The Far Line of Sand
The USS Maine, a 6682-ton second-class battleship built in 1895, spent her active career operating along the U.S. east coast and the Caribbean area. In 1898 she was sent to Cuba, to protect U.S. interests during a time of local insurrection and civil disturbances, where she famously blew up. Contemporary images of the Maine, available from the link above, show a vessel with guns down low along sides that sloped inward from her waterline to her deck, the so-called "tumblehome" hull form. It was an image of the classic gunboat of the type which Joseph Conrad described in the Heart of Darkness.
"I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you-- smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. ... Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."
These types of gunboat operations ended in the first decades of the 20th century as "sea mines, surface and submarine torpedo-attack craft, long-range rifled guns ... and ... aircraft meant that the traditional form of blockade ... could no longer be sustained ... maritime blockade evolved into long-range operations". Naval warfare became a thing of fleets grapping with rival fleets for control of the blue water. But things have changed again. The decay of the Soviet fleets and the rise of terrorism has shifted emphasis to the coasts once more. As Roger Barnett put it:
After 9/11 the central security problem, for the United States at least, became how to ensure that no weapons of mass destruction could be used by nonstate entities against American citizens in the homeland. ... It is far better to seek to control shipping or the shipment of contraband at the source rather than at the destination. ... In today’s context, contraband WMD can be shipped from states, nonstate entities, or individuals, or consigned to any of the three. The form of blockade operations, accordingly, has changed dramatically from close blockade through distant blockade and blockade zones, to prevention of movement of specific items at, or as close as possible to, their source.
Many of today's critical naval tasks require operations close inshore; including keeping choke points open, preventing piracy in strategic waterways, ensuring harbor security and blockade. Unfortunately, open ocean warships are at their most vulnerable in restricted waters. The US Navy, invincible in the blue water, suffered its worst losses since Korea in the littoral. The FFG-7 class USS Stark was nearly sunk by two Exocet missiles in the Persian Gulf in 1987. During Desert Storm in 1991, Aegis class cruiser USS Princeton and Iwo-Jima class LPH USS Tripoli suffered extensive mine damage. One of the most powerful surface combatants in the world, the Burke class destroyer USS Cole, was nearly destroyed in 2000 by an explosive-laden small boat while in port at Aden.
In consequence, the USN has been recreating the capability lost since British failed to force the Dardanelles in the face of mines and coastal artillery; to be able say as Nelson once did that 'the enemy's coast is our frontier'. Apart from changes to doctrine, new classes of USN warships now coming online will make this possible. The former Ohio-class USS Georgia SSBN is now being converted to an SSGN "Tactical Trident" SpecOps Sub and may be followed by the USS Ohio (SSBN 726), USS Michigan (SSBN 727), USS Florida (SSBN 728). These vessels can transport the ASDS minisub, designed to operate as an offshore "underwater hotel" for SEALs landing on an enemy coast.
A wholly new class of warships called the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), able to transit open oceans at half-helicopter speeds is being fielded in considerable numbers. These ships can act as small amphibious landing ships or platforms for unmanned aerial and waterborne unmanned vehicles. Depending on their configuration, they can land forces or deploy robotic vehicles to find enemy mines or submarines. Up to 60 LCS vessels are planned.
But if anything visually represents how things have come full circle, it is the Navy's planned new destroyer class, the DD(X). It's weapons will be deployed along the rim of the hull. And it will have, shades of the Maine, a tumblehome hull form. The accompanying image in the DD(X) link shows a vessel firing into a continent at a camp of enemies 'hidden out of sight somewhere'.
(Speculation alert) If form follows function the shape of the 21st century US Navy suggests that the "dark-green ... almost black" coastlines of the Third World will again become a theater of operations with this fundamental difference: areas that 19th century Europeans once sought to penetrate are now localities that need to be contained. No longer are arms being landed on those whispering coasts in hopes of conquest. The flows now go the other way. Today they must be blockaded against the outflow of weapons, armed gangs and multitudes of desperate people bent on escape from their misery. The USN by restructuring itself in response to the logical implications of terrorism, is anticipating a crisis that, to use Thomas Barnett's terminology, the "Core" governments have yet to face: how to bring freedom, prosperity and functionality to the "Non-Integrating Gap". The system of World Courts, multilateral institutions and development agencies which had their genesis in the 1950s and 60s will not be enough. Fund raising rock concerts will not be enough. The task requires the spread of functioning democratic institutions and market systems assisted where necessary by peacekeeping and relief operations. One day even the UN and the EU will realize that need and on that day America will be ready with some of the means.
The Joseph Conrad quote above was chosen with the awareness of its historical context. The Heart of Darkness was written as a moral examination of human behavior using the example of the Congo. Conrad's Congo was the plaything of King Leopold II of Belgium, who turned it into his private concentration camp. From it he extracted billions of dollars in rubber and ivory from slave labor under the mantle of extending European civilization. In the process he killed ten million people. Better yet, his crimes, which bear comparison with Hitler's, have been largely forgotten by history. In 1914 England would go to war to preserve the neutrality of poor defenseless Belgium. Conrad's work serves even today as an allegory for crime committed in the guise of virtue.
The Heart of Darkness has the potential to make many sorts of people uncomfortable. It is a cautionary tale for those who would remake the Third World by force, but it is also comes uncomfortably close to characterizing the virtuous enterprise of "international" organizations whose rich livelihoods depend on a steady stream of human misery; who leave disease and oppression unaddressed in order to remain true to the banners under which they march. There's a rich vein of unmined irony in the high-minded posturing of countries (where is Brussels?) who only a century ago were dividing the map of the world into private fiefdoms with colored pencils; from whose actions in part derive the mess which must now be cleaned up, though not by them after their retirement from history.
In any case the reflux from European colonialism, with further impetus from non-European forces of expansionism such as Islam, have now burst upon a world too small to ignore it. I was struck by boldness of the USN's decision to re-invent itself as a force capable of fighting in the littoral, creating capability in advance of policy. It bore historical similarities to the initiatives of Major Earl H. Ellis, who in the years between the World Wars, foresaw the need for amphibious warfare long before Pearl Harbor made it necessary.