A major reversal of fortunes at sea has gone largely unnoticed. Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy sped past the Japanese maritime service across key measures of material prowess. The trendlines suggest that China will soon permanently displace Japan as the leading regional naval power in Asia. This historic power transition will have repercussions across the Indo-Pacific in the years to come. It behooves policymakers to pay attention to this overlooked but consequential shift in the naval balance between two great seafaring nations.
The Power Transition at Sea
The growing power gap between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is stark and will widen at an accelerated pace. China already boasts the largest navy in the world with more than 300 ships and submarines. By comparison, the JMSDF’s naval strength in 2019 included four light helicopter carriers, two cruisers, 34 destroyers, 11 frigates, three amphibious assault ships, six fast-attack missile boats, and 21 submarines. By 2030, the PLAN could have more than 450 ships and close to 110 submarines while the JMSDF will likely not be much larger than it is today.1
In aggregate tonnage for principal surface combatants, a rough measure of latent capacity and capability, China surpassed Japan in 2013. By 2020, the PLAN exceeded the JMSDF in total tonnage by about 40 percent. By average tonnage per combatant, a more precise measure of capacity and capability, the Japanese fleet continues to maintain a comfortable lead of about 45 percent over its Chinese counterpart. Japan’s position, however, may not hold for long as China puts to sea more carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.
In terms of firepower, the vertical launch system (VLS)—a grouping of silos that holds and fires shipborne missiles—furnishes a useful proxy for a fleet’s lethality. In this category of naval power, China’s catchup story is stunning. The JMSDF introduced VLS a decade earlier than the PLAN in the early 1990s. Yet, the Chinese quickly caught up and zoomed past the Japanese in 2017. By 2020, the PLAN had 75 percent more VLS cells than the JMSDF.
More troubling still, China’s large arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) outranges that of the JMSDF by considerable distances. In a hypothetical fleet-on-fleet engagement, the PLAN could launch large salvoes of ASCMs that could reach its opponent’s warships well before the Japanese side could get within range to hit back, conferring a significant first-strike advantage to China. It remains to be seen whether Japan will introduce enough long-range ship-killing missiles, including the repurposed Standard Missile 6 air-defense interceptors, to close the range gap.
China’s air force and rocket force further tip the scales in its favor. Chinese airpower and missiles ashore would almost certainly join the fray in any conceivable conflict. The JMSDF’s surface fleet would have to fend off volleys of air-launched ASCMs and land-based anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles as well as missiles fired from ships and submarines. Japan’s maritime service thus inhabits a vexing and inhospitable operational environment.
Beyond Bean Counting
Fleet size, tonnage, and firepower do not provide a full measure of a navy’s combat power. Operational proficiency, tactical elan, regular and extended deployments in blue-water environments, and real combat experience are equally critical, if not more so, when evaluating a navy’s prospects for fighting and winning a war at sea. Even in this qualitative area, however, it is no longer axiomatic that Japan holds a decisive advantage over China.
Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy has proven itself a capable expeditionary service. The PLAN’s various open ocean activities suggest that it has accumulated substantial at-sea experience. Notably, the Chinese Navy has sustained a continuous rotation of anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean since 2009, an impressive feat by any measure. The PLAN has also dispatched flotillas for long-distance transits throughout the Western Pacific and beyond.
Peacetime exercises and constabulary operations may not be reliable indicators of how the Chinese Navy will perform in combat. The well-worn remark that China has not fought a war since 1979 remains valid. Of course, neither has Japan since 1945. The reality is that no one knows for certain how each side will fare until the shooting starts.
It remains unclear how the economic contraction following the COVID-19 crisis will impact China’s investment in its navy. What is certain, however, is that Japan will not escape the economic fallout from the global pandemic and the attending fiscal pressures on defense spending. The momentum behind the Chinese naval buildup, moreover, will likely not slow down enough to reverse the tilting naval balance in Beijing’s favor.
Why the Naval Imbalance Matters
Japan’s eroding naval position not only reduces its ability to defend the liberal international order, but it also weakens the deterrent posture of the U.S.-Japan alliance and, in the process, undercuts American strategy in Asia. Consider the centrality of Japanese seapower to the regional security architecture.
In peacetime, Japan’s maritime service helps deter aggression and keep the seas open to all, an essential condition for free trade and global prosperity. Should deterrence fail, the JMSDF would sweep clear the major maritime approaches to the theater of operations along the Asian littorals and conduct operations to obtain and exercise sea control alongside the U.S. Navy. Moreover, the sea service complements U.S. naval strengths, including undersea warfare, while making up for American capability gaps in such areas as minesweeping.
A revisionist China must carefully consider Japan’s still-formidable maritime service when calculating its options vis-à-vis the United States. Beijing would likely think twice about coercion or aggression if it believed that the alliance possessed overwhelming military superiority. Conversely, if Beijing concluded that Tokyo was becoming a crack in the armor, then it might be tempted to gamble.
The bottom line is that it is the combined power of the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed naval forces and the JMSDF that helps to keep the peace in Asia. It is thus imperative that U.S. policymakers perceive the relative decline of Japanese seapower as a proxy for the corrosion of American power in the Indo-Pacific.
If past is prologue, China’s rapid accumulation of naval power—and Japan’s inability to keep up—portends unwelcome great power relations. The most striking historical parallel is Britain’s naval decline during the Cold War. In the late 1970s, the Soviets had far outstripped the British across major measures of naval power just as the PLAN is eclipsing the JMSDF today. By the early 1980s, it became increasingly doubtful whether Britain could defend its own backyard against Soviet designs.
