What really is happening in the Persian Gulf? What is this reflagging of certain foreign ships all about? Why is the U. S. Navy committing an extraordinary number of its ships to carry out this political decision? How successful has the operation been? These questions, and many more, have plagued the American taxpayer during the past year as the administration has responded to indiscriminate attacks by Iran on commercial tankers in the Gulf.
It might be helpful to review briefly prior U. S. involvement in this area of the world to understand better our increased involvement there today. Former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger carefully outlined this involvement in a speech he delivered in Portland, Maine, shortly before leaving office in late 1987. He noted that of the 16 nations that bordered the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, seven fell to communist domination immediately. Among the remaining, Turkey and Iran were extremely weak and in danger of being dragged into the Soviet fold. In addition, Soviet insurgent actions in Greece threatened that nation’s independence. President Harry Truman responded to these Soviet pressures by increasing U. S. commitments to these nations, and we began strengthening our allies both economically and militarily. Deterrence of a well-armed adversary became the U. S. objective.
A vital facet of this deterrent policy was the forward deployment of air, naval, and ground forces to those geographic areas considered critical to U. S. national interests. The Sixth Fleet became a permanent fixture in the Mediterranean, as did the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific. On 1 January 1949, the Middle East Force was activated. Thus a small U. S. naval presence was established in the Persian Gulf to underline the nation’s interest in maintaining unimpeded access to the Free World’s oil supply. Nearly 40 years later, the Navy now has many more ships on station in the region than the three to five which comprised the force during most of its existence. The augmented force is still carrying out the original policy, as well as protecting other expanding national interests that have since developed in this area.
As in the late 1940s, the unimpeded flow of oil through the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the economic health and well-being of the Western world. It is also of significant interest for the United States to ensure, where possible, the security, stability, and cooperation of the moderate states of the area. Many of these states vividly remember the late 1970s when we abandoned the Shah’s pro-U. S. government we had so carefully nurtured over the years. Finally, the United States has an absolute, if not overriding, interest in limiting Soviet presence and influence in this area, dramatically more so today than 20 years ago, especially when viewed in the context of the current chaotic Iranian situation.
Unfortunately, the U. S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf has skewed public impressions and focus away from the larger context of the Iran-Iraq War, which has been raging since September 1980. It has become one of the longest, most costly conflicts of the 20th century, ranking eighth in total casualties suffered by the combatants. Iran has spent more than $40 billion (twice its annual gross national product), while Iraq has contributed approximately $25 billion to sustain its efforts. Both nations are estimated to be spending about one billion dollars per month at this stage of the conflict.
Iraqi strategy has evolved into one of survival, not one reflecting a plan to win the war. Even so, the type of warfare engendered by this conflict—artillery duels, trench lines, raids, high personnel casualties—makes it doubtful that Iran will be capable of mustering the level of effort that will be required militarily and politically to achieve a major victory.
The Iraqis initially sought to severely damage Iran’s capability to continue the war by striking at its major revenue source—oil. One of Iran’s significant weaknesses in waging a protracted war demanding enduring sustainability has been its almost total dependence on the transshipment of oil to consumers around the world. The revenues received from this trading are then used to purchase military equipment and refined oil products to sustain its war efforts. Iran exports 90% of its crude production through the Kharg Island facility and imports refined products through Bandar Abbas and Bandar Shahiid Reja. These limited transshipment points and their associated tanker traffic have provided lucrative targets for Iraqi air attacks, which have been conducted with some success.
On the other hand, since Iraq exports most of its oil via overland pipeline, which is significantly less vulnerable to interdiction, in-kind retaliatory action by Iran against Iraq in the region has been minimized. However, this relative sanctuary which the Iraqis enjoy with the pipeline does not exist for their economic allies, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which depend on tankers to transport their oil.
Afforded this relatively easy option of indirectly retaliating against Iraq by attacking the shipping of its allies, and at the same time sending a forceful signal to the other Gulf states that similar retaliatory attacks could be expected if they supported Iraq, Iranian forces started attacking these nation’s oil tankers throughout the Gulf. These attacks finally prompted the Kuwaiti Government to seek assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in November 1986. Shortly thereafter, the Kuwaiti Oil Tanker Company approached the U. S. Coast Guard relative to reflagging requirements, after which the Government of Kuwait issued a formal inquiry on the terms of U. S. Navy protection for reflagged Kuwaiti vessels. Coincident to this inquiry, the State Department learned of a Soviet initiative to provide protection to Kuwaiti tankers, reflagged under the Soviet flag, or if that were not acceptable, then to provide Kuwait with Soviet tankers on a charter basis. Kuwait subsequently indicated it was considering reflagging six vessels under the U. S. flag and five under the Soviet flag.
