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The Increasing Allure of Nukes

In Warfare on July 23, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Nuclear weapons are commonly viewed as the ultimate military capability that a state may possess. Those countries that have developed and constructed nuclear weapons, no matter how limited their numbers or capabilities might be, are set apart from those that have not in the calculations of leaders and foreign policy establishments charged with managing conflict. The possession of even a single functional device is often assumed to mark a quantum shift in that state’s global standing and military position. Yet if one looks beneath the surface and examines more carefully the realistic options available of nuclear-armed nations, the limitations are found to be quite significant for those countries with small, newly-developed nuclear arsenals. Indeed, minimal nuclear capability may in some ways serve to impose restrictions on policy options that might not otherwise be present while at the same time creating external pressures that might not otherwise develop. In the interest of understanding the strategic implications of states with limited nuclear capabilities on diplomacy and conflict, we must examine the effect of development on the state’s international relations, the conditions in which such weapons might be used, and what exactly can be expected from both their employment as well as mere possession.

Ascendancy to the small circle of nuclear-armed states brings with it considerably baggage. States which have developed their capabilities have done so either outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or, if signatories, in direct contravention of it. Neither condition is likely to contribute to widespread support among the global community, at the very least introducing unwelcome complication, and opening the door to possible sanctions or other measures intended to punish the transgression. Naturally, this is likely to be haphazard and contingent upon the specific circumstances of the current balance of power; for example, the United States has made extraordinary efforts to assist India in normalizing their nuclear standing (thus making available to it civilian nuclear technology) in spite of that country’s nuclear program operating outside the NPT, with the U.S. intention being to strengthen diplomatic ties in the interest of longer-term security interests. It is of course much easier to overlook the violations of a potential ally half a world away than those of a known enemy or potential short-term rival.

Known nascent programs, such as Iran’s, are more likely to be targets of direct action, as the possibility of arresting the development prior to weaponization greatly simplifies the equation (though, with a nod to Clausewitz, one should not mistake simplicity for ease). Israeli strikes against the Iraqi and Syrian programs forestalled development of nuclear weapons in those countries, allowing Israel to maintain regional dominance in the nuclear arena, a cornerstone of her security strategy. In lieu of military action, stiff sanctions and other measures short of war may also be employed. If the state or coalition doing so are militarily dominant in relation to the nuclear aspirant, these efforts may be carried out in relative security (though not without consequence); in the face of a direct challenge, the aspiring nuclear power can be counted on to redouble its efforts in what amounts to a race to see if the sanctions can have a meaningful effect before the development process is completed. Even if it succeeds in building weapons, the costs of doing so under such external pressures will likely be severe. For all of these reasons, states seeking nuclear weapons have strong inducements to keep their programs secret for as long as possible.

The nuclear weapons themselves are only part of the equation; delivery systems must also be available if the state is to have meaningful nuclear capability. Surface-to-surface missiles are the most common method for delivery, as they have traditionally posed the greatest difficulty for defensive systems (though this is changing somewhat) and do not require the extensive air force capabilities necessary to contest air superiority in order to reliably deliver weapons to the target by that method. Submarine-launched missiles offer the most secure method of maintaining a nuclear force for both offensive and deterrent purposes, but this technology is not generally available to new nuclear powers. The range of whatever delivery systems are in use will dictate to a significant degree the extent to which the state will be able to employ (actively or passively) its nuclear weapons; conversely, states outside that range that may oppose the new nuclear state may increase the level of their resistance with relatively limited concern, though regional allies may find themselves more exposed.

Assuming a successful program, the newly-minted nuclear power will now have to determine what it may do with its new capabilities. To have acquired militarily-viable nuclear weapons, that is to say weapons that can be delivered effectively and reliably against relevant targets, is a significant achievement, but it is not the same as having an arsenal capable of offering the full gamut of nuclear strategic options. While a great deal of thought was dedicated to nuclear strategy during the Cold War, and some very useful theories and doctrines generated, little of this is relevant to a state with a handful of low- to medium-yield nuclear weapons, especially if its rivals have larger and more versatile nuclear arsenals.

