Tag Archives: Russia

Should the U.S. Arm Ukraine with Anti-Ship Missiles?

By Mykola Bielieskov

When it comes to U.S. military-technical assistance for Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression, sharing the Javelin anti-tank guided missile with the Ukrainian Ground Forces is what is typically mentioned. And at the beginning of March 2018 the U.S. State Department gave its approval for the provision of this kind of weaponry to Kyiv. There is nothing surprising in this, since the land forces of Ukraine bear the main burden of confronting and deterring further Russian aggression. However, today it is necessary to start talking about the needs of the other branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine given the challenges facing them.

A Navy Adrift

The situation in the Ukrainian Navy is close to a catastrophic one. The Russian Federation’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014 especially negatively affected the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy as nearly 80 percent of the fleet was lost due to capture and defection. In fact, four corvettes (Lutsk, Khmelnitsky, Ternopil, Prydniprov’ia), two minesweepers (Chernigiv, Cherkasy), the large landing ship Konstantin Olshansky, and the submarine Zaporozhye were captured by Russian forces. In addition, Russian occupants captured and never returned up to 15 auxiliary vessels.

The urgent need for platforms in the Ukrainian Navy could be solved by Western country transfers to Kyiv of older ships, which are decommissioned or near retirement. Actually, from time-to-time this idea is voiced by certain American experts. The U.S. government, among other things, is ready to provide the Ukrainian Navy with two coastal guards ships of the Island class. They, in contrast to Ukrainian artillery boats of the Gyurza-M class, have better seaworthiness and greater autonomy. However, the simple transfer of platforms can only partly solve the problems the Ukrainian Navy faces today. Getting Western ships can solve the problem with minesweepers or auxiliary vessels. However, the main question remains unaddressed: how could the Ukrainian Navy counter attempts by the Russian Federation to use its domination of the Black Sea for further aggression?

As the result of Russian aggression Ukraine lost in Crimea ground-based anti-ship platforms, which were armed with Termit anti-ship cruise missiles. Similarly, after the Crimea occupation, the missile boat Pryluky was returned to Ukrainian authorities but lacked its two Termit anti-ship missiles.

Today the Ukrainian Navy is not able to properly counteract possible attempts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet to carry out an amphibious landing operation. In this contest it is necessary to recall that in 2014-2015 the Security Service of Ukraine exposed and broke down covert attempts to create the so-called secessionist Bessarabian People’s Republic. This fictional republic was going to be based on territories of a southern part of the Odessa oblast. In the event of the establishment of this illicit territory, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have had the opportunity to freely land the necessary troops and to maintain sea lines of communication with a new pseudo-state bordering western Ukraine along with occupied Crimea. Ukraine in this case could not have prevented such contingencies, since the Navy does not have the necessary anti-ship capabilities to destroy combat and landing enemy vessels.

Although Ukraine is developing its own anti-ship cruise missile Neptune, the first public test of which took place in late January 2018, the system is still nascent. The relevant sea-based risks and threats for Ukraine still exist. In addition, the question is how many Neptune missiles Ukraine will be able to purchase annually for their Navy, given that the entire budget for modernization and procurement of equipment is only $600 million this fiscal year.

As a result, it is urgently necessary to start a dialogue on the possibility of transfer to Ukraine of American Harpoon anti-ship missiles with the necessary equipment for guidance and data exchange systems. The U.S. military budget for 2018 FY provides for the allocation of up to $200 million to enhance Ukraine’s defense capabilities, including the possibility of using these funds for purchase of coastal defense radars, minelayers, minesweepers, and littoral ships. This document captures a change in the paradigm of thinking and awareness in the Pentagon of Ukraine’s vulnerability to threats from the sea. However, as has been said above, only vessels or even radar systems will not be enough to remedy the shortfall.

The U.S. Navy is currently developing new generations of anti-ship missiles (LRASM, Tomahawk, and SM-6 anti-ship variants) that have much longer range than the current Harpoon anti-ship missile. However, in the context of a closed sea like the Black Sea, it will be enough for Ukrainian Navy to deploy the latest modification of the Harpoon missile – the Block II ER+. The radius of this modification is up to 134 nautical miles or 250 km. It is notable that the Ukrainian anti-ship missile “Neptune” will have a similar range. It is also indicative that Finland is considering the Harpoon Block II ER + as the main weapon for the future four frigates of the 2020 project, which will operate in the similarly constrained Baltic Sea.

An F/A-18 carries the new Harpoon Block II+ missile during a free flight test Nov. 18 at Point Mugu’s Sea Range in California. The Navy plans to deliver the Block II+ variant to the fleet in 2017. (U.S. Navy photo)

The transfer to Ukraine of Harpoon Block II ER+ anti-ship cruise missiles and related equipment, together with their installation on future fleet and land-based anti-ship platforms, will not only eliminate significant gaps in the country’s defense capabilities. It will also help secure the safety of maritime trade, on which the economy of Ukraine depends critically. This decision will allow the United States to solve several important security issues in the Black Sea region at once. All this happens when the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships in almost a century (283 ships), and it faces the need for a permanent presence in numerous parts across the world’s oceans, including the Black Sea Basin. Strengthening the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy will reduce the need for such presence. In addition, strengthening the anti-ship component of the Ukrainian armed forces will make its Navy a truly important component in any joint NATO Black Sea Fleet, an idea which has been discussed for several years. Today, the Ukrainian Navy cannot actually be an effective contributor to the joint efforts of the littoral states to contain the Russian Federation in the Black Sea basin. Ultimately, the presence of Harpoon Block II ER+ missiles together with the necessary radars and information exchange systems with other NATO countries will enable, in practice, to enhance the interoperability of the Ukrainian armed forces with NATO partners. In this way, it will contribute to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and the fulfillment of the tasks of the Strategic Defense Bulletin.

Conclusion

Ukraine today, given the need of countering threats from the sea, is in a situation where the need for U.S. anti-ship missiles is much more important than obtaining Javelin ATGMs. The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for 2018 FY records the understanding that Washington should help Ukraine counteract not only land-based but also maritime threats that are actually much sharper, given the current state of the Ukrainian Navy. However, only the acquisition of appropriate anti-ship missiles such as the Harpoon Block II ER+ will enable the Ukrainian Navy to effectively counter the growing capabilities of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea. Such a bold decision will strengthen security in this part of the world, reduce the need for the United States to be constantly present, and make Ukraine a true contributor to Black Sea security.

Mykola Bielieskov is the Deputy Executive Director at the Institute of World Policy.

Featured Image: Day of the Ukranian Navy Ceremony, July 2016. (Ministry of Defence of Ukraine)

A New Gap in the High North and Forward Defense Against Russian Naval Power

By Steve Wills, CNA Analyst

The stand-up of a new NATO Maritime headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, the re-establishment of the U.S. Navy’s East Coast-based Second Fleet and the prospect for a new NATO Maritime Strategy this year have again fueled interest in naval warfare in the wider Atlantic Ocean. One of the most commonly mentioned landmarks in this emerging environment is the iconic Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The scene of the German battleship Bismarck’s passage to the Atlantic and the transit highway of early Russian ballistic missile submarines to their patrol stations near the United States and Europe, the GIUK Gap is synonymous with naval warfare in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, current references to the GIUK gap harken back to a different time and strategic situation that is markedly different from the situation today.

