Vice Admiral John W. Miller
Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command
United States 5th Fleet
Combined Maritime Forces
12.30 – 1.30pm, Thursday 25th October 2012
Committee Room 12, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
To attend please RSVP to: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the international relations of late 2012, few locales have a more sobering potential for military conflagration than the Middle East. With Iran’s nuclear programme continuing apace, Western governments view the potential for war in the region with utmost seriousness. Around 70 per cent of the US military presence in the Middle East is routinely made up of naval forces, meaning that United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) commands the bulk of the forces the United States brings to this most dangerous fault line. Assets in theatre normally include an Aircraft Carrier Strike Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, and logistics ships.
Further, since February 2002, a multinational partnership called the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) was formed under NAVCENT, one of whose task forces is commanded by the United Kingdom, which retains intense and stated interests and capabilities in this region also.
By kind invitation of Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic & International Security is pleased to host a meeting with Vice Admiral John W. Miller, Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, United States 5th Fleet, Combined Maritime Forces. As the geopolitical challenge posed for the West in the region becomes more acute by the day, Vice Admiral Miller will offer an examination of NAVCENT and CMF roles in this region and their current operations.
TIME: 12.30 – 1.30pm
DATE: Thursday 25th October 2012
VENUE: Committee Room 12, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
To attend please RSVP to: email@example.com
Vice Admiral John W. Miller is Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, United States 5th Fleet, Combined Maritime Forces. Vice Admiral Miller was commissioned an ensign upon graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1979.
He was designated a naval flight officer in June 1980 and received orders to Fighter Attack Squadron (VF) 101 for replacement training in the F-14A Tomcat.
Miller has spent a majority of his operational career deploying to and operating in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Sea tours include VF 31 as a division officer, VF-84 as maintenance officer, and command of VF-142, VF-101, USS Dubuque (LPD 8), USS Juneau (LPD 10), USS Constellation (CV 64), USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), and Carrier Strike Group 11.
His shore tours include VF-101 as an instructor; the United States Naval Academy as leadership section head; White House Fellowship as special assistant to the administrator of NASA; and, aviation commander assignment officer at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. After promotion to rear Admiral, Miller spent a considerable amount of time focusing on the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility serving as deputy commander to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/United States 5th Fleet and deputy director, Strategy, Plans, and Policy (J5); and, chief of staff, U.S. Central Command.
Miller is a distinguished graduate of the Naval War College and holds a master’s degree in International Relations from Salve Regina University.
Miller has accumulated more than 3,500 flight hours and 1,000 carrier-arrested landings in the F-14 Tomcat flying off of John F. Kennedy, USS Nimitz (CVN 68), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), USS George Washington (CVN 73), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), and Constellation.
Miller left command of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in October 2011 to serve as the special assistant to the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans, and Strategy (N3/N5) in Washington D.C., before reporting as commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/United States 5th Fleet/Combined Maritime Forces.
His awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal (2), Legion of Merit (5), Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal (3), Strike Flight Air Medal (2), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (5), Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and numerous unit and campaign awards.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic & International Security aims to research and create awareness about global security issues in order to contribute to an informed and effective British foreign policy, aimed at utilizing and strengthening the Transatlantic Alliance between Europe and the USA.
Mrs Gisela Stuart MP
Mr Henry Smith MP
Mr Derek Twigg MP
Mr David Ruffley MP
Mr Damian Collins MP
Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re just about to begin. We’re very lucky to have with us Vice Admiral Miller who is the Commander of the 5th Fleet, it’s the Naval Central Command, and what he says will be off the record. I don’t know if you [inaudible]. The 5th Fleet is the fleet that sails around off the coast of Iran. So it’s one of the more important jobs in the world. We are going to hear him for about twenty minutes. We’ll then have the opportunity to ask questions so please prepare them now and we’ll then finish at 1:30 on the dot. I think it’s 1:30 – is it 1:30?
Vice Admiral John Miller
Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Admiral, please tell us how you see things from your point of view.
Vice Admiral John Miller
Thank you for the introduction. It really is an honour for me to be here today, so I appreciate your indulgence. I especially look forward to the question and answer session that we’re going to have. What I propose to do today is to start and – and I very much appreciate Ilana’s PowerPoint slides – I am an American military officer and incapable of speaking without a PowerPoint slide to back me up, so it’s very helpful to me.
