Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

A zero-based assessment of U.S. interests and policies in the Greater Middle East is long overdue. The new geostrategic map of the region, the legacy of failures, and the imperatives of great power competition require a new mindset.

WHAT DOES an offshore balancing strategy look like? At a minimum, it suggests that the United States should reduce its forward military presence especially in the form of large airfields, ports, and prepositioned sets of equipment, ammunition, and other military supplies as well as its implied ironclad commitments in the region. To ensure the survival of its land-based forces, the United States will need to trade bases for places—rely on access arrangements with local partners and robust passive, aka hardened, shelters and active missile defenses. By the mid-2020s the United States will have the military option of deploying precision-guided medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles—or selling them to partners in the region. For example, in the Gulf States and in Jordan, the U.S. Air Force fighter bomber presence could be replaced in part by ground mobile cruise and ballistic missile launchers. In peacetime, the mobile launchers could be deployed in vacated hardened aircraft shelters to be deployed out to hidden field sites during crisis and wartime. 

With the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the United States will have the option of deploying ground-launched Tomahawk class cruise missiles. These long-range weapons can be deployed on mobile transporter erector launchers and complement any forward-deployed U.S. Navy surface and sub-surface platforms. Further, any concept of military intervention will rely heavily on the use of global reconnaissance directing the use of sea-based and long-range airpower—not unlike the current use of military power against the Salafist-jihadis.

From a global force posture and capabilities planning perspective, there are benefits that flow from the reconfiguration of the U.S. military presence in the GME. It offers an opportunity to accelerate transitioning the force structure to maximize the deployment of multi-domain robotic forces. By deploying long-range cruise and ballistic missiles on a variety of platforms, the demand signal for the forward deployment of very expensive carrier strike groups (CSGs) is drastically reduced, thereby reducing the requirement to maintain ten to eleven CSGs. Within the time perspective of the next five-year defense plan, the U.S. Navy could consider shifting resources away from the modernization of its carrier battle fleet toward higher priority next-generation weapon investments. More precisely, the very expensive Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers could be terminated at four warships with the completion of the USS Doris Miller in the early 2030s. One or two of the Nimitz-class carriers might not need to go through their very expensive mid-life nuclear refueling and modernization cycles during this decade, thereby freeing up additional U.S. Navy resources to increasingly robotize the battle fleet. During this transition period, the U.S. Navy might deploy expeditionary strike groups that rely on large deck amphibious ships optimized to conduct counterterrorism missions. These deployments would be specifically designed to provide back-up support to any permanent special forces presence that is continuing to conduct the ongoing campaign to suppress the reappearance of either ISIS or Al Qaeda.

An interesting question is the status of U.S. Army heavy forces deployed in Kuwait in active and prepositioned configurations. Given their rising vulnerability to Iranian precision missile attack, they might be withdrawn from the theater—possibly to enhance the U.S. forward presence in Eastern Europe. As already discussed, a portion of the U.S. Air Force’s land-based fighter bomber fleet could be partially withdrawn to be replaced with ground and sea-based long-range strike missiles. Furthermore, the United States will have the opportunity to develop and sell a new generation of air and missile defense capabilities especially against the likely increasing threat of large arsenals of land-attack cruise missiles. This should be part of U.S. efforts to manage equilibrium, providing leverage to reduce levels of categories of armaments—for example, balancing GCC and Iran missile capabilities and deployments.

Unlike the case for the United Kingdom in the 1960s, there is no equivalent of a strategically benign United States to pass the baton to; rather, the United States will have to further its interests through pursuing a balance of power, maneuvering an array of regional powers and the actual and potential support from a resurgent Russia, China, and possibly India on an issue-specific basis. This requires understanding the limits of both U.S. power and interests, as well as adopting a new primus inter pares mode of diplomacy with allies and partners sharing both burdens and power. In a more perfect world, Washington could hope that the European Union, if only in the form of a concert of medium-sized powers such as Germany and France, could act in a more robust fashion. This strategy would rely much less on the threat of military force and more on the instruments of state power that include diplomacy, intelligence, and economics/finance. Not to be forgotten is the prospect that the United States and Israel could take the lead in helping various GME nations to transition away from their dependence upon the buying and/or selling of petroleum to support modernizing economies. As noted above, the Saudis and GCC states have already begun positioning themselves for a post-petroleum economy with large investments in renewable energy and not least, in technology innovation.

