More misguided efforts

On 23 March, Jeremy Binnie, Jane's Defence Weekly Middle East/Africa Editor in London, reported that the EU had expanded the area of operations for the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) counter-piracy mission to include Somali coastal territory and internal waters.  Binnie’s opinion is that EUNAVFOR would attempt to “disrupt pirate logistics by destroying equipment such as skiffs and fuel storage facilities on shore.” He predicted that the reinforcement of the task force by two French vessels, including the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship FS Dixmude, would enable heliborne operations against pirate land bases. It didn’t take long for this misguided plan to go ‘off the rails’.

On 19 April, Kate Tringham, a reporter for Jane's Navy International, reported that both NATO and EU naval forces denied any involvement with a night air strike carried out on 16 April.  Two fishermen were injured in the attack by two combat aircraft in the coastal district of Gumbah, 200 km east of the commercial port town of Bosaaso, capital of the Bari region of Puntland. The attack occurred around midnight and targeted boats on the coast.  This geographic description puts the attack off the tip of the ‘Horn of Africa’ in the shallow waters between it and Socotra island, which marks the entrance to the Gulf of Aden. These are known fishing grounds, but also an area from which pirate small craft operate against shipping coming from or going to the Suez Canal.

Abdiwahid Mohamed Jo'ar, the director general of Puntland's Ministry of Marine Resources, Ports and Fisheries laid the blame for the incident squarely on counter-piracy forces.  He claimed that they had targeted civilians in Gumbah district and that fishermen had now suspended their operations for fear of further attacks.  There was little doubt in his mind about who was responsible.

New rules of engagement, authorised by the EU's Political and Security Committee on 2 April, permit Operation Atalanta forces to carry out limited operations against pirate boats and fuel supplies close to the shoreline. These attacks will involve small arms fire from helicopters.  EU NAVFOR personnel have not been authorised to land in Somalia.  Tringham’s article quoted a naval spokesperson stating, “Our focus is going to be on their boats, their fuel and their supplies - not the pirates themselves.”

The problem with such offensive forays into coastal and inshore waters is that they have failed uniformly throughout history.  They are most commonly associated with an effort to exert ‘control’ over an area of water in order to contest or deny the use of that space to the opposing force.  The problem is that amateur navalists fail to recognize that these terms (control, contest, deny) are mere conceptual terms that guide the formulation of operational plans and are not the actual objectives of naval activities.  The tactical activities that are derived from the conceptualisation of a plan must have physical objectives that are attainable within the means of the forces deployed.  A good plan will have tactical objectives that will contribute to the mission aim, and the strategic goals.  Bad plans will go about accomplishing things that do little or nothing toward those ends.  Really bad plans will actually hinder the accomplishment of the mission aim and higher strategic goals.  Most often, this happens as the result of second- and third-order effects that are retrograde in nature (really bad) and come from problems relating to poor cooperation between operating forces, or inadequate control over tactical forces.  The example here is being unable to actually to discriminate between fishing boats and pirate boats, and targeting boats, fuel and supplies without harming the people who use them, and who are quite used to using human shields to protect themselves and their property.

There is nothing new in this.  The best source for insight into this problem is a quite old one.  In February 1954, Lieutenant-Commander D.J. Waters, a historian on the staff of the Historical Section of the Admiralty wrote a concise but masterful treatment of the business of the protection of shipping entitled “A Study of the Philosophy and Conduct of Maritime War, 1815-1945.”  It was revised in 1957 and published in Canada by Edmond Cloutier for the Queens’ Printer in Ottawa.  Watters showed that the object of tactical action should be the defensive protection of ships and that efforts to ‘control’ spaces of water are prone to abject failure, especially in the face of skilful and determined opposition.  Offensive operations that take forces away for the defensive protection of shipping are never worth the meagre returns that they produce.

The problem here is that the NATO and EU naval forces are not prepared to alter their concepts of operation or the composition of their forces to adapt to the threat.  This is very worrisome.  Naval thinkers of the past have generally (but not always) been purpose-driven and flexible enough in their practices to eventually depart from conventionality and resort to means that accomplish the task within reasonable limits.  That is not happening with the piracy problem, as was described in my previous post.  You have to wonder what is the problem.

Several things are at play here.  First, rotating staffs responsible for planning seldom ‘take ownership’ of that tactical problem long enough to really come to grips with it.  ‘Muddling through’ for six months and then ‘bugging off’ for home means the central problems remain unaddressed.  Second, the coalition nature of the operation means that commanders do not have full authority to best employ forces as the situation dictates.  This can be a crippling obstacle.  But, beyond this, abandoning common practice and innovating is seen as admitting failure; a weakness rather than a strength.  Third, there are strategic factors at play that the operational commander cannot control.  The multination nature of the organization of the global shipping trade does not lend itself to the naval control of shipping that was so successful in past trade protection scenarios.

So, efforts to conduct offensive forays along the coastline are merely a repeat of earlier historical operations, all of which were failures.  You can expect this one to turn out the same as all the others.