24. Memorandum From Gary Sick and Fritz Ermarth of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • PRCs on Middle East/Persian Gulf (U)

On 202 and 213 June the PRC will meet under Vance’s and Brown’s chairmanship, respectively, to discuss foreign policy and military strategy for security in the Middle East/Persian Gulf area. These meetings follow the SCC of 11 May (Summary of Conclusions and Minutes at Tab A).4 (S)

These meetings should revolve around three papers tasked to State (Tab B),5 DOD (Tab C),6 and the DCI (Tab D).7 Nevertheless you can expect Cy and Harold to deliver their personal perspective as they conduct the meetings. The State paper is inconclusive and provides little basis for decision. The DOD paper describes various dimensions [Page 79] of relevant US military capabilities and compares several options for increasing US military presence. Harold is reported by his staff to be readying a recommendation for increased US presence which he will deliver at the meeting. (S)

Underlying the DOD effort is a sense of acute anxiety based on a perception of vulnerability: US interests in the area are extremely vital; the potential threats to them are immediate and powerful; US capabilities in the area, under stress, are very weak. This sense of anxiety and vulnerability is not present in State’s contribution. (S)

Main Issues

1. A Political Strategy for the Region

State’s paper is aimed at discounting the need for increases in US permanent military presence. While surveying regional politics, it fails to address the fundamentals of diplomatic strategy and political priority, which was one of the PRC’s intended purposes. State argues that the quest for a just and comprehensive peace must continue to have the highest priority in US regional policy. Other policy issues are neglected, e.g., how far should we go to respond to Egypt’s evident desire for a tight US-Egyptian security tie? What emphasis should we give to Syria and Iraq in combating the post-peace backlash? How do we get on with the Saudis? (S)

2. The Need for Increased Military Presence

This is the key issue in both meetings and all three papers. All parties reflect awareness of great political pressure for increased US deployments, and seem to agree that a modest increase is advisable. State and CIA clearly go to great lengths, however, to stress the penalties of adverse local reaction and the case for great moderation. State prefers to rely on a capacity to surge forces into the area in time of crisis. (S)

Part of the problem is that the “we want you to be strong but not here” syndrome so evident in the area is easy to cite against any change in US deployment patterns. Nationalist objections to US power are more easily documented than fears about its erosion! Therefore, the potential benefits from increased presence in terms of respect, confidence, and self-confidence are not easily measured. (S)

There is a “catch 22” danger in attempting to assess the advisability of increased US presence in terms of local attitudes. Radical nationalists will never favor it. Our friends fear that US presence will provoke trouble for them from which we will retreat, leaving them in the lurch. Inadequately examined is the likelihood that demonstrated US commitment will breed confidence in and tolerance of US power, or that, ultimately, capacity to defend our interests rather than local good will might be the best test of our policy. (S)

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The DOD paper cites several military benefits from increased presence: Deterrence and quick reaction, ability to cover intervention forces, and acquiring local operating experience. All three factors argue against regarding surge-intervention forces as a total substitute for local combat presence. (S)

3. Military Presence Options

The DOD paper develops three options for configuring US military presence in the near term:

1) the status quo (prior to the surge of Spring this year);

2) a moderate increase through adding several permanent combatants to MIDEAST Force and upgrading rotational deployments; and

3) near-continuous presence without increased carrier deployments (to avoid dramatic reduction of commitments elsewhere).

A fourth, long-term option would keep a carrier capability in the area at all times. It would require reduced commitments elsewhere, raised force levels, or home porting US forces in the area. Table 1 presents options. (S)

As a practical matter, any near-term US force increase must be in the neighborhood of Option 2, which raises the average level and quality of US forces in the area. Even the near-continuous deployment called for in Option 3 would significantly strain our resources and would draw down capabilities in the Pacific and/or Mediterranean. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force called for in Options 2 and 3 has not been adequately defined and needs further staffing in terms of its effect on available resources. Note that the generalized option put forward by State (p. 14 of Tab A)8 is generally consistent with DOD’s Option 2. (S)

DOD elements are reportedly agreed to advise that Harold recommend an increased US presence. A “majority” (JCS, PA&E, OSD/Policy) stand behind four major naval deployments a year (where “major” is defined as a carrier group, a marine unit, or a surface combat group plus tacair). ISA reportedly wants something more modest. (S)

4. Other Aspects of US Military Capability

Both State and DOD see great importance to US military activity other than combatant presence in promoting US interests. These other measures are of two types: arms transfers, training, and joint planning aid local self-defense capability. Prepositioning, basing, staging, over-flight, etc., enhance the capability for US intervention. (S)

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Despite the Iranian experience, US policy is still to promote capabilities for effective local self-defense. Most analyses indicate that a major threat in the area, e.g., Iraq attacks Saudi Arabia, or Soviet intervention, would require the introduction of US forces from outside the theater. US military presence is, therefore, a link—both for deterrence and escalation management—between local self-defense and introduction of US forces from outside the area. US forces on the scene, moreover, can cover the introduction of forces from without. (S)

Policy options relating to US military assistance and intervention are not systematically addressed in the DOD paper. But fundamental questions do arise for the PRC:

—How do we shape arms transfers to the area into a coherent policy?

—What bases and local infrastructure do we need for a meaningful intervention capability? How do we get them?

—Have we the sea and air lift and forces needed to meet local threats without jeopardizing NATO commitments?

These are questions of defense policy, posture, and budgets. Because of the strategic priority we assign to this region, near-term increases in US military presence will not allow us to avoid addressing them.

