Archive for the 'Foreign Policy' Category
Yesterday, Richard Fontaine over at WarOnTheRocks provided one of the better summaries I have read about what was floating around in the ether at this year’s Munich Security Conference.
As a result of the discussions, a mood of frustration, even somberness, settled on the Munich participants this year. There have been difficult conferences before: in 2003, during the white-hot transatlantic fight over the looming war in Iraq, and in 2007, when Vladimir Putin denounced a “unipolar” world and previewed a more aggressive and anti-Western Russian line. Perhaps Munich 2017 will be sunnier and more hopeful, with many of this year’s challenges having faded into mere annoyances. Yet there is a good chance that many of the problems that so bedeviled the transatlantic partners this past weekend will remain on the crowded agenda for time to come.
A good chance? Yes, a very good chance.
He had five major take-aways:
1. Russian confidence.
2. European disarray.
3. Pleas for U.S. leadership.
4. Sense of American irrelevance.
5. Little hope for Syrian peace.
I’ll let you read his full post for how he outlines the five, but I think his five are about spot on – mostly because it is what has been groaning out of Europe all year.
You can batch these in to three groupings, though all five are interrelated, but not in the way most people think. We’ll get to that in a moment, but for now let’s stick in order.
Russian confidence and European disarray: For the entire period I wore the uniform and now over a half a decade since my retirements, people who respect history have been warning the Europeans and Canada that they need to take national defense seriously. In recent history, there have been those who thought they could move the needle from within, only to lash out once their turn on the rowing bench was done (Gen. Craddock, USA and SECDEF Gates just two examples).
Some of the cry had been out of a proper sense of fairness and shared sacrifice, but others like myself did it out of affection knowing that my nation was only an election or two away from the American public not willing to defend those who won’t defend themselves.
The Russians are confident as they have seen the Europeans’ failure to rise to the occasion after the slow but steady American decoupling from Europe. The Russians are confident because they perceive that they are winning. They respect strength and have contempt for weakness. The only stiffening of spines they have seen recently have been from the Poles and a little more concern from the Americans – but for the balance of Europe? No.
In the diplomatic and informational domains, they have probed with success. In economics, they are the weakest – but with what they respect the most, their military efforts continue to be a plus from them from the eastern borders of Ukraine, Crimea, and even to the point that the once great Royal Navy cannot even defend its coastal waters;
Britain had to rely on the US, Canada, France and Germany aircraft to protect its territorial waters more than 20 times last year, with the Royal Navy’s reliance on its Nato allies far greater than previously thought.
Defence experts say Russian submarine activity off Britain is returning toward Cold War levels.
Pleas for U.S. leadership & sense of American irrelevance: for almost all of living memory, the Western European nations have lived and prospered under the American military umbrella and have become too used to not carrying their load. Ukraine, Syria, and the migrant crisis is an order of magnitude greater European issue than North American. America isn’t irrelevant, it is just that in elections over the past eight years, the American people have decided that they no longer wish to unequally take on the West’s burdens, to only then be pilloried, insulted, and blamed for the effort. America decided that we will help others who help themselves – so Europe will have to re-learn how to keep their own house in order and we’ll help where we can, if it is in our national interest. Selfish and irresponsible? Not really, just traditional statecraft.
This mood is from both sides of the political spectrum in the USA as well. Where there was once a bi-partisan consensus for American to lead in all significant European security issues – that consensus is long gone. There is now a bi-partisan consensus for just the opposite.
The numbers back up the general vibe. As derived from the CIA factbook, let’s review the top-line numbers.
Until these numbers come more in line, there is only so much any elected American official can do to convince the American people that, once again, the American must do what the Europeans can, but won’t.
