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Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War

The following article originally published on gCaptain and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain)

“It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war.” -John F. Kennedy

As has been the case before every major world conflict a majority of citizens believe that peace will persist indefinitely and, as a civilian myself, I tend to agree that a large-scale war with a major superpower like China or Russia is unlikely. Regardless of my views, the United States military is spending billions to prepare for war against China in the hopes that being fully prepared for war is the most effective means of preserving peace.

This article is not intended to support or speak out against the U.S. military’s efforts to prepare for a war against China and it is not to discuss the wisdom of my nation’s military decisions. It is only written with one purpose. That purpose is to acknowledge two absolute facts today: that the U.S. Military is preparing for war and I, an American merchant ship captain, am not ready. 

What Is The U.S. Merchant Marine

“The U.S. Merchant Marine is in every war plan that I review, I guarantee you, because you’re going to be the fourth arm of defense.” -Former U.S. Secretary Of Defense James Mattis.

Members of today’s United States Merchant Marine (USMM) do not wear uniforms, they do not cut their hair short, they are not active duty military, and only a few are in the U.S. Navy Reserve. They do not get veterans benefits, special privileges, government healthcare or retirement pay. They have no special right to carry weapons on land or enter most military bases without special permission. They are civilians. 

Some members of the merchant marine wore uniforms while they attended maritime academies that must, by federal statute, follow military traditions. Others have never worn a uniform of any kind. Yet the importance of the merchant marine in past military successes is undeniable and all of today’s military flag officers admit they play a central role in all future war plans

But what is the Merchant Marine?

The truth is that despite having worn the uniform of a U.S. Merchant Mariner in college, despite having been a proud member of the U.S. Merchant Marine for over 20 years, and despite having risen to the rank of Captain… I’m still not sure what the Merchant Marine is. Yes, I have a strong understanding of its role in commerce and national defense, but I only have the foggiest of clues what the U.S. Merchant Marine is. 

As a journalist I have asked this very question (what is the U.S. Merchant Marine?) to our nation’s leadership, I have asked our Merchant Marine Veterans, award-winning historians, and the highest ranking U.S. military officials. Each has answered my question with a slightly puzzled look and vague statements about our role in national defense. 

In 1938 congress established the United States Maritime Service (USMS) to answer that question and established uniform standards, training requirements, and structure. Those regulations still exist and the USMS lives on today. We have a Commandant, we have Admirals and Commodores, and we have our own service academy, but not much else. 

Am I a Captain in the U.S. Merchant Marine? Absolutely! What is my role or rank in the US Maritime Service? Am I allowed to wear a uniform? If so, can I wear my navy medals on it? Do I salute? Does anyone salute me? Where do I report if war breaks out? Who at the USMS can I call with questions? 

Answer: I haven’t got a clue.

Equipment Versus People

“Remember, terrain doesn’t wage war. Machines don’t wage war. People do and they use their mind!” –Col. John Boyd, USAF

While the status of mariners in the USMM and USMS is vague and nebulous the status of ships is well-defined. Currently 81 U.S.-flagged ships sail internationally and our fleet of reserve ships are battered, old, and wholly insufficient for war. “Our sealift fleet is able to generate only 65 percent of our required capacity” said Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, Commander, U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), last month. “And is rapidly approaching the end of [its] useful life.” 

U.S. Maritime Administrator (and USMS Commandant) Rear Admiral Mark Buzby has made no secret of our need to build new ships and refurbish our fleet. The problem is that ships are expensive, take years to design and build, and do not capture the nation’s imagination like a new destroyer does. Most merchant ships are ugly but absolutely essential because there is simply no other way to move equipment and materials into theaters of war overseas. 

Nearly everyone in the United States military and Merchant Marine, including myself, readily agrees that we need to do more to support domestic shipbuilding. That said, everyone secretly knows another fact that few are willing to admit publicly. The fact is that in a large-scale war against China the United States can take the ships we need or demand them from our allies.

What we can’t demand is that foreign sailors man these ships and sail them into combat. For that we will need strong allies and highly competent and well-trained American sailors. 

Today’s American merchant sailors are well-trained and experienced but we are lacking skills in the latest technology and, as the number of U.S. flagged ships decreases, so do our numbers. According to Adm. Buzby the USMM is about 1800 mariners short of the numbers needed to do sustained sealift operation using today’s reserve assets (which are also insufficient).

If we can’t fully crew the ships we have available, how can we crew the ships we need? The answer is, I don’t know.

Are Mariners Prepared For War?

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”–Archilochos

During WWII the USMS invested enormous resources in training merchant mariners for war. Large training facilities were built across the nation and both naval and civilian instructors worked together to teach sailors how to survive the dangers of war. 

