Accepting Risk: Why the Attack on the Swift Reveals Strategic Vulnerability

In the first weekend of October 2016, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels allegedly conducted a missile attack on the HSV-2 Swift near the port of Mokha, Yemen. Formerly in the service of the United States Navy as a fast transport, the Swift was being operated by the United Arab Emirates at the time of the attack. In response, the U.S. Navy deployed three ships to the area—two guided-missile destroyers and the Ponce, a former amphibious warship converted into an afloat forward staging base. One of these destroyers, the USS Mason, defended the small task force against several cruise missiles in two separate attacks within four days. This event reveals significant risk the United States’ expeditionary maritime strategy. With the recent introduction of large, commercial-grade sea base platforms embarking military forces to conduct limited missions, coupled with the proliferation of anti-ship threat capabilities globally, the United States has created a potential blind spot and serious threat to the national strategy.

The Marine Corps has a standing requirement for 38 amphibious warships to conduct two simultaneous large-scale amphibious operations. The Navy and Marine Corps agreed to accept risk in this mission with an expected fleet of 34 amphibious warships, a number that caused some consternation amongst Marine Corps leadership. A 2016 Heritage Foundation study further stated that the ideal number of ships to support this mission is actually closer to 50. This shortfall however is only a portion of the problem as it does not take into account the steady-state requirement placed on the amphibious fleet, which is tasked with a breadth of missions ranging from humanitarian assistance to major combat operations. The 30th Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Greenert, stated that approximately 50 amphibious warships would be needed to support steady-state operational demand. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office Report also supported this number by stating that the demand for amphibious warships in 2010 was almost twice what was available. In general, to meet these requirements the Navy would need to either double the number of ships in the inventory or the amount of time that those ships are deployed. The former is probably not economically feasible, and the latter just spreads out the cost by reducing the service life of the ships, which would then need to be replaced at more regular intervals.

USNS Spearhead (EPF-1) during sea trials in 2012. (U.S. Navy Photo)

So how have the Navy and Marine Corps filled in the gap between the ships that are available and the ships that are required? Put simply, they use auxiliary platforms. The Marine Corps’ latest operating concept emphasizes deploying Marines aboard a wide range of platforms—from surface combatants such as destroyers and frigates, to support ships converted to directly participate in limited military operations. Two such support ships are present in the Mohka story—the Spearhead-Class transport to which the Swift was a predecessor, and the Puller-Class sea base to which the Ponce was a predecessor.

At first glance, embarking Marines aboard auxiliary platforms is an exceptionally clever application of a proud “do more with less” heritage, by converting strategic assets that are relatively dormant into semi-operational vessels to help shoulder the load. These “break glass in case of emergency” vessels are large ships that easily have the ability to embark and employ forces used to conduct more benign operations such as foreign military engagement and humanitarian assistance. This aggressive use of auxiliary platforms, however, introduces an element of strategic risk that is not included in the initial calculus made by Navy and Marine Corps leaders when they accepted a reduced amphibious warship inventory goal.

The USS Cole (DDG 67) is towed away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, after an attack that killed 17 crew members and injured 39 others. (Sgt. Don L. Maes/DOD Photo)

On October 12, 2000, al-Qaeda sponsored suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors and ripping a 40-foot by 60-foot hole in the ship’s hull. The crew conducted a courageous damage-control effort over the course of three days and were able to save the ship, which was returned to service after $250 million in repairs were completed, including the addition of 550 tons of new steel. But the skills of Cole’s crew saved more than just the ship – they also preserved the national command authority’s ability to avoid strategic entanglements in Yemen that could have altered the course of history. Attacks on American ships (or other nations’ ships with many Americans aboard) have historically been a powerful catalyst for the nation to go to war, whether by waking the “sleeping giant” or by providing a highly sought-after justification for conflict. Chesapeake. Maine. Lusitania. Arizona. Maddox. Though causality is tenuous at best, correlation as a catalyst is substantial.