What I thought I’d do is just spend a few minutes taking a walk around the region as I see it as the maritime component commander to US Central Command and from that, therefore, have an opportunity for some good discussion. And I thought I’d begin today by talking a little bit about Egypt because it’s an important country to us. It’s an important country in the region as one of the pillar countries between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, for the most part, Iran. Those are the countries that reserve the most influence in the region – both today and historically. The opinions they hold, the policy positions they hold, have sway throughout the entire region. The Central Command to AOR, ‘area of responsibility’, which is outlined in yellow there. The only country in Africa that is included is Egypt and then the rest of them are typically Middle Eastern countries, as we would think of them, notably our Eastern border is the border between Pakistan and India. And so, Pakistan is part of the Central Command responsibility and India is part of the Pacific Command responsibility. We find the distinction between those two to be useful and helpful to us.
One of the most important parts about understanding the region are the three strategic chokepoints that lie within it. The first being next to Egypt, the Suez Canal – obviously a very important strategic waterway. At the other end of the Red Sea is the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which is another strategic waterway. And of course the one that is in the news the most, and most talked about, the Straits of Hormuz, which is the entrance or exit point to the Arabian Gulf. And so, a lot of the work that we do at 5th Fleet that we are involved in revolves around the fact that it’s important that we keep all three of those strategic waterways open. So when we look at Egypt and the transition that Egypt has gone through over the last year or year and a half. There’s a certain amount of uncertainty.
About two months ago I had an opportunity to have a conversation with the Crown Prince of Bahrain who’s a very forward thinking, forward leaning gentleman. He talked about the transition in Iraq at the end of the war and their establishment of democracy, and then the coming of power for Prime Minister Maliki and I would tell you that I think Egypt is in about that same position today as Iraq was then. So, as the Arab countries, in particular the GCC countries, looked at Iraq and looked at what Prime Minister Maliki did, they were pleased to note that his first foreign trip was down to Riyadh, down to Saudi Arabia. That was an important, symbolic event. His next three trips were to Tehran and that was an important, symbolic series of events because what it told the GCC was that Iraq’s leadership was more focused on Tehran than they were on Riyadh. And so, which pillar they were going to lean on appeared to be, and it has over the last couple of years, effectively been three to one in terms of trips to Iran and trips to either Saudi Arabia or another GCC country.
So if we’re in that same position with the leadership in Egypt, then it’s important to watch what President Morsi does and his first trip, quite happily in the eyes of the GCC, was to Riyadh. But where he goes in the future remains to be seen. Something to consider about Egypt is when the revolution was complete and elections were going to be held, the Muslim Brotherhood said they would not seek the presidency, and then they did and won the presidency. When they said they would not seek political power, and then they did and they won the parliament. They said they would not interfere with the military, and then they did and all of the former regime military leadership, including Field Marshal Tantawi, were swept away from military power. So the only fire brick, if you will, that’s left in Egypt that isn’t in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood is the judiciary and it remains to be seen how long that will happen. There’s a certain amount of uncertainty.
Why is that important to us? Well, there’s obviously an enormous amount of merchant traffic and oil – about 20% of the world’s oil that’s transported by sea – transits through the Suez Canal. But there’s also a great deal of traffic by US military warships. We make somewhere on the order of 200 transits through the Suez Canal every year. You know, two days out of three, there’s a US warship going through the canal. Our inability to access the Suez Canal would have a significant strategic impact on our ability to continue to maintain security and stability in the Arabian Gulf region, which is of course, our goal. So we will continue to watch Egypt and watch it with a certain amount of concern. We are, I am happy to tell you, particularly in the maritime environment, very engaged with the Egyptian Navy. We’ve just reached a series of agreements where we are going to increase the opportunities for engagement. They’re not complicated – they don’t have to be complicated – but as we sail ships northwards and southwards through the Red Sea, the opportunity to exercise either with their Mediterranean fleet or their Red Sea fleet, helps bring us together in important ways. It helps us to build those important theatres, security operations, relationships, so we will continue to do that.
I’d like to move next to Syria and a lot of people, I think, tend to wonder why is the Maritime Component Commander concerned about a landlocked nation. But we are concerned about Syria and the state of civil war that continues today – the instability within the country – that instability in Syria leads to instability in the neighbouring nations, most particular in Lebanon. Lebanon is home to the Lebanese armed forces which is the second most capable and potent military force in the state of Lebanon – the first being Lebanese Hezbollah. For decades, Iran has armed Lebanese Hezbollah and financed Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria. So if Syria were to fall out of the hands of Assad, out of the hands of either an Alawite or Shia government and into the hands of a Sunni government that would further isolate Iran and it would isolate Lebanese Hezbollah. How Lebanese Hezbollah would respond is a key question. I had a chance to be in Lebanon not long ago and there were two schools of thought – there are some that think that Lebanese Hezbollah will come to the conclusion that their days as a military power are waning because they can no longer be supplied and so they will go back to sort of their roots which were social and economic and religious activity as their primary activities. There was another faction, I think somewhat larger in Lebanon, that thinks Lebanese Hezbollah will conclude that this is their last, best, chance to seize power in Lebanon or create difficulties moving to the south to Israel and that the instability in Syria will lead to a state of civil war, if you will, in Lebanon as well.
