Archive for the 'Soft Power' Tag


The Struggle to Think

February 2015


While catching up on USNI posts from the past few months, the recurring themes of professionalism, education, and the need for more ideas and thoughts to move us forward jumped out from my monitor. It seemed appropriate to be reading about such topics upon emerging from the black hole of preparing for and—hallelujah—finally passing my PhD comprehensive exams. I failed my first attempt last September, so over the fall and winter I entered into full-blown hermit mode to pass it this second and last attempt. We are only allowed two attempts; failing twice kicks you out of the program, a somewhat common occurrence.

Given recent posts by Will Beasley and LT Misso and LTJG O’Keefe, this experience seems particularly relevant. My initial failure and subsequent furious hibernation would not be worth noting on a public site except for one thing: in my program, military members seem to struggle to pass the comprehensive exams while our civilian academic peers have not struggled to the same degree. Certainly civilian students fail at times, but their rate of failure is significantly lower than ours in my cohort. Anecdotally, servicemembers going through comparable PhD programs at separate institutions have experienced similar problems.

I was not surprised strictly by our failures; I was surprised by why we each failed. We didn’t fail due to comprehension or writing ability. Instead, uniformly, we each failed because we did not thoroughly own the literature. We did not question it at its depth and tear it apart to its roots. We did not question in it ways that existed outside of our comfort zones. Each of us fully absorbed the stuff and spit it back out along with some tepid critiques, but we fell far short of the standard expected along the way. Something about the way we learned and processed information in the services created a mindset that was fundamentally different from what was expected of us by our professors, kind of like “academics are from Mars, the military is from Venus.” While all students have to reset their way of thinking and start digging deeper inside their own brains to reach a different level, doing that as a 24-year-old right out of college is different than doing it as a 45-year-old post-command O6 who has been hard-wired to process information in a completely different manner.

One of my military peers at school thinks it’s not that we think differently, it’s that we have had to view the world as it is instead of how it is theorized to be, but I don’t buy that. Many of us began to study International Relations to understand more of the world as it is versus what we saw of it, and to that end this education has been quite a ride. Instead, I think we struggle because from day one in the military, we are expected to process large amounts of information and to live by that information. Seriously challenging convention is not something we regularly include in that process. Thinking critically, independently, and “outside the box” is given lip service (often only during PME studies), but at no point do I see it being actively, comprehensively encouraged through all aspects of our careers. The level of creativity currently desired is rarely hard to summon.

My worry is not that we are doomed to struggle to pass big exams, it’s what that signifies for how we as a force encourage thought, education, and analysis, and what this means for the future of the military. At no point in my career—ever—have I been expected to think, question, or analyze to the degree that I am now in school. When I checked into my first squadron, I was handed a stack of pubs. Over the next few months, I slept with those babies under my pillow at times, trying to absorb the information they contained into my puny brain. I wasn’t trying to learn it in order to improve upon it, challenge it, or turn it all on its head. I was trying to memorize it as quickly as possible so that I could advance in the squadron and do my job quickly and competently. I learned this mentality and applied it rigorously throughout the following years, which eventually brought me around to my comprehensive exam last fall, which I then failed. I failed the exam because my brain did not grasp where it truly needed to go.

That failure is a failure for so many of us, and I believe it indicates a failure for the military at large. Do we steer away from critical thought? Why, how, and at what point do we stop encouraging it? Is it unconscious? Automatic? And what can we do about it? Why did officers in my program struggle so uniformly? Is this because by the time we reach the ten-year mark or more, we have largely been trained to think and process info in similar ways? In the execution of our duties, do we soak in information as fast as we can, hit the pertinent parts with a highlighter, and move on? That’s what each of us did on the comprehensive exam: we took the key points, made bland yet reasonable arguments with them, and thought we had done well. Rereading my answers from this past exam, I saw no glaring problems at first. I had answered the questions on the surface. But those answers weren’t enough. I had to question the basic accepted standards of each theory, each hypothesis, and each assumption. I had to make a convincing argument that master theoreticians were wrong in ways I had never thought possible, and I was wholly unprepared to do so.