Despite early assessments that the Soviet Union was going to target the sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Atlantic, the Soviets never intended to make interdiction of Atlantic convoys a priority mission. Defense of their ballistic missile submarines, countering Allied aircraft carrier battle groups, and littoral defense and support to the Soviet Army were always their main priorities. Today’s much smaller Russian Navy has similar missions and strategic geography, but now boasts long range cruise missile armament.

The NATO Alliance must return to a deterrent posture similar to that of the Cold War in order to prevent potential Russian aggression, but the locus of action is much further north than Iceland. The real “Gap” where NATO must focus its deterrent action is the Greenland, Svalbard, North Cape line at the northern limit of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas. It is again time to consider deterrent action and potential naval warfare in the “High North.”

Never the GIUK Gap Anyway

While important in the Second World War and perhaps the early and middle Cold War, the GIUK Gap did not have the same geographic significance in the late 1970s and 1980s. While earlier Russian ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) had to first sail close to the U.S. coast and then to the middle Atlantic in order to launch their weapons, the advent of the Delta and Typhoon classes with improved sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) allowed Soviet missile boats to launch their weapons from the safety of Soviet littoral waters. Intelligence gathered by U.S. and Allied sources in the late 1970s suggested that rather than conduct a rerun of the failed German U-boat campaigns of the World Wars, Soviet submarines were to be deployed in a largely defensive posture close to the Soviet homeland. Earlier work by the Center for Naval Analyses had suggested that Soviet attack subs would be prepared to defend their own SSBNs, attack U.S. Navy carrier battle groups, and perhaps venture forth to attack U.S. SSBNs. But attacking logistics and commerce on the Atlantic SLOCs was a fourth-priority mission at best.

The High North region.

By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was planning, in the event of a failure of deterrence, to take the war to the Soviet littoral waters and homeland. This was a global effort that included U.S. and Allied action against the Soviets in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas. U.S. submarines would stalk and sink their Soviet counterparts and SSBNs while U.S. carrier battle groups would attack Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula (as well as other locations around the periphery of the Soviet state) to prevent a correlation of forces that allowed for a successful Soviet land attack in Central Germany.

A series of exercises begun in the early 1950s at the dawn of NATO’s existence had exercised both naval attacks on the Soviet homeland and the defense of Atlantic SLOCs, but the exercise effort moved into high gear in the 1980s. The advent of the aggressive Maritime Strategy meant the Navy would no longer focus on just the defense of SLOCs as it had been told during the Carter administration. Encouraged by Reagan administration Navy Secretary John Lehman and led by experienced flag officers such as Admirals “Ace” Lyons, and “Hammerin Hank” Mustin, a string of aggressive naval exercises in both the Atlantic and “high north” practiced to defend Norway, drive the Soviets back to their home waters, and attack their bases on the Kola peninsula. Instrumented by the SOSUS system and patrolled by aircraft based in Iceland, the GIUK Gap was a strong symbolic barrier, but it was at best the southern signpost of a war to be fought much further to the north. The late Cold War focus on the maritime high north put Norway on both Brussels’s and Washington’s military strategic maps in an unprecedented way.”

The Reality of New Great Power Competition in the High North

The return of a revanchist Russia to the business of great power competition after a quarter century of decline has brought back Norway and its adjacent seas into U.S. and NATO strategic focus. The Russian Navy submarine force is less than a fifth of the size of its Soviet forebear. Many of these units will soon be ready for retirement, and are spread over four fleets. Despite those handicaps, Russian units are now equipped with the 3M-54 (Kaliber) cruise missile, which significantly extends Russian combat capability. This is also why the Russian Navy’s mission set now includes an emphasis on non-nuclear deterrence.

Soviet forces operating within their “bastion” defenses in the Barents Sea during the Cold War had to come south in order to engage NATO maritime forces and lacked a land attack cruise missile capability. Today’s Russian Navy can remain within its Barents bastion and still launch accurate attacks against ships in the Norwegian Sea and NATO land targets without leaving these protected waters. If the Russians do leave their bastions it would most likely be on raiding missions enabled by land attack cruise missiles. Russia has a long tradition of raiding for short-term tactical and longer-term strategic gain, and such operations could manifest themselves in the maritime environment.

Possible zones of Russian bastion defense. (RUSI)

NATO faces significant challenges in dealing with this renewed Russian threat. The Alliance’s naval forces are significantly smaller than during the Cold War and the United States Navy is less than half the size of its 1980s counterpart. Norwegian naval force structure is shrinking and even with planned qualitative improvements will not alone be sufficient for potential naval combat in the High North. Norway is set to significantly reduce its surface force through a planned decommissioning of its Skjold-class missile corvettes and remaining mine warfare ships in the next several years. The reductions are necessary in order to pay for new German-built submarines, P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and F-35A aircraft. The submarines and MPA purchases are appropriate force structure for potential combat in the Norwegian Sea south of Svalbard and north of Iceland, but reductions will result in a lack of surface patrol units necessary for maintaining sea control.

The F35A can support sea control, but may be occupied elsewhere in defense of Norwegian shore-based infrastructure. For example, the Russian Air Force has launched a number of mock attacks on the Norwegian Joint Command Center at Bodo in recent years and F-35 aircraft may be largely focused on the defense of Norwegian C4I infrastructure. The Norwegian Coast Guard which contributes significantly to patrol efforts in the region has decreased in strength from 31 to 15 units from 1992 to the present. These Coast Guard units are also lightly armed and insufficient for contesting and retaining sea control in the region.

The only significant Norwegian surface force structure in the next decade is likely to be the AEGIS Nansen-class frigates. These ships are capable multipurpose surface combatants, but their small numbers will require a significant commitment of NATO forces to the Norwegian Sea early in a conflict with Russia to ensure that Russian units, especially nuclear attack submarines, do not transit the Norwegian Sea “SLOC” to the North Atlantic. A key element of the Nansen’s antisubmarine capability, the NH90 helicopter, has failed to deliver on its promised number of flight hours. While there may be enough helicopters for the frigates, there are no NH 90 helos with which to equip the Norwegian Coast Guard for its mission of Norwegian and Greenland Sea patrol and surveillance. The Norwegian Joint force is growing in capability, but even with improvements in air and subsurface units it likely cannot prevent passage of Russian Northern Fleet submarines through the Norwegian Sea.

The Royal Norwegian Navy frigate KNM Roald Amundsen (F311) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 16 February 2018 as part of the U.S. Navy’s Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) while conducting its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Swofford)

Organizing for Maritime War in the High North

Once just the remote operating grounds of Russian ballistic missile subs, the Eastern Barents and Arctic Seas can now serve as bases for cruise missile platforms to threaten NATO units and land-based targets in and facing the Norwegian Sea. The NATO Alliance is moving in the right direction by reinstituting an Atlantic Maritime headquarters but more must be done to prepare for a conflict in the High North.

