National Security

Littoral Combat Clip

The U.S. military needs to prepare for more operations along the world's coastlines.

The United States may be winding up over a decade of war, but the military is facing significant challenges -- in no small part because it is expected to prepare for a wider range of contingencies at a time of shrinking budgets. Among other things, the Department of Defense's 2012 report, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, asserts that the U.S. military must strengthen its power-projection capabilities to assure access to contested regions and unfettered freedom of movement.

Protecting such freedom of movement has been a near-constant mission of naval forces since strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan first defined the "wide commons" in the late 19th century. But, confronted with such an ambitious task, it may be useful to conceive of the wide commons more narrowly. Consider that an increasing majority of the world's population, more than 80 percent at last count, resides within the littorals -- that narrow strip of coastline that rings the world's continents. Increasingly, this is where the world's transactions and interactions occur. This concentration of people, political power, and economic dynamism means that the littorals are where the world's future crises will take place.

Since World War II, the United States has sought to avoid the tragedy of war. There has been a continual effort to find technological solutions to deter our adversaries (nuclear weapons) or to fight a "clean" war (precision strike). Yet the nation has repeatedly called on its Marine Corps to protect its citizens and interests. In particular, the demand for amphibious forces to engage forward and respond to crises has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The critical employment of these forces in uncertain and austere environments where access is challenged is exemplified by the more than 50 amphibious operations that have taken place since Sept. 11, 2001.

Ongoing budget constraints and force reductions will test the ability of all the military services to meet today's missions while preparing for tomorrow's threats. As access to the littorals is further complicated, expeditionary naval forces must be able to respond with what is immediately within reach and available -- "come as you are." And that in turn means that the Marine Corps -- which, among other things, specializes in projecting power in coastal areas -- is going to be increasingly central to U.S. national security. But it must adapt to the new environment.


The United States has entered an expeditionary era, one in which it does not enjoy ready access to overseas bases in the regions where conflict is most likely to occur or unchallenged access to all regions -- not unlike when the nation first began trading globally and lacked the capability to adequately protect its foreign trade. The United States remains a global power, but it now competes in a world where many regional powers, nation-states, criminals, and extremists are expanding their influence. This challenge requires Marines to engage forward and build partners, create access where adversaries challenge us, and protect U.S. interests and citizens when necessary.

Today, new threats emerging in the littorals include piracy, area-denial weapons, and competition among populations for scarce resources, to name only a few. The littorals are where the action will be in the coming years -- indeed, they will only become more important as the global flow of commerce increases. Specifically, a handful of strategic maritime chokepoints scattered across the world's littorals must remain free and open to all commerce. For example, consider what impact closing the Suez would have on the world's economy when the shipping of two to three million barrels of oil was interrupted or trade from Asia was delayed from reaching the Mediterranean.

These chokepoints represent the archipelago of action for American naval forces:

