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A week after Galrahn — mostly in passing — raised the question of whether there would someday be a replacement program for the Cyclone-class coastal patrol boats, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command announced the award of a $30 million contract for the first of as many as 48 85-foot Mark VI-class patrol boats, slated for delivery in 2014. Less than half the length of the Cyclones, the Mark VIs are slated to replace even smaller craft with the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force (MESF), not the Cyclone PCs (five of which are forward deployed in Bahrain).

But as the MESF scales up, how does that change the middle, in-between space that exists between the forthcoming Mk VI boats and the two Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) configurations? The LCS program is well chronicled here, and that is not the question I hope to raise. The reality is that the Navy has 20 LCS hulls in the works, which will slowly overtake the remaining Oliver Hazard Perry frigates outfitted with the same 25mm Mk38 Mod 2s as the new Mk VIs. And as Galrahn points out, the remaining Cyclones — even with upgrades — are inching inexorably towards the end of their service lives without any programmed replacement.

Whatever the changes to the space between the Mk VIs and the LCS, the space in-between still seems pretty enormous. And it is a critical space, however the Department of the Navy decides to count it in terms of battle force ships. Global maritime traffic and the sea lanes the U.S. Navy is charged with guaranteeing continue to become more crowded and congested. Many of these essential waterways — the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca — are neither appropriately nor efficiently covered by large, high-end surface combatants.

How much, on the one end of the spectrum, can the LCS cover — as it exists today, not as it was envisioned? And has doctrine and force structure planning caught up to this new reality? What additional capability does the Mk VI promise at the opposite end of the spectrum? As the U.S. Coast Guard once rode several of the Cyclone-class PCs hard to help manage gaps in coverage, should the Navy now be looking closely at the USCG’s new Sentinel class Fast Response Cutters? And as an institution, how does the Navy view this space? Is it appropriately incentivized as a career path? Does it dedicate enough resources to thinking about — much less managing — it?

Two reality checks. First: Iran’s ability to threaten safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz has been a clear and present danger for years now. As the War in Iraq began to deteriorate, Iranian aggressiveness mounted — and then the global economy began to struggle, only heightening Iran’s leverage by means of threatening the Strait. Yet only recently, was there a force posture shift in the Gulf. Right now, four additional Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships are enroute to Bahrain to reinforce the four already forward deployed there — as well as British and other allied minesweepers. Additional MCM helicopters and the USS Ponce (currently being converted) are not far behind. They join five Cyclone-class patrol boats. The only question to my mind is why now, and what took so long? Is this latent appreciation of the imperative to provide a compelling capability — compelling not on paper, or in pure military terms, but compelling to the commercial world — and the markets — to guarantee the Straits. And are there not more PCs enroute because we don’t need them or because the existing combination of aging ships and crews cannot support any more hulls deployed forward?

Second: when I think of the dirty work of patrol boats and minesweeping, I can’t help but think of the example of the U.S. Air Force’s irrepressible (and ongoing) disdain for the A-10 (which also, it turns out, have some utility in this space).

Are we good enough at this space? Are we ready for more serious challenges to international sea lanes in this space? And do we have the tools and dedicated personnel to persevere when called upon to do so?


Giving Australia a leg up

April 2012


As greater fiscal austerity looms, talk of the importance of allies and being able to partner and leverage their capabilities has grown ever more intense. Yet are we thinking big enough and about the right problems? Are we getting the biggest bang for our buck and helping them take a bigger step onto the main stage?

Case in point: Australia.

Yesterday was ANZAC Day, commemorating the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps participation in the disaster that was Gallipoli. Today they fight alongside NATO in Afghanistan — and are one of the allies that actually gets into the fight. Australia is also set to host 2,500 Marines, provide port facilities for the Navy and perhaps even airfields.

It is hard to think of a stronger or more compatible ally for America in the Pacific than the Australians. And they’re a scrappy people for good measure. Yet here is an ally that has found itself in a particularly difficult place with the fiasco in developing and fielding the Collins class SSKs, and which does not have a clear roadmap for building to a fleet of twelve large, capable submarines — though it has made the commitment to spend some US$30 billion over ten years to get it.

