The United States, the Indian Ocean Region, and the Gulf

The United States remains committed to the defense of the Gulf and maintaining a major presence in the Indian Ocean region. There has been considerable confusion over the level of U.S. commitment because of speeches referring to a “pivot to Asia,” U.S. and P5+1 negotiation with Iran, claims of U.S. energy independence, and the impact of sequestration and U.S. defense budget cuts.

The new U.S. strategic guidance issued in January 2012, however, gave the same priority to the Middle East as to the “rebalancing to Asia” – the phrase used in all U.S. strategic documents and budget requests, which refers to a 5-10% shift in U.S. forces away from NATO Europe and to the U.S. west coast and Pacific. This has been regularly reaffirmed in U.S. budget guidance through FY2014, USCENTCOM commanders, and Secretary of Defense Hagel in a press release issued on December 7, 2013, during a trip to the Gulf:

Secretary Hagel made it clear that the U.S. negotiations with Iran were part of long standing P5+1 effort to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons programs. Hagel stated the United States was involved in a six month process to see if it could work through its differences with Iran and that it was it was his opinion that this represented a wise opportunity to probe in great detail the possibilities to see if Iran was serious about following through on its commitments in the nuclear area. As for the Gulf and IOR, Hagel said that,  

“Nothing has changed in terms of our defense posture in this region as a result of the deal.  The only reason we are at this point is because of the pressure from sanctions, the diplomatic isolation and unity of international community, those need to maintain to have continued progress.   

"Going forward, the Department of Defense will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region.  Our goal is for our allies and partners in this region to be stronger and more capable in dealing with common threats…We won't change any military posture during that 6 months. We will keep same partnerships as before we entered into 6 months. We are entering this clear-eyed. Whether we get to where we hope, we will see.

"As we strengthen our bilateral relationships throughout the Gulf, we are also committed to advancing multilateral cooperation between our allies and partners, especially through the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Nations are stronger when they work together against common threats.  Closer cooperation between the GCC and the United States is in all of our interests.

"There is a lot of stress here in the region.  There is a lot of questions, there is a lot of uncertainties”

Secretary Hagel said he was ready to deal with those frontally and that is why he sees this as a huge opportunity to be here. He also said he understood Gulf concerns because he understood the source of these concerns: “When you sit in this part of the world and you look at the threats around you, that there are good reasons to be nervous." 

Secretary Hagel made it clear there were no reductions in the U.S. presence in the Gulf. The only major reduction in the region had been to remove a carrier group in the IOR dedicated to flying sorties in Afghanistan – a mission the United States no longer needed as it transition responsibility to Afghan forces.  

Secretary Hagel stated to the press pool on December 7, 2013 that;

"We have a ground, air, and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the Gulf... Two years after our drawdown from Iraq, the U.S. Army continues to maintain more than 10,000 forward-deployed soldiers in the region, along with heavy armor, artillery, and attack helicopters, to serve as a theater reserve and a bulwark against any aggression.

 "We have deployed our most advanced fighter aircraft throughout the region, including F-22’s, to ensure that we can quickly respond to contingencies.  Coupled with our unique munitions, no target is beyond our reach.

 "We have deployed our most advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to provide a continuous picture of activities in and around the Gulf…And we have fielded an array of missile defense capabilities –including ballistic missile defense ships, PATRIOT batteries, and sophisticated radar.

 "As part of our efforts to ensure freedom of navigation throughout the Gulf, we routinely maintain a naval presence of over 40 ships in the broader region – including a carrier strike group – and conduct a range of freedom-of-navigation operations.  These operations include approximately 50 transits of the Strait of Hormuz over the past six months.

"We have ramped up our minesweeping capabilities and added five coastal patrol ships to our fleet here earlier this year.  We are working on a $580 million construction program to support the expansion of 5th Fleet capabilities.

"Yesterday, I visited the Navy’s new afloat forward staging base, the USS Ponce, a unique platform for special operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, in areas where we do not have a permanent, fixed presence.  I’ll also be meeting with U.S. personnel stationed at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar – where we have representatives from our GCC partners training and working together." 

He mentioned that the United States was transferring over $70 billion worth of arms to Arab Gulf and neighboring Arab states. At the same time, other U.S. officials noted that the United States could rapidly deploy massive amounts of air and cruise missile power, could base B-2 stealth bombers forward in areas like Diego Garcia, was upgrading much of its tactical airpower to F-35 stealth strike fighters, was introducing the Littoral Combat Ship to deal with threats like Iran, had offered THAAD anti-missile defenses to states like Qatar and the UAE, and that Secretary Clinton had offered the same “extended deterrence” guarantees to the Gulf states that the United States had once offered to Europe during the Cold War – an offer that remained on the table.

Other officials noted that the United States had stepped up its partnering and exercise activity with the Gulf states, and that moving U.S. aircraft and ships to the West Coast and Pacific meant they could be used in the IOR and Gulf as well as the Pacific and reduced U.S. dependence on the Suez Canal. They also noted that France and the UK had strengthened their exercise and partnership activities as well.

Other U.S. experts had made it clear months earlier that increases in U.S. energy output, and gas and oil production did reduce the strategic importance of the Gulf and the region. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reference case projections in the 2014 editions of the Department of Energy Annual Energy Outlook and International Energy Outlook indicated the United States would still import some 32% of its oil and energy liquids through 2040 as far as the U.S. government made official projections.  

They also noted that even in the most optimistic case, the U.S. economy would still face the need to pay world energy prices in a crisis, and that the United States was increasing its dependence on trade and the health of the global economy by an average of 0.2 to 0.3% a year. The issue was not where the United States got its imports from, or U.S. direct dependence on energy imports, but U.S. dependence on the stability and health of the global economy. 

To put this in perspective, the CIA World Factbook estimated in December 2013 that the United States had a total GDP of $15.9 trillion in 2012. It imported $2.3 trillion worth of goods, only 8.2% of which was oil. Other industrial goods accounted for 24.7%, capital goods accounted for 30.4%, and finished consumer goods accounted for accounted for 31.8% – a total of over 87%.

This indirect dependence on the stable flow of energy exports to other countries was far greater than U.S. direct dependence on petroleum imports, and goods from Asia and European states dependent on Gulf oil and gas imports accounted for well over 48%. In real world terms, even total U.S. energy independence in terms of direct imports would be strategically irrelevant compared to U.S. dependence on indirect imports.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Other recent Burke Chair reports include:

The Other “Pivot to Asia” - The Shifting Strategic Importance of Gulf Petroleum

American Strategy and US “Energy Independence”

Also, from the US-Iranian Strategic Competition Series:

Also, from the Iran and Gulf Military Balance Series:

 Iran and The Gulf Military Balance Volume I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions 

Iran and The Gulf Military Balance Volume II: The Nuclear and Missile Dimensions 


Iran and The Gulf Military Balance Volume III: The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula