Getting US Maritime Strategy on the Straight and Narrow

Credit: Global Times

Credit: Global Times

Whither an American strategy to deal with China, laments Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.  In Forbes’ view, China is executing a focused strategy in its (desired) areas of influence in East and Southeast Asia: occupying features; supporting maritime militia; creating and expanding economic and trade links; constantly and unwaveringly repeating its (logically incorrect) “indisputable” claims; and so on.  In contrast, the US is lost in the woods without a clear plan to take up the gauntlet that China has thrown down.  Instead, the US should be actively responding to these de facto challenges to the American order in the region (Forbes handily provides his own five-point checklist for creating such a strategy).

Not so fast, says US Naval War College Professor James Holmes.  Crafting an effective American strategy in East Asia is not simple, especially given the US’ global security commitments.  First, we need to analyze the types of strategies that best suit status quo and challenger countries: as the challenger to the American system, China is more likely to advance a “sequential”-type strategy, with linear tactical movements that build on each other to a clear goal; meanwhile, the US probably develops a “cumulative” strategy, which is comprised of often far-flung, disconnected and disparate movements that, in aggregate, support a general outcome.  Viewed in this way, China’s strategy is clear, simple and straightforward, while the US is in the unenviable position of responding with diffuse responses, which must be managed in the context of a wide-ranging and complex relationship. With these differences in mind, though, Holmes argues (not unlike Forbes) that the US itself needs to craft a sequential strategy for East Asia.  To this end, he recommends setting and acting upon priorities, reducing the burden on US resources by enlisting global allies to lead in their respective neighbourhoods, and directly challenging China’s attempts to create facts on the ground, such as the massive buildup of sometimes-submerged features in the South China Sea.  In many ways, this sounds like the Obama administration’s strategy – the rebalance to the Pacific, and recent US Navy freedom of navigation challenges in the South China Sea – but adopting Holmes’ and Forbes’ recommendations would presumably make this strategy easier to execute, achieve, and evaluate.

The creation and execution of national maritime strategies is the focus of an entire panel at Maritime Security Challenges 2016, to be held in Victoria, BC, Canada, on October 3rd to 6th, 2016.  Come join us!

Former CNO Adm Gary Roughead on “Defining Maritime Asia”

Credit: IHS Maritime 360

Credit: IHS Maritime 360

When discussing the maritime environment or the concept of seapower it is often easy to get too wrapped up in the activities of navies. It is easy to overlook the contributions of other state agencies, and commercial and civilian actors, and the many other groups and individuals who depend on the ocean for their livelihood, both at-sea and on shore (which is, arguably, all of us).

The Maritime Security Challenges conference series is designed to address the full scope of these many different sea-going constituencies.

The next MSC event is still more than a year away, but this sort piece by Admiral Gary Roughead (USN Ret’d), should serve as a good reminder of the scope of the issues at hand. Entitled ‘Defining Maritime Asia’, Adm Roughead’s post for the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies reminds us that:

“The foundation of maritime Asia is about commerce and the dependence of Asian nations on the sea. It is about sea routes and resources (energy, mineral and protein – fish) that feed Asian economies. In the terms of the great naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, it is about the “great highways” and “wide common” of the sea. Accordingly, maritime Asia should be thought of, collectively, as the Pacific and Indian Oceans; or, appropriately, the Indo-Pacific maritime. Soon, the ice-diminished Arctic Ocean will increase in importance as the “great highways” and the “wide common” there become more accessible adding to the web of sea-lanes that feed Asia.”

Be sure to check it out and the other great analyses provided by the AMTI – particularly on the South China Sea.

Maritime Security Challenges 2014 is a wrap!

The  blog has been a bit quiet in recent weeks as our small team worked to make the Maritime Security Challenges 2014: Pacific Seapower one of the most successful yet of the MSC conference series. We would like to extend a very sincere thanks to all our partners, sponsors, speakers, and delegates who all came together to make the conference an extraordinarily worthwhile experience. The feedback we’ve received has been very encouraging, as always, and we’re already looking forward to MSC16!