Australia’s problem is as simple as it is substantial (it is the same as Israel’s) — it’s military requirements far outstrip its economic and demographic base. This is particularly the case for Australia as it finds the region becoming far more sophisticated and contested, particularly with China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that even the United States military is struggling to confront. And they mean that Australia, too, will need to be able to do much more from beneath the waves.

The idea of leasing new-build (and American-built) Virginia SSNs to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been bouncing around Australia for a little while now. There is no shortage of problems: one of the RAN’s problems is manpower, so more than doubling the crew requirements from the Collin’s class is hardly a small thing; the training and infrastructure (and some legal issues probably) associated with nuclear engineering is enormous and comes at a cost above and beyond the cost of an individual submarine and money is tight everywhere. (A more robust analysis can be found on page 15 of this report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.)

Obviously, given the magnitude of the American Navy’s own problems, there is not much additional room to help from the Defense budget. But if we can share Trident with the Brits and we can give Israel more than enough money to buy a Virginia SSN each year, is there more we could do to help Australia help us buy throwing an enormous amount of money at Newport News and GD Electronic Boat while at the same time and putting more Virginia SSNs on station in the western Pacific? And are there other ways we can think bigger about our allies and their capabilities in ways that look expensive at first glance but have enormous benefits longer-term?


Satellite Launch Fail

April 2012


The Pentagon, South Korea and Japan are all reporting that the North Korean Unha-3 satellite launch vehicle (SLV) failed shortly after launch at 0739 local time Apr. 13. Flight time was reportedly on the order of only one minute with a claim that , but reports are still spotty. The western media invited to North Korea for the launch appears not to have been invited to the actual event, so the prospect of footage is limited.

As SteelJaw has pointed out, this was a new launch facility on the west coast and a southerly launch for a sun-synchronous polar insertion — a shift from previous launches from an east coast facility. And though Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Il’s son and predecessor, continues to work to consolidate his power in Pyongyang, the preparations for this launch likely pre-date his father’s death.

And while there will be much mockery of the failure, it is also worth remembering that despite the crude nature of the Unha SLV, North Korea stunned the world in 1998 by very nearly succeeding with its first-ever launch, demonstrating staging and successful separation of the first two stages without previous full-scale flight tests. The North is admittedly one of the more entertaining and idiosyncratic places in the world, there is a logic behind their behavior, which goes to the heart of the remarkable way in which the long-isolated pariah state of North Korea has kept itself at the center of international diplomacy and has captured and held on to the attention of the world’s major powers.

North Korea is a long way from being able to put a deliverable nuclear warhead atop such a missile, there have also been intentionally-visible preparations for a third nuclear test — preparations that were intended to convey that the international community can respond to the launch by either continuing to follow through with a February agreement with Pyongyang or by breaking with the agreement and accept the consequence of a third test.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 4 Comments

For an Institute dedicated to naval issues, Bold Alligator 2012 has all sorts of subtext. But the one that might be most difficult to miss is the widely announced intention to re-orient more towards the Pacific. And one hardly needs to advocate on this blog for the importance of the appreciation and understanding of military history.

But something is the matter with looking towards the Pacific. It isn’t necessarily that the strategy is wrong. It is that as a country we don’t always appreciate history. This isn’t a ‘kids these days’ sort of comment. A young Israeli officer knows his father’s and grandfather’s war stories. He’s studied since childhood the terrain and nature of the wars he is likely to face. The young American officer is different. In the service of a global power, he will invariably be called upon to fight an unexpected adversary in an unexpected place — witness our entire military history since the end of World War II. The one consistent thing about his father’s and grandfather’s war stories is that he probably won’t be seeing combat there himself.

But there’s something more specific about the reorientation towards the Pacific. It is a reorientation of ‘air-sea battle.’ The reorientation is not just a rebalancing from a decade of ground combat operations against insurgencies in landlocked countries. It has become about the high-end, high-tech capabilities that have gone unused and unnoticed by comparison since the Sept. 11 attacks. (I continue to come back to one book when it comes to new, legitimately game-changing technologies and the practical realities of their cultivation and implementation: FAST TANKS AND HEAVY BOMBERS: Innovation in the U.S. Army 1917-1945 by David E. Johnson) Even Clausewitz teaches us that each commander must be understood in the appropriate context of his circumstance, history, technological circumstance, etc. But the danger with the technology focus is that it tends towards territory that privileges concepts of fundamental, revolutionary change. And that’s particularly dangerous territory when it comes to appropriate appreciation for the lessons of history.

The U.S. has made the decision to return to the Pacific. Much of the thinking is about game-changing, high-end tech and the complexity of getting to the point of being able to successfully execute an air-sea battle concept. What are the best and most relevant histories we can recommend in terms of the long-term, enduring realities of the Pacific? There are many hard-won and costly lessons. Can we create a reading list of the books that best convey those realities and lessons to the servicemen and women who will be implementing this reorientation? What lists already exist that do this?

I would open with two:

  • WAR PLAN ORANGE: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945 by Edward S. Miller
    For nearly fifty years the U.S. grappled with the fundamental realities of the Pacific theater. It was a messy, contentious and often flawed process (the struggle over the importance of the Philippines and the dominant place it served in the strategy over time is particularly memorable) but it provided the understanding of enduring strategic realities that not only made clear the need to move aggressively from coal to oil (and efficient, long-range oil power plants) but proved to have provided excellent foundations and guidance for the opening phases of the Second World War.
  • HELL TO PAY: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 by D.M. Giangreco
    Particularly insightful immediately following War Plan Orange, Hell to Pay outlines the plans to — and the terrible inadequacies of the intelligence estimates of — invading mainland Japan (something War Plan Orange very explicitly and consistently argued against). Anyone involved in strategic thinking about the Pacific should understand the true cost of ‘rapid termination of the war’ we came all too close to paying.

What else and why?


land attack cruiser?

January 2012


The USS Ponce (LPD 15, the final ship of the Trenton- or modified Austin-class) received a second lease on life at the last minute last week. After more than forty years of service, she completed her last deployment in December, had just completed her final week at sea and was slated for decommissioning March 30. Instead, she will now be rapidly converted to a special operations and mine countermeasures ‘mothership’ and could be on station in the Persian Gulf as early as this summer, able to support MH-53E Sea Dragons, the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council and other operations under 5th Fleet. It is reportedly a capability for which U.S. Central Command has been clamoring since the 1980s Tanker Wars and will now — rather remarkably quickly — be fulfilled.

But for the one ship that was saved from the scrap yard, seven Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers with some 25 years of service are slated to go the way of the first five ships of the class (and from what at least one panelist claimed at West 2012, complex Aegis components don’t mothball very well). One of the seven reportedly requires expensive repairs and may also have significant problems with the Mk 45 gun mounts (it turns out the Navy has not always been a good custodian of taxpayer investments).

But for a Marine Corps that has only the prospect of six total 155mm Advanced Gun Systems on three Zumwalt hulls, the Mk45 5″ naval gun looks to remain the old stand-by for naval surface fire support for the foreseeable future. When the Navy retired the five Mark-26 Ticos, it also retired ten 5″ guns. It is now set to retire 14 more 5″ guns and 854 Mk 41 VLS tubes along with them.

Part of the reason we need a 155mm gun for NSFS is because US$1 billion Aegis-equipped warships are staying further and further offshore. I’m not the expert on the Navy’s rationale or the cost considerations of these Ticos, but as a Marine having already experienced a huge reduction in the Zumwalt buy, it’s hard to watch seven hulls with two naval guns apiece get tossed in the rubbish bin. Each ship and ship class is its own question. But if the Ponce can see new life, why can’t, say, the three hulls in the best condition of the seven Ticos facing decommissioning too? Strip off as much of the superstructure as possible and it seems like it might look not unlike a small version of an arsenal ship…

*Many thanks to URR for some righteous-indignation regarding the Navy’s stewardship of massive taxpayer investment in these hulls. I owe much of this post to his insight.

