Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The U.S. Navy and Presidential Campaigns: Size Matters

This article appears in its original form at Offiziere.ch.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) are pierside at Naval Air Station North Island while conducting a hull-swap. The force structure change allows George Washington to undergo its mid-life refueling complex overhaul and Ronald Reagan to support the security and stability of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young, August 18, 2015).
                              (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young, August 18, 2015).

Another Presidential election cycle is upon U.S. citizens, and the chorus of inputs regarding national security and naval policy has already started. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, and former governor Mike Huckabee all advocated for an increase in naval assets as part of their potential national security strategy. And, as expected, critics point out the perceived uselessness of a large Navy. To summarize using the words of the current U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, “we also have less horses and bayonets […] It’s not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s ‘What are our capabilities?'”. However, these arguments miss the point entirely. A larger Navy is necessary to reduce the strain on already overworked assets and maintain presence around the world.
A common critical reply to the call for more ships falls in the capability category. Many critics point to technologically advanced weapons systems in today’s fleet, able to fight their way through any battle and emerge victorious. With hundreds of missile tubes, embarked helicopters, deck guns, and the like, all the U.S. have to do is to top-load the current fleet with the latest and greatest weapons systems and America’s Navy is ready for war. Not even close.
With regard to weapons systems, the U.S. Navy fields some of the world’s most outdated equipment and is being outpaced by its potential enemies. Outgoing Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert recently predicted a shortfall in weapons systems in just five years – including torpedoes and several types of missiles. Also, the U.S. Navy fields one of the oldest and irrelevant anti-ship missiles in service, the Harpoon. It’s limited range and antiquated guidance system pales in comparison to Chinese “carrier killer missiles” (Dong-Feng 21D) and several fielded by Iranian forces.
Of course, it all comes down to size: “The U.S. Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined! Why do we need more if we’re already the largest in the world by such a big margin?” This argument is flawed in several ways. For one, the naval size argument is based on gross tonnage; China’s navy is more numerous than the U.S. Navy, but with smaller and lighter ships. Also, most navies lack a requirement to defend national interests around the world like the United States, and their ships are not built for ocean transits or strong sea states that accompany these deployments. A large number of them are tasked with defending their nations’ littoral areas and coastlines – so there is no requirement for worldwide deployments and large numbers of heavy ships. The rest of the world may have smaller, lighter fleets, but they are built for different purposes than the U.S. Navy.
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The bottom line, however, is this: The Navy is stretched entirely too thin. The current fleet of roughly 285 ships conducts constant deployments to the South China Sea, Middle East, and Mediterranean. Deployments have already been extended for most Carrier Strike Group elements well beyond the normal 6-7 months, and extended and accelerated deployments put an added material strain on ships in desperate need of maintenance. Sequestration already forced the cancellation of two dozen ship availabilities, and these units continued to operate without the required upkeep. Advanced weaponry is definitely cool, but it doesn’t matter much when your unit is too broken to stay on station and use those weapons.
The Navy’s first responders, forward deployed forces in Japan, Europe, and the Middle East, fare the worst. Due to their high operational tempo in volatile regions, maintenance and upkeep are regularly pushed aside in order to add maritime security patrols. With limited numbers of ships in these locations, large numbers of ships with maintenance problems will create a gap in patrols in these locations – there is already a two month gap in aircraft carrier deployment in the Persian Gulf, severely hampering air operations against the terrorist organisation “Islamic State“. If forward deployed vessels in strategically vital areas are allowed to deploy until breakdown, what are the chances for the rest of the fleet?
“Doing more with less” is a shortsighted strategy that will only work in the short term. Very soon, the Navy will be forced to do less with less when skipped maintenance availabilities and rapid repeat deployments render the fleet non-mission capable due to degraded material condition. The fleet that is already stretched thin at 285 ships will be stretched even thinner when they are forced into emergent maintenance periods and endure long overdue repairs and upgrades. It’s time to shed the complacent attitude surrounding naval ship numbers – adding more vessels to the Naval Register is the only way to ensure constant naval presence in the world’s volatile regions.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Abadi's Blame Game



"To be honest, we need a lot of political work on the part of the coalition countries. We need an explanation why there are so many terrorists from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Egypt ... European countries. If it is due to the political situation in Iraq, why are Americans, French and German (fighters) in Iraq?"

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi opened verbal fire on his coalition allies yesterday during talks in Paris. He blames the coalition for lack of progress against the Islamic State (IS) on a lack of military involvement by the coalition, and as referenced by the above quote, a lack of political involvement. Abadi's blame-shifting misses the point, however. It's not only the coalition; it's the ethnic divide.


