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Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: The Value of OSINT for the U.S. Navy

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By Dave Andre

“Intelligence means every sort of information about the enemy and his country.” –Clausewitz, On War, 1832 

Though it often goes unrecognized, history shows publicly available information (PAI) consistently plays an integral part in the development of the intelligence picture. With the advent of the Information Age, a rapid evolution of technological innovations democratized and decentralized information, creating a digital universe and a surfeit of open source intelligence, or OSINT. In the past decade alone, the world produced more information than it had in the rest of human history. This diffusion of information holds significant promise for the Naval Intelligence community, whose own rich history is replete with examples of OSINT being an integral part of the analytic picture.

From the Age of Sail to the Global War on Terror and beyond, OSINT has proven valuable across the range of maritime operations. Despite this history, Naval Intelligence treats OSINT as an oxymoron, relying on an analytic culture biased against unclassified data. This bias is a mistake. To maintain maritime superiority the Naval Intelligence community needs to orient its collection and analysis toward a truly all-source effort and harness the full potential of OSINT as an intelligence discipline on par with the classified disciplines or it risks ceding the advantage to adversaries and competitors.

OSINT in the Information Age: Problems and Promise

Since the end of the Cold War, the democratization and decentralization of the information landscape resulted in a sharp rise in information quantities, altering the intelligence community. As publicly available information that anyone can lawfully obtain proliferated, the advancements of the Information Age affected OSINT more than any other intelligence discipline. The Internet and cellular technology means individuals enjoy unprecedented access to information, particularly in otherwise underdeveloped regions. Meanwhile, social media makes individuals active participants in the production of information.

Studies estimate that this digital universe is doubling in size every two years. Globally, an estimated 50 percent of the population has Internet connectivity; 34 percent are active on social media; and there are enough mobile subscriptions that every person on earth could have one. Gone are the halcyon days where OSINT was local papers, television, and radio broadcasts. With each passing year, OSINT expands further past those conventional means and now includes information from the deep web, commercial imagery, technical data, social media, and gray literature with more sources inevitably to follow.

According to the author, the exponential growth of PAI offers OSINT “a competitive advantage over the traditional intelligence disciplines in terms of speed, quantity, and usability.” (Image: International Data Corporation study, “Data Age 2025.”)

The changes to the information environment affected more than individuals; government agencies and militaries embrace these information platforms, readily divulging information, pictures, budgets, and material status of platforms to the public to champion causes and promote transparency. It is no wonder some experts estimate that 80-90 percent of intelligence originates from OSINT. There is no reason to think these trends will abate soon.

The Naval Intelligence community has been slow to recognize and adapt to these changes in society’s relationship with information. In 1992, speaking at the First International Symposium on Open Source Solutions, Admiral William Studeman discussed the importance of OSINT and the associated challenges that accompanied its acceptance on par with Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Human Intelligence (HUMINT), and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Twenty-five years after Admiral Studeman’s speech, the Naval Intelligence community still treats OSINT at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the established intelligence disciplines, viewing it as unclassified “low-hanging fruit.” This second tier status is shortsighted and history shows it is detrimental to the analytic process.

In a world that moves increasingly faster, OSINT holds a competitive advantage over the traditional intelligence disciplines in terms of speed, quantity, and usability. Sensors, signals, and human sources take time to collect and exploit. In addition, classified means tend to be resource constrained—there simply are not enough assets to cover everything everywhere.

In contrast, PAI, by its very nature, is everywhere and does not require significant resources to exploit. These strengths are why OSINT is “the outer pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” and why it is useful in framing a problem. This framing allows an analyst to focus on effective use of the technical disciplines, thereby acting as a resource multiplier. Acknowledging these factors underscores the important roles that PAI and the resulting OSINT play in the analytic process.

OSINT analysis draws from a multitude of publicly available information sources, such as those illustrated here. (International Institute for Counter-Terrorism)[Click to expand]
Despite the promise that OSINT holds, the Naval Intelligence community has been slow to adopt it, underutilizing this glut of publicly available information. There is no formal pipeline for OSINT training and there is scant reference to OSINT in doctrine, which underscores an analytic culture that subordinates OSINT to the covert and technical disciplines of HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and Measures and Signals Intelligence (MASINT). Considering the modern information environment, the current treatment of OSINT within the Naval Intelligence community is a mistake.

Reliance on the technical disciplines has traditionally come at the detriment of OSINT, but this is unnecessary. Learning how to exploit PAI as an organization necessitates a paradigm shift that begins with training and doctrinal inclusion. This shift needs to occur today. Resource constraints will continue to hamper classified collection methods and as information continues to increase, it will become easier to hide information in plain sight—a real boon for adversaries. The U.S. Navy acknowledged as much in 2013, describing nations that were “simply using the Internet and the commercial global information grid as their own C4ISR system for networking their low-technology military forces.” To buoy this change the Naval Intelligence Community needs to take stock of its history with OSINT.

