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Piracy: The Military Options | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Piracy: The Military Options

Major Bob is back, too.

But first, we've got a new "Think Again" column called " It's Still theBush Economy" about the proclivity of so many in the media to treat thiseconomic crisis as if it were caused by Obama, rather than Bush, here and I did posts for the Daily Beast arguing that:

a) Obama should release the torture memos here and
b) It's OK to love France (and San Francisco) again here and
c) There may be an actual political strategy behind Obama'swillingness to overload the political system with far more legislationthan he can possibly pass here

Now Here's Major Bob:

Name: LTC Bob
Hometown: Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Hello Altercators, sorry for the radio silence. I've been a bit busy oflate. I do, some may have heard, have a day job. Sometimes thisinterferes.

So, anyway, let us talk about pirates, and piracy and viable options.But first, and most importantly, let us consider the ways to think aboutthe problem. At least, from a military perspective. What follows is abrief primer on military thought (yea, yea, "an oxymoron", I get it,LOL, etc) that may help each of you form your own opinions about thevarious options offered by pundits left, right, center, and everythingin between. My cutting caveat is that the overwhelming (by which I mean,"every single one I've seen") majority of said commentators on "what weshould do" has never actually studied military theory, served aboard aship, or considered the practicalities involved in light of, well,reality.

So, strap on your thinking caps and follow me.

For starters, there are four levels of war. These levels are: Tactical,Operational, Strategic, Political. That's easy, right? Don't worry, itgets more complex in a second.

Now the tactical level is one man vs. one man, or 10,000 vs. 10,000, orthirty ships vs thirty ships, whatever. It is the level of short termengagements. Things that last a pico-second, or an hour, or a week. Wecall events that occur at this level "skirmishes" or "battles." This isthe level of "tactics."

The next level, Operational, is where you plan to string together aseries of battles in pursuit of your strategic objective. This is thelevel where you see whole Fleets, and Corps (in the Army). Events at theOperational level last months. You use the operational level to achieveyour Strategic objectives. (See how this builds?)

At the Strategic level you are making deliberate choices about how you,as a nation, want to fight. There are, really, only a couple of choices.In essence there are really only three (with a potential fourth)military strategies: Annihilation, Attrition, and Exhaustion (the fourthmight be "Fabian," but let's not go there for the moment, ok?) So, well,let's define those, ok? (And remember, you do not need to agree with theuse of force to read this. I'm only giving you the intellectual tools tounderstand and critically analyze the use of force.) Ok, so, the threemajor military strategies might be defined like this:

Strategy of Exhaustion - A strategy which seeks the gradual erosion ofan enemy nation's will or means to resist.

Strategy of Attrition - A strategy which seeks the gradual erosion ofthe combat power of the enemy's armed forces.

Strategy of Annihilation - A strategy which seeks the immediatedestruction of the combat power of the enemy's armed forces.OK, so now you got that. Now let's look at what some people have beensaying.

Essentially, those people who have been writing op-eds about shootingpirates on sight and coastal raiding, are really only writing abouttactical responses. And that's fine. But tactics don't win wars most ofthe time. What I am discerning in the different approaches advocatedhere and in various op-eds all over is not really a disagreement thatsomething must be done, but a tendency to examine the issue fromdifferent levels of war. Those folks who talk about shooting don't linkthat idea, AS IT SHOULD BE LINKED, to an overarching understanding ofconflict at the strategic level.

(Yes, I know, it's not a "war" per se, but you get thegist. Follow me on this. So like I said, shooting individualpirates/pirate boats/villages is Tactical. If one follows their logicthey appear to believe that if we shoot enough of the pirates, theeffect will be strategic. But they don't say that, usually because theydon't know what they're talking about. But essentially what they areadvocating is a strategy of attrition. (Remember, that one is definedas: "A strategy which seeks the gradual erosion of the combat power ofthe enemy's armed forces.") This, by the way, is not necessarily wrong.It's just that most commentators don't link the strategic plan to theiremotional tactical suggestion.

Other solutions, such as a convoy system through the affected areas are more akin to an Operational Level approach, but these are not solutions per se, they are responses to mitigate. They are not strategies for a long term solution, they are ways to transfer the cost that commercial shipping companies (read: Big International Business) are now bearing to the taxpayers of the countries that can afford navies. Yes, I know, it's a wee bit ironic that many of those on thepolitical left are advocating a course of action which has, as it'sprimary beneficiary, large global corporations. But again, these folksusually haven't had any education in theories of war and conflict at thehighest levels, so they don't understand who the beneficiaries reallyare.

