Anchors A-waste

The U.S. Navy is fumbling a blue and golden opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of its maritime global reach capability (and justify its phony-baloney budget) in the age of fourth generation warfare. Adm. Gary Roughead, who as chief of naval operations is the service’s senior officer, says sea power is not sufficient to combat the Somali pirate threat. “Pirates don’t live at sea," he recently told reporters at a Navy League conference. "They live ashore. They move their money ashore. You can’t have a discussion about eradicating piracy without having a discussion about the shore dimension.”

A mind that astute could only have been shaped at the United States Naval Academy. Yeah, Gary: all of Yamamoto’s people lived ashore too, but you didn’t get to bomb their homeland until you sank their fleet.

In an April 18 NPR interview, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the pirate problem, "It’s not just a military solution here." As you’d probably guess, Mullen is also a USNA grad. It’s never just a military solution, Mike. Even World War II involved economy, diplomacy, information, and other forms of soft power.

The Navy will never again have a peer competitor like the Imperial Japanese Fleet to contend with for control of the great oceans, and it has been so desperate to play a role in the war on ism that it plucked career aviators out of shore-duty assignments to deploy to Iraq as part of Army counter-explosive teams. Yet, incredibly, when faced with the prospect of having to counter the only maritime threat in existence – teenage pirates – the top naval officers in our land flip their palms skyward and whine, "It’s not our job."

It’s time to start asking why we have a navy.

Only once in a month of blue moons do I rest an argument on my expertise and authority. But as I’ve said before, two carrier strike groups – with their self-contained airborne early warning, fixed wing surface search, rotary wing lift, special forces, surface combatant, and command and control capabilities – could, properly employed, shut down the pirate pranks faster than you can say Arr, Jim Boy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is wrong.

Using carrier strike groups to battle teenage pirates sounds like overkill, but what better things have the carriers got to do? Blow the smithereens out of Afghan civilians? Do manly air-to-air combat with Taliban MiGs? Oh, that’s right… the Taliban doesn’t have any MiGs. It doesn’t have an air force at all, or a navy, for that matter. It can barely be said to have an army, even though it’s doing a pretty good job of mopping up in Pakistan.

The argument that carriers are too expensive to use against teenage pirates is specious. We always have at least two carrier groups deployed, peacetime or wartime. They’ll cost just as much chasing pirates as they do drilling holes in the sea and sky.

Emblematic of our national security state is that even though aircraft carriers presently contribute goose eggs to our national security, Congress has approved the purchase of a new class of aircraft carrier that will cost twice as much to make as the old class. The Navy justifies the additional upfront cost with the promise of future savings in operating and maintenance costs. When the future arrives, of course, the savings will have vanished like the apple pies on Aunt Polly’s windowsill. To make things even more preposterous, the new class of carriers will be named after Gerald R. Ford. What, they had to settle for Ford because Mad magazine wouldn’t give up the copyright to Alfred E. Neuman? I suppose if they ever get their cockamamie flying submarine off the drawing board they’ll name it after Joe Lieberman.

Events at sea are only relevant as they affect events on land; but Broadhead, Mullen, and those who think like them are asserting that we need to send force ashore to affect events at sea. An April 13 Bloomberg story reported that the U.S. military was considering "attacks on Somali pirates’ land bases." Neocon tank-thinker James Carafano says, "There really isn’t a silver-bullet solution other than going into Somalia and rooting out the bases."

The problem with all this talk of rooting out pirate bases with silver bullets is that modern pirates need "bases" like modern terrorists need "sanctuary." Today’s evildoers, fanatic or piratical, can plan, direct, and finance their operations from an iPhone. Good luck rooting out all those things with preemptive deterrence.

Exploiting an opportunity to resolve a national security issue at sea avoids a host of difficulties associated with use of force in a sovereign nation. Navies have an inherent right to occupy international waters, whereas armies have to jump through a jungle of legal and moral hoops to pitch tents in somebody else’s campground. Invading another nation requires a declaration (or capitulation) of some sort from Congress, and it’s a good idea to get a mandate from the UN too. Laws are already in place for combating piracy.

You don’t need to get the New York Times to print a phony-baloney reason why it’s important to fight pirates. It doesn’t matter if pirates were or weren’t involved in 9/11 or what they are or aren’t up to with their nuclear program. You can whack them just because they’re pirates committing piracy. There’s a very low risk of collateral damage from a Navy sniper shooting a handful of pirates in a dingy. Compare that to the risks involved when you carpet-bomb a Somali village on the chance that the head assistant evil one you’re targeting showed up for the wedding like your bad intelligence said he was going to.

Of course, the top brass may not consider teenage pirates much of a threat to national security after all. Mullen says it’s up to merchants to pay for their own protection, but they don’t want to do that “because it costs them too much money.” If they don’t want to hire Blackwater to guard their ships, let ’em go fish, eh, Mikey?

That makes a certain amount of sense, except that Mullen also says "it’s about what the international community is going to do with respect to Somalia." So Mullen wants to have a sort of Global War on Piracy (GWOP), I guess. Funny how we go it alone when we want to, but it takes a global village when we don’t.

And if Mullen doesn’t give a sailor’s first night in port whether we deal with the teenage pirate threat or not, how come he told the pod people who host ABC’s Good Morning America that the military has initiated a review to look “broadly and widely and deeply” at the pirate problem? “We’ve actually been focused on this issue for some period of time and set up a task force out in that part of the world last fall,” he told the pod people. “We’ve had a focus on it," he said. The pod people nodded. "There are many, many people working on it right now," he said. The pod people smiled.

I wonder if Mullen’s nose popped out of joint when Smart Power poster girl Hillary Clinton announced that she too had been broadly and widely and deeply looking at this issue for some period of time, and that many, many people in her State Department were also working on it. Between DOD and DOS, it sounds like many, many, people indeed are focusing on a solution to what Hillary, old salt that she is, calls the "scourge of piracy."

A committee that size is guaranteed to come up with a counter-piracy strategy that looks like something along the lines of a seagoing giraffe.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.