On The Decline of European Naval Power: A Conversation with Jeremy Stöhs, Pt. 1

By Roger Hilton

The intensifying competition between the United States, Russia, and China for control of strategic spaces has brought with it a slew of challenges and a lowered threshold for potential confrontation. Consequently this new security dynamic has forced national policymakers to reconsider the importance of the maritime domain when it comes to global statecraft. Consequently, this new security dynamic has forced national policy makers to reconsider the importance of the maritime domain when it comes to global statecraft. On quick observation the situation does not inspire much confidence. Years of neglected force structure investment by European nations coupled with shifting American presence to Asia suggest a distressing situation. Consequently, based on these factors it is only natural to ponder if Europe’s naval forces are doomed to impotency for the foreseeable future, or if reform if possible.

Here to help us navigate these questions is Jeremy Stöhs, an Austrian-American defense analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and its adjunct Center for Strategy and Security. In addition, he is also a fellow at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda, and Security Studies. His current research and teaching focuses on transatlantic relations, maritime security, and European naval power. He has written various articles and chapters on the matter and is the author of the recent book, The Decline of European Naval Forces, Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty.

The decline of European naval power can provide insight into the evolution of Europe’s naval forces since the end of the Cold War. To illuminate the drastic changes many European navies have undergone in the past 25 years, we turn to Jeremy who has analyzed the defense policies and naval strategies of 11 European states, as well as the evolution in deployments and capabilities of their respective forces.

JS: Thank you for having me Roger, it’s always a pleasure talking to you.

RH: Before we dive in, it might be helpful if we structure the conversation. We will cover three distinct periods as they relate to the decline of European naval forces. The first period reaches from 1990-2001, and encompasses the post-Cold War peace dividend. The second period, from 2001-2014, covers land wars in the age of global terrorism after 9/11. Period three, 2014 to the present, begins with the annexation of Crimea. 

In your book you describe both the concept of sea power and naval power, can you explain each concept and explain what distinguishes them?

JS: Thank you very much for the question. There is, as you infer, significant semantic awkwardness regarding these terms and their numerous definitions for seapower, for maritime power, for naval power. I like to paraphrase retired British Admiral Chris Parry who argues that sea power is the combined investments of various resources of the state or enterprises in the pursuit of favorable outcomes at sea. I happen to focus on states despite non-state actors gaining power in the world.

But it’s not only about investments or what Geoffrey Till calls the inputs. Sea power is also about the outputs, or in other words, what capacity states have to influence human behavior by what they do at sea. The state is one basic unit for the measurement of power distribution so sea power broadly speaking would include all investment of the state, such as cultural, commercial, military in the maritime domain. Naval power is but one part of sea power, it’s the military investment.

RH: Can you provide some contemporary examples of each?

JS: The concepts are linked, so I would not say there is one example for one or the other. In order to have sea power in my opinion, you need to have a degree of naval power. Some states may have some significant maritime commercial interests but relatively little means for similarly large investments in naval power. But I refer again to Geoffrey Till who refers to that as the virtuous circle, so one investment in one area is mutually beneficial, and a decline in one area can affect decline in another. I believe this is something we have seen in the past, it is important to remember that most every state –  or rather every state – has some interest in the sea, and they enjoy different forms of agency at sea. Even landlocked countries like my home Austria has a part to play within the global trade regime and therefore also has stakes at sea.

Sea power and naval power are linked, and it’s a different concept than how it was understood maybe 200 years ago, but today they are inextricably linked. 

RH: We have the post-Cold War peace dividend, from 1990-2001. You describe in detail how this period started the initial erosion of naval capabilities and strategies. With the end of the Cold War, yourself like many experts declared that the existential threat of the USSR disappeared and by extension led to the abandonment of traditional naval doctrine. As this was a period of transition from sea control, sea denial, and territorial defense operations to power projection and operations in the littorals. How would you describe this transition, and was this shifting of capabilities for nations smooth or for others was it a regrettable experience?

JS: Well now we have the benefit of hindsight and hindsight is always 20/20. But generally speaking you are correct, although I would say that this process was much more nuanced depending on the respective state and more nuanced than it might seem today.

