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Fluid Alliances and Unexpected Consequences: Philippine UNDOF Crisis

RP-UNDOFThe recent crisis faced by Philippine Peacekeepers in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) highlights the fluid dynamics in alliances and the unexpected consequences that have precipitated in the wake of the Syrian Civil War.

On the morning of August 28th, approximately 75 Philippine Army troops of the 7th Contingent to UNDOF were surrounded by militant forces, some later identified as Al-Nusra Front fighters, and were ordered to surrender their arms. The Anti-Government Fighters focused their siege against strategic UN positions including Al-Quinaytirah,  the only crossing over the Golan Heights. The situation was exacerbated by the earlier capture of approximately 44 UN soldiers from Fiji manning posts on the Northern sector of the ceasefire zone. The rebels attacking the Philippine positions initially sent an English-speaking Fiji soldier to relay their surrender demands.

The peacekeepers, split into two units spread across the Filipino sector of responsibility, both refused the call to disarm. A fire-fight later ensued at their positions in Ar-Ruwayhinah, located in the southern portion of the Heights.  Despite being armed with only rifles and squad weapons, the Philippine unit was highly experienced – most of the UNDOF contingent belong to the 80th Infantry Battalion – which came fresh off anti-communist combat operations in Mindoro and run through a preparatory workup before deploying in the Golan. The militants arrived in technicals armed with anti-aircraft guns and besieged UNDOF Oupost 68 for several hours before being driven off. At one point, the rebel pick-up trucks started ramming the outpost gate to overrun the defenders and subjected the troops to mortar fire.

Some of the encircled troopers were eventually relieved and withdrawn to more secure positions by a combined Irish-Filipino Mobile Reaction Force equipped with armored personnel carriers from Camp Faroar on the Syrian side of the Heights. Outpost 68 was able to walk out on their own terms after a lull in the fighting and re-consolidated at Mission HQ in  Camp Ziouani near the Israeli border. What was notable is that the Al-Assad Syrian Army fired artillery rounds during the Outpost 68 firefight to help suppress the rebel assault. This may be a result of back-channel discussions stemming from then Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro’s mission to Damascus as early as 2009, when the Manila started contributing troops to the UN mission. But equally likely is the well-established “Cooperation and Coordination” aspect of UNDOF with the warring parties, which was finely-honed when the Mission was first established in the mid-1970s.  UNDOF Command closely communicates at an operational level with both Israeli Defense Force and Assad’s Syrian Army through liaisons. Additionally, this is a strong indicator that the Assad regime is not as unstable as the popular media narrative would indicate. The ability to quickly and effectively deliver indirect fire into the Area of Separation speaks to the existence of intact and professional Syrian Army elements despite the widespread Civil War.

This is not the first time Philippine forces in UNDOF have been under fire. In 2011, approximately 21 troopers and civilian workers were taken hostage but later freed without incident, and another soldier wounded by shellfire during the same year.

The assistance of the Syrian Government during this crisis is in direct contrast to current Western foreign policy, which seeks the unconditional removal of Assad’s regime. Collectively, all the stakeholders in the localized area of the Golan recognize the greater threat that the more militant spectrum of the Syrian rebellion represents, and can cooperate when necessary to achieve the common goal of maintaining stability within the area.

The dynamics of individual Peacekeeping Missions are also subject to the aspects of operational realities and unexpected consequences on the ground.

In the Outpost 68 firefight, the Anti-Government fighters were reportedly adamant about the Philippine troops surrendering their weapons before acceding to a cease-fire, as a matter of honor. It is likely that the rebels also saw this as a means of expanding their Table of Equipment.   Equally on the same point, as well as for more practical reasons, the Philippine troops refused to turn over their weapons, most of which was newly issued and the latest in terms of ordnance available to the country’s Armed Forces. The firefight may have been inevitable from a tactical viewpoint, but the supposed demand by UNDOF Mission Commander Lt. General Iqbal Singha of India that the Filipinos surrender to ensure the Fijians’ safety by “stacking arms” prompted a call for investigation by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang Jr. If the allegations have merit, it would be highly ironic given the UNDOF I-C’s very comments to the contingent during the October 2013 UN Day Parade that “Your job is to carry out your peacekeeping tasks and my job is to ensure your security.”

The back-channel discussions between SND Teodoro and the Assad government reflects multi-polar realpolitik. While the Philippines is generally seen as a supporter and beneficiary of US strategy and foreign policy in the Pacific, there is a small wealth of political capital that the Asian nation can use in other regions, where Filipinos are seen as a highly reliable source of skilled and unskilled labor, and generally not viewed as an enabler or facilitator of an increasingly divisive and unclear U.S. diplomatic approach.  Leveraging such capital at the right time and the right crisis can result in short-term gains without materially compromising key allies’ existing relationships nor overtly undermining their initiatives.

Another long-standing issue of concern is the inadequate force-protection capabilities of the peacekeepers themselves. In 2013, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario met with UN officials to air concerns regarding relative troop strength in the Heights and to ensure that the necessary equipment for the “protection and defense of Filipino troops and other UNDOF” were procured by October of that year. The dilemma of adequately arming peacekeepers is well-known and understood, but given the circumstances of the raging Civil War, it is likely that the UN forces will continue to encounter more violent and zealous factions involved in  the turmoil, and must make sound decisions regarding practical limits of the  “Minimum Use of Force” directive.  A larger consideration must be made to enhancing force-protection measures while remaining true to the “peacekeeping” charter. This particular crisis pointed to several shortcomings; such as weapons inadequate to the higher threat level, better intelligence and monitoring of movement within the Area of Separation and a consistent Rules of Engagement  (one unit fought, the other did not) as well as contingency and scenario planning (one unit was relieved, the other had to egress independently  with no support). Otherwise the UN Peacekeeping Force will only perpetuate and not prevent conflicts, as blue-helmets are taken hostage for their political value and their equipment seized to further malicious actor goals.

As a corollary, there’s something to be said about gauging the quality of forces a nation contributes to UN Security Missions. Had it been a less experienced Philippine unit in place than the already-blooded 80th Infantry Battalion, the outcome might have been very different.  It is undoubtedly helpful that the troops had already “seen the elephant” in counter-insurgency operations when the militants started firing.

As a direct result of the deteriorating conditions in the Syrian Civil War, the Philippine Government has announced a complete withdrawal of forces until further notice to both the UNDOF and the UNMIL mission in Liberia, the latter due to the increased health risk of the Ebola outbreak. The Philippines had been contributing personnel to both missions since 2009 and 2003 respectively, and was the nation-in-command for UNDOF in 2012. This doesn’t bode well for many UN security missions – if nations start to withdraw because the global organization cannot effectively manage the numerous efforts underway (at last count 17 Missions world-wide and involving over 100,000 personnel), the spread of a regional crisis progressively engulfing larger portions of the globe could become a grim reality.

Juramentado is the pseudonym for Armando J. Heredia, a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.

Hampton Roads September Social

The Hampton Roads chapter is proud to announce the September meet-up, which will kick off at 6:30pm on Tuesday, September 9th and will be held in the Elizabeth River Room at Town Point Club in downtown Norfolk.

Butch Bracknell, CIMSEC member and author of the recent op-ed “Trimming Presidential War Powers,” will be addressing members on recent events in Iraq and Syria with an eye to their strategic and maritime implications.

All are welcome, but RSVPs are required (RSVP Here), as it will determine how much food is ordered for everyone. Please also note the dress code of business casual. Hope to see you for an evening of maritime discussion!


Sea Control 50 – Japan’s Defense Policy

seacontrol2Get ready to hear two Asia Pacific analysts share their views on Japan’s remilitarisation and its implications for regional security. Natalie Sambhi, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, interviews Dr Tomohiko Satake, a fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo and visiting fellow at ASPI, and Dr Benjamin Schreer, a senior analyst in defence strategy at ASPI. Both analysts discuss the drivers behind the recent decision to reinterpret Japan’s constitution, the implications of Japan’s new white paper, and relations with China and Australia.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 50 – Japan’s Defense Policy

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Developing a Strategic Cadre in the Information Dominance Corps

“The EM-cyber environment is now so fundamental to military operations and so critical to our national interests that we must start treating it as a warfighting domain on par with – or perhaps even more important than – land, sea, air, and space.”

-Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert
Chief of Naval Operations
Proceedings Magazine, December 2012 (Vol 138/12)

EM War

The U.S. Navy has embraced the electromagnetic (EM)-cyber domain as a core warfighting domain, combining critical Navy communities in Information Warfare, Intelligence, Information Professional, Meteorology, Oceanography and Space Operations into an “Information Dominance” Corps. A series of policy statements and guiding documents have been recently published governing how the Navy will approach this domain, including the Information Dominance Roadmap (2013-2028), the Navy Information Dominance Corps Human Capital Strategy (2012-2017), and the Navy Strategy for Achieving Information Dominance (2013-2017). [1] These have been followed by the CNO’s Navigation Plan (2015-2019)  [2], which identifies combat maneuver capabilities in the EM-cyber domain as critical to the operating tenants of warfighting first, forward operating and readiness.

These all represent important steps in addressing the critical challenges we face globally as a Navy, especially from state and non-state actors who can complicate the ability of naval forces to move into a theater (anti-access) and maneuver within the theater (area-denial). We no longer occupy the “information high ground” in the EM-cyber domain, and our most advanced forces and weapons systems are held at risk not only by technologically advanced anti-ship missiles but also by inexpensive and readily available A2/AD strategies.

What is missing, however, from this plan of action is the development of a “strategic cadre” within the Information Dominance Corps, who can meet the CNO’s vision. The Human Capital Strategy identifies as its fourth goal “Create a Warfighting Culture,” which is certainly admirable and necessary. This goal is supported by two objectives: orient the “total Navy workforce to the IDC mission” and “leverage kill chain concepts (integrated fires) to depict and communicate the process through which the ID discipline contributes to the delivery of warfighting effects.” This implies an ID corps which is tactically proficient and the need for the Navy to recognize how it fits within warfighting. But it seems to skirt too close to suggesting the ID corps – and EM-cyber – enables the delivery of warfighting effects rather than delivering those effects itself. Weaponized cyber code is no different than a Tomahawk fired from a ship or submarine or a JDAM dropped from an F/A-18.

But to truly develop a warfighting culture, the IDC must have a strategic cadre within its community that develops tactics, operational concepts and strategies that blend kinetic and non-kinetic effects meeting combatant commander objectives. Surface warfare officers learn first how to “fight the ship,” and later how to “fight the Fleet.” The Information Dominance corps must learn to do the same.

To become a strategic thinker, one must practice the art of strategy. Traditionally, this does not become a focus in the Navy until the more senior officer and enlisted ranks. Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the state of Navy strategic thinking with other junior officers in the unrestricted line and land warfare communities. These brilliant young Navy and Marine Corps officers made a number of key points that apply as much to the nascent Information Dominance Corps as they do to traditional Navy warfighting domains:

• We are a Navy that emphasizes training over education. Training teaches you to fight the expected fight, but education teaches you to fight the unexpected fight.

• Administrative competency cannot replace the Clausewitzian “Genius for War” – the coup d’oeil that embodies the natural strategist. Mastering the endless checklists and standard operating procedures, while necessary, are the beginning of the journey to strategic thinking, not the culmination.

• We cannot “surge” strategic literacy, or even operational level thinking. If the talent is not there beforehand, it will not be there when we need it.

The Information Dominance Corps must take these lessons to heart and incorporate the development of a strategic cadre within the IDC. Currently the IDC emphasizes the technical skills and systems understanding to perform the individual tasks necessary to meet mission requirements. We must go a step further, cultivating the knowledge to not only operate the equipment but understand how to employ it to attack critical adversary vulnerabilities as part of the Joint Force.

Some items for consideration might be:

• Development of an Advanced Maritime EM-Cyber Operations Course, designed for junior officers who have completed their first tactical operations tour. By this point in his/her career, the young officer has qualified in their respective designator, qualified as an Information Dominance Warfare Officer and completed a forward, tactical operations tour (PCS Afloat, Direct Support, etc.). This course should provide the JO with an advanced understanding of the electromagnetic environment and how use it in various tactical and operational situations in wartime scenarios. The emphasis here, however, it not on the technical or scientific knowledge, but the employment of EM-cyber weapons during conflict. This perhaps could be the EM-cyber equivalent of a “Top Gun” school.

• Integration of EM-cyber warfare as a core component of Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) Phase I and the Naval War College / Naval Post-Graduate School programs.

• The Navy is considering the establishment of a formal Naval Strategic Enterprise to develop a cadre of naval strategic thinkers. At present, this program is only open to unrestricted line officers. Members of the Information Dominance Corps still remain restricted line officers and are ineligible to participate. The Navy Strategic Enterprise should be opened up to members of the IDC.

• Traditionally under the Composite Warfare Concept, the role Information Warfare Commander has been filled by an individual ship commanding officer. [3] This role should be redefined with an IDC officer principally assuming the IWC role.

To fully adopt a warfighting culture and treat the EM-cyber environment as a warfighting domain equivalent to, or more important than land, sea, air and space, the Information Dominance Corps must do more than develop tactical expertise in the use of specialized equipment. It must cultivate a new crop of strategic thinkers who are experts in the creative exploitation of the electromagnetic environment and blending of kinetic and non-kinetic fires to achieve warfighting effects. These new strategists must be grounded both in traditional military theory and history as well as the emerging operational concepts of fighting across the entire EM spectrum, in space and in cyberspace. Without strategic thinking, information dominance becomes impossible.


LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is an Information Warfare officer assigned to the staff of Commander, U.S. Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. He is supported by his wife Dana and their son, Vincent. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Cyber Command or the Department of Defense. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.


[1] All of these documents are available at: http://www.idcsync.org/documents.

[1] http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=82851

[1] The Free Library. S.v. Developing a new model for maritime tactical information dominance..” Retrieved Aug 23 2014 from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Developing+a+new+model+for+maritime+tactical+information+dominance.-a0273903363