Challenging issues faced by the Fifth Fleet, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL, include Iran, Iraq, ongoing maritime interception operations, the current "hot Button" and normal forward engagement activities.
On 1 July 1995, the Navy recommissioned the Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Gulf—the first stand up of a new Fleet in 50 years. Although the affair itself was low-key, the commissioning was significant. For almost half a century, U.S. interests in the Gulf had been represented by the Middle East Force, normally comprised of a few surface combatants and a flagship. Since the Gulf War, however, naval presence had increased significantly. Establishment of Fifth Fleet sent two signals:
- It codified the facts of life—our naval presence had grown to meet a new situation.
- It put substance to the words of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher that our commitment to the region was enduring and "ironclad."
In the last of my two years as Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, I had the privilege of serving concurrently as the fifth Commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. It is, to my mind, the best job in the Navy. First, it is the vice admiral farthest removed from the Pentagon. More substantively, the combination of component and fleet commander duties offers a wide range of responsibilities, from real-world fleet operations to politico-military matters at the highest levels. Finally, the theater itself is incredibly dynamic, rich in culture, intrigue, danger, and—most important—vital international interests.
The United States—indeed, the entire industrial world—has a vital stake in the region. Our government has defined our interests as threefold:
- Stability in the region
- Countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
- Ensuring access to strategic natural resources (in a word, oil)
These interests are not new—nor are they transitory. Clearly, we will remain engaged indefinitely in a region containing more than 60% of the world's known oil reserves. What has changed is the threat.
During much of the 1980s we kept a carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean/Northern Arabian Sea in response to Iranian threats—primarily maritime—to our interests. In 1990, when one Arab state invaded another, the ground threat to those interests became up close and personal for half a million U.S. service members. Both threats remain and appear likely to endure. With the recognition that we should operate large naval formations in the Gulf and with the inclusion of much of the northern Indian Ocean in Central Command's area of responsibility, Central Command has undergone a steady evolution from a largely land focus to one with a significant maritime dimension as well.
The Fifth Fleet commander, like his counterparts around the world, faces a challenging set of key issues every day. In the case of Fifth Fleet, my daily checklist had five items: Iran, Iraq, the ongoing maritime interception operations, the current "hot button," and, finally, the normal forward engagement activities that navies always have done. Looking at each of these in turn, one can gain an understanding of the scope and diversity of challenges facing the Navy in the troubled waters of the Central Command and draw several conclusions about the nature of U.S. military operations in the region.
The Fifth Fleet
Organizationally, Fifth Fleet is part of U.S. Central Command, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Its commander is dual-hatted as Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, and is the only forward-deployed component commander of Central Command. He thus is charged with the conduct of maritime operations throughout a complex theater stretching from Egypt southward to Kenya and eastward to Pakistan, and including key bodies of water and three critical maritime choke points.
The Fifth Fleet may be the newest of the so-called fighting fleets, but it is the full equivalent of both Sixth and Seventh Fleets. This may come as a surprise to some, especially to those naval officers who still remember the old MidEastFor. Nothing could be further from reality. Today's Fifth Fleet includes the most modern ships in our Navy: typically, a carrier battle group, an amphibious ready group, and the surface ships of Destroyer Squadron 50—the forward-deployed squadron whose commander now serves as Commander, MidEastFor. In addition, submarines, support ships, and afloat prepositioning ships operate routinely in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. On any given day, Commander Fifth Fleet has between 15 and 35 ships under his operational command. When the carrier battle group and amphibious ready group are present, this equates to about 14,000 Sailors and Marines.
Fifth Fleet operations are littoral warfare defined. Within in the close quarters of the Arabian Gulf, command and control must be crisp and ready on a moment's notice. In particular, the carrier battle group, amphibious ready group, and Middle East Force (MEF) units must be fully integrated and prepared for mutual support, including common communications and tactical data links.
It is common for the battle group, ready group, and MEF units to operate within 50 to 100 miles of each other, often conducting different operations and exercises. At the same time, the threat is proximate, real, and varied, from low-tech Boghammers and mines to tactical air and air-, sea-, and ground-launched antiship cruise missiles. Accordingly, when we developed the task organization we established Task Force 50 (TF-50) —the naval expeditionary task force for Fifth Fleet. During day-to-day operations, all combatants in the Gulf are part of TF-50, normally under the command of the admiral commanding the carrier battle group. This allows for maximum flexibility in bringing all available assets rapidly to bear when a threat materializes to any Fifth Fleet unit.
Should a major theater war or other large operational contingency unfold, Fifth Fleet would transition to the traditional task organizations. This includes standard doctrinal commander amphibious task force/commander landing force responsibilities for amphibious operations (also maintained in NETF operations), as well as provisions for multiple carrier battle groups in several locations. The size of this potential force is a reflection of a simple fact: Even as we debate the number and size of contingencies facing our military, we know that as far as we can see into the future, the Gulf will be on our screen. Indeed, the potential for the use of U.S. military power arguably is higher in the Gulf than anywhere else on earth.