To be fair, the U.S. and coalition partners are partially to blame for the current state of Iraq. Disbanding the Iraqi Army and hunting down Ba'athist political operatives wasted a tremendous opportunity to utilize seasoned Army commanders to rebuild a dedicated and trusted military force and use politicians to create a constitution and political structure appealing and fair to all Iraqis. The radicalization of these segments of the Iraqi government is also one of the reasons IS is so strong militarily - experienced troops with deep knowledge of tribal loyalties and geography.

However, a bigger issue stems from the marginalization of the large population of Sunnis by the Shiite-dominated government. The lack of national cohesiveness and outright discrimination gave rise to a radicalized Sunni population with no desire to cooperate with a government that hates them.

The lack of a ground offensive and a somewhat ineffective air campaign in Iraq are topics for another conversation. Abadi's comments are ignorant of the obvious recent history of Iraq and the mistakes that led to the current conflict. His attempt to shift blame was weak and quite transparent. The focus of the Paris talks are to repair the Sunni-Shiite relationship, an endeavor that will bear more fruit than the blame game.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Integrate and Assimilate: The Case Against Tougher Anti-Terror Laws



In the wake of last week’s massacre at the offices of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, tougher anti-terror laws have been proposed in France and elsewhere in Europe. However, tougher laws aren’t the answer; they’re actually part of the problem. Oppressive laws targeting Muslims will further alienate an already angry and isolated demographic and give the impression that European nations are hostile to Muslims. Instead, Europe needs stronger assimilation policies to prevent future acts of terror and make their nations more inclusive.

France’s already tough anti-terror laws may have spared the Fifth Republic from a 9/11-style attack, but it is not immune to homegrown terrorists committing massacres on a smaller scale. In actuality, the government’s suspicion of Muslim immigrants has isolated the Muslim community. Suburban communities have become safe enclaves for Muslims, evolving into suburban ghettoes as a result of discrimination and unfair housing practices. As a result, young, underemployed residents fail to assimilate to the culture that is blatantly unwilling to accept them. They stew in their anger, stoked by fringe activists in their communities or those found via the internet. This is the seed of homegrown terror.

This problem isn’t strictly French, either.  A lack of immigrant assimilation in Belgium resulted in large numbers of impoverished Muslim turning to extremism. The Belgian situation is very similar to France: Isolated Muslim neighborhoods, well-supported and anti-immigrant political parties, and laws banning the public wear of religious garb. It’s no surprise more foreign fighters in Syria have come from Belgium than anywhere else, and it will take more than a tough law enforcement stance against terrorism to solve the problem.

A great lesson in assimilation and acceptance of immigrants can be found next door, in Germany. Until very recently, “Germanness” was defined as one who was German both by birth and by blood, and second-generation immigrants were not eligible for citizenship. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has worked hard to erase this concept of national identity that alienated Muslim immigrants. While far from perfect, Germany now has a welcoming policy towards Muslim immigrants and their path to citizenship.

The German PEGIDA protests could be an excuse for European Muslims to continue their isolation and radicalization. To isolated and frustrated Muslims, groups like PEGIDA are a prime example that the West hates Muslims, and radicalization of young, angry Muslims shouldn’t be a surprise. However, Chancellor Merkel and the German government have condemned the protests as contrary to the character of the German people, and that Muslims, along with all immigrants, are woven into the fabric of German society and culture.

Tougher anti-terror laws that cast suspicion on the entire Muslim community will only make the homegrown extremism problem worse. Instead of targeting an entire community based on the actions of a few, European governments should work to include all immigrant groups as a part of their national framework. As the cases of France and Belgium have shown, tough anti-terror laws don’t stop extremism, and have pushed more and more Muslims towards a violent solution to their problems. Messages of integration and acceptance of immigrant communities is the best way to avoid another tragedy.


