Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Cruisers, What Are They Now, and Why?

WWI-HMSAmphionLooking back at Corbett’s writings, he talks a great deal about the need for cruisers, but technology and terminology have moved on and the cruisers of Corbett’s days are not what we think of as cruisers today. Corbett’s “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy” was published in 1911. There were some truly large cruisers built in the years leading up to World War I, but Corbett decried these in that their cost was in conflict with the cruiser’s “essential attribute of numbers.”

A typical cruiser that came out of the thinking of the day was the Active Class (1912). 3,440 tons, 26 knots, and ten 4″ guns. Many of the cruisers of the day were even smaller, many under 3,000 tons.

Corbett often referred back to the Nelsonian period. His idea of a cruiser was the smallest warship that could undertake prolonged independent operations, frigates, sloops of war, and brigs, even schooners. Their missions were:

  • Protection of our own maritime commerce
  • Denial of the enemy’s commerce, including blockade and commerce raiding
  • Scouting (ISR in the current vocabulary)
  • Screening the battlefleet (both anti-scouting to deny the enemy knowledge of own battlefleet and protection for the swarm of flotilla craft with torpedoes.)
  • Communications

Of these he seemed to consider scouting for and screening the battlefleet, unfortunate, if necessary distractions from their primary duty of exercising control over maritime communications and commerce.

In the hundred plus years since Corbett’s writing, the number and types of naval platforms have proliferated and the roles once the exclusive domain of these relatively small surface ships have been assumed by other systems.

Radio replaced the dispatch carrying function of Nelson’s cruisers and improvements continually reduced the importance of the role for 20th century cruisers.

The torpedo boat destroyers first grew from what we would now call FACs into cruiser roles and cruiser size and now emerged as major strategic assets in their own right.

Submarines, which were little understood in Corbett’s time, quickly emerged as the premier commerce raider. Later they took on the role of countering their own kind, just as cruisers once did. They have scouted for and screened surface ships. They also grew into additional roles that make them in some respects inheritor of the battleship mantle as well as that of the cruiser.

Airplanes, also a recent innovation when Corbett wrote his classic, quickly became effective and essential scouts. They began to screen the fleet against the opposing “flotillas” including the enemies own planes. Flying from escort carriers or in the form of long-range maritime patrol aircraft that took on the cruisers role of protecting commerce. During WWII they replaced the battleships’ guns.

More recently satellites also assume roles in scouting and communications.

Small surface ships can still do the missions Corbett identified, but it seems other systems may be able to do them as well or better. Are their still roles for the smallest warships that can undertake prolonged independent operations?

There are still some things only surface ships can do. What is enemy commerce is not always obvious. In many cases only a visit and search can determine if a vessel is innocent.

While aircraft and even submarines may protect our own commerce, when ships are attacked far from shore, only surface ships (and their embarked aircraft), can save the crews or bring damage control assistance.

These are certainly not jobs for Burke class destroyers, which are now, with BMD and land attack roles, essentially Capital Ships. We need some minimum number of ships to do these tasks which are essential to the exercise of sea control. Once we establish how many we need, we can consider if the marginal cost of adding MCM, ASW, ASuW, and/or AAW capability is worthwhile. Frigates once filled this role, in addition to others, LCS are the only ships the Navy is currently building that might do these jobs. Some Coast Guard Cutters may also be appropriate. Somehow, I doubt we have enough, and I have doubts that they are adequately armed to deal with even medium sized merchant vessels without assistance.

Essentially we have a fleet of battleships of several types, CVNs, SSBNs, SSNS, DDGs, Amphibs. Simple and numerous “cruisers,” the smallest ships that can undertake prolonged independent operations, are almost non-existent.

“In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone. Their specialization has rendered them unfit for the work, and has made them too costly ever to be numerous enough. Even, therefore, if our enemy had no battle-fleet we could not make control effective with battleships alone. We should still require cruisers specialized for the work and in sufficient numbers to cover the necessary ground.”

