All posts by Chris Rawley

U.S. Navy, Commander

Lebanese Hezbollah and Hybrid Naval Warfare

This is an article in our first “Non Navies” Series.

Historically, weapons disparities with conventional forces has driven terrorists, insurgents, and other non-state actors towards asymmetric fighting tactics. But as with most long term trends, arms gaps tend to be cyclical as each side’s relative combat power waxes and wanes.  For example, pirates in the 19th Century used pretty much the same artillery as their naval counterparts, albeit on smaller ships.  Now, pirates relying on small arms and skiffs are countered by an international armada of heavily armed frigates and destroyers. The suicide improvised explosive boat attack on USS Cole was another example of David versus Goliath tactics.  In the realm of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) though, we are witnessing an upswing in the conventional capabilities of non-state actors.  The mix of regular and irregular tactics is sometimes referred to as hybrid warfare. The proliferation of modern precision-guided weaponry is once again changing the balance of lethality between state navies and para-naval forces.  Regardless of whether these weapons are acquired from state sponsors or captured on the battlefield, the threat posed to regular naval forces is similar.  As demonstrated in recent air and ground engagements, non-state actors can field weapons on par with their conventional counterparts.  Ukrainian separatists with Soviet-era SA-11 missiles shoot down jet fighter (and civilian!) aircraft and Islamic terrorists in Iraq destroy American-made main battle tanks with advanced Russian-supplied Kornet missiles.  Advances in non-state naval weaponry are a natural evolution of these trends.

With a rash of recent fighting in the Levant and the potential for Western Naval intervention in various forms,  it’s worth taking a look at the sea denial capabilities of one of the region’s more potent non-state actors, Lebanese Hezbollah (LH).  However one wants to characterize LH – shadow government, proto-state, or simply non-state actor – their ability to contest the littorals in the Eastern Mediterranean has grown tremendously in the past decade.  Despite a number of interdictions by Israeli Defense Forces – some high profile and others intentionally less so – a nearly constant pipeline of increasingly advanced Syrian and Iranian weapons has resupplied LH by air, ground, and sea.  The most noteworthy display of LH’s A2AD network was the C-802 missile attack on INS Hanit in 2006. Subsequent to that engagement, LH’s anti-ship cruise missile inventory has advanced significantly.  Among these stockpiles is the supersonic 300 km range P-800 Yakhont. LH possibly acquired 12 P-800s from Syria, who received a shipment of 72 missiles and 36 launcher vehicles from Russia in 2011.  Over-the-horizon weapons are important, but without an adequate targeting mechanism, they are more of an indiscriminate terror weapon than a precision A2/AD tool.  A variety of means exists to target enemy ships, to include the surface search radar systems normally accompanying the missile batteries.  More crudely, third-party cueing could be provided by simple fishing vessels or UAVs.  Since at least the early 2000s, LH has flown mostly Iranian-manufactured Mohajer-4 unmanned aerial vehicles over Israel along with over-water transits.

The Yakhont ship killer

Some open-source reporting assesses that LH possesses SA-8 and SA-17 truck-mounted surface-to-air missile. The latter type can engage aircraft or missiles at altitudes of up to 24,000 meters and ranges out to 50 km.  To complicate matters, the counter-battery problem for navies facing missile launchers will be challenging because like the insurgents who fire them, mobile launchers will be well ensconced in urban population centers, and employing “shoot and scoot” tactics.

Closer into shore, LH Soviet-era AT-4 Spiggot or the more modern Kornet anti-tank guided missiles might be effective against Israeli small combatant craft, such as those which would be involved in launching a special operations raid.  Mines would be a cheaper, but more indiscriminate sea denial weapon LH might utilize to thwart amphibious operations.

Ostensibly, LH could gain access to any of the robust A2AD weapons its patron Iran possesses.  In 2011, Brigadier General Yaron Levi, the Navy’s intelligence chief, noted that “in the future, we will have to deal with missiles, torpedoes, mines, above-surface weapons and underwater ones, both in Gaza and Lebanon.”   The Iranians have elevated multi-axis, multi-layer anti-ship attack to a high art; with mines and ground-based missiles complemented by swarming missile, torpedo, and gunboat attacks, rounded out by numbers of Wing In Ground-effect aircraft and mini-submarines.  None of these systems are beyond the reach of a non-state actor.

So this network portends a viable sea denial capability, but to whom?  Clearly, LH fears Israel’s naval force and has demonstrated the willingness to engage the Israeli navy.  During the 2006 war, Israeli patrols blockaded Lebanon for eight weeks to prevent maritime resupply of LH forces.  Any advanced sea denial capability would complicate these operations in a future conflict.  Israel’s growing offshore oil infrastructure would also make a tempting fixed target for LH missiles.

