Archive for the 'Foreign Policy' Category

Island building

Building an island out of a reef in the South China Sea

This week, international news media has highlighted the transit of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. The media has been rife with speculation that this close encounter between the U.S. Navy and China was meant to provoke the Chinese military, and that it could represent a new level of cold-war style standoffs between the two countries. With respect to this event and recent others like it in the South and East China Seas, the United States has long maintained that it notifies China and the rest of the world in advance about maritime patrols like this, and that the U.S. Navy is violating no international laws or United Nations-recognized maritime boundaries.

Whether you’ve been following the events in the South China Sea over the last few decades (and the last few years in particular), or living under a rock, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the world’s two superpowers are going to have disagreements from time to time on things like foreign policy and sovereignty issues in this region. Offshore foreign naval activity, political castigation and tit-for-tat attempts to influence public opinion were hallmarks of the cold war, and that practice has not changed much in the current climate between the United States and China, just as it hasn’t between the United States and Russia.

The “status quo” surveillance and interception activity between China and the United States is not new. More recently, in April 2001, a U.S. Navy P-3E turboprop aircraft collided with a Chinese Air Force J-8 in the South China Sea, in what was later to be known as the “Hainan Island Incident”. In March 2009, there were repeated contacts between the USNS Impeccable and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea. In 2013, China unilaterally imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, requiring all foreign civilian and military aircraft to identify themselves with Chinese authorities in advance despite not flying over the mainland or traditional Chinese airspace. The United States military promptly ignored this and intentionally flew military aircraft through the new ADIZ to demonstrate that it was not bound by unilateral airspace restrictions over international waters.

In 2014, China attended the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time, and sent an additional uninvited surveillance ship to spy on the exercise. The U.S. Navy has been flying maritime surveillance patrols over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for some time now, and even occasionally invites news media to tag along on patrols. Just last month, China sailed a naval flotilla into the Bering Sea off the U.S. state of Alaska during a visit by President Barack Obama. A few weeks later, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of a man-made Chinese island at Subi Reef in the South China Sea.

Nothing about any of these instances is particularly unusual or surprising given the long history of mutual surveillance between superpowers, which is almost always conducted in a professional and predictable manner. However, in all of these instances, the tit-for-tat relationship between Chinese and U.S. military surveillance activity has been great headline news for media outlets, and it has encouraged fear, paranoia and speculation. While some consider the recent events in the South China Sea and China’s more aggressive naval activity to be an escalating conflagration, most have questioned whether the last few years have represented anything more than the status quo that has existed between world superpowers for the last seven decades.

At the moment, the answer lies somewhere in between business as usual and escalation. While maritime surveillance and aerial observation flights by all sides are normal and to be expected, there have been some developments over the last few years that have indicated an increased focus in the Asia-Pacific region and a flirtation with escalating tension in the region. It goes without saying that tensions in the South China Sea have been building for some time now between China and its neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which claim the Spratly Islands. The United States does not claim the islands or reefs in this disputed area, but it has a shared interest in ensuring that the region remains open to free vessel transit and that it is not dominated by one regional power given that the multiple overlapping claims by neighboring countries could lead to a war.

In addition to being in the middle of international shipping routes, the South China Sea has significant natural resources, including fisheries and oil/natural gas deposits. Most of the natural islands in the region, including the Spratly Islands, are far from the southern part of mainland China and lie closer to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. However, over the last few years, China has aggressively increased its activity in the region in an apparent attempt to lay claim to these resources. The Chinese PLAN, Coast Guard and civilian fishing fleet have been involved in regular standoffs and minor skirmishes with regional neighbors. The Chinese government has begun to occupy previously uninhabited reefs in the region and has essentially terraformed them into artificial islands capable of sustaining military airstrips and bases, claiming that these man-made islands are sovereign Chinese territory with the territorial water and natural resource rights that accompany sovereign land.

Partially in response to China’s military buildup and expansion in the region, the United States has refocused more recently in the Asia-Pacific region than it has in the last two decades. An example of this is improved interoperability and increased training with regional allies, most notably the Philippines and Australia. Another example is a more aggressive policy of challenging Chinese actions with reactions, as evidenced by this week’s visit of a Chinese-occupied reef in the South China Sea by the USS Lassen. China, quick to capitalize on an opportunity to criticize the United States, has decried the American destroyer’s presence in the South China Sea as a provocation and an illegal violation of China’s territorial integrity, but the reality is that the USS Lassen was not much closer to China’s man-made island than the Chinese flotilla was to the coast of Alaska a month ago.

The recent visits by the PLAN to the Alaska coast and the USS Lassen to Subi Reef are nothing more than an ongoing part of the status quo. Despite media sensationalism, both visits were conducted in professional manners and neither represented a sincere threat or surprise. The threat of escalation lies not in periodic, predictable tit-for-tat surveillance and public relations victories. Escalation in this context is more worrisome in the aggressive territorial expansion of a regional superpower that seems to be capable of creating man-made islands out of uninhabited rocks that are thousands of kilometers off shore. In so doing, China is literally pioneering a new form of military and colonial expansion in that it is creating land out of the ocean – land that did not previously exist, and is then using this land to lay claim to the area’s natural resources and sovereignty.

If the United Nations or any major sovereign power recognizes China’s sovereignty over these man-made islands in even the slightest shape or form, escalation is a likely scenario. It is in the United States’ best interest to continue to challenge the territorial boundaries of these artificial islands precisely to avoid establishing a precedent or emboldening China or anyone else in the world to do this again.




