Welcome to the August 2016 members’ roundup. Throughout the month of August, CIMSEC members examined several international maritime security issues, including an increasingly contentious undersea environment in the Asia-Pacific, monitoring and enforcing laws relating to maritime crime, the importance of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to the future mine countermeasure capability of the U.S. Navy, the upgrades being made to the Philippine Coast Guard with the assistance from Japan, and finally, Vietnam’s decision to deploy mobile rocket launchers to islands in the South China Sea.
Lauren Dickey, John Schaus, and Andrew Metrick, at War on The Rocks, provide an overview of submarine forces and dynamics shaping undersea competition in the Asia-Pacific. Although Russia’s undersea capabilities in the Atlantic have historically been the primary challenge to U.S. technological primacy in the subsurface domain, the authors explain how Chinese, North Korean .and ten other Asian nations are not only increasing their proportion of active submarines in the Pacific, but are also significantly increasing investment in advanced capabilities. According to the authors, the growth of submarine fleets throughout the region combined with technologies that can limit U.S. operational effectiveness in the domain implies that regional states are hedging against a more competitive future security environment.
John Grady, for U.S. Naval Institute News, discusses the importance of awareness in the maritime domain and on land concerning the enforcement of laws pertaining to fisheries, the environment and crime on the oceans and in coastal waters. He references comments on the issue from fellow CIMSEC members Jerry Hendrix, Scott Cheney-Peters, and Claude Berube, who explain that non-governmental organizations, comprehensive security and monitoring networks, and enforcement practices from ports to blue ocean regions is critical for ending illegal fishing and other criminal activities.
Rick Berger and Mackenzie Eaglen, at War on The Rocks, provide analysis on the aircraft carrier shortage in the U.S. Navy and the implications this is having for U.S. presence in certain hot spot regions. The authors argue that politicians are not working creatively enough to get additional carriers into the fleet quickly, which is a vital first step towards addressing the current carrier presence gap. Their analysis focuses on how Congress and Pentagon civilian leadership jointly and cooperatively changed the process with which the Navy tests, procures and fields aircraft carriers, ultimately resulting in the current shortage. The authors recommend that Congress and the Pentagon should allow the Navy to field CVN-78 Ford by 2019, noting that the risk in pushing back full-ship shock trials to a later date does not outweigh the benefit of solving an immediate problem of too few carriers for too many missions.
Steven Wills, for U.S. Naval Institute News, discusses the need for expanded congressional support for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), highlighting the ships potential to become the most advanced platform with an effective and advanced mine warfare capability in the fleet. He explains that the U.S. Navy’s aging Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships are in need of replacement and that the LCS mine warfare mission module represents the most suitable option already within the acquisition system capable of rapidly improving the fleets mine countermeasure capacity. He recommends that Congress support and fund the LCS mine warfare module program as outlined by the Navy in the FY17 budget.
Dave Majumdar, for The National Interest, highlights the U.S. Navy’s decision to prioritize the improvement of its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, noting the reemergence of Russian undersea capabilities and the continued growth of the Chinese submarine fleet as the principal reasons for doing so. Referencing an interview with U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, he explains that the future fleet’s ASW operations will combine air, sea, and undersea forces, emphasizing the need to ensure that the Navy’s attack submarine (SSN) force remains dominant in the subsurface environment. He also notes that although the Navy currently has about fifty-two attack submarines in its fleet against a requirement for forty-eight boats, the SSN force is set to shrink to forty-one by 2029, implying strategic advantage against adversaries in the North Atlantic and the Pacific is not possible without significant procurement adjustments.
Kyle Mizokami, for Popular Mechanics, reviews the debate centered on the future of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier and the different factors influencing the discussion, including the massive financial investment the U.S. has already put into its next generation of flattops and the increasingly dangerous and real threat anti-access/ area denial strategies will pose to carrier operations in the conflicts of tomorrow. Although U.S. reliance on the aircraft carrier as the country’s primary tool of power projection is a notion that continues to draw contention in security and political circles, he notes that technological advancements in unmanned aerial vehicles, longer-ranged planes, or even altering the size and price tag of the carriers themselves may adapt the platform enough to make them useful for decades to come.
CIMSEC members were active elsewhere during the month of August:
The following article is adapted from part of the 2015 Kiel Conference proceedings.
