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Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition with Jack McCain

By Sally DeBoer and Matt Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Lieutenant Jack McCain, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, about the theme of this year’s Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference: A New Era of Great Power Competition. Joined by recurring special guest Michael DeBoer, the group talks about the role of navies for great powers, the perils of over-reliance on technology, and Jack McCain’s new book Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Download Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition and Jack McCain

Listen to the audio above or read the transcript below of the conversation between Sally DeBoer (SD), Jack McCain (JM), and Michael DeBoer (MD). Production credits go to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua.

SD: The theme of this year’s conference, A New Era of Great Power Competition? is of particular interest to our listeners here at Sea Control and our readers at CIMSEC. We’ll start off by asking each of our guests to characterize their thoughts on the importance of this discussion in our current dynamic international system. LT McCain, you first – specifically, we’d be interested to hear your take on why this discussion is important for tomorrow’s military and civilian leaders to be having here at NAFAC.

JM: I think this year’s conference topic is very prescient and very present in that this is something that both our youth and our policymakers are beginning to have to grapple with, this idea of are we actually in a new era of great power competition? It is interesting to watch, and the thing I drew out most from this conference is this a whole new set of challenges that my students and our conference participants are being socialized into as a generation. Great power competition is not new to the U.S. or the world, but in the post-Cold War world, the U.S. was in a unique position and didn’t have to consider the nature of great power competition. We probably should have been, but we were lucky in that respect as the last standing superpower. We went back and forth about whether to call the last 25 years a unipolar world, but what really stood out was the sparking of a new conversation to drive some ideation and really examine the implications and realities of just what this great power competition may look like in the future.

MD: I agree with all of that, I thought that the question mark at the end of the theme was a useful exercise. It’s always a useful exercise to take a look at and map the international system and try to understand the landscape, whether that be great power competition or some other different model. I would agree with the premise that it is a new era of great power competition. The only other thing I would add for the Midshipmen is that RADM Kirby’s assertion the first day – that it us useful to see people and interact with people that are different from yourself in views, background, and interests – is always a useful exercise in both academia and independent thought

SD: One thing that I noticed among the panelists and participants was an effort to wrap one’s head around what makes a great power – a lot of that discussion went toward Russia and China. In your opinion what defines a great power?

JM: After spending a week at a round table where the goal was to try to define this issue, I have fewer answers than when I started. Our discussion really led us down a couple of roads, and everyone was in basic agreement that military power is a component of a great power, and it really came down to naval power, which was almost viewed as [the most] important form of military power. It was very interesting, I had juniors in college from civilian institutions bringing up Mahan, which left me both heartened and surprised. I would agree that military power takes a significant role in what determines a great power. I would place more emphasis on military power than economic power, based on the idea that without security, [a] nation can’t survive, but the notion of how that military power, as well as economic and diplomatic power, are utilized was really the interesting part of the conversation in asking the question does a great power also have to be a moral power? Do they have to be a power that other nations, aspiring powers, or revisionist powers, want to emulate? That motivated a significant portion of our conversation in asking does a respect for human rights have to be a part of a great power? A balance of military and economic power are your two core components in my opinion, but the idea of social or cultural power [was also discussed]. The U.S. has consciously or sub-consciously been the sole dominating cultural force for both better and worse for about the last 50 years. Everyone knows rock n’ roll and blue jeans, and the Golden Arches are all over the world, so does that cultural power translate into becoming a great power? I probably would have said yes before the conversation this week, and now I am not so sure.

MD: I guess that I would say that a great power has the ability to shape events outside its own borders, and there are several vehicles to do that. While I think it would be convenient for us to say that naval power is most important in international great power status, I am not necessarily sure that is always true. I certainly think naval power is important, but I think that may not recognize a generation of great powers that were land powers. 19th century Germany, certainly a great power, had limited naval power, or Russia, certainly a great power with limited naval power. I would caution against thinking that the ability to project power overseas is the only way to affect events outside your borders. But, it certainly is extremely helpful and provides a ton of flexibility.

SD: During the Technology and Cyber-Competition Panel, author of Ghost Fleet August Cole told the audience, “The writing process caused the authors to confront some uncomfortable truths.” The American way of war, he said, is predicated on a technical superiority that isn’t necessarily in line with our evolving reality. The reliance on tech creates a vulnerability, and through the lens of great power competition, we should be thinking about the difference between our assumptions about conflict and how conflict will actually be. What are your thoughts on this, and what can the U.S. do to manage, or even socialize, this reality among policymakers?