Because of this potential Soviet naval participation and the accompanying increased Soviet influence in the area, the United States advised the Government of Kuwait in March 1987 that it was willing to protect all 11 of the tankers being considered for reflagging. Kuwait accepted this offer, but proceeded with an associated plan to charter three long-haul Soviet-flag tankers for one year. Reflagging of the 11 tankers was accomplished following existing regulations, while procedures and plans for escorting convoys were developed by representatives of the Middle East Force and the Kuwaiti Oil Tanker Company.
Escorting finally commenced in July 1987. Unfortunately, the lead ship in the initial convoy, the 401,382-ton tanker Bridgeton, struck a mine and suffered sufficient damage to place her out of action for several months. Immediately, anguished cries arose concerning poor planning, inefficient escorting procedures, inadequate assigned forces, and deficient individual ship capabilities. Criticisms of current force structure were levied by many at the Navy generally, but more specifically at its planners and on-scene and Washington leadership. Defenders of these early Navy actions found other issues to criticize, focusing on the lack of support, both militarily and diplomatically, that the United States was receiving from its allies in this vital area.
National and international news media coverage added to the already confusing overview the public had been developing on the situation. Moreover, the Reagan administration did little to keep the basic rationale for U. S. involvement in the area and its fundamental national objectives in proper perspective. Among these frustrations and emotional criticisms, Iran’s resolve to resist military intimidation by the presence of significant U. S. naval forces in the area became vividly clear.
Individuals such as Secretary of the Navy James Webb questioned why some of our staunchest allies, who were far more dependent than the United States on the continuing supply of this oil, were so reluctant to commit even token military forces to the region. However, an examination of attacks in late 1987 revealed that Iran was not specifically targeting British, French, Dutch, or other allied shipping. Instead, it was content to concentrate on Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian tankers or other shipping that could embarrass or, in some way, punish the United States for its direct involvement. In addition, even though the attacks on tanker traffic had increased significantly, the price of oil had not escalated on the world market proportionately to this increased risk.
In retrospect, therefore, it was not too difficult to understand, from an allied viewpoint, that there appeared little to gain by committing military forces to this area which was already being patrolled by U. S. warships. To do so certainly would increase the real risk of them becoming embroiled in a continuing and very costly operation. But if the allies were reluctant to commit escort forces, then why shouldn’t they consider contributing a token number of ship types, such as minesweepers, that the U. S. Navy was having difficulty in deploying to the area? After all, a mine is one of the most indiscriminate of all lethal weapons, and clearly Iranian mine fields threatened all shipping in the Gulf.
When the Bridgeton struck the first mine, the credibility of escorting, and indeed the credibility of the 600-ship Navy, became an immediate focal point. How had such an unbalanced force, with such high-low mix disparities, been authorized and appropriated? Why had so much money been invested in the high end and so little in the low end? The answer lay in a combination of fiscal constraints and expectation of allied naval support. The U. S. Navy built types of ships that it was in position to afford— aircraft carriers. Aegis cruisers, and long-range nuclear submarines. At the same time, the United States invested modestly in areas such as mine warfare and mine countermeasures, in which our allies were strongest. But even faced with these low-mix shortfalls, detachments of RH-53 minesweeping helicopters were on station in the Gulf 72 hours after being alerted. Shortly thereafter, a small force of U. S. oceangoing minesweepers joined the RH-53s in efforts to clear transit channels through the Gulf.
To many critics the fact that the Persian Gulf is far outside of the boundaries of NATO’s mutual support provision came first as a shock and then as an irritating constraint. The latter could have been ameliorated somewhat by a better public understanding of the long-time U. S. commitment to the area and the sensitivities of any coalition of NATO forces operating “out of area.” Continuing heavy diplomatic pressures, directed at those of our allies with vital economic interests in the Gulf, and stepped up indiscriminate Iranian attacks on neutral tankers, helped persuade most of these allies to join the effort to protect their interests. At the beginning of 1988, U. S. Navy ships on station were augmented by British, French, Italian, Dutch, and Belgian naval components. Additionally, the Federal Republic of Germany, prohibited by its constitution from sending ships into the Persian Gulf (out of NATO waters), deployed forces to the Mediterranean to help stabilize any impact the Persian Gulf involvement might have on that area. This move may have provided the Italians with added flexibility in naval deployments, making their participation in the Gulf less burdensome. The Japanese contributed significant financial support and navigational systems for minesweeping purposes. As of late March, the additional minesweeping units from these nations, complementing those U. S. assets in the Gulf, appear to have reduced the mine threat to one of negligible significance.
