Saturday, April 18, 2009

Musings on Piracy

Several times I've started posts about how the US Navy (and most of the other 2nd Generation Navies of the world) are adrift without a good intellectual framework for adapting to the 4th generation world. But every time the post gets to be too grumpy and starts to drift itself, and I sh^tcan it.

But, as faithful readers probably know, I am fascinated by modern piracy and the tactical and operational problems it presents. Is it really that difficult a problem? Or are we constrained by our own out-of-control institutions?

The Barbary War of 1801-1805 was our first experience with Islamist piracy, when our country was brand new and our Navy was comparatively weak. Despite that weakness, there was broad bipartisan support for confronting the pirates, even though the European powers were simultaneously seeking accomodation. At that time, despite our relative weakness, the US Navy and Marine Corps distinguished themselves well beyond their apparent capability.

Today, we don't have that problem. We can find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze (to use the current jargon) to our heart's content. The pirates aren't hard to find, and there is probably a lot more going on with them than we currently admit. (As an aside: as long as I can remember, it has been a consistent theme that there is ALWAYS more going on than we admit.)

We have the technical ability to eliminate the pirates in the blink of an eye - their bases are easily located with Google Earth, and in fact there are Google Earth overlays complete with aimpoints showing the key nodes of the pirate infrastructure available on the internet.

But we can't do it, for reasons having nothing to do with the pirates, or our military prowess. We can't do it because the media will punish the politicians if they make such a decision.

It took me a while to appreciate this fact, because we take it for granted because we are all so conditioned to view the world through the lens of the mass media.

In generations past, this was not a factor. In fact our ancestors could not even have comprehended the idea that a problem this obvious could be hosed up this bad. In this case we have every possible tangible advantage on our side: total technical and military dominance, as well as centuries of legal precedent and customary international law, that should permit us to do anything we darn well please to eliminate the pirate threat.

Yet we remain impotent, because if our leadership - even the Annointed One - were to take decisive action to eliminate the threat, the mainstream media would portray us as the bad guys, and the pirates as the helpless victims.

Such is the nature of the Fourth Generation.

So what do we do? The answer is obvious but subtle: we do it, but we don't let on what we're doing. The answer to a fourth generation problem like piracy in a fourth generation world is a fourth generation solution. Actions against the pirates should be clandestine - that is to say, completely hidden.

Such activities are usually coordinated and approved as CIA-managed covert action, but that is not the only way. However they are done, the actions against the pirates should be accomplished in secret, and denied. Because the media is an active participant in fourth generation conflict (usually pursuing their own agenda, not clearly aligned with other factions), almost any highly assymetrical engagement must be hidden from them.

I saw this little list elsewhere on the internet and thought it was too true to be funny, and it illustrates how most things go these days:

Phases of the Operation:
1. Enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Panic
4. Search for the guilty
5. Punishment of the innocent
6. Praise and honor for the non-participating


Jim Wright said...

When I worked in the Navy Research Labs, I used to have a poster with the 6 stages of project management up on one of the bulkheads. Different words, but exactly the same thought as what you posted, CW. Thanks for the chuckle.

Nathan said...

With the satellite coverage we've got, I've wondered why we have any trouble whatsoever pinpointing the pirates and their mother ships.

Your explanation of why we don't is certainly as plausible as any I can come up with.