Tag Archives: Iran

Counter Influence Activities to U.S. Posture in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf

By Chad M. Pillai

The year is 2030, five years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) officially expired, and Iran has made its move to go nuclear. As the United States and its allies attempt to militarily respond, they face a new reality: assured access and freedom of movement (FOM) is no longer guaranteed due to Russian and Chinese counter influence activities in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. Should this scenario come as a surprise?  The answer is no, because the Russians and Chinese are putting the pieces in position now.  

Since the end of WWII, the most potent aspect of the U.S. military has been its forward posture consisting of a network of forces, footprints, and agreements. With Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran being identified as the four primary state challengers to the U.S.-led global order, the Defense Department is examining its global posture to ensure it has the means to assure allies, deter challengers, and if necessary defeat aggressors. However, Russia and China have not been sitting idle as the U.S. seeks to strengthen its position. In fact, they have studied our doctrine and are implementing their own global posture initiatives to secure their national interests and, if necessary, threaten our interests. Their focus has been around the three critical maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz.   

Russia

Russia has been the most visible in re-asserting itself in the Middle East with its military campaign to support the Assad Regime in Syria. Russia’s principal interest in Syria is ensuring its continued access to a warm water port in the Mediterranean. The U.S. and its western allies’ early attempts to prevent Russian support for Syria by denying the Russians the ability to ship helicopters in 2012 motivated Russia to reposition its naval forces in the area and build relationships with countries in the region.

Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)
Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)

Its reinforcement of advanced air-defense systems in Syria extended Russia’s Anti-Access/Anti-Denial (A2/AD) network from the Baltic region to the Eastern Mediterranean. Recent reports also indicate that Russia is seeking to re-establish its military presence in Egypt at a former air base abandoned in 1972. If Russia is able to establish a foothold in Egypt, its bases in Syria along with its fleet operating in the Eastern Mediterranean would pose a significant challenge to U.S. and allied forces in a potential future conflict while attempting to conduct strikes or move through the Suez.

China

When it comes to China’s military expansion, most observers focus on events in the East and South China Seas and its susceptibility to the “Malacca Straits” dilemma. Like Russia, China has not been idle in developing a “globalized security posture” to secure its interests abroad. The construction of China’s first military outpost in Djibouti is a clear manifestation of China’s global outlook. This is a worrying development for the U.S., which operates from Camp Lemonier, a military base not too far from where China is establishing their base. The future danger of a Chinese base in Djibouti is demonstrated by the recent attacks against U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen. While the U.S. is capable of defending itself and responding to untrained Houthi rebels in Yemen, it may find a more competent and better equipped Chinese force threatening access to the Bab-el-Mandeb a more difficult challenge.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy soldier stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. Photo: Reuters
A People’s Liberation Army Navy sailor stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. (Reuters)

Besides Djibouti, China is reaching out to Oman for access and has established an agreement with Pakistan to use the Port of Gwadar. While the Port of Gwadar is viewed by many as a means for China to challenge India’s influence in the region, it could also be used to challenge the U.S. Navy from operating in the region as well, especially to reinforce its position near the Straits of Hormuz. In a nutshell, China in partnership with Russia and Iran, could shut down three of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world.

Conclusion

General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizes the threat of Russia and China along with Iran, North Korea, and Violent Extremists in his 4+1 construct. However, our efforts to deter these actors individually could have the unfortunate consequence of drawing them closer together as an unholy alliance seeking to diminish U.S. influence. The scenario in the beginning is clearly possible if Russia and China in partnership with Iran choose to deny the U.S. assured access and freedom of movement. While the U.S. is developing numerous concepts to defeat various forms of A2/AD in the Pacific and Persian Gulf regions already, it must accept that for future operations against determined enemies who have studied our doctrine of warfare, the cost of winning will be considerably greater.  

Chad M. Pillai, an Army Strategist, is a member of the War on the Rocks (WOTR) Founders Club, the Military Writers Guild, and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). He has previously published The Bear, Dragon, and Eagle: Russian, Chinese, and U.S. Military Strategies and India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order for CIMSEC. He has also contributed to the Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks (WOTR), Infinity Journal, Small Wars Journal, Offizier, and Military Review. He earned his Masters in International Public Policy (MIPP) from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  

Featured Image: Iranian naval ships conduct an attack on a mock U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz (Hamed Jafarnejad/AFP/Getty Images)

India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order

India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week

By MAJ Chad M. Pillai

“As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia in the twenty-first century.  India, in other words, looms as the ultimate pivot state.”