OSINT Lessons from Naval History: An Important Resource

Naval Intelligence history is replete with successful stories of monitoring, filtering, transcribing, translating, and archiving PAI to produce OSINT. Indeed open source maritime intelligence is as old as the U.S. Navy itself. In Nelson’s ‘old lady’: Merchant news as a source of intelligence, Jane Knight details how, in 1796, intelligence derived through the analysis of a merchant woman’s correspondence with her husband proved useful.1 As the story goes, Frances Caffarena, an Englishwoman married to a Genoese merchant, supplied Admiral Jervis and Lord Nelson’s Mediterranean campaign with a steady stream of information gleaned from open sources. These reports filled a critical gap in intelligence, informing the decision-making of both men as they waged war against Napoleonic France and her allies. This episode marks the beginning chapter of a long history of OSINT supporting and defining the maritime intelligence picture.

Since these early years, OSINT has played a vital role in a wide range of naval operations from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) and Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs) to combat on land and sea. During the Second World War, analysts pored over enemy magazines and newspapers and monitored radio broadcasts. These open-source efforts yielded valuable intelligence. One notable example of specific value to Naval Intelligence was the first mention of German submarine tenders through a newspaper article.2

Collecting, translating, and analyzing PAI – i.e., OSINT – has proven valuable throughout historical conflicts. Locations like this WWII-era BBC listening room monitored broadcasts originating from Nazi Europe as one more piece of the intelligence puzzle. (BBC)

Another integral OSINT lesson from that era was the importance of a distributed network that leverages partner nations’ ability to exploit information with knowledge of local sources and local languages. Such cooperation produced significant results during the Second World War as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) monitored foreign radio broadcasts across many theaters, sharing the information with the United States. This distributed network is not limited to international partners; it has application across the services as well. One enduring example of an OSINT network is the U.S. Army’s Asian Studies Detachment, which has collected and analyzed PAI on Asian topics since 1947. Developed for U.S. Army tactical units throughout the Pacific, the Asian Studies Detachment has relevance for host of consumers throughout the Pacific region.

Recently, OSINT has been particularly useful in areas—both functional and geographical—that do not typically use classified assets. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is a good example of how important OSINT can be to U.S. Navy operations. During OPERATION UNIFIED RESPONSE analysts from United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) used social networking sites, blogs, clergy, non-governmental organizations, and the Haitian diaspora to supplement traditional ISR capabilities with firsthand accounts of the situation that focused humanitarian response efforts. This shaped the picture in a way that classified, technical sources could not because of sharing limitations and processing and exploitation timelines.

OSINT’s utility is not limited to non-kinetic operations. The Arab Spring and OPERATION ODYSSEY DAWN exemplify OSINT’s effectiveness in providing intelligence during kinetic operations, especially without “boots on the ground” to provide tactical updates. Throughout ODYSSEY DAWN the Joint Task Force J2 derived valuable intelligence from social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter, with NATO specifically acknowledging that Twitter had become a leading source in developing the intelligence picture and assisted analysts in target development. Additionally, during NEO planning in Libya and Egypt, OSINT was a significant factor in answering intelligence requirements for the 26th MEU embarked on the USS Kearsarge. Meanwhile, OPERATION ATALANTA, the European Union Naval Force’s response to Somali piracy, overcame the dearth of intelligence and the resulting lack of situational awareness by working primarily off PAI; in this case, local newspapers. This proved to be a double-edged sword, as local Somali news sources were heavily biased or censored, oftentimes resulting in “corkscrew journalism” where uncorroborated statements, repeated often enough, turned into truths. These operations illustrate how OSINT may sometimes be the most accurate and timely intelligence available to analysts; and in the case of Somalia, underscore the importance of training and corroboration while using OSINT. 

Satellites providing Google Earth imagery captured this publicly available overhead shot of China’s then-new aircraft carrier LIAONING. Exploitation of PAI such as this offers timely and relevant maritime intelligence that the Navy has yet to fully capitalize on according to the author. (Google Earth)

Despite changes over the years, the communal and commercial nature of PAI proves to be its most pertinent contribution to the intelligence picture. OSINT is different from the other intelligence disciplines by virtue of its accessibility. Unlike national sensors, sources, and satellites, a private individual or company usually owns the production method and dissemination of PAI. More often than not, these individuals and companies derive more benefit from making the information available than they do restricting it.

A 2017 Janes IHS article highlighted this relationship, describing how public webcams that overlooked Severomorsk Naval base confirmed the departure of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. This episode also highlights the difficulty in determining the veracity of PAI as these webcams were contradicting what news networks were reporting. In a similar manner, Google Earth offers a great example of how PAI can provide valuable OSINT for analysts. A 2013 TIME magazine article covered how Google Earth imagery provided analysts with a wealth of information as they examined China’s construction of its first indigenous aircraft carrier.

Unfortunately, history is also replete with examples of military planners neglecting OSINT to their detriment. In their history on the Battle of Gallipoli, Peter Chasseaud and Peter Doyle detail how a private geological survey omitted from military planning held the key to vital terrain intelligence, which may have mitigated or prevented the ANZAC force’s defeat.3 

In one of the most well-known cases of intelligence failure, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor illustrated just how important OSINT could be in the realm of indications and warnings. As the recently established Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was listening to and translating broadcasts from Japan, they noted increasing hostility towards the United States; the attack on Pearl Harbor commenced before the intelligence could yield value.