By Dr. Sebastian Bruns
With the deteriorating relations between the West and Russia in the wake of Crimea’s annexation and the hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine since early 2014, the Baltic Sea is suddenly thrust back into the spotlight of naval planners, policy analysts, and students of strategic geography alike.1 This article lays out some principles of looking at the Baltic Sea through the lens of the German Navy, which – while busy conducting a host of maritime security operations (MSO) in such far-flung places as the Horn of Africa, the coast of Lebanon, and the Central Mediterranean for more than two decades – finds itself returning conceptually to one of its home waters. It was the Baltic Sea and related military contingencies that dominated Germany’s naval DNA during the Cold War. Operating in the Baltic Sea was a fundamental part of the German Bundesmarine (Federal German Navy) coming-of-age. In fact, some of the legacy platforms still operated by the German Navy stem from an era that was entirely focused on the shallow and confined waters between Jutland, Bornholm, and farther east.
Since 2014, Germany finds itself in need to return to the Baltic Sea operationally, conceptually, and strategically. However, with a smaller navy increasingly stretched for resources, manpower and vessels, Germany cannot afford the luxury of ignoring other maritime security focus areas of the world worthy of a more expeditionary navy. This spells hard choices for the German Navy and its political masters who have depleted many maritime resources while simultaneously expanding the naval operational portfolio. To underline the conceptual reorientation that this strategic challenge demands, this essay first sketches what characterizes this ‘third phase’ of the German Navy (the first phase being the coastal/escort West-German Navy period from 1956 to about 1990, the second phase the expeditionary period from 1990 to about 2014). Second, the piece will discuss a few of the current political dynamics as they relate to naval and political relationships in the Baltic Sea in particular and the German Navy in general. Third, this essay addresses some of the fundamental naval-strategic shortcomings that put a coherent and believable strategic approach at risk. Fourth and finally, a handful of policy recommendations are provided.2
Three Phases of the Modern German Navy
To put the recent challenges to the German Navy into perspective, just as the service is celebrating its 60th anniversary, it is instructive to briefly touch upon some of the conceptual and intellectual frameworks that govern German maritime and naval strategy. Problems with periodization aside, it is helpful to frame the strategic evolution of the German Navy and how it is intellectually and conceptually approaching the return of the Baltic Sea as an area of responsibility.
In very broad terms, the ‘first phase’ of the modern German Navy – keeping in mind that the navies before 1945 officially hold no traditional value for the post-war service and are consequently not a point of departure 3 – ran from the inception of the Bundesmarine in 1956 to German reunification in 1990.4 After the devastation of World War II and the demise of the Third Reich, only ten years passed until Germany once again fielded a military. Before the German flag was hoisted again on a warship, a handful of predecessor organizations existed for tasks such as mine-clearing, intelligence gathering, and border patrol. When the Bundesmarine came into being, it was a product of the emerging Cold War and the bipolar world order. There was considerable Anglo-American support after 1945, both covertly and openly, for a new German maritime defense.5 In contrast to the grander aspirations of the decades before, the West German navy was limited to coastal defense (including mine warfare, submarine operations, and air defense) in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. From the outset and bound by constitutional and political imperatives, the German navy fashioned itself as a territorial defense and alliance force with strict limitations on where and how to operate. Its geographic restriction was eased in the 1970s when missions such as convoy protection in the North Atlantic emerged and more trust was bestowed by NATO allies on West Germany as well as the modernized equipment its navy fielded. From 1980, the Concept of Maritime Operations (CONMAROPS) integrated German posture in the Baltic Sea into the broader NATO-led maritime defense:
“CONMAROPS highlighted the importance of containing Soviet forces through forward operations, of conducting defense in depth, and of gaining and maintaining the initiative at sea. CONMAROPS was based first on deterrence. Should deterrence fail, the strategy was designed to mount a defense far forward in order to protect the territory of the alliance’s European member nations. The concept bracketed NATO’s naval operations into five operational areas or campaigns: the Mediterranean lifelines, the eastern Mediterranean, the Atlantic lifelines, the ‘shallow seas,’ and the Norwegian Sea.” (Børresen 2011: 99)
While increasing cooperation and temporary integration into the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) became an integral part of the maritime mindset, Baltic contingencies still formed a key pillar of German strategic naval DNA. The fleet of diesel submarines, mine warfare ships, fast-patrol boats, anti-submarine and air warfare destroyers and frigates, as well as naval warplanes, reflected this.
The ‘second phase’ of the German Navy began with the transition from the Cold War posture and lasted for more or less a quarter of a century. The 1990-2014 timeframe was initially characterized by the absorption of the East-German Navy and a shrinking set of assets in the wake of a dramatically changing strategic environment. Real-world crises from 1990 onward mandated a transition of the German escort navy to a more expeditionary force (Chiari 2007: 139). Consequently, the German Navy was no longer confined to waters in its near abroad. Instead, it practiced more diverse, but nonetheless challenging operations in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf (Bruns 2016a: 285-287).
