How US Navy’s Presence Is Growing In Indian Ocean
The U.S. Navy was officially founded as the Continental Navy 240 years ago, on October 13, 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. Since its inception, the U.S. Navy has been involved in the Atlantic Ocean. Later on, its operations spread to the Pacific as the United States expanded. However, a topic that has interested me lately is the history of the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean, which is not as well known as its exploits in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. This is despite the recent heavy American military involvement in areas of the Middle East and South Asia near or on the Indian Ocean littoral.
As noted by Robert Kaplan and many others, the Indian Ocean littoral is pivotal to the 21st century. This is but the re-emergence of a previous pattern that lasted until European colonialism, where the main corridor of world trade routes passed through the Indian Ocean. Today too, many global trade and energy routes pass through the Indian Ocean, and go either to some place along the littoral or on to Eastern Asia. Some of the contemporary world’s bloodiest conflicts are near this littoral, necessitating an American naval presence. Yet despite this fact, the Indian Ocean is part of the operating areas of three separate U.S. fleets. Two of these, the 6th and 7th also operate in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans respectively; only the 5th, based in Bahrain, whose area of operations encompasses the southern coast of the Middle East, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa, is a fully Indian Ocean fleet. This is the legacy of a navy that has historically been oriented toward the United States’ own shores.
Through the 19th and first part of the 20th century, the Indian Ocean was essentially a British lake. Not only did the British control India, they controlled the various choke-points around the ocean to secure the sea lanes to their most valuable colony: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Aden (Bab-al-Mandab), the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca. American naval presence in or near the ocean was minimal, despite the acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 and increased involvement in the western Pacific. During World War I, the United States did not even declare war on the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. did not even have ambassadorial relations with Iranuntil 1944, after the 1943 Tehran Conference during World War II.
American involvement in the Indian Ocean grew substantially during and after the Second World War. Eventually the United States became the main guarantor of safety on the high seas in the Indian Ocean, especially after the British withdrawal from “east of Suez” in 1971. During World War II, hundreds of American advisers were stationed in India. More importantly for the future of the region, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped in the Suez Canal on his way back from the Yalta Conference in February 1945. There, he famously met the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud on a ship. The king had several sheepbrought on board the ship, slaughtered, and roasted for the American crew while security for oil guarantees were discussed by the relevant parties.