CIMSEC is having a Non-Navies Week from 29 July to 2 August as a first step in a longer series on specific non-navies. Delve into this list of non-navy navies with us.
Mainstream policy discussions of navies and maritime law enforcement often consider the denizens of the high seas to be a pliant polity – passive actors being defended, disrupted, or directed by the might of global or local security networks. However, national fleets and their individual warships are not the only ones with the agency to effect global politics and security.
Some topics we have covered at length – pirates and the Private Military Contractors that have risen up in opposition – but we have only scratched the surface.
Commercial enterpirses pursue the possibility of massive drone-ships, bringing new possibilities and vulnerabilities as our virtual network and our trade network grow closer together. Remember those pirates?
Fishing fleets have their own interests and controls – their operations and movement impacting global politics from the Gibraltar to the South China Sea. Sometimes inadvertant, sometimes purposeful, their movements can motivate states or global institutions – from territorial disuptes, to security, to environmental concerns.
Ever-better organized and equipped activists are taking to the high-seas, battling whalers or even states. From the Sea Shepards to the “amphibious landings” of Japanese and Chinese activists in the Senkakus, civilians are taking the politics to sea. Somalian piracy actually started as activism, fisherman-come-vigilantes.
Terrorists are an unfortunate reality on the high seas, from the category of at-sea terrorist attacks to the use of amphibious operations as vectors for attack from Israel to Mumbai. Some groups, such as the Tamil Tiger’s “Sea Tigers”, even went so far as be considered a possible real-world naval force.
Around the raucus political conflicts flows the silent schemes of smugglers, black marketeers, and human traffickers. From drug runners to sanction busters, admirals are not the only ones trying to mask their position. Criminal enterprises conduct their own air-sea battle, even operating submarines to smuggle goods.
The almost clinicically precise maps of the sea lines of communication would lead one to think that the oceans are a tame and organized place. Hardly. The sea is as alive with merchants, combatants, and all number of active players creating their own order and chaos.
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Grant Greenwell and Chris Barber join us for the 7th edition of Sea Control. We careen around the road, covering with particular attention intelligence collection, the DDG-1000, and force planning for Amphibious Operations. Join us for Episode 7, the Defense Knitting Circle (Download).
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In my previous entry on the U.S.-ROK naval strategy after the OPCON, I argued for a combined fleet whereby the U.S. and ROK Navies, together with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Since I have been getting mixed responses with regards to the viability of the aforementioned proposal, I felt compelled to flesh out this concept in a subsequent entry. Here, I will examine command unity and operational parity within the proposed combined fleet.
First, as Chuck Hill points out in his response to my prior entry, should the three navies coalesce to form a combined fleet, the issue of command unity may not be easily overcome because “[w]hile the South Korean and Japanese Navies might work together under a U.S. Commander, I don’t see the Japanese cooperating under a South Korean flag officer.” Indeed, given the mutual rancor over historical grievances, and the ongoing territorial row over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, both Japan and the ROK may be unwilling to entertain this this arrangement. However, this mutual rancor, if left unchecked, could potentially undermine coherent tactical and strategic responses against further acts of aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. It is for this reason that Japan and the ROK should cooperate as allies if they truly desire peace in East Asia.
So how can the three countries successfully achieve command unity within the combined fleet? One solution would be for an American admiral to assume command of the fleet. However, while it is true that the ROKN and the JMSDF have participated in joint exercises under the aegis of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this arrangement would stymie professional growth of both the ROKN and JMSDF admirals who lack professional expertise comparable to their American counterparts. In particular, given that ROKN admirals will assume wartime responsibility for their fleets after the 2015 OPCON transfer, such arrangement would be unhealthy for the ROKN because it would only lead to further dependence on the U.S. Navy.
Instead, a more viable solution, as Hill suggests, would be for the three navies to operate on a “regular rotation schedule…with the prospective commander serving as deputy for a time before assuming command.” This arrangement would somewhat alleviate the existing tension between the ROKN and JMSDF officers. Furthermore, the rotation schedule may serve as an opportunity for ROKN and JMSDF admirals to prove their mettle as seaworthy commanders.
One successful example that demonstrates the efficacy of the above proposal is the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience with the Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to the present. In 2011, ROKN SEALs successfully conducted a hostage rescue operation against Somali pirates. ROKN admirals also assumed command of the Task Force twice, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. According to Terrence Roehrig, the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience has “provide[d] the ROK navy with valuable operational experience [in] preparation for North Korean actions, while also gaining from participating in and leading multilateral operations.”
