RN and USN at war in the Middle East

Cover-Strike from the Sea
By Iain Ballantyne
Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, 2004, pp.256; ISBN 1-84415-059-3.

Reviewed by Dr Saul Kelly, King’s College, London.

THE AUTHOR wrote this book within a year of the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by an Allied Coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom. It has been reissued by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, presumably to coincide with the tenth anniversary of that significant event, which can now be seen as sounding the death knell of the old nationalist dictatorships in the Middle East and the emergence of their old enemies, the Islamists, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, the Yemen, and Syria.

The peoples of the region took note that dictators were at their most vulnerable when trying to hand over power to their sons and/or when they were exposed to coercion, active or latent, from the United States and the United Kingdom. All they had to do was to overcome fear itself, induced by the instruments of state terror such as the secret police, by mobilising their discontent on the streets of Arab and even Western capitals and pressuring the army or the Western powers to remove the dictators.

The result has been the replacement of a Sunni nationalist dictator in Iraq by a Shi’ite strongman, Nuri al-Maliki; an increase in Iranian power in the Fertile Crescent and the Persian Gulf, underlined by the development of a civil and military nuclear weapons capability; an emerging proxy war between Sunni and Shia Islam on several fronts, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and North Africa and, lastly, distinct signs that the United States and the United Kingdom are again gearing up for military action in the Middle East to protect their friends and their interests from the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aden, and thence to the Persian Gulf.

In doing so, the US and UK governments will rely, as they have in the past, on the deployment of their considerable naval power to shape events and the outcome. It will demonstrate again the utility of maritime power in defending Western interests in a region which has been traditionally reluctant to accept the permanent basing of Western forces on land.

This is the aftermath of the period covered by Ballantyne’s book, which provides some useful detail on UK and US naval deployments to the Middle East from the Abadan Crisis of 1951 to the Iraq War of 2003. He reminds us that the US and the UK did not always see eye-to-eye on how to react to the antics of the nationalist leaders, whether it be Mossadegh or Nasser. US pressure persuaded the British Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, not to sanction the Royal Navy’s intervention at Abadan, the site of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s refinery, to reverse Mossadegh’s nationalisation of this most precious British overseas asset. Given that the Labour Party had been nationalising key industries, such as coal and gas, in the UK, it had no sympathy with the fortunes of AIOC.

In contrast, when the Conservative Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, refused to bow to US pressure not to intervene militarily against Nasser during the Suez Crisis in 1956, he was deposed from power by a American-led run on sterling and a ministerial cabal in London. Ballantyne recalls the aggressive actions of the US Sixth Fleet towards the Anglo-French naval task force as it operated against Egypt. This was symbolised by a US Navy helicopter hovering over the flight deck of the Royal Navy carrier HMS Eagle to prevent the launch of Fleet Air Arm jets! Such an act would be unimaginable today, when the US and the UK armed forces, and especially their respective navies, co-operate so effectively in theatre.

But in the 1950s and 1960s US and UK strategic and military interests were not aligned in the Middle East. The US was not interested in the region and franchised its defence to the UK. This was undermined, however, by the anti-colonial ethos of US policy which saw Arab or Iranian nationalism as the wave of the future and the British imperial position as a hangover from the past which needed to be liquidated.

When the UK obliged by relinquishing its control over the key world choke points of the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Hormuz Strait between 1956 and 1971, the US government believed that its strategic allies, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia would be able to act as the new guardians of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The fallacy of this policy was soon revealed, following the continued closure of the Suez Canal, the steady rise in oil prices by OPEC, the intervention of the Soviet Union and is surrogates in South Yemen, Oman and the Horn of Africa and the fall of the Shah in 1979. The coming to power of a weak Islamist regime in Iran presented Saddam Hussein with the opportunity to make a bid for paramouncty in the Gulf, a bid which led to three successive wars in the region, between Iran and Iraq from 1980-88, over Kuwait in 1990-91 and in Iraq from 2003-2011.

