Proxy War in Yemen

17 May 2015

Sunday


yemen on the map

When we hear “proxy war” we think of the Cold War, but the idea of a proxy war can be extrapolated beyond the particular circumstances of the Cold War to apply to any war fought between two or more nation-states that is not fought on the territory of the nation-states in question. Yemen has become a battleground, a proxy war, within the larger de facto war taking place within Islamic civilization (which I have touched upon in The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization and The Problem of Islamic Terrorism). Yemen is, one might say (with a certain ruefulness), the “perfect” venue for a proxy war in the region. On the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, directly bordering on Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government is not strong enough to enforce an internal security regime, and is routinely referred to as a “failed state” (cf. Yemen and Warfare in Failed States).

Yemen-map-jpg

In a couple of posts on the developments in Yemen during the events following the Arab SpringDefinitive Ambiguity in Yemen and Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip — I discussed the murkiness of Yemeni politics. As we now see, the definitive ambiguity in Yemen has given way to civil war and proxy war. The situation in Yemen has calmed down for the moment, but it is the nature of proxy wars to pass through cycles of relative calm punctuated by flareups of spectacular violence. We should expect to see further such flareups.

Yemen has long been a primarily tribal society, and as such it has been an easy mark for outside powers, who can usually find a willing client among the many tribes. The country was split in two during the Cold War between North Yemen and South Yemen in an earlier proxy war. In more recent events, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the installation of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels, Shia backed by Iran, established control over a considerable portion of the country, sending Hadi packing, and Saudi Arabia responded by bombing Yemen to push back against Houthi gains. Interestingly, former president Saleh has sided with the Houthis (cf. Eyeing return, Yemen’s ousted Saleh aids Houthis).

Yemen_Topography

There is a backstory to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proclamation of support for the Houthi rebels making progress in Yemen. During the Arab Spring (seems like a long time ago now, right?), when autocrats who expected (and attempted to enforce) a life tenure in office were falling left and right, the Saudis pressured Saleh into giving up power. Saleh, apparently a wily character, tried his best to hang on, and even slipped out of Saudi Arabia after receiving medical treatment in the Kingdom. One suspects that this current ploy is (among other things) an opportunity for Saleh to poke Saudi Arabia in the eye with a stick after they were instrumental in his ouster from power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

So Yemen finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with Iran backing proxies and Saudi Arabia bombing the country. Iran, the contemporary representative of an ancient civilization derived from the west Asia cluster, Persia, possesses a dimension of prestige that extends to before the the advent of Islamic civilization. This might seem a bit recondite to enter into contemporary geopolitical hardball, but it is not far below the surface. The Financial Times quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, as saying, “Yemen is an independent country with an old civilisation, much older than Saudi Arabia.” The subtext of this message is that Iran is an independent country with an old civilzation, much older than Saudi Arabia.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

It has been argued that the conflicts among Islamic nation-states are not religious conflicts per se, assimilating conflict within Islamic civilization to conflict within the nation-state paradigm, and doing so where that paradigm is at its weakest, even as groups like ISIS seek to score ideological points by flaunting conventions of the nation-state, as in their pointed abrogation of territorial boundaries (cf. ISIS and Sykes-Picot).

It has also been argued that Iran and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been for decades contesting for the title of vanguard of revolutionary Islam, with the idea being whichever can prove itself the more radical and ruthless will win the acclaim of the Islamic masses, and that this rivalry transcends the split between Sunni and Shia because it pits the Ummah against Dar al-Harb, and presumably unifies the Islamic masses against a common enemy. (One then wonders why ISIS, most recent representative of radical Islam, makes a point of mass executions of those they regard as infidels, most of whom are fellow Muslims, although not sharing the exact beliefs of ISIS.)

If both of these arguments are taken seriously, then we could safely ignore the Sunni/Shia split in Islamic civilization and proceed to predict the actions of agents in current regional conflicts in purely secular terms, without reference to Islam. At this point, we realize that this is a familiar argument and that we have seen it before. This is exactly the sort of thing that Sam Harris has criticized in his many books on the role of religion in public life: the moderate views of the many come to facilitate the radical views of the few, as the radicals are dismissed as not “really” representing the religious views of the community, therefore they can safely be ignored and treated as criminals, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever. All the while, unquestioned moderate religious beliefs are the backdrop that gives plausibility and prestige to radical views disclaimed by moderates. (In Hearts and Minds and Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind I called this the principle of facilitating moderation.) The Sunni/Shia split is embedded in the moderate representatives of Islam, and cannot be disentangled from regional diplomacy without falsifying events on the ground.

