Ships as Buggy Whips?

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The Abraham Lincoln Strike Group, pictured above[1], is one of twelve authorized carrier strike groups. Strike Group Lincoln consists of the supercarrier CVN72 USS Abraham Lincoln, guided missile cruiser CG71 USS Cape St George, Destroyer Squadron Nine – DDG105 USS Sterett, DDG97 USS Halsey, DDG92 USS Momsen, DDG86 USS Shoup – guided missile frigates FFG61 USS Ingarham, FFG60 USS Rodney M Davis, FFG54 USS Ford, and one or two Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarines. That’s ten or eleven ships (depending on the number of subs attached), times the twelve strike groups accounts for between 120 and 132 capital ships, or over half of the 200-ship Navy that President Obama seems OK with. Add one more per strike group, as the each carries a support/supply ship, not counted above. That brings us to between 132 to 144 ships in our carrier strike groups.

We operate 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and four SSGNs, which are Ohio-class SSBNs that have been converted to deploy and recover special operators and wield 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. We’re now up to 150 to 164 ships.

Expeditionary Strike Groups are revamped amphibious ready groups with the ability to disperse strike capabilities across a greater range of the force, increasing the striking power in the amphibious ready group. These consist of a Wasp-class LDH amphibious assault ship to transport and deploy Marine Expeditionary Units ashore using helicopters, V-22 Osprey and landing craft; an amphibious transport dock (LPD) that deploys and recovers larger landing craft for beach-style amphibious assaults; dock landing ship (LSD) that deploys and recovers hovercraft and smaller landing craft for beach- and riverine-style amphibious assaults; and a Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine. The Navy has authorized 12 of these ESGs, but is currently funded for only eight. That’s another 32 to 48 ships, bringing us to 182 to 212 total ships.

These numbers don’t count oilers, non-associated (with carrier strike groups) support/supply ships, hospital ships, minesweepers, free-roaming fast-attack submarines (used to shadow non-US SSBNs), littoral combat ships (used for close-in support of land operations along coastlines), and so forth.

President Obama’s attempt to classify worries about absolute numbers of ships as irrelevant as buggy whips (“horses[2] and bayonets[3],” in his words) is irresponsible when current numbers are already at or below Naval minimums.

In a world more prone to low-intensity warfare than to the great force-on-force warfare that characterized the pre-Cold War world, the Navy gains in importance as a power-projection instrument, especially if we wish to cut back on the forward basing of air and ground assets.

It’s clear from listening to the president in Boca Raton, that his shaping of the military is a budgetary matter rather than a strategic one. He has yet to lay out a strategic vision of where, when, how and why to apply American power, only how he would diminish it.


[1] Photo courtesy of United States Navy.

[2] See Donald Rumsfeld, Transforming the Military, in Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, pp. 20-32 for the use of horses by US Special Forces.

[3] As it happens, the Pentagon deploys more bayonets today than it did in 1916.

Just Who is on the Run?

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The administration and the media use the terms al Qaeda, jihadists, militant Islamists and terrorists pretty much interchangeably. So when the administration says that it has al Qaeda on the run, the public tends to think that the terrorist threat has been weakened. This is, intentionally or not, misleading.

Al Qaeda” is a term that now applies to three distinct categories of individuals – the al Qaeda core (who we chased out of Afghanistan in 2001); al Qaeda franchises who are not under control of the al Qaeda core; and grassroots terrorist individuals or cells who adopt the al Qaeda name (and possibly philosophy). Jihadists are those who believe that society is best governed by Islamic law (Shari’ah), and are engaged the struggle to bring that about. Militant Islamists are those who are trying to establish a khalifat, either in a country, region, or worldwide, using violence to do so. Terrorists are those who employ violence to bring about political change. Any given entity referred to by the press by any of these names may be more than one of these things, but together, they represent the current threat to civilization, and that movement is not on the run. The al Qaeda core is.