Increased Alliance submarine operations in the Norwegian, Barents and Arctic Seas serve to operationalize those headquarters changes. The North Atlantic SLOCs are important, but the Russians are not looking at the mid-Atlantic except for perhaps targets of opportunity. Joint and combined Allied activities that make use of the numerous air and port facilities around the Norwegian and Greenland Seas should be the main focus of JFC Norfolk. A NATO Joint Task Force (JTF) element, perhaps forward deployed afloat or ashore, may need to be present in the immediate area to direct operations.

Unmanned systems technology holds the promise of mobile, underwater detection grids that unlike the Cold War SOSUS nets can move themselves to better identify and localize submerged targets. The Norwegian and Greenland Seas are NATO lakes and receding sea ice has made for a wider and more open battlespace that allows for greater use of shore-based facilities in the region over a longer portion of the year. Small surface combatants such as the U.S. FFG(X) and LCS might operate in conjunction with unmanned units and maritime patrol aircraft and submarines to conduct a regional joint and combined antisubmarine warfare campaign.

Conclusion

A revanchist Russia does not directly threaten North Atlantic sea lines of communication, and the place to deter or engage them won’t be the GIUK gap. NATO must prepare to deter and if necessary engage Russian naval forces in the High North long before these units can get into range of resupply ships or NATO nation port facilities on the European mainland. The Alliance has taken positive steps to meet this renewed maritime challenge, but must not be haunted by U-boat and Soviet ghosts from past Atlantic wars. The place to respond to a new Russian naval threat is close to its home base and not astride critical transatlantic communication routes.

Steven Wills is an Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: Norweigan Navy Skjold-class corvette.

Manning the Distant Rampart: Maritime Strategy in an Age of Global Competition

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Topic Week

By Harry Halem

Introduction – Maritime and Grand Strategy

During the third presidential debate of the 2012 election season, then-President Obama famously characterized the foreign policy of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as decades out of date. When Romney identified Russia as the primary geopolitical foe of the U.S., Obama responded with “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Six years later, candidate Romney’s prediction seems prescient, not antiquated. Russia and Iran now operate alongside one another in Syria, China continues to expand its maritime footprint in the South and East China Seas, and all the while North Korea’s nuclear arsenal holds America’s attention. Concurrently, the EU still struggles to respond to migrant flows from the Near East and North Africa, terrorist organizations persist despite ISIS’ destruction, and the world’s major powers struggle to counter transnational issues like piracy, international crime, and climate change.

Great power competition has clearly returned. But nontraditional issues have retained their relevance, with great powers using them as strategic facilitators in their quest to gain marginal advantages. In this international environment, the sea has retained its unbroken importance. The overwhelming majority of humankind’s physical trade is still transported on maritime highways, while the geography of contemporary global flashpoints, and the ambitions of great powers and nonstate actors, makes the sea central to international competition.

America’s sea services, therefore, require a new maritime strategy. One can understand maritime strategy as the relationship between naval and maritime power and a nation’s ultimate security objectives. This, in turn, stems from a grand strategy, a nation’s understanding of how to produce security from threat perception, safeguard its interests, and defend its honor. Crafting a new American maritime strategy thus requires a revitalized grand strategic paradigm, which entails a review of the nation’s enduring interests, and the specific threats it faces. From this broader paradigm, one can establish the relationship between a nation’s security and its maritime security, and outline a specific naval force structure.

The American Republic’s strategic objective remains preventing a hostile actor or coalition from dominating the Eurasian landmass. This requires fighting conflicts as far away from the American homeland as possible by establishing control of strategically vital regions in Eurasia. One can identify the illiberal entente of Russia, China, and Iran as the greatest adversaries of the U.S. The ultimate goal of this entente, and particularly of China, is to accumulate strategic nuances that can be used to crack America’s alliance structure or stage a coup de main against American forces.

One can identify three objectives for the sea services from this set of circumstances. First, American naval power must ensure access to specific narrow seas and maritime chokepoints. Second, the U.S. Navy (USN) and Marine Corps (USMC) must be able to deny America’s enemies their initial objectives in a broader conflict, with the goal of deterring or preventing a coup de main. Third, the sea services must field sufficient forward presence to preclude a fait accompli in various regions. One can identify a varied force structure to achieve these goals: a multi-Carrier Strike Group surface force optimized for sea control, a specific fleet of small surface combatants for use in the pre-conflict “grey zone,” a forward-deployed submarine force, and a USMC large enough to defend isolated outposts and mount large-scale counteroffensives.  Absent such changes in force structure, America’s adversaries will be able to take advantage of critical capability gaps.

Grand Strategy – Manning the Distant Rampart

Politics, like any human interaction, is not strictly scientific. However, one can identify enduring interests for different international actors. For example, any power that wishes to dominate Europe must contest control of the Mediterranean. This was true of Rome, the Venetian Republic, the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Britain, the French Republic, and Imperial and Soviet Russia. Similarly, specific regional actors have enduring interests. One can identify an intelligible French territorial interest from the mid-15th century onward which, whether Valois, Bourbon, Bonapartist, or Republican, had an overwhelming interest in ensuring Central Europe’s political weakness, and dominating it if possible. Only two world wars and a sustained confrontation between superpowers mitigated this strategic objective.

Similarly, different “problems” exist in international politics. Geostrategists are familiar with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “Problem of Asia” – the threat of Russia’s expansionist impulse and geographic position, or the potential power of a unified China, would pose to international stability. The “German Problem” is similarly enduring: a united Germany, absent clear military restraint, naturally jeopardizes European security because of the population and resources it can muster.

The American Republic faces what one could term the “Eurasian problem.” American safety and prosperity is directly tied to the Eurasian balance of power. Eurasia contains the majority of the world’s population and resources. Hence, the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power or coalition would ultimately pose a direct threat to American survival – such an actor or coalition would always retain the ability to deny America access to markets, or launch an offensive against the Western hemisphere. However, unlike similarly insular maritime powers like Japan and Britain, the United States lacks easy access to Eurasia by virtue of its distant geographic position. Even launching small-scale raids on the European coastline would require a notable exertion of American power if not for the positional advantages gained through alliances.

Waiting until conflicts reach the Western hemisphere jeopardizes American interests. It is unlikely that a hostile Eurasian power could actually conquer the territorial United States. However, a Eurasian power could come to dominate Latin America over time while attacking strategic points in the Caribbean and along the U.S. coastline, slowly eroding the position of the U.S., and forcing it to acquiesce to an unfavorable and likely illiberal international order. Nuclear weapons compound the issue. Mutually Assured Destruction would provide much less comfort against an anti-ballistic missile network and tactical nuclear arsenals distributed throughout the Western Pacific and Latin America.

Two strategic precepts flow from the Eurasian problem that the American Republic confronts. First, the U.S. must ensure a favorable Eurasian balance of power. Second, the best way to preserve this balance of power is by fighting wars and influencing events away from the Western Hemisphere. By maintaining overseas bases, partnering with regional powers, and fielding a powerful Navy, the U.S. can man what Professor Harold Rood termed in his 1967 prize-winning essay for Proceedings the “Distant Rampart.”