The Intelligence Community re-learned the importance of OSINT six decades later as classified data failed to predict, let alone prevent, the Sept. 11th attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks, it became clear there were open source resources that may have offered insight into the attackers plans. A similar assessment was made after the bombing of the USS Cole a year before.4 In each of these examples, the lack of OSINT was just one of many failures, but it is a failure that the Naval Intelligence community perpetuates and one that is relatively easy to fix.

OSINT Tech for the Future Navy

The technological advances of the Information Age are germane to the future of OSINT within the Naval Intelligence enterprise. Across all levels of warfare, PAI represents an opportunity and a challenge to naval intelligence analysts. From the fight against violent extremist organizations (VEOs), which use social media for recruitment and propaganda dissemination, to the understanding of national strategies as world leaders increasingly employ the media to make the case for military operations, OSINT can enable or enfeeble analysis. Irrespective of geography or subject, the Information Age has virtually guaranteed the proliferation of PAI.

Every intelligence discipline has limitations and OSINT’s biggest limitations are the volume and veracity of information. Fortunately, technology continually provides tools to assist in overcoming these obstacles. Some are technical and require training, while others are simple and low-tech, merely requiring familiarization and practice; yet others involve incorporating government technology or commercial subscription services. Regardless of their particular details, these tools are all available to assist the analyst in filtering the overwhelming amount of data available today. These technological advancements also indicate that OSINT is rapidly becoming as technical a discipline as SIGINT or IMINT and Naval Intelligence needs to treat it as such.

There are processes that assist in categorizing useful information versus distracting and irrelevant information and procedures that help determine reliability and credibility. There are increasingly effective ways to use search parameters to cut through the large swaths of information. The Open Source Indicators (OSI) program is one such initiative. A program run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), OSI aims at automated and continuous analysis of PAI in an effort to predict societal events.

Additionally, the proliferation of foreign language media will pose a challenge for analysts, though there are promising tools such as the U.S. Army’s Machine Foreign Language Translation Software (MFLTS), which allows analysts to understand foreign language documents and digital media across a variety of platforms. In a similar vein, initiatives like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Deep Exploration and Filtering of Text (DEFT) program and Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology aim to help analysts collect, collate, and process information. In addition to these Intelligence Community initiatives, there are commercial programs like Google’s Knowledge Graph that hold promise for intelligence analysts. Using a semantic search, a Knowledge Graph query returns results that determine the intent and context of a searched item, allowing an analyst to avoid the irrelevant responses a traditional keyword search returns and establish relationships between people, places, and events.

Even the socio-technical aspect of social media lends itself to optimization, with Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) now championed, despite privacy concerns, as an emerging intelligence discipline in its own right. Reputable blogs, forums, and chat-rooms – operated by individuals with a strong interest in a subject – act as a form of crowdsourcing where these philes compile large amounts of data for their own interest while simultaneously filling intelligence gaps.

Technically savvy and unencumbered by corporate or government constraints, the individual citizen has proven to be a remarkable source of information for analysts. Whether it is pictures on Instagram of their latest work trip to a naval installation or their Facebook comments about government policies, individuals routinely expose important information to the public. Acknowledging OSINTs role in counterintelligence is at the core of the U.S. Navy’s stringent OPSEC program.

Mainstreaming OSINT Analysis

Whether it is traditional media, social media, or any other element of PAI, the Naval Intelligence community needs to develop the analytic skills to cash-in on this information. Unfortunately, this explosion in information is not without its downside. Concurrent booms of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda threaten to hamper the analysis of PAI just as social media has become a tool for disseminating fake news. Much as these information distractions present a challenge, they also underscore the importance of all-source analysis. The OSINT landscape has changed dramatically since the days of the Cold War. Despite these changes, the core challenge of open source analysis remains the same — parsing the salient from the trivial — and that takes skill.

It is not enough to recognize the utility of OSINT; the Naval Intelligence community must train, equip, and organize around the process of collecting and analyzing PAI. It is time to adhere to the guidance put forth since the 1992 Intelligence Reorganization Act, which acknowledged the importance of “providing timely, objective intelligence, free of bias, based upon all sources available to the U.S. Intelligence Community, public and non-public.” More explicitly, in 1996, the Aspin-Brown Commission concluded, “a greater effort also should be made to harness the vast universe of information now available from open sources.”Again, in 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) emphasized the need for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to “ensure that the IC [Intelligence Community] makes efficient and effective use of PAI and analysis.” Despite these repeated issuances and a long history that demonstrates the importance of OSINT, the Naval Intelligence community continues to pay scant attention to OSINT relative to other intelligence disciplines.

Currently, the Naval Intelligence community has no formal training pipeline to develop open source analysts, no formal guidance on collection methods or best practices, and it receives little direction from Navy doctrine. As such, OSINT within Naval Intelligence resides (unreliably and disparately) at the grassroots level, where intrepid intelligence professionals and the occasional Mobile Training Team (MTT) delve into the realm of open source.

This approach is akin to a person who knows just enough information to be dangerous. PAI is going to continue to increase in scope and value, but also difficulty, which is precisely why the Naval Intelligence community needs to develop a formal training pipeline so they can begin addressing the problem from the bottom-up. In the meantime, the Navy can leverage open-source training that exists within the larger Intelligence Community or employ private organizations like Jane’s IHS that offer OSINT training on effective collection methods, monitoring social media, conducting safe and optimized searches, and conducting analysis of PAI. Such training will allow analysts to exploit the full potential of OSINT and move past mere regurgitation of previously reported information.

