1973 US ready to seize oilfields
- BBC front page this NewYear's.
by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent
Oilfields: Essential to world economy
The United States considered using force to seize oil fields in the
Middle East during an oil embargo by Arab states in 1973, according
to British government documents just made public.
The papers, released under the 30-year-rule, show that the British
government took the threat so seriously that it drew up a detailed
assessment of what the Americans might do.
It was thought that US airborne troops would seize the oil
installations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and might even ask the
British to do the same in Abu Dhabi.
The episode shows how the security of oil supplies is always at the
forefront of governments' planning.
Warning from US
The British assessment was made after a warning from the then US
Defence Secretary James Schlesinger to the British Ambassador in
Washington Lord Cromer.
We estimate that the force required for the initial operation would
be of the order of two brigades
The ambassador quoted Mr Schlesinger as saying that "it was no longer
obvious to him that the United States could not use force."
The oil embargo was begun by Arab governments during the Yom Kippur
or October war between Israel and Egypt and Syria, which left Israel
in a strong position.
It was designed to put pressure on the West to get Israel to make
concessions. The embargo was aimed mainly at the United States but
many other countries were affected.
The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment said that the
seizure of the oil fields was "the possibility uppermost in American
thinking when they refer to the use of force; it has been reflected,
we believe, in their contingency planning."
This phrase indicates some knowledge of American plans.
Other possibilities, such as the replacement of Arab rulers by "more
amenable" leaders or a show of force by "gunboat diplomacy", are
rejected as unlikely.
The JIC believed that military action would take the form of an
airborne operation, possibly using bases in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus,
Iran (then a US ally) or Israel.
"We estimate that the force required for the initial operation would
be of the order of two brigades, one for the Saudi operation, one for
Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi," it said.
Two divisions would then be flown in but the report gives a warning
that the occupation might have to last 10 years. It would also
alienate the Arab world and provoke a confrontation with the Soviet
Union, though the JIC did not think that Moscow would use military
British role expected
There was a potential task for the British. The report speculates,
again perhaps with inside knowledge, that the US might want Britain
to capture the Abu Dhabi oilfields as some British officers were
seconded to the Abu Dhabi defence force.
"For this reason, the Americans might ask the UK to undertake this
particular operation," it says.
The prospect of the British military fighting seconded British
officers is not gone into.
The assessment reflects on the danger of action by Iraq, whose vice
president at the time was none other than Saddam Hussein.
"The greatest risk of such confrontation in the Gulf would probably
arise in Kuwait, where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be
tempted to intervene," it says.
It is made clear that the invasion would probably only be
contemplated if the situation in the region deteriorated to such an
extent that the oil embargo went on for a long time, threatening
western economies. This is called "the dark scenario."
In a follow up, a Foreign Office official noted: "Lord Carrington
[the defence secretary] has suggested that some discreet contingency
planning be put in hand"
In the event, there was no military action. The oil embargo faltered
and was ended a few months later. Israel and Egypt went on to sign a
I recently read that the Brutus field, in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico
(GOM), was producing only 35,000 b/d. It was supposed to peak at
100,000 b/d in 2002. Could someone give me a reference for the
35,000 b/d figure. I think I may have seen it as a note in a recent
issue of either World Oil or Oil & Gas Journal. I don't have either
journal easily available to me.
Sault Ste. Marie, MI