But before that, it will take some time to fully digest all the great points that were discussed as MSC14. You can now find video of the conference proceedings on our YouTube channel, or embedded below. We have also added photos from the MSC conference to our Facebook page.

Please enjoy, and feel free to share these videos with your friends or colleagues who may be interested.

UK Government Says It Will Put Both QE-Class Carriers Into Service – But How Revolutionary Are They?

Her Majesty's Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, operating in a future computer generated environment. Source: BAE Systems / UK MoD

Her Majesty’s Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, operating in a future computer-generated environment. Source: BAE Systems/UK MoD

The British government announced at the end of last weekend’s NATO summit in Wales that it has decided to bring both Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers into active service. The coalition government in London had earlier delayed its decision on what to do with the second ship in the class, to be named HMS Prince of Wales, once construction was completed; the pessimistic prediction was that the ship would be mothballed or sold, and some suggested it would be left in a state of perpetual extended readiness, awaiting the right crisis to be brought into service.

Apparently NATO’s renewed vigour in the face of an apparent growing threat from Russia amounts to just such a crisis. Or maybe the British economy has just rebounded enough to allow the government to face the possibility of paying for this ship. Either way, Queen Elizabeth, slated for service in 2020, will be joined shortly afterwards by Prince of Wales, giving the Royal Navy (RN) a continuous power projection capability.

So what should we expect from these ships, the largest ever fielded by the RN? Peter Roberts, a fellow of the UK’s own Royal United Services Institute, has suggested that the ships are products of compromise, rather than the “revolutionary” designs touted by some commentators and government officials. Roberts, a former RN officer, suggests several potential problems with the new ships, including:

  • An emphasis on smaller crews to decrease manpower costs, which could prove disastrous in a damage control situation considering the size of the ships; Roberts notes that the RN ships will have a smaller crew (650) than their smaller French counterpart vessels (Charles de Gaulle, at 2,500). It is unclear whether advancements in automation will compensate for this lack of bodies.
  • A propulsion and power generation system that was selected to be fuel efficient, but may not be powerful enough to or have sufficient endurance to sustain the ships on extended missions. Other allied ships of this size are considerably higher-powered, and the Queen Elizabeth-class’ somewhat limited power generation capacity – to be used for propulsion and every other on-board system – may prove inadequate.
  •  A relatively low sorties-per-day requirement at maximum operating capacity, considering the operational tempo achieved by comparable foreign ships; the US Gerald R. Ford-class is expected to achieve 230 per day, while the RN ships are expected to field 70. Ford is a much larger ship, but not 3.2 times larger.
  • And that brings us to the defensive capabilities of the carriers, which, like those of other navies, are reliant on a screen of destroyer escorts to provide protection. Roberts, like countless other commentators, has warned of the diminution of the RN’s fleet of surface combatants, suggesting that the RN alone is unlikely to be able to provide this protection alone.

Roberts also mentions the F-35 debate, and whether the ships should be short-takeoff-vertical landing (STOVL)/ski-jump configuration or catapult assisted takeoff, barrier arrested recovery (CATOBAR), which would allow for the operation of heavier aircraft (the F-35C) and interoperability with allies. This debate has been going on for years, but the apparent final selection of the ski-jump/F-35B could allow for future alteration and, as Roberts suggests, the advent of unmanned carrier aircraft could drastically alter these considerations within the service lives of these ships. Despite their shortcomings, Roberts seems to suggest that the carriers are of a design that should prove flexible enough to incorporate a range of future changes to adapt to new technologies.  That sounds like a pretty good design for a ship at a time of increased fiscal constraint and rapidly changing technology.

Thus, there is reason to be optimistic, as the promise of two carriers could herald a revitalization of Britain’s interest in a capable naval force. At the very least, the commissioning of Prince of Wales will allow for a continuous at-sea strike capability, while prolonging the service lives of both ships as maintenance periods should be less delayed or affected by global crises requiring naval forces.

Now about those F-35s…

Vacation for Some, Stress for Others

Coconut Princess begins her latest cruise of the Paracels on Sept 2nd (Source: Xinhua)

Coconut Princess begins her latest cruise of the Paracels from Sanya on Sept 2nd (Source: Xinhua)

This past week, China opened a new cruise route between its southern Hainan Island and the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (SCS).  The lone cruise ship sailing the route, Coconut Princess, began her maiden voyage on the new route on Tuesday, during which some 200 Chinese tourists will be able to land on several islets in the Paracels and play volleyball, dive, and take pictures over the four-day, three-night cruise.  This cruise expands China’s effective control of the Paracels, as the presence of its citizens in the disputed islets give it the pretext to defend them (see: Russia’s “defence” of Russian-speakers in Ukraine).

Vietnam, which also claims the Paracel Islands, quickly condemned China’s move, saying that it complicates the status quo in the region, and Hanoi demanded that the new cruise immediately be halted.  Although China has offered SCS cruises since April 2013, taking around 3,000 tourists to the Paracels, this new route comes at a particularly inopportune time.  The new cruise route violates the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) in the SCS between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Vietnam is a member, as well as the 2011 China-Vietnam maritime issues resolution.

What’s more than the violation of these agreements (every SCS claimant has breached the DoC at some point), is that the new Paracel cruise route comes very soon after top Communist Party officials from Vietnam and China met in Beijing to mend ties that were greatly strained by the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling rig standoff this summer.  During that meeting, the two sides agreed to avoid any actions that would worsen their SCS dispute, which, presumably, includes not making tourism of disputed areas easier.

That China decided to go ahead with the new Paracel Islands cruise route so soon after this high-level meeting suggests a few of possibilities: Beijing doesn’t care if Hanoi is upset about its actions and balances to prevent them; Beijing considers effective control of the Paracels to be more important than its relations with Hanoi; andor Beijing is maintaining the fiction that it maintains indisputable sovereignty over the Paracels, and can therefore offer cruises through the islets if it so pleases.  If either of these possibilities is true, then it further suggests that even bilateral negotiations on SCS disputes, which China prefers, are essentially useless, which gives other SCS claimants all the more reason to pursue, or continue to pursue, hedging strategies against China in the SCS.  This makes negotiations and peaceful, mutually acceptable resolutions to conflicting SCS claims all the more difficult.

Issues such as this will be directly addressed by the Navigating Maritime Disputes panel at the Maritime Security Challenges 2014 conference in Victoria, BC, Canada, from October 6th to 9th.  In addition to SCS disputes, the conference promises to examine current maritime and naval issues, such as shipbuilding and regional perspectives on naval developments.  The deadline for avoiding late registration – September 22nd – is coming up quickly, so register soon!

If You Build Them, Will They Come (Man Them)?

Defense News reported this week that New Zealand is considering cutting its inshore patrol vessel (IPV) fleet by half, to two ships, despite the vessels having been commissioned in 2009 and still having that new-ship smell.  Wellington is exploring the possibility of selling two of the IPVs and replacing them with a single longer range offshore patrol vessel (pending the results of next month’s election, of course).

HMNZS Hawea, one of the RNZN's four IPVs (for now)

HMNZS Hawea, one of the RNZN’s four IPVs (for now)

Wellington’s reason for getting rid of two almost brand-new ships is simple: a lack of personnel.  The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) has a current active duty strength of 2,063 personnel (plus 397 reservists), down from 2,162 in 2010, which is not nearly enough people to maintain regular crew rotations.  Indeed, the New Zealand Defence Force’s 2013 Annual Report said that “[t]he significant reduction in the number of trained personnel available … has directly impacted the Fleet operating profile, and [has] created a range of imbalances in the Navy workforce with skill and experience levels in some critical trade groups seriously degraded.” (p. 53)  As a result, “[t]he personnel shortages have affected the Naval Patrol Force (NPF) the most with the Offshore Patrol Force and Inshore Patrol Force both under delivering against some of their output targets.  Navy has been unable to crew more than four of the six ships continuously.” (p.54)  The IPVs have been hardest hit, with little-to-no skill redundancy among their crews.  Quite simply, if a required skill isn’t available, the ship might not sail.  In this context, Wellington’s proposal makes more sense.

