The MV Alaed, a Russian cargo vessel reportedly shipping armament to Syria, including attack helicopters, has lost its insurance coverage due to illicit cargo clauses, CNN reports. This comes after calls from the U.S. government on the British government and subsequent pressure on London-based The Standard Club, insurers of the vessel’s owners, FEMCO.
UPDATE: Tues, 0630 EST
Dutch authorities hailed the Alaed as it passed the Dutch coast, prompting the vessel to turn north. Alead is reportedly near the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, according to The Telegraph. Scottish site STV.TV says the vessel “was last recorded under way less than 55 miles off the coast of the Port of Ness village in the Isle of Lewis,” and headed for Vladivostock according to AIS information(possibly falsely inputted) provided by the ship tracking site marinetraffic.com. The vessel has since moved out of range.
UPDATE 2: Tues 1400
Press reports indicate British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed Alaed is returning to Russia, most likely Kaliningrad. Maritime experts speculate it was ordered to turn back by Russian authorities as it may have had enough fuel to reach Syria without stopping and not been subject to the EU’s ban on weapon shipments as a Russian vessel.
The Alaed is just the latest in a series of cargo vessels bound for a war zone suddenly thrust into the spotlight after reports surface of a purported arms shipment. The Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo vessel turned around in 2009 after the world’s attention focused on its voyage to a mystery destination (likely Myanmar) with a mystery cargo (likely small arms and RPGs). Similar incidents have occurred in the past with North Korean vessels such as 2011’s MV Light incident.
As with the Kang Nam, the objective of the international community in this incident is likely to deny the Alaed an ability to refuel in a friendly port of call enroute to its final destination. With the loss of insurance, the Alaed will find it difficult to legally enter many ports on the way to Syria and may be forced to turn around. If the vessel is able to continue, it runs a good risk of being boarded by some of Syria’s more proactive neighbors enforcing an EU arms embargo, such as Turkey, which boarded the German-owned Atlantic Cruiser in April after similar reports of on-board weapons. Embarrassingly for Turkey, such reports turned out to be false, so they might be more reluctant to repeat the episode with out definitive proof before hand. Nor are all suspect cargoes bound for the al-Assad regime. Also in April, Lebanon stopped the Sierra Leone-flagged Lutfallah II, which definitively was smuggling weapons for the Free Syria Army.
On a side note, it’s hard to take the interview at 1:55 with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely seriously when you realize what’s immediately behind him. That’s right, a cupcake tank that fires cupcakes:
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see hereand here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Hereis another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US. Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?
A century ago the globally deployed British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” 
Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”
Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable. This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.
What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.” The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.
The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”
Faced with an uncertain world, the2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through “Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.
One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms. Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.
1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.
2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.
3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves 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 U.S. Government.
I had the privilege of today attending a debate at the Center for National Policy on “Asia and the Future of American Strategy.” (the audio and video are included in the link and I encourage readers to check it out). It featured friend of the forum Cdr. Bryan McGrath (Ret.), Dr. T.X. Hammes, Col, USMC (Ret.), and free cookies.
Dr. Hammes described the occasion for the debate as the dearth of strategic thinking over how the U.S. would actually prosecute a war against China should it find itself in the completely undesirable position of being in one. He said the “Pivot to Asia” had not been accompanied by deep strategic thinking, and that misunderstandings over the Pentagon’s “AirSea Battle” has “sucked the air out of the room” for that discussion. To the point, over at the Brookings Institute this morning, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Greenert said that AirSea Batte is “a concept, a way of thinking things through, a conceptual approach to establishing access.” In other words, something closer to a Sun Tzu-esque guiding principle than a fully fleshed-out strategy.
