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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Navy’s Confrontation With Pirates Spurs Complaints From Reformers

Naval reformers think the successful rescue of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates may have highlighted structural imbalances in the U.S. Navy’s ability to handle irregular warfare.

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Apr 15, 2009

The USS Bainbridge (Navy photo)
The USS Bainbridge (Navy photo)

Ironic as it may appear, Naval reformers think the successful rescue of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates may have highlighted structural imbalances in the U.S. Navy’s ability to handle irregular warfare — just as difficulties experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan awakened the U.S. Army to counterinsurgency requirements**.


To be sure, unlike** **Iraq and Afghanistan, the liberation of Phillips after five days of captivity by what Defense Secretary Bob Gates called “untrained teenagers” off the Somali coast was an unambiguous victory. Three Navy SEALs parachuted into the region, swam aboard the USS Bainbridge, which U.S. Central Command dispatched to monitor the area after the pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama, and fired three shots at night to kill three pirates and free Phillips. As an example of an irregular challenge to global commerce — pirates in small boats armed with crude weapons have hijacked 18 ships in 2009 alone — the United States deployed a minimum of force and used it effectively. “Three Seals, three shots, three take-downs,” an anonymous U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal with evident pride.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The trouble, experts say, is that beyond the rescue lie warning signs about continued threats from low-tech adversaries operating in shallow waters. The current U.S. Naval strategy, written under then-Navy chief Adm. Mike Mullen — now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has won plaudits for emphasizing increased international maritime cooperation. But reformers say it hasn’t gone far enough to restructure the Navy around low-intensity operations and support to special operations forces, rather than operations far out at sea. “You have to have a balanced force,” said Eric Wertheim, a columnist for “Proceedings,” the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute, and author of “Combat Fleets of The World,” in an interview.

What Wertheim and like-minded Naval theorists have in mind isn’t a rebalance of the U.S. fleet overwhelmingly for close-encounter anti-piracy missions, but increasing Naval capabilities for such actions alongside traditional Naval priorities like deterring and fighting adversaries far out in the oceans and protecting shipping lanes. In that respect, they sound much like their ground-force counterparts who argue for a place in the U.S. Army to emphasize counterinsurgency operations as well as combat between two traditional states’ armies. The Maersk Alabama incident may have provided public attention to the threats they’ve been warning about. “Before, [the Navy] didn’t see a need for it,” said Raymond Pritchett, a U.S. Naval Institute analyst and blogger, though he cautioned that it still might not. “There’s a maverick community in surface-warfare community that’s pushing for” greater low-intensity conflict efforts.

In the wake of the Phillips hostage situation and rescue — which saturated media coverage last week — the Obama administration and the military have pledged to make anti-piracy efforts a priority. In a Tuesday morning interview with ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” Mullen said the military would think “broadly and widely and deeply” about what to do about piracy. President Obama said that the U.S. had to “continue to be prepared to confront” piracy in collaboration with other nations.

The incident threw into relief an effort that Defense Secretary Bob Gates began earlier last week. On April 6, Gates unveiled a defense budget that accelerated a Navy program to build the Littoral Combat Ship, a light and fast ship capable of operating in coastal waters that are too shallow for other Naval ships. “It is the kind of capability that would have enormous value against fast boats, for example, in the Persian Gulf,” Gates told a blogger conference call on Wednesday. “You don’t need a $5 billion-ship to go after pirates.” Pirates had boarded the Maersk Alabama just that morning.

While the Littoral Combat Ship has been beset by cost problems, the concept of such a vessel has long been embraced by Naval reformers, who see both international maritime cooperation and coastal operations as critical to protecting the freedom of the seas for global commerce. Pritchett noted that the Navy has been slow to embrace the concept. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Navy gave many of many of its coastal patrol vessels to the U.S. Coast Guard, “but found it needed them for offshore [operations] in Iraq,” he said.