Not long ago USMM officers could enroll in basic classes on subjects like avoiding mines, joining a convoy, and secure communications. Then MARAD shut down the last school that offered these courses. Today a small percentage of U.S. Merchant Mariners receive basic military instruction as part of the Navy’s Strategic Sealift Officer program. This program however, lacks a cohesive structure, objective, and scope. And it is only open to those willing to join the Navy Reserves. 

Others that sail on ships contracted by the military take some basic classes including firearms and CBRD (Chemical Biological Radiological Defense) but the scope of these classes is limited to basic self defense.

Personally I attended four years of school at a merchant marine academy, sailed on ships for ten years, spent thousands of hours studying for U.S. Coast Guard Examinations, sat in hundreds of hours of post-graduate classroom instruction and demonstrated my knowledge and experience in  myriad of ways before earning a license to master the world’s largest ships.

Yet in all those years of study there are some questions I never learned the answers to:

How do I join a military convoy?

How do I share information with Naval Intelligence?

How do I contact a naval vessel on a secure line?

How do I navigate a minefield?

Will zig-zagging help me avoid modern submarines?

What do I secure for radio silence?

How do I darken ship to naval standards?

The answer to all these questions (and countless more) is, again, I don’t have a clue.

In recent months the U.S. Navy has been honest in telling mariners that, in the event of a major war with China or Russia, the U.S. Navy is going to be busy with combat operations and we can not expect naval escort. What they don’t tell us is that they also have no plans to train us to defend ourselves. 

Am I, as a captain in the USMM ready to sail my ship into contested waters? 

The answer is I am fully ready to sail my ship anywhere, even into conflicted waters, everywhere except into large-scale war. 

Will I Take Command Of A Ship During War?

“American needs to do its best for all our veteran families” –R. Lee Emery

I am convinced the nation will need the help of my fellow American ship masters but how many of us will join the war effort?

Based on historical evidence and the level of patriotism and will of today’s Merchant Marine most experts believe that, in times of war, a majority will answer the call. 

But is this true? During WWII President Roosevelt made a promise to all Merchant Mariners that they would receive full veteran status after the war. WWII mariners, however, did not receive any official veteran status for 40 years after the war and are still fighting for full veteran status today

Personally I can not answer for my fellow merchant mariners. I can only answer for myself. As an American I believe it’s my duty to serve my nation during a major crisis and I would absolutely sail into harm’s way. But why? The reason is I am a father and I want my children and grandkids to grow up in a free country and have the opportunity for a happy life. But that’s also the rub.

If war broke out tomorrow and I was killed or injured in the service of my nation who would take care of my family? Would my children be able to go to a Veterans Hospital if they got sick? Would they be eligible for any scholarships? Would they receive any financial compensation from the government?

Would they even be able to fly the gold star with a blue edge flag outside their house? The flag that represents a family member who died during military operations? Would my wife even be eligible to join veteran family support groups?

The answer to these questions is…I don’t know.

And so is the answer to the question of my willingness to captain a merchant ship into the next war… I don’t know.

A Message To Commandant Buzby

Commandant Buzby, many thanks for your tireless and continual effort over the last year to support the U.S. Merchant Marine. We American merchant mariners are truly grateful. Personally I would like to thank you for inviting me to Washington to review my criticism of MARAD’s efforts. Your efforts are making a difference and I thank you. 

That said, the next fight will not be about the number or condition of our ships or the strength of our enemy. We can not out build the new manufacturing nations. We only have one option to win the next war and that is by focusing on people.

To prepare this nation please prepare me and my fellow mariners. Let us train with the navy at no cost, ask the nation to subsidize not just ships but officer training, bring back the USMS, and let us know we are wanted by issuing DD214’s to all U.S. mariners who served in combat zones.

If the Navy continues to marginalize and ignore our needs then our nation will lose, but convince the military to help us train and make us feel like part of the team…and we will help the country win. 

Time is not on our side, we must do this now. 

A Message To Admiral Moran

To Admiral Moran, as our soon-to-be Chief of Naval Operations, do not let war be the reason we start working together. We can’t wait that long. Admiral Buzby and MARAD are working tirelessly to prepare the USMM for war but they do not have your budget, your influence, or your ability to mandate immediate change… and the civilian companies our Merchant Mariners work for today are just not going to prepare mariners for a full-scale conflict. Most don’t believe a full-scale conflict will ever take place. 

The ball is in your court. Please help us so that when you need our help we are ready. 

Captain John Konrad is the founder and CEO of gCaptain and author of the book Fire On The Horizon. John is a USCG licensed Master of Unlimited Tonnage, has sailed a variety of ships from ports around the world, and is a distinguished alumnus of SUNY Maritime College.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (Oct. 17, 2005) — The Military Sealift Command (MSC) underway replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO-198) underway in the Atlantic Ocean. (Wikimedia Commons)

Easter Terrorist Carnage and Revitalizing Counterterrorism in Sri Lanka

By Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage

Dust is settling in Sri Lanka after one of the most devastating and heinous terrorist attacks against Christians and foreign visitors (civilians) on 21st April 2019. It was supposed to be a day of glory and celebrations for Christians the world over. However, it turned out to be a day of horror and repugnance for Sri Lankans. The security forces and the police are doing a commendable job in taking follow-up action and are in the process of arresting large numbers of radicalized persons, criminals, and recovering large quantities of illegal weapons, explosives, detonators, vehicles, communications equipment, and forged passports and National Identity Cards. There were even several follow-on gun battles and explosions.

