Academic journal article Naval War College Review


Academic journal article Naval War College Review


Article excerpt

On 12 October 2000, two men from an organization aligned with al-Qa'ida loaded a rigid raider (a small boat with glass-reinforced-plastic hull) with explosives and drove it into the side of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67). Seventeen sailors lost their lives. This was a seminal event. It epitomized small war versus "big" war and the threat that small-war tactics could present to "big war" fleets. It was also an echo of the U.S. Navy's past. As the initial alarm faded, the Navy's response became largely inward looking and defensive, limited for the most part to the implementation of more robust force-protection measures.

On 11 September 2001, al-Qa'ida operatives hijacked four civilian airliners and prepared to attack targets in the United States. Three of the planes got through. Until the attacks of 9/11 gave it context, most of the wider implications of the attack on the Cole were missed or ignored. It was the attacks on New York and Washington that put it back on the agenda and sparked a search for similar scenarios, a search that led ineluctably to concerns about the vulnerability of commercial shipping. From there it was merely a small conceptual hop to piracy and the fear that pirates might be in a position to teach terrorists how to use ships for a variety of purposes, including, most spectacularly, as weapons. Since then the threats of piracy and maritime terrorism have been yoked together.

Is this linkage justified? Does either, separately or together, represent a serious threat to the United States or its allies? It is important to be honest. The Cole event was significant, but the criminal, insurgent, and terrorist activity that has taken place on water both before and since has been of little strategic or political importance. There is, however, no guarantee that this benign situation will continue. Trends in demography and economic growth and the concomitant demand for natural resources suggest that it might change.2 If this is the case, is the suppression of maritime criminal, insurgent, and terrorist activity a suitable role for the Navy? Is it one to which it can make a worthwhile contribution, or one it should leave to others?

This article will argue that piracy and maritime terrorism are not the main threats about which the Navy and those with interests in maritime security should be concerned.3 They are instead just two items on a longer list that can grouped under four headings:

* Criminal/insurgent/terrorist links

* "Migration to the sea"

* Territorial expansion

* Complex maritime conflict.

It will ask whether the Navy is the most appropriate arm of U.S. national power to confront these threats. It will argue that if the service is to confront these challenges effectively, it will need to adjust to ways of warfare that are in many ways closer to those of the nineteenth than the twentieth century, albeit that the complexity of conflict has increased immeasurably.


Although we are quick to talk of terrorism, the current conflict is being fought not against an abstraction but against specific groups with specific motives, skills, and resources. Most acts of politically inspired violence at sea have been perpetrated by insurgent groups. Some of these have been acts of terrorism, but most have not. Giving these acts the blanket label of "terrorism" serves only to obscure their purpose and their nature.4 Terrorism is a tactic; an insurgency is an organized movement that is inspired by political, religious, or even quasi-criminal motives and uses war and subversion to overthrow a government and achieve power. Around the world are areas where maritime insurgency and terrorism are both problems.

In addition to political violence there is criminal violence-that is, piracy. Criminally inspired violence at sea is more common than politically inspired violence; nonetheless, piracy is a problem only in certain areas and for certain states. …

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