The crippled USS Cole is towed into deep water by Yemini tug boats from the port of Aden, Sunday Oct. 29, 2000.

The crippled USS Cole is towed into deep water by Yemini tug boats from the port of Aden, Sunday Oct. 29, 2000. Hasan Jamali/AP

Tomorrow’s Small Wars Won’t Just Be Land Wars

The naval and coastal aspects of counterinsurgency get dangerously short shrift.

Imagine a crisis in a coastal country where terrorists and insurgents turn the littorals to their advantage. Are the United States and its allies ready for naval forces to play a key role in counterinsurgency?

Events in Yemen suggests this situation is already upon us. Houthi rebels, pushing deeper into a country surrounded on two sides by sea, have precipitated a regional crisis with several maritime dimensions. The rebels have received arms by sea, leading Saudi Arabia to blockade Yemeni ports, the United States to board freighters, and Iran to dispatch its own warships to the area. Saudi warships also shelled Houthi positions to prevent a takeover of the port city of Aden, while China, India, and Pakistan have evacuated their citizens by sea.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Yemen has a deadly track record in the maritime space. In 2000, the group killed 17 American sailors aboard the USS Cole as it refueled in Aden. Two years later, it bombed the oil tanker MV Limburg off Yemen’s coast. In 2013, Ahmed Warsame, whom the Justice Department describes as a senior terrorist leader and who pled guilty to a material-support charge, was arrested on a boat in the Gulf of Aden while traveling between Somalia and Yemen. That same year, the Yemeni government reportedly disrupted a plot to attack shipping in the Bab al Mandeb strait. And just this month, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate overran a brigade defending the coast along Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s largest province, and seized the city’s port.

Despite the clear potential for insurgents and terrorists to use the maritime space, the issue has received scant attention. For example, the Navy’s new “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” calls for a forward naval presence, but says little about the maritime small wars such forces might encounter.

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Instead, U.S. preparation for maritime small wars is stuck between two longtime tendencies. First, the military bureaucracy and defense-industrial complex prefers to focus on big conventional wars. See, for example, the energy poured into AirSea Battle, a doctrine aimed at defeating China, after a decade of fighting insurgents in the Middle East. Second, even those who demand attention be paid to preparing for smaller wars usually treat the maritime domain as a matter of little strategic importance. The most significant challenge to the big-war preppers came from the counterinsurgency field, whose foremost names, John Nagl, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal, all came out of the Army. In 2008, Tim Benbow documented the modern failure to examine the role of maritime forces in counterinsurgency, noting its absence from all 337 articles published in Small Wars and Insurgencies between 1992 and 2005. He found that even journals focused on naval matters ignored the connection between counterinsurgency and maritime forces.

This absence of naval strategy from the professional literature can be traced to the earliest modern theorists of counterinsurgency. Take David Galula, whose writings on Algeria have enjoyed a renaissance since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In his 1964 book Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory and Practice, Galula writes, “The Navy’s mission, if any, is to enforce a blockade, a conventional type of operation that does not require elaboration here.” He classifies seas not as battle zones but as fundamentally apolitical and unchanging “natural barriers.”

Yet history teaches us that the maritime aspect of small wars is not a purely technical matter whose success is guaranteed by having the most technologically advanced and largest navy. Take, for example, Palestine after World War II. Facing a seaborne influx of unsanctioned Jewish immigrants to Mandatory Palestine, the British Royal Navy was forced to devote four to six of its 14 Mediterranean-based destroyers to police Palestine’s shores, then to bring in four frigates from the Pacific. It wasn’t enough, and ultimately, Zionist militant groups were able to consolidate their power and push Britain out of the country. Fritz Liebreich argues that the “overtaxing of British shipping resources…proved very important” in persuading London to abandon its fight against Jewish immigration to Palestine. But instead of being studied, the Palestine case has been ignored. Ninian Stewart, who wrote a 2002 book about the episode for his service’s Naval Historical Branch, notes that “the only official Royal Navy account has been a classified document containing details of the early days and issued as a guide in 1947.”

Vietnam in the 1960s provides another example. In Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, Thomas Cutler recounts the Vung Ro incident, in which it took several days of air strikes to stop a camouflaged ship from bringing arms to Vietnamese insurgents. The failure raised questions about the government’s coastal defense capabilities and encouraged the United States to escalate its own involvement in Vietnamese waters—even though, as Cutler notes, “no appropriate patrol craft existed in the U.S. Navy’s inventory.”

