Irregular warfare is a nightmare. It is underhanded, vicious, cruel, thankless and interminable. Like the undead or those characters in sci-fi films that reconstitute themselves after being blown apart, the enemy keeps coming back for more. Not the same guys, but their brothers, sisters, fathers, alienated immigrant cousins, distant clan members and ideological bedfellows. The pretty girl bats her eyes at the young soldier while her brothers plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) so when he returns home, his missing leg will always remind him of her welcome. Not surprisingly, it is not a form of warfare that most regular soldiers and sailors want to fight. Unfortunately, our adversaries do.
It has been recognized since the end of the Cold War that the littoral regions of the world are where we will have to fight. How we will fight there has been dominated by the expeditionary mind-set that envisaged, not without justification, high-tempo operations built around concepts such as the Marine Corps’ Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS). The concern was to avoid the dangers of over-the-beach assaults and punch force deep inland. The concept had marked similarities with the Army’s “AirLand Battle” doctrine of the 1980s that envisaged smashing the Red Army’s advance into Western Europe by leaping over the forward troops to destroy the second and third echelon forces coming up behind. AirLand Battle was a concept only a “Big Army” could realize. Similarly, OMFTS required a “Big Navy” and a “Big Marine Corps.” The problem has been that most of the conflicts that have taken place in the littorals, and most of the wars in which American servicemen and women have been engaged have not been big wars. As Frank Hoffman has written, “The Big War paradigm might be comforting and conducive to justifying a large share of the national treasure. But its relevance to today’s geopolitical disorder is questionable.” What they have had to fight is irregular war — and America does not do irregular warfare very well.
This is a challenge not just for the Army and Marines. The Air Force and Navy need to confront it, too. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen has made it plain that the Navy cannot afford to sit out at sea and wait for the enemy to come to it; it will need to sail into the littoral and find the enemy. But what will it do when it gets there?
Historical commentators have suggested that navies have three functions: influence, large-war fighting and policing. The Navy, as it is configured, is clearly capable of fighting major war at sea and exerting influence in the Mahanian tradition. What it is incapable of doing is conducting or supporting small-unit operations in coastal regions. It lacks the agility to defeat irregular opponents in the littorals and the expertise and resources to support the efforts of regional allies.
What it has is firepower. It can find targets and destroy them. However, as the film “The Battle of Algiers” (now required viewing at the Army Command and Staff College) makes clear, in irregular conflicts, superior firepower might win in the short term but offers no guarantee of long-term success. The center of gravity is people. What any force in such situations has to observe are the five Ps: perception, presence, persistence, precision and politics.
Navies have laid great stress on their ability to offer presence and persistence coupled with mobility. What this has generally meant in practice is the ability to loiter out of sight over the horizon, imposing blockades or exploiting mobility to harass an enemy’s flank. The advocates of expeditionary war have stressed these attributes by pointing out that air and land forces can be held on board ship until needed. Neither capability should be underestimated, and neither has great value against irregular opponents, particularly those who have been forced to break cover and run, as occurred recently in Somalia. The Navy’s imposition of an old-fashioned blockade to prevent jihadist militants from fleeing by sea is an important reminder of the flexibility of sea power.
That success demonstrated three of the five Ps: persistence, presence and precision. What U.S. involvement in Somalia had demonstrated before then, and is likely to display again, is a lamentable lack of perception or political finesse. Both come from understanding. Technical means of gathering intelligence, the sort that can be gathered by ships or submarines patrolling offshore, generates data; they need something more to deliver knowledge.
One of the harshest lessons U.S. forces have had to learn in Iraq is the violent consequence of cultural myopia. All armed forces have had to learn this lesson the hard way. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, rates another film, “Bloody Sunday” (when British troops fired on civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland in 1972), because it shows how low-ranking soldiers, unaware of local cultural morés and deployed on the basis of poor intelligence, can affect adversely the course of a war; and, one might add, how insurgents who are culturally attuned can provoke an incident and exploit the results.
