I was disappointed when I read Thomas Ricks strategic assessment regarding the Navy’s approach to piracy. Tom is an astute observer of military strategy, and if he sees the pirate situation off Somalia as simply a way to take a cheap shot at the disaster called naval shipbuilding strategy, then I’m afraid nobody in the media may understand what is and has happened. I’d like to welcome Thomas Ricks to the blogosphere by suggesting that when it comes to maritime strategy as it relates to the issue of Somali piracy, he doesn’t appear to know what he is talking about. Thomas Ricks writes:

Better late that never to be going after the Somalia pirates. To me, this is a strategic issue. Keeping the sea lanes open, especially for oil, should be a top priority for the U.S. military. Instead we seemed to defer to the Indians, Chinese and others, letting them take the lead. The Navy may feel that all its special operators — the guys trained to board and take over ships — are busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, admiral, does that tell you that you probably need more ship boarders, and maybe fewer aircraft carriers or anti-missile systems? You think maybe?

I noted that Yankee Sailor left a comment on the thread. I’m betting Thomas Ricks has no idea who Yankee Sailor is, nor why Yankee Sailor’s opinion is more informed. We know better. I have a lot of problems with the assessment Tom is making here, starting with what the top priority for the US military should be. If the top priority of the US military, including the Navy, isn’t winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, then something is wrong. There is a reason why there are more sailors deployed on land in the CENTCOM area of operations than at sea, and that reason is absolutely valid.

This is a strategic issue as Tom contends, but with the assertion of “better late than never” and the suggestion that “Indians, Chinese and others” taking leadership roles is somehow representative of a failure of maritime strategy, Tom Ricks is essentially admitting to me that he has never actually read the US Navy’s maritime strategy.

I couldn’t agree more with Thomas Ricks regarding his implied assessment of naval shipbuilding, as I have stated in the past, in no case can we exercise control of the sea with battleships alone. Our collective opinions regarding force structure however do not translate into analysis whether the Navy has the right equipment to address piracy, nor does it hold any bearing on whether the strategic approach the Navy, indeed the nation, has taken to address piracy off the coast of Somalia has been effective. By turning his assessment of the US strategy towards the Somali piracy issue into a force structure debate, Tom Ricks is making an apples and oranges comparison.

But when it comes to naval forces and the US Navy’s approach to Somalia, I’d suggest that even on this specific point Tom is inaccurate. I see the use of the LPD-17 platform as an afloat forward staging base (AFSB) as a brilliant approach to addressing irregular littoral challenges like piracy. While no one is suggesting the LPD-17 is the only solution towards a challenge that requires a network of naval vessels, the LPD-17 platform represents a central node in that network in a lot of the analysis I’ve read on the subject. It isn’t an accident the Navy is using the USS San Antonio (LPD-17) as a command ship for CTF-151, and don’t be surprised when the USS New Orleans (LPD-18) becomes the next command ship for CTF-151. In this regard, I see the analysis of Thomas Ricks regarding what means to use to execute maritime strategy off Somalia as flawed as well.

Tom’s point raises the question whether the US Navy needs to retool long term for fighting challenges like piracy. I would contend that Somali piracy is indeed a test case that answers those kinds of questions.

All strategies have an expiration date, because with any new policy comes a new strategy. As signaled by Admiral Gortney last week in the Pentagon press conference, all indications are that a new policy is soon to emerge, meaning the current strategy for addressing Somali piracy is about to expire. With that the case, we can now evaluate whether the current strategy to date has been successful or not.

What has been the Navy’s strategy? The ends of strategy has been two fold. First, to build an international approach towards the shared international security problem of Somali piracy. Second, to develop the political and legal framework to enable action against Somali piracy. If we judge the success or failure of strategy by whether the ends of strategy are achieved, then I would suggest the Navy has done a brilliant job.

Even a casual reading of the Cooperative Maritime Strategy for 21st Century Seapower notes that by placing emphasis on taking cooperative approaches to shared problems, the Navy will always be taking a “diplomacy first” approach in executing maritime strategy. Building coalitions is by definition political, and using the time frame discussed by Admiral Gortney in the press conference, comparing the situation in the region in August to the situation today, clearly the conditions have been shaped towards the ends of strategy in terms of building international participation. Could the US Navy have taken ownership or leadership in the fight against piracy? Absolutely, but they wisely, intentionally avoided doing so, because the absence of the US Navy was the enabling condition that built the international military response to date, and allowed the political process led by the European and Asian economic powers in the United Nations to develop towards our strategic goals.