But the mine is not the only weapon the Iranians have used. Since August, they have stepped up their attacks on tankers by using high-speed, heavily armed, small attack boats. The boats, highly maneuverable and manned primarily by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, an irregular force known as the Pasdaran, are equipped with several offensive weapons, including bow-mounted machine guns and Soviet-made rocket-propelled grenades. The advantage this weapon system has over the mine is that its operators can be selective of targets, choosing when and where to attack, and even more importantly with the large number of U. S. and allied forces in the Gulf today—whom to attack.
The fact that most of the allied naval units in the Gulf possess sufficient weapons to defend successfully against such attacks has forced the Pasdaran to recognize that any attack on a vessel escorted by one of these nations will bring an immediate and potentially destructive response. Further, even threatened attacks place these small attack boats in jeopardy, as the Pasdaran learned in October when they were effectively countered by U. S. helicopter gunships before being able to carry out their planned attack on a U. S. Navy installation in the Gulf. Nevertheless, this method of attack is extracting a damaging toll on non-escorted shipping in the Gulf and appears to be the most productive avenue open to the Iranians in their efforts to weaken U. S. resolve to stay the course and to intimidate Third World shipping to stay out of the Gulf. We should expect to see these attacks continue whenever it is politically and militarily advantageous to the Ayatollah.
The Silkworm threat has received considerable publicity. This surface-to-surface, Chinese-made missile could have a lethal impact on targeted shipping as it passes through and operates within the narrow approaches to the Strait of Hormuz. However, the United States has made it patently clear that any Silkworm attacks against this shipping will bring immediate retaliation against the Silkworm bases. With the assigned carrier battle group operating just outside the Gulf in the North Arabian Sea, and its embarked tactical aircraft on alert or airborne during escort operations in this very sensitive transit area, the threat of retaliation is indeed credible and is presumably the prime reason the Iranians have refrained from using this weapon. Iranian aircraft and naval units other than the attack boats remain a potential but limited threat.
To escort the reflagged Kuwaiti vessels and to protect against these Iranian threats, the United States had committed, as of the beginning of this year, more than 30 naval ships to the area. The ships of the Middle East Force itself operate continually in the Persian Gulf, while those in the carrier battle group remain in the North Arabian Sea. Up to February of this year, the combined force consisted of a carrier, a battleship, their supporting escorts, additional destroyers and frigates for escorting, minesweepers for route and channel clearance, an LPH helicopter carrier with the embarked RH-53 minesweeping helicopters, a number of light attack U. S. Army helicopters, a contingency Marine air-ground task force, and a contingent of naval special forces.
The U. S. naval force has been complemented by nine British destroyer types and minesweepers, plus six French, six Italian, and five Belgian and Dutch naval units. To the interested observer, and to most professional military analysts, this collection of ships has enough offensive and defensive capabilities to overwhelm any Iranian threat and will more than adequately ensure the safe passage of escorted shipping. It also would appear to enhance the accomplishment of the U. S. objectives enumerated earlier in the article.
But does it? Iran recognizes the unacceptable price it will have to pay should its forces directly confront these U. S. and allied escort forces. Thus, it appears to this observer that the Iranians will neither confront these naval forces, nor will they attack any of the escorted ships in these convoys. Instead, they will continue to attack those unescorted ships registered under the nations of the world not represented by naval forces, and do so successfully because of the current rules of engagement. Under these existing rules, the naval forces of the participating nations can protect only their nationally flagged vessels transitting the Gulf, although the French appear to have expanded their rules so they can provide protection to ships under attack in the vicinity of one of their naval units. Nevertheless, this leaves a tremendous amount of shipping in the Gulf, certainly most of the Third World tankers, completely vulnerable to unchallenged attacks by the Pasdaran. The freedom of navigation in international waters for all shipping, unless escorted, does not appear achievable under the current rules of engagement, no matter what size force is stationed in the area. Certainly, the deterrent impact the United States had hoped its force would have on the Iranians by its presence has been significantly diminished by these rules.
This anomaly points out the tremendous importance rules of engagement play in today’s military scenarios. In times of war, rules of engagement have very limited impact on the actions of on-scene commanders. Certainly they are significantly less restrictive. But in times of tension, such as currently being experienced in the Gulf, rules of engagement provide the operational envelope within which commanders can and must operate. At times the envelope severely constrains freedom of action and may in some cases, such as the interpretation of hostile intent, endanger the very units they are designed to protect. Critics of the Iraqi attack in May 1987 on the USS Stark (FFG-31) point to insufficient and/or confusing rules of engagement as a contributing factor in this tragedy. This criticism, if true, seems to have been adequately addressed by those empowered to do so, because on-scene U. S. naval commanders state they are comfortable with the existing rules today.