Now let’s shift to the last – little hope for Syrian peace: define “peace.” Is peace a frozen conflict? No. If nothing else, we have proven that over time. Why is Western Europe at peace right now? Simple. There was a sound military and political defeat of fascism in Western Europe. There were boundaries made and then for the most part there was massive and merciless ethnic cleansing that created relatively ethnically homogeneous nations inside agreed borders. Where there is conflict today is where in places like eastern Estonia, eastern Ukraine, and spots of bother in the Balkans where significant minority groups were left. That is an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.
Syria and northern Iraq is the Balkans of the Arab World. If militant Sunni Islam is your greatest enemy, then you have one option in the Game of Thrones-ish war going on now in Syria; let Assad win and play the strongman over a subjugated people, come to some accommodation with the Kurds, and move to destroy ISIS with the Russians before Turkey gets involved. There is really no other realistic option. If we will not back the Russian play, if we cannot offer a better way to end the conflict, then we should just get out of the way. At other earlier points in time, there were perhaps other more attractive options, but 1QCY16, this is where we are.
There are a lot of places where people seemed to believe because we should do something, we will/can do something. To get from “should” to “will/can” there has to be a critical bridging function known as leadership from the POLMIL level.
Shifting to the original failure in the Arab Spring, the Libyan theater of operations; listen to the following from our friend Admiral Stavridis, USN (Ret.)
The clock is ticking for Western powers to intervene militarily against ISIS in Libya — and Canada has a responsibility to join a potential mission there, says NATO’s former supreme allied commander.
“If we’re going to have an impact in Libya, now is the time to get involved, over the next six months,” retired U.S. navy admiral James Stavridis said on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.
“We have to act before the Islamic State becomes even stronger … otherwise we’re going to have another massively failed state on the periphery of Europe.”
Is he correct? Is this something the international community “should” do? Yes and of course. What is missing then?
Let’s go back to the fundamentals. Is there a popular will in Europe to conduct peace enforcement operations in Libya with German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, and British forces and money? No. Is there a popular will in North America to conduct peace enforcement operations in Libya with Canadian and USA forces and money? No.
Is there leadership in place at the levers of power in Europe and North America that has the desire to bring the popular will to a national will to take action? No.
As such, as much as the theory is sound in early 2016 – as sound as the theory of the invasion of Iraq was in 2003 – will there be any such action in Libya or Syria? No.
As a result, what should one do? Think and plan for consequence management. Wargame Most Likely and Most Dangerous COA and then clearly identify Decision Points for Branch Plans. Do it twice; once with pro-active leaders, one with passive/dithering leaders. If that has not already been done, then we will just have to make it up as we go along when, as our politicians like to say on occasions, we find out about events on the news.
This is the world that was asked for at the end of the last decade, especially in Western Europe. It is what we have. Tomorrow will have to do the best it can with its inheritance.
Please join us at 5pm EST on 31 Jan 2016 for Midrats Episode 317: “Naval Presence and National Strategy,” with Jerry Hendrix :
From the same school as “If you want peace, prepare for war,” a global maritime power must maintain a presence at sea. It must design a national strategy in line with its economic capability and political will, and make sure it mans, trains, and equips its navy in line with the design.
If presence is a critical function of a navy, how is it best accomplished, what are the tradeoffs, and how does it impact friends, competitors, and those sitting on the fence?
Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be Dr. Henry J. Hendrix, Jr, CAPT USN (Ret).
Jerry is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.
When on active duty, his staff assignments include tours with the Chief of Naval Operation’s Executive Panel (N00K), and the OSD Office of Net Assessment From 2011-2012 he served as the Director and Designated Federal Officer of the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Panel. He also contributed to the 2012 Department Posture Statement to the Congress. Following the fall, 2011 Navy Inspector General’s Report on the state of the Naval History and Heritage Command, he was verbally ordered by the Secretary to assume the position of Director of Naval History.
Hendrix previously served as the Navy Fellow to the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He has been awarded a Bachelor Degree in Political Science from Purdue University, Masters Degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School (National Security Affairs) and Harvard University (History) and received his doctorate from King’s College, London (War Studies).
Nothing is written.
