Tag Archives: PLAN

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.

The Gutting of Ukraine

By Norman Friedman

UkraineChina has consistently supported Ukraine during its agony at the hands of Russian-supported separatists. One of the less-publicized reasons why is that China has relied heavily on Ukrainian firms to help modernize its military.

For example, the active phased-array radar on board Chinese Type 052C destroyers was developed by a Ukrainian company. The current Chinese main battle tank is essentially the current Ukrainian one. The firms involved are all in the heavily-industrialized area in which the Russian-backed forces are operating; it may even be that the Russians are specifically targeting particular Ukrainian towns and companies. From Mr. Putin’s point of view, the Ukrainian companies may be unwanted competitors with the military industrialists on whom he depends for much of his power. At the least, he is trying to put them out of business. The white trucks supposedly carrying humanitarian aid into Ukraine from Russia were actually arriving to plunder Ukrainian factories of their modern machine tools. What the West may not want to sell to Mr. Putin, his forces can steal.

The Ukrainian plants and development companies exist because of policies implemented long before the Soviet Union broke up. The rulers of the Soviet Union were always worried that nationalism would break up their country — as, in the end, it did. One of their insurance policies against breakup was to make it difficult or impossible for those in any one of the republics making up the Soviet Union to build key items independently. For example, gas turbine ships built in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in Russia were powered by gas turbines made in Ukraine. Their torpedoes came from Kazakhstan. Sonobuoys came from Ukraine, as did helicopter dipping sonars. Some ballistic missiles came from Ukraine. The only shipyard in the old Soviet Union capable of building carriers was in Nikolaev, in Ukraine. However, any carrier built there was armed with weapons and sensors from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, mainly from Russia.

In Soviet times, none of this really mattered. The Ukrainian factory making gas turbines responded to commands from Moscow to deliver engines to St. Petersburg, just as any factory in Russia did. There was little or no distinction between what happened in Moscow and what happened in, say, Nikolaev — no border, no transfer of cash. To a considerable extent design organizations were set up in Ukraine in the early 1960s or the late 1950s because Nikita Khrushchev, who ran the Soviet Union, was Ukrainian. For example, Khrushchev decided to reward his homeland by transferring the Crimea to it. Unsurprisingly, Russians applauded its seizure, since they had never considered the transfer legitimate. Ukrainian independence is a much more substantial issue, although most Russians apparently consider it a spurious notion, its separation a penalty imposed by the West at the end of the Cold War.

Once the Soviet Union broke up, the Soviet -era distribution of facilities suddenly mattered a great deal. All of the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union were suddenly plunged from a world of command by Moscow to a world of cash purchases. The Ukrainian plant could still make gas turbines, but if Moscow wanted a set for installation in St. Petersburg it suddenly had to pay up with real money. That was not easy. In time the Russians built their own gas turbine factory, but while that was happening they had to power ships with steam plants, because the steam plants were being made in Russia.

Conversely, key components of the carrier Varyag, afloat at Nikolaev, could not be delivered because they could not be paid for. The yard had no way to complete the carrier. Parts of her weapon system were visible for some years on the pier alongside, incomplete and hence impossible to install. In much the same way the Ukrainians had no way of completing a Slava class cruiser left nearly completed when the Soviet Union broke up. The carrier proved saleable — its transfer may have been the beginning of Ukrainian arms exports to China — but the cruiser did not. Even Ukrainian governments clearly favoring the Russians could not conjure up the resources to give the Russians weapon systems or platforms they wanted, because it took cash to move equipment over the border.

With their Russian (ex-Soviet) customers no longer paying, Ukrainian firms looked elsewhere, and they seem to have found their main customer in China — which certainly did have lots of cash. Exports were not so much finished equipment (which would probably have required components from elsewhere in the former Soviet empire) as innovative designs, such as the active phased-array radar. From time to time the Russians have tried to police the export of military data and know-how from their country, but once the Soviet Union broke up Ukraine must have made such controls a mockery in many cases. That might not have mattered had Russian military R&D kept advancing at its pre-collapse pace, but the cash shortage stopped most of that, too. Ukrainians who knew what the Soviet Union had developed by the time of its collapse could sell just about anything Russians could.