Thus, the dilemma. Do we act as the “policeman of the world,” or at least in the Gulf, by ensuring the safe transit of all shipping in these international waters? How do we respond to the requests from other Gulf Cooperation Council states to reflag their vessels and to provide them escort through these dangerous waters? Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, upon returning from a January 1988 trip to the Persian Gulf, seemed to dismiss any suggestion that the United States would seek a larger role than that currently being pursued, and rejected any proposal whereby this nation would become a policeman of the high seas. Secretary Carlucci appeared to be seeking ways to reduce the U. S. naval presence while continuing to assure the Arab nations of the region that we were still Firm in our commitment to stay the course until the Iran-Iraq situation is resolved. In doing so, he appears to be delicately attempting to balance this reassurance against the reality of the cost of continuing to operate a force of this size in the area with only limited total effectiveness. Current estimates are that it is costing the Navy approximately $20 million per month out of unplanned, thus unappropriated, operating funds to maintain this force.
Can a concentrated U. S. effort to destroy or neutralize the Iranian threats to Gulf shipping be accomplished in such a constrained manner so as not to draw the U. S. into the Iran-Iraq War? The military capability to do so is present. Would this draw the United States into a direct confrontation with Iran on an extended front? Not likely.
Further, the deployment of these ships is, in many cases, deferring programmed and needed maintenance availabilities, placing some fleet units in a similar position of postponed upkeeps faced during the Vietnam War. And most significantly, it is stretching at the very fiber of the Navy’s personnel strengths. Although every effort is being made by Navy leadership to minimize the impact this unforeseen commitment has placed on its operating forces, it still will have some repercussion on the finely tuned length of deployments for its personnel if it continues much longer.
Given Secretary Carlucci’s statement on the future U. S. role, the continuing costs which this commitment is extracting from the U. S. Navy, and the presence and participation of naval units from our allies in this area, some reduction in U. S. forces has begun—at least for the time being. The battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) and helicopter carrier Okinawa (LPH-3) departed in February without being replaced. An adjustment in the mix and number of escort ships might provide some needed relief while still ensuring the safe transit of convoys through the Gulf. The January Proceedings article (“Countering Guerrillas in the Gulf,” pages 65-69) by Lieutenant (junior grade) S. R. Chapin, Jr., relative to the effectiveness of patrol combatants-missile (PHMs) in this situation raises some interesting considerations, especially when augmented by additional light attack helicopters. An expansion of the rules of engagement to allow U. S. Navy warships to take Iranian naval units attacking any transitting ship under fire would do much to interrupt the veritable field day the Pasdaran are currently enjoying. And if it were not for the overwhelming commitments the U. S. Coast Guard has in its drug interdiction efforts, the desires of its commandant to assign several cutters to the area should have been viewed as a most attractive option for force presence.
Throughout this recent buildup of U. S. forces in the area and the decision to escort reflagged and U. S.-registered shipping, all planning was based on carrying out the assigned missions in such a way so as to avoid any situation that would draw the United States into the war. And although the existing constraints appear to have achieved this objective, they have placed the United States in the unenviable position of only partially accomplishing its overall goals; an expensive stalemate has developed. If a multinational force could be established, all nations could draw down on some of the numbers of ships they have in the area. But a multinational force poses significant problems and is not likely, especially when considering NATO sensitivities to out of area operations and individual national rules of engagement.
Recognizing the above, compounded by the fragility of continued public support of an effort that seems to have little impact on moving the combatants to the negotiating table, we face another question: “Can a concentrated U. S. effort to destroy or neutralize the Iranian threats to Gulf shipping be accomplished in such a constrained manner so as not to draw the U. S. into the Iran-Iraq War?” The military capability to do so is present. Would this draw the United States into a direct confrontation with Iran on an extended front? Not likely, especially considering the totality of the Iranian commitment against Iraq and the flexibility and rapid disengagement capabilities of the U. S. naval forces. It probably would arouse world consternation over such an overt action, but it would also allow unharassed shipping to flow through the Gulf in the immediate aftermath—much to the benefit of many of the nations of the world. It would provide many of the member nations of the United Nations with additional incentives to bring the war to a negotiated settlement. And it would allow the United States the opportunity to significantly downsize its naval force without giving the Gulf Cooperation Council nations the impression we were abandoning them.
Certainly, such a course of action, as diplomatically difficult and sensitive as it may be, provides a serious alternative to the frustrating stalemate in which we now find ourselves.