The illusion of a secular conflict in MENA, in so far as this illusion is perpetuated, will turn diplomacy into a sideshow unrelated to the reality on the ground, and ineffectual for that reason. The most recent message from Al-Khalifah Ibrahim, Ameer Al-Mu’mineen, Al-Sheikh Al-Mujaahid Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi, “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” takes pains to disavow any secular interpretation of the actions of ISIS:

O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshiped alone. He (peace be upon him) said to the polytheists of his people, “I came to you with slaughter.” He fought both the Arabs and non-Arabs in all their various colors. He himself left to fight and took part in dozens of battles. He never for a day grew tired of war.

In the public discourse of the US, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran was primarily about delaying the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to ameliorate the perception of an existential threat to Israel. Here in the west we have our own problems with mainstream religious moderates making excuses for religious extremists, who use their extremist credentials to establish their bona fides with the Christian masses. Thus the Israeli-Iran conflict plays well in the US press, and is uncontroversial because all political parties in the US support Israel. But the recent U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David (cf. More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David by Anthony H. Cordesman) reveals that there is much more going on in the deal with Iran than is part of the public discourse of ensuring Israeli security.

The US has long-standing security relationships with Sunni Arab states, and especially with Saudi Arabia (which spends six times more on its military than does Iran). The Gulf Sunni Arab states are worried that a US-Iranian rapprochement will mean that long-frozen Iranian assets will be made available to Iran, and, with the reintegration of Iran in the global financial community, Iran will have even more money to back its regional proxies, which have long been Iran’s most effective foreign policy tool. This is a legitimate concern on the part of the Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia itself knows all too well the soft power it buys with the money is spreads around; Iran does the same thing with far less money, but with hard power assets thrown into the deal), but this is not a concern that plays well in the US press, and no Saudi prince is going to receive an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, especially over White House objections. Moreover, there is an ideological overlap between the Salafist extremism actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the extremism of ISIS (an overlap that goes beyond their common Sunni beliefs), and, if this were to be widely discussed in the US press, Iran would look good by comparison.

The nuclear deal with Iran is as relevant, if not more relevant, to Saudi Arabia than it is to Israel. It is widely understood that Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the understanding that, if Saudi Arabia wants nuclear weapons, then they will be made available. Thus Saudi Arabia has access to nuclear weapons without having to host the industrial infrastructure of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil — a triumph of plausible deniability. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, while primarily about regime survivability, must also be seen in the light of Saudi Arabia’s deniable nuclear capability (which can be understood as an instance of nuclear ambiguity).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Mess in Mesopotamia

28 February 2015

Saturday


Islamic state territory

Introduction: A Failed Region

What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.

My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.

Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

The Options for Islamic State

After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.

On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.

ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.

Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.

As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.

Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.

As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.

peshmerga

The Options for Dar al-Harb

The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.

If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.

There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).

Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.

There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.

Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.

Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.

These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.

Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.

Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.

This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.

dar al harb dar al islam

Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb

Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.

As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.

There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.

Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.

A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.

If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.

In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.

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Tuesday


Ships are vulnerable: post strike image of a destroyer target hit by an AGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile during trials. The Harpoon, with a larger warhead, is more lethal than the Exocet.

Earlier in Speedboat Diplomacy and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I discussed the possibility of asymmetrical attacks against a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and especially the possibility of a swarming attack by small boats. That carriers are vulnerable due to their size and in spite of their elaborate defenses I take to be proved by the ability of both Japanese and American forces being able to disable carriers in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.

Having thought about this, I think I can formulate my point more concisely: if one rejects the proof of concept of the vulnerability of a carrier, one must show that there have been revolutionary, game-changing developments since the sinking of carriers during WWII and the sinking of the Sheffield during the Falkland’s War. It could be argued that automated and computerized “smart” weapons constitute a revolutionary development. The next question is this: If automation technology constitutes a revolutionary development in weaponry, does it favor the attack or the defense? Does it favor conventional forces or unconventional forces? Does it favor symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare? The machine gun and barbed wire favored the defense; tanks favored the attack. The answer is different for different technological developments. However, I’m not going to go any further into these intrinsically interesting questions at the present moment.

