Christian Le Miere: An exercise in deterrencePosted: 29/05/2013
By Christian Le Miere, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
Although the Shangri-La Dialogue will hold much of the Institute’s – and international – attention over the coming week, the IISS will remain active on other issues.
Yesterday, the IISS’ Bahrain office held the NATO Gulf Strategic Dialogue, bringing together a range of practitioners and academics, and in just under a week the Geo-Economics and Strategy Programme will run a seminar on Oil, Gas and Maritime Security.
The timing of these two sessions is not entirely coincidental. Just last week, the US Navy wrapped up its second annual two-week International Mine Counter-Measures Exercise (IMCMEX). Involving participants from 41 different countries, the exercises are essentially a form of deterrent diplomacy.
At its core, IMCMEX aims to demonstrate the compatibility and collaboration of allied forces, including Western nations such as the US, UK and France as well as Persian Gulf allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and other friendly forces, from as far afield as Australia and Canada. More than 6,500 servicemen and -women and 35 vessels participated in the seminars and training manoeuvres.
The exercises are also designed to deter Iran from laying mines by demonstrating that such an action would be futile. Previous threats by Tehran to close the Strait of Hormuz have focused attention on this potentially vulnerable chokepoint, but as the Institute has argued in a Strategic Comment on the topic, many tactical options, such as the use of anti-ship missiles or unconventional attacks to sink a tanker in the strait, are unpalatable to the Iranian regime – the former because it may only encourage retaliation along the lines of Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, the latter because it is indiscriminate and would harm Iran’s own oil exports. Perhaps the most feasible way to disrupt traffic in the Gulf – and for which Iran could more easily deny culpability – would be through the seeding of minefields, most likely in the northern Gulf.
IMCMEX is therefore intended to dissuade Iran from the effectiveness of this option, by suggesting that any mines would be rapidly and effectively cleared. It is also aimed at dispelling the notion that mine countermeasures are a weak area for the US Navy, which historically has been the case, and which encouraged it to rely on support from the Royal Navy for mine clearance.
There are also ancillary benefits: the US and other powers can build stronger alliances and greater capacity in the Gulf, still a key strategic area despite the much-vaunted US ‘pivot’ to Asia. Ultimately, however, the primary goal of the very public IMCMEX is to discourage Iranian adventurism, keep the Gulf’s shipping lanes open, and to avoid the expensive convoying and attrition on commercial shipping that accompanied the Tanker War in the 1980s.
The danger of such deterrent exercises is that they may encourage Iran to develop alternative technologies and tactics to disrupt traffic in the Gulf in the medium term. For the present, however, the US and its allies will continue to insist that Iranian mines would struggle to close the Gulf to traffic for any protracted period of time.