THE FUNDAMENTAL weakness of the Trump administration’s strategy of reducing the geostrategic profile in the GME was its incoherence. The risk of a Biden administration is that it may believe that there is a path forward toward a renewed prospect of American regional primacy. What is needed is a description of the new set of U.S. priorities and rethought U.S. interests for this very dynamic and violence-ridden region of the globe. Put simply, we need a new definition of “strategic equilibrium” and not victory as a guide to an affordable and coherent approach to the GME. Below are some of the elements of this new strategy for consideration:

Suppressing the Salafist-Jihadis

The Obama/Trump administrations have successfully sustained a counterterrorism campaign against the Salafist-jihadis, most specifically the aspiring quasi-state isis. That campaign will have to continue. Several questions will have to be addressed. What should be the regional footprint of U.S. Special Forces and air power to sustain that campaign? The current presence in eastern Syria and western Iraq may now be untenable. Should Jordan become the center of gravity of this effort? What is the role of the U.S. presence in this regard given the growing GCC/Sunni-Israeli entente? Can and should they play a larger counter-terrorist role and take actions to frustrate Iran’s capacity to become dominant in Iraqi domestic politics?

Should the United States sacrifice its political and military commitments to the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in name of saving its tenuous strategic relations with Turkey? Put simply, is the United States prepared to sustain its campaign to suppress the remnants of ISIS in Syria and Iraq at the cost of being expelled from the giant air base at Incirlik? As noted below, there are larger issues about U.S. and Turkish relations than this clash of interests.

Saving NATO from Turkey

Should the United States become much more diplomatically engaged in mediating the Eastern Mediterranean conflict between Turkey allied with Italy versus the Egypt-Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE coalition that is allied with Russia and France? Fully exploiting Eastern Mediterranean gas might go a long way toward strengthening the U.S. argument against the Nordstream II pipeline. Certainly, the minimal objective is to help the European Union with a likely Franco-German lead to mediate a negotiated division of the undersea territory of the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps via arbitration in the International Court of Justice at the Hague. On the other hand, Ankara may decide to play military hardball and provoke a military confrontation either with Greece and/or Egypt with its Russian ally in Libya. In that worst case, the United States in consultation with its major European allies may have to consider the grim prospect of separation if not divorce between Turkey and NATO. As noted above, a host of new financial and economic developments detrimental to Ankara may lead Erdogan to reverse course and move toward a less militarily assertive regional role. If not, to avoid this terrible choice, the United States will have become actively engaged, with both its European and GCC partners, but this does not imply a new and permanent U.S. military presence in the region. In this regard, the Trump administration’s decision to deploy the Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams to Souda Bay on the island of Crete makes a great deal of sense. The deployment of a mobile sea base is consistent with our overall military concept of not tying forces down in large facilities. This deployment has the additional benefit of opening up a large nearby dual-purpose airfield at Heraklion as a possible alternative to Incirlik without making the investment in a massive permanent military presence. 

Dealing with Iran

The United States needs to break out of its stance of total and continuous confrontation with Iran. While acknowledging Tehran is a regional revisionist power, the United States needs to return to and build on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama administration, which Joe Biden has said he intends to do. The results of Iran’s efforts to recreate Persian dominion through proxy forces have been a disaster: failed states in Syria and Lebanon, political and humanitarian disaster in Yemen, popular anger at home over squandered resources. What is there to influence? Combined with its economic malaise and political fatigue, there may be an exhaustion factor that lends itself to moves toward détente. The Biden administration could pursue a “less-for-less” strategy of easing sanctions if Iran halts uranium enrichment and comes back into full compliance with the JCPOA.