Tag Archives: Counterterrorism

Why U.S.-China Counterterrorism Cooperation Falters

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Jeffrey Payne

Consistent discussions over the past several years between the United States and China on counterterrorism (CT) cooperation represented an opportunity during a time of tension. The logic behind these discussions is simple: both Washington and Beijing’s interests generally run in parallel when it comes to stopping violent extremist organizations. Yet, despite detailed conversations in several formats, no cooperative plan has emerged. The reasons for this are multifaceted, but they center on this point: the cost of cooperation outweigh the benefits, on both sides. The United States, for its part, should accept that efforts to cooperate with China on CT are not viable, at least in the near term, and instead should focus on expanding CT cooperation with other Asia-Pacific partners.

The CT Problem Set

Degrading and destroying violent extremist organizations has been a national security priority of the United States for several decades and in that time the federal government developed a host of tools for countering terror that vary from intercepting illicit financial transactions to military operations intent on eliminating terrorist organizations. United States CT operations have evolved from those focusing on extremists in South Asia to today becoming a global effort featuring partnerships with dozens of states. CT partnerships have not only assisted in deepening military relationships between the United States and other countries, but also became an irreplaceable resource for intelligence gathering, capacity building, and economic development.

The threats posed by violent extremists continue to diversify. CT is much more than a military or security force strike. Too many both outside and inside of government forget the investments in supply chains, facilities, training, intelligence, community outreach, judicial and police services, development, and simple face-to-face discussions among partners that are needed for CT efforts to be successful. Therefore, many partnerships the United States built in past decades are not simply about combat. Many partners are engaged in the CT fight without contributing military or security service personnel. Quite a few are sources of information about violent extremists, while others provide needed equipment and supplies. Still more, either due to domestic considerations or external limitations, are involved in efforts more accurately described as countering violent extremism (CVE), a term that addresses a host of actions targeting the economic structures, communities, laws, and social fabric, among others, of a country or region in order to inhibit the spread of violent extremism. CVE is distinct from CT, but still related through the overarching objective of ending the threats posed by violent extremism.

What the evolution of CT, and by extension CVE, reveals is that there a multitude of ways in which countries can use the resources at their disposal to erode terrorism. The United States has partnered with dozens of countries in various capacities and in varying intensity to conduct CT operations. Some of these partnerships were easy to build as they merely added on to existing alliances. Still others were issue-focused partners that coordinated on CT-related operations solely. When it came to countering terrorism, preexisting difficulties do not inherently close the door on state-to-state cooperation. Therefore, the fight against terrorism has evolved in such a way where a country like China can become a partner to the degree in which it is most comfortable. So long as partnerships are conducted in good faith by both parties, there should not be insurmountable obstacles to cooperation.      

Why Cooperation with China is Unlikely

The U.S.-China bilateral relationship has long been complicated. Beijing sees itself as ascendant and has pursued actions that signal its intention to become a regional hegemon and alter the dynamics of the region. The United States, the principal architect of the existing regional order and an ally to four of China’s neighbors, seeks to see China rise without fundamentally displacing its position in the Asia-Pacific, nor dismantling the rules and institutions that define the current regional environment. When it comes to the Asia Pacific, the United States and China are in competition.

Yet, outside of the Asia Pacific, the interests of the United States and China are seemingly not as complicated. In fact, on many global issues the view of both Washington and Beijing are complimentary. Thus, a situation exists where the United States and China ‘compete locally but can cooperate globally.’ A more global China, even one that is risk averse, has slowly but steadily gained experience in the cultural context of foreign regions, while also becoming more tied to foreign countries through trade and diplomacy. Today, China enjoys the status of a major power. China is relatively stable internally, possesses the second largest economy, and is building one of the world’s largest and most advanced militaries. It is also a country that increasingly has to concern itself with terrorism, both domestically and as it relates to its foreign investments and expatriate population.

For much of the bilateral relationship, the United States and China have been interested in each other and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s engagement beyond the Pacific intensified during the administration of Hu Jintao and became solidified in the current Xi Jinping era. China substantially deepened its economic and diplomatic engagement throughout Africa with China’s banking institutions and commercial development corporations becoming the go-to source of infrastructural development. China invigorated its outreach to Europe both in an effort to gain greater market share for its exports in those economies, but to also develop the relationship networks needed for a stronger continental footing. China gradually and quietly intensified relationships throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf and with other regional resource-rich countries. China’s footprint in Latin America is often overlooked by China watchers throughout the world, but Chinese diplomacy and money have made quite the impact over the past decade. Finally, China ratcheted up engagement with the regions it borders: Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. Taking as a whole, China’s foreign engagement has made it a global actor that is quickly gaining the capacity to compete with the United States. In fact, negative perceptions regarding the current United States administration’s willingness to retain its traditional global leadership role have led some to look to China.

China’s successful emergence as a global power comes with a cost. One of these costs is that as China became more engaged around the world, the probability of being targeted by violent extremists increased. Chinese nationals or Chinese investments have been targeted by extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, and Iraq. Increased risk from extremists have forced evacuations or increased security in Yemen, Kenya, and the Philippines, among others. A handful of attacks have also occurred inside Chinese territory. The first factor explaining why China is becoming more affected by terrorism is its willingness to engage in foreign projects within unstable countries or near conflict zones. As Rafaello Pantucci stated in a recent opinion piece, “turn to today, and as China reaches out to the world through President Xi Jinping’s belt and road plan, Beijing is becoming more of a terrorist target.” Such risk inevitably puts Chinese citizens and capital in close proximity to violent extremist organizations.

China’s greater international political standing is a second factor and its rise has also seen it become more involved in global governance. It is a major contributor to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO), was an active player in the P5+1 Talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and created several major international organizations, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, that indirectly tie China to the internal politics of other states. The third and most often mentioned factor is the emergence of violent extremism among minorities in China, with the Uyghurs most often discussed, who have adopted violent measures as a means for achieving political aims. Beijing claims these violent extremists are a major threat to China’s stability and growth, while consistently emphasizing that violent extremists are tied to terrorist organizations beyond China’s borders.

Recent terrorism- and separatist-related incidents in China. (Washington Post)

The first and second factors are not inherently politically charged issues for the United States, but the same cannot be said for the issue of minority violence. China’s position regarding homegrown violent extremism presents a human rights concern for Washington. Past United States’ administrations have made a distinction between those from minority groups who are actual violent extremists and those who are peaceful political dissidents. The United States has objected to Beijing’s domestic actions in regard to violent extremism due to apprehensions that Chinese authorities are using the threat of terror to repress ethnic and religious minorities, many of whom are in no way tied to violent extremism. But there is no mistaking that some Chinese citizens are violent extremists. A small portion of Uyghur extremists are affiliated with several terrorist organizations including the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Daesh/ISIL, among others. In 2001, the United States designated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a violent organization that claimed to act for Uyghur rights, as a terrorist organization. But it remains unlikely that the United States and China will soon solve their disagreements over how China classifies terrorism within its own borders.

China’s interests in combating terrorism go beyond the question of violent extremists among ethnic and religious minorities in China. China is increasingly concerned about the impact of violent extremism in Pakistan, has consistently voiced its support for efforts to defeat Daesh, and has publicly condemned the actions of groups like Boko Haram and al Shabaab. According to Beijing, such terrorist groups not only put Chinese citizens and investments in harm’s way, but their existence spreads regional instability. The United States is actively involved in multilateral efforts to defeat violent extremism around the globe, including groups that China has publicly opposed. As the United States and China both share an interest in seeing such terrorist organizations defeated, it is logical for the two states to discuss cooperative action. The recent  Diplomatic and Security Dialogue between senior leaders from the United States and China in June of 2017 highlighted how China wishes not only to see the demise of Daesh, but also hopes to contribute to such an undertaking.

June discussions on CT are the most recent of a series of bilateral meetings between the United States and China that discussed CT cooperation in Track I, Track 1.5, and Track II formats. Both sides agree that there is a shared interest, but over the course of the past five years these discussions have not generated any tangible plan of action as to how to actually cooperate. The problem is one of good faith. China has long been apprehensive about United States military actions in the developing world, specifically in the Middle East. Given that the most intensive CT operations target Middle East-based terrorist organizations, this is not an easy hurdle to clear. Chinese officials and analysts regular discuss the reasons that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a root cause of current instability in the Middle East and have more recently expressed displeasure in what they see as the United States’ and European allies’ disregard of a UN mandate during the civil war in Libya. China fears that if it cooperates with the United States it could become a party to a regional crisis or end up providing diplomatic cover for an overly-ambitious United States military operation.

A screen grab shows Turkestan Islamic Party leader Abdulheq Damolla praising the perpetrators of a knife and bomb attack on the Urumqi South Railway Station in a video released by TIP on May 11, 2014.

Furthermore, China continues to differ in how to best defeat certain terrorist organizations. Daesh became a regional threat in the Middle East and is a contributing factor to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the larger Levant. United States policy is committed to defeating Daesh and has created the international coalition to Counter ISIL to assist in that goal, but it and its allies maintain that defeating Daesh does not mean supporting the Assad regime, which initiated the humanitarian crisis in Syria that in turn provided space for Daesh to gain power while the regime continues to commit human rights abuses. China is less concerned with the human rights abuses of the Assad regime and argues that stability in Syria is of paramount importance. The only person inside Syria that has any possibility to create stability is Assad, at least according to Beijing.

Beyond specific objections relating to United States CT approaches, China has also been consistently apprehensive about joining multilateral security efforts, with the exception of those operating under a United Nations banner or those created and largely controlled by Beijing. Beijing has signaled that joining multilateral security efforts will provide China little leverage over decision making inside these organizations. China’s longstanding foreign policy principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty continue to matter when it comes to foreign policy, even if only as talking points. When they are abandoned for national interest, Beijing prefers to engage countries on a bilateral level, especially when security issues are at stake so as to optimally manage perceptions of interference. China’s concerns over Pakistan-based violent extremism, for instance, are largely encapsulated within the bilateral relationship it has with Islamabad. Finally, arguments are regularly put forward stating that China is not yet capable of sending military units far from its borders for long-term military action and doing so would put too great a burden on its security forces. Such concerns have not kept China from engaging in long-term UNPKO or from maintaining a consistent People’s Liberation Army Navy presence near the Horn of Africa since 2008 as part of a counter piracy and commercial escort mission, however.  

Given China’s hesitations regarding security-based cooperative action and its different reading of how to address threats, it should come as no surprise the United States is increasingly skeptical of cooperation. The United States neither expects nor would necessarily welcome Chinese military units to engage in existing CT operations. Both the United States Department of Defense and the Department of State are quite familiar with China’s hesitation with the United States’ preferred approach of multilateralism. When the offer of cooperation has been extended by China, the United States has most often responded with an affirmative response followed by a request of how China wishes to specifically cooperate. When nothing specific is mentioned, which is a common occurrence, there have been attempts to offer China a role that seeks to address concerns from the Chinese side while also being of value to larger CT efforts. China has in the past run effective training programs for police officers and first responders, along with possessing a modern and sophisticated supply chain within its security organs. Each of these and more has been floated as possible avenues by which China can become involved in CVE initiatives. Such efforts are not directly tied to CT operations, but provide a support function that could be of great help. No real traction has come from any of these ideas.

When specificity is offered by China it is often conditional and will conflict with a tenant of existing United States policy. For instance, the United States should accept China’s view of Assad’s future in Syria before progress can be made on cooperating over Daesh. This is not an easy option for the United States given how it sees Assad’s crimes against his own people. Another commonality is for the United States and China to build a shared framework for approaching CT that can either be a part of the larger bilateral relationship or be the basis for a new multilateral effort. Beyond being unproductive given existing multilateral efforts, China has consistently used engagements on specific issues to get the United States to affirm its “new type of great power relations” concept. The United States refuses such a concept because it could undermine existing institutions that constitute the existing international system.

Consistent conversation on the issue of CT has led to no tangible avenue for cooperation. This failure does not mean that the United States and China cannot cooperate on a host of other issues internationally, nor does it mean that China is not serious about countering terrorist organizations. What past discussions have revealed is that what sounds like a good idea theoretically is impeded by other elements of each country’s respective national interests. For the United States, CT cooperation with China is not viable in the current environment and attention should be directed to other actors in the Asia-Pacific.

Do More with Existing Partners in Asia

United States CT operations are concentrated in certain regions: the Levant, the Gulf, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia. For our partners in the Asia-Pacific, they too face threats from terrorist organizations. The United States can leverage its relationships in the Asia-Pacific to expand CT efforts.  

To start with, the United States can and should do more with regional allies. Existing CT cooperation exists with all of the allies in the Asia Pacific, but given the depth of ties with these states, more could be developed and more could be asked. Australia, already experienced with both CT and CVE efforts, has progressively shown greater strategic interest in areas beyond the Asia-Pacific. Intensified CT joint training, particularly given the United States Marine barracks in Darwin provides logistical ease, is a prime opportunity. Australia is a participatory member of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIL and that model could be a source point for intensified conversations about other CT concerns, such as the dangers posed by al-Nusra, illicit networks operating in the Horn of Africa, and other similar threats. The recent visit by Secretary Mattis had an emphasis on CT cooperation. Momentum on intensified CT cooperation should not be wasted by the current U.S. administration.

