Naval Asymmetric Warfare

In September 2013 First Admiral Ong Thiam Hock, Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), gave a presentation to a distinguished audience at the Asian Naval Warfare Conference. At that time he was the Commanding Officer of the RMN’s Maritime Tactical Centre, PUSTAKMAR. In his speech he looked to the future for naval doctrine and tactics in Asia and considered the nature of high intensity conflict in comparison with asymmetric warfare. This paper will draw upon some aspects of Admiral Ong’s work to describe how a navy like the RMN might leverage aspects of Naval Asymmetric Warfare to full advantage in its vision to be a ‘world class navy’ in a maritime world fraught with future challenges. The World Economic Forum report for 2015 assesses the likelihood of interstate conflict as the number one global risk. Hopefully this assessment is at least a few years out in its estimate. However, such a bleak outlook suggests the need for navies, especially those in strategically vulnerable geographic locations possessing limited and short range warfare capabilities to think and plan beyond the conventional and embrace the complimentary future of naval asymmetric warfare.

Evolutionary Warfare
During the latter half of a career now in its fifth decade I have witnessed what seems to me an exponential growth in the search for the military version of the Holy Grail among many militaries and coalitions. Conventional warfare under the nuclear umbrella of assured mutual destruction has been transformed from relatively simplistic and legalistic visions of state combatting state into fragmented military actions within (and confined by) a framework of cultural pluralism. This has seen what has been termed a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ but perhaps more accurately we should refer to it as an evolution rather than revolution.
First World militaries have expended funds and energy in research and doctrine as a response to unpredicted transformative threats which have developed as a result of a world order temporarily freed from the strictures of its superpower diarchy. Post-war mass immigration encouraged by governments for hedonistic reasons erroneously promoted multiculturalism above assimilation and, with hindsight, paid insufficient heed to burgeoning social inequalities. Recent conventional wars, especially in the Middle East, have created power vacuums which have seen the dawn of a false ‘Arab Spring’ lead into the present darkening Arab Winter. Insurgencies and terrorism today go hand in hand. The West is now reaping the whirlwind of domestic and foreign policy failures as a result of perceptions that those policies are unjust to the political and religious cultures from which their economically and socially disenfranchised immigrant citizens first emerged.
Much of human experience appears cyclical in nature although this cyclical repetition is rarely identical or entirely predictable. One could argue that military history often follows a similar course. Perhaps our biggest failure is that we fail to maintain in our corporate memory an accurate database of lessons learnt from previous military operations. If we did then the most recent invasion of Afghanistan may never have taken place and there would have been fewer lessons relearnt by the Royal Navy in the Falklands War. 1982 in the South Atlantic remains the last time we saw a high intensity naval conflict in the missile age and to a certain degree naval doctrine and in particular tactics appear stuck in the 1980s bearing a distinct vestige of the Cold War era.

Time is a definite factor affecting military evolution. As time has advanced since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has unleashed world events which have restimulated military thinking left somewhat in the doldrums by two generations of cold war stability. For a short while it appeared that navies were to be little affected by post-cold war military evolution. However, the US Navy, with its’ imposed drive toward joint warfare, employment of submarine and surface launched cruise missiles together with carrier based air strikes has worked hard to develop an evolutionary momentum to 21st century warfare. All have been complimented by doctrinal development in Network Centric Warfare, Cyber Warfare, Information Operations and the US Navy’s contribution to Strategic Communications along with other new spheres of warfare development. The US Navy re-activated the Tenth Fleet in 2010 as its’ Cyber Command and it reports to the US Navy’s ‘Information Dominance Corps’. With the exception perhaps of the Chinese PLA(N) no other navy is blessed with such economies of scale and personnel as the US Navy. Although today conventional naval warfare capabilities, have never been so widely distributed or so technologically advanced such dominance allowed new doctrinal approaches to be investigated and implemented with a freedom not available to smaller navies sucking at the teat of influence.
In parallel to a generation of philosophical changes in the conduct of warfare including the introduction of space as a fourth dimension, United States led tactics, techniques and procedures have continued to develop apace, fuelled in part by two Gulf Wars and their miserable aftermath. It is of course still possible for a smaller navy with first class research and development assets to be world leaders in a niche sphere. The development of the Australian Navy’s NULKA active missile decoy system is just such an example. The future promises changes in manoeuvrability, dimensions of platforms, their fuels and propulsion systems, endurance, weapons, countermeasures, logistics, indeed every sphere of naval life including no doubt how naval personnel themselves are employed and deployed. Many of those aspects of future progress will be achievable to one degree or another by most navies. Data will be discussed widely in professional forums and integrated into shared doctrines and coalition tactics. However, some developments, for example those which provide a distinct technical advantage in a particular warfare discipline will continue not to be widely disseminated, if at all.