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Friday, November 28, 2014


Vice news published a great documentary that gives a face to Bahrain's protesters and a view from the ground. Reporter Ben Anderson spent time in Bahrain earlier this year with protest groups, and this video is the result. For more, check out an accompanying article published by my friends at offiziere.ch.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Saudi-Iranian Détente and the Bahrain National Dialogue

This post appeared in its original form at offiziere.ch

News outlets and commentators are abuzz recently regarding combat strategy against the Islamic State (IS) and the involved Middle East players. Analysis revolves around the United States, Iran, Syria, the Europeans and others and their role in defeating IS.
To the south, traditional Sunni power Saudi Arabia recently held discussions with their Shiite foil, Iran, regarding regional security cooperation. You heard right: the Middle East’s two biggest rivals now want to work together in a limited capacity. The Middle East’s focus has been on the battle against IS; however, a Saudi-Iranian détente could have an effect on the turbulent situation in Bahrain

A History of Influence

Separated by less than 200 miles of water, Bahrain and Iran have been entangled since the former’s independence in 1971. With a Shiite population of roughly 75%, Bahrain has long been ruled by the Khalifa dynasty - Sunnis who represent a definite minority among Bahrain’s Muslim population. With Bahrain’s oil subsidies dried up by the late 1970’s and its Shiite population living in squalor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini selected Bahrain as one of the first targets for its exported Islamic revolution.
Khomeini’s forces backed Bahrain’s Shiite revolutionaries as they attempted a coup in 1981, embedding indefinite suspicion in the minds of the ruling Khalifas regarding Bahraini Shiites and their supposed revolutionary backers. As a result, discrimination against Bahraini Shiites is commonplace, and since the suspension of the parliament in the mid 1970s, representation of Shiites at the national level, representing Shiite interests, is non-existent.

Saudi and Iranian Hands in the Pot

Such conditions make Bahrain ripe for discontent and protest. As a participant in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, Bahraini Shiites declared a “Day of Rage” to protest their mistreatment and demand equal representation in the eyes of the law. In an act of solidarity to their monarchical compatriots, the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent reserve troops to the island to bolster the Bahrain Security Forces and maintain order and security in the kingdom. A National Dialogue was set up in order to create understanding between the government and protesters, with hopes that grievances would be solved and Shiites would gain some form of equality in Bahrain, but the talks have gone nowhere.
Throughout the 2011 uprising and in the years since, the Bahraini government played the Iran card with reckless abandon. This tactic achieves several goals. Labeling Bahraini Shiites as Iranian proxies ensures support from the aforementioned Gulf monarchies, as they assuredly want to preserve the stability a long-term Sunni monarchy in the region provides.
Also, it ensures support from one of the island’s biggest clients: the U.S. government. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, responsible for maritime security in the Gulf region and a longtime adversary of Iran and its military. Claiming Iranian involvement in their native insurgency ensures American support for the regime, as they also desire stability in a country housing thousands of service members and their families.
Last but not least, blaming Iran takes pressure off the Bahraini government. Using Iran as a scapegoat takes the spotlight off the government’s longtime treatment of Shiites and their heavy-handed response to the protests, which left dozens dead and hundreds more behind bars for dubious reasons.
Accusing Iran of meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern countries is hardly without reason. Iran has been trying to export the Islamic Revolution for 30 years, and their botched coup in Bahrain is reason enough for mistrust in the regime. Add that to decades of involvement in Lebanon via their proxy Hezbollah, and their support for the Assad regime during the Syria crisis, and it’s easy to see why Iran is such an easy target, especially in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia also has a vested interest in spreading influence throughout the region. They have always viewed Iran as a rival for influence, especially in states with large Shiite populations - hence Saudi involvement in Bahrain. They have also interfered regularly in Yemen, and tend to force influence in order to maintain the status quo and block any governmental change that is challenging to their regional hegemony.

Détente and Dialogue
 
Once more, Iraq has become a Middle Eastern battleground. Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni states oppose IS, as does Iran, backing their Shiite neighbors against radical Sunnis. In a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves fighting the same battle. In that light, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Riyadh for meetings with his Arab counterpart on regional cooperation late last month. The consequences of cooperation between these two states could be monumental, especially for Bahrain.
As I’ve outlined above, Saudi Arabia and Iran are both vying for influence in Bahrain and backing parties on either side of the conflict. The National Dialogue, formed following the uprisings, is the government’s attempt to reach common ground with the opposition regarding their claims and grievances. The Dialogue, however, has been less than productive. In its first year, the Dialogue moved slowly, with no agreements reached. At the beginning of this year, and the government was criticized for basing discussions on a Sunni-Shiite divide, when opposition and outside entities claimed the discussions were based on grievances of the people with the regime.
The government’s claim they are facing a Sunni-Shiite divide is a perfect example of Saudi-Iranian influence on the process. Multiple discussions within the dialogue have focused on Iranian influence on the opposition, despite a glaring lack of evidence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to rid the Dialogue of talks of Iranian and Saudi influence in the process and focus on the issues at hand. With an agreement in place on Bahrain, the talks will no longer be marred by suspicion of outside actors and the government will be forced to negotiate from a place of legitimate grievances, not blaming stalled negotiations on a nonexistent Iranian invisible hand.


