Anchors A-waste

by Jeff Huber

The U.S. Navy is fumbling a blue and golden opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of its maritime global reach capability (and justify its phony baloney budget) in the age of fourth generation warfare.Admiral Gary Roughead, who as Chief of Naval Operations is the service’s senior officer, says sea power is not sufficient to combat the Somali pirate threat. “Pirates don’t live at sea,” he recently told reporters at a Navy League conference. “They live ashore. They move their money ashore. You can’t have a discussion about eradicating piracy without having a discussion about the shore dimension.”

A mind that astute could only have been shaped at the United States Naval Academy. Yeah, Gary: all of Yamamoto’s people lived ashore too, but you didn’t get to bomb their homeland until you sank their fleet.

In an April 18 NPR interview, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the pirate problem “It’s not just a military solution here.”As you’d probably guess, Mullen is also a USNA grad.It’s never just a military solution, Mike. Even World War II involved economy, diplomacy, information and other forms of soft power.

The Navy will never again have a peer competitor like the Imperial Japanese Fleet to contend with for control of the great oceans, and it has been so desperate to play a role in the war on ism that it plucked career aviators out of shore duty assignments to deploy to Iraq as part of Army counter-explosive teams.Yet, incredibly, when faced with the prospect of having to counter the only maritime threat in existence—teenage pirates—the top naval officers in our land flip their palms skyward and whine, “It’s not our job.”

It’s time to start asking why we have a navy.

Only once in a month of blue moons do I rest an argument on my expertise and authority.But as I’ve said before, two carrier strike groups—with their self-contained airborne early warning, fixed wing surface search, rotary wing lift, special forces, surface combatant and command and control capabilities—could, properly employed, shut down the pirate pranks faster than you can say Arr, Jim Boy.Anybody who tells you otherwise is wrong.

Using carrier strike groups to battle teenage pirates sounds like overkill, but what better things have the carriers got to do?Blow the smithereens out of Afghan civilians?Do manly air-to-air combat with Taliban MiGs?Oh, that’s right…the Taliban doesn’t have any MiGs.It doesn’t have an air force at all, or a navy, for that matter.It can barely be said to have an army, even though it’s doing a pretty good job of mopping up in Pakistan.

The argument that carriers are too expensive to use against teenage pirates is specious.We always have at least two carrier groups deployed, peacetime or wartime.They’ll cost just as much chasing pirates as they do drilling holes in the sea and sky.

Emblematic of our national security state is that even though aircraft carriers presently contribute goose eggs to our national security, Congress has approved the purchase of a new class of aircraft carrier that will cost twice as much to make as the old class.The Navy justifies the additional up front cost with the promise of future savings in operating and maintenance costs.When the future arrives, of course, the savings will have will have vanished like the apple pies on Aunt Polly’s windowsill.To make things even more preposterous, the new class of carriers will be named after Gerald R. Ford.What, they had to settle for Ford because Mad magazine wouldn’t give up the copyright to Alfred E. Neuman? I suppose if they ever get their cockamamie flying submarine off the drawing board they’ll name it after Joe Lieberman.

Events at sea are only relevant as they affect events on land; but Broadhead, Mullen and those who think like them are asserting that we need to send force ashore to affect events at sea.An April 13 Bloomberg story reported that the U.S. military was considering “attacks on Somali pirates’ land bases.” Neocon tank thinker James Carafano says, “There really isn’t a silver-bullet solution other than going into Somalia and rooting out the bases.”

The problem with all this talk of rooting out pirate bases with silver bullets is that modern pirates need “bases” like modern terrorists need “sanctuary.” Today’s evildoers, fanatic or piratical, can plan, direct and finance their operations from an iPhone. Good luck rooting out all those things with preemptive deterrence.

Exploiting an opportunity to resolve a national security issue at sea avoids a host of difficulties associated with use of force in a sovereign nation.Navies have an inherent right to occupy international waters, whereas armies have to jump through a jungle of legal and moral hoops to pitch tents in somebody else’s campground.Invading another nation requires a declaration (or capitulation) some sort from Congress and it’s a good idea to get a mandate from the U.N. too.Laws are already in place for combating piracy.

