Supply Bots

If you haven’t spent much time aboard a naval vessel, the Supply Department is the part of the ship charged with managing spare parts and ordering more. The Supply Department’s spaces also have a strange tendency to be the first fitted out with the nicest kit and upgrades. So it wouldn’t shock me to one day stroll in and find something like this:

A voice-activated storage unit with to help keep track of thousands of parts:

According to Danh Trinh, creator of the StorageBot:

The hardest parts to find were always those rare miscellaneous parts that were thrown somewhere into a “junk” bin. StorageBot solves the location problem by listening to my voice commands, processing the location of parts from a master database and then delivering the matching bins in a manner that only a robot can do!

Of course all the normal disclaimers bear stating: the system would need to be ruggedized, would likely have sea state restrictions, and each user would need to set up their voice recognition. Then again there’s the question of whether such a system would be worth it, or even practical. At a COTS or DIY price of roughly $700 (according to a article I can no longer access) the monetary burden doesn’t appear to high, and after all, Supply could never let one of the other shipboard “shops” get their hands on this tech first.

International Shipping Week – 12 AUG

When you're on a cruise it's important to check for smuggled MiG parts under your place settings.
When you’re on a cruise it’s important to check for smuggled MiG parts in your salad before eating.

While we often discuss danger to international shipping, we more rarely discuss the dangers arising from it. With 90% of global trade crossing the world’s oceans, it is the lynchpin in our world-straddling logistics chain. Like delicious red meat, sea-borne trade makes life better for everyone… but if poorly managed, can lead to great discomfort or chronic illness.


In the juicy steak of global sea-borne trade, there are hidden threats to the health of global security. In the latest example, Panama has charged the crew of the North Korean transport ship Chong Chon Gang with endangering public security for illegally transporting war materials. Registered as a humanitarian aide shipment of sugar from Cuba to North Korea, Panamanian officials found fighter jets, two anti-aircraft missile batteries, 15 jet engines, and nine dissembled rockets underneath 220,000 sacks of brown sugar… and that’s only the first cargo deck. From crew members carrying disease, conventional weapons en-route to unstable regimes, to the potential for nuclear material smuggling, the disease of instability can spread undetected amongst the colossal volume of oceanic traffic.

International Shipping Week

Like a USDA Prime steak, global trade requires both spot inspections and institutional system-wide analysis and control in order to ensure the bad meat doesn’t get through. For the week of 12 August, CIMSEC will ponder the ways in which international shipping is, and should be, processed to better guarantee our safety and security. If you’d like to contribute, please contact Matt Hipple at

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  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.

Should NATO Pay Attention to the South Atlantic?

Does a NATO-Colombia partnership make sense? Is cooperation with Brazil realistic? Will NATO be needed to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea? Has NATO any role to play in the wider South Atlantic area?


Membership for Colombia?

Recently, Colombia’s president suggested that his country could become NATO member. However, although the Colombian government eventually back-pedaled, a new NATO-Colombia partnership is on the table. For what purpose would Colombia want to join NATO? NATO’s European expeditionary capabilities are shrinking without an end in sight. Hence, NATO as a whole would not have been able to give a credible defense guarantee for Colombia. Only the US can do that, but Washington and Bogota would not need NATO to accomplish that.


Officially, NATO says that there is an “open channel for future cooperation” with Colombia. In diplomatic language, such words could mean anything. If the idea does not die in the next months, we will probably see only talks. During NATO-Colombia talks, status-quo and collective defense oriented member states would oppose any measures lifting NATO-Colombia cooperation to a strategic level. Nevertheless, working level efforts and engagement such as training and education would probably not get a veto, as NATO already has working level contacts worldwide.


Unfortunately, a working level cooperation between NATO and Colombia does not have much to offer. Colombian forces could contribute to NATO missions as Argentina did on the Balkans in the 1990s. Due to political exhaustion and austerity the era of large-scale NATO missions is coming to an end. Thus, Colombia will not get an opportunity to decide whether to contribute or not. Any NATO-Colombia partnership would just include the unspectacular – but useful – measures NATO is doing with all other partners: training, education, best practices sharing, et. al. In consequence, do not expect much with political worth from a NATO-Colombia partnership.

