Defense Capabilities and US Economic Interests


10/04/2011 – by Robbin Laird

In the rush towards an election, a withdrawal from Afghanistan and budget cuts, which would undercut the ability of the US to replace its “geriatric forces, ” a key consideration is to ensure that the US can defend its economic interest in the period ahead.  The US will end up with a smaller force structure, but it is important to ensure that by leveraging new platforms, transformation takes place capable of protecting US sovereignty and economic interests.

A phrase often bandied about is the need to protect the “global commons.”  The problem with this phase it assumes that there is some mystical “global” “even-handed” force at the service of globalization, which yields protection to the economic interests, associated with globalization.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is not the case.  Sovereign nations protect their interests, and the tools that global powers posses or develop can be used for national purposes or be combined in innovative ways to provide for a collective global reach for the “coalition of the willing.”

But a brutal point is that without platforms, without an ability to link platforms, with out scalable forces, a nation’s ability to protect its interests are severely curtailed. One of the challenges faced in the United States is the assumption of the power which we have had by investments in defense systems in the time of Reagan somehow mysteriously empower old platforms to protect the nation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is important in these challenging and difficult times to connect the re-building of the US force structure with understandings of the relationships between sovereignty and economic interests.  Recently James Carafano provided an important perspective on these relationships when discussing the significance of the national security cutter to the USCG and to the nation.

The National Security Cutter’s capability really matters. Presence at sea is what ensures the sovereignty of American territory at sea. Sacrificing capability means sacrificing sovereignty.

Abandoning the National Security Cutter as a budget-cutting drill makes about as much sense as dispensing with a security alarm, putting up “no trespassing” sign and telling yourself you are more safe at less cost.

The new platforms being purchased by the services are important elements in protecting US sovereignty and economic interests.  Indeed, I would argue that the new platforms are even more closely connected to performing their functions than the platforms they are replacing or supplementing.

A case in point would the relationship between the new Littoral Combat ship and the ability to deal with at sea threats to US maritime commerce and protection of the conveyer belt of goods and services.  Piracy, maritime terrorism, threats from rouge nations and the ability to protect the flow of energy resources are closely connected.

For example, there are a number of critical chokepoints in the flow of oil globally.  These chokepoints are clearly vulnerable to piracy and mining actions worldwide.

As one study put it: “Chokepoints are narrow channels along widely used global sea routes, some so narrow that restrictions are placed on the size of the vessel that can navigate through them.  They are a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil trade through their narrow straits.”

A Lehman Brothers assessment of January 2008 provided a comprehensive look at the Global Oil Choke Points challenge and laid out a clear case for why this problem posed significant economic threats and consequences for the US and other oil dependent states.

The report identified ten vulnerable points along the supply chain or “choke” points where disruption could interrupt a substantial volume of oil flow.

The choke points discussed in the report are seen in the two graphics below.

Choke points (Credit:

Choke points (Credit: points (Credit:

Protecting these choke points and responding to attacks or disruptions of these choke points is a fundamental task for US forces and those of its partners and allies.  One could simply sit back and hope for the best, or one can have forces appropriate to the task which work with partners and allies to deal with such challenges.

With the very significant decline in US naval and USCG ships, the shortage of assets to play a role in resolving such crises has fallen below the red line.  Building the LCS and FORWARD DEPLOYING these assets to be available to have networked with allies and partners is crucial.  No platform; no presence; no capability to play a role protecting your interests.  No platform fights alone, so the LCS’s forward deployed can work with others, become fully networked with its C4ISR D capabilities to work in a crisis situation with local forces.

The LCS can operate in shallow waters and move to a crisis with speed.  As the recently retired CNO put it: The speed, the shallow draft allows us to get into places we haven’t been able to get into before, allows us to respond in ways haven’t been able to respond before.

Choke points involve green and brown water operational conditions.  The LCS is optimized for such conditions and can protect against or resolve threats to the choke points to keep US commerce flowing.  The US needs assets which can into small operational spaces to find and root out the forces threatening economic interests.

And the LCS is well configured to deal with the mining threats, which can be posed to the choke points as well.  According to a recent article on the LCS, “The back of the ship is currently equipped with a big, black submarine-type vessel from a room deep inside the ship.  If they come across what they think is a mine, they can attach a camera that’s powerful enough to capture an image of a quarter on the sea floor.”

The ability of the LCS to link with other assets – US, allied, and partner – is a key quality of how the ship can work to provide for success in security operations.

As one observer has put it:

The LCS would become the C2 focus platform as well as the launch platform for H-60s, Firescouts, etc.  The maritime patrol aircrafts, working with the High Altitude Airship and the PTDS would be able to provide widespread overlapping ISR coverage. With regard to the PTDS, as I pointed out earlier, one would be deployed ashore, and the other three would be mounted on unused offshore oil platforms. Also, the LCS can be linked to other maritime assets to execute the mission as required leveraging this ISR information.

In other words, we can follow the Carafano model of building assets to protect our sovereignty and economic interests or we can suffer the economic consequences of being “choked” by significant disruptions to global maritime commerce through vulnerabilities exploited such as oil choke points.