Politically, the Baltic Sea, once a contested and disputed area between the East and the West, became a true ‘NATO lake’ with the accession of former Warsaw Pact member states to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and 2004, respectively. To address maritime security and safety challenges, a set of governance regimes was installed, most notably the Maritime Surveillance network (MARSUR) for maritime situational awareness and Sea Surveillance for the Baltic Sea (SUCBAS). The military integration along the Baltic littoral was complemented politically and economically by the expansion of the European Union into Central and Eastern Europe in the early 2000s.6 In the absence of the very Cold War scenarios that the German Navy had practiced for until 1990, the Baltic Sea became little more than a ‘flooded meadow’7 – a site for training and testing, or a theatre of Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiatives with non-NATO members. The commercial use of the Baltic Sea rose significantly with an increase in maritime traffic (both cargo and passenger vessels) and a surge in exploitation of the maritime realm for energy purposes (such as offshore wind farms and gas pipelines), but that did not nearly require as much military attention on the part of Germany as it did in the years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Coupled with the broadened mission set and the distance to the German Navy’s post-Cold War operating areas, this mindset fundamentally shaped how the institution and its people thought about and practiced maritime strategy as a whole. To them, it was something that was designed to address expeditionary challenges in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Africa, or in the Persian Gulf, and nothing that dealt with the ‘Fulda gap’ equivalent at sea near Fehmarn. The Cold War generation of naval leaders and a new generation of officers schooled at fighting pirates, upholding embargoes, providing humanitarian assistance, or patrolling the sea lines of communication existed in parallel for a period of time, often utilizing the very same platforms that were originally designed for fleet-on-fleet tasks envisioned for a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict. Whereas the warships and maritime patrol aircraft hardly changed, the German naval and maritime strategic horizon, and the public and political understanding of the role and value of the German Navy in the 21st century, did.
The ‘third phase’ began in the wake of Crimea’s annexation and the Ukraine quasi-civil war in 2014. Since Russia’s return to the world stage as a powerful actor willing to use military force rather indiscriminately for political ends, defying the Western model and conceptions about NATO-Russian partnerships, much has changed in threat perception. Spillover effects into the Baltic Sea include Russian harassment of the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) as well as Scandinavian allies, the reevaluation of all bilateral and multilateral political and economic relations with Russia, and a significant rearmament of the Kaliningrad exclave. Concurrently, the ever-smaller German Navy, challenged by an unsustainable force structure trajectory which has hampered modernization, readiness, recruitment, and operations, finds itself under significant strain.
The German Navy is not the only force which needs to refocus on the Baltic Sea, as Denmark and Sweden have also reduced many of their capabilities that they no longer regarded as necessary for their own maritime transitions since 1990. Still, the German Navy finds itself as the largest Western Navy in the Baltic Sea, despite the transfer of the naval bomber arm to the Luftwaffe in 1993 (and the loss of respective capability), the phasing out of the Bremen-class frigates since 2012, the scheduled decommissioning of the remaining fast-attack boats of the Gepard-class in 2016, and the shrinking of the submarine and mine countermeasures (MCM) force. At the same time, the German Navy is forced to refashion its contribution to German defense and national security. The upcoming White Book on German defense policy (the first since 2006), a new European Union global strategy due out this summer as well, and plans to update NATO’s Alliance Maritime Strategy (AMS) of 2011 are the push factors that frame how the Navy must articulate its missions. Keeping in mind that strategic cultural change is very hard, if not impossible, to mandate, there are two capstone documents being planned /written to complement and operationalize the White Book. First, a dedicated top-level service vision dubbed Dachdokument Marine,8 and second, a more focused naval operational strategy dubbed Militärische Seefahrtstrategie. The thrust of both documents is that the German Navy is no longer afforded the luxury of choosing their maritime focus areas. It must be both, a homeland and alliance defense force, as well as a capable integrated regional power projection navy.
Current Baltic Sea Maritime Challenges
Such a shift of attention and focus is challenging. Until recently, German politics has been very consumed by mass migration from Africa and the Middle East. In fact, not one, but two naval missions (one in the central Mediterranean and one in the Aegean Sea) with significant German Navy participation speak volume to the size of the problem perceived by Berlin – although these missions are hardly what navies are built and maintained for.9 Meanwhile, there is a larger sense in Berlin that the German Navy is overstretched and underfunded. Given its hollow force structure, the dire human resources situation in the wake of transforming the Bundeswehr into an all-volunteer force, and the strain of ever-longer deployments with increasingly overburdened warships, the need for improved strategic guidance and more resources for Berlin’s 911-force of choice is evident.
For the time being, such political challenges cloud the deteriorating relationship with Russia over the Baltic Sea. Russia’s intimidating actions are widely seen with a grain of salt within the security community, but the wider German public is hardly critical of the shift and fails to comprehend Moscow’s motives as well as the complexities of international politics. A case in point was the recent ‘buzzing’ of the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in international waters in the Baltic Sea. Susceptible to Russian and anti-American narratives, it was questioned why the U.S. Navy operated in the Baltic Sea in the first place.