Britain’s relative decline posed global dilemmas for the United States. If the U.S. Navy were tied down in an emergency elsewhere, there was concern that the Soviets might seize the occasion to test European resolve in the North Atlantic. It was feared then that the Royal Navy’s impotence in the face of a Soviet naval challenge would severely undermine stability, deterrence, and allied cohesion while opening the way for Moscow to advance its aims in Europe.
It does not stretch the imagination to foresee a similar risk today. American global commitments, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, could draw Washington’s attention to faraway theaters. In such circumstances, the United States would likely expect Japan to do much more to deter, if not oppose, Chinese opportunism. The extent to which the JMSDF upholds its end of the bargain would be a major test for the alliance.
To be sure, any assessment of the Indo-Pacific strategic balance would be incomplete without accounting for the U.S. military, including its forward-deployed assets and its surge forces around the world. The combined naval power of the United States and Japan still outweighs that of China. But that margin of superiority is diminishing as China continues its ascent at sea, pulling even farther ahead of Japan.
Consequently, the security partnership’s capacity to deter aggression is likely to come under more strain. Equally worrisome, the PLAN and its sister services are already able to project power across and well beyond the first island chain, deliver ample firepower over long distances, and impose heavy costs on U.S. and Japanese forces. These developments are likely to challenge, if not upend, longstanding allied assumptions about escalation dominance and warfighting.
Allied policymakers must recognize that a historic power shift has already taken place in maritime Asia. For too long, defense planners and the broader strategic community have focused exclusively on the bilateral Sino-U.S. naval rivalry while slighting the local balance between China and Japan. In the past, when allied superiority and the JMSDF’s qualitative advances appeared insuperable, it was safe to take Japan’s role for granted.
Yet, today, as the balance tilts increasingly in China’s favor, Japan’s relative decline could emerge as a weak link in the alliance’s deterrent posture. Understanding the extent to which Japan has fallen behind, to include how the Chinese perceive the local imbalance, should assume a far more prominent place in allied decision-making. Such a comprehensive estimate must be integral to the allied calculus about strategy, posture, operations, and competitiveness.
Toshi Yoshihara is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). His latest book, co-authored with James R. Holmes, is the second edition of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2019).
Featured Image: The picture shows aircraft carrier Shandong berths at a naval port in Sanya. China’s first domestically-made aircraft carrier Shandong (Hull 17) was officially commissioned to the PLA Navy at a military port in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province, on the afternoon of December 17, 2019. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Feng Kaixuan)
In September 2018, the Panamanian Aeronaval Service (SENAN) captured a fairly crude low-profile vessel (LPV). It was their first of several; just a few months ago they tracked and captured a more sophisticated semisubmersible LPV carrying five tons of cocaine. Despite these occasional successes, most LPVs go undetected on their slow but profitable transits. They barely peek above the waves and practically disappear into a very big ocean, reminiscent of so many othercovert craft. Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have evolved these covertvessels over decades in response to the steadily improving reconnaissance capabilities of a determined adversary. They have developed a type of vessel that is simple, affordable, attritable, low-observable, long-range, and can be built with relative ease in crude jungle shipyards. But what does losing the War on Drugs have to do with winning great power competition?
China has developedconsiderable surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in its near seas, akin to what the United States has long enjoyed in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to detect and monitor illegal drug trafficking. The United States Navy now faces the oddly similar challenge of operating in a contested maritime environment against a powerful competitor armed with a robust reconnaissance-strike complex. The cartels could relate. The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept for countering China in the Western Pacific hinges on Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels (MUSVs) to perform ISR and EW roles, but in order to be effective, these vessels must be as covert and ubiquitous as drug trafficking semisubmersibles. By taking a few notes from the narcos, the United States Navy can develop a class of hard-to-detect semisubmersible MUSV that will be combat-effective in the high-end fight.
How Will the MUSV Support the Fleet?
“The crux of successful command is to know when to commit available attack potential to attack effectively first. Modern naval battle will be fast, destructive, and decisive. More often than not the result will be decided before the first shot is fired.”
That incisive summary ends the chapter on modern tactics in the third edition of the essential Fleet Tactics and Naval Operationsby the late CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier (ret.). A persistent, connected, and widely distributed scouting force allows the commander to see the battlespace more clearly than the enemy, enabling that first effective attack that is so vital for winning a modern naval battle. Unfortunately, the Navy’s top-heavy fleet architecture lacks scouting ships that commanders can confidently deploy hundreds of miles inside a threat envelope. The carrier air wing lacks the range and persistence for this task, while both satellites and most shore-based ISR aircraft lack survivability in such a heavily contested battlespace.
This capability gap gives some context to the Navy’s budget justification for MUSVs, which outlines several elements:
MUSV will be a key enabler of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept, which includes being able to forward deploy (alone or in teams/swarms), team with individual manned combatants or augment battle groups. Fielding of MUSV will provide the Navy increased capability and necessary capacity at lower procurement and sustainment costs, reduced risk to sailors and increased readiness by offloading missions from manned combatants.
MUSV is defined as having a reconfigurable mission capability which is accomplished via modular payloads with an initial mission capability to support Battlespace Awareness through Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW).