The Cold War calculus applied to nuclear war incorporated such sophisticated approaches as counter-force and counter-value targeting, secure second-strike capability, and eventually mutually-assured destruction; for a state possessing perhaps a few dozen warheads, many of these options simply do not exist. Counter-force targeting, aimed at an opponent’s nuclear weapons, is not likely to be possible, especially if that opponent has dispersed their warheads and has multiple methods of delivery available. Counter-value strikes against cities, intended to raise the cost of fighting to unacceptable levels, are the only realistic option for the small nuclear power, and then only if its delivery systems have sufficient reach. Counter-value targeting works primarily as a deterrent, in effect holding an opponent’s population centers hostage as a guarantee against an attack. If, however, this option is exercised, the state will draw the wrath of both its opponent and likely that of a significant portion of the world community. Having expended even one weapon thusly is very likely to provoke retaliation on a scale it cannot hope to match. Lacking both sufficient first-strike capability to inflict catastrophic losses on an opponent and its allies (while casualties and costs would be massive, catastrophic loss must be defined here as sufficient to persistently obstruct the ability of a state to function economically, politically, and militarily), and sufficient survivable second-strike capability to deter massive retaliation for limited nuclear first use, mutually-assured destruction does not apply in this case. In effect, then, any use, and particularly first-use, of nuclear weapons by a small nuclear power against another nuclear power would very likely amount to self-assured destruction.

If first-use against another nuclear power is simple suicide, it must be inferred that the possession of nuclear weapons is viewed as a primarily defensive measure to be held as a final reserve to prevent existential national defeat, or that they are intended to attain dominance over non-nuclear rivals. The logic of the former case is self-evident, if fatalistic: a government facing obliteration in a non-nuclear contest may attempt to forestall the result by escalating the conflict in order to so dramatically increase the cost to its opponent that unconditional surrender or regime change become less attractive than simply ending the conflict, or simply to reap final vengeance on an otherwise-victorious rival. Obviously such an approach is extremely high-risk, but for a state in extremis this risk is no greater than accepting otherwise inevitable defeat. If a state is the first in a region to seek nuclear weapons, doing so will probably trigger a race by regional rivals to develop arsenals of their own in the interest of maintaining the balance of power. This has been seen most notably in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, and previously in the early years of the Cold War. If the regional rivals succeed in building viable nuclear arsenals of broadly similar size and capability, the result may in fact be ultimately stabilizing; the possibility of a nuclear exchange has historically had the effect of causing leaders to willingly limit conflict so as to minimize the risk of escalation. The proliferation of weapons to additional states, however, must nonetheless mathematically increase the chance that they will be used.

We must infer then that those states that acquire nuclear weapons perceive a threat significant enough to endanger the existence of the government, and that the threat is compelling enough to offset the diplomatic and economic costs involved with development. Once acquired, nuclear weapons are only of practical value if they can be used to intimidate non-nuclear opponents, or to prevent nuclear-capable rivals from taking action. The possession of roughly equal nuclear arsenals will likely act to reduce the chances of all-out war between rival states, as neither will be willing to risk the costs of either first-use or being the victim of a first-strike, given that both will be restricted to counter-value targeting strategy. The moment of greatest danger for the nuclear aspirant, then, is the period between the decision to develop nuclear weapons and the point at which they become operational, when vulnerability to both nuclear and non-nuclear opponents peaks because they may seek to disrupt the effort before it succeeds. For non-nuclear rivals of a newly nuclear-capable state, the risk persists for as long as the imbalance remains. This of course encourages them to develop nuclear capability of their own, or to at least build stable alliances with nuclear powers. The inevitable conclusion is that, in lieu of a strong and reliable nuclear partner, states facing potential regional nuclear rivals will seek such capability of their own. During the Cold War, the presence of two nuclear superpowers made alliance with one or the other the preferred option for the vast majority of states. In the increasingly divided multipolar global system, however, with power becoming more diffuse and shared more equally among more states, governments are ever more likely to perceive that they must look after their own security, as the threats multiply and alliances become less stable. For all its drawbacks, indigenous nuclear capability provides, if nothing else, reasonable assurance that the regime will not be destroyed from without, and this alone is enough to make it increasingly desirable in a dangerous and uncertain world.


		
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We’re Not Here to be Liked…

In Warfare on July 5, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

As General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, it is perhaps worth considering the lessons offered by historical example in trying to envision the end-state of the conflict in that benighted country. The outlook is not encouraging.