What everyone is planning to happen may, in a very short time, seem like a paranoid fever dream.
We need to be humble as we try to think about what China will be in the coming decades. Japan stretches, The Philippines decides that they like us again, and all of a sudden Vietnam is one of the most welcoming places in Southeast Asia for an American.
The 2nd decade of the 21st Century is an interesting place, but what about China in the next couple of decades?
Will the South China Sea be full of PLAN CSG, or awash in a pathetic mix of warlord weapon smugglers and refugees? China the hegemon, or China the bloodbath of tens of millions fighting each other for scraps? Something in between?
If you lean towards some natural rise of China to displace the USA and stand astride the globe, Daniel C. Lynch over at FA has an article that demands your attention;
Over the past three months, uncertainty over the course of Chinese development has intensified, with a steady flow of mostly bad economic news: yet another plunge in the stock market, which was already crumbling and kept afloat only by massive state intervention ; mounting corporate debt; and a hemorrhaging of foreign exchange reserves, to name a few. The reality is that China is staring economic stagnation in the face, and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is panicking. The party appeared to have acknowledged the seriousness of its economic woes, which can only be worsened by a declining and aging labor force …
No country in history has relied as heavily on investment to both fuel GDP growth and maintain the existing structure of GDP as China.
Even though China’s rise seems to be on the verge of setting, outsiders should exercise caution in how they interpret this dramatic shift. It need not, for example, lead to China’s “collapse.” Some who predict a Chinese collapse  point to the dissolution of the Soviet Union: another half-reformed communist superpower. A more appropriate comparison would be to Japan and its “lost decade” … The end of China’s rise will most likely hurt the CCP far more than Japan’s did its elites.
Even so, saying that China’s rise is ending is not the same as saying the country will collapse. Poor, authoritarian countries can stagnate for decades and yet never face political collapse.
Bingo. China has a history of this kind of behavior. That would be my most likely COA inside the “China staggers” construct.
There is some evidence to suggest that younger Chinese are, like their counterparts in other societies, becoming increasingly “postmodern” in their political and cultural outlooks: more tolerant of diversity, exploratory in their studies and careers, and spiritually rather than materially focused. In particular, they have become strongly conscious of an imperative need to preserve and nurture the environment. As the CCP increasingly finds itself beholden to this segment of society, it may be compelled to accept a gradual transformation in the party itself, one that results in a more open and enlightened institution. This is a long-term vision. It may not even be realized in the next ten to 20 years, but it is an outcome for which everyone with an interest in the situation should, at the very least, hope.
Hope isn’t a plan, but if it is, a plan must have Assumptions. With each Assumption should be a Branch Plan in case that Assumption is found to be false. The prudence of caution and hedge should be our guide so we don’t invest precious resources in things that are a little too based on what we think China could be.
For our Navy, the service that needs the longest lead time, multi-mission flexibility should be the cornerstone of everything we invest in training, manning and equipping our forces.
History will deliver to the future the China it wants to. Odds are, it won’t be what the majority of the people in the national security nomenclatura are briefing.
Ask for three Red COA … and then a 4th.
Maybe I just haven’t adjusted yet to being back in the U.S. after 5 years overseas.
The partisan vitriol over the Farsi Island incident involving U.S. Navy Riverine boats in the Persian Gulf surprises me. This event has become a lightning rod of polarization, a litmus test of opposing camps of foreign policy. There is excessive emotion from both sides of the foreign policy question with neither acknowledging that their opposition also has some truth on the other side of the issue.
First and foremost, to paraphrase former SECDEF Hagel’s remarks (starting at the 7:36 mark of this video) as the event was unfolding Wednesday: we don’t know yet all the facts of what happened; we will find out more as crew debriefs, tactical reconstruction, and a full investigation ensue. I would add that until then, a lot of the asssumptions and outrage are unfounded. My own hope is that the full investigation will release what needn’t be classified for public knowledge and Congressional oversight; more importantly we need to ensure that lessons learned are subsequently applied from tactical to political levels.
