57. Paper Prepared in the Department of the Navy1


Attempting to get at the facts of this issue is like an emotional court case where prosecution and defense lawyers drag in “expert” witnesses who attempt to make the case for each side couched in scientific terminology.

Shortly after Secretary Kissinger was quoted in Business Week suggesting intervention in the case of strangulation,2 a series of articles appeared in which “experts” were quoted either making the case that the facilities were highly vulnerable, or that they were not. Ambassador Akins prepared a controversial paper3 arguing it would be impossible to seize the installations without major sabotage that would put Saudi fields out of operation for “years.” He introduced his paper stating one would have to be criminally insane to even contemplate such seizure. It is rumored that this comment was taken as a personal slap at SecState, and that it was one of the reasons Akins was fired.

It is a fact that the main 30-inch line of the tapline that carries Saudi oil to Lebanese ports was blown in the early 1970s by unknown saboteurs. One thousand feet were taken out by the explosion and resultant fire, and it took three months to get the pipeline back in operation. It was suspected that either Palestinian fedayeen did the job to warn the SAG to resume payoffs it had terminated, or by the Iraqis to pressure the SAG to settle outstanding border disputes. The story never got much publicity, and was never resolved—but the tapline does run above ground for much of its length, and this incident proved it can be blown.

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The Library of Congress did a study for Hamilton Subcommittee on Investigations of the House Committee on International Relations in August 1975 which concluded (NESA reference copy attached):4

—The United States could easily defeat OPEC Armed Forces to seize oil fields and facilities, but preserving installations intact would be a chancy proposition under ideal conditions.

—Saboteurs could wreak havoc before adequate forces could seize control. Although the pipelines are somewhat vulnerable, the oil wells themselves and pumping stations are far more vulnerable, and are scattered over a core area of 10,000 square miles.

—Once seized and restored, constant security against sabotage would require two to four divisions with proportionate support on land, sea, and in the air.

—Soviet intervention is possible through a variety of scenarios from aerial mining of the Straits of Hormuz, to positioning ground forces as a counter force.

The Library of Congress Study concluded: “Success would largely depend on two prerequisites:

—Slight damage to key installations.

—Soviet abstinence from armed intervention.

“Since neither essential could be assured, military operations to rescue the United States (much less its key allies) from an air-tight OPEC embargo would combine high costs with high risks wherever we focused our efforts. This country would so deplete its strategic reserves that little would be left for contingencies elsewhere. Prospects would be poor, with plights of far-reaching political, economic, social, psychological, and perhaps military consequence the penalty for failure.”

The Navy is of the opinion that the Strait of Homuz, though a natural choke point, is not highly vulnerable to interdiction in that the channel is sufficiently wide and deep to accept the sinkage of one or more tankers without impeding the traffic flow. In addition, Iran and Oman control this Strait and have repeatedly stated their intentions to protect it.5

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–79–0049, Box 82, Saudi Arabia. Unclassified. Attached to this paper is a note from Rear Admiral Staser Holcomb to Schlesinger that reads: “You asked about an oil ‘chokepoint’ in Saudi Arabia . . . it must be the Straits of Hormuz, to which you referred. It is not as vulnerable to blockage as was suggested, according to the Navy. Point is that the ‘tapline’ piping system could serve as an alternate . . . and also more vulnerable. The 4/27 NSC Staff tasking bears on the question. Tab D.” The “4/27 NSC Staff tasking” refers to this paper. It is unknown if the White House received this paper.
  2. See Document 30.
  3. Enclosure to Document 52.
  4. The study, “Oil Fields as Military Objectives: A Feasibility Study,” August 21, is attached but not printed.
  5. A CIA paper, “Middle East Pipelines and Choke Points,” undated, is also attached. It highlighted the three pipelines that “would become vital in the event that the key choke points in seaborne delivery were blocked for whatever reason,” including the Strait of Hormuz and the Shatt-al-Arab “from which all Iraqi crude and much Iranian consortium crude leave the Persian Gulf.” The three pipelines were TAPLINE, TIPLINE, which carried crude from Eilat, Israel, on the Gulf of Aqaba to Ashkellon, Israel on the Mediterranean, and the pipeline that linked Iraq’s Kirkuk oil fields to the Mediterranean via Tripoli, Lebanon and Banias, Syria.