Tag Archives: PLAN

INS Vikrant Makes Progress at Cochin Shipyard

Guest Post by Chris B.

New satellite imagery shows that India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier has made significant progress since it was launched in August 2013, helping India inch towards the goal of a two carrier battle group.

Imagery acquired by commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe in February 2015 shows further assembly of INS Vikrant, a 40,000 ton aircraft carrier and India’s soon-to-be largest vessel once commissioned. Additional ship modules now welded to the hull have enlarged the deck width — measuring almost 60 meters. The erection of the superstructure reported last November was also confirmed. India’s first domestically produced carrier is currently under construction at state-owned Cochin Shipyard Limited, the country’s largest shipbuilding and maintenance facility located in Kerala on the west coast.

Like other vessels built in India, significant cost overruns and delays have hampered shipbuilding progress. The South Asian country is already four years behind schedule on the project with the latests estimates pushing an operational date closer to December 2018, if not beyond. However, the Indian Navy expects that the vessel will “undock” sometime this month after mounting the propellers on the engine shafts, according to an April statement from Vice Admiral Ashok Subedar. Afterward, the shipyard will continue with the fitting out process.

Originally, India was to have fielded her carrier by 2014, eleven years after the government approved the build. Last July, the Cabinet Committee on Security released an additional Rs 19,000 crore (approx USD 3.18 billion), the lion’s share, to complete the vessel’s construction — on top the USD 585 million already spent. Due to India’s extensive bureaucracy, the funds languished for almost a year halting progress on the project.

“As much as 95 per cent of its hull is complete as is 22,000 tons of [its] steel structure,” Subedar went on to say. That’s 3,500 tons heavier than its August 2013 launch weight though significantly less than its planned 40,000 tons. Of course, much of the that weight will be comprised of two fixed wing squadrons (12 x fighters each) of Russian-built MIG-29K and Indian-built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, 10 x Ka-31 ASW helicopters as well as necessary ammo, fuel, and other supplies.

Vikrant

Indian Navy Computer Model of INS Vikrant

Featuring a STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) configuration with a ski-jump, India’s indigenous carrier will push naval pilots to master a new launch and recovery system, one very different from its existing STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing). Luckily, Russia helped India build a shore-based testing facility which became operational early last year. Imagery shows that Indian pilots are already hard at work. (INS Vikramaditya also features a STOBAR configuration).

Aircraft aside, India’s latest carrier will be powered by four General Electric LM2500 gas turbines capable of cruising speeds around 18 knots. With an endurance of 7,500 nautical miles the Navy should have few problems projecting force throughout the Indian Ocean region, especially given India’s previous proficiency in carrier operations.

But if issues do arise, the United States has proposed a joint working group to help support Indian ops, share best practices and even possibly, technology. All of which may lead observers to conclude that India’s naval capability has become increasingly important. Prime Minister Modi made that clear while visiting Mauritius in March: “India is becoming more integrated globally. We will be more dependent than before on the ocean and the surrounding regions. We must also assume our responsibility to shape its future. So, [the] Indian Ocean region is at the top of our policy priorities.”

As perhaps it should be. India is already advantaged by its unique geography, jutting out in the Indian Ocean with its 7,500km coastline and island territories. Given India has short distances to travel to manage any regional conflict or rivalry, it only makes sense that India would focus resources on protecting national interests in its own backyard.

DG (11MAR15) PLAN Salalah

Satellite Imagery of PLAN Vessel at Oman’s Salalah port (DigitalGlobe 11MAR15)

However, few regional contenders are making a splash in the maritime space, though emerging challenges from China are certainly on India’s radar. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012 and has already started construction on a second. With recent infrastructure established in the South China Sea and additional PLAN deployments in the Indian Ocean region, China appears poised to take a more aggressive maritime stance, a clear departure from India’s Cold War experience.

In response, India is planning a 160-plus-ship navy as it seeks to constrain what it sees as a Chinese incursion into its sphere of influence. Unfortunately for the navy, India is still predominately a land force with the Army maintaining the biggest share of the defense budget. Regardless, India expects that its homegrown carrier program will eventually allow it to maintain two carrier battle groups supporting its respective Eastern and Western Naval Commands.

Named after India’s first aircraft carrier recently scrapped, the INS Vikrant is one of two homegrown carriers planned for the Indian Navy. The second carrier, INS Vishal is currently being fast-tracked—though it’s unknown what this means for Vishal’s construction timeline. In the meantime, India’s lack of experience building carriers and the uncertainty of outside assistance may impede India’s pressing strategic goals, probably pushing the operation of its second carrier to 2025 or beyond.

