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Combating Terrorism

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Combating Terrorism

The damaged USS Cole (DDG-67)

In 1997 the Navy energized its antiterrorism program. The report on Khobar Towers had been released, J34 Force Protection Directorate had been created, and civilian and military leaders declared combating terrorism a priority. Today, the antiterrorism effort is on the cusp, equally likely to succeed as it is to fail. The problems are paradox, prejudice, and lack of situational awareness.


The primary paradox is that terrorism is an unconventional psychological operation that the Navy confronts with conventional security means. The terrorist is involved in extended operations to achieve his organization's long-term goals, but the Navy is defending an infinite number of single moments, with that short-term achievement as the only defined goal. The Navy is fighting a strategy with tactics. As a result, it is very difficult for the Navy to "win" an engagement--where the outcome is visible to the world, and it looks like both a victory for the United States and a defeat for the terrorist. Anything less leaves the terrorist's strategy unaffected. Say, for example, the Navy reinforces a pier area to deter a terrorist attack. The reinforcement does deter an attack, but if that "win" is not made public as a defeat of the terrorist, does not result in the compromise of the terrorist organization, etc., there is no win; only no loss.

Second, the probability that a person will be subject to a terrorist attack, even in forward areas, is low, but the impact of an attack on both the person involved and the United States is high. The Navy has dealt with low probability/high impact situations before--e.g., nuclear weapon and reactor safety--but in an era of limited resources, actively countering this kind of threat is a harder sell.

The third paradox is vulnerability versus threat. The vulnerability camp believes that as long as the Navy has vulnerabilities, it is unnecessarily at risk. The threat camp believes that if there is no indication and warning (I&W) of a threat then there is no need to be concerned, or more to the point, there is no reason to spend money eliminating vulnerabilities.

Fourth, because of the covert nature of terrorism, it appears that threat increases faster than capability. In fact, a terrorist mission takes at least as long to develop as does the capability to defeat that mission. But by the time I&W indicates a specific threat, the terrorist operation already is under way. The active combatant (terrorist) will maintain an advantage over the reactive combatant (Navy).


Although senior leaders are quick to declare antiterrorism force protection a "number one" priority, they are slow to respond to proposed solutions or requirements. The most likely way today's Navy is going to take catastrophic casualties is through a terrorist attack, but prejudice will not allow that threat to be predominant. The air, sub, and surface threat always will be more important.

The Navy defines terrorists as criminals and murderers, and criminals and murderers are dealt with by police or security forces. In that statement lies prejudice. In truth, terrorists are soldiers conducting military operations. Law enforcement/security forces are useful in combating terrorism, but they are not the final solution.

The statement, "If they want to get you, they will," is often made, seldom challenged, and false. Even under optimal circumstances, executing a terrorist attack requires targeting, intelligence collection, force movement, logistic support, etc.--all of which must take place covertly. The truth is that the Navy is unwilling to take the steps needed to prevent a terrorist from "getting you," and therein lies a critical differentiation. "If they want to get you, they will," conveys hopelessness, when, in fact, a decision to accept risk has been made.

Situational Awareness

Over the past two years the Navy has had a hard time defining threats. The result is a tendency to be concerned about every possibility, with no clear direction on what assets must be protected from what threats. Does the Navy fear vehicle bombings of ships and facilities? Is it more concerned with assassinations? Without a clear definition of which threats are of real concern, the Navy's situational awareness will continue to suffer.

An ancillary difficulty with looking to law enforcement/security forces to solve the terrorism problem is that the main principle of security is to establish rules that must be followed to gain access to a certain area. Those in compliance are allowed to enter; those not in compliance are prevented. The problem here is twofold. First, this system relies on passive acceptance of the rules by those attempting to enter. Terrorists are not passive. Second, this system spends the majority of its time and resources checking people who are in compliance with the rules--our own sailors.

Terrorism kills people, hurts families, dashes dreams, and shakes our confidence. A lack of situational awareness magnifies the asymmetrical nature of the threat and makes terrorism nearly impossible to defeat. We begin to believe that at any time a terrorist could carry out an act that affects the Navy's ability to conduct operations, and that failure to defend against terrorism eventually could lead the Navy to a state where it is politically and physically unable to project force. This simply is untrue.


