Archive for the 'Hard Power' Category

Please join us at 5pm (EST) on 24 Jan 16 for Midrats Episode 316: “Getting Female Combat Integration Right With LtCol Kate Germano”

How do we get combat integration of women right? The quest has moved well away from “if” and in to “how.”

With an apparent broad disconnect between biological realities, cultural norms, and political desires, what is the right way for military leaders to carry out their orders while ensuring that combat effectiveness is maintained.

Our guest to discuss this and related issues for the full hour will be Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, USMC.

Commissioned in August 1996, LtCol Germano has served for over 19 years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. A combat veteran, she additionally participated in numerous operational and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief deployments. Ashore, her duties including a year as the Marine Aide to the Secretary of the Navy.

She was selected for command twice, most recently as the commanding officer of the Marine Corps’ only all-female unit, the 4th Recruit Training Battalion. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Goucher College, where she majored in History with a pre-law emphasis. In 2011, she graduated with distinction from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, earning her Masters of Military Science degree. She is actively engaged in the struggle to end gender bias in the military, and is a vocal proponent for equal rights and the elimination of double standards and lowered expectations for female conduct and performance.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. You can also pick up the later from our iTunes page here.



Please join us at 5pm (EST) on 17 Jan 2016 for Midrats Episode 315: “Where Next for our Ground Forces?” with Paul Scharre:

With a decade and a half of ongoing ground combat under our belt, what are the hard-won lessons we need to keep, and what should be left behind? Looking forward, what are the challenges our ground forces need to make sure they are prepared to meet?

From growing conventional strength from nations who desire to challenge our nation’s global position, to the unending requirements for Counter Insurgency excellence, what is the balance?

Our guest to discuss this and more will be Paul Scharre, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Army Ranger with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can download a copy of his CNAS report, “Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare,” from the CNAS site here.

Join us live if you can, or pick the show up later, by clicking here. Or you will find the show later at our iTunes pages here



 MC3 B. Siens

UPDATED: Correct time for the show is 5pm EST.

Please join us at 5:00pm on 3 Jan 2016 for Midrats Episode 313: Fleet Architecture and Strategic Efficiency with Barney Rubel discussing

How do you balance cost, risk, peacetime habits and wartime requirements in designing and using the world’s largest Navy?

MC2 Aidan P. Campbell

How do we maximize the most the utility of our platforms now, and create a future fleet best suited for what is coming up?

“Sea Control Ship” (1972 design)

Our guest for the full hour to discuss will be Barney Rubel, CAPT, USN (Ret.).

Robert C. “Barney” Rubel is a retired naval officer. From 2006 to 2014, he was Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College. Prior to assuming this position, he was Chairman of the Wargaming Department. A thirty-year Navy veteran, he received his commission through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Illinois. He subsequently became a light attack naval aviator, flying the A-7 Corsair II and later the F/A-18 Hornet. He commanded Strike Fighter Squadron 131 and also served as the Inspector General at U.S. Southern Command.

Listen live or pick the show up later by clicking here or by visiting our iTunes page here.



2000px-Emblem_of_the_Военно-Морской_Флот_Российской_Федерации.svgWhat should be on every navalist’s “Top-5” list for 2015 should be the re-awakening of the Russian Navy to the international stage.

It has been building for awhile, but it took Syria to have it break above the ambient noise for many.

Some of the best writing has been of the curious and interested variety with a raised eyebrow or two, but unfortunately, some in the general press has been a bit alarmist. Though I don’t blame him for the title, David Axe’s article at the DailyBeast, U.S. Fears Grow of a ‘Newly Awakened’ Russian Navy, is a more benign example of the type;

A new report from the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch paints a sobering picture of Putin’s increasingly aggressive fleet—and its deadly international shows of force.

For the first time in 24 years, the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch has published an unclassified report warning against a rapidly rearming and increasingly aggressive Russian fleet.

And while the report—which the Navy intends for public consumption—has been years in the making, recent events have underscored just how serious its findings are. It’s becoming clearer by the day that, with the strong backing of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian navy is making a serious effort to challenge the world’s preeminent maritime power—the United States.

David makes some good use of folks from the USNI cadre, Norman Polmar and David Wertheim, and the tone of the article is mostly calm – but the choice of the headline is important.

Though much of us in the national security chattering class have always kept an eye on Russia, a large segment has not. They have been focused on the Long War and not much else besides a glance across the Pacific. For them, a returning Russia to the international stage in force has upset their table and is messing with their preconceived notions of what this century should be about.