Two broad trends that are discernable during this period of time are states either adhering to traditional strategies of territorial defense, or seeking greater power projection in all its forms, not only military but also in terms of economics and so on. Those are the two opposing trends. But as always I think it’s important to keep in mind it was not black and white but a continuum of change. States might have had a government that emphasized one area over others, and because sea power is an enduring element many of the developments were gradual. So I try to refrain from revolutionary language, I think it was very incremental. Ships cannot be built overnight, naval and maritime proficiencies cannot be gained overnight, and the capabilities in existence in the 1990s were very much the same as the 1980s. It was the same or similar platforms, systems, and people, largely working in unfamiliar waters maybe, and often in unfamiliar ways.

It’s important to note that some navies in some states welcomed these new missions whereas others were reluctant to join in the post-Cold War euphoria. And this is of course related to geostrategic freedom of action. You look at a state like Norway with its proximity to a historical antagonistic, Russia, and other states with very limited financial means it’s difficult to change its naval policy. Therefore I don’t think there is a clear answer to your question.

RH: Against the backdrop of this maritime landscape that deemphasizes traditional doctrine, how are navies in this time justifying their existence and budgets?

JS: A difficult question to generalize and, again, it depends a lot on each Navy, and there should be much more research of each Navy in terms of how the defense policies have changed. But broadly speaking already during the 1980s in the period of easing tensions between East and West, the German reunification, the maintenance of previous spending levels on defense was not possible. You see this already in British defense studies such as the Options for Change white paper of 1990 that clearly describes how previous defense spending was no longer feasible. So how do they actually justify their existence?

It depends. You have the Scandinavian states, with the exception of Denmark, justifying their existence through a continued threat to their territory, with Russia still being the most powerful military power on the continent. The need to protect their Exclusive Economic Zones was also a core argument, and it’s important to remember that provisions of UNCLOS came into force in 1994, elevating the importance of the EEZs even more so.

In the south you have Greece and Turkey which lived through a period of increased tension during the 1990s. This necessitated hikes in defense spending. And for the rest of Europe, many countries placed great emphasis on projecting power, interventions, peace support operations and such. These took navies outside of the NATO’s traditional areas of operation, ‘out-of-area,’ and naval forces were uniquely suited in this role because of their three basic functions, including: the military, the diplomatic, and the constabulary function.

In this period of fiscal austerity, defense planners used every opportunity they had, but it differed from country to country.

RH: You make the observation that green and brown-water navies evolved into blue water navies. Was this a matter of survival, or was this repurposing utility?

JS: There are only a couple of examples where that actually occurred and that has something to do with this aforementioned trend toward power projection. During the Cold War, European navies were assigned specific duties within their areas of responsibility, such as anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, escort duties, amphibious assault, and so they were quite limited by the bipolar world order.

Once these restrictions ended then states that enjoyed strategic freedom of action sought to use naval forces to project power. And an interesting point, those examples that stick out are the Germany Navy or the Danish Navy, to the less extent the Belgian and Spanish navies, they really saw power projection in different forms. But these navies, mainly the German and the Danish navies, were mainly green water navies, operating close to shore occasionally conducting escort duties, but now they would become blue water navies operating far from home. Now they would go into other littorals at great distances, so they would still act as littoral navies, but at a great distance from home. So that’s an interesting aspect of this whole blue water, green/brown debate.

And of course the repurposing had some utility for those navies. They were able to contribute to increasing number of peacekeeping operations that were emerging in the 1990s, including crisis management which was one of NATO’s main roles, military interventions of course in the Balkans for example, but also further afield. We have numerous operations, including Desert Storm, Yugoslavia, Operation Desert Fox in the late 90s, the intervention in Sierra Leone, also low-key humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts after natural catastrophes and so on.

RH: Despite it being a time of economic prosperity and peace, you reference large-scale investments and procurement projects that took place during this period. Can you situate some of the naval hardware being bought and used at the time?

JS: I provide a lot of examples in my book on naval procurement and force structure, and to a certain extent the platforms and their advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to note that European defense industry was of course a powerful actor. It had influence on how naval forces were built and what they looked like, and critical technologies and jobs of course were still main concerns.