And although it is possible that a missile might inadvertently target a U.S. or other allied naval combatant or aircraft operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, for self-preservation reasons, it’s unlikely that LH would deliberately target U.S. platforms without significant provocation. Even so, modern navies operating in the littorals in the vicinity of these threats will need to be continuously on a higher alert status than they might be with a more predictable state adversary.  As asymmetry cycles towards parity, developing ways to counter non-state actors with powerful conventional weapons should become the focus of naval wargames and experimentation.

Chris Rawley is the Vice President of CIMSEC. Any opinions in this piece are the his alone and in his personal capacity.

Unmanned Systems and Distributed Operations: Out of One, Many

Let’s face facts: it appears the U.S. Navy is incapable of building surface combatants, even small ones, for less than about a billion dollars apiece.  Consequently, it is likely the fleet will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.  Yet it appears that the global demand for surface ship presence remains high for both peacetime operations and as an on-call force for contingency response.  So how can the Navy continue to meet worldwide operational commitments given fewer ships?  The key to maximizing the effectiveness of a declining surface force lies in combining suitable motherships with the latest unmanned warfighting technology.

Unmanned naval systems are rapidly proliferating internationally because they are increasingly capable and cheaper than manned alternatives for certain missions.  To date, sea-based unmanned systems have primarily conducted intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and mine countermeasures operations.  But within the next decade or so, we’ll see naval drones supporting a much wider spectrum of warfighting; including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare, vertical replenishment, and even anti-air warfare. 

Fundamentally, naval warfare is about deploying payloads (sensors, weapons, and people) into different domains (water, air, land, and electromagnetic/cyber) from or against sea-based platforms.  These payloads have historically been delivered from ships, submarines, and aircraft.  Ships deploy offensive and defensive weapons, or those of their embarked aircraft, out to the limit of their organic sensors.  Sometimes they can be delivered over-the-horizon when cued by the sensors of another platform.  A guided missile destroyer fires its magazines of anti-aircraft weapons at targets it can detect and track.  A frigate deploys a single towed array sonar and perhaps a helicopter with sonobuoys and torpedoes that extend the reach of its ASW reach. A corvette can engage a surface threat within the range of its guns and surface search radar or electro-optical fire control system.  The point is that current naval operations are generally designed around weapons and systems hosted from surface combatants, so the number of primary platforms available limits the span of a Navy’s operations.

The Venus is an unmanned surface vehicle built by Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited (ST Electronics) and based on a hull developed by US company Navatek Ltd.
The Venus is an unmanned surface vehicle built by Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited (ST Electronics) and based on a hull developed by US company Navatek Ltd.

By employing distributed maritime operations, a single surface platform with embarked unmanned vehicles can operate over a wider area than one without.  Using a multi-tiered hub-and-spoke concept, a large surface ship should be capable of simultaneously operating dozens of air, surface, and sub-surface vessels.  Some of these would be launched from an intermediate staging craft carried on the mothership such as a RHIB or Unmanned Surface Vehicle, while others will launch directly from the main ship.  Currently, many of these intermediate platforms are manned, but in the future, large volume unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned surface vehicles will operate for several days or more independently from a larger mothership which transports them into an operational theater.  The persistent over-the-horizon UUVs and USVs will deploy their own smaller drone counterparts to transport sensors or weapons the last dozens of miles to a target. 

Despite more than a few hiccups in her development, this distributed operations model is roughly the construct that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will follow.  The off-board MIW and ASW mission packages will consist of a variety of UUVs, USVs, and the MQ-8B Firescout UAV.  The LCS was designed to shift out entire mission packages to use the same “sea frame” for surface, anti-surface, or mine counter-measures operations, although not at the same time.  The intent of this modularity was additional flexibility with fewer platforms; however, that concept of operations has not panned out because the ships will not be capable of shifting warfare areas as quickly as originally envisioned.  Rather than focusing on the LCS’ modularity and ability to transfer wholesale mission packages, it would be wiser to shift attention to finalizing the actual vehicles and interfaces that will support these warfare mission areas.  Moreover, LCS unmanned payloads that are not compatible with other vessels should be scrapped immediately.  With the future of the LCS program uncertain at best, unmanned vehicle integration lessons learned should be leveraged for other platforms. Flexibility and compatibility with multiple platforms are the key to ensuring a distributed operations model is successful.