We’ve seen over the last couple days, although the violence has quelled some, an increased level of violence in Lebanon, and so the instability in Syria plays into there. It also plays into Iran and Iran is seeking to become a regional power. I think they’ve been very clear about that. I also do want to note that it’s very important to understand that there is a difference between what Iran says and what Iran does and so we tend to listen to what they say and think of that as ground truth and more often than not, it’s not. We will continue to watch that but they don’t like to be isolated in that, you know, if Iran was a ten year old child having a birthday party, they get the small pack of invites because they don’t have very many friends to invite to their party. Syria is one, Venezuela is one, North Korea is one – I mean, these are not the kind of people you want your kids hanging out with.
As they become isolated from Syria, they become very isolated in the region and that isolation potentially leads to some sort of either miscalculation or a calculation that has strategic consequences when strategic consequences were not intended. We very much remain concerned about the outcome of the events in Syria in terms of what effect it’s going to have on Iran. When you combine the potential isolation that’s caused by the loss of Syria as an ally with the sanctions and the effects the sanctions are having, you begin to paint a picture of a country that’s isolated as economic difficulty – there’s some level of unrest already in the capital concerning things as basic as the price of bread. A year ago, a loaf of bread cost a Rial, now it costs five. So there’s a hardship that’s being born by the people of Iran that are the result of sanctions. It is possible, but not terribly likely in my view, that the leadership in Iran looks at the sanctions – they look at the isolation that they place themselves in because of their nuclear weapons programme and make a decision to give up that programme. That could happen, but I don’t think it’s terribly likely and so what we’re concerned about is how they will respond. And I’ll talk more about that hopefully if we have a little bit of time at the end, and ways that we think that might happen.
Over to the coast of Pakistan and Operation Enduring Freedom. The 5th Fleet is intimately involved in operations in Iraqi freedom and we have for the last several months – in fact more than a year – had an aircraft carrier off the Bahrain coast and supporting the troops on the ground in Afghanistan. About 30% of all of the tactical aviation sorties – these are sorties that are in support of the coalition troops on the ground in Afghanistan – about 30% of those come off the flight deck of a US aircraft carrier. So that’s a contribution that we think is extremely important. It’s enduring at least during 2013, and to some point into 2014. And it affects the posture that we have in the region, in terms of the number of carrier strike groups, the number of aircraft carriers we have, because if we have one dedicated to the Operation Enduring Freedom mission sort of tucked away in the north Arabian Sea, then we need another carrier strike group to be out and about in the region, in particular in the Gulf. The presence of that aircraft carrier assures our allies, particularly those in the GCC, and it deters Iran because they understand the importance we place on the region and the free flow of commerce into and out of the Arabian Gulf.
I’d like to move down to the coast of Somalia for a moment and talk about piracy. Piracy in the Somali basin is actually a good news story. This morning there were five ships being held for ransom of just under 150 sailors that are being held captive – unfortunately one of those ships is rapidly approaching its thousandth day in captivity. If you can imagine about three years and sitting three miles off the coast of Somalia at anchor waiting for someone to come and rescue you – there’s certainly a humanitarian aspect to how the hostages are being treated. This is not to suggest that they’re not being treated humanely, but you know, if they’re fed and watered and taken care of and they receive the appropriate medical care, but they still are held hostage for upwards of nearly three years. That’s certainly a stressful and unfortunate endeavour.
Now having said that, there has been very little pirate activity over the last hundred days and if you look at the number of piracy attacks in 2012 compared to 2011, if we were having this conversation exactly a year ago, there were almost 30 ships being held, there were nearly a thousand sailors being held. So we’ve certainly seen a suppression of piracy. Some of that is due to activity that’s taken place on the water. If you go down to the Somali basin today you can work for Task Force 151 which is a 5th Fleet-led task force; you can work for a NATO task force; or you can work for a European Navy task force. You might wonder why do you have three task forces – what that does is it tees up options for nations who – many nations are willing to contribute to the counter-piracy effort because no one likes pirates, so it’s easy to go against them, it’s easy to go to a government and say we’d like to deploy a ship to the Horn of Africa because we’re going to help suppress piracy and we can work for the European Union, or we can work for NATO, or we can work for 5th Fleet, or we can be independent – there’s a number of independent nations down there – the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Japanese because of their constitution – they’re all down there in the counter piracy effort.
