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Where is the outer boundary of our military operations?

21 January 2010

A major theme of this website is that we are destroying ourselves though hubris.   We see so many of the world’s problems as calls for US military intervention.  Inevitably either this will bankrupt us, or we’ll buy into a conflict with ruinous consequences.  This open-ended lust to play global cop affects ever our finest military analysts.  Like Galrahn at Information Dissemination, the go-to website for insight about naval affairs.  Excerpt from “Streetfighter 2010: The New Navy Fighting Machine“, 6 January 2010:

Littoral Operations as a Strategic Capability

If you read the internet, newspapers, magazines, or watch too much 24-hour news networks, you have met many instant experts on Yemen describing the strategic options of the US. One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion in my view is how various experts are attempting to highlight the strategic interests of the United States through a prism of examining the human and geopolitical terrain, and applying them to our national security interest.

Playing the part of an instant expert, I’d suggest that perhaps the internal politics of Yemen has very little strategic importance to the United States, indeed I would suggest the Houthi insurgents in the north or the separatist movement in the south have very little influence on our strategic interests regarding Yemen, as our interests rely not on the internal politics of Yemen but in the prevention of external influences to the internal politics of Yemen.

The human terrain of strategic consequence to the United States is not in Yemen, it is around Yemen, most notably at sea in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea. It is the human migration patterns from Ethiopia and Somalia. It is the international shipping traffic in the Gulf of Aden. Finally, it is the protection of the vital Bab-el-Mandeb passage from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea that prompts our strategic interest.

The assistance the US can provide to Yemen most likely to serve our strategic national interests would be the development of Yemen sea based capabilities to disrupt the sea lines of communications used by external forces that support the internal political problems of that country. Assisting in the development of capabilities for the state to protect itself is our vital interest, not resolving the states internal political disputes.

… The Streetfighter 2010 concept, on the other hand, with inexpensive $60m offshore patrol vessels and $4m inshore patrol craft would give our leaders that type of capability. Matched with a Global Fleet Station program that provided maritime security training and helped develop C2ISR capabilities at sea with Yemen, one could potentially put 8 offshore patrol vessels and 64 inshore patrol vessels off Yemen at a fleet cost of $736 million. As a 10 year procurement plan, the costs would run less than $75 million annually and the capability goes long term not only to defending the sea lines of communication of Yemen, but also towards developing a regional Coast Guard capability to defend international shipping against regional piracy. As a 15 year action plan, the cost comes down below $50 million a year and after 15 years, if Yemen is a cooperative partner in the 15 year plan, we simply give the equipment away as a permanent regional maritime security capability.

Some Questions

  1. How often do America’s geopolitical experts see a crisis and recommend no US involvement?  Africa, and …?
  2. Take a map and shade the areas — land and sea — that are of strategic interest to the US.  If Afghanistan is, how many lands are not?  If providing coast guard services to Yemen and Somalia are a strategic interest for the US, what is not? 
  3. It’s often said that the rest of the world — esp our fellow developed nations — are free-riding on US military expenditures.  Let’s see how they value those services by saying pay or we’ll stop providing them.  My guess:  they will laugh.  Or thank us.
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 January 2010 3:06 am

    FM note: Galrahn is one of our more astute commenters about naval and defense issues, who writes at Information Dissemination.
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    Context is necessary.

    It has long been a theme on my blog that US military interests rely specifically on avoiding becoming the police force at sea for the world. Assisting in the development of local maritime security capacity of partners so that they are capable of local enforcement themselves is very much in our interests.

    The global coast guard sucks. That isn’t even in debate. We cannot afford to be the global coast guard nor is it in our strategic interests, but the ability of the global coast guard to provide maritime law enforcement is very much in our strategic interests. Piracy, illegal fishing, narcotics trafficking, and many other crimes exploit the sea as a transport medium where local maritime enforcement does not exist.

    It is my belief that partnership strategies in the development of coast guards of regional partners is a much smarter strategy than attempting to be the worlds beat cop at sea, or stop and go engagement activities. Investing money in inexpensive equipment within long term partnership agreements would be more aligned to our strategic interest of building meaningful relationships globally while also decreasing the economic burden of current approaches by the US Navy to continuously deploy to remote areas of the third world with larger, more expensive platforms.

    The development of inexpensive platforms within a framework of a cooperation agreement, and giving the equipment away after obligations for training and partnership within that agreement is met, is one way to help support our maritime industrial base, build capacity of the global coast guard, and also allow us to export systems that do not threaten neighbors.

    Yemen is strategically located at one of the worlds most important choke points and in an area where maritime security enforcement lacks both capacity and professional training. Unless this blog has suddenly declared war on global trade (I know better Fab), I think you would agree building global capacity in maritime security as opposed to global capacity in naval defense is a preferred approach to the 3rd world from the DoD.

    If we don’t train the Coast Guards in the third world, everyone else will continue to exploit their resources.

    I also stand by my comments on Yemen. Our national strategic interests are the sea lines of communication at sea around Yemen, and are not some tribal conflict within Yemen.

    As for the New Navy Fighting Machine – it is an idea for naval force structure produced by Professors of the Naval Postgraduate School. I provide as is, not with endorsement or criticism of the overall plan, but concede there are interesting ideas.

  2. mclaren permalink
    21 January 2010 3:52 am

    A couple of data points charting American hubris: Goofy fantasies of human immortality by 2050
    …Contrasted with the reality that Americans are sicker, poorer, more overworked and less educated than the rest of the developed world — yet they’re swaggeringly smug about their imagined superiority.
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    FM reply: These are not incompatable views. One applies to the top 20%, the other to the bottom 20%.

  3. 21 January 2010 6:46 am

    If providing coast guard services to Yemen and Somalia are a strategic interest for the US, what is not?