Aviation Week. “Why Did China Participate in RIMPAC With One Ship And Spy On It With Another?” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

CNN. “U.S. warship sails close to Chinese artificial island in South China Sea.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

Reuters. “Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

The Washington Post. “See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

hunderwadel1Good people can disagree and there are different opinions about the source cause, but our record on the national level of the last few decades has been spotty at best. Tactically, we have no peer. Sure, we often force our way through our mistakes through superior firepower, but that is why it is there. On the Tactical level though, we’re pretty darn good.

On the Operational level, considering the adjustments for things done to be in line with Strategic/POLMIL D&G, we have been OK.

Feh to meh OK. I say this as a former Operational Planner, our system is clunky at best. Sure, we all quote Clausewitz, Sun Tsu, and can create Operational Designs to make your brain bleed. I will happily stay up until 4am and argue if something is a Decisive Point, Decision Point, and which side of a Phase transition it belongs to. Heck, give me enough time, I’ll even convert your “traditional” OPLAN in to an Effects Based Plan over a weekend as long as I get to pick my core planning team and you leave me alone. Most Operational planners can do that. But, to what end?

Once you get in the planning process deep enough, you realize that there is something a bit off about it. Something monastic, esoteric, and a bit too formulaic. What at one time may have been a well designed system, has through iterations and revisions gathered an eclectic mix of beggar weeds and confessions.

What was a nuance at the Strategic level gets translated in to a clunky design at the Operational level, and by the time it gets to the Tactical level, winds up being a $43 million gas station west of M-e-S in Sheberghan.

As with many problems, our challenge in all likelihood starts with the top. How we determine, define, and explain strategy. Is it a process, personnel, or political problem? Maybe all the above? From the false signals that helped set the events that set of the Korean War, to the Vietnam War, to being flat footed in surprise in the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the blind-man’s-bluff of the last decade and a half of the Long War – the record is all right there and begs the question; is it time for a fundamental reset?

I believe we need to go back and reassess everything we have structured since the end of WWII starting with the National Security Action of 1947, Goldwater-Nichols from 1986 and all their various accretions.

Forget what the retired O-5 things, there are some great minds out there that are not waiting for something to sprout out of someone’s head in DC. LtGen Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.) has some required reading over at Infinity Journal on a way forward.

It is one heck of an entering argument. Here are my pull quotes, but you need to read it in full:

The method the United States Government currently uses to develop its “grand” or national security strategy is dysfunctional, and the approach its military uses to design campaigns and major operations is seriously flawed.

Compounding the problems I have discussed to this point is an even more fundamental one: Congress’s demand that the president develop a NSS annually. A grand strategy needs to have enduring qualities. It should certainly be a strategy—barring the rise of a significant new challenge—that remains viable for years if not decades. Ideally, it should survive across administrations as NSC-68 did. I believe this is possible if our leaders—executive and congressional—based the NSS on principles derived from strategic practices such as those I have listed above and then treated the NSS as a “treaty” with ourselves. In other words, the president in consultation with Congress would create a NSS and then ask the Senate for approval through passage of a “sense of the Senate” resolution. Ratification would be undesirable because ratified treaties are of two kinds; “self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable and “non-self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable if Congress chose to implement it through legislation. No president is likely to want the NSS to be judicially enforceable. Moreover, seeking Senate ratification of a NSS would raise significant Constitutional questions.

To recap, “getting it right” relative to the nation’s grand strategy requires the US Government to:

  • Repeal legislation requiring the president to submit a NSS annually
  • Create a true grand strategy based on long-standing practices that reveal vital national interests
  • Publish a NSS that would survive through multiple administrations by seeking a “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting that NSS
  • Enact legislation that requires the president to revise or develop a new NSS if the Senate revokes its “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting the current NSS
  • Repeal legislation requiring the DOD to submit a NDS. The NDS serves no purpose that the NMS cannot meet
  • Repeal legislation requiring the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to update or develop and submit a new NMS biennially and replace it with legislation requiring each new Chairman to update or develop and submit a new NMS when the president issues or updates a NSS or other circumstances warrant a revised or new NMS

First among these is the general confusion of terms, in particular policy and strategy. Many people in key positions in the US Government and elsewhere conflate and misuse the two words. A noted military academic writes, “Today strategy is too often employed simply as a synonym for policy.”[ii] He provides startling examples reporting a speech President George W. Bush gave in 2003 mentioning a “forward strategy of freedom” and a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office White Paper describing the “UK’s strategy for policy.”[iii] Freedom of course is a condition, not a strategy, and having a strategy for policy is meaningless. A number of authorities have observed also that government and defense officials use strategy so loosely that we have forgotten its original meaning.[iv] The US national security establishment would do well to adopt the definitions provided by Colin Gray, one of today’s premier writers on strategy:

It is time for the US military to scrap all existing planning manuals and to start afresh. Few officers read these voluminous and poorly written documents except to meet academic requirements.[xxii] The new manuals must begin with recognition that there are three approaches to decision-making, not one. These are intuitive, analytical, and systemic. None is better or worse than the others are; officers must know which to use in the situation at hand. The analytical approach cannot remain the default choice.

To conclude, the US national security community must overhaul the way it currently acquires policy, which it needs to develop the nation’s grand strategy and in turn its military strategy. The 1988 NSS did this best. To translate strategy successfully into campaign plans and operational plans the national defense community must adopt a systemic approach to operational design. In doing so, the community will replace analytical checklist-like procedures with discourse. The latter method enables planers to discern what makes an unfavorable situation a problem, thereby uncovering the counter-logic needed to resolve that problem.