There is now country-wide fear and psychosis with many people staying at home unless it is really essential for them to go out. Schools and other educational institutions have been closed and all types of fanfare, musical shows, and festivities have been stopped. The print and electronic media is trying their best to keep the population informed of the developing situation as well as advising on precautions to be taken. Religious leaders of all denominations led by His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith are sending message after message appealing to their followers to practice tolerance and requesting them not to take the law into their own hands, which has prevented the escalation of violence against the innocent Muslim populations.

Terrorism and Counterterrosim

The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change described terrorism as any action that is “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

In short, terrorism could be described as basically indiscriminate violence against non-combatants to achieve political, religious, or some other objective. While terrorism is a tactic that cannot be entirely eradicated, steps can be taken to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat organizations that use terrorism. Counterterrorism is defined in the U.S. Army Field Manual as “Operations that include the offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorism.” This definition is more concrete but has its strengths and weaknesses.  First, it correctly states that counterterrorism is an all-inclusive doctrine including prevention, deterrence, preemption, and responses, which would require bringing to bear all aspects of a nation’s power both domestically and internationally.  Second, this definition includes everything but essentially differentiates nothing, which is a problem. 

Counterterrorism is a difficult concept to define, especially in democracies.  There is no universally applicable counter-terrorism policy since every conflict involving terrorism has its own unique characteristics. Democracies must make respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, a staple in their counterterrorism strategies. While this ambition for liberal democracies is admirable and complies with championed democratic principles, it does not always amount to a counterterrorism strategy – these should be simply highly valued principles meant to guide counterterrorism. Counterterrorism (also called anti-terrorism) incorporates the practice, military tactics, techniques, and strategy that government, military, police and other organizations use to combat or prevent terrorism. It must be remembered that human rights and individual freedoms are good, but the right to live is most important. The Easter Bombings took away the right to live from nearly 250 innocent civilians.

The Easter Bombings have created a major problem in Sri Lanka. A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims is a terrorist. A terrorist was originally seen as a person from an underprivileged community, less educated, less economically sound, lower social status, victimized, and motivated for a cause. However, in the 21st bombing the terrorists are reported to be highly educated, both locally and in abroad, from rich families, economically sound, exposed to the world and believers of a religious sect, and highly motivated for a cause even against the mainstream religion of their culture. This showcases a significant degree of indoctrination, facilitated either locally or by foreign influence.

Lessons to be Learned from the Easter Bombings

The Easter Bombings have clearly displayed the vulnerability of Sri Lanka, its community, and installations to a terrorist attack. It reveals that almost any target could have been selected by a terrorist and been attacked. These incidents also prove that national security has been quite at the bottom of the country’s agenda despite the fact the country experienced a protracted conflict against a very formidable terrorist organization for nearly three decades. In simple words, there was a lack of security culture in the country. We have not been able to take effective, timely counter-action to prevent, deter, or detect these perpetrators despite credible intelligence warnings. Insufficient attention was given to intelligence warnings due to a lack of security culture.

It must be remembered that intelligence is not mere information. Many strands of information need to be gathered, collated, and evaluated in order to derive effective actionable intelligence. Thereafter it must be disseminated to the necessary agencies and personnel. It must be remembered that intelligence means different things to different agencies based on their own expertise and the domain they focus on. The multiple intelligence organizations in the country need to be integrated, a practice we developed and effectively used toward the end of the civil war which devastated the country. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture only comes together when the pieces are effectively combined. However, we need to look beyond the picture and link, evaluate, and identify trends, both locally and internationally, which would enable us to predict with certain accuracy and make intelligence actionable. The sharing of intelligence, taking prompt action, and then follow-up action are all key to successful counter terrorism operations.

Even then, unless there is a positive national security culture, this actionable intelligence will not find its due place in the hands of decision-makers. Sri Lanka is a small island state geo-strategically located at arguably the most critical location in the Indian Ocean, among competing spheres of influence of major powers. Furthermore, the country has come out of a prolonged conflict. Therefore, all our actions, our foreign relations, the development of infrastructure, and the development of economy must give due consideration and priority to national security. 

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, which prided itself on being the only country in the contemporary world to completely defeat terrorism on its soil, is bleeding again. It is believed that with a proper national security culture the Easter carnage could have been prevented or the impact minimized. Unfortunately, it was not the case. Terrorists achieved what they wanted – to create fear and psychosis by mayhem and death of large numbers of innocent civilians, and earning worldwide media coverage. This dastardly act will not quickly fade given how the suffering of the people has been immense.

