Day 2 at USNI/AFCEA West 2010 turned out to be a very interesting day with lots of little nuggets of useful information thrown in. The morning breakfast discussion was a coffee table discussion with Bryan McGrath of Delex Systems, Inc (and Information Dissemination) and Bob Work, Undersecretary of the Navy. I didn’t know what to expect, and it turned out to be a great start to the day. The topic was “What Kind of Navy Does American Need?” hosted by David Hartman of Good Morning America fame.
Bryan discussed the need to develop systems that enabled the ships to perform sea control better, and highlighted that when he was CO of a Burke destroyer, he didn’t have the capability to sink another ship. He raised this point in the context of the growth of regional naval powers globally as a reminder, if a ship is to regionally distributed with credible combat power – we need to give our ships the combat power necessary to actually threaten a warship of another Navy. Bryan also made the point that while there should be no intent in fighting a war against China – China is an excellent example of a nation to size force structure measurements against as they are clearly moving towards a fleet that will eventually be numerically larger than the US Navy given current economic trends. I am not sure if I agree with that point, but it is something to consider.
Bob Work gave his “boxes” presentation, and this was the first time I had heard him deliver it in an open forum. I have previously discussed the “Boxes” fleet model he sees the Navy moving towards here. Bob is one of the most articulate and interesting naval enthusiast in the United States, indeed he might legitimately be the most effective public ambassador of naval power in the US today, and is in my opinion the best American naval strategist in the 21st century. With that said, “Boxes” doesn’t resonate and doesn’t sell. It is an interesting construct for shaping the discussion, but while still in the midst of so much uncertainty regarding modularization the skepticism of the crowd could be felt lingering in the room. How “boxes” is explained in large public settings needs some tweaking if the intent is to excite people about the Navy. The Navy’s “Boxes” fleet will be self-deployable and build on open architecture and will execute the role of power projection to assure allies and deter would be aggressors. Hopefully the breakfast will get up on YouTube, because I think many would find it interesting.
The first panel on Wednesday was “Pirates: How Do We Defeat Them?” The panel was moderated by Dr. Virginia Lunsford who was very good as a devil’s advocate. I’ve previously read her work, in particular her world class piracy article in the December 2008 edition of Proceedings, and you could tell she wanted to engage and give more to the topic than her role as moderator appeared to allow. The panel also included Col David Coffman of 13 MEU, retired RADM Terence McKnight, and Captain Chuck Wolf. As soon as I realized I had spoken to Col David Coffman before, I knew this was going to be a lot of fun. Turns out, it really was.
Col Coffman comes from the school of blunt honesty, and out of the gate gave the crowd some red meat with first paragraph direct answer to the panel question saying…
“KILL THE PIRATES.”
It was noteworthy about half the crowd began clapping and cheering, and the double take Dr. Lunsford gave the Col added to the effect. It was a clear ploy though, the Col appeared to me to use the red meat to get the crowds attention so he could articulate the range of capabilities on both sides of the spectrum the MEU brings to the fight. He touted the ARG solution but noted there was “no appetite at the policy level for kinetic solutions in Washington.” He then highlighted several problems including the division of organizational labor regarding Somalia. While CENTCOM has operational control over ships off Somalia, Somalia falls under AFRICOM, and the challenges in coordinating activities at sea onto land – at any level for anything – are enormous. I was left with the impression the division of labor was a problem of rigid control, which prevents any warfighter at sea from adapting quickly to situations.
RADM McKnight was excellent, and made two very key points. First, he noted that there was an international coalition of 24 ships out there with the stated purpose of dealing with the pirate issue, but there were only 4 or so ships that actually chased pirates. The other 20 have a purely defensive and deterrent role, with no active engagement role. That means that the coalition can legitimately be said to be about 1/6 as capable as touted. I think this is the real story of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of international cooperation that nobody wants to have a meaningful discussion about in public. McKnights second point was a story he told about going to CENTCOM and being given congratulations for his success in Task Force 151. When he asked “what success” the answer was along the lines of success being defined as cooperation and partnership with so many countries. I’ve made this point before, cooperation would be the end game for TF151 dealing with Somali pirates – not actually fighting pirates. People may not like it, but that was the obvious objective going in even before TF151 was stood up.
