Network-Centric Warfare derives its power from the strong networking of a well-informed but geographically dispersed force. – VADM Arthur Cebrowski, Proceedings 1998
Almost twenty years ago the pages of Proceedings carried an article by RDML Cebrowski that introduced the concept of network-centric, or net-centric, warfare. The concept transformed the manner in which the United States (U.S.) Navy operates and fights. The principles that defined net-centric warfare remain relevant as they support Navy’s current pillars of Information Dominance: Battlespace Awareness, Assured Command and Control (C2), and Integrated Fires. The success of net-centric warfare has not gone unnoticed. Navies around the world are working to develop their own net-centric solutions. As a result, the U.S. Navy should not be surprised when enterprising individuals around the world similarly take note and make the evolutionary leap from traditional piracy to net-centric piracy.
While piracy has been a scourge for the duration of human history, the technological advances of the 21st century provide potential pirates transformational means, methods and opportunities. While the world has yet to witness a case of net-centric piracy, the two scenarios below present possible piracy events leveraging today’s technology.
Basic Net-centric Piracy
Sixty-two nautical miles south east of Singapore – 17JUL15 1154C: An Indonesian pirate opens his laptop and logs onto the internet via satellite phone. His homepage is a commercial Automated Identification System (AIS) website providing real-time track data from coastal and satellite receivers. The laptop, satellite phone and website subscription were all funded by his investors. As he scans his homepage, he looks for AIS contacts that meet his desired vessel profile for cargo type, transportation firm, flag, and speed of advance. Today there are two AIS tracks of interest matching his profile and likely to pass through his preferred zone of operation, MV OCEAN HORIZONS and MW ORIENTAL DAWN. He then checks weather conditions and determining that they are favorable, he sends individual texts messages containing coordinate and track data for the AIS tracks of interest. The text recipients are two fishing boat captains, one located in Belawan, Indonesia and the other in Dungun, Malaysia.
Forty-six nautical miles east of Belwan, Indonesia – 17JUL15 1646C: MV ORIENTAL DAWN passes a non-descript fishing boat 46 nautical miles off the coast of Indonesia. Unbeknownst to the crew of the MV ORIENTAL DAWN, this fishing boat is captained by the pirate’s associate from Belawan. The fishing boat’s captain discretely observes the passing vessel through a pair of high-powered binoculars. Seeing barbed wire along the railings and an individual on the ship’s deck that does not appear to be a member of the crew, the fishing boat captain utilizes a satellite phone to call and report his observations to his Indonesian pirate contact. Based on this information the Indonesian pirate determines that MV ORIENTAL DAWN is not a suitable target.
One-hundred seventeen nautical miles east of Singapore – 17JUL15 1707C: The Indonesian pirate receives a call. This time it is the fishing boat captain from Dungun. The captain reports that the MV OCEAN HORIZONS is loaded down creating a smaller freeboard and there does not appear to be any additional security measures present. Given this assessment, the Indonesian pirate decides that MV OCEAN HORIZONS is a target of opportunity. He immediately has the crew of his ship alter course.
Thirty-seven nautical miles east of Pekan, Malaysia – 18JUL15 0412C: The Indonesian pirate launches two high-speed skiffs from his ship, both carrying multiple armed personnel. The Indonesian pirate mothership remains over the horizon, but in radio contact while the skiffs conduct the remainder of the intercept.
Sixty-two nautical miles east of Pekan, Malaysia – 18JUL15 0642C: The armed personnel from the skiffs board MV OCEAN HORIZONS and catch the crew off guard. Once in control of the ship, they contact the Indonesian pirate via radio and report their success. The Indonesian pirate immediately opens his laptop and reports his success to his investors. He also lists the ship’s cargo for auction on a dark website and sends a ransom demand to the employer of the MV OCEAN HORIZON crew.
Sophisticated Net-centric Piracy
Moscow, Russia – 17JUL15 0126D: After a series of all-nighters over the last week, a Russian hacker has gained access to a crewmember’s computer onboard the MV PACIFIC TREADER. Using this access he maps the shipboard network. Discovering a diagnostic and maintenance laptop used for the ship’s automation and control system on the network, he quickly exploits the laptop’s outdated and unpatched operating system to install a tool on the automation and control system. The tool enables a remote user to either trigger or disable a continual reboot condition. Once installed, the hacker posts the access information for the tool’s front end user interface in a private dark web chatroom.
Prague, Czech Republic – 16JUL15 2348A: Sitting in his Prague apartment, a pirate receives a message on his cellphone via a private dark web chatroom. The message is from one of several hackers he contracted to gain access to control or navigation systems onboard vessels operated by the TRANS-PACIFIC SHIPPING LINE. With the posted access information, he logs onto his laptop and tests his access into the MV PACIFIC TREADER automation and control system. After successfully establishing a connection he closes out of the tool and electronically transfers half of a contracted payment due to his hired hacker. Next using a commercial AIS website providing real-time track data from coastal and satellite receivers, he determines that MV PACIFIC TREADER is likely headed into port in Hong Kong. Posting a message in a different private dark web chatroom, the pirate provides the identifying information for MV PACIFIC TREADER.
Hong Kong, China – 19JUL15 0306H: On a rooftop in Hong Kong, a young college student pulls an aerial drone out of her backpack. She bought it online and it is reportedly one of the quietest drones on the market. She also pulls three box-shaped objects out of her backpack. Hooking one of the objects to the drone, she launches it and flies it across Hong Kong harbor in the direction of a ship she identified during the day as the MV PACIFIC TREADER. Using the cover of darkness she lands the drone on the top of the pilot house and releases the object. Repeating this process twice more, she places the box shaped objects on other inconspicuous locations on the ship. After bagging up her drone, she posts a message to a dark web chatroom simply stating that her task is complete. Almost immediately afterwards she receives a notification that a deposit was made into her online bank account.
Prague, Czech Republic – 25JUL15 1732A: After eating a home-cooked meal, the pirate sits down at his laptop and checks the position of MV PACIFIC TREADER via the commercial AIS website he subscribes to. Observing that the MV PACIFIC TREADER is relatively isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he opens the remote tool that provides him access to the ship’s automation and control system. He sends a text message and then clicks to activate the tool.
Two-thousand ninety-three nautical miles north east of Hong Kong – 26JUL15 0332K: Onboard MV PACIFIC TREADER an explosion engulfs the bow of the ships sending flames into the dark air. Immediately, the ship’s engines roll to a stop as the navigation and ship’s control system computers go into a reboot cycle. The lone watchstander on the bridge is paralyzed to inaction by the surprise and violence of the events unfolding around him. The Master immediately comes to the bridge, completely confused by the events occurring onboard his ship.
Prague, Czech Republic – 25JUL15 1736A: The pirate confirms via his remote tool that the ship’s automation and control system is in a continuous reboot cycle, then he re-checks the commercial AIS website and confirms that MV PACIFIC TREADER is dead in the water. He immediately sends an email to the TRANS-PACIFIC SHIPPING LINE demanding a ransom, stating MV PACIFIC TREADER will remain dead in the water and more explosive devices will be activated until he is paid.
New means – Same motive
These scenarios illustrate how the evolution of technology and the increased connectivity of systems and people potentially enable a fundamental shift in the nature of piracy. Despite the change in means and geographic distribution of actors, net-centric and traditional piracy both utilize physical force or violence, or the threat thereof, by a non-state actor to seize or detain a vessel operating on the high seas. The key enabler of net-centric piracy is the Internet.
The Internet is the net-centric pirate’s “high-performance information grid that provides a backplane for computing and communications.” Admiral Cebrowski argued that this information grid was the entry fee for those seeking net-centric capabilities. What Admiral Cebrowski did not know was how rapidly the Internet would evolve and enable near-instantaneous global communications at relatively low costs, allowing anyone who desires access to a high-performance information grid.
