|First US Navy Warship Heads to Black Sea|
|Luis Martinez||Jan 31, 2014, 6:06 PM|
The USS Mount Whitney left its homeport of Gaeta, Italy, today - the first of two U.S. Navy ships that will be operating in the Black Sea during the Sochi Olympics, Pentagon officials said.
The other vessel, the frigate USS Taylor, is scheduled to depart an Italian port on Saturday, officials said. Both ships will likely enter the Black Sea sometime over the coming week.
The USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) left Italy "to conduct scheduled maritime security operations in the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of operations," a Defense Department official told ABC News.
The USS Taylor (FFG-50) began operating in the Sixth Fleet in early January, officials said.
The fact that two U.S. Navy ships would deploy to the Black Sea around the time of the Winter Games has been known for a few weeks but Pentagon officials had not identified the vessels until today.
Officials have stressed that the vessels were deploying as part of routine operations though they could be made available to assist the State Department's needs during the Sochi Olympics, which begin Feb. 7.
"If called upon, USS Mount Whitney could be available to render such support," a Defense Department official said today.
Much has been made of how both ships could be used to potentially evacuate Americans from Sochi in an emergency situation. Both are relatively small vessels equipped with a helipad capable of accommodating a small helicopter.
Russia has deployed tens of thousands of security forces to the area surrounding Sochi to counter any potential terrorist threat to the games by Islamic militants.
Pentagon officials have said that the U.S. has offered to provide Russia with security assistance should Russia ask for it, though no official request has been made.
However, Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, did make an informal request during a meeting last week with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for information about counter-bomb technology, officials said. The U.S. military has built up tremendous expertise in countering roadside bombs used by insurgents in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A military official told ABC News today that by the time Gerasimov brought the topic up with Dempsey, the U.S. had already provided technical information for countering roadside bombs to the Russian general's staff.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to reiterate the U.S. commitment of assistance.
Both agreed that the U.S. and Russian militaries should maintain regular contacts throughout the Games, Pentagon officials said.