Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Soccer, the Suez, and Irregular Sea Denial

I'm back from a little vacation in the Sahel...

Sea denial might be described as the obverse of sea control, where a weaker force is able to achieve an operational objective at sea by thwarting a superior fleet, even if only for a short duration.  History is rife with examples of irregular conflicts ashore threatening freedom of navigation. Straits, channels, and other narrows are particulary lucrative targets for insurgents striving to deny the sea to conventionally-stronger opponents.

On the low end of the scale, irregular forces or angry populations have attempted to blockade or disrupt port traffic with various levels of success These mostly unorganized efforts tend to fizzle out or be crushed by overwhelming force when maritime law enforcement or navies get involved.  The Indian Coast Guard had to intervene in 2011 when local fishermen distraught over the recent destruction of their houses parked fishing trawlers at the mouth of Goas major port used to export iron ore.  In the United States, Occupy protestors temporarily forced the closure of the port of Seattle in 2011, then the following year, longshoremen strikes closed Southern California ports for over a week, sending shockwaves through global supply chains. 
Egyptian security forces keep watch as protesters burn tires in Port Said,
east of Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2013. (MSNBC)
Earlier this year, fallout from soccer violence (amplified by Arab Spring reverberations) threatened the Suez Canal. Media reporting indicates a variety of tactics were used by approximately 2,000 protestors to disrupt shipping near Port Said. Rioters tried to block car ferries from crossing, lit tires on the piers on fire to prevent ships from mooring, and set supply boats adrift in an attempt to block the channel.  Egyptian naval forces were deployed to ensure this vital shipping channel remained open.  Although unsuccessful, these efforts indicate the potential for localized unrest to impede global commerce afloat. 

14 March 2013- A Bahraini anti-government demonstrator was set on fire
when a shot fired by riot police hit the gasoline bomb he was holding.

The introduction of modern weapons into irregular conflicts amplifies the seriousness of these threats. Guerrilla fighters have laid mines (Tamil Tigers) and terrorists bombed oil export terminals (AQAP/AQI).   During the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah attacked navy and merchant shipping with advanced ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. 

Of potentially more relevance and importance to the U.S. Navy is the ongoing low-level insurgency in the island kingdom of Bahrain. The home of COMFIFTHFLT, base to forward-deployed American and British mine-sweepers, USN/USCG patrol vessels, and USS Ponce is potentially vulnerable to disruption should this conflict spill over from attacks on exclusively on Bahraini government forces to the US Naval presence. Some observers have accused Iran of meddling in this revolution, which is largely based along Sunni/Shia fault lines. It wouldnt be a stretch for malign Iranian actors to someday prod their proxies into disrupting allied naval operations or supply insurgents with more lethal and effective weapons as they have done in Syria, Yemen, and the Levant.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency. 

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