All Hands on Deck

How the U.S. is using the Gulf states to deter Iran.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Monday’s incident off the coast of the UAE — in which the U.S. Navy support ship Rappahannock killed an Indian fisherman with heavy machine gun fire after his 30-foot boat came too close — occurred just miles from Jebel Ali, one of the Navy’s busiest ports in the region and a port that is only going to become busier. In fact, despite the much-publicized renewed emphasis on Asia, a lot of the Pentagon action in the coming years is actually going to focus on the Gulf. That’s why, when they unveiled the Pentagon’s 21st century security strategy in January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter repeatedly emphasized that the strategic "pivot" would include the Middle East as well as the Far East.

The reasons aren’t difficult to discern. The Persian Gulf’s energy reserves make it a region of vital strategic interest for the United States, and the American departure from Iraq has left something of a security vacuum, dramatically reducing the U.S. presence in the region. Meanwhile, Iran is building up its navy and making threatening noises about closing the Strait of Hormuz. The United States is not necessarily prepared for the new situation. "We have a Navy that was really developed to fight the Cold War," while "the Iranians have been spending money to create capabilities that exploit the U.S. Navy’s vulnerabilities in the Gulf," says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Navy "belatedly came to the recognition that there are gaps in our capabilities that need to be filled."

The Navy is now filling those gaps. But, in addition to beefing up its own military presence, the United States is quietly strengthening its links with the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — to "promote regional stability, provide a counterweight to Iran, and reassure partners and adversaries alike of American resolve," according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in June. This effort to "formalize" coordination on security and economic issues and "further broaden strategic ties" was kicked off at the Strategic Cooperation Forum in March. Talks to discuss the actual steps necessary to strengthen these ties are slated for September 2012.

But what precisely will the physical footprint of this new "security architecture" look like?

What’s already there is pretty impressive. Take Jebel Ali. Built in the 1970s and located roughly 20 miles southwest of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the port has the largest man-made deep-water harbor in the world; and, covering 52 square miles, it’s the largest port in the Middle East, with more than 1 million square meters of shipping container storage. A quick look on Google Earth reveals a U.S. Navy Nimitz class aircraft carrier tied up alongside the service’s fenced in R&R facility there. And where there are carriers, there are Aegis radar-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers, frigates, at least one attack submarine, and several supply ships similar to the Rappahannock nearby. While it’s not officially a major Navy base, it sees a steady stream of ships that are rotating through the region on deployments from their homeports in the United States.

Next up is the headquarters for the Navy’s Middle East operations, in Manama, Bahrain, a site the sea service describes as, "the busiest 60 acres in the world." While Naval Support Activity Bahrain, as it’s formally known, isn’t necessarily bustling with as many large ships as Jebel Ali, it serves as the nerve center for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a variety of U.S. and international task forces that do everything from protecting Iraq’s oil platforms to hunting pirates off the Somali coast. It’s also the home port of numerous U.S. Navy minesweepers and patrol boats, while bigger Navy ships often pull into Bahrain’s extensive repair and resupply facilities that sit just across the harbor from the base.

Much as Jebel Ali does for the Navy, the UAE air force’s Al Dhafra Air Base serves as a major hub for U.S. and allied jets. American KC-10 and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, E-3 Sentry AWACS jets, U-2 spy planes, and even F-22 Raptors regularly deploy there. The base is also home to the Gulf Air Warfare Center, a facility that brings together the air forces of the GCC states, the U.S. Air Force, and other nations for air combat exercises. Al Dhafra is also rumored to be a potential home for U.S.-made high-altitude missile defense systems.

Perhaps more important than Al Dhafra is the American base at al Udeid, Qatar, U.S. Central Command’s hub for allied forces in the region, as well as host to a number of bombers, cargo planes, tankers, and spy jets. Again, a Google Earth overview reveals B-1 heavy bombers, KC-135 tankers, RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence collection planes, E-8 Joint STARS ground-scanning radar jets, C-130 tactical airlifters, P-3 Orion submarine hunters, an EP-3 Aries signals intelligence plane, a C-5 Galaxy airlifter, and C-17 airlifters on the ramp there.

Meanwhile, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait has served as the regional depot for U.S. military ground vehicles in the Gulf, most recently thousands of tanks, trucks, MRAPS, and other armored vehicles departing Iraq. Camp Arifjan is closely linked with the Kuwaiti port of Shuaiba, where the ground vehicles are loaded and unloaded from cargo ships. The Air Force maintains a wing of C-130 Hercules tactical airlifters at Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait.