When the Soviets left Afghanistan in February of 1989, bin Laden realized he had a band of combat-hardened fighters that were loyal to him (he had the money and contacts). A worldwide jihad had been issued to assist Afghanistan’s Muslim brothers in ousting the Soviet occupation, and fighters from the world over responded. By the time Soviet forces left, the Islamist fighters that remained were experienced in small unit tactics, insurgent tactics, arms acquisition, smuggling, assassination and money laundering. Bin Laden saw this as a resource too valuable to disband. He morphed the group into holy warriors, bent on expelling Western influence from Islam’s rightful home (i.e., anywhere Muslims have ever ruled).

In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting off Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, which placed a large number of American personnel and assets on Prince Al-Kharj Air Base in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s home country. After the Gulf War, many of the aircraft and crews remained, providing first-response for further Iraqi adventurism. This American presence on Saudi soil offended bin Laden’s sensibilities. Finally, in August 1996, he issued a rambling, disjointed fatwa (a Qur’an-based “finding” meant to raise Muslims to action). The basic message was that the presence of “Crusaders” in “the Land of the Two Shrines” (Saudi Arabia) was unacceptable, and that faithful Muslims were at war with the United States. Muslims should kill Americans whenever and wherever they found them.

This group, never numbering more than a few hundred, is the al Qaeda core, whose crowning achievement was the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11 2001. Chased into Pakistan and decimated by UAV strikes and arrests, al Qaeda has transformed itself into a network of networks, including (but not limited to) al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Ansar al-Shari’ah (the group responsible for destroying our consulate in Benghazi). The al Qaeda core is now incapable of mounting large, transnational attacks, and is pretty much limited to lending its name to outside actors. These franchise groups are still very active, and those mentioned are all capable of international activity. And, of course, there are Hamas, Fatah, Hizbollah, and so forth, as examples of non-affiliated terrorist groups.

Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, the Bangladeshi national who thought he was blowing up the Federal Reserve of New York on behalf of al Qaeda, is an example of a lone-wolf, or grassroots, terrorist. Timothy McVey is another example of this, although his act had nothing to do with al Qaeda, Shari’ah, or anything else connected to “the War on Terror.” This highlights the difficulty in dealing with singular deranged actors claiming any handy cause célèbre. These types are, almost by definition, flying under the radar until they commit their act. Here, the FBI has done really excellent work in infiltrating self-proclaimed jihadists, supplying them with fake bombs and disabled weapons, arresting them just before they commit their acts of terror.

To sum up, al Qaeda is a network of networks that use jihad as cover to commit acts of terror in furtherance of goals religious or political. It includes the leadership, hunkered down in Pakistan, franchise groups that may or may not take their operational lead from the core, and individuals and cells scattered all over the world that largely take their inspiration from al Qaeda’s glory days.

So when you hear a politician, talking head or columnist say “al Qaeda is on the run,” they are either mistaken or misleading. Either they do not understand the macro anatomy of today’s rabid Islamist movement, or they want you to think we are being successful in ending it.

They – and people in general – need more depth of knowledge to accurately assess the national security environment.

BenghaziGate

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The scene above shows an Ansar al-Sharia terrorist celebrating the sacking of our Consulate in Benghazi on the night of September 11th. The quote superimposed over it is from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene Lamb, in sworn testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on October 11th, one month after the attack.

Incredible.

There are two distinct issues at play here – the situation on the ground in Benghazi leading up to the attack; and, the administration’s reaction to the events of September 11th. That the latter is even in play is, of course, entirely self-inflicted.

Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood (19th US Special Forces/Airborne, ret) led the 16-member Site Security Team (SST) in Libya from 12 February to 14 August of this year, and spoke eloquently about the deteriorating security situation in Libya, generally, and in Benghazi, specifically. His daily SitReps went to AFRICOM, which forwarded them to the Joint Chiefs. The picture is grim. “State Department’s decision not to extend SST’s security work beyond August 5th terminated our work,” Colonel Wood told the committee. “Fighting between militias was still common.  Some militias appeared to be degenerating into organizations resembling free lance criminal operations.  Targeted attacks against westerners were on the increase.  In June the Ambassador received a threat on Facebook with a public announcement that he liked to run around the Embassy compound in Tripoli,” he continued.