So what do we think we know? This LA Times article – attention grabbing headline aside – appears to be a solid rundown of what we think we know now. I expect that a full investigation will show a typical “mishap chain”: communications or navigation gear failure, human judgment or error, and Murphy’s law in action cascading to a negative event. Bottom line, our small boats inadvertently entered Iranian waters. Despite that, we achieved a positive resolution – the personnel and vessels were pretty quickly released – due almost wholly to the existing relationships between Presidents Obama and Rouhani and Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. This, in turn, is due to having achieved their nuclear agreement. If a strategic leader has to interact with a counterpart, the first phone conversation better not be after the crisis has started.
Barring substantial revelations from investigation, I don’t see how this event justifies calls for heads to roll from SECDEF and SECNAV down. Obviously, Murphy and the mishap chain were in effect. However, more confrontational actions in another sovereign state’s territorial waters would almost certainly have had a negative outcome – in the tactical situation and in larger national interests.
The taped, and now widely distributed, apology of the officer-in-charge has also been roundly criticized. I would submit that this was quite possibly his best course of action: this is not/not a POW situation for name, rank, and serial number only. This is not a code of conduct situation, and that apology does not amount to confessing to be an American air pirate. The Department of Defense “Isolated Personnel Guidance” speaks to detention of uniformed personnel. While it refers to the code of conduct, it sets a different bar: “U.S. military personnel will maintain their military bearing, regardless of the type of detention…they should make every effort to remain calm, courteous, and project personal dignity.” So far, so good. The guidance also says, “A detainee should make every effort to avoid providing propaganda for the detaining government.” Maybe not so good. Overall, though, that guidance refers to detention by “hostile governments,” and whether that condition applies is debatable. My own initial response was that if the boats were indeed inappropriately in territorial waters, it is more akin to dealing with the local gendarmerie when you and your sailors have inadvertently ended up somewhere you shouldn’t be in a liberty port. Defuse the situation, and get back ship.
By no means was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) right in its apparent initial treatment of the crew and propagandizing of the apology video. Captain Sean Liedman provided US News and World Report a great rundown of the ways in which the IRGCN was at odds with USN sovereign immunity, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, the time to protest that and call for accountability is not when the personnel are still on foreign soil, nor in the State of the Union address. One hopes that that diplomatic discussion is ongoing now.
Another thing to understand is that this is more complex and nuanced than a monolithic Iran behaving badly. Everyone who has steamed or flown in the Persian Gulf already knows that the IRGCN and Islamic Republic of Iran Navy will respond differently to a given situation. IRGCN actions may have been exacerbated or exaggerated by domestic political maneuvering between the Rouhani/Zarif camp of (relative) moderates and “hardliners” which could be exemplified by General Soleimani and the IRGC. It may initially seem counter-intuitive, but diplomatic success by the moderates in the administration increases the possibility of hardliners reacting more strongly when they seize an opportunity.
We can be dismayed at the treatment of our sailors, and even question the apology while still being thankful for the overall outcome and larger diplomatic success. I look forward to finding ground truth on the events, and also on learning some lessons – from tactical up to national level. Unfortunately, though, the whole incident has fueled some of the worst behaviors of our polarized body politic.
Question: What do you get when you combine ballistic missile defense technology imported from Moorestown, New Jersey, with a former Soviet-Bloc Air Base in Deveselu, Romania?
Answer: The beginning of the next phase of a 135-year bilateral relationship with Romania and a brand new Aegis Ashore site designed to provide for the ballistic missile defense of NATO Allies in Europe.
Deveselu is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and the newest responsibility of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet. The drive southeast of Craiova, Romania takes you through what has rightly been called Europe’s breadbasket. At harvest time, the crops are piled up in sheaves. Bucolic fields stretch like waves as far as the eye can see. Then a gray mass looms on the horizon, and you do a double-take at what appears to be an actual ship steaming on the horizon, its hull obscured by a sea of green. What you are looking at is the profile of the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System usually associated with the Aegis DDG but now firmly planted in Romanian soil, a concrete example of our commitment to collective defense in Europe.