This was hardly the key moment in the Vietnam War quagmire, but it should not be dismissed as a meaningless technical failure unworthy of strategic analysis. The U.S. Navy was drawn into a war it was not prepared for. Although not all of the 2,663 sailors and seven Coast Guardsmen who perished in the war did so in Vietnamese waters, the toll reminds us that people die when the military neglects to prepare for a maritime dimension to its small wars.

Yet just as the British forgot the lessons of the Palestine Patrol, the U.S. military retained little from its maritime engagements in Vietnam. The epigraph to Cutler’s book is:

“When I was in Vietnam a bunch of us decided to —”

“Wait a minute. I must have misunderstood. I thought you were in the Navy.”

“I am.”

“Well, what were you doing in Vietnam?”

Cutler writes, “I have participated in conversations like this one many times since returning from Vietnam, and other Navy veterans have told me of similar experiences.”

Today’s military planners cannot afford to assume technical dominance or that a large navy is sufficient to ward off strategic failure. We will continue to see maritime insurgent networks and maritime counterinsurgent forces play important roles in irregular warfare because it makes simple economic sense for them to do so. For one thing, moving materiel is generally cheaper by sea than by land, and has grown even more so in the age of the road-buried improvised explosive device. For an insurgent or terrorist, moving undetected can be easier amid commercial maritime flows than by land or air. Drug traffickers have learned these lessons and increasingly use maritime routes and even rudimentary submersible vehicles to bring their cargoes to America.

Israeli interceptions of ships reportedly carrying weapons to Palestinian militants suggest that maritime networks have an important role in the arming of such groups. And in last year’s escalation of hostilities, Hamas attempted to use seaborne naval commandoes to project forces into Israel as the second prong of an offensive strategy focused on rocket fire. While used to limited effect, the commando unit foreshadows more use by Hamas of the maritime dimension.

In South Asia, the terrorists who killed more than 164 people in the 2008 attack on the Taj Mahal and other locations in Mumbai traveled from Karachi by boat. David Headley, who pled guilty to casing the targets before the attack and who received training from Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted the attack, reportedly told Indian interrogators that the group was setting up a naval arm. Al Qaeda launched its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent by attempting to hijack a Pakistani frigate in order to use its weapons, which included an anti-ship missile system with a range of 186 miles to target American ships. A Pakistani security official told the Wall Street Journal, “If they hadn’t been detected, the minimal damage would have been similar to the USS Cole in 2000. However, if they had somehow managed to maneuver the weapons systems, then we are talking about a full-scale naval engagement.” Imagine such a strike off Yemen, where sea lanes are being used to evacuate citizens from the conflict zone.

State backing and technological proliferation could magnify such threats. In 2006, Hezbollah almost sank an Israeli frigate with a Chinese-made missile obtained from Iran.  The close call was the result of intelligence failures regarding Hezbollah’s capabilities, poor missile-defense practices, and specific failures on the part of the crew, Ha’aretz reported. These are precisely the types of failures that are likely to be exploited when counterinsurgents treat maritime irregular warfare as simply a technical matter.

For now, maritime action by non-state actors take the form of isolated attacks rather than sustained campaigns. Planners should not assume this will always be the case. A few recent cases suggest that insurgent groups have achieved at least initial deployment of larger, more effective maritime strategies. As Paul Povlock has documented, the Tamil Tigers grew a maritime procurement and smuggling effort into an offensive force that hurt Sri Lankan forces and forced them to adapt under fire. A 2012 International Crisis Group report explains how land-focused African military doctrines enabled the escalation of highly organized and sophisticated insurgent and criminal violence in the Niger Delta and other West African waters.

The Navy is seeking to adapt and prepare for some of these contingencies. Its Cooperative Strategy calls for improving maritime security with more integrated detection capabilities, interoperability, and training for allies. The strategy also calls for strengthening the International Port Security Program and integrating new technologies to counter swarm tactics. Other efforts include the establishment of a Navy Irregular Warfare Office in 2008 and the publication of a Navy Vision Statement for Countering Irregular Challenges in 2010.

So far, however, preparation for maritime small wars still lags far behind its land-based counterpart. Some have questioned whether the Navy’s efforts are more than window dressing. The crisis in Yemen suggests that the conditions that could give rise to maritime small wars are not going to disappear but will recur. If the United States intends to commit itself to a forward maritime presence, it cannot afford to wait for a major crisis to establish the formal infrastructure of learning to deal with maritime irregular threats. The lessons of Palestine, Vietnam, and other forgotten cases must be studied and integrated into doctrine and practice now before they are relearned under fire.