It’s important to remember as I mentioned before, navies can’t be built overnight. So, during the 1990s, they were designed for the Cold War, for high intensity warfighting. If you look at the Italian Navy, the German Navy, they were designed for warfighting, a lot of anti-submarine warfare, escort duties, and mine warfare. Now, all of the sudden, you have this need for expeditionary operations and what you need for that, well you need multi-purpose surface combatants, landing platform docks, amphibious assault ships, helicopter carriers and such. So, on one hand, you see this trend that you need larger platforms for low-intensity operations, and at the same time you have all those procurement projects that were developed and designed in the 1980s. There was a divergence between strategic necessities and the security environment for what you need for that and the procurement plans that are already in the pipeline. In the 1990s you see European countries developing air defense capabilities and air defense destroyers and frigates, and those were capable ships that were commissioned at a time where threats of anti-ship missiles in the littorals are not all too great, and where European countries are operating ships with relative impunity.

But of course this had the advantage of supporting important industries and just goes to show that you have to be very prudent about your decision-making and strategic forecasting.

RH: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we should know or that we’ve overlooked?

JS: With respect to downscaling in this period of time, you have fiscal austerity, a peace dividend, so especially maintenance-intensive and manpower-intensive platforms are decommissioned. But it can be considered a period of relative plenty, especially with regard to the threat scenarios at the time. You still have highly capable platforms coming online, you have highly-proficient crews and personnel, so it’s important to note those capabilities that were being developed in Europe. The Horizon-class, the Daring-class, the German air defense frigates, they were state-of-the-art and comparable to the best air defense destroyers in the world. The UK got the Tomahawk land-attack missile for their subs, the French got their Charles De Gaulle carrier. There was also closer cooperation between the states because of the need to streamline and operate together at a tactical level.

The United States still had such great capabilities that they could compensate to some extent for the dwindling numbers among European naval powers. But the 1990s still proved how important naval power was.

RH: Let’s move on to the second period, involving land wars in the period between 2001-2014. This was a seminal moment not just for European navies but also world history. Not only did this period bring two major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the global financial crisis. How did these developments play a major role in the development of European naval forces?

JS: I would argue not to over-dramatize this period. It is true that the last decade it was very challenging for European naval power and the defense community in general in Europe. But it’s also important to put it into a historic context, for the naval forces of some European states, such as the Spanish armada in the 19th century or the 20th century German or Italian navies, they had endured far greater calamities and declines than what we’ve witnessed recently.

However, if you look at the past 30 years, this last decade had the most significant impact on naval forces. I wouldn’t say that it was mainly the land wars but, more importantly, the decreasing defense spending because that more or less is what shapes your naval forces.

RH: At the time we’re in Afghanistan and Iraq, how did the preoccupation with these land wars recalibrate naval power?

JS: There are a couple points to keep in mind here. First of all these operations, we talk about the war on terrorism, you have military operations on land but naval forces play an important role in contributing to these campaigns from air strikes to cruise missiles to providing close air support and medevac, inserting special forces, logistics, and so on. At the same time you had a broadening of the security agenda in general. That already occurs throughout the 1990s but then picks up speed during the 2000s. 9/11 caused Article V of NATO to be invoked for the first time. A large number of European states contributed to the war in Afghanistan, and then also two years later in Iraq. This changed the security environment in such that you have a broadening security environment, a broadening of the term security, and from the 1990s onward and especially after 9/11 you have the threat of terrorism as one of the challenges the naval forces have to deal with. So you see naval forces being deployed in counter-terrorism, combating illegal trafficking of arms, drugs, people, counter-proliferation against weapons of mass destruction. The concept of maritime security is prevalent at this time and naval forces are assigned with dealing with all kinds of maritime security challenges.

RH: It’s been argued that this period helped assert the dominance of the Army and Air Force, and that it led to the de-prioritization of naval power. Amidst this interservice rivalry, did it force navies to expand their repertoire of functions to become more versatile?

JS: I would have to say that really depends on each individual state. I find it difficult to make general claims here. But one thing that is clear is that air and land forces received the lion’s share of funding during this period of time and usually they got a greater portion of the defense budget. We have similar developments in the U.S. as you see in Europe, in those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where you prioritize the capabilities that you need in war. I remember the discussions quite vividly in investing in low-intensity capabilities such as mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. That was the problem, the high-low mix, therefore U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates slashed the F-22 program for instance. You have a similar problem in Europe.