South Korea and Japan have both invested in CT capability and both are also members of the current anti-ISIL coalition. Seoul and Tokyo are also increasingly interested in regions beyond the Asia-Pacific and gaining expertise about the regional dynamics of Africa, the Middle East, and other regions where the United States conducts CT operations. In short, our allies in Northeast Asia are casting their eyes beyond their neighborhood and are doing so within existing international structures – both of which are welcomed by Washington. Northeast Asia is without a doubt a complicated neighborhood right now given China’s regional ambitions and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, but such complications should not erase an opportunity for deepening regional partnership while also enhancing regional capacity on CT. Japan’s capabilities to establish CT-focused training programs have been routinely discussed by Prime Minister Abe’s government and the United States, as part of its alliance with Japan, could bolster political will around such efforts. South Korea-United States bilateral dialogues on CT are an established component of the relationship and represent a pathway for further cooperative action.  

The Philippines is not only a longtime ally, but is the focus of one of the United States military’s oldest CT operations. United States Special Forces have worked alongside the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP) in training exercises, capacity building programs, and operations intended to degrade the capabilities of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and other extremist groups located in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. While this cooperation continues, the Duterte administration has made the military relationship with the United States a contentious political issue. Yet, intensified government-to-government contact, including high-level visits by the U.S. administration could do much to ease any existing tensions. Massaging the relationship with the Philippines could open additional doors for cooperative action, such as providing further assistance to AFP operations relating to Davao City and working with the Philippines government to expand the scope of cooperation beyond the Philippines border.

Allies offer the most immediate opportunities for CT cooperation, but other regional actors should not be ignored. Repaired relations with New Zealand could include a focus on CT assistance in Southeast Asia, a region where New Zealand has ample experience through its record of peacekeeping. Indonesia, a rising regional economic powerhouse, not only continues to confront its own violent extremist threat, but also is connected with both its Southeast Asian neighbors and with other Muslim-majority societies in the MENA region that face extremist threats. Thus far, the bilateral relationship between Jakarta and Washington on security matters has been slow to develop, but as with the Philippines leaps could be achieved by simply investing direct government-to-government attention. Many hesitations about cooperating with the United States can be countered merely by key leaders showing up.


It is past time to recognize that CT cooperation is a remote possibility for the United States and China. Such a realization does not undermine the prospects of cooperation in other areas, nor ignore the threats violent extremists pose to China and its citizens. Discussions of CT simply exist too near the orbit of complex issues in the bilateral relationship that neither party is willing to jettison. The United States’ interest in confronting violent extremism around the globe will continue to be viewed as vital to national security. The United States would find rewards if instead it intensified efforts with regional allies and invested the legwork needed to map out new partnerships.  

Jeffrey Payne is the Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Chinese Armed Police soldiers shake hands with their Belarus peers at the opening ceremony of the United Shield-2017 joint anti-terrorism drill on July 11, 2017. The United Shield-2017 joint anti-terrorism drill, which was jointly held for the first time by the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (APF) and the Internal Troops of the Belarusian Interior Ministry, started in the suburb of Minsk, capital of Belarus, on July 11, 2017. (81.cn/Xie Xinbo)

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt. 2

By David Tier

America has grown weary of the post-9/11 wars. Long, drawn-out conflicts have worn down American resolve and left many defense officials nostalgic for “the good-old days” when adversaries were easier to describe and devoted military efforts toward preparing for conventional warfare. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. Navy has capitalized on growing disillusionment and sought to exaggerate the military challenges posed by an ascendant China for parochial benefit in terms of gaining larger budgets and greater quantities of more expensive ships. The Navy should consider an external strategy review that accounts for efficiency as an aspect of its operating concept. This article reviews America’s current naval strategy and is divided into two parts. Previously, Part 1 analyzed U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2, below, will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 

The Right-Sized Force

The Navy currently possesses 279 combat ships, including 11 supercarriers.1 An analysis of the platforms required to accomplish each mission reveals that, by procuring greater numbers of surface warfare ships such as frigates, the Navy could accomplish its five core missions while growing the number of ships in the fleet, lowering its average shipbuilding cost, and increasing its relevance in the defense arena to a greater extent than in more a decade. Rather than seeking to overcome advanced threats operating in their own territorial waters (an over-ambitious and possibly suicidal strategy unlikely to be needed), the Navy could come fully onboard with the existing 21st century task of discriminating between shadowy enemies that hide amidst innocent bystanders across the globe. The Navy could, indeed, provide a fleet with more total ships at a fraction of its planned budget and improve its brown-water capabilities necessary to confront pirates, terrorists, and less-capable regional adversaries by developing a larger, but less expensive fleet of 319 ships, and by maintaining eight carriers instead of the planned 11. In turn, this fleet would accomplish the Navy’s missions and yield significant cost savings.

The Navy’s first mission requires the nation’s defense from maritime attacks in naval theaters along the East and West coasts of the continental United States, off Alaska and Hawaii, and territories in the Caribbean Sea and Western Pacific Ocean. Since the main naval threat to the United States is primarily ballistic missile submarines, this mission requires the continuously operating presence of six multi-role naval task forces, one for each maritime defense area, primarily to conduct ASW and to a lesser extent ballistic missile defense (BMD).

The Navy would specifically tailor each task force to its geographic area and utilize advantageous aspects of the “distributed lethality” concept by deploying small surface action groups as well as independent ships and attack submarines forward to detect and track boomers, while positioning naval BMD assets in optimal locations complementary to land-based BMD systems in order to intercept either the most dangerous or most likely paths of inbound ballistic missiles, as necessary. In total, a force of six guided-missile cruisers, 12 guided-missile destroyers, 24 frigates, six oceanic surveillance ships, 12 attack submarines, 10 airborne ASW patrol squadrons, and major systems such as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS; e.g. SOSUS), and the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) could reasonably accomplish the task.

Nuclear deterrence remains necessary to protect the nation from attack and, as is standard practice, eight ballistic missile submarines would continually patrol the seas to provide nuclear strike capability.2 Only anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability for self-defense would be necessary in this mission since the Air Force and Air National Guard are well-equipped to defend the nation against surface threats within range of America’s shores.3 Therefore, this mission requires neither aircraft carrier nor expeditionary strike groups. The Navy should strictly focus on defending against direct military threats to the nation’s territory while the U.S. Coast Guard should maintain its national security VBSS role, since it enjoys comparative economic advantage in national security tasks while close to home.