As the net-centric pirate’s high-performance information grid, the Internet serves as a command and control network as well as the means for disseminating intelligence information, such as vessel location or the presence of physical security measures. The intelligence that is disseminated may also have resulted from collections performed via the Internet. One collection means is to leverage the vast area of private and commercial data sources available for public consumption, again at little or no cost, such as shipping schedules and AIS data. A second means of collection uses the Internet to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) via cyber techniques; however, only the most sophisticated net-centric pirates will possess this capability. Similarly, highly sophisticated net-centric pirates may be able to achieve global weapons reach by producing physical effects via cyber means over the Internet, eliminating the need for the pirate to be physically present in order to seize or detain a vessel.
The attractiveness of net-centric piracy is the low barrier to entry, both in risk and cost. Since the Internet is the key enabler of net-centric piracy, its low cost and ease of use vastly expand the potential pirate population. The anonymity of the Internet also allows potential net-centric pirates to meet, organize, coordinate and transfer monetary funds with a great degree of anonymity. As a result, the risks of arrest or capture are significantly reduced, especially since a net-centric pirate may not be able to identify any of their co-conspirators. Similarly, the ability of net-centric piracy to enable remote intelligence gathering or even produce physical effects via cyber techniques removes a significant element of physical risk associated with traditional piracy. The monetary gain from the successful capture of a vessel compared to the low cost and risk currently associated with net-centric piracy make it an attractive criminal enterprise.
Countering Net-centric Piracy
The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 101 defines piracy as:
- any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
- on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
- against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
- any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
- any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (1) or (2).
Under this internationally recognized legal definition of piracy, net-centric piracy clearly results in violence against or detention of vessels on the high seas for private ends. It is also clear from this definition that any activities associated with facilitating a piracy event, such as intelligence collection or compromising a vessel’s computerized control systems, are also considered piracy under international law. International law also states that “All States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” As a result, the international community must resolve how it will counter net-centric piracy, where pirates need not operate on the high seas and may be located thousands of miles from the target vessel.
The challenge facing the international community from net-centric piracy is compounded by immaturity of international cyber law. Currently the authorities and responsibilities of international organizations, governments and law enforcement agencies with regards to the use of the Internet to commit piracy are undetermined. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the Internet is a manmade domain where all potions are essentially within the territory of one state or another. As a result, disrupting net-centric piracy operations will require a significant degree of international coordination and information sharing. Extensive international cooperation will also be required to identify, locate, and apprehend individuals involved in net-centric piracy.
While an occurrence of net-centric piracy has yet to occur, the opportunity and capabilities required for such an event exist today. The U.S. Navy should not be caught off guard. Instead, the Navy should take the following actions:
- Raise awareness within the international maritime community regarding the risks and realities of net-centric piracy
- Provide best practice and limited cybersecurity threat information to transnational maritime shipping companies
- Work with partner Navies to develop means and methods for disrupting net-centric piracy, including developing an appropriate framework for information sharing and coordination
- Work with Coast Guard, law enforcement and international partners to develop a cooperative construct for identifying, locating and apprehending net-centric pirates
- Engage with the State Department to advance international dialog on net-centric piracy, including the need for consensus on international law and processes for prosecution of net-centric pirates
An enduring lesson of human history is that opportunity for profit, regardless of difficulty or brevity, will be exploited by someone somewhere. Net-centric piracy represents an opportunity to generate revenue without requiring the physical risks of traditional piracy. The anonymity and distributed nature of the cyber domain also creates new counter-piracy challenges. Add to this the low cost and availability of unmanned system components coupled with the low barrier of entry for cyber, and the question becomes not whether net-centric piracy will occur but when. With a global interest in maintaining the international maritime order and ensuring the uninterrupted flow of commerce on the high seas, the U.S. Navy must be ready to meet the challenges of net-centric piracy.
 VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski and John H. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 124/1/1,139 (January 1998).
