The Profitless Persian Gulf Power Play
In 2002, retired Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper facilitated a U.S. Navy war game involving U.S. and Iran. It resulted in the Iran Red Team sinking 16 Navy warships through swarm tactics. This infamous example is a small piece of a bigger game – the power play in today’s Persian Gulf.
The American naval presence in the Persian Gulf has been a cause of contention between the United States and Iran for decades. Unlike other areas where the U.S. is dominant, Iran has the advantage here. To address the dangers of escalation, the United States should develop a plan to extricate its naval forces from the Gulf.
Iran’s use of asymmetric warfare is problematic for the U.S. Navy. Swarm tactics and wars of attrition given Iran the strategic advantage inside the Gulf, despite the larger U.S. presence. For example, in August of 2016, Iranian vessels approached U.S. Navy warships on multiple occasions and began to harass them, leading to U.S. ships firing warning shots to avoid a collision. This incident is one of many that demonstrate the improved maneuverability of Iran’s navy and its improved capabilities. Iranian ships are smaller, more versatile, and better prepared for the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. military is spread thin around the world and a decreased presence in the Persian Gulf will make possible a better allocation of U.S. military assets elsewhere. The size of the navy itself has declined since the end of the Cold War, and a shift in focus to other areas will be better supported by reallocating our valuable naval force. For example, our powerful navy is vital in combatting China’s quest to dominate the Asia-Pacific and ensuring freedom of the high seas – a much better allocation of our resources. Iran itself has not directly engaged in a physical confrontation within the Persian Gulf for over 20 years. A smaller force in the Gulf leads to a more agile military whose attention can be successfully focused elsewhere.
Most importantly, a decrease in the U.S. naval presence will directly lead to a decrease in U.S.-Iran tensions. Escalation has been one of the biggest threats to Iran-U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf. A decrease in forces while still projecting by supporting our Gulf allies is doubly advantageous. A more focused naval presence lends itself to more immediate and modern twenty-first century threats, and a more strategic U.S. force.
Concerns involving a decreased U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf are the threat of Iran closing down the Strait of Hormuz and the decreased ability to reassure the Arab Gulf states of American support. Both arguments can be addressed successfully.
It would be disastrous if Iran closed down the Strait of Hormuz. However, history indicates that despite many threats, this has not actually been done before, in part because Iran itself relies so heavily on its oil transiting the Gulf. In fact, U.S. reliance on Gulf oil has decreased. It therefore would be more detrimental to Iran itself than it would be to the United States should the strait close.
The Arab Gulf states would understandably ask questions as to why the United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Yet states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have flourishing navies that are constantly increasing their capabilities. The United States is committed to equipping these and other allied states with the training and support necessary so that they are confident in defending themselves, with the United States as a reliable backup and support if ever needed. The U.S. has a history of strong partnerships with these states that is continuing to grow.
On January 22nd, 2018, Iran’s navy conducted its annual drill near the Strait of Hormuz, once again threatening escalation of tensions. Because the United States of America is the strongest and most powerful country, we do not need a large naval presence in the Gulf to make sure our voice is heard. We want to avoid unnecessary escalation with Iran, and our navy is better deployed elsewhere. As long as our allies are supported through financial backing and training and our oil is not threatened, Iran, and anyone else, can rest assured that the repercussions of interfering with either of those will be deadly. Our navy is vital, now more than ever, in ensuring stability and enemy deterrence in the high seas. Even if it is not physically present, the U.S. Navy remains a powerful force for deterrence and peace.