As we contemplate the recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let’s take a moment and consider the Navy’s role in the global war on terrorism. Sure, the Navy has played its part in the
and Iraq conflicts but there is much more that the Navy could be doing. Afghanistan
One of the challenges in fighting terrorism is that it is amorphous. It can, and does, pop up anywhere that conditions and a lack of awareness on our part permit it. Closely tied to this is the cross-border, or unbordered(?), nature of terrorism. Terrorism respects no national boundaries which makes it difficult for countries that do respect national boundaries to combat it. Finally, and closely related to the preceding, is that fighting terrorism requires, more than anything, intelligence. We already have all the explosives we need. We don’t need another carrier or aircraft or missile. What we lack is intel.
What, then, can the Navy do to aid in this fight?
The Navy is in a unique position to provide worldwide, persistent intelligence collection. Virtually any submarine or surface vessel can be provided a fairly comprehensive signals collection capability for little cost or impact on the host vessel. Add to that the ability to operate UAVs from surface ships and the Navy is capable of performing very effective intelligence gathering without having to divert overworked national intelligence assets. The ability of a ship to maintain a persistent presence offers the advantage of familiarization. On-board analysts can acquire an intimate understanding of the local situation, norms, and deviations that may indicate actionable intelligence.
This is especially useful in areas that are not currently considered high level threats and which are, therefore, only sporadically checked by national intelligence assets. The entire continent of
Africa is a good example of a lower level threat that still warrants enhanced attention. South and Latin America are also examples. Basically, the entire world ought to be monitored and the Navy is in a unique position to offer a great deal of this capability in an affordable way.
Now, intel alone is not enough. Knowing that a terrorist camp is building in an African nation is good but pointless if we can’t or won’t act on it at an early stage. Again, the Navy is in a unique position to take action early on. This may range from Tomahawk strikes on known camps to inserting Special Ops forces. If these kinds of actions are taken early, terrorist groups can, at least, be kept disorganized and reeling. Of course, this requires the political will to violate the boundaries of other countries.
Respect for the sovereignty of other countries is a cornerstone of our geopolitical relations. Unfortunately, far too often, that simply provides terrorists a safe haven. We need to re-evaluate our policy on this. If we believe that terrorism is a threat to our own national interests – and the “global” war on terrorism is an implicit recognition of exactly that – and that threat is found to manifest itself in a country that can’t or won’t take effective action then we need to act directly. This type of action will benefit the subject country anyway unless they are active sponsors of terrorism in which case why should we care about their sovereignty? Again, the Navy is in a unique position to do this. The persistent nature of Naval vessels allows for the development of the type of in-depth local knowledge that is required for effective counter-terrorist actions.
It’s obvious, then, that the Navy could be far more active in the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the Navy’s emphasis on new construction of multi-billion dollar ships diverts attention and resources from the small and relatively simple types of assets needed for combating terrorism. The Navy should be building more patrol vessels with small UAV capability and intelligence gathering capability. In addition, trained analysts are needed at the local level.
There is no reason that a terrorist group in
Africa can’t be identified, monitored, and destroyed before they kidnap 200 girls, for example.
Having laid out this vision for the Navy’s counter terrorism activities, we have to ask the obvious question – is the Navy already doing this and simply not broadcasting it? Maybe they are. I hope they are. I suspect that they’re doing a bit of it but nowhere near the extent I’m suggesting. For instance, we know that the Navy simply doesn’t have the sheer number of ships to do this. We know they don’t have the number of UAVs. We know they don’t have the necessary analysts. And so on. The Navy has been desperately searching for a mission and a statement of relevance since the end of the Cold War. They’ve latched on to fictional ideas like littoral warfare in an effort to be relevant. They’re now pushing the Pacific Pivot as a way to justify budget. Well, the concept we’ve just discussed offers a real and highly useful function. The only drawback from the Navy’s perspective is that it doesn’t require more carriers – just simple vessels and unglamorous intelligence collection – but, so what? The Navy’s job is not to build carriers, it’s to protect
and this is one vital way to do that. America