Ref: “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” by Julian Stafford Corbett: http://eremita.di.uminho.pt/gutenberg/1/5/0/7/15076/15076-h/15076-h.htm

Chuck Hill is a retired Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard. He writes at Chuck Hill’s CG Blog, with the objective of looking, over the longer term, at the budgets, policies, tactics, roles, missions, and their physical expression – the platforms – that allow the Coast Guard to do its job.

Has South Korea Lost the East Asian Stealth Race?

On August 18th South Korea selected Boeing’s F-15SE Silent Eagle as the sole candidate for Phase III of its Fighter eXperimental Project (F-X) over Lockheed Martin’s F-35A and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The decision has drawn vociferous criticism from defense experts who fear the selection of F-15SE may not provide the South Korean military with the sufficient Required Operational Capabilities (ROCs) to counterbalance Japan and China’s acquisition of 5th generation stealth fighters.

In hindsight, Zachary Keck of The Diplomat believes that Republic of Korea’s (ROK)preference for the F-15SE over two other competitors was “unsurprising.” After all, Boeing won the previous two fighter competitions with its F-15-K jet. In 2002 and 2008, South Korea bought a total of 61 F-15K jets from Boeing. South Korea’s predilection for the F-15SE is understandable given its 85% platform compatibility with the existing F-15Ks.

The ROK Air Force has 60 F-15K Slam Eagles in service with its 11th Fighter Wing based in Taegu.

However, the most convincing explanation seems to be the fear of “structural disarmament” of the ROK Air Force should it choose to buy yet another batch of expensive fighters to replace the aging F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters. Simply stated, the more advanced the fighter jet, the more costly it is. The more expensive the jet, the fewer the South Korean military can purchase. The fewer stealth fighters purchased, the smaller the ROK Air Force.

Indeed, the limitations of South Korea’s US$7.43 billion budget for fighter acquisition and procurement (A & P) seems to have been the primary motivating factor in selecting the F-15SE. As Soon-ho Lee warned last month, “if the F-X project is pursued as planned, the ROK Air Force may have to scrap the contentious Korean Fighter eXperimental (KFX) project, which [may leave] the ROK Air Force [with] only around 200 fighters.”

The F-15SE enjoyed an undeniable price advantage in competition with the F-35A. Though the F-15SE does not actually exist yet, the New Pacific Institute estimates by looking at previous F-15 K sticker pricesthat a sixty plane order would cost $6 billion. The latest estimates from the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin put the unit cost of an F-35A at approximately $100 million, plus $16 million for the engine. Under this new price target (which may prove optimistic), 60 F-35As could cost the ROK over $7 billion.

But now that the decision has been made, how will the purchase of the F-15SE affect the ROK military’s operational and strategic capabilities?

The acquisition of the F-15SE would have little to no impact on South Korea’s current air superiority over the North. The gap in air power is simply too wide. As James Hardy of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly wrote last year, “Estimates by IHS Jane’s reckon that North Koreahas only 35 or so MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ air-supremacy fighters in service, alongside about 260 obsolete MiG-21 ‘Fishbeds’ and MiG-19 ‘Farmers.’” This may explain Jae Jung Suh’s of John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies claim that “quantitative advantage quickly fades when one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its 1950s-vintage weapons systems.”

That said,  as I noted in my previous article, the factors fueling the arms race among the major East Asian powers are two-fold: the ongoing territorial rows over disputed islands and seas, and the fear of their rival’s future capabilities. These two factors account for the fact that defense budget increases and acquisition of improved capabilities by China, Japan, and South Korea were reactions to perceived threats posed by their rivals’ attempts to rearm themselves.

This helps to explain why many South Korean defense analysts and ROK Air Force officers are outraged by the Park Geun-hye Administration’s decision to stick with plans to purchase the F-15SE. In a recent telephone interview, a friend of mine of who is a retired ROK Air Force major told me that the ROK’s  purchase of F-15SE is akin to  “buying premium DOS Operating System instead of purchasing Windows 8.” In other words, some ROK defense analysts and many of its Air Force officers believe that the F-15 series is obsolescent and does not measure up to Japan’s planned purchase of the F-35 or China’s indigenous production of the J-20.

