Mines of Yemen: Operation SUNNY SALAMANDER

By Patrick Van Hoeserlande

YEMEN TILL 2027

The Yemeni Civil War was an ongoing conflict that began in 2015 between two factions: the then-incumbent Yemeni government and the Houthi militia, along with their supporters and allies. Both claimed to constitute the Yemeni government. Houthi forces controlling the capital Sana’a, and allied with forces loyal to the former president have clashed with forces loyal to the government based in Aden. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have also carried out attacks, with AQAP controlling swaths of territory in the hinterlands, and along stretches of the coast.

On 21 March 2015, after taking over the capital Sana’a and the Yemeni government, the Houthi-led Supreme Revolutionary Committee declared a general mobilization to overthrow Hadi and further their control by driving into the southern provinces. A week later they reached the outskirts of Aden, the seat of power for Hadi’s government; Hadi fled the country the same day. Concurrently, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched military operations by using airstrikes to restore the former Yemeni government; the United States provided intelligence and logistical support to the campaign.

Notwithstanding warnings from the United Nations (UN) that 13 million Yemeni civilians faced starvation in what it said could become “the worst famine in the world in 100 years,” this war claimed 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands as a result of a year-long famine.

Finally, in 2021, the fighting fractions came to an agreement on how to govern the nation. With all infrastructure destroyed and institutions neglected, the United States Security Council (UNSC) agreed on the United States Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 3001 creating the UN Mission for Rebuilding Yemen (UNMRY). The mission’s HQ was in Aden chosen for its symbolic value and its port.

Acknowledging the fragility of the ceasefire agreement between the warrying parties, the UNSC requested NATO to provide the forces for an emergency evacuation of a minimal staff. Although, the UN had plans to reduce, in case of raising tensions, the in-country staff to less than 250, there were indications that in case of an evacuation, more people, not related to the UN mission, would try to get a lift out. Although NATO as the most powerful and cohesive alliance could not refuse such a request, it took the North Atlantic Council (NAC) two months to answer positively.

Soon after the UN started its preparation to deploy the mission, NATO stood up amphibious Task Group Yankee (TG-Y). The vicinity of the port led to the decision that an evacuation via the harbour had the best chances for a flawless evacuation. Due to resource limitations, TG-Y was not a permanent group but assembled during collective training and exercise periods followed by periods wherein the group was spread across the globe. However, nations providing the troops had assured that the group would be ready when needed. To further reduce the burden on the troop-contributing nations, TG-Y was kept on a flexible readiness status in relation to the assessed risk on the ground. An unannounced readiness test by SACEUR showed that the majority of the ships were indeed at the requested readiness, although some nations had stretched the interpretation of readiness.

After the turn of the year 2027, troubles again started in Yemen. Assessing the risk in the first half of that year was troublesome work. As a result, the readiness of TG-Y fluctuated throughout that period. SACEUR urged the participating nations to increase the number of exercises to assure interoperability, and, not spoken out loudly, the readiness of the group. By the end of May, a Houthi militia splinter group threatened a possible evacuation of the UN mission leading to an UNSC decision to initiate the operation. The NAC responded quickly by activating the Execution Order for the Evac Ops SUNNY SALAMANDER. 

NORTHWOOD

In the weeks before the NAC decision, MARCOM’s Ops Centre and in particular its Naval Mine Warfare Coordination Unit (NMWCU) had already started preparing the battlefield. Closely following-up the crisis, they knew it was a matter of weeks for the ‘go ahead’ and they did not want naval mines to spoil the timeline.

Fregatkapitein (BEL) Samantha (Sam) Vleugels was the commander of this small unit and the first Belgian NMW officer trained solely in the use of Maritime Unmanned Systems (MUS). She was one of the first members of the growing group of maritime officers who had never sailed on a manned minehunter ship. Yes, she had done her time aboard, but these ships were not specially designed solely for mine warfare. They were all multipurpose platforms or ships of opportunity. The new mine warfare systems could be deployed from almost everywhere, even on land.