Robert D. Kaplan (The Revenge of Geography)

I remember reading these words several years ago and thinking back to my trip to India in 1998 at the height of the nuclear testing crisis by India and Pakistan.  During that trip, I took the opportunity to interview several Indian scholars on India’s ascent as a nuclear power and its implications.  Those interviews produce two key themes:  (1) India’s nuclear weapons program was designed as a deterrent to China, not Pakistan as many claimed, since China went nuclear in the 1950s and fought a border war with India in 1962; and (2) a disbelief of U.S. relations with an Islamic military dictatorship in Pakistan and Communist China at the expense of the world’s largest democracy.[1]  In order to accept these two observations, especially if India becomes the strategic pivot nation, the U.S. must acknowledge India’s relationship with, as Seth Cropsey described in his New American Grand Strategy article, the triple hegemonic threats in the Eurasian landmass: Iran, Russia, and China.

India and Iran’s relationship dates thousands of years from when the ancient Persian Empires and Indian Empires ruled the territories from Mesopotamia to the tip of India – occasional rivals during the period of the Indian Mughal (Sunni) Empire. Modern day Afghanistan served as the buffer zone and trade route between these two civilizations.  During the period of the of Colonial British-Russian Rivalry (The Great Game), the landmass between the Persians and British India served as a strategic buffer, and later provided the foundation for India’s relationship with Russia after “The Partition of 1947” that split India and Pakistan.[2]

1814 map of Central Asia, where great power competition between Russia and the British became known as The Great Game.
1814 map of Central Asia, where great power competition between Russia and the British became known as The Great Game.Source: Wikipedia.

India’s relationship with Russia dates to the Cold War after it gained independence from the United Kingdom. Initially, India was a champion of the “Non-Aligned Movement” seeking not to get entangled between the two superpowers. The decline in U.S.-Indian relations during the Johnson administration pushed India into the Soviet sphere due to differences regarding the Vietnam War, India’s stance on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Indo-Pakistani tensions, and economic underperformance. The U.S. military relationship with Pakistan further alienated India which required India to invest heavily in Soviet armaments. India’s and Russia’s relationship has continued despite the end of the Cold War, primarily in foreign military sales and development (ex. Co-Russian and Indian joint Stealth Fighter venture). 

The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a product of a joint venture between Indian and Russian defense firms. Source: Wikipedia.
The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a product of a joint venture between Indian and Russian defense firms. Source: Wikipedia.

India has expanded military relations with the United States as it sees China as a growing security challenge. Additionally, Indians prefer their cultural (Bollywood and Hollywood) and linguistic (large Indian English speaking population) similarities to the United States.[3] In fact, C. Raja Mohan wrote a statement in his book Crossing the Rubicon by then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh issued ahead of President Clinton’s visit of ‘five wasted decades’ and his “reflection on the fact that the world’s two great democracies found it impossible to engage in any substantive cooperation-either economic or political in the country’s first  fifty years.” 

As the two most populous nations on earth, the unique and recent strategic rivalry between India and China, as Robert Kaplan stated, has no history behind it.  They are two ancient civilizations separated by the Himalayan Mountain range that traded, passed religious and cultural knowledge back and forth in the peripheral zones (Afghan region of the Silk and Spice Route and South East Asia where we see a mixed Indian-Chinese influence among populations, linguistics, and cuisine), but have no known history of major warfare between the two save for brief conflict in 1962.  What is driving the emerging competition between India and China is their re-emergence on top of the global economy. As Robyn Meredith states in her book The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for All of Us that “after a centurylong hiatus, India and China are moving back toward their historic equilibrium in the global economy, and that this is producing tectonic shifts in economics as well as in geopolitics.” It is projected that India’s population will exceed China’s and both will continue to modernize and create ever greater demand for consumer goods to meet the needs and desires of their vast populations. As a result, the Achilles Heel and source of emerging friction is the need to secure access to energy from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to fuel their economic growth. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “China is the world’s second-largest consumer of oil and moved from second-largest net importer of oil to the largest in 2014.”  Meanwhile, “India was the fourth-largest consumer of crude oil and petroleum products in the world in 2013, after the United States, China, and Japan. The country depends heavily on imported crude oil, mostly from the Middle East.” While much has been written of China’s activities in Africa to secure energy and mineral rights, less has been shared about India’s competition, though less successful, in the same arena. A significant lag in its competitiveness is China’s reliance on state-owned enterprises that offer better terms due to government guarantee vs. India’s reliance on its private sector and smaller state owned enterprises.  Despite this, India has also been working with Central Asian States and Iran to develop the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline with recent Indian investment ventures in Iranian oil and gas fields in the range of $20 billion. To offset the competition for energy, both countries have invested heavily in renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.