“When I arrived in February there were 3 Mission Security Details (MSD) teams on the ground.  Ambassador Cretz was confronted with having to loose one of these and requested an equal number of regular diplomatic security agents [denied].  The Ambassador also struggled with renewing the SST beyond April 5th.   The second MSD team was withdrawn shortly after his departure, and the last MSD team was restricted from performing security work and limited to only training local guard force members in July.  The remaining MSD was withdrawn at about the same time the SST security work was terminated [August].”

There were IED attacks on the Benghazi Consulate in April and June. There was an assassination attempt on the British Ambassador’s motorcade in June. So, as stability was deteriorating, we were gearing-down our diplomatic security levels in-country. And then there is the matter of multiple pleas from Ambassador Stephens for increased security at the Benghazi Consulate. All rejected.

We were, for whatever reason, leaving the security of our diplomats increasingly up to a shaky interim government in Tripoli that couldn’t manage the inter-tribal rivalries and free-roaming criminal activity in Libya. It was a risky bet that we lost.

Once the consulate and safe house were sacked and four Americans were killed, the administration, for some reason, went into a circular firing squad of finger-pointing and handy excuses. First it was a video (actually a trailer for a video). That line was pursued by the White House long after it was revealed that the trailer had been on YouTube since January (somewhat weakening the “spontaneous” demonstration claim). The State Department gave up the “demonstration that went bad” line after it was pointed out that there was no demonstration in Benghazi when the terrorists showed up at the consulate. Many Congressional Democrats pivoted to “the Republicans cut funding for diplomatic security” until the above mentioned hearing, where Ms Lamb was asked directly by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA-49) if, in her decision to reject repeated requests from Benghazi for increased security, budget considerations ever entered into the equation. She answered simply, “No, sir.” By this time, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had interestingly revealed that “Obviously, the attack on our Consulate was a terrorist attack.” That clarity of view was apparently opaque to his boss, SecState Hillary Clinton (thrown under the bus), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (thrown under the bus), UN Ambassador Susan Rice (driving the bus), and the besieged Charlene Lamb (hung out to dry)[1].

As always in these cases, the cover-up is more damaging to the administration’s credibility than the event itself. They appear to be either witless or without principles. Trying to spin events to one’s political advantage is expected, to fabricate a mythology around events is troubling.

I’m sure the timing of the revelation of a catastrophically poor decision – less a month before the election – was a primary concern of the White House. Why they didn’t use the standard non-answer (“We are vigorously investigating the events of September 11, and will let you know as soon as we do” – i.e., after the election), I’ll never know. But it is telling. An administration that takes a step back to consider an unexpected turn of events is one thing, one that begins a frantic search to find a scapegoat is quite another.


[1] It’s also interesting to note that a substantial special operations effort was inserted into Libya on September 13th, two days after the attack, indicating that the administration knew exactly what had happened.

Some Thoughts on the Debate

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Tonight’s debate will be acclaimed by both sides as a victory, and that’s a loss for the president. Mr Obama will show up for tonight’s debate, an improvement over the last one where he largely phoned it in, and that will probably yield a draw (hence, both sides being able to cite their guy’s highlights, claiming victory). But that’s not enough to stop the bleeding. The president needs a decisive win, and he won’t get that tonight.

This “town hall” is the most contrived of the three debates – the questions have been pre-submitted to the moderator, who has total control of who asks what question – and the least confrontational – the candidates will be responding to audience questions, not directly to each other (although the second candidate to answer will have a chance to respond after the other has spoken). Ms Crowley will have a chance to follow-up, and the fairness of those questions will have much to do with public perception of the outcome (Ms Crowley is a CNN correspondent that has been openly critical of the Romney-Ryan ticket). She is a competent journalist that is capable of being fair, the question is, will she be?

I don’t look for any news to be made tonight, either on style or substance, and again, that’s a loss for the president. This will be more dueling campaign stops than actual debate – both guys are very good face-to-face with people, and I look for both to do well.

The real risk for both candidates will be the Boca Raton debate on foreign policy, October 22. It’s uncharted territory for Mr Romney, and a fresh embarrassment for the president. It could be shark-infested for both of them.