However, it should be noted that it is “unclear whether ROK counter-piracy operations [with CTF 151] had a significant deterrent effect and, if so, it [was] likely to be limited.” While CTF 151 may provide a plausible model for command unity for the combined fleet concept, it does not fully address potential operational and logistical problems in the event of another armed conflict on the peninsula. Moreover, while frequent joint exercises and exchange programs have lessened operational and linguistic problems, so long as the ROKN continues to be overshadowed by the Army-centric culture and structure within the ROK Armed Forces, it cannot function effectively as a vital component of the U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance in deterring future aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.
To achieve operational parity within the combined fleet, I recommend the following. First, the United States could help bolster the naval aviation capabilities of both navies. The JMSDF has been expanding its number of helicopter carriers, while the ROKN is expanding its fleet of Dokdo-class landing ships, supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in addition to its naval air wing. However, the absence of carrier-based fighter-bomber capabilities may pose problems for the combined fleet concept because it deprives the fleet of flexible tools to respond expeditiously to emergent threats. Thus, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could equip the two navies with the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or the new F-35s.
Second, both Japan and the ROK should bolster their amphibious and special operations forces (SOF) capabilities. As the successful hostage rescue operation in January, 2011, of the crew of the Korean chemical tanker Samho Jewelry by the ROKN SEAL team demonstrates, naval SOF capabilities may provide the combined fleet with a quick reaction force to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Furthermore, amphibious capabilities similar to the U.S. MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) may provide both the ROK and Japan with the capabilities to proactively deter and not merely react to future DPRK provocations. That the Japanese Rangers have recently trained for amphibious landing with U.S. Marines, while the ROK MND (Ministry of National Defense) has granted more autonomy to the ROK Marines, can be construed as steps in the right direction. As if to bear this out, there are reports that the ROK MND plans to establish a Marine aviation brigade by 2015 to enhance the ROKMC’s transport and strike capabilities.
In this blog entry, I examined command arrangement and operational parity to explore ways in which a combined U.S.-ROK-Japanese fleet may successfully deter potential DPRK threats. Certainly, my proposal does not purport to offer perfect solutions to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, it is a small step towards achieving a common goal—preserving peace and stability which all East Asian nations cherish.
Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on American Livewire, East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the World Outline.
 Terrence Roehrig ‘s chapter in Scott Snyder and Terrence Roehrig et. al. Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security. New York: Report for Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2012, p. 35
 ibid., pp. 41
 Japan does not have its own Marine Corps.
Christopher Barber is a Marine Corps Reserve Captain mobilized in the national capital region. While on active duty, he served in Helmand, Afghanistan as an Intelligence Officer and Scout Sniper Platoon Commander. He is a 2008 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and a USCG licensed deck officer.
A PIVOT, BUT WITH WHAT?
American strategic thought has been dominated by the recently self-proclaimed “pivot” to the Pacific and Asia. A student of history, or simple geography, can easily demonstrate that conflict in the Pacific has always, and will always, be a primarily naval endeavor. The same research will reveal that even with a naval focus, any future conflicts are likely to involve putting troops ashore in some fashion. However, seaborne basing, forcible entry, and general contingency planning for amphibious operations are at risk in our military’s current force structure.
Sheer numbers show that the capability to move and fight amphibiously is at a relative historical low point. The US Navy does not indicate in its ship building priorities that this unsettling fact is likely to change. Unorthodox options such as using Maritime Preposition Force ships, auxiliary ships (MSC), or contracted merchant ships are not desirable for operational planners at this time due to the legal and political problems of sending these ships into harm’s way. In light of our strategic desires and growing delta from our amphibious capabilities, the Navy/Marine Corps teams should reexamine these means to supplement capability until reason can guide (along with fiscal ability) necessary, capable amphibious forces.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GATOR NAVY?
The US Navy possesses its lowest number in history of amphibious vessels. There is currently questionable accounting concerning the ability to put an entire MEB (Marine Expeditionary Brigade) to sea. Latest estimates place the required ships to conduct forcible entry options with a MEB, deemed necessary for major combat operations, at 33. Realistically, that number leaves no real reserve and more worrying is the open secret that we will not maintain this force level past 2015. MEUs and ARGs are staying out longer, and being split in order to fulfill operational needs. The 15th MEU, which captured Somali pirates in September 2010, was split conducting counter piracy while simultaneously supporting Afghanistan combat operations and theater reserve.