Her Norwegian colleague Flaggmester (NOR) Thorben Jørgensen had served several years on a minehunter. He had loved looking for mines along the Norwegian coastline. Although the latest generation of ships used MUS to ease the task, his adventurous spirit told him that it was more fun to feel the present danger of mines. He was good at his current job, but would immediately go for another tour out there in the icy cold. The rainy weather typical for the British Island made Northwood not an ideal place for a Norwegian sailor to live.

“COMMARCOM asked me to make sure that TG-Yankee can operate safely in the waters around Aden,” she told the chief.

“PSA Charlie did a sweep two months ago. The group is now busy along the Somali coast. We could send them for another run,” he replied. Persistent Surveillance Glider Group Africa Charlie, in short PSGGAC but commonly referred to as “PSA Charlie,” was a loose collection of gliders specialized in seabed mapping. They did not really look for mines, but by using their data and comparing the different surveys over time, artificial intelligence could detect potential targets and classify those targets that were most probably mines, historical or new ones. This kind of information was crucial to assess the mine threat and to prepare a quick countermeasure plan.

She had considered that option too, but found it not sufficient in the light of the events on the ground. “Let’s do that and also retask WTF Africa 05.” Wave glider Task Force Africa 05 (WTFA05) was a group of Mine Hunting MUS (MHMUS) under the control of a wave glider. The latter served as the link between NMWCU and the underwater drones and as a charging station. The central point of WTFA05 was a new type able to operate covertly. It only deployed its antenna when necessary and, if needed, it could dive for a short period. That made it ideal to prepare an amphibious landing zone.

“Good idea. It will take them some days to be on station, but consider it done.” Thorben turned his chair towards the computer screen and formulated the task to both groups. He did not have to command every asset individually, no, he just had to formulate the task of the two groups and the planning software proposed a Course of Action (CoA). If the levels of risk and the operational elements were within the task parameters, he told the AI he agreed with the assessment and things got started. The software decided on the number of assets to retask, ensuring that old and new tasks were executed according to the stated parameters.

Just for his awareness, he requested the computer to run a simulation of the proposed CoA. He also had a look at the risk maps based on the last survey of PSA Charlie and interacted with the AI to prioritize some promising corridors for demining. Happy with the result, he called it a day.

Vleugels and Jørgensen felt successful when they heard that Ops SUNNY SALAMANDER was initiated. It was the first time that the new concept was put to a test and they already scored. In the old days, only a mine hunter TF could be sent to the area. As these ships were not made for speed, the first part of the operation would already have delayed the whole operations. Speed was of the essence and this time the naval mine threat would not delay the action.

“The assumption of the plan was that TG-Y would sail to Yemen via the Suez Canal, but because they are on exercise in the Atlantic the fastest transfer is via the Arabian Sea. PSA Charlie did a survey there and we can use ‘Ocean of Data’ to identify potential mines in the route, but we lack a minehunting capability,” concluded Sam. “Ocean of Data” was a database of oceanographic data maintained by a company using civilian MUS. Although not as detailed as the military’s own, for deeper waters this data was good enough. Because NATO provided unclassified data collected with the national MUS, the unit had easy access to this database through a partnership agreement.

“The task group does not have a minehunter with them. There are no ships in the vicinity that we can use as a vessel of opportunity,” answered the chief.

“Let’s broaden our possibilities. Does AIRCOM have access to MHADs?” she replied. MHAD or Mine Hunter Air Delivered was an underwater drone designed to be dropped by almost any aircraft or helicopter. This made it an ideal asset for speedy delivery of a minehunting capability.

He started a search in the database of stand-by capabilities and answered:” Yes, AIRCOM has MHADs available. France has offered them for the current stand-by period.”

“OK, send AIRCOM a request for support and make sure that SHAPE is in CC,” she ordered. While he launched the request, something was bothering her. Not all mines were huntable. Having only minehunter drones in the area would not be enough.

“Chief, are there minesweepers in the area?”

“Negative. No ships, no drones,” while he kept on typing, “but … the USS Michigan is not that far away.” 

“Does she carry LBMS?” LBMS or submarine-launched Large Body Mine Sweepers were torpedo-like workhorses designed to tow a minesweeping array. Before the chief could give her answer, she was heading to the submarine warfare unit. Sam knew that he could not answer her question because that kind of details on subs were not readily accessible, and even if they were, she had to ask her colleagues to get out the task.

