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A US Numbered Fleet in the Indian Ocean and New Delhi’s Interests in the Region

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The US Navy Secretary (SECNAV), Kenneth Braithwaite, in a recent speech called for the establishment of a numbered fleet in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The SECNAV mentioned that the proposed 1st Fleet would be moved, “…across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us.”

Based on the SECNAV’s speech, some analysts have reportedly conjectured that this fleet could be based in western Australia, as opposed to Singapore. While New Delhi has not yet officially responded to the SECNAV’s call, this commentary will explain why a US numbered fleet based in Singapore under certain operational conditions, rather than western Australia, will help improve the current India-US posture in the  Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).

US Presence in the IPR

The US Navy’s (USN) operational presence in the IPR is maintained by the 5th Fleet under US Central Command (CENTCOM), the 6th Fleet under US Africa Command (AFRICOM), and the 7th Fleet under US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).

The 5th Fleet, based out of Bahrain, is tasked with strike, contingency, and expeditionary operations in the North Arabian Sea with a focus on the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The 6th Fleet, or US Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF), based out of Naples, Italy, is tasked with a similar host of operations. The 6th Fleet operates in a remarkably large arena, from the Arctic Ocean to the coast of Antarctica, with a current focus on North Africa, the Mediterranean and European waters.

In the IPR however, it is the 7th Fleet that is the US’ primary agent in deterring threats to itself, and its regional allies and partners. The 7th Fleet operates from the international date line to the India-Pakistan border. While the 6th Fleet oversees an area of 36 million sq.km, the 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility spans over 124 million sq.km.

As a result, the 7th Fleet based out of Yokosuka, Japan – the US’ largest “mixed” forward deployed fleet – maintains the highest operational tempo amongst USN vessels. Given the large area, and when deemed necessary, the 7th Fleet will be reinforced by additional carrier strike groups, like it did earlier this year; following the Galwan Valley clash in June, INDOPACOM deployed three carrier strike groups in the Pacific Ocean. In times of crisis, or medium-intensity conflict, the contingency is to integrate Arabian Sea forces with Pacific ones to build a larger fighting force.

The Focus of the IPR

India’s and the US’ current IPR posture is determined by shared and immediate interests in countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS) and Southeast Asia, and building collective regional security measures in the region.

Beijing’s ‘nine-dash’ line claim on the SCS, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the ongoing militarisation of the water body, continues to threaten the territorial and economic sovereignty of Southeast Asian actors, and the US’ and India’s security umbrellas; essentially eroding the IPR’s inherent multilateralism and regional security.

New Delhi’s investment in strengthening multilateralism in the IPR is due to its constant confrontations with an aggressive China. The continued stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is testament to this. And, as a strategic signalling measure after the Galwan Valley clash, New Delhi organised a number of  joint naval exercises with its strategic partners in the IOR and has signed a number of logistics and exchanges agreements with the same.

Among these exercises, the 2020 Malabar Exercise was significant as it saw the participation of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the Arabian-Sea phase, reiterating the USN’ operational gap in maintaining a significant deterrence in the IPR.

A 1st Fleet: Singapore versus Australia

The establishment of a 1st Fleet in the IOR is the natural conclusion to this problem. Having said that, the fleet’s location and operational limits have to work to maintain, if not improve this current posture. As a critical IPR partner, India’s maritime security priorities and New Delhi’s geopolitical interests have to be considered before such a move.

A 1st Fleet Singapore (1FS) will see US effort in the region focused on countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS), against Taiwan and Japan. This falls squarely within the current India-US posture in the IPR.

A 1st Fleet Australia (1FA), on the other hand, radically changes the current India-US IPR posture, by raising Washington’s presence within New Delhi’s primary interest area, and potentially into a region where their interests diverge – the western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR).

In the “theatre swapping” framework adopted by New Delhi vis-a-vis the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a permanent 1FS, limited to Small Scale Contingencies (SSC) and Operations Other Than War (OOTW), will significantly enhance India’s strategic advantages in the Bay of Bengal and across the Indo-Pacific straits. In the long run, engagement with 1FS will also aid in raising the Indian Navy’s (IN) presence in the SCS and western Pacific. An ambition displayed in response to the Galwan Valley clash, when an IN warship was deployed to the SCS, coincidentally during a US naval exercise in the area.

A 1FA will effectively increase the US’ operational presence towards what it has considered “India’s backyard”, based out of a region it has been generally absent from, and away from the IPR’s current geopolitical locus, the SCS.

The probable area of responsibility of a 1FA will extend at least 5000 km into the southeastern Indian Ocean (SEIO), increasing US military presence within India’s primary maritime security interest area.

The size of the IOR, 73 million sq.km, also raises doubts as to the nature of the fleet. A 1FA solely operating under SSC and OOTW conditions will not be an effective deterrent to threats in the region. The 1FA will have to be a full-fledged fighting force to effectively oversee the entire IOR. A medium-to-high intensity fighting force in the central and western IOR will significantly alter the current India-US posture in the IPR. 

And, as this potential 1FA experiences the various stages of forward deployment, it would be fair to say that US presence will expand westward, towards the East African coast, eventually challenging India’s maritime security priorities, and New Delhi’s interests in WIOR.

Even though New Delhi has welcomed Washington’s increased political presence in the WIOR – for example, India backed the recent US-Maldives defence framework – US priorities in key geopolitical arenas, like West Asia and the North Arabian Sea, and with regard to Iran and Pakistan, diverge considerably from India’s own. These considerations have not yet been discussed within the India-US IPR partnership to know exactly what the political impact of a 1FA could be. 

This isn’t to say that, as the US-China strategic competition deepens, and more like-minded partners such as Germany, France and now the UK, begin to actively participate in preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order, these crucial divergences won’t  eventually iron out.The recently held India-France-Australia trilateral, is an example of how theme-based, multilateral arrangements could not only include traditional and non-traditional IPR partners, but also in the medium term, help lay the foundations for further multilateral cooperation.

Conclusion

In this assessment however, it is a 1FS in a “contingency forward” format, and not a 1FA that best suits the current India-US geostrategic posture. With a focus on humanitarian aid/disaster relief (HA/DR), air-defence, logistics and sea-lift, marine, and sea-denial operations, a 1FS will better suit New Delhi’s interests in the IPR, and India’s maritime security priorities in the IOR.

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Defense

Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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