Water is an alien environment upon which to live or fight. Whether that water is deep sea, coastal shallows, lakes or rivers, conducting operations on or under its surface presents special challenges. Nonetheless, people populate water, and that population of fishermen, oilmen, tourists and traders is likely to grow as the pressures for economic resources and living space on land increase. With people come crime, politics and conflict. Much of that conflict is likely to be irregular and intense. Any notion that navies might hold that irregular war is something they can avoid because it will not transfer to this alien environment is wrong. Navies traditionally feel comfortable dealing with distance, but the modern irregular fighter finds cover in density. Few environments are more dense and complex than the physical, human and informational terrain of the littorals.
The U.S. Navy, alone among the major navies of the world, appears willing to confront this challenge. It has commissioned a new class of ship, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to operate close to hostile shores and has stood up a new command, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), that has brought together several existing capabilities, including the Seabees and force-protection units, and revived an old one, the riverine capability. What remains unclear is how either the new ship or the new command will be employed. What remains very unclear is whether the Navy has learned from the brutal counterinsurgency experience of its fellow ground services. The jury has not entered the room; in fact, the case has barely begun, but the odds must be that it has not.
Irregular warfare is brutal for the soldiers and sailors who fight it. It is more brutal for the population that suffers it. A counterinsurgency force must be trained and ready to fight, but it needs to use violence selectively and reluctantly. Its primary mission is security — to enable the diplomatic, information and economic members of the DIME quartet to function. To do that, it needs to protect the population, gain its trust and isolate the irregular enemies whether they are terrorists, insurgents or criminals. The key to that is intelligence based on empathy, not merely data. This demands the ability to transcend one’s own culture and understand that of the host population. It demands, in addition, the ability to understand and respect the political and cultural motivations of the irregular adversary. It demands, in other words, more than language skills — even though the new emphasis on foreign language training is an historic change for the Navy — the cognitive skills to appreciate what is being said, something that must arise out of area specific knowledge and patient persistence. All forces, but especially counterinsurgency forces, need to train where they might have to deploy. Both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent are fighting for the support of the population. The insurgent might have chosen conflict as his medium, but the counterinsurgent’s target is his message. Countering this demands the ability to engage with players across the spectrum of influence, not just the organized armed forces. The U.S. currently lacks a force capable of undertaking this task where the land meets the sea.
This is not a SEAL mission. They have evolved in a different direction. They are warriors, trained and equipped to conduct covert insertion reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Their young age profile means that in most cases they lack the maturity needed to be effective in the ambiguous world of long-term unconventional warfare. That does not mean, however, that they do not have specific skills that enable them to make both discreet and discrete contributions to counterinsurgency operations.
THE WATER CONTINUUM
There is, moreover, another critical factor that suggests a special and distinctive force is necessary: Navigable water does not stop at the beach. Equally, rivers do not stop at the sea. Navigable water forms a continuum that permits maritime force to be projected along the world’s waterways from the loneliest part of the ocean into the heart of every habitable continent, including into many of the world’s largest cities. The importance of this notion is incalculable. This continuum is obvious to sea people. They know that criminals and insurgents can exploit this continuum freely. For conventional naval forces, that freedom is constrained. This is in part because of an understandable reluctance to transgress national sovereignty. It is also driven by the knowledge that ships are exposed to great danger when they operate in narrow waters. The force that is being suggested would become the necessary link between the littorals and the closest fleet units.
Although irregular combat in the littorals might be a challenge the Navy knows it has to face, its approach will be conditioned unavoidably by the way it prefers to fight. The Navy, like the Army, is focused on fighting and winning decisive conventional conflicts. Irregular war is different. Certainly different enough from regular war to mean that, as Colin Gray reminds us, “in conflict after conflict, the most elementary, yet vitally important, rules for behavior in COIN have a way of being flouted.” Fighting irregular war is not an esoteric art that can be mastered only by men in colored berets. However, when a service that is conditioned to fight regular war finds itself in a world that demands it spends much of its time fighting irregular war, then having men in colored berets helps. U.S. Special Forces Command has the Green Berets. Perhaps the specialized requirements of the maritime domain mean it is time for the Navy to stand-up “Blue Berets” of its own.
