Arc of Crisis 2.0?

Iran and Pakistan have similar strategies, so the United States and India might learn from one another.

The infuriating charm of history, the writer Aldous Huxley once quipped, is that nothing ever changes—and yet somehow everything is completely different. One of the defining geopolitical narratives of this past half-decade has been the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the maritime epicenter of global activity. Influential thinkers such as Robert D. Kaplan have drawn attention to the growing importance of the Indian Ocean, both as a hub of world trade and as a potential breeding pool for great-power rivalry. In reality, however, the sudden recognition of the Indian Ocean’s centrality is anything but a new phenomenon.

Everything Old Is New Again

During the second half of the Cold War, a series of crises and tectonic shocks—the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—sent out ripples of unease across the entire Indian Ocean basin. These shocks led to a deluge of articles in various academic and policy journals that invariably called for an end to the U.S. tradition of benign neglect of the region. In 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke in vivid and foreboding terms of an “arc of crisis,” which stretched “along the shores of the Indian Ocean, with fragile and social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation. The resulting political chaos could well be filled by elements hostile to our values and sympathetic to our adversaries.”

The adversaries to which Brzezinski referred, of course, were the Soviets, who were then in the process of expanding their navy’s reach into the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean. Fearful that U.S. submarines could lash out at the Soviet Union’s southern continental landmass through its soft maritime underbelly, Moscow’s naval planners also fretted that NATO forces could interdict Soviet energy shipments meandering their way through the congested channels of the Persian Gulf. The United States no longer faces such a formidable peer competitor in the region. Nevertheless, close to three decades later, many other aspects of Brzezinski’s speech appear astonishingly enduring.

The Indian Ocean remains a tumultuous zone, where a lack of governance along its shores has spawned a series of security chasms offshore. This spillover effect has been most apparent off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, where rampant piracy has prompted a continuous rotation of multinational naval taskforces. Meanwhile, an upsurge in Islamic extremism in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia has heightened regional anxiety over maritime terrorism and seaborne infiltration. These concerns have been exacerbated by the chronic deficiencies of many of the smaller, more impoverished nations in areas such as maritime-domain awareness and coastal surveillance. In 2008, a French Ministry of Defense white paper spoke in language strongly reminiscent of the Carter era: an “arc of instability” stretches from “Dakar (in Senegal) all the way to Peshawar (in Pakistan).”

Other changes are transforming the wider maritime environment. The first, more insidious in nature, is the rapid diffusion of what military analysts refer to as “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD) technologies. The second, more sudden and dramatic, is the gradual displacement of nuclear interactions from land to sea.

The A2/AD Web

The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review describes A2/AD as seeking “to deny outside countries the ability to project power into a region, thereby allowing aggression or other destabilizing actions to be conducted by the anti-access power.”In reality, A2/AD is little more than a savvy repackaging of a time-old feature of naval warfare: the struggle between offense and defense, or between gunboats and coastal defenses.

At the same time, technological advances in the field of precision-guided weaponry have made the pursuit of naval strategies focused on denial increasingly attractive to states with a limited capacity or appetite for power projection. China, which has invested heavily in a broad array of anti-access systems, is a prime example. Iran and Pakistan, poised on either side of the world’s main trade jugular, the Strait of Hormuz, provide two additional case studies, both of which have yet to receive as much scrutiny.

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