The second mission requires the Navy to establish SLOC security to friendly foreign waters, as military necessity dictates. Naval forces would only need to perform this mission during wartime, as opposed to the first mission, which requires continuous deployment. Therefore, the Navy would not require an indefinite rotational sea presence to fulfill this mission. Employed with tactical wisdom, the Navy could economize forces by operating the first two missions in tandem while simultaneously taking advantage of geographic barriers to sea traffic in the North Atlantic, Southeast Asia, and Oceania as well as other channelized waterways, and could lessen the number of single-purpose ships separately tasked to secure commercial ships from threats they might encounter far from America’s coasts. It is possible that this mission could be performed with no further forces whatsoever; however, to conservatively guard against a wide-variety of threats and specific circumstances, the Navy should procure the additional capability to simultaneously escort two large convoys in the open ocean. This would allow commercial traffic to continue with minimal disruption.

In 2013, there was a median commercial traffic flow of 441 container ships per month unloading in U.S. ports.4 Assuming that an anti-shipping threat could not engage half of these ships either because their routes crossed oceans they could not effectively operate in, or due to the effectiveness of forces already listed, the Navy would only need to escort about 200 ships per month of conflict. The duration of Navy escort tasks in this mission could last as long as one month because, given sea-lane transit times, a ship might have to journey as long as 32 days to reach the furthest destinations.5 Kaufmann noted that a task force composed of one destroyer, nine frigates, and a supply ship could sufficiently escort 100 transports at a time.To ease the ASW burden on the surface ships somewhat as well as adding some minesweeping capability, an additional two attack submarines, airborne ASW patrol squadron, and a minesweeper7 per task force would round out the requirement. Therefore, to counter against the varied military threats to commercial shipping such as hostile attack submarines, long-range attack aircraft, surface vessels, and mines, the Navy could employ two task forces composed of a total of two destroyers, 18 frigates, two minesweepers, four attack submarines, their attendant support ships, and two airborne ASW patrol squadrons. With substantial ASW and ASuW capability, moderate AAW capability and, combined with Air Force tactical support, these forces would likely defeat any projected threat that could seek to deny American commercial shipping access to friendly ports. These forces could protect American commerce from the East Coast to the Suez Canal, from the West Coast to Sydney, or from either direction into shore destinations along the Indian Ocean for that matter. As before, this mission requires neither aircraft carrier nor expeditionary strike groups.

The third mission graduates from defensive missions and nuclear deterrence that each seek to guard American interests, to offensive conventional capabilities that seek to destroy enemy naval forces maneuvering in a theater of war. Since the 2012 National Defense Strategy calls for the U.S. military’s capability to defeat one regional aggressor while denying the objectives of a second,8 and since nothing yet suggested by the Trump Administration indicates this paradigm will significantly change, the Navy should only require the capability to defeat the maritime forces of one-and-a-half regional aggressors for this mission. This is a half-step down from the nation’s previous desire to procure forces that could simultaneously defeat the militaries of two discreet adversaries. The Navy could perform this third mission by adding two carrier strike groups (CSG) and two expeditionary strike groups (ESG) on top of the previously listed forces. Depending on the tactical situation and the naval commander’s judgment, these forces could operate either as one CSG and one ESG in each theater, or two CSGs in one theater and the two ESGs in the other. The CSGs give the Navy a significant ability to strike enemy surface combatants and attack aircraft, while the ESGs give the joint force commander the ability to raid enemy forces on land as well as some AAW, ASuW, and strike capability. Multiple carriers give the U.S. force the ability to operate round-the-clock. In total, this mission results in an additional force requirement of two aircraft carriers with their carrier air wings, two amphibious assault carriers with their multi-role fixed-wing aircraft, four cruisers, six destroyers, four frigates, three minesweepers, six attack submarines, two amphibious assault carriers, and their attendant support ships.

The fourth mission involves defeating anti-access strategies in order to gain access to contested theaters of operation. As with previous missions, gaining access adds to force requirements and the Navy can use forces already operating in their stead to contribute, so long as adding tasks does not compromise the previous missions. The Navy could employ a total of four carrier groups to accomplish this mission and realistically incur no more than moderate risk. In fact, in all but one conceivable instance, even four carrier groups might be overkill. In all other cases, significant airpower can be generated from land-based airfields. Furthermore, the Navy does not need any additional ESGs for this mission because it requires only gaining access to the theater, not establishing footholds on land or otherwise driving out ground forces while simultaneously conducting a holding action in another theater. Therefore, the Navy requires an additional two carriers, two cruisers, eight destroyers, six frigates, three minesweepers, four attack submarines, and the standard compliment of support ships for this fourth mission. Combined with the forces previously listed, including two ESGs, this total force enables the Navy to gain access to contested theaters of operation.

The fifth and final mission, power projection, defines the remaining forces that the Navy would need. Projecting power is an important capability to procure, and precedents established in the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrate the level of capability that the Navy needs to operate at peak. An additional two CSGs and three ESGs are necessary to defeat an adversary’s defense of his coastline and establish a foothold on land to allow continued operations further inland. Even under difficult conditions, with little allied support and no land-based staging area to prepare for an invasion, this total force of six CSGs and four ESGs would be a force too formidable for enemies to resist. The Air Force, other joint forces, and allies could hold adversaries at bay in other theaters if geography required the Navy to concentrate on a single maritime-focused theater but, most likely, joint and allied forces would also contribute to the Navy’s mission in substantial and meaningful ways. This force adds a requirement of two carriers, six cruisers, seven destroyers, three frigates, five attack submarines, six amphibious assault carriers, and their attendant support and supply ships to the fleet.

Table 1. Summary of  Proposed Fleet Changes
CVN 11 8 -3
CG 22 23 1
DDG 62 44 -18
LCS/FF + FFG11 11 65 54
SSN 53 39 -14
LPD 9 10 1
LSD 12 10 -2
AGOS 5 18 13
JHSV 4 10 6
MLP 2 5 3
HST 1 10 9
Carrier Air Wing 9 8 -1

These five missions result in total operational requirements of six carriers, 19 cruisers, 37 destroyers, 56 frigates, eight minesweepers, 33 attack submarines, eight ballistic missile submarines, eight amphibious assault carriers, 12 long-range airborne patrol squadrons, seven oceanic surveillance ships, and additional amphibious and support ships, air wings, helicopter squadrons, as well as the IUSS and NOSS. This force is not yet the total force the Navy needs in inventory, however. Since it would be nearly impossible to sail the entire fleet, the Navy needs additional ships to remain in port and allow for training, maintenance, as well as to compensate for potential combat losses.

