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Garcia (or rather Rowan) Lives!

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I don’t know about you, but I’m pirated out (at least for today)…I feel like a change of pace. How about a sea story?

At the Boat School, a popular turn of phrase is “Message to Garcia.” Usually used in response to a plebe’s (first-year midshipman’s) excuse, it is a reference to Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 essay which refernces LTCOL Andrew Summers Rowan. For those unfamiliar, the gist can be gained by reading this excerpt:

It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing – “carry a message to Garcia!”…And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals.

 I never really learned the true meaning of the phrase until I was a junior officer in the Fleet.

One day, we experienced a seawater leak in a system I had responsibility for. Your humble author was in the midst of preparations for a major inspection, and the leak would cause a dangerous loss of redundancy that both jeapordized not only the results of the inspection but the fair ship’s prospects for getting underway. Captains have a unique way of looking wistfully at a bulkhead and saying “we can’t help but have casualties from time to time” in such a meter and tone that drains the color from a young officer’s face. As I was in the midst of combating several other…ahem…issues, I was filled with outward conviction, maintaining a steady eye and inserting a “Yessir” in as gruff a tone as possible when I could get it in edgewise. Inwardly, I was a man overboard looking for a lifering as a haze grey silhouette shrinks on the horizon.

Don’t worry, dear readers, for that lifering came quickly in the form of a Hull Technician First Class who was only weeks onboard and with whom I had no personal relationship at all. I explained my predicament and he nodded quietly. He said that he had some other high priority repairs to do, but that I should check in with him in the morning and he’d let me know what he found.

I discovered later on that he finished those repairs and then went to the airport to pick up a young HTFA who was reporting to his first ship. After arriving back around midnight, he went to work. I literally found him waiting for me on the quarterdeck at 0500 as I trudged up the pier feeling a little bit sorry for myself. He excitedly escorted me down to the general workshop where I was astounded to see a huge section of piping laying on the work table. He taught me more about metallurgy in the ensuing fifteen minutes than I had ever learned in my life. He then proposed an entire course of action for repair – a repair that we didn’t have the right tools for and which needed several parts. All he said was that the system would be ready to test in six hours.

I still don’t know how he did everything he needed to in that time, but I thanked him heartily and let him do his thing. Six hours later, we were fully operational.

This HT1 needed no thanks and no prompting. He knew what needed to be done and he needed only the smallest direction to complete a task that I simply didn’t have the time to be involved with personally.

Afterwards, I got to know him a little better and one day he remarked that he regretted never getting a college degree like me. I imagined times when distant acquaintances asked about him and his family talked about how he had enlisted in the navy and the acquaintainces eyes got quite large and looked off to one side while mouthing a gigantic silent “Oh…” Experiences like that are the only way I could see someone coming to feel regret for something that seems so trivial when compared to this Sailors innate nature.

How tragic it was that this HT1 thought this! If this man were to be duplicated and those multiples crewed even the smallest corvette, it would be the most feared dreadnought in any fleet. He not only had all the skills to get an important, highly technical job done, but he had the will and the initiative to do it without thinking of reward or favor. He is an outstanding Sailor, but even if he were a normal citizen, a society built on people like him is truly worth the blood of our young people. To this day, I try to emulate him in everything I do.

Working with just one man like this was enough for this officer to keep at it. For those not lucky enough to find a Rowan yet, the reward is worth the wait.


Written by buffalojack

April 15, 2009 at 5:09 am

Soft Power Redux

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From the Secretary himself, I couldn’t have said it better:

Gates, emphasizing the limitations of a purely military approach, said some have suggested bypassing the central government of Somalia and instead establishing relationships with officials of functioning local governments there.

“There is no purely military solution to [piracy],” he said. “And as long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

Gates noted the four pirates involved in kidnapping the Maersk-Alabama captain were 17 to 19 years old, and he cited the dangerous combination of untrained youth and arms. “Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons,” he told the group of 30 students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War College. “Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that.”

Gates underscored that the piracy issue will likely be an important agenda item in coming weeks. “All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem,” he said.

A lot of time in the situation room, indeed. Our actions have solidified a military policy…now the soft power element needs to catch up.

Written by buffalojack

April 14, 2009 at 2:52 am

Posted in Commentary

Where’s the Carrot?

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Great credit is due (again) to Midshipman Jeff Withington over at the USNI blog. It appears that people are still learning things over at the Boat School, and that’s a comfort. His post spurred me to make the following:

buffalojack Says:

Jeffrey, great post.

I couldn’t help but think of an article I read in the UK’s Guardian interviewing a Somali Pirate. In that country, the pirates are considered heroes. The fact that there is nothing else to idolize is probably a forcing function to that end.

An interesting (and rather perverse) hypothetical thought is that as the piracy problem escalates militarily, it could have an unintended effect of galvanizing the Somali population. Piracy is their only business, the only thing that they can have pride in.

I’m all for the use of force in the context of piracy, but without any alternative to continuing in that line of work, it could become a hollow cycle of violence. How can we send the message that this behavior is unacceptable and that they should value other means of income and notoriety? The DoD’s role is pretty clear to me, but how do we leverage State and other “soft power” means to come to a final resolution to this problem?