India’s strategic geography provides it a long-term competitive advantage over China due to its position between the world’s key energy chokepoints.  According to the IEA World Oil Transit Chokepoints Report, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit.”  India’s strategic relationship with Iran and South East Asian nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, along with its control of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, place it in a formidable position to disrupt China’s access to its energy markets in the Middle East and Africa. China has been trying to offset its ‘Malacca Dilemma” by establishing economic-security ventures known as its “String of Pearls” to include expanded ventures with Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. 

shipmap_image
India’s geography provides it excellent positioning to influence critical sea lines of communication. Source: Shipmap.org.

The ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and ‘String of Pearls” will drive each nation to invest in their missile arsenal (nuclear and non-nuclear), naval power, and airpower.  According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2016, China accounts for 41% and India for 13.5% of all defense spending in Asia. Further comparisons between the two show China spent $145 Billion (US Dollars) vs. India’s $47 Billion (US Dollars) in 2015.  Analyzing their naval power, China has the edge in numbers with more submarines (61 = 4 SSBNs and 57 SSNs), more combatant ships (74 including one carrier), and mine warfare (49).  India currently fields a navy with 14 submarines, 28 combatant (two carriers to China’s one), and 6 mine warfare ships.  However, its ability to influence the Strait of Malacca provides India the competitive advantage, especially if its efforts are combined with U.S., Australian, Japanese, and coalition nations to offset China’s numerical superiority.  Additionally, China will face its own A2/AD threat environment in the India Ocean as India expands its medium and long range missiles.

As the United States increasingly faces challenges to its global power by Iran, Russia, and China, its relationship with India will grow in strategic importance.  While India may never become a true ally of the U.S. due to its strategic relations with the other three powers, its role as a strategic pivot or fulcrum can provide a source of stability and balance.  Its democratic and cultural values align it with the United States and the West, but geography and history place India squarely within the context of its Eurasian neighbors. 

MAJ Chad M. Pillai is a U.S. Army Strategist.  He has published articles and blogs in Military Review, Small Wars Journal, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge, Offizier, War on the Rocks, and CIMSEC.  He received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009.  This article was influenced by his Asian Energy Security and South Asian International Relations courses at SAIS. 

[1] In 1998, I took a trip to India for my adopted father’s mother’s death that coincided with the nuclear testing.  As a result, I proposed an extra credit project for my ROTC instructor to study the security implications and worked on it further during my internship at the Department of State that summer semester. 

[2] The strategic implications of the 1947 Partition continue in today’s conflict in Afghanistan as Pakistan views India’s relationship with the Afghan Government with suspicion and fears Indian encirclement if it loses its strategic maneuver space among the Afghan Pashtu regions.  Recommend “The Great Defile” by Diana Preston to learn more of the British Indian (manned primarily by Punjabis – Modern Pakistanis) Army’s misadventures during the Afghan Wars of 1838-1842.

[3] Indians prefer to study in the United States and migrate.  One current state governor and one former state governor are of Indian descent.

Featured Image: Prime Minister Modi speaks from the Red Fort in New Delhi on India’s 69th Independence Day in 2015.

