Category Archives: Current Operations

On-going Naval Ops or Maritime Current Events

Australia World’s Largest LNG exporter by 2018: Understanding Maritime Security Challenges

By Mohid Iftikhar

 According to the Oxford Institute for Energy studies by 2018; Australia would become world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter (LNG). It is of cardinal importance to understand Australia’s global significance both towards strategic direction and growth through its LNG exports. In an article by the Submarine Institute of Australia; “Future Long Range Submarine Force Vital…” Australian LNG trade will climb more than $60 billion by 2020. Hence, in connection it is essential to analyze maritime security dimensions for Australia’s LNG exports. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;  Japan has been the largest export destination for Australia’s LNG over the last decade. In 2013, Japan was the destination for 92.4 per cent of Australia’s LNG exports by value, and 80.7 per cent by volume. Other major markets include China (4.2 per cent by value), the Republic of Korea (3.0 per cent) and Taiwan (0.4 per cent).”

The Asia-Pacific region holds great value to the Australian LNG, as it is a market with long term demands. In context of trade, global LNG industry faces competition with Qatar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the U.S, but Australia has marked its position. Examined by Oxford Institute for Energy studies in their paper “The Future of Australian LNG Exports….” Australia aims at establishing its international position in the energy market and particularly towards the Asia-Pacific. Geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific has progressed, multidimensional forces promoting global and regional development including security ambitions. In relation, the Chinese initiative of the Silk Road and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route aim to connect Africa, Europe and Asia, and poses numerous questions in the field international relations and development. Chinese enterprise predicts greater demand of LNG in the region, according to the Asia Times there will be over 900 projects involving 60 countries in the New Silk Road Economic Corridor. Simultaneously, the existing conflicts in the South China and East China Seas are a potential source of maritime security predicament; asking if conflict is evitable amongst states?

Internationally, LNG will also help Australia’s goal to establish itself as a more active participant in the Asia-Pacific region, as outlined in the government’s 2012 white paper “Australia in the Asian Century.” Perhaps, Australia does have a concrete direction of international growth through LNG exports, at the same time maritime security remains equally essential. On the same course, the Australian Defense white paper from May 2009, “Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific century: Force 2030”, does signify importance of maritime security and a self-dependent defense strategy in the oceans.

A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker operated by Energy Advance Co., a unit of Tokyo Gas Co., is moored at the company's Sodegaura plant in Sodegaura City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, March 22, 2012. Japan's imports of LNG rose to a record last fiscal year as utilities turned to fossil fuels after the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to the shutdown of almost all the nation's atomic reactors. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker operated by Energy Advance Co., a unit of Tokyo Gas Co., is moored at the company’s Sodegaura plant in Sodegaura City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Maritime security challenges are interlinked through adverse economic breakdown for LNG exports that fall under threats of terrorism and piracy. Possibly, terrorism remains a vital concern as LNG cargo can be targeted as floating bombs,  the statement is supported as quoted in the book “Organizational and psychological aspects of terrorism”  by the Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, “There is a concern amongst many maritime terrorist experts that a terrorist group could use a hijacked LNG tanker as a floating bomb. The amount of LNG held in a large tanker could generate an explosion of a similar size to a small nuclear bomb.” . Religious radicalization in the Middle East and terrorism in South Asia and Southeast Asia are both critical towards safety of Australian LNG shipments to their destinations. While transnational concerns have a firm relationship between maritime commerce and security, concurrently the 21st century has evolved geo-political concerns. The increasing power projections and geo-strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific are strongly connected to international maritime security. The wider hypothesis can be “Effect of Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific towards Maritime Security.” The relationship between geopolitical dynamics and transnational crimes in the seas has shaped a new picture; while an important question is; would the latter capitalize on the stance? 

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U.S ambitions in the Indian and Pacific Ocean are towards deploying 60% of its naval fleet by 2020. Perhaps, sea lines of communication for Australian exports are not only critical towards intra and interregional trade, but geopolitics post 2020 will evolve the architecture of maritime security.  It is equally important to sustain international harmony in the maritime sphere of Asia-Pacific, but are China, USA and other rising powers willing to extend collaboration and coalitions for maritime security? Many experts and scholars from war studies and international relations agree towards the minimum possibility towards a military conflict in the Asia-Pacific, but they don’t completely rule out the fact. Power projections in the seas of Asia-Pacific remain a source of anxiety, and the deployment of submarines and destroyers in strategic positions produces a negative image.

