Indian Ocean Command



Ten years ago, American scholar Paul Bracken announced the advent of the “post-Vasco da Gama” age.[1] Thinking more broadly than the post-Cold War world with which America and the West grappled, Bracken submitted the 500 year old domination of Asia by the West had come to an end. The People's Republic of China (PRC) was ascendant, India and Pakistan had just tested nuclear weapons, and the entire Asian continent was suddenly rife with nationalist rivalries and growing military arsenals – and was less deferential to America and the West. In the succeeding ten years, the ascent of the PRC seems nearly complete and many observers are readily acknowledge the 21st century will be Asian. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, American correspondent Robert D. Kaplan identifies a long-neglected region of Asia will actually be “center stage” – the Indian Ocean. Emphasizing the conjunction of energy, trade, and security concerns, Kaplan asserts the region will weigh heavily on the future. Unfortunately, Kaplan observes American hegemony on the ebb; if it cannot dominate, then it will have find a way to become indispensable. Such adaptation will not be accomplished without reconfiguration of the American combatant command structure. Advancing into the future, America will have to consider the establishment of an Indian Ocean Command.


The Rising Profile of the Indian Ocean


As Kaplan expertly observes, “a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” Despite a diversity of cultures, nations, religions, and civilizations, history has sustained long-standing connections and the region, while still disunited, has only deepened its integration in the past decade. Kaplan eloquently declares the “[the Indian Ocean] combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered, multipolar world,” remarking the region is “…more than just a geographic feature, [it] is also an idea.”


Kaplan exhaustively catalogues the breadth and depth of the region’s significance.


Regarding international trade, Kaplan reports how the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world's container traffic. Moreover, seventy percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean, on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific. Principal oil shipping routes are found in the Indian Ocean – the Gulfs of Aden and Oman, Bab el Mandeb and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Forty percent of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca; similarly forty percent of all traded crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.


Regarding energy, Kaplan notes global energy needs are expected to rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China. India will soon to become the world's fourth-largest energy consumer and will be dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs. Sixty-five percent of the oil will be imported, of which 90 percent will come from the Persian Gulf. India imports coal from Mozambique, South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. In the future, India will be importing large quantities of liquefied natural gas from southern Africa, Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia. More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the all-important Strait of Malacca.


Regarding the regional competition, Kaplan summarizes the incipient contest between India and the PRC. India conducts substantial trade with Gulf countries, seeks closer ties with Iran and Myanmar, and has even explored new linkages with its long-time adversary Pakistan. Similarly, the PRC has been establishing footholds in various countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Kaplan notes the outreach inevitably induces apprehension on both sides. India fears “encirclement” by the PRC, which is anxious about the security of the Straits of Malacca, absolutely critical to the nation’s trade. Finally, as international commercial interests expand, so do the two nations’ naval fleets – the PRC and Indian navies will soon rank numbers two and three, respectively, behind the United States.


Kaplan concludes “as the competition between India and China suggests, the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century.”


The challenges for the United States are not limited to the India-PRC competition. American forces remain committed in Afghanistan and Iraq for the foreseeable future. The 2004 tsunami and 2008 cyclone underline the continuing requirement for American humanitarian response capacity. Iran, while observably brittle in the wake of the recent presidential election crisis, remains under the control of an oppressive regime intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Continued lawlessness in Somalia and piracy in the Gulf of Aden underscore the hazards posed by failed states. The capture of nuclear-armed Pakistan by jihadists would constitute a grave threat to American national security.


Legacy Command Structures


The current configuration of combatant commands, the Unified Command Plan, reflects legacy concerns, essentially those arising from the end of World War II and the Cold War. Indeed, the United States rarely leans forward in the establishment of command entities to meet emerging security challenges.[2]


The US Central Command (CENTCOM) began as an initiative to set up a expeditionary force capable of responding to worldwide contingencies without diverting forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Korea, the prevailing focus of American military planning. The Iranian revolution prompted President James Carter to formally establish the force, the Rapid Deployment Forces, in 1979. While conceived as globally deployable force, its geographic application was soon narrowed to the Persian Gulf, especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Its criticality as a military command came with the execution of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While Southwest Asia became an enduring focus of American national security, attention remain centered on the Persian Gulf. Tellingly, the CENTCOM area of responsibility ends at the border of India and only a small proportion (approximately 20 percent) of the Indian Ocean.


