Join our DC Chapter for our June DC-area informal meet-up/happy hour. We will be meeting at the Right Proper Brewing Company near the Shaw metro stop to enjoy discussing the events of the day and meeting new folk.
Time: Thursday, 26 June 5:00-9pm Place: Right Proper Brewing Company (Bar in the back – ask up front if you can’t find us)
624 T St NW, Washington DC
Shaw/Howard (Yellow/Green Lines)
All are welcome – RSVPs not required, but appreciated: email@example.com
This is the first article of our “Sacking of Rome” week: red-teaming the global order and learning from history. It is also the first of Merighi’s independent “Lessons from History” regular series for CIMSEC.
They poured gold down his throat, cut off his head, and sent it back as a warning to others.
No, this is not a scene from the latest episode of Game of Thrones; this was the passing of Marcus Licinuis Crassus in 53 BC. Rome’s richest man, a member of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar, and the man responsible for putting down the pirates that menaced the Mediterranean, met his ignoble end fighting the greatest challenge the Romans ever faced in the east: Parthia.
Persia was the preeminent military, political, and cultural power in the ancient world from 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. With its heartland in modern day Iran, its empire spanned from Afghanistan to Turkey at its apex. It all came crashing down in spectacular fashion when Alexander of Macedon rose to power and led a ruthlessly efficient military machine on a path of conquest that brought him all the way to the Indus River. He tried his hardest to unify the Persian state with his own but, when he died at the age of 33 in 323 B.C., his empire immediately collapsed into a host of warring factions. Three of his Greek generals went on to found the three largest states in the Eastern Mediterranean by the time Rome rose: the Seleucids in Turkey and Syria, the Antripatrids (later the Antigonids) in Greece, and the Ptolemians in Egypt. In the Persian heartland, however, ethnic Persians waging a proto-nationalist campaign kicked out the remnants of the Greek invaders. Known as Parthians due to the origins from the titular province in north-eastern Iran, they established a small state that expanded outward as the Alexandrian generals quarreled with one another.
For centuries after his death, every Greek warlord in the Western World claimed their legitimacy through Alexander and the desire to rebirth his Empire. Rome, too, took up this mantle as it expanded eastward into the Greek mainland. Beginning first in Greece and Macedonia, they waged a brutal war with the beleaguered Seleucids and conquered all the territory they possessed in the modern Middle East. This brought Rome’s borders right onto those of Parthia. Both were rising states with expansionist ambitions and a border that sat on porous, easily invadable territory. The stage was set for an epic confrontation between the two great powers.
Unfortunately for Rome, this manifested in the ill-fated expedition of the afore-mentioned Crassus in 54 BC. The expedition met its unfortunate end on the plains of Carrhae in south-eastern Turkey along the Syrian border.
How did the Parthians manage to resist Rome for so long? Their success rested on three key disparities between them and their Roman opponents:
1) Assymmetric Military Advantage
The Roman legion was the paragon of military efficiency in its day. The strict discipline, advanced military technology, and sheer numbers were widely feared even before they began leaving the Italian peninsula. It was by no means a perfect force, as its travails against Hannibal in preceding centuries demonstrated, but the system itself was markedly better than any other fielded even with bad generalship. How then was it so ineffective against Parthia?
Unlike the other opponents the Romans fought in the preceding six centuries, the great bulk of the Parthian army were horse archers rather infantry or melee cavalry. Noted for the infamous “Parthian Shot,” their horsemen would rush forward to engage Roman infantry, retreat, then abruptly turn in their saddles to fire a shot directly behind them. The slow, methodical legionnaires were then rendered ineffective since they could not physically reach their assailants. The horse archer can be equated with modern fears about Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs); they were mobile, highly survivable, and could take out slower assets with near impunity.
These techniques were perfect for the open terrain on the Roman-Parthian border. If the topography had been less open, such as the forests of Gaul or Germania, Parthian tactics would have been less effective. The Parthians, though, did not need an army that could fight on different terrain because that is not where they needed to fight nor chose to fight. This brings us to the second advantage Parthia held over the Romans.
2) Strategic Focus
The Parthians never harbored ambitions to conquer Rome; their strategy consisted of resisting Roman incursions and making their own when Rome was politically weak (see discussion below). Since the Parthians did not commit their resources into futile all-or-nothing fights with Rome or engage them on disadvantageous terrain, they always maintained a strong conventional deterrent that altered Rome’s calculus away from intervention.