No reason, at least from the maritime side of the house, to “fear.” Be curious, be watchful, but really nothing to fear. One thing we should do is to continue to watch, write, and discuss where Russia is going. By doing so, the conversation will keep people informed.

Mostly, people only fear the unknown. That is where we come in – let’s study and write about Russia more. Some of us miss her anyway, and who knows – maybe she can give us some ideas we can use to improve our own navy.



3344532-9319612342-DavidThe USA can’t do it all in WESTPAC, and we shouldn’t do it all. When it comes to regional security, the USA does have comparative advantage compared to some of our friends and allies, specifically economic power, and technology.

They have comparative advantages in geographic location and manpower. If we can combine our advantages in to the right package, there is more then enough there to give China pause in her expansionist ambitions.

Over at The National Interest, Jerry Hendrix is thinking about this and thinking right;

There is a Goliath menacing the western Pacific. China’s construction of three huge artificial islands with obvious military capacity in the South China Sea has already destabilized the security equilibrium in the region. Given the rising tensions and outright challenges to the established international security order in the western Pacific, it is time for the United States to align its Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program with its Pivot to Asia initiative, in order to strengthen the region’s Davids.

Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Singapore have been increasingly united in their resistance towards Chinese aggression, but their unity, though powerful symbolically and legally compelling, can go only so far in the face of China’s rapidly expanding military capacity and capabilities. They will need new platforms adept at complicating China’s territorial designs and integrating with allies, partners and neighbors.

Exactly.

Jerry covers the math well further in the article, but when reading it, I kept coming back to the title, If China’s Goliath Threatens Asia, Then Arm David.

That got me thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk, The Unheard Story of David and Goliath. As with many things in the Bible, it isn’t quite what you think it is at first glance;

So David, in that story, is supposed to be the underdog, right? In fact, that term, David and Goliath, has entered our language as a metaphor for improbable victories by some weak party over someone far stronger. Now why do we call David an underdog? Well, we call him an underdog because he’s a kid, a little kid, and Goliath is this big, strong giant. We also call him an underdog because Goliath is an experienced warrior, and David is just a shepherd. But most importantly, we call him an underdog because all he has is — it’s that Goliath is outfitted with all of this modern weaponry, this glittering coat of armor and a sword and a javelin and a spear, and all David has is this sling.

Well, let’s start there with the phrase “All David has is this sling,” because that’s the first mistake that we make. In ancient warfare, there are three kinds of warriors. There’s cavalry, men on horseback and with chariots. There’s heavy infantry, which are foot soldiers, armed foot soldiers with swords and shields and some kind of armor. And there’s artillery, and artillery are archers, but, more importantly, slingers. And a slinger is someone who has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and they put a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball, inside the pouch, and they whirl it around like this and they let one of the cords go, and the effect is to send the projectile forward towards its target. That’s what David has, and it’s important to understand that that sling is not a slingshot. It’s not this, right? It’s not a child’s toy. It’s in fact an incredibly devastating weapon. When David rolls it around like this, he’s turning the sling around probably at six or seven revolutions per second, and that means that when the rock is released, it’s going forward really fast, probably 35 meters per second. That’s substantially faster than a baseball thrown by even the finest of baseball pitchers. More than that, the stones in the Valley of Elah were not normal rocks. They were barium sulphate, which are rocks twice the density of normal stones. If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David’s sling, it’s roughly equal to the stopping power of a [.45 caliber] handgun. This is an incredibly devastating weapon. Accuracy, we know from historical records that slingers — experienced slingers could hit and maim or even kill a target at distances of up to 200 yards. From medieval tapestries, we know that slingers were capable of hitting birds in flight. They were incredibly accurate. When David lines up — and he’s not 200 yards away from Goliath, he’s quite close to Goliath — when he lines up and fires that thing at Goliath, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes. If you go back over the history of ancient warfare, you will find time and time again that slingers were the decisive factor against infantry in one kind of battle or another.

So what’s Goliath? He’s heavy infantry, and his expectation when he challenges the Israelites to a duel is that he’s going to be fighting another heavy infantryman. When he says, “Come to me that I might feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the key phrase is “Come to me.” Come up to me because we’re going to fight, hand to hand, like this. Saul has the same expectation. David says, “I want to fight Goliath,” and Saul tries to give him his armor, because Saul is thinking, “Oh, when you say ‘fight Goliath,’ you mean ‘fight him in hand-to-hand combat,’ infantry on infantry.”

But David has absolutely no expectation. He’s not going to fight him that way.