The task forces that are assigned operate in a very coordinated fashion and they talk to each other every day. They coordinate their activities and so it functions, essentially, as one big task force, although it’s three separate task forces. The independents, I would tell you, including the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese, operate in a cooperative fashion. In other words, they will for the most part, sort of fill in the blanks and we’ve established a recommended transit quarter right down the centre of the Gulf of Aden and the warships that protect the merchant ships from pirates are arrayed around this. So what the independents will do, for the most part, is fill in the blanks. The Chinese are an exception. The Chinese are there to escort their ships, but in a sense that works out very well because when we know Chinese merchant ships are coming through we know the Chinese warships are going to escort them so we don’t have to worry about them and we can work our efforts in other ways. All of that helps suppress piracy.
There are better business practices on the ships – most ships now have sanctuaries so if there’s a pirate attack the crew can get into a space, they can lock that space and communicate with the outside world and they can call for help and then we can help them because everyone’s that not in the sanctuary is a pirate. So you identify friend from foe very early on. So that has helped and then [inaudible] security teams have helped a great deal in the Somali basin. Since 2005 not a single ship has been taken by pirates if they had an embarked security team. The pirates will – there’s a level of violence there when they take the ship which is mostly – if you can picture cowboys riding into town shooting their guns in the air – it’s that kind of activity which obviously has an impact on the crew. But if someone shoots back on the ship, the pirates they’re not interested in a gun fight. They’re interested in piracy.
But the most important thing that’s happened in Somali over the last seven or eight months is a resurgence of governance and a resurgence of an economy in Mogadishu so for years we’ve said if you want to solve piracy off the Somali coast, then you had to solve the problem on the ground. In fact, what we see, and it’s not past the tipping point where it can’t be turned back, it certainly can be, but what we’re seeing is great progress there.
The last thing I’ll talk about before we open it up – I guess we’ve got a few more minutes though – I’ll go first to Yemen and the unrest and corruption that we see there. Yemen is, in a sense, a microcosm of the issues and the challenges of the Arabian Gulf nations face. There’s a certain level of corruption in the government that has existed for decades and even though that they’ve made a transition in present, Hadi’s done, really, a far better job than, I think, anyone in the US Navy or US military would have predicted. But there is a level of corruption. Yemen is challenged by some tribal issues and the Houthi tribe is fiercely independent and not terribly interested in being part of Yemen. There are resource challenges in Yemen – they are running out of oil although I think they just got a new discovery of a gas field that appears to be quite substantial. They are running out of water and they haven’t built any desalinisation plants. And then they have a tremendous youth bulge and a large number of military aged males who remain unemployed.
So the unrest and the corruption in Yemen is a concern to us. It is unrest and corruption that expands from Yemen in all directions which means it moves itself up into Saudi Arabia so it creates a concern for the Saudis and moves itself, to a lesser extent but it does, into Oman. And then of course, there are historic trade routes between the Saudi Peninsula and Africa that, for centuries, have facilitated trade in whatever is tradable and that is everything from [inaudible] to human trafficking, to other drugs, to legitimate trade in spices and other materials. So, the influence between what happens in an ungoverned Somalia and what happens in a mostly ungoverned Yemen creates the conditions that are obviously very ripe for terrorism. So there’s robust organisation from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that exists in Yemen that helps facilitate the tribal fight and helps facilitate, to a certain extent, the corruption as well as the illicit trafficking.
What we haven’t seen, to be perfectly honest, is we haven’t seen terrorists being trafficked from Yemen into Somalia or from Somalia into Yemen. We see people – some of them meant to be slaves, some of them meant to be fighters that can go up into the fight in Syria or, for a time, the fight in Iraq – and then of course the influence of al Shabaab in Somalia and the confluence of the influence with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to be a concern for us.
So what do we do in the 5th Fleet to try to ensure that there’s security and stability in the maritime environment? Well we do a lot of security cooperation activities and that causes us to aggregate our activity which means we take ships that normally would steam with a carrier strike group and then we send them off to do other things – sometimes it’s maritime security operations in the Gulf, often times it’s to work with coalition partners. One of the things that makes 5th Fleet unique amongst all the numbered fleets – and frankly amongst all the various different components that work for a combatant commander, whether it’s central command or Pacific command or European command – is that when I come to work in the morning, I come to work in a headquarters that has 27 nations represented in a combined maritime force. So that’s a very powerful way of doing business. Our counter-piracy effort, our Task Force 151, is largely made up of coalition warships. It’s commanded by a Turkish one star – he has his own staff and his own flagship. When he interfaces with CTF150, he interfaces with a British one star who heads up 150. He has a mostly British, but not completely British staff and he’s on a British warship.