MUSVs will support the Navy’s ability to produce, deploy and disburse ISR/EW capabilities in sufficient quantities and provide/improve distributed situational awareness in maritime Areas of Responsibility (AORs). MUSVs will be designed to be attritable assets if used in a peer or near-peer conflict. MUSVs will initially be capable of semi-autonomous operation, with operators in-the-loop or on-the-loop.
MUSVs will be capable of weeks-long deployments and trans-oceanic transits, and operate aggregated with Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs), as well as have the ability to deploy independently.
The Navy definesMUSVs as ranging from 12 to 50 meters (40 to 164 feet). This author has arguedfor a larger MUSV based on the Sentinel-class as a means of first developmentally maturing unmanned technology aboard an optionally manned vessel, before leveraging these “proven systems in a more capable, purpose-built platform.” A larger and optionally manned MUSV would also have more flexibility for weapons carriage and local release authority, but the more narrowly scoped ISR and EW missions envisioned for MUSVs in the budget justification suggest a stealthier and less expensive MUSV variant as well – something akin to the narco semisubmersibles, albeit with a very different payload.
Divergent Requirements Yield Diverse Designs
The Navy’s mission requirements for the MUSV pulls the design in two directions: toward vessels that are best suited for operations “aggregated with Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs)” on the one hand, and those that “forward deploy (alone or in teams/swarms)” on the other. However, two purpose-built classes of MUSVs, rather than one, could more effectively and more efficiently satisfy these divergent requirements.
Despite the evident trend toward consolidating single-mission platforms into fewer types with ever-broader mission sets, as exemplified by the F/A-18, the Navy’s portfolioof support ships, boats, and watercraft remains stubbornly diverse. Why? Compared to aircraft, submarines, or surface combatants, these vessels have more stable and better-understood design requirements, lower system complexity, and rely on mature technology, while also having shorter lifecycles and lower lifecycle costs. The industrial base that makes these small vessels has more competitors, more civilian industry crossover, lower non-recoverable engineering expenses, and lower barriers to entry. These systemic factors continue to produce a diverse array of boats with tightly focused missions. Riverine, special warfare, force protection, patrol, and utility missions each get at least one purpose-built boat whose form follows its function, rather than all sharing an exquisitely expensive multi-mission design that is capable of doing nothing specific especially well.
The systemic factors that apply to manned small vessels also largely apply to the design and production of comparably sized unmanned vessels. Just as the Navy can afford its diverse portfolio of manned vessels to perform their equally diverse mission sets, it can likewise afford more than one MUSV design in order to better achieve divergent MUSV mission sets. A relatively larger MUSV should perform escort missions and a smaller semisubmersible MUSV should perform penetrating ISR and EW missions. The distinct required capabilities placed within different planned operational environments yields unique vessel designs, where form follows function.
An MUSV optimized for SAG and CSG operations would need to have both speed and range, which would dictate more powerful main propulsion, a relatively longer waterline for a higher efficient hull speed, and greater displacement for greater fuel stores. These factors would produce a vessel at least as large as the Sea Hunter, whose configuration (132’ LOA and 145-ton displacement) reflect its high-endurance, moderate-speed mission of tracking and trailing conventional submarines. These relatively larger and faster vessels would certainly expand the SAG’s situational awareness, but mainly as pickets or loyal wingmen in an expanded defense-in-depth scheme. All else being equal, a larger and faster vessel with higher freeboard would be easier for the enemy to detect. It would also be more expensive. DMO needs many offensively-focused scouts deep inside the contested environment, feeding the commander critical information, confusing the enemy with electronic warfare, and thereby facilitating decisive attacks. Larger MUSVs optimized for SAG and CSG operations would lack the stealth and attritable numbers to effectively fill this role.
Smaller and semisubmersible MUSVs, on the other hand, would have both stealth and numbers. Operating well beyond the air defense umbrella of a SAG or CSG, this class of MUSVs would need to be stealthier in order to avoid detection. Not having to keep up with the SAG or CSG, though, it could afford to be much slower. Such a slower and necessarily stealthy vessel could and indeed should be smaller, making it less expensive and therefore more readily affordable to buy in the abundant quantities needed to enable DMO.
Designing a Semisubmersible MUSV
Craft-built narco LPVs are survivable and effective simply because they are very difficult to find, even when the searcher employs dedicated maritime patrol aircraft within a permissive operating environment. This is especially true for semisubmersible LPVs. They can certainly be built for long range, as shown by the recent capture of a transatlantic semisubmersible LPV in Spain. Low-observable doesn’t necessarily mean expensive radar absorbent materials and or an exotic shape; a hand-laid fiberglass deck with minimal freeboard works, too.
The defense industry could make a truly low-observable MUSV warship as an evolution from the crude, jungle-built semisubmersibles produced by drug cartels. Much of a typical semisubmersible LPV’s roughly $1-2M construction costs are a function of being hand-built at small, clandestine shipyards. By designing for simplicity while leveraging industrial fabrication and economies of scale, the Navy could create a far better vessel than the cartels and for less money. These relatively inexpensive vessels would become truly attritable or even expendable in conflict. A commander could distribute scores to hundreds of these hard-to-detect ISR and EW platforms throughout the contested environment to develop battlespace awareness, while also overwhelming the enemy’s ability to detect them.