Posted by nhughes in Marine Corps, Navy | 26 Comments

In a new addition to the annual West conference in San Diego, USNI hosted an evening event for its members at the Ultimate Skybox overlooking Petco Park downtown. Made possible primarily by the generosity of Dr. Jack London, a member of the board of directors and longtime member of the Institute, the event was attended by Institute members young and old including a number of active duty officers as well as Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert O. Work, who delivered the Conference’s Plenary Address this morning.

Dr. London’s generosity also lent an element of style and class to the evening that was above and beyond the convention center feel of the larger conference. But while it is hard to complain about the weather — the low last night was probably around 60 degrees — and the open-air venue offered a beautiful nighttime view of the downtown cityscape from the 15th floor, the real heart of the evening was the company and conversation. While the panels and speakers at West 2012 have been excellent as always, the evening at the Ultimate Skybox stuck out as what the Institute is really about: not big booths or bustling convention center floors but simply facilitating conversations amongst its members, both the retelling of old stories and the sparking of new debates. And by sheer happenstance, Mary Ripley the Institute’s Director of Online Content and Media Marketing who makes this blog possible happened to discover than another longtime USNI member, Col. Mitch Rios, USMC (Ret) that just happened to be there that evening was the son of her father the late Col. John Ripley’s platoon sergeant in Vietnam.

Here’s to hoping that last evening marks a new tradition for the Institute in San Diego.



January 2012


In the second panel discussion on Tuesday at West 2012, ‘The Future of Shipbuilding: what can the nation afford?,’ included some familiar but still valuable refrains. The litany of recent acquisition failures and the challenges now facing the U.S. Navy and the U.S. shipbuilding industry hardly need repeating here. It is all too familiar to all of us. The panel seemed to come down on the optimistic side, and it does seem like some important lessons have been learned and fixes are being implemented. But it was also apparent just how much more needs to be done.

While much of the discussion was good and insightful it remained rooted (not unjustifiably) in where we’re at and how we move forward with what we have now.

But if Alfred Thayer Mahan was in the room, I tend to doubt he’d be surprised about our predicament. I don’t mean the specifics, but that we are in the position we are in more generically. Mahan tells us that the foundation of a strong Navy is strong maritime commerce and maritime culture. Warships are expensive — and they were when we built our first six frigates. But from our founding to the time Mahan wrote The Influence of Seapower Upon History in 1890, we truly were a maritime nation and only a small fraction of our ocean-going citizenry were in the employ of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

We are perhaps more reliant than ever on maritime commerce, but ships built elsewhere, flagged elsewhere and crewed from elsewhere sustain the flow of commerce, energy and raw materials that contribute to our livelihood and way of life. There are obviously sound commercial reasons why much of this has taken place. And I’m certainly not advocating that we embark on some sort of state-driven commercial enterprise.

But it does seem like when we talk about fixing shipbuilding, we might benefit from a discussion about why the biggest ships and offshore rigs in the world are built more efficiently and more reliably elsewhere or why Maersk’s headquarters is in Copenhagen. And perhaps most importantly, why much of what domestic, commercial maritime shipping there is exists only due to a 1920s piece of legislation (updated in 2006) and why that legislation has done little to cultivate robust, competitive maritime commerce. We may not be able to pull global shipbuilding out of South Korea and China, but should we be resigned to a world in which the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command are the principal customers of yards in the United States capable of building large ships? That’s certainly the reality we’re stuck with in the near-term, but are there ways we can re-incentivize American shipbuilding and American maritime commerce?

Posted by nhughes in Navy | 10 Comments

The Hack on STRATFOR

January 2012


As most of you are probably aware, STRATFOR was attacked by hackers in December. There is a bit more to the story than has been reported thus far, and it has some lessons and implications I think are relevant to the Institute and the online community of which we are all a part. In this post, I will simply share the words of the person most able to tell that story, our CEO.