Bahrain has dealt with outside influences on its internal politics for years, and it came to a head in 2011. Now, with the future and stability of the country at stake, the government continues to sing the same old song about Iranian influence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to jump start the Dialogue and move forward with real reform. 

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of ISIS?

There's plenty of talk in the blogosphere and among network television regarding the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS). Reason editor Nick Gillespie weighs in with an article on The Daily Beast, and as usual, proves Libertarian ideas are not suitable for the foreign policy realm.
Gillespie spends most of the article railing against the "threat inflation" in American politics, and for the most part he's not wrong. TSA certainly doesn't make us safer from terrorism, and labeling every potential extremist group as the perpetrators of the next 9/11 is counter-productive.
While it is certainly true that Americans have no stomach for another protracted, possibly unwinnable war, ignoring threats to international security, especially those as  widespread and financially sound as ISIS, is unwise and downright dangerous.
Years ago, during the wonder years of the Clinton administration, another extremist group borne of a regional conflict appeared on the world stage. Throughout the 90's, al-Qaeda carried out various attacks against Americans and American targets, culminating in the attacks of 9/11. Initially, the U.S. government held the same opinion of al-Qaeda that Gillespie holds for ISIS: on the radar, but not a transnational threat, and certainly not a threat to the U.S. homeland.
Gillespie maintains that sheer numbers of opposing fighters are enough to defeat ISIS. Apparently 250,000 poorly trained Iraqi troops, many of whom have already dropped their weapons and retreated, are more than enough to defeat ISIS, whose numbers are much lower. The U.S. had a much larger footprint in Vietnam than the North Vietnamese Army, and struggled mightily before withdrawing decades later. Believe it or not, tactics matter much more than troop numbers, as any Iraq veteran could certainly attest.
In fact, it is the policy of doing nothing that allows groups like ISIS to flourish. The al-Qaeda example not withstanding, the U.S. withdrew from Iraq with an Iranian puppet in power who isolated the Sunni minority, giving ISIS a foothold in Iraq's north and west. Also, the Obama administration drew an imaginary red line in Syria, which was ignored. As a result of policymakers standing idly by, ISIS grew stronger and stronger and are now a force threatening regional and international security.
Looking around for a war is never the answer. However, standing on the sidelines while terrorists flourish and flaunt the world order also isn't an answer. Gillespie may want to reconsider his ideas before ISIS becomes too much to handle.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millenium Challenge 2002


This post appeared in its original form at the Center for International Maritime Security.

Tension between U.S. and Iranian military assets in the Arabian Gulf are nothing new. Confrontations between Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman are a regular occurrence for forward-deployed ships. Iran knows it cannot match the U.S. in a conventional confrontation, and focuses on an asymmetrical style of warfare to increase damage and costs of confrontation to the U.S.
In 2002, a joint war game exercise, known as Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), took place to gauge readiness in the event of a conflict with a hostile Middle Eastern nation. The results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare. 14 years later, Iranian asymmetrical warfare can still have a devastating effect on U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East. Unconventional warfare has been the Achilles Heel of the U.S. military for decades, and more gaming and training are needed to enhance U.S. capabilities in an asymmetric environment.