The author argues that the U.S. Navy should take note of international and joint force partners who have emphasized the institutional value of OSINT. In the above photo, Canadian LTC Ian MacVicar provides a period of instruction to African officers as part of CJTF-Horn of Africa’s Open Source Intelligence Course. (Image CJTF-HOA)

The lack of a formal training pipeline is not the only limitation that undermines the realization of OSINT’s role in the Naval Intelligence community. OSINT is barely mentioned in Naval doctrine, all but ensuring that the training and cultural issues will remain. Moreover, the absence of OSINT in doctrine provokes discord amongst intelligence professionals and creates an environment where commanders default toward a pre-conceived emphasis to classified sources.

This is where the Navy can learn a lesson from the other services and the larger intelligence community, which have all made significant steps towards including OSINT in their doctrine. These lessons, borne of years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, lend themselves to adaption by the Navy. For example, both the Marine Corps and Army detail the collection and production of OSINT, considerations to judge reliability and credibility, and reporting and dissemination procedures. Similarly, both DIA and NGA recognize the importance of OSINT and the emerging technologies that support its exploitation.

Adding OSINT to doctrine will work in tandem with a formal training pipeline and change the culture from top-down. Together these changes can overcome what is perhaps the greatest barrier that OSINT faces: an analytic cultural that does not afford OSINT the same respect as other disciplines. A 2005 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) summed up this sentiment, stating “analysts tend to give more weight to a folder stamped ‘SECRET’ than to the latest public broadcast of an Al Qaeda message on Al Jazeera Satellite television network.” Changing the culture will take time and money, but not changing the culture will certainly be more costly. The time is perfect, the officers and sailors joining today are accustomed to social media and the Internet, as are our adversaries.

Conclusion 

The referenced instances of OSINT’s successes and failures are not exhaustive, but serve as examples of the breadth and depth of OSINT support to the intelligence picture. History shows that OSINT has always been important, but the future indicates that OSINT will play an increasingly critical role in the intelligence picture. The Information Age profoundly altered the way PAI is produced, collected, analyzed, and disseminated, which has led to changes in the quality and quantity of that information.

Fortunately, the Information Age has also brought with it a host of tools to address these changes in the information landscape. It is time the Naval Intelligence Community transforms its approach and attitude to OSINT. Disregarding these changes risks a painful reiteration of past lessons where intelligence failures were the result of poor policy, not analysis.

LT David M. Andre is a prior enlisted Intelligence Specialist, and has served as an Intelligence Officer onboard the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65), an Intelligence and Liaison Officer assigned to AFRICOM, and as N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He is currently serving as an analyst at STRATCOM’s JFCC-IMD. He can be reached at dma.usn@gmail.com.

References

1. Jane Knight, “Nelson’s ‘old lady’: Merchant news as a source of intelligence: June to October 1796,” Journal for Maritime Research, Vol. 7, Issue 1, (2005): 88-109, DOI: 10.1080/21533369.2005.9668346.

2. William J. Donovan, “Intelligence: key to Defense” LIFE, 30 Sep 1946. Vol. 21, No. 14; 108-122.

3. Peter Chasseaud and Peter Doyle Grasping, Gallipoli: Terrain, Maps and Failure at the Dardanelles, 1915. (London: Spellmount, 2005): 173-174.

4. Arnaud De Borchgrave, Thomas M. Sanderson, John MacGaffin, Open Source Information: The Missing Dimension of Intelligence: A Report of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, CSIS Report (2006):3.

Featured Image: Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Michael Tolbert, left, and Information Systems Technician 2nd Class An-Marie Ledesma upload geographical data onto tactical Apple iPads for combat operations in the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 operations room aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Carl Vinson and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 are conducting maritime security operations and close-air support missions in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher K. Hwang/Released)

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Reconsidering the American Way of Strategy

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By John T. Kuehn

Introduction

The ship of state that we call the United States is adrift at the political-strategic level or what some may call the grand strategic level. 24-hour news cycles, a president (and Congress) addicted to tweeting and posturing, an ambivalent and often ignorant public, and a complete failure by the national and sometimes international media to discern what is of value from what is pabulum has led to strategic gridlock in the foreign policy of the United States.

First, there are two caveats that must be addressed. The first caveat acknowledges that these ideas regarding a strategy for the United States of America are wholly unoriginal and derivative from those of Barry Posen, principally those in his article “Command of the Commons” (2002) and his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), and similarly focuses on concepts like grand strategy, command of the commons, and “liberal hegemony” (defined below).1 Secondly, ideas “on strategy” comes from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Book Three of that work addresses what we today call operational art more than it does grand strategy, but the elements of thinking about strategy at that level are not significantly different from thinking about it at the higher levels.2