During the early 1990s, India remain eclipsed by the PRC and the West was more concerned with the Straits of Hormuz, not Malacca. Accordingly, the Indian Ocean remained divided between CENTCOM, US Pacific Command (PACOM), and the US European Command.[3] In fact, the Indian Ocean comes under the jurisdiction of seven different entities when one examines the combined Department of Defense – Department of State map of areas of responsibility .[4] The Indian Ocean is the domain of CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and PACOM as well as the Department of State’s Bureaus of African Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, South and Central Asian Affairs, and East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Given the contrasting dynamics of advancement in the military (rotational) and diplomatic corps (careerist and appointee), the likelihood the various principals[5] have collaborated in the past (and will coordinate activities in the future) is low.

Potential Courses of Action

Kaplan acknowledges establishing a NATO equivalent for the region would be an attractive approach, but ultimately dismisses the idea. NATO was premised on the singularity of the Soviet threat; the Indian Ocean has no equivalent focal point. Given the immense geography, Kaplan asserts a more optimal approach would entail reliance on multiple regional and ideological alliances in different parts of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the US could replicate the task force model applied in the Horn of Africa; the success in coordinating anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden could be repeated in the Straits of Malacca. Proceeding accordingly would sustain American involvement as well as temper the nature of Indo-Chinese rivalries in the region.


First, Rationalize Internal Structures


However, before accomplishing the above, rationalizing internal policy making structures by establishing an Indian Ocean portfolio should be a priority, specifically an Indian Ocean Command. The futility of bureaucratic reorganizations has been cited in many reviews and assessments, but establishing Indian Ocean portfolios would address the need for approaches “emphasizing integrated effort, collaboration, and agility,” in the words of one Project on National Security Reform recommendation, as the step would consolidate disparate entities.


A recent GAO report credited the Department of Defense for establishing bodies to integrate the management of global defense posture, but noted these processes were embryonic and several steps were necessary to sustain progress. The Quadrennial Defense Review is reportedly devoting resources to the review of global defense posture and while combatant command adjustments are accomplished per the legislatively mandated review of the Unified Command Plan, one metric for assessing the next QDR report could be whether it prioritizes the Indian Ocean.


Kaplan’s recommendation for a Straits of Malacca task force has merit. Perhaps in conjunction with an Indian Ocean Command, such a task force could evolve as the fulcrum for the coordination of greater Indian and Pacific oceanic security matters. As the critical juncture and common denominator for both regions, the Straits encapsulate many salient issues – the security of commercial and energy sea lines of communication as well as the Indian-Chinese contest for regional influence.


Finally, an Indian Ocean Command would signal American respect for the rise of India, a partnership that was assiduously cultivated by the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration. The PRC can enjoy an aligned policy portfolio when communicating with the US on matters related to its near abroad. This congruence stands in contrast to India which, as noted previously, must navigate multiple channels in the US government.


If the Indian Ocean is indeed destined to be center stage this century, the United States would be wise to organize accordingly.








[2] The United States established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008 to better organize for emerging concerns on that continent. However, the step was also a necessary reorganization considering the command previously responsible for Africa, European Command, would have to manage a region stretching from the Siberian coast along the Pacific Ocean to the South African coast in the southern Atlantic Ocean, all while managing its core focus, the Eurasian continent. Moreover, the Department of State is a key stakeholder in the management of US national security policy and its configuration would similarly influence the overall capacity of the US government to address security challenges in the Indian Ocean. This article does not examine the Department of State’s configuration in full. Given the institutional heft of the Department of Defense and increasing influence over the direction of national security policy, emphasis will be placed on its command structures; for a fuller discussion of American’s increasing reliance on the Department of Defense on diplomatic matters, see Dana Priest’s “The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military” (2003).



[3] In 2008, the newly established AFRICOM took over the European Command's responsibilities in southwest Africa, and thus a portion of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa is a key joint multi-service command and interagency entity operating in conjunction with local East African nations.



[4] The Office of Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council each have various offices with responsibility for the region too. Moreover, Obama Administration special envoys for the region include Richard Holbrooke (Afghanistan / Pakistan), George Mitchell (Middle East), and Dennis Ross (Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia).



[5] CDRs David Petraeus (CENTCOM), Timothy Keating (PACOM), William Ward (AFRICOM) and Assistant Secretaries Johnnie Carson (African Affairs), Kurt M. Campbell (East Asian and Pacific Affairs), Robert O. Blake (South and Central Asian Affairs), Jeffrey Feltman (Acting, Near Eastern Affairs).


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