Pivot Your Expectations


Rodrigo Duterte is no Emilio Aguinaldo, but he sure can stir things up.


“Hey, watch this!”

In what I suppose is the capstone of the past few weeks’ bellicosity toward the West, Philippine President Duterte made his grand visit to China, who feted him with parades, banquets and all the great perks of a state visit normally reserved for only the most important allies, or possibly Elvis.

The sure-to-be-most-quoted presidential line from the event was “I announce my separation from the United States. I have separated from them. So I will be dependent on you [China] for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us.”

Interesting use of the first-person pronoun; given the depth of Filipino-American connections over the decades, I’m skeptical such policies will survive his administration (so many U.S. veterans live there we have a VA clinic in Manila!). Nevertheless, it’s something we have to deal with in the here and now.

Given this opening, opportunity has immediately come knocking for China – Typhoon Haima just slammed into the northern Philippine islands with gusts up to 176 mph. As of this writing, the storm is still active and actually is heading towards the Chinese mainland.

Sounds like a good time to haul out the hospital ship China is so proud of, as well as any other assets that can support a Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) mission to the PI. Duterte’s going to ask for help; China can answer the call.

No doubt the U.S. will try to do the same, as the Japan-based Seventh Fleet is often called to do. But we can only go if we’re invited, and even if that happens, it’s doubtful the Philippine government will offer much in the way of thanks – which makes this problematic. Foreign aid does not function like almsgiving, where Jesus tells his followers to give in secret, and not let the left hand know what the right is doing. In international relations, there is no sense in providing humanitarian assistance if no one sees you do it! While there is intrinsic good to feeding the hungry, such disasters are also (rather cynically) like an Oscar party – a place to see and be seen. You can bet the Chinese will be seen rather prominently, whereas the U.S., if brought in to help at all, will be portrayed by the host government as having a muted presence.

So how’s that Pivot to the Pacific working? This week it has become more important than ever, but simultaneously more difficult to execute than any time since 1945.

Don’t worry – it’s nothing SMOD can’t fix.


Yemen Roundup

My only reaction is are you kidding me?

And I’m not referring to Dave Roberts’ decision to intentionally load the bases with a walk during a tie game in the bottom of the 8th inning in Game 1 of the NLCS. The Cubs made him pay for that, rather grandly.

The NEX had better stock up

The NEX had better stock up on these

No, I mean, here I am, minding my own business (i.e. baseball), and I read the Houthis loosed another anti-ship cruise missile at the USS Mason!

Come on, people!

This is getting so wild, it is tough keeping track! Toward that end, here is a roundup of recent events (with background here). Depending on what happens, I may run updates periodically. But I hope it doesn’t get that far.

Oct. 1: UAE-operated HSV Swift is targeted and hit by a shore-launched ASCM.

Oct. 9: USS Mason and USS Ponce are targeted but successfully defend themselves.

Oct. 12: USS Mason is fired upon once more, but again without damage. UPDATE: Apparently the amphibious transport USS San Antonio was also targeted in this incident, according to an Oct. 13 note from the CO on their very own Facebook page. Judging from future posts, which show San Antonio transiting the Suez Canal on Oct. 16, the ship was just transiting through the strait en route to the Mediterranean and not part of any ongoing operation there.

Oct. 13: USS Nitze, also in the Bab al-Mandeb area, fires Tomahawk cruise missiles at radar sites associated with the missile launches. Also, Iran says it is sending ships to the Red Sea to check in on things. You know, they just happened to have a warship ready for a long-term out-of-area deployment and a logistics vessel on call to keep it fueled and fed. Purely coincidentally.

Oct. 15: USS Mason is attacked a third time, but again performs in a fashion to make us proud.

Oct. 25: The game continues, this time with random merchant ships. Apparently an explosives-laden skiff approached a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tanker in the Bab al-Mandeb, firing small arms at it. About 20 meters out from the tanker’s hull, the skiff exploded, intentionally or otherwise. Had it gotten closer, we’d have probably heard about this a bit more promptly (it was about a week until I caught wind of it). LNG tankers are volatile, to put it gently.