On Strategy

A cursory structural examination of On War’s section “on strategy” reveals that when one turns to the index the first thing one reads is a list of topics, including a discussion of just what strategy is, or strategy as Clausewitz defines it. In today’s terminology Clausewitz expounds on campaign strategy, i.e. operational art at the operational level of warfare. Next, Clausewitz addresses some factors one does not normally associate with strategy writ large: virtue, moral factors, and things like boldness and “perseverance” (patience). Clausewitz is really discussing the attributes of the military strategist, although perhaps his comments can be extrapolated up the levels of war to the policy strategist in charge of overall events and national well-being or even survival. It closes, after a review of essentially Jominian operational considerations, on what might seem an odd pair of notes: “the character of contemporary war” and a discussion of “tension and rest.”3

These last two have particular importance for today because they get us from the operational level to what is normally now thought of as the strategic, or even grand strategic, level—the levels where ends are decided and acted upon. First the issue of tension and rest: “…in most campaigns, periods of inaction and repose have been much longer than periods of action.”4 This supports the claim made here that Clausewitz’s strategy here is really minor strategy, or campaign strategy. He is referring to the concept of culmination of action in war and that sooner or later exhaustion occurs at which point overt military activity (combat) diminishes or ceases while the protagonists build up combat power, will, political will, or all of the above to resume active operations. This has real implications for American policy today since the U.S. military has figured out how to keep the operational train moving with little suspension of action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria and Yemen. It has also figured out how, by using an all-volunteer force, unmanned aerial systems (i.e. “drones”), long range missiles (Tomahawks), and Special Forces to continue to get around this “dynamic law of war.” The naval aspect here is particularly important because U.S. naval forces have, since World War II, been primarily used for the purposes of power projection, not sea control or large scale fleet actions. This in turn has caused the application of naval power to be “a part of the problem” of maintaining the status quo of “permanent war for permanent peace.”

The U.S. military – and one must include CIA drone warfare and naval forces as mentioned above – keeps operations relatively constant, albeit at low levels, but still lethal. Interestingly, this steady state of activity does little to achieve long term political results and in Afghanistan in particular has led to what may be called a “declining status quo.” That is, a situation that over time gets worse. This is because the enemy – the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS)—all in Afghanistan, do not violate this law. They suspend operations and rest and then apply the tension at times and places of their choosing, slowly sapping the political will of their much more powerful, but ironically impotent, foes. They fight each other, too, but nonetheless they obey the law while “we” violate it. A similar dynamic is also witnessed in the ongoing conflicts in East Ukraine as well as the Syrian Civil War and a number of other conflicts around the globe in Asia and Africa.

Which brings us to Clausewitz’s second-to-last, and perhaps most compelling chapter in his book on operational strategy—which is what we can now properly characterize it as. He discusses the “character of contemporary warfare” in his day. The lesson here is not to draw lessons from Bonaparte’s 1812 Russian campaign, as he does in order to set up his law of “tension and rest,” but rather to tell the prospective operational artist or strategist that he or she, too, must assess the contemporary character of warfare as they craft a campaign strategy. He contrasts the nearly absolute wars of his day with those more limited wars of previous times: “Wars waged by both sides to the full extent of their national strength must be conducted on different principles from war in which policy was based on the comparative size of regular armies.”6 The lesson for today is that the character of contemporary wars must be assessed, on all sides – not just both sides since most wars these days have multiple protagonists, not a clearly delineated Axis versus Allies paradigm as in World War II.  

The strategist must study contemporary warfare along with the other things Clausewitz says he must develop (patience and boldness) or study of the enemy (threats). This means understanding not just warfare locally, but one’s own cultural context for war. Perhaps the key character of contemporary American warfare — as opaque as it is to the majority of the American public — is that it is maintained by a political will unconnected to most Americans, in other words they are choices made by policy elites, choices most Americans either feel unable to affect or simply do not care about. This is dangerous. It cedes the initiative at the strategic level to the enemies we have chosen to engage with. Simply, policy elites have more skin in the game. It also increases the chance that the strategist will make choices disconnected from national interests and policies and more narrowly focused on the biases and preferences of the strategist himself. This also opens the door for irrational forces associated with emotions and neuroses of the strategist, rather than rational policy considerations, to influence decision-making. As Clausewitz emphasizes in his “fascinating trinity,” war is a team sport, not a solo event or just for a group of special insiders.7

Strategic Restraint

Here is where we bring in Barry Posen’s ideas about grand strategic restraint. First we must understand what he argues against. He does this by clearly outlining the existing grand strategy of the United States as something he calls liberal hegemony — and not a mild form either, but an aggressive, proactive form that emerged with the end of the Cold War. However, in the 1990s it was a more moderate form of what we have today. 9/11 caused a group of policy makers known as neoconservatives to adopt the more extreme elements of a liberal hegemonist agenda: muscular cooperative security and something Posen labels “military primacy.”8 Cooperative security was manifested, especially during the Clinton Administration, by the expansion and employment of NATO in the 1990s. Those who doubt this should consult Operations SHARP GUARD (Adriatic Sea 1993-1996), DELIBERATE FORCE (Bosnia 1995), and ALLIED FORCE (Kosovo 1999 ). More recently the implications of NATO’s expansion to include nations along the Baltic littoral have influenced how U.S. naval officers have had to think about meeting NATO obligations in that body of water with U.S. naval forces to continue the status quo of power projection. This has further stressed the capabilities of the U.S. Navy in ways that policy elites had not anticipated, nor adjusted force structure in the long term to address.

