America should re-envision the Eastern Med as a multi-theater power-projection platform
Driven by rising great power competition with China and Russia, the Biden administration is conducting a global force posture review, which, as the Pentagon describes it, involves putting “the correct number of troops in the correct places.” This entails difficult trade-offs to allocate limited resources among competing objectives, especially as Washington must also deal with uncertainties about future defense spending and the value of U.S. commitments post-Afghanistan.
No silver bullet solves this problem, yet Washington can kill multiple birds with one stone. As a new report from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America explains, the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly offers unique strategic opportunities to bolster U.S. forward presence; move forces quickly and efficiently into neighboring regions; and reassure partners without breaking the bank, creating new power vacuums or pulling focus from great power competition.
As the literal “sea between the lands,” the Eastern Mediterranean is a natural geostrategic link between Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For that same reason, it is becoming a crucial arena for expansionist forces seeking to undermine U.S. interests.
Most notably, Turkey’s transformation under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — from a reliable ally into an unpredictable, unilateral and interventionist actor — is playing out on all three continents and among the waters in between, where Ankara threatens peaceful development of some of the world’s largest recent energy finds by U.S. partners Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.
Great powers increasingly call the region home as well. Russia’s military bases in Syria and Libya, and the return of its naval forces to the Mediterranean, imperil NATO’s southeastern flank. By acquiring ownership stakes and operating rights for ports and other critical infrastructure, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding into the Eastern Mediterranean. Though not a great power, Iran is entrenching its militias, with their increasingly capable missiles and drones that can target shipping, along Lebanese and Syrian shores.
America’s current regional force posture struggles to address these challenges. The United States only home ports a single logistics ship in the region. And as the Pentagon refocuses on competing with China in the Indo-Pacific, U.S. presence is receding from hot spots adjacent to the Eastern Mediterranean. U.S. bases and troop levels are contracting in the Middle East and Africa, while doubts persist in the trans-Atlantic alliance and in Moscow about America’s concrete commitments to collective defense. These developments could create voids to be filled and fought over by great powers, Turkey, Iran and terrorist groups — and America’s allies are caught in the middle.
The United States can mitigate the problematic effects of this broader retrenchment and compensate for drawdowns in adjacent regions by re-envisioning the Eastern Mediterranean as a multi-theater power projection platform. This will require modest enhancement to U.S. force presence. From a few strategic locations in the region, U.S. ground, air and naval assets could rotate or rapidly deploy into nearby Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Greece is a particularly appealing location and partner. Its position at the region’s nexus, including its deep-water port at Souda Bay on Crete, is ideal for projecting power in all directions. Athens also enthusiastically supports America by being a regional security provider and diplomatic leader.
Having just signed an upgraded bilateral defense agreement, the United States should explore forward-deploying additional air wings and home porting two guided-missile destroyers — which are currently in Spain — in Greece.
In addition to stationing more expeditionary and sealift capabilities at Souda Bay, Washington should boost rotational deployments through underutilized Greek bases like Alexandroupoli, which is well-suited for surging NATO forces into Eastern Europe. This could include littoral combat ships, amphibious command ships, guided-missile destroyers and cruisers, and dock-landing ships.
Paralleling Task Force 59 in Middle Eastern waters, U.S. 6th Fleet should use unmanned systems to strengthen America’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Congress can help Greece grow its complementary role to the United States. Based on provisions initially spelled out in 2019, lawmakers should ensure sustained and predictable amounts of foreign military financing, excess defense articles, and military education and training for Greece.
In tandem, the United States should deepen engagement with evolving diplomatic coalitions, which, while anchored in the Eastern Mediterranean, increasingly overlap with neighboring security architectures. Building on its participation in the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli “trilateral” forum, Washington should extend this “3+1″ model to other Greek-Cypriot trilaterals with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and India — and coordinate them with similar frameworks in the Indo-Pacific. Diplomacy should be underpinned by regular, expanded military exercises with these countries plus others with rising regional ties and roles, like France, Italy, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
By ensuring continued U.S. power projection even amid larger drawdowns and uncertainties, these steps can help simplify American strategists’ unenviable task of putting the correct number of troops in the correct places.
Eric Edelman is a former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy. Retired Gen. Charles Wald, who served as the deputy chief of U.S. European Command, co-chairs the Eastern Mediterranean Policy Project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, where Jonathan Ruhe is director of foreign policy.
Originally published in Defense News.
This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.