Inside the Middle East port that the US wants to host aircraft carriers as it pressures Iran

Sailors man the rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze as they sail into port in Duqm, November 26, 2016. US Navy/MCS 3rd Class Casey J. Hopkins
  • US Central Command is asking Congress for $US21 million to expand its logistics footprint at the port of Duqm in Oman.
  • Located outside the Persian Gulf, Duqm gives the US more capabilities in the region, including another port that aircraft carriers can use.
  • Duqm could also give the US an advantage in a burgeoning competition with China, which is expanding its influence around the world.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A year after the US clinched a deal with Oman to access facilities and ports in Duqm, US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, is asking for money to expand its operations there.

When the deal was stuck, US officials said it provided better access the Persian Gulf and reduced the need to sail through the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke point that Iran has threatened to block. US 5th Fleet, which is responsible for the region, is based in the Gulf on the island of Bahrain.

“The port itself is very attractive, and the geostrategic location is very attractive, again being outside the Strait of Hormuz,” a US official told Reuters at the time, adding that negotiations began under Obama.

In an unfunded priorities list submitted to lawmakers last month and obtained by Insider, Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie requested a total of $US371.8 million to “increase our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity, support countering unmanned aerial systems threats, provide for base defence and resiliency, and conduct inform and influence activities against malign state actors and their proxies.”

Of that money, which is not included in the proposed budget, $US21 million would go “to continue developing Duqm, Oman as the only fully capable and scalable logistics hub” outside the Gulf that can support the US military with “distribution for all classes of supply,” McKenzie wrote.

Below, you can see what goes on at Duqm and why the US is so keen to be there.

The US and Oman signed a “Strategic Framework Agreement” on March 24, 2019, allowing US forces to use the ports of Al Duqm and Salalah.

The Omani ports of Duqm and Salalah are strategically located just outside the Strait of Hormuz. Google Maps

The deal allowed Oman to advance its efforts to transform Duqm into an industrial hub and port centre and offered the US better positioning in the region amid a growing competition with China for influence all over the world.

The port at Duqm in Oman, August 22, 2017. Reuters

China has already set up its first overseas military base, billed as a logistics hub, in the East African country of Djibouti, not far from the US’s biggest base in Africa. Chinese firms at one point also planned to invest up to $US10.7 billion in Duqm for commercial development.

But at the time the US and Oman signed their deal, US officials told Reuters the Chinese didn’t appear to have done any work in the part of Duqm set aside for them.

Concerns about China notwithstanding, US officials framed the deal with Oman over Duqm as a success in its efforts with partners in the region against Iran.

Sailors man the rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze during sea and anchor detail in Duqm, November 29, 2016. US Navy/MCS 3rd Class Casey J. Hopkins

The US Embassy in Oman said at the time that the deal “reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals.”

“We used to operate on the assumption that we could just steam into the Gulf,” but “the quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns,” one US official told Reuters.

The port at Duqm is also large enough to host aircraft carriers.

Amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima moored in Duqm, March 30, 2015. US Navy/Seaman Magen F. Weatherwax

In January, aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy made their first port visit at Duqm while transiting through the 5th Fleet area of responsibility.

USS Normandy, right, approaches for replenishment-at-sea as MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters carry cargo from the fast combat support ship USNS Supply, middle, to the Truman, left, in the Arabian Sea, January 15, 2020. US Navy/MCS 2nd Class Michael H. Lehman

Personnel from Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Centre Bahrain travelled to Duqm to help offload cargo, including 6,000 pounds of mail and flu vaccines for the Normandy. They also found lost baggage for a service member who travelled commercially to meet the Truman.

US Marine Corps Lt. Col. Scott Westerfield, US Navy-US Marine Corps attaché at the US Embassy in Oman, briefs US Army Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett, commander of US Army Central, in Duqm, July 25, 2018. US Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew S. Carroll

“Supporting a ship with 5,000-plus sailors can be a complex and challenging logistical evolution. It helps us at NAVSUP FLC Bahrain, as well as the ship’s company, to have personnel on site,” said Joshua Wells, a contracting officer with NAVSUP FLC Bahrain.

Sailors from amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall and Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit play a captain’s cup flag football game in Duqm, June 13, 2017. US Navy/MCS Jelani J. McRaeQuiles

Source: US Navy

The $US21 million requested by Central Command would “go to support waterfront operations, warehouse, boat maintenance, and ordnance facilities and activities for all three Service Components,” the unfunded priorities letter says.

Amphibious dock landing ship USS Oak Hill in Duqm, February 3, 2020. US Navy/MCS 3rd Class Griffin Kersting

“Further development ensures Duqm supports a more efficient, flexible, and resilient [Central Command] posture with dispersed aerial- and sea-port of debarkation capabilities that mitigate movement constraints through strategic maritime chokepoints,” it adds.

Amphibious dock landing ship USS Oak Hill pulls into Duqm, February 3, 2020. US Navy/MCS 3rd Class Griffin Kersting

In addition to $US21 million for logistics upgrades, Central Command requested $US24.1 million for commercial equipment to secure Duqm and other facilities in the region.

Seaman Abraham Kankam, front, and Seaman Mensah Boadu heave a line aboard amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry in Duqm, August 12, 2019. US Navy/MCS 3rd Class Keypher Strombeck

“Many existing operating locations require additional equipment to accommodate theatre force re-posturing in response to Iranian aggression and counter-ISIS campaigns,” the letter says.

Attack submarine USS Boise leaves Duqm after a port visit, August 18, 2014. US Navy/MCS 2nd Class Daniel M. Young

In response to that demand, Central Command requested commercially available equipment to “protect against ground attacks, small-unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), and terrorist networks in high-threat environments.”

“This equipment provides Security Forces with critical explosive detection capabilities, ballistic gatehouses and towers, anti-vehicle barriers, portable small arms armories, and intrusion detection capabilities,” the letter says, adding that it takes about nine months from purchase to delivery of commercial-off-the-shelf equipment due to long lead times for some items.

“Emerging demand signals have depleted [force protection] equipment stockpiles and surpassed incremental funding capability,” the letter says.

An infusion of funding for fiscal year 2021, it adds, “will help alleviate equipment shortfalls that support future contingency operations.”