This story highlights the challenge of personnel recruitment and retention, which is not limited to the RNZN.  The RNZN’s neighbour across the Tasman Sea, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), has been similarly challenged.  According to Jane’s, the RAN was only able to fully crew three of its 12 Adelaide and Anzac-class frigates with a high level of operational readiness in 2010, while the RAN’s six Collins submarines were seaworthy for only one-third of the year, in part due to crewing shortages.  Even the world’s top navy, the US Navy (USN), hasn’t been immune to these pressures, albeit with a slight twist.  In a 2012 Navy Times interview, then-Chief of Naval Personnel VAdm. Scott Van Buskirk admitted that the USN went overboard in cutting its number of sailors, resulting in a almost-10,000-person shortfall for at-sea billets.

Navies have been taking steps to address this issue.  For example, the USN has offered sailors in critical positions a USD $1,000 bonus for each month they extend a normal sea tour, while sailors who leave their short posting for a critical at-sea billet receive the same reward.  The RAN has been more ambitious, offering all-in bonuses of up to AUD $200,000 and fast-tracked citizenship to Kiwi troops to sign up with the Australian military.  Such incentives underscore the urgency of the challenge, as Western military budgets have been steadily dropping in recent years.

This personnel challenge opens up a little-discussed side of naval procurement; all too often, big announcements are made about shiny new hardware being commissioned, but there is no mention of available “software”.  This is something that navies will have to meet in various ways, such as increasing automation aboard new vessels.  The Maritime Security Challenges 2014 conference, being held in Victoria, BC, Canada on October 6th to 9th, will address this and many other timely maritime topics.  Hope you can join us!

Japan Releases 2014 Defense White Paper

On Tuesday, August 5th, Japan released its annual Defense White Paper (DWP). This paper sets out Tokyo’s views on the changing strategic landscape of its region and the world and the defence priorities, concerns, and strategies Japan has developed in view of such changes.

For those interested in Asia-Pacific maritime security, two Japanese concerns and priorities stand out significantly. Firstly, while the 2013 DWP was already noteworthy for its harsher tone against China, Japan’s 2014 DWP categorically named China as a key concern because of its “high-handed actions with regard to issues of conflicts of interest in the maritime domain” as exemplified by its various activities in the seas surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands (Japanese/Chinese/Taiwanese name).


The islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China have been the site for tense confrontations between Japanese and Chinese vessels. Source: Economist

Acknowledging that these tense confrontations are taking place regularly is important because for the first time Japan’s DWP also explicitly notes the problem of “grey-zone” situations. In its overview, Japan describes such situations as “dangerous acts” by Chinese state actors which cannot be handled by Japan Coast Guard vessels and that could give rise to “contingency situations” that could rapidly escalate.

The architects of the latest white paper outlined these priorities and concerns so as to validate shifts in Japan’s defence policy which are planned or are already underway. Such shifts include but are not limited to: increasing the Self-Defense Force’s amphibious capability to defend Japanese offshore islands; increasing Air Self-Defense Force and Airborne Early Warning Squadrons closer to the disputed Senkaku Islands, and continuing the buildup of Ground Self-Defense Force amphibious brigades.

What does this mean for those interested in Asia-Pacific maritime security? From the perspective of Japanese defence experts, more needs to be done to modernize and make more mobile and resilient the whole of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, especially in defence of its archipelago. This premise justifies the build-up of the Self-Defence Force (which China has vilified as first steps towards Japan’s return to its imperial past), such as the building of more helicopter destroyers, expanding its submarine fleet, and creating a US Marine Corps-like amphibious capability.

As in past years, the Japanese DWP has been the subject of debate. While it represents only the perspective of one country, it is nonetheless an interesting example of how the strategic landscape in Asia is changing, how fleets are modernizing in view of these changes and how diplomatic channels are evolving to navigate such conflicts. We hope to discuss all of these topics during the Maritime Security Challenges 2014 conference, in Victoria, BC, Canada on October 6th through 9th – we hope you can join us!

