x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

US Navy's shooting underscores risks of military buildup

As tension continues in the Arabian Gulf, the chance of tragic accidents, small and large, increases.

The attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, in the Yemeni port city of Aden, was a turning point in modern US naval history, and it reshaped the US approach to security on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf in general. Over the last 12 years, the US Navy appears to have learnt significant lessons from that experience and is now very cognizant of its own security in the Gulf region.

The US Navy's firing on a small fishing vessel off the coast of Dubai on Monday, which left one Indian national dead and three critically wounded, demonstrates this resolve. By all accounts the UAE-registered boat was guilty of no more than veering too close to the American warship.

Yet this incident tells us much about the state of affairs in a tense maritime region. The ship's presence was a reminder that the US will maintain its energy interests and show a security commitment to the Gulf states. But the incident was also an example of the dangers that come with an American military build-up meant to contain the threat many see in Iran.

Since the 1970s the US has been increasing its military presence in the region. The Pentagon has increased the number of its warships and fighters to safeguard the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most important oil supply bottlenecks. The US has around 40,000 troops in the Middle East, with 23,000 based in Kuwait alone. And despite withdrawing troops from Iraq the US has continued to maintain its many military bases in the region.

A primary focus for this military might is Iran, and recent events have, predictably, set off a reciprocal show of force between the US and the Islamic Republic. Iran has been building its military capabilities to counter the American superiority in the region. But Iran understands clearly that asymmetric tactics will play a central role in any confrontation.

Swarming - relying on small craft to challenge larger warships - has become an Iranian speciality (and one of the Pentagon's top concerns). Iran's frequent threats to close the Strait and attack any US aircraft carrier that attempts to sail through have only heightened tensions further.

Despite all of this, there is no comparison between the US military and Iranian forces. Only this year, the US deployed stealth F-22 and older F-15C warplanes to two separate bases in the Gulf. This occurred after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the three UAE islands occupied by Iran (Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs).

For now, the threat of asymmetric warfare between the US and Iran overshadows any potential for a more conventional military confrontation. Which is why Monday's incident near Dubai played into Washington's hand.

The truth is that the US military, while publicly apologetic, likely believes that this incident will serve as a powerful warning to Iran. The US knows that it has a more advanced military than Iran. But its response to perceived aggression against one of its ships has served to prove how committed the US is to maintaining its security, and that it will not tolerate any threats to its armed presence in the region.

Furthermore, the incident underscores the vital role the US plays as a guarantor of security on the Arabian Peninsula. No other country maintains the level of firepower that the US does. GCC states spend billions on arms yet can not secure the region on their own.

It is no surprise, then, that the UAE's reaction to the Navy shooting has been tempered. While the UAE has vowed a full investigation (according to Dubai police Chief Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim one has already begun), that is likely where the incident will end. In addition to strong diplomatic relations between the countries, last December the UAE signed a $3.5 billion (Dh12.8 billion) deal to purchase an advanced antimissile interception system. Put simply, the relationship is too close and the strategic benefits are too important for the incident to upset the status quo.

For now this is primarily a problem for the US and India to sort out (India has been much more forceful in calling for a full accounting of the incident, and has demanded compensation for the victims). There are also unanswered questions about how foreign navies can maintain open lines of communication in the increasingly congested Arabian Gulf. And of course this incident is a message for Iran to internalise.

It is clear that both the US and Iran are involved in a risky game. Iran will likely continue its strategy of asymmetric meddling for many years to come. And yet Monday's incident should serve as a reminder of how reckless this policy is. Indeed, there are very real possibilities of miscommunication between US and Iranian forces that could lead to a much deeper and deadlier confrontation.

Minor incidents like the one near Dubai this week should not be discounted. Under different circumstances and between different actors they could actually lead to a much deadlier encounter. With ongoing bluster and military hardware pouring into the Gulf's waters, the region has become a powder keg of volatility that may be one accident away from something far worse.


Khalid Almezaini is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of The UAE and Foreign Policy: Foreign Aid, Identities and Interests