It has been kindly suggested we naval blogging types need to elevate our game to add some thought provoking, intelligent content to produce debate and stimulate some intellectual creativity towards challenges facing our naval forces. I admit I’m still struggling to find my groove here in these pages, but I have every intention to rise to the challenge.

The New Media Office in the DoD has a blogger roundtable on Thursday with Rear Admiral “Terry” McKnight that I will be privileged to participate in. The conversation will most likely revolve around piracy off the coast of Somalia. By the time most of you read this post, the discussion will be over, but allow me to share my thoughts that I am going to attempt to turn into questions.

I am very concerned with the idea the US Navy will be fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia. It isn’t that I don’t think the US Navy should do it, and it isn’t that I don’t think the US Navy could do it effectively, rather I am concerned the US Navy may not be ready to do it.

I think the various agencies and military services have done a marvelous job building the legal framework to fight pirates with. That President Obama has the domestic political capital to instruct the Navy to take offensive action against Somali pirates suggests that patience towards dealing with the problem has paid off. When considered in context that this is even possible only 2 weeks into a new Presidential term and accounting for the domestic rejection of the military policies of the previous President, to suggest this is remarkable is to undersell the diplomatic and strategic success. It can also be called historic.

I am an observer of the US Navy, so I am observing the slow but deliberate movement of the Boxer Strike Group and the Stennis Strike Group towards the Middle East to replace the Iwo Jima Strike Group and Roosevelt Strike Group already there. I’ve have had an opportunity to speak with Commodore Peter Dallman, Commander, Boxer ESG/Amphibious Squadron Five, and I am left with the impression all three maritime services have put some real intellectual power into how they intend to address this issue tactically. The Navy currently has an LPD-17 Command ship that includes a company of Marines, some MP folks, some Coast Guard detachments, and is supported by one of our destroyers. With Stennis CSG and Boxer ESG, the Navy will probably transfer the Command role to another LPD-17 class, potentially bring in a Coast Guard cutter to help with the problem, and have a carrier strike group with an extra large number of helicopters. When I read the tea leaves, I think the Navy is about to have tremendous capabilities available to do some good against the very visible, international maritime challenge of piracy.

But I still have concerns. When you say Somalia out loud, what comes to mind? Here is my short list.

I look at Somalia and I see complexity. On one side we have the rise of an Islamist movement built on the warlord system we have never worked well with in the past taking control of the Somali government. On the other side this internationally visible criminal syndicate is conducting piracy on the high seas against international shipping, taking hostages for ransom, and through success has forced governments to dispatch the largest international naval armada since Gulf War I. Stuck in the middle we have the United Nations involved in several ways. First, the World Food Program is feeding hundreds of thousands in Somalia, and without the food shipments starvation is assured. The UN Security Council has authorized international naval forces to take action to curb piracy even including into sovereign territorial waters. We continue to see human smuggling from Somalia to Yemen that is observed by the United Nations, a massive human migration pattern by sea and a sign of the desperation in Somalia. They are also sounding the alarm about illegal fishing and dumping, without success. We have EU NAVFOR, a legitimate EU naval operation to fight piracy. We have the first naval deployment by the PLA Navy in centuries taking place off the coast of Somalia. We have the first consistent naval operation by Russia since the end of the cold war. We have seen some rather extraordinary political back handsprings in Tokyo so the Japanese can send a ship to Somalia under their constitutional model.

But the complexities run much deeper. When the Parliament in Spain passed legislation to send Spanish forces to join EU NAVFOR in April, they didn’t even hide the reason they did so was to protect their fishing fleets, which btw, are often cited as an example where Europeans are illegally fishing in the economic exclusion zone off the Somali coast creating the piracy problem in the first place. When the PLA Navy escorted a tanker owned by a company in Taiwan, it became a cross strait political incident. The French have a diplomatic agreement with Puntland authorities to hand off captured pirates for trial, even though Puntland isn’t even a sovereign government. No one really talks about why the US supported Ethiopia against the last Islamic government of Somalia, even though it was not a terrible reason considering that government was allowing terror cells to train in Somalia. There is no reason to expect this new Islamist government to be any different. Most experts are advising that stability will require an Islamist government, but those same experts rarely discuss how the large criminal syndicates which essentially own the coastal cities are thriving both economically and are not suffering from the violence the rest of the nation is. While the piracy activities are criminal, they also represent a commercial, secular population of Somalia that US diplomats can’t ignore as a potential political alternative worth considering. The Islamist groups forming the new government and the pirate syndicates do not like one another, so expect contention. Given how well funded the pirates are, that means we could potentially see a deadly civil war, which also means those well funded pirate organizations may soon find themselves in the market for bigger weapons.

Why is every boat in the Gulf of Aden either white or some shade of a faded color? Because there is no paint, no one can afford it, no one meaning both pirates and fisherman. All the boats look the same, and there are 5000+ fishing boats in the maritime areas where piracy is being conducted. Put another way, this challenge consists of an enemy that blends in with the local population.

