US Navy’s Indian Ocean Folly? (Page 4 of 5)

Later, in his 1911 work Naval Strategy, Mahan devised three criteria for appraising the strategic value of possible naval bases, namely ‘position, strength, and resources.’ Position referred straightforwardly enough to a site’s geographic position. The best strategic positions adjoined one or more important sea lines of communication. Strength was a site’s natural defences, along with the ease with which civil engineers could augment these defences to ward off attack. Resources meant a naval station’s ability to sustain itself through foodstuffs, fuel, and other supplies, either from the surrounding country or through efficient transport infrastructure such as railways.

So how would this apply now? Take a look at the map of Asia through this Mahanian lens. The principal hubs for forward-deployed US sea power in Asia are in the Persian Gulf to the west and scattered among bases in Japan and Guam to the east. The Gulf island of Bahrain is home to a command centre, while US forces routinely call at Dubai for logistical support. Forces are, as can be seen, concentrated at the opposite extremes of the vast Asian landmass. Geographic distance slows efforts to concentrate the fleet for action in either theatre. And along the way, forces bound eastward or westward depend on free passage through such narrow seas as the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the Lombok and Sunda straits. The prospect of seeing these chokepoints contested or closed altogether ought to give US naval planners pause.

But the most problematic challenges are in East Asia. In the coming years, it’s entirely possible that the Japan-based Seventh Fleet may find itself inferior to the concentrated power of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, augmented by Beijing’s increasingly lethal force of ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles, and land-based combat aircraft. If so, support from forces based in the Indian Ocean or the United States will be at a premium.

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But the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, in the faraway Persian Gulf theatre. Depending on events, a sizable proportion of US combat power is often within the Gulf, in effect a bay or inlet separated from the broad Indian Ocean by the chokepoint at Hormuz. To sortie for action in South Asian waters or to join the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, Fifth Fleet units must exit the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, passing under the shadow of Iranian antiship weaponry.

Should Tehran see fit to make mischief, Iranian forces could impede ships transiting the strait in a variety of ways. The Iranian Navy could mine this narrow sea or dispatch stealthy diesel submarines to conduct torpedo or missile attacks. Shore-based antiship missiles could strike at warships navigating the narrow channel, where they have little room to manoeuvre to avoid attack. In short, it’s far from clear that the Persian Gulf, one of the primary regional hubs for US maritime strategy, measures up well by Mahanian principles. The Seventh Fleet could pay the price in East Asia of poor fleet dispositions in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

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