Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Don’t Give Up on the Littoral Combat Ship

By LT Kaitlin Smith

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has been subjected to heavy scrutiny, and much of it is justified. What is getting lost in the discourse is the real capability that LCS provides to the fleet. From my perspective as an active duty service member who may be stationed on an LCS in the future, I’m more interested in exploring how we can employ LCS to utilize its strengths, even as we seek to improve them. Regardless of the program’s setbacks, LCS is in the Fleet today, getting underway, and deploying overseas. Under the operational concept of distributed lethality, LCS both fills a void and serves as an asset to a distributed and lethal surface force in terms of capacity and capability.

Capacity, Flexibility, Lethality

The original Concept of Operations written by Naval Warfare Development Command in February 2003 described LCS as a forward-deployed, theater-based component of a distributed force that can execute missions in anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine warfare in the littorals. This concept still reflects the Navy’s needs today. We urgently need small surface combatants to replace the aging Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships and Cyclone-class patrol craft, as well as the decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Capacity matters, and “sometimes, capacity is a capability” in its own right. We need gray hulls to fulfill the missions of the old frigates, minesweepers and patrol craft, and until a plan is introduced for the next small surface combatant, LCS will fill these widening gaps.

LCS was also envisioned as a platform for “mobility” related missions like support for Special Operations Forces, maritime interception operations, force protection, humanitarian assistance, logistics, medical support, and non-combatant evacuation operations. Assigning these missions to LCS frees up multimission destroyers and cruisers for high-end combat operations. We’ve already seen how LCS can support fleet objectives during the deployments of USS FREEDOM (LCS 1) and USS FORT WORTH (LCS 3). Both ships supported theater security operations and international partnerships with Pacific nations through participation in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series. USS FREEDOM conducted humanitarian and disaster response operations following the typhoon in the Philippines, and USS FORT WORTH conducted search and rescue operations for AirAsia flight QZ8501. The forward deployment of the ships to Singapore allowed for rapid response to real-world events, while allowing large surface combatants in the region to remain on station for their own tasking. With an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat onboard, LCS is well-suited to conduct visit, board, search, and seizure missions in Southeast Asia to combat piracy and protect sea lanes.

The presence of more ships on station doesn’t just allow us to fulfill more mission objectives; capacity also enables us to execute distributed lethality for offensive sea control. One of the goals of distributed lethality is to distribute offensive capability geographically. When there are physically more targets to worry about, that complicates an enemy’s ability to target our force. It also allows us to hold the enemy’s assets at risk from more attack angles.

The other goals of distributed lethality are to increase offensive lethality and enhance defensive capability. The Fleet can make the LCS a greater offensive threat by adding an over-the-horizon missile that can use targeting data transmitted to the ship from other combatants or unmanned systems. In terms of defensive capability, LCS wasn’t designed to stand and fight through a protracted battle. Instead, the Navy can increase the survivability of LCS by reducing its vulnerability through enhancements to its electronic warfare suite and countermeasure systems.

LCS may not be as survivable as a guided missile destroyer in terms of its ability to take a missile hit and keep fighting, but it has more defensive capability than the platforms it is designed to replace. With a maximum speed of over 40 knots, LCS is more maneuverable than the mine countermeasure ships (max speed 14 kts), patrol craft (max speed 35 kts), and the frigates (30 kts) it is replacing in the fleet, as well as more protective firepower with the installation of Rolling Airframe Missile for surface-to-air point defense. Until a plan has been established for future surface combatants, we need to continue building LCS as “the original warfighting role envisioned for the LCS remains both valid and vital.

New Possibilities

LCS already has the capability to serve as a launch platform for MH-60R helicopters and MQ-8B FireScout drones to add air assets to the fight for antisubmarine warfare and surface warfare operations. LCS even exceeds the capability of some DDGs in this regard, since the original LCS design was modified to accommodate a permanent air detachment and Flight I DDGs can only launch and recover air assets.

