Archive for the 'Maritime Security' Category
Standing there, head bowed, pausing to reflect on the 46 Republic of Korea (ROK) navy Sailors whose lives were lost when their ship was sunk by an alleged North Korean submarine torpedo, makes one realize how precarious peace remains in the dynamic theater that is the Asia Indo-Pacific.
During what was a leadership symposium for other task force commanders, led by U.S. 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, I had the solemn privilege to tour the memorial dedicated to those Sailors, which includes the salvaged stern of the ship, ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772).
ROKS Cheonan was a Pohang-class corvette commissioned in 1989, one of the many worthy surface ships in the ROK navy fleet. On March 26, 2010, as the ship patrolled waters near the border with North Korea, she was struck by the torpedo, broke in two and sank.
As anyone with a Twitter account is well aware, North Korea continues to make headlines by test-launching ballistic missiles.
North Korea’s rhetoric and actions is just one fault line in a patchwork of tectonic plates that could lead to regional instability. And as such, we must remain steadfast in ensuring our forces, Sailors and Marines part of the Blue-Green team, are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
In early June, the Navy conducted a sort of stand down after a series of off-duty incidents. It may have seemed from outside that Navy leadership was going “high” and “right” – but instead it served as an important time to refocus us to readiness and the incredible importance we bare in being forward-deployed here.
As commander of Amphibious Force 7th Fleet, I command over a wide range of forces from an amphibious ready group to a mine countermeasures squadron to a helicopter sea combat squadron. Each unit has a unique role and each Sailor – and Marine – has an equally unique and important role.
To me, the recent stand down was about looking ourselves in the mirror – and looking each other in the eye – and challenging ourselves to do better, to conduct ourselves every second of the day with a recognition that we may be called to action.
One of the key components during this period was a buddy rule. The emphasis here was on accountability, a renewed attention on shipmates being shipmates.
While “shipmate” is a U.S. Navy term, it applies to all services and it applies to our bond with other nations. In my last year in command, I have grown bonds with several other amphibious leaders in different countries.
This past March, I had the privilege of commanding forces, more than 17,000 in total, alongside my ROK counterpart Navy Rear Adm. Park, Ki-kyung in the exercise Ssang Yong. Though we are from different militaries, we share the same oath to defend our nation.
While the specific policies of our recent stand down period have been eased, the mentality to stand tall at all times must remain. Our nation, this region, is counting on us too much for us to “slip.” We must realize that we are not only accountable to ourselves and our unit, but the partner forces that rely on us to answer the call with them.
Please join us at 5pm EDT on 10 July 2016 for Midrats Episode 340: China’s Maritime Militia with Andrew Erickson
As China continues to slowly use a variety of tools to claim portions of her maritime near-abroad in the South China Sea and elsewhere, part of their effort includes what can almost be considered naval irregular forces – a Maritime Militia.
What is China doing with these assets, why are they being used, and what could we expect going forward as she taps in to a variety of assets to attempt to establish her authority?
Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be Dr. Andrew S. Erickson.
Dr. Erickson is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and is an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report, for which he has authored or coauthored thirty-seven articles.
He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in international relations and comparative politics from Princeton University and graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College with a B.A. in history and political science. He has studied Mandarin in the Princeton in Beijing program at Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture; and Japanese language, politics, and economics in the year-long Associated Kyoto Program at Doshisha University. Erickson previously worked for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) as a Chinese translator and technical analyst. He gained early experience working briefly at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, the U.S. Senate, and the White House. Proficient in Mandarin Chinese and conversant in Japanese, he has traveled extensively in Asia and has lived in China, Japan, and Korea.
Why do nations historically have blue water navies? In broad terms, the primary driver is economics. From Vikings looking for new lands and plunder, to Columbus’s search for a more efficient way to spices of the East, to the mercantilist reliance of a global free flow of goods at market prices to support the hard empire of Britain, to the same for the soft empire of the United States – nations put to sea in force to support economic requirements at home.
Of course, other reasons from pride to habit soon latch on to a growing fleet – but look at the core driver. Every nation must do what it can to survive – and a strong economy keeps living standards improving and bellies fed. China is no different. When you see the historical record of Chinese internal strife derived from economic turmoil and uncertainty, the force to protect her gains from global trade becomes even clearer.
