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.
The protracted “What happens to France’s two unwanted Mistrals” saga has seemingly drawn to a close with the agreement by Egypt late last month to acquire the highly capable amphibious assault ships (LHDs) for a total of €950 million. A number of commentators have argued that the rationale behind this eyebrow-raising decision is for Egypt to attain a maritime power-projection capability so as to hedge against rising Islamist violence in the region and a resurgent Iran. Indeed, one prominent defense journalist wrote of Egypt using the French-made Mistrals to quell trouble in neighboring hot-spots. In the same vein, another commentator spoke of the vessels giving their owners the ability to conduct expeditionary missions with significant ground and aerial assets.
That being said, the aforementioned statements are based on the assumption that Cairo would be able to effectively deploy the two ships in the first place. This is highly contentious, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons. They include Egypt’s dearth of experience in large amphibious-vessel and naval aviation operations, among others.
The Mistral’s Capabilities
Defense analysts often speak of the Mistral in glowing terms. Indeed, much has been made of the platform offering almost the same capabilities as the United States Navy’s potent Wasp-class LHD, but at only one-sixth the cost and crew size. And even though France officially calls the Mistral a bâtiments de projection et de commandement, or “projection and command ship,” it can also perform several other roles such as amphibious/heliborne assault and humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief. With 69 beds for patients, it can even act as a hospital ship. An important component of the Mistral is its air wing, which consists either of 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. It can also accommodate 450 troops (900 for surge operations), four small landing craft or two hovercraft, and a 40-strong Leclerc main battle tank (MBT) unit.
In recent years, France has put its Mistrals to good use in support of its foreign policy. For instance, during the 2006 Lebanon War, the lead ship of its class, the Mistral, was involved in the evacuation of French citizens from the Levant nation. Two years later, the same vessel provided humanitarian aid supplies, albeit indirectly, to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. And in 2011, the Tonnerre was deployed with Tigre helicopter gunships off the Libyan coast to support France’s military intervention in that North African country.
At first glance, therefore, the introduction of the Mistral into Egypt’s order of battle would seem to boost considerably the latter’s expeditionary capabilities. However, a more critical assessment reveals that this would not be the case. Firstly, Egypt simply lacks the experience and know-how in handling a vessel like the Mistral. Warships are highly intricate technological entities. As cited in Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2013):
To… operate [warships] requires a mass of technical, industrial and professional skills, ashore and afloat, and a sophisticated system of management to mold them into an effective whole… Ships can be constructed relatively quickly, but the skills and capabilities which make up an effective navy can only be built up with long years of investment.
Indeed, Cairo’s experience in handling warships is limited warships significantly smaller than Mistral. The Egyptian military’s current largest amphibians are its three Polnochnys. This Polish-made landing ship is some 70 meters long and displaces 830 tons; in stark contrast, the corresponding figures for the Mistral are 200 meters and 21,000 tons. Furthermore, the mainstays of the Egyptian surface fleet – the formerly Knox- and Perry-class frigates procured from the U.S. Navy – are around 4,000 tons in displacement. Even the largest warship currently in Egyptian service is nowhere near the specifications of the Mistral. Egypt’s sole FREMM frigate, which is 140 meters long and displaces 6,000 tons, was commissioned into service only in June this year.
This dearth of experience in operating a large and complex multi-purpose naval platform like the Mistral would arguably be exacerbated by a failing that plagues most Arab militaries: their personnel’s deficiency in terms of technical skills. In Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) Kenneth M. Pollack maintains that Arab armed forces, including Egypt’s, often show an inability to fully exploit the capabilities of the military hardware they possess.The Middle East defense expert adds that this lack of technical skills and other military weaknesses of the Arabs are likely to persist.
Then again, even First-World countries with highly educated citizens who are familiar with advanced technology can struggle with regard to operating LHDs. The time-frame in which Australia hopes that HMAS Canberra will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) and final operational capability (FOC) is illuminative of the challenges Egypt might face with its Mistrals. The Canberra – the lead ship of a new LHD class – was commissioned last November, and Australia is working towards its IOC and FOC to be attained in late 2015 and late 2017 respectively. In other words, Australia is hoping that HMAS Canberra will only be fully deployable a good three years after its commissioning.
That being said, media reports state the Mistrals will be delivered to Egypt in March next year and that their future crews have already begun training. To be certain, nobody will claim that Cairo could get its LHDs up and running within a meager six months. However, Egypt’s technical deficiency means that it could take a longer than than Australia to achieve operational capability with their LHD platforms. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Royal Australian Navy possesses some institutional knowledge in handling flat-tops, having operated light carriers during the Cold War. In stark contrast, Egyptian expertise in this area is essentially zilch. The crew of the two Mistrals will therefore need significant assistance from France and also Russia, as there are several Russian systems on-board the vessels.