“The Navy doesn’t always like to get involved in coastal operations,” said Wertheim. “It’s not always considered a core mission.” As a result, promoting coastal operations doesn’t always provide a Naval officer a steady path to career advancement.

In a November paper on maritime strategy for the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank that employed many Obama Pentagon officials, retired Marine Lt. Col. Frank Hoffman argued that the Navy needed to invest more in ships that could handle coastal operations.” American security interests will have to be secured and advanced in tomorrow’s ‘contested zones’: the urbanized littorals of the rim lands of Asia and Africa,” Hoffman, who did not return a Tuesday phone call, wrote. “That will require more than a [deep] water fleet that commands the commons from standoff distance. He specifically called for “greater emphasis to smaller craft” beyond the Littoral Combat Ship that can facilitate what he termed “offshore partnering,” for international and commercial security.

The trouble — as Gates will confront when he presents his budget request to Congress when it returns from recess next week — is that “Congress doesn’t consider small ships [part of] shipbuilding,” Pritchett said, and as a result “the Navy doesn’t ask for them” sufficiently. Shipbuilding is a jobs engine in states like Maine and Mississippi.

One way reformers confront the realities of addressing both Congressional pressure and low-intensity conflict is by proposing ships that can take on more than one mission, or by creating new naval formations that provide for a mixture of capabilities. One such proposal, called “Influence Squadrons” in the April issue of “Proceedings,” came from Navy Cmdr. Henry Hendrix. Hendrix envisioned a squadron composed of a panoply of naval assets, including destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, Coastal Patrol ships “to operate close in” to the land and “an amphibious mother ship.”

Hendrix contended that the Influence Squadrons would provide multiple benefits. “Their understated capabilities would epitomize America’s peaceful, non-aggressive intent, and would carry out the new maritime strategy’s stated purpose of providing positive influence forward,” he wrote. In addition, they’d provide enough weaponry to “either dissuade or destroy pirate networks that might seek to prey upon increasingly vulnerable commercial sea lines of communication.”

Other recent anti-pirate activity lent apparent support to Hoffman’s “offshore partnering” strategy of robust maritime collaboration. Wertheim pointed to the Strait of Malacca, a waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia that is one of the most important commercial maritime traffic areas, as it bridges the Pacific and Indian oceans. Piracy in the area, a traditional problem, shot up in the mid-2000s. “Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia realized they have to coordinate, had to work together,” Wertheim said, and accordingly stepped up patrols in the waterway and shared radar and other intelligence assets. While the International Maritime Bureau still considers the strait to be vulnerable to piracy, it notes on its website that “the number of attacks have dropped due to the increase and aggressive patrols by the littoral states Authorities since July 2005.”

But not every aspect of piracy is exclusively a naval problem. Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security, noted that the piracy problem resulted from “ungoverned space” in Somalia, and as a result, U.S. efforts at coordinating international responsibilities could mitigate but not eliminate the problem. The new U.S. military command for Africa, known as Africom, is “helpful for an international blessing” in terms of “coordinating states to allow the U.S. Navy and allied navies to use their ports,” but ultimately the problem is “no one has the appetite to go into Somalia and provide governance.”

Whether the “maverick community” Pritchett describes – and identifies with – will prove to be as influential as their counterinsurgent counterparts in the land-warfare community remains to be seen. But “this incident is what gets the American people going,” he said, and there is a robust international consensus – complete with over a dozen countries’ ship deployments to the waters where the Somali pirates operate and U.N. Security Council resolutions to confront piracy – behind the anti-pirate mission.

Maritime shipping “is a $7.8 trillion industry and there are a lot of trickle-down effects,” Pritchett said. “The insurance rate is going up and that’s going to make our goods cost more. That starts affecting global commerce, which is already struggling … none of this is in our interest.”

Update: Cmdr. Hendrix’s article appeared in the April 2009 issue of “Proceedings,” not “Parameters,” which is the Army War College journal, as this article mistakenly reported originally. We regret the error.

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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