However, Pentagon planners have realized that the current make-up of its forces in the Gulf, which have been largely focused on supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not adequate for deterring Iran. Therefore, the Defense Department is rushing equipment to the region aimed at countering the Iranian threat.

The recent buildup of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf includes the 1970s-vintage USS Ponce, a transport that was converted this spring into a floating "lily pad" base for minesweeping operations (it can also accommodate special operations troops) and that arrived in the Gulf this month. Four additional Avenger class minesweepers arrived in the Gulf in late June, bringing the total in the region to eight. The Navy is also arming its anti-mine forces in the Gulf with Seafox mine-hunting undersea drones that can be launched from Avengers or MH-53 helicopters. The Defense Department also announced that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis will leave for the Gulf in December, four months ahead of schedule, in order to maintain the presence of two aircraft carriers and their strike groups in the region through next year.

The Pentagon is also purchasing 40 Raytheon-made Griffin missiles and their associated launchers for use by the Navy’s Cyclone class patrol craft stationed in the Gulf. (The Griffin is seen as a tool to defend against swarms of fast-moving speed boats. "Swarming" is a tactic frequently espoused by Iranian sea services as a way to confront large U.S. warships.) The Cyclone class boats are also reportedly having laser targeting devices added to their Mk 38 25 mm chain guns.

The United States is also reportedly set to open a powerful AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar in Qatar that will likely be used, along with two others in Israel and Turkey, to monitor Iranian missile launches, the Wall Street Journal is reporting. U.S. Central Command may also deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to Qatar in coming months.

The United States and Europe are also helping the Gulf nations modernize their militaries. "Our approach has been to respond to Iran’s ramping up of its nuclear program with large arms sales to the Gulf," said Eisenstadt. "The idea is, developing nuclear weapons or advancing your nuclear program will harm rather than hurt your security because we’ll respond by bolstering your neighbors and therefore you will be more vulnerable to your neighbors."

Most recently, the United States finalized a deal to provide Saudi Arabia with 84 brand new Boeing F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter-bombers and to upgrade 70 of the kingdom’s existing F-15S Strike Eagles. The Saudis also received 24 brand new Eurofighter Typhoons in 2011, the first of 72 Typhoons ordered by the Saudis. The Typhoon and the latest versions of the Strike Eagle are among the world’s most advanced fighters, designed for both high-end air combat and bombing campaigns. The Saudis have also recently purchased three stealthy air-defense frigates from France and are reportedly considering buying two U.S. made DDG-51 class Aegis-equipped destroyers and an unknown number of littoral combat ships.

Qatar is set to decide on a fleet of 24 or more fighter jets to replace its fleet of French-made Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters. (Six to eight of Qatar’s Mirage’s participated in NATO’s campaign to oust former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.) The tiny nation is eyeing the Typhoon, Strike Eagle, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Dassault’s Rafale.

Meanwhile, the UAE, whose Mirage 2000s and Lockheed-made F-16s also flew in Libya, is looking to buy new fighters, possibly financing the development of an entirely new aircraft despite the fact that it bought the most advanced versions of the F-16, known as the F-16E/F Block 60, in 2007. (The UAE actually paid for the development of the Block 60 F-16, making it the first country to fly a better version of an American-made fighter than the United States itself.)  The UAE’s navy is also financing the development of six brand new stealthy corvettes designed to do everything from mine-laying and coastal patrols to light anti-ship warfare.

Oman has recently purchased 12 new F-16s and will refurbish its older F-16s. It is also buying three British-made corvettes.

This infusion of new radars, planes, ships and missile defenses may be enough to deter Iran’s military today, but Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the long term is a different matter. Given the fact that Iran has increasing numbers of missiles and rockets that can reach existing facilities, it makes little sense to keep American forces and command centers on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

Gunzinger has called for the U.S. to pull back its headquarters facilities from the shores of the Persian Gulf and establish a network of smaller, more widely distributed bases further back on the Arabian Peninsula that would be harder for the Iranians to target. "We need to maintain a presence in the Gulf but one that doesn’t maintain a [command center] at al Udeid and Navy headquarters in Manama."

For the time being, however, the new security architecture seems to mean strengthening the existing foundation of U.S. forces in the Gulf, while beefing up GCC forces through arms sales, training, and encouraging increased military cooperation between the GCC nations. The question now is whether it will work, providing the deterrent to Iran that so many in Washington and elsewhere feel we need.

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