Does Size Matter?
The US Navy recently introduced into service not one but two classes of essentially experimental designs of something called Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). These are now referred to at the highest levels informally as a ‘small surface combatant’ but strangely never corvette or frigate. It is impossible to envisage even a medium sized navy experimenting with two classes of vessel in this manner and then having the means to fight through and one day overcome the travails associated with them both, not to mention the simultaneous development of a new DDG first of class, the $3.5 billion USS ZUMWALT. Contrast this with the financial tales of woe surrounding the RMN’s acquisition plans for two small training ships, the Gagah Samudera and Teguh Samudera.
Perhaps we should consider what is meant by a ‘small’ navy. Over 400 years ago the father of modern demography, Giovanni Botero, identified a middle power as one that “has sufficient strength and authority to stand on its own without the need of help from others” . There is much debate about which nations can claim to be middle powers in the modern world. Clearly few would meet Botero’s definition today.

If it is difficult to define comparative national power and status how then should we define the relative effectiveness of navies? Today there are no treaties to limit a naval arms race like the Five Power Treaty following the Great War which was subsequently amended by the 1930 London Naval Agreement. Political maritime aspirations are tempered by economic and political considerations. Perhaps when we consider a navy’s size we should consider not tonnage or firepower but whether or not it is capable of achieving its purpose. Professor Patrick Bratton has outlined what he termed as a “concise criteria” with regards to the classification of brown, green and blue-water navies: “a brown-water navy standing for a navy capable of defending its coastal zones, a green-water navy for a navy competent to operate in a regional sea and finally a blue-water navy described as a navy with the capability to operate across the deep waters.” Such criteria are more coherent than simple small, medium or large descriptions although they do not differentiate between navies within each group, for example the very different blue-water navies of the USA and Australia. Brunei would thus be considered a brown-water navy while Malaysia, with its geographical division across the South China Sea into East and West, must endeavour to remain, by Bratton’s criteria, a ‘green-water’ navy.
However, the growth of great fleets in the Indo-Pacific suggests we may be about to witness what Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgiyevich Gorshkov and Admiral Mahan before him recognised: that naval power can change strategic relationships between competing socioeconomic and political systems. In early September 2014 it was announced the Indian navy is building a new base on the East coast: “to further boost force levels in the Indian ocean region and to counter China’s growing presence”. Clearly smaller nations must find a way for their maritime forces, their first line of defence, to operate on a level playing field.

What Value A Navy?
To be ‘world-class’ is feel-good phrase for use in peacetime. In 2000, the Royal New Zealand Navy after wide consultation, determined its vision statement as “To be the best small–nation Navy in the world”. However, the bottom line for any defence force is whether or not it is perceived by a would be aggressor to be an effective deterrent. The cynical reality demands that if deterrence fails a navy must be able to exact a politically acceptable price in the face of any subsequent aggression. One of the limitations almost all navies face all of the time is cost. Philip Pugh in his study on the ‘Cost of Seapower’ sums this up nicely: “navies will long continue to exist with each being of a size and strength commensurate with the ability of their national economies to pay for them”. Given the importance of economic factors, it is vital for the security of nations below the superpower level that every dollar is well spent, from the beginning of the acquisition process, throughout a vessel’s service life until it is scrapped. Just three air warfare destroyers for the Royal Australian Navy had a budgeting cost of $8.455 billion (Australian dollars) but even smaller escort vessels incur a substantial cost. In Malaysia the MEKO 100 Kedah class patrol vessels are suggested to have cost 270 million dollars each in a contract signed in 1998 . Meanwhile the GOWIND LCS, while substantially larger, is reported to have a ceiling cost of $466 million for each of the 6 proposed vessels .

Building a future capability while at the same time maintaining readiness objectives is a demanding balancing act for any navy. It can be tempting both politically and militarily to follow naval fashions. If your neighbour is buying submarines then should you too possess them or risk looking weak to your electorate? However, navies are operating in a changed world. Fashion items that look and sound good in a showroom may demand unexpected costs and fail to meet practical expectations. Today there is a wider threat matrix, technology has advanced exponentially, and new qualifications are required from personnel while new capabilities require revisiting organisational approaches. All this in an era where ‘jointery’ is more relevant than ever and in a century which has not so far demonstrated any slowdown in the pace of warfare development or its associated costs. How then may a small navy which aspires to be ‘world class’ and play its part fully in protecting its nation’s sovereignty and maritime interests remain effective?