This is the overall strategic context for this book, which helpfully details the nature of US and UK naval operations in the region, particularly in the period after 1979. That the US and the UK governments felt the need to send naval units back into the Persian Gulf, to keep the maritime peace there, as the UK had done for a century and a half before its over-hasty retreat in 1971, shows both the folly of leaving a strategic vacuum there in the 1970s and the endemically fractious nature of the region. Given the importance of Gulf hydrocarbons to the world’s economy its policing simply could not be left to the littoral powers, who were divided by deadly rivalries.

The US and the UK have since 1979 tried to put the genie of insecurity in the Gulf back into the bottle. But the genie, in the shape of Saddam Hussein, or the Thief of Baghdad, grew to such great proportions that it required an increasing military, and especially naval, effort by the two main western powers to accomplish this herculean feat. As evidence of this, during the Iraq War in 2003 no less than five carrier battle groups were deployed by the US to the region, as Ballantyne details.

What is noteworthy is that the US Navy and the Royal Navy became bolder with regard to the deployment of their ‘big ships’ into the Gulf in the three wars fought there after 1979. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the US and the UK kept their carriers out of the Gulf because of the mine threat. In the later stages of the Kuwait War, especially in February 1991, the US Navy was prepared to put its amphibious assault ships into the northern Gulf, alongside the battleship USS Missouri. But even here ‘Mine Danger Red’ led to both the USS Tripoli and the USS Princeton being struck by mines and having to limp into dry-dock for repairs in Dubai. The Missouri would have joined them if it had not been for the fast-reactions of HMS Gloucester, and its Sea Dart SAMs that brought down an Iraqi Silkworm missile seconds before it hit the iconic World War II symbol of US power.

By the Iraq War in 2003, the US Navy and the Royal Navy had such confidence in their multi-tiered defences that they deployed their carriers into the northern Gulf and had naval units up the Khaur al Abdullah (KAA) in support of the Royal Marine commando landings on the Fao Peninsula en route to Basra.

Ballantyne is correct to highlight the imminent collapse of the UN sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein in 2002 and the danger that he would re-arm, with French and Russian help, as the reason for the decision of the US and UK governments to remove him from power. This fateful decision remains controversial to this day and Western liberals in particular are keen to vilify the reputations of the key decision-makers, George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But it is difficult to see what else could have been done if the US and the UK were not to suffer a catastrophic lost of prestige and position in the all-important Gulf, with its vital oil and gas supplies. Sanctions could no longer contain Saddam.

Ballantyne reveals that only about a quarter of all the oil smuggled out of Iraq by sea for sale on the black market was intercepted by the naval blockade. This reviewer remembers witnessing in the steamy August heat of 2002 in the northern Gulf the sterling efforts of Royal Marine and Royal Navy boarding parties from HMS Argyll to stop and search likely oil smuggling dhows as they emerged from the KAA. What was especially striking was the vulnerability of the Argyll and other Coalition warships to sudden attack from passing dhows or fast Iraqi craft packed with explosives based on their old oil terminals at Kaaot and Mabot out in the Gulf. It would have been touch and go if the 50 calibre MGs mounted by the Royal Marines on the wings of the bridge would have stopped such attacks in time. It is for this reason that this reviewer is not as confident as Iain Ballantyne about the effectiveness of the new counter-terrorism measures put in place by the Royal Navy by the summer of 2002, as evidenced by the visit of HMS Campbeltown to the notorious port of Aden, where the USS Cole had been attacked in 2000 by an al-Qaeda suicide squad. HMS Argyll cancelled a run-ashore in Gibraltar in May 2002 because of the heightened terror threat from an al-Qaeda cell operating from the Moroccan coast against US and UK navy ships in the Strait.

The continuing threat to Western interests in North Africa and the Middle East posed by the rising tide of militant Islam, whether of a Sunni or Shia hue, means that, as the overall commander-in-chief of coalition naval forces in the Gulf, Vice-Admiral Keating, USN, put it after the defeat of the Iraq in 2003, the clear and present danger remains and the story of conflict in the Gulf region is far from over.

The question remains, however, whether after four military interventions in the Gulf region (including Afghanistan) since 1979, the two key Western powers, the US and the UK, and their Anglo-phone allies, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have the continuing will and the means to defend those interests. The brewing crisis in the Middle East since the revolts of 2011 will soon bring an answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *