Since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, the question on the minds of civilians, soldiers and commanders alike has been when and how do we leave? A narrative quickly came out of the conventional warfare strategy that boiled down to “shape, clear, hold, build and transition.” Although simple in nature, it was a narrative born out of political necessity and lacked a fundamental understanding of the people that U.S. troops would be fighting and defending. Through In the Warlord’s Shadow, Daniel Green uses experience gained from multiple tours, staggered throughout a decade of conflict, to highlight how this narrative had developed by 2009 when he deployed for the third time. He fades out the major action typically told in conventional war literature and brings out the personal stories of involvement with local leaders. In doing so, Green endorses a balanced war-fighting program that synchronizes development initiatives and tribal outreach with a less kinetic strategy.
Grassroots Counterinsurgency in Action
Although not explicitly mentioned in the book, Green’s candid account stresses several critical flaws in the current thinking behind U.S. counterinsurgency operations. Foremost among these is a misunderstanding of the centers of gravity in insurgency groups. The U.S. military’s understanding of centers of gravity is derived from Carl Clausewitz who defined it as a military’s source of strength. Once these sources are destroyed, the enemy would either be unable or unwilling to effectively sustain combat. However, Green notes that even after “defeating” the Taliban, fighting would recommence shortly after departure. How do you fight an enemy that continues to fight after traditional sources of strength have been depleted? By Green’s account, you sap the strength that they want, but have yet to obtain completely. In the Taliban’s case, this is the will of the Afghan people.
While the reaction to quickly invade Afghanistan was widely considered both moral and justified, the commanders faced a difficult dilemma that more time to plan might have remedied; we knew almost nothing about the political and cultural roots of the conflict. Instead the U.S. entered the conflict viewing the path to victory, and what that would look like, though, as Green calls it, a “prism of their own institutional lens.” We viewed an unconventional conflict as having a conventional end. However, early claims of victory would have to account for a resurgent enemy, continuing U.S. casualties and loss of territory previously thought secure. Deeper understanding of the nature of the conflict would have allowed a strategic narrative to develop along the Afghan cultural mores that the Taliban was exploiting: justice, micropolitics, reconciliation, laissez-faire and village empowerment.
Recounting his experience during a third tour with special operations, Green details how a new strategy, developed along the same mores the Taliban was exploiting, was beginning to work in Afghanistan. He states, “this mission was not exclusively about combat and that one yardstick of [the mission’s] success was getting the Afghans to step up to be part of the solution.” In the original strategy of clear, build and transition, security improved causing local economics to improve, but the community was still not enlisted in its own defense. Although the central government maintained input, the strategy implemented by Green’s unit allowed local tribes to man and manage their defense. This also allowed for economic rebuilding in areas where aid often did not trickle down from the central government. By integrating the locals into improving their own security, Green’s unit effectively turned the Taliban’s “people’s war” against them. Additionally, it contributed to a potential U.S. exit strategy.
Although implemented at the beginning of the 2009 surge, the bottom-up strategy implemented by Green’s unit was noted as having more progress than previous approaches. Perhaps it was only an illusion. Maybe the initial strategies laid key groundwork that allowed for this approach to be effective. However, it logically makes sense that leveraging the Afghan peoples’ will against the Taliban could both simultaneously remove a critical center of gravity and develop an infrastructure that could prevent a resurgence following U.S. withdrawal.
In the Warlord’s Shadow is forthright in its critique of U.S. strategy and highlights areas that we as a U.S. military have room to grow. The most significant lesson from the Afghanistan War is that in fighting insurgency our exit strategy does not stand separate from our entrance strategy, our mid-course operations, or the tactics on the ground. Rather, how we enter and conduct ourselves will dictate how we leave, not the other way around.
In his final redux, Green cautions that the U.S. will only repeat this mistake in the next small war unless we develop an organization willing to challenge the status quo of fighting warfare. We have to develop a bureaucratic culture that has an incentive to use cultural intelligence, diplomacy, and development to create dynamic combat plans. It must retain lessons learned and synchronize approaches between the military and other areas of government influence. Finally, our measures of success cannot come from solely what is done to a local community (i.e. Number of combatants killed), but what comes from it.