I look at the coast of Somalia and I see government forces, irregular forces, civilians, NGOs, tribes, clans, syndicates, multinational political influence, international legal influence, international economic interest, etc.. as the physical and human terrain of a conflict zone. I see a populated space with a range of peace, law enforcement, military, environmental, and diplomatic missions as a requirement for both fighting any type of war or enforcing any type of peace. Anyone who casually reads the COIN debates at the Small Wars Journal or Abu Muqawama should quickly recognize exactly what I’m talking about.

The US Navy is about to engage, with CTF-151 leading the way, in what those who study COIN instantly recognize as complex environments (CE), and as one might expect when discussing naval forces, the complex maritime environment is found in the populated, ungoverned littorals. Does the Navy even have a definition of a complex maritime environment that accounts for government forces, irregular forces, civilians, NGOs, tribes, clans, syndicates, multinational influence, international legal influence, etc.? What does the Navy FM 3-24 look like and does it even begin to cover this scenario?

I am concerned the Navy doesn’t have a definition of a complex maritime environment anything similar to what we see in the complex maritime environment off Somalia, which is why I have trouble finding faith in the Navy’s established set of requirements for dealing with littoral challenges, which is why I have questions whether the Navy has ever really wrapped their head around what the littoral means to them. Without a definition to properly establish requirements in addressing complex maritime environment challenges in the littorals, it raises the question whether the Navy really knows how they want to deal with these types of irregular challenges. Does Somalia represent the Navy’s trial by fire?

I am observing the approach we are taking to Somalia and I keep thinking I’ve seen this before. The Navy believes unmanned technology, airpower, and space power instead of distributed manpower on the sea at the point of contact can effectively scout and provide presence for the human terrain in this conflict zone. One officer told me that at sea there is less chance of collateral damage so air power can manage these problems. Really? Tell that to the Indians, or the Russians, because right out of the gate both countries ran smack into collateral damage politics by applying the standoff warfare theory to the irregular warfare challenges naval forces face in this complex environment. We observe signs that they will soon adapt to helicopter superiority, is the Navy ready to adapt when the enemy makes the 3rd or 4th tactical evolutions, or will helicopters get shot down like they did over Baghdad?

The Navy envisions addressing complex irregular warfare challenges in the future with a half billion dollar, 3000 ton, speed optimized, aluminum hulled, stealthy, barely armed, low survivability standard, unmanned technology mothership with a small crew and a bridge surrounded by glass. In other words, the Navy believes mobility, technology, stealth, speed, air power, and every other maneuver warfare centric metric is the best way to address the human terrain of the complex maritime environment of the littorals where irregular challenges are most likely to occur. Apparently sustained presence of manpower, distribution of manpower, survivability of maritime forces, endurance, and persistent personal engagement with manpower; some of the most important aspects to successfully engaging complex land environments against irregular forces; doesn’t appear from this section of the cheap seats to be on the Navy’s radar yet.

Maybe my concerns are overblown, and I pray they are, but I keep thinking I have read this book before and it was called Iraq and Afghanistan before the ideas that became FM 3-24 were developed. I firmly believe the US Navy is going to find a lot success early on in efforts to take on the pirate problem, but after the first few tactical evolutions by the other guy, I think the Navy may quickly find itself in some bigger trouble than they are ready to deal with.

Posted by galrahn in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Soft Power
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  • I believe you are absolutely correct to state that this situation is extremely complex. i am not nearly as adept at Naval Analysis but I am very experienced with the criminal element. They will adapt as all criminal elements adapt. The key is to make it more difficult to adapt and sometimes that requires varying your own tactics on a regular basis. The military has never been an effective policing entity and is not designed to be a police force. These are criminals and should be approached in more of a law enforcement mentality. This is not to say they should not be there, it is to say that 100% of the security responsibility should not be shouldered by military force. The vessels traveling these waters are private commercial vessels. Some naval forces are there to escort vessels flagged in their country and that’s fine. however, vessel owners and management should take some of the responsibility also of protecting their own commercial enterprise. If it is a fact, that there is a less than 1% chance of being attacked by pirates, then there is more chance of injury as a clerk in a convenience store, in any big city of being held up at gun point. That being said, we don’t put aq soldier or policeman in every convenience store. they are expected to hire security, who will protect the store until police arrive. therefore, the private vessels should have security and the naval force will respond when needed, as well as patrol their assigned areas. This will help lessen the chance of incidents of collateral damage as most of the time, the targets will have been identified.

  • doc75

    “In other words, the Navy believes mobility, technology, stealth, speed, air power, and every other maneuver warfare centric metric is the best way to address the human terrain of the complex maritime environment of the littorals where irregular challenges are most likely to occur. ”

    It looks like air power is actually playing a huge role in operations off of Somalia. Even today (or yesterday) a French ship was able to stop a pirate attack on a tanker by using its helicopter.

    As for survivability, the military blogosphere can’t seem to agree whether MRAP was a good idea for Iraq or a bad one. Personally, I think it has saved lives. However, in the confined terrain of Afghanistan operators are finding the increased survivability of the MRAP means it can’t get to the fight. This should be a metric to consider in littoral combat. If you are operating in confined water space that is also shallow then an armored battleship might not be your best option. If you want the ocean-going draft and conventional speed of a frigate or destroyer then you will be confined to channels in the littoral that will be exploited by an adversary. Just like channeling armored vehicles into a narrow pass in Afghanistan for an ambush.

