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The Indian Ocean and US Grand Strategy: Ensuring Access and Promoting Security

The Indian Ocean and US Grand Strategy: Ensuring Access and Promoting Security by Peter Dombrowski and Andrew C. Winner, editors, Georgetown University Press, 2014, 223 pp.

When most Americans consider the oceans of the world, most will point to either the Atlantic or the Pacific as critical to American national security. Given that they border the eastern and western coastlines of America, respectively, as well as American territories and protectorates, this is easily understandable. However, in the post-Cold War world, the Indian Ocean also starts to play a major role in American national security concerns. For an ocean that does not directly touch US territory, it plays a significant role in current American policy. In direct action, it is a vital logistical route, supplying American forces in the counterterrorism wars in the Middle East and South Asia. Additionally, the Indian Ocean is home to some of the key international economic supply routes (Suez Canal, Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca), thus, having significant ramifications on US policy.

Yet, there is the question of what role the United States should play in the Indian Ocean. This is a major challenge for American policy makers. The Indian Ocean region is both a location of significant geopolitical impacts and also one very isolated and alien to America. What to do and how to deal with the Indian Ocean? To try to address these and other questions, Peter Dombrowski and Andrew Winner complied a series of essays in this work. Each of the nine essays looks at the Indian Ocean problem from varying perspectives, offering varying means and recommendations for how the US government should deal with this region of the world.

The various authors take a varied approach when analyzing the Indian Ocean. Some, such as Walter Ladwig, advocate for a Nixon-esque "Vietnamization" of the region, whereby the United States provides resources and political backing, but not extensive military might, to key allies within the region (India, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia) so they can take the lead in providing security and stability in the region. Others, such as William Martel, call for more of a containment strategy, seeing the US role not so much as direct involvement within the Indian Ocean but more a strategy of keeping any intra-Indian Ocean disputes from spreading and enveloping powers outside the area. The remaining essays offer various proposals for some degree of US involvement, balancing military and political engagement within the limitations of geography and respect for national sovereignty.

A reader intending to take away a clear and definitive policy on how the US government should proceed within the Indian Ocean will be sorely disappointed. The intent of this compilation is to provide an overview of the issues facing the United States in the Indian Ocean and allow readers to decide for themselves which option or combination of options might work best for US interests within the Indian Ocean.

Where the Indian Ocean is concerned, there are no simple answers. This is readily apparent in reading through the essays in this work. US involvement in the region did not substantially increase until after the Cold War, and while America has had a significant presence in the region, it still lacks a deep understanding of the various dynamics within the region. Additionally, various transnational issues, such as terrorism, piracy and international criminal activity, further complicate activities within the region. The emergence of India and China as economic and military powers further complicate stability.

Another key factor addressed in this work is the uncertainty surrounding the current state of the US military. As the United States looks to draw down in the Middle East and South Asia, the logistics priorities for the area also diminish. While the United States may not be able to completely withdraw from the region, given the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its offshoots, the desire to reduce the US military footprint in the Indian Ocean will increase. Locations such as Diego Garcia, which served as a key airfield for US bomber operations during the key engagement following 9/11, have seen significant drawdowns in the past few years. Also, the increased uncertainty given budgetary concerns within the US armed forces leaves many wondering how critical is it for the United States to possess a strong presence in the region. Even if America desires a strong military presence, can it achieve that goal given resource constraints?

Overall, this compilation is best suited for those with a somewhat limited knowledge of the region and its various geopolitical and cultural dynamics. It will provide good overviews and some key insights but will not create an expert on the region nor provide the solid roadmap for solving the problem of what the United States should do in the future in the Indian Ocean. This work is best suited for generating thought and discussion for developing courses of action for policy makers and military planners. The reader will have to decide if any of the proposals have merit or if a totally new outlook is required. The Indian Ocean is no longer a backwater part of the globe as far as the United States is concerned, but what the future holds for US strategy in the region is a key and difficult question to answer.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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