For those watching the news the past few days it should come as no surprise that Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda locally) – one of the strongest ever to make landfall – has wreaked devastation across a central swath of the Philippines (and is headed in weakened state for Vietnam). The death toll could well top 10,000 and the naval forces of the Philippines, the U.S., and other nations are expected to help in the recovery efforts.
On Saturday Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that Pacific Command will initially provide “surface maritime SAR, medium-heavy helicopter lift support, airborne maritime SAR, fixed-wing lift support, and logistics enablers.” Marines from 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) in Okinawa, along with KC-130J Hercules, MV-22 Ospreys, and P-3C Orions are in the Philippines or expected to arrive shortly.
Naval forces may have been told in the days prior to ‘lean forward’, which would complete the journey soon for sustained Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response (HA/DR) efforts. These are in addition to the U.S. forces and AID efforts already present, mostly in the south of the nation.
I’m hearing “US Navy assets are leaning forward towards Philippines” but no official statement yet.
Meanwhile analysts and foreign observers are watching to see China’s reaction – whether it comes in the form of aid or taking the opportunity to press its “changing the situation on the ground” approach to territorial claims.
Two ways to personally provide support to relief efforts are through the Red Cross and Team Rubicon. Please also remember the greatest need is often weeks after the initial disaster.
Our nation is closing its chapter on the Long Wars as 2014 approaches. While there will be no single demarcation of when we become a “nation at peace”, we will settle into the same minimal focus and consciousness (if we are not there already) regarding Afghanistan as we did in Iraq when a no-fly zone was enforced for more than a decade following the Gulf War. I do not yet wish to comment on the national reflection that needs to take place, but in terms of military science I believe our introspection is flawed. Many studies and after action reviews have been undertaken examining generic trends or qualitative assessments, but very few have examined the input/output efficiencies that were or were not achieved by units, systems, and methods. It’s reasonable that such studies cannot be expected to be coldly objective in their analysis while active combat operations are ongoing. Never the less, there will be no “Victory over the Long War Day” which clearly marks the end of war and the start of peace, so a more robust critical analysis can not wait till there is no more emotion associated with our recent wars. Below are the least efficient input/output trends that I observed from my brief service in our Long War. These are my own, and derived only by my own anecdotal experience.
1.Counter-Improvised Explosive Devices (IED): By this I mean the big government counter-IED response, of which the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) is the prime example. This is an emotional topic for many, including myself, as friends of mine were killed by such devices – devices that are not new technologies that emerged in Iraq and Afghanistan, as many have portrayed them. The big government/higher headquarters response to Counter-IED might represent one of the worst returns on investment in annals of American war. When organizations such as JIEDDO consume vast swathes of money, the outlay is assumed to have achieved the effect of decreasing casualty incidents from such devices. However, such spending has actually had negligible results decreasing the harm caused to our forces. The past few years have seen millions more spent on high-tech counters to IEDs while the devices themselves are becoming cheaper and wounding or killing more of our forces. Anecdotally, for all the amazing technology I witnessed and/or used while in Afghanistan, solutions that were top-down or directed from high-level headquarters generally had much less impact on preventing casualties than those that were bottom-up. Fantastic technology had the same results as very basic know-how applied by 19-year-olds facing death, and contained decreased opportunity costs from draining huge coffers of money to address simple tactical problems. The data sets surrounding the issue are very difficult to comprehensively discern, as we are measuring the safety of our troops, and the spillover effects of some of the work taken by organizations like JIEDDO is likely large. But in aggregate it is hard to argue that we have not spun ourselves in circles looking for a technological answer to an eternal human problem of warfare.
IEDs are, and will remain, a weapon that leverages a stronger force’s weaknesses against it. Planning to counter them in way that seems more in line with nuclear deterrence or research into ballistic missile defense seems to be a misplaced strategy. Historically there have been many examples of emerging technologies or tactics used by foes to exploit a gap in our own equipment or tactics, but we have traditionally let forces and commanders find the best way to meet those advances. Outsourcing much of the solution to large, bureaucratic organizations is not an “Occam’s Razor” solution. Money spent creating force fields more akin to Flash Gordon than Sgt Rock would have been better utilized providing realistic training for units, enabling commanders to address problems in their areas of operations according to their judgment, or, sadly the most radical suggestion for the DOD, saved for the rainy fiscal day that is upon us.