What this period of time does, I believe, is it changes the perception of the functions of the navies and the understandings of navies in what their constabulary and diplomatic roles are. This is reflected in concepts such as the 1,000-ship Navy, the U.S. maritime strategy A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and the European effort for capacity building on the low-end of the intensity spectrum together with partners, and it’s easier to build partnerships at the lower-level compared to the high-end.

So you see this growing cooperation and this cooperative approach toward maritime missions, and of course what happens is that this comes at the expense of warfighting capabilities. Especially anti-submarine warfare wasn’t really practiced, offensive mining was relinquished, anti-surface warfare is difficult to do when you lack surveillance assets like maritime patrol aircraft. So the focus is shifted perhaps too much toward the low-end, it really changed the perception of what navies can do. But I think that is being forgotten again.

Jeremy Stöhs is a security and defense analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) and its adjunct Center for Maritime Strategy & Security as well as a fellow at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda & Security Studies (ACIPSS).

Roger Hilton is the defence and Security stream manager at GLOBSEC, a global think-tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia  as well as a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI).

Featured Image: British Royal Navy air defense destroyers HMS Daring (front) and HMS Dauntless operate, February 2010. (Wikimedia Commons/UK Ministry of Defence)

The Fleet Problem Exercises: An Investment in the Future

By Walker Mills

Introduction

“Foe’s Force Superior.”1

“All ships except those laid up will take part in exercises.”2

“Forty-thousand men of the United States Navy and land forces of the United States Army here began a ‘battle’ at midnight tonight…”3

In the 1920s and 1930s the United States Navy had a problem. The fleet was almost completely comprised of ships that the Navy had never used in combat – the fleet’s last major combat actions were in the Spanish-American War. New classes of platforms that operated under the sea and in the sky threatened to even more drastically change naval warfare than the updates to battleships and cruisers since the last war.4 So the Navy ran a series of large-scale exercises with the goals of preparing the fleet for potential conflict, experimenting with new weapons and tactics, and refining operational plans.

These major exercises, some 21 in all, are unique in Navy history for several reasons. At first glance it is their scale that impresses, they often utilized every carrier and well over half of the battleships, cruisers and destroyers in the fleet for the duration of a single exercise measured in weeks, and that was conducted over thousands of miles of ocean and coastline.5 But upon closer inspection the appetite for innovation and tolerance for risk is even more impressive. Scenarios were truly free-play and designed so that the ‘blue force’ was often likely to lose and fight significantly shorthanded from the beginning.

The Navy conducted Fleet Problems across the Caribbean and the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii to Puerto Rico, with the last Fleet Problem held in 1939. By WWII virtually every senior leader in the Navy had participated in one problem or another either as a direct participant or as a planner. But these Fleet Problem exercises have not often received as much attention as other naval developments during the interwar period like arms limitation treaties and technological changes but the exercises were similarly if not more important in preparing the U.S. naval service for the Second World War.

Martin T4M-1 torpedo bombers of torpedo squadron one fly over USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 February 1929, shortly after that year’s fleet problem. Note aircraft laid smoke screen in distance. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

In 1923, the U.S. fleet conducted Fleet Problem I off the coast of Panama. At the time, the fleet was organized in a way where all of the vessels in the Navy fell under the operational command of the Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet, Admiral Hilary P. Jones. Jones was able to pull ships based in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific for the exercise or simply “maneuvers” as they were known. The exercise force divided into two parts referred to by color. Each iteration was blue against another color. Blue represented the United States, orange for Japan, red for Britain, and black for Germany. But in the 1920s political developments quickly made clear that the primary naval threat was orange. The Navy even went so far as to transpose Pacific geography on the Caribbean for some of the exercises with Japanese ports in the Windward Islands and the Panama Canal standing in for Manila and Corregidor. The first Fleet Problem focused on defending the Panama Canal from attack and it was scored as a resounding defeat for the defenders – the blue force. But the exercise was considered a major developmental success in that it led to critical assessments like the need to improve fleet communications, especially with aircraft and submarines to coordinate complex maneuvers.6

