Tactical Employment of Drone Motherships

As discussed in an earlier post, dynamics between unmanned naval systems and the platforms that carry them are changing rapidly to accommodate new technologies and tactics.  Arguably, various types of drone motherships have the potential to transform mine countermeasures more than any other warfare area, and the evolution in mine-countermeasures tactics towards the mothership-unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) partnership is already underway.  One of the first major demonstrations of this concept occurred last summer during the U.S. 5th Fleet’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX), when a number of UUVs were tested from large amphibious motherships including USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15).

Essentially, the Navy is moving from dedicated MCM ships, such as the Avenger-class minesweeper, to a trio of platforms operating together: a Generation I mothership (ex: an AFSB) carrying Generation II platforms (ex: manned RHIBs) and the UUVs themselves.  The Gen I mothership provides the endurance and sustainment to the package.  The RHIBs (specially modified to carry UUVs, as pictured below) take the mine-hunting or neutralization payloads off-board to minimize danger to the larger mothership.  And the payloads – in this case, high-resolution imaging sonars – are delivered to the target area via a small UUV.  Another option for getting the sensor/sweeping delivery systems to their operating area is using drones carrying drones, such as the French Espadon or Fleet-class Common Unmanned Surface Vessels (CUSV), launched from Gen III motherships like the Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS).

Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility.
Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility.

A further example of an innovative drone carrier was revealed during the January 2013 Surface Navy Association’s annual meeting, when Major General Timothy C. Hanifen, USMC, Director, of OPNAV’s Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) discussed how the U.S. Navy will demonstrate the forthcoming MK VI Coastal Patrol Boat to carry and launch UUVs for mine hunting and neutralization. 

There are likely a couple of reasons for this movement towards alternative motherships such as USS Ponce and smaller platforms like the MK VI to carrying MCM drones.  Clearing an area of mines is a complicated, methodical operation.  Simply described, mine clearance involves getting equipment (sonar, sweeping gear, and/or neutralization charges) on target to locate, classify, and neutralize mines as rapidly as possible in a port, shipping lane, or other expanse of water.  Generally speaking, more sensors moving more quickly over a wider area will complete the mission in less time, which is why airborne mine-sweeping and -hunting operations have proven so important.  Deploying smaller manned and unmanned craft from a larger ship, each carrying more than one mine-hunting or mine-neutralization vehicle will get more mine-hunting equipment in the water.  A single minesweeper can utilize one sonar and moves slowly through the water from mine to mine.  The mothership/drone combination multiplies the number of sonars in the water several times.  This unconventional platform experimentation is also likely a response to the technical problems and delays in deploying a viable mine warfare mission package on the Littoral Combat Ship, especially with the RMMV. 

The Chief of Naval Operations’ push for “payload over platforms” will lead to additional experimentation with other mothership/drone pairings.  Expect to see new combinations of unmanned vehicle carriers expanded into other warfare areas, including anti-surface (ASUW), anti-submarine (ASW), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Will China’s Navy Soon Be Operating in the Atlantic?

An Important Stop

On his way back from a trip to South America in the summer of 2012 China’s Premier Wen Jiabao made the strangest possible stopover. He landed on an American-Portuguese air base on the Azores. The Lajes Field Air Force Base is one of many on the Pentagon’s list to be reduced or scrapped. In the National Review, anti-China hawk Gordon C. Chang speculated whether Wen Jiabao’s stop on the Azores island Terceaira could have a strategic-military context:

“Terceira, however, has one big attraction for Beijing: Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility where Premier Wen’s 747 landed in June is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure. From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea.”

The Azores
                                       The Azores

However, terror-filled visions of Chinese aerial patrols over the Atlantic are out of place. How would the aircraft, including personnel and equipment, get there? And what types of aircraft could perform such feats? China’s military is not blessed with too many long-range bombers or maritime patrol aircraft. Even if they had such capabilities, why should China try to send men and material, strongly needed in the Indo-Pacific, to the other end of the world? From these current practical limitations it would be easy, but wrong, to stop the discussion about China’s role and potential operations in the Atlantic. 

In order to show its flag in the Atlantic, it would be sufficient for China at this point to use the airport and the ports for, let’s say, a “scientific research station.” It is in a similar manner that the British, French, and others pursue their interests in overseas territories. Incidentally, such a station would be an excellent opportunity for electronic espionage – signals intelligence (SIGINT). Furthermore, as a former emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, Lajes Field might also be of interest for China’s space program.