German-Russian relations in the Baltic Sea realm are still fundamentally about economic ties, some with considerable personal investment of high-ranking policy-makers like former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The Northstream pipeline, which transfers Russian gas to Germany on the seabed, might offer a point of departure to exert political leverage on Moscow, but it also raises fears of a tainted German-Russian deal over Central European countries’ national interests, as has happened in the past. For the German Navy, the Baltic Sea has lost little of its ‘flooded meadow’ characteristics, at least when it comes to potential naval missions in the area. Four of the five major German Navy installations (Eckernförde (class 212A submarine base), Kiel (home of Flotilla 1 and the Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters), Neustadt/Holstein (damage control training facility), and Rostock (home of the naval command and home port to the largest German Navy surface combatants in the Baltic Sea) are located here, but conceptual and strategic innovation in terms of smart power beyond good order at sea remain scarce.
There are a number of areas where shortcomings are evident, and these need to be addressed now. While it would be easy to simply ask for more money to be poured into the Army and Luftwaffe-centric German defense budget, the more fundamental challenge is that of an intellectual kind. Little has changed from this 2013 assessment:
“The German Navy’s contributions to NATO’s maritime roles fall mainly within the lower end of the operational spectrum. Germany’s cruising navy provides little in the way of power projection but, for out-of-area operations, the fleet adds to alliance maritime security and cooperative security, and, though the sea-control capabilities resident in these platforms, it can contribute to collective defense.” (McGrath 2013: 6)
The question that begs an answer then is just what role sea power plays for the government in Berlin, and just how the German Navy can provide the necessary options to the political decision makers (including the respective price tags).
While Germany is lacking certain capabilities worthy of a medium-sized navy (such as the vaunted joint support ships capable of launching and supporting, amphibious operations from the sea), it is also lacking vocabulary for a more confrontational stance requiring hard-power capabilities on the one hand, and a clearer understanding of the roles and missions of naval forces on the other hand. One will be hard-pressed to find anyone in Berlin or Rostock who is war-gaming in earnest anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) scenarios in the Baltic Sea, or who is discussing with salience the naval side of deterrence and hybrid scenarios in the Mare Balticum. This is all the more discomforting because Germany has signed up to, but obviously not understood, NATO’s Alliance Maritime Strategy. This document from 2011 contains language that should inform partner nations’ naval outlook. The AMS mentions four areas for alliance naval activity: deterrence and defense, crisis and conflict prevention, partnership and cooperation, and maritime security. If one decides to focus on particular areas over others, such cherry-picking will amount in demonstrating a lack of coherence and conviction, which is both disastrous for the navy as a foreign policy tool, German standing, and for those Baltic Sea neighbors keen for alliance protection.
The challenge for any workable strategy is to prioritize. With finite resources, and certainly for a powerful country such as Germany, the task is to balance the force adequately so that it can do both. It needs to be able to conduct expeditionary operations under an international EU, UN, or NATO mandate together with other navies (think anti-piracy off the coast of Somalia or naval capacity-building such as in Lebanon), and also provide sustained territorial and alliance defense for and from the home waters. A flawed appreciation for strategy or an unwillingness to even think and act strategically is guaranteed to make such endeavors outright impossible. The objective is, to put it in the words of one analyst, “strategic flexibility and ambiguity of response” (Kofman 2016) against a changing strategic landscape in the Baltic Sea. The German government would be well-served to look into the NATO treaty, in particular Article 5, and make all efforts to provide adequate resources for its military to honor previous commitments. It would follow that the German Navy, which has all but lost its ability in many traditional naval mission areas such as anti-air warfare (AAW), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), and anti-surface warfare (ASuW), would require better intellectual and financial preparation.
Window of Opportunity: A Few Policy Recommendations
A popular saying notes that in the long-run, the pessimist may be proven right, but the optimist has the better time on the trip. In that spirit, there is a window of opportunity.
First, now is the time for a broader and more focused German maritime and German naval strategy. Self-evidently, these documents would need to carry the thrust of the government and in their scope and relevance not be limited to a particular service or department. They would also need to be deconflicted with the White Book and with relevant emerging EU and NATO strategies, while also honoring commitments from previous national and multinational capstone documents. Such a German naval strategy can focus on high-end design for its forces, extrapolated from its defined naval missions in support of Germany’s security and defense policy.
Second, it would embrace temporary integration with its allies beyond the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) to finally provide teeth to the concept of shared and pooled resources. Third, low-end maritime security operations on the side would still be in the portfolio, but ships and aircraft would do these on the side, so to speak, rather than this being the chief strategic concern.
Fourth, it would address the intellectual gaps that have emerged in Germany on the role of naval forces as a foreign policy tool, speak on contemporary maritime scenarios such as hybrid or asymmetry, and provide a sense of direction for the navy. This would definitely strengthen the European pillar of NATO. A return to the ‘bracketing’ approach of CONMAROPS could serve to connect areas of alliance maritime interests. Fifth, it would give the service and its political masters the sense that the maritime challenges of the 21st century are not entirely new. In fact, such a capstone document could address some of the constants of naval issues and initiate a hard look at recent (Cold War) history to address the dynamics of a forward-operating focus, and the role of maritime power for Germany.
Sixth, a capstone document would give allies (and opponents) the opportunity to read about what Germany is up to in the maritime domain. It would sketch avenues to engage with the German Navy. This could mean more exercises, also in the Baltic Sea and beyond such established annual events as BALTOPS. Eventually, it would also provide a sense of direction for those countries in the Baltic who feel most threatened.
It should not come as a surprise that the Baltics are determined to defend against Russia, but they seek German leadership as a responsible lead nation in the Baltic Sea area. Germany should take this seriously.
Dr. Sebastian Bruns directs the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK). He recently published the edited volume Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security (London 2016) together with Joachim Krause. Dr. Bruns, a former Congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., is also one of the project directors of the Kiel Conference on maritime security challenges, soon in its third iteration. This article is part of the 2015 Kiel Conference proceedings, available upon request by e-mail or online (www.ispk.org).
Børresen, Jacob (2011), Alliance Naval Strategies and Norway in the Final Years of the Cold War, Naval War College Review Vol. 64 (2), 97-115.
Breyer, Siegfried/Lapp, Peter Joachim (1985), Die Volksmarine der DDR: Entwicklung, Aufgaben, Ausrüstung, Bonn: Bernhard & Graefe.
Bruns, Sebastian (2016b), A Call for an EU Auxiliary Navy – under German Leadership, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 1 March 2016, http://cimsec.org/a-call-for-an-eu-auxiliary-navy-under-german-leadership/22385 (18 May 2016).
Bruns, Sebastian (2016a), Elements of Twenty-First-Century German Naval Strategy, in: Joachim Krause/Sebastian Bruns (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security, London: Routledge, 283-295.
Bruns, Sebastian (2005), “The Role of the United States Navy in the Formation and Development of the Federal German Navy, 1945-1970”, Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/r/the-role-of-the-united-states-navy-in-the-formation-and-development-of-the-federal-german-navy-1945-1970.html (18 May 2016).
Chiari, Bernard (2007), Von der Escort Navy zur Expeditionary Navy: Der deutsche Marineeinsatz am Horn von Afrika, in: Wegweiser zur Geschichte. Horn von Afrika, im Auftrag des Militärgeschichtlichen Forschungsamtes herausgegeben von Dieter H. Kollmer und Andreas Mückusch, Paderborn et al.: Schöningh, 126-139.
Kofman, Michael (2016), “Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NATO’s Crushing Defeat by Russia”, Warontherocks, 12 May 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/05/fixing-nato-deterrence-in-the-east-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-natos-crushing-defeat-by-russia/ (26 May 2016).
McGrath, Bryan (2013), “NATO at Sea: Trends in Allied Naval Power”, National Security Outlook No. 3, Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.
Peifer, Douglas (2002), The Three German Navies: Dissolution, Transition, and New Beginnings, 1945-1960, Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Pfeiffer, Ingo (2014), Seestreitkräfte der DDR. Abriss 1955-1990, Berlin: Miles.
1. A selection of further reading (of only the very recent analyses) includes Lucas, Edward (2015), “The Coming Storm. Baltic Sea Security Report”, Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Washington, D.C.; Lundqvist, Stefan & Widen, JJ (2015), “The New US Maritime Strategy. Implications for the Baltic Sea”, The RUSI Journal, 160:6, pp. 42-48; Kramer, Franklin & Nordenman, Magnus (2016), “A Maritime Framework for the Baltic Sea Region”, Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Washington, D.C.
2. This chapter is based on a presentation given in Arlington (Virginia), United States, on 21 March 2016. The author wishes to acknowledge the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), sponsor and facilitator of that roundtable discussion, for its support.
3. See Douglas Peifer (2002) for an interpretation which pushes back against the perception that there were little continuities from the Kriegsmarine in the post-World War German navies. Quite the contrary was the case.
4. The East German Volksmarine (People’s Navy) was disestablished in 1990 with much of its materiel decommissioned/sold; the majority of its officers and enlisted personnel were laid off. The service thus remains but an episode in German naval history without much resonance in its post-1990 DNA and is therefore not subject to deeper consideration for this article. For (German-language) introductions to the Volksmarine, see Siegfried Breyer/Peter Joachim Lapp (1985) and Ingo Pfeiffer (2014).