Farsi Island and Matters of Honor

By LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN

The recent incident of two U.S. Navy riverine boats crossing into Iranian territorial waters around Farsi Island and the subsequent arrest and detention of their crews has sparked a debate on a number of related issues, including the behavior of the officers and crew to the larger geopolitical issue of America’s relationship with Iran and the recently concluded nuclear “deal”. CAPT Steven Horrell has suggested that much of this debate is really “partisan vitriol” and “a litmus test of opposing camps of foreign policy.” He argues that the OIC submitting to a video recording of his “apology” was “quite possibly his best course of action.” He rightly counsels that we do not yet know all of the relevant facts regarding this incident, and one hopes the Department of Defense investigation is swiftly conducted and made public. While he acknowledges that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) was wrong in its “initial treatment of the crew and propagandizing of the apology video,” he argues that the time for debate or calls to action are “not when the personnel are still on foreign soil …” He suggests that this may have been an attempt by the IRGC to “seize an opportunity” to use this incident to bolster their domestic political standing in Iran. At the end, however, CAPT Horrell seems more concerned about the “behaviors of our polarized body politic” than the long-term consequences to American power, prestige and yes, honor.

There is a persistent myth that Americans have historically avoided partisanship when it comes to national security or international crises. A cursory review of our past shows otherwise.  The War of 1812 was perhaps America’s most divisive conflict (even when compared to Vietnam), with vigorous opposition and “partisan vitriol” coming from within President Madison’s own party, led by John Randolph of Virginia. More recently, Americans were lectured that “we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration” on matters of national security. Indeed American political leaders of the opposing party have summarily declared wars “lost” in the middle of the fighting. On the recent Iran nuclear deal, the President himself declared that those opposed to him were “making common cause” with Iranian hardliners like the IRGC and that they were supporting war with Iran. The fact that candidates for the Presidency have “politicized” the incident, using it as a way to contrast their vision with that of their opponents during an election year should come as no surprise, and indeed seems to follow our traditional historical pattern.

Why might scenes of Navy Sailors on their knees, hands on their heads, surrendering to IRGCN forces and later apologizing on camera cause such a visceral reaction among Americans? The answer may be found in antiquity, and was best articulated by Thucydides. More than 2,500 years ago, he identified “three of the strongest motives” that explained relations between states were “fear, honor and self-interest.” While he is considered the “father” of the “realist” school of international relations, his point about notions of honor and prestige are often overlooked. The eminent Yale historian and classicist, Donald Kagan, carefully articulates why, despite being considered antiquated  by some academics and elites, “the notion that the only thing rational or real in the conduct of nations is the search for economic benefits or physical security is itself a prejudice of our time, a product of the attempt to treat the world of human events as though it were an inanimate, motiveless physical universe. Such an approach is no more adequate to explain behavior today than it ever was.” From this vantage point, Americans perceive that the systematic humiliation of American Sailors was a blow to our honor and prestige. Historically, Kagan notes, “when the prestige of a state wanes, so, too, does its power — even if materially … that power appears to remain unaffected.” Perhaps this is why, even coming on the heels of the Vietnam War, the Ford Administration reacted so assertively to the Cambodian seizure of the U.S.-flagged merchant vessel Mayaguez, as noted by retired Navy Captain and professor Jerry Hendrix. Even at a point in U.S. history where American power seemed at its weakest, the Khmer Rouge thought twice about taking on a superpower. The Farsi Island incident today seems to suggest that despite being a much stronger power than in 1975, the U.S. engenders much less fear, let alone respect, from its adversaries.

Patrol boats employed by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.
Patrol boats employed by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.

CAPT Harrell and others consider the capture and release of American Sailors a “larger diplomatic success.” He specifically notes that the release was “due almost wholly to the existing relationships between Presidents Obama and Rouhani and Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. This, in turn, is due to having achieved their nuclear agreement.” He suggests that when an incident occurs between two potential adversaries, “the first phone conversation better not be after the crisis has started.” This implies that prior to the current administration, there were no mechanisms for direct or indirect communication. However, the previous administration held 28 separate meetings with Iranian officials of ambassadorial rank, including 15 direct U.S.-Iran meetings. Clearly, there was someone to have a conversation with prior to President Obama taking office, and the U.S. and Iran had open diplomatic channels, if a cool relationship. Whether the release was due to an “existing relationship” or simply because the Iranians got what they wanted (a taped apology, propaganda videos and pictures of American military personnel surrendering) is hard to say. The Middle East Media Research Institute suggests it is more likely that Tehran did not want to delay the lifting of economic sanctions and to ameliorate the negative impression left from the burning of the Saudi Arabian embassy and consulate. In any case, focusing on the release of the Sailors ignores the larger question – what emboldened the IRGCN to feel like they could capture two U.S. Navy vessels in the first place? There seemed to be no reticence on the part of the Iranians to risk a confrontation, and therefore they could act with impunity – at least that is how it appears.