Those few semisubmersible MUSVs detected by an adversary would remain difficult and sortie-intensive to track and neutralize. The most sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles would have a vanishingly low probability of kill (Pk) against a vessel with little more freeboard than a surfboard, while backscatter would challenge the accurate employment of laser-guided weapons. The target would demand precise and locally employed weapons. The enemy’s costs in sorties, weapons, manpower, and bandwidth for each laborious neutralization would be disproportionately higher than the costs of deploying that vessel. Neutralizing these detected vessels would have little impact on the fleet’s distributed ISR and EW capabilities, just as neutralizing drug-trafficking LPVs has done little if anything to change the price and availability of cocaine. This approach would impose significant costs on the enemy while affording significant advantages to the U.S. Navy.
A Common Objection Answered
The Navy’s budget justification addresses the concern that unmanned surface vessels would be more vulnerable to capture and exploitation than a mannedvessel:
“MUSV C2, combat and/or weapon system integration will employ tamper proofing and security controls to prevent disclosure of data and electronic warfare defenses during autonomous operation. MUSVs will employ a Risk Management Framework (RMF) approach with physical, technical and administrative security controls. MUSVs will have hardware and software components to protect classified/sensitive functions, countermeasures designed to thwart adversary exploitation, classified data sanitation requirements, anti-tamper mechanisms to prevent disclosure of data and autonomous zeroization and electronic warfare defenses.”
These concerns and mitigations would apply to all classes of MUSVs, but as low freeboard vessels that are designed to operate nearly submerged, semisubmersible MUSVs would be that much easier to scuttle when unexpected guests step aboard. Cartels have used this tactic themselves to sink narco subs just prior to capture in a bid to destroy evidence and evade prosecution.
This proposed class of semisubmersible MUSVs is no panacea, but it represents one important step toward operationalizing the unmanned force structure needed for DMO. If the U.S. Navy hopes for more success in implementing DMO than it has achieved in the War on Drugs, it needs to humbly study the successes of adversaries and creatively adapt their most successful innovations. Creating a semisubmersible MUSV that is simple, affordable, attritable, low-observable, and long-range will do just that.
Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College. The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.
Featured Image: A low-profile vessel pictured in April 2019 (SENAN Panama)
To effectively govern the maritime space, states need an accurate picture of what is happening and where in order to establish normal “patterns of life” at sea. With this picture, states can identify suspicious activity and task assets to respond. This ability to collect, analyze, share, and respond to information in the maritime realm is often called maritime domain awareness (MDA).
This is a challenging task for any state, much less those with relatively limited resources and assets in the maritime realm. Combined territorial waters and exclusive economic zones are huge spaces to monitor and, for many states , this “maritime domain” is much larger than their total land area. What’s more, this maritime domain is an incredibly active space. Tens of thousands of shipping vessels, millions of fishing boats, and other vessels, registered and otherwise, traverse the seas on a daily basis for an incredibly diverse set of licit and illicit purposes. It can be an overwhelming scope of activity for many states around the world to monitor
States have largely sought to establish MDA through the use of high-tech, high-cost solutions like technical information collection platforms (e.g., coastal radar systems, and tracking shipping through AIS) and deploying costly air and sea patrols These are important elements of robust MDA, but few states possess the resources to implement all of these tools.
Given this strain on resources it may be useful for maritime security policy makers to make more effective use of another, less utilized, form of information collection in the maritime space – human intelligence.
Human Intelligence in the Maritime Space: A Force Multiplier
Human intelligence, which refers to the collection and analysis of information from a variety of human sources, is widely acknowledged as a vital component of all-source intelligence collection and national security. However, it is largely underutilized in the maritime space.
Human intelligence in maritime security could replicate the successes of community relations initiatives in counterinsurgent and policing operations onshore. Developing strong relationships between civilian populations and security forces can help improve the legitimacy of their operations in the eyes of civilians and begin to build a basis for information-sharing that enhances the effectiveness of law enforcement operations. This is no less true in the maritime space.
The oceans, and coastal waters in particular, are not empty spaces. Shipping vessels, industrial and artisanal fishing fleets, ferries, offshore hydrocarbon installations, and ports are all active across a wide geographic area and around the clock. Individuals working in offshore and coastal spaces develop an intimate knowledge of the normal pattern of life at sea in their areas of operation. They have the potential to be the eyes and ears necessary to develop stronger MDA for resource-constrained states around the world. They can see the signs of potential IUU fishing, human trafficking, piracy, and other forms of maritime crime that might evade sparse patrols and technical information collection platforms designed to monitor larger vessels. These civilians in the maritime space have a vested interest in its security. By building stronger relationships with members of this community, maritime enforcement authorities can improve maritime security while using scarce resources more efficiently.
The Path Forward: Building Relationships and Reporting Channels
States can realize the potential of expanded human intelligence for MDA by increasing positive interactions with relevant maritime and coastal communities and developing quick and effective reporting mechanisms.
If the only reason a coast guard vessel ever approaches civilians is to fine them for fishing practices or confiscate irregularly exchanged goods, they are unlikely to develop into a source of information. The relationship must be more than punitive. Friendly welfare checks on vessels engaged in fishing and small-scale trade would increase positive interactions and build trust.
States can also build positive relationships with more inclusive policy-making. Consultations with coastal communities on fishing, environmental, and maritime infrastructure policies can help ensure the resulting regulations respect the needs of the communities they impact and reflect input from relevant stakeholders. This community involvement helps build the legitimacy of the rules of the road in the maritime space, which navies and maritime law enforcement entities must then administer. As a result, maritime communities will be much more likely to be willing to provide valuable information to enforcement entities regarding potential illicit activity at sea.