Training our brains to think in a new way is not impossible, but it’s tough when you’ve trained for years to think differently, sometimes under life-or-death stakes. Yet more than ever before, we need challenging thinkers and writers in the services at every level. The level of comprehension and analysis I needed to develop to pass my comp was far beyond anything I’ve attempted before, and nothing in the past two decades prepared me for it. However, it has been surprisingly fun and liberating, and it is making me better in other aspects of my life too. It’s changing the way I look at everything. I wish I’d started this program years earlier.

Given the complexities of our world, the need for stronger civil-military integration, and the budget realities we face, we need people who are not afraid to look at a problem upside down and see a new solution or a new path. Can we encourage and teach this in the military? PME schools can make a dent in developing how we think, but don’t approach the amount of “immersion” and reaction to established theory that the group in my program needed to summon.* Resident programs don’t reach enough people, non-resident programs aren’t intense enough to produce deep changes in the ways we think, and programs targeting senior officers and enlisted are too little too late. While we have existing programs to send servicemembers to higher education, I wish we did a much better job of encouraging younger Marines and Sailors to dig into the world from the start instead of waiting twenty years. We should encourage and want everyone to not just comprehend a problem, but to find its shortcomings, pick apart its vulnerabilities, and imagine other options. We don’t all need to graduate from Princeton and redefine counterinsurgency, but we should encourage creative thinking and new perspectives from the beginning. How? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but pushing critical thought via the written word is a start. I do wonder how the last 14 years would have looked with a more questioning, challenging military.

*It would be great to hear from anyone associated with a PME school here. Do you see similar problems among students? Different ones? Opposite experience?

On Monday on I argued that the United States should assist rebel groups in Libya by sending food aid. This option would allow the U.S. to provide much needed supplies to the rebels while avoiding direct military involvement in the conflict. Interestingly, yesterday The Washington Post reported that Europe and the United Sates were considering some very similar to my proposal. Now my ego would like to believe I played some role that (rumored) plan, but we all know governments do not move that fast.

If true — and at this point that is a big if — the next question is how can the US and other states deliver the aid. Luckily, the provisional capitol of the rebels, Benghazi, has decent port facilities. Last week HMS Cumberland and a World Food Program ship both used the port, although the latter aborted a previous attempt due to reports of air strikes in the area.

The question I pose to USNI readers is this: If the US Navy was called upon to delivery food and other aid to rebel controlled areas in Libya, what would be the best way to go about it?

Somehow during his tenure as SOUTHCOM commander, current EUCOM commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James G. Stavridis, found time to pen a 292 page book on the United States’ relationship with Central America (except Mexico), South America, and the Caribbean. The book was just published by NDU press and is available for free on their website.

Stavridis’ book, Partnership For The Americas, is not your typical command memoir; rather it reads more like a manifesto on the potential of soft power in US-South relations. His main takeaway point: “We are all in this together”.

The book covers a range of topics, from counter-narcotics operations to innovation in the Department of Defense, but of particular interest to me is the Admiral’s chapter on health engagement. Specifically, the role he argues medical diplomacy can play in a combatant command:

“It may seem at first incongruous for a combatant command, even one which strives to be as interagency-oriented and forward-leaning as U.S. Southern Command, to be engaged in efforts to improve public health. And perhaps it is, particularly if that is how our engagement efforts are expressed or viewed. If, however, we restructure our strategic approach and message to convey that we subscribe to the understanding that “public health” plays a vitally important role in maintaining long-term stability, then we can restate our strategic objectives more along the lines of removing and/or reducing health issues as a potential factor to increased likelihood of conflict. Thus, our continuing commitment to engaging in what some have termed “medical diplomacy” becomes inherently synchronized with our previously stated strategic goals to promote security, enhance stability, and allow for economic prosperity.” (Stavridis 2010, 140)

This is not something you would expect to read from a man occupying the same office as Eisenhower and Ridgway. However, Stavridis is absolutely correct. While the core competency of the American military will always be combat operations, there are a growing number areas where United States interests and goodwill can best be secured through soft power, including health diplomacy. In an ideal world these tasks would be the responsibility of USAID and the Department of State, but, to adapt a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: you advance US interests with the agencies you have, not the agencies you want. And if you can do so with hospital ships instead of gunboats, all the better.