ENS Patrick Hughes graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kennesaw State University (KSU) with a BA in International Relations and a BBA in International Business in 2015. Upon acceptance into Navy OCS, ENS Hughes reported to Officer Training Command in Newport, RI November 2015, commissioning early 2016. After commissioning, ENS Hughes reported to Information Warfare Training Command May 2016 where he attended DIVOLC, IWBC and NIOBC. An academic interest in China drew ENS Hughes to select FIAF DT Pearl Harbor as his first duty station where he currently serves at COMPACFLT headquarters.
Featured Image: Members of coalition special operations forces meet with Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Army to discuss village stability in the Khakrez district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 19. The ALP, ANA and coalition forces work together to routinely monitor local villages for insurgent activity, ensuring the safety of the local Afghan population. (DoD photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday)
In the opening years of the century, fear of piracy permeated the Strait of Malacca. Every few days, it seemed, there was another boarding, another theft, another hijacking. Merchant sailors, already leery of the narrow sea lanes, were doubly anxious over the identity of the brigands’ next target – could they be next? And, most remarkably, this was not the Eighteenth Century, but the Twenty-First.
It was for the purpose of alleviating this unprofitable tension that the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP) was established in 2004. Four neighboring states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and, in 2008, Thailand – pooled their resources to combat illicit activity in the critical chokepoint on which they all shared coastlines. By 2009, piracy in the area had been so effectively curtailed that the Naval War College Review could justifiably ask if the problem had been solved.1
An observer 600 miles northeast of Malacca would have seen a less harmonious scenario play out, though. In the South China Sea, a different sort of maritime threat challenges the sovereignty of various Southeast Asian states – territorial claims by China. Since as far back as the 1970s,2 various appendages of the People’s Republic of China have been using force, finesse, and everything in between to stake claims to islands (and potential islands) through a wide swath of the South China Sea, in direct opposition to four Southeast Asian claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. This behavior continues today.
How were four neighbors able to cooperate concerning one problem but not the other? Is such a cooperative solution unique or is it transferable to other situations?
Three categories of factors generally account for the difference in scenarios: the legal environment, level of effort, and level of risk. This paper will address elements within all three categories, with some that fall under more than one being discussed multiple times.
It is a time-honored truth that, Jack Sparrow aside, no one likes pirates. They have no constituency, no patron. Stamping out brigandage in its waters is almost by definition a precondition for a state to be considered legitimate. Minimal tears will be spilled if a state apprehends pirates on the high seas.
As a direct result of civilization’s antipathy toward piracy, it is a recognized precept of international law that pirates are stateless. Any state patrolling for pirates is well within its rights to deal with them, via arrest or other means, in accordance with its own law. Counterpiracy operations, in the Strait of Malacca or anywhere else, are on solid legal ground at the broadest level (allowing for some restrictions, perhaps, at the tactical level).
The legal and moral backing described above ensure that international kudos or, at least, an absence of complaints can be expected by MSP participants. Surely it was widely appreciated when Lloyd’s of London ceased listing the Strait of Malacca as a “war risk area” in 2006 as a result of MSP’s actions.3Recognition such as this is not, strictly speaking, a legal matter. However, in the realm of international law, where precedent and custom are just as important as written treaties, support from peers is critical in ensuring the legitimacy of an action.
Contrast this with the South China Sea. The Southeast Asian nations whose shores it laps are uniformly exasperated, no doubt, with Chinese fishing, island-building, and other nationalist actions in waters well outside China’s own Exclusive Economic Zone. But what to do? Unlike pirates, China has a cheering section. There will be more on this in the Risk section, but suffice it to say, China’s market is big enough (or potentially big enough) that no nation, not even its rivals in the South China Sea, wants to risk losing access to it. As a result, someone can always be found to support the Chinese position, even if holding their nose while doing so.
