Have Migrants Saved A Navy?

by admin on October 29, 2014

c88582fc362f8495ff84a59fa8c7b550d6bf0eaee3956fd107bb71414bbada7fAfter saving some 150,000 lives, Italy is rumored to be shutting down “Mare Nostrum“, an operation to interdict the flow of African migrants into Europe. If true (there are rumors the Italian Navy hasn’t gotten an order to stop), then that’s…unfortunate. This effort has done a lot to reinvigorate the Italian’s large, modern–and often ignored/mocked–Navy.

It’s safe to say that Italy’s Navy-led humanitarian operation did more than just rescue cross-Mediterranean migrants. It saved a Navy. And when researchers look back, they will discover that this humanitarian exercise rescued the modern Italian Navy from underfunded irrelevance.

Despite the wider sense that the Italian Navy’s work did little more than accelerate the flow of migrants across the Med, the crush of “migranti” gave the Italian Navy an ideal stage to demonstrate the enduring value and versatility of (not necessarily warfighting-oriented) naval resources to folks at home and abroad. Here’s a representative story from an Australian outlet:

All year the Italians had been rescuing unprecedented numbers of people who were risking all on unseaworthy boats to make a new life in Europe.

By the time we finally board in September, 130,000 desperate people have been saved and brought to shore, many fleeing war and internal conflict in places like Eritrea and Syria, others seeking economic opportunities not available in their home countries.

Our invitation is to come aboard the San Giusto, the largest ship of the five Italian vessels that are involved in a major rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, which means Our Sea…

Operation-Mare-Nostrum-Celebrates-First-Anniversary6-1024x683And it wasn’t just the mult-use assets that got attention–Even their “top-tier” combatants–the Italian submarine force–got into the act:

Italy’s navy said Thursday it had arrested 16 suspected people smugglers in the Mediterranean thanks to surveillance by a submarine during an operation that saved 300 immigrants.

That sort of positive exposure, day after day, is a public relations boon that pays off in appropriations and budgetary support. Certainly, times are tough; the Italian Navy probably won’t get a huge bolus of money (like, say the U.S. Coast Guard after Katrina), but it won’t be cut down to the bone (like, say, the Italian Army).

At any rate, the largely positive public reception of the Italian Navy’s response to Mare Nostrom is worth studying. For the U.S. Navy, Mare Nostrom is something to ponder–as the American Navy works to de-emphasize their un-warlike “global force for good” image while deploying forward, shrinking the USN’s already-small domestic footprint and pushing America’s strategic frontier farther and farther away from the U.S. taxpayer, it’s worth noting that nothing–well, nothing outside of a war–builds a Navy faster than a highly visible, competent response to an emergent domestic challenge.

OperationMareNostrumCelebratesFirstAnniversary4For the Italian Navy, Mare Nostrom came at exactly the right time. The 2010-2011 European economic crisis was extracting a brutal toll on regional militaries, and the Italian Navy was directly in cost-cutter crosshairs. From an AEI report:

In June 2012, Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, navy chief, announced that some 26 or 28 vessels would be retired over the next half decade. And although new and more capable platforms will be added to the fleet, overall numbers will drop as the replacement vessels will not be 1:1 for those withdrawn from service. Indeed, to save the cost of decommissioning the ships, the government is looking to sell them at a discount to other countries or, even, to simply give them away.

Examples of the cuts include: reducing the submarine force from the current six to four (about half the number in 2001), dropping the number of new frigates to be bought from ten to six (leaving the total number of frigates at ten after seven or eight older frigates are pulled from service), cutting minesweepers from twelve to eight, and patrol boats from eighteen to ten. Moreover, plans for replacing the retiring carrier Garibaldi and amphibious transport docks with the much larger carrier Cavour and amphibious assault ships (LHDs) has been complicated by a reduced buy of F-35Bs and the freezing of the LHDs acquisition

Back then, I expected that this was just a starting point for many, many more cuts.

OperationMareNostrumCelebratesFirstAnniversary2The hypothesis that successful, high-profile non-combat operations supports taxpayer largess remains to be tested, of course. But there are signs that Mare Nostrom has paid off–the Pattugliatore Polivalente D’Altura (PPA) procurement program is funded and proceeding apace, and, according to Defense News’ great reporting, the Italians may sign contracts for another amphib and a logistical support vessel.

The Italian Navy has been smartly emphasizing the dual-use utility of their future vessels:

“…As budgets in Italy were being cut, the Navy stressed the dual-use functions of the patrol vessels, designing the light version of the PPA to assist in civilian emergencies and humanitarian missions as well as fight wars…The space under the flight deck is designed to host a temporary hospital facility, anti-pollution equipment or special operations equipment….For civilian operations, the vessel will be able to supply power and water for 6,000 people ashore….’

We’ll see how it plays out. But I suspect Mare Nostrum, despite whatever the Operation’s ultimate legacy becomes, will be marked as a place where the Italian Navy stepped up, did good work for the nation and made Italians proud.

And that, at the end of the day, is kinda what a Navy is all about, right?

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RFA_Argus_off_the_coast_of_DevonportIt will be quite interesting to see how the UK’s amphibious shipping/hospital ship hybrid, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus (A135), does in projecting biomedical support ashore in Sierra Leone.

The ship is perfect for operations in an infectious environment–it is a 100-bed hospital ward, equipped to accept contaminated casualties, lashed to a right-sized aviation detachment, a strong water purification plant and a good, old-fashioned ro-ro platform. For projecting biomedical support into a relatively secure infectious disease-challenged environment, there’s really nothing better. This ship–or, at a minimum, it’s notional Sierra Leone CONOPS–should be eyed as a model for America’s as-yet-unfunded Mercy Class replacement initative–the T-AH(X) Program.

The T-AH(X) you ask? Why, it’d be a great add-on to that LX(R) program–you know, that LSD-41/49 replacement project that’ll now apparently grow out of the LPD-17 hull (Not to complicate things, but I think the LX(R) will end up being what LPD-17 should have been if rational people had actually kept the original LPD-17 program from sprawling all over the place). But now that the T-AHs have been included in the combat fleet, it’s time to really start discussing their impeding replacement, and find a way to fit new ones into the U.S. naval shipbuilding plan.

But I digress.

11.30.11.Marad-designRFA Argus is another in the UK’s long line of interesting experiments with cost-effective ro-ro conversions (and the “harbinger of naval decline!” holler the wags), but, the RFA Argus has undeniably done yeoman service for the UK. Pressed into a range of roles after the Falklands and Gulf Wars, the ship’s day job is to serve as an aviation training platform. But, transformed into a casualty-receiving ship (a modification that was quickly done in the run-up to the first Gulf War), RFA Argus resolves many of the challenges that hamstring the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort–aside from being more ready to handle numbers of contaminated casualties than American hospital ships, RFA Argus is smaller and more useful–it is less than half the size of America’s converted oil tankers/floating hospitals, has far better ability to support rotary wing craft and receive casualties from helicopters, and has Ro-Ro capability, which, again, makes for a far more relevant platform.

America has never really figured out how their great hospital ships (the old metric was that they were tied for, oh, like the fifth largest trauma units in the nation) would provide for 1,000 casualties. The Lehman-era Navy built these floating hospitals to be little more than floating “monuments”, without really thinking through how these platforms would work as a cohesive system. I mean, a top-tier thousand-bed trauma hospital is great, but…how do we man ‘em?  How do we manage ingress/egress? Where do we moor it? The devil is in the details, and it’s the details that really compromised the utility of these two grand-scale hospital ships.

And for combatting Ebola? Sure, the USNS Mercy and Comfort could do it, but I suspect that there’s only a fraction of the total beds aboard prepared to handle infectious disease patients. And if I was being radical–and, say, being pushed to provide naval resources from, say, an angry, resource-hungry Ebola Czar–I’d suggest that while containing Ebola aboard the ship is hard, it isn’t exactly a challenge that would sideline the ship–it’s the far more easily aerosolized diseases like Tuberculosis make the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort less-than-optimal receiving vessels for biomedical emergencies in the developing world. (This may have changed over the course of some refits, but, in the main, if I were Master of the Mercy, I’d just want to stick with treating plain-vanilla trauma patients from a more-developed area.) In a true WMD situation, USNS Mercy and Comfort are probably of little use.