The NATO 1990s air campaigns highlight Posen’s second component—military primacy. But this primacy most forcefully manifested itself after 9/11. It was then demonstrated again with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Even so, it had been conceived of years earlier, by President George H.W. Bush:

“Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration…and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.9

Liberal hegemony characterized by the maintenance of military primacy is the source of many of our problems vis-à-vis contemporary warfare. As long as this remains the policy of the United States, and there is nothing coming out of the current Trump administration to indicate otherwise, this is the United States’ strategy, like it or not.

So what is the way ahead? It all begins with persuasion. People made these decisions and people will make decisions that can ameliorate and perhaps get the United States to a position of relative “rest” in the current global system. Current moderation of strategy may be temporary and we could only be one crisis away in today’s 24-hour news cycle from another iteration of the more extreme approach in use since the end of the Cold War. Making restraint a habit takes time and practice.

Good News Bad News

A position that has merit is to return to the policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) of the 1930s, armed neutrality with a build-up of naval and air forces to dominate the air and sea commons around the North American continent. Additionally, he was willing to make America serve as the “arsenal of democracy” to support those states who needed it against totalitarian and militaristic regimes.10 It was not his fault those states badly mismanaged the problem posed by the Axis causing FDR to more forcefully plan for war. Yes, FDR did not have to deal with intercontinental ballistic missiles, but during the Cold War the U.S. had some “good enough” strategies in place to manage this very scary scenario. But it is best managed by engagement with Russia, China, and even North Korea. Setting aside the nuclear case, let us return to the idea of “command of the commons” by primarily naval and air forces.11 That means efforts to better command, or influence, the space, air, ocean, and cyber commons. There is plenty to do in these domains, little of which requires “boots on the ground.”

However, liberal hegemony in its current state is looking more like “illiberal hegemony”—a reference of course to the rise of demagoguery and authoritarian personalities in traditionally democratic states. Said another way, U.S. grand strategy is on autopilot because of the current, self-induced presidential crises. Thus, the diplomatic-military-congressional-industrial complex continues doing what it was doing—maintaining liberal hegemony via primacy and cooperative security— and keeping its head down in Washington while servicing its agendas abroad.12 Meanwhile, policy elites bemoan a false change in U.S. strategy, claiming that restraint, or neutrality, or whatever one wishes to call it, has lost ground for the U.S. globally, first under President Obama and now accelerates with Donald Trump’s election.13 What has lost the U.S. ground globally is 16 years of indecisive and expensive military operations combined with an ongoing leadership crisis in Washington, not that leadership’s change of the current strategy. Posen himself has said as much in a recent interview.14 

A metaphor will help explain the situation. The current “ship of state” for the U.S. is like an aircraft carrier that has lost the ability to control its steering from the bridge, and changing course from the bowels of the ship in auxiliary control (auxcon) has not occurred, thus the momentum of the current strategy continues to keep the ship on its last commanded heading — the failing and failed strategies of the past. There is no way to give orders to the helm to change the course of the ship of state on the bridge by the captain (president) — and no one has any idea how to regain control, some in fact prefer the rudderless ship.

Now for some good news — ironically, the ongoing loss of presidential power is a positive force for actually empowering changing the course from below.15 But there must be a will to change course “from below,” that is by the people executing (and making) policy in Congress as well as in the various executive bureaucracies. Donald Trump’s loss of power undermines effective execution of the strategy to some degree, but it does not change it. First we must admit that the overall strategy is misplaced. That is going to take some doing and it is not going to happen quickly. Thus, today’s strategists in America must get their heads out of the operational sands overseas, and turn their attention to the policy debates and battlefields back home.

Conclusion

Deploying three aircraft carrier groups into a sea-denial environment in the Sea of Japan—as was recently the case vis-à-vis North Korea—is not the best use of U.S. resources. Never, at any point in time has the leadership of the Navy been in a better position to drive strategy from below by dissenting on these meaningless, some might even call them reckless, displays of naval power. Admirals John Richardson (the CNO) and Admiral Harry Harris (PACOM) could set an example, and perhaps educate the civilian leadership (Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster) in shepherding liberal hegemony by “just saying no.” They may be relieved in any case because of all the high profile Navy accidents, so why not make it count for something?16 Perhaps the Navy, and the nation, need another “revolt of the admirals,” as was seen in 1949 when the strategic ship of state was on the wrong heading.17 We do not need to create new frameworks and theories of strategy. We do need to think through the wisdom that is sitting already on our bookshelves and in the past. It is not too late to change course, if only we would. A good place to start is with naval forces. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, this might no longer be true.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is a former naval aviator, retiring as a Commander from the U.S. Navy in 2004. He is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Dr. Kuehn was awarded the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, A Military History of Japan (2014), and Napoleonic Warfare (2015). His latest book is America’s First General Staff.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] Barry R. Posen,  Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), xii; see also Posen, “Command of the C)ommons, The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer, 2003): 5-46.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz,  On War, edited by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 175; see also Clausewitz, “Two letters on Strategy,” located at http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/carlvonc.pdf (accessed 11 June 2017).

[3] Clausewitz, On War, vi, 177, 184, 186, 220-221.

[4] Clausewitz, 221.

