The MV Alaed, a Russian cargo vessel reportedly shipping armament to Syria, including attack helicopters, has lost its insurance coverage due to illicit cargo clauses, CNN reports. This comes after calls from the U.S. government on the British government and subsequent pressure on London-based The Standard Club, insurers of the vessel’s owners, FEMCO.
UPDATE: Tues, 0630 EST
Dutch authorities hailed the Alaed as it passed the Dutch coast, prompting the vessel to turn north. Alead is reportedly near the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, according to The Telegraph. Scottish site STV.TV says the vessel “was last recorded under way less than 55 miles off the coast of the Port of Ness village in the Isle of Lewis,” and headed for Vladivostock according to AIS information(possibly falsely inputted) provided by the ship tracking site marinetraffic.com. The vessel has since moved out of range.
UPDATE 2: Tues 1400
Press reports indicate British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed Alaed is returning to Russia, most likely Kaliningrad. Maritime experts speculate it was ordered to turn back by Russian authorities as it may have had enough fuel to reach Syria without stopping and not been subject to the EU’s ban on weapon shipments as a Russian vessel.
The Alaed is just the latest in a series of cargo vessels bound for a war zone suddenly thrust into the spotlight after reports surface of a purported arms shipment. The Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo vessel turned around in 2009 after the world’s attention focused on its voyage to a mystery destination (likely Myanmar) with a mystery cargo (likely small arms and RPGs). Similar incidents have occurred in the past with North Korean vessels such as 2011’s MV Light incident.
As with the Kang Nam, the objective of the international community in this incident is likely to deny the Alaed an ability to refuel in a friendly port of call enroute to its final destination. With the loss of insurance, the Alaed will find it difficult to legally enter many ports on the way to Syria and may be forced to turn around. If the vessel is able to continue, it runs a good risk of being boarded by some of Syria’s more proactive neighbors enforcing an EU arms embargo, such as Turkey, which boarded the German-owned Atlantic Cruiser in April after similar reports of on-board weapons. Embarrassingly for Turkey, such reports turned out to be false, so they might be more reluctant to repeat the episode with out definitive proof before hand. Nor are all suspect cargoes bound for the al-Assad regime. Also in April, Lebanon stopped the Sierra Leone-flagged Lutfallah II, which definitively was smuggling weapons for the Free Syria Army.
On a side note, it’s hard to take the interview at 1:55 with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely seriously when you realize what’s immediately behind him. That’s right, a cupcake tank that fires cupcakes:
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see hereand here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Hereis another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US. Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?
A century ago the globally deployed British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” 
Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”
Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable. This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.
What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.” The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.
The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”
Faced with an uncertain world, the2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through “Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.
One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms. Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.
1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.
2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.
3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
In Andromeda Strain, the scientists of the Wildfire Team struggled against their pathogen foe, (spoiler alert) only to have their problems solved by circumstance and environment. An entire plot was written about a crisis team that, in the end, accomplished nothing. East African piracy, while by no means eradicated, looks perhaps to have peaked, and public interest waning possibly even faster. Sure, the Maersk Texas was attacked in May, but this single blip on the radar is a paltry show compared to the still-notable number of small-boat attacks off the coast of India, yacht abductions, and beach resort kidnappings.
Unfortunately, after almost a decade of engagement, the West’s maritime Wildfire team has had almost no hand in the changes on the high seas. A series of military incursions by neighbors, newfound vigor in the AU mission, and rise of PMC’s at sea have changed the state of play and cut the mission short, leaving a real possibility for naval leadership to miss the lessons learned from their recent miscalculations.
As the counter-piracy mission is fresh in our minds and before the threat fades into the jaws of vengeful regional militaries, we should use the opportunity to recognize and assess our failures as a force in countering piracy on the high seas.
The West Reacts to the Pathogen
In scope, the naval response to the threat of piracy appeared robust. Dozens of warships plied the waters in search of high-seas bandits. Area patrols ran alongside convoy escorts. Several multi-national coalitions (NATO, U.S.-led Combined Military Forces, the EU) ran operations concurrently with the independent efforts of ten or more countries at any one time. The Indian navy recently captured a stunning 61 pirates after a pitched gun battle. Over 20 nations now meet for the annual Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) conference to build a united front against piracy. Maritime Patrol Aircraft and UAVs from multiple nations surveil the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), pirate anchorages, and the open ocean. There was a reasonable expectation that such a massive military drag net might stymie piracy. However, the result was a better skilled and better organized pirate. As Napoleon said, “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.”
