Two quick videos from Al-Jazeera English (which this week was kicked out of China) portraying two of the most important motivators in the scramble for territory in the South China Sea, oil and food. In the first, China is demonstrating increased deep-sea drilling know-how, which may mean a near-to-medium-term increase in unilateral oil exploration and drilling in contested waters.
The second video shows the impact of the stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal on Filipino fishing villages in the area.
My esteemed colleagues Kurt Albaugh and Matt Hipple made some interesting arguments about the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in the past two days, although I disagree with each in different ways. At the risk of drowning our readers in the LCS debate, I’m going to make some brief remarks of my own and defer my own full analysis until I’m conflict-of-interest free, just so we can get it out of our system.
Mr. Albaugh highlighted a lot of good points about LCS. LCS is not meant to be the concept vessel formerly known as streetfighter and does a good job fulfilling a lot of low-intensity missions and niche combat roles. A less-threatening platform makes it easier to operate with partners in places like Africa, where cooperative engagement is more law-enforcement focused. And, as the Chinese and Philippine navies demonstrated by pulling out in favor of civilian vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, low-end ships can help ease tense stand-offs and prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflicts. Few would like to see the U.S. and China in a dust-up, so there are benefits to be gained from the U.S. demonstrating to its partners a commitment to peacefully resolving maritime incidents.
However, I disagree with the argument that forward deploying only weak vessels will prevent China from hostility. As commentor Chuck Hill noted, being inoffensive does not always prevent aggression. In dealing with state actors like China with a “Realist, zero-sum view of the world,” more capability is likely a greater deterrent of aggression than a perception of weakness. While deploying only low capability ships in sensitive areas would limit China’s ability to claim a menacing U.S. naval presence as pretext for action, it would not prevent China from taking that action.
In addition to soft power missions like Pacific Partnership and America’s commitment to its value system, the influence the U.S. maintains in the Asia-Pacific region is in large part derived from its partners’ perceptions of defense assistance credibility. In a region with a rising power with uncertain intentions, purposefully choosing weakness lessens the United States’ influence with friends and potential foes alike.
The good news is I continue to disagree with Mr. Albaugh. LCS can actually be used as an offensive asset, clearing the way for power projection. And I disagree with Mr. Hipple that the ship was designed without a purpose or strategy in mind. The very example of China’s focus on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are what drove LCS’ design. The three official mission packages – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine-countermeasures – are all meant to fill counter-A2/AD capability gaps. And the ship itself, with its shallow draft, is meant to open access to U.S. forces in precisely that area of congested waters, the littorals, where most hostilities are expected to take place. This is the reason just purchasing multiple HSVs, as Juramentado and Mr. Hipple suggested, would not work. It is the same reason the National Security Cutter would not work.
This is not to say LCS can perform every mission of a destroyer or frigate – but that’s okay, that’s not what the Navy meant it or needs it to do. Nor is LCS perfect. Rather than risk-averse organization Mr. Hipple portrays, if anything, the Navy took too much risk on immature technologies for LCS’ mission packages, as Juramentado suggested. Budgets and politics also played a role in the program’s history. And sure, I would love to see a better anti-ship cruise missile, but this is a failing across the entire U.S. Navy, not confined to LCS. Learning from experience, capitalizing on feedback, and tweaking things like manning and mission package equipment will help.
There are still wrinkles in the LCS program, but a question of the role of LCS within the U.S. fleet remains only if the technologies that enable the originally intended missions do not come to fruition. That is no small wrinkle, but it is a different one than finding a strategy.
A good measure of a military’s intellectual health is it’s dedication to firmly connect present procurement to future purpose. In discussions with peers in the American Navy, I often find myself a lonely voice of pessimism about our future and capabilities. However, LT Albaugh’s article about LCS inadvertently highlights how our procurement vision has managed to stray so far from the path. The U.S. Navy does force-planning through a bureaucratic balancing act of risk aversion rather than making the hard decisions necessary to handle outside threats.
LCS is the perfect example of this inability to commit. When viewed alone, it is a vessel with relatively even capabilities across the board. However, having no relative weakness is not the same as having any strengths. LCS represents an unwillingness to take risks. It is too big to truly be a littoral/riverine boat (PCs would be better). It is too slow to make up for its weak hull and poor weaponry (European corvettes would be better). It is not fast or strong enough to penetrate areas under enemy control, nor advanced enough to perform high-end ISR in those areas(submarines and aircraft would be better). Its real purpose today is clearly as confused as it was 8 years ago. It almost seems like the sole justification for the project really is, as Mr. Albaugh indirectly implies, that it exists. This tepidness is indicative of the Navy’s overall strategic planning. LCS’s attempt to be everything has made it nothing, and is now designed specifically to not risk a weakness for a particular strength.
Compare LCS to the Chinese Houbei-class missile boat. While American defense planners are unable to commit to overly generic systems that are already on the factory floor (F-35), the Chinese navy has committed to a vessel perfectly suited to its area-denial mission. Smaller and of the same hull material and speed of the LCS, the Houbei is weak in many areas by design. However, it is specifically created as part of a particular strategy. With the ability to stealthily approach and then quickly deploy 8 C-803s into an enemy ship, this little mosquito packs a greater ASCM threat than any brawler American ship-of-the-line. When under the aegis of home-turf, the Houbei is an invaluable piece of a very recognizable operational concept. The firm direction of the Chinese investment outclasses by far the strategic waffling behind LCS.
While our competitors learn from and move past their mistakes, we fret over and defend ours. In the past, defense planners forgot that as in the commercial world one can only choose two of the following: cheap, fast, or good. Now, we have forgotten to decide what we actually want before we choose, ending up with: expensive, drawn-out, and poor. There are incredible ideas that the American Navy is capable of executing in the future: unmanned aviation, surface drone motherships, long-range rocket gunnery, REAL patrol boats, SSGNs that create strike opportunities in environments where enemies deny us the surface and air. However, our constant attempts to re-shape ourselves for a single weapon system we “like” or have sunk too much cost into is creating a force-planning disaster; it is becoming less writing on the wall, and more a wall itself.
Earlier this week I attended the Battle of the Coral Sea 70th Anniversary Commemoration at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Memorial. Rain earlier in the morning threatened to push the event indoors, but the weather was blessedly cool and dry. Yet storm clouds might be gathering on the horizons of the Australian-American partnership the ceremony celebrated.
70 years ago, a clash of carriers handed the Japanese their first major defeat in the war in the Pacific, turning back an invasion force enroute to Port Moresby. As the Australian ambassador noted on Tuesday it also signaled a change in Australia and New Zealand’s defense formulations. Britain’s ability and responsibility to defend her imperial possessions and former colonies formed the bedrock of the nations’ pre-war planning.
According to the honourable Kim Beazley, the structure of British imperial defense “had crashed on land with the Japanese capture of Singapore, and at sea with the sinking of the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse.” The American decision to risk carriers to parry the southern thrust threatening Australia – while so much else in the theater was at stake – was praised and highlighted as one of the key moments later bringing the nation under the American security umbrella, where it has remained ever since.
A Future Crisis
Could Australia face another crisis and restructuring of its strategic security arrangements down the road? This depends much on the ability of China and the U.S. to play nice. Australia is bound to the U.S. in the ANZUS treaty, a firm defense alliance between the two nations and New Zealand (the Yankee/Kiwi portion has been much less firm, but is improving), and has contributed forces to major American-led military conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan. Just last month, U.S. Marines began to deploy to Darwin, Australia, as a step towards strengthening ties (unofficially, in the face of growing Chinese regional clout).
However, Australia is much more commercially dependent upon the Chinesethan the U.S., exporting less than a quarter of the goods to the U.S. it does to China, its biggest trading partner by both exports and imports. A serious spat between the two nations could cause Australians to rethink the benefits of their closeness to the Americans, especially if the cause of the row was of only marginal importance to the Aussies.
Similarly, the Chinese could begin to apply economic leverage to force Australia to scale back the level of its security and basing commitments (although done poorly this could risk a backlash). Conversely, the Chinese want to boost their own ties with Australia. In an April interview, Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia pointed out:
Beijing has recently asked, or warned, Australia to build stronger security and strategic dimensions into its ties with China, to bring them more in balance with the very strong trade ties. In fact, Australia’s military already has quite good relations with the People’s Liberation Army and has provided a conduit of contact during phases when U.S.-China and Japan-China military-to-military ties were in trouble.”
Might Australia decide in the future it’s better to step from under the American umbrella and risk rain rather than a lightning strike? Might the Royal Australian Navy’s highly skilled mariners and expanding fleet be kept in port in the event of a conflict?
Some voicesare already cautioning against more closely embracing the American military build-up in the Asia-Pacific, warning of the danger of being drawn into “someone else’s” fight with the potential for dire economic consequences. This appears to be a minority opinion among the public and politicians. According to the Lowy Institute, 85% of Australians are to some extent supportive of the U.S. alliance. As Mr. Medcalf states:
if Canberra is asked any time soon to make hard strategic choices between China and the United States, the signs are clear about the choice it would make—it has intensified the alliance with the United States.”
Yet Mr. Medcalf also correctly points out 15% is a substantial minority, and could grow as the American footprint expands in Australia. I don’t foresee Australia dropping the U.S. for China as its main strategic guarantor any time soon, but if the relationship between the two nations is handled poorly by either side, and its benefits not fully explained, the Chinese would be only too happy to exploit the opportunity and apply pressure to limit Australia’s commitments.
The Americans can help ensure this doesn’t happen. Proactive prevention of the sort of liberty incidents that so inflamed relations with another key partner to the north are vital. Aggressive goodwill diplomacy and exchanges can remind the Australian public of shared values.
And of course, events like the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea remind both nations of shared sacrifices. Said Ambassador Beazley:
As the distribution of global power becomes more diffuse, it is useful for us to have as a reminder American risk-taking for its friends at a time when the US position was by no means the superior one.”