The Navy insists that, due to maintenance and training requirements, only one-third of its carrier force may be available for routine deployment at any given time and, in an extended crisis, about half could deploy in support of combat operations.12 According to a naval force generation analyst, the Navy could put only six out of 10 carriers to sea to fight a war.13 The rate of routine deployment seems to be a bit better for the rest of the fleet, though, where approximately 40 percent of the ships are deployed at any time and greater than two-thirds are available in war.14

The fact that only such a small fraction of the fleet is deployable is simply unacceptable. The Navy must work to improve its deployment rates to achieve a capability where at least 80 percent of the fleet could put to sea if necessary. One possible solution would be to increase the number of ships homeported overseas to decrease transoceanic transit times. Although this could increase maintenance costs by 15 percent,15 the increased operational tempo would reduce the number of ships necessary to hold in maintenance and training reserve. Moreover, the resulting procurement savings would significantly outweigh the increased maintenance costs. Another possible solution could be to invest more research-and-development funding into operational readiness improvement rather than developing new platforms. This would help advance new technologies and methods that could enable ships to require less maintenance, last longer, and generally increase readiness.

Regardless of how the Navy decides to improve its deployment rates, a solution must be found. In contrast, even the Air Force, despite the complexity of possessing the most sophisticated and technologically advanced equipment in all the Services, has historically been able to maintain consistent readiness rates above 80 percent for their critical combat platforms.16 Perpetually withholding so many ships in reserve is wasteful, inefficient, and may be the result of institutional complacency. In a declared war, a 11-carrier Navy would ideally confront an enemy with all 11 of its carriers. Likewise, an eight-carrier Navy should bring all eight carriers to bear. Once satisfying this requirement, the Navy would require enough ships so that 40 percent of its inventory would be enough to conduct the continual deployments described in the first mission, and that the total requirements across all missions should compose no less than 80 percent of that inventory.

 These stipulations produce the total number of ships that the Navy would need. In sum, the Navy would need 319 ships including eight carriers, 23 cruisers, 12 fixed-wing ASW patrol squadrons, 39 attack submarines, 12 ballistic missile submarines, 10 amphibious assault carriers, and 18 oceanic surveillance ships.17 Having determined the fleet’s size, we can determine its cost and compare it to the Navy’s present and planned inventories to ascertain potential savings.

Comparison, Trade-offs, and Budget Implications

The Navy’s inefficiently planned fleet provides three more supercarriers, 18 more guided-missile destroyers, but surprisingly, one less guided-missile cruiser than the efficient fleet proposed here. Although providing the Navy more firepower, this plan sinks a lot more money. On the other hand, the fleet proposed here adds 13 frigates and four amphibious assault ships to what the Navy plans, returns dedicated minesweepers to the fleet, and adds a small number of support ships as combat multipliers.18 This force sacrifices some firepower but improves brown-water niche capabilities that are more appropriate for the present and future strategic environment. Overall, it adds 13 ships over the current plan and is much more economical.

The savings come from the big ticket items. A Ford-class carrier costs almost $13B to build.19 Procuring its air wing costs another $5.5B.20 Ticonderoga-class cruisers cost $1B21 and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers $1.8B each.22 The savings would be even greater for destroyers if one considers that Zumwalt-class could cost an estimated $4.4B per ship.23 Alternative platforms are far less expensive. Independence-class littoral combat ships cost about $479M,24 and Avenger-class mine counter measure vessels cost $277M.25 Consequently, there are force mixes considerably cheaper and more germane to the Navy’s missions than large numbers of aircraft carriers. In comparison, the proposed fleet saves $63 billion over the 40-year plan in procurement and shipbuilding costs alone (see Table 2). However, life-cycle and total acquisition savings would be even greater. Spar Associates, Inc. estimates that capital costs are only about 18 percent of life-cycle costs.26 Therefore, the proposed fleet could yield $340 billion in savings over the duration of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan.

Table 2. Comparison of Planned vs. Proposed Fleet27
CVN 11 8 -3 38.04
CG + DDG 88 67 -21 31.4
LCS/FF30 52 65 13 -6.227
SSN 48 39 -9 23.4
Amphibs 33 37 4 -7.4
SSBN 12 12 0 0
SSGN 0 0 0 0
MCM 0 10 10 -2.77
JHSV 10 10 0 0
Supply ships 29 32 3 -1.5
Other 23 39 16 -12.16
Total 306 319 13 62.783

Furthermore, in offering capabilities more likely to be used rather than far-fetched shore assaults originating from the open ocean, the Navy would improve the utility it has lacked for stability operations in the Middle East. The Navy would improve its counter-piracy and counterterrorist capabilities by increasing its number of small surface combatants. One could quibble about the mixture of frigates, minesweepers, and support ships in the Navy’s portfolio of small vessels, but the point is that these platforms are more important than task forces designed to project power in the current strategic environment. Instead of exaggerating carrier requirements, the Navy should concentrate its investments on less expensive platforms such as surface combatants, submarines, and shore-based patrol aircraft. The Navy should not completely relinquish its capability to establish sea-based air superiority, of course, and should increase its support of the Marines’ capability to seize footholds on land. However, the Navy should field an appropriate level of fixed wing airpower to support national military interests without overly burdening the defense budget.

One implication in reducing the number of carriers would be to decrease steady-state operational deployments. Only two or three carriers are presently deployed at a given time, with two deployed and one in-transit to or from home station.31 If the Navy reduced its carrier inventory from 11 to 8, only two carriers would be at sea during normal, peacetime conditions. Carrier deployments deter aggression and reassure allies, and reducing deployments would incur the risk that only one carrier would be actively operating in a forward area at a time while a second carrier transited to or from home station. Nevertheless, this transiting carrier could always turn around and move anywhere in the world in an average of 12 days32 and therefore at least two carrier groups would remain at sea at all times. If combatant commanders sought to request greater carrier presence than this force could provide, then the Department of Defense should audit the overall presence requirements that commanders request, and seek more inexpensive carrier substitutes such as Air Force tactical fighter squadrons where possible. Even deploying Navy carrier air wings without their embarked carrier would be a far cheaper solution. There are few places where a naval sea base would be necessary.

