Special correspondent John Zarocostas discussed security in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in a recent interview with Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, on the sidelines of an International Institute of Strategic Studies conference in Geneva. The commander also heads the 20-nation Combined Maritime Forces coalition, which focuses on maritime security operations.
Question: How critical is the policing of the maritime lanes around the volatile areas of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean?
Answer: Well, I usually don’t use the term “policing,” but seeking to create a maritime order in that part of the world I think is very important. Security in that region writ large, but especially maritime security, is the foundation for regional stability, regional prosperity, and arguably a larger global economic stability, if you think in terms of just safeguarding the free flow of oil and other energy.
But within the region, there are other concerns, such as fishing, poaching or violation of fishing rules. There’s piracy, there’s human smuggling, drug smuggling. These are things the regional countries care deeply about. … And again, all of that is the backdrop against violent extremism, which does have a maritime connection.
Q: You also head a naval coalition of 20 nations, contributing to the collective effort in a strategic region that is also a critical choke point for global trade. What would be the risks to global commerce of an incident in that region, and how well prepared are the forces to flush it out?
A: Big question. At least one-third of the containerized cargo moves in the Indian Ocean, probably close to 40 percent of the world’s oil, and a large percentage of natural gas comes out of the Gulf proper. The coalition typically is focused on safeguarding the use of the [waters] by fishermen and by shipping companies. It is a non-country-specific [operation], in the sense … it’s a coalition force for maritime security not against a country, or countries.
That said, the United States Navy, and some of the other navies, would react very strongly, and very quickly, to any … action to close a vital body of water. It’s clearly against international law. There’s no reason in the current circumstance to comprehend such a thing. We exercise for a range of military capabilities, to be prepared nonetheless, should the unexpected occur.
Q: There have been quite a number of piracy incidents and alerts of piracy off the coast of Yemen and Somalia, and merchant vessels are asked to stay at least 50 miles off the coast. Are the resources to combat this sufficient, or would you welcome more nations to participate in this collective action?
A: There’s 2.5 million square miles under our command. It’s a huge area, and the Somali basin is a very large area. The coast of Somalia itself is 1,500 miles long from Kenya to Djibouti. Because of the combination of the size of the operation, and the size of the forces we have assigned to us routinely, it is a challenge to get the right forces of sufficient numbers and capacity in the right area for a long enough period of time to actually have an impact.
We know that we can disrupt piracy, [but] so far we’ve been unable to completely deter it. And we are pursuing other countries who want to join with us, to help us. [It is not confined to operations at sea]. There’s a range of activities to help to curtail that sort of behavior. Not the least of which is to help the transnational government of Somalia develop, and get control ashore so the people there engaged in piracy can find more useful and lawful pursuits.
Q: What sort of channels do you have with the Iranian navy operationally?
A: Operationally, day-to-day as our ships are transiting here and there in the Gulf, when they come within sight of an Iranian ship, or vice versa, we will communicate on the radio very straightforward, especially with Iranian navy ships, [identifying ourselves]. Those exchanges are typically correct, seamanlike and no big emotional exchanges. We have instructed our officers and sailors how to behave and respond, and they do that. For the most part, the regular Iranian navy forces respond in kind.
Q: What sort of synergies do you have with the Pacific 7th Fleet, given that so much traffic goes through the Straits of Malacca? How is that coordinated? There are also reports that terrorist groups such as al Qaeda might have front shipping companies. Is that of concern?
A: Inside the U.S. Navy, we have launched a new initiative to reorganize our various headquarters, and the premise of that is to facilitate … collaboration amongst the 5th Fleet, the 6th Fleet (Mediterranean) and the 7th Fleet so we can rapidly exchange information, and we can build a bigger operational picture. … We do know that international terrorism, as the name implies, is not localized to the area where I come in principally. So we do exchange that information, and we do it directly with our counterparts.
Q: What sort of cooperation do you have with Iraq?
A: We are involved with Iraq, and there’s commercial maritime activity in and around their territorial waters, and we’re part of helping the Iraqi navy develop the capability to exercise their sovereignty there. And [as for] shipping in and out of the straits, I have not seen any change in the pattern.
Q: With regards to interdiction on the high seas, do you have the leeway to act if you perceive a threat?
A: Our principal concern right now for things moving on the high seas is for things moved by al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations … and we do have the authorities we need to stop and board ships. We approach ships all the time, and typically, it’s collaborative and cooperative. We talk to them, they talk to us, and if there is some indication there is something more than the ordinary going on, we have appropriate authority.