Just as France’s leaders have followed a consistent logic in their foreign policies despite changes in regime and ideology, so have the American Republic’s statesmen done the same. The American Revolution can be understood in part as an attempt to prevent the colonies’ interests from being overshadowed by those of Europe’s great powers during post-conflict settlements. The Monroe Doctrine began forward defense: preventing foreign meddling in the Western hemisphere precludes a campaign against America’s homeland. The belated American entry into both World Wars demonstrates strategy’s eventual triumph over ideology – American leaders could not accept German, either Imperial or Nazi, domination of Europe.

The unfortunate side effect of the American Republic’s ascendancy in the post-WWII era was the relative diminishment of allied European military power and global political networks born from colonial interests. Rather than simply supporting allies in key regions, during the Cold War the U.S. was forced to man the Distant Rampart itself, maintaining a permanent and prominent military presence in Europe and Asia, and committing to large-scale interventions in Korea and Vietnam.

Although the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991, the Eurasian problem still persists.  Advances in Artificial Intelligence are poised to revolutionize global economics and finance, but unless one can solve fundamental resource questions, maritime trade will remain central to the global economy, making hostile control of Eurasia an economic threat. Moreover, Eurasia’s resources comparative to the Americas ensure the persistence of the Eurasian problem.

Manning the Distant Rampart, then, must remain the core of American grand strategy. As such, maritime power is the most fundamental component of America’s national power because maritime power is what ultimately assures American access across the large oceans that separate it from the Eurasian landmass. Dominating Eurasia requires dominion over the large oceans that surround it and the narrow maritime chokepoints that connect key geographic regions. With such dominion, a would-be authoritarian hegemon can bully smaller states into submission by threatening to deny them access to regional trade, eroding their sovereignty through naval patrols in their territorial waters, and staging amphibious assaults upon their territory. Eurasia’s narrow seas also include maritime chokepoints that constrain nearly all seaborne movement – controlling even one of these chokepoints gives the dominating power the ability to manipulate the global economy, and deny other powers secure lines of communication while facilitating the transfer of forces between theaters. Maritime strategy, therefore, is a significant part of American grand strategy, as Eurasia’s proximate maritime features and chokepoints have always been central areas of contestation in great power competition.

Threats – the Illiberal Entente and its Wildcards

Delineating specific roles for the sea services requires a review of the specific challengers the American Republic faces, along with the “wildcards” that said challengers can employ or benefit from, particularly terrorism and non-state actors.

Nearly 111 years ago, Britain, France, and Russia cemented the mutual political and strategic understanding that is termed the Triple Entente. While each partner was an erstwhile rival or enemy of the other two, all three shared an interest in containing Imperial German power. One can see a similar arrangement developing between three aspiring hegemons today – China, Russia, and Iran. Each has either openly facilitated or tacitly acquiesced to the aims of the other two, in the belief that destabilizing American power elsewhere will enable its own regional objectives.

China poses the most obvious threat. It has the world’s largest population (1.4 billion) and either its largest ($21-23 trillion PPP) or second-largest ($11-12 trillion nominal) GDP. Scaling for personnel costs and adjusting the purchasing power of U.S. and Chinese budgets, China may spend roughly the same and possibly more than the U.S. on weapons systems, military operations, and training exercises.

China’s contemporary military is the culmination of four decades of development and reform. The PLA is the largest active military in the world. Its Navy is one of six that operates both a fixed-wing aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Its Air Force operates the world’s third largest combat aircraft fleet, and is one of three to field strategic bombers. Moreover, its Navy is scheduled to possibly outstrip America’s in size by 2020.

China’s internal system rests upon contradictory premises. Selective liberalization and capitalization are in tension with socio-political uniformity. Since Deng Xiaoping’s victory over the Gang of Four, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has restrained itself from overt, society-wide ideological engineering. Rather than pursuing a socialist utopia, the PRC’s social contract requires the continual increase of living standards, particularly for the urban middle class, in return for acquiescence to the regime’s social control. Such a social contract is not fully legitimate – a fact that helps explain the CCP’s fixation on Taiwan, an economically vibrant democracy that demonstrates an alternative developmental path.

One can link this fixation on legitimacy with the CCP’s ideational aims. Chinese rhetoric about its “century of humiliation” must be taken seriously in understanding China’s perspective. As the preeminent Western power, the lynchpin of the contemporary international economic order, and with its network of Pacific bases and a blue-water Navy, America is China’s obvious rival. Many elements of China’s economy are dependent on seaborne commerce, such as how China’s economy requires natural resources for production and its population needs more energy than China’s domestic deposits provide.

Hence, China has embarked upon a campaign of hedging against U.S. offensive action and global economic shock, the two events that can disrupt Chinese growth. In maritime terms, this is best expressed in its South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) aggression. The majority of China’s imports pass through these waters, making hostile control of them in war a mortal threat to Chinese ambitions and stability. Additionally, control of the SCS and ECS allows China to isolate Taiwan and cut off energy flows to Japan, breaking up the U.S. regional alliance structure. On land, China is attempting to acquire resources at the point of extraction, especially in Africa and Central Asia. Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative seems grandiose and ill-fated until one identifies it as a component of Chinese hedging. Rather than attempting to compete with American maritime advantages overland, China could be attempting to create a windpipe to relieve itself during a major crisis. Concurrently, China has expanded its maritime trade fleet, an asset that ensures energy and other imports during the next international economic contraction.  Finally, Beijing’s hedge includes the ultimate goal of transforming China’s economy, to ensure the rising living standards its urban middle class demands. Chinese encroachments into Latin American markets facilitate this objective, while also offering it access into the geopolitical backyard of the U.S.

While China operates largely independently in the Pacific, Russia and Iran have intertwined objectives in the Near East and Europe, making it reasonable to address both powers simultaneously.

Putin’s Russia lacks the USSR’s military capabilities, but the laws of geopolitics still apply. While Russia’s military weakness relative to China has diminished its role in Asia’s balance of power, the Russian problem remains relevant for Europe and the Near East. Russia’s overarching strategic objective, whether Imperial, Soviet, or Putinist, has been securing itself from European invasion. European nations have been united twice under an anti-Russian coalition – in both instances, Russia survived an invasion attempt, but only after immense loss of life and expenditure of resources. Controlling Eastern Europe gives Russia a buffer against potential aggression, while establishing itself as Europe’s preeminent power offers long-term security. This combines with Russia’s ideological impulses, which Imperial and Soviet Russia both shared. Russia’s self-image demands respect, whether as the Roman Empire’s successor, leader of international Marxism, or simply Europe’s foremost state.

Considering Russia’s diminished power position, obtaining Eastern Europe as a buffer and expelling America from the European continent requires creative strategy. Rather than physically removing the U.S., Russia is attempting to “crack” NATO by attacking its members’ domestic institutions, likely as a prelude to crisis generation. The Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea are central to this goal – control of both allows Russia to dominate the Balkans and pressure Europe’s “soft underbelly.”