The strategy put into place by the outgoing General McChrystal, which will evidently continue under Petraeus, revolves around the idea of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, which in short entails employing a set of highly restrictive rules of engagement and a minimum of force in order to maximize opportunities for building support for a new local civilian government among the populace; the rather more destructive approach employed during much of the Vietnam War, best summed up in the convoluted logic of the famous statement by a soldier that “(w)e had to burn the village in order to save it,” has not proven to win much backing. This sort of approach is usually applied in a limited area first, and when it has been pacified, efforts are shifted to adjacent areas; this is known as an “inkspot” strategy, as single drops slowly spread across the map, eventually joining to create a singular secure state. Needless to say, building trust among the people, sufficiently weakening the enemy and strengthening the local government, all with limited resort to force, is an expensive and time-consuming process that depends at least as much on perception and belief as it does on material resources.

There is an inherent tension in this sort of conflict for the Great Power involved. How does one address a military escalation by one’s opponent if a commensurate increase in violence will only serve to further isolate the population upon which success ultimately depends? Is the only approach to “kill them with kindness (and development aid)?” If so, how can such a program be carried out if the civil administration is incapable of supporting such an effort? For soldiers trained to fight, as all soldiers must be, this sort of conflict presents one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges of service. For commanders and policy-makers, the problems present a similar (if not greater) conundrum.

Vietnam is naturally the most common example used in comparison to the current Afghan conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was famously confused, when it was in fact present at all. General Westmoreland’s approach in Vietnam represented what is termed the “ tacticization of strategy,” wherein the tactical objective is erroneously applied to the strategic level; in other words, Westmoreland viewed battlefield defeat of the enemy as an end in itself, but this tactical success led not to victory, but down a strategic cul-de-sac. Westmoreland is only partly to blame, as his civilian superiors gave him precious little strategic guidance, having no idea how to frame the conditions of victory except to identify ending the war as the primary objective.

American leadership largely attempted to ignore the asymmetry of the conflict, assuming or pretending that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free and democratic, that there was no tension between Western ideas and religion (American backed the Catholic Diem regime, to which the majority Buddhist population was generally opposed, if not openly hostile, until Diem’s assassination in 1963) and those native to the region,  and that the Communist opposition could be swayed from its primary purpose by carrots or sticks. Fighting the war on with a strategy based on these premises was a recipe for disaster, as no evidence supported the assumptions that underpinned this approach, while the Vietnamese communists had both a sound strategy and the means to effect it, as well as a far greater commitment to an object that was fundamental to their survival as a state.

Yet the greatest error of America’s war in Vietnam may be that it attempted to build the South Vietnamese state into a self-governing entity even as much of its territory was still contested, if not strongly held by the enemy. Further, the insistence that the South Vietnamese assume the Western form of government, with democratic elections and Enlightenment concepts and ethics lending it legitimacy, only weakened the real power of the South Vietnamese to build a viable nation from a people wholly unfamiliar with these concepts. The desire for rapid success (defined by the American people and government as getting out, presumably without the Communists winning control over all of Vietnam) created tremendous pressure to quickly stabilize the South Vietnamese state; the blind faith in the universal desire for democracy and freedom, combined with the rush to promote self-rule, severely undermined the ability of successive South Vietnamese governments to assume the burden of the war and to build a government that was ultimately sustainable.

In his landmark book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John Nagl (USA, Ret.) compares the U.S. experience in Vietnam with that of the British in Malaya during the Emergency, 1948-57. Both situations saw Communist insurgencies pitted against Western forces that had to deal not only with the immediate problem but with the broader circumstances of the Cold War as well. After confronting the insurgency for several years without success, the British turned to General Sir Gerald Templar, who was, to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery, “the man with the plan.” Templar was instructed that a self-governing unified non-Communist Malaya as the object of British efforts. With this in mind, the British government gave him “exceptional civil and military powers to defeat the insurgency,” appointing him not only High Commissioner (the highest civilian representative of the British government) but also commander of all armed forces in Malaya. Thus Templar was given full control over all assets, civil and military, that could be applied to defeating the insurgency in a singular unified effort prior to establishing a Malayan government, rather than trying to accomplish two difficult tasks at once. He used them to good effect; only when the Communists had been badly weakened did he begin to relinquish control to the nascent Malayan government.

Templar admittedly did not have to face the same bewildering array of political problems that the Americans did in Vietnam – Malaya having been a British colony for some time – but the fundamentals were similar. Securing the civilian population, isolating the insurgents, minimizing casualties and costs, and resolving the conflict expeditiously were all part of Templar’s brief. Without the problem of managing both the war effort and relations with a new and inexperienced local administration with no experience of the government model into which they have been thrust, Templar was free to apply techniques that would have prompted strong local resistance, such as strictly controlling the food supply and limiting movement.