In addition, states can develop convenient and efficient mechanisms for reporting information to maritime enforcement agencies. Civilians active in the maritime space cannot effectively contribute to the situational awareness of maritime enforcement entities if they do not know how to report information on suspicious activity. Clear, easy, and secure reporting platforms will be critical.
One example of this can be seen in recent efforts undertaken by Malaysia. In 2017, the Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency launchedthe K3M app which was intended to facilitate instantaneous reporting of maritime incidents with the goal of shortening response times. When an incident occurs, the app can provide the user’s exact location and creates a direct link between civilians in the maritime space and coastal communities with a Malaysian maritime security operations center. The app can also be used to communicate news and safety warnings to the maritime community. It has an estimated 4,000 users and plans are in place to increase the coverage of this reporting platform through the use of satellite signals.
Another unique example is the “Caught Red-Handed” project. A joint civil society-UNODC initiative, the project seeks to help states in the Western Indian Ocean collect and analyze human intelligence related to fisheries crime. The project focuses on how to collect human intelligence on fisheries violations systematically, communicate this intelligence to the appropriate maritime enforcement entities in a given jurisdiction, and ensure the intelligence can be utilized as evidence for prosecution. While this project focuses explicitly on fisheries crime, such training could be useful for improving the efficient and responsible use of human intelligence to combat the wide variety of crimes navies and maritime law enforcement entities face, including illicit trades, maritime migration and human trafficking, piracy and armed robbery, and environmental crimes.
Creative efforts of this kind have the potential to be a cost-effective means of ensuring that maritime enforcement agencies are responsive to the needs of the maritime community, strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and civilians in the maritime space, and enlisting the maritime community to actively contribute to maritime domain awareness.
The scope of security challenges that exist in the maritime domain requires the use of all possible options to collect information and intelligence to inform the efforts of maritime enforcement agencies. To this point, much of the attention and resources channeled toward enhancing MDA have gone to expensive technical collection platforms. These platforms provide valuable intelligence, but they are only a part of all-source maritime intelligence and a comprehensive approach to MDA development.
Tapping into the extensive presence of civilians in the maritime space for information collection can help complete the picture. Such information collection from the maritime community may be a particularly important and cost-effective way of building MDA for the many states around the globe without the resources to acquire and operate expensive technical collection platforms. For these states in particular, building strong relationships with maritime and coastal communities and providing them with clear reporting channels can be a force multiplier which allows them to more effectively respond to incidents and prioritize preemptive measures.
Jay Benson is the Project Manager for the Indo-Pacific at Stable Seas, a non-profit research organization which provides empirical research on maritime security issues. Jay is responsible for driving Stable Seas research and engagement work in the Indo-Pacific region.
Featured Image: A patrol boat provided to the Philippines by Japan. (Japan Coast Guard photo)
This article originally appeared in edition 2/2020 of the German-language publication SIRIUS: The Journal for Strategic Analyses and is republished with permission. SIRIUS is edited by the foundation Stiftung Wissenschaft und Demoktrie based in Kiel, Germany. The article will be available online in its original German in the May-June timeframe. You can follow SIRIUS on Twitter (@JE_SIRIUS) and Facebook. You can find the most recent issues of SIRIUS online here: https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/sirius/sirius-overview.xml.
By Captain Sascha H. Rackwitz, German Navy
Whether we like it or not, we live in an era of a fundamental reorientation of the international system. It doesn’t matter if you follow the American paradigm of “Great Power Competition”1 or the Chinese2 and Russian3 interpretation of a “multipolar world order.” Global stability is being threatened by hegemonic tendencies of power. The perceptions of the United States, China, and Russia are principally the same, but are viewed from very different vantage points. After the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War and a short time of American unipolarity, the international system has entered a new phase that will be defined by the inter-relations of these three actors.
In public discussions in Germany, and even amongst German “defense professionals,” this understanding does not seem to have been established very well. Russian aggression against Ukraine, and particularly the annexation of Crimea in 2014, was a watershed moment in German security and defense politics. However, Russia’s confrontational politics toward the West is still seen as a specific transatlantic and isolated phenomenon that can be reduced to questions of defense and deterrence at the northeastern borders of the NATO alliance, the “Northflank.”
No one in Germany will deny that China is posing a strategic challenge. This, however, is perceived to have above all economical relevance for Germany. And it is mostly seen as something totally unrelated to security issues on this side of the globe and more as an intensifying bilateral American-Chinese tussle. Illegal Chinese claims in the South China Sea will be met with open critique by German officials and diplomatic demarches. But China’s behavior is predominantly perceived as an economic threat to the freedom of navigation the German trade-oriented economy is dependent upon.
However, a self-centered perspective will not answer the challenges Germany is facing. For Germany, unlike most other countries, strengthening a rules-based order and the international organizations and structures that support it is not only – in the “end, ways, means” understanding of strategy – a way to achieve national interests. Derived from its geographic location, painful history, and ethical conviction, it is an end in itself. To safeguard this interest, political decision-makers rely on a military-strategic analysis that takes in the intensifying global rivalry in its entirety. Otherwise, Germany – and with it Europe – will face the Melian’s fate that Thucydides described over 2000 years ago, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”4 The lines of conflict of this great power struggle run, with little to no exception, through the maritime domain, including the Indo-Pacific, the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea. It is therefore particularly important for maritime professionals to take an active part in this strategy discussion and provide a maritime perspective. The following theses are intended to contribute to this debate and attempt to sketch practical conclusions from maritime strategic analysis.