  • One thing that these naval forces in the area will eventually encounter is a boatload of migrants that they will have to rescue. It will be interesting to see how they deal with them and whether or not they have a location that they can drop them off back in Somalia and even if that is possible, what if they don’t want to go back.

    Concerning helicopters, some of the merchant ships have the ability to land helicopters. Helicopters might not be able to cover the entire transit of a ship through the Gulf of Aden, but why not ride with it from one end to the other and then hitch a ride back on a ship going the other way. This would take a little bit of coordinations but I suspect that naval forces already know to a good degress what is headed their way out of the Suez canal and probably almost as good idea of what is headed towards the Suez.

  • galrahn


    Click the image in this post. I am also pretty sure that if helicopters become the dominate method we employ to stop piracy, before we celebrate, you might want to click a link included in this post on that specific issue.

    If those folks start using shoulder mounted anti-aircraft missile launcher, that Panther would be in some serious trouble at that range. A few ‘Seahawks down’ and the presence of helicopters looks completely different in that space.

  • Corvan

    I like your idea Mike, but the issue of self protection for these vessels is at least as complex a legal issue as that of the piracy itself – probably more so. Every country has its own laws regarding the carriage of weapons into ports. So even a seemingly simple concept of allowing shipping companies access to a “security guard” type of crew member is in reality one which would need many individual countries to address – and agree upon – before it could become a reality.

  • WTH

    Presence alone can be a deterrent, but seeing a helo is not enough to deter all pirate activity, and even that deterrent fades if it cannot be followed with force and airborne use of force is very limited. Airpower can be an enabler, but is not the final answer. It can offer tons of coverage, awareness, and force, but you can’t fastrope 6-8 guys with guns into a skiff to go face to face. There is also the vulnerability issue.

    A lot of lessons learned from USCG counter drug operations can be applied here, airborne interdiction/use of force to stop followed by boarding teams. The problem with our current force laydown is that we are vastly under equipped for the latter part.

    Galrahn is on the right track saying we need manpower to do this, the question is where does it come from? US surface assets generally have folks trained for “non compliant” boardings while special forces cover “opposed”. A lot of these engagements fall into the latter category. Further, assuming air can stop something, how do you get the boarding team there? RHIB/Small boat coverage from three major surface combatants currently making up 151 might as well be non existent when looked at as a percentage of the total battle space.

    To do this right the goal has to be, as was said about WW2 to “winkle the other bastard out of his foxhole and make him sign the peace treaty.” That requires presence. Boots on the ground if you will.

    A real, effective, strategy is manpower and ship intensive. Even more so when the ships thrown at it are multi-billion dollar assets. If you want to end piracy afloat around “Somalia” you have to talk force density. The Navy is ill equipped to lay down the required force density.

    The Navy is trying to hit flies with hammers.

  • JEB

    I couldn’t agree more with the primacy of “distributed manpower on the sea at the point of contact.” Several years ago I spent some time as a VBSS boarding officer off the Somali coast, and can say with confidence that nothing beats getting right up alongside the generic white fishing boat or dhow, taking a peek inside, and having face-to-face interaction with its occupants. No space-based or airborne sensor will tell you whether the boat’s contents are fish, weapons, or a bunch of refugees; it takes a “RHIB-level” perspective to get that.

  • B.Smitty


    I agree with you. Even the LCS can’t provide the numbers necessary for such a geographically dispersed area.

    We need what amounts to a HMMWV on every street corner. However, we have no platform or combination of platforms in the inventory numerous enough.

    Galrahn recently posted his thoughts on using Sea Fighter for this role.

    I, personally, think the solution should come from the commercial-spec, OPV market.

    What’s clear is, whether you call it Streetfighter, Sea Fighter, patrol boat or OPV, we need a means of establishing and sustaining a widely-dispersed, high-density, surface presence anywhere in the world.

  • I’ve always supported Eagle1’s idea of leasing some commercial off-shore support/fishing vessels. They are available in quantity, they have long legs, many are equipped with small helo decks and/or stern ramps for launching workboats. Just spend a little money, get some of them over there crewed with enterprising volunteers and then adjust tactics as necessary. Just as the cities learned that you need the cop on the beat, not patrol cars to keep urban crime down; a few major combatants won’t do much. You need lots of small guys all over the place.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Very good piece from Galrahn. How much discussion has the USN had about 4th generation war at sea? We ought to recognize that our enemy will be adaptive, and well-equipped for his purposes. Helicopters and remote platforms will be defeated as he changes tactics. Like 4th generation war on land, it will be MANPOWER INTENSIVE, like it or not.

    Might be useful to see how Indonesia and Singapore and Malaysia have done business in clearing the Straits of Malacca. They haven’t eliminated piracy completely, but have done well enough to have Lloyd’s lift the “high-risk area” designation and resultant fees.