A datapoint today for you to ponder. Thanks to a point from our friends Claude Berube and Chris Rawley over at StrategyBridge, there is a great tool out there from Sea Around Us for those interested in the undertold but globally critical economic resource that are global fisheries. Follow the link and play around a bit – but here are the graphics that tell a deeper story;
China’s catch in 1990.
China’s catch data in 2010.
If you want to know why China is building a blue water navy, perhaps some of the reason is China specific as we have discussed before, from national pride to regional control – but a larger part is simply the same reason all naval powers have shown up on the scene; their economic interests require one.
It was history in the making on Sunday, 26 June, as an international contingent celebrated the opening of the expanded Panama Canal. I was proud to be there with the U.S. Presidential party, led by Dr. Jill Biden. For Panama, the expansion represents a potential for growth in the country’s maritime sectors and serves as a symbol of national prestige. In recognition of its strategic maritime significance, and the value U.S. Southern Command places on forward engagement with the region, the USS Oak Hill (LPD-51) sailed through the canal a few days earlier (using the older and narrower set of locks). The Oak Hill was pierside at the canal’s Pacific entrance during the ceremony to recognize this Panamanian accomplishment, to celebrate this second engineering marvel that dramatically expanded the path between the seas, and to signal our continued commitment to working with our partners to ensure its defense.
From the very beginning the Canal—both the original and this expanded addition—offered both great promises and significant challenges. It required an investment of time, talent, and treasure—in blood and dollars—as well as great commitment and patience to turn opportunity into reality. At U.S. Southern Command we see transregional opportunities and challenges and the need for multinational solutions everywhere we look—especially standing beside this new Panama Canal.
It was great to visit the Oak Hill the day before the ceremony and talk to the officers, chief’s messes, and assembled crew. Embarked was a U.S. Marine detachment with equipment to help illustrate our humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief (HA/DR) capabilities and our commitment to rapidly respond to any neighbor in need, such as our support after the recent earthquake in Ecuador. U.S. Ambassador to Panama John Feeley eloquently captured what the Oak Hill represents: “a warship, coming in peace, symbolizing a legacy of partnership, commitment, and ready assistance in times of need.”
On board the Oak Hill, we talked with one officer who said that his earlier UNITAS deployment (an annual multinational naval exercise we host) as a lieutenant (junior grade) kept him in the Navy. We talked about how the Navy runs out of ships long before it addresses all the global requirements we face. We talked about the prioritization of requirements to other important regions and how that inevitably results in minimal allocation of Navy ships to help safeguard our interests in this vital region. I told him that once the littoral combat ship comes on line in greater numbers, U.S. Southern Command will seek to increase its presence in collaboration with maritime forces of the region to better protect our southern approaches and counter threat networks.
For now, we will make the most of the short deployments like that of the USS Lassen (DDG-82), which over a period of weeks wreaked havoc on drug traffickers in the tropical eastern Pacific; and with other Navy ships changing home ports from one coast to the other, such as the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and crew who excelled in partnering engagements and conducted multiple exercises during their South American transit. We are eager for the transit of the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and the USS Wasp (LHD-1). I commented to the young officer that transiting ships should not make quick dashes to their new ports; their time in the Americas should be maximized because our presence is so limited and their ability to create goodwill is something on which you can’t put a price tag.
The Oak Hill was the only warship from any nation to attend the Canal Expansion opening ceremony. When it comes to defending the Canal, however, the duty is shared by many. Following on the ceremony’s heels, civilian and military organizations from 21 regional partner nations, with forces led by Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and the United States, will conduct PANAMAX 2016, an exercise to demonstrate our shared commitment to the defense of the Panama Canal.
Standing beside this great achievement, I see the Canal as a metaphor for the region. It is the embodiment of transregional connections. Its defense depends on a partnership of nations—no one can do it alone.
Transregional Opportunities and Challenges
This region has never held such opportunity. The last remnants of the Cold War may finally be fading as a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations unfolds. Political change in Argentina also shows the promise of improved relations. In Colombia, a peace accord is progressing toward closing more than 50 years of political violence. Yet the obstacles to turning these and other opportunities into reality are large and growing. Astounding violence and related murder rates; transregional criminal networks trafficking not just in drugs, but also humans, illicit natural resources, weapons, and more; endemic corruption; small but concerning numbers of radicalized fighters joining the Islamic State in Syria—all these elements pose challenges to the region. Those challenges flow up to the southern approaches of the United States; what affects our neighbors soon enough is felt on our streets and cities.