Finally, a Shovel-Ready Job Appears

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“I’m not striped,” said the zebra, “I don’t want to be.” That’s the mindset of this White House as it tries to “explain” how we got an Ambassador and his security team killed in Benghazi.

The actual situation is the unfortunate result of an administration that is woefully idealistic about the rest of the world – and largely ignorant of the regions in which we choose to dabble (see the “Reset” of relations with a Russia that has no desire to do so – not to mention the reset button SecState Hillary Clinton gave to President Putin that was incorrectly translated into Russian).

Historically, Libya was naturally divided into three semi-autonomous regions – Tripolitania to the west, Fezzan to the southwest, and Cyrenaica to the East. The two coastal regions, Tripolitania, with Tripoli as its capital, and Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic), with Benghazi as it capital, drove Libyan behavior, politics and economics. North Africa, like much of the neighboring Middle East, is still very tribal, and these ancient loyalties are more comfortable to most Libyans than the artificial political artifacts of modernity. Benghazi has been the center of political opposition to Tripoli (read: official Libya) since the 1967 coup that brought Qaddafi to power, and as such, Benghazi has been the center of anti-Qaddafi activity.

Benghazi has been a hotbed of jihadist recruiting and staging for years, and strongest, Ansar al-Sharia, was immediately suspected – and later identified – by CIA as the perpetrator of the September 11 attack on our Consulate. The attackers at the Consulate were the only people on the street at that location – i.e., it couldn’t have been “a demonstration that went bad,” because there was no demonstration. These fighters showed up with AK-47s, RPG-7s and mortar tubes. They had diesel fuel to set fires, they went directly from the Consulate to the safe house to which Ambassador Stephens and one security team member had repaired. This was a well-organized, pre-planned terrorist attack, and no one on the ground thought anything else.

Jihadists love to stage large, splashy operations on significant anniversaries. This attack happened on Tuesday, September 11th.

Why, three days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was blaming this on reaction to trailers for Innocence of Muslims, an amateurish video; why the administration sent UN Ambassador Susan Rice around to all the friendly Sunday talk shows saying the attack was not a terrorist attack; why, at the United Nations, a full week after the attack, President Obama alluded to the video as causus belli for the attack; only the administration knows. They knew better.

Whatever the motivations, this has the imagery of a cover-up, and in politics, perceptions are everything. I honestly don’t know if they are trying to cover up for the fact that they rejected numerous requests for increased security at the Benghazi Consulate (which was temporarily in a private house, not a purpose-built, fortified facility), or for some policy that required a “small footprint” in Libya, or whatever. But I do know that we are owed an explanation for the bizarre reaction of this administration to this tragic event. And we need it before we are asked to re-hire them.


Does no one in our State Department speak Russian?!

Possible October Surprise

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According to aircraft spotters and trackers, at least a dozen MC-130H and HC-130N (aerial refueling tanker and combat search and rescue), HC-130P (Special operations infiltration/extraction variant) and AC-130U (gunships) crossed the Atlantic Ocean on September 13 heading eastbound. These aircraft are typically used for a variety of special tasks, including in close cooperation with special operations forces. The last reported stop for the aircraft was Souda Bay [Crete].

It now appears that these aircraft have been staging out of Crete, conducting day and night missions in Libyan airspace. The aircraft operating in the area are likely transporting and supporting special operations troops on the ground who could be running reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations in Libya. In fact, an unnamed US military official reportedly has said that US special operations forces are in Libya meeting with informants and using signals intelligence and overhead imaging (from UAVs and satellites) to collect information on militant networks in the country.

We might be ramping up for an October surprise – payback for Ambassador Stephens and the three-man security team that perished in Benghazi on September 11th. If so, it would be a relatively benign piece of political theater. God knows if we manage to kill the right people, it would be welcome news. The trick, of course, if it is meant to happen before the election, they’ve got 25 days to identify the shooters, find them, isolate them, and hit them. All in an area where we have few assets close to the ground.