For a time, the Russians recovered to the point that they did have cash, but Russian military producers faced much higher costs at home, not least to feed an extremely corrupt political system. Now that a plunging oil price has cut Russian cash resources, it is even more difficult for them to buy from Ukrainian firms. It must be doubly difficult if they have to compete with much wealthier Chinese buyers. Theft is a much easier way to obtain the necessary products. Since it includes the theft of production tooling, the plants in question can be re-established in Russia, where their products will be far more affordable. Hence the systematic looting of plants in Ukraine. Looting also circumvents the effect of a falling price of oil, which drastically reduces hard-cash resources in Russia.

If the Ukrainian agony were all about money and access to technology, it would be unhappy enough. However, a major the driving force is nationalism. Vladimir Putin’s only important attraction for Russians is nationalistic: he is seen as a strong man who will restore the strength of the motherland, and he will also expunge all of those unhappy guilty memories of the Soviet past. In this narrative, the West is the enemy who broke up the Russian Empire and thus sought to crush Holy Russia. Anyone familiar with Russian history before the Revolution can recognize the sort of policy Mr. Putin is following. It takes a very committed Russian nationalist to say, as some have in recent days, that the falling price of oil is part of a deliberate plot on the part of ‘certain organizations’ in the West intended specifically to weaken Russia. Ukraine was the oldest part of the Empire, and its recovery excites Russian nationalists. Before he annexed Crimea, Mr. Putin was extremely unpopular. People in Russia saw him for what he was: a thief working with larger thieves to plunder their country. Afterwards his popularity soared, and old-style raw Russian nationalism became a ruling force.

Russian nationalism is opposed by Ukrainian nationalism. It may not be particularly powerful in the Eastern Ukrainian regions in which the Russians and their friends are operating, but in much of the country it is alive and well. Ukraine has a distinctive culture and language. The language and the alphabet are similar to Russian, but by no means identical. Ukraine enjoyed brief independence after the Russian Revolution. During the late 1920s and early 1930s the government in Moscow created a famine in Ukraine that killed 6 to 10 million people in the name of collectivizing farming. Ukraine had been the breadbasket of Europe, its wheat exports the major source of foreign currency to Czarist Russia. After collectivization, the Ukraine was badly enough ravaged that in the 1950s the Soviet Union found itself buying wheat abroad.

The horrors of the 1920s and 1930s remained fresh in Ukrainian minds when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Initially Ukrainians understandably welcomed the Germans as liberators, only to discover that the racist Germans lumped them with the Russians as sub-human. Even so, they hated the Russians even more, and a low-level insurgency continued well into the 1950s. The Ukrainian view of the man-made famine is somewhat analogous to the Polish view of the Soviet massacre of Polish military officers in 1941 at Katyn. Each was a horrific crime committed by the Soviet Union and then buried. Under Soviet domination, denial that the Soviets had committed such crimes became a test of political loyalty. Once Ukraine and Poland were free of Soviet control, memory of such crimes helped generate nationalist hatred for the Soviets. When Mr. Putin glorifies the Soviet Union which produced him, he enrages those it tortured. Victims inside the Soviet Union are less than popular in the current nationalist climate, but victims outside are in a very different position.

To further complicate matters, another Soviet-era strategy for binding together the Soviet Union was to encourage ethnic Russians to settle in the various republics forming the Soviet Union. That produced large ethnic Russian minorities in countries like Latvia and Ukraine. Mr. Putin is encouraging the ethnic Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine to revolt against the government in Kiev. Although he is enjoying a short-term advantage, surely what he has done has made other post-Soviet governments uncomfortably aware that they may be harboring hostile minorities. They may decide to do something about them before they can revolt.

If that seems an extreme extrapolation, remember that before World War II Hitler exploited the manufactured resentments felt by a large ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia (in the Sudetenland) to dismember that country (he did not have to resort to invasion or even to proxy invasion, as in Ukraine). Governments who remembered what minority Germans had done in the 1930s expelled them after Germany collapsed in 1945. Many Germans found themselves walking all the way across Poland from what had been East Prussia, and for years the cry to recover that territory resonated through German politics. What is likely to happen now in places like the Baltic states? Their governments lived through decades of repression in the name of the Soviet Union, but up to now they have been relatively restrained about the Russians in their midst.