 “Somali Piracy: More sophisticated than you thought,” The Economist (November 2nd, 2013), http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21588942-new-study-reveals-how-somali-piracy-financed-more-sophisticated-you
 Jeremy Wagstaff, “All at sea: global shipping fleet exposed to hacking threat,” Reuters (April 23rd, 2014), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/24/us-cybersecurity-shipping-idUSBREA3M20820140424
 Mate J. Csorba, Nicolai Husteli and Stig O. Johnsen, “Securing Your Control Systems,” U.S. Coast Guard Journal of Safety & Security at Sea: Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council, Volume 71 Number 4 (Winter 2014-2015).
 VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski and John H. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 124/1/1,139 (January 1998).
 United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (New York: United Nations, Article 101, 1994).
 United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (New York: United Nations, Article 100, 1994).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Navy, Department of Defense or Government.
LCDR Brian Evans is a U.S. Navy Information Dominance Warfare Officer, a member of the Information Professional community, and a former Submarine Officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Naval War College.
The following is a guest post by author W. Alejandro Sanchez. The author would like to thank CARICOM IMPACS for their assistance with this project.
On March 12, 2015, Marine General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), testified before the Armed Services Committee about the security challenges that the United States and its Western Hemispheric allies face throughout the continent. In his Posture Statement, the general noted that SOUTHCOM is the U.S. military’s “lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, hence the maxim ‘doing less with less’ has a disproportionate effect on our operations, exercises, and engagement activities.”
One particular focus of General Kelly’s remarks was transnational crime, specifically drug trafficking that originates in South America and crosses the Greater Caribbean towards the United States. There are several types of transnational crime occurring throughout Caribbean waters; due to space constraints, this commentary will only focus on the transportation methods utilized to move drugs throughout the Caribbean Sea and what this means for the security of the United States and its allies.
Low Priority & Insufficient Assets?
In his Posture Statement, General Kelly stated that Washington’s allies in the Western Hemisphere “are frustrated by what they perceive as the low prioritization of Latin America on our national security and foreign policy agendas, which is especially puzzling given the shared challenge of transnational organized crime.”It is not surprising that Latin America and the Caribbean are a low security priority for the United States, as the White House has had to deal with security crises elsewhere over the past years, such as the conflict in Ukraine, tensions with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Islamic State. Moreover, sequestration and other defense budget cuts have forced SOUTHCOM to try to do more, or at least the same as before, with less funds. The SOUTHCOM commander went on to explain how “force allocation cuts by the Services… are having the greatest impact… We are already feeling the impact at our headquarters, where we have implemented a 13% reduction in civilian billets and an 11% reduction in military ones.”
A similar situation is occurring with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a wide area of operations in the
Caribbean. For the USCG, one immediate challenge is upgrading its aging equipment. Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Commandant, stated in April, “much of the Coast Guard’s infrastructure and many of our platforms are well beyond their service life.”
Both the SOUTHCOM commander and the Coast Guard Commandant have pointed out the challenge that transnational organized crime (TOCs), e.g. drug trafficking organizations, pose to U.S. security. General Kelly has highlighted the types of illegal goods that criminals are moving throughout the Western Hemisphere, like“drugs—including marijuana, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine—small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, illegally mined gold, counterfeit goods, people, and other contraband.” Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 2014 security blueprint, the Western Hemisphere Strategy (WHS), explains how “organizations are able to quickly adapt to changes in their external environment, including everything from advances in technology to an increase in law enforcement activity… As maritime trade and travel have grown, criminal organizations have taken to the sea, using complex operations and tactics to avoid detection while in transit.” (Click here for an analysis of the Coast Guard’s WHS).
In other words, both Southern Command and the Coast Guard are well aware of the challenges posed by TOCs. However, defense cuts and other security priorities are affecting how well these agencies, among others, can play a role in improving security in the region. The United States’ Caribbean allies and extra-hemispheric partners (like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) are actively working to crack down on Caribbean drug trafficking. However, given that the United States is the final destination for most of the drugs being moved around the Caribbean Sea, and given the still-limited resources of Caribbean states to stop drug trafficking through their territories (land and maritime), it would be ideal for U.S. security agencies to maintain a vibrant presence in the region, particularly since Caribbean drug trafficking entities have the funds, creativity, and willingness to constantly expand their methods of transporting drugs.