Russia’s objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea mesh with Iran’s regional ambitions. One should not underestimate the religious animus that drives the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic’s political structure, despite its electoral obfuscation, heavily centralizes control in the clerical class and the IRGC. Locked in religious competition with Israel and sectarian competition with Saudi Arabia, the Iranian regime’s “governance of the jurist” engenders an aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy. Additionally, the Iranian people still remember the Anglo-American engineered deposition of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, adding distrust to Iranian avarice. Even more apparent than Iran’s ideological goals are its actions. Tehran has manufactured a corridor from Iran’s borders to the Eastern Mediterranean through proxies in Iraq and Syria. Despite its nuclear arsenal, Israel’s population precludes an actual offensive campaign against Iran, while Saudi Arabia, despite Mohammed Bin Salman’s reforms, remains corrupt and internally weak. If Israel or Saudi Arabia could subjugate Iran, one of the two would have done so already, rather than allowing the Islamic Republic to continue increasing its power. The Iran-Iraq War demonstrated the true strength of Iran’s society. Israel and Saudi Arabia, therefore, seek a reasonable accommodation, while Iran desires domination.

To facilitate their mutual aims, Tehran and Moscow have entered into an increasingly public partnership. Russia’s increased presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and support of the Assad regime occurs in tandem with Iran’s increasing control over Iraq, and its support for Hezbollah. Russia lacks a territorial interest in the Near East, while Iran’s primary rivals are land-based. Hence, the two powers cooperate to achieve their joint goals, with Russian weapons finding their way to Iranian proxies, and Iranian special forces working alongside Russian troops. Recent news of a Russo-Israeli agreement on Iran’s withdrawal from southern Syria does not change this relationship. Russia requires Iran’s partnership, absent increased Turkish stability or a literal revolution in Saudi Arabia, while Iran can still support Hezbollah, even if its forces are not stationed on Israel’s northern border.

Not only do the actions of each of the illiberal entente’s members support others’ positions – all three partners use strategic wildcards to expand their power.

Iran’s relationship with Russia has already been explicated. Less obvious is its relationship with China. Aside from the military relationship between Tehran and Beijing, Iran can influence the Strait of Hormuz, an important strategic chokepoint for China especially. This past April, India and China imported nearly half of Iran’s oil production. Oil travelling to China from Iran by water must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s coastline, and the Strait of Malacca, on the SCS’ southern rim. Even if China gains control of the SCS, the U.S. Navy could exert distant pressure in the Indian Ocean, denying China-bound ships the opportunity to even reach the Strait of Malacca and where directly blockading the Strait of Malacca would be economically catastrophic.

China and Iran are developing the mutual tools and positions to respond to such a move. Iranian long-range missiles like the Shahab-3, with its 2000-kilometer range, can reach a longitudinal line running from the Horn of Africa to the Indian coast. If the road-mobile weapon is based in Houthi-controlled Yemeni territory, one could envision an even greater area of coverage.  Concurrently, China now holds two ports in the Indian Ocean: Gwadar, on the Pakistani coast, and Colombo, in Sri Lanka. Neither location is militarized today, but both could become focal points for Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean in the future.  Even absent the hardening that would make these ports tenable in a major conflict, China can still use them to escort China-bound shipping in a “grey zone” scenario as described above. China lacks regular  Mediterranean presence, but Iranian and Russian acquiescence to China’s Eastern Mediterranean economic expansion indicates similarly overlapping interests. One could envision the Greek port of Piraeus becoming a shared location for the illiberal entente’s members

China, Russia, and Iran also benefit from strategic wildcards that can disrupt the status quo, and provide cover for expansion. ISIS posed an undeniable security threat to Iran and Russia. But it is also clear that, without Iraqi state weakness, Iran’s project to create a chain of proxy or allied states spanning the Near East would be much further from completion. Russia would have lacked cover to expand its reach into the Eastern Mediterranean and threaten Europe’s underbelly without the rebel and jihadist threat against the Assad regime. Similarly, the PLA Navy would not be able to deploy as easily to the Indian Ocean without the cover of antipiracy operations. China’s current antipiracy Indian Ocean presence consists of two frigates and 700 Special Operations Forces and other soldiers. But if China’s presence in Africa, anchored in Djibouti, expands, this could turn into a larger, more permanent force. One should note that a Sino-Iranian response to American interdiction of China-bound shipping in the Indian Ocean would likely involve the forces engaged in antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

None of these adversaries have the immediate goal of war with the United States. However, all three powers have the potential to execute faits accomplis – quick, decisive actions that cannot be responded to absent general escalation. Russia maintains overwhelming relative superiority in the Baltics and Ukraine. Putin could one day elect to quickly connect St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, or drive further west in Ukraine. China outnumbers and outclasses the Philippines and Vietnam in the SCS. If Chinese violations of Vietnamese or Philippine fishing waters, or a repeat of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff, prompt a strong militarized response, the PLAN and PLAAF would enjoy steep superiority over their regional counterparts. Vietnam would fare better in a full-scale confrontation, but China could still obtain the more limited objective of neutralizing the Vietnamese Navy by drawing it out into a lopsided engagement. In each of these situations, the U.S. will be faced with the choice between escalation, and the potential of general war between nuclear-armed powers, or acquiescence to adversarial expansion and intimidation, and the erosion of its strategic position.

Moreover, an ultimate goal of China, may be to stage a coup de main against American forces in the Pacific. China’s long-range missiles would isolate America’s Pacific bases from one another and American forces from their allied counterparts, while long-range strike aircraft and amphibious units would overwhelm remaining outposts, and leave China with a free hand to neutralize Taiwan. Bursting through a cordon of the First and Second Island Chains, PLAN submarines could attempt to tie down U.S. follow-on forces by attacking naval bases at Pearl Harbor, Kitsap, and San Diego. Even more unconventionally, a great power adversary could smuggle weapons of mass destruction into major American cities using clandestine naval power, as ML Cavanaugh suggests in his provocative Modern War Institute piece, and hold the U.S. population hostage through threat of an unpreventable nuclear strike. Accumulating nuanced advantages through repeated faits accomplis can facilitate ultimate objectives.

Manning the Distant Rampart – Maritime Strategy and Force Structure

The clearly maritime nature of contemporary great power competition, along with the specifics of the illiberal entente’s objectives and capabilities, necessitates a specific maritime strategy. The USN should be tasked with three major missions: maintaining control of certain strategic chokepoints, the prevention of a coup de main by manning specific Distant Ramparts, and the prevention of faits accomplis.

First, the sea services must control specific international chokepoints which correspond to the narrow seas previously discussed. Most important to this strategy is control of the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, and the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. Control of these three chokepoints enables a far blockade/interdiction strategy critical to victory in a long-term conflict. Control of the Eastern Mediterranean hems in Russia from the South, facilitates operations against Iranian expansion in the Near East, and shortens transit time between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Control of the Strait of Hormuz and Western Indian Ocean enables a far blockade or interdiction operation against China, and provides critical screening for forces moving between the Far East and Europe. Finally, control of the Strait of Malacca and the Indonesian Throughflow, while not a foolproof method to prevent Chinese submarine leakage into the Indian Ocean, would at least make it more difficult for PLA Navy surface combatants to operate in this maritime space. Moreover, were China to militarize Colombo and Gwadar, and create a major facility in Djibouti, American and Allied forces would likely be able to prevent their relief and neutralize their combat efficacy.