Norman Friedman is author of The U.S. Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems. This article can be found in its original form at the Australian Naval Institute here and was republished by permission.

Another Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

As part of a broader project of land reclamation, beginning in November China started efforts to develop Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. As of late November the reef had been built up to 3,000 meters long and between two and three hundred wide. This makes it large enough, in the assessment of analysts with IHS Jane’s and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to argue that China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands might be under development. China already has a growing airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels a several hundred miles north, and this would not be the first airstrip in the Spratly Islands; Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia all have airstrips of their own. If a runway is truly planned for Fiery Cross Reef, what does this mean for the region’s security environment?

Given the distances involved, and the PLA’s relatively limited aerial refueling capabilities, Chinese forces stationed on or operating near the Spratly Islands cannot currently count on sustained air coverage from mainland China. The USCC report notes that an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef would allow the PLA to project air power much further out to sea than current possible. Initially, an airstrip would allow for aerial replenishment of the small garrison on Fiery Cross Reef. The airstrip could also almost immediately be used for emergency landings or refueling, both of PLA aircraft and any civilian aircraft in distress.  The PLAN or PLAAF could also deploy ISR assets, most probably unmanned, increasing PLA situational awareness for minimal footprint. This idea is supported by a statement made by Jin Zhirui, an instructor at the Air Force Command School.

1569998_-_mainThe airstrip would additionally enable parts or stores to be flown to the reef and then dispatched to local PLAN vessels via helicopter. This is, for example, an advantage that the island of Bahrain provides for US Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and Diego Garcia provides in the Indian Ocean. In fact, Andrew Erickson speculates development may lead to an island twice the size of Diego Garcia. This would partly address the PLAN’s deficiency in replenishment ships and allow quick turnaround for critical repair parts to maintain vessels at sea even in the face of inevitable equipment breakdown. These uses for an airstrip are relatively benign compared with how the airstrip could develop.

If the reef is expanded sufficiently it could serve as a platform for permanent basing of PLA combat aircraft which would alter the military balance of the region.  China would be able to sustainably project air power further into the South China Sea than currently possible. The reef – or to use the potentially loaded term island, as it would realistically be – would also serve as an unsinkable adjunct to the Liaoning (CV-16). David Shlapak argues that Liaoning will significantly improve Chinese combat capabilities in the South China Sea; an island airstrip would do the same and would not have to return to the mainland for maintenance. The island could also support larger aircraft with heavier payloads than the PLAN’s carrier. Candidates for basing on Fiery Cross Reef include the J-10 air superiority fighter with a roughly 600nm operational radius, J-11 air superiority fighter with a 700nm radius, or the JH-7 attack aircraft with a 900nm range. All are capable of carrying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles with varying degrees of capability. A 3,000 meter runway could also support aerial refueling aircraft or the H-6 bomber, further increasing the PLA’s options for aerial patrols and strikes. 

Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.
Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.

The satellite imagery of the reclamation work originally published by IHS Jane’s also shows work progressing on a port facility. The progress to date on the port does not give a concrete indication of its final size or depth, but even a rudimentary logistics base would give the PLAN greater sustainability for operations in the area. While the airstrip would allow parts and stores delivery to PLAN vessels, pier facilities would allow more intensive repairs to be conducted in theatre, further extending the staying time of ships in the area. The port could also facilitate the permanent or rotational stationing of China Coast Guard vessels or small combatants like the Houbei-class fast attack craft, giving Beijing a more durable maritime presence.

If development of the reef plays out as current evidence indicates, it would alter the military situation by allowing Chinese aircraft and ships to more sustainably project power further from mainland China. This affects regional navies’ contingency plans for conflict in the South China Sea. They have to anticipate that Chinese maritime operations will have near-continuous air coverage throughout the area. The construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef also impacts US Navy planning for any possible conflict with China as it extends China’s A2/AD umbrella several hundred miles. Deploying air and surface search radars to the reef alongside air superiority and maritime strike aircraft would add another layer of defense capability that the US Navy or Air Force would have to account for. It is too early to say how the developments on Fiery Cross Reef will unfold, but the development of an airstrip and port facility on Fiery Cross Reef would yield significant operational benefits for Chineseforces in the South China Sea and complicate matters for Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia in their disputes with China over ownership of the Spratly Islands.

