Archive for the 'Hard Power' Category

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.




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.

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. []

image018This week gave another example why some concepts should give all navalists pause – things such as “1,000 Ship Navy,” “Cooperative Maritime Partnership,” or the rather curious hope a few years ago that the USN does not need frigates, but if we do, we can simply have our allies supply them.

When interesting yet repeatedly debunked theory drift towards policy, you have a problem.

Allies are good – yet most look best at peace and on paper. One must, however, be very careful. For every British ally in OIF, and RC(S), there are the Belgians at the Kabul airport, and the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies covering the flanks of the German 6th Army.

Sure, you may get 40 Commando Royal Marines, but you might also get the Spanish part of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Traflagar.

War or even a warm peace is a different challenge with allies than peace. Review your ISAF allied ROE matrix, or the ROE for certain allied ships off the Horn of Africa for a reminder.

Beyond performance and national will, there is and issues of political risk. At the extremes, the Italians and Romanians, again same WWII, switched sides – heck the French switched sides twice.

This week we saw a more mild reminder that there is another uncomfortable fact about our allies. Almost all of them are high-functioning democratic governments. The people get a vote. As in our nation, sometimes that vote can quickly change policy.

Via AFP;

Canada’s prime minister-elect Justin Trudeau said Tuesday he told US President Barack Obama that Canadian fighter jets would withdraw from fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

“About an hour ago I spoke with President Obama,” Trudeau told a press conference.

While Canada remains “a strong member of the coalition against ISIL,” Trudeau said he made clear to the US leader “the commitments I have made around ending the combat mission.”

… Trudeau pledged to bring home the fighter jets and end its combat mission. But he vowed to keep military trainers in place.

Canada can be the best of allies at one point, such as the years of service they did around Kandahar before being one of the first relatively caveat-free allies to bolt for the door, but on a dime they can also decide to be the Elector of Bavaria in the middle of the fight and go home – or for that matter, the HMCS UGANDA off Okinawa.

There is a pattern here;

Presented to the RCN, the ship was commissioned HMCS Uganda on 21 Oct 1944, at Charleston, and in Nov 1944 returned to the U.K. for further modifications. She left in Jan 1945, for the Pacific … In Apr 1945 she joined Task Force 57 in the Okinawa area, and was thereafter principally employed in screening the Fleet’s aircraft carriers operating against Japanese airfields in the Ryukyu Islands.

After the fall of Germany, while Uganda was involved in operations with the US Navy’s Third Fleet that a directive came through from RCN Headquarters that Captain Mainguy poll the crew on whether they would volunteer for the Pacific War and eventually Operation Downfall, the codename for the invasion of the Home Islands. The crew of Uganda felt that they had volunteered for “hostilities only”, (i.e., hostilities against Nazi Germany) but now found themselves fighting a different enemy in a quite different part of the world. On 7 May 1945, the vote was held onboard Uganda and 605 crew out of 907 refused to volunteer for continuing operations against Japan.

As you plan – always watch your assumptions. If your plan relies on an ally, have branch plans that involve your own kit. If you don’t have your own kit because you thought you had ownership of your friend’s – well bad on you.

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.


This week, the Wall Street Journal and several other news outlets reported that a small Chinese naval flotilla was operating off the Alaskan coast in the Bering Sea. Some reports have indicated that the flotilla includes three frigate/destroyer platforms, an oiler and an amphib. Although their impromptu visit coincides with President Obama’s trip to Alaska, the timing and presence of the Chinese navy in the Bering has raised a lot of questions.

Xue LongFor one thing, China and Alaska are not very close to each other. Dutch Harbor, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, is approximately 3,800 miles northeast of Shanghai, in another hemisphere, and across the international dateline. Additionally, China has no historic claim or significant cultural interest in Alaska. Unlike Russia, which once colonized Alaska, or Japan, which is in close proximity to Alaska and fought over parts of it with the United States during the Second World War, China has had no significant history or interest in America’s 49th state. Thus, one must ask why China has sent warships to a distant land it has no ties or apparent interest in.

For the last few decades, and since the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis in particular, China has embarked on an ambitious program of modernization and growth for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This has included the development and implementation of the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier battle group to support an eventual natively designed/home-grown carrier program, investment in new anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile technology, construction of new naval bases, and a ramp-up of domestic warship construction.

For most of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), their surface fleet has primarily served a local, littoral role. Over the last decade, the PLAN has become increasingly involved in overseas exercises and efforts, and this confidence building has made it more comfortable with flexing its muscle and increasing its visibility abroad. In 2009 the PLAN began a more proactive role in patrolling the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden for Somali pirates, and has successfully intercepted multiple pirate vessels since then. In 2011 a Chinese guided missile frigate sailed into the Mediterranean and evacuated Chinese citizens from Libya. This past April, the PLAN sailed into Aden and evacuated Chinese and foreign citizens during the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

China’s recent chain of successful humanitarian and maritime security deployments has occurred simultaneously with several aggressive and unprovoked actions as well. In 2014, the PLAN was invited to participate in RIMPAC for the first time; it sent its newest and most advanced guided missile destroyer to participate, but it also sent a Dongdiao-class intel ship to spy on the exercise participants. For the last few years, China’s military has built artificial islands in the South China Sea to assert a claim to the area. During this time, the navy has significantly increased its presence in this region and has been in an increasingly aggressive series of standoffs with other regional navies over disputed territory, such as Scarborough Shoal, which both China and the Philippines claim.

According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, China currently has the largest and most ambitious naval warship construction program in the world. With yearly increases in defense spending, the PLAN is on track to become the strongest naval power in Asia and one of the most powerful in the world. China’s military, and the PLAN in particular, is growing exponentially. It is not surprising, then, that the PLAN is continuously endeavoring to increase their visibility and presence in naval deployments all over the world as they transition from a regional to a global navy. More than this, however, is China’s need to project power and portray itself as unhindered by the United states Navy’s global reach

The PLAN’s presence off Alaska’s coast during President Obama’s visit is meant to be a clear message to the world that China’s navy can sail off the coast of America’s largest state during a presidential visit in the very same way that the U.S. Navy sailed off China’s coast in 1996 during the last Taiwan Strait crisis. As China’s military continues to grow and increase in confidence and ability, expect these types of activities to continue.


Aviation Week. “Why Did China Participate in RIMPAC With One Ship And Spy On It With Another?” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

BBC. “Yemen crisis: China evacuates citizens and foreigners from Aden.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

Time.”How China Is Battling Its Pirate Problem.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.,8599,1932402,00.html

The Washington Post. “China sends navy ship to protect Libya evacuees.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

The Washington Post. “See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.



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.

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