The attack on the Cole is a valuable lesson in the strategic importance of the survivability of naval warships. What sets these warships apart from the merely adequate auxiliary platforms is a tiered defensive scheme of weaponry, active and passive measures, tactical employment and mutual support, and, when all else fails, armor, structure, and highly-trained damage control crews. All of these characteristics working in concert create a “barrier to entry” that reduces the ability for opportunists such as terrorists and non-state actors to destroy naval assets, jeopardize the maritime strategy, and impinge on the ability of the U.S. Navy to maneuver. Auxiliary platforms such as those of the Spearhead and Puller class have none of the survivability measures native to naval warships and are crewed by civilian mariners with little or no formal combat training and limited access to rapidly developing intelligence. The Puller class is especially concerning as it is being developed as a possible special operations platform to fulfill a long-standing request from U.S. Central Command, who is responsible for many of the world’s current hotspots to include Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The current national strategy in many of the conflicts in this theater rely upon discretion and restraint, yet attacks on our warships almost inevitably demand a response-in-kind. The USS Nitze, in response to the attacks on the Mason and Ponce, fired cruise missiles at suspected Houthi radar sites responsible for the attack. Although the United States has been conducting strikes in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, this is the first time such strikes have been directed against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In a catastrophic scenario, an opportunistic hostile actor could use small-boat swarms with anti-tank weapons, or even anti-ship cruise missiles to attack and sink a ship such as the Puller, with hundreds of U.S. service members and U.S. assets such as aircraft and vehicles aboard, also taking with it a large portion of control over the geopolitical strategy. It cannot be underscored enough that the first hostile loss of a U.S. ship since World War II would at the very least irrevocably damage the country’s legitimacy if it chose not to respond, and at the very worst draw the United States once again into a protracted ground war, shifting a deterrence posture away from resurgent near-peer actors such as Russia and China.

A radar in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, destroyed by U.S. Navy missile strikes. (AFP)

At the foundation of any approach to risk management is making risk decisions at the appropriate level. When Navy and Marine leaders accepted the risk of fewer ships to conduct simultaneous major amphibious operations, they acknowledged that they could still accomplish the mission, albeit with increased difficulty. But these are the most complex and inherently dangerous missions the military can conduct—there is a high threshold of risk that is already native to these operations. Because of this characteristic, this risk decision does not directly apply to the stopgap solutions that are making up for a lapse in steady-state capability, since the acceptable risk threshold for these other-than-combat missions is much different. It may seem obvious to have naval warships escort auxiliary platforms at all times or to send detachments of Marines onto surface combatants that would themselves act as auxiliary platforms. But these other warships have their own missions that offset strategic risk—reallocating them would simply be trading one great peril for another. It may also be errantly assumed that these auxiliary platforms would operate only in “permissive” environments. The Chief of Naval Operations recently pointed out the rhetorical fallacy of “denied” or “permissive” environments, especially as the proliferation of anti-ship weaponry is leading to operating environments that develop much faster than the the operational planning and acquisition cycle reaction times. The way to effectively mitigate this risk is to ensure that all ships supporting amphibious warfare missions from benign to hostile meet a minimum standard of survivability on par with mainline amphibious warships.

While some may lament a bygone era, real or imagined, where the United States had the political will to accept the loss of one or many naval vessels around the globe, the political reality of the present is that this is not an acceptable outcome. This two-level reality constrains the United States’ methods of employment and holds its international expeditions to account. Without a doubt, the country’s Naval forces will continue to operate diligently to fulfill their assigned missions regardless of the circumstances, but they cannot through sheer acumen contain a risk which is beyond their purview. Although capable of the decision, Navy and Marine Corps leadership does not have the appropriate responsibility to accept the outsized risk of living with a steady-state shortfall in the amphibious fleet. They are simply doing what they can with what they have been given by the executive leadership who develops the national strategy that demands the ships, and the national legislature who is responsible to resource that national strategy. These entities are directly responsible for the risk inherited with these auxiliary platforms conducting alternative missions. To truly address this level of risk, it is a simple math problem. Either the strategy needs to be resourced with the appropriate number and type of adequately survivable warships, or the scope of the strategy needs to be reduced. Hesitance in taking either course of action is instead a de facto decision to accept dire risk to U.S. geopolitical strategy.

Michael Van Wyk is an active-duty Marine officer and aviator. He has participated in numerous operations and campaigns around the globe to include two combat deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: HSV-2 Swift after an attack by Houthi militia. (Emirates News Agency)