Transnational criminals today have accelerated in their modus operandi by advancing in strategic intelligence through contemporary technologies. The cyber domain remains sophisticated, but has its cons that can be favorable to criminals for locating LNG shipments through GPS tracking and etc. On the same note, the Straits of Malacca remain the central route for Australian LNG shipments to pass towards East Asia; the year 2014 had accounted for 75% of the world’s piracy attacks in the area. Further, in an article from BloombergView “Islamic State Is Rapidly Expanding in Southeast Asia” quoted as Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS, the nexus between terrorism in Southeast Asia and Jihadi extremism from the Middle East evolves a broader challenge in the maritime route for Australian LNG shipments.

It is a question of international economic security towards safety of Australian LNG shipments, in two parts. First preventing an economic breakdown for Australia and second the dependence of importer states for their national operations and productivity. International development requires a sustainable mechanism of integration between states, and the Asia-Pacific region is evolving complex dynamics that inculcate development, geopolitical, race, and transnational challenges. Demand of LNG in the Asia-Pacific will extensively grow in forthcoming years; Australia will be a significant contributor towards the same. But geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific is defining competition in facets of arms race, strength and modern imperialism. Transnational crimes such as terrorism, radicalization and piracy are a threat to Australian LNG shipments capitalizing on geopolitical objectives in a camouflaged manner. Simply, while there is a debate going on amongst great and rising powers of who is right in the Asia-Pacific, transnational criminals are emerging through the sideways planning catastrophic events. 

The Asia-Pacific region in the maritime domain requires consensus building from global and rising powers. A direction towards international development, ownership of vital ocean resources and disputes on maritime boundaries are aspects that ignite geopolitical race. First the international framework under the United Nations convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) must be followed by all states, which allows interpretation of rules and laws, simplifying dimensions of the international maritime mechanism. The International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) chalks out a coherent framework for safety of sea ports and vessels, uniformity applying the same particularly from maritime nations will allow combating transnational threats.  Second, to maintain international harmony in the oceans and minimizing threats from transnational challenges; stakeholders of the Asia-Pacific must devise a collective and collaborative strategy based on joint intelligence sharing. Safety and security of LNG shipments are not only important for Australia, but global operations  depend on it. Though Australia has collaborated with various states in Asia-Pacific towards maritime security, it is equally essential to initiate a productive platform towards dialogue that will allow the Asia-Pacific century to become a reality. Maritime security for Australia and other states can be strengthened by adapting the existing international framework towards laws and regulations of the seas; perhaps, this could initiate discussion and consenting on alliance and cooperation in the oceans.

Mohid Iftikhar has Masters of Philosophy in Peace & Conflict Studies from National Defence University, Pakistan and Bachelor in Business Administration from University of Southern Queensland, Australia. He has completed a short course on Defence & Security Management in collaboration with Defence Academy, UK, Cranfield University and NDU, PK.  He is a member of Center for International Maritime Security and Associate member, the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King’s College London. At present, he is working for the Federal Ministry of Planning Development & Reform in Pakistan.This article was prepared  by Mohid Iftikhar in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect of any Organization or Institute. 

U.S. SOUTHCOM vs. Caribbean Narco-Pirates

The following is a guest post by author W. Alejandro Sanchez.  The author would like to thank CARICOM IMPACS for their assistance with this project.

On March 12, 2015, Marine General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), testified before the Armed Services Committee about the security challenges that the United States and its Western Hemispheric allies face throughout the continent. In his Posture Statement, the general noted that SOUTHCOM is the U.S. military’s “lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, hence the maxim ‘doing less with less’ has a disproportionate effect on our operations, exercises, and engagement activities.”

One particular focus of General Kelly’s remarks was transnational crime, specifically drug trafficking that originates in South America and crosses the Greater Caribbean towards the United States. There are several types of transnational crime occurring throughout Caribbean waters; due to space constraints, this commentary will only focus on the transportation methods utilized to move drugs throughout the Caribbean Sea and what this means for the security of the United States and its allies.

Low Priority & Insufficient Assets?