Partnership with Brazil?

Brazil wants Western powers to stay out of its sphere of influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, the US would be reluctant to give a less capable NATO roles in South America. There would be no benefit for Washington. Thus, there are few real prospects of a substantial NATO-Brazil partnership. Cyber-Security may be an issue of common concern. Certainly, any publicly known NATO-Brazil cyber-cooperation would provoke debates nobody needs and reactions by third parties such as China.


Nevertheless, there is one area where Brazil could have an interest in NATO. This is AWACS. In the past, at major events, such as the Greek Olympics 2004 or the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine 2012, NATO’s AWACS planes have helped to coordinate air traffic and to monitor the airspace. Brazil is going to host the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016, but is lacking sufficient AWACS capabilities. NATO could help out, but Brazil would have to ask.


What we will surely see is an increasing outreach from NATO member states to Brazil. Beside Portugal (remember the common history) and the US, Germany has a “strategic partnership” with Brazil, which has not delivered anything strategic, yet. Moreover, before 2030 Brazil is going to replace its aging aircraft carrier. As the country is unable to build one on its own, Britain and France may be candidates where Brazil could go for carrier-shopping. Otherwise, China will be happy to deliver.

Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Regarding piracy, the situation in the Gulf of Aden is getting better, while the problem in the Gulf of Guinea is worsening. Right now, the Western African piracy is only taking place in the littorals, not on the high seas. Thus, it is now appears up to those  littoral  states to solve their problems in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.


A new NATO operation would only have to be considered once the pirates reach the Atlantic’s high seas. However, international attention for the problem is already there. The international community has gained counter-piracy experience from the western Indian Ocean. Do not expect a NATO-particular mission soon; the problem may already dealt with. Moreover, even if the Western African pirates would turn high seas, it is far from sure that austerity-suffering NATO would take on that job. Some national states (France, Britain, Portugal, USA) could try to act on their own or countries like Brazil would try to underline their global ambitions with action.



With an eye on geopolitics, the South Atlantic is on a calm track due to the lack of great power conflict. Today Brazil is facing a social and economic crisis. However, World Cup and Olympics will do their share to bring Brazil’s politicians, people and economy back on a good track. The only plausible scenario for a great power conflict is – in the long term – a triangle of competition between the US, China and Brazil; the latter as a swing state. China’s attention in the South Atlantic is growing and the US will not stay passive.


Nevertheless, the there is no role and therefore no need to for NATO to reach out to the wider Southern Atlantic area. Secretary General Rasmussen has traveled around the world during his time in office. As far as I know, he has never visited South America. Please leave it like that. There are more important areas, like the Eastern Mediterranean, to which NATO should pay attention.
Felix Seidler is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and a German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.

Post-OPCON Strategy for the US-ROK Alliance

(This article is cross-posted by permission of the United States Naval Institute Blog and appeared in its original form on July 25th here.)

According to the Yŏnhap News Agency last Thursday, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin “confirmed…that he had requested the U.S. government” to postpone the OPCON (Operational Command) transfer slated for December, 2015. Citing from the same source, the National Journal elaborated further by saying Minister Kim believed that the United States was open to postponing the transfer because “a top U.S. government official leaked to journalists”  Minister Kim’s request for the delay.