Second, the USN and USMC must maintain overwhelming force superiority at critical sections of the Distant Rampart. In particular, the Ryukyu Islands, Indochinese coastline, and Persian Gulf must be unimpeachably secure. Crushing smaller adversaries like the Philippines and, depending on the conflict, Vietnam, could be executed before the arrival of American follow-on forces. A Taiwanese fait accompli is also possible, particularly if China struck after eliminating Vietnam or the Philippines. However, if China were not to secure a quick victory, it would need to isolate Taiwan from external supply lines and possible vectors of foreign intervention. This involves cutting through the Ryukyu Islands and Luzon in a pincer movement. Similarly, a quick descent upon the Strait of Malacca could require neutralizing Vietnam as an adversary – forces operating from Da Nang and Hai Phong would directly threaten the Southern Seas Fleet’s bases on Hainan Island and in Zhanjing. Ensuring American strength at each of these points would make the risk of these decisive actions much greater. If China cannot neutralize Taiwan with an overwhelming first strike, and if reinforcing CSGs and submarines operate behind a nest of island-based missile defenses, China will need to actually fight for the First Island Chain, rather than gaining it as a launchpad for further operations. If a Chinese move against Malacca requires eliminating an American-aligned Vietnam that can stall an offensive, the possibility of a quick, decisive strike spiraling into a broader war increases. And if America holds force superiority at key strategic points, this broader war looks increasingly less attractive for China. A similar concept applies in the Persian Gulf. A quick Iranian strike against Saudi Arabia or an attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz would be much less attractive if American forces in the Persian Gulf could intercept incoming Iranian missiles, sink the inevitable swarm of fast attack craft and missile boats, and eliminate the Iranian naval command at Bandar Abbas. Maintaining superiority at critical points on the Distant Rampart ensures that America’s adversaries will need to seriously consider the implications of full-scale and long-term war, rather than being tempted to strike quickly and decisively.

Third, the sea services, and the Navy in particular, must guard against smaller-scale faits accomplis from America’s adversaries by maintaining long-term and sufficient presence and combat power in the narrow seas, namely the SCS, ECS, Baltic, and Eastern Mediterranean.  The specific force structure in the first three differs from that in the last. The SCS, ECS, and Baltic are potential “hot zones,” in which China or Russia could stage a quick strike against an American ally or U.S. forces.  For long-term combat power, submarines are more important in these areas than surface combatants – although small surface combatants used as a tripwire, and to engage in grey zone operations, are relevant. By contrast, Russia’s aim of cracking NATO involves applying coercive naval and maritime pressure to Southern Europe and, potentially, Israel. Particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, land-based airpower can prove decisive in preserving sea control, as Britain’s experience during the Second World War demonstrated.  Thus, the USN’s Eastern Mediterranean role must be to outmuscle Russian warships, serving as a visible marker of American interest in, and commitment to, a favorable regional balance of power.

A specific force structure and distribution descends from this strategy. The two major chokepoints that the U.S. must control – the Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca – require frequent carrier coverage, or at a minimum, a large, visible surface presence. In addition, the USN must provide a capable battle force ready to deploy to Asiatic waters, which likely includes two on-station CSGs at any time. Presuming contemporary operational tempo during peacetime, this necessitates an expansion of the U.S. carrier fleet to 15 ships from its present 11. Despite their age, the Navy could consider bringing the USS Enterprise and John F Kennedy out of retirement, at least until the mid-2020s, when CVN-80 will be commissioned. With four surface combatants and one submarine per CSG, the Navy will need to dedicate 20 surface combatants and five SSNs exclusively to maintaining these permanent formations. That is absent the surface action groups necessary to operate a far blockade. The Future Surface Combatant’s development offers a significant opportunity in this regard: developing a family of warships intended to operate as a cohesive, networked whole in blockade operations would benefit America’s long-term strategy.

Preventing faits accomplis requires a similarly significant force restructuring. The basis of this deterrence force should be the four Ohio-class submarines the USN has modified to carry cruise missiles, operating alongside Surface Action Groups (this makes eight more deployed DDG-51s, DDG-1000s, or CG-47s). Such formations will be particularly important in the Baltics, SCS, and ECS, environments in which America’s adversaries could contest access in crisis situations. The SSGNs will be able to avoid enemy detection, and inflict substantial punishment on advancing forces and their supporting infrastructure with their 154 cruise missiles. However, the U.S. must consider revising longstanding biases, and forward-deploying small surface combatants optimized for lethality, rather than emphasizing survivability and defensive armament. Conventionally-powered attack submarines may also be a part of such a force, either directly in the U.S. fleet, or operated by American allies with weaker military capabilities.

Most importantly, preventing a coup de main requires a radical overhaul of the USN’s and USMC’s present operational outlook. While the far blockade is invaluable to winning a major great power war, it is unlikely to deter one. Short, decisive actions that transform the regional balance of forces are unlikely to be deterred by long-term punishment strategies, of which the far blockade is an example. The case of Germany in 1914 is illustrative. British strategy was premised on maintaining the far blockade against Germany, and in conjunction slowly grinding down Germany’s military positions on the European continent. The strategy worked, but only after 1.1 million British and Imperial lives were lost. If Britain had attempted to deny Germany its immediate objectives in 1914, and threatened to deploy 30 or more divisions in support of France at the outbreak of hostilities, the already anxious Moltke the Younger may have objected to the Schlieffen Plan in its totality.

Similarly, denying China its objectives in the Pacific requires ensuring that Taiwan remains defended and supplied despite an overwhelming initial Chinese offensive. Neutralizing Taiwan is essential for China’s long-term war objectives in a protracted and wide-scale conflict. If the island remains functionally independent, it could act as a strategic salient for hostile forces, and a staging point for attacks against Chinese shipping and naval units. The two-CSG battle force proposed previously would help protect Taiwan from China’s initial offensive. However, the USMC must also fortify the islands that provide access to Taiwan, namely the Ryukyus and the north of the Philippine archipelago. This not only entails an expansion of the USMC, but also a modification of its role. Marines fortifying these islands must field their own long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles, while the Marine air units deployed would be focused upon air defense and sea control, rather than ground attack.

The exact size of such a fleet and Marine Corps would fluctuate depending upon specific operational choices. However, one can expect the USN would break 350 ships, while the USMC would expand to 190,000-200,000 men.

Conclusion

Such a force expansion would be costly, but is miniscule compared to the price of fighting a major war unprepared. Manning the Distant Rampart is an expensive process, even with allies to shoulder the load. But abandoning it, as empires from Rome onward have learned, is even more dangerous. By refocusing U.S. maritime strategy on forward defense and offensive action, one can hope for, if not the realization of American security goals, then at least the right general approach to the Republic’s challenges.

Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at hh66@st-andrews.ac.uk

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (March 11, 2018) An F-35B launches off the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) as part of a routine patrol in the Indo-Pacific region. Pilots with the “Green Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), assigned under the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, are scheduled to conduct a series of qualification flights on Wasp over a multi-day period. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)

Russia-China Naval Cooperation in an Era of Great Power Competition

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By David Scott

Introduction

On 30 May 2018, Admiral Harry Harris, the retiring chief of the newly renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Pacific Command (IndoPacom), noted that “China remains our biggest long-term challenge” and “a resurgent and revanchist Russia, remains an existential threat to the U.S” – and that consequently “Great Power competition is back.” Such competition brings Russia and China together as political partners, and is echoed in their increasing naval cooperation. Such naval cooperation provides one another with tacit support in their respective areas of geopolitical interest.

Straight balancing imperatives against the U.S. bring Russia and China together. This was first evident in their 1997 “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” which was followed by a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed in 2001, and proclamation of a “strategic partnership.” Joint military exercises were initiated in 2005, with maritime exercises starting in 2012. Their military cooperation has clear “geopolitical signaling” to the U.S.-led order, reflecting their maritime strategies.

Russia’s Maritime Strategy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the Russian Federation suffered a decade of chaos under Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s and with it a sharp decline in maritime power from the preceding Soviet period. Vladimir Putin has sought to establish Russia as a major power again, and to push back the advancing influence of the U.S., NATO and the EU. Military power and military assertiveness has been a feature of Putin’s presidency.

This renewed Russian pushback was reflected in the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, released in 2015, which sought to restore Russia’s position “among the leading maritime powers,” and concluded in its final sentence that it aimed to make Russia “a great maritime power.” It stressed that as an “instrument of foreign policy […] naval activities are the highest state priorities.” The navy had a global remit:

“The Navy is intended to ensure protection of the national interests of the Russian Federation and its allies on the World Ocean by military means, maintaining military and political stability at the global and regional levels […] ensures the naval presence of the Russian Federation; shows the flag and demonstrates military capabilities on the World Ocean.”

Russia’s areas of strategic interest were recast on a wider scale again; “the Russian Federation identifies the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian, Indian Ocean and Antarctic areas as the main regional priority areas of the National Maritime Policy.” To reverse the Yeltsin-period of industrial collapse of the 1990s, a naval shipbuilding program was announced.

Chinese Military Strategy

The current rise of China is a process where economic modernization is now feeding into military modernization. This military modernization includes naval advancement, where China’s navy is moving from a local coastal activities to oceanic-going “far seas operations” (yuanhai zuozhan). China’s 2013 Defense White Paper announced its intent “to accelerate the modernization of its forces for comprehensive offshore operations, develop advanced submarines, destroyers and frigates […] blue-water capabilities.” Faced with U.S. naval strength in the West Pacific, China has adopted a naval strategy of penetrating the “first island chain” (dì yi dao lian) running from Japan down the Ryukyu chain to Taiwan, establishing naval presence in its “core interests” (hexin liyi) claims to most of the South China Sea, and in a “two-ocean strategy” (liang ge haiyang) of establishing ongoing naval presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like Russia, China is accelerating its naval shipbuilding program, including aircraft carrier capabilities.

Bilateral Naval Exercises 2012-2018

A significant development in the China-Russia relationship has been their series of large-scale naval exercises held since 2012. At a time when both powers have been under growing criticism from the West, their overt readiness to publicly operate militarily side-by-side has been an act of political solidarity. They continue to claim that these drills are “not aimed at third parties,” but in reality pointed messages are being sent to third parties like the U.S. and others with whom Russia and China are in competition with.

The geographic scope of the Russia-China naval exercises has been wide ranging, with each country hosting in different waters.

Three of the exercises have taken place in Russia’s backyard – the Mediterranean (2015), Black Sea (2015), Baltic (2017), and Okhtosk Sea (2017). One has been in mutual areas of interest – the Sea of Japan (2013, 2015, 2017). Three have been in China’s backyard – the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014) and the South China Sea (2016). The 2018 exercises are scheduled to be held in the Yellow Sea, coming full circle back to the start of the cycle of exercises that commenced in 2012.

Russia’s Strategic Backyard

2015: Mediterranean

With this exercise, Russia was sending a very explicit message to the U.S. and NATO. This was at a time when Russia was reinserting itself back into the Mediterranean as a permanent maritime presence, through re-setting up in September 2013 the “5th Operational squadron” for operations in the Mediterranean, to be serviced and repaired at Tartus in Syria. This was again made up of ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Northern Fleet, which of course participated in the Russia-China naval exercises in 2015.

Tartus had operated under a Soviet-Syrian agreement concluded in 1971, with a view of supporting the Soviet Navy’s 5th Operational Squadron in the Mediterranean, in its rivalry with the U.S. 6th Fleet based in Italy. This Soviet squadron had been disbanded in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tartus was subsequently the focus, along with Hmeymim airbase, for the flow of Russian military supplies into Syria from 2012 onward. This growing Russian military role in Syria, on the side of Assad, attracts increasing criticism from European states, the U.S., and NATO, but China’s readiness to exercise with Russia in the Mediterranean in 2015 gave Russia extra support. Direct Russian military intervention quickly followed in September 2015. Russia’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean was further strengthened on 18 January 2017, when Russia and Syria signed an agreement, whereby Russia was allowed to expand and use the naval facility at Tartus for 49 years on a free-of-charge basis and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over the base, with full immunity from Syrian jurisdiction for Russia’s personnel and material at the facility. The treaty also allows Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels.

China’s implicit message in the 2015 exercise was to show its assertion of its blue water capabilities. A more subtle message was to accustom Europe to China’s presence and emerging maritime interests in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has come into the purview of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pursued by China since 2013. In particular, the main Greek port of Piraeus has increasing “geopolitical” importance to China, a “bridgehead” into Europe; the so called “dragon head” from the MSR route coming through the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Greece’s troubled relationship with the EU had seen China stepping in with financial aid, including the running of the Piraeus port by the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) since 2008. In July 2014 China and Greece agree to make the year 2015 the “China-Greece Maritime Cooperation Year.” Consequently, China strengthened its Mediterranean presence by COSCO’s acquisition of a majority stake (i.e. moving from administering to owning) in the Piraeus Port Authority in April 2016.

2015: Black Sea

Technically speaking the Black Sea was not the focus of the bilateral China-Russia naval exercise program. However, immediately following the bilateral 2015 Mediterranean exercise, the Chinese missile frigates, the Linyi and the Wei Fang, proceeded into the Black Sea, to take part in World War Two commemorations at Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast.

Russia’s context was simple, growing assertion in the Black Sea littoral. This had first been seen in its ongoing presence in Trans-Dniester since the 1990s, then followed with intervention in Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, and particularly manifested in  2014 with the occupation of the Crimea, and with it securing full control of the deep water facilities of Sevastopol. China’s deployment to Russia’s Black Sea coast in May 2015 in effect gave unofficial support to Russian actions in the Ukraine in February 2014, which caused outrage across the rest of Europe, and with it sanctions and cutting of various political, economic, and military links.