150511-N-VO234-286 SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 11, 2015) The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) transits close behind. (U.S. Navy photo)

SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 11, 2015) The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) transits close behind. (U.S. Navy photo)

The United States has defended the freedom of the sea for decades and has been willing to use force to ensure that freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is not restricted. There is currently an intense debate over what the US Navy should do in response to Chinese land-building in the South China Sea. While China has declared these new islands, built upon reefs and atolls that previously never broke the surface at low tide to be their territory, and have been since “ancient times,” the status of the waters within 12 nautical miles does not qualify as “territorial waters” under international law. While China has not yet officially declared the waters within 12 nautical miles to be their territorial waters, constant rhetoric coming from retired PLA officials and the occasional Communist Party mouthpieces, like the Global Times or People’s Daily, have continued to conflate waters within the so-called “nine-dash-line,” China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), territorial waters, and “blue territory,” using the terms interchangeably, and currently accuse the US of “militarizing” the South China Sea and threatening China’s sovereignty.

It is obvious that whatever the United States does, the more bellicose elements within China will never be happy until the US has removed itself from Asia. Yet, at the same time, we must recognize that this is just a vocal portion of the Party and there exists a large community that does not want to seek conflict with the United States. Yet, if the US takes action against Chinese claims alone, this will strengthen the more bellicose wing and they will use the accusation that the US is “militarizing” the South China Sea to go forward with their own militarization, making the entire area more dangerous and threatening peaceful maritime trade. This is not to say that the US should not conduct freedom of navigation exercises and submit to Chinese claims, but should do so with more tact and understanding of the politics within China and the Southeast Asian region.

The Spratly Islands within the South China Sea are claimed by six different governments, not only the Chinese government in Beijing, but also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Out of these, all but Brunei hold some territorial features in the South China Sea, with China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all claiming features that do not qualify for territorial waters under international law.[1] Within China, it was seen as a break from traditional US China-bashing when Defense Secretary Carter stated at this year’s Shangri-La dialogue “There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants [Emphasis Added][2]” because, from their perspective, the US typically only calls out China for its actions while the other countries get a pass. When the US conducts its freedom of navigation operations around the Spratly Islands in the near future, they should also sail within 12 nautical miles of the other claimants’ underwater features as well, and publish their actions accordingly. While this will still be seen negatively by the Chinese, especially the more aggressive faction, the inclusion of other countries will dilute the perspective that the US is only targeting China among the more moderate factions. In addition, by being more public about other freedom of navigation operations the US Navy conducts, such as those against other countries in the region like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam which all claim excessive territorial and inland waters, [3] the US can show that it treats China no differently than any other country which flouts international law.

By being less openly confrontational and not singling out only China, we reduce strategic risk while still enforcing international law without sacrificing ideals. The two loudest of the other claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, are unlikely to react to US freedom of navigation operations in a manner that will affect relations, the Philippines because it relies heavily on US military support, both in the South China Sea and in their south against Islamist insurgents, and Vietnam because they are working to balance China by coming closer to the US as evidenced by their support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Malaysia has typically tried to stay relatively neutral in the dispute publicly, and therefore the US should not expect a strong reaction. Thus, the US can still challenge China without risking other relationships, but still limit the accusations that come out of China.

Throughout history, war between a rising power and an established power typically happen when both sides view it as either not possible or inevitable. When both sides are aware of the risk and constantly work to reduce tension, the threat of war is reduced.
[1] Chubb, Andrew. “The South China Sea: Defining the Status Quo,” The Diplomat. 11 June, 2015. []
[2] Carter, Ash. 30 May, 2015. “The United States and Challenges of Asia-Pacific Security.” []
[3] DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports. []



September 2015


U.S. Navy: Rear Adm. Peg Klein, senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense for military professionalism, speaks with members of the Edmond Kiwanis Club. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James Vazquez/Released)

U.S. Navy: Rear Adm. Peg Klein, senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense for military professionalism, speaks with members of the Edmond Kiwanis Club. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James Vazquez/Released)

Most Americans have little understanding of what our military can do – and not do. And far too many government officials have even less of an appreciation of what it takes – in people, materiel, and funding — to accomplish the missions that are deemed important to the national interest.

So far, in the 2016 campaign, there has been virtually no discussion of how we as a nation should be engaged in the trouble spots around the world. Equally disturbing, there has been even less debate about whether we are adequately funding – and thus equipping and training our soldiers, sailors, and marines — to do the jobs they are (and might be) asked to do.

This needs to change.

The debate – and it is a debate, for people of good will and thoughtful consideration – will have different opinions about how to answer these questions. But a serious conversation needs to take place in universities, civil organizations, and around dinner tables.

Next week, one such discussion is going to take place at Brown University. On the evening of Tuesday, September 29th, there will be a panel discussion entitled: “The American Military in a Dangerous World: How Much is Enough?”

The panelists include Senator Carl Levin, the former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; former Under Secretary of State and NATO Ambassador Nick Burns; and BGEN Paula Thornhill, former special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The moderator is former Ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights Jeff Robbins.

You can watch a live feed of the discussion here:

A video of the program will be available later here:

The next day, Jeff, August Cole, and I will conduct a seminar for interested students from Brown, West Point, and several ROTC units – encouraging them to think and write about the topics discussed by the panel.

“Brown?” you ask. Yes, I chose to organize this event at one of the most liberal campuses in America. Because those are the minds that need to be educated and the opinions that need to be influenced.