This article can be found in its original form at Offiziere.ch

China’s Military Strategy: Assessment of White Paper 2015

This article can be found in its original form at the National Maritime Foundation here and was republished with permission. 

China has been issuing Defence White Papers biennially since 1998. The ninth White Paper of 2014 titled ‘China’s Military Strategy’ was released recently in May 2015. This essay seeks to analyse the salient aspects of the document, particularly in context of the preceding document of 2012 released in April 2013.

In comparison to the Defence White Papers published by China in the preceding years, the 2014 document is very concise. Nonetheless, it reveals substantial content and context, disproportionate to the size of its text. While much of the revelation is likely to be Beijing’s ‘strategic communications’, the document is nonetheless insightful.  

Title of White Paper

The present White Paper has continued the trend of using a thematic title – a trend that was initiated with the 2012 document titled ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’. The trend and the specific title spelling out “China’s Military Strategy” signify the increased self-confidence of an emerging global military power, which until a few years ago, preferred to be opaque to the world on ‘matters military’.  The document also reflects an increased self-assurance as a nation, stating that “China’s comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity are notably increasing, and China enjoys growing international standing and influence”.

Core National Objectives

In the document, China has maintained its earlier stance of avoiding war through its military strategy of “active defence” (that envisages an ‘offensive’ only at the operational and tactical levels). However, the document mentions “preparation for military struggle (PMS)”, which indicates its strong desire to retain the option of first use of military force, if it cannot achieve its core objectives otherwise. Furthermore, the emphasis on “maritime PMS” indicates that these objectives pertain to Taiwan’s “reunification”, and fructification of its maritime-territorial claims in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, the inclusion of the phase “You fight your way and I fight my way” indicates that China’s war-fighting concept to meet its core objectives is likely to be based on use of asymmetric capabilities.

Maritime Interests

The previous 2012 document stated the PLA Navy’s mandate to preserve China’s sovereignty over its territorial seas and its maritime rights and interests in ‘offshore areas’ against complex security threats, thereby portraying China as a victim or an underdog reacting to the actions of Japan, and implicitly, of the U.S. The new document, however, emphasises a more proactive protection of its interests in ‘open waters’, thereby enlarging its strategic depth. Notably, the document also calls upon the need to shed the mindset that peace, stability, and development of China is linked to affairs on land rather than the sea. This indicates a maritime emphasis of China’s military strategy.

With regard to the security of sea-lanes, it uses the term “strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs)”. Although the term ‘SLOC’ itself bears a ‘strategic’ connotation, the addition of the adjective indicates that China considers itself vulnerable to commodity denial during war, thereby severely limiting its option of use of military force. Although the document does not specifically mention the ‘Indian Ocean’, the reference to Indian Ocean SLOCs may be inferred.

 Naval Presence in Indian Ocean

Alike the previous 2012 document, the 2014 White Paper states that the PLA Navy would maintain “regular combat readiness patrols…(and maintain)…military presence in relevant sea areas.” While the former may refer to the Western Pacific, the latter is a likely reference to the Indian Ocean. This is buttressed by the statement that the PLA Navy would “continue to carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and other sea areas as required, enhance exchanges and cooperation with naval task forces of other countries, and jointly secure international SLOCs.” This implies that China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean would continue, and may even increase. While such presence may be primarily for undertaking ‘Military Operations Other than War’ (MOOTW), it is likely to be dovetailed with preparing for ‘wartime’ operations. This assertion is borne out by Beijing’s assertion in September 2014 that its Song-class submarine deployed in the Indian Ocean was meant for counter-piracy. (The credibility of this rationale was dismissed by naval analysts on operational grounds). The document adds that the “PLA Navy will work to incorporate MOOTW capacity building into…PMS” thereby implying the China would also seek to develop fungible capabilities.

Furthermore, the White Paper lays emphasis on ‘sustenance’ of the forward-deployed naval platforms through “strategic prepositioning”. This indicates that China is likely to seek overseas access facilities (if not military bases) in the Indian Ocean, or even resort to the U.S. concept of ‘sea-basing’. The latter possibility is supported by recent news-reports about China developing large ‘Mobile Landing Platforms’ (MLP) similar to those used by the U.S. expeditionary forces.

Military Interface with Major Powers

The mention of Russia in the White Paper precedes all other countries. The “exchanges and cooperation with the Russian military within the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership…to promote military relations in more fields and at more levels” indicates the imminence of a China-Russia quasi-alliance. 