But we need to move on. We need to keep national security as our upper-most priority and create a culture of security. Countering terrorist activities cannot be done by government forces alone. It has to be a comprehensive effort and a whole-of-nation approach, similar to what we had toward the end of the separatist conflict. Not only did Sri Lanka finally overcome the most ruthless terrorist organization in May 2009, but we were not caught in the conflict trap as no major terrorist event took place for nearly ten years until the Easter Bombings. We had the best models of rehabilitation, resettlement, and reconstruction during the post-conflict period.

We must rise above the radicalized elements and evil forces that are waiting to destroy us. We are in desolation but not in despair. There is hope in humanity. Together we will survive but divided we perish. The choice is ours, but we owe it to the country and future generations.

Admiral (Dr.) Jayanath Colombage is a former chief of the Sri Lanka Navy who retired after an active service of 37 years as a four-star admiral. He is a highly decorated officer for gallantry and distinguished service. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College in India and Royal College of Defence Studies, UK. He holds a PhD from General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. He also holds MSc on defence and strategic studies from Madras university and MA on International Studies from Kings college, London. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of Colombo, Defence Services Command and Staff college (Sri Lanka), Kotelawala Defence University, Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute. He was the former Chairman of Sri Lanka Shipping Corporation and an adviser to the President of Sri Lanka on maritime affairs. He is a Fellow of Nautical Institute, London UK. Admiral Colombage is currently the Director of the Centre for Indo- Lanka Initiatives of the Pathfinder Foundation. He is also a member of the Advisory council of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka. He is also a Guest Professor at Sichuan University in China.

Featured Image: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine a day after the series of blasts, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

Adapting Command and Control for 21st Century Seapower

By Bryan McGrath

As the United States winds down from two regional land conflicts that have dominated the 21st century, great power competition with China and Russia rightly dominates defense planning and operations. Consequently, American seapower must once again evolve to meet the challenges of sustaining America’s prosperity and security in a multi-polar world. No element of modern seapower is more worthy of evolution than the operational relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps, and this essay asserts that the twentieth century approach to command and control (C2) of these forces must embrace the integrated approach offered by the Joint functional commander concept and its maritime instantiation, the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC).  

The Department of the Navy includes two Armed Services, the Navy and Marine Corps, which together deliver American power and influence from the sea. This power and influence spans the range of military operations—from peacetime presence through great power war—accomplished by controlling the seas and projecting power therefrom. No other element of American military power is as flexible, useful, persistent, and ready as the seapower delivered by the Department of the Navy.

How the Navy and Marine Corps operate to deliver integrated American seapower has evolved over time, but for much of the twentieth century, naval doctrine for amphibious operations (an important subset of American seapower) featured two co-equal commanders whose authority was tied to the phase of a specified amphibious operation, while other naval task forces operated under the Combined Warfare Concept (CWC).

The Commander, Amphibious Task Force (CATF) was a Navy officer whose overall command of an amphibious operation existed when the force was primarily a seaward force, and the Commander, Landing Force (CLF) was a Marine Corps officer whose overall command of an amphibious operation existed during the landward phase of the operation. Each supported the other during the phase in which the other predominated. This approach to amphibious warfare was developed at the Naval War College in the 1920s and has existed with minor variation ever since.

Interestingly, the amphibious force (AF) existed mostly outside of larger naval command and control constructs. Because of the uniqueness and complexity of amphibious operations, the CATF-CLF relationship not only endured, but did so even as larger command and control constructs governing naval forces (the Navy’s Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) and the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) construct) grew in importance. Organizational tension existed when attempting to integrate amphibious operations into either the Navy’s CWC or the Joint functional command relationship, mostly due to the degree to which amphibious forces had been operating independently from larger Navy formations. What developed as a temporary, mission specific C2 structure (CATF/CLF), morphed over the decades into the prevailing approach to amphibious force operations, whether an amphibious objective had been assigned or not, and when those operations bumped up against larger naval operations, amphibious forces were inelegantly integrated. For example, the capabilities of the embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (including attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft) were available for maritime use only in emergency conditions under a concept known as “Emergency Defense of the Amphibious Task Force.”

The Navy and Marine Corps experimented in the first part of this century on a blended C2 structure within the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) concept in which traditional amphibious forces (an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) of three ships and an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)) were supplemented by a few surface combatants to create a strike group optimized for littoral power-projection. A traditional CWC was implemented with a Navy flag officer or Marine Corps general officer (and staff) acting as the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC). The CATF-CLF arrangement continued within this broader C2 structure as the defining command arrangement of amphibious operations, which by the nature of the ESG concept was to be only one of many missions undertaken. That said, the CATF-CLF approach continued to dominate the arrangement of forces, as the embarked U.S. Marine Corps forces remained under the control of the CLF and could be called upon for maritime missions only under emergency circumstances.