So we take great advantage of nations that are interested in joining with us in a common cause, which is maritime security and a stable maritime environment in the global commons, in the international waters, and we join together to make sure that we have sufficient assets. So, on any given day, I have about 45 US warships in the region. But I have at least another 15 to 20 coalition warships – so when you look at the effort down off the Somali basin in piracy, there were 26 warships yesterday from 13 different nations that were contributing to the effort and that’s a very powerful way to look at how we ought to do business in the future where we leverage the best capabilities of each of the nations. Perhaps our best security cooperation activity was an international [inaudible] counter measure exercise that we did in the middle of September. In this exercise, we had 33 nations that participated; we did a two and a half day symposium; 20 flag officers attended from various different nations; we had 20 of the 33 nations that participated in the exercise contribute more than just people, which means they sent ships, they sent unmanned underwater vehicles, they sent divers, they committed not only personnel but they committed equipment to the exercise. We conducted the exercise in three different geographic areas. We had one group in the central Arabian Gulf; we had one group off the coast of Oman, in Omani territorial waters near Fujairah; and we had a third group in [inaudible], in territorial waters conducting operations.
So how did we convince 33 different nations from six continents – couldn’t get a penguin, so we’re going for a penguin in 2013 from Antarctica – but every nation that is inhabited sent – or every continent that is inhabited – sent representatives to be in this countermeasure exercise. So how do we do that? Well partly we did in much of the same way we built our coalition for counter-piracy in that it’s easy for people to be against mines, so the exercise that we conducted wasn’t conducted against a particular nation. This wasn’t a show of force, if you will, to the Iranians. What it was, was to show the international commitment to a stable maritime environment, to unfettered access to the global commons. And so if there are mines in the water, people are going to have to get those mines out of the water. How do you do that quickly, safely – what’s the best way to do it? You do it with a coalition of ships and equipment from nations around the globe and that’s what we’re able to do in this countermeasure exercise.
So I’ll leave you with that thought that when we look at the operations that we conduct today, the operations that we will conduct into the future, we are far better, far more capable, if we can operate as a coalition. I think Navies are uniquely suited to do that. It’s one thing to allow the air force from one nation to operate from an air base from another nation. There’s a footprint there, there’s jet noise, there is people that need to be supported logistically so it’s intrinsically obvious that if your country asks [inaudible]. If you look at boots on the ground, army troops or Marines, it’s even more obtrusive, it’s a bigger footprint. But when nations operate together at sea, we can talk about that as much as we’d like or as little as we’d like. So when we put together the coalition for the mine countermeasure exercise, we asked each of the participating nations, we said, hey there’s going to be a big media availability as part of this – do you want to be part of that media availability? And some said yes, and some said no. The ones that said no didn’t show up in the pictures, they didn’t show up in the write-up, they didn’t show up on the videos so they had an opportunity to participate in the exercise and then explain that to their people to the extent that they deemed appropriate – whether they wanted to or not.
The best example of that – I think I’ve got about one more minute – is the participation of the Iraqis. The Iraqis don’t have any mine countermeasure capability. If you remember, there are two countries that have put mines in the last decades in the Arabian Gulf, Iraq and Iran. Iraq was a big actor in that regard, so when we asked them to participate in the exercise, we asked them to bring a patrol boat that could provide protection for the mine countermeasure ships. So they did that. They agreed to do it and they sailed down, sailed in to Bahrain – it was the first time in 34 years they put a warship into a foreign port. They participated in the exercise – it was the first time in 39 years they put a ship into an international port outside of Iraq. It was the first time in 34 years they participated in a multi-national exercise. At the end of that exercise, the Iraqi patrol craft left the port of Bahrain, rendezvoused with an American, actually a Coast Guard patrol craft, sailed north, rendezvoused with a Kuwaiti patrol craft, conducted a trilateral exercise – so if you remember the last time the Americans, the Kuwaitis and the Iraqis got together for an exercise, you can appreciate how extraordinary this was. And then, the US Coast Guard ship escorted the Iraqi warship up into the Port of Umm Qasr, to their home. It was the first time since we turned out over the oil platforms security in 2009 that we had a US warship in Iraqi territorial waters. You can do those kinds of things at sea; you cannot necessarily do those kinds of things on shore. So with that ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to your questions.
Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Well Admiral, thank you very much indeed. That was an absolutely fascinating tour of the most, many people would say the most, important region in the world at the moment. I’m going to ask for questions, and I’m going to ask everybody who does have a question, please say who you are beforehand. And I will set an example by saying that I am James Arbuthnot, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons and I have a question and that is, do you regard the civil war that is now going on in Syria as being a proxy fight between Sunni and Shia in war that may spread more widely?
Vice Admiral John Miller
The answer, sir, is somewhere between potentially and likely. If you look at the situation in Syria, and it’s important, I think, to draw direct linkage between Syria and Iran and people seem somewhat hesitant to do so. Taken as a given that this is a Sunni-held position and not necessarily a fact, when the Sunnis look at what happened in Iraq they tend to view it as, OK, the United States, the UK, the coalition, we invaded Iraq, we defeated Saddam Hussein and then we turned the country over to Iran. So you took a Sunni-dominated government in Iraq and placed it with a Shia dominated government, although that in fact represents the demographics of the population, better certainly than the Sunni government. But taken as a given that the Sunnis are concerned that we have given to Iran the country of Iraq – true or not, I’ll leave to you. But with that as the backdrop, if you look at what’s happening in Syria today, there are obviously a number of different potential outcomes, but one of them is that, not only does Assad fall, but that the government that comes in to replace it – and I have absolutely no clue what that government might look like – but if it’s a Sunni-dominated government, then if you’re Iran and you’re feeling isolated, which you now see as a Sunni crescent that goes up the western side of the Gulf, maybe skips Iraq, maybe not, but goes into Syria which is now a Sunni-dominated country, and it isolates the Shia, and in particular isolates the Shia that are in Iran. The Shia that live in Bahrain, which is 70% Shia, the Shia that live in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, are already marginalized in to an extent, at least in their view, disenfranchised. A Sunni-led Syria puts a great deal of pressure and sets up an opportunity for a Sunni-Shia civil war that is larger than just Syria. Certainly that’s a concern. If Assad remains in power, or if the government that comes to power is Alawite or Shia, then what you will continue to see is this opinion on the part of the GCC and the Sunni-led governments on the western side of the Gulf that look at a Shia crescent that goes from Iran through certainly southern Iraq, if not all of Iraq, into Syria and potential Shia dominance. Again, you then have the seeds for a Sunni-Shia civil war. I think there’s a possibility, if not a likelihood that, in fact, regardless of the outcome in Syria, what we find ourselves facing in the not too distant future is a possibility – and it wouldn’t be a declared war, it would be a series of sort of proxy wars. You know the Iranians are very good at that, having spread themselves around the region so that they have the ability to conduct mischief, which may or may not be attributable to them and create havoc – or some level of havoc, certainly some sort of discord – in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia which is extremely important to the oil production capability. The Kuwaitis are concerned, the Emiratis are concerned, the Bahrainis who have rather a difficult situation between the Sunni and Shia anyway, are growing increasingly concerned. That is something we continue to watch and at some point, I think, the West is going to have to try to take the opportunity to influence that so that we can help manage that issue so it doesn’t get out of hand.
Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Thank you. Lord King. Please introduce yourself.
Question 1 – Lord King
It’s impossible to overstate the fragility of that whole region at the present time and the enormous dangers that there are. Nobody can see a solution in Syria. It scares the Russians to death. Putin is quite clearly extremely worried as that goes as to what actually [inaudible]. It’s not just Sunni and Shia, but it’s also internal and Sunni and [inaudible]. And then, of course, it affects the whole of that Gulf’s eastern relationship. News out of Kuwait is very worrying as to whether that insurgent Arab Spring, as we now call it, contains elements of a more democratic [inaudible]. You have basically, Saudi Arabia with a very elderly leadership without [inaudible]. And into that incredibly dangerous situation a world which is in recession and facing all their problems. But the worst thing that could happen would be if somebody now attacks Iran, where I think that all bets would be off and [inaudible].
Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Lord King is the former Secretary of State for Defence.
Vice Admiral Miller
Yes sir. Well thank you for your comment. I would tell you from my standpoint as the maritime component commander, a couple things that I think about as a matter of routine. One is, in terms of a third party strike on the Iranians – I can’t think of a worse outcome for anybody in the West, for the United States, for the UK, for the coalition, for the GCC partners – and so as you listen to the discussions that come from our government and from your government as well about the need for the Israelis to show restraint, we certainly agree with that. If you look at it purely from a military standpoint, that is the least desirable entree into any sort of conflict with Iran.