Back To The Future
The phrase “think out of the box” readily comes to mind when considering how one might make a ‘green-water’ navy most effective in the remainder of this century. There are two broad ways to define what is meant by Asymmetric Warfare. One is warfare between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly. This is a simple David and Goliath construct and while it may be a useful catchall when talking about terrorist versus state activities, it is nevertheless a rather a blunt approach. The other definition, which is official United States policy, is:
“In military operations the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.”
It is this approach that one suggests is worthy of real consideration for a ‘green-water’ navy looking to maximise defence effectiveness in a world of harsh competition and economic realities. With its emphasis on dissimilarities in activities and not the relative size of opponents, it allows us to consider the breadth of situations, from warfare between states, whether large or small, through to internal counter-insurgency operations.
Although the term ‘Asymmetric Warfare’ is rooted in the late 20th century, that a nation might employ Naval Asymmetric Warfare (NAW) is not in itself new. In the Second World War the Guadalcanal campaign demonstrated technology alone was no guarantor of victory. The US Navy was still set on employing daylight gunnery and 130 plus years after the Battle of Trafalgar they sought to use tactics aimed at ‘crossing the T’ to bring maximum guns to bear on an enemy fleet’s advance in a ‘decisive battle’. The USN deployed surface search, long range air and fire control radars at sea well before Pearl Harbor. In terms of tonnage and technology and hamstrung by the London Naval Agreement, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an inferior force. However, the Japanese were trained in great detail to maximise night warfare. As Professor Mahnken of the United States Naval War College describes:

“The naval battles off Guadalcanal illustrate vividly that technological superiority does not guarantee victory. At the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese Navy lacked surface-search and fire-control radar. It had, however, developed and practiced a coherent tactical system for night combat. The United States, by contrast, possessed radar but had yet to develop concepts and organizations to exploit its potential fully”.

Remarkably the technological hunt for the best passive aids to night vision is still on going. Although the US Navy of the 21st century appears to have learnt its lesson: “Potential adversaries are expected to adapt as US capabilities evolve and will increasingly rely on asymmetric approaches to avoid US strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses.” As will be discussed, the employment of NAW is not limited to just those assessed as the weaker of two adversaries.
It would be advantageous to develop indigenous expertise wherever possible to remove dependencies on foreign sales processes. The availability of technology and new research will continue to drive asymmetric warfare strategies and tactics. Necessity will sometimes force the development of NAW tactics. An excellent 20th century example of this, as well as of self-reliant home grown ingenuity, came together with the development of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). In days of yore a country’s sovereign territorial waters extended 3 nautical miles beyond the shoreline or about the extreme range of cannon shot. By 1976 Iceland had gradually extended its EEZ to 200 miles, resulting in the last of three wars over the valuable cod fishery. A total of 22 Royal Navy frigates designed for high intensity cold war conflicts were ultimately defeated by the aggressive manoeuvring of just 6 low technology patrol vessels. This North Atlantic example of a nation developing asymmetric tactics in defence of its offshore natural resources has perhaps some asymmetric echoes in recent events in the South China Sea (SCS), in which state controlled fishing vessels were being employed to intimidate and support mini-blockades around an oil installation in a disputed SCS EEZ.
While tactics developed by insurgent and terrorist organisations are often asymmetric in nature when considering state sponsored NAW one need only look as far as Iran and the naval element of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It possesses several hundred armed small boats and it has drilled them in swarm tactics. In his presentation to the Asian Naval Warfare conference First Admiral Ong Thiam Hock suggested that

“there are several countries that operate in our region with the economic and technological wherewithal to develop new weapons. These may be very dissimilar and therefore asymmetric in nature to those which have gone before and they will require new doctrine and tactics to counteract them.”

Malaysia is directly adjacent to two potential maritime hotspots: the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. According to Time magazine, “the Pentagon wants to seed potential hotspots with equipment … in capsules rooted on the ocean floor … until roused from their “dormancy” by signals from the U.S. military. They would then rise to the surface, which is why the Pentagon calls it the ‘Upward Falling Payloads’ program.”