This unified command approach was not pioneered by the British in Malaya, however; indeed, Americans had come to similar conclusions years before, as evidenced in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940. This book, the culmination of decades of experience in fighting small wars, was forgotten in the wake of the Second World War, reentered the military’s consciousness as a result of the failure in Vietnam, and has been claimed to be influential in developing post-Cold War policy, yet its lessons have been applied haphazardly and piecemeal. The Small Wars Manual makes quite clear that there must be an effective administration in place while the military objectives are in question: “Military government…is sanctioned because the powers of sovereignty have passed into the hands of the commander of the occupying forces and the local authority is unable to maintain order and protect life and property in the immediate theater of military operations” (emphasis added). The latter state is quite clearly present in Afghanistan today.

The American effort in Afghanistan is badly weakened by the presence of the Afghan government. Corruption, infiltration by supporters of the Taliban insurgents, and general ineffectiveness all undermine popular support, which is critically important to create legitimacy, not least because of the insistence that the government be elected. If the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed beyond simply allowing the United States to extricate itself from the conflict, the American commander should be invested with overarching civil powers as well as military command. This would clearly be a temporary condition, and may prove unpopular among the Afghan people, but it is necessary if the first precondition of a successful counterinsurgency effort – security of the populace – is to be established. As noted by the Marine authors of the Small Wars Manual seventy years ago, “(i)t should be remembered that the inhabitants do not owe the military government allegiance; but they do owe it obedience.” The American-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan are the only power sufficient to have even a hope of compelling the latter condition, which by our own doctrine is a necessary prerequisite for the former.

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Can Limited Wars Still be Won?

In Warfare on June 25, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Limited wars, and in particular such conflicts where one of the belligerents is a Great Power, have been the most common form of interstate conflict for more than a century, arguably first developing their modern form during the Age of Imperialism, and evolving further during the post-colonial period. These conflicts have always posed a particular challenge to the Great Power involved, as they specifically demand successful resolution without the employment of all available resources, whether because of greater threats that must be guarded against or political pressures from a variety of sources that compel moderation of effort. Striking this balance has become increasingly difficult, to the point that we must question whether these conflicts can still be won. Victory is of course defined, here as elsewhere, by achieving the political object of the effort; military success alone is not sufficient.

The nature of strategy and the options available to nations in developing their own strategic approaches in any conflict are bound by a directly proportional relationship between the means available and potential negative outcomes; the greater the potential for damage to the national interest in the event of failure, the more unrestricted the means that are considered justified. A conflict in which there is no existential threat to nation, government or population must always be confined at least to the limits of what is considered reasonable in terms of cost and risk. In other words, the costs of success – financial as well as political and military – must not outweigh the value of the object of the war.

From the mid-19th Century to the early 20th, the heyday of the European imperial powers, this equation was usually fairly easy to balance. The ability of industrialized European nations to employ limited yet sufficient means to overwhelm virtually any non-European opponent was almost a given; the costs of such efforts were generally small, with proprietary technology offering tremendous economy of force. Though it is admittedly an extreme example, the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, the culmination of the British expedition to avenge the death of General Gordon and crush the Mahdi Army in the Sudan, gives an indication of what was possible: after an exhausting journey up the Nile, a force of some 8,000 British soldiers and 17,000 local auxiliaries supported by artillery and gunboats was assaulted by over 50,000 poorly-armed and ill-trained dervishes. When the battle ended after roughly six hours, approximately 10,000 dervishes lay dead, and another 13,000 were wounded, many of whom did not survive. The British lost 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. Omdurman represents the pinnacle of industrial warfare against a non-industrialized foe, and was rightly lauded as a great triumph of British arms.

The Sudan Expedition represents very well the easy strategic calculus of the period. Even though the obstacles to be overcome were significant (the problems of travel up the Nile were far more difficult than those posed by the enemy), there was relatively little concern that the British-led force would come to grief. Modern rifles, machine guns, and artillery had proven their worth in battle, and the force was large enough that that chances of it being overwhelmed were almost nil. With more than twice their number of local allied troops, the British force was large enough to be militarily effective, yet small enough not to represent a major political risk even if more significant casualties had been incurred (the casualties taken by local allies had almost no negative political value for the British). The financial cost of the expedition, while not insubstantial, was far outweighed by the control of territory achieved by success (reinforced only days later at Fashoda, where the advantage of the British position checked a French challenge from the west), not to mention avenging the death of the unfortunate Gordon.

