BAHRAIN — From his headquarters here, Vice Adm. John Miller oversees U.S. naval operations in one of the world’s most volatile regions, stretching from the Arabian Gulf across the Arabian Sea and into the Indian Ocean. Under the overall aegis of U.S. Central Command, a major regional reset is taking place as the U.S., having withdrawn from Iraq and in the midst of a drawdown from Afghanistan, repositions itself for a longer-running standoff across the maritime frontier with Iran and regional terrorists.
Q. You are at the nexus of one of the world’s hotspots, the region surrounding the Arabian Gulf. As the ground wars in Iraq and, hopefully, Afghanistan come to an end, what are you focusing on?
A. Our mission here hasn’t changed, and it’s been a steady mission for over 60 years — to contribute to the maritime security and stability of the region. I’m a firm believer that the overall stability of the region is greatly impacted by the level of stability and security of the maritime environment, that it really starts there. So, if the sea lanes of communication are safe, if ships are able to transit in and out of the Arabian Gulf through the Gulf of Oman through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb through the Suez Canal or out to the Indian Ocean, then we are doing our job.
There are effectively three commands located within this headquarters. There’s the U.S. 5th Fleet, there’s [Naval Forces Central Command] — the maritime component of U.S. Central Command — and then there’s the combined maritime force. It’s not just the United States, although we certainly provide a good deal of leadership. The biggest contribution we make is to organize the various forces.
Every nation comes on their own accord, they come with their own set of national caveats. We know in advance what they can do and what they cannot do. We don’t ask them to do things they cannot do, and when we get to a point where they can no longer act — because they’ve come to the limits of their national authority — we have procedures that shift the responsibility to a different nation that does.
Q. You have a key focus on anti-terrorism operations. How is that threat evolving?
A. There was concern back to 2001 that if we were successful in Afghanistan, what would the terrorists there do, go to some other ungoverned space? The closest and most ungoverned space outside Afghanistan was Somalia. So we stood up a mission around the Horn of Africa. Their mission today is primarily civil affairs because we haven’t seen the maritime movement of terrorists either out of Iraq or out of Afghanistan into Yemen or into Somalia.
What we have seen and have had some success with is finding weapons being shipped at sea. A few weeks ago, the Yemenis took out a dhow in their waters headed for Yemen. It had nearly 2,000 different articles of weaponry, everything from 7.62mm ammunition to plastic explosives to detonators to 122mm shells. And some of that materiel, I understand, you can tie directly to Iran. Some of it comes from the general arms market around the world, including some that originated in the United States. But it was clearly destined for the Yemeni rebels, so it’s going to create unrest and further instability in Yemen, a country which really can’t afford any more instability. It was a great opportunity for the Yemenis and the Yemeni Coast Guard to take down the ship, and we played a role in helping and we’re proud of that. So, that’s work to be done.
But when you look at the historic sea lanes in this part of the world, particularly those going from the Makran coast [Iran’s Arabian Sea coastline] either to the Saudi peninsula or into Africa, you know for thousands of years people have been trading on those sea lanes. And they trade everything that’s tradable — narcotics, human trafficking, weaponry. It can be terrorists, it can be bad guys, or it can be legitimate trade between two nations or a consortium of nations.
[Our efforts are] liked by nations that understand the need to keep the environment not only open and clear, but also that we’re not trading things that shouldn’t be traded. And it’s not so much our ability to take down particular illicit ships or dhows as it is to enable other nations — particularly if it’s a destination nation — to provide that final law enforcement.
Q. Some years ago there was a celebrated incident where a ship suspected of carrying arms came out of North Korea and proceeded to the Middle East. The U.S. tracked the ship until it was lost in the clutter of ship traffic in your region. Is your ability
A. We have improved our capability, and in particular what helps us quite a bit is the BAMS [Broad Area Maritime Surveillance unmanned aircraft] demonstrator. We have a couple in theater. They are very capable; they have a lot of endurance. You have to admire an airplane where when they put up the schedule, the take-off is on one day and the landing is on another. They cover a lot of area, and we have really improved our ability to process the information. BAMS has been a great success.