Combat Action Ribbons for everybody!


The (Sort of) Short Version of Yemen’s Meltdown and Why It Matters

The Salty Wog has avoided certain topics because I didn’t want to comment on anything to which I was a party. But at this point, I’ve been away from CENTCOM for a while, have no direct knowledge of what’s going on right now, and am confident that nothing said here will get anyone fired or imprisoned.

So, with that out of the way…

Dude. Yemen.

Why watch the show when you can just watch Yemen?

Why watch the show when you can just watch Yemen?

So, Yemen was never a nice place exactly. After de-Ottomanization in 1918 and decolonization by the British in 1967, the territory split into two countries (North and South Yemen) and eventually unified in 1990. But hostility, skirmishes and occasional wars never really stopped. In 2014, the Houthi faction we hear so much about today overran the capital of Sana’a, and the current conflict really got going. President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi of the internationally-recognized government lingered for a little while, but finally fled across the Saudi border in early 2015.

At that point, what we had was a civil war about internal grievances – not necessarily anyone else’s concern. The Houthi side contains large segments of the country’s armed forces, and is headed by the former president of Yemen (Ali Abdullah Saleh), who transferred power to his successor, Hadi, as part of a UN-sponsored bargain in one of the less-heralded moments of the “Arab Spring” movement. But when Hadi left for Saudi Arabia, he did a wise thing (from his point of view) and requested help from the Saudis and Gulf Cooperation Council nations, knowing they would not appreciate an uptick in unrest right on their border. The request was honored, and forces from Saudi Arabia began to get deeply involved in spring of 2015 in support of the legitimate Yemeni government.

However, Iran, always looking to put a stick in the eye of its petrostate Sunni neighbors, saw an opportunity to excel and began shipping arms and providing other tacit support to the Houthis. Beyond a desire to stoke fires on the Saudis’ flanks to distract them from happenings on their Arabian Gulf coast, the Iranians share a common Shi’a background with the Houthis, which counts for something, too.

We’ve stopped a lot of those weapons shipments – I can claim to have played at least a small role in doing so. But undoubtedly many have gotten through.

Now, hold onto your hats. With a major civil war raging mainly in the western half of the country since early 2015, the eastern half became essentially ungoverned. The inevitable result was the appearance of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State-Yemen (IS-Y) to fill the void. Both tried to become not just terrorist groups, but actual mini-states in control of territory – while, of course, being in conflict with each other as well as the warring government parties and international partners.

With the home government unable to control its own territory, the neighbors, the United Arab Emirates foremost among them, were brought in to deal with the terrorist groups.

So, in essence, there are two separate-but-interrelated wars occurring in Yemen – one in the west against rebels, supported by Saudi Arabia, and one in the east against terrorists, supported by the UAE.

Well, with Iran gaining influence on the flank of a staunch U.S. ally, and terrorist groups occupying coastal cities, there was really no way the U.S. could avoid some kind of role. No specifics about what that role is will be presented here, of course, but let’s look at some common-sense objectives (not in order of precedence) and then you can do the math.

Objective No. 1: Mitigate Iranian influence; since they’re pouring gasoline on the fire, we’ll try to cut off the flow.

Objective No. 2: End terrorist usurpation of civil authority by eliminating their territorial gains, and prevent them from striking abroad.

Objective No. 3: Did I mention Yemen is located on a critical international chokepoint?

Suez's little brother

Suez’s little brother

Yemen lies right on the Bab al-Mandeb. You have probably never heard of this strait until this week. So, think of it this way: you know of the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Well, the Bab al-Mandeb (or the BAM, as they say), is the access to and from the south end of the Red Sea. For long-haul traffic, Suez and the BAM are essentially one long canal between the Med and the Indian Ocean. And that’s kind of important. Dozens of ships, millions of tons of cargo, and millions of barrels of oil pass through the BAM – 18 miles wide at its narrowest point – every day.

So it’s in everyone’s interest to keep it open.