While we can all be thankful for the Sailors safe release, many have a much less sanguine view. This incident seems to embody a recent, growing perception of American weakness and decline. That belief is held here in America and around the world – especially among our adversaries. The fact that American honor is so easily besmirched and violated without fear of retribution only exacerbates this view. This is more than just “partisan vitriol” in my opinion, but a real and growing problem that should concern us all, regardless of party, as Americans.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber is an Information Warfare officer assigned to U.S. Cyber Command. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Cyber Command or the Department of the Navy. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.

July Member Round-Up

Welcome to the July 2015 Member Round-Up. Our members have had a very productive month discussing three major security topics; the rise of China, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and the fight against ISIS. A few of the articles are shared here for some light reading over your Labor Day Weekend. If you are a CIMSEC Member and want your own maritime security-related work included in this or upcoming round-ups be sure to contact our Director of Member Publicity at dmp@cimsec.org.

Henry Holst begins our round up discussing the PLA/N’s options for submarine activity in the Taiwan Strait. His article in USNI News states that the Taiwan situation remains the driving force behind the Chinese military buildup. Holst goes into depth discussing the capabilities of the Yuan Type-39A class SSK in a standoff between China and Taiwan/US forces. This article is a must read for all who are interested in the recent developments of the Chinese submarine service.

CIMSEC’s founder, Scott Cheney-Peters, meanwhile discussed the nuances of potential joint aerial patrols in the South China Sea with CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and joined fellow CIMSECian Ankit Panda from The Diplomat for a podcast discussion of India’s evolving approach to maritime security in East Asia.   Also at AMTI, Ben Purser co-authored a piece on China’s airfield construction of Fiery Cross Reef. AMTI’s director, Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper joined others testifying before a Congressional committee on America’s security role in the South China Sea.

Zachary Keck, of The National Interest, provides the next piece. July was an especially intense month for Mr. Keck, as he wrote 25 articles in July alone. Staying in East and Southeast Asia, Mr. Keck writes that just as China has done in the South China Sea, the PRC could build artificial islands nearer to India as well. His concern is due to a constitutional amendment in Maldives that was passed in late July. This amendment allows for foreign ownership of Maldives territory.  China has rebuffed these concerns and says that they are committed to supporting “the Maldives’ efforts to maintain its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” This piece will be of interest for those that are keeping tabs on Chinese expansionist tendencies.

Moving on from the Chinese situation and the South China Sea, Shawn VanDiver takes us to the Iranian Plateau and the Persian Gulf to discuss the Iranian nuclear deal now before Congress. He penned two articles last month describing the advantages of the deal. His first article, in Task & Purpose, describes his support for the P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerlanddeal as a 12 year veteran of the United States Navy. He describes his apprehension and the sense of foreboding transiting the Strait of Hormuz at the sights of a .50 caliber machine gun. The next day his second article on the Iran deal came out in the Huffington Post. This article was slightly different as he focuses more on the stated positions of the then current crop of GOP presidential contenders and Senators. He states that the deal is a new beginning. Well worth the read if you are at all hesitating on the importance of this crucial deal.

For the last mention in our member round up, Admiral James Stavridis spent time last month discussing the role of Turkey in the current fight against ISIS. As former Supreme Commander of NATO forces, Admiral Stavridis is uniquely qualified to render judgement on the role of a critical NATO member in the region, the only one directly affected by ISIS fighters. He was interviewed on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  In the same vein, he penned an article in Foreign Policy discussing the importance of NATO use of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on the Mediterranean Coast.  This base is seen as critical to the effort against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

CIMSECians were busy elsewhere too:

That is all for July. Stay tuned to CIMSEC for all your maritime security needs.

“A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, 2 December 1902

The views expressed above are those of the author’s.