2. Growth in Networks: Inefficiency has also formed due to the gap between the vast growths in network capability of the U.S. military compared with its human processing ability. IT and communications technology allowed the U.S. military to enter into the Long War with an unparalleled ability to sense, collect, and distribute data. The largest problem is that our human processing ability – the capability to process such data into tangible and useful results – has not caught up. I was amazed as to what an infantry battalion in Afghanistan had at its disposal in terms of networks and databases, but disheartened when I tried to pull meaning out of those same networks and databases. Simply put, there has been a glut in the supply of information provided by networks and our cognitive demand has not caught up.
Commanders are shown amazing examples and case studies of networks helping find a bad guys, save a patrol, or magically reveal what an insurgent will do. In all these examples it seems as if Apple designed our systems, and upon a few clicks of the mouse the answer will appear. Generally such outcomes occurred when there was a merging of the right person/people, events, knowledge, and required training. Such a confluence was a rare occurrence, and to raise expectations that they were common is irresponsible and shows expectation bias by allowing the cherry picking of results to justify larger, more complex systems. The most critical ingredients to cook up the perfect network-enabled operation – training and judgment – are the most difficult to inculcate in the 18-22-year-olds using the systems. It is true we need graduate-level thinking in our warriors to conduct counter-insurgency (COIN), but saying we need it and providing the time necessary to obtain it are two very different things.
We can continue to build more intricate networks which add raw capability but little meaning to our command and control capabilities. I would argue the best network is not the most complex, but rather the simplest one that works the most consistently – a model ourenemies seem adept at constructing. Increasing the training, judgment, and processing capacity of our forces will yield better results than expanding our digital tendrils past the point of diminishing returns of our collective nervous system. Revising our acquisitions process would help, often it seemed that new systems were shot out at the rate of how long it took a defense contractor to impress a flag officer instead an actual need occurring on the battlefield. A vetting system that involves more widespread testing at the lower ranks, and contracts which are easier to get out of if the product does not live up to expectations, could prevent debacles from seemingly simple requests that get turned into unstoppable hydras.
3. The Deification of COIN: I will preface this comment by saying that I am not a COIN naysayer who thinks that the U.S. military should only be prepared for larger force-on-force engagements a la Leyte Gulf or Kursk. I believe that the kit bag of any global power should be contain the forces necessary to interdict conflict at the low- and medium-ends of the spectrum, or before it begins. History proves that most of America’s wars have been low-intensity conflicts.
That being said there has been a fetishization with COIN, and it more proportionally affects junior leaders like myself. COIN takes much skill, has a limited bandwidth of applicability, and will always be best when its strategy comes from those closest to its application. But such characteristics are not likely to apply if high-intensity conflicts occur.
Our current rebalance to the Pacific is based on thelikelihood for fast, large-scale, and highly violent conflict. Such a conflict will weigh heavily on junior leaders, but not in the way they are used to. They will have to rely on senior leadership to coordinate and enable their actions, because without strong, decisive higher headquarters guidance a danger of the second coming of Task Force Smith exists. While deployed in the hinterlands of Helmand, many lieutenants had to craft their own guidance and operate with the slimmest of intent. The vast majority did so well; they also came away from the experience rightly confident in their abilities and skeptical of the perspective higher headquarters had. In a vast ocean and littoral battlefield, those same independent operators will have to accept the fact they will not see the whole picture. Our forces have done extremely well fighting over long tours interspersed with moments of violence, but have had more limited exposure to highly kinetic battles that take place over months and require management of rates of fire, triage, and difficult decisions about weaponeering. Most of the choices were easy in a COIN fight, as the majority of the time the decision was always not how to use the most force but how to use the least. While the strong experiences that have been formed over the past ten years of small unit actions are priceless, it must not be treated as sacrosanct in all circumstances. Future junior leaders may not be in command of the lone patrol base for miles, or if they are, they might only be effective if they are aware of the fight going on at higher levels. We have rarely been able to choose our wars, and even when we do the enemy casts votes that are rarely predicted. Raising an officer corps to worship at the altar of COIN is no healthier than those who refused to accept COIN’s viability in the early stages of Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are enormous amounts of knowledge to be extracted from the previous decade of war, and efforts to refine that knowledge into a powerful, efficient fuel that can power our military to train for future conflicts needs to occur as a logical study of our efficiencies. We have had many qualitative accounts of battles and campaigns that have aptly described what was or was not done. There have not been as many quantitative studies of what provided the most for the least cost. Such an examination will be boring, and necessarily ignorant of the emotional side of our conflicts, but is required as it will be best way to extract meaning that will be useful in future wars.