The 2012 White Paper, without naming the U.S., had expressed a concern for its “pivot” to Asia strategy and “strengthening of its military alliances with the regional countries, leading to tensions.” In contrast, the 2014 document mentions the U.S. explicitly. While it does state the need for “cooperative mechanisms with the US Navy, including exchange of information in the maritime domain”, its tone and tenor indicates a precursor to a ‘Cold War-style’ military interface between the two major powers. It talks about a “new model of military relationship” with the US based on “major-country relations”, with “strengthening of defence dialogue (and)…CBMs to include notification of major military activities (and) rules of behaviour” to prevent “air and maritime encounters…strengthen mutual trust, prevent risks and manage crises.” However, it is yet unclear what kind of bipolar interface will eventually emerge since the current global environment marked by close China-U.S. economic ties is vastly dissimilar to the erstwhile Cold War era.

 The 2012 White Paper had mentioned India’s combined Army exercises with PLA and increased anti-piracy coordination with India. Since the 2014 document is more succinct, the lack of details is understandable. However, the lack of even a mention of defence exchanges with India, or any other Asian country is remarkable.

Also ‘conspicuous by absence’ are the various facets of ‘transparency’ that the preceding Defence White Papers had addressed, ranging from China’s defence budget to its nuclear weapons policy of no-first use (NFU). Evidently, China has ‘arrived’ on the world stage with a single-minded preoccupation of how it could challenge the unipolar world order dominated by the U.S.

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com

 

China’s South China Sea Strategy: Simply Brilliant

This article can be found in its original form at ASPI here, and was republished with permission.

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send US aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to pre-empt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behaviour.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a ‘golden decade’ to a ‘diamond decade’.

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: US and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when ‘conditions are right’.

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the US in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–US patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the US is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the US risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US ‘deal toughly’ toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur ‘reputational damage’.

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Japan’s Izumo Helicopter Carrier Commissioned

Post by Chris Biggers

This past week, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) commissioned the lead vessel of its new class of helicopter carrier at a ceremony at the Yokusuka naval base less than 10 miles south of Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city.

The Izumo (DDH-183) is the island nation’s largest vessel superseding the Hyūga class, Japan’s first helicopter carrier post World War II. To get a clear sense of size, satellite imagery from March 2014 shows both vessels at the IHI Marine United shipyard. At the time, the 248 meter-long Izumo was still in the fitting out process while the 197 meter-long Hyūga (DDH-181) was located in a nearby dry-dock undergoing routine maintenance.

At 24,000 tons, the fully loaded Izumo is noticeably larger than its 19,000 ton predecessor and more capable.[1] Manned by approximately 470 sailors, the vessel can support up to 14 helicopters — broken up into seven Mitsubishi-built SH-60k ASW helicopters and seven Agusta Westland MCM-101 mine countermeasure helicopters.

According to Jane’s, the carrier is equipped with an OQQ-22 bow-mounted sonar for submarine detection, two Raytheon RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile SeaRAM launchers and two Phalanx close-in weapon systems for air defense.

“This [vessel] heightens our ability to deal with Chinese submarines that have become more difficult to detect,” an JMSDF officer told the Asahi Shimbum in late March.[2] Downplaying grander ambitions, JMSDF officials have often focused media attention on the ship’s role in undertaking border surveillance and humanitarian assistance missions.

Izumo

Beyond the ship’s standard load, the vessel can also support the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and some have even suggested the vertical landing Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. Although the latter has caused much controversy, putting F-35s on the Izumo seems unlikely given that the advanced fighter was acquired by Japan’s Air Force and not its sea services (to say nothing of the additional retrofit costs that would require of the vessel).

But that hasn’t stopped Chinese assertions and general concerns throughout East Asia of Japanese intent. “The Izumo proves that Japan has the technical capabilities and demand to develop aircraft carriers. It’s also possible that Japan may explore the possibility during the Izumo’s service,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based military commentator, told the Chinese Global Times newspaper. Beyond China, South Korea has also voiced concern.

While no one’s exactly sure how Japan will use the new carrier, its potential for power projection is undeniable. As geopolitical tensions increase, especially with disputed island territories and areas like the South China Sea, it’s not surprising to see Japan push to bolster her navy. With the election of officials like Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, defense spending has gone up and bans on arms exports have been lifted—suggesting Japan is preparing to reinterpret her role on the world stage. What this will ultimately mean for the service is still too early to say.[3]

In the meantime, the USD 1.2 billion Izumo will join JMSDF’s Escort Flotilla 1, based at the Yokosuka naval base, also home of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet.[4] The vessel was initially laid down on 27 January 2012 and launched on 06 August 2013. It will later be joined in 2017 by the second vessel in the series, the DDH-184, currently under construction at IHI Marine United Shipyard.

