Cmdr. Glenn Quast, commanding officer of the destroyer Farragut, takes a look Feb. 26 through the binoculars at the Iranian fast missile boat Khadang while transiting the eastern side of the Strait of Hormuz. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
MANAMA, Bahrain — Something that looks very much like a new Cold War is forming up here in the Arabian Gulf region.
The hot ground war of Iraq is over, and its counterpart in Afghanistan is drawing down, perhaps even faster than planned. In their place, a new standoff centered on the maritime environment already is at work, signifying intentions by the U.S. and its allies to remain active participants in the region.
“The U.S. and Iran do not have the healthiest relationship,” Vice Adm. John Miller, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), told an audience at the NavDex naval exposition in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 21. “We keep an eye on them, they keep an eye on us.”
Vice Adm. Philip Jones, the British Royal Navy’s fleet commander, echoed the need to keep a naval presence in the region. About 20 percent of the world’s oil trade is exported every day from here, most of it by sea.
“There are many shared maritime interests,” Jones told the Abu Dhabi audience Feb. 19. “Peace at sea is not going to keep itself.”
The transition from a ground-based front to a new line patrolled by ships and aircraft is significant. In military geographic terminology, the front line of the new cold war starts in the NAG and runs to the SAG, heads up the SOH and around the Knuckle and out into the GOO.
The Northern Arabian Gulf is not as busy with coalition warships as it was during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But the U.S. and British field about 27 ships permanently assigned to the region — 19 U.S. and eight British. From their base in Bahrain, they regularly cruise the Southern Arabian Gulf and provide escorts for ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz — its “Knuckle” around the peninsula of Oman and the United Arab Emirates — and out into the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
All told, NAVCENT says, more than 40 U.S. Navy ships are operating on any given day in its area. Add international ships from the command’s associated Combined Maritime Force, and more than 70 U.S. and coalition ships are operating here.
A U.S. carrier strike group is almost always working in the region, but several other aviation squadrons also operate in NAVCENT, including strike fighter, electronic countermeasures, patrol, special missions, helicopter mine countermeasures, helicopter support, and unmanned aircraft squadrons and units.
More than 5,000 U.S. Navy personnel are in theater, according to NAVCENT, with more than 4,000 based in Bahrain alone.
The U.S. is spending around $500 million to upgrade its facilities in Bahrain, including significant pier improvements to better handle the mine countermeasures and fast patrol vessels based here. A new flyover bridge is to be built to connect the Naval Support Activity, where NAVCENT’s headquarters building opened in 2004, directly to the piers, eliminating a 20- to 30-minute trek through local traffic to travel a few hundred yards to the waterfront.
The improvements are meant to send a message to the region that the U.S. is not leaving anytime soon — a message necessary, many repeated, to convince gulf partners they can rely on the Americans.
“The U.S. and the Brits and the French have made it clear they have a long-term interest in remaining in the region,” Eric Thompson, director of strategic studies at the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington, said March 20. “They are declared stakeholders about what Iran is doing. Lots of other countries express their interest in the region — including China and India — but not in the same fashion regarding maintaining regional stability.”
Leaders in the region, from Miller on down, noted the Iranians have become less confrontational in recent months, with fewer provocative approaches by fast Iranian small craft on coalition warships.
But Iranian air activity has increased, with more aircraft on patrol — including an increased use of UAVs — and more aggressive behavior against American UAVs. On March 12, an Iranian F-4 fighter came within 16 miles of a U.S. MQ-1 Predator UAV operating, according to the Pentagon, over international waters. The Predator was escorted by two U.S. military aircraft, and the F-4 withdrew after a verbal warning.
In another incident last November, an Iranian fighter fired upon a Predator.
“The United States communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters consistent with long-standing practice and our commitment to the security of the region,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said March 14. “We also communicated that we reserve the right to protect our military assets, as well as our forces, and will continue to do so.”
The incidents are the sort of thing that, in a cold-war environment, could lead to something more dangerous.
“There are the routine contacts, bridge-to-bridge, aircraft-to-aircraft, that go on” between the U.S. and Iran, “and they have played a role in avoiding miscommunication,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters March 18. “But the Iranians assert a straight line of control that goes beyond the traditional 12-mile limit, out to 22 miles or so. And there is risk in that calculation.”
Most, but not all, of the officials contacted for this story agreed with the cold-war analogy of the U.S.-Iran standoff. The comparison lacks, for example, the mutually assured destruction aspect of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear posture. But most agreed there are numerous similarities.
“The posture is one of deterrence and presence, and sending of messages on both sides to try and prevent signals of weakness or lack of resolve on either side,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to say there’s going to be heavy investment in a cold war where you continue to pour resources into it.
“But the Iranians are continuing to build their capabilities, particularly asymmetrically. And we’re interested in communicating a clarity of message,” he said. “So it does look like a long-term standoff, and the maritime environment is where that will be.”