The Parthians also had the strategic benefit of having fewer serious external competition; its western border was solely with Rome and the neutral kingdom of Armenia (the site of many proxy wars between Rome and Parthia). To their east were far weaker and divided opponents, namely the Scythians and Bactrians. Rome, on the other hand, was beset by strong enemies on all sides. These included: restive tribes in Gaul and the Danube region, lingering discontent in Numidians North Africa, a still-unitary Egypt, and a vascillating client state in northern Turkey. These challenges both demanded military resources and political attention to effectively control. Even if Rome had more money and soldiers than the Parthians, only so many of them could be dedicated toward fighting the Parthians.
3) Stronger Political Core
Parthian politics were cold and brutal. Succession crises were common and factions killed one another as they vied for the Parthian crown. There were even instances of Parthian claimants to the throne finding refuge in Rome, like exiled dictators, waiting for the opportune moment to return.
Roman politics during the late Republic and early Empire made Parthia look like Switzerland. The invasion of Parthia planned by Julius Caesar in 44 BC to avenge the death of Crassus (and punish the Parthians for their support of his rival, Pompey) was cancelled when Caesar fell to assassins’ blades on the Ides of March. The resulting civil war claimed thousands of Roman lives both on the battlefield and during the infamous proscriptions during which whatever faction happened to hold power would murder people and then “nationalize” their assets. After years of civil war, Rome finally found its footing under the Second Triumvirate. Marc Antony amassed his own army to take on the Parthians and managed to expel them from Syria in 33 BC only to have to turn around to fight his political partner Octavian in yet another civil war.
Octavian eventually succeeded in unifying the Roman state under his autocratic rule but, by then, he was in no position to challenge any external power. Crippling debts were poised to ruin the state. Opposing factions, though cowed by Augustus’ power, still opposed him behind the scenes. Octavian was forced to reduce to total number of legions to consolidate his hold on the Empire and reduce the risk of another civil war. Rather than risking another Parthian encounter in his weakened state, Octavian instead signed a landmark peace agreement that designated permanent borders in exchange for the legionary standards lost during Crassus’ expedition 33 years earlier. The Roman-Parthian drama would continue in fits and starts over the remainder of their very existences but, after that fateful treaty signed by Augustus, Rome finally admitted that it would fully never replicate Alexander’s conquest of Persia.
The cruel lesson for the United States to take from the Roman experience with Parthia is that an adversary with technology designed specifically to defeats its army, combined with stronger political will, is bound to come out on top of any conflict. Defeat does not just come on the battlefield. Just like Rome, the United States has a great number of serious threats: a bellicose Russia, an increasingly-assertive China, a still-problematic Iran, and trans-national terrorism. Unlike many of these antagonists (and the Parthians before them), the United States does not have the luxury of dedicating its resources to countering just one of these threats. The United States’ political system, after years of war and deep partisanship that conjures images of Caesar’s Rome, is brittle and unable to tackle any of these challenges. The lesson from Parthia is that to defeat the United States is merely to outlast it and negotiate for what you truly want.
Fortunately, for the United States, the peace under Augustus is not the end of the story. Over the following two centuries, the tables would turn and the Parthians’ political structure collapsed. Years of dynastic feuds and rival claimants to the throne made Parthia vulnerable to strong Roman Emperors such as Trajan (115 A.D.) and Septimus Severus (198 A.D.). The Parthian state was overthrown by internal revolution and a new Persian dynasty took its place. The final lesson for the United States is this: it is never too late to recalibrate and nothing is over until it is over.
Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA) currently transitioning to pursue a Masters’ Degree at the Fletcher School. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force but hopes his country can stand up to the Parthians.
 There is no concrete proof that the gold-pouring incident is true apart from the reports of the Roman historian Cassius Dio but it definitely gets the point across.
The following is a guest article by RADM Thomas S. Rowden, USN.
I am indebted to the leadership of CIMSEC for providing a platform for me and senior members of my team at OPNAV N96 to lay out for readers key parts of our vision for the future direction of Surface Warfare. Captain Jim Kilby started it off with “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense”,and Captain Charlie Williams followed up with “Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) – The Heart of Surface Warfare” and “Increasing Lethality in Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW)”. Both of these officers were recently selected for flag rank, and the Surface Force could not be more fortunate. Their years of fleet experience in these mission areas uniquely qualify them to lead our force in the future. Together with our continuing mastery of land attack and maritime security operations, the three operational thrusts they describe a Surface Force that is moving from a primarily defensive posture to one on the offense. This is an exciting development, and I want to spend a few paragraphs reinforcing their messages.