The Navy derives its antiterrorism doctrine from the Department of Defense. The closest DoD comes to stating a mission is declaring that DoD should be able to detect, deter, and defend against terrorist actions. At best, that is a weak foundation. It provides no strategic vision and does not chart a course for clear, effective, coordinated joint planning and action. Navy instructions are equally shallow.


The first step in defeating terrorists is to declare that as our intention. All of the United States' major contingency plans contain a phrase similar to "defeat the enemy on the battlefield." A similar phrase is conspicuously absent from our antiterrorism efforts. A broad mission statement, such as "to defeat terrorism by denying terrorist organizations the ability to conduct effective operations," would allow for the development of long-term strategy, operational concepts, effective tactics, and meaningful doctrine.

Regarding psychological operations, the first step to defeating an enemy's plans is to recognize and confront them. Components of a successful effort include:

  • Declare a willingness to take casualties to maintain our strategic and operational goals.
  • Identify and undermine the doctrine that justifies the actions of a terrorist, compels the terrorist to strike, or convinces others to strike.
  • Do not allow terrorist attacks to have any apparent effect; the terrorist must have nothing strategically tangible to show for his efforts. The United States lost 19 dead and a multitude of wounded in the Khobar Towers blast, but the attack was not a success until the United States changed its procedures and moved its base of operations.
  • Do not deal with terrorists. Each time the Navy allows terrorism to affect the way it does business, it is dealing.

Recognize that a terrorist act is a low-probability/high-impact event and build a program that is specific to probability, threat, and political/fiscal restrictions. An effective program would identify the mostly likely and highest impact possibilities and then detail actions taken/risks mitigated and actions not taken/risks not mitigated, along with a logical rationale for each. This would allow the Navy to set achievable, measurable goals and would be key to controlling an event should one take place.

The vulnerability and the threat camps need to realize that a missing link is the quantification of vulnerability relative to threat. Right now the Navy is vulnerable. The question is how much and why? To answer this question we need to look at the I&W preceding past terrorist attacks and the Navy's Operational Risk Management (ORM) instruction. Everyone must then agree that there are general and specific threats and that the risk is manageable. The second step is to take known terrorist tactics and actions and documented Navy vulnerabilities and bring them together to produce quantitative risk analysis. This template can be used to create tailored documents that identify the likely threats to which a ship/station is vulnerable, the cost to correct the vulnerabilities, and an endorsement from the commanding officer and his immediate superior in command that acknowledges the vulnerability and details the application of the ORM process. The result will be a well-thought-out acceptance of a specified risk.

There is no threat on the high seas for which the Navy does not prepare. There needs to be a like effort in combating terrorism. Terrorist tactics, actions, and forecasts have been collected and studied. Using that information, the Navy could establish a core competency for all sailors. Next, the Navy could determine the terrorists' critical nodes for mission success, juxtapose those nodes against current naval combat capabilities, and then cross deck those capabilities to combating terrorism. As gaps are discovered, we would either fill them or make a conscious decision not to, and document that action. A relatively small investment in money, training, and people will allow the Navy to build a real capability to confront the actual terrorist threat. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: Some Potential Operationalized Force Protection Capabilities and Tasks--Combatant Ship


  • Detect and track surface traffic within 3,000 yards and aircraft within 5 nautical miles
  • Establish extended security zone and personnel and vehicle entry points
  • Establish remote cargo cross load point/vehicle unloading area
  • Conduct 100% ID & vehicle check
  • Surveil all areas to minimum 500 yards
  • Conduct countersurveillance
  • Monitor potential ingress/egress routes for infiltration


  • Prevent surface contacts from closing to within 100 yards
  • Engage warned aircraft within .5 nautical miles
  • Establish exterior and interior security zones and armed watches
  • Define areas of engagement
  • Engage with lethal or nonlethal means at exterior perimeter and with deadly force at interior perimeter
  • Reinforce perimeters
  • Employ counterswimmer measures


  • Intercept all contacts within 3,000 yards; air contacts cpa 1 nautical mile
  • Mark restricted areas
  • Conduct deception Command and Control
  • Seamless communications with all security stations
  • Establish reaction force
  • Arm and equip security forces
  • Coordinate with host nation law enforcement
  • Use Fleet Antiterrorist Security Teams

The most likely way the Navy is going to take catastrophic casualties in peacetime is through a terrorist attack, but we must keep the threat in perspective. The damage of a terrorist attack cannot affect the Navy's ability to project force. It would be imprudent to draw down any combat capability or decrease funding for combat equipment to support the antiterrorism effort. However, dual-use training and equipment and funding drawn from noncombat expenditures should be considered.