Aegis Ashore is essentially the Aegis Weapon System built on land instead of on a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea. A major difference between the ship-based and shore-based systems is space. Hull space, size, weight, balance, and ballast are not limiting factors when installing equipment on a concrete pad in a warehouse that is quite literally in the middle of an old Warsaw Pact airbase.
This odd shaped deckhouse building is filled with the latest technologically and highlights the adaptive part of European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The deckhouse was originally built in Moorestown, New Jersey, then packed into 156 forty-foot containers and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The pre-fabricated pieces meant that assembly of the 900 tons of steel occurred faster than it normally would when building a U.S. Navy warship.
On December 18, 2015, my good friend and one of the finest engineers in the world, VADM Jim Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency formally reached the Technical Capability Declaration (TCD) milestone and handed the “keys” to Aegis Ashore over to the Navy. Sailors will now be the ones operating the equipment and testing the systems, instead of contractors. Sailors will train and conduct exercises until they and the systems are fully certified, similar to conducting “sea trails” with a new ship.
Aegis Ashore-Romania has one extremely important mission: ballistic missile defense of the population and infrastructure of U.S. and NATO allies. We hope that we will never need to fire a missile from Deveselu because that would imply a ballistic missile from Iran had been launched against a target in Europe. That said, the US military and our NATO allies must always be prepared to conduct this sort of mission precisely because we hope we never need to execute them. Capabilities, equipment, and training give credence to the words of diplomacy. Aegis Ashore is a major component of EPAA, which is the U.S. national contribution to NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and the collective defense of Europe.
The singularity of purpose of Aegis Ashore means that it must always be ready. The designed redundancy is robust, taking advantage of the large space to add more backup equipment. The technology is impressive, but like anything in the U.S. Navy, Sailors are the true heart of the mission. The Sailors who live and work in Deveselu are pioneers in the purest form. They are simultaneously standing up the first Aegis weapons system at a new base–Naval Support Facility Deveselu–and training to operationalize this system into EPAA and the NATO Alliance. And they are doing an impressive job!!!
There has been a dramatic amount of progress made in the support facilities as well as the Aegis Ashore system since my last visit to Deveselu in February 2015. This month, Sailors are moving from CLUs (Containerized Living Units, pronounced “clues”) into new two-person barracks rooms that are comfortable but austere. Three of the nine rotational Aegis Ashore crews will be in Deveselu at any given time for six-month deployments.
The Sailors I met serving in Deveselu are extremely competent and highly motivated. I am confident that the perseverance they showed during the construction phase will continue as we move into the operational phase. I am proud of these Sailors, and appreciate all that they do on a daily basis to protect the United States and our allies. Think about them over the Christmas holidays. They are unaccompanied, away from family and friends, and keeping us safe. They have the watch…
After the Russian moves in to the Crimea, there was a fair bit of goofing at the old Russia hands in the Pentagon who were excited after years of being ignored, shuffling around the halls waving dusty Harvard Graphics slides to anyone they met – but that cute phase is long past.
Almost everyone appreciates that, while not the Soviet Union, the Russian bear still demands respect. Encouraged by their victory over the USA in the strategic direction in Syria – expect Russia to continue to push the envelope of their regional influence back to her traditional boundaries.
In line with that, everyone should keep up to speed with the latest Russian naval developments. With both domestic use and sales on the international marketplace, our Sailors of the middle of the 21st Century will have to know Russian hardware as well as their fathers knew Soviet Hardware at the end of the 20th.
You can go ahead and put on your Christmas vacation reading list the latest from ONI, The Russian Navy: A Historic Transition. You can download at the link or read below … but this is an excellently digestible UNCLASS primer.