  • The Malacca Straits are arguably the most important chokepoint in the world. Located midway between Australia and India and bisecting the Malay Peninsula and the island country of Indonesia, the straits are a 500-mile-long narrow body of water that directly links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Described as the "Fulda Gap" of the 21st Century, its geographic and strategic significance has drawn the attention of India, China, Japan, and the United States. Tanker traffic in the straits is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2020. The threat posed by non-state terrorist groups and pirates has increased in recent years. Regional states like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have increased naval patrols, which have stymied the piracy surge. This "triad" of littoral states, however, has asserted it is solely responsible for security in the Malacca Strait, making it difficult for other nations to assure safe passage.
  • Approximately 35 percent of all oil traded by sea transits the Persian Gulf via a maritime chokepoint: the Strait of Hormuz. Recent Iranian statements and activities across the region threatening harassment at sea only escalate security concerns. For example, the well-publicized Iranian "swarming" fleet of small boats armed with rockets and anti-ship cruise missiles poses an operational challenge to access through the strait. The importance of both the Malacca and Hormuz straits, situated at each end of the Indian Ocean, will only increase in strategic value in coming decades as trade and commerce continue to expand across the region.
  • The Arctic Ocean could soon emerge as a new strategic transit route, as the polar ice cap recedes and more nations eye its sea lanes to shave valuable time on shipping cargo from Asia to Europe. Shipping companies could save as much as 35 percent using Arctic routes compared to using the Panama Canal or transiting the Horn of Africa. Within 30 years -- possibly sooner -- the Arctic Ocean could be ice free for up to two months of the year, allowing dramatically more shipping and exploration for large oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
  • The Panama Canal is growing in strategic importance as a huge revitalization effort nears completion in 2014 that will dramatically increase the size of cargo vessels the canal can handle. The canal will soon be able to accommodate dry bulk cargo ships of up to 180,000 tons, compared to only 80,000 tons today. This will increase the number of cargo vessels in the Caribbean Sea and enhance the strategic importance of Panama and its surrounding waters.
  • The waters off East Africa have become pirate-infested in recent years, negatively affecting global shipping. The pirate scourge has forced the world's navies to devote considerable assets to protecting the free flow of commerce. Piracy has been steadily increasing since 2006, with an 11 percent increase from 2010 (489 incidents) to 2011 (544 incidents). Piracy off the Somalia coast impacted commercial shipping at a cost of $7 to $12 billion dollars in 2010. According to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, there were 13 vessels and 185 hostages being held by Somali pirates as of June 2012.
  • At the onset of the 1967 Six Day War, Egypt closed the Suez Canal without warning, locking 15 cargo ships in the canal for the next eight years until it finally reopened. This act significantly affected trade patterns and in many cases forced trade partners to more than double their transit distance. Oil, food, and other goods rose in price as shipping companies adjusted to the additional time and fuel costs associated with longer routes. What would the effect be today if Egypt closed the Suez? The turmoil associated with the Arab Spring, including political uncertainty in Cairo, is reason to pause and contemplate the possibility. If commercial shipping were forced to reroute south around the Cape of Good Hope, it would further exacerbate piracy issues not only on the eastern coast of Africa, but the western coast as well.
  • The Gulf of Guinea on Africa's western coast is emerging as a globally significant region because of its economic development. Estimates that the region could eventually provide 25 percent of U.S. oil imports within the next five years provide ample reason to ensure the stability and security of its littorals. While West Africa shares many characteristics with East Africa, the focus of piracy is quite different. Ransoming of crew, goods, and vessels challenges the local West African pirates more so than in the East due to the lack of secure sites for the vessels that have been seized. Instead, kidnapping of high-value individuals or stealing of goods, to include oil to be sold on the black market, is the modus operandi. The lack of regional stability affects security both ashore and at sea and warrants further examination as the United States ramps up economic interest in this region.

The inherent flexibility built into every Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) -- a unit that integrates infantry, aviation, and logistics support into a coherent force -- provides U.S. leaders with a uniquely adaptable force that is fully prepared to deal with the challenges emerging in the world's littorals and maritime chokepoints. As Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, has said, the Corps is the nation's middleweight force, "light enough to get there quickly, but heavy enough to carry the day upon arrival, and capable of operating independent of local infrastructure."

In the maritime environment, Marine Corps Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG-MEUs) are forward deployed every day, providing a ready response force that is ideally organized and equipped to operate in the littorals' unique land-and-sea environment.

During deployments, the sailors and Marines that make up these amphibious teams routinely conduct security cooperation exercises and activities with partner nations, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and undertake combat operations ashore. When operating forward deployed in the littorals and a terrorist attack or some other crisis erupts that threatens one of the strategic maritime chokepoints, Marines on Navy amphibious ships are specially equipped to respond immediately. They can undertake such tasks as port security; visit, board, search, and seizure; incident response; humanitarian assistance; and combat operations.

The composition of this team enables it to accomplish such a wide variety of missions. The amphibious group brings both seaborne maneuver and a sea base for the embarked Marines. Additionally, its tie into the Navy's global logistics capability provides the amphibious team with theoretically endless sustainment, allowing unrivaled time on station in a crisis area. Complementing the amphibious ships, the embarked Marine units bring a general purpose combat force whose inherent ground, air, and logistics elements provide a highly capable force ready to respond immediately and stay indefinitely.

While a fully equipped Marine amphibious team is most formidable when operating as a cohesive unit, certain instances require "disaggregated" operations, in which individual ships and Marine units break off from the larger group and operate in separate locations under potentially separate chains of command. This disaggregation is another element of flexibility embedded in the Marine amphibious force, and the ability to operate in multiple areas over larger distances provides commanders with a richer set of options to meet national interests.

For example, in 2011 the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit carried out three distinct missions, all on the same day:

  • Operating off the coast of Yemen, Marines boarded the Magellan Star, a German-owned commercial shipping vessel, in order to neutralize pirates and liberate the crew.
  • Launching from and recovering to the USS Kearsarge, Marine Harrier aircraft conducted strike operations in Afghanistan.
  • Responding to the worst flooding in more than a century, Marines airlifted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to Pakistan citizens.