A Combination of Threats

Following their lackluster performance during Operation Praying Mantis, in which the U.S. Navy laid waste to several conventional naval vessels, Iran began to focus on asymmetrical warfare. Tactics include Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC), covert civilian craft, naval mines, and submarines.
The IRGCN utilizes swarming tactics as its method of choice. IRGCN bases are situated in various locations along Iran’s Gulf coast, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Northern Arabian Gulf. This is a key tenet in swarming attacks: packs of small attack craft covertly leave their bases at various times, all heading for the same target, i.e. a Carrier strike group operating in the Gulf. While this dispersed tactic may result in a weaker attack that is easier to repel, it is also much more difficult to detect, as the swarms don’t operate in a large formation. Also, craft equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles can fire their payloads at a greater distance, ensuring survivability and destruction of their target.
Just a relaxing day sailing on the Persian Gulf. 
Iran currently has the fourth-largest inventory of naval mines, as well as various platforms for deployment. Mines are a successful tool in the Gulf: USS Tripoli and USS Princeton struck Iraqi mines in the Northern Gulf during the Gulf War, and USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian-laid mine during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. Iranian mines also dispatched large numbers of civilian merchant vessels in the same time period.
Iranian mines are largely cheap and unsophisticated. However, some Chinese and Russian variants, including the EM-52 multiple influence mine, are much more sophisticated and can be used in waters up to 600 feet - plenty deep to make the Central Gulf a dangerous place.
A majority of bottom-dwelling mines are designed for shallower waters. In some places, depths in the Strait of Hormuz are between 150-300 feet and are prime locations for these types of mines.
While the mines may not be sophisticated, deployment tactics are much harder to detect. IRGCN small craft are capable of laying mines, as are dhows, fishing boats and submarines. These platforms can carry up to 6 mines each and can be resupplied at sea. Mine laying platforms disguised as civilian craft would not raise suspicion on the part of Coalition forces while submarines can be quite difficult to detect by surface or air assets.
Iran operates several different types of submarines, all of the diesel variety. The Kilo-class are Soviet surplus that are nearing the end of their service life, but still require respect, especially in an asymmetrical warfare environment. Kilos can carry several dozen mines, laying them covertly beneath the waves and avoiding the overt detection by surface assets that endanger the mission of mine laying dhows and small boats. Kilos would also require an increase in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms in theater for sub identification and prosecution, such as submarines and air and surface assets. They would also increase the standoff distance of high-value assets such as carriers and troop landing ships. These platforms would most likely not venture too close to a known hostile submarine operating area with few defensive weapons.
Iran’s mini-subs are another part of the undersea warfare threat worth considering. There are at least three separate classes of mini-sub in the Iranian inventory, all diesel operated. Their small size makes them difficult to detect, and their ability to operate in shallow waters makes them a perfect tool to target vessels in the littorals, such as amphibious assault ships and patrol craft, and any convoy of warships or shipping making its way through the Strait of Hormuz. They can also participate in mine laying operations  in shallower seas as a support asset.

Millennium Challenge 2002

MC02 was framed as a Red vs. Blue game depicting the invasion of a smaller Middle Eastern nation by a much larger and more capable adversary. It was the largest war game ever devised; 13,000 troops, aircraft and warships spread throughout the world, at a cost of $250 million. While it looked much like the upcoming invasion of Iraq, the tactics employed by Red closely resembled the nonlinear and asymmetric tactics of the IRGCN.
The Red forces, led by Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, utilized several unorthodox measures and tactics to exploit the weaknesses of the Blue forces. When electronic warfare aircraft fried Red team communications sensors, van Riper used coded messages voiced from the minarets of Mosques at prayer times. This signaled the armada of civilian boats and light aircraft underway in the Persian Gulf to take action, conducting swarm and suicide attacks on U.S. warships and firing Silkworm missiles at high-value assets, claiming two amphibious assault ships and an aircraft carrier. At the conclusion of the attacks, 16 ships were sunk and thousands of servicemen were dead or wounded. Instead of digesting the results and using them to refine tactics and strategies in the face of a nonlinear threat, MC02’s controllers simply reset the problem – ensuring a Blue victory and “gaming” the most expensive and important war game in modern history.
Was anything learned from the surprise ending of MC02? It appears not. Iran’s tactics are nothing new; they have been using asymmetric warfare since the Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s weak Navy isn’t a new development either; most ships are decades old with few modern capabilities. What Iran does have, however, is a military strategy with a basis in unconventional warfare. Asymmetric tactics, like those described above, coupled with a decentralized command and control structure and semi-autonomous unit commanders make Iran survivable in the event of a first strike.
Unfortunately, the U.S. thinks of nations with weak conventional militaries as no match for the technological and modern behemoth that is the U.S. military. This was evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents with little resources utilized out-of-the box thinking and nonlinear tactics to inflict heavy damage on U.S. forces, culminating in eventual retreats. U.S. strategy rests on technological and conventional dominance as well as engaging in non-traditional conflicts using traditional strategy and doctrine.
While Iran’s bluster regarding its eventual destruction of the U.S. fleet shouldn’t be entertained, the threat posed by Iran should be. Nonlinear and suicide attacks from the sea, increasingly capable long-range anti-ship missiles able to reach any vessel in the Gulf, and unconventional communications and command tactics are nothing to brush off. More exercises like MC02 are needed to adequately gauge the readiness of the U.S.’s land, sea and air forces to any asymmetric conflict with Iran. Where there are tactical and strategic gaps, a shift in training is required to prepare our forces for this type of conflict. A Blue defeat in a war game isn’t an embarrassment; it’s a chance to lean forward and become a well-rounded fighting force able to meet any challenge.
The chances of a major conventional conflict with another nation are extremely rare. Unconventional land and sea combat has been the norm for decades, and the U.S. needs more gaming and training in order to cope with the nonlinear threat.


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