Sunday, April 12, 2009
Applying the Art of War in Modern Warfare (1)
Regardless of the combat arena, military professionals follow some of the strategic guidelines that are stated in the Art of War.
Beating Somali Pirates at Their Own Game
By David Axe
After hitting the headlines last year, successful pirate attacks have been on the wane in the early months of 2009, despite a failed attack on a British cruise ship earlier this month. Experts disagree about what has led to the reduction, with some suggesting that bad weather had played its part, but Rear Adm. Terry McKnight of the U.S. Navy attributes the "dramatic" reduction in the number of attacks to the deployment of a British warship, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland, and the coordinated task force of which she is part.
To wage today's battles against pirates who took control of 42 ships and captured 815 sailors last year, the Royal Navy is combining machines and methods forged during the Cold War with centuries-old naval warfare skills. The Royal Navy is also hitting back at pirates by using some of the pirates' own tricks.
When Northumberland slipped out of Mombasa harbor in southern Kenya at the end of last year, a few reporters and gawkers stood on the banks. On the deck of the 460-foot frigate, a smattering of British sailors gazed back. As far as send-offs go, Northumberland's was low-key, but the understated nature of the departure belied the importance of her mission. On that hot December morning, Northumberland — one of just 17 such ships in the Royal Navy — opened up a new front in the unprecedented international war on Somali pirates.
Most of the other warships deployed to fight pirates in the region are concentrated north of Somalia, close to the Suez Canal, through which 10 percent of the world's sea trade passes. Northumberland was the first warship on the scene from a new European Union task force, charged with patrolling the southern flank of the 2-million-square-mile piracy zone, near Mombasa. It was here that pirates scored their biggest victory last autumn, seizing the supertanker Sirius Star, laden with $100 million in crude oil.
Besides Sirius Star, Somali sea bandits hijacked more than 40 large vessels last year, ransoming about 30 of them for a million U.S. dollars or more, according to the United Nations. Sirius Star was released in January after an estimated $3 million ransom was paid, but the other ships, and about 200 crew, remain in pirates' hands. The rise in piracy, and consequent rise in the cost of shipping insurance, drove up the cost of shipping petroleum, electronics and food.
/// *** Speed is the essence of war. - Sunzi
To beat pirates in potentially violent showdowns, the Navy has adopted the pirates' tactics of using "mother ships" carrying fast boats to spring on opponents.
In the early days of Somali piracy, in the 1990s, pirates ranged only a few miles from their hometowns and threatened just a few thousand square miles of ocean. The reason was simple: Most pirates were former fishermen and had only the tools of a typical fishermen. Their personal firearms and their small, motor-propelled wooden fishing boats, called skiffs. The skiffs were too slow and too flimsy to catch anything but the most rickety of vessels.
Then the pirates innovated. They began capturing trawlers and small freighters for use as motherships. Crewman Juma Mvita, from the Kenyan merchant ship Semlow, discovered this the hard way in 2005, when about a dozen armed Somalis intercepted his ship. Mvita said the pirates had no interest in Semlow's cargo. Instead, they commandeered the harmless-looking freighter to launch their next attack. It was more than three months before the pirates released Semlow and her crew.
/// *** All warfare is based on deception.
Today, pirates use motherships for nearly all their attacks. "What we tend to see happen is a mothership will ... drag along a couple skiffs with it and have probably 10 or 15, 20 pirates on board, and then they'll send the skiffs out to go after a merchant vessel," McKnight said. He commands a new three-ship, counter-pirate task force.
Warships assigned to piracy patrols rarely engage pirates on their own. They deploy specialized search-and-seizure teams, which in the Royal Navy consist of marines armed with rifles and machine guns, traveling in raider craft. It was one such team from the frigate HMS Cumberland that killed three pirates in a firefight last November.
Boarding teams have been a part of British warship crews for centuries, but in recent years they've become the best weapon against enemies such as pirates. The Cumberland's actions are "bound to have an impact on pirates," said Capt. Mike Davis-Marks, a Royal Navy spokesman. "Now suddenly there's the threat of death and this may force them to think again."
Cumberland's encounter was typical, if still rare in a conflict in which most navies are focused on deterrence rather than active fighting. A naval engagement with pirates often begins with a commercial ship reporting an attack, using a radio frequency set aside for emergency calls. Other times, a maritime patrol plane, usually flying from Djibouti, spots a potential mothership or pirate skiff, identifiable not by its appearance, but by its vector. A trawler speeding away from Somalia, toward a slow-moving tanker ship, just might have hostile intentions.
Naval commanders, in touch with each other by phone, e-mail and satellite network, sort through the roster of warships in the region to figure out who might respond fastest. They call this "deconfliction." When the responding ship is close enough, it launches a helicopter to scout ahead and confirm that the suspect seafarers are indeed armed, while preparing to lower the boarding teams' boats into the water.
In Cumberland's case, "the ship's presence alone was often enough to prevent pirate attacks," the Ministry of Defense reported. Beyond that, the helicopter might deter pirates simply by "flying close to demonstrate the aircraft's machine gun and giving the pirates warning of their serious intentions."
If the pirates persist, the boarding teams deploy, flanking the pirates' boats to approach from both sides, moving fast with weapons at the ready. If the pirates lay down their weapons, they are taken into custody without a shot fired. If they shoot, the boarding teams fire back, then climb aboard.