Just as the Canal has global reach and impact, so do many of the challenges and concerns that touch Latin America and the Caribbean. More and more, geographic combatant commanders, focused on regional areas of responsibility, are seeing and responding to transregional challenges. In our interconnected world, we need to pay attention to those nations and non-state organizations that may be pursuing strategies across multiple borders and regions. If we are concerned about Russia’s conduct in Eastern Europe, we should pay attention to what they are doing in Latin America as well. If we are concerned about China’s performance as a responsible actor in a transparent rules-based system in the South and East China Seas, we may want to better understand their activities in the Western Hemisphere. If we are concerned about Iran’s use of surrogates and proxies in the Middle East, we should keep an eye on their clandestine activities across Central and South America.
The Panama Canal stands as a testament to vision, tenacity, and an enduring symbol of partnership—opportunity turned to reality through patience and perseverance. In Latin America we can achieve great and necessary things with the same patience and perseverance. In the face of these challenges, the United States is fortunate to have stalwart friends, allies, and partners throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, who are committed to working with us and one another to ensure our hemisphere remains a beacon of stability, security, and prosperity.
On a closing note – you never know when you will bump into a fellow Academy Alum. Sitting next to me at the canal inauguration ceremony was Maximo Mejia, the Government of the Philippines Administrator for Transpiration and Communications and USNA class of ’88.
Surveying the rugged coast of Finland, rocky beaches guarded by an army of small islands and towns once scarred by wars, I am reminded of the resilience and tenacity of the people who call this place home. These attributes were on dramatic display on the shores of Hanko, Finland today as Marines from five nations conducted their first of three amphibious landings. NATO’s inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the BALTOPS 2016 exercise as “Partnership for Peace” nations underscores the fact that their regional security interests in the Baltic are in sync with the 28 members of the Alliance.
Just two days ago on 4 June the exercise participants assembled as an entire group for the first time in Tallinn, Estonia, for the Pre-Sail Conference. On 5 June we set sail from Estonia. On 6 June we hit the beach running. . . Literally! The rapid assembly and deployment of forces in the first few days of BALTOPS 2016 is a powerful testament to the strength and agility of the Alliance. Even more striking is the longevity of the exercise. BALTOPS began in the 1970s as a U.S. exercise with U.S. assets affirming the right to sail in international waters. In the mid-1990s the focus shifted toward building trust with Partnership for Peace nations with the understanding that working together to enhance regional security is beneficial for every nation with interests in the Baltic Sea. In 2015 the exercise took an important step when, for the first time, it was planned and executed by a NATO headquarters and commanded by a NATO commander.
BALTOPS 2016 continues this trajectory today, emphasizing cooperation with full-Alliance members and aspiring partners. Of the nearly 550 marines landed on the Hanko beaches today, more than half were Finns and Swedes. And let me tell you, from their fierce looks I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of them.
Finland and Sweden are already closely integrated within the Swedish-Finish Naval Task Group (SFNTG); however, they do not have large amphibious assault ships. NATO provided the amphibious ship capability with USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) and HNLMS Johan de Witt; Finland and Sweden provided over 300 Marines. For this day of BALTOPS 2016 (a day which happens to be Sweden’s National Day), it was as if NATO was participating in a Swedish-Finnish joint exercises rather than the other way around. To enhance the quality of training there was a great deal of cross-decking. When one Lance Corporal from Wyoming was asked what he thought of the Finnish assault craft that took his Band of Brothers to the beach, he answered, “Awesome,” and continued to describe the assault craft as “the fastest boat I’ve ever been on.” Others—Germans, Italians, Swedes, and Finns echoed this review of the opportunity to train together. On a personal level that’s what it’s all about—learning from one another and building lasting relationships.