Thesis 1: Nuclear Weapons Continue to determine Military and Naval Strategy
Nuclear strategy issues have increasingly become a matter of and for specialists, far removed from the political sphere, and this seems even more dangerous in military strategic thinking.5 In Germany it is conventional wisdom that there is nothing to be won by discussing nuclear strategy, not for politicians, not for journalists, not even for political scientists. Even within the German armed forces, the discussion of the subject is often subsumed exclusively under Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, as if military thinking is suspended with the threat of using nuclear weapons. However, nuclear weapons remain a necessary starting point for a strategic analysis. They set the framework for the use of conventional military means in a confrontation between the great powers and, not only for their own (maritime) strategic derivations. The roles prescribed for nuclear weapons by the United States, Russia, and China are all the more relevant since their declaratory policies differ substantially.
The Chinese no-first-use policy, usually a position repeatedly demanded by anti-nuclear activists and, for western nuclear weapon states as well, particularly by German anti-nuclear weapons activists, is no reason for consolation. In the context of escalating antagonism with the United States, it has a rather destabilizing effect, since the declared waiver of initial use or use against a non-nuclear weapon state feeds the illusion that a major military conflict can be limited. Read this way, the effect of the Chinese nuclear weapons policy is not to prevent any armed conflict through deterrence; to the contrary, it instead is making a conventionalarmed conflict more possible.
China presents the U.S. with a dilemma. On one hand, the onus of exceeding the nuclear threshold is assigned solely to the U.S., while at the same time the prospective costs for conventional intervention are increased to forbidding levels. As a consequence, China presents the United States with a stark choice: admit that your reassurances to allies and partners in the western Pacific are worthless; accept that you will suffer a prohibitively high price in blood and treasure trying to meet your obligations conventionally; or risk an all-out nuclear war as a nuclear aggressor. The South China Sea is the cordon sanitaire prerequisite for this narrative. Only by attaining indisputable influence over the East and South China Seas can China hope to create the strategic depth necessary to prevent the United States from defending its own possessions or allies in the Western Pacific. As a result, the Western Pacific is strategically isolated, the U.S. loses its escalation dominance, and military conflict becomes an option for China to resolve disputes in its near-abroad without fear of American interference.
Russia’s “de-escalating nuclear strike” strategy pursues the same purpose on the opposite tack.6 It is based on the assumption that even though Russian conventional forces cannot match NATO’s military potential, Russia can achieve a locally and timely limited conventional superiority sufficient to create a fait accompli. This superior position is then protected by threatening the use of small yield, short-range nuclear weapons. The first-use of nuclear weapons is, therefore, not excluded. On the contrary, the first use policy is openly announced and, as part of major Russian exercises, is also regularly emphasized to the West as the potential opponent. The purpose of threatening to use nuclear weapons in this limited fashion is to strategically separate the east of the alliance area, especially the Baltic States, from the rest of the alliance. A strategic dilemma is presented to the nuclear weapon states of the west, in particular the United States, of either giving in to Russian aggression and consequently allowing the collapse of the alliance or, conversely, to risk an uncontrollable nuclear escalation. The strategic value of the medium-range weapons stationed by Russia in violation of the INF Treaty is precisely that these weapons can reach Poland and possibly Germany, but not the Alliance’s nuclear weapon states. Whether Russia would consider such a nuclear strike only if defeat in a conventional war loomed or early on in a conflict to pre-empt a conventional NATO reaction is beside the point. The strategic isolation of the eastern alliance area by limited nuclear strikes is the basis to shield a war with “limited object”7 and thus to use military force below the threshold of a global nuclear war.
The fact that both China and Russia, while confronted with comparable problems, assign such different roles to their nuclear arsenal is also due to the fact that China acts confidently from a position of strength. Russia, on the other hand, from the assumption that it was only possible to gain conventional superiority vis-à-vis NATO locally, and for a short period of time, plays a weaker hand.
Both approaches share the aim to gain freedom of action in the near-abroad, to be able to use conventional military means to pursue limited purposes, if necessary, and to reduce the risk of an escalation to an unlimited nuclear war. The control of maritime areas is of central importance for both China and Russia in these respects.
