Tag Archives: Persian Gulf

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 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.


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.


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)

The U.S. Realignment of the Persian Gulf Regional Security Complex

The Persian Gulf sits at the nexus of multiple regional security complexes overlaid one upon another, creating a delicately balanced yet dangerously volatile mosaic of cultural politics and armed forces. As a result, the calculated political positioning of states within the region have ramifications that produce a ripple effect across the entire globe: affecting energy markets, political stability, and military cooperation and procurement programs which define how several non-regional states engage.

RV-AC436_Cold_W_DV_20110415015203 At the core of this Gulf complex is a security rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; a centuries old antagonism between Sunni and Shia’ Muslims manifest in global politics which now dictates defense alignment policies and military readiness. A second, and rising, security complex to examine is the establishment of the United States as a permanent military, economic, and diplomatic partner in the region – absent only in sovereign territory of its own. With the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, American interests in the region are clearly communicated, as are the passive-aggressive cavitation of our naval vessels plying the Straits of Hormuz at the dismay of Iran’s Supreme leader. Third, Gulf security politics exist within the broader global context of a contentious Muslim and Jewish relationship, most clearly exhibited by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this point, it is argued that much of the anti-Israeli rhetoric coming from Iran, for example, can be explained by recognizing Iran’s need to appear as the sole, legitimate voice of Muslims in the Gulf as opposed to Saudi Arabia. Last, this piece will address the strategic importance of an American presence in the Persian Gulf to fulfill President Obama’s pivot towards Asia. Tangled in an economic complex with the Middle East, major Pacific actors have made attempts to use their geographic back door in South Asia to secure natural resources, thus sustaining the growing trend of urbanization in Asia. Because of this, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review calls for a continued American presence in the Gulf as a key stratagem to check expanding Chinese power.

Conceptual Framework:

Proposed by Barry Buzan in his 2003 publication Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security, regional security complex theory tells us that a relationship between two countries is often dictated by contextual factors rather than a direct binary balance of power dynamic. 141023-N-PJ969-057This checkers to chess dynamic is found in Southeast Asia where ASEAN states coordinate diplomatic, economic, and security interests according to a broader context of Chinese encroachment into the South China Sea. Furthermore, Buzan suggests that a security complex applies not only to states that share a region, but also implicates states that have shared economic and security goals in absence of shared borders. An example of this would be the seemingly puzzlingly and provocative rhetoric of Israeli statesmen who are factually out numbered and surrounded by opposition in the Middle East. However, when considering the added influence of American military power that backs Israel, it becomes clear that one cannot simply understand Israeli foreign policy in the region without first considering its dependent relationship upon the raw capabilities of the United States in projecting power onto countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

The application of this theory in the Persian Gulf helps to explain the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Evident in the coordinated relations of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, a security complex emerges that explains the alignment of foreign and defense policies in opposition to Iran. 640x-1Placating to the politics of identity and culture, the complex provokes an arms and ideological race between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is executed by proxy across the region. The concern regarding this ideological race is not that it is fought over religious differences, but rather that their cold war is fought within the context of suppressing unalienable freedoms according to ethnic fault lines. Quite possibly warming the conflict to a more traditional shooting engagement, ideological grievances often result in genocidal war crimes. As a pretext to the grim reality of a coming ideological conflict between the two nations, Iran’s limited offensive role against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seeks to avoid, in the interpretive eyes of Saudi Arabia, this very scenario—despite Saudi’s open disapproval of ISIL’s advancements. Ultimately, neither country wants to engage in combat with the other, but their regional posturing is motivated by both an effort to omnibalance and offset an internal threat to stability while professing a legitimate claim to the Muslim caliphate to external entities. Most interestingly, F. Gregory Gause III, author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, poses an important question in this discussion: Can we consider the United States as part of the Persian Gulf’s regional security complex even though the country is not physically part of the region?

In order to answer this question, and others regarding the Persian Gulf security complex, we must first explore how the Gulf security environment has changed since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Second, we will explore how changes in U.S. foreign policy have affected the region, highlighting significant issues that exist today whose solutions are a requisite to ushering peace and security into the region.

A Changing Gulf Security Environment:

At the close of the Iran-Iraq War in 1989, the Gulf security environment changed drastically in three ways. First, the international community developed an altered understanding of Saddam Hussein, and his desire for regional control. Children_In_iraq-iran_war4After eight years of bloody stalemate, it was clear that Hussein was committed to making offensive gains along Iraq’s borders, particularly if it included a deep-water port or improved access to the Euphrates River south of Basra. Second, there was a paradigm shift in the Westphalian system marked by the fall of the Soviet Union. The unilateral dominance of the United States across the globe introduced the world’s sole super power—capable of projecting military might to the farthest reaches of the globe. Third, following the Iraq War from 2003-2011, the balance of power shifted from a tripolar political dynamic between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, to a bipolar system where Saudi Arabia and Iran were left to their own devices.

Though the Iran-Iraq War ended with over 400,000 killed, along with an additional 700,000 injured, neither Iran nor Iraq was able to make substantive land gains on either side of the mine-infested fields along the Euphrates. What did change, however, were the attitudes of both Iraqi and Iranian citizens, which created a nationalist fervor in both countries thus, informing the nature of the regional security complex that was to follow. For Iran, the country had successfully defended itself at great personal sacrifice, which united the newly established government with its people. Iraq, on the other hand, experienced the feelings of embarrassment and loss despite the conflict best characterized as a draw. Paranoid of being overthrown by is own people and feeling the pressure to act, Saddam engaged the ebbing tide of Iraqi nationalism and internal reconciliation process to put his military back to work by invading Kuwait. In tandem with the incessant need to conquer something in the region proving his military prowess and invigorating the floundering sense of Iraqi nationalism, Saddam Hussein publically declared several justifications for invading Kuwait. The first of these justifications was that Kuwait was allegedly stealing Iraq’s petroleum reserves, in conjunction with manipulating the energy market with overproduction in order to damage the Iraqi economy. As a result, and through the use of violence, Iraq attacked Kuwait increasing their littoral access from 30-miles of marshland originally proctored by the British, to 300-miles of coastline, which included Kuwait’s Shuwaikh Port—providing deep-water access to Iraqi sea vessels. In addition, perhaps, Saddam may have wanted to highlight to the world the West’s hypocritical tolerance for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, but intolerance towards Iraq’s semi-legitimate legal claim to Kuwaiti soil. Saddam’s understanding of this legal right is grounded in an Ottoman land-use agreement demarcating parts of present day Kuwaiti under the control of Ottoman governors residing in the sub-regional capital of Basrah, Iraq.

Another significant shift occurring after the Iran-Iraq War was the world’s perception of Saddam, and a new international understanding that Iraq was an aggressor towards other Gulf States. This belief was perpetuated across the globe and reinforced by Saddam’s prompt invasion of a sovereign Kuwait. It was believed that Iraq’s move to invade Kuwait in the immediate shadow of their eight-year stalemate with Iran indicated that “Saddam’s quest to dominate the Gulf” would continue. As a result the United Nations passed a Security Council Resolution condemning Iraq’s invasion and in January of 1991, the U.S. Congress voted to authorize the use of force to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The results of this vote represented two momentous transformations in the region, the first being the introduction of what would become a permanent U.S. military force—the first such permanent foreign presence in the Gulf since the exit of the British after World War II, and second the United States massed forces in Saudi Arabia establishing an American interventionist precedent in the heart of Islam’s holiest location. The massing of forces in Saudi Arabia not only loaned the name of American military power and might to the Saudis, but it solidified a formal military alliance, which turned the tables against Iran. After the United States’ impressive 100-hour ground assault driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the door was open to the United States to establish a foothold in the region, giving the Americans a strategic upper hand in military and economic matters. It should be noted that though Iran was having its long-time Iraqi enemy destroyed by American forces, leadership in the Islamic Republic was concerned with the growing U.S. influence in the region. DF-ST-92-09166At the end of the ground campaign, President George H. W. Bush stopped short of marching to Baghdad and signed a bilateral agreement with Iraq, sparing the remaining Iraqi military units and leaving Saddam in power—Iran, among others, was disconcerted with this outcome, but had few bargaining chips to use with the U.S. embassy hostage fiasco fresh in the minds of American policymakers.

Coinciding with the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the collapse of the Soviet Union emphasized American military dominance and the new world order underwritten by its power. These international phenomena empowered America, and encouraged U.S. diplomats and military leaders to explore their newfound role as the world’s sole superpower. Because of their new position of leadership in the world followed by the resounding victory in Kuwait, the United States gained both soft and hard power for dealing with security issues in the Middle East. The growing influence of the United States in the region was epitomized by the 1995 reactivation of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, subsequently assigned a homeport in Khawr al Qulay’ah, Bahrain. The United States’ move to establish a permanent naval base in the Persian Gulf was a direct result of the conditions created in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Unfortunately this presence, along with U.S. naval vessels in Yemen, and combat troops in Saudi Arabia, served as the central grievance of Osama bin Laden subsequently leading to his denunciation of the West and eventually the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.

Until the Iraq War began in 2003, the Persian Gulf was ruled by a conflicting triad anchored by Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The creation and provocation of the Gulf Cooperation Council among the broader regional contest with Iran, was tempered by the often-roguish behavior of the third party, Iraq. After Iraq’s initial Gulf War defeat in 1991, President George H. W. Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, was determined to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disband the Iraqi Army at the insistance of key players from within his administration. Kuni-Takahashi-Baghdad-03-LightboxAfter the ground assault on Iraq, the United States was able to quickly take control of Basrah, Nasiriyah, Najaf, and Baghdad over the span of two weeks. With the capture of Saddam Hussein and the consequent announcement ending major combat operations in Iraq, the Gulf’s localized tripolar dynamic was effectively dismantled and the United States was forced to intervene more directly in the regional balance of power. Shortly after the destruction of Iraq and its army, the United States existed in Persian Gulf with naval dominance of the waterways and air superiority over Iraq marking an interesting turn in the nature of the Gulf regional security complex, an interesting development in light of Gause’s original question about whether the United States is truly a part of the power balance in the Gulf. 

In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia, the dismantling of Iraq and the presence of the Fifth Fleet’s 40 ships, 175 aircraft and 21,000 personnel in Bahrain, the United States has become a critical member of the Persian Gulf security complex. Gause sums it up best when he writes “Washington is a direct, day-to-day player in Gulf politics now. Iraq is no longer a player, but a playing field.”

The Influence of U.S. Policy on Security in the Region:

The most effective faucets of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf are manifest in military alliances with Saudi Arabia and other GCC monarchies.With a decreasing dependency on Middle Eastern oil, a continued U.S. military presence in the Gulf is required to maintain healthy relationships. In 1993 theKingdom Centre Clinton Administration developed a strategy known as “Dual Containment,” which, in shadow of Nixon’s failed “twin pillar” strategy, formally endorsed Saudi Arabia as the premier Gulf state by limiting regional influences stemming from both Iraq and Iran. In congruence with limiting Iraq and Iran’s regional capabilities, the United States sought to reinforce GCC coalition building by selling member states, particularly Saudi Arabia, “advanced weapons” ensuring interoperability and shared training doctrine. More interestingly, the United States has been comparatively quiet with regard to voicing concern over Saudi Arabia’s efforts to obtain nuclear energy to run desalination plants. In an effort to undercut Saudi Arabia’s claim to Gulf superiority after the fall of Iraq, Iran has reached out to the smaller littoral Gulf states in an effort to establish bilateral defense agreements with the intent of siphoning off support for Saudi’s assumed increased regional responsibilities. In addition to the full backing of Saudi Arabia by American foreign policy advisors, the U.S. military has also sought a strategic foothold in the region for their own diplomatic and military missions.

The American military plays an important role in the Persian Gulf beyond influencing regional politics. Actively patrolling the Indian Ocean and the Gulf Aden, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has undertaken the world’s responsibility of maintaining the open and free passage of the Strait of Hormuz, often under threat of blockade by Iran, and for battling Somali pirates preying on civilian tankers. In fact, the U.S. protects 17 million barrels of oil in total passing through the Strait of Hormuz everyday. Furthermore, American domestic energy policy affects the security environment in the Persian Gulf by decreasing sales, and therefore American dependency, on foreign oil. Until the end of the Bush Administration in 2009, it was forecasted that U.S. dependency on petroleum from Middle East states was on the rise. Accounting for 42% of all American oil imports, a significant portion of the 59% total from member-states of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2005, it was forecasted in 2009 that American dependency would rise to 65% by 2020.


Future diplomatic successes in the Persian Gulf will be built upon the shoulders of unofficial civilian diplomats engaged in Track II talks. Saudi, Iranian, and American non-governmental organizations can, and should, work together in tackling shared soft security challenges by capitalizing on proliferating technologies and ideas that seek to address climate change issues.

PAG 134
Two issues that must be resolved to increase peace and stability in the Persian Gulf are nuclear security and climate change. The weaponized use of nuclear power is a hard security issue, while climate change, and in particular water scarcity, is best characterized as a soft security issue. The word soft does not mean, however, that these issues are less important. In fact, some of the soft security issues may in fact have far greater effects on the residents of the Gulf, thus informing regional affairs in ways unaccounted for in Buzan’s regional security complex theory. Put best by Mary Luomi climate change exists as a ‘“threat multiplier” that can create or worsen intra- and interstate tensions.” Climate change’s affect on water is not limited to potable sources, but it is also driving sea levels higher, which for a country like Bahrain that depends on flood barriers, poses a serious threat. With successful collaboration in the private sector, it may just be possible to pave the road to success.

In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War and America’s Wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, it is clear that the Persian Gulf has faced a rapidly changing security dynamic that, to answer Gause’s original question, is underpinned by the introduction of the U.S. to the Persian Gulf regional security complex. Exhibited in the undeniable American influence in the region stemming from a full military presence, the United States has established itself as a permanent player in the Persian Gulf; a fact that will have an immense amount of influence in the foreseeable future with regard to the U.S. pivot to Asia.


Captain William Allen is a US Marine currently serving as company commander of A Co. 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, 4th Marine Division. Graduating from Columbia University’s Middle East Institute with a masters in Islamic Studies, Captain Allen is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is currently serving as the Joseph S. Nye National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security with their Technology and National Security Program. Captain Allen’s writings can be found here at the Center for International Maritime Security, as well as, the Small Wars Journal, and the International Relations and Security Network at ETH Zurich. The views expressed in his writing are his alone.


Works Cited:

Barry Buzan. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

F. Gregory Gause, III. The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

J. E. Peterson. “Sovereignty and Boundaries in the Gulf States: Settling the Peripheries” International Politics of the Persian Gulf, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011).

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen,. Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era(London: Hurst, 2011).

Lawrence Potter. “Persian Gulf Security: Patterns and Prospects,” in Iran and the West: Regional Interests and Global Controversies, Special Report, ed. Rouzbeh Parsi and John Rydqvist (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, March 2011).

Lawrence Potter. “The Persian Gulf: Tradition and Transformation,” Headline Series. (March 19, 2013).

Lawrence Potter. “Tripolarity” (class lecture, Security and International Politics of the Persian Gulf, Columbia University, New York, New York September 24, 2014).

Mari Luomi. “Gulf of Interest: Why Oil Still Dominates Middle Eastern Climate Politics,” Journal of Arabian Studies 1 no. 2 (2011).

Mehran Kamrava. “The Changing International Relations of the Persian Gulf,” in International Politics of the Persian Gulf, ed. Mehran Kamrava (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press) 

Quadrennial Defense Review 2014. (Published by the Secretary of Defense, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf, March 4, 2014).

Unofficial U.S. Navy Site. (Published by Thoralf Doehring, http://navysite.de/navy/fleet.htm 2013).

Corvettes of the Persian Gulf: A Strategic Survey

Omani Kareer-class Corvette
Omani Khareef-class Corvette

By Paul Pryce

The Persian Gulf has long been a waterway of strategic importance. On average, $105 billion worth of goods are exchanged between Iran and the Gulf states each year. In addition, approximately 20% of the world’s petroleum traverses the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage between the Persian Gulf and the open seas. Clearly, ensuring the security of this body of water is vital to the health of the global economy. In this respect, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet fulfills a significant role, as does Combined Task Force 152, a multinational contingent patrolling the Persian Gulf since 2004. But what role do regional navies play in securing these same waterways?

To address this question, it is worthwhile examining the corvettes employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Republic of Iraq, and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These smaller, lighter vessels are sufficiently maneuverable to navigate the narrow waterways that characterize the region. Corvettes are also for the most part the heaviest vessels operated by the region’s maritime forces. Comparing the corvettes can provide valuable insight into the current and future balance of naval power in the Persian Gulf.

The Royal Navy of Oman (RNO) is representative of the rapid development taking place in the region’s maritime forces. For several years, the RNO has depended largely on its two Qahir-class corvettes (1,450 tons), which have been in operation since 1996. Beyond this pair of vessels, the RNO operated a single patrol ship, Al-Mubrukah; having begun life as a royal yacht, it was converted to a training ship for a time, then was re-designated to patrol Omani waters in 1997. However, the RNO has commissioned three Khareef-class corvettes (2,660 tons) from BAE Systems, based in Portsmouth, UK. The first of these vessels, Al-Shamikh, was  delivered in October 2013. The remaining two Khareef-class corvettes, Al-Rahmani and Al-Rasikh, are expected in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

The United Arab Emirates Navy also has ambitions to expand its capabilities, though these plans are at an earlier stage. Purchases have been made for six Baynunah-class missile corvettes (915 tons) to replace the country’s six aging Ardhana-class patrol craft (175 tons), which have been in operation since 1976. While one of the new vessels have been completed, the remaining five are not expected for several years due to the relative inexperience of Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding, the local shipbuilder. Even so, the shipbuilder has expressed its hopes to secure further orders of this class for the Kuwaiti and Saudi maritime forces. Aside from the expected Baynunah-class vessels, the UAE’s complement of corvettes is currently comprised of three Abu Dhabi-class corvettes (1,650 tons) and two Muray Jib-class corvettes (630 tons). The former were acquired as recently as 2011, produced by the Italian shipyard Fincantieri. The latter were produced by Germany’s Lürssen in 1990-1991.

The Qatari Navy is currently considering the acquisition of its own corvettes. For the time being, the country has relied primarily on smaller patrol vessels. Its most substantial vessels are four Vita-class fast attack craft (480 tons) and three Combattante III fast attack craft (430 tons). Officials have proposed bolstering the Qatari Navy’s capabilities with the addition of four corvettes, and the favoured option appears to be Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding’s Sigma-class corvette (1,690 tons). Several vessels of this design have been in service with the Indonesian Navy and the Royal Moroccan Navy since 2009, with an additional four having recently been purchased by the Vietnamese military. Whether Qatar will follow through with this purchase remains to be seen, but it would certainly enhance the capabilities of the Qatari Navy and the country’s position in the region.

The Kuwaiti Navy and the Royal Bahrain Naval Force are two notable exceptions to the trend of modernization and expansion in the region. The Kuwaiti Naval Force possesses a limited number of vessels, the most substantial of which is a single Al-Estqlaal-class fast attack craft (410 tons) and commissioned in 1983. The remainder of the Kuwaiti fleet consists of nine fast attack craft (250 tons) and various support vessels. There are no plans for Kuwait to acquire a corvette-like vessel in the near future; much of the budget for the Kuwaiti Naval Force has been directed toward the purchase of several landing craft. Meanwhile, Bahrain is experiencing a corvette-sized gap in its fleet. The flagship of the Royal Bahrain Naval Force is an Oliver Perry-class frigate (4,100 tons), which first entered into service with the United States Navy in 1981 and was subsequently transferred to Bahrain as a gift in 1996. Beyond this, Bahrain also operates two Al-Manama class corvettes (630 tons) and four Ahmed Al-Fateh class missile boats (260 tons), all of which were acquired from the German manufacturer Lürssen in the 1980s.

An unknown quality in the region’s maritime affairs is the future of the Royal Saudi Navy. While Saudi Arabia is certainly a leader among the navies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, there are few details available regarding the plans for this country’s maritime forces. There are some indications that Saudi Arabia was offered a package by the United States Navy, consisting of two destroyers and an undisclosed number of Littoral Combat Ships. Whether this package was accepted is unclear. It seems that Lockheed Martin initially offered eight Littoral Combat Ships for the express purpose of joining the Saudi fleet in the Persian Gulf, but again little is known as to how negotiations proceeded – if at all.

The current array of vessels in service with the Royal Saudi Navy, however, is well known. Three Al-Riyadh class frigates (4,700 tons), which are essentially modified La Fayette-class frigates acquired from the French Navy, have been in service since 2002-2003. An additional four Al-Madinah class frigates (2,600 tons) were produced in France but have been in service since 1985-1986. Also aged, four Badr-class corvettes (1,040 tons) have been in service since 1981-1983. While this represents an ample contingent in comparison to the smaller Gulf states, it must also be noted that the Royal Saudi Navy has its forces split between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The situation of the Iraqi Navy remains rather problematic. While once an impressive force in its own right, the Iraqi Navy was almost entirely destroyed during the Gulf War of 1991. Attempts to acquire four Lupo-class frigates (3,000 tons) and six Assad-class corvettes (675 tons) failed when Iraq became the subject of an international arms embargo shortly before the Gulf War and the completion of the vessels. As such, the Iraqi Navy was not rebuilt and therefore did not play a significant role during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Presently, the only combat vessels operated by the Iraqi Navy are four Saettia MK4 class off-shore patrol vessels (390 tons). Iraq has especially narrow sea access, limited mostly to the ports of Umm-Qasr and Al-Faw. Accordingly, Iraqi authorities have sought to limit maritime forces to light patrol boats, which are chiefly tasked with patrolling coastal waters and protecting off-shore oil platforms. In short, Iraq is no longer a significant contributor to the security of the Persian Gulf.

In contrast to its troubled neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) maintains one of the most substantial fleets in the region and is working to rapidly expand its capabilities. Furthermore, much of IRIN consists of corvettes, though it refers to most of these as destroyers. Three Alvand-class vessels (1,540 tons) are the mainstay of Iran’s presence in the Persian Gulf, though these have been in operation since 1971-1972. The Moudge-class ‘destroyer’ (1,500 tons) is being introduced to serve alongside these older counterparts. One Moudge-class vessel entered service in the Persian Gulf in 2010, while a second entered service in the Caspian Sea in early 2013. Another four vessels of this class are currently being built and delivery is expected soon. Unfortunately, much of the Moudge-class’ capabilities are not publicly available at this time, though it has been noted that the vessels are largely the result of Iranian reverse-engineering of the Alvand-class.

The Sahand-class (2,000 tons), based at least in part on the design of the Moudge-class ‘destroyer’ (and thus the Alvand-class by extension) is also currently under construction. Once again, not much is known of the vessel’s capabilities, but official announcements indicate the vessel currently under construction will be patrolling the Strait of Hormuz and can be equipped with Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship missiles. Beyond the aforementioned Iranian destroyers, a Bayandor-class patrol frigate (1,135 tons) was launched after a refit in June 2013. An additional Bayandor-class vessel and Hamzeh-class corvette are in operation, though both have been in operation since 1964-1965 and the latter is deployed in the Caspian Sea. Less relevant to the topic of corvettes but still worth noting in any discussion of maritime security in the Persian Gulf, IRIN has accrued a fleet of submarines, missile boats, and minelayers, which could be employed to significantly inhibit traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