But in order to achieve regional strategic parity with its powerful neighbors, South Korea must spend at least 90% of what its rivals spend on their national defense. The ROK’s  $31.8 billion defense budget pales in comparison to China’s $166 billion. And it is still substantially smaller than Japan’s $46.4 billion. Exacerbating this problem is the current administration’s reluctance to increase the ROK defense budget in the face of decreasing tax revenues and soaring welfare expenditure.

No matter which stealth fighter the ROK chooses, the ROK’s defense budget is inadequate to achieve strategic and tactical air parity with its rivals or tip the regional balance of power in its favor.

Despite the fiscal constraints imposed by the Park Geun-hye Administration, there are alternative solutions the ROK can consider to meet its strategic needs.

One option would be to delay purchasing a new aircraft. This option would give Lockheed Martin time to enter mass production of the aircraft, at which time it might be able to offer a more affordable price.  Lockheed has pledged to “work with the U.S. government on its offer of the F-35 fighter for [the ROK].” But if that offer does not translate into cheaper unit costs, it is meaningless. Even if Seoul agrees to buy the F-35, the structural disarmament that could result combined with budget shortfalls could cripple the ROK Air Force’s operational readiness.

Another option would be to reduce the size and budget of the ROK Army to accommodate the purchase of either the F-35 or the Eurofighter. But since the ROK Armed Forces remains Army-centric given the military threat from North Korea, this seems unlikely.  As Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies has written, “the composition, force structure and deployment of the ROK military have each remained relatively unchanged” and will remain so in the years to come.

A computer-generated concept of the proposed KFX stealth fighter (ROK Air Force)

A more pragmatic approach would be to cancel the F-X purchase program and focus on enhancing its indigenous Korean Fighter eXperimental (KFX) program first unveiled in 2011. Since both Indonesia and the United States have agreed to work with the ROK in developing the 5th generation fighter program, the proposed KFX could be less challenging and costly to develop. Such a program could mitigate structural disarmament dynamics and enable a smoother transition if the ROK can eventually afford to purchase the F-35 rather than the F-15SE.

Finally, the ROK could consider a commitment to developing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to minimize the potential strategic imbalance. In 1999, when UCAVs were still in incipient stages of development, the Executive Editor of the Air Force Magazine John A. Tirpak predicted  that “the UCAV could be smaller and stealthier than a typical fighter…[all at one-third the cost of an] F-35.” Indeed, the ROK plans to revive the “once-aborted program to develop mid-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAV) to bolster its monitoring capabilities of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.”

Contrary to the popular belief among many South Korean defense analysts, the ROK cannot come up with the defense budget to match its rivals. So long as that’s true, the type of stealth fighter chosen will have little or no effect on the ROK’s ability to achieve strategic and tactical air parity with its neighbors. The ROK can, however, avoid severe gaps in air power stemming from potential structural disarmament by reexamining the development of indigenous stealth fighters and UCAVs.

This article was originally published on RealClearDefense and is cross-posted by permission.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.

More Than Meets the Eye in Asian Naval Race

(NoteThis article appeared at RealClearDefense and is cross-posted by permission.)

In previous writing about the ongoing East Asian naval race shortly after the launching of the Japanese helicopter destroyer Izumo (DDH-183), I noted that the feverish naval race may be rooted in historical grievances, fierce competition for scarce resources, and the recent sequestration cuts within the Department of Defense, which may make it more difficult for theUnited States to “manage its alliances and strategic partnerships in the region.”

Izumo

As some of my readers have pointed out, I may have appeared somewhat biased against Japan because I did not fully account for other dynamics of the regional naval competition. However, it is not my intention in any way to accuse Japan or its neighbors of espousing expansionist tendencies.  I should, therefore, point out that the factors behind the ongoing naval race may be more complex than they appear at first.

First, it should be noted that Japan’s 4.68 trillion yen  budget ($46.4 billion) pales incomparison to China’s raw defense budget of $166 billion. Though Japan’s recent 40 billion yen ($410 million) increase in its defense budget has been construed by some in neighboring states as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish agenda, Japan’s defense budget is relatively modestwhen compared to that of China’s,  and  hence, insufficient to tip the regional security balance in their favor.