Into the Heart of NATO

This new development in the territory of a NATO country must be seen in the context of China’s efforts in another NATO member, Iceland. China has heavily invested in the country’s ports and infrastructure because Beijing in the long-term expects an ice-free Arctic to open new shipping routes. Meanwhile in Greenland, whose foreign policy is administered by NATO member Denmark, vast quantities of important resources have also caught China’s eye and spurred development plans.

China is attempting to protect and project its strategic interests in the Atlantic and is doing so within NATO countries. This broader trend should not be dismissed without broader analysis. Such moves – note the plural – are something entirely new.

As stated above, the idea of an operational Chinese naval and aerial presence appears bizarre. Why should China try to station hardware, either civil or military or dual-use, on the other side of the world in the midst of a “hostile inland sea”? Viewed strategically, however, and it’s apparent that such a move would be a stab in NATO’s heart. In Iceland, China’s concerns (so far) are civilian and economic projects, but if the Portuguese government allowed the Chinese, in whatever form, a permanent presence on the Azores, it would be a strategic disaster.

What would happen if the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific antagonist settles into the home territory of the Alliance, in which the U.S. has since 1949 set the tone? The signaling effect within and outside NATO would be devastating. Obviously, NATO has never faced only friendly states, as members’ borders were often the literal front lines of the Cold War. But there are few parallels with the potentially hostile (a designation based on privately held beliefs of China’s intent and cyber efforts) power in the midst of the Alliance’s area. Would NATO Europe, as it is now termed in U.S. parlance, permit such a development by acquiescence or inaction, NATO Europe’s image in Washington would reach a new low.

 

Arctic Sea Routes
                       Arctic Sea Routes

Some of you may be thinking, but doesn’t the Malacca Strait, Gulf of Aden, Suez Canal, and Strait of Gibraltar separate China from the Atlantic? The answer again is due to the developments in the Arctic. In the long term, China’s shortest way into the Atlantic no longer leads through the bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean, but via the Arctic, once the Northeast Passage is ice-free. Regardless, it requires little to imagine Chinese ships, after a stop at the newly opened port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, sailing by the Horn of Africa and through the Mediterranean for a short visit further into the Atlantic. Due to the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 we could see a recognized requirement for presence for the first (and not last) time.

Heading South

Pop Quiz: Where have Chinese pilots performed their first takeoffs from an aircraft carrier? In the Pacific? Wrong. In the South Atlantic? Right. It is on the Brazilian carrier Sao Paulo that Chinese pilots trained for takeoffs and landings. With the initiation of such military ties, it’s possible that the Chinese pilots and their Brazilian trainers will someday have the opportunity to meet again alongside their carriers during port visits and joint exercises.

Such a vision may or may not come to pass, but China’s interest in the South Atlantic is nothing new, due to Nigeria’s and Angola’s oil, construction projects across the continents, booming markets, and vast extractive industries. Potential sites for Chinese naval bases in the South Atlantic are already discussed openly. If somewhat of a new development for the North Atlantic, Chinese interest in the Azores fits into the picture of China’s pivot to Africa further to the south.

Despite all the speculation: Calm down

China is years or decades away from establishing military superiority in expeditionary operations. China’s military has more than enough work to do in the East and South China Sea working under the slogan “Learning by Doing“.  It remains to be seen if and how far the dispute with Japan about the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands escalates, which could seriously alter China’s naval development trajectory. Further, the Chinese naval presence off the Horn of Africa since 2008 only exists, because it is welcomed by the U.S., India, and other countries in the fight against piracy.

 

Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.
Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.

For the foreseeable future, what China does in the Atlantic will have zero operational military relevance. The strategic and political implications are what matters. In London, with its own not-inconsiderable South Atlantic interests, and in Paris, these geopolitical developments will be watched closely. Washington, London, and Paris are likely able to bring enough pressure to bear on Lisbon that China will not settle on an island in NATO’s heart. The unknown variable is debt. Will Beijing buy so many Portuguese bonds that Lisbon cannot say no? Or will Europe exploit Portugal’s dependence on Euro rescue funds for its geopolitical aims to eliminate any designs China has on the Azores? We will see.

What to do?