You don’t need to get the New York Times to print a phony baloney reason why it’s important to fight pirates.It doesn’t matter if pirates were or weren’t involved in 9/11 or what they are or aren’t up to with their nuclear program.You can whack them just because they’re pirates committing piracy.There’s a very low risk of collateral damage from a Navy sniper shooting a handful of pirates in a dingy. Compare that to the risks involved when you carpet bomb a Somali village on the chance that the head assistant evil one you’re targeting showed up for the wedding like your bad intelligence said he was going to.

Of course, the top brass may not consider teenage pirates much of a threat to national security after all.Mullen says it’s up to merchants to pay for their own protection, but they don’t want to do that “because it costs them too much money.” If they don’t want to hire Blackwater to guard their ships, let ‘em go fish, eh Mikey?

That makes a certain amount of sense except that Mullen also says “it’s about what the international community is going to do with respect to Somalia.So Mullen wants to have a sort of Global War on Piracy (GWOP), I guess.Funny how we go it alone when we want to but it takes a global village when we don’t.

And if Mullen doesn’t give a sailor’s first night in port whether we deal with the teenage pirate threat or not, how come he told the pod people who host ABC’s Good Morning America that the military has initiated a review to look “broadly and widely and deeply” at the pirate problem. “We’ve actually been focused on this issue for some period of time and set up a task force out in that part of the world last fall,” he told the pod people. “We’ve had a focus on it,” he said.The pod people nodded. “There are many, many people working on it right now,” he said.The pod people smiled.

I wonder if Mullen’s nose popped out of joint when Smart Power poster girl Hillary Clinton announced that she too had been broadly and widely and deeply looking at this issue for some period of time, and that many, many people in her State Department were also working on it. Between DoD and DoS, it sounds like many, many, people indeed are focusing on a solution to what Hillary, old salt that she is, calls the “scourge of piracy.”

A committee that size is guaranteed to come up with a counter-piracy strategy that looks like something along the lines of a seagoing giraffe.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy(Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff’s novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance, is on sale now.

9 replies »

  1. Jeff,

    I have nothing but respect for what you write about the military, and I value your real-life experience with the Navy. But I’d like to walk with you a ways on this one so you can point out where I’ve got things wrong, because my prescription for fixing the pirate problem is to do nothing at all … at least not now. This will be long. Sorry about that.

    It seems to me that the history of piracy has always been the same. Pirates prey on merchant ships and are tolerated so long as they never represent an unacceptable cost of doing business. Eventually, piracy becomes so profitable that too many pirates hang out their shingles, and merchants begin to scale back on trade because it is now unprofitable. At that point, the government of whatever nation steps in and defeats the pirates, and always in the same way: by taking their ports so they can’t resupply.

    Now, I freely concede your point that there are some differences in the modern world. Seaborne aircraft make it possible to cover vast areas of the oceans and to close fast on distress calls, taking out pirate craft with no real danger of losing one of those aircraft to pirate fire. That’s new. I also freely agree that, given the small sizes of these pirate craft, they can probably be resupplied by two men in a rowboat moving fuel, food, and ammunition from a beach to the mother ship. So, we agree that taking ports at this point will not solve the problem.

    Where we don’t agree (at this point) is that I don’t think US aircraft carriers are any sort of long-term solution. Historically, pirates faced with overwhelming force simply ceased operations until that force went away. And the force always goes away. The pirates then return until the next time they have to go to ground. I imagine that would be the pattern we would see in this case, as well. Once US carriers shot up some pirate boats, the pirates would disappear until the carriers were called elsewhere. Then they would return.

    I think the trick is to make piracy more equipment and capital intensive so that their ships need ports to operate from. Doing that means arming merchantmen so that the small boats are no longer sufficient. Naturally, the pirates, faced with hardened targets, will attempt to bring more men and firepower to bear, meaning they will need to move up to larger ships. These ships can be identified, tracked, and destroyed in their ports without having to take the ports. It becomes impossible to go underground once your assets are so visible.