The ESG concept was largely abandoned in the past few years, as a paucity of escort combatants stressed the force in trying to meet the growing objectives asked of it. Navy and Marine Corps forces deploy today similarly to how they did in the 1990s, with the ARG/MEU training and certifying separately from aircraft carrier strike forces, and combined operations occurring infrequently and inelegantly. Additionally, once the ARG/MEU deploys overseas, it is common for the formation to be split and disaggregated in order to meet myriad combatant commander objectives concurrently.

Renewed great power competition calls for a closer look at the Navy and Marine Corps team’s operational approach, one that stresses the integrated nature of American seapower and leverages a tried and tested command and control (C2) structure. To that end, the services should begin to more closely embrace the Joint functional control approach to C2, one in which a Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander of appropriate rank and staffing exercises operational control (OPCON) and tactical control (TACON) of all forces within the ARG/MEU (as well as all other naval forces assigned), until such time as those forces are re-allocated in a campaign to another functional commander (Joint Forces Land Component Commander—JFLCC, or Joint Forces Air Component Commander—JFACC).

Under this arrangement, a Navy flag officer or Marine general officer would exercise authority over all the assets of the formation, irrespective of the service contributing them. The basic approach of the Navy’s CWC could convey with the ground force assigned to a Marine Corps commander and the air wing parceled out to other commanders (Surface, Air, Information) as the need arises. When an actual amphibious objective is designated, the CATF/CLF arrangement would apply, although these would be administrative titles rather than implying C2 authorities. The JFMCC would have a variety of capabilities to apply to the battlespace, including ground forces, surface and subsurface forces, and air forces. In essence, the JFMCC would be a “Joint Task Force” commander. Should the ground objective be part of a larger land campaign, Marine forces would “chop” to the JFLCC, but for amphibious operations of more limited duration, the JFMCC would be the functional commander exercising OPCON of those forces.

Embracing the Joint functional approach to C2 of naval forces offers several advantages over the current approach. First, it would drive integration at the operational level that does not currently exist. Most of the nation’s critical peacetime presence missions around the world can be more than adequately serviced by the forces of the Department of the Navy and integrating those forces under a single commander aligns with the principles of war and makes for more efficient operations.

Next, by integrating these forces under the JFMCC, pressure will grow to integrate operational architectures and concepts of operation, which would influence the acquisition community to provide weapons, networks, and sensors that serve a more coherent architecture, rather than the more separated service approaches that characterize the present. Communications and networks will necessarily benefit from co-development, but another benefit would be to highlight the lack of offensive power resident in ships of the amphibious force. An empowered JFMCC would look with interest upon the maritime real estate provided by the capacious decks of modern amphibious ships and wonder why there were not over-the-horizon missiles capable of land-attack and anti-ship engagements.

A third advantage is related to the second. Currently, the (Navy purchased and operated) ships of the amphibious force are thought of as transportation for and support to U.S. Marines ashore. It is axiomatic that the Commandant of the Marine Corps spends more time thinking about amphibious ship numbers than the Chief of Naval Operations does. Were these ships and their capabilities seen to be the province of the maritime commander—rather than simply support for land operations—more attention would be paid to their numbers, their capabilities, their readiness, and their place in the broader naval force architecture.

Conclusion

The Navy and Marine Corps provide the nation with the world’s most powerful and mobile air forces, the world’s most feared middleweight land force, and the world’s most lethal surface and submarine forces. Thought of as an integrated whole and operated under a coherent C2 arrangement, these forces offer the prospect of servicing most of the nation’s security needs forward, even as they protect and sustain America’s prosperity by commanding the maritime commons. Embracing the JFMCC functional approach to command and control of Department of the Navy forces offers the best option to accomplish this operational integration, which will then serve to drive bureaucratic, technical, and intellectual integration within the Department.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Deputy Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA: The forward-deployed amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20), front, the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), middle, and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Osumi-class amphibious transport dock ship JS Shimokita (LST 4002) manuever together as part of a coordinated formation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor King/Released)

How Combined Navies and Coast Guards Coalesce: A Maritime Forces Learning Model

By Daniel T. Murphy

Walk into a bar in any country and ask a bunch of naval officers, coast guard officers and merchant mariners (Yes, I have done this), “Why is it that maritime forces are able to come together so quickly and effectively when the maritime domain is under duress?” You will hear answers such as . . . “We just know how to work together.” A Spanish admiral told me, “We speak the same language,” and an Indian naval officer told me, “We’re cut from the same cloth.” Examining some historical examples of how maritime security organizations have successfully come together in times of crisis will shed light on this fascinating phenomenon.