Those in the final category, the people who focus on changing the conditions ashore, particularly in Somalia, are looking at the issue from a Strategic level from the git-go, but in their case they're often hazy on the tactics. In most cases the suggestions I've seen would seem to fit under the concept of a strategy of Exhaustion. (Again, remember, that one is defined as: "A strategy which seeks the gradual erosion of an enemy nation's will or means to resist.")Personally, I think it's pure idiocy to advocate a strategy withoutunderstanding the costs, in real military terms, what it will take toimplement that strategy. But more on that in a moment. A friend asked mea really salient question on this issue. He wrote, "In a failed state,such as Somalia, is there not some point where tactical, operational,and strategic levels become one? After all, except for a "government"that reportedly controls a few blocks in the capitol, the folks incharge are warlords and criminal organizations."

So, well, in examining this issue I first focused on theissue of warlords and criminal organizations, and cast about for astateless parallel in history. The closest I could come was thecontinent of North America, from roughly the 1650s-1890, and theperpetual war waged against literally hundreds of different tribes,which lasted roughly 250 years. That is my intellectual baseline here,the worst case scenario which I hope we can avoid. Any de factoconflict/war which lasts 250 years is not a "success" in anyone's book.

The parallels that I see, twixt the two, are these: In both situations you have/had decentralized power on one side, and a central power on the other. In both situations one side focuses upon a raiding style of conflict, darting in and out, while the other largely depends upon a larger more conventional force which has it's own problems finding the small raiding parties. (This seems to apply on land as well as on sea.) Somalia is a "failed state." The continent of North America, as it existed prior to US colonization, was not a state atall in the first place. (This extends down to the tribes, and evenindividual villages, where culture kept most people in-line, but even apowerful sachem could not necessarily control his own young warriors inmost places at most times.) There are other parallels, quite a few infact, but these are sufficient.

What I realize is that it is in the major difference between the two examples that we might see daylight for a positive outcome. In short, Somalia is a lot smaller in a crucial way than is/was North America. There are only so many places along the Somali coast from which one can put to sea, and there are only a few population centers supporting this situation. Somalia is big, but it isvery low density in most places (too low to support piracy), so only afew population centers have become hubs. That makes them vulnerable.

Now, on the original question that my friend posed to me about the fusion of tactical/operational/strategic issues in stateless situations, I think my answer is a definite, "no." That is not to say that events at the tactical level can't have a strategic effect, they certainly can. One need only look as far as the so-called "CNN Effect" to know that what one rifle platoon (or a squad of prison guards) does have strategic impact. But that's not the same thing. It is also not to say that there is not bleed-over between the levels. That is alsoquite obviously true. But it still seems to me that as there are reallyonly three (with a potential fourth) military strategies: Annihlation,Attrition, and Exhaustion (the fourth might be "Fabian"), it still makessense to start there when you are thinking about a problem like this,and work your way down.

Decide first, "What strategy do we prefer to use against opponent X." This should be based, in a rational world, upon his vulnerabilities, not your capabilities. (Basing your strategy on what you have on-hand is a recipe for the old "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," solution.)

So, for example, if somebody advocating shooting pirates on the high seas as "the" solution had said first, "We should seek to defeat the pirates through a strategy of attrition," then it would have made perfect sense for his follow-on recommendations of intercepts at sea and killing them one at a time. That may take years, but it should be fairly low cost to both sides.

Somebody else might say, "We should annihilate the pirates." OK, well that calls for a rapid destruction of them by main force, which suggests a couple of USMC "Marine Expeditionary Brigades" (MEBs) in some Expeditionary Strike Groups (we call them...wait for it..."ESG"s) all conducting simultaneous amphibious landings at the six main ports/towns we know the pirates issue from, destroying all things that float, and holding the port for thirty days until all thoselow-endurance pirate vessels at sea have either succumbed to theweather, starved, or come in and surrendered. This, obviously, unlesswe're invited, is also an act of war. Or it would be, if we were doingit to a "state."

Finally, there is the idea advocated by a couple of fuzzy thinkers, mostly on the far-far left, that we might pursue an indirect strategy of exhaustion. That's ok, but in my structured way of thinking of these issues, I do see it as fuzzy. And I am sorry folks, but in my opinion this one has the least likelihood of success. I'd point out that this is not least because we've already seen a failure on this front, as some might recall from fifteen years ago. We can't make the people who are practicing piracy and kidnapping "lose their will" tomake money in this way short of making the entire nation as rich as aWestern European country. In my humble opinion, it just ain't gonnahappen. So the ideas to "exhaust their will or means to resist" bymaking Somalia into a Utopia is just that, utopian. (Caveat: Some whoadvocate the "shooting them at sea" option also suggest that by killingthem individually at sea, in the act of piracy, that that will sap theirwill. I disagree. We have not really seen a good example of athird-world country "losing will" due to attrition in the past. Thatseems to be a phenomena currently confined to defined and richdemocracies.)

So there you have it, the intellectual tools to analyzethe various options presented by yourself. Use them wisely. Lord knowsthat we haven't always done so ourselves in the past.

PS: Those planning to write me, do so before next weekend. I'm sailingfrom Antigua to Newport, RI, the old fashioned way...by sail, afterthat. So a little more radio silence, sorry.

You can write to Bob as always, at: R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com

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