China at RIMPAC and Beyond

PLAN and Russian Navy ships in joint exercises in the East China Sea, May 2014.

The Asahi Shimbun posted an interview last week with Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about China’s participation in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014 military exercises. It’s a great interview, with some good insights based on Mr. Cossa’s extensive experience in Asian affairs.

The fact that the interview was conducted by a Japanese publication is evident by the contrast between the pragmatic Cossa, and the interviewer, who seems interested in pushing questions that portray China has a threat to regional security. Though cautious, Cossa seems optimistic that China can be persuaded that its interests can best be served by engaging and cooperating with the United States and its allies.

How is this done? By inviting China to RIMPAC, and allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to witness the full capability of the US Navy (USN) and its close partners. This up-close view, in Cossa’s thinking, will allow the Chinese to realize the great disparity that still exists between the PLAN and USN, and may change the minds of those within China who might otherwise think that future confrontation is a good idea.  Furthermore, interactions between USN and PLAN sailors at all levels at RIMPAC14 at least formed the basis of personal relationships that could prevent future misunderstandings or incidents.  In sum, RIMPAC and other military exercises are a key part of naval diplomacy, a highly important mission of navies in peacetime to keep good order at sea.


Interested in great naval photography and videos of some of the world’s premiere navy’s showing off their skills? Be sure to check out the RIMPAC 2014 Facebook and the US Pacific Fleet’s YouTube sites, featuring some great action from the multinational naval drills.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) leads the multinational combined fleet during the photo exercise at RIMPAC 2014 (Credit: US Navy)

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) leads the multinational combined fleet during the photo exercise at RIMPAC 2014 (Credit: US Navy)

When Is Fishing Not Just Fishing?

Fishermen from China and Vietnam played a not-insignificant role in the recently-ended Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling rig crisis in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.  Throughout the crisis, fishing boats from both countries repeatedly sparred with each other and coast guard vessels, even occasionally ramming one another.  As Dan Baart pointed out in a 2013 article for the Canadian Naval Review, fishermen are playing an increasing role in maritime disputes, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS).  As Mr. Baart notes, although they are certainly interested in fishing wherever possible to earn a living, fishermen aren’t necessarily hapless bystanders in these disputes and are often on the front lines of confrontations, as they are far less provocative representations of national sovereignty than either coast guard or naval vessels.

Chinese fishing boats alongside at Hainan Island (Source: Reuters)

Chinese fishing boats alongside at Hainan Island (Source: Reuters)

As Reuters reported on Sunday, China appears to be elevating fishermen’s role as the vanguard in its SCS claims by offering official support.  The deputy director of the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration was quoted as saying that Chinese fishermen are “encouraged to fish in any waters that belonged to China”, which potentially means almost anywhere in the SCS, according to China’s apparent 9-dash line map of the sea.

To underscore this encouragement, over 50,000 Chinese fishing boats have reportedly been equipped with Beidou satellite communications systems (the Chinese equivalent to the American GPS system), which gives the fishermen a direct line to Chinese authorities.  Furthermore, Chinese fishermen reported receiving fuel subsidies to fish in disputed areas such as the Spratly Islands.  This is not a new or unique development – the Vietnamese government has pledged about USD $210 million to Vietnamese fishermen for low-interest loans and state-provided insurance beginning in August – but the level of official Chinese governmental support to its civilian fishermen is beyond what we’ve seen thus far in the SCS.

This official support for fishermen makes the management of maritime disputes that much more challenging.  Enforcing national fishing regulations is more perilous as maritime agencies need to consider whether fishermen, as de facto representatives of national sovereignty, will be used as players in wider disputes.  Furthermore, the use of fishermen by governments as frontline forces introduces a further element of uncertainty into already fraught situations, as it is unclear whether a fishing issue is just a fishing issue, or if it is part of a wider national claim.  This is sure to be a topic of hot debate during the Navigating Maritime Disputes panel at the Maritime Security Challenges 2014 conference in Victoria, BC, on October 6th through 9th.  We hope you can join us for an undoubtedly spirited discussion!