Legal understandings concerning pirates are more or less universal; not so with territorial disputes, though. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) are generally recognized as legitimate authorities worldwide – but for China, they only apply when they’re convenient. If Chinese interests contrast with international agreement, it will choose to only recognize its own law, whose interpretation of the status of the South China Sea is markedly different from those of its neighbors. Having a conversation among the claimants is most difficult when their points of reference are completely opposed. It is complicated even further when one notes that Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own claims competing against each other – China can say it is simply one more player in an existing dispute. Even fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) found it too costly to support the Philippines in its successful case against Chinese territorial claims at the PCA; the Philippines solicited ASEAN for co-litigants but found none. Despite emerging from arbitration victorious, the Philippines is left to negotiate the way forward on a bilateral basis in an undeniable position of weakness.4
Because concurrence on the end state in the South China Sea is fleeting, international backing for any party to the dispute is lacking. Nations like Japan and the United States can agree that China shouldn’t do what it’s doing – but at the same time, they take no position on how the Sea’s territorial lines should actually look, which is a matter for the four Southeast Asian claimants to determine among themselves. It is hard to oppose one course of action (the Chinese one) without proposing a credible alternative, but that is the only option available to the international community.
Level of Effort
Legal issues aside, very different resources and activities are required for patrolling the Strait of Malacca as opposed to contesting the South China Sea, and those required for counterpiracy lend themselves to international cooperation.
First, counterpiracy is virtually a completely maritime affair. The ships and aircraft of the MSP can patrol international waters, and, occasionally, fly over territorial waters with proper permission, but no one has to set foot on the land of another country. The lack of “boots on ground” makes such cooperation a much simpler affair; it is out of sight and out of mind for most people ashore. It is expensive to maintain and crew equipment that floats and flies, but it is politically palatable in a way that a troop garrison may not be.
The second point is a corollary to the first – while maintaining naval and air forces may not be cheap, neither do they need to be top-of-the-line warfighters, either. The biggest capability such a counterpiracy force offers is simple presence. By being visible in the commons, they can deter piracy without firing a shot or boarding a single vessel. Such a force is achievable even for a middle-income nation like Indonesia. The country may have more-capable forces available (as Singapore certainly does), but they can be sent elsewhere while the low-end constabulary forces monitor the sea lanes.
Outside support is also minimized in conducting the MSP. Members can conduct the mission themselves, as long as their governments provide the proper equipment through international arms sales (such as for P-3 patrol aircraft). The MSP has no involvement from ASEAN, nor is there an ASEAN role in counterpiracy operations anyplace else.5Strait security does impact all ASEAN members, if for no other reason than to keep maritime insurance premiums down, but it was urgent enough to MSP members in 2004 that they acted on their own accord without waiting for ASEAN to offer collective support through a process that would have undoubtedly taken years. The mission is focused enough that MSP members correctly judged that participation by ASEAN or extra-regional partners was unnecessary.
Lastly, with a non-controversial mission being conducted offshore, direct military-to-military coordination is suitable for the MSP. A headquarters and operations center was built in Singapore6 but, other than that, no new structure or apparatus needed to be created. Simple cooperation among preexisting military organizations was sufficient. Best of all, it is non-provocative – there is no rival state getting perturbed at the sight of its neighbors performing joint military operations. Pirates may have been surprised to see it when the MSP began, but aren’t really in a position to complain.
The South China Sea, however, presents a great many obstacles to cooperation in contrast to the items described above that facilitate the MSP. For example, while it is mostly a maritime affair, it isn’t entirely – there are actual land masses in play, many of which are large enough to be inhabited. Even rocks and shoals matter, as the long-suffering Philippine LST executing a claim to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islandscan attest.7 So while the typical citizen of an ASEAN state will consider this to be offshore just as the MSP is, the fact is there is still ground to be defended, and China cannot be successfully deterred solely with naval operations. This is a dicey matter since many islands have multiple ASEAN claimants – so who has the responsibility to defend them? Drawing up plans to defend these points from outside aggression will provide frequent flashpoints for internal conflict. It can only be done jointly, or not at all.
Back at sea, naval operations need to be of a higher level than picking up unsophisticated pirates. China must be made to think that, if it comes to war, the costs will outweigh the anticipated gains. Such a credible deterrent requires wholly different equipment and doctrine than that used in the Strait of Malacca. This is expensive and time-consuming. Capabilities vary by country, and in no case do assets come in great numbers. Thus, in contrast with the MSP, outside military assistance is a vital component of Southeast Asian efforts to resist Chinese aggression. Any credible strategy must rely on forces from the United States, at minimum, and probably also Japan, Australia, and perhaps others from outside the immediate region, like India.
Level of Risk
The factors described all figure in to calculations of risk. The bottom line is that counterpiracy is considered to be low-risk; confrontation with China is a dicier proposition. Largely this is because pirates are simply out to make a living, however illicitly; China, on the other hand, appears to be spoiling for a fight.