Just a few pull quotes:
The new technologically advanced Russian Navy, increasingly armed with the KALIBR family of weapons, will be able to more capably defend the maritime approaches to the Russian Federation and exert significant influence in adjacent seas. This multi-purpose force will be the forward-layered defense of Russia and its maritime exclusive economic zone and will be able to promote Russian diplomatic interests, advance maritime science, combat piracy, and provide humanitarian assistance.
It will also provide a flexible platform for Russia to demonstrate offensive capability, threaten neighbors, project power regionally, and advance President Putin’s stated goal of returning Russia to clear great power status.
They have a mission as we do. They also have catch-up to play, and some grievances to work on. They are not Western, nor Eastern – they are Russian.
Part of being Russian, they like to follow their plans – if they have the resources to do so. As their capabilities and resources grow, where will they go and what will they do? Well, they will tell you.
The Navy’s peacetime missions are:
• Deter. Maintain strategic nuclear deterrent forces—strategic nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)—in permanent ready status, able to deliver a timely retaliatory strike or deploy in times of growing tension to deter an attack against Russia.
• Defend. Maintain and deploy constant ready general-purpose naval forces to protect and defend Russia’s national interests both in adjacent seas as well as in more distant waters.
• Demonstrate. Use the select deployment of general-purpose forces as an “instrument of state” to support Russian foreign policy.
In times of increased tension and war, the Navy’s priority missions are:
• Protect. Protect the sea-based strategic deterrent force.
• Interdict. Interdict or blunt an aero-space attack against Russia from the maritime directions.
Note their ease of discussing nuclear weapons. Don’t discount it, not a bit.
Again, read it all – especially the end of it. A lot of the old Soviet Navy gear will begin to fade year by year, and the newer stuff will take its place. Some of which we have seen in use in Syria. It will give the Russians not just a new look, but new capabilities and a new mindset.
Oh, and the pic above, there is another one for PACFLT in the report. I like the above though as it gives a nice insight in to what the Russians see as “their” naval zone of influence. What we think of the Caribbean and the waters between Guam and San Francisco? Yep, perhaps what these waters mean to the Russians.
Ponder, then ponder some more next time someone starts to speak of no fly zones, maritime exclusion zones and all that.
By Mark Tempest
Please join us on Sunday, 6 Dec 2015 at 5pm EST (US) for Midrats Episode 309: Law and the Long War:
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.
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. 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.
Good people can disagree and there are different opinions about the source cause, but our record on the national level of the last few decades has been spotty at best. Tactically, we have no peer. Sure, we often force our way through our mistakes through superior firepower, but that is why it is there. On the Tactical level though, we’re pretty darn good.
On the Operational level, considering the adjustments for things done to be in line with Strategic/POLMIL D&G, we have been OK.
Feh to meh OK. I say this as a former Operational Planner, our system is clunky at best. Sure, we all quote Clausewitz, Sun Tsu, and can create Operational Designs to make your brain bleed. I will happily stay up until 4am and argue if something is a Decisive Point, Decision Point, and which side of a Phase transition it belongs to. Heck, give me enough time, I’ll even convert your “traditional” OPLAN in to an Effects Based Plan over a weekend as long as I get to pick my core planning team and you leave me alone. Most Operational planners can do that. But, to what end?
Once you get in the planning process deep enough, you realize that there is something a bit off about it. Something monastic, esoteric, and a bit too formulaic. What at one time may have been a well designed system, has through iterations and revisions gathered an eclectic mix of beggar weeds and confessions.
What was a nuance at the Strategic level gets translated in to a clunky design at the Operational level, and by the time it gets to the Tactical level, winds up being a $43 million gas station west of M-e-S in Sheberghan.
As with many problems, our challenge in all likelihood starts with the top. How we determine, define, and explain strategy. Is it a process, personnel, or political problem? Maybe all the above? From the false signals that helped set the events that set of the Korean War, to the Vietnam War, to being flat footed in surprise in the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the blind-man’s-bluff of the last decade and a half of the Long War – the record is all right there and begs the question; is it time for a fundamental reset?