It is an incredibly busy theater. In my two years in command, we participated in seven operations, from United Shield in Somalia to Vigilant Warrior in Iraq. Of particular note, we ran the largest maritime intercept operation in history, the ongoing international task force enforcing sanctions against Iraq.
Of special importance is the joint aspect of operations in the Gulf. Fifth Fleet is arguably the most consistently interoperable of all our Navy Fleets. Routine operations and exercises are carried out with Air Force and Army forces. Carrier aircraft fly daily over Iraq under the tactical command of Joint Task Force Southwest Asia. That joint competence was demonstrated vividly in 1994, when all four services surged forces as part of Vigilant Warrior in response to Saddam Hussein's threat to Kuwait.
The theater also is also very combined in its approach, with significant interaction with regional friends and allies, and is "joint" in that its forces are drawn from both the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets. In two years, all but one deploying carrier battle group from Atlantic and Pacific Fleets chopped to Fifth Fleet and operated in the Gulf. As a result, an Atlantic Fleet cruiser or destroyer commanding officer often finds himself working for a Pacific Fleet carrier battle group commander-and vice versa. This places a high priority on interoperability between Second and Third Fleets.
Despite his reverses since the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein remains a major threat to vital U.S. interests in the Gulf. He has rebuilt a large portion of his armed forces, and Iraq remains the foremost ground power in the region. Iraq continues to threaten its neighbors—notably Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who together account for a significant portion of U.S. oil imports—and despite U.N. efforts, appears bent on obtaining the capability to develop and employ weapons of mass destruction.
The key to understanding Saddam Hussein is to focus on his calculus of capability versus intentions. Clearly, his long-term intentions remain the same: to dominate the Gulf region and control a large portion of the world's petroleum resources. Through internal repression and continuous manipulation of the complex and shifting politics of the region, he maintains the ability to threaten each of his neighbors in both a military and political sense. But what holds Saddam in check is deterrence, composed of two elements: the uncertainty of success, largely created by the presence of Western forces and the improved military capabilities of the Kuwaitis, Saudis, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and the certainty of punishment, which is determined by U.S. policy. Fifth Fleet contributes to both.
From a military perspective, Iraq poses primarily a land threat, but that does not mean it is not a naval problem, too. If it comes to a shooting war again, Fifth Fleet forces will contribute significantly to the land battle with the "three Ts"—tactical air, Tomahawks, and troops, the latter including Marines from the ready group, afloat prepositioned material, and, of course, sealift. Thanks to recent changes to carrier air wing composition, carrier tactical air power plays a major role. With 50 air-to-ground capable aircraft and the best capability around for suppression of enemy air defenses (in the EA-6B), the carrier provides roughly half the tactical aviation punch available to help stop a short-notice Iraqi movement south. Iraq's relations with Iran still are dominated by the bitterness resulting from the major war they fought through much of the 1980s, and the secular, Sunni-dominated Arab culture of the Iraqis still clashes with the theocratic, Shiite Persian culture of the Iranians. Also of note is the call for Arab reconciliation with Iraq from some of the Gulf states. Much of this sentiment is driven by a humanitarian desire to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people and by a yearning for Iraq's reintegration to serve, inter alia, as a bulwark against Iran. The United States has taken steps to alleviate the first concern, but normalization of relations with Iraq remains, regrettably, premature. Saddam Hussein has demonstrated repeatedly that he remains a threat to the peaceful countries of the region. For the near term, containment remains at the heart of our strategy, and Fifth Fleet is a significant part of the forward edge of that strategy.
Despite continuing focus on Iraq, Iran clearly is the "main ball." Both the United States and all the Gulf states agree that Iran is the long-term potential threat to regional stability. Far larger and potentially much more powerful than Iraq, Iran remains in the hands of a radicalized Muslim clergy. There are some indications that middle-class discontent with the theocracy is growing, but for the foreseeable future, Iran will pose a fundamentalist threat to its neighbors. Beyond the region, Iran also clearly is a source of funding and support for global terrorist operations directed against the United States and other Western states.
Regrettably, there is no strong consensus as to how to handle Iran. Some states favor dialogue and an attempt to draw the Iranians into the community of nations; others are strong believers in a continued approach of containment. For its part, Iran continues to foment unrest in the Gulf, with claims of influence and sovereignty at the expense of its neighbors. The Iranians have occupied several islands in the Gulf (Abu Musa, the Greater Tunbs, and the Lesser Tunbs) that are still in dispute. They also sponsor Shiite movements in several of the Gulf states.
