Published in the Middle East Feb/Mar 2021 Supplement – While international navies provide larger warships to patrol the waters of the Gulf, GCC nations are building their strength to sustain a constant presence.
The Gulf region remains a global security hotspot, and its waters are a melting pot of different security challenges. Moreover, the region’s security context is in some senses unique: whereas, in other global regions, low- and high-end risks can to a degree be compartmentalised, the restricted geophysical and constricted geostrategic nature of the Gulf’s maritime layout means that low-end and high-end maritime challenges to good order at sea are intertwined, creating a highly volatile area of hybrid, ‘grey zone’ risks.
Lower-end, maritime security-based threats in the region include counter-narcotics and other smuggling across the Northern Arabian Sea as well as other maritime terrorism risks to commercial ships transiting the Straits of Hormuz. At the opposite end of the risk spectrum, the Gulf region reflects the global trend of a return to state-based naval competition: Iran continues to improve its naval potential across the board, while also developing joint capability that poses an anti-access/area denial risk to the Straits of Hormuz; Western navies – notably, the United States Navy (USN), the Royal Navy (RN), and the French Navy (FN) – continue to build permanent high-end naval presence in the region, both at sea and ashore, to support national and multinational security interests.
Grey Zone Threat
In between these two ends of the spectrum, hybrid, ‘grey zone’ risks are playing out actively at sea across the region. In one of the most prominent recent episodes, in mid-2019 several commercial ships were attacked with explosive devices while at anchor and underway, and others were boarded at sea or were seized with the crew held. These incidents prompted substantial international response, for example with two multinational naval task forces established to increase maritime surveillance and security capacity in the region: the nine-country International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) – for which Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel is the operational component; and the European-led European Maritime Awareness in the Straits of Hormuz (EMASoH) task force.
These two new task forces sit alongside the maritime security presence already provided by the USN-led, Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) partnership. With 33 international partners contributing, CMF generates three separate Combined Task Forces (CTFs): the counterterrorism-focused CTF-150; the counter-piracy-focused CTF-151; and the maritime- and wider theatre security-focused CTF-152.
The strategic ethos of many regional and extra-regional navies operating in and around the Gulf region is to provide presence to support both national and multinational maritime security interests. This is reflected very much, too, in the perspective of another key group of navies operating in the region – the indigenous forces of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) navies.
Gulf Naval Strength
The six GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – all have naval forces that contribute actively to national and multinational operations in the region.
In the multinational context, for example, five GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are also CMF members. Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all commanded different CTFs at different times. The Saudi Arabian navy and border guard are currently commanding CTF-150 and -152, respectively; the Pakistan Navy is commanding CTF-151.
Across the Gulf region, while the USN, RN, FN, and other Western navies bring the higher-end capability, the GCC navies bring a collection of key maritime security capabilities. Moreover, they have the locality and capacity to bring persistent presence.
The Saudi Arabian navy operates modern frigates, and it (along with the UAE) also has mine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft capability. However, where the GCC navies collectively add prominent capability to the regional maritime security mix is in patrol forces – namely, corvettes, patrol vessels, fast attack craft (FACs), and interceptors. All six bring patrol force in some form. While these forces are a mix of old and new capabilities, some of the new platforms are notable – for example, the Royal Navy of Oman’s Khareef-class corvettes and Al-Ofouq-class patrol vessels, and the UAE Navy’s Abu Dhabi-class corvette and Baynunah-class FACs. Also of note from a maritime security context, all six GCC member states have a coastguard or maritime police force. This underlines the lower-end capacity GCC naval forces bring in providing maritime security presence across the region. One capability highlight here is the UAE coastguard receiving two new Arialah-class offshore patrol vessels.
When combined with their local presence, the ability of the collective GCC navies to generate patrol force and coastguard capacity at sea adds significantly to the region’s maritime security balance.
The CTF Sentinel/IMSC maritime security construct provides a good example of where and how regional navies bring significant security impact. From amongst the six GCC navies, three – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are IMSC members. CTF Sentinel’s concept of operations is that ‘Sentinel’ duties – requiring more capable platforms (like destroyers and frigates) to be present in more risky regions (like around the Straits of Hormuz) – are performed by larger navies like the RN and the Royal Australian Navy; ‘Sentry’ duties – requiring, in principle, patrol forces focused on a wider range of regions to bring surveillance and reassurance presence – are performed largely by the regional navies.
Despite this clear division of labour in a construct like CTF Sentinel, providing more consistent presence more widely across the region will require the GCC navies, individually and collectively, to maintain and augment key capabilities. Such capabilities might include improved sensors and communications – allowing these navies to more ably enhance and share collective understanding of the recognised maritime and common operating pictures. Such enhanced, shared collective understanding of the regional maritime picture is essential to understanding the ‘grey zone’ risk in particular, and boosting the effectiveness of the presence required to address it.