The Expeditionary Sailor in the War on Terror

By Johnson, J. Lee | Military Review, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Expeditionary Sailor in the War on Terror


Johnson, J. Lee, Military Review


AMONG THE MANY ODDITIES on display in my home office is a print depicting Captain A. K. Wilson, Royal Navy, engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with an enemy warrior during Britain's 1884-1885 Sudan War, an action for which he would be awarded the Victoria Cross. I often have wondered how a Royal Navy officer-and a captain, no less-found himself in the desert fighting Arab tribesmen.

In February 2003, I found myself serving ashore in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti deserts. At the time, I was attached to the Navy's "Deep Blue" team, a unit created to develop innovative, transformational concepts for naval operations.1 Although my permanent duty station was the Pentagon, I had been assigned temporary additional duties with the staff of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command (NAVCENT), headquartered in Bahrain. Immediately after arriving in theater, I became NAVCENT's liaison officer to the Coalition ground component (Army) commander, a position I filled throughout the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This posting, which took me to Kuwait and Iraq, caused me to reflect upon what the Navy could, and should, be contributing to the ongoing war in Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

While I will offer examples from my own experiences in the Middle East, my purpose isn't to tell a personal story, but to put forward ideas on how the Navy might make broader contributions to ongoing operations in that troubled region and on other battlegrounds in the war against terrorism. My recommendations will lack the drama of Captain Wilson's heroic conduct. But, between his time and ours-and throughout the centuries that preceded both of us-there is a common heritage of Navy personnel participating in operations in the littorals and ashore.

Historical examples of Sailors engaged in similar missions include America's early 19th century war with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, the deployment of Royal Navy gunners at the Battle of Ladysmith during the Boer War, the Yangtze River patrol that began in 1854 and lasted until 1942 (best known through the book and movie The Sand Pebbles), and Operation Market Time in Vietnam, to name but a few.

With its expeditionary culture rooted in its founding and cultivated throughout its history, the Navy always possessed an inherent flexibility that allowed it to be responsive in a variety of combat and related missions. More recently, in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) as well as through all stages of OIF, Navy personnel were deployed to serve as liaison officers, planners, logisticians, and engineers. They also provided security, intelligence, weather, medical, clerical, and other services. Their skills, mobility, and agility made them particularly valuable to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commanders.

Expeditionary Missions

Many essential missions in Iraq and in the war on terrorism are well suited to the capabilities of the Navy and its expeditionary Sailors. These missions aren't limited to the important and more familiar contributions made by SEALs and Seabees, or to strike missions flown from carriers or launched from surface platforms. The Navy should consider what it can provide across a broader sweep of operational requirements falling outside its commonly accepted roles.

Let us consider three examples of Navy contributions to operations in Iraq-examples that focus on defending that nation's vital, yet vulnerable, oil infrastructure.

Oil terminal security. On 24 April 2004, in the northern Persian Gulf, two Iraqi oil terminals, known collectively as OPLATs (oil platforms), were attacked by an undetermined number of bomb-laden suicide boats.2 Fortunately, alert Coalition maritime forces disrupted the attacks, although two Sailors and one Coast Guardsman were tragically killed. In 2004, over 90 percent of Iraq's oil revenues were earned from exports delivered through those terminals. Months before the April attacks, the Coalition Maritime Force (CMF) commander in the Gulf had recognized their vulnerabilities and acted decisively to strengthen their defenses.

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