Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2019-05-01

The Evolution of Central Command and NAVCENT

In the 19th century, the Great Britain’s Royal Navy and maritime law used to protect free trade in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Arabian Gulf. The first U.S. warship to enter the Indian Ocean was the frigate Essex, which had twice rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1800 to escort a convoy of merchant ships returning from the Dutch East Indies.

The Navy conducted its first operation off the Arabian Peninsula in 1833, when the sloop of-war Peacock and the schooner Boxer carried an American diplomatic mission to Oman, an important hub for Indian Ocean trade. The mission culminated in a treaty of amity and commerce with Sultan Saiyid Said of Muscat. 
 
Western interest in the Middle East increased significantly during the 20th century, when petroleum supplanted coal as the fuel of choice for industrial nations. In 1901, British financier William Knox D’Arcy gained an oil concession covering nearly all of Persia. The first major strike seven years later at Masjid-i-Suleiman in western Persia heralded the beginning of the oil age in the Arabian Gulf.

The British government’s interest in the region heightened on the eve of World War I, when Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to base the country’s “naval supremacy upon oil.” Thereafter, the Royal Navy began replacing coal-burning engines in its warships with more efficient and economical oil-burning engines. With no known oil reserves of its own, Britain’s naval power came to rest on the Middle East’s petroleum reserve.
 
Although the U.S. produced most of the world’s oil between the world wars, American companies invested in British petroleum concessions in Iran and Kuwait, took over the concession in Bahrain, and established an all-American concession in Saudi Arabia. Oil production in the region increased 900 per cent between 1920 and 1939.In 1920 less than 5 per cent of the world’s oil was produced outside the U.S.; by 1939 the figure had climbed to 14 per cent.
 
Formation of the Middle East Force
With the creation of the Middle East force (MEF) in 1949, the U.S. Navy assumed the role as the first line of defence for America’s interests in the region. The founding of the MEF also marked the transition of the Navy’s presence in the Arabian Gulf from periodic to permanent.
 
In the years immediately following World War II, the Arabian Gulf became an area of vital concern to the U.S. Navy. American naval forces based in the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific after World War II burned fuel produced almost exclusively in the Gulf region. As U.S. fleet oilers and chartered tankers began moving as many as 5 million barrels of petroleum products per month from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and Pacific, the U.S. Navy perceived a need to establish facilities and a command and control structure to manage the traffic.
Accordingly, on January 20, 1948,

the Navy established Task Force (TF) 126 to control the dozens of ships plying Gulf waters and operating out of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In subsequent months, this command evolved through several iterations and, on August 16, 1949, it was designated as the MEF. The U.S. Navy has maintained a continuous presence in the region ever since.
 
Under the command of a one-star admiral, the MEF soon included a flagship, a pair of destroyers, aircraft, and support vessels. Between 1949 and 1965, the MEF flagship rotated among seaplane tenders Duxbury Bay (AVP 38), Greenwich Bay (AVP 41), and Valcour (AVP 55), each painted white to deflect the intense heat of the Arabian sun. In 1950, the U.S. Navy leased office space from the British naval base at Juffair, located five miles southeast of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. After the Navy reclassified Valcour as a miscellaneous command flagship (AGF 1) and homeported her in Juffair in 1966, the ship served for six years as command post, living facility, and communications centre for the Commander of MEF and his staff of 15 officers.

That same year MEF ships made 128 visits to 34 ports located in 12 countries and 6 protectorates or possessions, while the flag aircraft logged 77,328 miles carrying the commander to 40 different cities. In the spring of 1972, the miscellaneous command ship La Salle (AGF 3) relieved Valcour as flagship for the MEF. Painted white like her forbears, “The Great White Ghost of the Arabian Coast” steamed an average of 55,000 miles annually calling on ports in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She served as the MEF flagship until 1993.

Establishment of Central Command and NAVCENT
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S.  supplanted Great Britain as the predominant Western power in the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea. At the same time, threats to peace and stability in the region skyrocketed. As the danger increased, so did America’s commitment to the region’s security. This commitment culminated in 1983 in the establishment of a new unified command, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and its naval component, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT).
 
In January 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Great Britain would end its defence commitments “east of Suez” and would withdraw its forces from the Arabian Gulf by 1971.
 