In the last week there has been a fair bit online like Chris’s post below about what is being done with the Navy-USMC team now, and elsewhere about what is coming to help with the humanitarian effort in Pakistan. Soft power is a popular topic.

The Department of Defense announced Aug. 13 the deployment of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (KSG ARG) and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU).

The combined Navy and Marine Corps team will leave later this month to bring significant heavy- and medium-lift aircraft and other assets to support flood relief efforts in Pakistan. The Kearsarge ARG/26th MEU’s capabilities will allow sailors and Marines to provide food, water, transportation, and other support, in partnership with the Pakistani military, to those in need.

The group is expected to arrive in the Arabian Sea in late September.

It will be at least six weeks, at the earliest, until initial effects are seen on the ground, so let’s speak to each other as adults.

This effort has everything to do about INFO OPS and STRATCOM, and little about a meaningful contribution to saving lives. That is fine – the argument can be made that this may save lives down the road through impact on the human terrain; but that is an argument, not a fact.

Some people will be helped – but within a standard deviation of the lives that the medical facilities, food, and supplies brought with the ARG could save if it helped on any standard day in Pakistan. Those who have been to AfPac know that even on a good day there is a humanitarian problem that needs what the USN-USMC can bring over the horizon.

Also remember that Pakistan is an incredibly poor country of ~175 million souls. For the rest of the life of our republic, every ARG/MEU deployment could go to the coast of Pakistan, and every day you could read, “... civilians from the town of XXXX are gathered inside a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter which has come to deliver humanitarian assistance and pick up victims …

A nation could go broke and a military worn out attempting to fix what cannot be fixed in any sustainable way by an ARG/MEU.

That stated, the ability to conduct humanitarian assistance has a long and honorable history in the US military and has its place. Taking six-weeks to help people suffering from water-born disease and lack of medical care is a long time to “help” save lives. Most who are in danger of dying now will be dead by the time the ARG/MEU gets there. On the extreme margins, we can help a few – but is that “our” job to save every soul in danger across the world? A Pakistani whose village is much better off than the homeless refugees of Darfur who are walking among the uncounted dead. Where, and at what cost-point, do you say, “enough.” When do the actions of a Republic start to look like the duties of an Empire?

If we are to do this, then we should do it better. More pre-positioned capabilities would be nice – so would strategic lift capable LTA assets (don’t laugh at Lighter-Than-Air when it comes to moving more tonnage than a C-17, faster than a ship, deliverable almost anywhere in a permissive environment). We don’t have that asset because like Command Ships, they aren’t sexy and therefor don’t get funded – so we have what we have.

There is a more fundamental question though. Do we want to be able to do this within means and capabilities – which is what we are doing now – or as a primary mission area? If you want to make it a PMA, then you will need to fund it. Cost it out and tell me what you will trade to be able to do this …. and then make the argument of the actual good you will derive from it.

Remember, at best – this helps the INFO OPS/Strategic Messaging efforts. We are talking about Pakistan. The delta in lives saved vs. the control sample is not that great. Just know that you are not doing “good” here – you are at best trying to buy good will – but really, how much good will?

The counter argument – and one made coldly – has two parts:
– This is like watering the desert. You can pour gallons on water on the desert – but if you don’t continue to do it on a regular basis, you soon end up where you started. No green shoots; just sand and lost money.
– How much good will did our efforts in Somalia in the early ’90s or the Pakistani earthquake half a decade ago accrue? How is that working for us?

It is not a mature intellectual exercise to do things with blood and treasure just to make ourselves feel good. Theory is just that – theory – without metrics to back it up. Given the spotty track record of these things in the last couple of decades – and in a period where we must learn to be careful with our funding – besides nice photo-ops and feeling good about ourselves, what are we getting for our effort?