Chuck Hagel and Kim Kwan-jin
Ministerial-level meeting
There may be several reasons for the ROK government’s desire to postpone the OPCON transfer. First, the critics of the OPCON transfer both in Washington and the ROK argue that this transition is “dangerously myopic” as it ignores “the asymmetric challenges that [North Korea] presents.” Second, given the shrinking budget, they argue that the ROK may not have enough time to improve its own C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence) capabilities, notwithstanding a vigorous procurement and acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry and indigenous research and development programs for its local defense industries. Third, South Korea’s uneven defense spending, and operational and institutional handicaps within the conservative ROK officer corps have prevented South Korea from developing a coherent strategy and the necessary wherewithal to operate on its own. To the critics of the OPCON handover, all these may point to the fact that, over the years, the ROK’s “political will to allocate the required resources has been constrained by economic pressures and the imperative to sustain South Korea’s socio-economic stability and growth.” As if to underscore this point, the ROK’s defense budget grew fourfold “at a rate higher than conventional explanations would expect” due to fears that the United States may eventually withdraw from the Korean peninsula. It was perhaps for these reasons that retired GEN B. B. Bell, a former Commander of the United States Forces Korea, has advocated postponing the transfer “permanently.
However, the Obama Administration’s reversal of its decision to hand over the OPCON to the ROK military appears unlikely. First, in the face of the drastic sequestration cuts in the upcoming fiscal years, long-term commitment in the Korean peninsula may be unsustainable. Second, since both the United States Armed Forces and civilians suffer from war-weariness after having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade, it is unlikely that they will accept long-term overseas commitment of this magnitude. Which leads to the third point that the United States will likely favor diplomatic solutions when dealing with Kim Jŏng-ŭn, since the DPRK has recently expressed its desires to engage in dialogues. Fourth, “[m]ost economic and military indicators show that South Korea has an edge over North Korea in almost all measures of power.” While many opponents of the transition point to the DPRK’s asymmetric threats to make their case, Suh Jae-jung contends that “quantitative advantage quickly fades when one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its 1950s-vintage weapons systems” which has led “serious analysts [to] conclude that ‘North Korea never had a lead over South Korea.’” Most importantly, arguments against the scheduled transition are weak because they tend to focus only on the military dimensions of the ongoing conflict.
There are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance  can enhance security dynamics on the peninsula in the aftermath of the OPCON transfer. One obvious approach would be to seek diplomatic solutions to proactively deter further provocations by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Despite the deep-seated rancor and distrust between the two Korean states, both Korean states have nevertheless agreed to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. The latest inter-Korean talk held at P’anmunjŏm demonstrates more than anything else the need to “cajole and flatter the young ruler…[by] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” As Miha Hribernik and I wrote in June, one way of doing this would be to “accept his offers to discuss arms reduction first.” In addition, the US-ROK alliance could defuse tension on the Korean peninsula by recognizing the DPRK as a sovereign state. Such measures would prevent miscommunication where parties involved are “not talking to each other but rather, past each other.”
Nevertheless, the US-ROK alliance must avoid appearing weak even as it seeks diplomatic solutions to guarantee peace and security for the Korean peninsula. As I wrote earlier, “in order for diplomatic endeavors to be sustainable in the long-run, they must be backed up by a credible threat of coercion.” With or without the OPCON, there are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance can effectively deter future DPRK aggressions. One such option, as I’ve written earlier, would be for the United States Pacific Fleet and the ROKN, along with the JMSDF, to form a combined fleet whereby the three navies “would may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.” Second would be to allow the ROK JCS Chairman to assume command of the CFC with the top American general serving as his deputy as was proposed in June during a ministerial meeting held between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. However, at this juncture, according to the Washington Post, “the 28,500 U.S. troops here will not fall under the command of the South…[since] the United States and South Korea will have separate commands.” Third, to proactively deal with possible DPRK missile attacks, the US-ROK alliance, together with Japan, can develop a collective missile defense system.  Fourth, as retired Admiral James Stavridis argues, since the world has converged into smaller communities through globalization, we must take the fight to our adversary by “follow[ing] the money [to upend] threat financing” abroad and at home. Last but not least, since the DPRK’s  recent asymmetric attacks against the US-ROK alliance have been waged on cyberspace to cripple their infrastructures, the US-ROK alliance, in tandem with the international community, can work together to enhance their cyber security.
Despite unfounded fears among retired officers and conservative analysts that the OPCON transfer may considerably weaken South Korea’s security, it does not mean that the United States will completely withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Nor does the ROK resemble South Vietnam after the Paris Treaty of 1973. That is, the ROK remains an economically and politically stable nation. With new transition come new opportunities for innovative growth. For the ROK, OPCON transfer just may present such opportunities to protect itself from further aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.

 Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on various online publications, including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and the USNI Blog.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.