103. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • Objectives and Risks of Arms Control in the Indian Ocean

I. Interests and Military Presence: US and USSR

A. The US

Ensuring continued access to the oil of the Persian Gulf area for ourselves and our allies is a vital interest to the US. The main dangers [Page 358] to this access lie in the possibilities of an Arab embargo or an attempt by a hostile power, great or small, to interdict the flow. This interest is so vital that it has been the basis for the maintenance of military capabilities in the Indian Ocean for possible use in this contingency.

The US also has an interest in ensuring that the states in the area develop independently of external, particularly Soviet, influence. This requires, in the military sphere, that the US at least balance Soviet strength.

Lastly, the US has an interest in being able to influence events in the littoral nations, either to protect American citizens or to try to counter adverse internal shifts. This interest produces a military requirement for a visible capacity to project power ashore, including amphibious, tactical air, and shore bombardment capabilities.

In response to these requirements, the US maintains a small naval force in the Persian Gulf and, more importantly, deploys three or four task groups per year from the Seventh Fleet. Overall Western strength includes small British and relatively large French forces.


The Soviet Union has no interest in the Indian Ocean of comparable importance to the US interest in oil supplies. Perhaps its most important interest stems from its desire to demonstrate a global naval presence. More specifically, the area lies near the USSR’s southern border; through it runs an important sea route between European Russia and the Soviet Far East; and it figures in the USSR’s rivalry with China and close relationship with India, and its efforts to enhance its influence in the littoral states.

From these interests flow a Soviet military requirement to demonstrate presence and to be able to counter US forces. In response to this requirement, the USSR maintains a continuous naval presence, mainly in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean.

C. Trends in Capabilities

Neither the US nor the USSR has been expanding its naval force in the Indian Ocean in the last few years. Both are modernizing their navies and, as part of that process, reducing the total of combatants. Because of higher priorities elsewhere, neither is likely to increase its deployments in the Indian Ocean, unless the situation changes. One development that could substantially affect the relative military balance in the near future would be the basing of Soviet long-range strike aircraft in Somalia; up to now such aircraft have been sent to the Indian Ocean only infrequently, and only from home bases in the USSR. Basing these aircraft in Somalia would substantially increase the USSR’s ability to conduct military operations in the area. Another possible change is [Page 359] US deployment of ballistic missile submarines to the Indian Ocean, an option that the US has held open but not exercised, since such deployment has thus far been considered of marginal value.

II. Objectives and Risks of Arms Control

The objectives and risks to the US of Indian Ocean arms control arrangements will depend greatly, of course, on the specific terms of those arrangements which might range from a freeze through partial limitations to demilitarization. In general, however, the following objectives and risks are involved.

A. Possible Objectives

—to ensure against a US-Soviet arms race in the region. The likelihood of such a race is not high, but even a freeze could block the deployment of Soviet strike aircraft to Somali bases. An agreement that excluded submarines would be militarily useful in keeping out Soviet attack submarines, although it would foreclose the option of US SSBN deployments, and verification problems would be severe.

—to reduce the chances of a direct military confrontation with the USSR, which is unlikely but not impossible.

—to block or impede future Soviet possibilities of acquiring bases or rights to facilities, e.g. in Mozambique (see map for facilities now used by the US and the USSR).2

—to contribute to the general US goal of arms control and reduction.

An agreement would please certain littoral states that want to constrain or exclude superpower presence. India in particular professes this view, probably because it would see its relative power enhanced thereby.

B. Risks

The most important risk of arms control arrangements is that, depending on the degree of limitation, they would tend to reduce or eliminate US military capabilities to bring military power to bear in situations where vital national interests are involved. Chief among these interests is oil supplies, which could be threatened by a producer embargo, third parties, or, less likely, Soviet action. A less critical but more probable case would be the protection of US nationals or property within any of the countries in the area, e.g. Uganda, from hostile actions by the local government or terrorist groups. For these purposes, the US now has capabilities not only for combat at sea but also for the projection of power ashore; the USSR presently lacks the latter capabil[Page 360]ity. Even if arms control arrangements included an escape clause, they would still increase the political obstacles to our threatened or actual use of force in any but the gravest of crises.

Arms control in the Indian Ocean might also give the impression of a US withdrawal of interest and commitment from Asia and Africa, supplementing in this respect impressions created by the US withdrawal from Vietnam, withdrawal of ground forces from South Korea, and inaction in Angola. This perception would dismay certain littoral states that look to the US for support or understanding, such as Australia, Pakistan, the Gulf states, and South Africa.

Such arrangements might set troublesome precedents concerning freedom of the seas and arms control in more vital areas like the Mediterranean.

In general, these factors suggest that, given the disparity of interests and capabilities, a Soviet-US arrangement based on parity would have an unequal impact. The US and Western need for secure access to oil is so tangible and crucial that reductions in military capabilities would put a vital Western interest at risk to a degree not paralleled on the Soviet side. These effects would increase with the severity of the arms control constraints. In addition, the analysis suggests that many of the objectives are political in nature and could be served, in some degree, by limited measures, whereas many of the risks are military in nature and would be least if these measures were limited. Furthermore, arms control in the Indian Ocean would have little or no effect upon the major Soviet instrument for advancing its interests in littoral states, namely, military assistance to revolutionary movements or communist-leaning governments.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files, FRC 330–80–0017, Indian Ocean 092 (Jan–Jul) 1977, 2. Secret. Turner sent the memorandum to Dayan under a May 26 covering memorandum. In it, Turner noted: “At the SCC meeting on PRM/NSC–25 on 4 May, I undertook to provide a further assessment of risks for the President’s consideration. Here it is.”
  2. Not found.