Japan’s neighbors have never been comfortable with the island nation’s quasi-Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). JMSDF is legally a civilian service, operating under the famous Article 9 of the Japan’s constitution requiring that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. But, JMSDF’s de jure status has done little to calm the fears of several nations in the region who have nervously watched every move by the small organization (officially JMSDF consists of only 46,000 personnel) since the JMSDF’s creation in the 1950s.

Recently, the legal limits on JMSDF have prompted some Japanese defense observers to argue for a turn to soft power. Now it looks like Japan might be doing exactly that. This month the United States sent one of its two hospital ships, USNS Mercy, on Operation Pacific Partnership 2010. This soft power cruise is just the latest instance of a new and growing mission for the Navy: health diplomacy. These humanitarian assistance operations started after the positive response to the Navy’s disaster relief mission after the Asian tsunami and gained an powerful advocate in current NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis when he was Commander of SOUTHCOM.

US health diplomacy cruises have always included personnel from ally countries. However, this year Japan has gone a step further, deploying a 13,000 ton Osumi flat-top warship to join the USNS Mercy during ports in Vietnam and Cambodia to support Pacific Partnership. The 584-foot ship, JMSDF LST 4003 Kunisaki, most closely comparable with the US Navy’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Kunisaki’s flat top allows for four helicopters (although some have claimed it was designed as a “pocket carrier”). Below, a well deck contains space for two hovercraft. Kunisaki’s deployment is, as far as I can tell, the one of the largest deployments of Japanese naval power to a foreign port since JMSDF’s creation. JMSDF port visits are uncommon in mainland Asia. In June 2008 a Japanese destroyer made the first port call in China by a Japanese warship since World War II.

Is Kunisaki’s port call the start of Japan’s soft power rising?

Somehow I missed this CSIS video on the future of the US Navy’s involvement in humanitarian and disaster relief operations. Participating is Gene Bonventre of CSIS (who I had the pleasure of meeting in September); Captain James Terbush, Commander Fourth Fleet; and Commander Bradley Hartgerink of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. CSIS has been on the leading edge of policy discussion on health diplomacy for the last few years, as evidenced in this video and more significantly the release a massive report on “Smart Global Health Policy” last week.

Against future irregular threats, cooperation is the name of the game. This is the message of a new Navy Vision [pdf] signed off by chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead in January. The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower highlights the unique position of the US Navy to “leverage access to the maritime domain and cooperate with partner navies and security forces to dissuade, deter, and defeat irregular threats at sea and ashore”. Specifically, the Vision argues for confronting irregular challenges with:

  1. “Increased effectiveness in stabilizing and strengthening regions, by securing and leveraging the maritime domain, with and in support of national and international partners.”
  2. “Enhanced regional awareness of activities and dynamics to include a deeper understanding of ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic characteristics and norms.”
  3. “Increased regional partner capacity for maritime security and domain awareness.”
  4. “Expanded coordination and interoperability with joint, interagency, and international partners.”

These objectives are spot on and follow my own thinking. However, probably the most important point is buried in the middle of the paragraph on the last page:

“[The Vision] recognizes the value of presence, of “being there,” to maintain adequate levels of security and awareness across the maritime domain, and restrain the destabilizing activities of non-state actors”.

Discussions of grand strategy and national security so often devolve into debates over hard power. Yet, however unsexy, the most powerful weapon is most often found in allies and relationships. Using the US military to train Brazilian medics or rebuild Nicaraguan health clinics is not about humanitarianism, it is about making friends and making friends stronger. In the domain of irregular threats, knowing whom to call can be more powerful than any weapon system. Call it Rolodex power, and more than any other branch, the Navy’s got it.

Crossposted on Conflict Health.

Five years ago, in days after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe–a piece that, with the Haiti disaster, remains a relevant cautionary tale today:

The tsunami response, being hailed as one of the biggest U.S. military disaster relief missions in history, has been less effective than portrayed. When a deployment of just 40 navy helicopters requires 6 days, more than 9,000 sailors and $7 billion of military equipment, something, somewhere, has gone wrong, reinforcing Rumsfeld’s belief that the United States needs better tools to project power in the strategically critical zone where land meets sea.