But the RFA Argus is a different story. This ship is going to show up off Sierra Leone, tie up, promptly disgorge a fleet of ruggedized Toyota Pickups, and employ it’s helo detachment to support disease surveillance and treatment center establishment/resupply, while providing high-level secure care aboard ship. It’s perfect for supporting operations in a disease-challenged environment.

And that–supporting operations in a disease-challenged environment–is a mission we need to get serious about.

100811-N-4044H-030Is DOD Serious About Operating In A WMD-Challenged Environment?

Over the past ten years the DOD’s focus has been more upon the sexy idea of counterproliferation, while the challenge of actually operating in a WMD-impacted environment has been, well, kinda handed off to Homeland Defense and civilian authorities. Until recently, verbiage related to counterproliferation has dominated our strategic documents, while operations in WMD-impacted areas…get sentence or two at best.

Operating in a disease-impacted, chemical-impacted or radiologically-contaminated area is hard, and I fear we have let our preference for action and kinetic approaches like “counterproliferation” sap DOD’s investment in gear and strategies that might better enable operations in a challenging environment. And that, in this era of A2/AD warfare, is a problem.

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End Jo Ann Rooney’s Nomination For the Navy’s #2 Post

October 6, 2014

Look, I’ve been a big cheerleader for SECNAV Ray Mabus getting a full bench of rough-and-tumble Navy Department Managers, and an advocate for increasing the proportion of females working in defense leadership roles, but enough is enough. As Defense News’ Chris Cavas hints, it is high time for the long-stalled nominee for Navy Undersecretary, Jo Ann […]

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A Focus On The Basics Will Save Naval Ship Procurement

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The American habit of cramming the functions of four to five legacy ship classes into a single, bespoke multifunction hull is–for now–over. With the U.S. fleet operating only a handful of core classes, and looking at one-for-one replacements of existing platforms (at best), the U.S. Navy is now free to get back to focusing on […]

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A Liberian Lesson For the Department of Defense

September 22, 2014

As the Africa-centric components of the Department of Defense turn from their normal terrorist-whacking duties to engage Western Africa’s Ebola fight (a disease outbreak which, sadly, seems to have taken the Pentagon somewhat by surprise), it’s worth taking a moment to remind the Department of Defense that Liberia is the only country in recent memory […]

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UCLASS: Bob Work Is Right to Reach for The High-End Solution

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The fight over the Navy’s next-generation unmanned asset, the UCLASS, continues, with, as USNI’s Sam Lagrone reports, another delay: The final request for proposal (RFP) for the Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been delayed pending a review of the service’s information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portfolio as part of the service’s budget […]

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Israel: A Future Sub Builder?

August 20, 2014

In the race to keep up with neighboring navies, Israel has taken a prudent middle course, developing indigenous solutions for low-end craft, and reaching out to other nations to provide more complex ships and submarines. Though Israel has done very, very well buying ships and subs overseas–Israel will, within the next few years, begin the […]

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Will A Shipyard Fire Burn All Aluminum Warships?

August 14, 2014

A catastrophic shipyard fire that, by all accounts, destroyed Australia’s all-aluminum HMAS Bundaburg (ACPB-91), one of Australia’s 14 useful–yet oft-maligned–Armidale Class patrol boats, will reignite debate over the survivability of aluminum warships. When the public finally sees the melted, burned-out remains of HMAS Bundaburg (photos that will likely be dramatic, given that the fire was not […]

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Appreciate China’s Big New Seaplane

August 7, 2014

A good deal of polite Western snickering met the announcement that China was on the verge of building large seaplanes–an “old technology”, scoffed the haters, whose “heyday came and went with the demise of the Pan Am Trans-Oceanic Clipper”. But at least one Chinese aviation commentator dispensed a bit of wisdom for the doubters: “The […]

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In Press: Talking Mines in the Taipei Times

August 5, 2014

The Taipei Times, in a friendly gesture, used my story on China’s recent mine warfare exercises in the South China Sea to advance some wider discussion mine warfare in China’s near seas. Here’s my bit: Craig Hooper, a former teacher at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, has reported that the Chinese navy conducted […]

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