By George Friedman

In early December I received a call from Fred Burton, Stratfor’s vice president of intelligence. He told me he had received information indicating our website had been hacked and our customer credit card and other information had been stolen. The following morning I met with an FBI special agent, who made clear that there was an ongoing investigation and asked for our cooperation. We, of course, agreed to cooperate. The matter remains under active investigation.

From the beginning I faced a dilemma. I felt bound to protect our customers, who quickly had to be informed about the compromise of their privacy. I also felt bound to protect the investigation. That immediate problem was solved when the FBI told us it had informed the various credit card companies and had provided those companies with a list of compromised cards while omitting that it had come from us. Our customers were therefore protected, as the credit card companies knew the credit cards and other information had been stolen and could act to protect the customers. We were not compelled to undermine the investigation.

The FBI made it clear that it expected the theft to be exposed by the hackers. We were under no illusion that this was going to be kept secret. We knew our reputation would be damaged by the revelation, all the more so because we had not encrypted the credit card files. This was a failure on our part. As the founder and CEO of Stratfor, I take responsibility for this failure, which has created hardship for customers and friends, and I deeply regret that it took place. The failure originated in the rapid growth of the company. As it grew, the management team and administrative processes didn’t grow with it. Again, I regret that this occurred and want to assure everyone that Stratfor is taking aggressive steps to deal with the problem and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

From the beginning, it was not clear who the attackers were. The term “Anonymous” is the same as the term “unknown.” The popular vision of Anonymous is that its members are young and committed to an ideology. I have no idea if this is true. As in most affairs like this, those who know don’t talk; those who talk don’t know. I have my theories, which are just that and aren’t worth sharing.

I was prepared for the revelation of the theft and the inevitable criticism and negative publicity. We worked to improve our security infrastructure within the confines of time and the desire to protect the investigation by not letting the attackers know that we knew of their intrusion. With the credit card information stolen, I assumed that the worst was done. I was wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by nhughes in Cyber | 12 Comments

After — notably — successfully being kept secret for some 48 hours, North Korea announced the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the country’s ruler for nearly two decades.

Kim’s death comes as North Korea was preparing for a live leadership transition in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim’s father and North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, a transition that had been intended to avoid the three years of internal chaos the younger Kim faced after his father’s death in 1994. Kim Jong Il had delayed choosing a successor from among his sons to avoid allowing any one to build up their own support base independent of their father. His expected successor, son Kim Jong Un, was only designated as the heir apparent in 2010 after widespread rumors in 2009 and thus has had little experience and training to run North Korea and little time to solidify his own support base within the various North Korean leadership elements. Now, it is likely that Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, will rule behind the scenes as Kim Jong Un trains on the job. Like the transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, it is likely that North Korea will focus internally over the next few years as the country’s elite adjust to a new balance of power. In any transition, there are those who will gain and those who are likely to be disenfranchised, and this competition can lead to internal conflicts.

In the course of his nearly two decades of role, Kim Jong Il made it easy for the world to perceive him as unpredictable and crazy — irrational even. But entertaining idiosyncrasies and (not unjustified) accusations of starving and impoverishing his people can conceal a remarkable consistent foreign policy and deterrence strategy in which a poor, isolated country kept itself at the center of the international system with five of the world’s most powerful countries — the U.S., China, South Korea, Russia and Japan not only keeping North Korea high on their agenda, but repeatedly granting the regime concessions in exchange for ‘progress’ in negotiations that Pyongyang played like a fiddle.

Repeatedly we’ve seen the North attack the South with impunity. Even the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo island in 2010, where the South returned fire (though on pre-registered targets, not at the mobile batteries the counterbattery radar should have indicated), the military response was quickly followed by attempts by both Seoul and the international community to calm the situation. Those attempts to placate North Korea are only likely to continue for fear of exacerbating internal stability.

The immediate question is the status of the North Korean military. Kim Jong Un is officially the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party of Korea and was recently made a four-star general, but he has no military experience. If the military remains committed to keeping the Kim family at the pinnacle of leadership, then things will likely hold, at least in the near term. There were no reports from South Korea that North Korea’s military had entered a state of heightened alert following Kim Jong Il’s death, suggesting that the military is on board with the transition for now. If that holds, the country likely will remain stable, if internally tense.