So the Israelites up on the mountain ridge looking down on him thought he was this extraordinarily powerful foe. What they didn’t understand was that the very thing that was the source of his apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness.

And there is, I think, in that, a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem. And sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.

Let’s stick with this angle on David vs. Goliath.

If we want to help our Davids, how do we do that? By using each partner’s comparative advantage, and acknowledging critical vulnerabilities as well – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We should make sure we keep our Davids light, mobile, efficient and deadly. If we do that, who knows, perhaps we too can stand in the distance and watch them fight and win for themselves.



Please join us on Sunday, 6 Dec 2015 at 5pm EST (US) for Midrats Episode 309: Law and the Long War:

When a nation of laws goes to war, their laws go with them.

In a decade and a half of fighting terrorism, the laws that define our actions overseas and at home have morphed as the threat and strategy for dealing with it has.

From fighting ISIS, operating with and in failed states, dealing with the expanding “refugee crisis,” to keeping the balance between security and safety – what has the legal shop been up to?

Our guest for the full hour is returning guest Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., Major General, USAF (Ret.), Professor of the Practice of Law, and Executive Director, Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

General Dunlap’s teaching and scholarly writing focus on national security, international law, civil-military relations, cyberwar, airpower, counter-insurgency, military justice, and ethical issues related to the practice of national security law.

Join us live if you can (or pick the show up later) by clicking here.

You can also find the show later by visiting our iTunes page here.



FRAMEWORKS_17OK, with the core topic of this post, “Russians” may be a bit of clickbait, but they actually are a large underlying flavor to this stew history is cooking up.

This is the stew of the realists and their allies the antitransformationalists – something we should have a hearty appetite for after a few decades of the toasted rice-cakes fed to us by the Cult of Transformation.

The last year has seen a welcome shift in the center of gravity for navalists in the national security arena in a direction that will help our navy rebalance towards the end of the Terrible 20s that will be defined by budget stress and an excess number of sub-optimal platforms warping our perception of per-unit power projection. It took a few decades for us to get here, so let’s look at how we got here.

Dizzy in the head following our victory in the Cold War, a large cadre of people came in to positions of influence that really thought that not only was the world new, that war itself was new. They thought they had found a new world via an ahistorical, blinkered perspective of technological progression limited to their professional lifetime. Not unlike the nuclear weapons fetishdom of Eisenhower’s “New Look” – they thought they had a gift of being at the right time in a technological leap where their brilliance will be able to facilitate a transformation that decades and centuries of prior leaders could not make happen.

Aggressively following the post-Goldwater-Nichols diktat of Jointness, they picked up the McNamara Era mindset that, like GM made Pontiac, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile versions of the same car by changing the grill and a few other items – all the services should be able to make do with the same kit.

Using carefully crafted green eyeshade practices that would make Quartermaster Bloomfield proud, they were convinced that the warfighter needed to make compromises to make the metrics fit in DC, regardless of the actual combat utility of the item in question. A penny-silly and pound-foolish track record only brought in more “oversight” and regulations – further compounding a system with each passing year decoupled from operational experience.

Few breaks were in place to counter an almost pentecostal fervor toward what was becoming a personality based procurement process. Any opposing ideas, cautioning, or points-of-order were seen as naïve at best, disloyal at worst. As dissent was silenced and blind endorsement rewarded, humility – and a refined evolution of systems gave way to an ego driven revolutionary movement.

Initial warning signs were seen as early as the Bush-41 administration, but the transformationalist party culminated at the opening of this decade when the grim truth of what we bought with this new movement began to displace water and make shadows on the ramp (if they made it that far).

What did we get? I’ll leave the other services alone, but what we got was A-12, ACS, titanium fire mains, warships without the ability to engage other warships, an entire class of sub-optimal hulls we still do not know what to do with, a Joint Strike Fighter that no one is happy with, technology demonstrators made of balsa wood, EFV, and flight decks full of light fighters circling CVN in some strange mobi-strip VFA-centipede refueling each other.

Yes, that does need to be reviewed almost monthly if for no other reason than as a warning to future generations.

So, what have Neptune’s copybook headings brought us that should give us cheer? Let’s go to the title of the post.

Range: Jerry Hendrix’s paper from CNAS last month, Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation continues to get traction. The first phase of this argument started when Jerry and I were barely LTs with the coming death of the A-6 and towards the end of that decade, the light attack mafia’s destruction of the VF bloodline. That argument was lost. The results are clear.