Asymmetric Futures
In the 1980s the Soviet Navy introduced lasers at sea which it was assessed were designed to blind enemy pilots. A generation later and the technological advances mean lasers in warfare now offer the realistic prospect of long range missile interceptions and downing of aircraft. In 2016 the US Navy will put a magnetic rail gun prototype to sea. As rail guns fire projectiles at Mach 7 it is not unreasonable to consider such a weapon ‘asymmetric’. The age of computers has brought cyber warfare – the threat of computer network attack and exploitation. In July 2011 the Washington Times reported that China was developing electro-magnetic pulse weapons to be used against aircraft carriers. Sonic and ultrasonic weapons are already in use. They employ soundwaves to deter, injure or incapacitate. They are not limited to being deployed by teenagers in souped up hatchbacks. For several years coalition ships off the Horn of Africa have deployed the LRADS system to deter approaching pirates. There are reports of China building up its anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities—including communications jamming, cyber-warfare and anti-satellite weapons. By the next generation many, perhaps all of these asymmetric warfare developments aiming to give their sponsors the cutting advantage on the battlefield may be accepted as almost conventional. Such is the nature of warfare and weapons development. The USSR developed weapons such as the SSN 22 missile and the 200 plus knots ‘Shkval’ torpedo to counter their significant capability disadvantage against American aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, but today they are not considered ‘asymmetric’.
Consideration should be given to how national assets might be turned to asymmetric advantage. An existing example in Malaysia is how the employment of leased merchant ships to carry special forces off the Horn of Africa in Operation Fajar, has been followed more recently by the deployment, since August 2014, of one those vessels, Bunga Mas Lima off the east coast of Sabah. She acts as a forward operating base at sea, a mothership for RMN CB90 fast attack craft and Malaysian army fast boats as well as embarked RMN helicopter.

As a possibility for the future one might consider exploiting offshore oil and gas platforms. Malaysia has over 400 discovered oil and gas fields, 68 of them in production. In November 2013 the Defence Minister indicated a willingness to consider requests from petroleum companies for the installation of surveillance equipment on oil rigs to boost security measures. Imagine several air and surface surveillance radars atop oil rigs networked together and the resulting picture being available to fighter controllers and navy operations staff on the mainland. That could enhance existing detection and intercept ranges by several hundred miles. Similarly selected platforms could quietly be equipped for intelligence gathering and be electronic warfare.

But why stop there? Disused platforms could be converted for military use as helicopter forward operating bases and weapon platforms. Such rigs are mobile and could be placed and equipped to achieve strategic or tactical objectives. This is not a new idea. As long ago as 1979, students at the US Navy War College were considering the military use of offshore platforms for basing anti-submarine warfare helicopters and surveillance systems. In Napoleonic times forts were built offshore to protect harbour approaches, no doubt very asymmetric for their day. Perhaps offshore oil and gas platforms might become the modern equivalent for some EEZs.
The use of fishing vessels in an asymmetric role in support of political and economic warfare was mentioned earlier. For consideration is that in the future issuance of national flagged fishing vessel licences for offshore vessels could be linked to accepting military capabilities on board. These might be stand-alone equipments remotely monitored from ashore. For example HF/DF, communications interception and ESM. Such vessels could be wired and fitted “for but not with” and multiple equipment fits stored ashore ready for their immediate deployment in times of tension. Perhaps governments should be actively considering containerised weapon systems. There are millions of containers at sea at any one time and for state owned vessels operating between local ports it would not be difficult to arrange that a particular set of containers is sited in an advantageous position for use at relatively short notice. Such a system would be a cheap force multiplier, providing both defensive and offensive options without requiring an expensive naval platform to be procured and manned. After a January 2015 missile firing from an LCS, Vice Admiral Rowden USN proclaimed: “I can take that launcher and, while it was a non-tactical launcher, I could put that launcher on anything. I can put it on a Military Sealift Command ship, I can put it on the littoral combat ship, I can put that launcher anywhere. And I can start to then further distribute the lethality. I’m not saying we’ve got any plans to do it. But what I’m saying is that if everybody’s got a 130 mile anti-surface missile, all of a sudden, if you’re the adversary, you’ve got a hell of a problem.”
STUFT ships (merchant ‘Ships Taken Up From Trade’) in the Falklands campaign all carried at least one naval liaison officer. Only a handful of trained personnel would be required should an embarked container (overtly or covertly) contain ready to use missiles. Whether located on a ship or offshore platform, it is easy to envisage such systems being controlled remotely either from a naval asset, military aircraft or from ashore. Of course, if an enemy does not know where those missiles are located the deterrent value and targeting problem are both increased.