[5] This discussion based on recent scholarship by the author on the organizational culture of the US Navy, soon to be published as a chapter on the Navy since 1941 in anthology edited by Peter Mansoor and Williamson Murray by Cambridge University Press; the permanent war for permanent peace reference comes from Michael Howard’s discussion of Immanuel Kant’s ideas on collective security in War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Clausewitz, 89.  “Fascinating” is a better translation, according to Christopher Bassford, than “paradoxical.”  See Clausewitz Homepage, https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Bassford/Trinity/TrinityTeachingNote.htm (accessed 10/02/2017).

[8] Posen, 6-7.

[9] Defense Policy Guidance of first Bush administration, cited in Posen, 8.

[10] See David Kaiser, No End Save Victory (New York:  Basic Books, 2014), 25-30, 155. Kaiser also highlights how FDR’s “four freedoms” contributed, via the crucible of war, to the adoption of liberal hegemony (157), although he perhaps did not intend to do this.

[11] Posen, “Command of the Commons,” passim.

[12] Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010),   32; Bacevich implies the Congressional component on page 228.

[13] See for example Ben Miller, “Will Trumpism increase the Danger of War in the International System?” at https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/176888/policy-series-will-trumpism-increase-danger-war-international (accessed 14/06/2017); see also Kyle Haynes, https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/183005/haynes-lieber-retreat-and-its-consequences-american-foreign-policy-and (accessed 14/06/2017).

[14] See, http://cimsec.org/barry-posen-draft/30281 (accessed 14/06/2017).

[15] See John T. Kuehn, “Problematic Presidencies” at Proceedings Today, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2017/08/18/problematic-presidencies-are-not-necessarily-a-bad-thing (accessed 10/03/2017).

[16] The reference here is to the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, among others, “Previous Collisions Involving U.S. Navy Vessels,” by May Salam, 21 August 2017 in New York Times, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/us/navy-collisions-history-mccain-fitzgerald.html (accessed 10/27/2017).

[17] The CNO Admiral Louis Denfield dissented from existing Administration strategy and policy and was relieved by the Secretary of Defense.   See Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals (Washington, DC, 1994), p. 288; Love,  History of the U.S. Navy, p. 379.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2017. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

What the Loss of the ARA San Juan Reveals about South America’s Submarines

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The Argentine Navy’s submarine ARA San Juan (S-42) disappeared in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Argentina, on 15 November. At the time of this writing, a multinational effort is underway to locate the platform and its 44-person crew. This tragic accident has prompted a discussion in Argentina regarding whether the country’s armed forces are being allocated sufficient budgets to repair or replace aging equipment. Additionally, the San Juan incident must be placed in a wider discussion about civil-military relations, defense budgets, and the present and future of South American submarines.

ARA San Juan

Theories revolving around what happened to San Juan focus on an electrical malfunction that was reported by the crew prior to disappearing, though it was reportedly solved. The platform was returning to its home port of Mar del Plata when communications were lost. Naval protocol dictates that San Juan should have surfaced and traveled back to port, and it is unclear why the submarine continued its voyage submerged in spite of the aforementioned electrical problem. Adding to the mystery and overall concern was an apparent underwater explosion that reportedly occurred around 23 November in the general area where San Juan disappeared. The fear is that the explosion may have actually been an implosion due to pressure on the submarine’s hull.

ARA San Juan at an exhibition in Buenos Aires. (Photo: AFP/Ministerio de Defensa de Argentina)

San Juan, constructed by the West German shipyard Thyssen Nordseewerke, was commissioned by the Argentine Navy in 1985. The platform, a TR-1700 class, weighs slightly over two thousand tons, measures 66 m in length, with a max speed between 15 kts (surfaced) or 25 kts (submerged), and as it is powered with diesel engines – it went through mid-life repairs in 2008. Its sister vessel is ARA Santa Cruz (S-41).

Other South American Submarine Incidents

The disappearance of San Juan prompted a plethora of articles listing other notable incidents regarding submarines. One recent example that is often mentioned is the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk (K-141), an Oscar-class platform that suffered an explosion in the Barents Sea in August 2000. The U.S. has also lost submarines, like the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered platform, in 1963, and the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), which disappeared in May 1968. That same year Israel’s INS Dakar and France’s Minerve (S-647) also disappeared.

When it comes to South America, submarine accidents are rare but, unfortunately, they have occurred. For example in 1919, the Chilean submarine Rucumilla, an H-class platform, was carrying out maneuvers, when it started to flood; thankfully, all 23 members of the crew were rescued alive. More recently, the Brazilian submarine Tonelero (S-21) sank while it was undergoing repairs at a harbor in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. The crew members aboard also managed to escape safely and the diesel-powered, Oberon-class submarine constructed in the 1970 was successfully refloated only to be decommissioned shortly after.

There has also been one reportedly deadly accident: in 1988 the Peruvian submarine BAP Pacocha (SS-48), a Balao-class platform, was rammed by the Japanese fishing trawler Kiowa Maru off the Peruvian coast, close to the Callao port. Pacocha settled on the seabed, at a depth of around 144 ft (43 m). A massive rescue operation involving several vessels, including another Peruvian submarine, BAP Abtao (SS-42), was carried out and the 52-person crew was rescued in groups. Tragically, eight sailors including Pacocha’s commander, Captain Daniel Nieva Rodríguez, perished. Additionally, some of the survivors would live face health issues, as since they “were exposed to gradually increasing pressure for nearly twenty-four hours, their tissues were saturated with nitrogen at a depth deep enough to produce decompression symptoms.”