USS Freedom (Lockheed Martin photo)

We have a few more years to wait before the rest of the undersea warfare capabilities of LCS will be operational, but the potential for surface ship antisubmarine warfare is substantial. A sonar suite comprised of a multifunction towed array and variable depth sonar will greatly expand the ability of the surface force to strategically employ sensors in a way that exploits the acoustic environment of the undersea domain. LCS ships with the surface module installed will soon have the capability to launch Longbow Hellfire surface-to-surface missiles. The mine warfare module, when complete, will provide LCS with full spectrum mine warfare capabilities so that they can replace the Avenger class MCMs, which are approaching the end of their service life. Through LCS, we will be adding a depth to our surface ship antisubmarine warfare capability, adding offensive surface weapons to enable sea control, and enhancing our minehunting and minesweeping suite. In 2019, construction will begin on the modified-LCS frigates, which will have even more robust changes to the original LCS design to make the platform more lethal and survivable.

The light weight and small size of LCS also has tactical application in specific geographic regions that limit the presence of foreign warships by tonnage. Where Arleigh Burke-class destroyers weigh 8,230 to 9,700 tons, the variants of LCS weigh in from 3,200 to 3,450 tons. This gives us a lot more flexibility to project power in areas like the Black Sea, where aggregate tonnage for warships from foreign countries is limited to 30,000 tons. True to its name, LCS can operate much more easily in the littorals with a draft of about 14-15 feet, compared to roughly 31 feet for DDGs. These characteristics will also aid LCS’s performance in the Arabian Gulf and in the Pacific.

Of course, any LCS critic might say that all this capability and potential can only be realized if the ships’ engineering plants are sound. My objective here is not to deny the engineering issues—they get plenty of press attention on their own—but to highlight why we’ll lose more as a Navy in cutting the program than by taking action to resolve program issues. It’s worth mentioning that the spotlight on LCS is particularly bright. LCS is not the only ship class that experiences engineering casualties, but LCS casualties are much more heavily reported in the news than casualties that occur on more established ship classes.


LCS was designed as one part of a dispersed, netted, and operationally agile fleet,” and that’s exactly what we need in the fleet today to build operational distributed lethality to enable sea control. Certainly, we need to address the current engineering concerns with LCS in order to project these capabilities. To fully realize the potential of the LCS program, Congress must continue to fund LCS, and Navy leaders must continue to support the program with appropriate manning, training and equipment.

LT Nicole Uchida contributed to this article. 

LT Kaitlin Smith is a Surface Warfare Officer stationed on the OPNAV Staff. The opinions and views expressed in this post are hers alone and are presented in her personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (July 12, 2016) – The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) transits the waters of Pearl Harbor during RIMPAC 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)

The PRC’s New Garrisons in the South China Sea: A U.S. Perspective

The following article originally featured on Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on November 30, 2016 and is republished with permission. 

By Paul S. Giarra

Some international observers minimize the importance of military facilities and operational capabilities on the People’s Republic of China’s various claimed features, rocks, and islands in the South China Sea. They should reconsider.

Each location in isolation is not that potent. However, in the aggregate, this island base network poses a more resilient capability (geographically dispersed cluster bases) which, at the very least, would require a significant effort to neutralize, detracting significantly from other priority missions.

PRC military aircraft and missile batteries spreading throughout the South China Sea serve a number of important functions, all to the disadvantage of the United States and its allies and those who have a stake in freedom of the seas, the rule of law, and their own territorial claims.

First, they fortify the PRC’s maritime approaches.

Second, they militarize the PRC’s political claims, making it much more difficult to challenge them legally.

Third, they make it operationally much more difficult and risky to dislodge the PRC from these positions.

Fourth, these individual military capabilities are part of a larger fixed and mobile PRC military network, not only throughout the South China Sea, but on the Chinese mainland.

Fifth, the PRC now has four large People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airfields in the South China Sea, and these extend dramatically the operational range of PLA land-based aircraft, which can recover on these fields, refuel, and swap crews in shuttle missions which change the military equation considerably.