Maintaining this capability in the littorals is vital to U.S. interests, as demonstrated during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. As Vice Admiral Walter Skinner emphasized in recent Senate testimony, having Harriers offshore "slashed transit times to the battlefield by two-thirds and kept close air support aircraft on station without strategic tanking assets." That allowed Marine MV-22 Ospreys to rescue a downed F-15 pilot, who had been shot down by Qaddafi forces. "Twenty minutes from the time he was evading capture in hostile territory, the rescued pilot was safely back on American territory aboard USS Kearsarge."


As the world's littorals increase in importance, the United States requires a force that is forward-deployed, engages locally, creates relationships and develops access, and is poised to quickly respond to crises. Since the turn of the 19th Century, that force has been naval, and our capabilities today are impressive. But change is required. As Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr. and Colonel P.J. Ridderhof recently wrote, the Navy and Marine Corps "must break out of the ARG-MEU mold to explore the possibilities and fully take advantage of the flexibility and combat power of a larger MAGTF."

As states and non-state actors increasingly challenge our ability to project power across the global maritime commons and access contested regions, our naval forces must be able to operate in scalable and adaptable formations. The ARG-MEU is one tool, but larger naval forces, including forward-deployed and amphibious forces, may be needed -- for example, to secure one of the world's chokepoints or sea lanes. Marine amphibious forces may also be required to seize an advance base for use by U.S. air forces or for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations -- or simply to deny the use of terrain to the enemy.

For example, if an adversary were to disrupt a strategic chokepoint, ship-based aviation and ISR, patrol craft, and Littoral Combat Ships with detachments of Marines could be employed to counter fast attack craft. Simultaneously, other Marines could maneuver to prevent enemy use of islands or littoral areas or to destroy specific anti-access sites or capabilities. The entire naval force would operate in this contested maritime domain, which increases the importance of exercising up-front command arrangements before a crisis occurs.

Training as a larger, aggregated naval force is required now in order to surmount the evolving threats of tomorrow. By exercising and training to larger force compositions, the United States will be better postured to counter the increasing capabilities of potential adversaries throughout the world. Often the discussion about amphibious assault focuses too much on ship-to-shore movement. Regardless of the means of ship-to-shore movement, the proliferation of anti-access and area denial challenges, such as the Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, requires an assessment of the whole littoral maneuver challenge. This includes a future amphibious vehicle to provide maneuver and lethality; long-range, high-speed, and large-capacity connectors (craft that move cargo and personnel from larger ships to a beachhead); and multi-functional, sea-based platforms to increase our ability to aggregate amphibious forces in crisis response.

This expanded look at the littoral maneuver challenge requires more attention and effort focused on the selection, reconnaissance, and control of the air and surface landing sites before the assault force arrives on station. Meeting this requirement places a premium on deception, ISR, and cyber operations. It also demands an amphibious force capable of maneuvering throughout the depth and breadth of the littorals to enlarge the operating area, confuse the enemy, and dilute their "home field" advantage in order to exploit the Marine Corps' and Navy's own asymmetric advantages. Achieving this edge requires embracing sea control and power projection from what the U.S. military calls a Single Naval Battle perspective, closing gaps between Marine and Navy operations, and providing flexibility to maneuver throughout the littorals with speed, agility, and capacity.

Maritime nations make up 80 percent of the international community, increasing the likelihood that the next crisis or regional conflict will occur within the operational reach of U.S. naval forces. With the initial response capability and decision room it provides, the naval force represents the leading edge, forward operating force called for in the nation's power projection strategy. As a critical element in that strategy, the Marine Corps conducts operations to deter and combat adversaries or deny them the ability to exert their will on U.S. interests. However, further refinement of aggregated operations and littoral maneuver is required to exploit our at-sea advantage.

Gregory N. Juday/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

National Security

Letting Go of 'Loose Nukes'

Relax. It's okay if Russia wants to pay for its own security.

The Kremlin's refusal to renew a U.S. program that has spent more than $10 billion since 1992 on security for Russia's nuclear and unconventional weapons has caused angst, hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Who'd have thought a foreign aid program could be so popular?

In last week's debate Mitt Romney called Russia "a geopolitical foe," echoing his campaign's theme that the White House was coddling an intransigent Moscow. But shortly thereafter he criticized President Obama for the Kremlin's refusal to accept any more money for Russia's weapons security programs from U.S. taxpayers.

"Russia said they're not going to follow Nunn-Lugar anymore," he said. "They're back[ing] away from a nuclear proliferation treaty that we had with them. I look around the world, and I don't see our influence growing around the world."

A New York Times editorial (though blaming Vladimir Putin, not Obama) warned that pulling the plug on Nunn-Lugar meant that "Russia's unsecured weapons and materials remain a temptation for terrorists of all varieties."