The Region’s Aging Submarines

Because submarines are a key element of a nation’s naval deterrent, detailed information regarding their status, including armament, is a sensitive issue. With that said, we can provide some general points from what is publicly known, and how these platforms fit into regional maritime strategies.

South America’s submarines are generally old, as most platforms were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s. Regional navies have focused on mid-life and other upgrades in order to extend their operational life. For example, the Ecuadorian daily El Universo has reported that the country’s two submarines, Shyri and Huancavilca, type U209, were purchased in the late 1970s and have undergone three modernization processes already, “1980-1983 in Germany, 1991-1994 in Ecuador, and 2008-2014 in Chile.”  

While most regional submarines are operational, others have been undergoing repairs for a significant amount of time. For example Argentina’s San Juan underwent mid-life repairs that required over five years of work (the Argentine media has critiqued this). Meanwhile the ARA Santa Cruz has been undergoing repairs at an Argentine shipyard since 2016, leaving the navy with only one submarine, ARA Salta (which was constructed in the early 1970s). Additionally, Venezuela’s Caribe (S-32) has been in a dry dock since 2004-2005, awaiting repairs. It is somewhat bizarre that in spite of the billions of dollars spent on the Venezuelan military during the Hugo Chavez era, the submarine fleet was not modernized or expanded, and it consists of only two platforms, Caribe and Sabalo (S-31), both are U209A/1300 constructed in the mid 1970s.

In recent years, there have been a few new acquisitions. A decade ago (in 2005-2007), Chile incorporated O’Higgins (SS-23) and Carrera (SS-22), two Scorpene-class submarines constructed by DCN-Bazan (now Navantia), to replace the old Oberon-class platforms. Additionally, in 2015 the Colombian Navy received two refurbished German submarines, U206A-class, for its Caribbean and Pacific fleets. The platforms, now renamed ARC Intrépido (SC-23) and ARC Indomable (SC-24), were constructed in the 1970s and served in the German Navy until 2010-2011, when they were retired and sold to Bogota the following year.

ARC Intrépido. (Helwin Scharn/MarineTraffic.com)

Finally, Brazil has the ambitious goal of domestically manufacturing submarines, as it is currently constructing with French support four Scorpene-class submarines and one nuclear-powered platform (the author has discussed this program in a November 2016 commentary for CIMSEC, “The Status of Brazil’s Ambitious PROSUB Program”). Of the region, the country has the most modern fleet as its current submarines (four Tupi-class and one Tikuna-class) were manufactured in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Why Do South American Navies Want Submarines?

Ultimately, what is exactly the role of undersea forces in South America in 2017 and beyond? The last conflict in the region was the Cenepa War in 1995 (Ecuador vs. Peru), while the last conflict with a maritime theater of operations was the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 (Argentina vs. United Kingdom).

While inter-state warfare in South America is not unthinkable, it is highly unlikely. Thus as regional naval strategies continue to evolve to properly address broad-spectrum maritime security threats (illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and humanitarian relief), the raison d’être of undersea forces must adapt, too.

In an interview with the author, Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence at Riskop and Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Institute for Strategic Research, explained that navies have three main missions: maritime security, naval diplomacy, and defense. Latin American navies have focused, particularly in recent decades, on the first objective – given the lack of inter-state conflict and generally peaceful diplomatic relations. This new reality has made it “financially difficult to maintain naval platforms that are mostly, if not exclusively, aimed at defense operations.” Mr. Ehrlich adds that navies that possess attack submarines have had to find a new “role” for these platforms, such as supporting surveillance or combating illegal fishing, such as when Ecuador’s submarine Huancavilca was deployed to combat illegal fishing after a recent incident involving a Chinese vessel off the Galapagos Islands.

Without a doubt, submarines are a powerful naval deterrent, a “just in case” tool if relations between two countries should deteriorate to the point that armed conflict is a real possibility. There are still occasional incidents, including maritime disputes, that highlight how South America is far from being a peaceful region where inter-state warfare is unthinkable. Hence, these hypotheses of conflict, combined with adapting to new security threats, ensures, as Mr. Ehrlich explains, that “the silent service will continue to be part of [South American] navies, which have invested decades in these platforms.”

Final Thoughts

The tragic disappearance of San Juan has brought to light a number of issues. In Argentina, the media and public are demanding both answers and culprits, and it is likely that the navy’s high command will have to resign. The Argentine media has discussed the military’s current status, blaming the civilian leadership of not providing adequate budgets to the armed forces to replace old equipment. At a regional level, this incident has brought to light the problematic reality of South American submarine fleets. Generally speaking, they are quite old, in need of replacement, and they need to find new roles to be relevant to contemporary maritime security strategies.

Thankfully, submarine-related incidents have been scarce, though the 1988 incident of Peru’s Pacocha and the current disappearance of Argentina’s San Juan exemplifies how just one accident can claim so many lives instantaneously. Such is the perilous life of the submariner.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

The author would like to thank Erica Illingworth for editorial advice.

Featured Image: The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS)