By Nayla Barakat
Manama, Nov. 23 (BNA): Bahrain, the host of the US 5th Fleet, and the Middle East remain of vital national interest to the United States, a senior US commander has affirmed.
“The various waterways – including the strategic maritime chokepoints of the Suez Canal, the Bab al Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz – are major transit routes for energy and trade. And the ability for commerce to travel those paths freely is vital not just for the United States, but also for the global economy,” General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander US Central Command, as he addressed the third plenary session of the IISS Manama Dialogue 2019, the 15th regional security summit.
“Since attacks on shipping in the Gulf began in May, insurance rates for oil tankers increased by a factor of 10. Those costs are passed along the entire value chain, so threats to safe transit in these waterways affects all nations – regardless of how much or how little they import energy, and regardless of from where those threats emanate,” he said.
“Our economies are globally connected – that’s an undeniable fact. Ensuring freedom of navigation – especially in these vital areas of the maritime domain – is not only a necessity, but a global responsibility.
“The United States military proudly accepts its role and its share of the tasks in this activity, and to be clear we are uniquely suited and resourced to lead many of these efforts with allies and partners around the world. But it’s a great big world and there’s a lot of water to cover.
“Simply put, we don’t have sufficient resources to be where we want to be, in the right numbers, all the time. Not too many years ago we maintained a near-constant presence with an aircraft carrier battle group in close proximity to the Gulf and these key maritime chokepoints I defined. Today, we have positioned strategic assets globally to provide capabilities and deterrence against multiple adversaries and threats. I will note that today, 120 miles east of here, the carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln is operating in the Gulf.
“As the U.S. adjusts its posture to meet its global – and my regional – missions, an important element for us to consider is how we can work with our partners to create flexible, scalable, sustainable approaches toward securing freedom of navigation.
“The Combined Maritime Forces multinational naval partnership – currently with 33 participating countries – provides an instructive example. Various CMF task forces have operated since 2001, successfully fighting terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and promoting a safe maritime environment. Membership and contributions by participants are flexible, and while the U.S. provides working facilities here in Bahrain, the day-to-day command of the task forces rotates among member nations. As we sit here today, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, and Jordan are leading Combined Task Forces 150, 151, and 152 respectively.
“Another – albeit nascent in comparison – in-progress example of this approach to cooperative sea power is the International Maritime Security Construct we have put together with member nations Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the UK.
“Working along with these international partners, we are helping maintain freedom of navigation in and around the Straits of Hormuz by our presence – deterring malign actions, and lending attribution to those that do take place – regardless of the origin of the threat.
“And that’s an important point to consider in this forum: efforts like these are about supporting customary international law and right of innocent passage, not as a preamble to conflict with any particular entity or nation.
“Some may disagree with me on that point, insisting that the IMSC is all about Iran. And I would simply tell them they are wrong – it is all about maintaining freedom of navigation.
“Iran has been hindering freedom of navigation in and around the Straits of Hormuz over the past few months. Merchant ships from several countries have been attacked or confiscated by Iran’s military forces. Had Iran not undertaken those actions… had there been no threat to freedom of navigation… there might not have been a need for the IMSC. But since it has been operational, none of those actions have taken place – and that is an important fact worth considering.
“Has the IMSC flooded the Gulf with U.S. and partner naval vessels acting in a provocative manner? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think the biggest key to the relative success of the IMSC partnership hasn’t been the physical presence of armed naval vessels in the area, but the constant stare of reconnaissance assets.
“The importance of attribution is worth mentioning in this context. The Iranian regime has conducted many non-attributable attacks in the past – when they didn’t think anyone was looking. They prefer the darkness, where their activities can be hidden. They don’t do so well in the spotlight or daylight of full exposure and accountability. But the value of having additional reconnaissance resources – things that can shine a spotlight on nefarious activities for all the world to see – is almost certainly having an effect.
“And a quick thought on deterrence – it is not a military concept. It’s a diplomatic and political construct, and it obtains from the effect demonstrated capabilities and will have on the mind of a potential opponent or adversary. But whether it is Iran or some other nation, knowing there is the international will to form these kinds of partnerships and the capabilities to document and expose those who violate international law – that does weigh in on the deterrence calculus.
“Today we are talking about maritime security in the Middle East. And in recent months, Iran has been the primary threat to that security. Now, I fully understand that our partners in the region can’t choose their neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and others – Iran is their neighbor, like it or not. And unfortunately, sometimes the Iranian regime has proved itself to be the bully in the neighborhood. But the only way to stand up to a bully is to do it together.
“As we and our partners in the region continue to work to provide security and stability, we must do so with the knowledge that we are stronger together. We must remember our strategic strength rests mainly on the partnerships, the alliances and the whole-of-government efforts we bring to bear – together.
“Resources will always be at a premium. Just as the U.S. has to posture its military globally, we in CENTCOM are working with our partners to develop regional approaches – together. With the full knowledge and appreciation that each country has its own challenges with economic and social reforms – we need to look at defense from a regional perspective and bear those factors in mind,” he said.