JM: While thinking about this question, WWII came to mind. When you look at the way the U.S. military views technology [today], it’s very similar to our own attitudes pre-WWII toward the Japanese navy. We believed in our inherent superiority, that one technology (the battleship) would play the biggest role in any naval confrontation. Circumstances after Pearl Harbor drove a refocus, rebalance, and forced us to start thinking about problems in more creative ways than we had anticipated. The true heroes of the Pacific were the submarine and the aircraft carrier, as well as the individual Marine with his rifle. That’s how I started thinking about this – what would force that creative flexibility today? Not only was Ghost Fleet an amazing book, but I agree with Cole that the U.S. military is hyper-focused on technology. You hear innovation in just about every conversation in the U.S. military right now, and this usually implies greater reliance on some sort of tech as a time or space saving utility. What has been so surprising, especially in the cyber realm, is that we believed we knew what cyber ops were going to look like. They would be attacks on infrastructure – but cyber operations or Information Operations have taken a very different tack recently and did not shape up the way we thought they would – things like election influence or the idea of seizing and shaping the strategic narrative through social media, [combined with] overt and convert sources, has been incredible to watch. That is one place that the U.S. is far behind, seizing the strategic narrative. As a democratic society, moving a single narrative is very difficult, as an open and free society – our ability to shape a narrative is countered by what we would have previously believed to be just overt propaganda which is now, due to the power of social media, not necessarily taken as such.

SD: How realistic are our policymakers about this reality and what can policymakers do to socialize this reality?

JM: That’s a tough question – I think without delving into anything political, in a general sense, this is a problem that is going to force policymakers to have to take action. What that action is will be hard to predict, in a liberal society we can’t just censor messages we don’t like. I think having policymakers that can seize on the strategic narrative that is needed to support whatever it is we’re doing will be helpful. Let’s say we are in an era of great power competition, and we’re trying to maintain a narrative offensive against an adversary – we need to make sure it’s a coherent message, shaped by social media and overt policy statements by the U.S. government. Policymakers need to understand the power of social media to shape a message, (which many policymakers understand inherently because it is a fundraising tool) and just how many people will buy into that message because of its nature. The psychological impact of those messages are hopefully going to be realized by policymakers. Short of something catastrophic, this will be an ongoing problem for the U.S.

SD: Mike, I know you had some thoughts in the same realm but more along the lines of military hardware – can you expand?

MD: The U.S. will likely maintain technical superiority – though I would like to say I am a fan of Cole’s and there are areas in which our advantage is eroding – there are areas where we will retain an advantage for some time. I would point to undersea warfare and sensor packages as an example, which I think will continue to exceed anything that any other great power can deploy in the near to mid-term. In the era of combat control and all the interstitial pieces that make up naval warfare, the Chinese and Russian fleets appear to be well far behind. I don’t think we should say this will last forever, but those are places where we could continue to invest and continue to make big strides to maintain major advantages in terms of systems and expertise as we go on. The other thing that’s worth at least keeping a good eye on, though it didn’t come up much in the discussion, but the hemorrhaging of technical capability in cyber both with the Snowden releases and cyber tools becoming available is putting us at a disadvantage in that arena. We need to seriously look at how we deal with the WikiLeaks phenomena and other major defense or national security disclosures, not just in the realm of whistleblowing but at a more macro level.

SD: General Allen’s Forestall address discussed the five global mega-trends affecting the international system as we know it, to include the shift of economic power from West to East, demographic changes, rapid urbanization, the rise of technology, and climate change. Did you agree with the general’s assessment of these mega trends and what can warfighters do to prepare?

JM: Absolutely. First of all, NAFAC was incredibly fortunate to have Gen. Allen come speak, he is a highly esteemed speaker, and he has addressed these five variables several times very articulately, [which] brings to the fore some issues we need to start thinking about as a nation if we are to maintain a great power status. The only caveat I put on that is that today, we have a tendency as a military and as a nation to believe that everything we are facing is a brand new challenge, that this is hyper-new and we have never faced it before. I find that a significant amount of my Plebes coming into the Naval Academy think everything is brand new. So, if I were to rephrase these five things or give an overall label to them, I would say “old problems, new flavor.” None of these changes…even the rise of tech and climate change are issues we haven’t faced in some form or fashion as a human race or as a nation, as a culture or society. They are different, absolutely, but if we stop thinking about them as these massive unknown challenges and look to history to draw context, this is the best way that we can start making a plan for how to address these challenges as a nation. One of the things that a keen policymaker would pay attention to is not the amalgam of all these problems but the flashpoints between them. Any one of these problems can cause a crisis, but when you have say, rapid urbanization, demographic changes, and a shift of economic power, that’s a flashpoint, and that can create conflict overnight. So, it’s not just these five things in isolation or as a monolith either, it’s the interactions between them that will be most important and represent the place where, if we think strategically about it, we can have the most impact. Gen. Allen really gave an excellent speech, I can’t say that enough.