The People’s Republic of China acts provocatively because it wishes to be provoked. Even if it chooses not to use an incident as a casus belli, it can still use perceived affronts as sanctimonious diplomatic cudgels against their neighbors and rivals. Over time, other countries may subtly shift their behavior to avoid such Chinese outbursts, even if war never actually comes. This means that even quite legitimate expressions of national sovereignty, like the Philippines patrolling its own internationally-recognized waters, might be done infrequently or not at all in order to avoid antagonizing the PRC. A 2015 statement by the U.S. Seventh Fleet commander about the potential about ASEAN counterpiracy patrols in the South China Sea – where, recently, piracy has also been picking up – earned the observation by The Diplomat that “these ASEAN states deal with the South China Sea issue quite differently, and the idea itself may seem too controversial for some for fear of angering Beijing.”8 There is no such restraint in patrolling the Strait of Malacca.
Besides threatening war with the largest military in the region, the PRC can also make economic threats against countries that annoy it. Its market is huge; no country with hopes of growing its economy can afford to ignore it. Thus, a Chinese threat to shut out a certain country or trade bloc carries a certain weight, and gives the PRC substantial leverage in its international dealings. A rival state would have to be pushed thoroughly to the edge by Chinese behavior before it would allow a bellicose response to threaten its access to the Chinese market. This sets a high bar for even one country to oppose Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea, let alone several of them. Proactive measures against Malacca piracy, though, carries no such risk – as noted earlier, the pirates have no constituency whom rivals must flatter. Individual situations may be difficult (such as those involving hostages) but the impetus to suppress piracy in the first place is unobjectionable as it carries very low risk of blowback.
In fact, counterpiracy has the active encouragement of China and every other maritime nation. The Strait of Malacca is a globally-important chokepoint of trade – disruption there raises the cost of virtually everything, as maritime insurance rates rise and ships are rerouted on longer voyages. China well recognizes its “Malacca Dilemma”9 and pays close diplomatic attention to the area. In fall of 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Malaysia and specifically the port of Malacca, giving speeches and offering infrastructure loans along the way. Unlike in the South China Sea, Chinese and Southeast Asian goals are decidedly aligned in the counterpiracy mission and overall security of the Strait.10
Lastly, there is a level of military risk involved, especially as we recall that China is actively looking for grievances. As noted earlier, habitable and buildable islands (and reefs that could become islands) are at issue in the South China Sea – this is not the case in counterpiracy operations. With actual ground on which boots can be disembarked, the stakes are higher than simple maritime cat-and-mouse at sea and in the air. Claiming and holding land by force brings a sort of primacy to a claim that just isn’t achievable by coast guard patrols of open water. Thus ground troops’ use by Southeast Asian states is even more of an incitement to China than maritime operations, and, although it is the only way they can truly enforce their claims, there will be great reluctance to employ such forces. But that leaves the land open for Chinese claims. And the ratchet again clicks ahead one notch.
Additionally, the military-to-military cooperation so prevalent in the MSP would be called out as warmongering if practiced in the South China Sea. Mil-to-mil liaison and cooperation is the order of the day in Malacca; however, if practiced similarly in the South China Sea, a diplomatic row will surely ensue in which China accuses its southern neighbors of ganging up against it (there is a grain of truth to this, of course, even if it’s a defensive arrangement at heart). So, left to their own devices, Southeast Asian states will minimize even simple coordination among their units in the South China Sea in order to avoid rocking the boat and implicitly threatening their economic interests.
Discussion of the Malacca Strait Patrol is not meant to sell it is a model example of effective cooperation – simply an example of existing and enduring cooperation. The very fact the MSP was organized and is still extant when so few such international efforts exist in the ASEAN region is, by itself, remarkable. However, questioning its mission effectiveness is perfectly valid. While it did have great success reducing piracy in its earliest years, illicit activity is again on the rise. Southeast Asia was the world’s number-one region for piracy as of 2015, accounting for 55 percent of all cases tracked by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with much of it occurring in the Strait of Malacca.11 A check of the IMB’s website12 at any given time will likely show a recent case in the Malacca area (as of this writing, case 071-17, an armed robbery, fits this description).