Running foreign assets isn’t easily done – it generally takes time to select them, vet them, contact them, turn them and read them in on their part of the mission. And you still might have some infiltrators (or buyer’s remorse types) who will merely pass your plans along to the other side. Don’t get me wrong – I honestly hope they can get the guys responsible for the attack on our consulate. It’s just an uphill climb to do it in time for the election.

Self-Inflicted ADD

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The 24-hour news cycle has shortened the horizon of the politically possible. That’s a bad thing. The genius of Ted Turner in setting up CNN as a continual news source available to the public has been bastardized into continual political propaganda organs for ideologues, and that is a disservice to the public they are supposed to serve.

Watergate ruined American journalism as high-schoolers began applying to J-Schools in order to “change the world;” everyone wanted to be “Woodstein.” Journalism’s job isn’t to change the world, it is to record it. What the Washington Post did concerning the exposure of the Nixon White House was news – it exemplified the very best aspects of the public trust placed in the Fourth Estate.

But the pressure to present 24 hours of news-oriented content has driven executives to shape that news toward target demographics – Neilson was now determining “good” and “bad” news organizations. Nowhere in this calculation is the quality of the content. News has become entertainment – or at least as irrelevant as entertainment. This eats away at one of the bedrocks of a democracy, and that is the political sophistication of the populace necessary to make wise decisions in choosing their government. We find ourselves choosing among snake oil salesmen, basing our decision upon which propaganda we choose to believe. That is the overarching weakness of news-as-entertainment.

More of the moment is the shortening of the horizons of what is politically possible. Every utterance, every act, every moment of the “newsworthy” is paraded across the covers and headlines of the various outlets that offer themselves up as news sources. Thus, Brittany Spears and the Kardashians become as “important” as the president (or House speaker, or an engaged combat commander, or any other legitimately important figure). This vastly cheapens the difficult task of running a country. Even when just considering the actual important people, this never-blinking-eye of the 24-hour news cycle means that even the lesser issues of the day will appear as the lead on the nightly news a lot of the time (there may simply be nothing else to talk about, or more important issues do not comport with the narrative of the news agency doing the reporting). Again, this cheapens the legitimate by trying to make trivial important enough to take the lead on the nightly news.

The net effect of this equating of the trivial with the important and the never-blinking-eye is a shortening of the timeline government is allowed before it must show positive results, lest it be castigated by a media whose only interest is in having a sellable lead story. A society fixated on the immediate has no appreciation for tradition or history and no patience for the strategic. ADD ignores the past and fears the future. It’s also easy – it requires neither research nor deep thinking. You either accept what is in front of you or reject it. Reasons are unnecessary.

Because of this, social-ADD is also easily manipulated.

This brings us back to those J-Schools who, rather than educating those naïve high-schoolers in their misconception of what journalism is, gladly pandered to those misconceptions in return for their tuitions. This serves as an analog for the politicization of our educational system in general, which had its roots in the 1960s anti-establishment, civil rights, and feminism movements. I know this will be wasted, but I’m gong to say right here that I am against neither civil rights nor women (I will refer to this in the comments section as paragraph 7, sentence 3). What these movements led to, however, has mis-served us. Civil rights and feminism have been so radicalized and demagogued that we find ourselves today where anyone who disagrees with a popular Black president is a “racist,” and anyone who questions the ability of women (especially a 27-year-old attending the prestigious Georgetown Law School) to find free contraception is somehow oppressing women. These charges, and all like them, are so prima facie ridiculous as to be indefensible even in casual conversation. Yet they enjoy wide currency because they are taught to our youth and those claims are disseminated without comment by our “news” organizations.

We are in danger of establishing a caste system pitching those who know history and current events against those who adhere to a mythology fed to them as education and news. The power struggle then becomes among the ruling class along ideological lines. This is a return to Toryism – governmental paternalism ruling over a subservient population. It is the effective end of the American experiment. Popular sovereignty will have been defeated – surrendered, actually, out of disinterest.