The bigger question might be: why am I doing this? I have a citizen’s rudimentary knowledge, but no expertise. (That hasn’t stopped me, or many other journalists from opining on complicated subjects.) In fact, the few times I have been invited to give talks based on Op-Ed articles I have written in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, I have been heartened by how much interest there is this topic. Consequently, my answer is intended to be provocative: because you, more qualified people are not.

So my request is simple: you, the members of the U.S. Naval Institute should be giving these talks: to Rotary Clubs, and Kiwanis, at local colleges; anywhere where thoughtful people are willing to engage. The stakes – for our nation and for the young men and women we send in harm’s way – are too high to allow these questions to go unanswered. Disagreement about the answers is not the problem; silence is.

Rebuttal Book CoverOver the past nine months, a variety of companies and organizations have republished in book form the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s December 2014 report on the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program. Most of those publications tried to convey the impression that the SSCI report, produced by Senator Dianne Feinstein and her staff, was the definitive word on a very controversial part of American history. It was not.

These publications often did not even mention that the Feinstein report was produced by only one political party and that there were robust rebuttals to it produced by the then minority Senate staff and by the current CIA leadership.

Every senior CIA officer who was involved in the creation, administration or oversight of the interrogation program, as I was, are convinced that the conclusions of the Feinstein report were terribly flawed. For that reason, a number of us sought to have the historical record balanced – by the publication, in book form, of the SSCI Minority and CIA rebuttals. To provide additional context and illumination, eight of us wrote essays to also be included which give our personal perspective on the program. This personal perspective was important because, incredibly, despite working on their report for five years and spending more than $40 million in the process – the SSCI majority never spoke to a single one of us. Their excuses for failing to do so were laughable. They cited Department of Justice Investigations which ended years before their effort did as a principal reason. They claimed that basing their report entirely on a review of documents was an acceptable alternative to talking to eye witnesses and then they cherry-picked their way to conclusions that their chairwoman held before the investigation even started.

When our response, called Rebuttal, was published about ten days ago, the reaction from Senator Feinstein and her supporters was quick and predictable. They claimed there was nothing new in our publication. But Rebuttal contains the very strong responses from the SSCI Minority and CIA staff which were left out of other publications and which were only infrequently mentioned in press accounts following the initial December release. What will be new to many readers is the firsthand accounts from my seven former colleagues and me – which show the folly of Senator Feinstein’s staff working so hard to make sure our voices were never heard. In a second response published this week in the Huffington Post, Feinstein and her staff were quoted as saying “Only (former CIA Director General Michael) Hayden can say if he intentionally mislead policymakers.” No, anyone who knows Mike Hayden knows he did not – and in any case – if Feinstein had concerns –why didn’t she have the decency to ask him?

The media response to the publication of Rebuttal was similarly predictable. Some complained that in our essays we did not often mention things like waterboarding. True. That is because the issue was dealt with at length in the 300+ pages of the two following reports. Other media accounts repeated some of the canards from the Feinstein report as if they were gospel.

Let me stress that we are in no way saying that the program that we were involved with was perfect. Far from it. But we know for a fact that the enhanced interrogation program was legal, authorized, and accurately briefed to the highest levels of the U.S. government and senior officials on our Congressional oversight committees. We knew at the time the program was being developed and implemented that the details of the program would one day leak and would be controversial. But we never believed for a second that anyone would challenge the effectiveness of the program. Monitoring the intelligence windfall that came from the program day after day in the years immediately after 9/11 as I did – I can say with absolute assurance that the program was effective and saved lives. Those who believe that the absence of a major al Qa’ida inspired attack on our homeland over the past 14 years is just luck are fooling themselves and trying to fool the American public.

We are grateful to the Naval Institute Press who, unlike Senator Feinstein’s SSCI, gave us a forum from which we could tell our experiences and make accessible versions of the two other reports which undermine the credibility of the one that Feinstein’s staffers peddle as “the report.”

We entered into this effort solely to make sure that both sides of the story get told. Any profits produced by the publication of “Rebuttal” are being donated to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation – which looks after the children and spouses of Agency officers who die in the line of duty.

scs_mapThe scale and pace of China’s construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea over the past year has been remarkable. In the Paracel Islands, the work of Chinese dredgers has doubled the area of land on Duncan Island, and China has completely rebuilt and extended the runway on Woody Island. In the Spratly Islands, China has built up nearly 3,000 acres of land on seven reefs and has constructed a new 3,300m runway, multi-storey buildings, ship docks, radar towers, and a harbor that can accommodate the Chinese Navy’s largest combat ships. Other claimants to the Spratlys have built on their respective occupied features before, but as a new Department of Defense report indicates, China has created 17 times more land in the past 20 months than that of all the other claimants combined over the past 40 years. Why is China so eager to develop these maritime features now, when the disputes around them have existed for decades? And why is it so deeply concerning to the United States?

I suggest that the construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea is one way China is challenging the existing U.S.-led regional order and attempting to shape the rules and norms in its favor. As it is, China’s claims are not recognized by international law, and the legal freedom of the U.S. military to operate in what China considers to be its backyard is constraining China’s power ambitions in the region. With the growing power of the People’s Liberation Army and the maritime law enforcement agencies, China finally feels confident enough to challenge these circumstances. China’s artificial island-building campaign is intended to force acceptance of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and provide logistical support for its increasing maritime operations in the region. These efforts safeguard what China calls its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and are critical to the continued domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party, so they cannot and will not be easily abandoned.