Ships that feature spare volume for additional payloads and “interfaces” – flight decks, well decks, ramps, davits, and cranes – will be in highest demand for distributed operations involving drones.  So in addition to LCS, amphibious ships, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), and other Military Sealift Command ships are included in this category.  In tune with the CNO’s “payload over platform” theme, given these attributes, ships that might otherwise not be considered state of the art warfighting vessels can have a new lease on life as unmanned motherships.  And ships that have generally been considered auxiliaries will now play a role in supporting offensive naval warfare by deploying sensors and weapons systems to complement the main batteries of high end surface combatants.  The end result of these drone motherships will be more sensors and weapons deployed across a wider ocean area with the same, if not smaller number of surface combatants.

The venerable Ponce’s recent conversion into an Afloat Forward Staging Base and its ongoing Arabian Gulf deployment is telling.  Ponce flew the ScanEagle UAV from her own flight deck, but also demonstrated the ability embark several Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) which can operate the PUMA UAV.  In a wartime scenario, each of these UAVs could support targeting for surface engagement (whether from a VBSS team or anti-surface missile).  During International Mine Countermeasures Exercises, Ponce deployed RHIBs with multiple mine-hunting UUVs.  So while a traditional surface ship might operate a boat or two and the same number of helicopters, using unmanned vehicles, that same platform can deploy numerous sensors and weapons at a considerable distance from the ship across all maritime domains.  

Distributed unmanned operations will require new concepts in afloat logistics.  Moored undersea docking stations to recharge the batteries of long range UUVs should be designed for air or surface deployment.  Unmanned air vehicles flying from surface ships will also support vertical resupply of distributed sea and ground elements operating hundreds of miles from their motherships.  This concept has been demonstrated successfully ashore with the K-MAX rotary wing vehicle which has flown 17,000+ sorties in Afghanistan since 2011, delivering over four million pounds of supplies to Marines in remote forward operating bases. 

The critical path to operational success will be tying all these systems together. Common technology standards and protocols must be developed sooner rather than later as discussed in detail here by Captain Lundquist.  Rather than relying on 40 year old legacy data-links, the architecture that connects manned and unmanned systems, regardless of domain, should be secure, light-weight, high-bandwidth, and affordable.  With today’s technology, those attributes need not be mutually exclusive.

The challenges and limitations to deploying these distributed unmanned concepts are non-trivial.  In addition to the issues with standards discussed above, autonomous algorithms need improvement, electrical storage capacity (especially for UUVs) must be increased, and cultural apprehension to offensive unmanned vessels need to be overcome.  But shrinking operational reach need not be a foregone conclusion with declining fleet size if the next wave in operating unmanned vehicles distributively is embraced.

CDR Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer.  The opinions expressed are his own. 

Smashing Maritime Ratlines – A Team Sport

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

 

A boarding near Cape Verde

U.S. Navy publications often describe the sea as a global commons; the idea being that the oceans represent a resource to be shared for the benefit of all.  The reality, however, is that although the world’s oceans facilitate billions of dollars of legitimate commerce and trade every day, criminal networks, insurgent groups, and transnational terrorist organizations exploit sea lanes for more nefarious ends. The same ports and ocean routes used by sailors for thousands of years also provide today’s afloat highways, over which both legal and illicit cargoes move. These routes – or “ratlines”, when used for illicit traffic – exist amid a complex international patchwork of intertwined economies, diverse cultures, and varying legal authorities and levels of governance.

Disrupting these ratlines requires teamwork and a networked approach.  Accordingly, a number of U.S. government agencies have responsibility of some sort or another for stemming the flow of illegal shipments at sea. Obvious players are Department of Homeland Security organizations, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center is a relatively new agency charged by Congress to work against smuggling, illegal trafficking of people against their will, and terrorist travel. Many other agencies play an important role in supporting interdiction efforts with intelligence and law enforcement expertise.
 
Many readers are familiar with the efforts of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, at Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. This long-standing organization consists of several U.S. agencies working with numerous partner nations to counter narcotics trafficking moving through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific into North America. In addition to this major drug transit zone, lesser-known maritime facilitation routes throughout the world move people, money, and materials illicitly for both financial profit and malign intent.