And the Houthis’ great trump card is their ability to close it.

How can a ragtag band of rebels in a dirt-poor country do such a thing?


Bad day to be made of aluminum

Bad day to be made of aluminum

Now, the exact weapon that did this is not yet (publicly) identified, but as the ship was out at sea, it is assumed to be some kind of anti-ship cruise missile launched from land, very possibly from the back of a truck that scooted as soon as it was launched. Weapons like this, generally of a Russian and Chinese variety, have been proliferating for the last few years and it’s been just a matter of time until we saw one get used. Hezbollah loosed one about a decade ago against an Israeli warship, killing four crew, but it hasn’t really been repeated until now. Cruise missiles don’t give the Houthis the ability to “close” the strait per se – it’s not like a mine field or steel cable that physically blocks it – but they can raise the threat level to a point where nobody wants to try.

This particular vessel was operated by the UAE and targeted for that reason (interestingly, in its past life, this Australian-built ship spent several years with the U.S. – I saw either this one or a sister ship in person in Guam once). Despite the targeted nature of this strike, the Houthis have nevertheless cracked the seal – they have shown they have the capability and the will to expand the war into the BAM. Merchant shipping may not be intentionally targeted, but do you think they might be sweating at Lloyd’s and the other marine insurance offices? Some of these missile seekers home in on the first thing they see along a certain vector…

That was October 1.

This was October 9:

The crew of a guided-missile destroyer fired three missiles to defend themselves and another ship after being attacked on Sunday in the Red Sea by two presumed cruise missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthi-forces, USNI News has learned.

During the attack against USS Mason (DDG-87), the ship’s crew fired the missiles to defend the guided-missile destroyer and nearby USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) from two suspected cruise missiles fired from the Yemini shore, two defense officials told USNI News.

Mason launched two Standard Missile-2s (SM-2s) and a single Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) to intercept the two missiles that were launched about 7 P.M. local time. In addition to the missiles, the ship used its Nulka anti-ship missile decoy, the sources confirmed. Mason was operating in international waters north of the strait of Bab el-Mandeb at the time of the attack.

There is a world of implications wrapped up in these three paragraphs. First and foremost, the Houthis have never (as far as I know) directly attacked U.S. assets or personnel before. Direct action against the U.S. invites reprisals. Are they trying to suck the U.S. in deeper? Or, alternatively, do they think they’ll get a pass from a lame-duck President? What is Iran’s role?

Second, for students of naval history, the scenario that occurred this weekend has literally NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. We’ve talked about it; we’ve trained for it; we’ve equipped ships for it. But it has never actually happened. As mentioned above, real-world launchings of anti-ship cruise missiles at least have a precedent, but no ship has ever shot back. It remains to be seen if the cruise missiles malfunctioned, were downed by the Mason’s electronic capabilities, or were actually shot out of the sky. But you can be certain that every detail of this engagement will be taught as a case study for decades. Everyone involved will be interviewed multiple times by very smart people, and the CO will get a very nice FITREP bullet.

So, as the Western defense establishment continues to wrap its head around the problem our navy no longer calls Anti-Access/Area Denial, this is a nice confidence-builder.

What a week.

PS – If any election remarks are made in the comments below, SMOD will be summoned to destroy your home, and everything else.



Does laser removal await?

Does laser removal await?

Big Navy – that is, the Secretary, Chief of Naval Operations and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy – recently announced major changes to enlisted career paths. Frankly, the topic is a little esoteric for the audience here as I understand it, but the process produced a couple “change management” notes that you can put in your back pocket for later (courtesy of an in-depth article in Navy Times).

As brief background, just consider that certain naval job titles – boatswain’s mate, gunner’s mate, quartermaster, yeoman – have existed since the founding of the U.S. Navy in the 18th Century. However, as of two weeks ago, those titles are now eliminated for official purposes and all enlisted Sailors are to be addressed simply by their rank. Whatever the merits, this is a major shock.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t Show the Boss a Throw-Away Option

Often, when people have to present the boss with courses of action, they’ll put two or three that are reasonable and/or achievable, and then something outlandish just to pad their overall numbers. Every leadership or staff officer course, ever, will say not to do that – but of course it still happens.

