels to its ships that already are part of the international coalition patrolling waters in the Gulf.
A British Navy news release said the ship movements were aimed at "maintaining familiarity with the challenges of warm-water mine-hunting conditions." But a senior British official said: "We are increasing our presence. That is only prudent."
Military officers said doubling the aircraft carrier presence in the region could be accomplished quickly by a shift in sailing schedules.
As opposed to ground and air forces that require bases in the region, naval forces offer the ability to project power into parts of the world where a large U.S. presence is controversial, unwanted even by allies. Many of the ships could be kept over the horizon, out of sight but close enough.
In an interview from his headquarters in Bahrain, Walsh declined to discuss the specifics of future deployments. "To assure our friends, we have to have capabilities to secure the critical sea lines of communication," Walsh said.
"They need reassurances that we expect to be part of the effort here for the long term, that we will not run away from intimidation and that we will be part of the effort here for security and stability at sea for the long term," he added. "Our position must be visible, and it must have muscle in order to be credible. That requires sustained presence."
Other military officials did describe specifics of the planned deployments in order to clarify the rationale for the movement of ships and aircraft, but they would not do so by name because Gates has not yet signed any deployment orders.
Pentagon officials said the military’s joint staff, which plans operations and manages deployments, had recently received a formal request from commanders for a second aircraft carrier strike group in the region. That request was mentioned in various news accounts over the past few days.
The aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group — including three escort ships, an attack submarine and 6,500 sailors in all — entered the Gulf on Dec. 11 after an autumn naval exercise to practice halting vessels suspected of smuggling nuclear materials in waters across the region.
A carrier had not been inside the Gulf since the Enterprise left in July, according to Pentagon officials. The next carrier scheduled to sail toward the Middle East is the John C. Stennis, already set to depart Bremerton, Washington, for the region in late January, according to naval officers.