Tag Archives: Asia-Pacific

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

Vietnam Set to Receive Japanese Patrol Boats Next Year

Vietnam’s Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told Reuters on Monday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the country expects to receive patrol boats from Japan early next year.

This is the first timeline provided by either side, where as recently as Friday at the same conference Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said only that Japan was “moving forward with the necessary survey to enable us to provide such vessels to Vietnam.”

Japan’s assistance comes as both nations engage with China in high-stakes territorial rows over disputed islands and their attendant Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the East China Sea, and Vietnam over the Paracels/Xishas in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s lack of capacity to defend its claimed EEZ was highlighted when it unsuccessfully tried to disrupt the operations of a Chinese oil rig moved into waters off of Zhongjian Island in the Paracels last month, sparking water cannon battles, collisions, and the sinking of a fishing vessel.

Patrol-boat aid for Vietnam has been on Japan’s agenda since at least late 2013. Vietnam reportedly sought 10 Japanese patrol boats as early as April last year, and Abe confirmed in December that the two nations were in talks over a deal. The exact number of patrol boats, their specifications, and whether they would be procured through a Japanese-secured soft loan have not been confirmed.

AbeLast week, Abe told the Japanese Diet that Japan would be unable to provide Vietnam with used, likely more-capable coast guard vessels in the near term due to its own need for maritime capabilities in the current environment. Abe at the time made no mention of the provision of new vessels for Vietnam, although he had agreed in March to send a survey team to the country to research the possibility of a donation.

While it is unclear which maritime departments within Vietnam would receive the vessels, Hanoi took the step in October of transferring the Vietnam Marine Police from the Navy to the Coast Guard to make it eligible for the vessels under Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) rules which prohibit aid from use for military purposes.

Japan has in recent years agreed to other patrol boat “gifts” to Southeast Asian nations. In 2007, it provided three new 27 meter patrol vessels to Indonesia and agreed last July to provide ten 40-meter vessels to the Philippines, slated to begin arriving in the Philippines in the third quarter of 2015. While the Philippines deal is also called a donation, the vessels are being procured through a $184 million soft loan announced in December.

In addition to patrol boats, Japan has over the past decade engaged in a variety of programs aimed at boosting the maritime capabilities of Southeast Asian nations, including counter-piracy, search and rescue, and maritime domain awareness training and assets.

Maritime capacity building aid for Vietnam has been forthcoming from the United States as well. In December U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would give Vietnam $18 million to develop its maritime capacity, including funds earmarked for five fast patrol boats, and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard have increased training engagements with the nation since 2010.

In April, Abe and President Obama released a joint statement affirming their joint commitment to, “assist Southeast Asian littoral states in building maritime domain awareness and other capacities for maritime safety and security so that they can better enforce law, combat illicit trafficking and weapons proliferation, and protect marine resources.

Seen as a dual-purpose effort to maintain regional stability by enhancing sea lanes defenses against maritime crime and boosting the deterrence capabilities of those in territorial disputes with China, the partnership is likely to manifest itself in future coordination in the region.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

This article was cross-posted in coordination with USNI News.

US Secretary of the Navy Talks LCS, Partnerships, and the Future of the USN

Last Friday the Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Ray Mabus, participated in the latest Military Strategy Forum discussion organized by the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ever vigilant, CIMSEC dispatched a fearless one-man delegation to the discussion. Below are some of the highlights of the event with the SECNAV.

With a few topics off the table, including the situation in Ukraine and the ongoing fiscal year 2015 budget negotiations, the central theme of the discussion revolved around the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and its future. In contrast with the speech made by the Secretary of Defense on 24 February, the SECNAV presented a more optimistic view of the contested vessel design and its prospects. By 2016, four LCS are expected to be on extended deployment. The Secretary further argued that the LCS should continue to be built through the current five-year defense plan, and, once complete, that further decisions should be taken based on the ship’s record, taking in account the costs of replacing it. As the LCS is only now beginning operational tests, there is no reason why the next flight of the LCS should not be modified. The Secretary cited the example of the subsequent flights of the DDG 51 and the Virginia class attack subs, which differ greatly from the original design. However, if modifications ultimately prove inadequate, the LCS will have to be replaced.

The second topic of discussion centered on the future of the U.S. Navy’s ‘Rebalance to the Pacific.’ The branch plays a crucial role, as it can brings presence and capabilities to regions in a way that the Army or Air Force cannot without more permanent basing or training agreements. However, according to the SECNAV, in order to ensure presence the Navy needs four elements: People, platforms, power, and partnerships. All are important, but none more so than partnerships. The United States relies on information provided by its partners, and fused from a variety of sources. That requires constant communication, relationships, trust, and familiarity. It is therefore crucial that the United States should reassure its partners in the Asia-Pacific that its rebalancing towards the region is real. To this end, the share of the fleet in the Pacific will increase from 55% to 60% by the end of the decade, and the contingent of Marines in Darwin, Australia, will grow to 1000 over the course of this year. Significantly for those keeping an eye on Washington’s rebalancing to the Pacific, the SECNAV emphasized that their role will not be restricted to training with Australian forces, but will include greater engagement in that part of the world.

The third, and perhaps key, point of Friday’s event focused on the future of the U.S. Navy in general, along with the sustainability of its current size and operational capacity. Secretary Mabus is convinced that the Navy’s size will reach 300 ships by the end of the decade, and that once reached the number will be sustainable. He did, however, add that the era of unlimited budgets, common a decade ago, has come to an end. Despite emerging constraints, he believes a combination of measures can cut costs and keep a 300-ship Navy afloat in the long term. This includes relying on mature technology (and crucially, not forcing expensive immature tech on new ships), disciplining requirements to keep them somewhat constant, fixed-price contracts, greater transparency in procurement, and relying on stable and tested designs. Here, the decreasing prices of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers was cited as an example to emulate; as an increase in bids from two to three ships per year cut unit costs, without sacrificing quality. Other measures include increasing the share of biofuel used by Navy ships, for which the branch is cooperating with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. Here, the U.S. “fracking revolution” will likely not prove much help, as oil and gas are globally traded commodities. Every time the price of oil increases by a dollar, it ends up costing the Navy and the Marine Corps another 30 million. The Navy hopes that at least half of all fuel used will be biofuel by 2020. Four biofuel companies are set to provide 163 million gallons, priced at 4 dollars a gallon. Although not expanded upon at the event, this initiative forms part of the “Farm to Fleet” program unveiled in December 2013. Although designed to contribute to America’s energy security, provide jobs to rural communities, and ensure a supply of low-cost fuel for the Navy, the program has already proven controversial due to its mounting costs, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cost-cutting measures will become increasingly important as the size of the fleet increases. A new amphibious group is set to be ready in the Pacific by 2018, providing Marines – not only those in Darwin, but all over the Pacific – with a spectrum of new options, including an improved resupply capability.

The event concluded with a few interesting tidbits, including on the need for a national debate on the upcoming – and expensive – Trident nuclear missile modernization; the deployment of laser weapons (coming into use this year); and, the F-35C (the SECNAV sees no problem with it being delayed, as the Navy was always the last in priority and the Initial Operating Capability has not changed).

Miha Hribernik is an Asia-Pacific security analyst and researcher, currently working with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Washington, DC. He is also an Associate of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels. Miha’s research mainly focuses on the foreign and security policy of Japan, and maritime security in East Asia – with an emphasis on counter-piracy information sharing networks such as ReCAAP.

The Siege in Zamboanga City

Zamboanga City Hall (Wikimedia Commons)
Zamboanga City Hall (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite regular coverage of ongoing events in Zamboanga City by both the Philippine and world press, there is still bafflingly little information available regarding the invasion and possible attempted takeover of the city on the southeastern tip of the island of Mindanao by fighters from a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  Recent reports from the Armed Forces of the Philippines on 16 September claimed that “70 percent of the coastal areas in Zamboanga City that were occupied by Muslim rebels” had been recaptured by Monday, with military “and special police forces” having “killed or arrested more than 100” rebels occupying “five coastal villages” after what has been described as a “foiled attempt” at occupying the city hall (or an attempt to raise the rebels’ flag) on 8 September.  82,000 of the approximately 1 million Zamboanga residents had been forced from their homes due to the fighting.

The Philippine Navy’s response

The Philippine military’s maritime forces have been very much involved in the response to the attacks in Zamboanga, with an afloat encounter between the rebels and AFP Navy Special Operations personnel at sea being described in most reports as the initial event of the standoff.  The unit most likely involved in that incident was Naval Special Operations Unit Six (NAVSOU 6), the component of the Philippine Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), based out of Naval Station Romulo Espaldon in Zamboanga City and under the operational control of Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM), the naval component of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (WESTMINCOM), the command responsible for military operations in the Sulu Archipelago and the western half of Mindanao.  According to the AFP, ships and troops already based in Zamboanga have been augmented by “4 units provided by the Naval Special Operations Group” and 300 Marines.

Who is responsible?

A faction of the MNLF has been blamed for these events in most reports.  The MNLF was originally founded in the 1960s and represented a variety of Muslim ethnic groups resident in the southern Philippines.  Since its early years the group has been led by Nur Misuari, a native of Jolo Island (although Misuari is a Sama, not a Tausug like most Jolo residents).  The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separated from the MNLF in the late 1970s, with much of the split between the two groups being reflecting ethnic differences (the MILF is typically strongest in Maranao and Maguindanao area on Minadanao, with Tausugs from Jolo forming the backbone of the MNLF). The Al Qaeda-linked terrorist (and criminal) group Aby Sayyaf is itself an early-nineties splinter from the MNLF by natives of Jolo and Basilan.

In 1996 the Philippine government and the MNLF negotiated a peace that established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), composed of Muslim-majority provinces in the Sulu Archipelago (Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi) and on mainland Mindanao.  Nur Misuari became the first governor of the ARMM and MNLF cadres were to be incorporated into the Philippine military.  However, by 2001 he had been pushed out of his leadership role within the MNLF and, seeing the writing on the wall, led a an armed revolt on Jolo against both the remaining MNLF leadership and the Philippine government and military.  After fleeing to Malaysia Misuari was arrested and deported back to the Philippines, remaining in custody until 2008.  The forces of what has since been called the “Misuari Breakaway Group” (MBG) or “Misuari Renegade Group” (MRG) has been led by Habier Malik,  who has also been identified as the leader of the Zamboanga attacks in much of the reporting.

Conflict between the MILF and MNLF has been sparked again in the last year due to the announcement last October that Manila and the MILF had reached their own peace agreement, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which essentially replaces the MNLF-dominated ARMM by a new entity that will presumably be controlled by the MILF.  Since the Framework was announced in 2012, there has been a variety of attempts to embarrass the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.  The most high profile, and bizarre, event was the February “stand-off” between followers of the Sultan of Sulu and Malaysian authorities in Sabah, on Borneo.  Misuari “extended his support” to this venture and in August, “declared the independence of Mindanao and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Republik, which included Mindanao, Palawan in southwestern Philippines and Sabah in Malaysia.”  Although Misuari has been widely blamed for the last week’s events in Zamboanga, his involvement is still unclear, with the Zamboanga City mayor stating that Misuari had “disowned” Habier Malik and the attack, while his lawyer has said that Misuari “was directing the MNLF fighters’ movements.”

A Violent History

Violence in Jolo and Zamboanga City has often been entwined.  The 2010 bombing at the Zamboanga City airport that killed two people has generally been described as an attempted assassination against the governor of Jolo.  In October 2002 a US Army soldier was killed in a bombing in Zamboanga City, and in 2009 two additional US soldiers were killed in an IED attack on Jolo that was attributed to the MNLF and the “Bangsamoro National Liberation Army.”  Zamboanga City and the surrounding areas have been the site of numerous high-profile kidnappings against foreigners.  An invasion on the scale of these most recent attacks, however, does seem like a significant escalation.  It is likely an act of desperation by Misuari’s faction of the MNLF, but it is still unclear what they expected to achieve by taking the fight off Jolo, unlike in 2001.

 What does this mean for the USA?

I attempted to weigh the relative success or failure of US counter-terrorism in the Philippines in an article in Small Wars Journal last year, with the predictable conclusion that the results were mixed. Of note, NAVSOU 6 is one of the units that has received training from US Special Operations Forces.  Despite linkages between the various Muslim terrorist, nationalist, or rebel groups in the southern Philippines, however, the US has focused its activities to supporting the Philippine military in its fight against groups like Abu Sayyaf, not groups like the MNLF and MILF.  With peace with the MILF and Abu Sayyaf on the decline, however, it seems that fallout from politics is more likely to be a source of discord in the Philippines than Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2).  In 2010 he deployed as the Intelligence Officer for Task Force Archipelago, the Naval Special Warfare component of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.