USS Michigan  

The USS Michigan, commissioned in 1982 and the third ship to bear the state’s name, was a United States Navy Ohio-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine converted to a guided missile submarine (SSGN-727). Later she had undergone a modification to accommodate special weapons and to serve as a mothership for unmanned underwater vehicles.

After they had changed their course toward the Arabian Sea, they arrived at their firing position. Although they would not fire the sub’s normal weapons, the crew used the standard tactical vocabulary.

“Tubes one and two ready, sir.”

Captain (USA) Jean-Jacques Smith smiled when he heard the reply. His parents were both vivid divers and they named their son after the famous French diving pioneer Cousteau. Their love for the underwater world had turned his gaze towards the silent world of submariners. The mystery of the dark held him in its grasp.

A second “Sir?” brought him back to the task at hand.

“Launch number one.”

A metallic sound followed by a whoosh marked the departure of the first LBMS.

“Torpedo one away.”

“Confirmed. LBMS one is active.”

“Launch number two.”

 “Torpedo two away.”

“LBMS two also active.”

“Confirm the launch to HQ and bring us back to our holding station.”

“Aye, sir.”

His order was further translated to the different stations of the sub. The highlight of the day was over, now they had to make sure that the sub slipped quietly into obscurity without any detection.

NORTHWOOD

The night shift briefed on the successful launch of the LBMS and the preparation of a German A400M sub-strategic airlifter to drop the MHADs. They confirmed that the robotic sweepers were already sweeping mines cooperatively on the far segment of the approach to Aden.

When Sam entered the area of her unit, Thorben had verified the activity of the two minesweepers. The first elements of WTFA05 were already busy hunting mines in the last leg of the sea route and PSA Charlie was active in other potential landing zones. Things were going well.

“What’s the status of the A400M?”

“According to the Info from EATC the aircraft will leave at 1000 for Cazaux Air Base to pick up the two DHAMs.” The European Air Transport Command or EATC was a single multinational command with its headquarters located at Eindhoven Air Base, the Netherlands. The fleet of over 300 assets were located at the national air bases through the twelve member nations.

She looked at her watch and decided they still had some time. “The Task Group wants a minehunter ship in front of them and the admiral agreed to it.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. The drones are doing a good job. The route will be clear. They don’t need a ship.”

“I know, but the old guys don’t trust what they don’t see. They want a ship to feel safe. The Mine Warfare advisor Captain Wiegmann could not convince his COMTF, so we have to stick to the task.”

“The German captain is a decent guy and a great specialist. If he was not able to turn the decision, nobody can,” answered the chief.

“Do you know him?”

“Yes, I worked with him during exercise ARTIC MINE. Great commander.”

“Then you will be glad to see him because he is online now.”

That moment Kapitän zur See (DEU) Rolf Wiegmann’s face appeared on the right screen. He was an old-school mine warfare specialist but experienced in the use of new technologies.

“Hi team. I guess you have heard about my admiral’s request?”

“Yes commander, we are aware of it.”

“Any proposal on how to get a ship for us?”

“There are no ships around. Not even an ‘Old Lady,’ so we have to go for another solution,” said Thorben. Sam did not like the expression “Old Lady” for a worn-out, stripped ship equipped for (semi)autonomous operations in a minefield. These ships, small or big but always old, could be used as minesweepers but also as a quick and dirty test for the presence of mines. Through the years she had accepted that sailors talked about a ship as a ‘she’ and that there was nothing odd about that. But, sending an old lady unprotected into a minefield was still hard to accept.

“Looking at the characteristics of the local seabed, an ABNL – the Belgian-Dutch maritime cooperation – ship would be perfect because she could be used to assist the landing if necessary. The Dutch and the Belgian are accustomed to operate in sandy conditions,” Sam declared with some proudness in her voice. The chief picked up that tone and knew she was right. His navy was specialized in rocky coasts, but these were not found around Aden.