Historical Perspectives

Between June 1940 and December 1941, German submarines were sinking, on average, between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of allied shipping per month. Losses increased to 500,000 tons per month through mid-1943. Similar to their strategy in the First World War, Germany had a specific tonnage target they estimated would starve the allies to a negotiated peace. Beginning in late 1943 and onward, navy and coast guard forces from the U.S., U.K. and Canada combined to organize convoys, increase air coverage over shipping lanes, and introduce new radar and sonar technologies that reduced the loss rate to a manageable 100,000 per month. While still a lot of lost shipping, convoy losses no longer posed a threat to the allies’ ability to supply the war effort.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when the majority of illicit drugs entered the United States through the Caribbean basin. In the early 1990s, combined maritime security forces and agencies from the United States, and Caribbean, Latin American and UK allies (15-plus countries) coalesced to significantly reduce the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean maritime routes, forcing traffickers to shift more of their operations to overland routes through Mexico. The successful maritime security effort was largely centered around the development of the new Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South that was established in 1994. While Caribbean traffic routes have again become popular with the cartels in recent years, few would argue that the aggressive, multinational effort of the 1990s did not produce results.

The Indian Ocean is an area with multiple fragile, failing, and failed states and large populations of desperate young male inhabitants who often have few life opportunities. Piracy has already been a cultural norm in this area for hundreds of years. The Somali Ministry of Fisheries and the Coastal Development Agency (CDA) established agricultural and fishery cooperatives, and permitted foreign fishing in Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) through official licensing or joint venture agreements. When the Somali government fell in 1991, local fishermen began enforcing the fisheries zones themselves, eventually evolving into piracy. By 2009 and 2010, Somali pirates were working more than a thousand miles offshore, using large “mothership” dhows as base stations for swarms of skiff attacks. As the situation worsened, and as shipping companies started paying large ransoms, piracy began spreading to other littoral states in the Indian Ocean.

Similar to the U-boat challenges of the First and Second World Wars, and similar to the drug war in the Caribbean theatre, maritime forces from the United States, multiple European countries, and Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore came together in relatively short order to address the problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. For example, twenty-five countries joined together in Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150), a multi-national naval organization dedicated to counter-piracy operations. The European Union established the EU Force (EUNAVFOR) to help organize European naval operations around the Horn of Africa. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) organization took on primary responsibility for coordinating merchant vessels protection and defense in the region. As a result, the number of merchant vessels attacked and captured gradually decreased through 2011 and 2012, and became nearly nonexistent by 2017.

Organizational Learning (OL) as an Enabler

So what makes navies, coast guards and maritime security organizations of all countries quickly coalesce to become effective regional maritime security partners? A rich body of research suggests that military and security organizations are highly adept at what Peter Senge and other scholars call organizational learning (OL). Senge (1990) argued that a learning organization continuously expands its capabilities to create its future through five disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Senge’s work has been extended across many industries, including the military services by scholars such as Nevis, DiBella and Gould (1995), Goh and Richards (1997), Marsick and Watkins (1999), Chiva, Alegre and Lapiedra (2007), and Marquardt (2011).

Other scholars have specifically studied OL in the military services. Here are just a few examples: Baird, Holland and Deacon (1999), and Darling and Parry (2001) studied how the U.S. Army uses a four-step After-Action Review (AAR) process at the end of a ground operation. Daddis (2013) studied how the U.S. Army behaved as a learning organization during the Vietnam conflict. Etzioni (2015) studied OL by U.S. forces in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF). Gode and Barbaroux (2012) studied OL in the French Air Force. Marcus (2014) studied OL in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

To specifically study how OL enables maritime security cooperation between partner countries, I conducted a qualitative study using Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) framework. I conducted interviews with 11 U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officers between the ranks of Lieutenant (O-2) through Captain (O-6). Collectively the participants were experienced across all U.S. geographic combatant commands. All interviewees had operational fleet experience working alongside officers from foreign navies and coast guards. Interviewees included surface warfare officers (SWOs), aviation officers, and intelligence officers. All participation was voluntary. Interviews averaged 40 minutes and were recorded, transcribed, and codified.

The interviews yielded 448 keyword and phrase artifacts. The artifacts were aggregated into 25 artifact groups, and then aggregated again into eight overall findings. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the findings.

Finding 1: OL Enables Maritime Security Cooperation Between Partner Countries

As an overall finding, interviewees described work examples which supported all seven of Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) imperatives. In other words, interviewees validated that OL does enable maritime security cooperation between partner countries.

As an overall finding, interviewees described work examples which supported all seven of Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) imperatives. The seven imperatives are:

1.  Create continuous learning opportunities (CL): Learning is embedded within work so people can learn on the job; opportunities are provided for ongoing education and growth. 

2.  Promote inquiry and dialogue (ID): People express their views, listen to, and inquire into the views of others; questioning, feedback, and experimentation are supported.