Sixth, these maritime facilities push out the limits of the PLA’s maritime footprint. This helps the PRC achieve a goal of establishing maritime control throughout the first island chain by magnifying the PLA’s anti-access (A2) and area-denial (AD) capabilities and bringing a considerably larger portion of the PRC’s maritime approaches under PLA firing arcs. Planners will have to take into account future deployments of DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, for instance, and the likelihood of an extension of PRC seabed acoustic sensors like the U.S. SOSUS system, tracing the contours of China’s Nine Dash Line territorial claims.

What happens when advanced systems are deployed to these island outposts?

As one example, it was only a matter of time before Russia announced the transfer of the S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) advanced air defense system to the PRC, following on the earlier transfer of the less-capable but still potent S-300. Given its extremely long range and effective electronic warfare capabilities, the S-400 is a game-changing system which challenges current military capabilities at the operational level of war.

Depending upon where in the PRC it is deployed, and which variant is transferred, its very long range would extend over Taiwan and the Senkaku (Daioyutai/Daioyu) islands. If Russia provides the S-400 with the longest range — 250 miles — in essence this would have the effect of turning a defensive system into an offensive system, and extend the PRC’s A2/AD umbrella over the territory of other regional states and the high seas.

Effective air defense systems like the S-400 are consequential because of the cost equation involved. Surface-to-air missile systems are much less expensive than the manned (and unmanned) aircraft they are designed to target or deter. The very long range of the S-400 multiplies the advantage. Without effective countermeasures, aircraft would be held away from China’s coasts, giving teeth, for instance, to the PRC’s assertion that surveillance missions in the PRC’s EEZ are not allowed.

Modern air forces expect to have to fool, suppress, pick their way through, or go around good integrated air defense systems, and countermeasures and tactics for doing so are well developed. In a move-countermove air warfare competition, the Russian transfer of the S-400 to the PRC would make doing so much more difficult (although not impossible).

Of course, one must wonder what the Russians are thinking in their defense technology relationship with PRC as all of this unfolds. Moscow is clearly aware that, while the PRC is expanding to seaward to challenge East Asia’s maritime and littoral states, Beijing’s list of revanchist claims must have motivated PLA leaders to consider plans for northward expansion as well.

Seventh, as Beijing consolidates political, economic, and military control over the South China Sea, one obvious purpose in mind will be to establish secure bastions there for the new Chinese SSBN force. Doing so would be consistent with what we saw the Soviets do when pressed by U.S. and allied ASW forces as envisioned by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (1978-82) Adm. Thomas Hayward’s Maritime Strategy, subsequently made famous by U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1981-87) John Lehman.

Unfortunately, these aggressive PRC developments illustrate the old maxim that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. While the PRC’s construction on its collection of artificial islands must consist of dual-use infrastructure at this point, the military purpose behind the PRC’s new South China Sea bases is transparent. It would have been much easier to prevent the building of these facilities than it will be to dislodge them. The U.S. and the Allies learned this lesson, to Japan’s disadvantage, at Guadalcanal during World War II, where Japan and the United States fought desperately for six months to prevent Japan from building an airfield and dominating the lines of communication from the United States to Australia and New Zealand.

The PRC’s island building also reminds how unforeseen developments can have dramatic cascading consequences. At Guadalcanal, before the almost casual Japanese decision to build an airstrip at the location of what became immortalized as Henderson Field, the two sides had no specific intention to fight in the region, or to lose almost 50 ships in the ensuing naval battles. Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto focused the Imperial Japanese Navy on Guadalcanal (previously an Imperial Army operation), because that was where the U.S. fleet and Marines were. Building airstrips and importing missile batteries has that sort of galvanizing effect, and in the case of Guadalcanal it preserved the Coral Sea strategy — keeping open the sea lanes between Australia and the United States — which remains a key pillar of U.S. and Australian national security strategy to this day.

What the PRC has been doing on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, it can do on various other claimed features and rocks in the South China Sea. In fact, Beijing is doing what the United States and its allies — in a strategically logical world — should also be doing: expanding operational perimeters; distributing significant firepower along operational peripheries; and combining the psychological and legal elements of modern warfare in an integrated campaign.

