By Adrian Blomfield, Middle East Correspondent
11:47AM GMT 25 Feb 2012
Military planners have asked for emergency funding from Congress to address a perceived shortfall in defence capabilities that could undermine the ability of US forces to respond to an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz, the Wall Street Journal quoted American officials as saying.
Gen James Mattis, the head of the US Central Command, has privately informed Congress of his intentions to place mine detection and clearing equipment in and around the Strait and to boost surveillance capabilities in the Gulf.
There are also plans to modify weapons systems on ships that are at present vulnerable to Iranian fast-attack boats, many of which carry anti-ship missiles.
Reflecting Pentagon fears that the US could be sucked into a war by the end of the year, the Central Command told Congress that it wanted the new systems in place by the autumn.
The request comes amid growing speculation that Israel is preparing to launch unilateral military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities this year. Senior US and British officials have cautioned Israel against such action, urging Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to give tougher Western sanctions against Iran a chance to work. President Barack Obama is expected to emphasise that message when he holds talks with Mr Netanyahu in Washington next Sunday.
But with Israeli intelligence officials warning that Iran will soon move into a “zone of immunity”, after which military action conducted by the Jewish state alone will be ineffective, there are mounting concerns that Mr Netanyahu cannot be reined in.
Many officials in Washington fear that Israeli military action could easily draw the United States into a war with Iran. Tehran has already threatened to retaliate to an Israeli offensive by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important energy waterway, which lies at the narrowest point of the Gulf.
It could also order attacks on US ships and military assets in the region, including the American naval base in Bahrain.
The latest measures appear designed in part to send Iran a message that any chinks in the US military’s ability to respond to an attack by Tehran have been sealed.
“When the enemy shows more signs of capability, we ask what we can do to checkmate it,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a US military officer as saying. “They ought to known we take steps to make sure we are ready.”
In a further sign of US preparations, defence officials said that an American special operations term stationed in the United Arab Emirates would be ordered into military action in the strait should Iran attempt to lay mines to blockade it.
The disclosure of the planned measures comes after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Friday that Iran had significantly boosted the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at its nuclear plants in Natanz and Fordow.