The exercises were designed to challenge and expand the thinking of the participants – they were not simply Mahanian duels of the battle line. They included, by modern definitions, both hybrid warfare and irregular warfare. The first Fleet Problem started without a formal declaration of war by the aggressor – foreshadowing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nineteen years later.7 In the third Problem one of the fleets sent an intelligence officer undercover as a journalist to place notional bombs at fuel depots and key canal control installations and obtained a schedule for the opposing fleet’s transit of the canal.8 In the fifth Problem the blue fleet received an “intelligence bonanza” after cracking the codes used by ‘black.’9 The exercises were also coupled with diplomatic initiatives and often ended with grand reviews of the fleet – huge public relations boons for the Navy.10

The Fleet Problems were often joint – combining land and sea-based forces (the Air Force did not yet exist as a separate service) and challenging commanders to decide which of their forces were the best to achieve their objectives. For example, during Fleet Problem III in 1924, 1,700 Marines landed under cover of night and seized Fort Randolph – a Army Coastal Defense fortification on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Quickly overrunning the defenders, they moved on to seize a nearby submarine base and naval air station. The umpire for that part of the exercise proclaimed “The problem has conclusively shown that a Marine Expeditionary Force is a powerful weapon for a Commander-in-Chief engaged in any such operation…”11 In the next Problem the Marines employed an amphibious tank for the first time in their assault on the island of Culebra.12 The maneuvers also included significant notional, or as they were called at the time ‘constructive’ land forces to generate developments on land that would influence the play of the problems at sea. One Fleet Problem included a constructive expeditionary force of 150,000 soldiers.13 This jointness forced naval leaders to expand their thinking to include expeditionary operations and to try and adapt their tactics to leverage the advantages of land-based aviation and forces. This made for essential training for what would later be the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific.

The Fleet Problems helped drive innovation in the Navy and gave naval leaders and Congress the information they needed to design a modern battle fleet. Some of the early lessons were the inability of legacy submarines to keep up with the battle line – leading to the development of faster and larger ‘fleet’ submarines. The Fleet Problems also led to the requirement for supply ships capable of cruising at twelve knots or faster. It was during maneuvers in 1924 that the Navy first employed the “riding abeam” or  the broadside method for underway replenishment.14 In the 1930s that the Navy developed the concept of “carrier task forces” and proved that carriers can operate most effectively and magnify their offensive combat power when separate from the fleet.15 Conservative thinking argued that aircraft were better employed defensively or as spotters for battleship guns but this was ultimately rejected based on experiences from the Fleet Problems. Repeated experiments and exercises eventually created a naval air arm that “became the principal means of naval strike by the end of the war…”16 The experiments were field by live-fire against target ships and the use of dummy bombs against specially modified ships covered in wooden planking. It is worth noting that in the Fleet Problems alone the U.S. conducted more mock air attacks on ships than were actually conducted by all combatants in the First World War – and sunk in training about half as many large warships as were sunk in the war.17 It was this experimentation that laid the groundwork for the Navy to develop an unmatched naval air arm during the Second World War.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Ranger (CV-4), foreground, USS Lexington (CV-2), middle distance, and USS Saratoga (CV-3) lie at anchor off Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, on 8 April 1938 during exercise Fleet Problem XIX. (Wikimedia Commons)

The maneuvers were a significant undertaking – requiring months or a year to plan. For support in designing and in assessing the Fleet Problems, leaders relied on the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. During the months between problems the Naval War College also ran many sophisticated wargames that continued the practice of innovation and experimentation at a much lower cost. The games also contributed directly to the refinement of the operational plans for war in the Pacific. The wargaming was so intensive and exhaustive that Admiral Chester Nimitz would later glibly state that the Newport war games had predicted almost every event during the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War.18 The Fleet Problems were also effective because they were mostly public, and naval leaders presented the conclusions directly to Congress. They were also covered in the press, helping exercise conclusions influence budgetary decisions in the most direct manner.

Conclusion

Today, like during the interwar period, the Navy is trying to reimagine itself and operationalize new technology and new concepts. The integration of several classes of unmanned surface vessels and aerial systems again will mandate changes in the tactics and operations of naval forces. The U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift, wrote last year that the Pacific Fleet is trying to use the Fleet Problem model for exercises, albeit on a much smaller scale, yet still they have been a resounding success.19 Other commentary in the pages of Proceedings and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) have also called for the Navy to revisit the large-scale free play exercise of the 1920s and 1930s.20, 21 The Navy should look back on the high-priority it placed on innovation and experimentation during the Fleet Problems. Certainly, the Navy did not have the readiness problems or operational commitments then that it does now, and today’s fleet shoulders a significant humanitarian and constabulary commitment. But the value of doing large-scale exercises to prepare for war must be appropriately weighed against the myriad variety of demand signals.

