America in the Gulf: Evolving, Not Leaving

Not weakness, but a changing threat environment.

America's Gulf allies are unhappy with what they see as a milquetoast response to ongoing Iranian aggression and a betrayal of a commitment to remove Iran's strongest ally—Bashar al Assad. Gulf leaders see a declining US military presence in the Gulf and feel there is a vacuum developing.

These perceptions are incorrect. While the US is operating in a climate of austerity, the changed nature of the threat—particularly from Iranian missiles—necessitates a shift in US strategy towards smaller, more nimble assets. What we have thought of as major US security providers to the GCC are declining in utility, and indeed may be counterproductive. An examination of technology and history will suggest the way forward for the US and its partners lies in new directions—especially missile defense.

Military weaponry is becoming cheaper and more capable almost every day. This trend is decreasing the military utility of large assets like fixed airbases and aircraft carriers. The Iranian Fateh 110 missile currently has a circular error of probability of about one hundred meters and a payload of 500 kilograms. This means that if Iran fires a salvo of eight missiles at an American aircraft carrier, four of those missiles will land within 100m of the aim point. This is a significant development.

Even absent any development in Iranian missiles’ terminal guidance (which is probably underway) chances are pretty good Iran can sink a multibillion-dollar aircraft carrier for an investment of several million dollars in missiles. The aircraft carrier (which various Saudi spokesmen have cited as a key indicator of US military commitment to the Gulf) is not likely to remain effective for long. The final history of the carrier has not been written, but we are on the first pages of the last chapter.

There is also a broader historical point. When the United States is faced with military disaster it takes one of two actions. If the US feels a core interest is at stake, we double down and fight to the bitter end, as after the attack at Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines. If we think a core interest is not at stake and we can't win easily, then we cut our losses and move on, as with the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.

If not now, then in the not-too-distant future when the United States has ample domestic hydrocarbon supplies, a big military loss—such as an aircraft carrier—in the Gulf would lead many Americans to question our involvement there. Justifying our military commitment in the Gulf requires buying into a complex argument about economic interdependency. The justification is valid, but it is also abstract and theoretical. The impact of a significant loss of American lives, on the other hand, is immediate, emotional, easy to understand and difficult to refute.

Our Gulf partners know this perhaps better than we do. They feel we are ignorant, fickle and feckless. They also feel betrayed by the Western nuclear rapprochement with Iran. In the Gulf telling, the West's focus on the nuclear issue gives Iran a free hand to carry-on with a strategy of Shi'i encirclement and sedition directed at the GCC states. One fact which many Western analysts miss is this—even if our GCC partners were to assume the current nuclear talks are one hundred percent effective in leading to Iranian nuclear disarmament, the GCC member states would still be unhappy with the process because of the perceived license given to Iranian meddling.

But all is not gloom. Secretary Hagel, speaking in Manama last December, pointed out that the US presence in the Gulf remains robust, and is increasingly made up of more appropriate and more effective military capabilities, such as minesweepers, coastal-patrol vessels, and forces brought in for rotational multilateral exercises. This force mix better serves both American and GCC security interests than big, lumbering ships lurking within easy missile range of the Iranian coast.

The even greater positive trend, however, is in the area of missile defense. For the first time, there is positive movement towards an integrated GCC missile-defense system. This is something America has been urging the Gulf states to do for years, but which only saw forward movement since the Iranian rapprochement called the permanence of a robust US presence into question. The irony here is that the world leaders in missile-defense technology are American, and so this program will likely lead to significantly enhanced American Gulf defense ties for some time to come.

Effective defense of the Gulf does not require a static force sitting on it. It requires a realistic view of present and future threats and an honest assessment of the best means the United States and its partners possess for countering those threats. For years, our analysis had been driven by hardware rather than brainpower. Paradoxically, the friction between the US and the GCC over Iran may actually lead to an increase in real defensive capabilities.

DB Des Roches is Associate Professor at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University. His views do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or any other government entity.