Contributing to piracy’s resurgence is poor resourcing and rules for cross-border pursuit. Surface ships are not permitted to enter other countries’ territorial waters. Patrol aircraft may make limited incursions of up to three nautical miles; however, they have been “criticized for the low number of flights actually taking place, and the limited resources available to respond to incidents spotted during aerial patrols.”13
It is reasonable to conclude that the great drop in piracy in the first few years of the Malacca Strait Patrol was due to the shock effect among pirates who had to contend with organized resistance for the first time. MSP was able to tackle the “low-hanging fruit” through simple deterrence, and made a big difference. Those who remained in the business were more resilient and innovative in achieving their illegal ends, allowing them to exploit holes in MSP coverage and eventually expand their activities. That, combined with MSP’s inevitable bureaucratic sclerosis and loss of urgency after more than a decade on the same mission contributed to a long-term loss of effectiveness for the counterpiracy effort.
Nevertheless, MSP’s mere existence and the very real success it has had in the past compel its use as an example for other security initiatives – no better ones exist. This has been noted by such figures as the chief of Singapore’s Navy, who in 2015 suggested adapting the MSP model to patrol the recent pirate hotspot in the south end of the South China Sea.14 This specific initiative may be a non-starter for diplomatic reasons described above, but not because the organizational model wouldn’t work.
Courses of Action
MSP states act in the Strait of Malacca because they have undisputed legal authority, only need to expend a moderate amount of funds and manpower, and assess there is low risk of unintended effects. In contrast, China seems to hold all the cards in the South China Sea. Is there anything that neighboring states, or ASEAN as whole, can do to mitigate this?
There may be a way to thread this needle. First, a coalition, optimally but not necessarily ASEAN-based, must be formed to act in the South China Sea. Second, the emerging pirate threat in the South China Sea must clearly and repeatedly be emphasized as the object of efforts in the area. Third, Southeast Asian coalition members must take a page from the Chinese playbook and simply be present there, conducting their counterpiracy mission, to be sure, but also pointedly making their existence a well-known fact. Chinese island-building and occupation must be dealt with diplomatically, as forcibly removing them is a bridge too far, but Southeast Asian presence in the waters concerned will increase Southeast Asian leverage in such discussions.
It is natural to question whether ASEAN has a role in this initiative that affects all of Southeast Asia. Ideally, perhaps it would, and there has certainly been talk of finding ways to accomplish this.15 However, the fact that ASEAN has had no role in the Malacca patrol and has made little substantive contribution to other security matters indicates that this may be an unrealistic expectation. Because of possible diplomatic repercussions from China, it is nearly impossible to even get a joint ASEAN statement concerning the South China Sea, as witnessed in June 2016 with the released-then-retracted statement about Chinese claims.16 Thus, a solution with a better chance of coming to fruition would involve just the directly-involved states, likely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam (perhaps with Singapore, too). It is unlikely ASEAN would give its blessing, but nor would it get in the way.
When this coalition does kick off its activities, it needs to show in word and action that counterpiracy really is its mission. This is as much a matter of strategic communication as it is maritime tactics, techniques, and procedures. Broadcasting far and wide the news of every apprehended pirate will serve to deter further piracy and also make the point to China that this is, indeed, how the patrols are spending their time. Over time, joint Southeast Asian/ASEAN patrols will become routine and part of the accepted pattern of life in the area.
China will not passively accept this, though. If it does nothing, that would equate to tacit acknowledgment that the affected areas of the South China Sea are either international waters or subject to the claims of nations other than itself, so action is more likely. The Chinese Coast Guard could attempt to keep Southeast Asian patrols out of the area by maneuvers, both diplomatic and naval. But this would beg the question, why is China enabling pirates? It is then possible that China would establish its own counterpiracy operation in order to be seen as doing a service for the region. Piracy, at least, would be mitigated. It would still leave open the thorny issue of the illegitimacy of Chinese actions in ASEAN countries’ claimed seas. Southeast Asian coalition patrols would have to continue, sharing the waters with Chinese ones, in order to show, at the very least, the international nature of the South China Sea.
