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.