So called “soft power” seems to be a major plank in the President’s foreign policy platform. That leads me to the conclusion that a mature form of piracy policy (which is probably being worked on feverishly at this moment) will include a military component as well as a “soft” component.

What does that soft component look like? How will NATO and the UN be involved? Will they? Galrahn published a great post hinting at the huge potential for soft power advances as law-abiding nations may potentially unite to work for our collective benefit. There are a lot of questions and a lot of potential avenues for the “soft” component of the overall strategy. Will we see a soft component period and how will that interact with our military policy, which seems to be crystallizing further and further? This is a great opportunity for a DC policy wonk to cut their teeth.

Written by buffalojack

April 13, 2009 at 3:34 am

Surge the FIGs!

with 4 comments

First, American free speech is a wonderful thing. Second, I’m glad to have read such a wide breadth of posts, articles and comments of the piracy situation which reflect nearly every possible viewpoint.

I’d like to start out by saying that, even though I’m thankful for the outcome of the Maersk Alabama, a long-term policy of these types of dashing rescues shouldn’t be adopted. While this specific instance ended favorably, I postulate that the principles of statistics will eventually yield a scenario where innocent civilians are injured or killed. While many were crying out for blood, a prudent plan was being concocted and it appears that the Navy did what it does best and took advantage of an opportunity when it made the most tactical sense. The summation of my views on civility in an uncivilized world can be found at this WSJ editorial.

To paraphrase a line from Admiral Stavridis’ Destroyer Captain, “Today we were lucky. From now on, we need to be good.”

Here’s how to be good:

Many in milblogland are aching for something like the LCS to come online as it seems to be a perfect modern equivalent of the schooner Enterprise from the Barbary wars. Wired’s Danger Room says that the US Navy is a “Second Class Pirate Fighter” because it lacks these kinds of ships. Similar arguments are being made by Mike Burleson over at New Wars. I think that an anti-piracy patrol would be a great job for the LCS – and apparently it’s necessary these days, much to the chagrin of the naysayers who only envision a naked United States sending a flotilla of Freedom-class ships at the entire Chinese Navy.

It seems like what we need are shallower draft ships with decent speed and range. Cheap ones. No need for Gucci cruise missiles or fancy radars here. Just enough gun to put a hurt on a small skiff outside of RPG range. Maybe 3-inch rounds? Helicopter capability would be great…two would be even better than one.

Oh, and we need them right away…

Well, good thing we already have them – that’s right, the venerable OHP-class frigate. It has all the specs, and just for the tax-dollar watchers out there, I did a rough adjustment of GlobalSecurity.org’s quote for unit price circa 1978 and each ship would cost roughly $630 Million in 2008 dollars…pretty much what LCS will cost (especially taking mission modules into account). Just to underscore how appropriate they are, here’s the standard mission blurb (again, from global security):

Frigates fulfill a Protection of Shipping (POS) mission as…combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups and merchant convoys. PERRY-class frigates are primarily Undersea Warfare ships intended to provide open-ocean escort of amphibious ships and convoys in low to moderate threat environments in a global war with the Soviet Union…The ships are equiped to escort and protect carrier battle groups, amphibious landing groups, underway replenishment groups and convoys.

Hrm…Low to moderate threat environment? Check. Merchant convoys? Possible.

Could it be that 25 years after the fact, frigates could do exactly what they were designed to do?

It strikes me as odd that the sole frigate off the Horn of Africa at the moment is the USS Halyburton. Many FIGs are committed to the narcotics problem around South America and I do feel that taking them away from that mission presents some problems, including potentially worsening the violence across the border in Mexico. But there’s a whole grip of FIGs left and what better way for many of them approaching their end-of-service-life to log a final chapter doing something meaningful than by putting a mess of them in the waters off the Somali coast and actually doing some convoy protection.

If we get it right, pirate skiffs will get the hurt put on them and we won’t have to tempt the law of averages with hostage situations any more. That sounds about right to me…

Written by buffalojack

April 12, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Best Wishes for the Phillips Family

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CNN reports that Captain Phillips has been rescued in what looks to be an extremely well-coordinated operation.

For all of our collective hand-wringing over this issue in the milblog world in the past week, the real credit goes to the snake-eaters, the crew of the BAINBRIDGE, CTF 151, and all of the other heroes, sung and unsung, who planned and executed what appears to be a very successful rescue.

Best wishes to the Phillips family on what must be truly a day to rejoice. May they see their beloved Captain, husband, and father on American soil soon.

Written by buffalojack

April 12, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Commentary, Morale Officer

Tagged with , , ,

The Long View

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Casual Laborers with the WFP (World Food Program) load food rations onto a truck in the Free Port of Monrovia.

Casual Laborers with the WFP (World Food Program) load food rations onto a truck in the Free Port of Monrovia.

I was trolling through the news over at Voice of America and I read an article interviewing former Surface Warfare Officer John Patch, currently a professor at the Army War College. Its title: “Somali Piracy – An Overstated Threat?” disturbed me.