Piracy’s Adaptation and Resistance
Until military action ashore cut short the party, coastal raids with small skiffs developed into multi-million dollar kidnapping operations with captured tankers converted to motherships. Pirates used UHF communications, skilled hostage negotiators, and money changers in Dubai. Merchants deactivated their automatic identification system (AIS), a system used for vessel safety during the height of piracy around the Straits of Malacca, as pirates at large used it as a homing beacon. Pirates adapted to the law-enforcement rules of engagement used by the respective patrolling navies, hiding or disposing of all pirate paraphernalia and making it next-to-impossible for maritime enforcers to get the convictions occasionally sought. Many pirates moved to new areas altogether, shifting operations away from patrols and avoiding the range of immediate military responses.
The focus of piracy shifted from capturing cargo to capturing people. Kidnapping was the name of the game. Due to an inability to enforce arrangements, some companies paid full ransom for captured employees and only received a fraction of their personnel in return. EUNAVFOR even reported more brazen tactics of avoiding capture, namely the threatened and actual torture of hostages.
This adaptation, combined with the lack of political stability, created threats beyond endangering global commerce. With Al-Qaeda operating in Somalia next to Al-Shabab, endless opportunities presented themselves for terrorist networks to simply generate profits through partnership or create havoc with vessels purchased from pirates. Rather than siphon off fuel for profits, the pirates could sell a vessel wholesale to terrorists who could use the vessel as a massive explosive in a civilian port, blockage in the mouth of a harbor, or a suicide battering ram against an unsuspecting warship. Capture-and-switch tactics with maritime commercial vehicles had precedent; the 1998 hijacking of the Petro Ranger being a case in point. It only takes a savvy pirate with the right connections to profit from the sale of hijacked tankers for acts of terrorism. Piracy is a crime of opportunity, and human beings are always good at finding new ones.
Breaking the Sea-Shore Learning Cycle
The key to breaking the adaptation puzzle is to boost the intensity of the counter-piracy dosage. One can have the best weapons in the world, but it won’t matter unless the operational concept is correct. The U.S. was weak on piracy, an inch-deep mile-wide river. Pirates waded easily across to tell their compatriots what they’d seen, creating a deadly sea-to-shore innovation cycle that improved pirate learning. This must be solved through more vigorous piracy prosecution, more aggressive rules of engagement (ROE)/posture, and a shore kinetic solution.
Instead, the U.S. released many captured pirates back into Somalia, only prosecuting those that attacked the rare U.S. flagged vessel. The idea behind this policy is that piracy is a crime, not a national security issue. If the vessel’s flag would not prosecute, there could be no trial or detention. Piracy is however very much a national security issue – not only does it drive up the cost of shipping and goods, but pulls mission-ready forces from other duties to keep the costs from rising higher. Sailors deployed to counter-piracy missions can attest to lengthy force protection details off the coast during RHIB transfers of detainees to shore. These temporary detentions were a waste of time and money, punishing piracy with nothing more than a few days in the ship’s center-line passageway with three squares meals and regular washes. The idea that pirates “learned” something from their capture was correct. The lesson was that they likely would survive encounters with U.S. warships and be returned to their anchorages. At the very least, more suspected vessels should have been diverted and escorted to ports where their hulls, cargo, and crew could be inspected and held if necessary. U.S. tactics involving capture had little meaning without a resolution other than emancipation. At worst, such impotent gestures actively undermined the authority of the U.S. presence.
Actions Louder than Words
These operations would have been aided by more lenient ROE and a higher level of aggressiveness in the U.S. posture toward piracy. This is a complicated subject as the rules were designed to maximize legitimacy and minimize controversy and liability. It is frustrating to read message traffic insisting on defining pirates clearly caught in the act as “suspected.” Pirates, when positively identified, are hailed and warned, but rarely destroyed. A comical irony is that an escort for a pirated vessel provides, if anything, little more than military protection for the pirates on the vessel.
Better ROE would be more aggressive, allowing the engagement and destruction of vessels with known associations to piracy. Once the chance to surrender is given, threats must be made good. To counter the use of human shields, a counter-offer must be made to pirates. The normal method, as I witnessed it, is that U.S. warships hail pirate vessels, occasionally fire warning shots, then are deterred by the presence of human shields or pirate threats to kill their hostages.
Just as the U.S. has a standing policy not to negotiate with terrorists, the same should be clearly applied to pirates: remove the incentive to use hostages. Piracy is not about ideologies, but competing costs and benefits. The U.S. concept of operations places far too much stake on the presence of hostages, further imperiling mariners by encouraging their capture. Military policy should make hostage-taking and the use of human shields a non-factor. If uncooperative, all pirate vessels should be engaged with disabling or destructive fire. Rather than reducing the equation to capture or an escape with hostages, warships should amend the options: capture or death. If hostages are used as shields or threatened with death, the pirates should understand that they only further endanger their own lives by risking lethal retaliation. If hostages are killed by pirates, the responsibility lies with the pirates, not with the military endeavoring to save them. This is an unpleasant idea, but kinetic operations of this kind can rarely be conducted without at least a trace of regrettable collateral damage. Military planners should recognize this unfortunate inevitability and pursue the larger goal of protecting future mariners and an entire region’s stability.