A key mission the Mistral is expected to carry out is amphibious operations, and specialist skills and training are essential to the success of such endeavors, according to esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till. Though Egypt has a small marine force, a Stratfor analysis suggests it is not proficient enough to deploy optimally from the Mistral. This particular report, however, does
not differentiate between the scales of amphibious operations to be conducted. Does it apply for large- or small-scale landings? It is certainly true that Cairo lacks experience in major amphibious operations. As a matter of fact, a Jane’s report argues that the Egyptian military cannot conduct “unilateral, opposed beach landings”, adding that it can only perform small-scale amphibious operations such as infiltrating special forces teams. Such an assessment is hardly surprising considering the fact the Polnochny landing craft can carry a maximum of 180 soldiers and six MBTs, while the Egyptian navy’s other amphibious asset, the Vydra landing craft of which it has nine, can deploy only 100 troops or three MBTs.
However, the Mistral is not built solely for major troop landings, but a range of missions scalable for different objectives. Indeed, Middle East security expert Ahmed S. Hashim believes that the platform would be used extensively for special forces missions to combat Islamist extremism in the region.Such small-scale operations usually involve helicopters, but Egypt does not have the requisite experience vis-à-vis missions of this nature that are launched from ships at sea.
This shortfall is manifested in the fact that Egypt’s sea-based aviation experience consists merely of operating an anti-submarine warfare helicopter or two from each of its formerly Perry- and Knox-class frigates. To be sure, the flight-deck and hangar-bay choreography on helicopter carriers like the Mistral is not as complex as that on regular flat-tops. That being said, operations involving several ship-borne helicopters – the Mistral has six launch spots on its flight deck for them – are nevertheless challenging, even more so for a navy with limited experience in sea-based aviation like
Egypt’s. To compound matters, the Arab nation will have to train the crew for the navalized Ka-52K helicopters – an asset currently not in its order of battle – which could be procured for deployment on the Mistrals.
Integrated Task Force Operations
Finally, the Egyptians do not have any experience organizing their warships into task forces centered on a capital unit like the Mistral. The LHD makes for an inviting target for adversaries and hence has to be screened by consorts such as frigates and other surface craft as part of a task force. Having a fully operational entity of this sort, however, requires the Egyptians to imbibe the intricacies of maritime task force operations, and this would involve learning from scratch the doctrinal and technical expertise critical to such endeavors. For instance, each component of such a task force will have to train and operate together so as to improve their ability to fight as a coherent whole.
Much has been said about the uphill task the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, which had no experience with flat-tops prior to the commissioning of the Liaoning, is facing in creating a viable aircraft carrier battle group, and the consensus is that this could become a possibility only after several years of concerted effort. The same goes for any Egyptian Mistral task force becoming an effective fighting force. The Egyptian fleet’s lack of operational experience as a whole further complicates the issue. Indeed, it was only tangentially involved in the various Middle Eastern conflicts during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War period, Egyptian warships have been largely placed in the back-burner and have not even joined international peacekeeping missions.
Rounding up, Egypt’s acquisition of the Mistral seems to mark a quantum leap in its capacity to project force; the platform offers multiple capabilities previously unavailable to Cairo. Nonetheless, Egypt is unlikely to utilize the Mistral optimally because of its lack of experience in such crucial areas like handling such a sizable and complex vessel, ship-borne helicopter operations, and integrated naval task force maneuvers. With these in mind, it would be an extremely steep learning curve for Egypt vis-à-vis her most ambitious naval acquisition so far. While most nations, including advanced ones, also struggle with regard to adopting new military technology, Egypt’s case is especially pronounced considering its people’s general lack of technical proficiency.
Going forward, there has been talk of the Egyptian Mistrals operating with Saudi units as part of a joint Arab force; after all, Saudi money is believed to be behind the procurement of these platforms. However, “jointness” is difficult to achieve even between the service arms of a particular country, let alone with another country. Such an arrangement, if it ever materializes, is likely to further complicate Egyptian Mistral operations.
In the final analysis, it is worth noting that countries that are able to operate effectively aviation-capable platforms like the Mistral belong at least to the category of nations regarded as “medium powers”. Think Japan with its Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” and South Korea with its Dokdos. This invariably raises the following question: was the Egyptian Mistral acquisition grounded in operational realities, or was it an vainglorious decision conditioned by the fact that large amphibious warfare ships are so du jour nowadays? During the Second World War, there was a famous saying in Japanese naval circles that went: “The three great follies of the world are the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and the battleship Yamato.” In the near future, could this statement be modified to include the Mistral? Based on the current state of affairs, it is highly probable.
Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; he obtained his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. He would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Colin Koh Swee Lean for providing his insights on this article. Ben can be reached at email@example.com.
By Claude Berube, Stephanie Chenault, Louis M-v, Chris Rawley
Although the Saudi-led Operation RESOLUTE STORM (alternately translated as DECISIVE STORM) began with air strikes into Yemen on March 26 and continue as of this writing, the heightened level of regional activity also includes maritime operations. These national and multi-national operations highlight the importance of naval platforms and presence. Yemen is strategically located with the heavily-trafficked Red Sea to its west and the Gulf of Aden along its southern coast. Some twenty thousand ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually. Yemen’s ports have been largely closed to commercial traffic.
Earlier this year, the US and other nations began pulling out of embassies and recommending their citizens leave Yemen at the earliest opportunity. Once RESOLUTE STORM began, airspace was restricted with limited flights out of the country. Consequently, several countries have been evacuating its citizens via comparatively safer ports such as Aden in the Gulf of Aden and Hodeidasituated along the Red Sea. One Pakistan Navy ship got underway from Pakistan on Sunday while a second planned to depart the following day, both for the port of Hodeida where some 600 Pakistani citizens were converging.
Indiasent five ships to evacuate approximately four thousand nationals from Hodeida. The passenger ships include the M/V Kavaratti and M/V Corals. The Indian Navy ships include the Delhi-class destroyer Mumbai, the Talwar-class frigate Tarkash, and the Saryu-class patrol vessel Sumitra.
While the majority of Operation RESOLUTE STORM activities have been air strikes with the possibility of a future ground conflict, the domestic instability in Yemen and on-going military operations underscore the importance of naval platforms, presence, and the varied operations that can be conducted by navies. Naval activity in the region by regional and international actors can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Possible future naval missions could include patrols designed to prevent Iran’s resupply of Houthi forces from the sea. Previous attempts by the Iranians to smuggle modern weapons to Houthi forces, such as the Jeehan 1 in January 2013, were foiled by Yemeni government forces. It is doubtful such naval capability still exists in non-Houthi Yemeni elements so multi-national forces will need to take on the maritime interdiction role.
The operations also highlight the PLA/N’s increasing capability. China began sending anti-piracy flotillas off the Horn of Africa in 2008 at the height of Somali pirate activity. To date, the PLA/N has sent nineteen flotillas, each comprised of two warships and one supply ship. These uninterrupted operations have enabled the Chinese to become familiar with long-term operations, logistics, and the importance of presence. Without the PLA/N’s experience in the region, it is unknown how or if it could have extracted its citizens from Yemen in a timely fashion.
A new op-ed in a Chinese newspaper on March 30 points out that “China has evacuated hundreds of its nationals from war-torn Yemen by Monday, in demonstrating responsibility and humanistic care toward its citizens. In the era of globalization, coupled with China’s increasing presence in the world, more Chinese nationals are living and working overseas.”Another online commenter on China’s Sina Weibo stated: “The strength of the motherland is not about the visa-free agreements with other countries, but that it could bring you home from danger.” Put simply: The Navy protects you.
One might ask, given budget priorities, have Americans and Europeans forgotten this?
Claude Berube is a history instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author.
Stephanie Chenault is the Chief Operating Officer of Venio Inc. and a Policy & Strategy Consultant for the Department of Defense.
Louis Martin-Vézian is the co-president of the French chapter at CIMSEC.org, and the founder of CIGeography, where he post his maps and infographics on various security and defense topics. He is currently studying Geography and Political Science in Lyon, France.
Chris Rawley is an entrepreneur and reserve naval officer.
As part of the run-up to #CFAR15 on Thursday, we asked those who received the most votes but are unable to attend to provide some thoughts and updates on their articles to share with our readers, along with the original, most-popular pieces of the past year:
LCDR Mark Munson: This piece was originally published as part of “Air-Sea Battle Week.” I chose to not write directly about the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) Operational Concept (or China) because I had no particular interest in ASB. I also was working at OPNAV at the time, and though I had no involvement or even any particular knowledge of ASB, I did not want to give the false impression that I had any insight into the U.S. Navy or Air Force efforts in support of that “Operational Concept.”
Of course since then the Air-Sea Battle office and concept is gone, recently subsumed into the larger Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC). JAM-GC may prove to be more successful than ASB in terms of facilitating the procurement of technologies that counter Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) capabilities. However, since I wrote this article the conventional wisdom regarding the pursuit of A2AD by China has also been challenged. In the Winter 2015 issue of The Washington Quarterly, M. Taylor Fravel and Christopher Twomey argue that “counter-intervention” is not the cornerstone of Chinese military strategy and that any Chinese emphasis on fielding A2AD capabilities are driven primarily to equip it for “a potential conflict over Taiwan.” (Full disclosure: Twomey is a former professor of mine) In fact, Fravel and Twomey argue that the focus on A2AD may the development of U.S. strategy and future weapons.