That said, the launching of Japan’s newest ship has provoked controversy over what kind of ship the Izumo really is. Whether the Izumo is a STOBAR (Short-Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), VSTOL (Vertical Short Take-Off and Landing), or CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) type “aircraft carrier” hardly matters. The reason why some of Japan’s neighbors are upset about the Izumo is the fear that Japan may eventually field an F-35B squadron on the ship. In short, it is not Japan’s current capabilities that are provoking uneasiness, but its future naval might.

Indeed, Beijing and Seoul have accused Abe of attempting to repeal the war-renunciation clause within the existing constitution in favor of the “establishment of an army, navy and air force in name.” But both China and South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) share blame for upping the ante for the ongoing naval race.

As Robert Farley, an assistant professor of the Patterson School, noted a few days ago, the Izumo was “hardly the only naval aviation news to emerge over the past week [since]photographic evidence seems to indicate that China is well on its way to a second, indigenous carrier, this one sporting full catapults.”

Not to be left out, the ROK Navy has become a great regional naval power in itself. Like the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, the ROKN also fields an amphibious assault ship, the Dokdo, with a 653 feet-long (199 meters) flight deck. It should be noted that the ship, whichcan supposedly deploy a Marine infantry battalion for any contingencies as they arise, is named after disputed islands claimed by both the ROK and Japan. Moreover, the ROKN hassteadily increased its submarine fleet in response to the growing asymmetric threats emanating from North Korea and Japan’s alleged expansionist tendencies.

ROKS Kim Jwa-jin

While it may be easy to suppose the three East Asian naval powers may be harboring expansionist tendencies, it may also be the case that each is looking to defend its own interests. Indeed, if we trace the origins of this naval race, we can discern that defense budget increases—or  for that matter, acquisition of improved capabilities—by the three East Asian countries were reactions to perceived threats posed by their rivals’ attempts to rearm themselves. Thus, the three states can and should adopt “trust building” diplomatic measures to avert a disastrous regional war.

But the bases for mutual trust remain flimsy at best. Contrary to Trefor Moss’s assertion that neither Japan nor China will go to war because of economic interdependence, economic interdependence does not necessarily translate to trust and cooperation. Furthermore, as Taylor Washburn argues, “major powers have often clashed without escalation.”

Considering the obvious distrust that pervades among the three East Asian naval powers, it is not difficult to understand why I have previously argued that taming the East Asian naval race may require America’s continued diplomatic presence as a disinterested mediator. The United States can no longer afford to appear inflexible in the face of fluid geostrategic dynamics and unrelenting sequestration cuts. Nor can it afford to alienate China by implementing “pivot to Asia” strategy. Not only that, but “leading from behind” to tame the ongoing East Asian naval race just may be the most cost effective way in which to exercise influence in the region.

But most importantly, through this newfound role as peacemaker, the United States can set an example as a peace-loving democratic nation committed to promoting good will within East Asia and to the rest of the world.

Taming the East Asian Naval Race

Note: This article was originally published in its original form in the Naval Institute’s blog and was cross-posted by permission.

On August 6th,CIMSEC ran a feature on the latest Japanese helicopter destroyer, the Izumo (DDH-183). CIMSEC contributor Miha Hribernik observed that the Izumo, which is supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron and boasts a 814 feet-long (248 meters) STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) flight deck, is “sure to cause concern in China…[since the launching of the ship] presents a potent addition to the operational capabilities and strategic reach of the JMSDF.”