The Fleet Problems were not easy to facilitate in their own time. The Interwar Navy was much smaller and more fiscally constrained with only about 90,000 men and dealt with especially severe Great Depression-era budget cuts.22 Stringent naval arms limits after the First World War meant that some of the Navy’s newest and most technologically advanced ships were scrapped or sunk as targets to keep the service within treaty limits.

Innovation and experimentation are never free and rarely cheap, but the Fleet Problems of the Interwar Navy offer a successful case study of how to go to sea to prepare for war even with limited resources.

Walker D. Mills is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently assigned to the Defense Language Institute in preparation for an exchange tour in Colombia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

1. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

2. “Navy to Maneuver in Pacific in 3 Months,” The New York Times (27 December, 1931).

3. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

4. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 7.

5. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, Naval War College (Newport, RI: 2010) 327.

6. Ibid, 55.

7. Ibid, 52.

8. Ibid, 63.

9. Ibid, 75.

10. Ibid, 23.

11. Craig C. Felker, editor, Testing American Seapower: The U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940, Texas A&M University Press (College Station, TX: 2007) 95.

12. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 67.

13. Ibid, 60.

14. Ibid, 61.

15. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier: The British, American and Japanese case studies,” chapter in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, U.K.: 1996) 221.

16. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier,” 225.

17. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 30-31.

18. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 6.

19. Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3 (March 2018).

20. Dale Rielage, “Bring Back Fleet Problems,” Proceedings, Vol. 143, No. 6 (June 2017).

21. Ryan Hilger, “Fight the Next Fleet Problem in the Solomons,” Center for International Maritime Security (28 January, 2019) http://cimsec.org/fight-the-next-fleet-problem-in-the-solomons/39529.

22. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 13.

Featured Image: Martine T4M-1 torpedo bombers landing on USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 January 1929, during that year’s Fleet Problem. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

Undersea Surveillance: Supplementing the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook

By Shang-su Wu 

The recently announced Indo-Pacific Outlook by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the 34th Summit indicates the Southeast Asian perspective on the evolving geostrategic environment. Unsurprisingly, ASEAN highlights cooperation, stability, peace, freedom of navigation and other values in the statement. The Outlook, however, leaves a question: how will ASEAN protect these values when diplomatic measures fail?

Under the ASEAN way, it would not be realistic to expect strong words such as those implying the use of force in any official statement, but member countries bordering critical straits could indirectly convey the message by demonstrating relevant defense capabilities. Among a variety of defense capabilities, tracking foreign submarines through enhanced undersea surveillance could be a relevant option.

Tracking Submarines

The major strategic significance of Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific region is mostly found in several critical sea lanes where various powers’ military assets travel through channels connecting the two oceans. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military vessels and aircraft enjoy the right of innocent passage through these sea routes, whether classified as international straits or archipelagic waters, and coastal countries track these movements. Modern technology makes it feasible for coastal states to readily track foreign military aircraft and surface vessels, a task that is more about safety than security. But tracking submerged submarines is another matter with a much higher barrier to entry.

In the face of complicated hydrographic conditions along with the improving stealth of submarines, there are high requirements for detection in terms of sonars, training, joint operations, and other elements of undersea surveillance. Therefore, successfully tracking submarines requires a high degree of military professionalism and capability. But once successfully tracked and trailed, a submarine receives a clear but private message of deterrence.

Silent Deterrence

This kind of covert deterrence would fit the geopolitical context in Southeast Asia. Firstly, it is generally legitimate for a littoral state to detect underwater entities because submarines should sail on the surface during innocent passage in territorial waters, while a submerged transit is acceptable under UNCLOS in passing sea routes and international straits. But only when a littoral state can identify the locations of foreign submarines transiting underwater can it determine whether UNCLOS is violated or obeyed. In other words, Southeast Asian countries have a sovereign right and legal obligation toward undersea surveillance. 