China’s Alternative Vision for the Region

This tension can be seen within the broader context of a conflict of interests between a rising power and the dominant power. Indeed, China has a vision for the region to look differently from the current order the U.S. has been upholding since the end of the Second World War. And as China’s capabilities improve, so do its ambitions to shape that order to its liking. The U.S.-led maritime order is based on ensuring both commercial and military freedom of navigation, freedom on which U.S. interests depend. Freedom of navigation is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has acceded to but has not ratified, due in part to concerns over the seabed mining regulations.

China has ratified the convention but is unhappy with several aspects of UNCLOS, like its denial of maritime claims based on historic rights without a formal historic title by Treaty or Act. China is also unhappy that UNCLOS allows any country to carry out military activities within the 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another country. China ‘interprets’ UNCLOS to apply only to commercial activity, so it attempts to inhibit foreign military activity within its EEZ, activity that may be irritating and even threatening, but is legal by current international law. The regional order China seeks to shape instead would restore China to its former position of regional primacy, whereby its relative size and power allow it to dictate the rules of the region without restrictions on or interference with its ambitions. Getting the other regional actors to accept China’s claims, whether by legal or coercive means, is part of China’s attempt to impose this alternative order.

Seeing the Vision Through

The legitimacy of the Communist Party depends in part on its ability to ensure the territorial integrity of what China believes to be its sovereign land and waters, including its claims in the South China Sea. Sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation are part of China’s stated “core interests”, matters of the absolute utmost importance to the Chinese leadership. Failing to secure China’s core interests would be political suicide for the Party, as the Party has linked its right to rule with its ability to protect for the people these interests. Furthermore, the nationalism created by the Chinese leadership’s emphasis of national rejuvenation and the so-called China Dream fuels an expectation that the Party will be a strong representative of a China on the rise and not compromise China’s core interests.

Demonstrating Administrative Control

China is rapidly enhancing features (not technically performing land reclamation, as China claims and the media parrots) because it bolsters the claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands that China is trying to get others to accept. China does not officially acknowledge that its claims need supporting evidence to back them up; it declares that the entirety of the Spratlys is its own sovereign territory. However, Chinese actions suggest that the leadership recognizes, at least privately, that a more substantial presence on the reefs could help it secure recognition of the legitimacy of its claims by other parties. The Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in the Eastern Greenland case in 1933 that a claim to sovereignty based on continued display of authority rather than by Treaty or Act requires “the intention and will to act as sovereign and some actual exercise or display of such authority”. Demonstrating administrative control in 2015 will not provide evidence of the same during the Xia Dynasty, by which China makes its historic claims in the Spratlys. However, it can strengthen China’s position in a political resolution of the disputes, which may be the only option because historic claims are rendered illegitimate by UNCLOS and international law can only resolve competing claims based on the law.

Hopes for Territorial Sea and EEZ Claims

China also hopes its enhancement of the features will improve its case in claiming the corresponding maritime zones – territorial sea, contiguous zone, and even exclusive economic zone. These zones would allow China to enhance its sea control and access to resources in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for China, this could only happen extra-legally because UNCLOS considers eligibility for maritime zones based on the naturally-formed state of the features. By these classifications, most of the features are ineligible for any maritime zones at all, much less a full 200nm EEZ. And turning them into artificial islands does not grant them further maritime entitlements.

Most Chinese-occupied features are considered “low-tide elevations” by UNCLOS because, before they were artificially enhanced, they were submerged at high tide. “Low-tide elevations” are not entitled to any maritime zones when they are outside an existing territorial sea (especially not when they are nearly 600 miles from China’s territorial seas, as the Spratly features are).

Three of the Chinese-occupied Spratly features are considered “rocks” because they are permanently above water but unable to sustain human or economic life on their own. “Rocks” are entitled to a 12nm territorial sea and contiguous zone, but not an exclusive economic zone. China’s construction on these features to allow them to accommodate inhabitants does not change the rocks’ inability to sustain life naturally.

China feels deeply constrained by UNCLOS, in part because UNCLOS cannot be interpreted to entitle China to the maritime zones it desires. Its assertiveness in the South China can be seen as the use of power politics to achieve its goals where international law is unfavorable to China’s vision for its future.

Support for Increased Civilian and Paramilitary Operations

China needs logistical support for its fishing fleets, oil and gas exploration vessels, and maritime law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea. The increasing scope and frequency of maritime law enforcement patrols in disputed waters requires refueling stations and safe harbors farther south than the naval base on Hainan Island can provide. Not only do these patrols assert China’s rights over its claimed territory, but they are also part of a broader initiative to expand the scope of China’s maritime operations to increase China’s sea power. The 2015 Defense White Paper on Military Strategy, the first of its kind, directs the People’s Liberation Army to safeguard China’s expanding overseas interests and to defend its maritime territorial claims. China’s military and paramilitary forces are being used as an effective tool in coercing China’s neighbors to acquiesce to its ambitions for greater sea control.

China’s Challenge to the Existing Order

There is a struggle for power and influence playing out in the South China Sea. The United States continues to enforce the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and seeks to maintain the regional maritime order on which its interests rely. China is working to reshape that regional order by consolidating its territorial interests and expanding its power projection capabilities. China’s construction of artificial islands is an attempt to consolidate its claims to the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, as well as an indication of its intention to use the reefs to support future military and paramilitary activity in the South China Sea. The sheer pace of the efforts and the increasing power projection capabilities to defend such efforts makes this past year’s events of particular concern for the United States. China is challenging the prevailing regional order whereby the equality of international law trumps exploitation of relative power, and the result is acute tensions between the rising and the existing regional power.