About the Author: Chris Barber is a Captain in the United States Marine Corps. The views presented here are his own and not official policy of the USMC, DOD, or United States Government. They also are insanely clever for a gentlemen educated in public school that might not be able to spell COIN if not for spell check.
In my previous entry on the U.S.-ROK naval strategy after the OPCON, I argued for a combined fleet whereby the U.S. and ROK Navies, together with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Since I have been getting mixed responses with regards to the viability of the aforementioned proposal, I felt compelled to flesh out this concept in a subsequent entry. Here, I will examine command unity and operational parity within the proposed combined fleet.
First, as Chuck Hill points out in his response to my prior entry, should the three navies coalesce to form a combined fleet, the issue of command unity may not be easily overcome because “[w]hile the South Korean and Japanese Navies might work together under a U.S. Commander, I don’t see the Japanese cooperating under a South Korean flag officer.” Indeed, given the mutual rancor over historical grievances, and the ongoing territorial row over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, both Japan and the ROK may be unwilling to entertain this this arrangement. However, this mutual rancor, if left unchecked, could potentially undermine coherent tactical and strategic responses against further acts of aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. It is for this reason that Japan and the ROK should cooperate as allies if they truly desire peace in East Asia.
So how can the three countries successfully achieve command unity within the combined fleet? One solution would be for an American admiral to assume command of the fleet. However, while it is true that the ROKN and the JMSDF have participated in joint exercises under the aegis of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this arrangement would stymie professional growth of both the ROKN and JMSDF admirals who lack professional expertise comparable to their American counterparts. In particular, given that ROKN admirals will assume wartime responsibility for their fleets after the 2015 OPCON transfer, such arrangement would be unhealthy for the ROKN because it would only lead to further dependence on the U.S. Navy.
Instead, a more viable solution, as Hill suggests, would be for the three navies to operate on a “regular rotation schedule…with the prospective commander serving as deputy for a time before assuming command.” This arrangement would somewhat alleviate the existing tension between the ROKN and JMSDF officers. Furthermore, the rotation schedule may serve as an opportunity for ROKN and JMSDF admirals to prove their mettle as seaworthy commanders.
One successful example that demonstrates the efficacy of the above proposal is the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience with the Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to the present. In 2011, ROKN SEALs successfully conducted a hostage rescue operation against Somali pirates. ROKN admirals also assumed command of the Task Force twice, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. According to Terrence Roehrig, the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience has “provide[d] the ROK navy with valuable operational experience [in] preparation for North Korean actions, while also gaining from participating in and leading multilateral operations.”
However, it should be noted that it is “unclear whether ROK counter-piracy operations [with CTF 151] had a significant deterrent effect and, if so, it [was] likely to be limited.” While CTF 151 may provide a plausible model for command unity for the combined fleet concept, it does not fully address potential operational and logistical problems in the event of another armed conflict on the peninsula. Moreover, while frequent joint exercises and exchange programs have lessened operational and linguistic problems, so long as the ROKN continues to be overshadowed by the Army-centric culture and structure within the ROK Armed Forces, it cannot function effectively as a vital component of the U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance in deterring future aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.