There is a lot to doubt about China’s intentions. The growing nationalism, the behavior in cyberspace, and the more aggressive stance in the East and South China Seas speak for themselves. Nevertheless NATO Europe must focus on cooperation rather than confrontation. The reality is that the U.S. and NATO have already developed templates for successful cooperation with China’s navy off the Horn of Africa. Such measures should be continued and expanded, for example with counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and counter-terrorism efforts. However, the reality is that China is also developing its navy as an instrument of Indo-Pacific power projection, which will have the side-effect of enabling it to pursue its interests in the Atlantic stronger than before.

But there is no reason for doom and gloom if today in the capitals of NATO Europe the right geostrategic agenda is set and pragmatic decisions are made. It is all on Paris and London.

Felix Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers-Sicherheitspolitik.net (Seidler’s Security Policy).

Follow on twitter: @SeidersSiPo

CIMSEC’s DC February Meet-Up

 

(Actual location may differ from photo above)
(Actual location may differ from photo above)

It’s the time of the month again when CIMSECians get hungry and/or thirsty. For February’s DC meet-up we’ll be returning to the Old Dominion Brewhouse in the Convention Center area, just north of Gallery Place/Chinatown.  We hope you’ll join us to discuss the maritime issues of the day, recap our Maritime Futures Project, nominate topics for our next “week” of analysis, or just meet some interesting people.

 

Time:   Tuesday, 12 Feb, 6-10pm                          Happy hour lasts til 7:00pm

Place:   Old Dominion Brewhouse, (look for a sign or ask up front for our area)

1219 9th St., NW (Exit at the Mt. Vernon/Convention Center stop on the red line, on the other side of the convention center tunnel)

All are welcome and no RSVP is required, but if you’re planning on coming drop me a line so we have an idea of how many seats to reserve: director@cimsec.org

Re-examining the Gulf of Guinea: Fewer Attacks, Better Pirates

The hijacked Luxembourg-flagged tanker MT Gascogne.
The hijacked Luxembourg-flagged tanker MT Gascogne.

Along with the release of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)’s 2012 piracy report come the onslaught of analysts seeking to explain 1) why the crime is decreasing in certain theaters, 2) why it is expanding in others, and 3) where it will spread next.

The top story is that global pirate attacks have hit a five-year low, thanks to a sharp decline in the activities of Somalia’s notorious marauders.  When this trend is reported it is almost always followed by the caveat that a “new” piracy epicenter has “emerged in Nigeria and that the criminal enterprise is now increasing and expanding across the Gulf of Guinea.  These types of statements are an oversimplification, however, and mask the complexities of maritime crime in West Africa.

Playing with Numbers

A multitude of criminal actors have parasitically operated in the Nigerian littoral since the country’s oil boom in the 1970s—piracy, kidnapping, and oil theft are by no means “new” to the region.  To say that the country has “reemerged” as an epicenter of maritime crime is more accurate, as it was only in 2007 that Somali waters became more pirate prone than those of Nigeria.  The 27 pirate attacks reported for Nigeria in 2012 represents an increase over the past two years, but fall well short of the 42 attacks the IMB recorded in 2007.

One must also be careful (a mistake this author is willing to admit) about reporting an absolute “increase” in the total number of pirate attacks that have taken place in West Africa over the past year.  The IMB’s figures display a clear trend: attacks off Nigeria increased from 10 to 27, while those for the region as a whole rose from 44 to 51.  These numbers are incomplete, however, as they only include incidents that were directly reported to the IMB; whereas an estimated 50-80% of pirate attacks go unreported.

The larger data set of the Danish consultancy firm Risk Intelligence reveals a decrease in Nigerian and West African piracy.  The company recorded 48 attacks in Nigerian waters in 2012, a higher number than the IMB reported, but lower than Risk Intelligence’s 2011 and 2010 figures, recorded as 52 and 73 attacks respectively.  The expansion of pirate gangs into the waters of neighboring states explains why attacks may have decreased in Nigeria, but it is also noted that the total figure for West African waters has fallen from 116 in 2011 to 89 in 2012.

Table 1: Incidents of Piracy off Nigeria and West Africa: 2008-2012 (Risk Intelligence)

  2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Nigeria 114 91 73 52 48
West Africa Total 138 120 110 116 89
Nigerian Incidents as  Percentage of Regional Total 82.6% 75.8% 66.3% 44.8% 53.9%

 

Not More, but Different

An overall decline in the total number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea does not mean that the problem is being a solved.  The January 16 hijacking of the Panamanian-flagged product tanker Itri and February 4th hijacking of the Luxembourg-flagged tanker MT Gascogne, both off Côte d’Ivoire, attest that the threat remains high, but has shifted in terms of its targets and scope.