Thesis 2: “Anti-Access/Area Denial” has little to do with “Sea Denial” and a lot to do with “Sea Control”8
Undisputed sea control, or maritime supremacy as the U.S. Navy would call it, in the South and East China Seas is what China needs to keep conventional American armed forces at a distance from mainland China, to gain the freedom of movement for its own forces to threaten American forces in the Pacific, and eventually the continental United States with escalation. As a result, the United States will face the dilemma of either accepting high losses, nuclear escalation, or moral defeat – and all this for what amounts to an American perspective as only “limited political aims” – the commitments made to partners in the Western Pacific. China’s illegal land reclamation in the South China Sea9 has less to do with access to marine resources, but much more to do with the development of the military infrastructure to push its own sensor and weapons range so far into the Pacific that it becomes impossible for American forces to touch Chinese positions without risk to its fleet. Having gained freedom of action in order to build a credible military position to assert its own interests in its immediate neighborhood, particularly against Taiwan, China could theoretically reign supreme in the Western Pacific. The only contingency would then be a “distant blockade,”10 which China could attempt to counter by increasing self-reliance or the careful establishment of a string of strategic positions in peacetime. Both are already core elements of current Chinese policy, namely “China 2049” and the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
Compared to China, Russia has a similarly complex strategic position on its doorsteps. This position is aggravated by the fact that American partnerships in Europe are institutionalized in NATO. Particularly interesting is the situation in the Baltic Sea with respect to the Kaliningrad exclave. On one hand, Kaliningrad offers a strategic maritime position from which large parts of the eastern and central Baltic Sea can be affected. At the same time, Kaliningrad threatens the land lines of communication from Poland to the Baltic States through the so-called Suwalki Gap. However, Kaliningrad is dependent on supplies from the sea, and a possible Baltic area of operations is entirely within the range of regional allied naval forces. Moreover, maintaining superiority long enough for Russia to secure territorial gains depends on neutralizing the only two ways by which NATO could reinforce its members in the east in a timely fashion – by air or by sea.
In case of conflict, simply preventing western naval forces’ access to the central and eastern Baltic Sea would not meet Russian requirements. Russia must be able to positively control this sea area. In short, Russia must exercise sea control in order to obtain freedom of action to contribute to joint operations in the Baltic States, protect sea lines of communication to defend the Kaliningrad exclave, and cut off the Baltic States from their western allies. Even if the term “Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD) at first glance suggests otherwise, A2/AD is not just a question of denying the use of a maritime area. Rather, A2/AD is a concept for obtaining sea control in coastal and confined waters, which is primarily characterized by the use of land-based capabilities.
The U.S. Marine Corps has taken this understanding as their point of departure for the most fundamental realignment of the force since World War II. The Corps no longer sees its primary warfighting role in the Western Pacific as operating from the sea under the conditions of sea control won by the U.S. Navy. Rather, the Corps sees itself as an integral part of the naval force contributing to the fight for sea control with its specific capabilities, and thus to maintain escalation dominance.11 The Marine Corps no longer desires a dependence on Navy-won access for amphibious operations, but seeks to use its forward amphibious abilities to open access for the navy to project power. It is all about “contested sea control.”
Of course, all of these considerations are solely derived from the declaratory policies of China and Russia, a cursory analysis of the maritime areas in question, and the respective maritime military potentials fielded. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that Russia, for example, will raid one of the Baltic States as long as the Putin system remains stable. Indeed, the intensity of the actors’ motivation is a key factor in assessing the threat and, in turn, the required deterrent.12
The insinuated Russian stratagem is based on two assumptions. First, Russia gains conventional superiority for a short time. Second, and more importantly, that the motivation of western allies, and particularly the United States, does not suffice to risk a nuclear escalation in defense of their eastern allies. But Russian motivation to seek a systemic change in Europe by armed confrontation is perceived to be low, and justifies merely a “tripwire force” in Poland and the Baltic States – NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP).13 Their multinational composition addresses the danger of a split of the alliance and the force creates a limited position of deterrence by denial.14 The small motivation of Russia is thus met by a small but sufficient tripwire, and is thus deterred. The message to Moscow is that invading the Baltic States would mean not only meeting with the Balts, but all major allies, and though NATO could be easily outnumbered, it would not be a walk in the park – so think twice.
What is the maritime dimension of this tripwire? Which specific opportunities does the maritime domain offer to strengthen and enhance the credibility of NATO’s deterrent position?
Thesis 3: Our most pressing operational problem in the Baltic Sea is not maintaining the sea lines of communication to Baltic States for reinforcing and supplying NATO forces
Following Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, NATO and Germany refocused on the ability to conduct a symmetrical war in Europe. By regaining and strengthening NATO’s ability to wage a symmetrical war on Europe’s eastern border, the conventional complement to nuclear deterrence is strengthened. For the German Army, this means above all returning to maneuver warfare and combined arms operations, strengthening armored units, and empowering them to quickly deploy heavy formations to the alliance’s eastern border. For the Navy, this means maintaining the sea lines of communication between the east coast of the United States to ports in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States.
Of course, conflict between NATO and Russia would not happen out of thin air. There would most probably be times of heightening tensions and grey zone or hybrid activities. Arguably, Russia has for some time tested NATO’s preparedness and resolve, not only in the cyber domain,15 but also by incursions into the Baltic States.16 However, should tensions escalate to a level that would call for a decision of the North Atlantic Council to move larger formations from North America to Europe, deterrence would have already failed. Arguably, in such a situation, Russia would have stopped perceiving the price for taking on NATO in the east as still too high compared with the possible gains. To put it bluntly, if we are compelled to organize convoy operations across the Atlantic and through the Baltic Sea, NATO has already failed with its most important task – to send a message to Russia that the potential costs of aggression are always greater than the prospects of success.