Not Just the Sea
One development that did prove effective was stationing warships at pirate anchorages. This led to a better picture of piracy operations, their frequency, and capabilities. However, partially due to the presence of hostages, the infrastructure remained largely undisturbed. From only a few miles off the coast, a swath of defenseless pirate infrastructure was often in view of my own vessel. I remember SUVs brazenly shadowing us along the shore as we maneuvered close to the land. Small vessels were clearly visible transiting to and from shore with supplies for anchored pirated vessels. Pirate skiffs were propped up in clusters above the tide near supply shacks and rows of vehicles. Pirates came to rely on these facilities to coordinate their operations at sea while simultaneously maintaining a large stable of captured vessels and hostages. With rare exception, these shores were left alone, covered in equipment ripe for destruction. Again, military leaders were naturally worried about hostage collateral damage. Yet naval gunfire can be used to great effect against safe targets at pirate anchorages. UHF towers, clusters of empty vehicles, supply vessels, unattended skiffs, and the assorted support facilities onshore are all easy targets for naval gunfire. This is not only less expensive than leaving the pirates alone, launching 1.5 million dollar Tomahawks, or drone strikes, but terrifying for pirates realizing they could be bombarded at any moment with a ship offshore. This scorched-earth policy for pirate shore facilities should be common practice.
America’s military counter-piracy medication comes in the form of ships-of-the-line, namely DDGs and a few FFGs. While versatile craft, these are inherently conventional, centralized combatants designed for confrontations with modern navies. They are expensive, complicated blue-water craft weighed down with anti-submarine, anti-surface, and anti-air capabilities unsuited for the task of counter-piracy. VLS, AEGIS, torpedoes, Harpoon, towed arrays, sonobuoys, etc. have little to no use here. These platforms have a limited aviation capability and little room for detainees caught while on patrol. There are even FFGs deployed to Somalia without helicopters, making them next to useless when it comes to responding to calls for help outside of 20nm. Additionally, unlike the conventional warfare areas, there is no formal training regimen for these ships that deals with piracy specifically, their assigned mission.
Amphibious platforms, on the other hand, have the supplies and space to contain detainees for long periods without impacting crew effectiveness. Amphibious platforms also bring vital improved air assets/compatible flexibility not sufficiently present in CRUDES. The USS Oak Hill’s certification to carry riverine boats last summer demonstrates amphibious ships’ versatility with the ability to deploy patrol boats in concert with multiple air assets. Rather than a single ship and helicopter covering hundreds of miles of coastline, a whole swarm of air and sea assets, bolstered by a large detainee space and afloat support facility, become available in a single platform. These kinds of coastal patrol operations were executed to great effect during Vietnam using Landing Ship Tank (LST) vessels as bases to deploy Patrol Boats-Riverine (PBRs) and helicopters. A similar concept would be a far more effective counter-piracy force structure off Somalia.
Andromeda Strain: Not Walking Away Empty Handed
As regional entities take turns carving out pieces of the vacuum in which pirates operated, we will naturally let out a sigh of relief and enjoy a chance to walk away from the piracy issue. We must not, however, allow our efforts to be for naught; we must at a minimum take with us the important lessons from our failed efforts. Piracy is a crime of opportunity. It can only be deterred by changing the cost-benefit analysis and removing the chances to commit the crime. The United States’ incomplete capture strategy, backed up by weak actions/ROE, only taught pirates that, with a little innovation, the usual result of a run in with an American vessel was a free ride home.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
The DC region was invaded by naval demonstration drones with varying degrees of impact. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator), the drone designed to launch from carriers and begin the replacement of manned fighter jets, made its way cross-country to Naval Air Station Pax River in Maryland after successfully completing its first major phase of testing. En route it rounded DC’s beltway and, as in other places it was seen by the public, it sparked some humorous befuddlement.
Earlier in the week another U.S. Navy drone demonstrator at Pax River made a more literal impact into Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This was an RQ-4A BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator), a modified version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, and one of only two of the “A” variants. As the linked AOL Defense article points out, Northrop Grumman has continued to make major improvements with the more advanced “B” and “C” variants.
CGBlog has a good run down and analysis of the Coast Guard’s future shipbuilding plan, including the views of a just-released GAO report. If you’re not familiar with the debates, this a good chance to get caught up on the future of another service with a global impact on maritime security.