But it's likely Moscow would have stopped accepting Nunn-Lugar aid even if we'd been tougher on them. And it's doubtful that Russia is about to become a candy store for jihadists in search of WMD.

Instead, it was probably inevitable that Russia one day would decide that, yeah, the world's ninth richest nation should pay the freight for protecting its own nuclear arsenal. "At some point Russia has to do for itself what other states do for themselves, which is provide security for the weapons and material they chose themselves to produce," said Sharon Weiner, an associate professor at American University and an expert on U.S. counter-proliferation programs. "Russia needs to step up to the plate."

Russia's image as a country in the grip of political turmoil and poverty is amazingly persistent in the United States. But visitors to Moscow find spiffy skyscrapers, billboards advertising Italian sports cars and private jets, and bureaucrats wearing Swiss watches worth tens of thousands of dollars.

After the ailing Soviet Union finally gave up the ghost in the waning days of 1991, Russia inherited its vast stores of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. And they were a mess. Western visitors to weapons depots and labs were shocked to find AWOL guards, broken fences and unlocked doors. Two million nerve gas shells were discovered sitting in rotting barns in a patch of forest in western Siberia.

Senate Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar, in an act of bipartisanship that might be impossible today, pushed for creation of an emergency aid effort that grew into a multi-agency effort that is now generally called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

The program has channeled about a half-a-billion dollars each year into efforts to beef up the safety and security of Russia's unconventional arms. And in the early years, at least, it helped insure the grim downside of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called "the greatest geo-political catastrophe" of the 20th century didn't extend much beyond the U.S.S.R.'s former borders.

The United States helped remove all of the nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus and return them to Russia. U.S. taxpayers financed the demolition of thousands of Soviet weapons, including missiles, submarines, bombers, and of course city-shattering nuclear warheads. Most of the dismantled weapons were obsolete or surplus, but still could have made dangerous toys for desperate boys.

Americans even paid the salaries of some of the Soviet Union's tens of thousands of weapons scientists, engineers and technicians impoverished by the economic crises of the early 1990s, to discourage them from working for rogue states.

The programs weren't 100 percent successful. The CIA complained repeatedly to Russia that former weapons scientists were freelancing abroad. Vyacheslav Danilenko, who worked at one of the Soviet Union's two premier nuclear weapons labs, is the "foreign expert" the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects of having spent several years in Iran in the late 1990s and early 2000s helping develop conventional explosive systems that could initiate a nuclear blast.

Small amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium were diverted from former Soviet weapons and other nuclear facilities.

But Russian officials were saying by 2000 that Nunn-Lugar programs had accomplished their core mission. Russia's economy was booming thanks to surging oil prices, and the Kremlin was busy restoring the power of Russia's central government -- in particular its security services. The White House, skeptical of Moscow's new leadership, seemed poised to cancel the program and move on to other matters.

Then 9/11 happened, unleashing a wave of U.S. spending on counter-terror efforts and fresh support for Nunn-Lugar. Putin and other top Russian officials, meanwhile, tried to reassure the West that Russia's nuclear facilities were safe. But Washington was determined to make certain the next 9/11-style attack didn't feature a mushroom cloud. Which led to a situation where the U.S. was pressing a country to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid that the recipients protested they didn't need. (Of course, they didn't protest too loudly. Who would?)

On one point, there is no dispute that the Russians were right. They didn't need the money. The country recovered rapidly through the 2000s, paying off its debts and pouring hundreds of billions into a sovereign wealth fund. Today, Russia's mineral riches have made it one of the world's largest economies, and in recent years the country has waged a see-saw battle with Saudi Arabia for the title of the world's leading oil producer.

Militarily, Russia is still regarded by the West as a pitiful helpless giant. And to a large extent it is, because it inherited the Soviet Union's bloated, poorly equipped, and badly trained fighting forces. But the Kremlin launched a program of administrative military reforms a few years ago. And Putin has embarked on a 10-year, $775 billion buildup that will add thousands of modern weapons, including missiles, submarines, warplanes and tanks, to the country's arsenal. (The $775 billion figure is roughly what the Pentagon spends in a single year, of course, but it's a start.)

Many U.S. arms control advocates argue that Nunn-Lugar's mission is still critical in Russia because Moscow is far too sanguine about nuclear security. And in truth Russian officials and experts don't seem to worry about their nuclear security nearly as much as the United States does.

But maybe they know something the U.S. doesn't.

Alexander Golts, a highly-respected, Moscow-based independent expert on the Russian military, told me in a conversation last year that his country's nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials were "more or less safe" from theft or diversion. "I never read any criticism on how Russia keeps its nuclear materials, nuclear weapons and so forth. I don't think it's a basic problem."