The Navy does security "things" to prevent terrorist attacks. For Threat Conditions Alpha through Delta, for example, there are various measures to be implemented. The measures are not threat specific, however, and many requirements do little to increase security. By operationalizing antiterrorism efforts, specific goals can be defined that will generate specific requirements and capabilities. The desire not to be attacked by an explosive-laden boat while pierside, for example, is operationalized to the goals of being able to track, identify, interrogate, intercept, and engage surface contacts while pierside. Once the goals are clear they can be changed into requirements. Capabilities then can be developed. At that point combating terrorism is in the war fighter's hands, where it belongs.

The Navy still will have vulnerabilities, but it will have carefully considered the threat and its capability to counter that threat, established a quantitative value for risk, and then made a conscious decision to accept the risk. Terrorism no longer would be a vulnerability but a risk the Navy accepts in the furtherance of operational efficiency.

It is important to be specific about what the Navy fears. Defining fears will allow the Navy to better bring its limited assets to bear. An example is pier access control. A Navy fear is that an explosive-laden vehicle could be detonated close enough to a ship to cause it to be destroyed, with significant loss of life. By defining that fear, the Navy can take specific action to prevent it from happening. The Navy is not concerned that sailors are walking on the pier, or that the commanding officer is driving on the pier, so it should not waste assets on controlling those actions. By defining its real, operational concerns, the Navy can concentrate assets on stopping specific threats, resulting in both better antiterrorism security and economy of force.

The Navy that was built to confront the Soviets on the high seas cannot be stopped by terrorists. Even if a terrorist could sink an aircraft carrier or pierce her reactors, he could not prevent the Navy from conducting its core mission. Even if a terrorist makes a chemical attack against a port, the Navy still will be able to get clean and under way. The redundancy built into the Navy's Cold War force serves it well in regard to combating terrorism. We cannot afford to be passive or negligent, but the nature of our force allows the Navy to accept greater risk at the strategic and operational levels.

Left of the Attack

In the long term, the Navy needs to look to the left of the enemy's "actions at the objective area" if it hopes to succeed. Today, the Navy spends nearly all of its time and energy combating the terrorist at the moment of attack--a time frame measured in minutes. Consider the current antiterrorism mission of detect, deter, and defend in terms of a battle group at sea. The battle group deters attack through exercises, demonstrations of power, and the assurance that an attack will not deter successful completion of its mission. It strives to detect threats before they reach weapons-launch position. Defense takes place in successive layers beginning a few hundred miles out and concluding with the close-in weapon system and a damage control ability. In combating terrorism the Navy executes all three of these missions at the same time and in the same place, at the target area well within the terrorist's weapon release envelope.

For the terrorist, the most dangerous part of his mission is insertion and infiltration. During these phases, not only is he most vulnerable, but discovery would be an embarrassing and costly defeat. At the end of infiltration, some mission success is guaranteed, and any success could be a saleable commodity in terms of future operations funding. The Navy needs to affect the operations of a terrorist before he makes any money. If we can inflict mission kills on a terrorist, with no detonation of his weapon and no loss of U.S. life or property, the Navy will begin to discredit him. A mission kill is defeat of the terrorist's operation prior to his actions at the objective area. These kills can be strategic, operational, or tactical. If a terrorist poses a high threat to the Navy in a particular port and, after properly preparing, the Navy enters port regardless, that is a strategic mission kill. If a terrorist shows up at a target site and the target has moved, an operational mission kill is effected. If shore patrol, having received in-depth countersurveillance training, is able to provide prestrike information to both the host nation and the Navy, a tactical mission kill results. The intent is to build defense in depth to engage the terrorist as early as possible. The goal is to make terrorist efforts ineffective and thus insupportable.

Change the Mind-set

The Navy always has considered its mission to be at sea; when the lines went over and the plant shut down, there was no real consideration of unconventional attack. Clearly, this no longer is the case. As the United States makes itself less vulnerable to conventional attack, our enemies will seek unconventional means to strike us. The Navy needs a program that places the proper emphasis on this emerging warfare area. The antiterrorism force protection officer should be at least a department head who has had training. Combating terrorism itself should be a planning entity within the Operations Department. A 20-year career should encompass all aspects of antiterrorism, from firearms, watch standing, and ground defense to understanding and profiling the terrorist. Professional advancement as an antiterrorism officer should be available.