In previous posts I’ve cited Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog and Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog, both of which have covered the topic. More recently I noticed a short piece on Thomas Barnett’s blog, The long and the short of the U.S.-Iran naval showdown. Barnett writes:

“…anybody who sends a US carrier to the bottom has a bigger problem than the resulting bragging rights…”

And,

“…if we admit, there’s [sic] plenty of realistic ways, for somebody who’s really committed, to sink a US carrier. But again, that ain’t the problem. The problem is what America would do next.”

And,

“ANYBODY can sucker punch us at any time. It’s what comes next that matters.”

A comment by Joe K. on Mike Burleson’s Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2 made a similar point:

“There’s so much focus on the attack and not enough on the context… We have boots on the ground East and West of them, a naval force in and near the Persian Gulf, significant airpower, and several allies in the region (some of which we have been arming, i.e. Saudi Arabia) with aircraft that can fly transcontinental. Not to mention the local populace is not so keen on their own government.”

As these observations highlight, we must situate the sinking or disabling of a carrier, or the disruption of a CSG, in military and political context. What is the relevant political context of an asymmetrical strike against US naval forces? This depends upon the theater of operations, and the moment of the attack, of course. It also depends on the character of the asymmetrical attack. If we define an asymmetrical threat as anything other than a conventional engagement between conventional forces, like battles between carrier task forces in the Pacific theater of WWII, then anything that happens is going to be asymmetrical because there are no symmetrical matches to US naval power in the world today. Thus “asymmetrical” describes a spectrum of threats, each of which might be significantly different in weapons and tactics than any other. Nevertheless, some general observations can be made.

To discuss the military, political, and diplomatic context of a strike against US forces is essentially to discuss rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation. US forces on patrol will be under particular rules of engagement that will govern immediate response to an attack. The 1999 Marine Corps Close Combat Manual defines ROE as a “Continuum of Force” which is broken down into five (5) levels from “compliant” to “assaultive.” The nature of the individual naval mission will determine specific ROE, and this will be based on certain expectations. Ultimately, given that the US chain of command ends at a civilian Commander-in-Chief, the ROE will reflect diplomatic and political concerns as much as military concerns. The very fact that US forces are on patrol already points to the fact that political leaders have determined that a US show of force in the region in question might achieve certain political ends. As we know from the famous Clausewitz aphorism, the military and the political cannot be separated: each is an extension of the other.

Thus I take it that the military-political continuum of interests that governs ROE is a further and concrete extension of the idea of escalation, so ultimately we must focus on escalation in a political and diplomatic context. This is a large task, and a complete treatment of it would need to be based on a review of history and a consideration of game theory. I won’t attempt any of that here. I will simply focus on the obvious responses to Thomas Barnett’s question: “What will America do next?”

The spectrum of ROE and the spectrum of military-political-diplomatic continua mirror the possible spectrum of asymmetrical attacks. Any attackers would have many options, and the US would have many options of retaliation and escalation. When Al Qaeda, sheltered by Afghanistan, sponsored the September 11 attacks, the US simply eliminated the government of Afghanistan. This is a robust response, but also a problematic one because eliminating one regime means installing another in its place, and this means a political commitment that might have to be measured in decades. The stakes must be high in order to mount such a first step on the escalation ladder when other options are available.

The response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.

Since we’ve already discussed the possibility of Iranian swarm attacks by small boats in the Persian Gulf, let’s continue this theme with a quote from Worst Enemy, by John Arquilla (a book brought to my attention by Mike Burleson’s New Wars):

“The Iranians, who have clearly concentrated on building a substantial body of light coastal forces, appear to have rejected tele-operated vessels in favor of creating a swarm of manned craft, whose one- or two-person crews would simply sacrifice themselves in kamikaze attacks.” (p. 79)

Some of the comments on the New Wars blog also returned to the idea of a suicide swarm scenario, but a swarm need not be a suicide swarm. In fact, this observation is the ground of a distinction between suicide swarms and non-suicide swarms. We cannot assume that a swarm will focus on suicide attacks, though we must reckon with the possibility. Similarly, the goal need not be sinking a carrier. In some cases, simply harassing a CSG so that it is somewhat tied down and unable to devote its resources to other matters might be sufficient to the military-political ends of those ordering such a swarming diversion. In a diversion, there would be less motivation for suicide attacks, and one would suppose the that attacker would wish to preserve the lives of his trained and skilled forces.