2017: Baltic Sea

The Chinese destroyer Hefei, the frigate Yuncheng , and the replenishment ship Luomahu sailed to the Baltic to carry out Maritime Interaction 2017 exercises with 18 other Russian ships from the Baltic Fleet from 21-28 July 2017. They first met in the waters off the Kaliningrad enclave, currently a “fault line of East-West tensions,” carried out exercises including live fire exercises, before the Chinese vessels sailed right up the Baltic to Russia’s St. Petersburg for a friendly port call. This represented a particularly far-reaching deployment of Chinese naval presence, but the context was very much Russian reassertion of military power in the Baltic, where Kaliningrad is not only the headquarters for the Russian Baltic Fleet, but is also a forward point for various missile deployments.

Rising confrontation has been a feature of the Baltic. Cyber-warfare attacks have been carried out by Russia against Estonia in 2016, and NATO exercises had immediately preceded the Russia-China naval exercise – the Suwalki Gap exercises in June 2017 and the Tobruq Legacy 2017 exercises in Lithuania in early July 2017. The Russia-China naval exercises in late-July were in turn followed and reinforced by the Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017 held in September in the vicinity of Kaliningrad, which was the largest Russian exercise since the end of the Cold War. For Russia, the Baltic Sea exercises with China were one of several shows of strength with the purpose of sending a signal not only to the Baltic States, but also NATO, which had increased its presence in Poland and the Baltic states. China in itself presented no particular military danger to the Baltic States, but its very visible presence alongside Russia sent a signal of tacit support to Moscow.

2017: Okhtosk Sea

The Okhotsk Sea lies between the Kurile chain of islands and the Kamchakta peninsular. It is very much Russian waters, facing the northern Pacific and the U.S. Aleutian islands, with naval facilities at Petropavlovsk. The 2017 Russia-China exercises in the Sea of Japan were extended northwards into the Okhtosk waters in September 2017. From Russia’s point of view such military exercises support its increasing grip on the Okhtosk Sea, demonstrated with how it closed down these waters to outside shipping and fishing in 2014, which some argued will “embolden” similar Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Common Backyards

2013, 2015, 2017: Sea of Japan

The Sea of Japan lies between the Japanese archipelago, the Russian island of Sakhalin and Far Eastern province, and the Korean peninsula. Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, currently recovering from the decay witnessed in the 1990s. Naval exercises between Russia and China were carried out in the Sea of Japan in July 2013, August 2015, and September 2017. The 2015 exercises included joint amphibious landing drills, of relevance for China and Russia in their respective island disputes with Japan.

The Kurile island chain is administered by Russia, but territorial disputes remain with Japan over the four southernmost islands which Japan calls the “Northern Territories.” Russia has continued to reassert its continuing grip on this chain, with increased naval strength a signal to Japan.

Disputed features of the Kuril Islands (DW.com)

China has no direct frontage onto the Sea of Japan, but it continues to seek access to the Pacific Ocean through the “first island chain” running down through the .U.S Aleutian islands down through the Japanese archipelago. Naval exercises in the Sea of Japan send a message from China to Japan, the more so following the 2013 exercise where five Chinese naval vessels conducted their first known passage of the Soya Strait located between Hokkaido in northern Japan and Russia’s Sakhalin Island. The 2013 exercises were preceded by live fire joint U.S.-Japanese naval exercises in the Eastern Pacific. Comments in China were pointed: “all military drills have imaginary enemies, otherwise it’s just a game. For the U.S. and Japan, their joint drills in San Diego targeted China. And the upcoming Sino-Russian exercises will obviously target Japan or even the U.S. in response.” The five Chinese vessels participating in the 2015 exercise sailed from the Sea of Japan into Aleutian island territorial waters, a message to the U.S.

China’s Backyard

Three venues for the China-Russia exercises have been in China’s backyard, namely the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014), and the South China Sea (2016).

 2012: Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea is bounded by China, running up from Shanghai on the one side and the Korean peninsula on the other side. It in turn runs into the Bohai Sea, the maritime gateway to Beijing. A degree of naval “competition” is apparent with the U.S., which continues to deploy into these waters and carry out naval exercises with South Korea. The immediate context for the China-Russia 2012 exercises in April were the U.S. joint naval exercises with South Korea in March, as well as those in November 2010 which had attracted much Chinese criticism. Another set of exercises with South Korea and Japan took place in the Yellow Sea in June 2012; complete with the USS George Washington nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; with the state media warning that “U.S. in position to strangle China’s maritime lifelines.”

2014: East China Sea

These exercises were launched by both Presidents Xi and Putin at Shanghai in May 2014. Russia’s motives were secondary, i.e. tacitly supportive of China’s increasing naval presence in the East China Sea where “core interests” are at stake for Beijing. These revolve around the Senkaku islands controlled by Japan but which China claims as the Diaoyu islands, disputed exclusive economic zones between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and disputed airspace above these waters. Chinese actions in 2012 and 2013 provide the immediate context for Beijing’s decision to operate with Russia in the East China Sea. Firstly, increasing deployments of Chinese naval units in the waters immediately around the Senkaku/Diaoyu have been rising since 2012. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) proclaimed in November 2013 was a further sign of China’s push to establish jurisdiction over the East China Sea. Moreover, from the East China Sea, China seeks to penetrate Japan’s Ryukyu island chain into the Pacific, with naval deployments becoming a regular pattern through the Miyako and Ishigaki straits since 2008. The 2012 deployment through the Miyako Strait was particularly significant as China told Japan that “with the expansion of China’s maritime transport lines and interests, the Chinese navy will inevitably extend its combat forces to the Pacific.

2016: South China Sea

The two sides conducted their annual naval exercise, Joint Sea-2016, in the South China Sea with a focus on “island-seizing.” This is a key arena for China, a so-called “core interest” (hexin liyi) in which China’s “9-dash line” encloses most of the South China Sea, including the Paracels (occupied by China since 1974 but disputed with Vietnam) and the Spratlys (some land holdings occupied by China but disputed with Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, as well as waters disputed with Brunei and Indonesia). The China-Russia naval exercise in September 2016 was preceded in July 2016 by the ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which had seriously undermined China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, since it held that China’s so-called historical rights gave no validity for claims for Exclusive Economic Zones, and that none of the land features were proper “islands” under the UNCLOS categorization which could generate exclusive Economic Zones, and criticized Chinese creation of artificial concrete land features. It was significant that immediately before the start of the exercise Putin affirmed “we stand in solidarity and support of China’s position – not to recognize the decision of this court.” Given that China’s militarization of these artificial holdings had attracted widespread regional and international criticism, Russia’s readiness to then conduct military exercises with China, particularly involving South China Sea amphibious “island-seizing” operations, in effect provided tacit support for China’s maritime reinforcement of its position. 

Looking Forward

The 2018 exercises to be held in the Yellow Sea returns their cooperation to Northeast Asia, at a time when both China and Russia are moving to strengthen involvement in the Korean peninsula, and shape developments in their favor. These naval exercises have become a well-established feature in China-Russia military cooperation, which are in turn part of their wider strategic cooperation.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defense College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tartu since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Rear Adm. Du Xiping, front right, deputy commander of China’s Beihai Fleet, shakes hands with Captain First Rank Sergei Yuriyevich Zhuga of Russia’s Pacific Fleet during a welcome ceremony at a naval base in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, Saturday, April 21, 2012. A China-Russia joint maritime drill is scheduled from April 22 to 27 on the Yellow Sea, Xinhua said. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming)