Why US naval presence in the Middle East matters

The scaled-down US naval presence in the Middle East emboldened Iran to provide Al Houthis with the capability to hold the flow of commerce in the Red Sea hostage.

A US naval presence in the Middle East can help serve as the cornerstone of enhanced partnerships, deterrence, and regional stability. 
Nathalie Lees
A US naval presence in the Middle East can help serve as the cornerstone of enhanced partnerships, deterrence, and regional stability. 

Why US naval presence in the Middle East matters

The recent Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have highlighted the critical importance of US Naval force presence in the Middle East.

When the decades' long commitment of US ground troops to Afghanistan ended with the debacle of a withdrawal in 2021, the headquarters of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain once again became the anchor to US regional presence and the core protector of national interests in the region.

However, a sharp drop in deployed US Naval combatants in the Middle East reinforced to Arab partners and Iran, along with China and Russia, a clear new message — the US was leaving the Middle East to pivot to Asia and the Pacific.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot.

On Valentine’s Day, 1945, aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.

Interestingly, their meeting focused on a disagreement over the future of Palestine.

Read more: 79 years ago, FDR made a promise to King Abdulaziz on Palestine

In the end, they forged a long-lasting relationship based on a US security guarantee for the Kingdom in return for access to energy.

Years later, after the UK retreated from the Middle East, the US Navy established its 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain. Today, the US Admiral at the helm of the 5th Fleet also leads the world's largest naval coalition, the 44-nation Combined Maritime Force (CMF).

This coalition of the willing utilises six separate multi-nation maritime task forces, or operations focused on missions including protecting commercial ships from Houthi missile and drone attacks, counter-piracy, and maintaining the free flow of commerce from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea.

Of course, with the war in Gaza, the threats from IS in Syria and Iraq, near-constant Iranian militia attacks on US forces in the region, and the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping, the issues today are much more complex than the "oil for security" strategy that FDR negotiated with the Saudi King on the USS Quincy.

King Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and US President Franklin D Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt February 14, 1945.

Nonetheless, maintaining the free flow of energy to the global economy has remained the overarching objective of US foreign policy in the region for almost half a century, and the US Navy has been one of the primary instruments of that policy in both peace and war.

President Biden's 2022 National Security Strategy lays out this core US interest clearly.

"The United States will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardise freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab, nor tolerate efforts by any country to dominate another—or the region—through military buildups, incursions, or threats."

" We will continue to work with allies and partners to enhance their capabilities to deter and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities."

Read more: Biden’s security strategy reflects waning US interest in the Middle East

Minimal US naval presence after Afghanistan signalled that the US could leave the region. Soon after the withdrawal of ground troops in Afghanistan came a marked reduction in the 5th Fleet's Naval combat power.

Gone were routine deployments of US Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Readiness Groups, and instead, there were limited deployments of independent US surface combatants.

This left the 5th Fleet with only one or sometimes two destroyers, along with the small contingent of forward-deployed forces based in Bahrain.

Those forces comprised an Afloat Staging Base, four Mine Countermeasure ships, and several small Navy Coastal and Coast Guard patrol craft.

In 2021, Admiral Brad Cooper, the 5th Fleet Commander, took the brilliant, innovative approach to stand-up Task Force 59 (TF 59).

TF 59 revolutionised the use of autonomous unmanned surface vessels to fill the Intelligence and Warning (I&W) gap that would normally come from a more robust deployment of surface combatants and aircraft.

A sharp drop in US Naval combatants in the Middle East signalled to Arabs, Iran, China and Russia, that the US was leaving the Middle East to pivot to Asia and the Pacific. 

However, these vessels are unarmed and are under-resourced in scale relative to the expansive sea lanes.

In the end, with its operating base in Djibouti, China would often have more combat vessels in the Middle East than the 5th Fleet. 

The result was, as expected, Iran was able to ratchet up their weapons' support for the Houthis in Yemen and, over time, provide them with the capability and capacity to hold hostage the flow of commerce in the Red Sea. 

Today, the core US National Interest in the Middle East is at risk.

For the first time in four decades, the US interest in the region on which successive American presidents have based US Middle East Policy — freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce — is increasingly at risk.

By enabling the Houthis in Yemen to attack international vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden with armed drones and sophisticated anti-ship missiles, Iran, as it did in the Gulf in the late 1980s, is causing tremendous harm to commercial shipping in one of the world's most crucial waterways. 

These Houthi attacks have upended global trade and forced many ships to avoid Egypt's Suez Canal, a vital route for energy and cargo travelling from Asia and the Middle East to Europe. At least 90% of the container ships that had been going through the Suez Canal are now rerouting around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope.

In response, the US. surged naval combatant forces into the Middle East. This included two Nuclear Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) to send a signal to Iran not to escalate and, subsequentially, to deal directly with the Houthi problem. 

Each of these Strike Groups has as its centrepiece a Nuclear Aircraft Carrier and its powerful embarked Air Wing of fighter and attack aircraft along with 3-5 Cruisers and Destroyers with the potent Aegis Weapons System, and these ships were supported by attack submarines. 

One CSG was positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the second was in the Red Sea. In addition, the US sent an Amphibious Readiness Group, which included a Wasp Class carrier and two other Amphibious combatants, all with embarked US Marines deployed to the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. 

Nathalie Lees

For the first time since the Afghanistan withdrawal, the US Fifth Fleet had a deployed Naval Force that could fight and deter.  

These deployments also showcased the inherent manoeuvre capability of Naval Forces to rally integrated combat power almost anywhere in the world in times of crisis.

But what should the US Naval presence in the Middle East look like going forward?

The short-term and long-term

Iran's malign influence is best countered at sea and from the sea. US Central Command should be tasked and resourced with leading an effort to deny the Houthis the means and capability to attack the free flow of commerce in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Effectively degrading the capabilities of the Houthis will signal US resolve and send a strong message to Tehran that the United States is capable of countering other parts of Iran's threat network.

With the cooperation of Arab partners and European allies, the US should create a comprehensive interdiction effort of Naval Forces to significantly degrade not just the existing capabilities of the Houthis but also their supply lines.

This will signal a US commitment and resolve to reestablish deterrence in the long term.

There is a second enduring US national interest in the Middle East; this one was also well articulated in the US security strategy.

"We will pursue diplomacy to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon while remaining postured and prepared to use other means should diplomacy fail."

"Iran's threats against US personnel as well as current and former US officials will not be tolerated, and as we have demonstrated, we will respond when our people and interests are attacked".

The scaled-down US naval presence in the Middle East emboldened Iran to provide Al Houthis with the capability to hold the flow of commerce in the Red Sea hostage.

To support this national interest, once the Houthi threat to commercial shipping is eliminated, the US should again use the inherent manoeuvre capability of Naval Forces combined with select joint force units that deploy unpredictably but regularly to the Middle East region. 

The powerful nature of these forces, which at times should include CSGs and ARGs, do not need to dwell in the region for months, draining resources and readiness.

Instead, they would flow to the region from the west and the east without announcement. This would both serve as a deterrent by keeping Iran off guard as they would not know when there would and would not be significant combat power in the region.

It would signal commitment and resolve to our Arab partners that can begin to restore trust and rebuild the relationships necessary for increasing both the capability and interoperability of Arab partners.

Importantly, Arab nations will need to step up and take more ownership to protect the flow of commerce through the critical waterways of the Middle East.  Over time, this would be a huge step forward in moving towards the goal of Arab defence by Arab nations.  

In addition, the revolutionary work of TF 59 should be widely expanded to better provide I&W across the region.  This expansion must include robust adoption by Arab and other regional partners of this less costly approach to fielding a more traditional naval capability. Ultimately, these assets will be armed, further enhancing their defence and deterrent value.

US naval presence in the Middle East does matter. Combined with US leadership and commitment, it has a strategic impact that can protect core US national interests and serve as the cornerstone of enhanced partnerships, deterrence, and regional stability. 

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