There has been good news for carrier enthusiasts recently, however, now that the Navy increased its carrier inventory to 11 with the commissioning of USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78, on July 22, 2017.33 Under the planned acquisition schedule, the Navy will even commission a twelfth supercarrier in 2020, then alternately vary its carrier supply between 12 and 11 through 2040 by replacing carriers at nearly the same time they retire. The Navy’s plan is to then lower its inventory to 9 carriers after 2053.34 Rather than seeking to decommission excess ships ahead of schedule and quickly reduce the carrier inventory to 8 as this proposal might imply, however, it would be more efficient to finish building the carriers already under construction, allow existing carriers to serve their planned lives, and then allow the inventory to decrease without replacing retiring carriers until the correct level has been reached. As an alternative to the Navy’s present plan, if the Navy ceased carrier procurement after completing the second Ford-class carrier under construction and allowed existing carriers to complete their service and retire in their 50th year, and then begin replacing carriers only when the inventory dipped to 8, the Navy could cancel construction of three aircraft carriers in the next 35 years and save $38 billion in current dollars for carrier procurement costs alone.35 

Altogether, the Navy could save an estimated total of $340 billion over 40 years. Though one of Candidate Donald Trump’s expressed desires while campaigning for President was to build a 350-ship Navy, the Administration’s budget has not yet supported that desire with funding requests.36 For whatever additional future funding requests the Trump Administration makes for the Navy, this proposal would also add that margin to potential savings. Some might argue that by allowing 16 years to elapse between the construction of CVN-79 and CVN-80 as proposed here, America’s carrier-building infrastructure might atrophy. This would certainly be another risk, but what are the opportunity costs for continuing to build carriers at the planned rate, and are their national defense priorities that are more important to pursue?

Would it be Worth it?

In the grand scheme of the federal budget, $340 billion over 40 years may not seem like much. However, it could provide for close to four years of an Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)-like ground force deployment at the 2014 level of activity,37 or many smaller-sized but longer-lasting counterterrorism operations. This leads to a final question for decision-makers to consider: would the benefits gained in providing four more years of an OEF-sized operation outweigh the risk incurred by allowing the Navy’s carrier fleet to decline from 11 to 8?

The answer is “yes.” Consider the fact that there were no terrorist attacks against the United States during the entire time the Bush Administration pursued aggressive military action in Iraq, but there have been several attacks on American soil since the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is not a coincidence. Military operations in the Middle East probably reduced the threat to the U.S. by attracting terrorist activity elsewhere. The operation allowed military personnel to confront terrorists on foreign soil rather than subjecting police and homeland defense officials like Transportation Security Agency officers to deal with attacks at home. If American military activity in the Middle East decreases, the number of attacks against the U.S. will rise…perhaps catastrophically.

On the other hand, if operations in the Middle East continue at their present rate such as in Afghanistan, or if ISIS, Yemen, or some other potential problem area requires commitment of ground forces, the nation will find its ground forces already exhausted, overburdened, and insufficiently provided for in order to accomplish new tasks. Financial resources will have to be diverted from other accounts to accommodate them, and waiting until the last moment will have further consequences. High operational tempo has already eroded the training and readiness of America’s ground forces. America should pursue a grand strategy of democratization in these troubled regions, and this requires a greater number of resources dedicated to ground operations in the Middle East which, in turn, will reduce the number of terrorist attacks against the United States.

Although civilian leadership might abhor the idea of continued ground operations in the Middle East, military advisors must recognize reality and advise apolitically. Ground combat operations must continue for the sake of American national security, and each Service needs to perform its role to support them even if it means taking cuts in favored programs like aircraft carriers. As Kaufmann found 30 years ago, the Navy should “knock it off” with attempts to maintain a double digit-sized carrier fleet and should recommend against the pivot to the Asia-Pacific for the nation’s greater defense interests. To do otherwise puts all Americans – civilians  and service members – at risk. 

David Tier is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He holds a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, has served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, a tour of duty in the Pentagon, and has authored several articles.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.


[1] Department of the Navy, “Naval Vessel Register,” as of August 1, 2017, available online at http://www.nvr.navy.mil/NVRSHIPS/FLEETSIZE.HTML

[2] Hans M. Kristensen, “Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces,” (Washington, D.C.: Federation of American Scientists, December 2012), 15.

[3] As demonstrated by routine air intercepts of Russian reconnaissance flights as well as potential homeland security threats.

[4] USDOT waterborne trade statistics (available at http://www.marad.dot.gov/library_landing_page/data_and_statistics/Data_and_Statistics.htm) indicate that 1.259B metric tons of goods were shipped into an out of American ports in 2013. Since the median container ship holds about 5000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), this yields about 441 container ships per month in and out of U.S. ports. According to page 2 of the CRS report titled “Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues for Congress” by John F. Fritelli dated May 27, 2005, there were on average 500 ships per month transiting U.S. ports in 2003, which is in the same ballpark as figures derived for 2013.

[5] See powerpoint press release by Rear Admiral William K. Lescher, USN, “FY 2015 President’s Budget,” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2014), 3.

[6] William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 64.

[7] Although the Navy has recently decided to discontinue dedicated minesweeping platforms in favor of the mine countermeasure mission package of the littoral combat ship, minesweepers are more cost effective for the particular task. According to Michael Zennie at The Daily Mail, an Avenger-class minesweeper costs $277M per ship, while according to a Congressional study, littoral combat ships cost $479M per ship. Accordingly, the Navy should continue to procure minesweepers rather than replacing them with littoral combat ships/frigates; see Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2015), 2; and Michael Zennie, “The U.S. Navy’s $277 Million pile of scrap,” January 30, 2013, available online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270395/U-S-Navy-hack-61million-minesweeper-ship-pieces-remove-sensitive-reef-near-Philippines.html, accessed on April 7, 2015.

[8] Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” (Washington, DC: DOD, January 2012), 4.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] See appendix for a complete listing of platforms required, including support ships.

[11] The Navy is seeking to replace its remaining Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates with the new littoral combat ship. Just a short time ago, Perry-class frigates were slated to retire without replacement and the littoral combat ship was intended to fulfill a different, but overlapping, set of brown-water capabilities supposedly not addressed by the frigate. According to the Secretary of the Navy, however, the littoral combat ship will be reclassified as a frigate and given “FF” hull registry numbers. This acknowledges the need for a traditional frigate and reduces the distinction between the tasks littoral combat ships were intended to perform that Perry-class frigates had not already done. For the purposes of this analysis, littoral combat ships and frigates will be grouped in the same category as frigate, and consider the main role of a frigate to be as an escort to high-value ships. The frigate is primarily an ASW platform, but can also perform secondary roles such as ASuW, AAW, and other general-purpose tasks to a lesser extent. Frigates can perform brown-water tasks by utilizing helicopter search as well as with small-craft borne visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams; See Sam Lagrone, “SNA: Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates,” USNI.org, January 15, 2015, available online at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/15/sna-modified-littoral-combat-ship-class-changed-fast-frigate, accessed on March 30, 2015.