“They are too far away to be on time. Their operational ships are participating in the live clearing activity in the Baltic Sea. Even if they turn around now and sail at high speed they will arrive after D-day.”

“Right,” she sounded a bit disappointing.

“We have a Portuguese Fast Multi-purpose Support Ship ready to sail out and join the naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. If we ask it to sail through the Suez Canal, it could join the task group in time,” proposed Thorben.

“Let’s do that,” replied Rolf. “What about the mine clearing module? I know the Portuguese don’t have those yet.”

“We could ask Den Helder to provide us with one of their modules. If we fly the container to Port Said International Airport, the Portuguese ship could pick it and the crew up,” proposed Sam regaining her enthusiasm.

“Great idea,” confirmed the chief.

“Okay, team, keep me posted and if you need my support, don’t hesitate to call me. Rolf out.”

“Nice to have this figured out.”

“I’ll talk to my national chain of command; can you take care of the Airbus for me?” Sam asked.

“Already busy with it.”

AIRBUS A400M

After the pick-ups in Melsboek, Belgium, and Cazaux, France, they had been flying to Said. A quick stop to drop of the mine clearance module and its crew of six, they refuelled the plane and took off again. According to their flight plan, their current leg would soon end above the Red Sea.

A buzzing sound announced the opening of the cargo door. The noise of the four turboprop engines swelled and filled the cargo bay. The crew chief looked down and saw the inviting surface of the Red Sea. It was dark and there were only distant lights. Good, nobody is watching was the thought that went through his mind.

“Cargo door open and locked. Ready to drop.”

“Roger that,” responded the pilot.

The red light went on indicating that the loadmaster had to start the final check. The parachutes were hooked on. The cargo clams blocked in the right direction. Nothing visible that could hamper the release.

A nightly parachute extraction drop was always spectacular and dangerous. Once the main release handle was pulled over, there was no stopping to it. Everything, intentionally or not, attached went overboard. The two air force specialists had no intention to drop something else except the two DHAMs. They did not really know the purpose of this drop. They did not care. Their task was to execute a clean drop.

The orange light went on. Instinctively they both stepped back into safety.

“Crew chief clear.”

“All clear in the back.”

Green light.

Immediately, the loadmaster pushed the handle and the parachute left its storage place. Taking air at high speed, it instantly deployed fully and with a hard jerk, it yanked the container out. They could hear the noise in their active noise reduction headsets. They both witnessed the white splashes of the two DHAMs, but lost all sight of the black chute.

“Closing door.”

“Going home,” replied the pilot.

TASK GROUP YANKEE

“All systems functioning as planned. Sea approach cleared above requested confidence level,” stated the report.

“The Portuguese ship will join us in the afternoon. Everything will be ready for the evacuation, admiral,” concluded Rolf in his briefing.

“Job well done, Rolf. Thank MARCOM for me,” responded COM TASK GROUP YANKEE.

NORTHWOOD

“Our German captain sends us thanks from his boss. A job well done,” said the chief. It was the first time that they had used the new concept of MCM operations to prepare an amphibious operation. All those years against critics finally paid off. The underwater drones enhanced by AI did what they were supposed to do.

Suddenly the screen flashed red. A red rectangle warned them about an explosion. This warning came from the wave glider of WTFA05. Its hydrophones had picked up the noise of the explosion. The next line informed the unit that MHMUS 04 was damaged and sinking to the bottom. Chief Jørgensen started the forensics diagnostics program to have a better idea of what just happened.

“It looks like a commercial ship was leaving the port while MHMUS 04 was busy neutralizing a mine. The ship must have come too close to the mine, so 04 decided to let it explode before it could finish the job,” explained the chief.

“Why did it do that?” wondered Sam, although she knew the answer.

“We think that these drones do that to protect the ship and prevent collateral damage, but we’re not sure. Their program has learned it that way and the manufacturer left it as it was,” Thorben explained. Sam knew that was half the truth. The manufacturer had no idea how the AI-based software had come to that conclusion and was unable to de-program it. AI was not a rule-based software but the result of endless iterations of data interpretation cycles. Changing the outcome was not as easy as changing a line in the software.

“Nothing we can do about it. Note that we have to pick up the damaged drone in the near future. A task for the Portuguese?”