5. See Bruns (2005) for an annotated bibliography of U.S. Navy influence on the development of the West-German navy for the 1945-1970 timeframe.
6. The EU has fielded its own Baltic Sea Strategy which focuses entirely on environment and good governance aspects.
7. The Baltic Sea is frequently referred to as little more than a flooded swamp, in particular by members of the German naval community. This affectional characterization is based in the shallow and confined hydrography of this particular body of water and the strategic geography it entails, making it a unique area for naval operations and the political use of sea power.
8. Full disclosure: This author has been part of the group that was tasked with conceptualizing and writing the drafts of that document.
9. For a pledge to consider establishing an auxiliary navy to address low-end maritime missions (a European Coast Guard by another name), see Sebastian Bruns (2016b).
Featured Image: Corvette Ludwigshafen am Rhein ( F 264 ) in magnetic surveying at the Wilhelmshaven Wiesbaden Bridge (Ein Dahmer)
A spate of shipjackings and kidnapping-for-ransoms has imperiled regional trade in Southeast Asia and prompted calls for trilateral maritime policing in the waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Though an important first step, this will not end the kidnappings or lead to an overall improved security situation.
Starting on 26 March 2016, militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began a spate of maritime kidnappings. Three Indonesian vessels and a Malaysian tugboat were hijacked, and some 18 sailors were taken hostage.
Their treatment was very different than the three Western hostages abducted from a Davao resort in September 2015. The two Canadians, Norwegian, and Filipina were held incommunicado for a period of time, with six videos demanding ransoms issued over seven months. The hostages were filmed in all but one video in front of the black flag of the Islamic State, and in the last two wearing orange T-Shirts, representing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of Islamic State (IS) prisoners. The two Canadian hostages were executed when their ransom deadline, already extended and reduced, were not paid, on 25 April and 13 June. On 24 June, the ASG released the Filipina hostage as an “act of good will,” though, at the time of this writing they still hold the Norwegian prisoner.
The Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, by contrast, were quickly put in contact with their families and companies to arrange ransom payments. Although the ASG threatened to behead the four Malaysian sailors if no ransom was paid, there was no IS imagery in the photo posted on Facebookin the proof of life picture that the ASG released. In all three cases, ransoms were paid and the suspects released. Various press reports indicate that the four Malaysians were released with the payment of 140 million pesos ($2.97 million), while ten Indonesians were released following a50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a15 million pesos ($319,000) ransom. The payment of ransoms was always officially denied. While governments may have not paid the ransom, family members, shipping firms, friends, and insurance companies appear to have come up with the requisite funds. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged that money changed hands, but “channeled not as ransom, but to a body in the Philippines which assists in an Islamic struggle.” There is no ideology here, this is abject criminality.
Not surprisingly, with the payment of large ransoms, shipjackings/kidnappings have continued. On 20 June another Indonesian tugboat was boarded and seven of its thirteen crew members taken hostage. Though the remaining six were able to steer the ship to a safe port, the ASG is demanding $4.8 million in ransom for the release of the seven. Within days of the hijacking the captain was able to call his wife and convey the ransom demand.
These shipjackings/maritime kidnappings imperil regional trade. While only a small amount of the $40 billion in regional maritime trade passes through these waters, it is not insignificant. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 percent of total Philippine coal imports, worth over $800 million. There are an estimated 55 million metric tons of goodsthat transit these waters annually. These exports are all the more important as Chinese imports of raw materials from Southeast Asia continue to fall with China’s economic slowdown. On 21 April 2016, Indonesian authorities temporarily blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines, warning that the waters were becoming the “New Somalia.” The small shipping companies run on thin margins, and the millions of dollars in ransoms pose a threat to the small-vessel maritime shipping that dominates the region. Following the 20 June kidnapping, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, announced a ban on licenses to ship coal to the Philippines from Indonesian ports, “The moratorium on coal exports to the Philippines will be extended until there is a guarantee for security from the Philippines government.”
Calls for Trilateral Maritime Policing
For the first time in many years, Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have been speaking of the Southern Philippines as being theweak link in regional security and began to call for trilateral maritime policing in waters to the north and northeast of Sabah. There was a most un-ASEAN drumbeat of threats by Indonesian civilian and military leaders to engage in unilateral military operations to rescue their sailors. On 27 April, Philippine President Aquino acquiesced to Indonesian and Malaysian calls for joint maritime patrols based on the joint operations in the Strait of Malacca.
On 5 May, the three foreign ministers met and issued a communique “recognized the growing security challenges, such as those arising from armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes and terrorism in the region, particularly in reference to the maritime areas of common concern.”