[12] U.S. Navy Captain(Ret.) Marty Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?” Forbes.com, available online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/07/17/why-does-the-united-states-only-have-eleven-aircraft-carriers/, accessed on October 16, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Department of the Navy, “FY2015 President’s Budget,” March 2014, 3. 

[15] John Pendleton, “Navy Force Structure: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 2015), 14-17.

[16] Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Meserve, “USAF Maintenance Metrics,” Department of the Air Force presentation, 2007, slide 5,  available online at http://www.sae.org/events/dod/presentations/2007LtColJeffMeserve.pdf, accessed on August 7, 2017.

[17] Department of the Navy, “Naval Vessel Register,” as of August 1, 2017, available online at http://www.nvr.navy.mil/NVRSHIPS/FLEETSIZE.HTML; This analysis identifies a requirement for 20 SSBNs, but defers to the Navy’s analysis as an exception in this instance.

[18] These additional supply ships could facilitate greater numbers of small, dispersed task forces as well as enable more frequent resupply that may occur by increased ammunition expenditure.

[19] Average cost of Ford-class carrier is $12.68 billion each according to O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program:  Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, October 22, 2013, 4. 

[20] Jones Arvino, “How much does a carrier strike group cost?,” Quora.com, available online at https://www.quora.com/How-much-does-a-carrier-strike-group-cost, accessed on August, 5, 2017; this figures uses the cost of 48 F/A-18s rather than 20 F-35s and 24 F/A-18s, whose costs are close enough for comparison.

[21] U.S. Navy Fact File on Ticonderoga Cruiser, available online at http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=800&ct=4, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[22] O’Rourke, “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 19 April 2011, 6, 12, and 25; since 1 and 2 ships are procured in alternate years and the “1 in a year” ships cost more, the fairest estimate of unit price comes from averaging three ships across two years. US$50-300m is spent on long lead-time items in the year before the main procurement of each ship. DDG-114 and DDG-115 together cost US$577.2m (FY2010) + US$2,922.2m (FY2011) = US$3,499.4m, (p25) and DDG-116 cost US$48m (FY2011) + US$1,980.7m (FY2012) = US$2,028.7m, (p12) making an average for the three ships of US$1,847.2m. DDG-113 cost US$2,234.4m. (p6)

[23] Jeff Daniels, “Navy’s costly and controversial Zumwalt ship may get second look by Trump,” CNBC.com, December 1, 2016, available online at https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/01/navys-costly–and-controversial–zumwalt-ship-may-get-second-look-by-trump.html, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[24] O’Rourke, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)/Frigate Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 2.

[25] Michael Zennie, “The U.S. Navy’s latest $277 Million pile of scrap: Minesweeper will hacked to pieces after it ran aground on reef off Philippines,” The Daily Mail, January 30, 2013, available online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270395/U-S-Navy-hack-61million-minesweeper-ship-pieces-remove-sensitive-reef-near-Philippines.html, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[26] Spar Associates, Inc. presentation, “Naval Ship Life Cycle Cost (LCC) Model,”3, available online at http://www.sparusa.com/Presentations/Presentation-Military%20Ship%20Life%20Cycle%20Cost%20(LCC)%20Model.pdf,accessed on March 30, 2015.

[27] Complete Microsoft Excel file available upon formal request.

[28] O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2015, 2.

[29] As described in this article.

[30] Sam Lagrone, “SNA: Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates,” USNI.org, January 15, 2015, available online at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/15/sna-modified-littoral-combat-ship-class-changed-fast-frigate, accessed on March 30, 2015.

[31] Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?”

[32] See powerpoint press release by Rear Admiral William K. Lescher, USN, “FY 2015 President’s Budget,” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2014), 3.

[33] Peter Baker, “U.S. Navy Opens New Era With Commissioning of Gerald R. Ford,” July 22, 2017, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/us/politics/ford-class-aircraft-carrier-commissioning.html, accessed on August 4, 2017. 

[34] Assuming that the Navy procures one carrier every five years as planned; Congressional Budget Office, “Stop Building Ford Class Aircraft Carriers,” November 13, 2013, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2013/44769, accessed on October 28, 2014. 

[35] O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program:  Background and Issues for Congress,” 4. 

[36] Sydney J. Freedburg, Jr., “No 350-Ship Navy From This Trump Budget,” May 19, 2017, available online at http://breakingdefense.com/2017/05/no-350-ship-navy-from-this-trump-budget/, accessed on August 4, 2017.

[37] Based on the FY14 Overseas Contingency Operations request for OEF; “Addendum A:  Overseas Contingency Operations,” (Washington, D.C.:  Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer, 2013), 1.

Featured Image: NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. (Sept. 18, 2017) Sailors watch from the hangar bay of USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as the ship passes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jackson G. Brown/Released)

Sea Control 118 – ISIS Capabilities Against Civil Aviation

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, the world is now paying closer attention to airport security and the unique threat posed by ISIS. But what exactly is going on and how are countries responding?

Join Sea Control: North America for an interview with Max Leitschuh, an Aviation Security Analyst at iJet International, to discuss the ins and outs of ISIS’ recent attacks. During the course of the discussion, we examine ISIS’ capabilities against civil aviation, the specifics of their attacks in Brussels and Sharm el-Sheikh, and what governments can do to counter them.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 118 – ISIS Capabilities Against Civil Aviation


This episode of Sea Control: North America was hosted by Matthew Merighi and produced by Meaghan Tobin.

Terrorists on the Ocean: Sea Monsters in the 21st Century

By CAPT Robert N. Hein, USN

The call of the ocean has enticed generations to explore, and at times exploit her domain. Ninety percent of world commerce transits the oceans. Cruise ships represent a $40 Billion industry, and 30% of the world’s oil originates offshore. It is no wonder criminals and terrorists also feel drawn to the sea. As these groups expand their reach, the question is: When will ISIS and other terrorist organizations bring their brand of mayhem to the oceans?

A senior NATO Admiral, VADM Clive Johnstone, recently expressed concern that ISIS desired its own maritime force to spread its nefarious activities into the Mediterranean. These activities could include launching attacks against a cruise liner, oil terminal, or container ship. Soon after VADM Johnstone’s comments, Former Supreme Allied Commander and retired Admiral James Stavridis weighed in with his own concerns about ISIS entering the maritime domain: “I’m surprised [Islamic State militants] have not, as yet, moved into the maritime world and gone after cruise ships, which I think are a logical and lucrative target for them.”