As I read the article, though, I started to agree with many of Professor Patch’s points. For one, he dismisses much of the bombast surrounding the piracy issue:

Patch says, “It may perhaps in the short term, but I think there have been many famous quotes over the years by leaders that say if you base your policies on pride and passion and public opinion, you will go in the wrong directions. So I think we have to be cautious with that.”

Recent posts show that I agree wholeheartedly. Our policy needs to be rooted in common sense, to avoid civilian casualties, and to alter the parameters of the piracy problem to work in our favor be it through convoys, involvement on the ground, more ships, better ROE, etc. I also believe, as Professor Patch does, that the solution will likely involve nation building and he notes that nobody wants to foot that bill at the moment. I agree that the US is ill-equipped financially and militarily to do the nation-building necessary to promote law and order in the region and the political will to do so probably will not exist in the foreseeable future.

It’s true that piracy does not constitute a grave threat to maritime security. Plenty of shipping makes it through the most dangerous areas of the world without incident. Piracy has not brought any economy to its knees. “Attacks” are usually resolved peacefully. But where an argument can be made that piracy is a minor threat relative to others, the real key is that piracy is a symptom of a far worse and far more insidious security problem. Thankfully, another article on VOA demonstrates why America may need to start rethinking the piracy issue – because it also needs to rethink Africa.

The Maersk Alabama was carrying World Food Program provisions destined for Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya. If piracy is left unchecked, more aid will fail to reach African shores and commerce will decrease. Particularly in Somalia’s case, if aid is left undelivered, how long can we expect violence to remain within Somalia’s borders? I see the potential for a negative feedback loop where unrest and lawlessness perpetuates itself as the few programs attempting to stabilize the continent are reduced in effectiveness. The lawlessness in Somalia is already affecting powerful nations like the United States and France. We -humanity – have stood by during countless travesties on the African continent and have come up with all manner of excuses to stay away. In reality, the honest answer is that we’re not involved because the problems don’t affect us.

Well, guess what? They’re starting to.

The military has been ahead of the curve. Standing up a new unified command – AFRICOM. Endeavoring to promote partnerships, empower local security forces, and deliver aid through efforts like the Africa Partnership Station. I don’t think that we can indict the military for not trying. Navy brass in particular, I think, sees the need to engage the continent and do what we can to improve security. Our new maritime strategy says as much.

But we need to do more, and the allocation of further resources requires the power of the purse…and what that really means is that congress needs to start hearing from citizens on these issues. To go the distance the military needs the funding and the mandate that only civilian leadership can provide.

We need to take the long view on Africa and realize that, yes, our own enlightened self-interest should drive us to act to improve security across the continent. We neglect Africa at our own peril!

Written by buffalojack

April 11, 2009 at 6:29 am

A Common Sense Piracy Policy?

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Stephen Decatur in the Barbary WarsThe spirit moved me to comment on a thread over at the USNI blog, so I’m going to expound on that here.

The blogosphere has erupted with pirate hawks since the capture of the Maersk Alabama and the ongoing saga with her Captain. I am a pirate hawk myself, but I’ve read many posts calling for pirates to hang from Navy yardarms across the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. While American taste for pirate blood has intensified with this recent incident, it hasn’t brought us towards formulating a common-sense policy to deal with the piracy problem. Galrahn has intelligently outlined several current policy problems over at his blog. Using his analysis of the current situation as a starting point, here is my four-point policy for dealing with the Somali pirate issue.

1) Realize that if an attack succeeds, the US has already lost. Once pirates have seized a ship or hostages, there are only two outcomes – both undesirable. We either lose face by having to pay ransom and seeming impotent or we lose civilian lives in a botched rescue attempt. We can’t afford to lose the PR war any longer.

2) Broadcast out intentions. Announce through every media outlet that the U.S. means business. Declare the waters off the Somali coast to be an exclusionary zone and require merchant traffic to check in with international naval escorts. Declare than any suspected piratical activity in international waters will be met with warning shots and then deadly force. Consider declaring Somali territorial waters ungoverned and extend the same policy up to the high-tide mark.

3) Control the waterspace. We have limited resources. Set up convoys with military escorts (regardless of flag). We need to recognize that this is an opportunity to cooperate with navies outside of NATO. Imagine the benefit of American and Chinese warships escorting a merchant convoy. Concentrating the targets also allows concentrating military force and shrinking the problem from millions of square miles to within the visual horizon. The entire Gulf of Aden should be declared an exclusionary zone by the United Nations solely for vessels with military escort.

4) Act on our stated policy. Liberally use warning shots. Give vessels fair warning…but, if a small vessel of a certain profile doesn’t alter course upon warning shots, they should be disabled or destroyed. Formulate a common ROE for all forces in the region.

We’re all rightfully upset that an American flagged ship has been captured in international waters for the first time since the early 1800s. What we need is a cool-headed, results driven policy to provide a common sense approach to deterring piracy and doing so with the force structure we currently have. We were able to do so in Decatur’s time, we can again.

Written by buffalojack

April 10, 2009 at 3:55 pm