The end of the Cold War – followed by the decision to cancel the replacement aircraft for the A-6 Intruder, the A-12 Avenger II – began a precipitous retreat from range and the deep strike mission that had long characterized the carrier air wing. The rapid successive retirements of the A-6 Intruder, F-14 Tomcat, and S-3 Viking that followed, and the decision to replace these aircraft with variants of the F/A-18 Hornet – originally designed as a replacement for the short-ranged fighters and light attack aircraft – shrank the average range of the carrier air wing from over 800 nm in 1996 to less than 500 nm by 2006. This occurred just when competitor nations, led by China, began to field A2/AD systems with ranges of 1,000 nm or more.

Just in time for the design of the replacement for the F/A-18 that will patch over not just the range issue, but the shortcomings of the F-35C and the significant capability gaps that will exist in whatever carrier based drone fleet we develop. The heavy fighter should be back.

Reach: Now that potential challengers on the high seas are leaving brown and green water, another screaming voice can no longer be ignored. We really do not have a way to reach out and touch anyone. Those few ships that can carry a ASCM are stuck with an old but useful Harpoon, a weapon modern AAW defenses have made much less effective. Other nations have one to two generations better ASCM than we do. We are making progress towards something better, but for now – there isn’t much to distribute in our distributed lethality. The transformationalists were so busy looking in to the far future, they forgot that the now and near future may have to go to war at sea.

The joint DARPA/ US Navy LRASM program was initiated in 2009 to deliver a new generation of anti-ship weapons, offering longer ranges and better odds against improving air defense systems

Faster please.

Risk: Rest assured, the transformationalist have been chastened but not humbled in the last few years. Ignoring their track record, may of them have moved on to one of the last areas where PPT seems to trump physics, technology, and ROE – unmanned systems. Even there, smart voices are saying smart things that should help us be able to get something useful for the fleet. Not something ethereal that never makes it like the A-12, but perhaps something usable like the VIRGINIA Class SSN.

One of the better points in this regard was made recently by Bryan McGrath;

The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Aerial Strike and Surveillance program proposes one jet to do both jobs, but ongoing argument between the Navy and Congress has delayed its request for proposals: Some lawmakers want Naval Air Systems Command to focus on strike capabilities, but the Navy wants to maintain an emphasis on a long-range surveillance platform.

“The problem is, if you try to stuff both missions into one airframe, you end up sacrificing one,” former destroyer skipper retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath told Navy Times. “We need both strike and surveillance, and we probably need them in two separate aircraft.”

More of that thinking will get shadows on the ramp sooner.

Russians: Ah, yes. Russia. As Dr. Dmirty Gorenberg pointed out this summer on Midrats, from a naval perspective, the Russians will have a lot of work to do in modernizing their fleet. Though we have their most high profile ship off Syria, the Slava Class Cruiser MOSKVA, she is just what is left of the former Red Banner Fleet of the Soviets. Russia is working now on her smaller ships and submarines, and then we’ll see what she can do later in modernizing larger ships. As she showed in the Caspian, her ships have quite a bit of punch relative to their size and have a good bit of kit.

With her navy again at sea – and this time putting ordnance down range – and her submarines once more haunting the shores of other nations, this is a great opportunity to bring out the realists cudgel against the ever-present Beltway transformationalists who are happy to spends billions of dollars for programs that never deploy, while Sailors and Marines are ordered to go in to harm’s way without the tools they need.

There is a lot to be positive about in the change of the conversation looking forward to the next year. This should help steer the development of unmanned systems, the replacement for the F/A-18, DDG-51, and the LCS albatross in a direction that will give us products we can be proud of. Programs that reach for a solid hand-hold before progressing forward, as opposed to making a leap of faith that results in to a fall in to the abyss.



M-60 main battle tanks are lined up in the staging area at the Dundalk Marine Terminal after being offloaded from the vehicle cargo/rapid response ship USNS ANTARES (T-AKR-294). The tanks were used by the 32nd Separate Infantry Brigade (Mechanized), Wisconsin Army National Guard, during Exercise Reforger '86.

“Hey 1980s! The second decade of the 21st century is on the POTS line, and they are wondering if they could make some copies of your stuff in the vault.”

As history shows, most times you don’t pick a war – a war picks you.

Of course, in a way, all wars are wars of choice. When faced with aggression, a people can always decide to surrender without a fight – or only after a token resistance. War is a test of national wills on many levels – big wars often result when one side misreads the national will of another.

In the 21st Century, could there possibly be a situation where we would, once again, have to fight our way across the Atlantic to support another entanglement in a European war? As 2016 arrives, are the odds of this greater or lesser than they were 1, 5, or 10 years ago?

Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold at WSJ have a little required reading for you. From their article, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, USAF put out this call that should have all navalists sit up and notice;

“For two decades we haven’t thought about the fact that we are going to have to fight our way across the Atlantic.”

Let’s pull that thread a bit. Don’t bother on how you get there, just start with waking up one day and getting the D&G that you need to ready a sustained opposed crossing of the Atlantic.

For those 45 and older, this should sound familiar.

NATO countries are discussing increasing the number of troops stationed in members bordering Russia and putting them under formal alliance command. The next talks on that idea are likely to come in early December, when foreign ministers gather and begin discussing proposals to be formalized at a Warsaw summit in July.

The Army currently has two brigades—of about 3,500 soldiers each—based in Europe. It has assigned one additional brigade in the U.S. to serve as a regionally aligned force that will rotate into and out of Europe. Gen. Milley said he would like to add more brigades to those rotating to Europe, and add attack helicopter units, engineering teams and artillery brigades.

Throughout the later years of the Cold War, the U.S. military conducted a massive exercise called Reforger, that practiced moving tens of thousands of troops from the U.S. to Europe quickly. While there is no need to revive the exercise on that same scale, a new kind of drill that echoed the old Reforger operation would be helpful, Gen. Milley said.

“Nobody wants to go back to the days of the Cold War,” Gen. Milley said. “We don’t need exercises as big as Reforger anymore. But the concept of Reforger, where you exercise contingency forces … that is exactly what we should be doing.”

Technology has changed, but geography has not. There are some constants from the 1st and 2nd Battles of the Atlantic in the first half of the 20th Century that still apply a century later. Some will repeat, some with rhyme. Some will surprisingly not be a repeat factor, some new factors will show up unexpectedly. There will also be new technologies that no one should talk about that will change the odds greatly in favor or one force or the other. There will also be new technologies that on one should talk about that one force or the other thinks will be “war winning” but once put in to operational use will be a complete dud.

Here are some things that have a high probability of being true in a 3rd Battle of the Atlantic if it happens in 2016 or 2026 or 2056.

– You do not have enough escorts. Those escorts you do have do not have enough ASW or AAW weapons.
– Those ASW and AAW weapons you are going to war with, in addition to not being adequate in number, there is a very good chance that one bit of that kit does not work and cannot kill anything. Hopefully you have a backup for the pointy end of the kill chain. If not, you are going to have a bad first year.
– Higher HQ is asking for too much information from deployed forces, and as a result, deployed forces are talking too much. As a result, the enemy has a better idea of your location than you think, and may have cracked your code.
– Your allied forces that on paper look good? Many of them aren’t what your N2/3 think. Some of them won’t even deploy. Some of those that do won’t engage the enemy to an effective degree.
– The threat from the air will be easier to counter than the threat under the water, though in the early stages, the threat from the air may be a larger concern than you planned.
– This is a game where “body counts” actually matter. If something is being sunk faster than it can be replaced, you need to change what you are doing.
– It will be seductive to think attacking bases will be a shortcut. It will help, but will not be a magic bullet.
– Finally, the war will go on much longer than you think. Though you may think that it is industrial capacity that is going to be your greatest challenge, it may actually be your ability to find competently trained personnel fast enough.

War, if it came, would be very much a come as you are event. We do not have a huge mothball fleet to reactivate. We do not have a huge Naval Reserve to recall. We do not have a diverse industrial capacity to quickly build up, nor, unlike the period right prior to WWII, do we have a few years headstart in new construction.

So, think about it. The geography is the same, technology and enemy different, but the mission is the same; a sustained, opposed crossing of the Atlantic.



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.

 

 

References

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

http://aviationweek.com/military-government/why-did-china-participate-rimpac-one-ship-and-spy-it-another

CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/11/world/asia/philippines-china-naval-standoff/

CNN. “U.S. warship sails close to Chinese artificial island in South China Sea.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/26/politics/south-china-sea-islands-u-s-destroyer/

Reuters. “Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/27/us-southchinasea-usa-idUSKCN0SK2AC20151027

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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/01/new-images-show-china-building-military-facilities-in-south-china-sea/



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. [http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-south-china-sea-defining-the-status-quo]
[2] Carter, Ash. 30 May, 2015. “The United States and Challenges of Asia-Pacific Security.” [http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2015-862b/plenary1-976e/carter-7fa0]
[3] DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports. [http://policy.defense.gov/OUSDPOffices/FON.aspx]



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