Ships made for controlling the high seas have little utility in crowded, shallow waters. The enormous aircraft carrier off Indonesia, the Abraham Lincoln, has little to offer. With a medical staff of 40 and 17 small helicopters, the floating airbase is a marginally useful asset for anything other than all-out warfare.

A group of three amphibious warfare ships in the arriving expeditionary strike group can do more. Their complement of about 23 large helicopters and landing craft will speed the distribution of fresh water, food and medical care to areas cut off by the tsunami. But three amphibious ships can’t cover 3,000 miles of affected coastline.

An underlying problem is strategic. America simply lacks a presence in shallow intertidal zones. Had fast-moving assets been nearby, the Bush administration, by getting firsthand information from the disaster zone, would have better understood the scope of the tragedy and avoided making an embarrassingly low initial aid offer of $15 million.

This diplomatic fiasco is reason enough to demand an immediate transformation of American military posture. But Rumsfeld’s vision of a future Navy isn’t perfect. He overlooks the mundane nonfighting aspects of present-day military power. That is a problem for two reasons. First, the United States has a long history of using the military for diplomatic and humanitarian gain. Second, it is often the military support system that does the most in furthering American aims…

With the Haiti earthquake, we’ll discover that a lot has changed in the space of five years.

Today, in the aftermath of this earthquake, the initial response will be enormous. Unlike the Indonesian Tsunami, our initial aid may end up becoming a long-term commitment–lest we wish to see a desperate human tsunami start out for the U.S. from a shattered Haiti. Help sent to Haiti, however, may also pull assets from Afghanistan, forcing policymakers into an ugly debate over the relative importance of the Western Hemisphere vs. Afghanistan and Iraq.

At present, prior commitments are taking a backseat to lending a needed hand. A whole raft of ships are heading to help. The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) may stop off at Mayport to become, largely, a helicopter carrier (populated with Army helicopters, perhaps?). Not only will this highlight the importance of having a second carrier-ready port on the East Coast (and, in the process, hand ADM John Harvey’s call for strategic homeportingsome extra “omph!”), this will give the Carl Vinson crew a chance to grab extra gear for the task ahead.

The USS Bataan (LHD-5), USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) and USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) are going to sea, and will likely prep for Haiti duties. Amphibs are the poor bloody infantry of disaster-response operations, and this deployment should be expected. That said, the USS Bataan is familiar with MV-22 “Osprey” operations, suggesting that the 24th MEU’s attached combat-ready MV-22 squadron may get it’s first real humanitarian/support to civil authorities mission. The ships with the 24th MEU may go as well, but we’ll see.

An Osprey deployment to Haiti will be high-profile test–an unexpected tasking, done under a full-bore media glare. It will likely not have the maintenance padding (the extra spare parts and private maintainers to allow for “aggressive sparing“) Ospreys enjoy on their overseas junkets. This is a real test. Now, to the Osprey’s benefit, this is low-altitude work in almost ideal conditions–and, as I’ve said before, a perfect way to demonstrate this platform’s effectiveness. If they go, expect to see the Osprey pressed into moving critically-injured foreign nationals from Haiti to Guantanamo for staging/stabilization and evacuation–a high-profile mission where speed is of the essence. (Might we see some of the first MV-22 operational landings on a U.S. aircraft carrier? I mean, in an emergency, anything might happen…)

Aviation, however, will be a sideshow (OK, an important sideshow). But the ports–and all the aid that will need to flow through them–are key. And the Coast Guard is already reporting that they’re damaged.

The earthquake’s havoc was challenging the ability to move supplies into the hardest hit areas, U.S. officials said. The damage threatened supply lines to the impoverished city and country, which relies in large part on ship-borne deliveries…

“The initial reports we are getting, it [the sea port] is very heavily damaged,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. “Jim” Watson IV, director of Atlantic area operations, said in an interview from Portsmouth, Va. “If the port is severely damaged, that makes it very, very difficult” to get relief supplies in.