In his Posture Statement, General Kelly stated that Washington’s allies in the Western Hemisphere “are frustrated by what they perceive as the low prioritization of Latin America on our national security and foreign policy agendas, which is especially puzzling given the shared challenge of transnational organized crime.”It is not surprising that Latin America and the Caribbean are a low security priority for the United States, as the White House has had to deal with security crises elsewhere over the past years, such as the conflict in Ukraine, tensions with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Islamic State. Moreover, sequestration and other defense budget cuts have forced SOUTHCOM to try to do more, or at least the same as before, with less funds. The SOUTHCOM commander went on to explain how “force allocation cuts by the Services… are having the greatest impact… We are already feeling the impact at our headquarters, where we have implemented a 13% reduction in civilian billets and an 11% reduction in military ones.”

A similar situation is occurring with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a wide area of operations in the

A USCG counter-narcotics operation
A USCG counter-narcotics operation

Caribbean. For the USCG, one immediate challenge is upgrading its aging equipment. Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Commandant, stated in April, “much of the Coast Guard’s infrastructure and many of our platforms are well beyond their service life.”

Both the SOUTHCOM commander and the Coast Guard Commandant have pointed out the challenge that transnational organized crime (TOCs), e.g. drug trafficking organizations, pose to U.S. security. General Kelly has highlighted the types of illegal goods that criminals are moving throughout the Western Hemisphere, like“drugs—including marijuana, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine—small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, illegally mined gold, counterfeit goods, people, and other contraband.” Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 2014 security blueprint, the Western Hemisphere Strategy (WHS), explains how “organizations are able to quickly adapt to changes in their external environment, including everything from advances in technology to an increase in law enforcement activity… As maritime trade and travel have grown, criminal organizations have taken to the sea, using complex operations and tactics to avoid detection while in transit.” (Click here for an analysis of the Coast Guard’s WHS).

In other words, both Southern Command and the Coast Guard are well aware of the challenges posed by TOCs. However, defense cuts and other security priorities are affecting how well these agencies, among others, can play a role in improving security in the region. The United States’ Caribbean allies and extra-hemispheric partners (like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) are actively working to crack down on Caribbean drug trafficking. However, given that the United States is the final destination for most of the drugs being moved around the Caribbean Sea, and given the still-limited resources of Caribbean states to stop drug trafficking through their territories (land and maritime), it would be ideal for U.S. security agencies to maintain a vibrant presence in the region, particularly since Caribbean drug trafficking entities have the funds, creativity, and willingness to constantly expand their methods of transporting drugs.

Narco-Methods of Transportation

As for criminals themselves, they are nothing if not (infuriatingly) resourceful and creative when it comes to thinking of new ways to move drugs across the Caribbean. As a disclaimer, I must highlight that one major obstacle with this analysis is that detailed information is sometimes not openly available regarding the specifications of narco-vessels. For example, U.S. Southern Command reported that the USS Kauffman, a frigate, interdicted 528 kg of cocaine aboard a vessel on June 17. Nevertheless, SOUTHCOM’s press release does not explain what kind of vessel it was, other than calling it a “narcotic-trafficking vessel in international waters in the Eastern Pacific” or a “suspected smuggling vessel.”

The information below about narco-vessels provide as much detailed information as this author has been able to find.

As part of my research for this report, I contacted the Implementation Agency for Crime And Security (IMPACS), a security branch of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM, an organization made up of 15 Caribbean states). CARICOM IMPACS explained that 80% of all illicit smuggling activity through the region that originated in South America is carried out through maritime means.

Speedboats / Go-boats: the standard method of transporting cargo. Just this past July, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless, “along with the assistance of a Netherlands Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft,”stopped a speedboat north of Aruba – on the vessel were six individuals carrying a cargo of 275 pounds of cocaine.

Narco Subs: The evolution of narco-submarines over the past two decades is quite remarkable. The first narco-sub was stopped in 1993 and it had a crude design: it was slow and made up of wood and fiberglass. More modern

On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.
On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

narco-subs can be fully submersible, travel as fast as 11 miles per hour, with larger fuel tanks and space for cargo. Due to space issues, we cannot discuss the different types of narco-submarines. A comprehensive report by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) entitled “Narco Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels For Drug Smuggling Purposes” discusses them in detail, including estimated costs, separating them from semi-submersibles, low-profile vessels, and submarines. These vessels have become alarmingly popular in recent years, as the narco-traffickers have sufficient funds to construct them. Case in point, this past June 18, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard intercepted a “semi-submersible craft” that was carrying the whopping cargo of 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

Narco-Torpedos: One new technology is static narco-containers (AKA Parasitic Devices). The FMSO report defines them as “containers which are bolted or magnetically placed on the bottom of freighters and other large cargo ships by cartel and organized crime frogmen.”Narco-torpedoes were found on the hulls of ships going from Latin America to Europe in 2013. I have been unable to find current examples of such containers being utilized in the Caribbean, but it stands to reason that they could be utilized as well, particularly as there is a great flow of goods through Caribbean ports en route to the U.S. and elsewhere. Narco-subs and narco-torpedoes are the next evolution of drug trafficking in the region and, so far, there seems to be no limit to how large and equipped narco-subs can become.