5. Indian Ocean Talks

Our Summit commitment “promptly” to explore resumption of the Indian Ocean talks is not inconsistent with a decision to support some version of Option 2. That option would change the quality of the US presence in the area to permit greater capability to conduct operations ashore. However, it would not greatly change the number of deployments to the region. Any change in our posture will, of course, be protested by the Soviets as inconsistent with the levels discussed with them in the earlier rounds of talks.9 Our initial discussion with the Soviets on this issue should start with the assertion that the situation in the region has changed, to a considerable degree as a result of Soviet behavior, and that future talks will have to take into account those changed circumstances. (S)

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Maintain Previous Permanent Presence/Deployment Pattern Moderate Increase in Presence Near Continuous US Presence without More Carrier Deployments Continuous Major Presence
Force Elements in Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf area
  • 1. MIDEAST Force (3 surface ships)
  • 2. 3–6 ASW patrol a/c flying from Diego Garcia.
  • 3. 3 task group deployments each year (alternating CVBG/SCTG)
Option 1 force elements plus some combination of:
  • 1. 2–3 more surface ships
  • 2. Alternate CVBG/MAGTF deployments vice SCTG.
  • 3. Deploy periodically land-based TACAIR, AWACs, etc.
Option 1 force elements plus:
  • 1. 5–6 CVBG/MAGTF deployments each year (220–300 days/yr.)
  • 2. land-based TACAIR deployed on routine basis.
Option 1 force elements plus:
  • 1. Continuous IO/PG deployment of a CVBG or MAGTF (300–360 days/yr.)
  • 2. Land-based TACAIR routinely deployed.
Quick Reaction Capability to Minor Contingencies Ashore Extremely limited, except when CVBG is present. No ground force capability. Adequate if CVBG/MAGTF are deployed, otherwise only show of force. Adequate when CVBG/MAGTF deployed. Adequate
Support for Large Force in Moderate Contingency Ashore Same Same Same Adequate
Capability in Serious Crisis (Iran vs. Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait, etc.) Same Very limited. Initial air strikes and retire from battle area. Limited. With land-based MAGTF capable of short duration, small scale actions ashore. Limited. MAGTF would require TACAIR support to sustain ground action beyond a few hours/days.
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Surface Combatant Task Group (SCTG)— Approximately 3 to 5 surface warships, at least one being a cruiser, the remainder being a mix of guided missile destroyers (DDG) and frigates (FFG).
Carrier Battle Group (CVBG)— This is a grouping of approximately 10 ships including: a carrier (conventional or nuclear); 7 surface combatants (one cruiser, 5–6 guided missile destroyers and frigates); and two replenishment ships. Occasionally a nuclear attack submarine might be assigned in direct support of the battle group.
Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)— Not precisely defined. The term is loosely used to refer at a minimum to a Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) with transport helicopters (Defense calls the helicopters “organic air”). A MAU will have approximately 1800 combat Marines with 400 support troops transported in 4–5 amphibious ships. TACAIR is not ordinarily included as part of a MAU, but Defense has been giving serious thought to having 6–12 V/STOL Marine “jump jets” in any Indian Ocean MAGTF. Protection for the MAGTF’s ships would have to be provided by the destroyers of the MIDEAST FORCE.
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Outcomes, Your Objectives

Although you do not have control of these meetings, you should have some chance to steer them toward several salient conclusions: If we could get the following into the record, the process could be counted a sterling success:

1. We recognize that the Persian Gulf region has become a region ranking barely behind Northeast Asia and Europe in strategic importance. A serious military threat to this region could easily coincidewith severe tension in Europe. Our overall defense planning, budgets, and arms transfer policies must adjust more realistically to these propositions. (S)

2. We are agreed that US military presence in the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf area should be increased on the order of DOD’s Option 2 and the option outlined by State. We can remain flexible on the details so long as the principle is clearly established. (S)

3. We need a more coherent statement as to how we are planning to balance the competing priorities to our Middle East diplomacy: The peace process, amity with the moderates, new openings to some of the radicals, growing security collaboration with Egypt, and our traditional ties with Israel. (S)

If consensus appears within grasp, then it might be appropriate to propose that the NSC draft for circulation a Presidential Directive covering these points. Admittedly hard policy on all three points will require more work. But devoting that work to a PD would be more fruitful than more PRCs or a formal PRM. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, Donated Historical Material, Papers of Walter F. Mondale, Policy Review Committee (PRC)/Special Coordinating Committee (SCC) Meeting, Box 98, PRC Meeting on Persian Gulf/Middle East Security Issues, 6/21/1979. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. An unknown hand crossed out “20” and wrote “21” above it.
  3. An unknown hand crossed out “21” and wrote “22” above it.
  4. See Documents 23 and 192.
  5. Not attached and not printed. This paper was passed to the pertinent Department heads on June 15. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Defense/Security, Ermarth, Box 5, Middle East Security Planning: 5–6/19/79)
  6. Not attached and not printed. This paper was passed to the pertinent Department heads on June 13. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files, FRC 330–82–0205, Box 15, Middle East (17 May–13 June) 1979)
  7. Not attached and not found.
  8. An unknown hand crossed out the letter “A” and wrote the letter “B” underneath it.
  9. U.S.-Soviet talks on demilitarization of the Indian Ocean began in June 1977, but broke down in February 1978 after the Soviet intervention in the Horn of Africa. See Document 123.