“OK, I will launch a request for that,” answered the chief.

“I wonder how the other side will react to that incident.” 

TASK GROUP YANKEE

“Good morning team,” said Rolf.

“Good evening. You have read our report on the explosion?” asked Sam.

“Yes, thanks for that. Any changes?”

“No, no reaction from the other side as far as we can detect.”

“Okay. Our MQ-10 is on station. I’m forwarding its feed to your station now.” The General Atomics MQ-10 Havoc (sometimes called maritime Reaper) was an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of autonomous flight operations developed primarily for the United States Navy. The MQ-10 was an improved version of the MQ-9 hunter-killer UAVs and designed for long-endurance, high-altitude armed surveillance.

“We have it. Thanks,” replied Sam. “Can you fly over SIERRA beach? We want to see if there are mines in the breakwater zone.”

The drone operator changed the course a bit and swept the camera towards the beach where the special operations team would go ashore.

“There, and there, and maybe here,” said Thorben while his pointer went over the spots on the image from the camera. “Possible UWIEDs.” The homemade naval mines or Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices were placed to prevent an assault from the sea. Because they were positioned in the breakwater zone, they were hard to detect with a MUS. The UAV’s multispectral camera was a great help to detect possible mines in shallow water.

“There is a truck on the beach,” announced Rolf.

Immediately the operator zoomed in on the truck. All saw the cargo in the back of the truck. They all thought the same: more UWIEDs.

“Should we destroy the truck?” asked Sam.

“Yes, they could add more mines. We can hit it with our gun,” proposed Rolf.

“Wait a moment!” It was the chief. “Can you hit this spot first,” he said while marking a spot in the shallow water of the beach, “and then walk towards the truck?” On the second screen they could see the map with estimated mine threats. There was a dark green area running to the indicated spot. They understood that the requested firing pattern would clear possible UWIED in the breakwater. It would open a safe passage for the SOF team without giving the intent of clearing an infiltration path away.

They heard a long drumming sound and a moment later, the camera filmed the effect of the rapid fire. Water spewed up followed by a destructive trail towards the accelerating truck that ended up in a ball of flames. It was a beautiful but deadly spectacle.

With an alarming sound, a red text popped up: POSSIBLE ONGOING MINE LAYING OPERATION DETECTED. “Helvete! Can you turn the camera to the entrance of the port?” asked the chief in disgust.

The screen turned blurry to stop with an image of the inlet. Without being asked, the drone operator zoomed in on the deck of the ship. They were witnesses of the drop of another sea mine. There were still some mines left on the small ship. If they would allow this crew to continue their activity, their preparatory clearance work would be in vain and the whole evacuation operation would have to be postponed. This in turn would increase the risk for the UN staff.

“Deal with it!” Rolf requested without consulting the others. The operator threw a quick glance at her mission leader who gave an approving nod. Two seconds later Fox 1, an advanced small calibre air-to-ground missile, left its rail. The missile rushed towards its target turning it into a burning wreck. The secondary explosions were violent witnesses that the ship’s cargo of sea mines were destroyed as well.

They did not have time to enjoy this little victory as Thorben announced that the computer estimated that the Houthis probably had dropped four sea mines. Enough to delay the operation with some days depending on the type of mines. “Our gunfire must have shielded the noise of their sneaky activity,” he concluded.

Disappointment quickly followed victory. The two operation centres turned quite.

With “Can you show me the results of the surveillance by PSA Charlie?” Sam broke the loud silence.

“Sure thing.”

“Right, have a look at the beach to the East of Little Aden.” All eyes followed the move to the East. Sam zoomed in. They all recognized the way out. There was a stretch of at least 200m of dark green on the chart. An amphibious landing zone. “Go where there are no mines” was one of the catchphrases in the concept. A pass by the MQ-10 would confirm the absence of UWIEDs in this breakwater zone. The operation on the ground would be a bit more complicated, but it was doable within the planned timeframe.

“Quick thinking team,” were the thankful words spoken by Rolf.

“Thanks. It’s part of the job description.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Does the task group still need the Portuguese ship?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well, this little action we had, made me think. We can use it to reinforce their idea that we will use the port for exfiltration and recuperate the damaged MHMUS 04.”

“Elaborate,” asked the captain.

IN THE VICINITY OF ADEN

After the captain had explained their deception plan to his commander, the multipurpose ship with the ABNL modules sailed toward the port of Aden. At a safe distance, the crew put up a good show of a demining operation. They even ignited an old sea mine to increase the theatrical effect.

Observers of their activity at sea quickly concluded that the Houthis had at least five days before the port would be accessible. Time enough for their own plans.

However, the real activities under water had no relations with this show. Mine hunter drones were widening the green zone of SIERRA beach while another drone salvaged the damaged number 4.

As planned, in the middle of the night the SOF team came ashore and organized the evacuation. The surprise was complete and all staff evacuated safely and without real incidents.

BRUSSELS

The Secretary General read the UNSC letter felicitating NATO for the flawless evacuation of its staff out of Yemen. Listening to the diplomatic sentences, Captain Wiegmann reflected on the excellent work of the team and the value of the new concept. In the old days, this evacuation would have been much more difficult to pull off.

Major Van Hoeserlande (BEL Air Force) is an aeronautical engineer with thirty-five years active duty on the counter, including command tours and deployments in joint environments. His love for writing and storytelling started in high school and has never panned out. As a diver-editor most of his articles are about underwater adventures, but his interests include innovation, management, technology and travel. As from August 2018, he is concept developer in NATO’s Strategic Headquarter in Norfolk, VA and uses stories to illustrate conceptual ideas. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of NATO or Belgium.

Featured Image: Underwater minefield by Juan Jose Torres

The Deadly Evolution of Abu Sayyaf and the Sea

By Meghan Curran

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Jolo on the Sulu Province in the southern Philippines. Tearing a hole through the cathedral during a Sunday service, the bombs claimed 20 lives, injured dozens more, and propelled Islamist extremism in the Philippines back into international headlines. In the aftermath of the blast, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte promised to “pursue to the ends of the Earth the ruthless perpetrators behind [the] dastardly crime,”as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s notoriously violent Islamic separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. While President Duterte may not need to go to the “ends of the Earth” to put an end to the ASG-fueled terror, his government will certainly need to act beyond its own shores. Illicit maritime activities are at the root of ASG funding and operations, and ensuring the group’s defeat will require focused government efforts to improve maritime security in its area of operations.

As External Support Dwindled, ASG Turned to the Sea

ASG has overcome several transition periods throughout its history, and in many ways, its resilience in the face of both internal and external pressures lays in its ability to morph; from Islamist group, to bandit group, and back; and the sea has provided the means for it to do so.

Until fairly recently, ASG relied on substantial funding from global Islamist terror organizations, notably al-Qaeda. Much of this funding was funneled through charitable front organizations, led by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman and Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law. As head of the Islamic Organization’s Philippine branch, and later IIRO’s regional director for Southeast Asia, Khalifa also founded several other organizations to support ASG.

However, ASG turned to the sea for funding in the mid-2000s when external support began to wane. Following the discovery of Khalifa’s involvement in the botched Bojinka Plot, which involved the bombing of several airplanes over the Pacific, Philippine authorities blocked his reentry into the country thereby weakening al-Qaeda’s support for the group. After the September 11 attacks, increasing international counterterrorism measures further strained external financial and operational support for the group.

With dwindling support and mounting pressure from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ASG began capitalizing on the strong maritime tradition of the Sulu archipelago to engage in widespread criminality at sea to fund its operations. In the mid-2000s the group became notorious for seaborne kidnappings for ransom, and orchestrating attacks on numerous diving resorts. Although these activities were mainly profit-motivated, the ransoms were used to purchase weapons and other supplies for the group.

ASG is Pushed Further out to Sea

In 2016, continued AFP pressure combined with renewed international interest in fighting global piracy further restricted ASG’s freedom of movement on the Sulu archipelago, limiting its ability to conduct onshore kidnappings via maritime routes. In response, the group moved its operations further out to sea, and according to One Earth Future’s 2016 State of Piracy Report , conducted 21 successful kidnappings of seafarers while ships were underway. During the first half of 2016, the group mostly targeted smaller vessels, but by October they began attacking larger vessels, presenting a threat to both international and regional traffic. Although these incidents increased dramatically in 2016, in 2017 there was a noticeable lull in similar activities, which some have attributed to militants refocusing their efforts on the siege of Marawi City, and an increasing number of maritime patrols by stakeholders in the region.

However, in September and December 2018, the group conducted two more seaborne kidnappings off Sabah, Malaysia. On March 12, 2019 Malaysian security forces announced they were on full alert following intelligence reports that ASG militants were once again active in the waters off Sabah, seeking new hostages to fund their campaign. The report stated that ASG had been using contacts on the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, to identify high value targets.

Sea Routes Key to ASGs Next Wave of Operations

Besides using the sea to carry out kidnappings for ransom, ASG is also currently utilizing the maritime space in a manner more closely related to the recent headline-grabbing attack in Jolo.

The group is using sea routes to move foreign fighters into the Philippines, allowing it to utilize foreign suicide operatives, while also maintaining a local base. The January 2019 cathedral attack was carried out by suicide bombers from Indonesia, and experts estimate that there could be up to 100 additional foreign fighters, mostly from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East, currently operating in the Philippines. During the five-month siege of Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, the AFP fought an enemy bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters whose presence emboldened local pro-Islamic State groups, playing a key role in bridging divides between the group’s many factions. In the aftermath of the siege, intelligence failures on the part of both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) pointed to militants from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia navigating the Sulu and Celebes Seas to join Abu Sayyaf’s fight in the southern Philippines.

The Sea is the Key

As the Islamic State continues to lose territory in the Middle East, foreign fighters are viewing the Philippines as an increasingly attractive battlefield. The battle for Marawi City prompted a rise in ISIS propaganda focused on Southeast Asia, with one video explicitly urging supporters to travel to the Philippines. While several foreign fighters have been detained, arrested, and deported after flying into Mindanao, others have been using a backdoor, transiting routes in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that involve island hopping along the region’s numerous archipelagic chains.

On October 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed victory against terrorists in Mindanao, following the liberation of Marawi City. With 1,200 dead, a city in ruins, and martial law declared, many wondered if ASG was truly defeated. But once again the group has illustrated its ability to adapt. The influx of foreign fighters in the Philippines has changed the dynamics of Islamist terrorism in the region. According to analysts, Filipino terrorist groups have traditionally avoided suicide bombings, preferring “sustained combat to cowardly tactics.” But in July 2018, the first ever suicide bombing by militants in the Philippines was carried out in Basilian province by a Moroccan fighter, with assistance from both Abu Sayyaf and other foreign fighters from Malaysia. Shortly thereafter, a cathedral bombing in Jolo rattled the Philippines once again.

As the AFP continues to engage ASG in the forested islands of the southern Philippines, it is imperative that the Duterte administration continues to invest in regional transnational maritime domain awareness mechanisms. This is particularly crucial in the tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which has a long legacy of illicit maritime activity, porous borders, and cross-national family bonds that make undocumented entry and exit into countries in the region common.

The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Freeworldmaps)

While some regional coordination efforts to address illicit maritime activity already exist, the Philippines must build on recent successes and regional initiatives. For example, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) formalized in 2016 resulted in joint maritime and air patrols, as well as coordination between maritime command centers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And while the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) indicates that the TCA has resulted in a decrease in transnational crime in the tri-border area, issues regarding trust across agencies and governments, unclear agency mandates, and duplication of efforts have limited the impact of such organizations. Without sufficient attention to these issues, the defeat of the region’s most persistent violent groups will continue to be out of reach. 

Meghan Curran is a researcher with Stable Seas, an international NGO focused on maritime security issues. This article advances themes published in a new report titled Stable Seas: Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Featured Image: Philippine soldiers stand in formation during a send-off ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila October 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo)

Turkish F-35s – Where Do We Go From Here?

By Jon G. Isaac

A Transatlantic Standoff

In January, CIMSEC published an article in which the author advocated against Turkey’s ongoing participation in the development, manufacture, and eventual purchase of the F-35 Lighting II. Broadly, as January’s piece noted, debate over Ankara’s eventual acquisition of the F-35 has come as a result of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insistence upon purchasing and operating the Russian-made S-400 Triumf  air defense missile system (NATO reporting tag: SA-21 Growler). As lawmakers on the hill and Department of Defense leaders have warned, connection or even close operation between Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter and the Russian air defense system represents a critical security breach which could undermine the aircraft’s operational advantage in the future.

Despite months of warning and posturing which signaled to Ankara that acquisition of the S-400 would jeopardize the future of the Turkish F-35 fleet, Turkish officials have repeatedly emphasized that cancellation of the S-400 purchase is “out of the question.” American officials have attempted to provide counter offers, most notably through a discounted sale of the American-made MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system. None of the attempts at mediation have worked, with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, stating emphatically that Turkish purchase of the S-400 “is a done deal.”

As a result, on April 1st, the Department of Defense confirmed a Reuters report that stated the Pentagon was halting shipments of critical parts and equipment required for the stand-up for Turkey’s first F-35 squadron. In the piece, Reuters quotes DoD spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews and notes that, “pending an unequivocal Turkish decision to forgo delivery of the S-400, deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability” have been delayed indefinitely. This was the Pentagon’s first major move in countering Turkish obstinance.

Complicating matters further, Senator Jim Inhoff (R-OK), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman and Ranking Members of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, respectively, published an op-ed in The New York Times which explicitly forces Turkey to choose between the F-35 and the S-400. Barring a Turkish decision to drop the S-400, they write, “no F-35s will reach Turkish soil” and “sanctions will be imposed as required by United States law under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).” Secretary of State Pompeo supported these remarks on Wednesday when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there would be no Turkish F-35s if they do not abandon the S-400. Curiously, Secretary Pompeo stopped short of definitively stating whether or not Turkish S-400 acquisition would trigger American sanctions as required by law under CAATSA. While Pompeo’s hesitance may have only been an attempt to keep all options open, it could also have links to Minister Çavuşoğlu’s ardent claims that President Trump personally assured Erdogan that he would “would take care of this issue” in reference to the F-35.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It appears, for now, that Ankara faces a choice. In Washington, legislative efforts to bar sales of the F-35 to Turkey seem to have garnered bipartisan support and congressional support. In Ankara, Erdogan leveraged the S-400 issue at almost all of his campaign rallies leading up to the March 31st Turkish elections. Elections which, coincidentally, took a toll on Erdogan’s AKP party on the local level. Nevertheless, Erdogan has continued to posture surrounding the S-400 issue, with the European Council on Foreign Relation’s Asli Aydıntaşbaş writing that Erdogan has seemingly adopted the issue as “a sign of his virility, his independence, his power on the world stage that he could say no to [the] United States.”

Internally, it seems that there are those among Erdogan’s staff who believe the Americans are bluffing and that both systems will eventually solidify themselves in the Turkish arsenal. They are not entirely helpless, either, with American basing rights at the critical Incirlik Air Base standing as a potential bargaining chip for Turkish negotiators. Turkish negotiators face a hard battle, however, as the Pentagon has said it is already looking for alternatives to the F-35 parts currently made in Turkey.

This standoff has not only placed pressure on the Turkish-U.S. relationship, but moreover is raising questions about Ankara’s standing within NATO as a whole. Rick Berger, a former Senate Budget Committee staffer and current researcher at the American Enterprise Institute has noted that this flashpoint has repeatedly brought up, “the whole ‘Should Turkey be in NATO?’ question.” Moreover, the NATO countries that operate the F-35 have internally expressed concern over interoperability with Turkish airframes should they link to the S-400. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has regularly engaged in policies aimed at destabilizing the transatlantic alliance, perhaps the Turkish F-35 crisis presents not just a commercial or political threat to the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but a strategic threat to NATO as a whole.

Jon Isaac is a pseudonym for a developing security analyst.

Featured Image: An F-35B Lightning II performs a vertical landing aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. (Flickr/U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Jonah Lovy)

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)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.