In considering the situation in the Sudan, the British concluded that the potential of success afforded by modern technology and organization outstripped the relatively remote risks of failure, measured in casualties and objectives unattained. To both the British government and people, the losses inflicted on the Mahdi Army were of generally little concern, and the use of technology in doing so was a triumph of industrialized civilization over barbarism. There was thus very little potential political cost to the expedition provided that it achieved its primary object, an entirely attainable goal; means and methods played almost no part in the equation, as the level of commitment required to succeed was far below the political tipping point established by the value of the object.

Yet the calculation was not always so simple; immediately following the success of Omdurman, the British were forced to confront a far more difficult challenge in South Africa – the Boer War. Here the enemy was well-armed with European rifles and refused to fight the British in a manner that emphasized British strengths; instead, they fought a guerrilla war, never allowing the British forces to employ their advantages of organization and technology to good effect. Unable to win a quick and decisive victory, the British were compelled to invest more troops, more money, and more political capital in an effort to break the Boers. When this failed, more drastic measures were taken: huge swaths of countryside were sectioned off with barbed wire and blockhouses to restrict movement, and many Boers were moved into the first concentration camps in history.

Even though the British did successfully conclude the war in 1902 after three years of constant struggle, the political costs were substantial, making the victory far less clear-cut. The treatment of the Boers, who were of course of Christian farmers of European origin, was considered an outrage by some. The inability of the vaunted British Army to see off a relatively small force of poorly trained irregulars seemed inexplicable, especially since that same army had just enjoyed such success in the Sudan. The difficulties of fighting a limited war against an enemy that was far less willing to cooperate by fighting in the manner the British expected them to, and that did not occupy a distinctly lower place in the racial and social hierarchy generally accepted at the time (it was difficult to classify the Boers as “barbarians”), were made clear. The lessons were promptly forgotten with the advent of Great Power conflict that dominated the world until 1945, only to be rediscovered during the waves of post-colonial struggles for independence, which occurred in a vastly different political climate.

Modern limited wars look far more like the Boer War than the Sudan Campaign, but the limitations are becoming ever more restrictive. No longer can labels of “barbarian” lessen the political impact of losses inflicted on an opponent; no longer can the latest technology be employed without consideration of the consequences. Yet the threshold for failure has continued to fall; even limited numbers of casualties in an all-volunteer force or failure to achieve success in a short span of time can be enough to significantly weaken political resolve and popular support. For the Great Powers, limited war presents a paradox: for all the power they possess, the means that can be employed in limited wars are increasingly restricted by the political costs of using them. The technological disparity between the leading powers and their lesser opponents remains significant, but the costs involved in using that technology have increased. Thus the political costs of committing manpower and time to a limited war effort cannot be offset by victory ensured by technology as they were at Omdurman. At the same time, those opposing the Great Powers are often fighting for a far more valuable political object, and are thus willing to commit far more of their available means, and with fewer regards for the political costs, as failure in the conflict could be fatal to the regime. The end result is that limited ends are increasingly difficult to achieve at acceptable cost to the Great Powers. Has limited war become too limited to win?

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Whither the frigate?

In Warfare on May 28, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

In the first half of the 19th Century, navies relied upon the frigate as a jack-of-all-trades: the sort of ship that could scout for the fleet, engage in commerce escort or raiding, and sail to distant and remote points around the globe to protect the national interest by engaging the navies of lesser powers, landing military forces to resolve matters ashore, or simply showing the flag. The sort of ship tasked with these diverse roles has changed over the years with the evolution of new technologies and terminology; the frigate was replaced by the cruiser (and to a lesser extent the gunboat) in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These ships were often not possessed of the most modern technology – ships-of-the-line and the battleships that superseded them generally received the most modern guns and later propulsion systems – but they remained vital because of their versatility and the fact that they could be produced in numbers far greater than the staggeringly expensive larger units.

The Second World War and its aftermath suggested that the need for such ships had past; massive fleets, centered on carrier battle groups and supported by aviation and submarines, were now required to provide both survivable force and meaningful capability. The diffusion of technology to the Third World after the war suggested that a single ship alone, no matter how capable, would be a potential liability rather than an asset. The rapid advances of the Cold War era supported this interpretation of the strategic shift: as new technology drove costs ever higher, it paradoxically also enabled poorer nations to acquire capabilities that, while not on the cutting edge, offered conditions far closer to parity with the Great Powers than had been the case in the previous century. Cold War politics further encouraged this trend, as the Superpowers supported their allies with ever more capable weapons systems. One need only contrast the various 20th Century wars in former colonial battlegrounds like the Middle East, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia with their 19th Century precursors to understand how radically the playing field had been leveled.