The second part of it is, I think part of my job is to continue to assure the allies, including Kuwait on the western side of the Gulf Coast, those in the GCC, by having a robust maritime presence by making sure that goods and services flow out of, so that’s the energy supply for the most part, but into the Arabian Gulf they have some robust economies that have actually weathered the financial crisis and the recession better than most – certainly better than the United States – but to do that, you need a robust military presence. I think that deters Iran from taking action that might have tactical intentions, but strategic consequences after all. I think a big part of my job, part of what I talk to every commander that comes into the theatre, is about the need to prevent miscalculations – don’t offer the Iranians an opportunity to miscalculate our intentions, don’t miscalculate their intentions. Don’t over blow what they do. I take your point, sir, that it’s a very volatile time and a very volatile region and it requires, in particular, on the part of military forces, maritime forces, a great deal of discipline to make sure that the actions that we take support and meet the policy goals of our governments.
Rt. Hon James Arbuthnot MP
[Inaudible] introduce yourselves.
Vice Admiral Miller
I do see maritime implications and I would – I take your point that we should be careful what we wish for. I certainly don’t speak for the State Department so, you know, I’m a little old numbered Fleet commander, gets up on a tiny island nation every morning and goes to work. But I think there might have been a time where we may have had an opportunity for a different policy with respect to the unrest in Syria, but I’m also of the mind that that time has passed. What we wish for, what the Russians wish for, and I think they masterfully – mostly as a result of what they learned in Libya – they masterfully moved themselves into a corner, promptly painted themselves into it, and now stand there, somewhat flummoxed about what they ought to be doing. What we wish for in the West and what the Russians wish for – we might be able to influence, and in fact we might find an opportunity in the not too distant future to influence – but we are, we certainly aren’t masters of the outcome here. The Syrians are going to be the masters of the outcome. The Russians will influence it to an extent. Certainly the Iranians will attempt to continue to influence it to an extent. But ultimately the Syrians will come to some resolution and the timeline at which that might occur – I’m not sure that we really understand. We can see Assad – I remember much more than 45 days ago someone saying Assad has less than 45 days to go. So, be careful what you predict might also be operative here.
But the maritime ramifications here really get to – there are some in the Mediterranean, obviously, because the Syrians have the ability to protect their power out into the Mediterranean, into the eastern Mediterranean in particular, should they decide to do so – they have cruise missiles, they have a large chemical stockpile, as you know. But mostly, the maritime ramifications from my view concern what impact a change of government from Shia to Sunni in Syria has on Iran in terms of what they feel compelled to do or empowered to do. Regardless of the outcome, they’re either going to feel more empowered if an Alawite or a Shia government is the replacement government, or if Assad stays, and they will feel less empowered and perhaps compelled to, in particular, with the impact of the sanctions, to take action in the maritime environment. It doesn’t have to be, and in fact likely wouldn’t be, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles – it’s mines that come off of fishing dhows in the middle of the Arabian Gulf.
For all the discussion that we have about mines, it’s important to note during the tanker wars where about 1500 mines were placed in the water, not one of them was in the Strait of Hormuz. They were all someplace else. The Iranians couldn’t take that activity. They have a maritime special operations force that has a pretty good capability. Oil platforms, of which there are about 1500 in the Gulf right now – 1800 I think – those are at risk, the gas oil fields are at risk, the infrastructure that’s right on the coastline of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the Emirates and Kuwait. All of those things are potentially at risk and so those are the things that as a maritime component commander, I find myself having to watch for. The United States Navy can’t watch every oil platform. They can’t watch every square foot of beach space. You know if you look in Riyadh, if the desalinisation plants cease to work because there’s oil in the water or they’ve been attacked, there’s a one day water supply in Riyadh. So on day two if the desal plants aren’t working, you have a humanitarian crisis on your hands.
So those are the potential impacts that the unrest in Syria, if you sort of connect those dots and that may or may not be a valid analysis for this – it’s the one I see because it’s the one that potentially creates the most stress on my forces.
Rt. Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Gentleman over there.
Rt. Jon James Arbuthnot MP
Can you bring it to an end please?
Question 3 (continued)
Vice Admiral John Miller
Well I don’t know if the question is would Iran and [inaudible] be prepared for the loss of Syria. I don’t know whether they have plans for that or if they don’t have plans for that so the concerns that I expressed are – there’s a decision point and a potential opportunity for Lebanese Hezbollah. They are a more competent, better armed, military force than the Lebanese armed forces. Do they see this as their last best opportunity? And I’m not sure quite frankly that either Iran or Lebanese Hezbollah, even six months, even a year ago we’ll say, or 18 months ago, envisioned a civil war on the scale that currently exists in Syria. And in fact I’m not sure any of us envisioned that.