22ddh-compAccording to Business Insider, the helicopter destroyer “came in” shortly after China’s recent statement that it is in “no rush [to sign the proposed Code of Conduct] since [Southeast Asian nations involved] harbor unrealistic expectations.” Japan’s territorial row involving Diaoyu/Senkaku coupled with threats emanating from the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea) might have triggered increased defense spending. However, the two aims of Japan’s burgeoning defense spending, pre-emptive strike capabilities and the creation of an amphibious assault unit similar to the United States Marine Corps, have made its East Asian neighbors uneasy. As for America’s reaction, Zachary Keck believes that while it is “unclear” how the Obama Administration will respond to Japan’s pre-emptive attack on its “adversary’s bases,” the Obama Administration could become “vocal” should Japan act upon its “threats to review [its] past apologies.”
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses inside the cockpit of a T-4 training jet plane of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's (JASDF) Blue Impulse flight team at the JASDF base in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 12, 2013 and released on May 16, 2013. Mandatory Credit REUTERS/Kyodo

In light of the fact that the ROK (Republic of Korea)China and Japan are seeking to boost their naval capabilities in recent years, some now fear that East Asian countries may have entered into a “regional naval competition.” One explanation for the naval race, as recent territorial rows and controversies over Japan’s wartime atrocities demonstrate, is that the ongoing tension in East Asia remains rooted in historical grievances. Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s remark in May that wartime brothels were “necessary…to maintain military discipline” coupled with the photo of Shinzo Abe inside the cockpit of a T-4 trainer with thenumber 731 stenciled on its fuselage seemed to evoke among the Chinese and Koreans memories of  Japan’s imperial aggression during the Pacific War. Indeed, Japan’s seemingly strident militarist overtone may have worsenedthe extant historical enmity among the three major East Asian countries.

To the historical grievances must be added another dimension—the fierce competition for energy resources. According to the National Geographic, “how much oil and natural gas is at stake, in either the South China or the East China Sea, is unclear [since] territorial disputes have prevented any reliable survey.” Nonetheless, each country’s efforts to “guarantee access to resources” will indubitably enhance its ability to “to shape international events according to a new definition of self-interest, one matching [the country’s] status.” As regards the territorial row over Dokdo/Takeshima, some aver that contradictory claims are based on “sequence of centuries-old records and half-told versions of more recent history.” To the extent that natural resources may be concerned, the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, although “poor in fresh water necessary to sustain human life,” are “abundant in fish.” Furthermore, the island is said to “contain natural gas reserves estimated at 600 million tons.” It can be argued, therefore, that in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, as with that of Senkaku/Diaoyu, energy security will retain “great salience” in the years, if not decades, to come.

However, one major factor that may explain the exacerbating the East Asian arms race is the recent sequestration cuts within the Department of Defense which may make it more difficult for the United States to “manage its alliances and strategic partnerships in the region.”  Keck argues that a new geostrategic environment whereby the United States increasingly desires to see its East Asian allies “shoulder more of the burden for regional security” may the create the perception that the United States presence in the region has diminished despite its commitment to the “pivot to Asia” strategy.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that peace in the region can be successfully maintained without the continued American presence in the region. While it may be true that “rational trust-building” diplomatic measures among East Asian states may somewhat temper the extant tension in East Asia, at present, the basis for mutual trust among East Asian states remains flimsy at best. For this reason, the United States must learn to “lead from behind” in East Asia by demonstrating its diplomatic prowess. To that end, the United States must seek cooperation with China in order to achieve stability on the Korean peninsula and to temper the tension over Senkaku/Diaoyu. With respect to Japan and the ROK, the United States can work to defuse tension over the competing claims to the Dokdo/Takeshima islets. One way in which the United States can defuse the naval race would be to help form a combined fleet whereby the United States Navy, together with its sister East Asian navies, “may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats.”

In short,  the ongoing naval race, as represented through the launching of the Izumo, is an outcome of deep-seated historical enmity and rivalries over increasingly scarce energy resources. While some may dismiss the possibility of a regional war, slight miscalculation among East Asian state actors may indeed spiral out of control and lead to a lethal war.

Notwithstanding the substantive defense budget cuts which could hamper flexible strategic responses, the United States nevertheless has a role to play to ensure peace in East Asia. “Leading from behind” to tame the ongoing East Asian naval race just may be the most cost effective way in which to exercise influence in the region.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.

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NOTE: In a follow-up article entitled “More Than Meets the Eye in Asian Naval Race” published at RealClearDefense, I argue that the naval competition among the three East Asian countries is driven by each country’s desire to look after its own self-interests and not necessarily by desire for imperial expansion.