Bahrain had been a British protectorate since 1880, when the British government assumed responsibility for the island’s defence. Through an agreement with the Bahraini government, the U.S. Navy took over part of the former British naval base at Juffair, naming the facility Administrative Support Unit Bahrain.
 
The British withdrawal created a great power vacuum in the Arabian Gulf, once considered a British “lake.” Determined to fill the void in the region, the Soviets sent a task force into the Indian Ocean and launched diplomatic initiatives to secure permanent bases in countries in and around the gulf.
 
The Soviet navy maintained a continuous presence in the Indian Ocean throughout the 1970s. The U.S. was in no position to counter the Soviet moves. With America engaged in the Vietnam War and President Richard M. Nixon committed to extricating U.S. forces from Southeast Asia, the administration sought to avoid new commitments.
 
Nixon Doctrine and Twin Pillars Policy
In 1969, the President enunciated a strategy dubbed the Nixon Doctrine, which envisioned transferring many security responsibilities to regional U.S. allies. In the Arabian Gulf, the Nixon Doctrine resulted in the so-called Twin Pillars policy, which depended upon Iran and Saudi Arabia to provide security for the region and to constitute a bulwark against Soviet expansion there. As a result, American military assistance flowed to Iran and Saudi Arabia for most of the 1970s.
 
The Twin Pillars policy dovetailed neatly with the plans of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, who sought to make his country the preeminent power in the Gulf. Emboldened by the surge in oil prices during the mid-1970s and the flood of arms from the U.S., the Shah plunged Iran into a pell-mell national modernisation programme that resulted in waste, inflation, and widespread corruption.
 
Disgusted with the Shah’s seeming disregard for traditional social and religious values, Iranians from all walks of life turned against him and his pro-American government. In 1978, labour strikes, street demonstrations, and riots spread across Iran with increasing frequency and violence. A revolution coalesced around fundamentalist Iranians led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah went into exile on January 16, 1979. Soon after the Shah left Iran, Khomeini entered Tehran in triumph and established an anti-Western Islamic theocracy.

He and his followers expressed the desire to spread Shiite extremism throughout the Arabian Gulf and expunge Western influence from the region. The Iranian revolutionaries harboured a particularly deep hatred for the U.S. because Washington had been the Shah’s leading supporter. On November 4, 1979, Iranian zealots seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage, marking the beginning of a 444-day crisis.
 
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following hard on the heels of the Iranian revolution, convinced American leaders to take a firm stand in the Arabian Gulf. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” President Jimmy Carter declared before Congress on January 23, 1980. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the U.S., and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This policy, dubbed the Carter Doctrine, committed American military forces to the defence of the region.
 
This new policy, inspired by the threats to the Arabian Gulf from the Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, spurred President Carter to create the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF). Established on March 1, 1980, the RDJTF was a component of what was then called U.S. Readiness Command, and its mission was to rush to the Gulf area in the event of a military crisis.
 
Defence officials in President Ronald Reagan’s administration considered the rapid deployment force a poor solution. Accordingly, on January 1, 1983, the Department of Defense replaced the task force with a new unified command: U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida. Initially, its area of responsibility (AOR) comprised 19 countries, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Gulf, and its mission was to protect free trade, help defend friendly nations, and preserve regional stability.

CENTCOM eventually got its own assigned component forces and a four-star commander, putting it on an even footing with European Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command.
 
The original 19 countries in Central Command’s AOR included Egypt and Sudan in northeast Africa; Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia on or near the Horn of Africa; the Yemen Arab Republic, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states on the Arabian Peninsula; and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on the Middle Eastern and South Asian mainland.

By 2005, changes to the Unified Command Plan, which governed the organisation of operational joint forces, had expanded the AOR to 27 countries.
 
On May 22, 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic united with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and became the Republic of Yemen. Eritrea came under Central Command’s purview after the country gained independence from Ethiopia on April 27, 1993.

Because of its cultural and political similarities to the East African mainland, the island nation of Seychelles was added to the AOR on January 1, 1996.