SD: It was a highlight of the whole week for me as well. Mike, did you want to asses anything?

MD: One, I think that was an amazing set of statements, I really agreed with all of them. Gen. Allen was my first commandant at USNA and he is always a joy to listen to, I’ve enjoyed every time he has spoken. The things that I would add are, one, economic predictions, particularly that far out, are sometimes difficult. I think that though economic shifts are going on, they are the most likely factor to be disrupted by changes in the world’s status, and this is difficult to predict. Second, the most likely and most determinative of those is the demographic trends that Gen. Allen discussed. Demographics are certainly a major driver in the Palestinian problem, they are (in our view) driving Russia’s decline, and the China’s older vs. richer debate we’re all familiar with. These are being driven by major demographic changes, and in fact from a human capital perspective the U.S. is doing quite well with a manageable population growth. I think that might be the most “good news” story of the group, though any one of those could also be a source of potential friction, and friction leads to fire eventually. Finally, I thought another interesting thing, and I have no great answer but believe this will be a big problem – are force planning constructs in mega cities. Understanding what the U.S. military had to go through to project power into Sadr city or any of the other massive slums we’ve been operating on the edges of doesn’t paint a joyful picture of what future conflict in such an environment might breed. I believe that will be a strain on ground forces as they try to look at how to really conduct war in hostile places with masses of people – I think that outlines my thoughts.

SD: The rise of near-peer competitors and the effect of that rise on the international system was certainly a central theme of the round tables and panels at NAFAC. If any, what conclusions or consensus did you draw about the rise of proto-peer competitors and what the U.S. should do to maintain its primacy? Did you hear any unique insight to this effect during the course of the conference that you could share with our audience?

JM: To harken back to another point, this idea of technology’s effect, especially social media, on prevailing strategic narratives is something I have been thinking about recently, and was brought to the fore during this conference. What also really stuck out was that there is a lot of concern about China, which I understand, there’s a lot anxiety about it, but if there’s a lesson that can be drawn from the last 16 years of warfare or even longer, it’s that we have a tendency toward fixation as a society with regard to military operations or the general idea of power dynamics in the international system. We like a boogeyman, and we had a convenient one in the USSR for a long time, but this draws our eye off the ball from places that it should be. Just like Korea – that was the last place anyone expected what became the proxy war between the two great powers of the time with China folded in, and that kind of lack of strategic depth puts us at a disadvantage. When we over-focus or hyper-focus, we end up undermining our own ability to think strategically and get sucked into a tactical “how do we deal with tomorrow’s challenges” problem. That was an overarching point. We should try to avoid being hyper-focused on one enemy or problem, because there are many challenges for us to face if we wish to maintain a great power status, and this excessive focus or worry on one of them ends up biting us later on, or at least it]could.

MD: The only thing I would add is that the likely most important thing going forward is to start separating and trying to focus, not narrowly but precisely, on national interest. This means moving back to a model that we became very comfortable with in the Cold War but have lost comfort with. This model is identifying and aggressively pursuing national interest against competitors. This aggressive pursuit is, at times, lacking, not to criticize any individual or administration, I think that we’ve been too expansive and too reductive in defining our national interests, and as we move into an era in which we certainly have competitors interested in playing zero-sum games about national powers, we must become much more steely about the way we implement that national power abroad.

SD: LT McCain, I would like to take a moment specifically to talk to you about your forthcoming book. Can you tell us a little bit about your debut title?

JM: Absolutely! I think I may have been a little overambitious with the title. It is an attempt to sum up all of the thoughts I had in the book, so I rolled them into this ambitious title. It is a short book, it is not something that you’ll have to read over a period of days, it’s only about 115 pages, so it’s not any lengthy endeavor. But, I started this as my graduate thesis, and it grew out of there. When I sat down to think about what I wanted to write, I have always been interested in the South African border war because of my experiences in Africa, it is a conflict that no one discusses, but there is much value in it as a case study. I wanted to write about hybrid war, because as you’ll remember about two years ago hybrid war was the new boogeyman, and hybrid war was going to dominate all future wars and we had better get with the program. So I got on the bandwagon and looked to carve a niche for myself.