Inside cargo/fishing ships: Unsurprisingly, hiding contraband aboard vessels that apparently are carrying legitimate operations, such as fishing, continues to be an option for drug traffickers. For example, in early 2014 a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter operating out of a British Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, the Wave Knight, stopped a vessel that was carrying 45 bricks of cocaine. This is a memorable mission, not solely because of the amount of narcotics seized, but because this marked the first time that a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was launched from a British ship. That same year, on March 15, a fishing boat was seized off the coast of Panama. The U.S. Coast Guard investigated the vessel and found 97 bales of cocaine.

Finally, it is important to note that smuggling aboard vessels is more prevalent in some areas. CARICOM IMPACS explained to the author that smuggling among fishing vessels is common among members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (i.e. Dominica, Grenada or Saint Lucia) to French territories (i.e. Guadeloupe and Martinique) and Barbados. This is due to the fact that these nations have large fishing industries which are utilized as disguise for the flow of contraband.

Narco-Aircraft: Planes and helicopters are also utilized for moving drugs, though they seem to be less common than maritime methods of transportation.  According to CARICOM IMPACS, air smuggling accounts for approximately 20% of narcotics shipments in the region, mostly around the Bahamas due to its geographical proximity to Florida (with Haiti and the Dominican Republic utilized as springboards between the two). Throughout my research for this report, I was unable to find recent incidents of air smuggling throughout Caribbean islands. A geographically close incident occurred this past May; a narco-plane, a Hawker twin-engine jet, crashed off the Colombian coast as it tried to flee from the Colombian Air Force. The aircraft reportedly left Venezuela and entered Colombian air space – authorities found 1.2 metric tons of cocaine among the wreckage. As for narco-helicopters, in 2013 the Costa Rican police cracked down on a criminal group that utilized helicopters to transport weapons and drugs along the country’s Caribbean coast.

The aforementioned list exemplifies how drug trafficking organizations employ a wide array of vessels and aircraft to move their contraband from South America, through the Greater Caribbean, and ultimately to the United States and Europe. Part of the reason for this variety is that drug trafficking groups use an “island hopping” strategy to move the narcotics – for example, a speedboat carrying cocaine may leave Venezuela and dock in Curacao; from there it will be put in another vessel until it reaches a different island, and from there it may be transferred a third time before it attempts to enter U.S. territory.

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Shootouts At Sea?

One issue worth discussing is that most press releases that report on stopping suspicious vessels discuss the incidents as generally non-violent, or they are one-sided violent. At most, we hear about security forces that fire shots at suspicious vessels. For example, in January 2014, the aforementioned helicopter, launched from the HMS Wave Knight, fired warning shots at the suspicious

HMS Wave Knight
HMS Wave Knight

vessel. “It was a unique and successful mission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma. “We fired warning shots, and they tossed [the drug-filled] bails.” Meanwhile, a March 2014 operation included a Coast Guard helicopter shooting at the engines of a ship in order to stop it.

The interesting issue here is that both incidents include security personnel shooting at suspected drug traffickers but not the suspected criminals shooting back. There are some official videos available online of suspected drug smugglers being chased by U.S. security forces, but the footage seems to show the fleeing drug traffickers more than actively engaged in a firefight (video 1, video 2). Certainly, criminals have no problem shooting at security forces – just this past May, a Mexican military helicopter had to make an emergency landing when it was shot at by gunmen (three soldiers were killed). However, in the Caribbean, incidents of drug traffickers aboard speedboats shooting at security agencies appear to be less common (or at least, under-reported). Nevertheless, the possibility that drug traffickers could become more actively violent in order to evade capture–switching from a release cargo-and-flee strategy to actively shooting at security agents–is worrisome. (While this commentary focuses on drug trafficking, there is also an active weapons trade through Caribbean waters; hence it stands to reason that criminals could use weapons in their possession/cargo, such as rifles and handguns, to attack security agents trying to stop them).