While such split operations are within the kit bag of the MEU, such practices dilute the nature of the ready force that is forward and concentrated. Current naval planning does not indicate these trends will reverse. In the near term, FY13 budgeted shipbuilding plans for the procurement of 10 combatant vessels, none of which are designed as amphibious troop carrying vessels.
Longer-term outlooks are no more promising, with the 30-year shipbuilding plan designating amphibious ships to remain the smallest portion of the surface ship layout. These trends indicate that while we point to a pivot in the Pacific, a lack of focus on the real possibility of amphibious operations exists in the Navy. Amphibious operations would only make up a portion of the large pie of commitments facing the Pacific Fleet. Within the large spectrum of possible kinetic or non-kinetic operations in the Pacific, it can be predicted that any amphibious operation would be a decisive moment strategically and the planning should be weighted accordingly.
IN THE LACK OF CLEAR ORDERS AND GUIDANCE, ACT ACCORDINGLY
Viewed through the lens of history (Normandy, Inchon, or Guadalcanal) it is difficult to find any amphibious operations that did not mark a dramatic turning point in a campaign or war. If it is then self-evident that such an event would be so strategically critical, why does the current plan to build and maintain such a force seem akin to a family choosing to forgo insurance while deciding to move to earthquake prone area? The prime stakeholder in any amphibious operation, the Marine Corps, cannot dictate the procurement of other services, but it should consider alternative courses of action to ensure its capabilities remain viable.
It is important to remember that any alternatives to procuring and maintaining a robust combatant amphibious fleet should be only temporary. To rely on merchant shipping or other means that are not 100% dedicated to amphibious operations under fire would be a fool’s errand, but more dangerous would be to gap a crucial element of national power when the world is becoming more dangerous.
Numerous historical precedents counter the argument that only dedicated ships of war can be used under fire. Most apparent was the massive emergency nationalization of merchant shipping during World War II. Thousands of tons of civilian shipping, manned by civilian mariners, were mobilized and made a crucial contribution to winning the war. Losses were great, with 1,614 ships sunk from 1940 to 1947 (post conflict losses due to remnants of war) and 9,521 merchant seaman giving their lives in service to the country. Merchant seaman had a 1 in 26 chance of being killed in action, greater than that of any the four services. Clearly, our national history shows that civilian mariners are capable of risking all in service to their country.
Another useful example is that of Great Britain during the Falklands war of 1982. In an economic situation eerily similar to today, the British government had to make many choices of need rather than want during the 1970s. Economic malaise led to drastic defense cuts, and all strategic guidance pointed toward the threat of the Soviet Union and continental Europe. History demonstrated that war rarely happens where governments want or plan for it to occur. Only a year after London mothballed several of its carriers and amphibious ships, Argentina invaded the Falklands and presented operational and strategic challenges of the highest order to the British Government. In an amazing example of military mobalization, Great Britain took two civilian container/roll on-roll off (RO/RO) ships and converted them to ad hoc helicopters and VTOL carriers. They carried Harrier GR.1’s and Sea King Helicopters, and gave British commanders operational agility in the form of air cover and lift capacity. Tragically one of the ships was sunk along with several Royal Navy combatants.
The lesson to take away is that, while as much as we may want to envision a conflict of our choosing, it is more likely that we will end up faced with decisions we did not anticipate. If we have to create capability on the fly and mobilize merchant shipping after we are on the right sight of boom, our forces will face greater risks.
CAPABILITIES DO NOT APPEAR BY “JUST ADDING WATER”
Now is the time to begin planning for the worst. Using civilian shipping in amphibious operations is feasible and more cost-effective than waiting on billion dollar ships that have procurement cycles measured in decades. Training on the lower end of the conflict spectrum in operations such as humanitarian and disaster relief will increase civilian/ military amphibious force ability. Earlier integration into MEU and ARG structures to work out inevitable issues of interoperability will make the inclusion of merchant ships into higher spectrum operations a more risk tolerant option.
Most critically, planning for and using merchant shipping options now will keep our amphibious blade sharp, and capabilities will be less affected than if we remain on our current course of a letting them wither, and eventually die, on the vine. Few operations rival an amphibious movement in terms of complexity, and hoping for the best when marines and sailors conduct one under fire in the future is not only negligent, it is immoral. Utilizing the merchant shipping now and planning for its use until our amphibious force is stabilized is a viable strategy that deserves greater attention.