Narco-Methods of Transportation
As for criminals themselves, they are nothing if not (infuriatingly) resourceful and creative when it comes to thinking of new ways to move drugs across the Caribbean. As a disclaimer, I must highlight that one major obstacle with this analysis is that detailed information is sometimes not openly available regarding the specifications of narco-vessels. For example, U.S. Southern Command reported that the USS Kauffman, a frigate, interdicted 528 kg of cocaine aboard a vessel on June 17. Nevertheless, SOUTHCOM’s press release does not explain what kind of vessel it was, other than calling it a “narcotic-trafficking vessel in international waters in the Eastern Pacific” or a “suspected smuggling vessel.”
The information below about narco-vessels provide as much detailed information as this author has been able to find.
As part of my research for this report, I contacted the Implementation Agency for Crime And Security (IMPACS), a security branch of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM, an organization made up of 15 Caribbean states). CARICOM IMPACS explained that 80% of all illicit smuggling activity through the region that originated in South America is carried out through maritime means.
Speedboats / Go-boats: the standard method of transporting cargo. Just this past July, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless, “along with the assistance of a Netherlands Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft,”stopped a speedboat north of Aruba – on the vessel were six individuals carrying a cargo of 275 pounds of cocaine.
Narco Subs: The evolution of narco-submarines over the past two decades is quite remarkable. The first narco-sub was stopped in 1993 and it had a crude design: it was slow and made up of wood and fiberglass. More modern
narco-subs can be fully submersible, travel as fast as 11 miles per hour, with larger fuel tanks and space for cargo. Due to space issues, we cannot discuss the different types of narco-submarines. A comprehensive report by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) entitled “Narco Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels For Drug Smuggling Purposes” discusses them in detail, including estimated costs, separating them from semi-submersibles, low-profile vessels, and submarines. These vessels have become alarmingly popular in recent years, as the narco-traffickers have sufficient funds to construct them. Case in point, this past June 18, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard intercepted a “semi-submersible craft” that was carrying the whopping cargo of 16,870 pounds of cocaine.
Narco-Torpedos: One new technology is static narco-containers (AKA Parasitic Devices). The FMSO report defines them as “containers which are bolted or magnetically placed on the bottom of freighters and other large cargo ships by cartel and organized crime frogmen.”Narco-torpedoes were found on the hulls of ships going from Latin America to Europe in 2013. I have been unable to find current examples of such containers being utilized in the Caribbean, but it stands to reason that they could be utilized as well, particularly as there is a great flow of goods through Caribbean ports en route to the U.S. and elsewhere. Narco-subs and narco-torpedoes are the next evolution of drug trafficking in the region and, so far, there seems to be no limit to how large and equipped narco-subs can become.
Inside cargo/fishing ships: Unsurprisingly, hiding contraband aboard vessels that apparently are carrying legitimate operations, such as fishing, continues to be an option for drug traffickers. For example, in early 2014 a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter operating out of a British Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, the Wave Knight, stopped a vessel that was carrying 45 bricks of cocaine. This is a memorable mission, not solely because of the amount of narcotics seized, but because this marked the first time that a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was launched from a British ship. That same year, on March 15, a fishing boat was seized off the coast of Panama. The U.S. Coast Guard investigated the vessel and found 97 bales of cocaine.
Finally, it is important to note that smuggling aboard vessels is more prevalent in some areas. CARICOM IMPACS explained to the author that smuggling among fishing vessels is common among members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (i.e. Dominica, Grenada or Saint Lucia) to French territories (i.e. Guadeloupe and Martinique) and Barbados. This is due to the fact that these nations have large fishing industries which are utilized as disguise for the flow of contraband.