Paul Giarra, a former U.S. naval aviator and strategic planner, is the President of Global Strategies & Transformation, a Washington, DC, area strategic planning consultancy. He has an extensive background as a national security analyst on Japan, China, East Asia, and NATO futures.

Featured Image: Cuarteron Reef, November 15, 2014 (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Naval Mines and Mining: Innovating in the Face of Benign Neglect

This commentary is based on Dr. Truver’s remarks at the Future Strategy Forum 2016, Undersea Warfare panel, hosted by the Center for Naval Analyses, 5-6 December 2016.

By Scott C. Truver, Ph.D.


Winston Churchill observed, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Looking backward, it usually comes as a surprise to learn that of the 19 U.S. Navy ships that have been seriously damaged or sunk by enemy action since the end of World War II, 15 – nearly 80 percent – were mine victims.

This vulnerability to mines has catalyzed the U.S. Navy to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to counter a global threat that includes more than a million sea mines of more than 300 types in the inventories of more than 50 navies worldwide, not counting underwater IEDs that can be fashioned from virtually any container. More than 30 countries produce and more than 20 countries export mines. World-War I-era contact weapons bristling with “horns” can be as dangerous as highly sophisticated, computer-programmable, multi-influence mines that fire from the magnetic, acoustic, seismic, and pressure signatures of their victims. Ask Captain Paul Rinn, commanding officer of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, how a mine designed in 1908 can ruin your day.

Of particular concern are the mining capabilities of potential adversaries:

  • Russia reportedly has about a quarter-million mines
  • China, 80,000 to 100,000 mines
  • North Korea, perhaps 50,000 mines
  • Iran, 3,000 to 6,000 mines

Instead of discussing countermeasures to adversary weapons, this analysis is about our mines and mining in late 2016, how they might contribute to the Navy’s strategy, and where innovation might be leading us.

America’s Mines

America’s mines have been a factor in virtually every conflict since Ezra Lee navigated David Bushnell’s Turtle in a frustrated attempt to screw a “torpedo” – today what we would call a limpet mine – into the hull of Lord Howe’s flagship HMS Eagle in New York harbor on 6 September 1776. Therefore, it is not too much of a stretch to say that U.S. undersea warfare began with an IED/mine “event.”

Leaping over two centuries of U.S. Navy mine warfare history, during the Cold War, the Navy maintained a large stock of bottom mines for offense and defense. Several types of anti-submarine and anti-surface ship mines deployed by submarines and aircraft entered service in the 1950s and 1960s.

Later, mine inventories included Mark 36/40/41 Destructor shallow-water general-purpose 500/1,000/2,000-pound bombs fitted with mine target detection devices; the Destructor mines first deployed in 1967 and saw wide employment at sea and on land during the Vietnam War – some 11,000 DSTs were laid along jungle trails. The Mark 60 deepwater CAPTOR – enCAPsulated TORpedo – that encapsulated Mark 46 torpedoes within mine cases entered service in 1976, intended to block the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap to Soviet submarines in the event that deterrence failed. This was soon followed by the Mark 67 submarine-launched mobile mine – SLMM – that entered service in 1983 and could be covertly laid in vital areas.

A port view of the guided missile frigate USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (FFG-58) in dry dock in Dubai, UAE, for temporary repairs. The frigate was damaged when it struck an Iranian naval mine while on patrol in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Navy photo PH1 Chuck Mussi)

But with the end of the Cold War, the Navy’s mine capabilities began to atrophy. Today, no conventional mines remain in service, the CAPTORs have been retired, and at one point the Navy had programmed the remaining obsolescent SLMMs to be phased out in 2012. Had that been carried out, our attack submarines would have had no mining capability at all. As it was, only direct intercession by CNO Admiral Greenert saved a handful of SLMMs until something better comes along, if it ever does given competing submarine missions and tasks.