In surveying the corvettes and corvette-like vessels of the Persian Gulf, several regional trends can be identified. Iran has emerged as the most ambitious modernizer, rapidly developing its maritime forces. Some of its newer vessels, namely the Sahand-class frigate, are explicitly intended to exert a stronger Iranian influence in the Strait of Hormuz. Interestingly, the Sahand-class frigate is also named in memory of an earlier Iranian frigate sunk by the US Navy during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. The Moudge and Sahand-class frigates also demonstrate a shift in focus toward domestic shipbuilding. Yet the distribution of newer IRIN vessels seems to indicate that the Iranian regime is as concerned about the Caspian Sea as it is about the Persian Gulf; determining the intended destination of the remaining four Moudge-class frigates may offer some insight into Iran’s future strategic priorities.

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been slower to develop or expand upon their naval forces. Oman, the UAE, and Qatar are actively seeking corvettes but it will still be several years before their respective plans for modernization can be realized. Bahrain and Kuwait are complacent on corvettes, while Saudi Arabia has apparently limited its own plans to whatever package the United States offers. That the Gulf states have not sought to keep up with the expansion of IRIN may in part be due to a security dependence on the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as well as multinational forces like Combined Task Force 152. This dependence has been exacerbated by the sustained downfall of Iraq since 1991 as a counterbalance for Iran in the region.

The strategic makeup of the Persian Gulf aside, the next few years in the region will be interesting for corvette enthusiasts. Whether it is the revelation of the Royal Saudi Navy’s package with the US Navy and Lockheed Martin, the unveiling of Iran’s Sahand-class frigate’s capabilities or the final choice of the Qatari Navy’s corvette, there will be plenty to keep everyone on their toes.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. His research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

MFP 7: Future Maritime Disputes

What maritime dispute is most likely to lead to armed conflict in the next 5/10/20 years?

This is the seventh in our series of posts from our Maritime Futures Project.  For more information on the contributors, click hereNote: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters, USNR:

South-China-SeaI’m going to confine my thoughts here to the most likely to spill over into conflict and save the rest for Question 9. I expect that I will of course get most of this wrong. There’s a reason I’m not a betting man.

0-5 Years:  As we’ve been arguing on this site since last year, the numerous maritime disputes in which China is involved, China’s seeming unwillingness to seek a diplomatic resolution to these disputes, and China’s unilateral moves to change the situation on the ground (sea) means that there is an alarming risk of miscalculation and escalation in any of a number of conflicts (the Senkakus/Diaoyus; the Spratleys, the Paracels, etc). This is not to lay the blame solely in China’s lap, however. The recent (re-)election of Shinzo Abe in Japan at the head of a nationalist LDP government will perhaps be just as unwilling to make concessions in the Senkakus dispute, for example. And as we saw with the protest voyage to the Senkakus of the Kai Fung No. 2, non-state actors can just as easily force a government’s hand. All of this is despite the incredibly complex and large economic ties which bind all of the participants. Further, there is the possibility in any of these conflicts that a “wag-the-dog” component might come into play as the Chinese, Japanese, or another government seeks to distract from political or economic domestic problems through foreign adventurism.

Speaking of which, my runner-up scenario: Argentina vs the U.K., Round II.

5-10 Years:  The collapse of North Korea is something of a continuously looming catastrophe. Any prediction attempting to nail down a date has, of course, thus far been proved wrong. But the likelihood that it will happen at some point and the magnitude of follow-on effects requires robust contingency planning.

The reason I bring it up is that many of these potential follow-on effects dangers involve the possibility of maritime conflict – from a starved North Korea launching a land and sea invasion across the Demilitarized Zone and Northern Limit Line, or a combustible mix of Chinese and South Korean troops flooding into a post-regime North Korea, “disagreeing” over the terms of administration and reconstruction.

In a Naval War College class last year we presented a scenario in which the collapse of the North precipitated a potential humanitarian disaster, prompting a Chinese move across the border to stem the flow and the grave danger of miscalculation leading to conflict between some combination of American, South Korean, Chinese, and ex-regime ground and/or naval forces. We argued contingency planning (and regular multinational Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response exercises) for such a possibility needed to begin now between the U.S., South Korea, and China. More on this will follow in my oft-delayed post “Thinking About Prevention, Part III.” 

Runner-up:  Iran – because, well, the IRGCN sometimes seems like it requires individual units to bring foreign vessels to the point of batteries release as part of a bizarre initiation process.

10-20 Years:  The long-range forces likeliest to lead to maritime conflict in this timeframe and beyond may be urbanization, bringing more people to the cities, and climate change, bringing the seas closer to the cities. These won’t necessarily lead to a specific conflict, but could create a greater possibility of some new forms (in a tactical sense) of maritime insurgencies or require new/improved abilities to fight in maritime urban environments.