To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
To establish a national focal point among the three countries to facilitate timely sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordination in the event of emergency and security threats; and,
To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
They instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to meet as soon as possible and subsequently convene on a regular basis to implement and periodically review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
On 20 June, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine Defense Ministers agreed to establish transit corridors. “The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners,” they said in a joint statement. In addition, they pledged to increase the number of air and sea patrols as well as maritime escorts.
Most controversially, the draft SOP will allow for the right of hot pursuit, something that the Indonesians insisted on. The Indonesian Minister of Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the media “We’ve agreed that if another hostage situation occurs, we will be allowed to enter [Philippine territory].” His Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, who was in the last week of his job, qualified the agreement: the hijacking/kidnapping must have taken place in Indonesian waters, before Indonesian vessels could enter Philippine territory, and Philippine security forces would have to be immediately informed so that a “coordinated and joint operation could immediately be undertaken.”
Even if the three countries implement the SOP and begin implementing trilateral policing, there would be serious limits for seven key reasons.
First, this is not the Strait of Malacca, one of the most critical maritime straits in the world. Those patrols, now in their 11th year, have been successful and resulted in a dramatic drop in piracy and shipjackings. But they have benefited from members with very robust capabilities, such as Singapore and Malaysia, a critical international chokepoint, and with technical support from the United States, which made it clear that if the littoral states did not increase patrols it would. The Strait of Malacca has the most sophisticated network of radars and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region.
Second, sovereignty remains the paramount concern. No country will allow “joint” patrols in their territorial waters. They might do “coordinated patrols” in their respective national waters, but there will be no joint patrols. Each country has been adamant on this point. As the Philippines said, “’joint exercises” can only take place “in the high seas and not within [Philippine] territorial waters.” As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it, any joint actions “must be agreed on without any of them sacrificing their sovereignty.”
Even the agreement on hot pursuit seems problematic. While Malaysia and Indonesian may be keen to have the right to hot pursuit into Philippine waters, it is hard to see them accepting one another exercising this right. Second, the incoming Duterte administration has not signaled their approval of this agreement. It is possible that they do not feel bound by agreements signed by the outgoing Aquino administration.
Third, and more to the point, this really requires Indonesian leadership. As we have seen, President Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has been terribly implemented, and he has shown little interest in compelling his various services and ministries to come up with an integrated implementation strategy, let alone serve as a regional leader of ASEAN. The Indonesian military’s threat perception and budgetary allocation priorities have returned to an inward focus, after nearly a decade of maritime orientation.
Fourth, the capabilities of all three remain very limited. There is an asymmetry between the threat and the capabilities deployed to this region. Even though Malaysia has beefed up maritime policing off of Sabah, especially following the incursion by Sultan of Sulu-backed gunmen in 2013, it has not been enough to prevent the ASG from still launching kidnappings. Malaysia and Indonesia have only limited naval, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement capabilities, and this region has not been a priority. The Strait of Malacca and increasingly the South China Sea have been far greater priorities. But those limited capabilities are exactly why cooperation is so necessary.
Fifth, there are still significant suspicions between the countries and lingering border disputes. The Indonesians remain distrustful and angry towards the Malaysians over the maritime demarcation between Sabah and East Kalimantan in the Ambalat region. On 26 June, Indonesian jet fighters intercepted a Malaysian military cargo plane flying too close to Natuna Island. While Indonesia and the Philippines successfully demarcated their maritime boundary in 2014, Malaysia and the Philippines do not have a formally demarcated maritime border owing to the disputed claim over Sabah. That may possibly worsen as president elect Duterte stated that he would revive the Philippine claim to Sabah which had been dormant for number of years.
Sixth, one needs to study a map of the trade routes to understand that even if there is international cooperation as well as designated corridors, they will only have a limited impact.
A majority of Abu Sayyaf operations occur in Philippine waters, and only a small portion occur in waters that may have joint patrols. If militants want to avoid Indonesians exercising their right to hot pursuit, they merely have to wait for targets to enter Philippine waters. Manila is unlikely to allow armed convoys from Malaysia or Indonesia, to continue into Philippine waters, let alone ports, even if they do not have the assets in place to receive the handoff. The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities. What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Even if we take away the large LNG tankers and large container ships that come up through the Lombok and Makassar Straights, which then either continue on to Northeast Asia to the east of the Philippines or cut through the deep waters between the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Tawi Tawi Islands of the Philippines, there are simply too many small tugboats, small bulk cargo ships, and tramp steamers that ply those waters to protect.
