ABOARD A U.S. NAVY SHIP IN THE PERSIAN GULF – In the darkest of darkness, surrounded by a glass-smooth sea – thousands of miles from home – an American voice reads a statement over a VHF radio frequency primarily used for international distress calls.
"Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité: Good morning all ships. This is a coalition warship conducting maritime operations in the (Persian Gulf) in support of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. If you observe any suspicious or illegal activity, or require assistance, contact the nearest coalition warship."
The announcement, repeated at regular intervals throughout the night and day, is read by a U.S. Navy officer from the bridge of USS Farragut, a 510-foot Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named after America's first admiral, David Farragut.
Farragut served in the War of 1812. At the Battle of Vicksburg he led a successful attack with the now-iconic order: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
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The U.S. Navy's statement is aimed at any number of troublemakers who operate here, from modern-day pirates to Houthi insurgents from nearby Yemen.
But really its intended audience is Iran.
In particular, the network of heavily armed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels the country has used to obstruct commercial shipping and seize foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf following increased friction between Tehran and Washington after the Trump administration withdrew from a nuclear accord between Iran and world powers and reimposed economic sanctions. Tensions have intensified in recent days after the Pentagon killed a senior Iranian general in a drone strike in Iraq and Iran responded by launching a missile attack on two bases in Iraq that are home to U.S. troops.
Additionally, U.S. intelligence, disputed by Iran, indicates that Tehran's military may have accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner around the time of the attack.
For now, the White House has appeared to indicate it won't be seeking immediate retaliation and amid the continuing fallout the House of Representatives approved a resolution to limit the White House's ability to take further military action. A similar resolution is expected to be considered for a vote in the Senate next week.
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"They hardly ever answer. But we know they're out there," said Cmdr. Eric E. Meyers, USS Farragut's executive officer – Meyers is second-in-command – as he surveyed the Persian Gulf's coal-black horizon from the ship's bridge one evening late last year.
During hours of darkness, USS Farragut turns off most of its external lights to help avoid detection, adding to the impression of total darkness as far as the naked eye can see. Below deck, only red light is used because it doesn't travel as far as white.
USA TODAY spent a few days aboard the state-of-the-art, combat-ready destroyer as it patrolled the front lines of U.S. efforts to thwart Iranian aggressions at sea in a body of water in western Asia that is in the heart of the Middle East. It is also one of the world's most strategically important choke points for transporting oil.
Over 9,000 vessels operate in the area each day and one-sixth of global oil production and one-third of the world's natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf that Iran claims as its territory.