The only other mines in service in 2016 are the Quickstrike series of aircraft-deployed, general-purpose-bomb-converted Mark 62 500- and Mark 63 1,000-pound weapons (in service since 1980), and the dedicated, thin-wall Mark 65 2,300-pound bottom mine (in service since 1983).

Remarkably, the Navy has not introduced a new mine in almost 35 years, but not without the mine warfare community trying. Various concepts for littoral sea mines were suggested in the 1990s and early 2000s – one had the U.S. Navy collaborating with the Royal Navy, and the U.S. submarine force looked into a dual-purpose convertible Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo/mine – but these were ultimately not pursued.

Even upgrades to existing mines proved to be a hard sell. Work on the “next-generation” computer-programmable Mark 71 target detection device for the Quickstrikes began in 1991, but initial procurement began more than two decades later. Other priorities competed for attention and scarce resources.

Gulf of Thailand (July 5, 2004) – A MK 62 Quickstrike mine is deployed from the starboard wing of a P-3C Orion aircraft form the Grey Knights of Patrol Squadron Four Six (VP-46). (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Joseph Krypel)

That is revealed by Navy budgets since the fall of the Berlin Wall: on average less than one percent of Navy Total Obligational Authority has been spent on MIW, total, and the author believes mine programs get maybe five percent of that.

Even if resources could be found, however, the availability of aircraft, airborne tankers, and defensive escorts for mining campaigns is uncertain. There will certainly be intense competition for such aircraft in future crises and conflicts.

The 1991 Gulf War was the last time that the Navy deployed mines in combat. Four A-6 Intruders planted a tactical minefield of Quickstrikes at the mouth of the Kwahr az-Zubayr River to deny Iraqi access to the northern Gulf. One aircraft was lost to ground fire, and there were no indications that the mines actually sank or damaged any vessel. Aircraft-deployed Quickstrikes have less-than-optimal accuracy, even less precision, and are best deployed in less-than-contested environments and at dangerously low altitudes. Innovation in mines and mining directly addresses these operational challenges.

Reinvigorating the Mine Warfare Enterprise

As Major General Chris Owens, USMC, Director Expeditionary Warfare (N95) has underscored, “the strategic objective should be to make our adversaries worry about our mines as much as their weapons concern us.”

In September 2014, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) demonstrated an extended-range Quickstrike-ER – a modification of the 500-pound winged Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM-ER) – dropped from an Air Force B-52H bomber at 35,000 feet. According to Air Force Colonel Mike Pietrucha speaking at the Mine Warfare Association seminar in November 2016, this was the first-ever deployment of a precision, standoff aerial mine. A subsequent effort among PACOM, the Navy, and the Air Force successfully tested a 2,000-pound Quickstrike-J deployed by a B-52H.

“This effort marked the first advance in aerial mine delivery techniques since 1943,” Pietrucha continued, “and demonstrated a capability that substantially changes the potential of aerial mining in a threat environment.”

This QuickStrike/JDAM innovation could have a revolutionary impact on U.S. mines and mining, as Colonel Pietrucha underscored: “The mines have JDAM accuracy with respect to their selected impact point on the water surface, and the ability to place a 2,000-pound mine within six meters of a specified aimpoint on the bottom at ranges greater than 40 nautical miles is unprecedented.”

The takeaway from these tests is that any pilot trained for and any aircraft equipped to drop the JDAM can be a mine-layer, not just once, but many times. And, in the case of USAF bombers – our only high-volume mine layers – an entire minefield can be laid in a single pass without directly overflying the minefield.    

Important for a Navy warfare area that sees its weapons and systems delivery stalled, Pietrucha noted, “Both variants are assembled entirely out of components already in the U.S. inventory, making these weapons possible without a protracted acquisition process.” The JDAM conversion kit costs about $20,000.

Future Smart Mines

Looking farther into the future, boffins at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Navy’s Surface Warfare Center, Panama City (NSWC-PC) are working on several innovative advanced undersea warfare systems (AUWS) that can be delivered by unmanned surface or submarine vehicles. 

