123. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McGiffert) to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron)1


  • Implications of the Interagency Review of US Presence in the Middle East/Persian Gulf for Resumption of the Indian Ocean Arms Control Talks

When the Indian Ocean Arms Control negotiations were suspended indefinitely in February, 1978,2 the parties had agreed in principle to stabilize their respective naval presence in the Indian Ocean at the ‘levels of the recent past.’ Although the details had not been worked out, the proposed agreement would also place limits on deployments of land-based strike air to the littoral states and on the utilization of naval support facilities in the littoral states for other than routine port visits. In September, 1977 the US described its past presence in the Indian Ocean as: the three ship MIDEAST Force maintained in the area on a continuing, year-round basis; periodic deployment on a yearly basis of three task groups, at least one of which has included an aircraft carrier; and additionally, units of the US Navy occasionally enter the area enroute to making routine port calls in Australia.3

A series of events since September, 1977 have altered the strategic situation in the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf and have prompted a review of the level of US presence in the region which is necessary to maintain US influence and to protect US interests from military threats. In the past two years, the Soviets have sponsored Cuban surrogates in Ethiopia, engineered a coup in Afganistan, and have increased their influence in PDRY. US policy toward the region changed dramatically with the overthrow of the Shah. The US can no longer count on Iran to serve as a regional policeman. Moreover, the moderate Persian Gulf states criticized the US for failing to take action to support the Shah and expressed their concern that the US lacks the commitment and resolve to oppose Soviet inroads in the region. Finally, initially in response to the unrest in Iran and later to the PDRY invasion of the YAR, the US maintained an augmented naval presence in the region from October, 1978 to June, 1979.

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Given these changed circumstances and the dependence of the West on Persian Gulf oil, DoD is currently studying options for future US military presence in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.4 These options range from no change in the previous deployment pattern up to permanently deploying carrier or Marine task groups to the region. A key issue is whether a stabilization ceiling based on past deployment patterns is adequate to protect US interests in light of recent events. Under the three task force deployment per year pattern, the MIDEAST Force would be the only force which the US would have in the region to respond to contingencies for roughly half the year. The MIDEAST Force, however, has only limited capabilities to respond effectively to crises ashore. More importantly, the proposed ceiling would restrict US flexibility to surge forces into the region and to keep them there for the duration of a crisis. The Soviets, however, would still be able to threaten US interests in the littoral states through the use of arms transfers, subversion, and surrogate forces without violating the agreement.

The PRC on June 13 will center on the issue of what level of US military presence is required to protect US interests in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.5 This meeting may conclude that the US must increase its naval presence above past levels and that various measures should be taken to improve US capabilities to rapidly surge forces into the region. Obviously, a decision to increase US presence in the Indian Ocean would be inconsistent with the previous US negotiating position and the joint draft treaty. Such a decision would not necessarily terminate all prospects for an Indian Ocean Arms Control Agreement, but it would require that the US negotiating position be changed and that the stabilization ceilings be re-negotiated. The Soviets, however, may not be willing to accept fundamental changes to the proposed agreement. Moreover, the value of an agreement from the standpoint of arms control would diminish if the ceilings on routine presence were lifted and if caveats were introduced to permit forces to be surged into the area for prolonged periods.

Given the fact that no agreement has been reached within the US government on the desired level of US presence in the Indian Ocean, it would be premature to propose that the Indian Ocean talks be resumed immediately after the summit.6 An unconditional offer to resume negotiations would imply that the US were willing to take up the talks where they left off—that is, with a stabilization ceiling based on past presence. On the other hand, extending an offer to resume the negotia[Page 409]tions conditioned on a re-negotiation of the stabilization ceilings could alienate the Soviets and disrupt the summit. In any event, it would not appear to be in the US interest to agree to resume the negotiations until a decision is made concerning the nature and level of US presence which is required to protect US interests in light of the changed circumstances in the region. Although this issue will be addressed at the PRC on 13 June, a final decision on the matter probably will not be made until after the summit is concluded.

David E. McGiffert
Assistant Secretary of Defense
International Security Affairs
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 24, Indian Ocean: 4–9/79. Secret. An unknown hand wrote “DA has seen, send to staff for info” in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum.
  2. See Document 121.
  3. See Document 115.
  4. See Document 24.
  5. The PRC convened June 21–22 to discuss the defense of U.S. interests in the Middle East/Persian Gulf. See Document 26.
  6. Carter and Brezhnev met in Vienna June 16–18 to sign the SALT II treaty.