Regardless of whether and/or why China is developing the a significant A2AD capability, I think the thesis of my argument below is still sound. The notions behind A2AD or “Counter-Intervention” are not new, as militaries have attempted to develop stand-off weapons that deny maneuver to their enemies on the battlefield since the dawn of warfare. This article could just have easily been written about English and Welsh longbowmen at Agincourt as the Egyptians in Sinai in 1973.
The threat posed by Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) capabilities is at the core of the the U.S. Navy and Air Force’s Air Sea Battle (ASB) operational concept. However, A2AD weapons are not new, in particular playing an important role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Using A2AD weapons, particularly surface-to-air missiles (SAM), surface-to-surface missiles (SSM), and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), to conduct a form of asymmetric warfare is not a new idea. In particular, the use of missiles to counteract an enemy’s superiority in the air or on the ground was very much a part of Soviet doctrine by the 1960s. To protect against the U.S. air campaign during the Vietnam War, Soviet missiles and personnel were extensively used by North Vietnam. Perhaps the best example of A2AD in action, however, was the Soviet-enabled missile campaign waged by Egypt against the Israeli military during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (also known as the Ramadan War or October War).
The use of missiles formed an essential part of the plans of Egypt and Syria to win back the territories lost so precipitously during the 1967 Six Day War. In his book the Arab-Israel Wars, historian and former Israeli President Chaim Herzog noted that:
“the Egyptians had meanwhile studied and absorbed the lessons of the Six Day War: with the Russians, they concluded they could answer the problem of the Israeli Air Force over the battlefield by the creation of a very dense “wall” of missiles along the canal, denser even that that used in North Vietnam. The problem posed by Israeli armour was to be answered by the creation of a large concentration of anti-tank weapons at every level, from the RPG shoulder-operated missile at platoon level up to the Sagger missiles with a range of some 3000 yards and the BRDM armoured missile-carrying vehicles at battalion and brigade level.”
As part of Operation Caucasus, the Soviet Union “deployed an overstrength division” of air defense forces, with eighteen battalions each composed of SAM batteries, Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA), and teams equipped with Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). Although technically identified as instructors, the Soviet troops actually “were dressed in Egyptian uniforms and provided full crewing for the deployed SAM systems.” Using lessons learned in Vietnam, the air defense forces along the Suez Canal were capable of “relocating frequently and setting up ambushes for Israeli aircraft using multiple mutually supporting batteries.” Syria also procured Soviet SAM batteries to support their part of the planned surprise attack. In Herzog’s words, the overwhelming array of SAMs and AAA “would provide an effective umbrella over the planned area of operations along the Suez Canal” and “to a very considerable degree neutralize the effects of Israeli air superiority over the immediate field of battle.”
The Egyptians pursued a similar effort in their efforts to combat Israel’s ground forces. Per Herzog, Israel’s “armoured philosophy” emphasizing “massive, rapidly deployed, armoured counterattack” would be faced by an Egyptian Army that had crossed the Suez Canal “equipped to the saturation point in anti-tank weapons and missiles in order to wear down the Israeli armour.” The Arab leaders were not just concerned with achieving missile dominance inside the expected battlefield along the canal, however, but also that Eyptian and Syrian aircraft could not match their Israeli counterparts “outside the range of missile surface-to-air defence systems.” Therefore, the Soviets also provided surface-to-surface FROG and SCUD missiles capable of directly striking at Israel itself, with the hope that they could deter against Israel’s ability to attack their own capitals.
Egypt and Syria’s employment of A2AD weapons had a significant tactical impact on the war. Estimates of the losses of Israeli aircraft vary. Herzog stated that 102 Israeli planes were shot down (50 during the first three days), with half shot down by missiles and the other half shot down by AAA. According to other articles, “Israeli public claims are that 303 aircraft were lost in combat,” crediting SAMs with shooting down 40 and “between four and 12 to Arab fighters.” This means that although most Israeli aircraft may have been shot down by AAA, the “missile wall” can be credited with “denying the use of high and medium altitude airspace, driving aircraft down into the envelope of high-density AAA.”
How and why Israel won the war in 1973 entails a much longer discussion possible in this particular blog post. The solution to A2AD that the Navy and Air Force have proposed through Air-Sea Battle “is to develop networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces.” The reader can decide whether those are just buzzwords and whether the A2AD threat faced by the Israelis forty years ago was an easier challenge to overcome than what could be faced by the U.S. military today and in the future What is clear, however, is that the notion of A2AD is not new, and was very much an important part of Soviet-supported military operations during the Cold War.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving 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 US Government.