Tracking submerged submarines also presents a credible level of readiness for uncertainty. Overt exercises can be tailored for specific scenarios to prove certain levels of joint operations and other tactical skills, while bilateral and multilateral exercises highlight partnership, alliance, and other interstate security ties. Exercises are often much broader than the single capability of tracking submarines. Exercises, however, are either fully or semi-planned, and tracking foreign submarines is a truly dynamic encounter between two sides without an advance arrangement. Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries already have routinely conducted various bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional and extra-regional counterparts.

Tracking submerged submarines is usually beyond the microscope of conventional and social media, and can avoid the open hostility or other forms of public outcry that often transpire after close encounters between surface vessels. As the detecting side can deny any information on the tracking, publicity of the event would be more controllable compared with open statements or actions. For the country of the tracked submarine, such encounters are usually negative for national pride and military professionalism, so decision-makers would not have much incentive for revealing the encounter.  

Improving Hardware and Challenges Ahead

Since the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asian navies, particularly those of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, have built up their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, including through several types of undersea sensors. These three countries have acquired survey vessels to establish their individual hydrographic databases. They have also procured state-of-the-art anti-submarine warfare helicopters such as the Super Lynx, S-70B, and AS-565MBe and deployed them on their respective frigates and corvettes which have towed or hull-mounted sonars. Furthermore, all three navies possess submarines to play the role of targets during training.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (June 18, 2013) A Royal Malaysian Navy Super Lynx prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Freedom (LCS 1) during deck landing qualifications (DLQs). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson/Released)

Some characteristics impose challenges on the ability of Southeast Asian countries to track submarines. Large areas of territorial waters are natural obstacles for Malaysia and Indonesia. The numbers of maritime survey vessels they have in service are rather small for accumulating and updating their hydrographic data. By the same token, these two countries’ sensors and platforms, including ASW helicopters or ships, are likely not numerous enough to cover their broad territories or responsively deploy to where contacts are found.

Thanks to its tiny size, Singapore’s assets cannot be geographically diluted, but it shares other constraints with its neighbors, including a lack of fixed-wing ASW aircraft. The Indonesian CN-235 and the Singaporean Fokker-50 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) only have limited ASW capabilities, and Malaysia’s smaller Beech-200 MPAs have no payload space for ASW weapons. Finally, operational experience is another common challenge for these three countries, as they began to introduce their sophisticated ASW assets mainly in the post-Cold War era where opportunity for practice was slim. 

Currently, the three navies are on a trajectory of improving their ASW capabilities, such as through the towed sonar arrays found in Malaysia’s upcoming frigates and Indonesia’s plan of building underwater surveillance systems. These efforts would gradually make tracking foreign submarines underwater more feasible in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Unlike in the Cold War-era, some Southeast Asian countries, especially these three bordering critical straits, do not have empty arsenals. Although their defense capability is still inferior to most extra-regional powers, some wise and tailored applications of their military assets would support ASEAN agenda’s beyond diplomatic and economic means. Successful tracking foreign submarines would make the ASEAN Outlook more valid in the Indo-Pacific geostrategic landscape.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: A Chinese submarine transits in the Yellow Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Watch the CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers Online

By Dmitry Filipoff

On July 16, 2019, the annual CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers was held at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, VA. Readers were invited to nominate and vote on their top CIMSEC articles of the preceding year as well as studies by CNA scholars. The winners were invited to present on their articles, offer any updates, and field questions from the audience. 

We thank the authors for their writings and presentations. Feel free to watch and read below. 

CNA Category Winners

The Case for Maritime Security in an Era of Great Power Competition – Joshua Tallis @ 26:15

Nuclear Arms Control without a Treaty? Risks and Options After NEW START – Vince Manzo and Madison Estes @ 1:28:45

CIMSEC Category Winners

Sea Control at the Tactical Level of War – Adam Humayun @4:30

Then What? Wargaming the Interface Between Strategy and Operations – Barney Rubel @ 42:00

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight – Dmitry Filipoff @  57:50

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict by David Strachan (runner-up) @ 1:16:05

CIMSEC Category Winners Who Were Unable to Attend

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted – Andrew Erickson

The Deep Ocean: Seabed Warfare and the Defense of Undersea Infrastructure – Bill Glenney

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.