    Let’s see?

    Providing healthcare to all Americans
    Repairing our infrastructure
    Improving our schools
    Developing alternative energy
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    FM reply: This is an easy winner for best of thread!

  4. Roberto Buffagni permalink
    21 January 2010 9:56 am

    Where are the boundaries of America, indeed? I’m afraid that in American culture there are no boundaries, but frontiers: and frontiers, like horizons, move themselves forward a step with any forward step of the wanderer. As the American national seal makes clear, America is not a land power: it is a sea, or better an air power. Its domain are the sea and the sky. The place where America finds its spiritual source is what the Greeks used to call “apeiron”, “the unlimited” (by the way, that’s why America is radically Un-European). I think that on this level, it is easier to understand the otherwise geopolitically suicidal move which America chose to do, after the implosion of URSS (which was her “kathecon”, her limiting force) by attacking Iraq and declaring the national military doctrine of preventive war.
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    FM reply: Well said!

  5. Indian Investor permalink
    21 January 2010 7:22 pm

    Yemen is all about oil and especially, the Bab-El-Mandeb strait is a major global oil chokepoint. The conflict is amongst various oil industry players competing for the new exploration licenses that the incumbent government there has granted. Since 2002, the existing oil wells are running dry and producing less and less every year. Yemen also started a natural gas business with a new 320 km gas pipeline to increase its revenues.
    The US Navy being sent there isn’t to assit the local Yemenis with their personal security in a spirit of benevolent “American machismo”. It is to safeguard the interests and concessions of companies like the French Total and the American Hunt Oil.
    Only a novice will believe that these millions of dollars are proposed to be expended by the American essay writers simply as a charitable gesture to the rest of the world’s security. But what else can they say? They have to say every time that this is to protect the Americans in their streets, because of the unseen terrorists in far away places that hate them; or they have to say this is to protect innocent foreigners from the bad and evil aggressors in their geographies.

  6. Burke G Sheppard permalink
    21 January 2010 7:39 pm

    Actually, you could turn this question on its head. Assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the vital interests proclaimed by this or that expert are, in fact vital. If there is ethnic unrest in Lower Slobbovia, or renewed fighting between Ruritania and Vulgaria, or a massive outbreak of general horribleness in Central Buga Buga, it is a matter affecting American interests.

    Wherever one chooses to place the boundaries of American interests, it will remain true that we will always have limited military forces available to respond to contingencies. (And this would still remain true under any given increase in defense spending). It is also true that in an uncertain world, we cannot know when or where the next crisis may arise. Therefore, it becomes necessary to limit military operations in order to provide for a deployable strategic reserve. Failure to provide such is an invitation to overstretch and defeat.

    So regardless of where one thinks the boundaries of our interests ought to be, do we have adequate deployable reserves, and if not, what steps are being taken to see that our reserves are reconstituted?

    Note that adequate reserves can be taken broadly to mean the economic wherewithal to mobilize additional forces in the event of an emergency.

  7. Xiaoding permalink
    21 January 2010 8:21 pm

    “Goofy fantasies of human immortality by 2050″

    Where were we in 1900? Where are we today? From horses to biological nano-weapons, from candles to mini-nukes. Not so goofy.
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    FM reply: Since 2040 is 40 years away (not 110, as you imply), the relevant comparison is life expectancy in 1970. The life expectancy of newborns has increased by 7 years since 1970, to a record high of 77.8 years in 2004. Assuming a constant rate of increase, it will be roughly 84 in 2050 (source). Not quite immortality, so the comparison is goofy even if progress greatly accellerates.

  8. anna nicholas permalink
    22 January 2010 2:18 am

    The stories beaming from Haiti to the UK , seem to show a PR disaster for the US military . Their response is now seen to be predictable : noisy , slow and off-target ; as was the civil response in New Orleans . Maybe the rest of the world realises the US is not only running out of money , but its forces are not so fearsome after all .
    Perhaps related is tonight’s report , that Pakistan’s military have declined any new adventures with the US .

    Regarding the length of life stats , I wonder how much of this is due to terribly disabled babies, and hopelessly demented seniors , being prevented from dying with such things as permanent feeding tubes . I am not sure this is progress .

  9. Mikyo permalink
    23 January 2010 1:51 am

    Whatever happened to …

  10. Xiaoding permalink
    23 January 2010 3:44 am

    “Assuming a constant rate of increase, it will be roughly 84 in 2050 (source). Not quite immortality, so the comparison is goofy even if progress greatly accellerates.”

    It dosen’t accelerate, it makes a quantum leap. In 1900, people were worried about producing enough buggy whips. BUGGY WHIPS.

    It’s the assumption, that’s the thing, that progress increases at some certain rate. Who in 1900 would even guess at a computer, or a neighborhood nuke power plant? Or DNA? Game changers, that you can depend on.
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    FM reply: I believe this is wrong in several ways.
    * You’re using the term “quantum leap” as they did in the TV show — which is the opposite of its technical meaning.
    * Do you have any evidence that “In 1900, people were worried about producing enough buggy whips.” That seems unlikely to me.
    * Belief in a massive leap in progress during the next 40 years seems to be much like that of folks expecting the Second Coming on some specific date. It’s not worth discussing, IMO.

    “that progress increases at some certain rate”

    I doubt anyone who has studied the history of science believes that. The rate of scientific progress varies over time, from large negatives to large positives. The period 1880 – 1945 saw progress at an extraordinary rate. Measuring these things is difficult, but IMO at a rate far faster than today’s. Look at the technological changes during the life of Bat Masterson (1853-1921), vs those of a boomer born in 1942. The changes in Bat’s life make those during a boomer’s life look trivial. This is discussed in Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead.

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