U.S., Saudi Forces Start ‘Imminent Thunder’ Exercise in Gulf
ABOARD THE USS O’BRIEN (AP) _ U.S. and Saudi Arabian forces Thursday began a six-day amphibious exercise in the Persian Gulf codenamed ″Imminent Thunder.″ Iraq called it a ″provocative act″ because it was close to Kuwait.
The exercise involved 1,000 U.S. Marines, 1,100 aircraft and 16 ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Midway, which arrived in the region earlier this month.
It was the largest use of aircraft in a single training exercise since American forces began being deployed in the region under Operation Desert Shield in early August.
There have been three previous amphibious exercises in the gulf since Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Iraq, but they were believed to have been held farther south.
While the exact location of Immninent Thunder was not revealed under military policy and a news blackout was imposed for the initial phases, a Pentagon spokesman said the exercise is centered in eastern Saudi Arabia, about 100 miles from Kuwait.
″It is not right next to the Kuwaiti border,″ Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lundquist said late Thursday in Washington. Press reports have said the exercise would be 10 miles from the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
No live ammunition will be fired in Imminent Thunder.
The exercise was not intended to provoke the Iraqis, said U.S. Navy spokesman Cmdr. J.D. Van Sickle.
″The purpose is to give participating forces training in joint and combined operations and to enhance amphibious warfare skills,″ he said. ″Exercise Imminent Thunder is part of our Desert Shield training.″
Military officials said there was no particular significance to the name of the operation and that its timing was not linked to any operational plans.
But it is being held as the United States doubles the number of aircraft carriers in the gulf region to six and sends in 150,000 additional military personnel to join the estimated 230,000 already deployed. The entire U.S.-led multinational force arrayed against Iraq numbers more than 300,000.
The exercise was launched one day after British Defense Secretary Tom King visited Saudi Arabia to discuss what reinforcements Britain might send.
The British have 16,000 personnel in the region, including the 9,000-man 7th ″Desert Rats″ Armoured Division, which became operational Wednesday.
King warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Wednesday: ″Time is running out. We’re not going to sit around forever.″
Adm. Frank B. Kelso, the chief of naval operations who was in the gulf visiting the destroyer USS O’Brien as part of an inspection tour, refused to answer questions about Imminent Thunder.
″We don’t discuss details of future operations,″ Kelso said.
He flew by helicopter out to the O’Brien, operating off Bahrain to help enforce U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq to force it out of Kuwait.
Kelso said the additional three aircraft carriers on their way means ″fundamentally, you have doubled your firepower.″
The exercise included units of the Army, Navy, Air Force and 1,000 members of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Battalion. It also included the Royal Saudi Air Force, and naval and marine units.
Training will consist of an amphibious landing in eastern Saudi Arabia with air cover and close air and naval support of ground forces.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Mickey Kershaw, 37, of West Islip, N.Y., said he felt it would be better to get on with the real fighting, if there was to be any, instead of doing more training.
″It’s a waste of time,″ he said of Imminent Thunder.
He said he would rather fight Saddam’s force now ″than do it five years from now when this guy nukes me and the family I might have.″