But there’s a decision point here for Lebanese Hezbollah whether they intend to in the future, because they’re going to have fewer arms shipments in and therefore they lose some of their military power. Do they convert themselves into a greater political power than they already are? Or do they decide that this is their last best chance to take over the leverage of government in Lebanon and take on the Lebanese armed forces? I’m not sure which way they’re going to go on that, but it’s something that we should be mindful of.
The second question is what does Iran think? The point, I think, I’m trying to make is that what they will feel is more isolated because they not only have lost the influence of Syria, but they’ve lost their ability to influence, which they already, you know they have a decreasing ability to influence Lebanese Hezbollah because Nasrallah has grown that into a very mature organization. So their influence is already on the wane but this separates them in ways that they may not have anticipated and how they react to that isolation I think is something that we need to consider.
Rt. Hon James Arbuthnot MP
Now lots of people are catching my eye and we only have five minutes left. So can you be, please, snappy in your questions. Lord Gilbert – and please remember to introduce yourselves first.
John Gilbert. First of all, I should say that I am of a different political party than Lord King here [inaudible]. I wanted to ask you a bit more about piracy because we can see it starting to emerge even in West Africa and I can think of many other parts of the world where it’s been so profitable and almost [inaudible]. If you were given the job of eliminating or reducing piracy in the Indian Ocean, how many air and naval assets would you want and how many land assets would you hope for?
Vice Admiral John Miller
I think the point you make, sir, is an important one which is that the solution for piracy – if you wish to eliminate piracy – if you took all of the warships in the world, you couldn’t eliminate piracy in East Africa. One of the things, it’s a little bit difficult to see, it’s difficult for me to see, if you take the coastal coastline of Somalia it’s nearly as long as the coastline of the United States – the east coast of the United States. It doesn’t look that big when you look at it on a map, but imagine if you wanted to have warships that had complete control of the water space at the coastline, which means no pirates can get past, let’s say you stood off at 12 miles – so if you built a steel curtain, if you will, on the east coast of Africa, if every nation contributed every warship they had, you still couldn’t fill in all the holes.
So if you’re going to impact and affect piracy, then you look at ways that you can move ships around smartly. There is some cost associated with an embarked security teams because that drives up insurance rates. It also drives up the rates you pay the sailors that sail on those ships. You know, if you need somebody with a gun then this is not safe – you’re going to have to pay me more. But the most important aspect of it is governance ashore. It’s making sure that there’s not an establishment ashore, and this is what has been so difficult in Somalia where they literally drop off bundles of cash into the ocean and pirates and skips and, you know, kind of rowboats with a small upward motor that you take out on the lake motor on out there and bring that cash into Somalia and then it’s dispersed – a percentage for the people that went and did the piracy, a percentage for the people that maintain the boats and so on and so forth and the biggest percentage goes to whoever the person is who is the overall financier, so in a mafia-like environment, the family, you know the head of the family. Those are the places – it’s influencing the finances, influencing the people ashore and not letting people come ashore with literally bundles of money that one person can’t carry because they’re so big and so heavy. That’s true in East Africa, it’s true in West Africa, although it’s a more difficult and more violent problem, but less prevalent. But we see piracy acts in the Caribbean these days; we see them certainly in the South China Sea and Indochina.
But if you look at the Strait of Malacca a couple years ago, there was a large problem with piracy and the Strait of Malacca nations – the Malaysians, the Indonesians, the Sings – all got together and said “hey, we’re going to stop this”, and robust patrols and then the ability to capture people ashore. One of the biggest problems that we have is when we do capture pirates, finding a nation that will try them and therefore if they’re given a prison sentence, you have to pay for them, you know five to seven years is not an atypical kind of sentence. It’s the levers of governments, it’s the judicial process ashore, it’s just good policing ashore that’s going to reduce the levels of piracy. It’s not necessarily, you know the work that’s done out at sea, those are the cops on the beach. You don’t stop crime by catching criminals in the act, you stop crime by setting the conditions of the environments so that person doesn’t become a criminal in the first place and it’s no different in piracy, I would submit.
Rt. Hon John Arbuthnot MP
I’m afraid to say that I think we have come to the end and I know there are lots of people who would like to ask questions. So I’d like to thank Vice Admiral Miller very much indeed for having shared with us an overall view of the region with a deep knowledge of how you actually have to deal with it – I was going to say on the ground, but with a naval officer, that’s not quite appropriate. So, Admiral Miller thank you very much indeed for coming to talk to us today. We’re extremely grateful and honoured that you spent the time with us.
Vice Admiral John Miller
It was an honour to be here.
Rt. Hon John Arbuthnot MP
I’d also like to thank the Henry Jackson Society very much for organising this event. These things don’t just happen, so thank you very much indeed.