Nowadays SOUTHCOM, U.S. Navy South/4th Fleet, and the U.S. Coast Guard must do “more with less” at a time when the U.S. defense budget is undergoing significant cuts, and, as General Kelly correctly points out, SOUTHCOM has the least priority of all the other U.S. military commands. On the other hand, drug trafficking criminals are constantly thinking of new, more ingenious ways to move their illegal merchandise across the Caribbean Sea. Spotting narco-vessels may become even more difficult in the near future, particularly if narco-subs become more advanced and if narco-torpedoes become more popular.

Moreover, drug traffickers may eventually decide to be bolder and shoot back at security forces rather than flee. This may be the case if a particular cargo is deemed as too expensive to be lost. I have been unable to find cases of narco-speedboats having built-in machine guns, but this is certainly a possibility.This is not meant as an alarmist declaration but rather an assessment of how the situation is evolving in the Greater Caribbean.

Concluding Thoughts

In his March 2015 Posture Statement to the Armed Services Committee, General Kelly declared,“I am frustrated by the lack of a comprehensive U.S. government effort to counter the [transnational organized crime] threat.” Documents like the 2014 Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy similarly explain the problem posed by TOCs, including those involved in drug trafficking, and the steps that can be taken to counteract them. The challenge nowadays for SOUTHCOM and the Coast Guard is having a budget that allows for the necessary personnel and equipment to carry out these objectives. General Kelly stated, “If sequestration returns in FY16, our ability to support national security objectives, including conducting many of our essential missions, will be significantly undermined. “

The goal of this analysis is not to imply that the U.S. government should give SOUTHCOM and/or the Coast Guard a blank check for obtaining new weapons. Nor should Washington solely focus on stopping the transportation of drugs through the Caribbean, while dismissing the other sides of the drug-equation, which includes demand (in the U.S. and European markets) and production (in South America). Rather, while the demand and production remain (unfortunately) vibrant, the interdiction of illegal narcotics among the various narco-corridors of the Greater Caribbean must remain a priority for SOUTHCOM and its supporting agencies like the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, just like it is a national security priority for Caribbean nations and and regional security agencies like CARICOM IMPACS.

While Washington does not regard developments in Latin America or the Greater Caribbean as a security priority (at least not comparable to developments elsewhere in the world), criminal organizations, particularly drug trafficking entities, continue to operate in areas like the Greater Caribbean. The list of vehicles used to transport drugs through that region demonstrates how drug trafficking groups continue to imagine creative new methods to move their illegal merchandise. Moreover, the rise of the narco-submarine is a problematic development as these vessels could become harder to spot in the near future, particularly as narcos have the funds to support their construction. The seizure of a narco-submarine just this past July is a clear example that narcos have not given up on these vessels.As General Kelly said, “criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders.”

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

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Operating in an Era of Persistent Unmanned Aerial Surveillance

By William Selby

In the year 2000, the United States military used Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) strictly for surveillance purposes and the global commercial UAS market was nascent. Today, the combination of countries exporting complex UAS technologies and an expanding commercial UAS market advances the spread of UAS technologies outside of U.S. government control. The propagation of this technology from both the commercial and military sectors will increase the risk of sophisticated UASs becoming available to any individual or group, regardless of their intent or financial resources. Current and future adversaries, including non-state actors, are likely to acquire and integrate UASs into their operations against U.S. forces. However, U.S. forces can reduce the advantages of abundant UAS capability by limiting the massing of resources and by conducting distributed operations with smaller maneuver elements.

Leveraging the Growth in the Commercial UAS Market

While armed UAS operations are only associated with the U.S., UK, and Israel, other countries with less restrictive export controls are independently developing their own armed UAS systems. Chinese companies continue to develop reconnaissance and armed UASs for export to emerging foreign markets. Earlier this year, social media reports identified a Chinese CH-3 after it crashed in Nigeria. Reports indicate China sold the system to the Nigerian government for use against Boko Haram. Other countries including Pakistan and Iran organically developed armed UAS capabilities, with claims of varying levels of credibility. In an effort to capitalize on the international UAS market and to build relationships with allies, the U.S. eased UAS export restrictions in early 2015 while announcing the sale of armed UASs to the Netherlands. Military UAS development is expected to be relatively limited, with less than 0.5 percent of expected future global defense spending slated to buying or developing military drones. For now, long range surveillance and attack UASs are likely to remain restricted to the few wealthy and technologically advanced countries that can afford the research costs, training, and logistical support associated with such systems. However, short range military or civilian UASs are likely to be acquired by non-state actors primarily for surveillance purposes.