This situation offers amphibious vessels–the ones with well decks–an opportunity to really strut their stuff–giving the Marines another high-profile means to demonstrate why their next-generation big-deck amphibs need their well-decks returned.

As far as harbor exploitation goes, the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) will likely have a hard time approaching a pier–meaning that her value as a large hospital will be reduced.

It’d be nice if the shallow-draft JHSVs were in service right now, but instead we’ll see if the former Hawaiian Superferries will be utilized or if the PCU Independence (LCS-2) gets orders to forgo commissioning and get underway for a mission. If the LCS-2 were sent, that’d be one heck of a familiarization cruise–but why not? Even if it just was to serve as a shuttle, what’s there to loose? Isn’t the LCS meant to be expendable? But, then again, the LCS-2 program office shouldn’t feel too bad…with the newly commissioned USS New York (LPD 21) stuck pier-side, the LCS-2 folks have some room to maneuver.

Will the local harbors need salvage expertise and resources? Will this disaster demonstrate our relative shortcomings in salvage assets? ADM Harvey may be right to worry about the utility of harbor infrastructure to blockade a port–but having a second port available won’t solve the problem. How would we be able to open a blocked U.S. port quickly–if we had to? Are we ready to do what we need to do–if we needed to do it? I don’t think so–and Norfolk isn’t the only problem, either.

We’re in the early stages of this thing–and we’re only looking at some initial signs and indications with this blogpost. I mean, in a few days we’ll probably be cheering as Navy Seabees start clearing blocked roads. There are a lot of ways this post-disaster situation may evolve. But, right here, right now, we’ve got an eerie warning of the future world–full of weak states crumbling under the blows of an unexpected natural disaster.

Read more at NEXTNAVY.COM

Interest in sea-based health diplomacy is growing. Admiral Stavridis, SOUTHCOM commander and fellow USNI blogger recently argued for the creation of Navy Humanitarian Service Groups to project US smart-power abroad:

“What I am thinking about specifically is centering a group around a hospital ship and then including in that group several smaller ships that bring training capability with them”.

A major challenge with the type of mission Adm. Stavridis is suggesting is logistical: getting patients to the hospital or vice versa. The US Navy’s only two hospital ships are ill equipped for this task. Converted supertankers, both have deep drafts, no well decks, and limited airlift capabilities.

The ideal ship would be the LPD-17, which has a well deck, significant on board airlift capability, and a shallower draft. In fact, the LPD-17 forms the center of Navy Commander Henry Hendrix’ proposed Influence Squadrons. Augmented with a module akin to a field hospital, the LPD-17 could provide a flexible platform for disaster relief and health diplomacy.

Some question the feasibility of operating a field hospital on board transport ships. These critics contend that field hospitals require significant resources (power and water) and supplying adequate amounts onboard would be impossible. However, more than a decade ago the Chinese designed a system to do just that.

Ship 865. Credit:

Ship 865. Credit:

In the mid-90s PLAN developed a “ship-used medical module system” consisting of a series of interconnected shipping containers (similar to many modern field hospitals). The system allows cargo vessels to be employed as hospital ships. China’s little known Ship 865 (pictured) is an example of the medical module system in action, providing a medical facility, landing pad, and even an air control tower.

While the exact capabilities of Ship 865 and PLAN’s medical module system are not known, they provide a meaningful proof of concept. A Navy medical module, combined with the LPD-17, offers the capability and flexibility needed in future humanitarian missions.

Thought these might be of interest to you…


CAPT John Larnerd, MSC, USN, Executive Officer of the Medical Treatment Facility onboard USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20) blogs about the travels and adventures of the USNS COMFORT Hospital Ship as it participates in Continuing Promise ’09, a humanitarian/civic assistance mission to seven countries throughout the Carribean, Central and South America.

Pacific Partnership

Pacific Partnership 2009 will deliver Humanitarian civic action missions from USNS Richard E. Byrd, an underway replenishment ship, to the Oceanic nations of Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga.
Dr. Andy Baldwin is a military physician assigned to the USNS COMFORT. Excellent blog about the medical activities onboard COMFORT.
Got any others you would like to share?

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Soft Power | 2 Comments
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