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Death and Rebirth

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The end of the Cold War did indeed usher in a New World Order – that’s a given since the old bi-polar world order dissolved along with the Soviet Union. What we are facing now is the world trying to find a new balance among great powers. This goes a long way to explaining why the hyper-diplomacy of the Obama administration has been so irrelevant. World orders aren’t negotiated, they’re wrenched from the chaos by those able to do so. It’s an exercise in Realist theory, not one of Liberal Internationalism – there’s a reason it’s called a “balance of power.”

Currently, the great powers are: the United States; a rising PRC; and a rejuvenating Russia; with paleo-Islam playing a spoiler’s role, but being too amorphous and splintered to be a power center. Europe would love to be a player, but she has no power – NATO being made up of, essentially, American assets and leadership.

An heroically mismanaged recovery has left the United States broke, facing a generation of diminished capacity and the hobbling of most options in handling future crises, be they economic or geopolitical. Combine that with the aforementioned ineffective foreign policy, and America hasn’t been this internationally impotent since before World War I. The sheer scale of our even dysfunctional economy and the technical excellence of our military will keep us as the world’s sole superpower, but waning. Our allies have no confidence in us and our adversaries don’t respect us. We are adrift.

PRC has embarked on an unmistakable road to superpowerdom – establishing a strategic navy (nuclear ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers), crowding the state of the art in combat aircraft design and manufacture, constant modernization of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, very active in space, etc. The Chinese economy remains one of the world’s most dynamic.

Russia under ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin is a clear adversary of the West. It is not the “World Conquest” ideology of the Soviet Union, but vehemently fixated on re-establishing the buffer states held by the Soviets in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. And of keeping America off balance, especially in the Middle East and vis à vis Iran. Mr Putin has described a narrow tightrope for himself, however. Russia’s budget is predicated on Brent crude selling for $117 a barrel, and as of this writing [0444 Thursday October 4] Brent is selling at $108.17. Russians are cautious almost to the point of paranoia regarding economic over-extension – that’s what brought about the collapse of stability in 1989. Russia isn’t a threat to become a superpower, but it is, and will remain, one of the poles around which the global power-balance will accrete.

Complicating things are rabid Islam and Europe’s flailing about.

Militant Islam is centered on a vision of returning to a mythical 8th Century world that never existed. It is centered on the idea of the supremacy of Islam over all other theories of social organization, and the belief that a global Khalifat[1] is possible. Islam’s billion followers are no more able to find a common defining design for governance than can the world’s nearly two billion Christians, so the threat of world domination (the goal of today’s jihadists) is unrealizable. Their chosen tool is lethal terrorism, and because of that, radical Islam will continue to be a threat to the civilized world until they cease that activity.

Greece is barely functioning as a society, Spain is beginning to unravel (and will probably take Portugal with it), France is shedding its most successful people as their 75% income tax on high-earners kicks-in, Ireland is looking for its second bailout, and there is a growing groundswell in Italy to somehow get the CEO of Ferrari Automobili SA, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, to replace Prime Minister Mario Monti, who just replaced the clownish Silvio Berlusconi. Europe, like Italy, is searching for its identity – 27 disparate members in a “Union” that can exhibit neither power-projection nor a cohesive foreign policy, only 17 members of which share a common currency. And Europeans are, again, worried about Germany (who is paying for much of the serial bailouts and therefore setting much of the economic agenda). Like Russia (if for different reasons), the European Union will not evolve into a superpower, but it should recover to the point of regaining its polar status as a shaper of the world order.

As in all dynamic systems, it’s a question of trends, and today’s trends are negative for America. We are, for some reason, voluntarily trending downward. Our choices are detrimental to our global standing. If that’s being done intentionally, this administration has an obligation to tell us so. If it’s not intentional, this administration is incompetent. Our national discussion on that will come to head on November 6th.

This is too important an historical transition for us to sleepwalk through – we need an administration that has a clear vision of America’s role in the world and the courage to secure it. Diplomacy is impotent in the absence of a credible national defense apparatus, which is being emasculated daily under this administration.


[1] This refers to a unified Muslim Ummah [community] under the leadership of a Khalif. The community is actually an aristocratic theocracy, guided by Shari’ah, or Islamic law.