The naval network
Deterring an attack, or winning a firefight, requires first that a warship be nearby when pirates strike. With pirates active on millions of square miles of ocean, blending in with harmless fishing boats, that's no easy task.
Today on the Indian Ocean there are 20 warships from 14 nations, all of them sent by their governments over the past six months to protect vital shipping from pirates. Coordinating these ships is key to providing the widest possible protection against pirates. In the beginning, it was a free-for-all. "It's encouraging that everyone is here," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a U.S. Navy spokesman, said last autumn, "but everyone's got their own rules of engagement ... their own commanders."
In time, the naval forces coalesced into four distinct entities plus some odds and ends. There was the U.S.-dominated Combined Task Forces 150 and 151, the latter commanded by McKnight. There was a NATO force sent on a temporary basis, and the EU flotilla intended eventually to replace the NATO one. On the fringes, there were warships from Russia, India and several other navies, sailing and fighting all on their own.
The four large, multi-ship formations had just one thing in common. Each one had a British warship assigned: Cumberland with NATO, Northumberland with the EU, the frigate HMS Portland in CTF-151 and, in CTF-150, a rotation of British frigates, destroyers and logistics ships.
That was no accident. In the last decade, the Royal Navy has mothballed nearly a third of its frigates and destroyers and canceled some new ships and technologies in a bid to save money, but the Royal Navy never cut back on its training and command capabilities.
///*** Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed. When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted. - Sunzi
"Our ships are not necessarily better than those of other navies," said Capt. Malcolm Cree, a commander for international naval forces in the Persian Gulf. "The one thing that we do have, the jewel in the crown of the Royal Navy, is our operational sea training.... As a result, Royal Navy ships and staffs provide a consistent level of professionalism capability that others know they can rely on."
///*** "You should arrange the employment of terrain so that it will be easy for the horses; the horses so that they will easily pull the chariots; the chariots so that they will easily convey the men; and the men so that they will easily engage in battle." -Wu Tzu, 3
It was that professionalism that the EU enlisted when it sent Northumberland to test the pirates' southern flank in December. And it was that professionalism that eventually helped tie together the tangle of naval forces threading the Indian Ocean to deter pirates.
By January, some order had been imposed on the chaos. McKnight's CTF-151 and the EU flotilla, under the command of British Rear Adm. Phillip Jones, were acting as the major nodes in a radio, e-mail and satellite communications network connecting most of the warships in the Indian Ocean. "My biggest concerns are coordination and deconfliction," McKnight said. "It appears that it's been working pretty fairly in the last couple of months."
The legal front
As boarding teams engaged pirates in firefights and commanders were sorting out the naval traffic jam in the Indian Ocean, a parallel battle was taking place on dry land. Late last year, there was "a lack in U.K. law of clear arrest and evidence-gathering powers for Royal Navy officers," the House of Commons recalled in a report in January. "If Royal Navy officers were to arrest pirates, there was a real risk that such prosecution would fail on procedural grounds if they were brought back to the U.K. for prosecution."
That legal loophole is one that pirates have exploited for years. After two decades of civil war, Somalia has no coast guard and no functional courts, and the only organizations in a position to intercept pirates — the world's navies — have no clear legal powers.
"The potentials for legal embarrassments are quite numerous," said Martin Murphy, a piracy analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. So when they captured pirates, many navies simply deposited them on the nearest Somali beach. Needless to say, in those cases the pirates probably returned to their lives of crime.
What the world needed was a stable, democratic country in East Africa, with a stake in the piracy fight and the ability to detain, try and jail pirates. What the world needed, in fact, was Kenya. The United Kingdom, with close ties to its former colony, was the first to draw Kenya into the counter-piracy coalition in a legal capacity. Moses Wetang'ula, the Kenyan foreign minister, and Alan West, the British security minister, met at a piracy conference in Nairobi to initiate the agreement, and none too soon: Eight Somali pirates already were being held in a Kenyan jail, on soft legal grounds, after being captured by a British frigate.
The United States was quick to follow Britain's example. In January, the U.S. State Department signed a similar agreement with Kenya. "The lawyers are at work for the particulars," McKnight said, "and as soon as we get those mechanisms in place, then we will shift our operation." Instead of just reacting to pirates, McKnight's task force would go on the attack.
Aggressive action can't come too soon. "Pirates are winning," Murphy said late last year.
///*** Now being victorious in battle is easy, but preserving the results of victory is difficult. Thus it is said that among the states under Heaven that engage in warfare, those that garner five victories will meet with disaster; those with four victories will be exhausted; those with three victories will become hegemons; those with two victories will be kings; and those with one victory will become emperors. For this reason those who have conquered the world through numerous victories are extremely rare, while those who thereby perished are many. -Wu Tzu
Back off the coast of Mombasa in December, Northumberland made final preparations for her mission. In the frigate's scrubbed and polished compartments, sailors calibrated their sensors and fueled up a gray-painted Merlin helicopter. Royal Marines checked the rifles and kit. The vessel veered northward, toward Somalia. "We remain ready," said Commander M.J. Simpson, Northumberland's skipper.
If pirates really are less aggressive this year, the world has the Royal Navy, in particular, to thank. If not, and if this most ancient form of lawlessness continues to sap the global economy, nations will keep looking to the United Kingdom to help fight piracy.
///*** Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy; Next best is to disrupt his alliances. The next best is to attack his army. The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative. -Sunzi
This article originally appeared on Wired.co.uk.