 Please join us on Sunday, 13 September 2015 at 5pm (EDT) for Midrats Episode 297: The Outlaw Ocean with Ian Urbina

Stowaways, poaching, piracy, smuggling, and murder – the global commons of the open ocean is as wild of a place as it is vast.

Using as a baseline his series on lawlessness on the high seas in the New York Times, The Outlaw Ocean, our guest for the full hour to discuss the anarchy of crime and violence on the high seas in the 21st Century will be Ian Ubina.

Ian is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. He has degrees in history from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and his writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Harper’s, and elsewhere.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up for later listening by clicking here or (also for later listening) by visiting our iTunes page

The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.

– from a post-war debriefing of a German General

150910-OX801-170Operation Avalanche—the code name alone gives an idea of the chaos surrounding the Allied invasion of Salerno and mainland Italy in September 1943. Earlier this summer my two commands at Strike Force NATO and the U.S. 6th Fleet experienced a small fraction of the fog of an actual conflict during BALTOPS 2015 which included a full-blown amphibious landings on the beaches of Sweden and Poland. Although we had an opposing “red force” operating against us in Poland, this was an exercise—no live rounds, no injuries, and a host of lessons learned for next year. An exercise can only take you so far; sometimes you need to walk the sand and taste the salty air of a battlefield’s beachhead to get a sense of the tactical decisions that affected a conflict’s outcome.

In an increasingly chaotic world, time is well spent to break from current ops and to gain insight into the way armies and navies confronted uncertainty in the past. The 72nd anniversary of the landings at Salerno, led by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, offered 6th Fleet just such an opportunity.

150910-OX801-265Borrowing from the Army tradition of a Staff Ride, I accompanied 50 members of my staff on a tour of the Salerno battlefields. After hours of self-study and a classroom academic session, we walked the terrain and discussed the different phases of the battle to gain a glimpse of what the average Soldier or Sailor would have experienced 72 years ago. The mental exercise of putting ourselves inside the Commander’s decision cycle and thinking through the choices made, and potential alternate outcomes, was value added in honing our skillset in amphibious warfare.

Knowing what happened historically, it is sometimes easy to forget that military outcomes could have turned out much differently. In 1943, there was no guarantee that Operation Avalanche would succeed.

The political environment in 1943 contributed to the operational and tactical confusion of Operation Avalanche. In late July 1943, the Leader of the National Fascist Party and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was deposed. Marshall Pietro Badoglio was appointed Prime Minister of Italy. Throughout August 1943, new Italian leaders met covertly with the Allies to discuss an armistice, which they signed in secret on Sept. 3, 1943.

It was not until 6 p.m. Sept. 8, just nine hours prior to the start of Operation Avalanche, that both Italian Prime Minister Badoglio and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the armistice by radio. The German troops in Italy were surprised but acted quickly to disarm and neutralize the Italian forces. Thinking that the Italian surrender meant little or no resistance, and wanting to limit collateral damage, Lt. Gen. Clark made the decision not to prepare the battlespace with naval fires. This decision cost him dearly. The Germans were entrenched, well-armed, and waiting. Allied forces entered this cauldron when they waded ashore along the 23 miles of Salerno Bay.

The Salerno coastline is dramatic and vibrant. Although it makes for a beautiful postcard, this scene presented a formidable challenge to a Soldier or Sailor conducting an amphibious assault. In 1943, the Germans had the high ground, and could fire at will on the Allies below–long before they reached the beach while the Allies were spread across a large area fighting their way uphill. Luftwaffe forward operating bases were just 20 minutes away, providing near continuous air cover for bombardment and strafing of Allied forces.

At one point the Allied forces considered withdrawal, but like a dramatic movie plot, reinforcements arrived just in time. But this was not a movie; this was war at its most brutal. Salerno was the battleground and the last scene was still unwritten.

In the campaign maps of textbooks the blue and red lines always look matter-of-fact and determined. Standing in the sand of what was then Blue Beach and peering into the pillbox that was bristling with German firepower gives one a better sense of just what the Allies encountered. Here a group of “knee-deep Sailors” (so named because their amphibious boats got stuck on a sandbar, forcing them to wade ashore in withering fire) were stranded when armor and artillery could not make it on shore. The men fixed bayonets, awaiting the German infantry attack which was sure to come. Thankfully, it did not, because the German’s were blocked by their minefields. With the German tanks less than a football field from the surf, the Soldiers and Sailors were able to warn their comrades before more landing craft were lost.

Then, radio silence. Hours passed and the destroyers in the bay, assuming Blue Beach had been lost, concentrated their fire. In actuality, the waterlogged radio had died and the Sailors were caught between the German Panzers and friendly fire. In desperation Signalman Bingaman courageously stood up and used semaphore with white handkerchiefs to alert our ships. With their aim corrected, the naval gunners held off the tanks and protected the beachhead. Bingaman was awarded the Silver Star.

The human cost was high for both sides at Salerno: 5,500 British, 3,500 American, and 3,500 German soldiers died. The setbacks at Salerno resulted in a Normandy invasion that looked quite different—Gen. Eisenhower determined not to allow the same mistakes in Operation Overlord.

As soon as the Allies had secured the area, the town of Salerno became one of the most strategically important cities is Italy. Within a month, 190,000 troops, 30,000 vehicles and 120,000 tons of supplies we brought ashore at Salerno. With the benefit of hindsight, we see how important the beaches of Salerno were to the liberation of Italy. The allies secured Salerno, then Naples, then Rome, and the rest is history.

