97. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Ellsworth) to Secretary of Defense Schlesinger1
- P–3 Operations from Bandar Abbas, Iran
The P–3 flights out of Bandar Abbas, which were initiated to support our Naval Task Group’s entry into the Indian Ocean in November 1973, have continued regularly since that time irrespective of whether carrier or other task groups have been operating in the Indian Ocean.
The flights were originally justified on the basis of an emergency situation and, to the Shah, also in the context of training Iranian officers. The purpose of this memorandum is to assess the value being derived from the flights, and to address the policy implications arising from their continuance on what appears to be a self-perpetuating basis.
We asked the JCS to address this issue and to answer a number of specific questions (Tab A). The Chiefs’ response (Tab B) listed three major reasons for continuing the flights:
—They provide direct support for major US naval units operating in the Indian Ocean;
—They collect valuable regional acoustic and oceanographic data;
—They assist in development of accurate shipping and other environmental forecast data bases.
Separately, we asked PA&E to review the available data and try to evaluate the importance of these flights. Their response (Tab C) indicates that analysis of operational data tends to validate the first JCS argument, but does not substantiate the other two. Interestingly, PA&E finds that a total of only 36 Iranian personnel have participated in these P–3 flights and less than 2% of the flights were conducted strictly for training.
A further relevant factor is the presence of a Soviet trawler off Bandar Abbas, which took up station after the flights began and has stayed ever since—apparently to monitor them. There are grounds to suspect (though it cannot be documented) that the Soviet Navy is building a record of this activity which could be used, for example, to press its own leadership to initiate Soviet reconnaissance flights into [Page 292]the Indian Ocean, either from Soviet bases in Central Asia or from Somalia. Thus the Shah could be confronted with a decision whether to deny Soviet overflight rights for reconnaissance aircraft while permitting US patrol planes to operate from Iranian airfields.
In our view, the case for continuing the flights is not particularly impressive. Under normal circumstances we would recommend that the flights be conducted on an intermittent basis in order (1) to be consistent with your stated policy of more frequent ship visits into the Indian Ocean but not necessarily a larger permanent presence; (2) to avoid Congressional and public criticism that is bound to arise at the point it becomes known that we have in fact significantly increased our activity in the area by basing P–3’s in Iran; (3) to avoid the addition of another factor which gives the Shah leverage over us. Clearly, there are many advantages arising from a posture of “occasional flights” versus “permanent basing.” At the same time, some operational disadvantages would accompany the irregular pattern.
In view of the proposed deployment of USS Enterprise to the Indian Ocean in January, which would normally be accompanied by an increase in the frequency of P–3 support flights, together with the anticipated Brezhnev visit to the Middle East and the possible increase in tension which may result, we recommend that the flights be continued on a regular basis for the immediate future. Upon completion of this current activity, we will re-examine the question of P–3 operations from Bandar Abbas with regard to the long-term continuation of these flights.