Simon Williams, U.K.:
The disputes raging between China and its South East Asian neighbours over islands and influence in the energy reserve rich South China Sea, I believe, has the greatest potential to escalate into armed conflict with many regional powers flexing their military muscles. The standoff also has the potential to draw in other global powers, with America and India waiting in the wings to defend their interests should they deem it necessary. Moreover, options for a diplomatic solution are slowly contracting; last year ASEAN nations failed to agree on a ‘code on conduct’ at the annual summit meeting. Tensions also have the inherent risk of drawing in other powers due to the globally vital trading routes passing through the region. America has already announced an increased focus on the wider Pacific region, a strategic shift which has caused some chagrin in Beijing, which contends the Americans are interfering and in effect staging an attack on China.

The increasing size of the Indian Navy and the ambitions of China to build a credible fleet, demonstrated by the recent launch of their first aircraft carrier, are likely to lead to a further increase in tensions. History demonstrates that two nation’s with large navies and divergent regional interests rarely get along.

LT Drew Hamblen, USN:
The Senkaku Islands, the Spratlys, or Taiwan itself.

Marc Handelman, U.S.:
Unchecked African-based oceanic piracy.
Polar (Northern) national territorial & natural resource exploitation.

Felix Seidler, seidlers-sicherheitspolitik.net, Germany:

Spreading the love
                            Spreading the love.

Definitely the South China Sea, not the Persian Gulf. The Iranian naval threat is over-hyped. The U.S. Navy would sink most of Iran’s vessels within a few hours. However, in the South China Sea, the interests of the U.S., China, and India clash. With rising 1) population numbers, 2) regional economies, 3) nationalism/nation self-confidence, 4) resource demand, and 5) Armed Forces capabilities, armed conflict between two or more states is more likely in the South China Sea than anywhere else. These five points create a dangerous cocktail, because any conflict, from whatever cause, could quickly escalate.

Dr. Robert Farley, Professor, University of Kentucky:
I would not be at all surprised to see conflict between China and one or more ASEAN states over island control and access in the South China Sea. The game is extremely complicated, ripe for miscalculation, and prone to a variety of principal-agent problems. States that don’t want to be in an armed dispute could easily find themselves embroiled if they miscalculate the intentions of others.

Bryan McGrath, Director, Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis:
Cliché, but one of the ongoing South China Sea scenarios seems most likely.

YN2(SW) Michael George, USN:
Within the next 2 decades, the only legitimate threat from a maritime perspective I can foresee is China. From various disputes with Japan to burgeoning naval capabilities, such as its new aircraft carriers, China seems to be a force to be reckoned with.

LCDR Mark Munson, USN:
I don’t see the various disputes that China has with neighbors in the East and South China Seas as being the seeds for future armed conflict.  One possibility that could snowball into something worse would be the various Persian Gulf states reacting in response to further efforts by Iran to assert its control over the Straits of Hormuz.  My most likely scenario, however, would be a fight between North and South Korea over encroachments across the Northern Limit Line.

Sebastian Bruns, Fellow, Institute for Security, University of Kiel, Germany:
Until 2018:  South China Sea; Strait of Hormuz/Persian Gulf.
Until 2023:  China’s rise (in general); Northwest & Northeast Passage; South America undersea resources; and/or any of the above.
Until 2033:  China’s rise (in general); and/or any of the above.

CDR Chuck Hill, USCG (Ret.):

"Limit Line" is more of a suggestion than a reality.
“Limit Line” is more of a suggestion than a reality.

China and Iran are the most obvious candidates. Today’s Navy seems geared to those threats. Looking elsewhere, we are likely to see some asymmetric conflicts where insurgents attempt to exploit the seas.

China will continue to push its claims in the South and East China Seas by unconventional means, or perhaps we may wake up some morning and find that every tiny islet that remains above water at high tide has been occupied. They are building enough non-navy government vessels to do that. They may also sponsor surrogates to destabilize the Philippines, Indonesia, and other Asian Nations that don’t willingly accept Chinese leadership.

We may also see conflicts:
– in Latin America, e.g. Venezuela vs. Colombia;
– between the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea over oil and gas drilling rights;
– over water resources on the great rivers of Asia.

There are always wars in Africa. They may become more general. Wherever there is both oil and weak governments, there may be conflict – Nigeria and Sudan come to mind. The entire Maghreb is at risk with Libya unstable, an ongoing arms race between Morocco and Algeria, and a growing Al-Qaeda franchise.

Bret Perry, Student, Georgetown University
5 Years:  Nigerian Piracy. Although not necessarily a maritime dispute, this is a serious maritime security issue that could get ugly. Piracy is on the rise again in Nigeria but unlike previous periods of piracy in the country the current episode appears less political and more criminal making it more threatening and difficult to combat.  Although Nigeria does not see as much commercial shipping traffic as Somalia, it still is a significant oil exporter via sea. This, combined with the increase in offshore oil facilities in the area, make piracy a serious threat to the area.