Talking to the international contingent of young Marines after they charged ashore reminded me of photos of another amphibious assault seventy-two years ago on June 6, 1944, during Operation Overlord (D-Day). Today, our exercise was conducted in peacetime. The participants are well-trained. Many are veterans of BALTOPS 2015. In 1944, the Normandy landing was the beginning of the end of the last great powers war. Many of the soldiers storming Omaha, Juno, and Sword Beaches had never seen combat. Thousands died on both sides. We are training today so that scenes like those on the Normandy beachhead will never be repeated.
There is talk in the news about heightened tension between the West and Russia. I have written about it myself. Russian media has claimed that NATO’s posture is provocative, although we are a defensive alliance, and BALTOPS represents a series of naval maneuvers designed to hone the skills of the allies and partners to deter (or to prevent war). It is important to remember that Russian and Western interests are not mutually exclusive. We are both fighting terrorism in the Middle East. We have worked and trained together in the past and that sort of cooperation is possible in the future, but Russia is not participating in BALTOPS this year. Security, economic prosperity, and freedom of navigation in the Baltic are in the interest of all nations whose commercial ships plow these waters. That’s why NATO is here . . .
If you have not already, you need to read one of the more important wake up calls written by a navalist this year; Bryan McGrath’s remarks published over at WarOnTheRocks, War and Survivability of U.S. Naval Forces.
It will come to no surprise to those who read my post last week, that I am roughly in full alignment with the direct and unblinking comments he brings to the reader;
(in the post-Cold War era) …we built and operated a Navy in the post-Cold War era that reflected this. We created a fleet architecture that raised defense to a high art. We became proficient in the art of precision land-attack and maritime constabulary missions while the surface force essentially abandoned the playing field of offensive naval warfare. Because there was no anti-submarine warfare threat to speak of, we walked away from the mission while turning our sonar techs into .50 cal gunners and visit, board, search, and seizure crew. We walked away from the anti-surface mission to the point where we haven’t built a ship in the United States that could kill another ship over the horizon since USS Porter in 1999.
That is where we find ourselves by our own hand, and this is where we need to go;
We have to be begin to be more direct about what we face. We have to recognize that our unchallenged mastery is now challenged. We now have to recognize that there are nations who see the system we’ve crafted since World War II as unhelpful to their strategic goals. We have to recognize that in order to deter nations like this, naval forces operating weeks over the horizon are insufficient. We must recognize that presence, showing the flag, being there, is just not enough.
Distributed lethality is the leading edge of that recognition. By increasing the unit-level lethality of virtually every ship in the Navy and then operating them innovatively in a dispersed posture designed to present an adversary with numerous and diverse threats to what he holds dear, we are once again realizing the deterrent value of offensive power. The surface force seems to have recognized the changed environment, the re-emergence of great power dynamics, and the requirement to break a defensive mindset while taking to the operational offensive once again. Future strike group commanders and numbered fleet commanders and four-stars must begin to think about and more importantly communicate a recognition that the stakes have changed, and that a force that places too much value on survivability may be placing insufficient emphasis on threatening the other guy’s survivability.
We need to harden surface presence forces not just for the sake of protecting the people serving on the ship, but also to present would-be aggressors with a more effective deterrent. We need — when we talk about survivability — to ensure that we are talking about it as a means to an end — conventional deterrence — and not an end unto itself
Finally, I want to try and get something going here with you. I’d like us to stop talking about “survivability” altogether. That’s right — eliminate it from our lexicon. When you folks go back to your jobs wherever they may be, but especially at the Pentagon, the systems commands, or at the surface type command, try to get the Navy to walk away from it. Truth be told, it is a loaded term, and one that conveys defense and weakness and timidity. The Air Force — which has a much tougher job in justifying the expense of large land bases that don’t move — never talks about “survivability.” They talk about “hardening,” as I’ve done here today.
We need to harden the surface force in order to make our adversaries spend more of their tax dollars in trying to overcome it — or better yet — decide that such expenditures aren’t worth the opportunity cost. This is, of course, the essence of conventional deterrence.
He brings a lot more to the discussion. Read it all.
Please join us for a May Day show on – no shock here – 1 May 2016 at 5pm EDT for Midrats Episode 330: “Terrorists on the Ocean” with CAPT Bob Hein, USN:
When does the Long War go feet wet?