In October 2014, Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Panama City to learn more about remote-controllable “smart mine” innovations. In January 2015, he accompanied Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work to explore how future smart mines could contribute to the Third Offset Strategy. Responding to such high-level DoD interest and a mining joint emergent operational need statement, investment in AUWS and something called the Modular Undersea Effectors System – MUSE – is ramping up.

Panama City’s MUSE envisions innovative mining using “encapsulated effectors” to carry out important tasks, in addition to mining.  The concept sees forward-deployed ­– on the seabed in international ocean space, much like SOSUS or CAPTORs – unmanned stationary nodes for remote or autonomous unmanned air/surface/undersea/seabed vehicles (UxVs) to populate the “encapsulated effectors.” These “effectors” include mines, torpedoes, missiles, decoys, jammers, communication nodes, electronic warfare payloads –virtually anything that can be packaged in UxVs and launched from seabed encapsulation nodes.

(November 1, 1989) – Airmen from the 42nd Munitions Maintenance Squadron prepare to load a Mark 60 CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) anti-submarine mine onto a 42nd Bombardment Wing B-52G Stratofortress aircraft during Ghost Warrior, a joint Air Force/Navy exercise conducted during the base’s conventional operational readiness inspection. ( USAF photo STAFF SGT. RUSS POLLANEN)

According to Panama City engineers, MUSE will be an “integral element of the kill web, offering distributed, forward, persistent, autonomous lethal and non-lethal undersea/seabed scalable effects across all phases of operations.” An encapsulated effector can achieve two orders of magnitude increase in effective range compared to Quickstrikes and SLMMs, greatly reducing the sortie burden on aircraft, submarines, or large UxVs.

The Navy intends to put in place an “Encapsulated Effector” program that would integrate the AUWS, MUSE and smart mine technologies into incrementally fielded capabilities. In short, the Navy’s mines and mining laboratory sees next-generation smart mines to be critical elements in what some observers call “sea-bed warfare”:

  • Deliverable by autonomous unmanned vehicles as well as manned aircraft, surface ships, and submarines
  • Remote controllable via wireless secure communications
  • Discriminating against an expanded target set


Churchill’s exhortation to look backward to see forward framed this discussion, so therefore, “Torpedoes [mines] are not so disagreeable when used on both sides,” Admiral David Farragut wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on 25 March 1864, several months before he damned the torpedoes in Mobile Bay, “therefore I have reluctantly brought myself to it. I have always deemed it unworthy of a chivalrous nation, but it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.”

Perhaps with strong support and such asymmetric innovations as the extended-range JDAM-guided Quickstrike mines and MUSE, the U.S. Navy will enjoy “a decided superiority” over our adversaries – whether our mines are show stoppers or just speed bumps in future conflicts.

Scott Truver is a senior advisor to CNA and directs Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue national security programs.

Featured Image: BALTIC SEA (May 25, 2015) Members of a Latvian explosive ordnance disposal team use demolition charges to detonate a World War II-era German bottom-mine while conducting mine countermeasures operations in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Estonia during Exercise Open Spirit 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick A. Ratcliff/Released)

Catch of the Day: Reflections on the Chinese Seizure of a U.S. Ocean Glider

By Heiko Borchert

On 15 December 2016, China seized an Ocean Glider, an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), used by the U.S. Navy to conduct oceanographic tasks in international waters about 50-100 nautical miles northwest of the Subic Bay port on the Philippines. Available information suggests that the glider had been deployed from USNS Bowditch and was captured by Chinese sailors that came alongside the glider and grabbed it “despite the radioed protest from the Bowditch that it was U.S. property in international waters,” as the Guardian reported. The U.S. has “called upon China to return the UUV immediately.” On 17 December 2016 a spokesman of the Chinese Defense Ministry said China would return the UUV to the “United States in an appropriate manner.”

Initial legal assessments by U.S. scholars like James Kraska and Paul Pedrozo suggest the capture is violating the law of the sea, as the unmanned glider can be defined as a vessel in international maritime law that enjoys U.S. sovereign immunity. China, by contrast, justifies the capture with reference to its national security. According to Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the PLA Academy of Military Science, the glider “could have threatened the interests of China’s islands, or China’s ships and submarines. It must have damaged Chinese interest that caused the seizure.”