Nothing to see here!
                              Nothing to see here!

10 Years:  Persian Gulf Conflict. There is so much military activity among multiple countries in this region that conflict is likely. Although the US Navy and IRGCN have both displayed discipline thus far, if either side makes a mistake, or is pushed by another party, then the Gulf could experience some maritime conflict.

20 Years:  The South China Sea. Tensions in this region between the different parties involved will continue to fluctuate, but it will be some time until China possesses the confidence to decisively act militarily.

LT Alan Tweedie, USNR:
Both Iran and North Korea are unpredictable enough to start an armed conflict which would spill into the sea. The two also have enough land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and ballistic missiles to put AEGIS/BMD to work for its intended purpose. India and Pakistan could also heat up their cold war, although I highly doubt the U.S. would get involved militarily in such a dispute.

LT Chris Peters, USN:
5 Years:  Iranian maritime claims in conjunction with their nuclear development.
10 Years:  North Korea vs South Korea OR China vs Japan re: disputed islands.
20 Years:  Access to Arctic waterways and seabed resources.

CDR Chris Rawley, USNR:
I’ll answer this question in the broader context of defense strategy. The U.S. DoD is making a deliberate pivot to East Asia, but changing global demographics don’t necessarily support such a shift. At the Jamestown Foundation’s recent Terrorism Conference, insurgency-expert David Kilcullen spoke to four global trends:

1) Population growth – By 2050, there will be over 9 billion people on earth. Much of this rapid growth will continue in less-developed regions of the world, with the “youth bulge” more prominent in the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile the populations of industrialized countries, including China, will remain stagnant, or even shrink.
2) Urbanization – The trend of people moving to cities will continue, especially in Africa and South Asia. Urbanization brings with it higher rates of crime, pollution, and sprawling slums. The problems associated with these issues will often spill outside of a city’s borders, sometimes even becoming transnational.
3) Littoralization – Mega-cities (those with more than 10 million people) appear mostly in coastal regions. Poverty-stricken mega-cities in littoral areas such as Mumbai, Karachi, Dhaka, and Lagos are growing the fastest.
4) Connectedness – People and financial sectors are increasingly linked together globally with networks, cell phones, and satellites communications. These technologies provide constant global reach to anyone, anywhere.

Battlegrounds of the future?
Battlegrounds of the future?

The demographic trends are global, but the first three are most pronounced in coastal Africa and the Indian Ocean rim countries. Kilcullen primarily discussed these trends in the context of al Qaeda’s future. As an example, he believes (as do I) we will see more Mumbai-style attacks, with the terrorists infiltrating from the sea and command-and-controlling their operations in real time with smart phones and social media. But these four trends have greater implications for national security than the terror threat alone. Importantly, they indicate that irregular, people-centric threats will continue to create a disproportionate share of crises most likely to precipitate military intervention. It makes sense to array higher-end forces in areas where higher-end, state-centric threats are possible. But before we realign too much force structure to counter a blue-water fight in East Asia, we should consider that the types of missions these ships have been doing in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf the past two decades is what they will likely continue to do for the next two decades.

Moreover, the trends revalidate the importance of sea power to our nation’s security and support disproportionate defense spending on the Navy/Marine Corps team. From an acquisition stand-point, the Navy will need more platforms and weapons optimized to operate in the littorals and a continued focus on expeditionary logistics. Doctrinally, the Marine Corps will need to develop and practice new concepts for fighting in urban terrain.

LCDR Joe Baggett, USN:
Melting of the Polar Ice caps – Creating a race for claim and sovereignty over resources. Climate change is gradually opening up the waters of the Arctic, not only to new resource development, but also to new shipping routes that may reshape the global transport system. While these developments offer opportunities for growth, they are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources.

Increased competition for resources, coupled with scarcity, may encourage nations to exert wider claims of sovereignty over greater expanses of ocean, waterways, and natural resources—potentially resulting in conflict.

LTJG Matt Hipple, USN:
In the specific realm of dispute over the maritime domain, as opposed to just armed conflict in the maritime domain (in which case, Iran), the Senkakus are the most likely candidate. It wouldn’t be a full-blown war, but certainly there is a likelihood of shots being fired in misguided anger or accident with the increased level of friction contact between multiple opposing navies and fanatical civilians.

LT Jake Bebber, USN:
If history teaches us anything, it is that the next major conflict will occur in an area we will not expect and involve parties and issues that will surprise us (how many of us could point out Afghanistan on a map on September 10, 2001?). We will likely not be prepared. That being said, if I had to bet money, I would suggest that the maritime dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands is the one most likely to lead to a maritime conflict, drawing in a reluctant United States.