Still captured from an ISIS documentary with footage shot from a UAS over the Iraqi city of Fallujah(nytimes.com)

Still captured from an ISIS documentary with footage shot from a UAS over the Iraqi city of Fallujah(nytimes.com)

Hamas, Hezbollah, Libyan militants, and ISIS are reportedly using commercial UASs to provide surveillance support for their military operations. Current models contain onboard GPS receivers for autonomous navigation and a video transmission or recording system that allows the operators to collect live video for a few thousand dollars or less. Small UASs, similar in size to the U.S. military’s Group 1 UASs, appeal to non-state actors for several reasons. Namely, they are inexpensive to acquire, can be easily purchased in the civilian market, and are simple to maintain. Some systems can be operated with very little assembly or training, which reduces the need for substantial technical knowledge and enables non-state actors to immediately integrate them into daily operations. These UASs are capable of targeting restricted areas as evidenced by the recent UAS activity near the White House, French nuclear power plants, and the Japanese Prime Minister’s roof. The small size and agility of these UASs allow them to evade traditional air defense systems yet specific counter UAS systems are beginning to show progress beyond the prototype phase.

Economic forecasters may dispute commercial UAS sales predictions, but most agree that this market is likely to see larger growth than the military market. Countries are currently attempting to attract emerging UAS businesses by developing UAS regulations that will integrate commercial UASs into their national airspace. The increase of hobby and commercial UAS use is likely to lead to significant investments in both hardware and software for these systems. Ultimately, this will result in a wider number of platforms with an increased number of capabilities available for purchase at a lower cost. Future systems are expected to come with obstacle avoidance systems, a wider variety of modular payloads, and extensive training support systems provided by a growing user community. Hybrid systems will address the payload, range, and endurance limitations of the current platforms by combining aspects of rotor and fixed wing aerial vehicles. The dual-use nature of these commercial systems will continue to be an issue. Google and Amazon are researching package delivery systems that can potentially be repurposed to carry hazardous materials. Thermal, infrared, and multispectral cameras used for precision agriculture can also provide non-state actors night-time surveillance and the ability to peer through limited camouflage. However, non-state actors will likely primarily use hobby and commercial grade platforms in an aerial surveillance role, since current payload limitations prevent the platforms from carrying a significant amount of hazardous material. 

Minimizing the Advantages of Non-State Actor’s UAS Surveillance

As these systems proliferate, even the most resource-limited adversaries are expected to have access to an aerial surveillance platform. Therefore, friendly operations must adapt in an environment of perceived ubiquitous surveillance. Despite the limited range and endurance of these small UASs, they are difficult to detect and track reliably. Therefore, one must assume the adversary is operating these systems if reporting indicates they possess them. Force protection measures and tactical level concepts of operations can be modified to limit the advantages of ever-present and multi-dimensional surveillance by the adversary. At the tactical level, utilizing smoke and terrain to mask movement and the use of camouflage nets or vegetation for concealment can be effective countermeasures. The principles of deception, stealth, and ambiguity will take on increasing importance as achieving any element of surprise will become far more difficult. 

The upcoming 3DR Solo UAS will feature autonomous flight and camera control with real time video streaming for $1,000 (3drobotics.com)
The upcoming 3DR Solo UAS will feature autonomous flight and camera control with real time video streaming for $1,000 (3drobotics.com)

At static locations such as forward operating bases or patrol bases, a high frequency of operations, including deception operations, can saturate the adversary’s intelligence collection and processing capabilities and disguise the intent of friendly movements. Additionally, massing strategic resources at static locations will incur increasing risk. In 2007 for example, insurgents used Google Earth imagery of British bases in Basra to improve the accuracy of mortar fire. The adversary will now have near real time geo-referenced video available which can be combined with GPS guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles to conduct rapid and accurate attacks. These attacks can be conducted with limited planning and resources, yet produce results similar to the 2012 attack at Camp Bastion which caused over $100 million in damages and resulted in the combat ineffectiveness of the AV-8B squadron.

In environments without the need for an enduring ground presence, distributed operations with smaller maneuver elements will reduce the chance of strategic losses while concurrently making it harder for the adversary to identify and track friendly forces. Interestingly, operational concepts developed by several of the services to assure access in the face of sophisticated anti-access/area denial threats can also minimalize the impact of the UAS surveillance capabilities of non-state actors. The Navy has the Distributed Lethality concept, the Air Force is testing the Rapid Raptor concept, and the Army’s is developing its Pacific Pathways concept. The Marine Corps is implementing its response, Expeditionary Force 21 (EF21), through several Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces.

