As Bahraini government security services cracked down hard on popular protests against the ruling Al-Khalifa family in February 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense quietly considered alternative basing options for the Fifth Fleet, stationed permanently in Bahrain since 1995.
But those ideas were quickly put on hold with the restoration of order to the tiny Gulf kingdom following the intervention of Saudi and Emirati forces. However, the return to normalcy in Bahrain didn’t prevent a vigorous debate in Washington about the future of U.S. policy toward that key Gulf partner—a debate that continues to this day, although in reduced intensity.
Some, including Elliott Abrams and Toby C. Jones, have been in favor of withdrawing or threatening to withdraw the Fifth Fleet, while others, including Vice Admiral Charles W. Moore have cautioned against such tactics. Both camps agree that the U.S. interest in Bahrain is best served by getting Manama to commit to transitioning to a constitutional monarchy, as its rulers once promised. But they disagree over the U.S. role in this process.
The proponents of relocating and/or disbanding the Fifth Fleet argue that Bahrain is an unsafe home for strategic U.S. assets and thousands of U.S. personnel because its government has failed to address the root causes of the 2011 uprising. It’s only a matter of time before unrest returns to the kingdom, they say, so it’s wise for Washington to leave now in an orderly fashion and with a moral high ground. And preventing a repeat will be difficult, indeed. The fact that we are based there means we have to pull our punches, at least in public, and as the case may be, even in private. That distortion of our priorities also echoes in Saudi Arabia, which on balance is also not a good thing. As for America’s security goals in the area, Washington doesn’t need a huge land base for its navy in Bahrain. It could rely instead on a strategy of offshore balancing, which they argue is more politically sustainable and cost-efficient.
The critics of this line of reasoning maintain that punishing Bahrain by leaving does nothing to push Manama to do the right thing. In fact, it will do the opposite and force its rulers to adopt a bunker mentality. A punitive approach would also deny the United States critical access in a vital part of the world for global commerce and security, damage the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, invite Russia and China to deepen their involvement in the Persian Gulf, and put a huge smile on Iran’s face, which has had territorial claims on Bahrain since Britain’s occupation of the island in 1820.
In the end, of course, those favoring the continuation of the status quo, both inside and outside the U.S. Government, won the debate. The United States not only kept its military presence in Bahrain but decided to double down with expansion plans.
However, should that debate reemerge for any number of reasons or triggers—Bahrain experiences civil conflict again, for example, given that the drivers of instability in the kingdom never disappeared—we need to have a much better understanding of the costs and difficulty of moving the Fifth Fleet. This objective assessment has been sorely missing in the Bahrain conversation in Washington.
Multiple visits to the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama in recent years and regular personal engagement with three former commanders of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) on the issue of U.S. force posture in the Gulf have led me to believe that recreating what the United States has in Bahrain elsewhere would be a structural/logistical nightmare costing tens of billions of dollars.
Moving the base means moving a fleet logistics support center, massive information networks, a communications hub for the entire theater, a fleet headquarters, piers to forward-base mine countermeasures (MCMs) and patrol ships (PCs), and an afloat forward staging base for support to those other forces (PONCE) including all their crews, dependents, and staffing.
The United States would also need to get another base to support a Marine tactical air (TACAIR) Squadron, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and P-3 Orion maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. In addition, the United States might have to find another location for its missile defense Patriot batteries that not only support Bahrain but also contribute, at least indirectly, to the defense of Saudi Arabia.
The idea of basing as many of these components at sea might sound politically attractive in Washington, but it would not be practically feasible or done at an affordable cost. The truth is that the United States is not close to establishing a sea-basing capacity, at least not one that would allow it to perform all its core strategic and operational functions in the Gulf including deterring adversaries, reassuring partners, and overseeing warships and combat aircraft that carry out long-range missions across Afghanistan and Iraq and conduct antipiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
Permanent sea-basing is also not a terribly practical proposition because naval forces require local port visits for parts, fuel, and food on a regular basis. In addition, they require local maintenance (mid-deployment voyage repairs) and port visits to rest, especially after weeks at sea on flight operations for the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN) or over three years at sea poised for crisis response for the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU). All of these requirements and functions and many more require a land operating base.
Politically, Bahrain’s support for access, basing, overflight, and willingness to react quickly to grant permission for U.S. forces to conduct military operations is extremely hard to acquire elsewhere, even from our closest partners in the region. To put it simply, Bahrain has gone to the mat to offer us rapid, constant, and unconditional access, which in DoD world is the holy grail of enablers.
Indeed, it’s impossible to overstate how valuable such access is for the U.S. military’s activities overseas, especially in a post-Benghazi environment that elevates politically the issue of protection of U.S. facilities and personnel. We simply cannot afford to wait for host-nation permissions for overflights and access. In Manama, we don’t have to worry about the Bahrainis allowing the U.S. Marines’ Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams (FAST) to provide first responses in the event of a terrorist attack against U.S. interests. So, if the United States leaves Bahrain, it would lose all these unique advantages.
More broadly, a U.S. military departure from Bahrain would send shockwaves across the region and convince our other regional partners that even a very high level of political-military support from them might not be sufficient to retain America’s security commitment to them. For example, if the United States pulls out from Bahrain, expect the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia to rapidly deteriorate and possibly change forever. The Saudis see the U.S. military presence in Bahrain as an integral part of their security and their security relationship with Washington.
Last but certainly not least, any drastic changes to America’s footprint in Bahrain will have tremendous effects on its strategy and posture vis-à-vis Iran. Of all the military assets the United States has at its disposal to deter and counter Iran, perhaps none is more relevant than the Fifth Fleet. The U.S. Navy in Bahrain performs various important functions and covers a large area that touches more than twenty countries along the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. But the real-time threat map hanging on the wall in the office of the NAVCENT commander tells you all you need to know about the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s key priority: to incessantly monitor, and if necessary, counter harmful Iranian activities at sea.
If the United States and Iran were ever to clash, the most likely theater of confrontation, at least initially, would not be Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, but rather the waters of the Persian Gulf, where the Iranians have overconfidence in their abilities as well as a habit, which they’ve exercised recently, of threatening to disrupt or block oil shipments in the straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb, and provoking U.S. warships through harassment tactics.
None of these political and practical considerations should lead us to think that leaving Bahrain is unthinkable. If President Donald Trump doesn’t win a second term, or even sooner, if the Democrats win big in the midterm elections and tip the balance in their favor in the U.S. Congress, the calls for punishing or at least creating distance with Bahrain (and possibly other Gulf partners) are likely to pop up again. If and when they do, they better first be informed by an objective assessment of the real challenges and risks of relocating or disbanding the Fifth Fleet.