Given the track record of the preceding couple of decades, it was expected shortly after the start of this phase of the war after 911, that terrorists would take the war to sea. There was an incident now and then, but the threat never really played out to the extent we thought early on.
Recent events point to the possibility that this may be changing, in perhaps ways not originally thought.
What is the threat? Where is it coming from, and how do you deter and defeat it?
Our guest for the full hour to discuss will be CAPT Bob Hein, USN. We will use his latest article with CIMSEC, Terrorists on the Ocean: Sea Monsters in the 21st Century, as a starting out point for discussion.
Captain Hein is a career surface warfare officer. Over the last 28 years, he has served on seven ships around the globe and has had the privilege of commanding two of them: the USS Gettysburg (CG 64), and the USS Nitze (DDG 94),
He completed two tours as a requirements officer on the Navy staff for combatant modernization and for future logistics capabilities. He also served as the current operations officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Additional tours include as an action officer on the Joint Staff, Joint Operations Directorate, and as Chief of Staff to the NATO Mediterranean Fleet.
He is currently the Branch Head for Strategy on the OPNAV Staff (N513) Captain Hein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s in physical science. He also holds a master’s in national security affairs and strategic studies from the Naval War College, is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College, and a former Navy Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also the proud father of two Surface Warfare Officers; it’s a family business..
The world keeps waking up from history – in this case a quarter century nap it seems.
During the Cold War, the maritime choke points between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK were key to the defense of Europe. This “GIUK gap” represented the line that Soviet naval forces had to cross in order to reach the Atlantic and stop U.S. forces heading across the sea to reinforce America’s European allies. It was also the area that the Soviet Union’s submarine-based nuclear forces would have to pass as they deployed for their nuclear strike missions. In response, the United States and its northern NATO allies spent considerable time, money, and effort on bolstering anti-submarine warfare capabilities and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in the region. Maritime patrol aircraft from the UK, Norway, and the U.S.(Navy P-3s, flying from Keflavik) covered the area from above, while nuclear and conventional submarines lurked below the surface. The choke points were also monitored by an advanced network of underwater sensors installed to detect and track Soviet submarines.
But after the Cold War ended, the GIUK gap disappeared from NATO’s maritime mind. U.S. forces left Iceland in 2006, and the UK, facing budget pressures, retired its fleet of maritime patrol aircraft fleet in 2010. (The Netherlands did the same in 2003.) Anti-submarine warfare and the North Atlantic were hardly priorities for an Alliance embroiled in peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, and fighting pirates in far-flung Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.
That appears to have come to an end;
Russia’s growing sub-surface capabilities are coupled with an apparent political will to use them. Its recently revised maritime strategy emphasizes operations in the Arctic, along with the need for Russian maritime forces to have access to the broader Atlantic Ocean. And that access will have to be, just as during the Cold War, through the GIUK gap.
Now the United States is pivoting back to the region; witness the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it intends to spend part of the proposed 2017 European Reassurance Initiative budget on upgrading facilities at Keflavik.
And the U.S. is not alone. Britain recently announced that it will seek to rebuild its maritime patrol aircraft fleet, probably by buying P-8s from Boeing. Norway is also considering its options for the future of its maritime patrol aircraft, and is also looking to buy a new class of submarines. Norway also recently upgraded its signal intelligence ship with new U.S. sensors, and the ship is primarily intended for operations in the vast maritime spaces of the High North.
Of course, history has been busy while everyone else was distracted. Time for a little catch-up.
The UK is without an indigenous maritime patrol aircraft capability following a decision in 2010 to axe its fleet of Nimrod aircraft for budgetary reasons. However, that has widely been viewed as a mistake, and November’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) included a decision to procure nine P-8 aircraft to reinstate that capability.
Those planes will not be operational until 2019, at a time when the increasing presence of Russian nuclear submarines in the North Atlantic has spooked some in London.
Several possible sightings of Russian boats in the approaches to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane, Scotland, have resulted in US and other NATO allies drafting in maritime patrol aircraft to mount a search for the vessels.
British crews have been training on US Navy P-8’s and other maritime aircraft following the Nimrod program cancellation.
The program, known as Seedcorn, is aimed at maintaining British anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare skills. As many as British 20 crew have at any one time been embedded with the USN on P-8 operations.
