The Navy cannot afford to continue tasking its blue-water fleet to address security issues that come from the littorals, and increasing the number of ships or ignoring littoral threats until they metastasize is not the answer. Modest investments in capabilities designed to operate in the complex coastal and riverine security environment are required.
While the Chief of Naval Operations’ 2007 Maritime Domain Awareness concept noted that threats arise from both military competitors and irregular, nontraditional opponents, it walked away from many of the low-tech but effective ways to counter those adversaries who often find safe haven in the littorals.1
The 2013 decision to disestablish the Navy’s Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command (MCAST) was the most significant blow. This action eliminated a nascent capability that barely had the opportunity to find its sea legs, let alone develop rigorous doctrine, tactics, and procedures. In fact, blending civil affairs with security training diluted attention to the unique aspects of civil affairs.2 There simply was not enough time to hone the complex skills that integrate niche capabilities in strategies and campaigns aimed at improving security in the littorals, where maritime civil societies demand civil affairs expertise.
Similar to MCAST, the Navy’s riverine force merged with the Mobile Expeditionary Security Force in 2012. The merged force now focuses on securing ports, harbors, and ships, with tasks that fall outside this narrow mission set—such as clandestine surveillance and intelligence collection—being dropped.3
Other capabilities are on the decline as well. Hospital ship deployments, a superb way to generate goodwill among the civil population and a useful prophylaxis against destabilizing pandemics in the densely inhabited littorals, have been the victim of perceived cost-cutting efficiencies.4
In another cost-saving measure, the Seabees, one of the most unique littoral capabilities across the joint force, has cut its mobile construction battalions by a third in the active force (from 9 to 6) and by half (from 12 to 6) in the reserves.5
The presumed answer to coastal threats was the littoral combat ship. Despite their name, however, these ships still are designed to operate in traditional antisurface, antisubmarine, and mine countermeasures roles.
Growing Demand Signal
The world’s littorals are littered with examples that cry out for revitalized capabilities. The Niger Delta Avengers, Islamic State actors in the Philippines, Houthi rebels who attack ships off the coast of Yemen—all have leveraged concealment and mobility in the littorals. The well-known campaign against Somali pirates came about only after a series of events involving the pirating of a weapons shipment, capture of a supertanker, and the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. These incidents forced the United States and many of its allies to commit combat ships, patrol aircraft, and special forces teams over a series of years to finally bring to heel what had become a well-resourced and professional group of pirates.6
Small-scale piracy around the Indonesian archipelago has become better organized and more professional in recent years.7 Cooperation among Southeast Asian countries has made progress against the symptoms, demonstrated by the decline in attacks since 2015, but observers note the lack of progress against the root causes, with campaigns that wind up being only partially or temporarily effective.8 This appears to be playing out in Somalia right now, as the naval patrols have ended and piracy has returned.9
Security threats emerging from the littorals usually have their roots in the gradual erosion of maritime governance. Illegal dumping and unregulated fishing off the coast of Somalia often are cited as the catalysts for the piracy crisis that took so long to bring under control and appears to be resurgent for the same reasons.10 Indonesia has similar problems with illegal fishing, robbing its poor coastal regions of economic opportunity.11 The resurgent Niger Delta Avengers are motivated in part by the continued environmental degradation of the delta by oil companies.12
On the positive side, the successful negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines included adjudicating fishing rights.13 Reconciled former members of the MILF now are fighting against the Islamic State insurgents.14
A Way Forward
These examples highlight the unique motivations and interests of communities in the littorals, and why improving governance in this region is key to durable stability. Addressing coastal communities’ desire for equitable treatment and mitigating disruptions caused by disease, natural disaster, or loss of habitat can help turn the citizenry into a powerful tool that can identify and thwart burgeoning criminal or terrorist organizations before they become strong enough to create chaos on a regional scale. This cannot be achieved through expensive, episodic, and at times risky port visits by large surface combatants or by freedom-of-navigation operations. For stability in the littorals to be durable, other tools must be brought to bear.
The cornerstone is a talented maritime civil affairs corps that understands the dynamics of civil society in the littorals. Achieving this requires modest human capital investment and significant intellectual work and specialization. Simply boiler-plating land-based civil affairs (CA) doctrine does not get at the unique aspects of maritime society.
A professional maritime CA corps would serve as a fleet’s planning capability that leverages, champions, and embeds with other appropriate maritime units such as hospital ships, riverine forces, mobile construction battalions, Coast Guard law enforcement detachments, and other security cooperation activities writ large. A competent maritime civil affairs corps could bring these and other tools to bear in coordination with civil authorities who would identify at-risk areas and develop strategies to improve security, support governance, promote the rule of law, and identify barriers to economic sustainability within littoral regions under threat. This coordinated approach would make the environment inhospitable to extremist groups, insurgents, and criminal organizations.
The return on this modest investment would be substantial. Having appropriately sized and trained capabilities to address littoral security would free the surface Navy to focus on its core missions and provide more time for maintenance, training, and sailor resilience. Revitalizing maritime civil affairs capabilities would improve the fleet’s readiness far more than any marginal increase in ship numbers could, especially if the extra ships still are called on to address security challenges in the littorals.
1. ADM Michael Mullen, USN, “Maritime Domain Awareness Concept,” Department of the Navy, 29 May 2007, 13.
2. There is little public record remaining from the brief existence of MCAST, but the few public affairs announcements on the Navy’s website focus almost exclusively on security training. See the photo gallery at www.navy.mil/local/MCAST/.
3. Alan Cummings, “Farsi Island: Surface Warfare’s Wake-Up Call,” Center for International Maritime Security, 2 August 2016, http://cimsec.org/farsi-island-surface-warfares-wake-call/26877.
4. Brock Vergakis, “Navy Hospital Ship Comfort Was Plagued by Poor Leadership for Years, Investigative Reports Show,” The Virginian-Pilot, 8 May 2016.
5. Kari Hawkins, “Redstone’s Navy Reserves to End Legacy of Service,” Redstone Rocket, 4 September 2013.
6. Edward R. Lucas, “Somalia’s ‘Pirate Cycle’: The Three Phases of Somali Piracy,” Journal of Strategic Security 6, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 61–62.
7. Rodion Ebbighausen, “Southeast Asia – A Pirates’ Paradise,” DW, 17 August 2016, www.dw.com/en/southeast-asia-a-pirates-paradise/a-18599742.
8. Ian Story, “Addressing the Persistent Problem of Piracy and Sea Robbery in Southeast Asia,” ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute Perspective, 7 June 2016, 5.
9. RADM Terry McKnight, USN (Ret.), “End Piracy in the Gulf of Aden,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 6 (June 2017).
10. Curtis Bell and Ben Lawellin, “Stable Seas: Somali Waters,” OneEarthFuture.org, 3 May 2017, 18.
11. Story, “Addressing the Persistent Problem of Piracy,” 10.
12. Tom DiChristopher, “‘Niger Delta Avengers’: Who They Are, and What They Want” CNBC, 20 May 2016, www.cnbc.com/2016/05/20/niger-delta-avengers-who-they-are-and-what-they-want.html.
13. Ted Regencia, “Philippines and Muslim Rebel Group Sign Historic Peace Deal,” Al Jazeera, 27 March 2014.
14. Felipe Villamor, “ISIS Threat in Philippines Spreads in Remote Battles,” The New York Times, 23 October 2017.