Ships coming out of Balikpapan and Samarinda in East Kalimantan or Makassar and Monado on Sulawesi traveling across the Celebes Sea to General Santos or Davao in the Philippines could be better protected. Yet, ships leaving any of those four ports traveling to Cebu, Cagayan d’Oro or Manila must transit the waters around Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s heartland. Likewise, ships sailing out of Western Sabah or Sarawak states traveling to Manila, Cebu, or ports in northern Mindanao can operate at the furthest edges of Abu Sayyaf capabilities. But ships from there or from the port of Sandakan going to Zamboanga or east to General Santos or Davao must transit the pirate infested waters between Tawi Tawi and Basilan. Abu Sayaf can launch quick attacks from their hideouts along this poorly policed coastline throughout the archipelago.
Again, the ASG can operate close to shore, in Philippine waters, without triggering the right of hot pursuit. And even if Indonesian or Malaysian forces were able to operate in hot pursuit, only on sea; they can do nothing when the Abu Sayyaf reach shore.
Finally, the lesson of Somalia is that international maritime cooperation cannot defeat piracy. Piracy is defeated on land, not sea. Despite ample support from the United States since 2002, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has proven unable and unwilling to defeat the Abu Sayyaf group. This is a small group, geographically contained, and enjoys little popular appeal. Yet, they endure. There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the thuggish militants around. The ransoms not only go to bribing local officials, military, and law enforcement despite their vociferous denials, but local communities profit from the kidnappings as well. The proceeds have gone not just to buy new weapons and ammunition from the black market, but to support a sub-economy.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that new kidnap for ransom gangs are carrying out operations, and then selling their captives to ASG leaders such as Al Habsyi Misaya. The six Indonesian sailors who were not taken hostage on 20 June recounted that their seven colleagues were taken by two separate groups with very different behavior and professionalism.
It is yet to be seen what approach president-elect Duterte will take. Like most issues, he has said one thing and immediately contradicted himself. He has has prided himself on the use of extra-judicial killings to eliminate Davao of crime and drugs, and said that Abu Sayyaf should be liquidated. He brashly warned the ASG that “there will be a time, there will be a reckoning,” but then said that it was not his “top priority,” and announced a willingness to negotiate with them. There is no evidence that they will accede to his demand that they “surrender unconditionally, release your prisoners, your hostages.” His messaging on the Bangsamoro peace process has likewise been contradictory, which has added to the sense of regional insecurity.
Duterte recently warned that he would not continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program, re-orienting the security forces back to an internal security focus. The limited Philippine naval modernization program, may be very short-lived. But then his Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the ASG was the country’s primary security threat, whose “illegal activities, including kidnapping, must stop,” Delfin warned: “We have to end this once and for all. This problem is giving us a very bad image abroad.”
In short, trilateral policing can only deliver so much until the capabilities of the Philippines improve. Delfin announced that military spending would be diverted from acquiring assets for use in the South China sea to fast patrol craft and helicopters for counter-terrorist operations. But it is hard to imagine that China will not act aggressively and start reclamation of Scarborough Shoal following an adverse ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, set for 12 July. Perhaps they will try to leverage that for further maritime assistance from the United States and other partners such as Australia and Japan.
The frustration on the part of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments is palpable. In addition to hurting trade, a number of land-based kidnappings in Sabah since 2013, have impacted tourism. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman was blunt in calling for a meeting with his new Philippine counterpart following the 30 June inauguration of President Duterte:
“We need to have this urgent meeting. I would like to stress upon the seriousness of this problem that involves Filipino nationals. We accept that it is a complex issue. The Philippines military has been going after these people with limited success. The question now is how can we work together.”
So what can we expect? There may be some coordinated patrols,but expectations about what these entail should be low. These navies and maritime law enforcement organizations do not have a great track record of working together in this area, which for all three countries has received a disproportionately low share of their respective maritime security budgets.
That they are even discussing them and trying to come up with standard operating procedures is well and good. But this will need to be routinized and taken to a higher level if it is to succeed. Perhaps external actors, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and even Singapore, can help bridge some of the gaps.
The three sides are discussing database and intelligence sharing on local extremists and militants. There have been suggestions of establishing joint military command posts, yet undefined. But an actual fusion center as what was established in Singapore seems a long way off, and the reality is that none of the three has adequate maritime domain awareness capabilities.
With regional trade dominated by slow tugboats and tramp steamers, even groups with limited capabilities such as Abu Sayyaf can wreak havoc in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With limited capabilities amongst the three littoral states, there is an imperative to cooperation, especially considering the importance of regional trade. Yet a history of mistrust, continued border disputes, a fixation on sovereignty, and a lack of leadership is making the necessary cooperation more difficult to achieve.
Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.
Featured Image: A navy cutter patrols the shores of a fishing village near the capital town of Jolo in the southern Philippine province of Sulu 30 June 2000 as an outrigger races across its path. (AFP PHOTO)
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