Dunne also confirmed that the United Kingdom still plans to operate US weapons on its P-8 fleet when the planes first come online, before potentially transitioning to British weapons in the future, the nation’s head of military procurement has confirmed.
The equipment on the UK P-8s will “initially” be the same as the US Navy operates, Dunne said. “On the P-8, we are looking at essentially an off the shelf, [foreign military sales] purchase. It’s a [commercial off-the-shelf] capability. We are looking at acquihiring the same suite of capability as the US Navy operate.
“There may be some communications stuff that we need to introduce but as far as the capability is concerned it’s coming sort of as is, fully formed,” he added.
Asked if there was a timetable for when UK equipment might end up on the P-8, Dunne simply said “no.”
That is a nation in a hurry. They slow-rolled this to the point they cannot even defend the approaches to their strategic deterrence in their territorial waters.
Imagine having to call Australia and France to help us look for Russian submarines off Seattle and Kings Bay. Yep.
As the West returns to ASW, it will be at a smaller scale. Things are a bit different now. Russia, while something to contend with, is not the Soviet Union. She is also not the supine Russia of 20 years ago.
Unlike the height of the Cold War, she does not need to get her SSBNs to their designated “Yankee Box” in the middle Atlantic. They can deter from the pier if they need to. They no longer have the Red Banner Fleet, they have assets that if they want to show the flag, they need to get out of the North Sea. To get out of the North Sea, they have to make it through the GIUK Gap. If the Most Dangerous COA takes place and they find themselves in a war – they must threaten shipping and NATO warships in the Atlantic. NATO must prevent that. That is the driver.
They have more than legacy Soviet systems. The Russians are building some impressive modern kit, but in smaller numbers – as are we.
NATO’s military does not have the capacity to do ASW like it used to, so we are lucky. ASW is a numbers game, and you have to have enough hunters to match the game. The days of the Norwegians and other folks getting cracks at them before Bear Island, then you had all sorts of SSK and SSNs from European NATO nations that could create issues, not to mention the flightlines full of USA, CAN, GBR, NOR, NLD and other nations Maritime Patrol aircraft that had regular almost daily real world ASW experience – throw in USNS and USN/NATO RW and surface forces too … and on a good day we were all over them, and that was before the Soviets even got through The Gap.
If the Russians want to come out to play again, then we will have to join them. How much? Hard to tell, but we don’t want to be where the British have found themselves.
So, it is time to return to old stomping grounds and to break the adhesions of intermittent real world ASW prosecutions.
Now, how to fund it? FRA, NLD, DEU – I’m looking to you. NOR and GBR look to be stepping up. ESP, POR, and ITA, we’ll bother you next if the Russians insist on coming through the STROG to bother everyone through the Malta escarpment.
A military that faces budget constraints must make choices. The US military is no exception. Is it more important that we fund a large force that can build relationships and spread out over every potential conflict zone? Or should we instead invest in capabilities that will make our individual units more lethal and survivable? In other words, do we build a lot of the assets we know how to build, or do we instead develop better assets that we can build in the future? Secretary of Defense Carter has referred to this debate in terms of posture vs presence (advanced future-forces vs large current-forces).
The fundamental question of this debate is whether war is more likely now or in the future. If we knew we had 50 years until a large conventional conflict, most would advocate investing in capability. That would allow us to build more effective forces for when we needed them. On the other hand, if we knew we only had 1 year, it would not be prudent to divert current readiness in favor of capabilities that wouldn’t be available in time.
The United States’ modern defense establishment has faced one real peer-competitor: the USSR. They posed a threat that was felt viscerally by the populace and the military that defended them. If there was ever a challenge that dictated a large number of ready forces, it was the Cold War. New technologies always had to be researched, but they would be useless if the operational forces couldn’t win a war that day.
When we look at a graph of US defense research spending as a percentage of total defense spending, this pattern is clear. Time periods where the blue line is below the red are when research spending was lower than the historical average.
Data from SIPRI and AAAS
From the early-60s to the mid-80s, when the Soviet threat was large and immediate, research took a back seat to presence. Regular military spending outpaced research spending by a greater than normal amount. Then, America woke up in the 90s to a peerless world. Presence took a back seat to capability. The US military had breathing space to begin to think about the future. It used that breathing space to fund the technologies that would power a networked military that has yet to be seriously challenged in conventional warfare in the post-Cold War era.
