Vice Adm. John Miller is commander, US Naval Forces Central Command Commander and US 5th Fleet/Combined Maritime Forces. (Christopher P. Cavas/staff)
After nearly two years at the helm of the US Navy’s efforts in the Middle East, Vice Adm. John Miller has experienced the push and pull of international relations around the gulf region.
The bellicosity of Iran has recently given way to a more low-key, businesslike profile, even as the sometimes volatile Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — is bickering over Qatari support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
From his headquarters in Bahrain, Miller has led US efforts to maintain an even keel and foster relations between the GCC partners.
Q. How do you see the American role in the Arabian Gulf region?
A. I think our most important role out here is to provide leadership. It has grown over the last two years and I think it is going to continue to grow.
We provide a certain amount of technical expertise, certainly, and we bring a certain amount of firepower to the maritime security role — that sort of backbone is important. But the leadership we provide really allows the entire GCC to weather the storms that are inevitable in any sort of relationship.
Q. This crisis will be weathered and things will come back?
A. Absolutely, and we will leave the GCC issues to the GCC as appropriate, but we will continue to provide the leadership we have always provided.
What we have seen in the nearly two years I have been here is that more nations are flocking to the Combined Maritime Force. The next nation to join is going to be, we think, from Northern Europe.
Q. Can you say who that is?
A. I prefer not to, because I think nations get to speak for themselves, but we think there are several nations from South America that are interested in becoming part of the Combined Maritime Force. They can contribute to maritime security in this region and they can do so within their national authorities. They can do so in ways that they can talk about as much or as little as they would like. And they know we are going to provide the leadership that is going to provide the cohesion that will keep the Combined Maritime Force effective and equal.
Q. Do you see the GCC breaking out with its own leadership?
A. Sure. They have been calling for it, and they are doing so right now under a framework provided within the Combined Maritime Force.
Eventually, will that grow into a GCC maritime task force? I hope so, and I think we can provide the leadership that helps them grow and nurture that force. I think that is exactly the sort of activity we ought to be involved in.
Q. You have steadily been making improvements in the US Naval Support Activity’s [NSA’s] facilities in Bahrain. Is that effort complete?
A. It is always going to be a work in progress, and if you look at the history of the base year after year, it is changing, it is growing.
We have seen the addition of the flyover [bridge] that connects the original part of NSA to NSA II, which is the waterfront side of things. That will be completed here in a few months. We continue to negotiate for additional leases with the Bahrainis and I think we’ll see some continued growth and consolidation there. We also see opportunities for us to join with other partners to consolidate some maintenance activities.
The trends show there is some enduring presence. Some of the modifications we are doing right now will help us get the base ready for the arrival of the littoral combat ships, which we think will start right around 2018. Those are going to serve the US Navy and serve in this area into the middle of the century here. We would not invest in that infrastructure if we did not plan on staying. But it also shows that we plan on doing so not just as the US Navy, but in a coalition environment.
Q. One of the main reasons you are out here is that whatever happens in Iran affects the entire region, but tensions seem to be lower right now. Where are things vis-à-vis Iran in the gulf?
A. First of all, it is always interesting to listen to what Iran says. It is also much more important to watch what Iran does. Those two activities are often times not related, so what they say has no relation to what they do.
Right now, the activity is steady, the maritime environment is relatively secure. I think the Iranians are interested in making sure their activities in the maritime environment are understood and that they do not create opportunity for a misunderstanding, which really puts them in line with our consistent activity, which is that we do not create an opportunity for a misunderstanding.
What I see out of the Iranians right now is a commitment to let the P5+1 [negotiations over Iran’s nuclear strategy] work to whatever conclusion it is going to come to, so that they do not do anything that would take away from the focus of that effort.
Q. But they are still doing what they do. Their vessels and aircraft are still patrolling.
A. Sure, they are military forces just as we are a military, and they are going to do what military forces do.
What is important is that they do so in a responsible manner, and what we have seen in particular is a lack of the sort of provocative activity that we have seen over time. That is a welcome rest. We have not seen that in several months — really, since November, when this process got going in earnest.
Q. You’ve just adjusted your minesweeper force and are back to four ships, and you’re building up your force of PC patrol coastal ships to 10. Have you reached a steady state with your naval force here?
A. I am not sure we are ever going to be at a steady state, because we are a force that is constantly changing and modernizing and updating.
Ponce will be our afloat forward stage base [AFSB] for now. She will be replaced by a new afloat forward staging base.
Q. Do you know what ship will replace the Ponce?
A. I do not have a date on it yet, and likely it’s going to be a mobile landing platform, but that is the likely solution.
What we have learned with Ponce is we have to have an AFSB, so no doubt about that.
We will have the 10 PCs out here in the fall. We just finished testing the forward-deployed PCs that have Griffin missile systems installed. Went four for four with those tests, so we are very pleased with that. Eventually all 10 of our PCs will have Griffin installed.
We are back down to four MCM minesweepers, but we have the same capability today as when we brought the other four out two summers ago. We have replaced the capability of eight MCMs with four MCMs and added some new technology, specifically Mark 18 unmanned underwater vehicles, the Sea Fox minehunting system, and we have other systems coming online.
Q. You also have another major mine countermeasures exercise coming up this year. How many nations will participate?
A. We had 40 in the last one, and our expectations are that it will be at least that high. We have had the initial planning conference and are looking forward to the mid-planning conference here pretty soon, but there is lots of interest from across globe.
Q. So more than 40 nations will be involved?
A. Maybe. Navies from South America, Asia, Western Europe, northern parts of Europe. I just had a chance to talk with the Iraqi head of Navy, and we expect some good participation out of them, more than just a patrol craft. They had an offshore vessel in 2013 and divers.
Q. Would the Iranians participate?
A. I do not have any objection to that. I think it is important that they participate in these sort of things.
If they want to contribute in positive ways to maritime security, whether it is here in the gulf or down in the counter-piracy areas in the Somali basin, that is how you rejoin the family of nations — by contributing positively to things like counter-piracy and maritime security and countermine events. ■