Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Navy And The War On Terror

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 Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts but there is much more that the Navy could be doing.

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 America and this is one vital way to do that.


  1. Your perspective is supported by several recent authors and speakers including CAPT David Allen, USN (Repeating Three Strategic Mistakes - Proceedings), LCDR Craig Allen, USCG (Five Enduring Lessons... - USNI Blog), and MAJ Trevor Howell, USMC (Wrong for Decades, Wrong for the Future - MC Gazette). Each author argues that their respective services must adapt to irregular and unconventional threats around the globe. Gen Odierno has also proposed transforming the Army by creating Regionally Aligned Forces that will advise, train, and support host nation forces. Lt Gen H. R. McMaster regularly criticizes conventional/technological warfare concepts, and Max Boot is correct that the US has engaged in far more savage wars of peace, than conventional conflicts.

    Despite all these arguments, I vehemently disagree that the US military should subjugate its conventional war fighting capability to develop a COIN/FID/UW/CT focused force.

    The US Navy's primary purpose is to first deter, and then should deterrence fail, defeat in depth any adversary at sea. Sea control - the ability to gain and maintain local or global maritime superiority, and to deny any enemy the same at the time and place of our choosing - is a vital national interest upon which our economic prosperity and military freedom of maneuver depend.

    Terrorists and pirates cannot challenge America's maritime power, however advancing conventional threats can credibly challenge our control of the sea, at least locally. For now.

    The US has a very well funded and capable intelligence community and counterterrorism capability. Many of these assets are provided by the Navy. US National Technical Means are unparalleled; there is no lack of intelligence collection capability. There is so much data that the problem is not collection, but rather processing - this isn't a manpower problem. HUMINT gaps are better addressed by the shadowy types than by traditional military or naval forces.

    SOCOM can conduct direct action missions with Tier 1 or Reapers virtually anywhere terrorists can find a foothold.

    America's savage wars of peace have more often than not than not been wars of choice. Post-Westphalian and Post-Colonial entropic conditions that enable groups like IS or Boko Haram exist all over the world, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those problems require an American military solution. There is certainly a middle ground between Lindbergh isolationism and our current interventionism. However, it seems that our war on terror is turning out to be a lot like a Chinese finger puzzle - the more effort we expend, the harder it is to get out.

    The US Navy must first be capable of securing American maritime superiority, after that it can be a global force for good. Be warned, if you think 80 Aegis, 40 subs, 12 carriers and airwings are expensive, consider how much it will cost to transform the Navy into a global Team America.

    1. TA, where to begin? For starters, you don't think I was arguing for a fundamental shift away from high end combat power, do you? I know you've followed my posts for some time and it should be obvious that I come down heavily on the conventional, high end warfare side of things. That said, the type of [relatively] small and simple vessels I'm suggesting for a counter-terrorism role would be a drop in the budget bucket especially combined with the type of force structure changes I've advocated. Foregoing a single Burke would fund a lot of such vessels and their crews.

      Regarding intel, my sense is that we don't really have good intel about potential terrorism in Africa, S. America, and Latin America, among other locations. I think the BH kidnappings took us by surprise, for example.

      You make a good point about processing intel data. I would extend that thought a bit further and suggest that the limiting factor is not processing, per se, but rather interpreting the data against the local "noise". Hence, my suggestion that we need local experts. To be fair, this may be exactly what you're suggesting.

      Finally, as I pointed out in the post, we have a real limitation when it comes to attacking terrorism in other countries, with a few notable exceptions. We need to rethink this.

      For what it's worth, I disagreed with most of Allen's Proceedings article!

      Very good comment!

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    1. B.Smitty, remember that intel doesn't just come from direct observation of the target. It comes from observation of secondary effects: the grocer placing an order over a phone for food for a remote camp of 40 men, for example, or citizens chattering about the strange group of men out in the country.

      While terrorists certainly operate within cities, they inevitably want to assemble in remote "training camps" which are susceptible to visual observation. Further, regardless of where they operate, they need supplies and weapons. The flow of weapons is relatively easy to detect and monitor.

      Regarding UAV combat radius, the Scan Eagle reportedly has a 24 hr endurance. That seems just fine to me for 98% of the needs.

      Regarding UAV survivability, if a potential terrorist (remember, the post is talking about monitoring future threats rather than combating active hot spots) shoots at a UAV then they have unequivocally revealed themselves and their intentions, thereby making it easy for us to assess and strike. Well worth the price of a Scan Eagle. By the way, a Scan Eagle is a very difficult target to see and harder to hit. It's quite small and without radar or advanced EO would be very hard for a low tech terrorist to spot.

      I see Navy based intel and UAVs as a very good anti-terrorist capability.

    2. B.Smitty, the surface ship intel effort I've described is limited only by imagination. How hard would it be to engineer a longer range comm link? How hard would it be to find or develop a slightly improved Scan Eagle. Heck, there's dozens of UAVs available for sale around the world. One of them undoubtedly has the range and comm needed for this role. Navair, by the way, is not part of what I'm describing. I'm describing a system of low end assets to do this monitoring.

      Don't pick at the small details (is the Scan Eagle the prefect choice). Look at the overall concept. You can agree or disagree with that but don't focus on the trivial.

      We have a need: unmonitored future terror threats. I've proposed a solution.


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