With this in mind, imagine a scenario like this: a CSG is attacked by a swarming mass of small boats under cover of radar-confusing chaff. Their mobility and maneuverability, in addition to the cover from CIWS, would limit their losses. Such a swarm could come and go, harassing a CSG at will. A mothership or motherships at a relatively safe distance could increase the range of the power projection of such a swarm.

How might a nation-state such as Iran employ such a swarm, and how might the Navy and the US respond to it? Would a harassing swarm attack rise to the threat level that would justify substantial escalation? I think not. Certainly during an engagement US forces would do as much damage as they could to the swarm, but they would be as unlikely to eliminate it as an individual is unlikely to eliminate a swarm of mosquitoes by slapping those that land on one’s skin and insert their proboscis. Such a weapon might be used repeatedly. Its repeated use would allow swarming crews to gain valuable experience, and would allow military thinkers to formulate an effective doctrine for their employment.

Would the US want to send in a second or third CSG if one CSG has been attacked or harassed by a swarm? Would this show of force intimidate the enemy, or would the world media spin it so that more and more US forces were being “tied down” by a few small boats? As I noted before, this can become a David and Goliath moment. There might also be the perception that one CSG couldn’t defend itself and needed help. This could be potentially damaging to prestige.

Such a weapons system need not exclusively target other military forces. One of the concerns with Iran is that it might close down the Strait of Hormuz. But thinking in terms of closing the Strait of Hormuz is like thinking in terms of sinking a carrier. We need not take the enemy’s flag in order to change the enemy’s behavior, or even to win the battle of popular opinion in the media. A swarming weapons system with an appropriately formulated doctrine could temporarily halt transit of the Strait of Hormuz, or slow down transit of the Strait for extended periods of time. It would take very little restriction or slow down in order to dramatically affect oil prices and worldwide economic performance in the short term. Such actions could plausibly trigger a recession, and a recession could trigger a political change. I am sure that no one has forgotten the lesson of March 11 in Spain and the consequent fall of the Aznar government.

Escalation can be like the proverbial frog in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil: the transition is so gradual that the frog doesn’t jump out. Escalation is a political calculation, and political calculations can be successful, or they can go terribly wrong. At present, “going terribly wrong” could mean losing a carrier or losing one’s swarm. In the longer term, “terribly wrong” could mean something much worse.

Since the initial use of nuclear weapons against Japan, the actual use, especially the tactical use, of nuclear devices became unthinkable, and nuclear weapons have been thought of exclusively as strategic weapons. A clear distinction was made between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare, and, moreover, every effort was made to avoid any crisis escalating to a nuclear exchange due to mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the long term, it is inevitable that the rungs on the ladder of escalation will be more gradual and the black-and-white distinction between conventional and nuclear war will become gray through both the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially small devices, and the continuing improvement of conventional weapons. I have already mentioned the Russian so-called “Father of all bombs,” a thermobaric conventional device based on nano-technology that can have a yield equivalent to small nuclear devices. Such weaponry is not yet widespread, but our calculation of escalation in the future will have to take account of such developments. All weapons systems eventually proliferate.

I suggested previously that a thermobaric warhead on a supersonic torpedo or missile would make a good weapon for disabling a carrier. Suppose this technology develops to the point that a relatively small package or delivery system (something that could be mounted on a speedboat, for instance) could deliver the equivalent of a kiloton on target (keep in mind that the original Moskit P-270 was configured for a nuclear warhead, so we see once again a smooth gradation from the conventional to the nuclear). There is much yet to be expected from nano-technology, and I don’t think this is an over-optimistic suggestion. In fact, it is possible today, though not widely available. The sight of a mushroom cloud rising over a carrier would almost certainly galvanize the US public for a robust, regime-changing response. But the gradual transition to such a catastrophic scenario will be much more subtle and problematic. A range of responses will be required for a range of threats and actions.