As I began researching and brought my own thoughts and experience to bear, I found the title of hybrid warfare to be almost useless; everyone has an idea of what it is or what it looks like, and I started to apply the same thought process to some of our other models. What does counterinsurgency warfare mean? What do we define conventional war as? All of these labels that we have a tendency to compartmentalize operational thinking into were not useful. I went back to my Clausewitz and pulled out a couple of prescient quotes to apply, and to paraphrase, he describes war as a chameleon: the first thing you must do in any conflict is understand the fundamental nature of that specific conflict. You can’t apply another model and expect some sort of miraculous result, it must be treated as unique. That one thought really forced me in several different directions, and I tried to accommodate them through this work, and what it came down to was [this]: Clausewitz has a general theory of warfare, and I use a couple of quotes to draw that out. The U.S. military has gone from the general theory of warfare into what I would call middle-range theories. We use counterinsurgency theory as a way to apply warfare doctrine, we are starting from an operational level and working out (vice strategic) which is not a good way to plan, fight, or execute a war.

The second piece I wanted to examine is the civil-military dialogue between our policymakers and the military. Is it functioning correctly, and in an ideal case what does that relationship look like and do we have it right? The answer I came up with is no, we don’t. As for the military, we are consulted for general advice at times, but in terms of being the foundational partner for strategic decision making, not so much. At the end of the book I talk a little about the Afghan surge and how that decision making process is a microcosm for our decision making and strategic planning. With all that said, I use the South African border war as my case study because there are so many of these “type elements” – unconventional, conventional, tank on tank, tank on armored vehicle, light infantry, clandestine ops – but the South Africans never got wrapped around the axle about what type of war they were fighting, they just fought the war according to the strategy that fit their policy aims. This is one of the perfect ways to execute a war – think about what ways and means will be, balance those, execute, and reassess. I don’t want to give too much away, but I use it as a case study to help inform, hopefully, what can be better strategic decision making with regard to future conflicts.

SD: When can our readers look for your title and where will it be available?

JM: It is available on Amazon, the Kindle version will be up hopefully in a couple of weeks.

SD: We certainly hope you’ll join us again to discuss your research and book in greater detail. It’s been our privilege to participate in the 57th annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference and our honor to have you as our guest here on Sea Control. Thank you for sharing your time with us!

LT John S. McCain IV is a Naval Officer currently serving as an instructor in the Leadership Department at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC, and also serves as CIMSEC’s Book Review Coordinator. Contact her at President@cimsec.org

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. 

The views herein are the guests’ alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Sea Control 131 – Stefan Lundqvist on the Baltic Sea

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Lieutenant Commander Stefan Lundqvist of the Swedish Defence University. Hosted by Adrian Neumann of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, the conversation examines the growing tensions in the Baltic Sea between Russia and Western countries.

Download Sea Control 131 – The Baltic Sea

LtCdr Stefan Lundqvist is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Åbo Akademi University, Finland, studying the post-Cold War Maritime Security changes among Western states. He is a teacher of Joint and Naval Operations at the Swedish Defence University, specialised in Operations Assessment. He joined the Royal Swedish Navy in 1987 and has served in various staff positions since 1998. His latest publications are “Why teaching comprehensive operations planning requires transformational learning” (2015), Defence Studies, 15(2): 175–201; “Cultivating Regional Maritime Security: Swedish-Finnish Naval Cooperation in the Baltic Sea” (IOS-Press, 2015) (co-authored with J. J. Widen), in Chapsos I. and Kitchen C. (eds.) Strengthening Maritime Security Through Cooperation; “From Protection of Shipping to Protection of Citizens and National Economies: Current Changes in Maritime Security” (2013), Journal of Defence Studies, 7(3): 57–80.

Sea Control 128 – Bonnie Glaser On FONOPS and U.S.-China Relations under Trump

By Mina Pollmann

CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.

Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.

Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.

Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.

Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?

Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.

I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.

Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?

Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.

I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.

Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?

Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.

Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.

So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.

Facilities on Mischief Reeef as of January 2016. (CSIS AMTI)

The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.

Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.

The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.

And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.

Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?

Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.

My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.

The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets wait on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in December. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait. 

Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?

Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.

So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.

So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.

There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.

Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Thanks for having me.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.

