What are America’s Military Options in the Gulf?
On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that thanks to the military buildup in the Gulf, the US had thwarted potential Iranian attacks on Americans in the Middle East.
Defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Iran was forced to “put on hold” plans to harm American troops and their allies in the region.
The SecDef claimed, “I think our steps were very prudent and we’ve put on hold the potential for attacks.” He added that Iran was ultimately forced to recalculate its aggression in part to the recent deployment of the aircraft carrier battle group, the amphibious group and the B-52 bombers.
However, were these military deployments responsible for the lessening of tensions? Could this American show of force really have done much in the Gulf?
The fact is that the show of force was much smaller than many thoughts.
Admittedly, the American aircraft carrier task forces are incredibly powerful, with carrier air groups larger and more powerful than the air forces of most nations.
However, as the American carrier aircraft attacks on Syria showed, bomb damage by aircraft doesn’t stop a determined ground force by itself. It takes ground forces to take advantage of that air power. And, Americans are loath to commit ground units to fight in other nations.
That’s why the addition of an American Marine amphibious force was important and why the aircraft carrier task force and the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group held exercises just outside the Gulf, off the coast of Oman in recent days.
According to the Navy, “Sitting just outside the Persian Gulf, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group with embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit practiced rapidly aggregating and establishing a joint command and control environment, as well as a range of air and surface warfare skills.”
Rear Adm. John Wade, the commander of the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, said in the release that “the exercises and training we are doing with Amphibious Squadron Six, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Kearsarge are aimed towards increasing our lethality and agility to respond to threats, and deterring destabilizing actions in this important region.”
“The exercise included both relevant skills if the two groups were called to respond to an emerging crisis in the Persian Gulf, as well as skills that aren’t typically rehearsed due to the carrier and surface combatant community and the amphibious warship community having separate training cycles and focusing on different warfare objectives in training.”
In addition, two US destroyers, the USS McFaul and USS Gonzales transited the Strait of Hormuz without any Iranian “harassment”. “It was the quietist transit we have seen in a long time,” a US defense official told the Wall Street Journal. “The deterrence part of this is going well.”
This exercise by the two Arliegh Burke class guided missile destroyers would familiarize the ships with convoy operations if it becomes necessary to escort oil tankers out of the Gulf.
However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps deputy for parliamentary affairs did warn that Iran’s missiles could hit US warships in the Gulf. But both ships have defense systems that can confront Iranian missiles.
“On the surface warfare side, a maritime raid force from 22nd MEU conducted visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) training and a fast-roping exercise with Bainbridge.”
Although this sounds impressive, what does this really mean?
A Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is the smallest air-ground task force in the United States Fleet Marine Force. Each MEU is a quick reaction force, deployed and ready for immediate response to any crisis, whether it be natural disasters or combat missions. Generally, two are always deployed – one in the Pacific (covering the Asia and the Indian Ocean) and one in the Atlantic (covering the Mediterranean too). The one currently off the Gulf is the Atlantic force.
There are seven of these MEUs. In addition to the two deployed ones, there are usually one or two in readiness, if necessary.
The MEU consists of a Marine infantry battalion (designated as a Battalion Landing Team) as the ground combat element, a composite aviation combat element, a combat logistics unit, and a company-size command element serving as the MEU headquarters group. Troop strength is about 2,200, although many of these are non-combat personnel. Unlike other forces from other branches of the US military, all these falls under one command.
The unit deploys from Navy amphibious ships and is usually covered by an aircraft carrier task force.
However, as impressive as this sounds, the unit is very limited in its capabilities. The MEU’s ground combat element also combines artillery, light armor and tanks at a much lower level than in American Army units.
For instance, the MEU only contains 4 main battle tanks along with 7 to 16 light armored vehicles. The ground combat unit has between 600 to 800 Marines. It also has one battery of artillery (6).
Air power consists of about a dozen helicopters, a dozen tiltwing aircraft, and 6 Harrier light attack aircraft.
This is a unit that would be hard pressed to attack and capture a small island like Abu Musa for example.
So, what are MEUs capable of? According to the Marines, they are designed for amphibious assaults or raids, humanitarian operations, civilian evacuations, and security.
However, in a militarized area like the Gulf, the possibilities of operating without significant support from GCC nations is limited. For instance, operations against an island in the Strait of Hormuz like Abu Musa would require major assistance from the UAE.
One practical type of operation would be occupying oil platforms in the Gulf. In fact, one exercise carried out last week by the American Marines was, “maritime raid force from 22nd MEU.” They, “conducted visit, board, search and seizure training and a fast-roping exercise.”
This type of operations could also be used against IRGC boats that approach/harass US warships.
If tensions grow, the MEU could be used to evacuate US civilians from unstable areas. The MEU would establish an occupied zone in the port area of a major city and then send out armed convoys to places where US citizens would congregate like embassies and consulates. Helicopters would be used to evacuate Americans from more remote areas in the interior.
A MEU could also be used to stabilize a shaky regime or even evacuate members of a friendly government. Marine airborne forces could land and secure a perimeter around government buildings and palaces – denying control to hostile forces. If the situation grows more unstable, the Marines could evacuate government officials and their families.
An often-forgotten mission of the MEU is the humanitarian assistance mission. In case of earthquakes or violent weather, the MEU can land in the affected area, build a mobile hospital, along with providing electrical power and fresh water.
Although the MEU can carry out amphibious assaults and raids, the militarization of the region prevents any major assault by the American MEU. Although the force would have overwhelming air power, it’s hard to believe that 600 Marines and 4 tanks could occupy any town in the region, even with scores of American aircraft.
So, what does the American show of force really mean? It does make the oil platforms in the Gulf a bit more secure from Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats. As the transit of the two US guided missile destroyers showed, it also allows for convoying of oil tankers if Iran becomes threatening.
Obviously, the American carrier air group can support the military of GCC nations if there is some sort of Iranian inspired unrest (which hasn’t happened).
If anything, it proved to the GCC nations and Iran that the US is committed to maintaining some stability in the region. The MEU is less of a major ground force in case of hostilities than a tripwire that Iran must consider.
Although President Trump and American voters are loath to get involved in new hostilities in the region, an attack on American soldiers stationed in the region would quickly turn American opinions.
This is undoubtedly something Iran has wisely considered.