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Former TOPGUN instructor tapped to lead Navy’s 5th Fleet

Rear Adm. Scott A. Stearney, Commander, Strike Force Training Atlantic, talks with the media at the 9/11 Memorial Site in lower Manhattan during Fleet Week New York 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David P. Coleman)

The Pentagon has tapped a career aviator and former TOPGUN instructor to lead the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced Thursday that Rear Adm. Scott Stearney had been nominated to take charge of the epicenter of naval operations in the Middle East. He is also slated to lead Naval Forces Central Command and receive a promotion to vice admiral.

Stearney — who now serves as director of operations for U.S. Central Command — will replace Vice Adm. John Aquilino, whom the Pentagon nominated last month to take over the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Aquilino took over as head of Navy forces in the Middle East only six months ago.

If confirmed, Stearney will command a fleet whose operations area covers roughly 2.5 million square miles of sea and includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, parts of the Indian Ocean and choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Bab el Mandeb strait at the southern tip of Yemen.

The Navy routinely sends aircraft carrier strike groups on rotation deployments to Bahrain. They have conducted air strikes in the region to eliminate the Islamic State as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Naval forces in the region began an air campaign against the terror group in August 2014 in which the USS George H.W. Bush launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.

In December, the USS Theodore Roosevelt — the latest carrier to be deployed to 5th Fleet — began launching strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. It struck Taliban targets in Afghanistan the same month.

Naval forces in the region have also faced provocative acts at sea from Iranian forces. These peaked in January 2016 when 10 U.S. sailors were detained by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after their riverine patrol boats accidentally crossed into Iranian territorial waters.

Last year saw 13 unsafe or unprofessional interactions between the U.S. and Iran, Navy officials said.

Iranian forces have been unusually quite since August when a drone flew within 100 feet of a Navy fighter, forcing the Super Hornet to change directions to avoid collision.

Naval Force Command spokesperson Cmdr. William Urban told reporters Thursday that Iran has seemingly made a deliberate decision to stop harassing Navy ships in the region.

“It seems like they’ve absolutely made a conscious decision to give us more space,” he said. “That is definitely a change in their behavior.”

Stearney previously served as tactics instructor and readiness officer at Navy Fighter Weapons School, or TOPGUN. His past assignments include serving as the commander of Carrier Air Wing 7, Carrier Strike Group 4 and Navy Warfare Development Command. He has flown more than 4,500 hours and accumulated over 1,000 carrier-arrested landings in an F/A-18.

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