And, in a roundabout way, we have arrived at the limit of what ASEAN or its member states can expect to accomplish in the South China Sea. They will never resolve their internal claims and counterclaims – but they will never forcibly disabuse China of its claims, either. However, it is just possible they may be able to create conditions in which all sides can agree to disagree. Just as in the Strait of Malacca, the solution is not perfect – as rising rates of piracy show, there are still gaps and the problem is not in any way “solved” – but it is achievable, and the hypothetical outcome is better than it would be otherwise. Let the perfect not be the enemy of the good, and the “good” in this case is a state of tolerable ambiguity.
The mere existence of the Malacca Straits Patrol is remarkable for a region notably protective of sovereignty and averse to interstate cooperation in the wake of colonial rule, and this will be hard to replicate in the South China Sea or elsewhere. The MSP has succeeded because it has a narrowly-defined mission fitted within that paradigm of state sovereignty. It may not have stamped out all piracy, but it’s eliminated quite a bit. Any organization designed to supporting Southeast Asian claims in the South China Sea will need to have a similarly focused mission and expectations to match. No combination of ASEAN member states will be able to in any way “solve” the problem of Chinese maritime claims on their own. But they can act to create the facts necessary to facilitate other efforts, diplomatic and otherwise. The fact that it is the Malaysian or Philippine governments, and not the Chinese government, arresting pirates or helping stranded fishermen could go a long way. But expectations must be limited; any such organization can and should do no more than this.
MSP succeeded by virtue of focusing on goals achievable within the political and resource constraints it faced. In a sense, adapting the MSP organizational model to another mission is easy. MSP’s far bigger lesson is the value of achievable objectives. Setting those objectives requires not money, nor ships, nor men, but rather the most precious resource of all: plentiful reservoirs of discipline.
Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, strategic communications consultant, and Naval War College student whose opinions do not represent the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or his employer. This post is based on a Naval War College paper submitted in summer of 2016 and is republished with his permission.
The United States is a continental land power bridging the earth between two mighty oceans. Through our presence at home ports in both the Atlantic and Pacific and forward deployed forces in Asia and Europe we can rapidly project naval power to virtually any spot on the globe. Our naval forces deter threats, support economic growth, maintain global political stability and perform vital counterterrorism missions. These missions are essential to 21st century national security.
Despite the myriad threats that face our nation in this complex and volatile world, it is difficult to build consensus for United States foreign policy. There are some that argue that we should withdraw to our borders and focus solely on our own interests. However, I argue that this instinct denies a fundamental truth of global security; security is achieved through engagement and not through isolation.
As the United States was emerging from its tradition of isolationism in the late nineteenth century, President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, viewed the Navy as the big stick of American foreign policy. President Roosevelt recognized the ascendancy of America on the world stage and saw the Navy as an effective instrument through which we could visibly demonstrate our commitment to peace, protection, and prosperity.
If war is diplomacy by other means, then the intelligent, strategic use of naval power is a key instrument for both deterrence and war fighting. The presence of the U.S. Navy off a hostile coastline visibly demonstrates national resolve and, through their presence alone, may prevent future hostile attacks against the U.S. or its allies. Through its ability to launch operations with aviation assets and cruise missiles the Navy can strike deep and with lethal force into hostile territory without the need to commit ground troops to a protracted conflict.
90 percent of world trade travels via the seas. Maintaining safe passage for international trade is in the vital economic interest of the United States and its allies. International Waters or the High Sea is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State.” The treaty also says “The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles.” To simplify, international waters are all waters that are 200 nautical miles outside a country’s exclusive economic zone. By maintaining a constant presence in the world’s shipping lanes, the United States Navy plays a critical role in ensuring free trade throughout the world.
I was born 18 months before the events of September 11, 2001. Like me, every member of my generation has no memory of life before September 11. The global war on terror was a constant presence in our collective consciousness and will continue to shape the world in which we take our place as adults. Maintaining a strong Navy is imperative for the continued economic and military security of the United States in the 21st century. The Navy’s abilities to project force, apply lethal force and deter threats are essential to the maintenance and protection of vital U.S. interests throughout the world.
Matthew Lidz is from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He is currently a freshman at the University of Richmond
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Iata. “Search.” IATA – Price Analysis. International Air Transport Association, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.iata.org/publications/economics/fuel-monitor/Pages/price-analysis.aspx>.
Perlman, Howard. “How Much Water Is There On, In, and above the Earth?” How Much Water Is There on Earth, from the USGS Water Science School. United States Geological Survey, 2 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
Petty, Dan. “Navy.mil Home Page.” The US Navy — Fact File: Aircraft Carriers – CVN. United States Navy, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=200&ct=4>.
