WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US military has failed to prepare a realistic "plan B" if political turmoil forces the closure of a vital naval base in Bahrain, a naval officer argues in a report.
The Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain is the most US important maritime base in the Middle East but senior officers have become complacent about its future, Commander Richard McDaniel asserts.
"Surprisingly, military leaders have no 'Plan B' if strategic access in Bahrain is jeopardized," McDaniel wrote, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
"Because of a strong desire to support the government of Bahrain, losing critical access is not currently being considered, and strategic basing alternatives are not being developed."
The loss of the base "could leave the United States without a key maritime base during a critical juncture of heightened tensions in the Middle East," wrote McDaniel, who cited interviews with unnamed US officers.
His report warns the United States was caught ill-prepared and off-guard by political upheavals in the past -- in Iran in 1979 and in the Philippines in 1991 -- which saw Washington lose access to crucial bases.
The author proposes the United States investigate alternatives in the Qatari capital Doha, where a large port is under construction, and in Shuabia, Kuwait, as well as ports in Oman.
Shifting the whole headquarters to ships at sea is also an alternative, he wrote, though it would be costly and problematic.
US defense officials and military officers dismissed the report, saying the the Pentagon regularly reviews contingency plans, particularly for pivotal bases.
"That's not the case," a senior defense official said of the report's claims. "We're always assessing the security situation," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Our relationships with the kingdom of Bahrain and other nations in the region remain strong," a US Navy officer, who also asked not to be named, told AFP.
"As in other parts of the world, we have a number of viable options to maintain a robust presence," the officer said.
Rights groups have accused the United States of failing to use its leverage from the naval base to persuade Bahrain's monarchy to address the grievances of protesters and ease a crackdown on dissent.
Since 2011, a Shiite-led uprising has demanded more rights from the ruling Sunni dynasty.