The EF21 concept focuses on using high-speed aerial transport, such as the MV-22, to conduct dispersed operations with Company Landing Teams that are self-sufficient for up to a week.  In December 2013, 160 Marines flew over 3,400 miles in KC-130s and MV-22s from their base in Spain to Uganda in order to support the embassy evacuation in South Sudan, demonstrating the EF21 concept. Utilizing high speed and long-range transport allows friendly forces to stage outside of the adversary’s ground and aerial surveillance range. This prevents the adversary from observing any patterns that could allude to the mission of the friendly force and also limits exposure to UAS surveillance. Advances in digital communications, including VTCs and mesh-networks, can reduce the footprint of the command center making these smaller forces more flexible without reducing capabilities. The small size of these units also reduces their observable signatures and limits the ability of the adversary to target massed forces and resources.

Confronting the Approaching UAS Free-Rider Dilemma

Non-state actors capitalize on the ability to rapidly acquire and implement sophisticated technologies without having to invest directly in their development. These organizations did not pay to develop the Internet or reconnaissance satellites, yet they have Internet access to high-resolution images of the entire globe. It took years for the U.S. to develop the ability to live stream video from the Predator UAS but now anyone can purchase a hobby UAS that comes with the ability to live stream HD video to YouTube for immediate world-wide distribution. As the commercial market expands, so will the capabilities of these small UAS systems, democratizing UAS technology. Systems that cannot easily be imported, such as advanced communications relays, robust training pipelines, and sophisticated logistics infrastructure can now be automated and outsourced. This process will erode the air dominance that the U.S. enjoyed since WWII, now that commercial investments allow near peers to acquire key UAS technologies that approach U.S. UAS capabilities.

The next generation of advanced fighters may be the sophisticated unmanned vehicles envisioned by Navy Secretary Ray Maybus. However, other countries could choose a different route by sacrificing survivability for cheaper, smaller, and smarter UAS swarms that will directly benefit from commercial UAS investments. Regardless of the strategic direction military UASs take, commercial and hobby systems operating in an aerial surveillance role will remain an inexpensive force multiplier for non-state actors. Fortunately, the strategic concepts developed and implemented by the services to counter the proliferation of advanced anti-air and coastal defense systems can be leveraged to minimalize the impact of unmanned aerial surveillance by the adversary. Distributed operations limit the massing of resources vulnerable to UAS assisted targeting while long-range insertions of small maneuver elements reduces the exposure of friendly forces to UAS surveillance. Nation states and non-state actors will continue to benefit from technological advances without investing resources in their development, pushing U.S. forces to continually update operational concepts to limit the increasing capabilities of the adversary.

William Selby is a Marine officer who completed studies at the US Naval Academy and MIT researching robotics and unmanned systems. He previously served with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines and is currently stationed in Washington, DC. Follow him @wilselby or www.wilselby.com 

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Becoming a Maritime Power? – The First Chinese base in the Indian Ocean

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Xunchao Zhang

In May 2015, it was reported that China was going to establish a naval base in the East African nation of Djibouti. In that past, there has been much talk about Chinese overseas bases, but the Chinese official response to this news suggest the base is likely to be more than a rumor. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not deny the report but instead stated that “Regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end.” Likewise, the Chinese Defense Ministry also expressed China’s willingness to “make even more contributions” to peace and stability of the region. More directly, the official Xinhua News Agency has argued that time is ripe for a base in Djibouti. The talk of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti seems to confirm a 2014 report from Washington predicting the establishment of Chinese “dual-use” bases in the Indian Ocean serving both commercial and security functions. All of this brings to mind three questions: First, why would China choose to increase its Indian Ocean presence? Second, what is the strategic environment in which China has to operate? And third, what are the strategic implications for Sino-U.S. strategic interactions and China’s maritime strategy?

Strategic Rationale         

The increasing importance of the Indian Ocean to vital Chinese maritime interests form the rationale of having a Chinese base in the area. Although the official white paper “China’s Military Strategy” did not explicit confirm an out-of-area naval base, it did designate several reasons requiring the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) presence in Indian Ocean. A base in the Horn of Africa is consistent with the strategic shift from solely “offshore waters defense” to a combined “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection.”