Stavridis, James, and Frank Pandolfe. “From Sword to Shield: Naval Forces in the War on Terror.” Naval Forces in the War on Terror. The Naval Institute: Proceedings, 1 Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_Navy_0804,00.html>.
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Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sep. 20, 2016) Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) man a phone and distance line while conducting a replenishment-at-sea with the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) during Valiant Shield 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released)
On 20 February, the Bahamas-flagged car carrier Morning Compass was seized by militants purporting to represent the Libyan Navy. The ship, which was carrying around 5,000 cars to South Korea, was interdicted by a heavily armed skiff and forced to divert to Misrata port, which is located on the western tip of the Gulf of Sirte. The following day the ship was released and resumed its planned course.
The skiff belonged to fighters loyal to the Tobruk-based administration, an unrecognized government that operates in Libya’s east and which has de facto control over broad swathes of the country. The internationally recognized, United Nations-backed unity government, situated in the capital Tripoli, has its own naval force. Therefore, the Tobruk-based vessel had no authority to detain Morning Compass under international law.
This is the latest in a series of incidents between foreign vessels and armed Libyan craft belonging to both the unity government and non-state armed groups (NSAGs). On 17 August 2016, Libyan naval assets loyal to the unity government attacked the Luxembourg-flagged Bourbon Argos, which had been chartered by the international aid organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to assist refugee rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. The incident occurred in international waters, outside Libya’s territorial claims, and involved Libyan naval forces opening fire on the Bourbon Argos. Accounts vary, with the Libyan Navy claiming the shots were fired in warning, while MSF says that naval forces fired at the bridge.
With refugees and economic migrants using Libya as a springboard to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, there are also suspicions that the Tripoli government is implicated in human trafficking. A 13 December 2016 report by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya reported claims that Libyan Coast Guard forces were participating in migrant smuggling networks, rather than attempting to curtail refugee flows to European shores.
While the report did not detail specific incidents, the lack of regulatory oversight, as well as documented examples of sexual abuse, extortion, and similar activities by Libyan coastguard and naval personnel, means Allan & Associates (A2) assesses these claims as credible.
These two incidents are risk-negative indicators of the security environment in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean links eastern and western markets via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, North Africa to Europe, and south-western Russia to the rest of the world via the Black Sea. The sea has 22 littoral states, ranging from countries with little to no functional maritime trade, such as Syria, to major trading nations, such as France and Italy. The World Shipping Council’s latest statistics, from 2013, show the Asia-Mediterranean route shipping 6.7 million TEU, and the North Europe-Mediterranean-South America route 1.68 million TEU. Short sea shipping from Spain and Italy alone, according to a 2015 report from the E.U. statistics office, amounted to GWT468.8 million. Therefore, the significance of the Mediterranean to maritime shipping cannot be overstated.
A2 assesses that there is a credible threat of armed vessels, either operating under the auspices of the Libyan military or as NSAGs, interdicting civilian vessels within 50km of the Libyan coastline. This poses a major risk to shipping. Unlike pirate activity elsewhere, such as off the Yemeni coast, it is likely that NSAGs will purport to belong to the Libyan government, either in Tripoli or Tobruk. This complicates any attempt at deploying countermeasures, as it could be unclear whether interdicting vessels are genuine naval or coast guard assets.
In particular, aid organizations using ships to support rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, such as MSF, are at risk of a kinetic incident. This is because such vessels are more likely to be regarded by Libyan armed maritime fighters as interfering in their country’s sovereign affairs. Furthermore, aid ships are constantly present in and around Libyan territorial waters, making it more likely they will be detected by hostile armed maritime forces. Although the 17 August attack against an MSF vessel did not result in casualties, further incidents could have fatal consequences.
The risk is heightened by the lack of professionalism of Libyan maritime forces. Although international actors, including the E.U., are providing some levels of training, this is primarily focused on basic seamanship skills and military capability. Libyan military personnel, therefore, are more likely to overreact when interdicting shipping, and will likely lack the ability to carry out lawful searches without escalation.