The strategic situation today, however, is in some ways regressing toward that of the 19th Century. The bipolarity of the Cold War is gone, as are in large part the mass armies that made possible the total wars of the first half of the 20th Century. The historically more common state of international competition in a shifting multipolar system is once again emerging, as the United States, China, and Russia, joined in a fashion by Europe (as led by Germany and France), Britain, India, and Japan, are moving away from the relative stasis of their Cold War relationships and instead acting to more directly assert themselves in the protection of their own interests.

While the armed forces are certainly not the only, or even the primary, means of protecting national interest, they are a necessary component of the equation; without both the presence of useful military capability and the national will to employ it, national interests remain secure only by the continued acquiescence of one’s rivals – rather a precarious condition. It should come as no surprise then that the reversion of the international political order to competitive multipolarity will require a significant shift in the military options with which nations provide themselves.

This has already been underway for some time. The obvious elements – reductions in nuclear arsenals, major combat units such as ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers, heavy ground forces (especially armor and artillery) – have been apparent in the U.S. and Russian militaries for well over a decade. Other powers are acting differently, dependent upon their circumstances: Europe is reducing its capabilities due to cost and the apparent belief that military force is of ever-decreasing utility, while China is streamlining its forces while developing new capabilities as it seeks to extend its international influence. In all of the Great Powers, the current conventional wisdom suggests that a combination of technology and doctrinal flexibility will compensate for the reduction in numbers.

Technology does indeed offer remarkable new options to precisely apply military force quickly and over an increasingly large area, while reducing the manpower required to do so. This has tremendous benefits in the current casualty-averse political and social environment so prevalent, especially in the West. New doctrines developed to employ these new technologies in current military circumstances may indeed further reduce the human costs of war.

But technology is increasingly costly. Reductions in manpower and the numbers of planes and ships has driven per-unit costs to astonishing heights as engineers and planners seek to build all the diverse capabilities for which they perceive a need into an ever-smaller number of units operated by an ever-smaller number of men. The paradox here is that, as the value of each unit rises, the willingness to use it (and potentially lose it) diminishes. Thus the seemingly tactical and technical questions of design and doctrine increasingly weigh on strategic decision-making. The dreadnought building programs of Britain and Germany in the years preceding the First World War, and the subsequent unwillingness to employ and risk these incredibly costly vessels (the fleets met in only a single major engagement, at Jutland in 1916; Germany turned increasingly to submarines as its primary naval weapons, while Britain employed a distant blockade of German ports), is but one example of how cost influences strategy.

The frigates and cruisers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries offered their respective owners options that more valuable fleet units did not. No Great Power of that time would risk a modern battleship in anything less than a full-scale war with another Great Power; to do so would not only require dividing the fleet, creating a strategic vulnerability, but the ramifications of the loss of a unit that might take years to replace at tremendous cost were politically, militarily, and economically dangerous.

So it is today. The fleets of the Great Powers are now but a faint shadow of those of the 20th Century; from the hundreds and even thousands of ships that comprised the navies of that time, the number of blue-water naval combatants in most fleets can be counted in the dozens. The ships that should be filling the traditional role of the frigate or cruiser – the modern destroyer is the closest analog – are so few that there are simply not enough to adequately perform the myriad roles in which they might prove useful. Consider the current situations which might benefit from an increased American naval presence: the looming crisis in Korea; the growing concern about China’s naval and economic power; piracy in the waters off Somalia; the Iranian nuclear standoff; and perhaps even the ongoing turmoil in Jamaica. Add to these fleet duties, natural disaster response, search and rescue, patrolling shipping lanes, port calls, and all the various other tasks these ships may be called upon to perform, and it seems fairly optimistic to consider the 56 destroyers currently on the U.S. Navy’s active list adequate. (It should be noted that the U.S. Navy still operates some 30 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, but these ships were designed as primarily anti-submarine warfare types, and the last one was produced in 1989).

More problematic, though, is their design and cost. While incredibly capable ships, it seems rather inappropriate to send a modern American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, equipped with 90 vertically-launched missiles and costing close to a billion dollars to produce, to chase down a dozen Somali pirates equipped with AK-47s and RPGs, or to provide a Marine security detachment to assist Jamaican police in restoring order (the disorder having been caused by a U.S. extradition request), or to provide logistical support to a disaster relief effort. Yet these are precisely the sort of missions that the U.S. Navy is called upon to perform. The majority of the capabilities of its only class of destroyers are utterly unnecessary to successfully fulfill these missions. Other navies face similar situations, though perhaps not as frequently as the U.S.; nonetheless, would not the anti-piracy effort in the Indian Ocean be more effective with twice as many less-capable ships? Would not the navies of the Great Powers be more willing to meaningfully commit their forces to non-controversial international missions if the costs were not so high?