Writing about the end of Nunn-Lugar in the Moscow Times on Oct. 23, Golts said the effort prevented "a global catastrophe" in the 1990s. But he dismissed fears that ending Nunn-Lugar could have disastrous consequences today. "While it is true that basic security guidelines are often ignored with respect to conventional weapons [in Russia], this cannot be said for nuclear and chemical weapons," he wrote.

There were occasional reports of the theft of Russian nuclear warheads in the 1990s, but those fears turned out to be unfounded. "Reports of Russian ‘loose nukes' appear to have been greatly exaggerated," former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, now at Harvard, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2010.

U.S. arms control experts have long worried about the emergence of an organized black market in Russian enriched uranium and plutonium, which terror groups might use to cobble together an improvised nuclear device.

"Undetected smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear material has likely occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen in the last 15 years," a 2006 report by the National Intelligence Council warned. According to a 2008 study by researchers Lyudmila Zaitseva and Rob McCusker, a total of about 38 kilograms (84 pounds) of weapons-usable material -- mostly enriched uranium -- is either known or suspected of having been diverted from Russia's nuclear centers.

That's a worrisome number, and probably doesn't reflect all of the missing materials.

But about 100 pounds of highly-enriched uranium would be needed to build a single crude nuclear weapon, the kind terrorists could make. And the total was seized in small amounts, mostly sub-kilogram size shipments, from small-time hustlers in sting operations carried out over almost two decades.

Many of these seizures occurred in Georgia. A 2010 study by Alexander Kupatadze in the Nonproliferation Review concluded that in Georgia those caught with nuclear materials tended to be amateurs and opportunists who grabbed a small amount of material and passed it along, rather than professional smugglers or terrorists with an established pipeline into a nuclear facility. "Based on current evidence, it appears that traditional and professional organized crime groups are rarely involved in the smuggling of radioactive materials," he wrote.

U.S. nuclear experts like Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government have questioned whether in the absence of U.S. aid Russia would spend the money needed to guarantee its warheads, plutonium and uranium are safe. "They should be paying for it themselves," Bunn said in an interview last year. "But we're in a situation where they don't see it yet as as high a priority as we see it."

That may be because they see the problem from a different angle.

American University's Weiner says that Russia understands the importance of nuclear security but approaches it differently than the U.S. does. "The U.S. has different standards on nuclear security than the Russians do," Weiner said. "They're not better or worse, they're just different." In a 2002 report to Congress, the National Intelligence Council said Russia's nuclear security was geared toward preventing outside attacks, while the United States was more concerned about the "pre-eminent" threat posed by insiders with sinister aims. "The U.S. thinks it has to work vigilantly to deal with these [insider] threats," Weiner says. "Russia thinks it certainly has to do some things, but isn't as obsessed."

The Nunn-Lugar announcement came a few weeks after Moscow said it would cancel all United States Agency for International Development programs, which provided funding for democracy-building, health, human rights, and development. The United States has spent almost $3 billion on USAID efforts in Russia since the early 1990s. Partly, the move may reflect tensions over Syria and Russia's conviction that the West has encouraged the emergence in the last year of an active opposition movement.

But Russia has been gradually turning the screws on various foreign aid programs for years, including nonproliferation programs. Last year then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia would phase out the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow by 2015. The center, run under the Nunn-Lugar umbrella, has channeled $1 billion into salaries and grants to scientists working in Russia's weapons complexes since the early 1990s. As they have with the broader Nunn-Lugar effort, Russian officials called the ISTC a relic of the bad old days of the 1990s. "The mission has been accomplished," Russia's U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, told The Associated Press at the time. "It is a little bit outdated." The center may also be another window on Russia's weapons program the Kremlin would prefer closed.

Weiner and many other U.S. experts said Nunn-Lugar cooperation helped build confidence between the two former Cold War rivals by granting access to otherwise closed weapons sites and facilities. But Russia's security services have long been suspicious of these programs for precisely the same reason.

U.S. experts say the dialogue between Americans and Russians was another major benefit of Nunn-Lugar -- even when the two sides spent a lot of time arguing over U.S. insistence on accountability in spending its aid dollars. "We'll miss beating each other up," Weiner said. "It reduces the tension."

If Russian and U.S. scientists and officials can no longer meet to talk about joint arms control efforts, she said, they should try to find other issues to explore. "Let's talk about climate change, let's talk about HIV research, let's talk about a common problem that's one step removed from the national security sphere," she said.

-/AFP/Getty Images