In the 1980s it is unlikely many warfare professionals would have predicted the present widespread use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The K-Max unmanned helicopter first deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 to haul cargo in and out of warzones, thus avoiding deploying vulnerable ground convoys. Although initially scheduled only for a six-month deployment it was still supporting operations in theatre three years later, having flown more than 1,900 missions and carried 5.5 million pounds of cargo. Today the technology already exists for driverless cars on roads. Opposed landings in Amphibious Warfare may soon once more be a realistic option, benefitting from technological advances. Oshkosh Defense has spent years developing and testing an autonomy kit called TerraMax that allows a convoy of trucks to be driven by a single person located safely in the back of the line. The system has been installed on two medium tactical vehicle replacements and demonstrated under the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s cargo unmanned ground vehicle program.

Rolls Royce is developing a fleet of remotely operated large cargo vessels which may enter service within a decade. It really is not too difficult to imagine that by say 2050 or earlier a majority of vessels over 10,000 gross registered tons will transit from port to port entirely unmanned and commanded via satellites by master mariners in offices located thousands of miles away. This may too be the future for some naval vessels in an age when a space agency can land a craft on a small asteroid millions of miles away in space. Royal Australian Navy undergraduates were recently breaking new ground in the design and application of Autonomous Surface and Underwater Vehicles. “In October 2014 we will be one of 15 teams competing in an international robotic competition in Singapore. Hosted by the US Office of Naval Research, this competition entails an autonomous surface vessel navigating, avoiding obstacles and detecting underwater objects.”

For richer nations with large research and development budgets, remotely operated submarines may not be science fiction for much longer although the speed of sound in water will provide greater obstacles than for surface vessels. On the other hand pre-programmed tasks such as mine-laying will be entirely feasible as well as closing stretches of sea lines of communications through pre-deployed unmanned submersible facilitated torpedo attacks. This will rely on intelligence data for specific target sets, but a country sitting alongside busy narrow straits might gain through collaboration in assisting with collecting such data.
For governments keen on coastal defence but economically constrained and perhaps lacking offshore platforms, asymmetric deterrence may take other forms. Small fast boats loaded with explosives or deployable mines or short range missiles can be remotely controlled. They may operate in formation, controlled either from one of the vessels or, if in visual range, from ashore. In Sri Lanka the swift launching of attack craft on trailers from remote beaches by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emphasized the efficacy of NAW tactics. For many years the Royal Navy deployed an Exocet shore based missile battery in Gibraltar. Such portable missile systems are relatively cheap, easily hidden and in sophisticated hands can deter a weak enemy or inflict damage on a superior adversary. HMS GLAMORGAN was fortunate to be able to weather a shore-based Exocet attack in 1982 and the ship was already aware of the missile battery position. Of course, as with UAV strikes, many of the asymmetric suggestions mentioned above may the subject of legal argument.

It is for consideration that the NAW alternatives and many others that have not been mentioned are worthy of serious and immediate study. The ability for a small nation to successfully attack a larger force is underpinned by the opportunity to select the time, the place and the targets for attack as well as how to best defend vulnerabilities. Naval doctrine and tactics will continue to develop to encompass both the conventional and the asymmetric in naval warfare and smaller nations cannot afford to be left behind while there exists the need for capabilities to meet and deter both high intensity conflict as well as those challenges set by the evolution of other nations’ asymmetric warfare in a maritime environment.
In the not too distant future navies like the RMN will no longer provide an effective deterrent if they rely only on conventional and expensive imported capabilities to protect their national sovereignty. It makes sense to actively consider the employment of some NAW alternatives. Malaysia itself may be seen as potentially vulnerable. Already divided into two by the sea, It has an EEZ rich in resources with oil and gas installations, shallow shoals and islands as well as healthy fishing grounds. This is not to suggest the government begin unrealistic investment in indigenous technological research and development but that methods of preparing for (and if necessary fighting) a different kind of maritime warfare should be integrated alongside essential conventional naval capabilities such as Sea Lines of Communication and convoy protection. Near the beginning of this discussion I described being a long time witness to the ongoing search for a ‘Military Holy Grail’. This mythical concept would provide the ability to fight and win wars without losing the support of public opinion which, inter alia, means keeping the 24 hour media machine onside, and all this while not losing any (or just the politically acceptable bare minimum) of sailors, soldiers and airmen. The study of Naval Asymmetric Warfare options and their tactical employment by selected specialists, perhaps in a Maritime Warfare Centre environment, would be an essential first step to achieving the nearest practical solution to a military mythical desirability.
Noah’s principle: one survives not by predicting rain but by building arks
© Tom Frederick Books 2014

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