    When it becomes clear to the pirates that piracy leads only to destruction of their assets, piracy will cease.

    Frankly, if the merchant community finds the current cost of doing business with the pirates acceptable, I don’t understand why the US should step in. When the merchants start to hire security forces, we’ll know that the cost has become unacceptable, and it’s time for government intervention.

    What have I missed, Jeff?

  2. You haven’t missed much, JS. You make some great points, ones that will take at least another 1k word or so column to address. For now I’ll say that if “many, many” people are working on a solution, and there’s a big hammer (carriers) that, for once, will actually effect a quick result, why not use it?

    As for sustainability, keep in mind that our carriers’ main mission for a decade was supporting the no-fly nonesense in Iraq. Theoretically, carrier counter-pirate involvement never has to go away. Like I said, we’ve got two of things deployed in the world at all times come war, peace, rain, shine, cats, dogs or chicken little.


  3. What the hell does this guy think the Marines are for? Does he even know why they’re called, “Marines”? Jesus’ face on a pancake, did he ever hear of Tripoli?

  4. Petey

    I suspect Jeff has heard of Tripoli, if it’s Jeff to whom you’re referring and not me. Sure, the Marines could take and patrol the NE coast of Africa at great cost and entangle the US in another ground action when they are desperately needed elsewhere.

    Seems like something we shouldn’t consider seriously, to me.

  5. Maybe i’m not a very good reader, but i didn’t get that Jeff was saying we should send a carrier group to deal with the pirates. He detailed how and why it would be a viable solution if we’re as worried as the political hand wringing suggests.

    I took his point to be that solutions are readily available that don’t take many, many people in multiple departments working very hard on the issue.

    But i can’t see how allowing merchant ships to arm themselves is a good idea, especially since i recently purchased a big enough boat to allow me a new career opportunity. Yargh, i’ll be a piratin’ on the Big Lake, the scourge of Superior when i get the booty of the iron ore boats.

  6. Yeah, Lex. If it’s important enough to deal with militarily, it’s important enough to do at sea where we already have the deployed assets needed to do it, rather than break the seal on yet another country we’ll just have to spend the next American century putting back together again.


  7. I’m talking about this guy:

    Admiral Gary Roughead, who as Chief of Naval Operations is the service’s senior officer, says sea power is not sufficient to combat the Somali pirate threat. “Pirates don’t live at sea,” he recently told reporters at a Navy League conference. “They live ashore. They move their money ashore. You can’t have a discussion about eradicating piracy without having a discussion about the shore dimension.”

  8. Lex:

    Let me try again. Clearly, I am not writing well enough to be understood. If I were running the US Navy (poor Navy it would be), I would not want to be put in a position of looking impotent because the tactics/strategy is used are wrong. Here’s what I think the right strategy may be:

    1. Do absolutely nothing until the merchant community begins to react to the economic issues. Until they do that, there’s no problem in my mind. Piracy will be just a minor cost of doing business.

    2. Do absolutely nothing until merchants begin to harden their targets in reaction to economic issues. Currently, the pirate boats are too small to track well and too easily resupplied from coastlines to catch and destroy in large numbers. They also represent a very minor capital investment, so losing a few (and their crews, presumably) is no big deal to the pirates. Sinking some of these boats will simply cause the pirates to hole up until the danger of sinking is past — as it certainly will be when US carriers move on.

    3. When the targets are sufficiently hardened, the pirates will either give up (unlikely) or resort to heavier equipment and larger crews that need more training to operate the larger ships. Many, if not all, of those ships will need ports to refuel and resupply, and they will be much easier to identify and track than the current small boats. These new ships can be identified and sunk at sea and/or in their harbors in large numbers, representing a very large capital loss for the pirate financiers. It’s at that point that naval action is both warranted by economic necessity and is likely to be most effective.

    4. Forcing the pirates to make large capital investments and then having them lose those investments will make piracy unprofitable, and forcing them to lose money is the key to defeating them. Piracy has no reason to exist unless there is wealth in it.