As this incident evolves and more information will become available, it might be useful to start thinking about some of the more long-term consequences of this UUV seizure. Building on a previous analysis of the impact on UUV in the Asia-Pacific region, I would like to suggest three observations for further consideration:

Unmanned Assets are Attractive Targets that Challenge Strategic Communication

This is not the first time an unmanned asset has been captured. Defense News reported that “an ‘unknown vessel’ grabbed another underwater vehicle operated by a U.S. ship near Vietnamese waters, but the vehicle was recovered.” In 2011, Iran seemed to have downed a RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by jamming its radar system in order to force the UAV to land in an area it was not supposed to land.

In line with these incidents, the most recent UUV capture reinforces the message that unmanned assets that have been designed with benign operating environments in mind and are attractive targets that can be easily captured or attacked. This is a prime challenge for strategic communications.

Seizing a U.S. UUV during the transition phase of the U.S. administration is a first rate headline grabbing media event, which might explain why it occurred now. It illustrates, as a Chinese scholar quoted by the South China Morning Post said, “the power of the Chinese army.” However, a UUV that hovers at the surface can be more or less easily captured. This time no one shot a picture of the “catch”, but this could be different next time. This might prompt a rethink of the media-related cost-benefit analysis of deploying UUVs in hotspots, which leads to the second thought.

Ready to Catch and Ready to Lose?

Testing the U.S. response certainly was a motive in the UUV capture. As Michael S. Chase et. al. have shown, China closely follows the U.S. use of unmanned assets also in view of justifying its own action and developing its own policies and concepts. The incident underlined China’s growing self-confidence and readiness to seize UUVs. But what about the U.S.?

At first sight, the U.S. response was measured and adequate by prompting China to return the captured asset to comply with international law. ‘We play by the rules, you don’t’ – this was the U.S. message. Apart from the question, if you can deter someone who just broke the rule by reminding him not to do so, there is a more trenchant issue at play.

Unmanned systems are attractive because they are easy pickings, but the emphasis on the need to return the U.S. UUV could undermine this very key advantage. In this case the UUV is treated like a manned asset because the overall message is about norm compliance. However, if you want the other side to hand back a relatively low-cost glider, can you credibly convey the message you would be ready to lose a much more sophisticated Large Displacement UUV?

This is the policy question the new U.S. administration and other governments using unmanned assets will need to work on, because a similar incident could occur in the Arabian Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, or the Baltic Sea.

Catch Me If You Can: Thinking About More Nuanced Counter-Responses

 Emerging powers have had enough time to study the use of unmanned assets in particular by the U.S. Their first line of defense focused around mimicking U.S. practice in order to catch up. The second line of defense evolves around counter-measures. The seizure of the U.S. glider clearly signals that UUVs need to be prepared to fend off counter-measures as well. Thus more nuanced responses will be needed.

First, more thought needs to be given to when and where to deploy UUV in a non-benign naval environment. The current incident clearly shows that the tactical and strategic benefits of UUVs can quickly turn into a strategic liability if other actors are not willing to back down on their own policy line.Second, this incident should accelerate the development of swarms of Extra Small UUV (XSUUV) that would be radically smaller than current gliders and more difficult to track and trace.

Third, the XSUUV swarm could also help deconflict the policy dilemma. XSUUVs would hardly qualify as vessels enjoying sovereign immunity. Other forms of countering XSUUV notwithstanding, the risk of losing them would be much lower, which could make it far less attractive to catch them.

Fourth, self-protection will become more important in particular for more sophisticated UUVs that execute different missions at the same time. However, solutions should keep the above policy dilemma in mind: if measures to protect the UUV from adversarial interference become too demanding and thus might outstrip the benefits of using UUV, something is probably wrong about the operational concept guiding the respective UUV use.

Dr Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Littoral Battlespace Sensing, LBS, glider (U.S. Navy)