The staff ride was not the only way the command commemorated the anniversary of Salerno’s liberation. The U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band band showed our appreciation to the Italian host nation with a concert featuring the music of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Glen Miller of the “Big Band Era.” The Italians picked the venue–Teatro Augusteo–home of the first headquarters to Lt. Gen. Clark’s Army and the seat of the first Italian government post WWII. The crowd sang along as the entire ensemble and a duet of trumpets–one Italian and one American—played “O Sole Mio.” As the Sailors stepped off the stage and mingled with the crowd after the performance, the scene reminded me of black and white photos of the citizens of Salerno greeting their Allied liberators in 1943.

The devastation of World War II has been erased by the passing decades. Today Salerno’s tree lined promenade and glorious waterfront are as beautiful as ever. Where the dark hulls of ships and landing craft once blocked the view of the water is today a pristine bay. The bucolic fields around the temples of Paestum, where GIs marched in the shadow of Greece, are quiet again. But the people of Salerno have not forgotten the lessons of September 1943, and it behooves us to heed their example.


Now 72 years later, the U.S. 6th Fleet maintains its headquarters less than an hour from Salerno in Naples, Italy. We now face many different threats that impact our national security and that of our Allies, including a resurgent Russia, illegal trafficking, terrorism on multiple fronts, lawlessness, and ungoverned spaces in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, which have contributed to a refugee crisis of epic proportions.


We train rigorously to address each of these contingencies. Using the lessons from the great battles of the past, we will boldly face our future challenges.




September 2015



Odessa, Ukraine, is known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea.” As the Commander of the US Sixth Fleet, I was in this beautiful city for the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2015, a two week, multi-national maritime exercise co-hosted by the US and Ukraine. The choice of locations reiterated the purpose of the exercise, to promote security and stability within a region where these goals are under threat. The commitment of likeminded nations to these common goals becomes increasingly important in time of crisis.

The size of the exercise speaks for itself: eleven nations (Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Romania, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States), 1300 personnel, and 18 ships. The Sixth Fleet contribution includes divers, Marines, staff support, a P-3 Orion aircraft, and the USS DONALD COOK (DDG 75), one of our Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) based in Rota, Spain. Equally important to the size is the complexity of the events. Participants will undertake rigorous training both ashore and at sea.

The at-sea phase focuses on maritime interdiction operations as a primary means to enhance maritime security. Other warfare areas to be tested include air defense, damage control, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare and tactical maneuvers to enhance interoperability. The increased complexity of Sea Breeze 2015 is another indicator of how important maritime security is to the Black Sea region.

Prime Minister Yatsenuik meets Ensign Audrey Petro, Communicator, onboard USS Donald CookJoining the opening ceremony were the Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuik, who still made the time to travel to Odessa despite the tragic events in Kyiv the night before; U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt; Ukrainian Minister of Defense General-Colonel Stepan Poltorak; and Commander of the Ukrainian Naval Forces Vice Admiral Serhiy Haiduk.


Together we toured the Ukrainian flag ship, HETMAN SAHAYDACHNIY (U130) and the guided missile destroyer USS DONALD COOK (DDG 75). Throughout my career, every ship I have embarked has its own personality shaped by its history and its crew. These two ships were no different. Each embodied the strong characters of their respective namesakes and of the sailors aboard.

DONALD COOK was named after a Marine Captain who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his unwavering resolve to protect his fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam. Throughout his time as a POW, Cook’s motto, “FAITH WITHOUT FEAR,” helped him maintain his personal integrity in the most difficult of conditions.

DCK Motto Faith Without Fear...The ship’s motto, “FAITH WITHOUT FEAR,” came to mind frequently during my visit to Ukraine as I thought about the challenges confronting the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukraine’s Minster of Defense General-Colonel Poltorak said it best when he summarized what Ukrainian armed forces face today, “protecting Ukrainian boarders, fighting in the East, reforming, and training… all at the same time.”

The Ukrainian flagship’s namesake was a military leader of the 1600s who united Ukraine’s Cossacks into a regular army. Hetman Sahaydachniy’s vision is alive today as his nation hosts the participants of Sea Breeze 2015 as they work to ensure security and stability in the Black Sea.

Ukraine is a maritime nation with agricultural roots. Looking out the aircraft on the way in, the patchwork quilt of green, amber, and tan farmland reminded me of the U.S. Midwest. The yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag symbolize wheat fields waving under clear blue skies and a potential that is just as expansive. With 40% of the country’s exports flowing through the port of Odessa, the importance of Ukraine’s Navy to the nation is clear.

Regional security and stability provides the environment necessary for economic prosperity. When there are common goals it makes sense for nations to work together to achieve them. Routine exercises like Sea Breeze are valuable for this very reason. The experience of operating together as one team enables us to be more interoperable with allies and partners in peace and times of crisis.

The Sea Breeze opening ceremony coincided with the first day of school in Ukraine for all schools including the Ukrainian military academy. Of the 404 cadets who walked thought the academy’s portals on 1 September, over 25% arrived with frontline, combat experience. This bodes well for the enhancement of a professional officer corps. Like the men and women of USS DONALD COOK, these cadets embark the honorable profession of arms with faith, but not fear in the defense of their homeland.