The conditions for using military power today are not the same as they have been in the past. Those conditions are influenced heavily by how previous military actions taken by the Bush administration have been seen globally. Dealing with this condition change has, in the specific case of Somali piracy, required the US Navy to do nothing about piracy off Somalia in order to build an international diplomatic and military response. For those who seek more clarification regarding the strategic environment we will build strategies in after Bush, I encourage you to read Great Powers: America and the World After Bush by Thomas Barnett set to be released on February 5, 2009.

Admiral Gortney told the media in the press conference that sometime in the next week the State Dept would finalize an agreement with one of the nations in the region to prosecute pirates, and once that happens there will be a change in the Navy’s rules of engagement. The implication is, because all strategies expire with policy change, a new strategy in regards to Somali piracy is soon to emerge with a new proactive policy, and the implications of a new policy are historic in regards to the timing.

The nations maritime strategy towards Somali piracy, by emphasizing a diplomacy first approach, has resulted in 1) a United Nations driven mandate for military action (still evolving as recently as today towards a multinational land action btw) 2) built on international consensus 3) to address a complex international security problem resulting 4) in the largest collection of international warships off the coast of Africa since WWII with 5) a legal framework to take action. By taking a patient approach, largely consisting of military inaction while implementing a diplomacy first solution with allies towards building this large international presence, the diplomats have developed the desired international legal framework necessary for the Navy to take action, and do so in the exact conditions desired and expressed in the Navy’s own maritime strategy.

The execution of maritime strategy to date has been brilliant in my opinion. The timing isn’t “too late” as Tom Ricks contends, the timing is perfect.

When was the last time a President of the United States, acting as Commander in Chief, has entered office and on the first week has instructed the US Navy to take military action? In the history of our country, this has never happened, ever! And yet the strategy towards Somali piracy has been executed so well that Barack Obama will enter office this week, and one of his very first acts as Commander in Chief will be to send the US Navy to war against pirates off the coast of Somalia.

With all due respect to Thomas Ricks, he may need to write a new book to adequately explore the dynamics of just how successful the US diplomatic and maritime strategy for dealing with Somali piracy has been. When a strategy is implemented so masterfully that both the media and all the partisans in the US completely miss that Barack Obama’s first act as Commander in Chief will be to go to war on a third front, and by taking this action, the international community is excited that one of the first actions by the President replacing George Bush is to commit military power in the Middle East region…

…clearly someone, somewhere, is doing something right.

It will be interesting to see what strategy emerges to carry out the upcoming policy change in regards to Somali piracy. Everyone knows the solution to piracy is on land. It is also noteworthy that the symptoms of Somali piracy are the same as the symptoms creating the terrorism issues that have long driven US policy towards Somalia under the Bush administration. The challenge is now that the US has found a way to align the strategic interests of the international community with US strategic interests in Somalia, can the political process develop an international solution to both problems? I don’t know, but I bet the success of that process will be diplomatic, not military, and may even require naval forces to fail to stop piracy at sea to be achieved.

cross-posted at Information Dissemination

Posted by galrahn in Maritime Security, Navy, Piracy

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  • I know that I’m beating my head against a wall here, but as nice as it is to have an LPD as a command ship or even a dedicated command ship, I can speak from experience about the utility of a forward deployed Destroyer Tender. I wonder, if there are any left (I think Acadia is still in reserve) if it might be a good idea to get it reactivated and sent out there.

    I can’t think of any other repair or maintenance facility in that region that could be open to us.

  • Byron

    Warthog, you better do a lot of campaigning: I just read that she’s scheduled for a SINKEX in 09.

    And the new President (yes, I cap even for a POTUS from another party, it’s the office) will get a big BZ if he cancels LCS and tells SECDEF to get things squared away in the skimmer construction programs.

  • Oh I know. I think that taking them all out of service was a mistake. I think it’s a mistake to get rid of ships that have a lot of life left in them. The Ticos are an example, why are we scrapping perfectly good ships just because they don’t possess Vertical launch capabilities? They can still do their jobs quite well thank you.

    It’s a rant..I love my Navy, I just think they make the occasional bad decision is all.