Due to their proximity to and political interaction with Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the five former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan became part of Central Command’s AOR on October 1, 1999. On March 10, 2004, Syria and Lebanon were shifted from European Command’s jurisdiction to Central Command’s jurisdiction because of American concern about Syrian-based terrorists operating in Iraq. CENTCOM’s naval component commander was designated Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (COMUSNAVCENT).
 
The Commander of MEF, who had reported to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe during the 1970s, was reassigned under Commander in Chief, Central Command (CINCCENT).
 
More Power
The U.S. Navy invested US$7 billion in strategic sealift programmes during the 1980s to make maritime prepositioning a reality. Thirteen specialised roll-on/roll-off prepositioning ships were built or converted from existing hulls. These ships were divided into three maritime prepositioning ship squadrons (MPSRONs) based in the Azores in the eastern Atlantic (MPSRON-1), Diego Garcia (MPSRON-2), and Guam (MPSRON-3).

Each squadron contained the equipment and 30 days’ worth of supplies for a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) of 16,500 men. The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Defense Logistics Agency stowed materiel in 11 other prepositioning ships based at Diego Garcia.
 
In addition, the Defense Department converted eight Sea-Land Corporation container ships (SL-7 class) into fast sealift ships (FSS) capable of making 30 knots and able to load and unload cargo quickly at unimproved ports.
 
These ships were intended to embark a full U.S. Army mechanised division at East Coast ports, transport the unit to a global hot spot, and return to the U.S. for follow-on ground forces. Moreover, the Department of Transportation followed Navy Department recommendations and expanded its Ready Reserve Force fleet from 36 to 96 cargo ships, tankers, and other auxiliaries.
 
To improve coordination among the Military Sealift Command, Military Airlift Command, and the Army’s Military Traffic Management Command, the Defense Department in 1987 created the joint U.S. Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. These measures went far to ensure swift deployment of combat-ready forces to Southwest Asia.
 
Although Central Command was responsible for the Arabian Gulf, the Navy’s leadership viewed the region as an extension of the Pacific Basin. The Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Gulf of Oman had long fallen within Pacific Command’s area of responsibility and remained so throughout the 1980s.

On December 30, 1983, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed CINCCENT to coordinate with Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) for contingency plans to integrate the MEF into Pacific Command’s Indian Ocean battle force, Task Force 70, during certain crises. For the rest of the 1980s, the Middle East Force flagship remained home-ported in Bahrain, while COMUSNAVCENT headquarters stood in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
 
Commitment to the Arabian Gulf
By the late 1980s, the U.S. had committed itself to the defence of the Arabian Gulf region, created a unified command to carry out the mission, and invested heavily in programmes to ensure its success. The entire commitment hinged upon the Navy’s ability to control the sea. 
At present, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) maintain the stability and security of the region’s maritime environment. NAVCENT consists of the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). 
 
Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) is a multi-national naval partnership, which exists to promote security, stability and prosperity across approximately 3.2 million square miles of international waters, which encompass some of the world’s most important shipping lanes.
CMF’s main focus areas are defeating terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and promoting a safe maritime environment.
 
CMF counters violent extremism and terrorist networks in maritime areas of responsibility; works with regional and other partners to improve overall security and stability; helps strengthen regional nations’ maritime capabilities and, when requested, responds to environmental and humanitarian crises. 
 
Features
• Comprised of three task forces: CTF 150 (maritime security and counter-terrorism), CTF 151 (counter piracy) and CTF 152 (Arabian Gulf security and cooperation).
 
• Member nations: Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Netherlands,  New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, The Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, United Kingdom, U.S. and Yemen.
 
• Commanded by a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, who also serves as Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. Fifth Fleet. All three commands are co-located at U.S. Naval Support Activity Bahrain.
 
• Deputy commander is a UK Royal Navy Commodore. Other senior staff roles at CMF headquarters are filled from personnel from member nations, including Australia, France, Italy and Denmark.
 
The nations that comprise CMF are not bound by either a political or military mandate. CMF is a flexible organisation. Contributions can vary from the provision of a liaison officer at CMF HQ in Bahrain to the supply of warships or support vessels in task forces, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft based on land.

They can also call on warships not explicitly assigned to CMF to give associated support, which is assistance they can offer if they have the time and capacity to do so whilst undertaking national tasking. 
 
Reference text/photo:
 

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