Narco-Aircraft: Planes and helicopters are also utilized for moving drugs, though they seem to be less common than maritime methods of transportation. According to CARICOM IMPACS, air smuggling accounts for approximately 20% of narcotics shipments in the region, mostly around the Bahamas due to its geographical proximity to Florida (with Haiti and the Dominican Republic utilized as springboards between the two). Throughout my research for this report, I was unable to find recent incidents of air smuggling throughout Caribbean islands. A geographically close incident occurred this past May; a narco-plane, a Hawker twin-engine jet, crashed off the Colombian coast as it tried to flee from the Colombian Air Force. The aircraft reportedly left Venezuela and entered Colombian air space – authorities found 1.2 metric tons of cocaine among the wreckage. As for narco-helicopters, in 2013 the Costa Rican police cracked down on a criminal group that utilized helicopters to transport weapons and drugs along the country’s Caribbean coast.
The aforementioned list exemplifies how drug trafficking organizations employ a wide array of vessels and aircraft to move their contraband from South America, through the Greater Caribbean, and ultimately to the United States and Europe. Part of the reason for this variety is that drug trafficking groups use an “island hopping” strategy to move the narcotics – for example, a speedboat carrying cocaine may leave Venezuela and dock in Curacao; from there it will be put in another vessel until it reaches a different island, and from there it may be transferred a third time before it attempts to enter U.S. territory.
Shootouts At Sea?
One issue worth discussing is that most press releases that report on stopping suspicious vessels discuss the incidents as generally non-violent, or they are one-sided violent. At most, we hear about security forces that fire shots at suspicious vessels. For example, in January 2014, the aforementioned helicopter, launched from the HMS Wave Knight, fired warning shots at the suspicious
vessel. “It was a unique and successful mission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma. “We fired warning shots, and they tossed [the drug-filled] bails.” Meanwhile, a March 2014 operation included a Coast Guard helicopter shooting at the engines of a ship in order to stop it.
The interesting issue here is that both incidents include security personnel shooting at suspected drug traffickers but not the suspected criminals shooting back. There are some official videos available online of suspected drug smugglers being chased by U.S. security forces, but the footage seems to show the fleeing drug traffickers more than actively engaged in a firefight (video 1, video 2). Certainly, criminals have no problem shooting at security forces – just this past May, a Mexican military helicopter had to make an emergency landing when it was shot at by gunmen (three soldiers were killed). However, in the Caribbean, incidents of drug traffickers aboard speedboats shooting at security agencies appear to be less common (or at least, under-reported). Nevertheless, the possibility that drug traffickers could become more actively violent in order to evade capture–switching from a release cargo-and-flee strategy to actively shooting at security agents–is worrisome. (While this commentary focuses on drug trafficking, there is also an active weapons trade through Caribbean waters; hence it stands to reason that criminals could use weapons in their possession/cargo, such as rifles and handguns, to attack security agents trying to stop them).
Nowadays SOUTHCOM, U.S. Navy South/4th Fleet, and the U.S. Coast Guard must do “more with less” at a time when the U.S. defense budget is undergoing significant cuts, and, as General Kelly correctly points out, SOUTHCOM has the least priority of all the other U.S. military commands. On the other hand, drug trafficking criminals are constantly thinking of new, more ingenious ways to move their illegal merchandise across the Caribbean Sea. Spotting narco-vessels may become even more difficult in the near future, particularly if narco-subs become more advanced and if narco-torpedoes become more popular.
Moreover, drug traffickers may eventually decide to be bolder and shoot back at security forces rather than flee. This may be the case if a particular cargo is deemed as too expensive to be lost. I have been unable to find cases of narco-speedboats having built-in machine guns, but this is certainly a possibility.This is not meant as an alarmist declaration but rather an assessment of how the situation is evolving in the Greater Caribbean.