Secretary of the Navy Mabus requested options for eliminating the word “man” from job titles (never mind the gender-neutral definition of “man” in such contexts; not everyone can be troubled to read a dictionary). So, Navy leadership provided him four options, ranging from simply changing certain jobs’ names to the vast reform actually selected.

Does anyone get the feeling SECNAV picked the throw-away?

Lesson No. 2: Transition Time – Please

This policy went into effect the day it was announced, with no warning. Who would ever advise an organization to do that? With no time to prepare or gain any understanding of how to manage their future careers (not to mention the cultural impact), there is rather significant pushback from the enlisted force. Despite the high-level cover, the lack of grassroots support leaves open the possibility for some major revisions. The immediacy of the announcement and policy change – the details of which are still very much up in the air – undercut its legitimacy, and it will be very difficult to ever restore it to move this thing forward.

It is worth noting, some goodness follows under the headline-making changes. Additional career options and training pipelines for enlisted members are positive. Hopefully that doesn’t get lost as the rating changes go back and forth.

Lastly, I don’t know if there are any publicly-held tattoo companies, but if so, their stocks have probably taken a dive lately!

UPDATE:  Aaaaaaaaaaaand it’s been reversed. Ratings are restored. I have only two words to say: Utterly. Predictable.


Musing on Drill Weekend

It’s drill weekend and I’m camped out in Norfolk for some quality time with other Reservists. These weekends are always a fine opportunity to break away from the “real world”, if only for 48 hours or so.

But the real world always reaches in and grabs my thoughts, no matter my intentions. So, here are a few things that have happened in recent weeks and some connections between them.


About everything, really

First, Senators McCain and Reed wrote a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations expressing their, uh, concern about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Their concern is not unjustified – you can check in with CDR Salamander about the current status of the seven ships in commission, one of which is actually available for tasking. The Navy knows stuff isn’t going well. Just a few days prior to the Senate letter, the admiral in charge of surface ships released a directive completely revamping the system for manning and employing these ships, in an effort to salvage some kind of operational value from them.

In essence, these small ships are not doing very well at basic tasks like completing transits under their own power, much less accomplishing the missions they are designed for. That mission is to control the seas near shore; its shallow(ish) draft means it can go places and do things a destroyer or cruiser can’t. That implies that a LCS will generally remain in a certain region for a long period instead of crossing oceans. Which is good, because it’s a small ship with fuel-hungry gas turbine engines, and can’t carry enough fuel to stay out for terribly long.

Now let’s shift gears.

Recently-inaugurated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has announced that upcoming joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises will be the last of their kind, as he tries to strengthen ties with China and Russia.

Well, how ‘bout that?

The Philippines are sort of important in U.S. planning for contingencies in the Western Pacific. What happens if they back out of previous agreements? Where are our bases in that region? Where does the logistics train go to camp? Who do they invite in our place?

And what good is the short-ranged LCS in that region if it can’t use bases in the Philippines or pull supplies from there?

Are we building a surface fleet that can’t even get to, much less operate in, the new strategic environment taking shape? After all, it’s a long way from Singapore to Manila…

Let’s add a third thing to the mix.

Neither presidential candidate cares. One of them knows nothing, understands nothing, and cares nothing for the topic, except to make braggadocio-laden statements backed with little but smug vapors. The other has at least a little knowledge of international relations but no particular will to arrest American loss of prestige, and certainly no instinct for reasonable policy if past performance is taken at face value.

So, we have a strategic environment that is rapidly changing; a force that, even on its best of days, is reaching a point where it simply doesn’t match that environment; and top leadership that Will. Not. Adjust. Course.

And remember, this is not a boutique issue – sea power and freedom of the seas IS THE BASIS OF THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY. Shortchange it at your peril.

That is why the Salty Wog heartily endorses the only candidate with a foreign policy that is understandable, achievable and sustainable: SMOD 2016.