Tag Archives: Asia-Pacific

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.

Introducing the Izumo


Kyodo News/Associated Press
Kyodo News/Associated Press

Meet the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF) newest and largest member, the Izumo (DDH-183). With its 248-meter flight deck and 27,000-ton displacement, the new helicopter destroyer – capable of carrying up to 14 helicopters – dwarfs its 197-meter Hyuga-class cousins (the Hyuga, commissioned in 2009 and its sister ship Ise, which entered service in 2011).

As with Japan’s two other helicopter destroyers, the Izumo does not have fighter-launching catapults and is unable to support fixed-wing aircraft. Even so, eventual conversion of any of Japan’s three helicopter destroyers is not out of the question. Given the constraints of their design (such as small elevators and hangars), the conversion of the two older ships would be more difficult, while the Izumo’s larger dimensions could eventually accommodate aircraft such as the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the new fifth-generation fighter.

Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

The launch is sure to cause concern in China, which remains embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The islands are administered by Japan, but claimed by both sides. Although Tokyo has been careful to include tasks such as the transport of personnel and supplies in response to natural disasters high on the list of the new ship’s priorities, the destroyer presents a potent addition to the operational capabilities and strategic reach of the JMSDF. Crucially, it helps Tokyo keep pace with – or indeed, stay ahead of – China’s own rapidly growing navy. All recent and forthcoming changes to Japan’s defense policy aside, keeping pace with Beijing has proven a challenge as the country continues to feel the squeeze of its frail economy and the limits of its 1%-of-GDP defense spending cap. Even so, the Izumo may provide renewed impetus for those who believe that East Asia is already knee-deep in an arms race, as well as those who believe that Japan is emerging from its long pacifist slumber.

At the time of writing, an official reaction from Beijing has yet to be made, but it will be interesting to read in light of the still-fresh images of China’s second aircraft carrier under construction. Whatever the official line may be, the symbolism of choosing 6 August – the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 – to unveil Japan’s largest post-WWII ‘aircraft carrier’ is sure not to go unnoticed in Beijing.

Below is a comparison of the ship with the Ise in a photograph taken by the author in Kure in March this year.

Despite their different angles, both photographs hopefully provide a decent overview of the two ships and offer sharp eyes enough material for comparison. Even from this distance, the difference in size is apparent. Any insightful observations from our readers are welcome in the comments below.

Miha Hribernik is Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels and an analyst at the geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

ReCAAPing Japan’s Counter-Piracy Multilateralism

Given the recent tendency of many Japan watchers to focus on some of the more eyebrow-raising news from Japan – ranging from predictions of an ‘Abegeddon’ through possible constitutional changes to historical revisionism – it may be timely to shed light on one particular Japanese multilateral initiative that has seen increasing international interest. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) is the world’s first regional intergovernmental body designed to combat piracy and armed robbery (PAR) against ships. ReCAAP was born out of the Asia Anti-Piracy Challenge Conference held in Tokyo in 2000, which followed in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the resulting spike in PAR incidents.

A concrete initiative to establish such a body was made by Prime Minister Koizumi during an ASEAN+3 Summit in 2001, and the ReCAAP Agreement was drafted by 16 Asian countries in 2004. It entered into force in September 2006, followed in November by the establishment of an Information Sharing Centre (ISC). This Singapore-based ISC serves as a hub for information exchange on PAR incidents between all contracting states. At present, ReCAAP has 18 such contracting parties, including four from Europe (Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK). As the first framework of its kind, the ReCAAP model has enjoyed significant success and served as a model for the creation of the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), and is now in the early stages of forming the basis for a similar information sharing mechanism in the Gulf of Guinea.

Information sharing via decorative fountains
                                                              Information sharing via decorative fountains

According to the latest available figures, the number of reported piracy and armed robbery attacks against ships in Asia – most of which occur in the waters, ports and harbors of Southeast Asia – continued to decline over the course of the first five months of 2013. This year thus continues the positive trend from 2011 and 2012 when the number of incidents began to decrease for the first time since their surge in 2009. Although not the only factor to contribute to the decrease, facilitating information sharing has proven invaluable in a region crisscrossed with maritime boundaries, exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and ongoing territorial disputes. Detailing ReCAAP’s information sharing and incident reporting procedure would be beyond the scope of this post, although some of its intricacies may well be addressed in more detail in a separate piece in the future. Until then, a general overview of the reporting procedure can be found here (appendix, page 26).

Despite its relatively modest funding (all of ReCAAP’s funds are obtained through voluntary donations by contracting parties), which will amount to approximately 2.2 million USD in the fiscal year 2013, ReCAAP’s three principal tasks – information sharing, capacity building and cooperative arrangements between contracting parties – have made a tangible contribution towards reversing the rising trend in PAR incidents in the region.

After having authored a paper on PAR in Southeast Asia and the role of ReCAAP back in March, I was glad to have the opportunity to welcome a delegation from the ReCAAP ISC at a round table organized by the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels on 21 June. Their visit coincided with a period of increased international interest in the Agreement and its work, as Australia is set to become the 19th contracting party this August. France and the U.S. have also expressed an interest in joining, which would increase ReCAAP’s membership to 21 and expand the range of its information sharing network from Asia into the Pacific proper. Finally, as the EU contemplates becoming a partner organization over the coming years, the role of Europe within the framework will increase even further.

As its information-sharing model sees increasing adoption in other PAR ‘hotspots’ across the globe, ReCAAP will continue to attest to the capability of Japan to engage with its neighbors in multilateral fora (both China and South Korea are contracting parties) and shape pan-Asian initiatives. With some of the recent changes in the country’s political-security milieu putting its neighbors on edge, perhaps the time is right for Japan to reaffirm this capability. The 2001 ‘Koizumi initiative’ was a success; has the time come for an ‘Abe initiative’? It could build on ReCAAP’s success or outline a new multilateral framework that would help safeguard the global commons, be it in the maritime, cyber, air or space domain. Crucially, such an initiative could assure the participation of Japan’s neighbors while giving Tokyo’s soft power a welcome boost in the process.

Miha Hribernik is Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels and an analyst at the geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat. The views expressed here are entirely his own. This post appeared in its original form on the website of the Japan Foreign Policy Observatory.