The white paper states that “traditional mentality that ‘land outweighs sea’ must be abandoned” especially regarding sea lines of communication (SLOCs), of which, exports of manufactured goods and crude oil imports are paramount. Since a significant share of these rely on Indian Ocean sea lines, an out-of-area naval presence is almost a necessity. The February PLAN exercise in Lombok Strait sent a strong signal of increasing Chinese naval footprint in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the PLAN has responsed to several non-traditional security contingencies near the Horn of Africa. For instance, the PLAN has conducted a series of evacuation operations in the nearby states of Yemen, Libya, and Syria. China has also operated in the Gulf of Aden as a part of the international anti-piracy force since 2008. The official white paper states that the abilities and experiences in dealing with non-traditional challenges should be extended into traditional security areas.

Strategic environment

Multiple political and economic factors shape China’s rather favorable environment in the Indian Ocean region. One of the most significant is the lack of direct geopolitical tensions with the regional states. In contrast to the situation in the West Pacific, where China had a wide range of maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas, China has far more cooperative relations with most states in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing not only has strong partnerships with countries like Pakistan but robust commercial, political ties with African states as well.

Under the Xi administration, China has placed greater economic emphasis on the Indian Ocean region. For instance, the recently announced ‘Maritime Silk Road’ involves connecting East Asia with Indian Ocean economies such as India, Pakistan, Kenya and others via the promotion of maritime trade and investment in port infrastructures. Indian analysts have dubbed this the “String of Pearls.” Although the “String of Pearls” concept is an exaggerated reading of largely commercial Chinese infrastructure investments in the Indian Ocean, the scope of Chinese port building does reveal Chinese economic-political weight in the area.

Port in Gwadar, Pakistan.
Port in Gwadar, Pakistan.

Many international media observers have zealously pointed out the “conflict” between China’s new overseas base strategy with China’s non-interventionist principles. However, overseas basing is not necessarily incompatible with the principle of non-intervention, as long as base arrangements and military deployments are based upon agreement with rather than coercion of foreign governments. A naval base is also irrelevant to the domestic politics of state where base is to be located. Hence, in technical sense, it is possible for china to establish overseas bases while maintaining the non-intervention principle at the same time.

Strategic Implications

Realistically speaking, China has a long way to go if it is to fulfill the objectives outlined in the recent defense white paper. China would have to overcome not only overall capability gap with the U.S., the lack of experience in running overseas bases, as well as the doubts concerning the cost-benefit calculus of overseas bases. Comparatively, the U.S. military has operated from its own Djibouti base, Camp Lemonnier, during a variety of naval and counter-terrorism missions since 2001. The U.S. base has more than 4,000 personnel and is likely to be much larger and more functionally comprehensive than the potential first Chinese base. Furthermore, as mentioned in the 2014 NDU report, some voices in China are rather skeptical of overseas bases citing concern about principle of non-intervention and the possibility of foreign opposition. Therefore, there is possibility that the function of a first Chinese overseas base in Djibouti would be deliberately kept small to avoid controversy. In addition, even in the official white paper, the goal of transformation from “offshore defense” to “open sea protection” remains a limited one, reflecting the Chinese awareness regarding its own limited power projection capabilities.

In terms of overseas naval operations, the Chinese defense strategy white paper clearly took a reassuring tone emphasizing the cooperative and non-confrontational nature of PLAN open sea protection, and SLOCs security objectives. Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is neither intended to nor sufficient to pose challenge to the current maritime order. But it does indicates an increasing determination on Beijing’s part to provide security for its own overseas interests rather than merely relying on the “public goods” provided by the U.S. Navy. In this sense, China’s increasing Indian Ocean presence, though insufficient to trigger real strategic competition between the United States and China, is certainly feeding the popular narrative of global Sino-US competition in the media.

In sum, the strategic move towards an overseas base is part of the continuation of changing Chinese strategic culture that is increasingly outward-looking and maritime-oriented. But if the base in Djibouti is to be materialized, even in its most limited form, it is certainly a transformative moment in the strategic cultural shift. The increasing PLAN overseas presences, particularly in the India Ocean region is almost a foregone conclusion. However, depends on how the PLAN is able to deals with its growing pains, the extent and effectiveness of which, remain to be seen.

Currently working for the Australian Institution of International affairs, Xunchao Zhang is an observer of Chinese defense and foreign policy, Zhang is also the sub-editor of ACYA journal of Australia-China Affairs. He has been an intern at the Sea Power and Centre Australia, a guest correspondent of China Radio International, and a member of CIMSEC.

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