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The Early Cold War (1946-1979)

The number of conflicts we found in the Indian Ocean between 1946 and 1979 was significantly less than in other years.  There were two reasons for this; one substantial and the other methodological.  The substantial reason revolves around the general lack of a great-power presence in the region until the very end of the 1970s.  After World War II, America left the security of the Indian Ocean to the British, who themselves were consumed with domestic commitments, a slagging economy, and the disintegration of their overseas colonies.  Even after the British withdrawal from the region between 1968 and 1971, the United States preferred to leave the Gulf's security to regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The methodological reason lies in the open-source nature of this project.  Because LexisNexis does not provide consistent news coverage for events occurring before the mid-1970s, we had to rely on a collection of historical accounts to fill in our entries. 

However, while the years between 1946 and 1979 were low in terms of absolute numbers of conflicts, they were nevertheless crucial in establishing the strategic environment which would affect the region for years to come.  For Britain, the events surrounding the Bombay mutiny in 1946 and the Suez Crisis in 1956 foreshadowed its decline as a world power, while paradoxically cementing its "special relationship" with the United States.  For the US, the 1970s saw the enlargement of its base at Diego Garcia, and the establishment of a permanent naval commitment to Persian Gulf Security.  For Iran, the 1979 Revolution set it in direct opposition not only to America, but to the Gulf States, Iraq, and the Soviet Union as well.  For India, its victories over Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars coupled with the 1971 sailing of the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal, ended its debate over the utility of a strong navy, ensuring that it remained a major regional naval power into the present day.

IO Naval Conflicts ‎(1946-1979)‎

During World War II, Japan’s ability to rout the British Royal Navy and force it to retreat to the Middle East not only threatened Britain’s supply lanes, but changed forever Britain’s role as the guardian of its friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, especially Australia.  After the war, America chose to focus on its Atlantic and Pacific alliances, leaving the responsibility of patrolling the Indian Ocean’s waterways to the British.  When Britain withdrew “East of the Suez” in 1971, Iran and Saudi Arabia assumed a greater role in providing security to the Gulf.  Due to its extensive military commitments in Vietnam, however, the US maintained little more than a token naval force in Bahrain, leaving what some have called a power vacuum in the region.1 This policy ultimately ran its course, however, when a combination of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, necessitated an increased US Naval commitment to the region, epitomized by the creation of the Rapid Joint Defense Force (RJDF) in 1979. 

Thus, the major conflicts in this era took place between India and Pakistan.  Following its humiliating defeat to China in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the Indians embarked on a major effort to upgrade and enlarge their military.  Although the Indian Navy played a significant role in the 1961 invasion of Goa, it was largely left out of the 1965 Indo-Pak War, and did not begin to receive significant funding until the latter half of the 1960s.  This increase was justified during the 1971 Indo-Pak war when the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikrant led the blockade of East Pakistan which essentially ended the war on December 16. The need for a strong navy was further reinforced by the United States decision to sail the USS Enterprise into the bay of Bengal as a show of solidarity to Pakistan.  The move sent shock waves through India, providing a lasting justification for something approaching a “blue water navy” which could provide a minimum of deterrence against a superpower incursion. 

1 Gause, Gregory.  “British and American Policies in the Persian Gulf (1968-1973).” Review of International Studies, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct., 1985).  Cambridge U.P., 1985.

IO Conflicts 1946-1979 Data

Nixon Center,
Oct 8, 2009, 1:22 PM