The lesson to remember at all times is that there are options available to both attack and defense, and for this reason one cannot become overly-wedded to a single scenario. The enemy gets a vote, and each side is the enemy of the other.

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Note added Wednesday 25 February 2015: Today in a provocative military exercise called ‘Payambar-e Azam 9’ (The Great Prophet 9), the IRGC blew up a model of a US carrier. While I was not able to find images of this on the IRNA site, there are pictures on the TIME website in Iran Blows Up Replica U.S. Warship During Defense Drill (this item was brought to my attention by the new CSIS evening newsletter edited by H. Andrew Schwartz).

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Russian made 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Speedboat Diplomacy

6 April 2010

Tuesday


Everyone has heard of gunboat diplomacy, but what of speedboat diplomacy? An instance of speedboat diplomacy is playing itself out as we speak, and it offers us some interesting insights. I never would have thought of a speedboat as sensitive technology that the military establishment would try to restrict, but this is the case in fact. The Bradstone Challenger, a one-off speedboat built with the assistance of a US defense contractor and which holds the speed record for circumnavigating Britain in 2005, is on its way to Iran despite the efforts of the US and UK to keep it out of their hands. But, apparently, not very strenuous efforts.

In an article in the Financial Times, Iran-bound powerboat raises fears, the journey of the Bradstone Challenger from the plaything of British adventurer Neil McGrigor to sensitive military asset is detailed. The story has since been repeated, for example, Iran speedboat threatens U.S. carrier? on the Space Daily website, drawing from the FT story.

When I first heard the story it struck me as odd that a speedboat would be the focus of international intrigue, but it seems that the Bradstone Challenger (also called the Bladerunner 51) was more in the way of a prototype than a production line model, though it now seems to be in limited production. The defense contractor involved in its construction, Navatek, is reportedly building a naval version of the boat. The Iranians are said to be interested in the advanced hull design — an Air Entrapment Monohull (AEM) — the work of naval architect Lorne Campbell and built by ICE Marine.

The ICE Marine website has the following to say about the Bladerunner 51:

The all new Bladerunner 51 is the current flagship model to the Bladerunner Series. Powered by twin 1000hp Caterpillar C18 inboard engines combined with a pair of Arneson surface drives, with a top speed in excess of 65 knots (74 mph) in full leisure format, the all new Bladerunner 51 is one of the fastest luxury high performance sports cruisers in production in the world today. In late 2005, this remarkable boat smashed the Round Britain World Record in an astonishing 27hrs and 10mins at an average speed of 63.5mph, proving its astounding offshore capabilities.

The Navatek website had this to say about the Bladerunner 51 Patrol Boat:

Navatek’s Bladerunner-51 ALB Patrol Boat incorporates two advanced technologies — a 51-foot, Bladerunner entrapment tunnel monohull (ETM) hull form licensed from Navatek development partner ICE Marine (UK); and twin Navatek aft lifting bodies (ALB). ICE Marine pioneered Bladerunner technology starting in 1975, and has built 34-foot sport/recreational boats. In 2003, Navatek teamed with ICE Marine to develop commercial and military craft incorporating Bladerunner technology. These include the BR-35 “Mosquito” RIB interdiction/boarding boat; and the BR-51 hull form. In Aug. 2005, a sports version of the BR-51, the Bradstone Challenger, set a new Round-Britain world speed record, circumnavigating the isle of Britain in 27 hours and ten minutes, including five refueling stops, while averaging over 62 mph to smash the existing record by almost four hours. It has been tested to speeds of greater than 70 knots. Navatek subsequently developed a military version of the BR-51 using the same hull mould.

Thus we see that this isn’t just another speedboat, but an advanced design that has been incrementally improved (according to its designer) since first conceived in 1974. A robust naval version of the boat would be an asset to any of the world’s navies.

From the Navatek website: a Bladerunner 51 adapted as a patrol boat.

I wrote to the naval architect responsible for the design, Lorne Campbell, to ask him about what would be involved in copying the design, and he responded as follows:

In theory the craft, being of composite FRP construction, is relatively easy to copy; a mould just has to be taken from it. In practice it is a complicated set of moulds and inaccuracies will result in poor performance. We believe that the hull shape is an advance in the art of high speed powerboat design but we have developed the concept since the Bradstone Challenger and will continue to do so.

