THE MOST DARING ACT OF THE AGE: Principles for Naval Irregular Warfare

By Armstrong, Benjamin | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

THE MOST DARING ACT OF THE AGE: Principles for Naval Irregular Warfare


Armstrong, Benjamin, Naval War College Review


As the American military confronts the challenges of the twenty-first century there is a great deal of discussion of counterinsurgency, hybrid conflict, and irregular warfare. In military history none of these concepts are new. Much of the recent scholarship and writing on these forms of warfare has focused on today's operations ashore, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.However, there are significant implications for naval warfare as well. The leaders of the sea services stated in the "Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower" that "preventing wars is as important as winning wars."1 If the U.S.Navy is going to embrace this belief as it sails deeper into the twenty-first century, development of naval irregular warfare will become vital to its future success and relevance.

Captain Alfred ThayerMahan wrote that the best use of a navy is to find and defeat an opponent's fleet, but from the earliest history of the republic the U.S. Navy has been involved in operations other than fleet-on-fleet engagements.2 These irregular operations, in the "green" (littoral) and "brown" (riverine) waters of the world, have been conducted on a global scale, no matter the size or shape of the U.S. fleet. In 1839, during the Second Seminole War, the "Mosquito Fleet," under the command of Lieutenant John McLaughlin, conducted joint counterinsurgency operations in the Everglades, working with Army units.3 For almost half a century shallow-draft American gunboats patrolled the rivers of China, before being organized into the Yangtze Patrol Force in 1921.4 In the 1960s and 1970s thousands of sailors served in the Coastal Surveillance Force Task Force 115), the River Patrol Force (TF 116), and theMobile Riverine Force (TF 117), conducting brown- and green-water operations and counterinsurgency missions along the coasts of South Vietnam.5 These are just a few examples, taken from the long history of irregular warfare in the U.S. Navy.

In January 2010 the Chief of Naval Operations released "The U.S. Navy's Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges."6 The document recognizes the need to "define the strategic and operational tenets and approaches for our navy to apply across our general purpose and special operation forces."These tenets and approachesmust be founded in the historical lessons of over two centuries of irregular U.S. naval operations. The current counterinsurgency doctrine developed jointly by the Army and Marine Corps takes great pains to study and embrace the history of the mission.7 As the Navy comes to terms with its role in modern, asymmetric conflict, it too will return to its past.

In early 1804 the United States found itself embroiled in the first foreign test of American power and resolve, a test that it was failing. After a single irregularwarfare mission, however, everything changed. A bold raid led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur against Tripoli harbor to burn the captured frigate USS Philadelphia changed the direction of the conflict and raised American prestige throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was in command of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time, called the attack "the most daring act of the age." This example of early American irregular warfare can suggest important principles for the twenty-first century as the Navy looks to redevelop its ability to conduct asymmetric missions.

DISAPPOINTMENTS AND DEBACLES

It did not take long after gaining its independence for the United States to become involved in its first overseas conflict. At the turn of the nineteenth century the northern coast of Africa-the Barbary Coast, as it was known-was made up of the sultanate of Morocco and the regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, all of which owed allegiance in one form or another to the Ottoman Empire. These tributaries, for themost part autonomous, were the homes of a developed culture of piracy and slave trade that stretched as far back as the fall of the Roman Empire. …

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