The third person on the panel was Captain Chuck Wolf, Naval Special Warfare Group 4. He basically said “Navy SEALS are proven to work” as an option dealing with the problem, but like Col Hoffman, noted that special forces bring a wide range of capabilities in dealing with pirates. He also pressed home the point there is no appetite at the policy level in dealing with the problem. He discussed several technologies that private shipping companies can use to protect themselves, but had no concrete answer on how to address the piracy problem until the political policy changes.
Piracy is on a growth curve that is still small enough to be ignored. A few things the panel said bothered me. First, Captain Wolf appears to believe the regional partnerships stopped piracy in Southeast Asia when it was very active up until 2005 in the Straits of Malacca. Apparently the Navy has distributed talking points that are absolutely absent any factual analysis and officers who haven’t looked into it are holding a self-licking ice cream cone. Look at the curve for piracy in the Strait of Malacca and you can only come to one conclusion – the Tsunami wiped out piracy there. Mother Earth has done more to curb piracy in the 21st century than any Navy in the world, and that is a basic fact that no one ever mentions. Why are there slow periods of no piracy off Somalia every year? Because of the weather, not because of any naval presence which has proven to be completely ineffective.
McKnight put the bulk of the reason for piracy off Somalia on the fishing problems in that region. The simplification of causes of piracy irritated me a bit, because a panel provides an opportunity for a well experienced RADM to really address the issues in detail. A missed opportunity I thought.
The lunch speech was given by VADM Jack Dorsett, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance N2/N6. I think he summed up the problem really well not by the details of what he said, rather by what he said. I think this analogy applies:
VADM Dorsett gave a speech that included thousands and thousands of words, and if there was relevant information within the thousands of thousands of words I completely missed it – and mind you I like to tell people I am in the “information business” as it is what my company does. He is clearly an Intel background guy, because I got a very excitable speech that basically told me there are going to be a large number of classified roadmaps in achieving information dominance. I think the analogy contained within VADM Dorsett’s speech pretty much sums up the issue: The Navy has massive amounts of information, but communicating it effectively and filtering it effectively is a serious challenge – and Dorsett’s speech which did not communicate or filter the challenge effectively is representative of the challenge. Harsh criticism? Maybe, but I asked many many people what they thought afterward, and everyone thought VADM Dorsett is an excitable personality when speaking, but nobody was excited in response when they learned nothing as a result.
The final panel of the day was Global Maritime Domain Awareness: Can it be Achieved? The panel included Mr. F.R. “Joe” Call, CMRD Mark Hammond, RAN, Mr. Christopher Miller, and Captain Bruce Stubbs (ret), DoD Executive Agent for MDA. The panel can be described as informative to the challenges, but if maritime domain awareness is moving, the pace is very slow. Bruce Stubbs was excellent in addressing questions and challenges although he was unable to give many definitive answers. I would not want his job. Chris Miller summed up the problem. MDA is not a technology problem, it is a policies and procedures problem and until we get passed that phase, MDA on a global scale is not going to happen. I also liked Mr. Call’s definition of “effective MDA” as being relative – enough to execute the mission.
Thursday will include CNO Roughead and a panel on Affordability with both Bob Work and VADM Dorsett. At previous AFCEA/USNI conferences I have attended, the last day has always exceeded expectations and been the one not to miss. Given the recent budget release and QDR release, hopefully ADM Roughead comes out firing for the Navy. He has had to hold back for 2 years for 2 very different reasons. I have had the impression for several months that the whole fleet is poised to follow his lead if he chooses to make a forceful stand out front. We shall see.