In his March 2015 Posture Statement to the Armed Services Committee, General Kelly declared,“I am frustrated by the lack of a comprehensive U.S. government effort to counter the [transnational organized crime] threat.” Documents like the 2014 Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy similarly explain the problem posed by TOCs, including those involved in drug trafficking, and the steps that can be taken to counteract them. The challenge nowadays for SOUTHCOM and the Coast Guard is having a budget that allows for the necessary personnel and equipment to carry out these objectives. General Kelly stated, “If sequestration returns in FY16, our ability to support national security objectives, including conducting many of our essential missions, will be significantly undermined. “
The goal of this analysis is not to imply that the U.S. government should give SOUTHCOM and/or the Coast Guard a blank check for obtaining new weapons. Nor should Washington solely focus on stopping the transportation of drugs through the Caribbean, while dismissing the other sides of the drug-equation, which includes demand (in the U.S. and European markets) and production (in South America). Rather, while the demand and production remain (unfortunately) vibrant, the interdiction of illegal narcotics among the various narco-corridors of the Greater Caribbean must remain a priority for SOUTHCOM and its supporting agencies like the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, just like it is a national security priority for Caribbean nations and and regional security agencies like CARICOM IMPACS.
While Washington does not regard developments in Latin America or the Greater Caribbean as a security priority (at least not comparable to developments elsewhere in the world), criminal organizations, particularly drug trafficking entities, continue to operate in areas like the Greater Caribbean. The list of vehicles used to transport drugs through that region demonstrates how drug trafficking groups continue to imagine creative new methods to move their illegal merchandise. Moreover, the rise of the narco-submarine is a problematic development as these vessels could become harder to spot in the near future, particularly as narcos have the funds to support their construction. The seizure of a narco-submarine just this past July is a clear example that narcos have not given up on these vessels.As General Kelly said, “criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders.”
W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez
The past few years have seen a resurgence of this mindset. Russia has embarked on a massive recapitalization project, seeking to replace aging Soviet-era platforms that were often built to lax production standards. Their military-industrial complex takes great pride in trumpeting its achievements and ambitious projects through Russian language media and state-owned foreign language outlets, such as RT.com. While it is important to listen to what an adversary is saying, it is also important to see what is behind the bluster. In fact, many of Russia’s wonder weapon projects are far too grand to come to fruition — and may even signal a revival of the same discord within the Russian defense industry that plagued the Soviet Union; a discord that acted as a key forcing-function in the destabilizing Cold War arms race that brought the world to the brink of ruin.
Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.
Consider the notional future Russian Federation Navy (RFN). Their fleet, once outnumbering the U.S. Navy 3.5:1, now spends most of its time in port. 2 Russia’s major shipyards are now going full tilt, building frigates and nuclear powered — and armed — submarines. Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.
Dubbed the Lider class, these warships would feature the nuclear power and armament capacity of the massive Soviet-era Kirov battlecruisers. For reference, the 28,000 ton Kirov class has thrice the displacement of and carries roughly twice the armament of its nominal U.S. Navy counterpart, the AEGIS cruiser. Cutting a distinctive silhouette, the Lider would easily outgun the largest ships in the US or Chinese arsenals. Their nuclear power plants would allow them to sortie worldwide, limited only by food and ammunition supplies — the finest naval power projection to be found outside of aircraft carriers.
Given the grandiose design of the ship, it is worth examining whether the Russian military intends for it to ever exist at all or if it is nothing but a propaganda piece. Recently, the Russians have announced truly fantastic projects, such as a fleet of supersonic stealth transport aircraft capable of covertly inserting an armored division overseas.3 Open sources show that the RFN has desired a next-generation, medium to large surface combatant for years, and that more reasonable proposals gained traction before losing out to the current design.4 Additionally, a video about the Lider focuses on the wide array of Russian corporations contributing to its construction rather than the ship’s actual capabilities. Moreover, it was produced by an industry-focused media concern rather than the expected propaganda outlets, such as RT.5
Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity.