In fact, there are signs that it might be drifting that way. Mullen has spoken publicly of “small, fast watercraft of many nations, racing down rivers” to hunt down terrorists and drug-runners. More recently, he has outlined a vision of Global Fleet Stations where “cadres of Foreign Area Officers that understand the language build friendships” and engender cooperation to undermine the conditions that allow crime and terrorism to fester. Taken together, these are classic special operations functions. They are no different in kind from what small special ops units are doing today across the world. What has not happened is the next logical step: the creation of specialized Navy counterinsurgency forces.
The building blocks for a Navy counterinsurgency force are in place. NECC includes a riverine squadron that is developing the necessary small-boat experience. It also includes maritime civil affairs. The intention is that the riverine squadron will take over the defense of the vital Hadithah Dam on the Euphrates from the Marines in Iraq. But, what will it do after that? As a first step to becoming an effective counterinsurgency force, it needs to build on the concept of the continuum by embracing shallow waters and coastal operations.
The model that suggests itself is to bring the riverine-coastal and civil-affairs functions together under a single commander with a clear counterinsurgency mission. Although it is important to keep in mind that we are dealing with a global problem that does not respect borders, the need for local understanding suggests that the combined unit could be divided into detachments oriented to specific areas. A number stand out: the southern Philippines and Sulu Sea, the East African littoral from the Horn down to the Mozambique Channel, the West African littoral from Senegal around to the Congo and the eastern Mediterranean.
The mission menu for each detachment would be to:
Work with other U.S. agencies, such as the State Department and CIA, local agencies, and extraregional allies to develop deep-level situational awareness.
Work with others on a similar basis to identify and track trends, organizations and individuals of interest.
Work with others to develop relevant maritime domain awareness.
Develop detailed knowledge of local customs and social morés, and local political issues and groupings.
Develop a good working knowledge of local topographical, hydrographical and meteorological conditions.
Develop close working relationships with local armed forces, law-enforcement organizations and other government departments.
Develop, test and implement tailored tactics, techniques and procedures.
Provide training and security assistance as requested to local naval, coast guard and law enforcement organizations.
The objective would be prevention, but if that failed, the detachment would be in a position to undertake broad-spectrum counterinsurgency operations either directly or by facilitating and expediting the entry into theater of other military, naval and government agencies as the situation requires.
NEW WARS, NEW SKILLS
These changes would give the whole NECC a central, focused core around which its other functions could be shaped. The Navy is a war-fighting service, and the skills required to fight those wars expertly must never be relinquished. But new wars require new skills. Littoral warfare is a specialist task. Counterinsurgency is a specialist task. Small-boat management is a specialist task. The Navy needs a cadre of specialists who can handle all three.
It needs, above all, an institution dedicated to learning the lessons of littoral counterinsurgency conflict, because the side that can learn fastest and adapts quickest is usually the side that prevails. Support for the idea that this needs to be separate comes from the experience of the business community. If an organization is good at what it does, it is difficult and counterproductive to change it. The Navy is the best at what it does. But if it is to free sailors to learn, experiment and test what works in the new littoral security environment, it needs a specialized, autonomous organization. It also needs to reassure the members of that organization that their skills will be valued and that they can rise to the highest ranks. Perhaps, in a world where irregular warfare is a fact of life, service in the “Blue Berets” will become a passport to the bridge.
Transformation has been the buzzword of the decade. The transformation required of a large force to enable it to fight small wars has proved the hardest of all. The Navy’s long tradition of cultivating independent action should give it a better chance than most.
Martin N. Murphy is a senior strategic analyst at the University of Reading in England, where he specializes in issues relating to naval strategy and maritime security. He is the author of “Small Boats, Weak States and Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism’s Threat to International Security.”