This post can be found in its original form at offiziere.ch 

Notes
[1] Both measurements refer to the vessels at full load.
[2] In 2013, Japan said it detected Chinese submarines navigating near territorial waters of Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures.
[3] Japan has in recent years participated in amphibious warfare training utilizing the Hyuga class helicopter carrier in concert the US. For Example Dawn Blitz 2013.
[4] Japan has 4 Escort Flotillas with a mix of 7-8 warships each. Bases are located at Yokosuka, Kure,Sasebo, Maizuru, and Moinato. SSKs are organized into 2 Flotillas with bases at Kure and Yokosuka. Remaining Units assigned to 5 regional districts.

China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

This is republished from the Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of ‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract $100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

William Yale is the Director of Operations at CIMSEC, an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project, and a Research Associate at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

The Potential for Panshih: Taiwan’s Expanding Maritime Role

Taiwan has long enjoyed a robust maritime force, intended to defend the island nation from threats both real and perceived across the Taiwan Strait. An arrangement under which the United States will deliver four Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates for use by the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) will only serve to further enhance the country’s maritime power. But perhaps the most interesting development for maritime affairs in the Asia-Pacific region so far in 2015 is the delivery of the ROCS Panshih.

With a total displacement of 20,000 tons and a range of almost 15,000 kilometers, the supply ship Panshih will greatly contribute to the ROCN’s expeditionary capabilities, allowing Taiwan to contribute meaningfully to disaster relief or humanitarian operations anywhere in the region. Historically, Taiwan has lacked this capability, fielding only the ROCS Yuen Feng, a troop transport. Although the ROCN has operated another supply ship for some years, ROCS Wu Yi, the Panshih is significantly larger and possesses much more advanced medical facilities. Reportedly, the Panshih is also only the first of its class – a second ship of an identical design is expected for the ROCN in the next few years.

These ships may soon cruise the seas in a Taiwanese effort to replicate the successes of China’s maritime diplomacy. The Peace Ark, a hospital ship in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has toured extensively since its commissioning in 2008. For example, the Peace Ark was deployed to assist the Philippines in recovering from Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, and later was an important component of the Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2014. Port visits and participation in such multilateral operations enhance China’s “soft power”, whereas observers note that Taiwan has been sidelined for the most part in regional diplomatic affairs. Pursuing a similar theme to China’s charm offensive could be just the remedy to Taiwan’s isolation.

A port of the flight deck on the Panshih.

Yet there is one catch to the Panshih’s particular design. The vessel boasts some offensive capabilities, including a Phalanx close-in weapons system, a 20mm Gatling gun, short-range Sea Chaparral surface-to-air missiles, several .50 calibre machine guns, and 30mm turrets. In contrast, the Berlin-class auxiliary ships employed by the Germany Navy, and which the Royal Canadian Navy will also soon employ as the Queenston-class, have only four MLG 27mm autocannons for defence. China’s Peace Ark is entirely unarmed. While the Panshih’s armaments grant it operational flexibility, they also undermine the vessel’s capacity to act as a soft power tool.

Perhaps the most ideal role for this vessel in the future will be to join relief operations in unstable environments. Taiwan has not contributed much in this area in previous years, with the ROCN focusing almost entirely on defending the Taiwanese coastline from threats across the strait. But there is one success story: in 2011, Taiwan initiated some participation in the European Union’s Operation Atalanta. This constituted an important contribution to international efforts against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. But this is the lone case of active engagement by the ROCN in any initiative beyond the Taiwan Strait. The Panshih could grant Taiwan more options in this regard, since the deployment of fully fledged combat vessels to an area like the Gulf of Aden could be viewed by domestic audiences as weakening Taiwan’s coastal defenses or otherwise as a misuse of Taiwanese defense resources. A supply ship could be more readily spared so far as the public is concerned.

Lending credence to the idea that the Panshih will be used to support humanitarian operations in failed or failing states, the vessel also has impressive hangar space, capable of storing up to three helicopters. The Taiwanese media has focused on the capacity for the ship to serve as a takeoff and landing platform for anti-submarine helicopters, but it is also certainly possible for the ship to serve as a base for transport helicopters ferrying supplies and specialized personnel to inland locations, while also bringing back patients requiring intensive care at the Panshih’s onboard medical facilities. The ROCN’s 19 Sikorsky S-70C(M) Thunderhawk helicopters offer some possibilities in this regard.

In any case, the ROCN now has in its possession a versatile ship. What remains to be seen are how the ROCN will put it to use in the coming years and to what extent this will reflect Taiwanese foreign policy priorities. With such a sophisticated vessel, it would be a shame for Taiwan to keep it docked as backup for a regional conflict that might never, and hopefully will never, come.

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 offiziere.ch and was republished by permission.

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.