While ISIS’ maritime capabilities have been limited to date, this has not been true of all terrorist organizations. ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda, launched a vicious and successful attack against the USS COLE in October 2000. Somali pirates experienced tremendous success at sea for years, but strong responses from the international community and force protection measures by the maritime industry have limited further successful attacks. ISIS’ limited attempts at sea have achieved some effects though, such as the shore-launched rocket attack on an Egyptian naval ship in August. Additionally, there was a recent attempt by ISIS to conduct an attack from the sea against a Libyan oil terminal, but it was thwarted by Libyan security forces.

Footage of ISIS affiliated insurgent group launching missile at Egyptian Timsah class patrol boat in July 2015. 

How Real is the Threat?

The lure of expanding operations into the maritime domain is enticing to terrorist groups. The relative isolation is real, and external response is limited. Terrorist attacks on land receive a rapid government response, in large numbers, and with many assets to thwart an attack. Case in point is the Al Qaeda attack at a luxury hotel in Burkina Faso in January 2016. Three members of an Al Qaeda group took 126 hostages and killed two dozen more before security forces stormed the hotel, killing the terrorists and freeing the hostages. A logical extension of the attacks in Burkina Faso would be an assault on a large and remote or underdefended luxury hotel- such as an underway cruise ship. The narrative ISIS hopes to convey from attacking a cruise ship at sea is akin to many horror movies: a captive victim with nowhere to turn for help.

Following VADM Johnson’s prediction, the Cruise Line International Association quickly stepped in to reassure its passengers that cruises are still safe, but are they? The last successful terrorist attack against a cruise ship was 30 years ago by Palestinians. Their original intent was to use the Achille Lauro as transport to Ashdod, Israel, to launch a terror attack ashore. This plan rapidly changed when a crew member discovered the terrorists/attackers cleaning their weapons.

Egyptian central security police guarding the gangplank on which diplomats and others go to and from the Italian cruise liner ?Achille Lauro? which arrived, Thursday, Oct. 10, 1985 in Port Said in this port after being hijacked by four Palestinian for more than 48-hours. The four hijackers has left Egypt after they surrendered go to the Egyptian authorities on Wednesday. (AP Photo)
Egyptian central security police guarding the gangplank on which diplomats and others go to and from the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro which arrived, Thursday, Oct. 10, 1985 in Port Said after being hijacked by four Palestinian for more than 48-hours. (AP Photo)

While the Achille Lauro incident increased levels of security in the cruise ship world, threats to the cruise industry remain. In March 2015, cruise ship tourists visiting a museum during a stop in Tunis were attacked. Cruise lines are quick to cancel port visits in global hot spots, and most employ internal security forces. However, the allure for terrorists remains. Al Qaeda made plans as early as 2011 to capture a cruise ship and execute its passengers. Fortunately, those plans have failed to come to fruition as terrorist groups have found the task is harder than it looks.

While attacks on the open ocean remain a challenge, coastal attacks are more feasible. The Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba launched an attack in 2008 against Mumbai. They hijacked an Indian fishing boat and launched 10 terrorists ashore, ultimately killing 166 and injuring almost 500. The lack of a strong Coast Guard in both India and Pakistan certainly contributed to the terrorists’ success, and served as a wakeup call. In response to the Mumbai attacks, the Indian Navy was placed at the apex of India’s maritime security architecture and made responsible for both coastal and oceanic security. Since then, the Indian Navy has successfully prevented further attacks. However, even with the additional forces, indications persist that ISIS may be trying to infiltrate India by sea, disguised as fishermen.

Arguably, the most successful terrorist group on the sea was the Sri Lankan separatist group, the Tamil Tigers. In his treatise A Guerrilla Wat At Sea: The Sri Lankan Civil War , Professor Paul Povlock of the Naval War College describes how at their strongest, their maritime branch (the Sea Tigers) boasted a force of 3000 personnel with separate branches for logistics, intelligence, communications, offensive mining, and — every terrorists’ favorite — the suicide squad. They conducted sea denial with great success, even demonstrating the ability to sink Sri Lankan patrol boats using fast attack craft and suicide boats.

Small vessels employed by the Sea Tigers.
Small vessels employed by the Sea Tigers.

The Tigers continued their attacks against Sri Lanka for 20 years until the Sri Lankan Navy was able to effectively neutralize them. The Sri Lankan Navy now has a formidable maritime patrol, but not before they lost over 1000 men to the Sea Tigers. Hardly a day goes by without illegal fishermen being chased away or arrested by the Sri Lankan government, who is ever mindful that their waters could again be used for more nefarious purposes.

Sometimes terrorists’ appetites are far bigger than their stomachs, as was the case in September 2014 when Al Qaeda operatives attempted to hijack a Pakistani frigate. If successful, it would have had epic implications. However, the attempted takeover was thwarted by a sharp Pakistani gunner who noticed the inbound boat did not have standard issue gear. He engaged, destroying the terrorist boat, while commandos onboard the frigate subdued crew members sympathetic to the terrorist cause.

Defeat and Deter

Operating in the maritime domain is far more challenging than operations on land. The Somali pirates were originally fishermen and familiar with operating at sea, but it still took them years to develop an offshore “over the horizon” capability. The lack of successful attacks at sea by terrorist organizations in spite of their indicated desire is at least a partial validation of the efforts made by the maritime security community.

The effective shutdown of piracy off Somalia served as a model for defeating maritime crime, showing coastal nations the effects of naval presence in deterring illegal behavior at sea. Malaysia has all but shut down sea crime in its waters, and blunted terrorist attempts to enter Malaysia by aggressively patrolling their coasts. Nigeria has similarly stepped up its game in the Gulf of Guinea where their navy stopped two hijackings in one week and separately announced they would soon take delivery of an additional 50 boats- both demonstrations of commitment to peaceful use of their waters. That doesn’t mean the work is over. ISIS, who has the funds for major purchases, is attempting to acquire naval capabilities like 2 man submarines, high powered speed boats, boats fitted with machine guns and rocket launchers, and mine planners made easily available by less discerning arms providers such as Korea, China, and Russia.

While the likelihood of near-shore attacks remains a possibility, including against cruise ships, the chance that ISIS will attack blue water objectives out of sight of land is still remote. However, the odds will remain remote only as long as the navies of the world continue to provide a credible presence on the oceans. When the seas are no longer effectively patrolled, terrorist organizations will take advantage of the same opportunities for freedom of maneuver at sea that they currently enjoy ashore.

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94). You can follow him on Twitter: @the_sailor_dog. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The U.S.S. Cole in 2000 after suffering an Al Qaeda attack in the port of Aden. 17 American sailors were killed, and 39 were injured.