3.  Encourage collaboration and team learning (CT): Work is designed to encourage groups to access different modes of thinking, groups learn and work together, and collaboration is valued and rewarded.

4.  Establish systems to capture and share learning (LS): Both high- and low-technology systems to share learning are created and integrated with work, access is provided, and systems are maintained.

5.  Empower people toward a collective vision (EM): People are involved in setting, owning, and implementing joint visions; responsibility is distributed close to decision-making so people are motivated to learn what they are held accountable for.

6.  Connect the organization to its environment (EN): People are encouraged to see the impact of their work on the entire enterprise, to think systemically; people scan the environment and use information to adjust work practices; and the organization is linked to its community.

7.  Provide strategic leadership for learning (SL): Leaders model, champion, and support learning; leadership uses learning strategically for business results (Marsick and Watkins, 1999).

In other words, interviewees validated that OL does enable maritime security cooperation between partner countries.

Finding 2: OL is Enabled Through Collaborative Activities

Interviewees described a rich array of examples of how partner country maritime services coalesce through structured after-action reporting, briefings, exercises, and combined operations. For example, regarding briefings, one interviewee said, “It’s built into the way we work every day. At the end of a mission we do a hot wash. Figure out what we did well and what we didn’t. And if we are operating with a partner navy or air force, they take part in the conversation. I know they also do their own hot wash too.”

Finding 3: OL is Enabled Through Communicative Activities

Interviewees emphasized the importance of certain communicative variables, including: face-to-face communications, common language, information-sharing based on agreed “need-to-know,” common nomenclatures, and radio communications. For example, one interviewee emphasized the value of having the U.S. landing signals officers (LSOs) from his squadron travel to Brazil to work face-to-face with the Brazilian pilots who would eventually be landing on the U.S. aircraft carrier.

Finding 4: OL is Enabled Through Organizational Elements and Concepts

Interviewees emphasized the importance of both horizontal and vertical organizational structures, and structures of unified commands. For example, one interviewee explained how a naval special warfare training organization was “stood up” to help a developing country build its special warfare operations capability. The organization emulated the U.S. Army’s CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) model to establish a continuous learning environment. Another interviewee pointed to the Dhow Project which was co-developed by the NATO Shipping Centre, the EU Maritime Security Centre (MSC-HOA), the U.S. Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO), and the merchant shipping community. The Dhow Project helped identify and track threats to merchant shipping in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden.  

Finding 5: OL is Enabled Through Human Relationships

Interviewees talked about having common interest with partner countries, and the importance of building personal relationships and trust. For example, when discussing combined operations with an Asian partner country navy, one interviewee said specifically, “I think more important is that personal level. It’s almost that friendship that you start to develop and you actually can see how you’re going to get there with that person or that group of guys, or gals, or what have you.” Nearly every interviewee made clear that, while conference calls and video conferences with partner country officers and staff were helpful, what mattered most was when personnel had opportunities to develop close personal trust-building relationships with one another.

Finding 6: OL is Enabled Through Technology

Interviewees recognized the importance of supporting technologies, including having a common operating picture, common networks, and common platforms. Specifically, in reference to the Global Command and Control System (GCCS) common operating picture and CENTRIXS networks, one interviewee said, “We use a variety of web-based platforms to share knowledge with all of our country partners. What we share depends on who they are. And there’s probably an incentive there for partner countries to get closer to us, because the closer they get, the more we share.” In other words, when information technology platforms and content are shared between countries, it underscores that those countries are in a relationship with one another. When countries are not granted access to those technologies and content, it underscores that the relationship with those countries is more distant.  

Finding 7: OL is Enabled Through Formal and Informal Training and Education

Interviewees emphasized the importance of combined military education (e.g., the U.S. Naval War College), formal training (e.g., SEAL training), and on-the-job training. One interviewee explained, “We have quite a good percentage of our, I guess, our partner countries that send their officers, both their senior officers and some of their junior officers to Newport. They learn to strategize the way we strategize, and they learn the content of our strategy as well. But I would say that we also have non-operational venues where we collaborate. For example, the International Maritime Symposium at the War College and in similar events we have out in the fleets on a regular basis.”

Finding 8: OL is Enabled Through Work Practices

Finally, interviewees emphasized the importance of everyday work practices, including directives, intelligence, and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). According to one interviewee, “I assume that in previous exercises, our partners in NATO started acquiring each other’s TTPs and we have them written down. We have TTPs for VBSS (visit, board search and seizure operations) and I assume that through years of sharing TTPs, our TTPs became similar at some point.” In other words, a large body of directives and TTPs “order” partner country navies and coast guards to work with one another toward specific operational ends.

Insight for the Fleet

These findings provide a rich list of elements that navy and coast guard officers have deemed “valuable” for building relationships with partner countries. In other words, according to the tactical operators in the fleet, this study describes the things that “work,” and that should be supported, and funded. Here are just four examples.

First, the data shows conclusively that navy and coast guard officers that participate in formal exercises do believe that exercises help partner country maritime forces coalesce and collaborate. What is important is that navy and coast guard leaders from all countries can look their respective congresspersons and parliamentarians in the eye and state emphatically, “Our officers do believe that these exercises matter. The more we exercise together, the more collaborative we become.” This study provides dozens of anecdotes to that effect. U.S. policymakers and military leaders should continue to support and fund naval exercises with partner countries. Policymakers and military leadership should similarly continue to support and fund inter-country training and education programs, and find ways for partner-country navy and coast guard officers to have more numerous face-to-face learning opportunities.

Second, the data shows that structured communications vehicles such as briefings are key enablers of security cooperation. Briefings specifically are the primary vehicle by which tactical and operational information is communicated between partner country navies and coast guards. Military leaders should step back and reflect on whether the briefing process can be made even more valuable through structuralization or even ritualization. Senge (1999) and other OL scholars would suggest that military briefings could become even more valuable if they evolved from being predominantly single-looped (e.g., What did we learn in the exercise?) to become ritually double-looped (e.g., How did we learn in the exercise?).

Third, multiple interviewees discussed how access to the GCCS and CENTRIXS systems, and access to U.S. national intelligence, should be used as incentives for closer relationships. In other words, Pentagon and fleet-level leadership should actively promote access to systems and intelligence as an incentive for closer collaboration with the U.S. and western allies. After a partner country “subscribes” to intelligence-sharing with the U.S. and allies, and after they prove their ability to protect sensitive and classified information, they can earn access to more sensitive and higher classifications of content thereby reinforcing the relationship in a positive feedback loop.

Fourth, OL between partner countries and security success seems to increase exponentially when combined OL-dedicated organizational structures are stood up, either temporarily or permanently. The creation of CTF-150 and other dedicated organizational structures had a significant impact on accelerating learning between partner navies and coast guards, which resulted in a significant reduction in piracy in the Indian Ocean. The creation of JITF South had a similar positive effect on the drug war in the Caribbean. In other words, joint and combined task forces work. Policymakers and maritime security leadership across all countries should work to make such structures easier and faster to stand up and establish a battle rhythm. To be specific, the U.S. and other leading nations in maritime security should continue, and perhaps increase, emphasis and funding on prepositioning programs and rapid deployment of adaptable expeditionary force packages. Such packages could provide an even faster response and return to normalcy when piracy inevitably springs up again in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere, or when new waves of refugees seek to escape from North Africa (highly likely), South America (also likely), or elsewhere in the world.

Introducing a Maritime Forces Learning Model

Most importantly, the study resulted in the development of a Maritime Forces Learning Model – a mental model for practitioners to learn and reflect on how OL-related activities, when practiced and improved in the fleet, can have a positive upward ripple effect. For example, improving the frequency and quality of operational briefings in the fleet can help improve OL between partner country navies and coast guards. Improving OL can help improve regional maritime security and regional security overall. If the regions of the world can be made safer, the world itself can be made safer.

A maritime forces learning model. (Daniel Murphy image – Click to Expand)

Final Thoughts

For good reason, there is a vast body of literature exploring military and security failures and partial failures in history – Waterloo, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, and others. In the spirit of Santayana, as military and national security professionals, we absolutely must understand our historical failures so that we can reduce the likelihood of such failures in the future. I believe that it is good news for humanity, that we (in Western society, at least) rigorously reflect on things done wrong. However, military historians and other social scientists should spend more time studying things “done right.” That was the intention of this study.

Navies, coast guards, and maritime security agencies around the world have an uncanny ability to come together in relatively short order, to protect and defend the maritime domain when threats arise. I believe it is important to understand the how of that phenomenon. To understand the how, one must dig deep – to what the anthropologist Geertz (1973) would call a “thick description” of culture. When we understand the details of the how – in this case how partner navies and coast guards coalesce – we can support, emulate, and appropriately resource the how. While this study was not intended to uncover any great “aha” on what makes maritime security cooperation tick, it was intended to provide some thicker description on how fleets coalesce, and ultimately underscore some of the practices that leaders should continue to emphasize and support.

Daniel T. Murphy is a full-time faculty member in Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security department. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Homeland Security and Strategic Intelligence department at Northeastern University, and a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, currently assigned to the US European Command (EUCOM) Staff. Dr. Murphy received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts, Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University, Master of Science degree from the National Intelligence University, and Doctorate degree from Northeastern University. He is also a graduate of the American Academy in Rome and the Naval War College. 

References

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Featured Image: PHUKET, THAILAND (Jan. 25, 2019) – U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Mutty, commanding officer of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), right, speaks with officers of the Royal Thai navy aboard Essex in Phuket, Thailand. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Molly DiServio) 190125-N-NI420-1062