Terrorism Is Not Magic

A terrorist attack is not asymmetrical. The terrorist has a mission essential task list that he must fulfill to conduct operations. He has to recruit, train, and deploy--all points at which he is vulnerable. The Navy may not know when or where the next attack is going to take place, but that does not prevent us from preparing. We can estimate the attributes of the force--small, covert, highly trained, and committed. The attack likely will be close in and rapid. The weapon most likely will be a vehicle bomb or small arms, with a good probability of future chemical or biological capability. In combating terrorism, the only thing the Navy does not know is when and where, two variables that training, requirements, demonstrated capabilities, preparation, and resolve can marginalize.

If the Navy does not wallow in defeatist rhetoric and doomsday scenarios, chances for success against terrorism are excellent. The keys are to maximize the effectiveness of the current force, identify specific threats, recognize the nature of the threat, and use technology and skill to develop capabilities that will affect the terrorists. This must be backed up with training, exercises, professional development, and antiterrorism warfare proficiency. Of utmost importance is the need to meet the enemy, both psychologically and physically, on the battlefields of our choosing, having given our commanders clear guidance, capabilities, and doctrine to win. Until such a program is fielded the Navy will continue to leave itself unduly vulnerable to the drastic effects of a terrorist attack.

In the Wake of the Attack on the Cole

While conducting legal trade with a sovereign country, the USS Cole (DDG-67) was attacked by a small explosive-laden boat. The close-in attack was carried out by a covert, well-trained, and committed force that had infiltrated to the target area undetected. The Navy was and has been aware that small boats are a possible delivery platform for an attack on a Navy ship, particularly in areas of restricted maneuverability. Although this event was a surprise, that it was a potentiality was not.


Tactical. Seventeen sailors were killed and several wounded. Severe damage to the Cole has degraded her ability to conduct combat operations, but she is not sunk or a mission kill. Her striking capacity has been hindered, not eliminated.

Operational. The battle group and Fifth Fleet are unhindered in their ability to conduct combat or other operations.

Strategic. Yet to be determined.

Psychological. Among others, the following actions were the result of the psychological impact of the attack:

  • All other ships in the area were ordered under way.
  • The decision to refuel in Yemen is under scrutiny.
  • The engagement strategy is being questioned.
  • Atlantic Fleet went to Threat Condition Alpha.
  • A very senior U.S. official is quoted in the news saying, "Nothing is worth the life of a single sailor."


All of these items should raise concern. They may seem prudent, but we must ask, Why? Is there intelligence to indicate further attacks? Is there any history of multiple, uncorrelated attacks? A minute before the attack there was no indication that other ships in the area should be making preparations to get under way. A minute before the attack the warnings had been processed and the Navy was willing to put people in harm's way. A minute after the attack, nothing had changed for anyone but the Cole.

By ordering other ships under way we sent a clear signal to the enemy. Terrorism works.

If we change our fueling policy with Yemen or our engagement strategy, we send a clear signal to the enemy. Terrorism works.

If we stop going into harm's way or increase restrictions on ourselves without a defined strategy, we send a clear signal to the enemy. Terrorism works.

A Way Forward

The outcome of this action has yet to be determined. The terrorists who conducted it have a great deal riding on our reaction. They already have committed and lost forces, spent money, and used ordnance stockpiles. They will be unable to use the same channels for logistics and infiltration. They are on the run. They are counting on being able to use this attack to reconstitute their force. The Navy must seize the initiative and prevent the enemy from gaining any extra benefit. For example:

  • Do not change our current operations.
  • Immediately resume refueling in Yemen.
  • Continue our engagement strategy and make it known that the Navy will not disgrace those who have died by bowing to threats or attacks.

We must show our enemies that there are things we are willing to lay down our lives for. Make sure the message to the world is clear: This despicable act took 17 brave people from our ranks, but it will not change us. If we do not do this, we will continue to lose tactical engagements and eventually lose operational and strategic ones as well.

Editor's Note: This article was accepted for publication in July and already was in production when the attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) occurred. We asked the author to address that terrorist attack in the sidebar above.

Commander Rancich was Expeditionary Antiterrorism Force Protection Officer for Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

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