To achieve operational parity within the combined fleet, I recommend the following. First, the United States could help bolster the naval aviation capabilities of both navies. The JMSDF has been expanding its number of helicopter carriers, while the ROKN is expanding its fleet of Dokdo-class landing ships, supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in addition to its naval air wing. However, the absence of carrier-based fighter-bomber capabilities may pose problems for the combined fleet concept because it deprives the fleet of flexible tools to respond expeditiously to emergent threats. Thus, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could equip the two navies with the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or the new F-35s.
Second, both Japan and the ROK should bolster their amphibious and special operations forces (SOF) capabilities. As the successful hostage rescue operation in January, 2011, of the crew of the Korean chemical tanker Samho Jewelry by the ROKN SEAL team demonstrates, naval SOF capabilities may provide the combined fleet with a quick reaction force to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Furthermore, amphibious capabilities similar to the U.S. MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) may provide both the ROK and Japan with the capabilities to proactively deter and not merely react to future DPRK provocations. That the Japanese Rangers have recently trained for amphibious landing with U.S. Marines, while the ROK MND (Ministry of National Defense) has granted more autonomy to the ROK Marines, can be construed as steps in the right direction. As if to bear this out, there are reports that the ROK MND plans to establish a Marine aviation brigade by 2015 to enhance the ROKMC’s transport and strike capabilities.
In this blog entry, I examined command arrangement and operational parity to explore ways in which a combined U.S.-ROK-Japanese fleet may successfully deter potential DPRK threats. Certainly, my proposal does not purport to offer perfect solutions to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, it is a small step towards achieving a common goal—preserving peace and stability which all East Asian nations cherish.
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 American Livewire, East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the World Outline.
 Terrence Roehrig ‘s chapter in Scott Snyder and Terrence Roehrig et. al. Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security. New York: Report for Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2012, p. 35
 ibid., pp. 41
 Japan does not have its own Marine Corps.
Christopher Barber is a Marine Corps Reserve Captain mobilized in the national capital region. While on active duty, he served in Helmand, Afghanistan as an Intelligence Officer and Scout Sniper Platoon Commander. He is a 2008 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and a USCG licensed deck officer.
A PIVOT, BUT WITH WHAT?
American strategic thought has been dominated by the recently self-proclaimed “pivot” to the Pacific and Asia. A student of history, or simple geography, can easily demonstrate that conflict in the Pacific has always, and will always, be a primarily naval endeavor. The same research will reveal that even with a naval focus, any future conflicts are likely to involve putting troops ashore in some fashion. However, seaborne basing, forcible entry, and general contingency planning for amphibious operations are at risk in our military’s current force structure.
Sheer numbers show that the capability to move and fight amphibiously is at a relative historical low point. The US Navy does not indicate in its ship building priorities that this unsettling fact is likely to change. Unorthodox options such as using Maritime Preposition Force ships, auxiliary ships (MSC), or contracted merchant ships are not desirable for operational planners at this time due to the legal and political problems of sending these ships into harm’s way. In light of our strategic desires and growing delta from our amphibious capabilities, the Navy/Marine Corps teams should reexamine these means to supplement capability until reason can guide (along with fiscal ability) necessary, capable amphibious forces.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GATOR NAVY?
The US Navy possesses its lowest number in history of amphibious vessels. There is currently questionable accounting concerning the ability to put an entire MEB (Marine Expeditionary Brigade) to sea. Latest estimates place the required ships to conduct forcible entry options with a MEB, deemed necessary for major combat operations, at 33. Realistically, that number leaves no real reserve and more worrying is the open secret that we will not maintain this force level past 2015. MEUs and ARGs are staying out longer, and being split in order to fulfill operational needs. The 15th MEU, which captured Somali pirates in September 2010, was split conducting counter piracy while simultaneously supporting Afghanistan combat operations and theater reserve.
While such split operations are within the kit bag of the MEU, such practices dilute the nature of the ready force that is forward and concentrated. Current naval planning does not indicate these trends will reverse. In the near term, FY13 budgeted shipbuilding plans for the procurement of 10 combatant vessels, none of which are designed as amphibious troop carrying vessels.
