Are Western Navies Facing a Readiness Crisis?

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High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.

The readiness issue  has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.

In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.

Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.

I hope everyone has had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Saturday 20 October, 2018 Update: USS Truman Crosses the Arctic Circle

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The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.

In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.

The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.

Saturday 8 September, 2018 Update: US Considering Its Military Options If Syria Uses Chemical Weapons

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The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?

The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.

Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.

With that in mind,  any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.

 

Monday 17 July, 2018 Update: Helsinki 2018 Resembled Vienna 1961

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To put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin rolled President Trump in Helsinki yesterday. Plain and simple. Collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and independent Russian attempts to influence the election took front stage. Obviously I was not in the room when Putin and Trump sat down for their private discussion, though its safe to assume that Putin steered the discussion in the direction of the collusion topic, and there it remained for the duration. No major geopolitical, or defense issues were deliberated or resolved. Syria, nuclear proliferation, and a handful of other issues were briefly mentioned in the press conference statements by Putin and Trump, yet nothing substantial.

So, where does the Helsinki summit leave US-Russia relations now? Essentially, in the same place they were before Trump and Putin arrived in Finland. President Trump had an excellent opportunity to confront his Russian counterpart on a host of matters from possible Russian collusion in US elections, to Russian activity in Syria, Ukraine, and other places around the world. Instead, the US president chose a less confrontational approach, and he learned firsthand what Vladimir Putin is all about.

Trump’s experience in Helsinki is eerily similar to John F Kennedy’s first summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, in June, 1961. Kennedy came to Vienna confident he could reach an agreement with Khrushchev on Berlin, Laos, or Cuba. It did not happen. Kennedy walked away empty-handed, and admitted frankly, “He (Khrushchev) beat the hell out of me.” Fortunately, Kennedy recovered from his dismal performance in Vienna and challenged the Soviets when they moved to solve the Berlin, and Cuba matters to their advantage.

There’s little question that Russia will challenge President Trump and the United States soon. Although there was clearly no collusion between the Trump campaign, and Russian government in the 2016 election, it is nearly certain that a major Russian intelligence operation was launched during the US election cycle. The success of this operation can be measured by the amount of distrust, and confusion it has brought to American political, and intelligence circles. As US attention remains focused inward, Russia will eventually use this to its advantage and move. Maybe in Syria, or Ukraine. Or, perhaps to spark a new flashpoint in another area, make rapid gains, and solidify them before the United States is able to respond effectively.

Sunday 24 July, 2018 Update: Erdogan Wins

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory in Turkey’s presidential election. The Anadolu Agency reports that 95.5% of votes have been counted, and Erdogan has a 52.72% share of the national vote. If accurate, this means Erdogan will avoid a one-on-one runoff election with opposition candidate Muharrem Ince. Erdogan’s victory expands the grip on power he currently has on Turkey, however, this was by no means an easy victory. Political opposition in Turkey has been revitalized to a degree, and this is something Erdogan will have to contend with in the coming months and years. Fortunately for him, the People’s Alliance, a coalition made up of Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP) party, and the more conservative MHP party appears to have secured majority in parliament, giving him plenty of allies for any future political battles.

This election was unique in that it marked the first time Turkish voters have cast ballots for president, and parliament in a snap election. Erdogan had called for early elections in an attempt to neutralize opposition presidential candidates in the first round of the election, and obtain a parliamentary majority. At the moment it would appear that he has achieved both objectives, as well as ensuring that he will reap the benefits of enhanced presidential powers that the 2017 referendum are to give the winner of Turkey’s next presidential election. Erdogan had supported the referendum, and invested a large amount of political capital to ensure it passed.

So, what happens next? Erdogan has grandiose plans for Turkey, some of which make his neighbors uncomfortable. After the election results are officially certified, we will examine just what Erdogan’s victory means for Turkey, its neighbors, NATO, and the world.