Prime Minsiter Yatsenuik and VADM Jamie Foggo discussing SEA BREEZE 2015Ukrainian people have endured much hardship throughout the events of the last year. There is a lesson in the determination of the sailors whom I met and in the story of cadets returning from the front lines to study, go back, and lead others. “FAITH WITHOUT FEAR” is a mantra that is not only appropriate for USS DONALD COOK and our partners in Ukraine, but also for all members of the global network of navies as we work together to maintain peace and stability with people who share the same values, the same visions, and the same goals.

hqdefaultThere is a lot more going on in the arctic than a visit by President Obama over the course of the last week. No reason to comment on some of the photo ops, but let’s look at the one item of substance he brought forward in to the discussion;

President Obama on Tuesday proposed speeding the acquisition and building of new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year round in the nation’s polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.

Exactly spot on. Most here should be aware of the embarassing state of the neglect of our ice hardened forces in the north.

Five weeks ago, Ronald O’Rourke’s Congressional Research Service report, Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress, laid the facts out on the table;

The Coast Guard’s two existing heavy polar icebreakers—Polar Star and Polar Sea—
have exceeded their originally intended 30-year service lives. Polar Star was placed in caretaker
status on July 1, 2006. Congress in FY2009 and FY2010 provided funding to repair it and return
it to service for an additional 7 to 10 years of service; the repair work was completed and the ship
was reactivated on December 14, 2012. On June 25, 2010, the Coast Guard announced that Polar
Sea had suffered an unexpected engine casualty; the ship was unavailable for operation after that.

The Coast Guard placed Polar Sea in commissioned, inactive status on October 14, 2011.
The Coast Guard’s third polar icebreaker—Healy—entered service in 2000. Compared to Polar
Star and Polar Sea, Healy has less icebreaking capability (it is considered a medium polar
icebreaker), but more capability for supporting scientific research. The ship is used primarily for
supporting scientific research in the Arctic.

With the reactivation of Polar Star in 2012, the operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet consists
of one heavy polar icebreaker (Polar Star) and one medium polar icebreaker (Healy).

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say this is a disgrace for the world’s premier maritime power with significant economic and national security interests in the polar regions.

Other nations are not playing games;

The region, home to some of the world’s largest undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves, is becoming a new frontier for a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.

On 24 August, Russia kicked off a series of large-scale military exercises in the Arctic. A week earlier, Moscow informed the United Nations that it had laid claim to a staggering 1.2 million square kilometres of the Arctic shelf.

Russia also plans to reopen military bases it abandoned after the Soviet Union collapsed. Although the Kremlin insists its military moves are purely defensive, they come at a time of heightened tensions with the West over Ukraine that saw Russia increase its air patrols probing Nato’s borders, including in the Arctic.

… if Russia wishes to continue to be a leading oil and gas producer in the future, it must explore new oil and gas finds.

Russia’s traditional Siberian fields are aging and its liquefied natural gas plans are taking a hit, with more and more supplies appearing from competitors. And now that China’s energy appetite has stalled, the prospects of the oil price picking up soon are negligible.

If it is to survive, Russia needs other resources. These are found in the Arctic. For example, in September 2014, Exxon Mobil and Rosneft announced a major oil find in the Kara Sea, but cooperation had to be suspended due to the souring political climate.

In other words, Putin’s sabre-rattling over the Arctic is not just about diverting attention away from a troubled economy at home; it is equally about securing the country’s – and the government’s – long-term future.

That report from yesterday tops off the Russian moves for years.

Other nations are stretching their reach as well. Via WSJ:

Five Chinese navy ships are currently operating in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, the first time the U.S. military has seen such activity in the area, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The officials said they have been aware in recent days that three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious ship were in the vicinity after observing them moving toward the Aleutian Islands, which are split between U.S. and Russian control.

They said the Chinese ships were still in the area, but declined to specify when the vessels were first spotted or how far they were from the coast of Alaska.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said.

“It’s different.”

Well Shipmate, that is a pretty safe statement.

We, as in the West, are at a distinct advantage here; NATO nations have the balance of the interest in the arctic; Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Canada and the United States. We also face off against our usual sparring partner, Russia. Other nations who are poking around, like China, we should just monitor and report – but don’t get distracted.

Two challenges here are: 1) Keep NATO united in how we work together in the arctic (Canada and Denmark, call your offices). 2) Do not give Russia an inch on additional claims. #2 requires #1, so make that the first step.

Some steps we could take would be to have a greater variety of options – and perhaps a few with teeth – for our Coast Guard to have in their tool kit. I especially like the Danish Knud Rasmussen class Ice-Resistant OPV (Offshore Patrol Vessel);

Knud Rasmussen class Inspection Ship
Displacement: 1,720 tonnes
Dimensions: length 61m, beam 14.6m, draught 4.95m
Complement: 18 crew (but can accommodate up to 43 )
2 x 2,720 kW (3650 hp) at 800 rpm, B&W Alpha 8L27/28 diesel engines, 1 propeller
Range: 3,000 nautical miles (3,452 mi / 5,555 km)
Performance: top speed 17 – 18 knots (31.5 – 33.2 km/h)

* Standard fit (which is lighter than that of the Agdlek class). As noted, containerized armament can include a 76 mm gun (M/85 LvSa), ESSM, and EuroTorp MU90 (M/04 antiubaadstorpedo).

Did you catch that? Using the STANFLEX concept, it is scalable quickly to a limited but effective ASUW, AAW, and ASW capable ship.

We could always dream … but for now, let’s watch for follow-through on President Obama’s call;

“The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search-and-rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability,” the statement said.


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