In the 21st century, China has replaced the Soviet Union as the threat that focuses defense planners. So how does China compare as an adversary? Do we have the time we need to focus on capability, or should we go all-in on our currently operational forces?
Without going into direct capabilities, a fairly reasonable way to compare threats is to look at top-line military budgets. How did our spending compare to the Soviets’ and how does our spending compare to China’s? Let’s first look at the Cold War.
Data from SIPRI and CIA
From 1966 to 1989, the United States was able to muster enough defense spending to approximately match that of the Soviet Union. There were long stretches where the US lagged the Soviets, but it was always fairly close. The rest of NATO seems to have consistenly spent somewhere between 50% and 60% of the Soviet’s budget. Combined, NATO and the US spent 20-80% more than the USSR.
Data from SIPRI and CIA
Looking at these graphs, you see what looks like a close struggle, but one where the US and NATO are clearly superior. That was not at all the perception in the 60s or 70s, though. The nightly news in that era was gloomy. And the Soviet military really did pose a legitimate threat to an American-led world order. We talk today about China holding US aircraft carriers at risk. The Soviet Union held every city in America at risk. It was a global challenger as much as it sought regional hegemony. So the US strategy was to prioritize the readiness of the forces that it had. Not to prioritize the forces it wished it had.
And in the end, it is hard to argue that this was the wrong strategy. Afterall, the world is not a nuclear wasteland and America has enjoyed lone superpower status for the last 25 years. So if this is the threat picture that warrants “presence” oriented spending, what is a threat picture that warrants the opposite? This:
Data from SIPRI
It is not terribly close. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR spent similar amounts on defense. The United States outspends China three times over, today. Additionally, China’s neighbors currently spend an amount equal to China’s defense outlays, not the 60% deficit that NATO could muster on its best days.
The trajectory of China’s spending is clearly up, while the United States’ trajectory is clearly down. But America presently enjoys a vast lead. And China’s neighbors are increasing defense spending, as well (albiet at a lower rate). Taking these factors into account, it seems as though the United States has a long time before it must worry about China challenging global order. China may be building “facts on the ground” that will be beneficial once it is a mature power (by flouting international law in the South China Sea), but it is not currently a serious challenger to the United States.
While the US and NATO once spent a combined 120% of the Soviet’s budget, the US and its Asian allies currently spend 384% of China’s budget.
Data from SIPRI
If every trend stays exactly as it currently is (and that is already not realistic since China recently announced a reduction in military spending growth), it will take a decade before China poses a threat similar to that of the USSR.
China cannot currently contest our dominance in Asia in the way that the Soviets contested our dominance in Europe. During the Cold War, America waited to prioritize current-force spending until the Soviet’s military budget was about 80% of the American budget. China’s is currently at 35% of America’s.
If American strategy requires that its chief adversary be able to plausibly challenge its dominance in a region before it prioritizes current-forces over future ones, it’s clear that now is not the time for a buildup. With a minimum of 10 years before a new Cold War, and more realistically 20 or 30 years, the US military would be remiss to not fund future capabilities while it can.
The question then is relegated to one of magnitude. How much should the United States prioritize research? Let’s first look at where our current military budget is in comparison to where it’s been.
Data from SIPRI
Defense spending has averaged 6.1% of GDP since 1949. It currently rests at around 3.5% of GDP. As you can see in the above graph, defense spending was high up until the end of the Cold War, shrunk greatly in the 90s, and then rose again during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those wars now over, our budget is in a new trough.
Data from SIPRI
Total defense spending as a percentage of GDP has only been lower for a brief time in the late 90s/early aughts. There is room to increase it if needed. And if there is to be an increase, it should go toward modernizing the force.
Research and development as a percentage of GDP lies at around .4%. The long-run average is .55%, but the R&D boom of the late 80s reached .7%.
Data from SIPRI and AAAS
The late-80s investment in R&D produced the advanced military that was able to decimate Saddam’s Soviet-style military. It was sufficient to produce a force capable of decisive victory. Similar levels of investment will be required to produce similar margins of victory. What would it take to get spending back to similar levels?