One example is Islamic foreign fighters who leave their home country and travel over sea, land, and air routes to train and take up arms in conflict zones. The foreign fighter pipeline has supported numerous jihadi battlefields, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The relatively short ocean crossing connecting Yemen and Somalia, and their long coastlines, has resulted in significant foreign fighter flow between two countries, further destabilizing the region. Estimates of the number of foreigners who traveled in the late 2000s to train and fight with Somalia’s Al Shabaab militant Islamist group range from 200 to more than 1,000. Several of these foreign fighters were westerners from the United States and United Kingdom, including the first known U.S. suicide bomber. The problem garnered significant attention, such that the African Union’s commissioner for peace and security pressed the U.N. Security Council to authorize a naval blockade in order to prevent the entry of foreign fighters into Somalia. 

pic_03A more-obscure maritime ratline involves Afghani hashish and heroin smuggled from Pakistan’s Makran Coast to the Gulf States and East Africa. These smuggling routes reflect a nexus between criminal drug-trafficking and the funding of ongoing conflict and corruption in Afghanistan. In 2009, a U.S. Navy cruiser patrolling in the Gulf of Aden seized a skiff carrying 4 tons of hashish with a street value of $28 million. In all, international naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean seized 53 tons of drugs along the “hashish highway” in 2008 and more than 22 tons during 2009. This success notwithstanding, a lack of maritime patrol and reconnaissance assets combined with lax customs laws, and competing priorities of the various countries involved make narcotics interdiction along these sea routes a challenging proposition.

A different facet of illicit maritime networks is the transport of weapons and bomb-making materials into war zones. This usually involves a combination of legitimate businesses from source countries where electronics or other “dual-use” improvised explosive device (IED) components are produced and witting smugglers, who ship the goods sometimes hidden in legitimate cargoes.

In an operation a few years back (in which this author was personally involved), a non-DOD intelligence tipper on possible maritime facilitation of IED components was passed to a U.S. military special operations task force, which pushed the information to conventional naval forces. The Navy teams interdicted the vessel of interest, boarded it, and conducted an exhaustive search. Though they did not find the incriminating cargo, irregularities in the cargo manifest warranted further investigation. The ship was allowed to proceed to the next port of call where the host nation’s authorities, assisted by U.S. officials, conducted additional inspections. Through these searches the dual-use material was found and host nation authorities seized the cargo, with disruptive effects on the IED network. Moreover, because the effort required coordination between at least five U.S. government agencies, multiple DOD commands, and several countries, valuable lessons were learned that will pave the way for success in future counter-maritime facilitation actions. 

Above all, countering illicit maritime networks requires open and flat communications at multiple levels – both interagency and international. Traditional command-and-control structures that are comfortable to most military operators are not appropriate for an interdiction effort involving multiple agencies and countries. Rather, early and frequent meetings – such as secure teleconferences – will foster an environment of collaboration and coordination.  Because maritime targets are dynamic, rapid dissemination of intelligence and intent is necessary for a successful interdiction. In the above example, only about 12 hours passed between the initial intelligence tipper and the vessel’s identification, boarding, and interdiction. In some cases, the vessel of interest must be intercepted and boarded before it passes into territorial waters. At other times, coordinating for partner nation authorities at the next port of call to inspect the cargo ashore might be more feasible. 

Africa Partnership Station 2012Differing security classifications and communication systems between agencies and countries complicate the flow of information, but these obstacles can be overcome by persistent outreach and liaison. While advances in technology have certainly helped ease information-sharing blockages, it is often viewed as a panacea. Nothing beats the information flow that can be achieved from a closely tied liaison network working towards a common end state. Along these lines, countering illicit maritime facilitation requires a careful balance between various military, agency, and partner-nation equities. Sometimes these equities are competing; in other cases they are complementary. Law enforcement agencies often require that the chain of custody for any evidence seized during a maritime interdiction be carefully preserved in order to build a legal case against an individual facilitator. These efforts are sometimes at odds with the exploitation of a seizure for intelligence purposes and the need to maintain operational security. Meanwhile, a partner nation may see broadcasting the results of a successful interdiction effort through information operations as a way to gain legitimacy in the eyes of its population. Finally, internecine struggles and political friction between various institutions often stifle coordination despite the best efforts and intentions of those involved.

The maritime facilitation networks of criminals and terrorists present serious challenges to the security interests of the United States and friendly governments. Disrupting these ratlines requires a thoughtful and integrated approach by various organizations focusing on all aspects of the interdiction problem: intelligence, legal, diplomatic, and physical.

CDR Chris Rawley serves in the special operations community. He led boarding teams during maritime interception operations against oil smugglers in the Persian Gulf and coordinated operational level maritime interdiction efforts in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. He is the author of Unconventional Warfare 2.0: A Better Path to Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century and blogs regularly at Information Dissemination. The above opinions are his own.

For more articles in our International Maritime Shipping Week, click here.