Russian officials announced they will build twelve of these battlecruisers.6Realistically, most observers should expect to see one or two. A ship’s size tends to drive the cost of constructing it, and there’s a catch to building ships with the massive weapons capacity and power plant of the old Soviet battlewagons: they’re probably going to be about the same size. Some sources suggest they’ve even been designed by the same firm responsible for the Kirovs.7 This implies the Lider will be a budget breaker like its predecessor.
Russian designs on this Lider class represent a gulf between strategic direction and capabilities. Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity. If the RFN succeeds in acquiring them, it will find itself with a handful of massive power projection tools unsuited to any of the conflicts it is most likely to fight.
One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection.
The Russians are setting themselves up for a major discontinuity between ends and means. A recent statement by the CEO of Russia’s state owned shipbuilding conglomerate reveals that his view that future submarine construction should focus on defending ballistic missile submarines, a mission that would take place relatively near to Russian territorial waters.8The acquisition of the Lider battlecruisers — plus recently announced plans to acquire a nuclear powered supercarrier — may suggest the forces that drive the development of the surface fleet are not in synch with the forces driving the submarine fleet. One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection. Neither of these tracks would be of much value should Russia attempt to invade one of the Baltic states, a prospect that recently gained some overt support in the Russian government.9
The Russian military is at a conventional disadvantage against NATO. As oil money begins to dry up and sanctions take their bite, the Russians do not appear to be adjusting their acquisition efforts to compensate. On one hand, they appear to be gravely concerned about the security of their nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces, fearing US missile defense efforts, have invested heavily in new ICBMs. Similarly, the submarine force is building new ballistic missile submarines and advanced new missiles to go with them. On the other hand, the Russians are also attempting to achieve some kind of conventional parity with NATO by producing new stealth fighters, tanks, and apparently battlecruisers. A budget is by definition zero-sum, and as Russia’s economy slowly recovers from its free-fall, the money to build all their desired means simply will not exist. This could leave Russia with an arsenal of top-of-the-line nuclear weapons while intensifying its conventional disadvantage against NATO.
Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism.
So, what is there to worry about here? Why not celebrate as the Russians procure themselves into the hole, spending exorbitant sums to acquire prestige platforms that do not contribute to their strategy? Because Russia may well attempt to achieve its ends through whatever means are available. The weaker and less focused its conventional forces are, the more likely it is to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to win a conflict with NATO. Painted into a corner by their belligerence and poor acquisition decisions, Russia may become dangerously prone to acting upon its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.
Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism. It seeks to achieve ends (building a “buffer zone” of pro-Russian states by force while protecting its nuclear deterrent) through dangerous ways (“hybrid” and conventional warfighting, with the option to “escalate to de-escalate”) without the means to fully execute those ways. The end result could be disastrous for all involved.
Ben Hernandez is one of the hundreds of students under instruction at Naval Station Newport, R.I. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
1 Hoffman, David, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, New York, N.Y., 2010)
2 Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, Soviet Naval Strategy and Programs through the 1990s, NIE 11–15–82/D. (CIA Historical Review Program, approved for release 31 January 1995)
3 RT.com, Future Russian Army Could Deploy Anywhere In the World — In 7 hours, 19 March 2015, accessed 17 July 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/242097-pak-ta-russian-army/
4 GlobalSecurity.org, New Construction Destroyer, accessed 17 July 2015,http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/ddg-newcon.htm
6 Sputnik News, The Destroyer “Leader” and the Future of the Russian Navy, 16 March 2015, http://in.sputniknews.com/russia/20150316/1013781801.html
7 Hassan, Abbass, World Defense Review, Russian Navy approves the proposed future destroyer, 14 February 2013, accessed 17 July 2015.
8 Keck, Zachary, Russia’s New Nuclear Submarines to Target U.S. Aircraft Carriers, 6 July 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-building-aircraft-carrier-killer-nuclear-submarines-13266
9 Laurinavicius, Marius, Russia’s Dangerous Campaign in the Baltics, 16 July 2015, http://www.cepa.org/content/russias-dangerous-campaign-baltics