Bring the Navy Back to Sea

By Lieutenant David S. Coles, U.S. Navy

My IA wasn't the first in support of the war on terrorism, and I certainly was not an experienced officer at the time. However, I worked in the joint operations center as a senior watch officer in charge of keeping tabs on the command's operations and as the naval surface fires support officer. One of my collateral duties was to chair the joint integrated targeting board, which was responsible for proposing specific targeting objectives (both kinetic and non-kinetic) to the commanding general. Given these tasks and the steep learning curve, as a matter of necessity I caught on. Although at the time IAs weren't new to the Navy, they weren't as widespread in the Fleet as they are now.

Since leaving Djibouti I've run into an increasing number of Navy CJTF-HOA alumni among the officer and enlisted communities. It's been a long time since we've planted our tent poles a couple hundred yards away from Djibouti International Airport at Camp Lemonier and more than five years since I've been there. Given the need to concentrate on being a SWO at sea I had not reflected much on our mission in recent years. This changed a couple months ago at surface warfare officer department head school (SWOS), when I sat in on a brief from then-commanding flag officer, Rear Admiral Philip H. Greene Jr., covering current operations at CJTF-HOA.

After the brief I started to think back. I remembered the enthusiasm I had felt for the mission we were conducting. I had been captivated by the idea that we were out there winning the hearts and minds of the people and "fixing" terrorists if they dare poke their heads out of their hovels. We were going to achieve these two seemingly diametrically opposed outcomes with a singular method?effects-based targeting: according to JP 3-60, Joint Doctrine for Targeting, 17 January 2002, by using all possible means to achieve desired effects, drawing from any available forces, weapons, and platforms to achieve desired effects, with the least risk and expenditure of resources.

What particularly struck me about Admiral Greene's brief was that its content was hauntingly similar to the general operations briefs that I had helped construct during my six months in the operations directorate: describing a water well being drilled in northern Djibouti; a veterinary project under way in Ethiopia to care for goats; a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a school in southern Djibouti. All worthy projects, but with three things missing, as they had been missing in 2003 and have been ever since we've planted roots in the Horn of Africa: kinetic operations, specifically, "warheads on foreheads," that justify a boots-on-the-ground approach; a frank equivalent of a battle-damage assessment for our desired effects-derived civilian affairs projects; and an achievable end-state. I couldn't help wondering, is CJTF-HOA doing the same thing that we were doing five years ago, but with no real measurement of success? And the answer is a resounding and disappointing "yes."

Looking for Results

In his speech to the Surface Navy Association on 7 February 2008, Admiral James G. Stavridis said, "The new Maritime Strategy says, 'Preventing wars is as important as winning wars.' I would add that preventing war is easily 100 times more cost-effective than waging war." I had frequently heard from visiting senior officers at SWOS that for all the money spent on the war in Iraq, we're spending considerably less in places like the HOA and SOUTHCOM, actively "preventing war." This defies logic and contributes to the perverse demilitarization of our military. Our actions in these places have not prevented conflict (and increasingly important issues such as piracy at sea). In the HOA one need only look at the continued failed state of Somalia, Yemen's deterioration in Somalia's direction, the genocide in Sudan, the elections crisis in Kenya, and the intrusion and attack on Djibouti by Eritrean troops in the summer of 2008 near Camp Lemonier. In what way have we prevented conflict? Where is the battle-damage assessment? Arguing that there have been and will continue to be fewer terrorist attacks because of our civilian and theater security operations in these areas is not enough. The U.S. military is overstating its contributions in this respect to the verge of rhetoric. We must acknowledge that the 2,000-person contingent in Djibouti on a constant six-month rotation cannot do much to improve conditions in an area half the size of the United States.

We need to revisit the origins of CJTF-HOA. The notion of creating forward "lily pad" bases in remote sites has been attributed to the military transformation agenda of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The theory was that by extending our footprint around the world we could optimize warfighting flexibility and reaction time, supporting successful preemptive armed intervention. After preemption lost its appeal, the United States diplomatically tacked its operational mantra in the Horn to humanitarian operations.

But after five years of work in Djibouti, what are the options? Will the new administration have a new vision for its involvement in the region? How will the downward spiral of the economy and its inevitable tax on military spending affect CJTF-HOA? The question is whether the military should continue with its current program there, or declare the mission accomplished and withdraw.

Hand over the Reins

With the creation of AFRICOM, the latter is not likely to happen. But to carry on with a non-profit business-as-usual attitude isn't smart. Although the U.S. military is logistically capable, culturally it is not the appropriate choice for executing prolonged humanitarian projects. Nor should it be.

Instead, we should transfer our basing agreement, billets, and functions in Djibouti to the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). We've done good work in Djibouti, and I am very proud to have been a part of it. But it's time to turn the humanitarian operations over to the international development experts. Africans' concerns within Africa are predominantly economic and social, and so should be America's efforts there. Many problems that plague the Horn have their roots in economic and social inequities and corrupt leadership. A CJTF with constantly rotating personnel will never develop the expertise to address these issues. Anyone who has spent time in the Horn understands that these problems will take generations to address.

The U.S. Navy should, however, increase its ability to act quickly to neutralize terrorist and criminal threats in the Horn and continue to train partner governments to do the same. While a CJTF is a joint command as the name indicates, the Navy has taken on responsibilities as the lead service of CJTF-HOA and can learn from the Sixth Fleet's work with the Africa Partnership Station. It is through sea-based forces that naval personnel should conduct partner country military-to-military training and humanitarian assistance, as needed. Getting back to sea minimizes the U.S. military footprint in the Horn and gives the CJTF the flexibility to augment with sea forces at a moment's notice.

We have not fully considered the effects of a prolonged land-based American military presence in Djibouti-a presence that is not necessary, as it is now in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and the Korean peninsula. Such a force drains resources and manpower. And it is particularly embarrassing to have spent so much naval manpower and materiel on CJTF-HOA only to watch piracy in the area increase sharply. According to a 2008 briefing by the International Maritime Organization, 120 acts of piracy took place off the coast of Somalia by late autumn of last year alone.

In the HOA the Navy needs to get back to sea and regain its focus. The Navy's mission is "to maintain, train, and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas." In the last we are failing off the coast of the Horn. As the pirates become more brazen, our Navy, busy building schools and healing goats, appears impotent. We are not protecting the strategic sea lines of communication off the HOA, and this will affect the global economy, from the price of shipping insurance premiums to the price of oil. It is also having ill effect on the combat reputation of the U.S. Navy.

I acknowledge that this argument is tough to swallow for a fighting organization, whose core values are honor, courage, and commitment. But we are first and foremost warriors from the sea. All officers feel a distinct fondness for his or her first ship, where they learned to take command of a division and learned how to be a competent mariner. As an extension of my first sea tour, I look back with nostalgia at my tour in Africa. There I learned how to be a staff officer; there in my tent with my "shipmates" from the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps I learned what it meant to be a military officer. Despite these fond memories, however, objective decisions have to be made, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and "optimal manning." As with ships, if commands have overextended their lives and military usefulness, maybe it's time to decommission them.

Lieutenant Coles is a surface warfare officer and currently the operations officer of USS Carney (DDG-64). He holds a Master's degree in Asian Pacific studies from the University of San Francisco.


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