Q. The requirement for two carriers here was recently rescinded, ostensibly for budget reasons, and only one carrier will be deployed here for the foreseeable future. How does that affect operations?
A. Having two carriers gives me an enormous amount of flexibility because it allows me to focus one carrier on the Operation Enduring Freedom mission [over Afghanistan] and that’s important for the troops on the ground. We provide about a third of the attack air coverage for the country. So it’s a substantial contribution. The second carrier can be used for exercises, maritime security operations, assurance for our partners, deterrence for potential enemies. If I only have one carrier I have less flexibility. But clearly, it’s the fact that we’re still under a continuing resolution that was a prime driver in the decision not to employ [the carrier Harry S.] Truman when it was expected to deploy. And it was a driver in the decision not to stay at 2.0 because not only is it a strain on the forces from a material standpoint, but for the ship and for the crews. But it’s also a budgetary constraint as well and it’s not just the carrier — you have to fly the air wing, there is some number of surface ships with the strike group. It’s a fairly substantial investment.
Q. How is the budget crisis affecting you?
A. We took a cut as did everybody else in the Navy. Under the [continuing resolution], we were able to absorb that pretty seamlessly because we had already decided to stop an intelligence, search and reconnaissance line with the Scan Eagle [UAV] that we had had since Iraqi Freedom. Very fortunately for us, coincident with our decision to stop doing that, we got a cut; it was almost dollar per dollar the same amount of money.
So I’m comfortable with where we are today with our budget. If we go to sequestration it can be a different story altogether. It’s going to be painful for everybody.
We’ll operate at a reduced rate, no doubt about it. Getting ships ready to come out here is my real concern. It’s the material readiness, it’s the training readiness levels of ships that are back in [the U.S.] right now. That’s going to be a messy problem for us.
Q. A plethora of nations have been taking part in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, many in organized fashion under U.S., NATO or EU leadership, but also some independent players, including the Chinese. What cooperative opportunities have arisen out of
A. The Somali basin is probably the most interesting petri dish where you have all these various different entities. There is our counterpiracy task force, the EU has one, NATO has one. You can join any one of those [or ask], do we really need three? But it gives every nation an opportunity to decide who they want to affiliate with. Then there are the independents — the Chinese are down there, the Russians, Indians, Iranians, usually. We work very cooperatively between NATO, EU and the U.S. and to good effect. Nations like the Chinese are there primarily for Chinese-flag ships.
So you could set your scheme of maneuver up so that, say, I’ve got two Chinese-flag ships coming through on Tuesday, and I know that the Chinese Navy is going to pick them up right at the beginning of the traffic corridor and take them all the way through. So you know I don’t have to have a ship down there doing that, because that work’s getting done. And, just by the nature of the work, with those two ships being guarded by a Chinese warship, that Chinese warship also guards everybody else within their sphere.
Q. Is there any cooperation like that with the Iranians?
A. No, generally speaking the Iranians stay out of our way and everybody else’s way, and everybody else stays out of their way.
Q. What is the future for the U.S. Navy in this region?
A. We are out here in an enduring way, and we’re out here with coalition partners that understand the situation in the same way we do. That can be the U.K. or Canadians or the French, but it can also be the Kuwaitis and the Saudis and the Emiratis or the Bahrainis, who are great hosts for us. We’re going to continue to have that presence, and it will endure past the political situation of the day — just as it has for over 60 years — and we will be here into the future, making sure that we’re contributors to that security and stability.
In the meetings I have with partner nations, they are adamant about how important our contribution is to their efforts. It’s not just the fact that we can help them with the defense of their homeland. But it’s the fact that we’re a reassuring presence. They know that we’re here and they know that we’re dedicated to our mission, which is to make sure that the environment stays secure and stable, regardless of what the threat is.
Where that threat comes from, who it is, anybody that threatens that stability or threatens the ability to free-flow commerce in and out of the region, is somebody we’re making sure we watch and deter them from activities that would be destabilizing.