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Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

More Nukes Doesn’t Always Mean Better Deterrence

In a short article recently published by The National Interest, Xunchao Zhang argues that blockade is an effective means for the U.S. Navy to conduct a war against China because of its reliance on oil imports and then proposes that China has two options for countering a blockade strategy: vulnerability-reducing and conflict-avoiding. He dismisses the first because the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not have the capacity to escort oil tanker convoys half-way round the world and China’s overland pipelines would be vulnerable to US strikes. Zhang therefore argues that a policy of avoiding conflict with the United States entirely is the only means for China to counteract a US blockade strategy. Key to this, he claims, is strengthening the Chinese nuclear deterrent and renouncing the No-First-Use policy. Only then will the Chinese nuclear deterrent be sufficient to prevent conflict with the United States and avoid a blockade which would likely be crippling. But this argument misses a fundamental point about deterrence and any US use of blockade in a war with China.

Jugular of the economy

Deterrence is about avoiding war. Zhang argues that by strengthening the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the likelihood of war with the United States would decrease, thereby countering the threat of an American blockade. However, the United States is already unlikely to initiate a war, for numerous reasons. What Zhang calls China’s “minimal nuclear deterrent”, the possible world economic consequences, lack of domestic support for such an endeavor, and the historical unwillingness of the United States to be seen as the aggressor all combine to deter the US from attacking China. Any U.S.-China war would be initiated by China, and therefore a strengthening in the Chinese nuclear arsenal, to include abandoning No-First-Use, does not make a compelling case that the likelihood of war with the United States would be decreased. At best it would have no effect, and at worst it would put the Chinese leadership in a position where a stronger nuclear deterrent could simply increase the attractiveness of conducting a conventional war beneath the nuclear umbrella.

 Furthermore, if a conflict-avoiding policy fails, an expanded nuclear arsenal would be useless in stopping the United States from imposing a blockade. Nuclear deterrence operates even in the context of war. It is unlikely that China would turn their nuclear weapons against the United States when under even a crippling blockade because the United States could respond overwhelmingly. A severe economic decline would be difficult to face, but nuclear weapons raining down on Beijing and Shanghai are on an entirely different plane. The incentive to not escalate to the point of nuclear warfare would be significant, and both sides understand this. The United States would have free reign to conduct the blockade without concern of nuclear escalation because of mutual deterrence.

Recent events support this view. In the context of the Ukraine Crisis, the United States has leveraged sanctions against Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, without fear of escalation. Another one or 10,000 Russian nuclear weapons would not change the fact that economic disruption is very different from physical destruction. If the possible effects of a blockade are as serious as Zhang argues, a strengthened nuclear deterrent is not the way to counter it.

Zhang is correct, however, to argue that China’s best way to counteract a potential blockade by the U.S. Navy is to avoid war entirely. Oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan are highly vulnerable. Hitting fixed targets with precision weapons is a skill the United States military has very nearly perfected, with strikes this summer in Syria from carrier-based aircraft and Tomahawk-toting surface ships again proving the point. He also correctly assesses the PLA Navy as insufficient to protect its maritime trade routes. It has no experience conducting convoy operations and has limited, if slowly improving, antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Despite the effort expended to deploy a task force off Somalia, China does not have the capacity to support the number and array of forces necessary to defend its trade routes.

Not your grandpa’s U-Boot

Furthermore, the geography of East Asia contains numerous maritime chokepoints, U.S. submarines are fast, quiet, and have incredible endurance, the U.S. surface fleet has decades of experience conducting maritime interdiction in some of the same waters it would blockade, and the United States has the ability to intercept maritime traffic far outside the range of PLAN capabilities, interdicting oil tankers at their source in the Persian Gulf. While Air-Sea battle in the face of A2/AD capabilities requires the development of any number of new weapons systems, the U.S. Navy has the capacity now and for the foreseeable future to cripple the Chinese economy in the event of war, at ranges far outside those of any existing or upcoming A2/AD capabilities. There is no simple panacea for China to overcome the threat of blockade in the event of war, but Zhang does get it right when he says that China’s best option is to avoid conflict entirely.

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Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.