The problem is far from new. Julian Corbett, in his classic Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911), identified a similar problem afflicting the Royal Navy: “What Nelson felt for was a battleship of cruiser speed. What Strachan desired was a cruiser fit to take part in a fleet action. We have them both, but with what result?…Battleships grade into armoured cruisers, armoured cruisers into protected cruisers. We can scarcely detect any real distinction except a twofold one between vessels whose primary armament is the gun and vessels whose primary armament is the torpedo.” Today the distinction is even more faint: virtually every surface vessel employs missiles as its primary armament. Corbett’s query was not answered, but was instead rendered largely irrelevant by the change in strategic conditions beginning in 1914 and only properly coming to a close in 1991. As fleets grew, organized into large task forces centered first on battleships and later aircraft carriers, the distinctions changed as primary missions became narrower and ever more focused on fleet engagements and total war. With ships in abundance, specialization became the norm. Only as the numbers drew down significantly did Corbett’s question regain its relevance.

The world today bears closer strategic resemblance to the volatile years before the First World War than to most of the 20th Century, and as such it would be wise for policymakers to consider that the political framework in which they operate will dictate how they employ their military options. Ground and air warfare have already seen significant adjustments as the result of recent experience. Naval operations have been few and far between; naval forces, however, remain busier than ever. Drones cannot deliver humanitarian assistance; infantry is not well-suited to demonstrating diplomatic resolve. It falls to the navies of the world to form the closest visible link between national policy and military power, yet navies have changed the least in constitution and doctrine since the end of the Cold War. Corbett put it succinctly: “On cruisers depends the exercise of control; on the battle-fleet depends the security of control.” The security of control was at great risk during much of the 20th Century, but that risk has since diminished. What presents a far greater problem in the current strategic environment is exercising control across the vast spaces of the world’s oceans and littorals, in no small part for the want of a suitable number of suitable vessels and the political will to use them.

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Pirates, and not the Disney kind

In Warfare on April 12, 2009 by AEG Tagged: , ,

The international security problems confronting the Obama administration are not very different from those the Bush administration had to deal with: North Korean missile tests, Iranian nuclear developments, slow progress in Afghanistan. Because the interests of the United States remain relatively constant relative to all of these issues, little American policy is likely to change toward them, barring a major development. While the means may be different (or at least appear so), the ends are fairly well fixed.

One of the more recent problems to arise before American policy makers is less clearly defined, both in terms of ends and means of U.S. policy. Piracy off the west African coast is not new, but the taking of several American and other Western ships and their crews has led to far greater attention being dedicated to the problem. Should such attacks against American ships continue, the Obama administration will be forced to move decisively against the pirates if he wants to maintain both credibility of America’s naval force as a deterrent and the traditional American dedication to freedom of the seas.

The latter point is an important one, hearkening back to the country’s earliest conflicts. As a commercial nation, one that has always relied heavily on international shipping, America has committed extraordinary energies to the protection of free maritime trade. From the actions against the Barbary pirates to vehement opposition to Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the First World War (prior to American entry), American presidents have long recognized that the vitality of the nation’s economy depends upon the ability to conduct overseas trade in a secure and consistent manner, unmolested by combatants or pirates.

Today’s pirates present a particularly difficult problem. Based in Somalia, a state with no functioning national government, they operate in the same chaotic environment that provided such effective security for warlords like Mohammed Farah Idid (the target of the failed “Blackhawk Down” raid). Relying upon a large civilian population for security from Western military power, they are able to further frustrate their opponents by taking hostages from the ships they seize. Paid enormous ransoms by shippers, they have been able to consolidate their power more effectively than any Somali government might on their own.

Attempting to address the problem of piracy in the waters off Somalia, one of the most active shipping lanes in the world, by the use of naval patrols is fraught with difficulty. The sheer size of the area to be covered is so large that, given the limited number of naval vessels thus committed (the number varies, but somewhere between 15 and 20, including support vessels), reaching threatened commercial ships can take many hours. Helicopters flying from these patrolling ships can cut the response time significantly, but not all vessels are so equipped. Further, the armaments carried by most are better suited to dealing with submarines than the small, fast boats the pirates favor. Finally, there is the danger of the intended victims of piracy, both the crews and their heavily-laden ships, being caught in the crossfire. The pirates certainly recognize the limitations on the amount of force that can be brought against them once they are on board a target vessel, and will not hesitate to use captive crews as human shields.

UN resolutions passed in recent months have allowed for pursuit of pirates into Somali territorial waters, and more recently, onto Somali territory itself. Once again, however, the problems inherent in actually doing so are substantial. The risks involved in sending troops in to retrieve hostages are enormous, both for the captives and the forces sent to rescue them. Even if successful, the vessels would remain in the hands of the pirates, along with their valuable cargoes, and freeing some hostages may very well increase the danger faced by those who remain. Any sort of larger-scale military operation, even one aimed at a fairly limited target such as control over one of the small cities used as bases by the pirates, is very unlikely, considering the potential costs and current attitudes toward such military activity.

Historically however, it is striking at the base areas of pirates, in combination with addressing the circumstances that make piracy attractive in the first place, that has proven effective in dealing with the problem. In the fight against the Barbary pirates, it was not until the bombardments of Tripoli and the subsequent use of ground forces threatened the rule of the pasha of that most recalcitrant of the North African states that a negotiated peace was seen as more desirable than continued attacks on American merchant vessels. A second war ten years later was necessary to conclude the issue permanently.

Similarly, the piracy that ravaged the Caribbean was quite successful as long as base areas remained open to its practitioners. Of course, for privateers operating under letters of marque in times of war, territories of the country in whose name they practiced their trade were available, but even for the true pirates there was for some time no real shortage of ports that welcomed them and the plunder that helped to sustain the local economy. Nassau, a notorious early 18th Century base in the Bahamas that was home to thousands of pirates, conducted a mutually profitable trade with the merchants of Harbour Island, who in turn sold these goods to cities all along the Eastern Seaboard. For the backwaters of the Caribbean as for the desolate coast of northern Somalia today, piracy offers economic opportunities not only for the pirates, but for those who protect and support their efforts as well.

The United States and other nations that depend on maritime trade are faced with a choice: either accept the costs associated with piracy, or attempt to remove the threat. For governments that do not have to worry about public opinion, and are sufficiently prosperous to bear the costs, the former option may be attractive, moreso given that other countries that cannot tolerate such actions due to public pressure to halt them may act to resolve the issue. For America, however, tolerance for attacks against U.S.-flagged ships is low, as demonstrated by the case of the Maersk Alabama, and action is expected to be swift and successful. In spite of the positive outcome of this case, such results cannot be expected to be repeated with any confidence. Should such attacks continue, pressure will build for more assertive action.

The nature of the action the Obama administration might take is difficult to discern, but it will without a doubt be costly and difficult. Offering incentives in exchange for a halt to piracy would be hard to sell to the American people, and perhaps even harder to implement effectively in the lawless coastal region of northern Somalia. Using force directly has similar issues, from collateral damage to difficulty in obtaining sufficient intelligence to accurately locate and identify valid targets. Arming merchant vessels and their crews has some potential as a deterrent, though how far such a program might go to simply encouraging the pirates to employ heavier arms more aggressively is hard to say. Convoys, a time-tested method for protecting merchant ships, would be immensely problematic to implement, as ship owners would be reluctant to disrupt their schedules and slow their progress (as convoys must travel at the speed of the slowest ship) unless the costs of the attacks became significantly higher than they are currently.

A more effective approach, albeit one that may be exceptionally difficult to execute, may be to turn the pirates against each other. By offering incentives – pardons, money, government sanction – some of the pirates may be turned against the others, creating a force with intimate knowledge of the society in which the pirates exist and with access to them that would be simply impossible for any outside force to recreate. Giving the pirates de facto control not only of a counter-piracy effort, but even sanctioning their establishment of local civil authorities, could undermine those pirates who chose to continue their efforts. This would of course require significant financial commitment and a willingness to sacrifice a great deal of the moral high ground in exchange for results.

Such a Machiavellian approach is unlikely to be popular, or even understood, by the American people, but historically it has worked where little else did. In combination with more conventional countermeasures of naval patrols and armed merchants, a program of undermining the pirates from within, encouraging internecine warfare by increasing the costs of attacks against commercial shipping and providing compelling benefits for former pirates to work against their former comrades offers the greatest chance for resolving the problem without having to resort to a larger military operation that the United States is unlikely to be willing to undertake.