A deterrence posture that basically rests on a tripwire activating over-the-horizon forces is opening a gap to an opposing strategy that is based on quick results and strategic isolation of the theatre of operations. Naval forces, however, in the Baltic Sea could provide an additional deterrent element that counteracts the Russian stratagem at a stage before a distant deployment of NATO formations to the Baltic States becomes necessary and must be protected on its journey. The double exclaves of Kaliningrad and the Baltic States provide the key to do just this. Understandably, due to the exposed location of the Baltic States, western observers perceive the theatre geometry in the Baltic Sea first and foremost as a vulnerability. However, Kaliningrad is even more exposed, lacking even the narrow and hard-to-defend land corridor that the Suwalki Gap is providing between Poland and Lithuania. The Russian position in the Baltic Sea is nowhere near as advantageous as the skillful Russian propaganda makes us believe. Kaliningrad’s geographical position is more tenuous given several considerations. Kaliningrad is essential for the enforcement of Russian sea control in the middle to eastern Baltic Sea and all of Kaliningrad is within weapon range from the sea. Access to Baltysk can easily be blocked, and sea lines of communication from Kaliningrad through the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg can easily be disrupted.
While the “Tripwire Forces” of the Enhanced Forward Presence represent an element of “Deterrence by Denial,” the maritime domain offers the possibility of adding an element of “Deterrence by Punishment” without the risk of escalation. As an aggressor, Russia would also have to lose something immediately before the NATO machinery starts up properly, adding a critical psychological effect.17 In the Baltic Sea, the role of naval forces is not merely the defensive protection of sea lines of communication to the Baltic States. In Corbett’s18 terms, already in peacetime and in order to contribute to a balanced deterrent posture and prevent a “limited war,” the role of naval forces in the Baltic Sea can be the “tactical offensive” as part of an overall “defensive strategy.”19 Like the Enhanced Forward Presence, this deterrence posture does not necessarily require great numbers of maritime forces. Those deployed, however, must be able to question the Russian claim to sea control and the sanctuary of the Kaliningrad exclave through land-attack and anti-ship-cruise missiles launched from small surface combatants, corvettes, submarines, and aircraft, as well as through mine-laying capabilities. Not all these forces have to be provided by one nation alone. In parallel to the Enhanced Forward Presence, multi-nationality would be an essential factor in preventing the strategic isolation of the eastern flank. And this is the second major advantage of the maritime domain – only at sea can Sweden and Finland be included in a credible deterrent posture without upsetting the complex balance of power by a motion for formal integration into NATO.
Russian appetite for serious mischief-making in the north is, thankfully, considered to be low. But it should prompt us to widen our peripheral vision – to the Mediterranean, the near east, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, where we do in fact see a lot more maritime activity. Maritime forces deployed to the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean in constabulary force missions might actually be just as close to the mission set of “deterrence and defense” as those forces up in the north. Parallels and deviations in the approaches of Russia and China point to the fact that in a struggle involving nuclear-armed great powers there are no easily defined geographic limitations – and in fact, it is in our better interest as the Melians in the room not to allow any power to willfully separate strategic spaces. After all, we have to realize that the autocratic players in “Great Power Competition” try to widen and exploit geographic and political fault lines in the west. Let us not widen them intellectually ourselves.
Captain Sascha H. Rackwitz joined the German Navy in 1991. A submariner by background, he was captain of a submarine and commanding officer of the German Navy’s submarine squadron. After tours in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he until recently taught naval strategy and operational art at the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College before assuming his current responsibilities as deputy commander and chief of staff of Flotilla 1 of the German Navy, home to the German Navy’s corvettes, submarines, mine countermeasure forces, special operations, and naval infantry forces. The views expressed here are presented in a personal capacity. and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government or agency.
1. United States of America (2017): National Security Strategy of the United States of America.
2. Peoples Republic of China, State Council Information Office (2019): China’s Defence in the New Era.
3. Russian Federation (2015): National Security Strategy.
4. Thucydides, History of the Peleponnesian War, Chapter XVII, Melian Dialogue.
5. Gray, Colin S. (2018): Theory of Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 121f.
6. Gray, Colin S. (2018): Theory of Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 98.
7. Clausewitz, Carl (1832): On War, Berlin, Book VIII, Chapter V.
8. “Sea Control” is more of a process than a condition in which by constant effort freedom of action in a maritime area is obtained. Sea Control is regularly understood to be a prerequisite for protecting sea lines of communication and projecting power from the sea. „Sea Denial” on the other hand is the denial of the unhindered operational use of a maritime area to an opponent. Both sea control and sea denial have to be fought for, are therefore principally only applicable in times of conflict. They will only be achieved temporarily and locally to a certain extent depending on the effort invested – uncontested sea control is only theoretically possible.
9. Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippines vs. China, 2016.
10. Corbett, Julian (1911): Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, p. 97.
11. United States Marine Corps (2019): Commandant’s Planning Guidance.
12. Morgan, Patrick (1983): Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, p. 164f.
13. NATO Factsheet on eFP, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2019_04/20190402_1904-factsheet_efp_en.pdf
14. Mazarr, Michael J./Chan, Arthur et al. (2018): What Deters and Why. Exploring Requirements for Effective Deterrence of Interstate Aggression, Santa Monica: RAND, p. 17ff.
15. Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (2019) International Security and Estonia.
16. Republic of Estonia, Ministry of the Interior, Press about the kidnapping of an Estonian Internal Security Service officer, last updated 28 September 2015: https://www.siseministeerium.ee/en/eston-kohver
17. Snyder, Glen (1961): Deterrence and Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security. Westport: Greenwood Press.
18. Sir Julian Corbett, 1854-1922, British naval historian and strategic theorist is considered to be one of the most influential theorists of naval power next to the American Alfred Thayer Mahan.
19. Corbett, Julian (1911): Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, p. 73.
Featured Image: Russian Navy Baltic Fleet ships on parade. (ITAR-TASS/ Elena Nagornykh)