Response to SOF and Piracy

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 7 months ago

So Andrew Exum is mad, or so it seems, over a recent post on piracy and our preferred model for comprehensively addressing the problem (although he doesn’t mention us by name, a rather awkward exigency in this debate).

I do not have the time to explain the training, missions, and capabilities of our nation’s special operations forces. To even those without a security clearance or any relevant military or policy background, the value of these forces should be gobsmackingly obvious. And anyone who has closely read what I have written knows that I — far from being “obsessed” with special operations forces — have been quite critical about their employment in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This criticism is based on both personal experience and a careful study of policies and operations.

No, an average platoon of Marines or Army light infantry does not have the capabilities or the training to carry out the missions executed by Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other SOF (to include the SMUs). That’s okay. Because in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called “general purpose” forces are the ones responsible for carrying out the main effort. But parachuting into the middle of the Indian Ocean, swimming to the USS Bainbridge and then shooting three pirates from a boat that is rocking up and down and side to side is pretty effing difficult. If this operation to rescue Richard Phillips isn’t the damn poster child for why we need special operations forces — and why it’s important that those forces are able to work in tandem with normal U.S. Navy and U.S. Army forces — I don’t know what is.

Sorry. I usually don’t go off like that. But I have been holding my tongue for three days. And I don’t get angry when genuine subject matter experts respectfully criticize me on issues about which they know more than I — think Josh Foust on Afghanistan — but do when others attack me in a know-it-all fashion about things they don’t have any experience in or knowledge of.

To be completely fair, readers should see all of Exum’s response.  Also, one particular comment on this post helps explain the debate fairly well.

so (sic) in fairness, the asshat who said “Andrew Exum’s idea to dispatch SEAL teams is absurd” seems to be criticizing the strawman idea of solving the whole piracy problem using SEALs, as opposed to this particular hostage situation. which is still asshat-ism but a somewhat different form than is implied here.

I’ll try to be clinical and not proscribed in my response.  I think Andrew (and also this commenter) missed the point, but the comment makes the response easier.  I am happy that the Captain of the ship is in safe hands tonight.  But the issue to me is not and has never been the capabilities of SOF versus anyone else, what one team of warriors is capable of versus the next, what one billet entails versus the next, and so on.  The argument has never been to send the wrong people to do the wrong job.  It is that we shouldn’t be doing the wrong job in the first place.

At the risk of sounding caustic, calloused and uncaring, this rescue helped no one but the Captain of the ship who was held hostage.  Whether the specific sequence of events is a precursor to more violence is also irrelevant.  The point is that it will not be a deterrent to more piracy.

The commenter helps the discussion by pointing out that this was a so-called “hostage situation.”  Ah … hostage situation indeed.  And aren’t they all?  In what situation could pirates abscond with a vessel, take control over the ship’s crew, demand ransom, and it not be considered a hostage situation?

The sum of the problem is the aggregate of the “hostage situations.”  The number of “hostage situations” is increasing yearly in the Gulf of Aden, and in fact in spite of the celebratory mood over this specific rescue, at the present moment at least twelve ships with more than 200 crew members are being held by Somali pirates.

The argument doesn’t go to the capabilities of SOF, Army, Marines, Navy or FBI (who were involved in the “negotiations”) or who knows more about what.  The argument centers on what the ailment is and what should be prescribed to cure it.  Quite obviously as I have pointed out, performing this kind of operation on every piracy event, or to put it in other terms, “hostage situation,” is quite out of the question.  It is unsustainable in terms of logistics, force size and expense.

So the problem was analyzed to be the psychological predilection towards conducting acts of piracy, at least, that’s the way I saw it.  To this problem, conducting SOF raids and cloak and dagger rescues of specific “hostages” won’t affect the proclivities of the ones conducting the piracy.  A much different solution is needed, one that recognizes the nature of the illness.

When Exum gets angry about the fact that I don’t know as much as him about so-and-so, he doesn’t pause to consider the fact that I might wholeheartedly agree with him.  And why shouldn’t I?  I don’t.  But I have come to a different diagnosis of the malady, and thus I would prescribe a different treatment.  In fact, I have, in Piracy: The Only Solution and Somalian Piracy.  It might seem barbaric to some, and some may choose for piracy to exist rather than implement the solution to it, an outcome I both understand and pity.

Finally, another way of summarizing this whole issue might to be quote Admiral Rick Gurnon.

Few expect that death of five pirates in three days will make Somali pirates think twice. Dire poverty and the collapse of the Somali state mean piracy is “a business model that works for them,” said Rear Adm. Rick Gurnon of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne – the school that trained Phillips – during a press conference Sunday.

“I don’t think this will have any deterrent value at all,” he added.

Instead, he quoted Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of the scourge of piracy at the beginning of the 19th century – and the need to hit the pirates in their home bases on land. “It was said, ‘It’s easier to go after the wasps’ nest than swat the wasps.'” Admiral Gurnon said.

Knowing how hard it has been and will be to conduct COIN operations in two theaters at once, I have spoken against nation-building in Somalia at this point in time.  But there is no comparing poverty with the multi-million dollar ransoms that we have seen with Piracy.  They aren’t attempting to feed their families.  They want to get rich.  In order to change the proclivities of the pirates, they must believe that their profession will kill them.

One final observation is in order.  The comments to this post don’t really challenge the author.  A professional military blog is not complimented when the commenters sound like apparatchiks.  The commenters should refrain from emotional outbursts and pejorative language and concentrate on the main points.  That is what I have done in this response.

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You are currently reading "Response to SOF and Piracy", entry #2672 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Abu Muqawama,Piracy,Somalia and was published April 13th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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