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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | Nov. 26, 2019

Transcript of Gen McKenzie’s remarks at the Manama Dialogue

Dr. Chipman, thanks for inviting me to speak on this panel. I am humbled to be in the company of Minister Kono and Minister Abdi as we discuss an issue of global importance and impact, not just for our nation but for all nations: maritime security in the Middle East. I would like to use my time here today to briefly address the US military posture in the Middle East and the possibilities that lie ahead, with regards to cooperation and collaboration between allies and partners.

The Middle East remains of vital national interest to the United States. The various waterways, including the strategic maritime choke points of the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz are major transit routes for energy and trade. The ability for commerce to travel these paths freely is vital, not just for the US, but for the global economy. Since the attacks on shipping in the Gulf began in May, insurance rates for oil tankers have increased by a factor of ten. These costs are passed along the entire value chain, so threats to safe transit in these waterways affects all nations, regardless of how much or little they import energy and regardless of where the threats emanate.

Our economies are globally connected; that is an undeniable fact. Ensuring freedom of navigation, especially in these vital areas of the maritime domain, is not only a necessity, but a global responsibility. The US military proudly accepts its role – its share of the task, if you will – in this activity. To be clear, we are uniquely suited and resourced to participate in many of these efforts with allies and partners around the world.

However, it is also a great big world and there is a lot of water to cover. Simply put, we do not have sufficient resources to be where we want to be in the right numbers all the time. Not too many years ago, we maintained a near-constant presence with an aircraft carrier battle group in close proximity to the Gulf in these key maritime choke points that I have identified. Today, we have positioned strategic assets globally to provide capabilities and deterrence against multiple adversaries and threats.

Although I will note that even as I speak to you today, about 120 miles northeast of here, the carrier strike group centered around the Abraham Lincoln is operating in the in the Arabian Gulf. As the US adjusts its posture to meet its global and my regional missions, an important element for us to consider is how we work with our partners to create flexible, scalable, sustainable approaches towards securing freedom of navigation. The Combined Maritime Forces multinational naval partnership, currently with 33 participating countries, provides an instructive example.

Various CMF taskforces have operated since 2001, successfully fighting terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and promoting a safe maritime environment. Membership and contributions by participants are flexible. While the US provides working facilities here in Bahrain, the day-to-day command of the taskforce rotates among member nations. As we sit here today, the United Kingdom, Kuwait and Jordan are leading Combined Taskforces 150, 151, and 152, respectively.

Another, albeit nascent in comparison, in-progress example of this approach to cooperative sea power is the International Maritime Security Construct. We put this together with member nations Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE and the UK. Working along with these international partners, we are helping to maintain freedom of navigation in and around the Strait of Hormuz by our presence, deterring malign actions, and lending attribution to those that do take place, regardless of the origin of the threat.

That is an important point to consider in this forum. Efforts like these are about supporting customary international law and the right of international innocent passage. They are not a preamble to conflict with any particular entity or nation. Some may disagree with me on this point, insisting that the IMSC is all about Iran, and I would tell them simply that they are wrong. Instead, it is about maintaining the freedom of navigation.

Yes, Iran has been hindering freedom of navigation in and around the Strait of Hormuz over the past few months. Merchant ships from several countries have been attacked or confiscated by Iran's military forces. Had Iran not undertaken those actions, had there been no threat to freedom of navigation, there might not have been a need for the IMSC. However, since it has been operational, none of these actions have occurred. That is an important fact worth considering.

Has the IMSC flooded the Gulf with US and partner naval vessels acting in a provocative manner? I do not believe so. In fact, I think, actually, the biggest key to the relative success of the IMSC partnership has not been the presence of armed naval vessels in the area, but instead the constant stare of reconnaissance assets.

The importance of attribution is worth mentioning in this context. The Iranian regime has conducted many non-attributable attacks in the past when they did not think anyone was looking. They prefer the darkness where their activities can be hidden. They do not do so well in the spotlight or daylight of full exposure and accountability. However, the value of having additional reconnaissance resources – things that can shine a spotlight on nefarious activities for all the world to see – is almost certainly having an effect.

A quick follow-on on deterrence. It is not a military concept. It is a diplomatic and a political construct. It obtains from the effect that demonstrated capabilities and will have on the mind of a potential opponent or potential adversary. However, whether it is Iran or some other nation, knowing that there is an international will to form these kinds of partnerships and the capabilities to document and expose those who violate international law, that does weigh in on the deterrence calculus.

I want to conclude my remarks on the point about being good partners and neighbors. Today, we are talking about maritime security in the Middle East. In the recent months, Iran has been the primary threat to that security. Now, I fully understand that our partners in the region cannot choose their neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and others, for those nations, Iran is their neighbor, like it or not.

Unfortunately, sometimes, the Iranian regime has proved itself to be the bully in the neighborhood. The only way to stand up to a bully is to do it together. As we and our partners in the region continue to work to provide security and stability, we must do so with the knowledge that we are stronger together. We must remember that our strategic strength rests mainly on the partnerships, the alliances, and the whole of government efforts that we bring to bear, together.

Resources will always be at a premium. Just as the US has to posture its military globally, we, at CENTCOM, are working with our partners to develop regional approaches. We do this together and we do this with the full knowledge and appreciation that each country, each nation has its own challenges with economic and social reforms. We need to look at defense from a regional perspective and bear those factors in mind.

Last month, I participated in a conference in Saudi Arabia that involved the Chiefs of Defense or their representatives from 18 nations from across the region in Europe. We discussed integrated air and missile defense, securing freedom of navigation, and other aspects of mutual cooperation, looking at how we could position assets across the region to provide the best defensive capabilities. It was a small step, but a good first step, made in good faith and with the best of intentions.

I will close with this. This is a tense and difficult time in the region. The best way to prepare for the difficult days ahead is to realize that we are stronger when we are together. Thank you very much.