With the Pivot, the spotlight is on Asia. With the AirSea Battle the U.S. knows the main actors it intends to cast. But they roles they’ll play, and how they’ll work together are unclear. Dr. Hammes laid out a summary of the thesis of his article “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy, available in the Infinity Journal. He argued that by building defensive capabilities and defensive alliances along China’s first two island chains, from Japan through Malaysia, and focusing on a war of economic attrition (establishing a maritime exclusion zone, and conducting maritime interdiction ops and submarine warfare to enforce it) the U.S. could forgo the need to develop and deploy deep-strike penetration capabilities. This would, in the event of a conflict, help negate the Chinese focus on anti-access/area-denial by effectively ceding the areas within their range (for the time being) and establishing “offshore control” to bring the Chinese government to the negotiating table.
There is much merit in this approach, and I am thankful for the bold attempt at a strategy. I plan on taking up the gauntlet thrown down Dr. Hammes in a more in-depth post – if not to develop my own divergent strategy, then to at least hopefully help move the discussion forward.
For now, these are some of my own initial thoughts along, with some of the counterpoints that Bryan did a good job in bringing forth:
1. Dr. Hammes took as a starting point that the U.S. has been drawn into a war with China, and from there proceeded to list the ends, ways, and means to bring it to a conclusion. The means derived from this strategy were primarily those that would support the defense of the island chains and prosecute the economic war. But are these the same means one would develop if the mission was focused instead on deterring war? Bryan’s main point of divergence was along this line, as his core concepts: “Presence, Assurance, Deterrence, Power,” may be better served by the higher-end assets Dr. Hammes hopes to cut to find cost savings. In a stand-off over any particular piece of rock, is China more likely to begin a conflict if it (or a over-ambitious on-scene commander) believes it can forcefully seize the immediate objective? The tools that would allow the U.S. to win a long, drawn-out conflict are not necessarily the same as those that would effectively deter it from beginning in the first place.
The difficulty of determining this lies in the difficulty of determining how China would enter into a conflict with America. Most probably it would not be a decision so much as a stumble – a minor squabble with an American ally that through human error ends in bloodshed and a refusal to back down. But there are many possible variables. So if China didn’t think it was entering into conflict, the knowledge that America had an effective strategy for ending it on its own terms might not deter China – but then again neither might a nearby aircraft carrier if China doesn’t expect it to come to the aid of a beleaguered friend.
2. In order to bring the conflict to a close, Dr. Hammes’ strategy relies on a measure of China face-saving since the conflict would undoubtedly generate high-pitched nationalism in the country. As a reporter for the Asia Times detailed on Tuesday on China’s current stand-off with the Philippines:
many common Chinese people are inclined to take a harder line on the dispute than their government itself. I recently asked a Chinese friend about the ongoing dispute, and he, who declined to be identified, told me “Everyone wants to go to war with the Philippines. They say the government is being too weak.” I asked him why a dispute over a small island has taken on such significance. He said, “Chinese people care much about face, and the Philippines is a small country.”
It is unclear how a face-saving measure would be possible if the dispute begins with a territory grab, short of allowing the Chinese to maintain their new possession. Sure, there’s room for clever diplomacy, perhaps both sides agreeing to submit a claim for international resolution, but a focus on limited capabilities to serve limited aims removes the ability to enact higher psychological costs (letting the population see the full impact of war), if it continues to push the government to not back down from the initial claim or cause of the conflict. This is not to say it’s not worth the trade-off, or that strikes “going downtown” would be productive, but as Bryan pointed, the benefit of the option should be considered before it is given up.
3. The importance of allies and world opinion plays a heavy role in this strategy. While the U.S. can supply hardware, maintain bases, and jointly operate all it wants with its allies in the region, when the chips are down, it will come down to the specifics of the conflict to determine which way the allies go. The economic consequences of cutting off trade with China will be economically disastrous for not only America and China, but America’s allies as well. As Dr. Hammes admitted, China’s strategy is to attack America’s alliances, so you can bet it would try to exploit reluctance to fulfill military commitments. It may be hard for South Korean leaders to risk their nation’s military, economic livelihood, and subsequent constituents’ ire over a conflict escalating from a fishing dispute in say Malaysia.
4. Similarly, the backlash against the U.S. from friends and partners around the globe could be immense if the U.S. loses the public relations battle over the necessity for the economic disruption. There would be hostility at the intrusive enforcement no matter the length, and its legality would be questioned as there would be no Security Council resolutions since China is of course a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. The need to interdict overland routes in South East Asia in countries unwilling to sign on to the effort could also pose enormous challenges. It is unclear how the U.S. would be able to maintain its position for long if the end does not appear in the near-term, but much again depends on the circumstances.
5. U.S. domestic pressure may become equally, quickly tired. If it is “only” an ally that has suffered a lose of territory or lives there may be a temptation to cut our losses. I would not be surprised to hear voices ask “is it really worth it?” This could happen no matter the strategy, but could be magnified if the fight is portrayed as passive. Conversely, if the lives of Americans have been lost there could be enormous pressure to “go downtown” from the start, and again especially if the pace of the conflict were to drag. What may start as a calculated strategy to maximize American defensive advantages could be turned into a campaign of power projection by overwhelming domestic pressure, only without the capabilities to do it effectively.
5. Lastly, the enemy gets a vote. Part of Dr. T.X. Hammes’ strategy includes broadly advertising both the defensive nature and general concepts of the plan. While Kurt Albaugh in an earlier post on LCS talked about thebenefits of clarified intentions, the Chinese would nonetheless begin to focus their efforts on developing effective counters for the strategy and strive to keep them far from the public eye.
This is a great start to thinking about our strategic posture in Asia. Despite the above criticisms, I found much to commend Dr. Hammes’ strategy. To their credit, Dr. Hammes and Bryan both admit they don’t have all the answers, and I’ve shown so far I only have questions, but I look forward to the continuing discussion.
The conversation covered a series of issues familiar to Americans interested in national defense: sequestration, perceptions of US decline in the international system, and strategic priorities, among others. What interested me most, though, was what seemed to me an agreement between these distinguished speakers regarding the relationship between civil society and national defense. General Barno perhaps put it best: “The consensus on defense has been lost.”
General Barno meant that while a large part of political society in the United States believes that America should continue to pursue a preeminent military force, that view doesn’t reflect the will of the broader electorate as it once did. Why is this important?
Defense retrenchment as an issue transcends party politics. Groups on both the right and the left of American political discourse believe that the United States – for a variety of reasons – should pursue a less active role in the world. Therefore, electing one party or another into power won’t ensure a robust defense budget.
The average American cares much more about other areas of federal spending than they do defense right now.
In an age of unprecedented information sharing, the world has ready access to these changing opinions. As a result, foreign governments are already seeking to hedge against a potential retrenchment of US foreign policy.
The uncertainty regarding future defense spending – and the strategy driving said spending – won’t be resolved before the November elections. Much work will likely occur, therefore, between November and the sequestration deadline. Beyond the spending issues, though, defense proponents should consider this question: how do we affect the discourse regarding America’s role in the world and the military’s contribution to that role? Certainly both the civilian government and senior military leaders play an important part in this dialogue, but what about junior officers, senior enlisted leaders, and interested citizens? We all know voters: they are our friends, families, and co-workers. They value our opinions. Why don’t we voice them?
What’s clear to me is that I for one have taken America’s belief in a strong national defense for granted. Perhaps we have forgotten the importance of returning to first principles from time to time. Why do we have a military? What is our military meant to achieve? In what different ways can we achieve those ends? In a democracy, these questions are never – and should never be – fully settled.
We should not view the task of telling the defense story with reluctance or disaffection towards the wellspring of American power, the people. We have a continuing obligation at all levels to communicate a clear message to the American public about the importance of spending their tax dollars towards the application or threat of violence. We cannot assume that Americans are simply fatigued from a decade of war and that they won’t listen. We cannot yield to a widening of the civil-military divide.
There is at least some good news: looking at the world today, there is no shortage of evidence to justify a robust American military. Returning to first principles can work. But to win the narrative of national defense, we need to talk beyond ourselves and reach out to those who have doubts and questions. The people who read this blog and others like it have expertise, passion, and most importantly, a voice. Those voices shouldn’t be silent.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.