Longer-term outlooks are no more promising, with the 30-year shipbuilding plan designating amphibious ships to remain the smallest portion of the surface ship layout. These trends indicate that while we point to a pivot in the Pacific, a lack of focus on the real possibility of amphibious operations exists in the Navy. Amphibious operations would only make up a portion of the large pie of commitments facing the Pacific Fleet. Within the large spectrum of possible kinetic or non-kinetic operations in the Pacific, it can be predicted that any amphibious operation would be a decisive moment strategically and the planning should be weighted accordingly.
IN THE LACK OF CLEAR ORDERS AND GUIDANCE, ACT ACCORDINGLY
Viewed through the lens of history (Normandy, Inchon, or Guadalcanal) it is difficult to find any amphibious operations that did not mark a dramatic turning point in a campaign or war. If it is then self-evident that such an event would be so strategically critical, why does the current plan to build and maintain such a force seem akin to a family choosing to forgo insurance while deciding to move to earthquake prone area? The prime stakeholder in any amphibious operation, the Marine Corps, cannot dictate the procurement of other services, but it should consider alternative courses of action to ensure its capabilities remain viable.
It is important to remember that any alternatives to procuring and maintaining a robust combatant amphibious fleet should be only temporary. To rely on merchant shipping or other means that are not 100% dedicated to amphibious operations under fire would be a fool’s errand, but more dangerous would be to gap a crucial element of national power when the world is becoming more dangerous.
Numerous historical precedents counter the argument that only dedicated ships of war can be used under fire. Most apparent was the massive emergency nationalization of merchant shipping during World War II. Thousands of tons of civilian shipping, manned by civilian mariners, were mobilized and made a crucial contribution to winning the war. Losses were great, with 1,614 ships sunk from 1940 to 1947 (post conflict losses due to remnants of war) and 9,521 merchant seaman giving their lives in service to the country. Merchant seaman had a 1 in 26 chance of being killed in action, greater than that of any the four services. Clearly, our national history shows that civilian mariners are capable of risking all in service to their country.
Another useful example is that of Great Britain during the Falklands war of 1982. In an economic situation eerily similar to today, the British government had to make many choices of need rather than want during the 1970s. Economic malaise led to drastic defense cuts, and all strategic guidance pointed toward the threat of the Soviet Union and continental Europe. History demonstrated that war rarely happens where governments want or plan for it to occur. Only a year after London mothballed several of its carriers and amphibious ships, Argentina invaded the Falklands and presented operational and strategic challenges of the highest order to the British Government. In an amazing example of military mobalization, Great Britain took two civilian container/roll on-roll off (RO/RO) ships and converted them to ad hoc helicopters and VTOL carriers. They carried Harrier GR.1’s and Sea King Helicopters, and gave British commanders operational agility in the form of air cover and lift capacity. Tragically one of the ships was sunk along with several Royal Navy combatants.
The lesson to take away is that, while as much as we may want to envision a conflict of our choosing, it is more likely that we will end up faced with decisions we did not anticipate. If we have to create capability on the fly and mobilize merchant shipping after we are on the right sight of boom, our forces will face greater risks.
CAPABILITIES DO NOT APPEAR BY “JUST ADDING WATER”
Now is the time to begin planning for the worst. Using civilian shipping in amphibious operations is feasible and more cost-effective than waiting on billion dollar ships that have procurement cycles measured in decades. Training on the lower end of the conflict spectrum in operations such as humanitarian and disaster relief will increase civilian/ military amphibious force ability. Earlier integration into MEU and ARG structures to work out inevitable issues of interoperability will make the inclusion of merchant ships into higher spectrum operations a more risk tolerant option.
Most critically, planning for and using merchant shipping options now will keep our amphibious blade sharp, and capabilities will be less affected than if we remain on our current course of a letting them wither, and eventually die, on the vine. Few operations rival an amphibious movement in terms of complexity, and hoping for the best when marines and sailors conduct one under fire in the future is not only negligent, it is immoral. Utilizing the merchant shipping now and planning for its use until our amphibious force is stabilized is a viable strategy that deserves greater attention.