As at sea, so in port. Ports outside of the capital Tripoli have little to no functional governance, and multiple criminal, tribal and political armed groups operate in these areas. Such groups have unilaterally seized several merchant ships. For example, in February 2017, the Turkish-flagged oil tanker Hacı Telli was seized by armed militants in the north-western city of Zuwarah. The militia claimed that the vessel’s owner owed around USD $4,000 to a local company. Eleven crew members are currently being detained on the ship more than a year later.
Moreover, there is a risk that ships entering ports outside the control of the unity government will be engaged by Libyan military forces. On 5 January 2015, a Libyan fighter aircraft launched an airstrike on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Araevo, killing two crewmen. The ship, which was carrying crude oil, had been warned by military units not to attempt to enter Derna port, which was under the control of the Tobruk administration. Logistics operators should regularly update bridge officers on which faction controls intended ports of call, and masters should have discretionary authority to alter travel plans, should they believe there is a kinetic risk from Libyan military forces.
These incidents demonstrate that both the Libyan government and NSAGs pose a direct kinetic security risk to shipping calling at Libyan ports, and A2 stresses that maritime operators should carefully consider the feasibility of docking at ports in-country until the security situation markedly improves.
This includes oil terminal installations such as Ras Lanuf and Zuwetina, which are located on the Gulf of Sirte and are beginning to ramp up oil exportation operations. There is ongoing fighting in these areas, and control over the ports is fluid and liable to change with little to no warning.
Libyan ports are designated by the U.S. Coast Guard as lacking anti-terrorism measures, under the International Port Security Program. Merchant shipping which has previously called at Libyan ports will, therefore, be subjected to increased attention from the U.S. Coast Guard and port authorities.
This will likely include delayed travel times due to additional security checks being conducted on said vessels. A2 notes that merchant vessels can minimize disruption when visiting U.S. ports if masters enact heightened security procedures when in Libyan ports. These measures should include minimizing time spent in port, the deployment of guards at ship entry points, and briefing all hands to observe personal security procedures when ashore.
Ships calling at European ports could also face increased attention from national security forces, due to the poor security environment in Libyan and other North African ports. Masters can minimize the risk of being targeted for inspection by naval or coast guard units by ensuring location transmission devices are kept on at all times, avoiding diverting from pre-established routes and not using flags of convenience.
Supply Chain Integrity
The lawlessness of Libyan ports also poses a secondary risk: illicit cargo will infiltrate legitimate supply routes. Logistics operators should take steps to implement strict chain-of-custody and supply chain integrity rules and procedures for all cargo loaded in Libyan or other North African ports, to mitigate the risk of illicit shipments infiltrating commercial shipping.
Bridge officers should be trained on how to detect suspicious cargo, and all hands should be regularly briefed on their responsibilities under corporate ethics policies and the law. Operators should not rely entirely on customs authorities for supply chain integrity, as it is practically impossible to comprehensively search all ships, and the effectiveness of customs regimes differs markedly between countries.
Search & Rescue
There is an ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, as refugees from the Middle East and Africa seek to flee by ship to Europe. Libya and other North African countries are a primary staging ground before refugees attempt maritime crossings. The quality of the vessels used is extremely poor, and sinkings are common. Often, this leads to considerable loss of life. Article 98 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea obligates masters to render all assistance to individuals ‘in danger of being lost’ at sea. Diversions in the Mediterranean to assist rescue operations could delay scheduled freight shipments. However, A2 reminds maritime operators of their legal obligations in such circumstances.
A2 assesses that the security environment around the Libyan coast will continue to decline as multiple NSAGs as well as the Libyan Navy skirmish for maritime supremacy. In particular, as oil exportation resumes in the Gulf of Sirte, maritime forces will attempt to gain control of the surrounding ports and waters, due to their increasing strategic importance.
Further kinetic incidents against civilian shipping are likely within the one-year outlook, and masters should continue to regard Libyan territorial waters as a high-risk environment until the security situation stabilizes. This will be contingent on a political agreement being reached by the various factions, an achievement which currently seems a remote possibility.
James Pothecary is a Political Risk Analyst specializing in the Middle East with Allan & Associates, an international security consultancy which provides a range of protective services including political and security risk assessments, security policy design and crisis management response.
Featured Image: Smoke rises from the oil tanker Anwar Afriqya after a Libyan warplane attacked the tanker in Sirte, Libya, Sunday. (Reuters0