I believe we need to go back and reassess everything we have structured since the end of WWII starting with the National Security Action of 1947, Goldwater-Nichols from 1986 and all their various accretions.
Forget what the retired O-5 things, there are some great minds out there that are not waiting for something to sprout out of someone’s head in DC. LtGen Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.) has some required reading over at Infinity Journal on a way forward.
It is one heck of an entering argument. Here are my pull quotes, but you need to read it in full:
The method the United States Government currently uses to develop its “grand” or national security strategy is dysfunctional, and the approach its military uses to design campaigns and major operations is seriously flawed.
Compounding the problems I have discussed to this point is an even more fundamental one: Congress’s demand that the president develop a NSS annually. A grand strategy needs to have enduring qualities. It should certainly be a strategy—barring the rise of a significant new challenge—that remains viable for years if not decades. Ideally, it should survive across administrations as NSC-68 did. I believe this is possible if our leaders—executive and congressional—based the NSS on principles derived from strategic practices such as those I have listed above and then treated the NSS as a “treaty” with ourselves. In other words, the president in consultation with Congress would create a NSS and then ask the Senate for approval through passage of a “sense of the Senate” resolution. Ratification would be undesirable because ratified treaties are of two kinds; “self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable and “non-self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable if Congress chose to implement it through legislation. No president is likely to want the NSS to be judicially enforceable. Moreover, seeking Senate ratification of a NSS would raise significant Constitutional questions.
To recap, “getting it right” relative to the nation’s grand strategy requires the US Government to:
- Repeal legislation requiring the president to submit a NSS annually
- Create a true grand strategy based on long-standing practices that reveal vital national interests
- Publish a NSS that would survive through multiple administrations by seeking a “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting that NSS
- Enact legislation that requires the president to revise or develop a new NSS if the Senate revokes its “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting the current NSS
- Repeal legislation requiring the DOD to submit a NDS. The NDS serves no purpose that the NMS cannot meet
- Repeal legislation requiring the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to update or develop and submit a new NMS biennially and replace it with legislation requiring each new Chairman to update or develop and submit a new NMS when the president issues or updates a NSS or other circumstances warrant a revised or new NMS
First among these is the general confusion of terms, in particular policy and strategy. Many people in key positions in the US Government and elsewhere conflate and misuse the two words. A noted military academic writes, “Today strategy is too often employed simply as a synonym for policy.”[ii] He provides startling examples reporting a speech President George W. Bush gave in 2003 mentioning a “forward strategy of freedom” and a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office White Paper describing the “UK’s strategy for policy.”[iii] Freedom of course is a condition, not a strategy, and having a strategy for policy is meaningless. A number of authorities have observed also that government and defense officials use strategy so loosely that we have forgotten its original meaning.[iv] The US national security establishment would do well to adopt the definitions provided by Colin Gray, one of today’s premier writers on strategy:
It is time for the US military to scrap all existing planning manuals and to start afresh. Few officers read these voluminous and poorly written documents except to meet academic requirements.[xxii] The new manuals must begin with recognition that there are three approaches to decision-making, not one. These are intuitive, analytical, and systemic. None is better or worse than the others are; officers must know which to use in the situation at hand. The analytical approach cannot remain the default choice.
To conclude, the US national security community must overhaul the way it currently acquires policy, which it needs to develop the nation’s grand strategy and in turn its military strategy. The 1988 NSS did this best. To translate strategy successfully into campaign plans and operational plans the national defense community must adopt a systemic approach to operational design. In doing so, the community will replace analytical checklist-like procedures with discourse. The latter method enables planers to discern what makes an unfavorable situation a problem, thereby uncovering the counter-logic needed to resolve that problem.
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. 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]” 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,  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.
 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]
 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]
 DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports. [http://policy.defense.gov/OUSDPOffices/FON.aspx]