Iran's conventional military threat to our interests is largely maritime. With a coastline of more than 1,000 miles and a seafaring tradition, the Iranians clearly are capable of sea denial operations throughout the Gulf, and are developing limited power projection capability through maritime and air power. They have upgraded their naval and missile forces over the past decade, to include three Russian-built Kilo submarines; more than 20 very capable missile patrol boats, including both the French Combattante class and the newly arrived Chinese Houdong class; and a significant inventory of naval mines. Of particular concern, they have armed their patrol boats with highly capable antiship cruise missiles, fundamentally and qualitatively altering the naval threat in the region. In addition, they have a dominant geographic position along the Strait of Hormuz, which positions them to exert pressure on that vital choke point. Finally, they have invested heavily in land-based cruise and ballistic missiles, which have sufficient range to strike throughout the Gulf, and tripled their missile sites along the Gulf in the past two years. They also field a 350,000-man army, largely postured against Iraq.
As with Iraq, the acquisition by Iran of weapons of mass destruction is a serious concern. The Iranians continue to pursue technology (ballistic missiles/chemical and biological weapons) and fissionable materials from both Russian and China, and Russia currently is building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in Iran. The Iranians state the project is for peaceful purposes, but the United States is very concerned about the potential to develop it for production of weapons-grade nuclear materials.
Over the long term, Iran's political structure may be the largest single determining factor in the future operational patterns of the Fifth Fleet. A strong regional naval presence will continue to be required, as Iran is likely to remain a major source of international concern and a regional threat for a decade or more.
Maritime Interception Operations
Three key U.N. sanctions apply to the ongoing maritime interception operations in Fifth Fleet's area of responsibility. The broad intent of the sanctions is to prevent Iraq from rebuilding its military through import of prohibited goods and from selling its petroleum products to obtain the hard currency to bankroll it. Established on 17 August 1990, just days after the invasion of Kuwait, the operations continue to this day.
Since the start of intercept operations, ships from 16 countries have participated, completing more than 11,000 boarding operations. There are many international lessons to be learned, and further analysis is ongoing at both the tactical and strategic levels. From a policy perspective, continuation of the sanctions will maintain pressure on Saddam's regime to comply with the will of the international community, demonstrate international resolve, and constrain Iraqi efforts to rebuild their warfighting capability.
For Fifth Fleet, in addition to the old standbys, there always seems to be at least one additional crisis either in progress or simmering. These "hot buttons" vary in intensity and location, but many seem to involve noncombatant evacuation operations. Nothing is more important at the onset of a crisis than ensuring the safety of Americans on the ground, including embassy personnel, American business representatives, tourists, and nationals from friendly and allied countries.
For the first months of my tour, Somalia was the lead hot button. Just two hours after I assumed command of Naval Forces, Central Command, on 7 September 1994, we began the operation that finally removed U.S. embassy and support personnel from Somalia.
Six months later, we returned to remove the remaining U.N. forces in Operation United Shield, which featured an unusual but effective command-and-control arrangement. The joint task force commander, Marine Lieutenant General Tony Zinni, reported to Central Command through the naval component commander, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command. The reasons were threefold:
- It was, at heart, an amphibious (i.e., naval) operation.
- Naval Forces, Central Command, had the experience and contacts to set up and run the logistics support.
- As the only component commander living in the theater, I knew all the political military players. The arrangement reportedly didn't please some of the beltway "doctrine police," but it met the number one tenet of joint doctrine: the CinC knows best and can specify the command-and-control arrangement that makes the most sense.
Although Somalia is in our wake, the region remains a boiling pot. The ability of the Fifth Fleet to react to crisis instantly, with significant assets in theater, has been and remains of enormous benefit in crisis control.
Fifth Fleet also has a full plate of day-to-day activities that fall under the rubric of "regional engagement"—exercises, port visits, exchange programs, meetings, and just being there. These include working with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on collective security and defense issues, helping our partners in the region meet their defense requirements, and strengthening our bilateral defense arrangements.
Combined exercises have increased considerably in tempo, complexity, and frequency since the Gulf War; they are spread among virtually every country in region and include more than just indigenous naval forces. The carrier air wing and embarked Marines conduct numerous exercises with regional armies and air forces. In addition, our coalition partners from the Gulf War, notably Britain and France, maintain forces in the region with whom we routinely exercise.
Because of our interests, and the effect of even a threat to them, the Arabian Gulf is a theater where deterrence matters deeply. Through forward engagement and our policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, and by working to shape the regional environment, we may be able to prevent the beginning of another war in this extraordinarily volatile part of the world.
At the beginning of the century, speaking of his success in the region, Lawrence of Arabia said of the Arab world, "Geography, tribal structure, religion, social customs, language, appetite, standards—all were at my fingertips." He knew that to succeed, military forces must understand the region in all its dimensions. That comes only through being there and operating in the demanding environment. This is the challenge for Fifth Fleet, which daily faces an enduring and vitally important mission in this active theater.
Admiral Redd is Director of Strategic Plans and Policy, the Joint Staff. He served as Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, and concurrently as Commander, Fifth Fleet, when it was recommended on 1 July 1995.