Mr. Campbell gave me permission to quote him here, and he also added, “…it will obviously be very galling if the design is a), copied without payment of a license fee and b), used in an aggressive manner against us.” I suspect that in this case it would be somewhat difficult to successfully pursue intellectual property rights. However, Iran is in the process of accession to the WTO, against repeated objections in the US, and may ultimately pay licensing fees even where practically unenforceable in order not to prejudice the accession process. If the Iranians do not pay licensing fees for the design, if would certainly be in the interests of Lorne Campbell Designs to bring this to the attention of the WTO during the accession process, and I can’t imagine that this would be overlooked by those who have worked to keep Iran out of the WTO.

The presence of Iran dominates the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Given that Iran possesses a technological and industrial infrastructure equal to the task of being on the cusp of producing nuclear weapons, it should not be beyond the capacity of Iranian industrial expertise to design a good patrol boat of their own, but it is almost certainly cheaper to buy an advanced design outright than to develop it oneself. Probably the Iranians could, with less controversy, purchase one of the less advanced models and do their own refinements after testing and proving, but, again, if the advanced model can be had for cash, there’s no reason not to cut to the chase. Iranian persistence and perseverance have served them well in this instance.

From the Navatek website: illustration of the Bladerunner 51 hull design.

Several stories on the Iranian purchase featured the concern that the Iranians would arm the boats with high speed torpedoes, making them a threat to warships and carriers, and also suggesting the possibility that, in a conflict, Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz and thus interrupt the flow of 40 percent of the world’s oil that passes through the Strait on tanker ships.

The Strait of Hormuz: choke-point for some forty percent of the world's oil transported by tanker ships in transit from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

While there are reasons to be skeptical that a speedboat with torpedoes could take on a carrier battle group, there are also reasons to be concerned. Ever since the small and inexpensive French Exocet missile sunk the HMS Sheffield on 04 May 1982 during the Falklands War (to be more accurate, the ship was hit on the 4th and sank on the 10th), it has been obvious that large and expensive warships, crewed with hundreds if not thousands of sailors, are vulnerable to relatively cheap counter-measures. While the Reagan-era defense build up took battleships out of mothballs, not least for the prestige of the Navy, the other side of the prestige of an enormous battleship is the devastation to public morale when something so formidable is destroyed in seconds by a missile with massive loss of life. It’s a David and Goliath moment.

The HMS Sheffield burning after being hit by a French-made exocet missile.

None of this is new. The Soviets focused on creating supersonic missiles (the P-270 Moskit) and torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) to counter US technological superiority that was often installed on vulnerable platforms. It is a lot cheaper and quicker to develop a supersonic missile or torpedo, and one can field a great many more of them, than to build a supersonic fighter or a carrier battle group. This equation still holds true. The FT story quoted Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based naval strategist, as saying, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” Yet a sufficient number of small, fast boats launching a sufficient number of supersonic torpedoes could be a very serious threat to a carrier battle group. Only one torpedo would have to get through in order to cause enormous damage. The odds are on the side with the greatest numbers.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, still a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

Large and expensive weapons systems will continue to be vulnerable to (relatively) small, fast, and cheap counter-measures. In so far as these counter-measures can be pushed to the limits of their development, they could prove to be a formidable force. The Bradstone Challenger now on its way to Iran could help the Iranians to push the limits of the development of such counter-measures. Coupled with late Soviet technology, already dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s and therefore increasingly available with the passage of time (as well as open to improvements by retrofitting with more recent technology), this is a counter-measure that no navy with vulnerable assets could afford to ignore.

The story in the Financial Times also included this interesting bit:

The US commerce department’s Bureau of Industry and Security asked South African authorities to block the transfer. It voiced concern that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intended to use the boat as a “fast attack craft”. The bureau noted that similar vessels had been armed with “torpedoes, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles” with the aim of “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats”.

This was of particular interest to me, as I briefly discussed swarming tactics in The Power of Mobile Fire.

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I have elaborated some of the ideas mentioned above regarding swarming and small boat tactics in The Swarming Attack.

I have written more about some of the above concerns in Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical?

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A picture of the Bladerunner 51 from the ICE Marine website.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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