The single most important warfighting advantage that the U.S. Navy brings to the joint force is the ability to project significant amounts of combat power from the sea, thousands of miles from our own shores on relatively short notice and with few geopolitical restraints. No one else can do this, and for the better part of two decades, our ability to do so was unchallenged. Without this challenge, our mastery of the fundamentals of sea control—searching for and killing submarines, over the horizon engagement of enemy fleets, and long range air and missile defense—diminished, even as the world figured out that the best way to neutralize this power projection advantage was to deny us the very seas in which we operate.
Surface Warfare must “go on the offensive” in order to enable future power projection operations. I call this “offensive sea control” and it takes into consideration that in future conflict, we may have to fight to get forward, fight through our own lines, and then fight to stay forward. Pieces of ocean will come to be seen as strategic, like islands and ports, and we will offensively “seize” these maritime operating areas to enable further offensive operations. Put another way, no one viewed the amphibious landings in the Pacific in WWII as “defensive”; there was broad understanding that their seizure was offensive and tied to further offensive objectives. It is now so with the manner in which we will exercise sea control.
What does this mean to fleet Sailors? It means that we have to hit the books, dust off old TACMEMOS and begin to think deeply again what it means to own the inner screen against submarines, to hunt down and destroy adversary surface vessels over the horizon, and to tightly control the outer air battle. We need to study the threats and devise new tactics designed to counter them. We need to master the technology that is coming to the fleet—Navy Integrated Fire Control (Counter Air), or NIFC-CA; the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR); the SQQ-89 A(V)15 ASW Combat System; the LCS ASW Mission Module; the introduction of the Griffin missile in the PC class; new classes of Standard Missiles; Rail Gun; Directed Energy. We will need to use these systems and then do what Sailors always do—figure out ways to employ them that the designers never considered.
Going on the offensive is a mind-set, a way of thinking about naval warfare. It means thinking a good bit more about how to destroy that than how to defend this. Don’t get me wrong—we will still need to be able to defend high value units, amphibious forces, convoys, and logistics—but we will increasingly defend them by reaching out and destroying threats before those threats are able to target what we are defending.
We are moving to a concept of dispersed lethality in the Surface Force, one that presents an adversary with a considerably more complex operational problem. It will not be sufficient to simply try to neutralize our power projection forces. While these will be vigorously defended, other elements of the surface force will act as hunter/killer groups taking the fight to the enemy through the networked power of surface forces exercising high levels of Operational Security (OPSEC) and wielding both lethal over-the-horizon weapons to destroy adversary capabilities and sophisticated electronic warfare suites to confound adversary targeting. Especially in the Pacific, vast expanses of ocean will separate the carrier air wing from dispersed surface operations, so the paradigm of the past few decades that suggested the carrier would provide strike assets to supplement the Surface Force is no longer valid. We will leverage air wing capability, but we will not be dependent upon it.
Working in tandem with shore-based maritime patrol aircraft and our organic helicopters, we will seek out and destroy adversary submarines before they threaten high value units or fielded forces. Bringing together the networked power of surface IAMD forces and the mighty E-2D, we will dominate the outer air battle, eliminating threats to the force at range. The Surface Force will seize strategic “maritime terrain” to enable synchronized follow-on operations.
Those who may ask how the current fiscal environment impacts this vision, my answer is that it does so substantially. We will be forced to favor capability over capacity. We will favor forward deployed readiness over surge readiness. We will continue to invest in forward-looking capabilities through a strong science and technology/research and development budget, while ensuring we accelerate those promising technologies closest to fielding and most effective in advancing our offensive agenda.
We will posture more of the force forward, and more of it in the Pacific. While the total size of the fleet will likely decline if current conditions continue, more of it will be where it needs to be, it will be more effectively networked over a larger more dispersed area, and it will be equipped with the weapons and sensors necessary to enable this offensive shift.
I am bullish on Surface Warfare, and you ought to be too. I look forward to continuing this dialogue on the Renaissance in Surface Warfare, and I am proud to be part of the greatest Surface Force in the greatest Navy the world has ever known!
Rear Admiral Thomas S. Rowden’s current assignment is on the Chief of Naval Operations Staff as director, Surface Warfare Division.A native of Washington, D.C., and a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Rear Adm. Rowden has served in a diverse range of sea and shore assignments.