The rampant maritime crime and insurgency that plagued Nigeria in the mid-to-late 2000s displayed a mixture of communal, political and economic motives and was frequently directed towards supply vessels and fixed assets operating in oil and gas fields off the Niger Delta.  A 2009 amnesty offered by the federal government essentially served to buy off thousands of Delta militants, rewarding some of them with huge security contracts to protect the waters they had previously hunted in. It is this change in the security environment that is credited with the sharp decline in pirate attacks in Nigerian waters seen in Table 1. 

Heightened security in the Nigerian littoral appears to have had a Darwinian effect on maritime criminals, as more sophisticated and politically connected syndicates have thrived at the relative expense of opportunistic “smash-and-grab” pirates.

One manner in which this is evident is target selection.  Attacks against support vessels operating close to shore have declined over the last five years (and with them, the total number of incidents), but this has coincided, since 2010, with a surge in tanker hijackings.  According to the records of one corporate security manager operating in Nigeria, there were 42 attacks against supply vessels in 2008 (one of the worst years of the Niger Delta insurgency), but only 15 in 2012.  Conversely, there were just 8 attacks against tankers and cargo ships in 2008, but 42 in 2012.  In total, Risk Intelligence has recorded 78 attempted attacks on product tankers and 27 short-duration hijackings since December 2010.

This shift in targets might explain why commenters incorrectly refer to rising levels of piracy in the region, as the hijacking and short-term disappearance of tankers owned by international companies garners far greater media attention than the robbing of supply ships, despite the fact that these types of attacks were more frequent.

Latest piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea (courtesy OCEANUSlive.org)
Latest piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea                    (Courtesy OCEANUSlive.org)

Bigger and Better

While boarding a supply vessel and robbing it of valuables is a relatively low-tech affair, hijacking a product tanker and pilfering vast quantities of fuel over several days requires a high degree of organization and sophistication.  The confessions of four captured pirates, believed to be behind the hijacking of the Energy Centurion off the coast of Togo on August 28, 2012, reveals the intricacies of such an operation.

According to one testimony, criminal syndicates are “sponsored by powerful people,” including Nigerian government officials and oil industry executives, who provide advanced payment and information about the cargo, route, and security details of ships that have been targeted.  These intelligence-led operations have become increasingly multinational with gangs based in Nigeria planning attacks off the coasts of Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire, often with the assistance of nationals from these countries.

Once a vessel has been hijacked, pirates have been known to go to great lengths to make sure that the ship ‘disappears’ while preparations are made to offload the cargo.  For example, the gang that hijacked the product tanker MT Anuket Emerald made sure to damage all the ship’s communication equipment and loading computer, repaint its funnel, change the tanker’s name, and remove its IMO number.  The offloading and black market sale of stolen product is equally complex, requiring a network of “oil mafia” insiders who facilitate fuel storage at numerous depots across Nigeria and then organize for onward distribution.

Money over Everything

Though fewer ships are being attacked, the current crop of West African pirates (and their financial backers) are seeing greater returns.  The group that recently hijacked the Itri was able to siphon off the ship’s entire cargo of fuel, valued at $5 million.  Captured pirates involved in tanker hijackings (dubiously) claim that payoffs range from $17,000 for new recruits to over $60,000 for ‘commanders.’  The value of large-scale oil theft exceeds many of the ransom sums made by Somali pirates and is acquired without months of hostage negotiations.  Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, notes piracy expert Martin Murphy, is now the most lucrative in the world.” 

The West African modus operandi is also more secure, as Nigerian pirates are not subjected to the same risks as their Somali counterparts—namely extended voyages in treacherous open ocean, the combined pressure of the world’s greatest navies, and the widespread use of professional armed guards aboard merchant vessels.  Endemic corruption in Nigeria assures that even if pirates are caught, they are unlikely to face serious consequences.  The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency and Joint Task Force have made dozens of arrests in recent months, but lack the authority to detain or prosecute suspects as this is the responsibility of other security agencies.  Bribes to these agencies, captured pirates note, are set aside as an operational expense, meaning most suspects are released without charge.

In terms of numbers, overall pirate attacks may be declining in the Gulf of Guinea, but the gangs responsible appear to have increased both their operational sophistication and target selectivity.  Given the increased value of each operation and the small risk of punishment their crimes show no signs of disappearing.  

James M. Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist with Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at jbridger@delex.com

 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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