Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates commemorated a historic date in U.S. Navy history -- Pearl Harbor Day -- at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command headquarters. He got a detailed briefing about the command's operations and how they're helping to maintain security and keep the sea lanes flowing.
Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of NAVCENT Combined Maritime Forces and U.S. 5th Fleet
, briefed the secretary on the command's operations, which cover 2.5 million square miles of international waters in U.S. Central Command's area of operations.
Each day, more than 10,000 vessels transit the territory, which includes about 80 percent of the global energy reserves. About 45 percent of the world's oil passes through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Keeping these regional waterways open and safe is the heart of the NAVCENT mission and the focus of Gates' briefing here, senior officials told reporters. It's a mission they said has not only regional, but also international implications, particularly in light of Iran's stated threat to close the Strait of Hormuz -- the entrance to the Persian Gulf -- and the huge setback a terrorist attack on Iraq's offshore oil platforms would
pose to the country's economy.
Cosgriff described how U.S. naval forces here partner with ships from the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Pakistan to preserve unfettered use of the waterways and deny them to terrorists.
"No one nation can do this on their own," a senior Coalition Force Maritime Component official told reporters traveling with the secretary. "It's a collaborative effort."
These maritime security operations ensure the security of Iraq's two offshore oil platforms, which provide as much as 85 to 90 percent of the country's gross domestic product, the official explained. In addition to conducting regular patrols to ensure al Qaeda doesn't get the opportunity to target the platforms, NAVCENT is training the Iraqi navy to build its own defense capabilities.
Of particular concern is Iran, a growing threat to the region that's building its navy and Revolutionary Guard to become more capable forces. "I wake up thinking about Iran. I go to bed thinking about Iran," another senior official said.
One of the greatest threats Iran's naval forces could
pose would be to follow through on the country's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping. A senior official here told reporters it's unlikely Iran would attempt such a measure any time soon, but that the rhetoric alone has a destabilizing effect.
"It's coercive, intended to intimidate the global market," he said. "I just don't think it's responsible behavior."
The official had similar views about an incident earlier this year when Iranian forces seized 15 British sailors during a routine search operation in the Persian Gulf's Shatt al Arab waterway. "You don't detain somebody in the international waters of your neighbor," an official said, calling it "an illegal act."
While recognizing the importance of checking Iranian aggression, a senior official emphasized that the coalition operating here "is not about Iran," but rather the broader security interests of the region. "The collaborative nature of what we do, from a coalition perspective, I see as enduring," he said.
As NAVCENT forces ensure security of the waterways, they're expanding in two additional areas: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
In one recent example, USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship that was operating here, rushed from the region to provided humanitarian relief in Bangladesh following a devastating late-November cyclone. Kearsarge and its crew are now making the 3,000-mile return trip here.
These types of missions provide desperately needed assistance and go a long way in helping "de-demonize the West" in the eyes of the world, the official said.
The mission falls directly in line with the U.S. chief of naval operations' new cooperative sea power strategy
, released in October, that emphasizes binding all U.S. maritime services more closely to advance America's prosperity and security through both military and non-military means.
"Having credible combat power forward and concentrating it in the regions where the U.S. has enduring vital interest is at the heart of our new strategy
," an official said today. "And at the heart of that is, it's far better to prevent a war than fight one."
Before attending today's briefing, Gates took time in front of the NAVCENT headquarters to present a Joint Service Commendation Medal to Marine Gunnery Sgt. Dennis Malin, a 17-year Marine who has served in the defense attache's office at the U.S. Embassy here for about five years.
"It's awesome. It's great," Malin said of receiving his award from the defense secretary. "This is fantastic."
"I'm so happy for him. He works so hard," Malin's wife, Megan, said before posing for photos with her husband and Gates following the short ceremony.