It would require 70% more research spending, but would only increase the total defense budget to 3.8% of GDP from 3.5%. Which is far below the 6.1% long-run average. By reducing our current-force size in areas unlikely to contribute in a large, conventional conflict (the least likely scenario, but easily the most damaging), we could likely keep our overall budget similar to its current levels.
China is a threat to an American-led global order in the long-run. It will eventually be able to credibly challenge our core interests in the world. It, however, does not currently warrant the same defense structure than did the USSR. We still have time to ensure our forces are capable enough to win the wars of the future. And in their current structure, they would likely prevail in any surprise conflict that comes sooner. We shouldn’t restore our military to its Cold War size. We should worry about how we can build the military of the future.
In addressing China’s push in to the sea, the Western response is almost reflexive – and bellicose. Via David Larter at NavyTimes;
The U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.
Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China’s island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the “Great Wall of Sand” before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital, sources say.
In the closest Western nation to China, Australia, we have an interesting twist from their Latest White Paper;
Former minister Kevin Andrews has used today’s release of the long-awaited Defence White Paper to pressure the Turnbull Government to send warships within 12 nautical miles of contested islands in the South China Sea.
The 2016 Defence White Paper maps a course towards a total of $195 billion in Defence capability or equipment by 2020-21, together with a larger military force of 62,400 personnel, the largest in a quarter of a century.
Mr Andrews’ call comes just days after the Commander of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet said it would be “valuable” if the Royal Australian Navy conducted “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed region.
The Liberal backbencher said Australia must now follow the United States’ example.
“We have to exercise that freedom of navigation and means being prepared to sail our naval vessels, to fly our aircraft through that region and say we want unrestricted trade routes in this area,” Mr Andrews told the ABC.
OK. those are grey-hull ops, FON ops, and generally showing everyone you have a big stick.
What are the nations closest to China doing, those of a distinct Asian culture and a few thousand years of national history in dealing with China? They have grey hulls, they have warships – but it isn’t their navy by-and-large that they are sending out.
Let’s go north to south. Japan;
Japan has placed 12 of its coast guard vessels around the disputed chain of islands in the East China Sea. The deployment comes days after it inaugurated a new defence radar system in the region, and is meant to patrol the islands called Senkaku by Japan and termed Diaoyu by China.
The fleet comprises 1,500-tonne patrol ships – all of them newly inducted – and two Shikishima class helicopter carriers. All the newly-built ships, capable of high-speed manoeuvres, are fitted with 20mm guns and water cannons. Tokyo said the enhanced patrolling is to protect the waters surrounding the region, according to the Kyodo news agency.
The stand-off between China and Vietnam over the former’s decision to place an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea escalated on Tuesday when a Chinese coast guard ship rammed a Vietnamese coast guard ship. The Vietnamese vessel allegedly suffered several “gashes” in its metal hull according to the Wall Street Journal. No Vietnamese sailors were injured and the boat did not sink. The incident reflects a sort of escalation in the dispute. While a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese civilian vessel (a fishing boat) last month, Tuesday’s incident is a case of two coast guard ships from the two countries becoming involved in a physical altercation. In another incident, a Chinese vessel fired a water cannon at a Vietnamese ocean inspection ship. No naval assets from either side were involved in either exchange.
So far, neither Vietnamese nor Chinese officials have commented on the incident. The initial report comes courtesy of a Vietnamese TV news station VTV1.
On Saturday, a large Chinese coast guard warship in Indonesian waters rammed a vessel that was being towed by an Indonesian patrol vessel. The vessel being towed was a Chinese fishing boat that had been illegally fishing in Indonesian waters around the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Another large Chinese warship arrived on the scene and forced the Indonesians to release the fishing vessel. However, the eight-member crew of the Chinese vessel had already been arrested, and are still in custody.
The Natuna Islands have always been sovereign Indonesian territory. They are far away from China, but because of the rich fishing grounds, China would like to use its military power to seize the islands from Indonesia.
They could be using their navy, but they aren’t.
When you have a grey hull, you are signaling that you consider this dispute a national security issue; a white hull signals that you see it as a legal issue.
As we plan to run up the battle flag at flank speed, we may want to ponder a bit why those closest to China are taking a different approach.