This more-rapid-than-intented but nevertheless prepared-for transition of power to a designated successor within the existing regime structure is not guaranteed to succeed but it has a reasonable chance of success. And the international community is likely to give the North a wide berth in the meantime for fear of exacerbating matters.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 5 Comments

Colors Cased

December 2011


United States Forces-Iraq (USFI), the American military command in Iraq, cased its colors Thursday outside Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). During the traditional military ceremony, the unit’s colors were rolled and stowed, symbolizing the disestablishment of the formation and the end of the U.S. military’s nondiplomatic presence in the country. The last U.S. forces (save a company-sized Marine Security Guard detachment at the U.S. Embassy) are slated to leave the country next week, well ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline stipulated by the status of forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad.

In April 2003, then-Saddam International Airport was designated Objective Lions and seized by Task Force 2-7 in an assault for which an Army combat engineer would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor. These were the days of “shock and awe,” as the outset of the war in Iraq was dubbed, during which the United States military occupied the Iraqi capital in a matter of weeks. Objective Lions would quickly become the sprawling Victory Base Complex, the iconic centerpiece of the United States’ eight-year war in Iraq. Two American presidents would subsequently pass through BIAP, the center of the operation that became the focal point of U.S. military operations and foreign policy for the better part of a decade.

In invading Iraq, the United States had hoped to fundamentally reshape the region’s geopolitical reality by establishing a pro-American regime in Baghdad. The invasion did reshape the region, but not in the way Washington had intended. The invasion and subsequent American pressure did ultimately push Saudi Arabia to cooperate with Washington’s counterterrorism objectives, as well as prompt Riyadh to begin meaningfully, and with increased aggression, confronting the radical Islamist elements within its own borders. But the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime also destroyed the established balance of power between Iran and Iraq, which had stood as a pillar of American foreign policy in the region for generations.

As the American war effort deteriorated into a protracted counterinsurgency and nation-building project, resurgent Iranian influence and power became increasingly difficult to ignore. The United States and its allies found themselves fighting not only foreign jihadists but domestic Sunni nationalists and Shiite militias, some armed with improvised explosive devices provided by Iran — the single most deadly and effective weapons used to kill U.S. and allied troops.

The war ultimately cost the lives of almost 4,500 American troops, more than 300 allied troops, and a likely unknowable number of Iraqis. The United States maintained more than 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq — and for a significant period closer to 200,000 — throughout almost the entire duration of the war. That number does not count significant contributions made by allies, not to mention the legions of private security contractors that supplemented those forces. While this was never sufficient to impose a military reality on the country — the numbers, in other words, were not substantial enough to pacify the population — this nevertheless represented an enormous and sustained commitment. It impacted the entire power structure in Iraq, the balance of power in the region and American military commitments elsewhere in the world. The structural significance of this commitment of forces is difficult to overstate, therefore it is difficult to overstate the significance of that force’s removal.

Only a few thousand American troops remain in the country, and for all practical purposes, USFI has long been declining as a significant military presence. But few elements operating in Iraq or Iran had any interest in taking any action that might delay the U.S. withdrawal. When USFI finally leaves next week, it is hard to envision a force of any magnitude being redeployed to the country in the foreseeable future — barring an extreme scenario — for any length of time. The circumstance most likely to lead U.S. troops to intervene would probably involve a noncombatant evacuation of diplomatic personnel and American nationals (for the purposes of that evacuation, the runway at BIAP will likely play a central role in American thinking about Iraq.)

In short, a key structural element of the framework in which Iraq and the wider region has operated for nearly a decade officially ceased to exist on Thursday. And this framework played a central role in the apparent quietude of Iraq in recent years. That quietude cannot be taken for granted moving forward, and the most important geopolitical result of the American invasion of Iraq — the emergence of Iran as a regional power — has yet to be meaningfully addressed and countered.

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