Sea Control 127 – Dr. Tom Fedyszyn on Russian Navy Ops, Acquisition, and Doctrine

By Ashley O’Keefe

If you’ve turned on the news recently, you probably noticed that Russia has been dominating it. From their intervention in Syria, to the increasing range and scope of their naval deployments, and the release last year of their new Maritime Strategy, Russia – and the Russian Navy – have turned our focus back to our Cold War foe. In this episode of Sea Control, we explore the Russian Navy’s modernization plans and recent newsworthy stories with U.S. Naval War College Professor (and retired Navy Captain) Tom Fedyszyn.

Read on below or listen to the audio below. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

AO: Hello, and welcome to the Center for International Maritime Security’s Sea Control podcast. I’m Ashley O’Keefe, the CIMSEC Secretary, and I’m here today with Dr. Tom Fedyszyn, of the U.S. Naval War College. He’s been a member of the faculty here since 2000, and he serves as the senior advisor to the College’s Russian Maritime Studies Institute. He received a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in Political Science while he was on active duty. His 31-year naval career included military assignments as the U.S. Naval Attaché to Russia, and two tours at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He commanded the USS Normandy and the USS William V. Pratt, and deployed to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Norwegian Seas. He was a principal contributor to both the Lehman-era 1980s maritime strategy, and NATO’s strategic concept following the Cold War. He’s a nationally recognized expert and publishes regularly on maritime strategy, NATO strategy, and the Russian Navy, which is our topic today.

Let’s start off with a very basic question: why is it that we should still be interested in the Russian Navy? I thought that we were interested in China’s rise these days.

TF: Most people in the U.S. Navy seem to care more about China’s navy than the Russian navy. I can attest to that because I’ve been a Russian navy guy for a long time, and I was the rough equivalent of the Maytag repair man for about twenty years. My phone never rang! I’m sure my China counterpart’s phone was ringing regularly.

But the world has changed. Let’s quickly take it to a couple of years ago, when you’re looking around the world, and see Russia, which for about 20 years had been that big former enemy who looked like it was going to be the next big cooperator – a nation aligned with and becoming more and more like the West. And then we were shocked in 2014 when all of a sudden Russia annexes the Crimea, starts a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, and gets everyone’s attention. And so that same country that was cooperating with everyone back in 1998, even 2005, is now listed in NATO documents, for example, as some combination of adversary and aggressor. So, all of those military forces that they had that looked like they were going to do nothing but exercises with us now are potentially aggressive forces that we, especially those in the intel world, need to look at a lot harder.

AO: So where does the Russian Navy operate today? Are they in the same places that they used to be? Are they really a meaningful threat?

TF: Those old enough in the audience remember the old Soviet Navy. For 15-20 years, they were effectively our equivalent, less carrier battle groups. In other words, they outnumbered us in terms of submarines, they were equivalent to us in major surface combatants, and every theater we operated in, they did too. Then they had a 20-year period where they went to sleep, were in a coma. So that’s why we didn’t hear about the Russian Navy for a long time. I’ll make the case that starting around 2008, the Russian Navy began to get money, they began to get smart, they began to get joint, and they began to operate again. So today, pretty much anywhere, you can find ships of the Russian Navy. In some parts of the world, you can see a militarily significant force, and others just in ones and twos. But noting that 15 years ago they were nowhere, there were none in the Atlantic, there were none in the Mediterranean…whereas today they’re almost everywhere. However, they’re not necessarily a military force to be reckoned with at the high level.

AO: Admiral Sir Philip Jones (the British First Sea Lord) said a few days ago that they were seeing the highest level of Russian submarine activity in 25 years. That’s a sentiment we’ve heard not just from the Brits, but also from the NATO commander last year. If that’s true, what is so significant about that fact?

TF: Going back to that turnaround, it was sometime around the year 2000. Speaking only from unclassified sources, from what’s been in the open press, I’ll summarize for you. Between 2001-2003, our best guess is that there were virtually no Russian submarines in the Atlantic. Realizing, of course, that was going to be where a good portion of WWIII was to have been fought, for them to have no submarines in the Atlantic is a very low standard against which to compare the First Sea Lord’s number. But what we’ve been seeing is almost every year since 2008, there’s been an increase in submarine activity of between 5-15 percent. So right now, we’re getting roughly 1,500 at-sea days for Russian submarines all around the world, but an increasingly higher percentage in the Atlantic. So, again, we did start from around zero, but we’re looking at meaningful numbers again. Certainly not the level that we saw during the Cold War, but the trend is very clearly upward.

AO: Specifically when we hear about submarines, we often hear about the “GIUK gap.” For a generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War, we don’t know what that means. Can you tell me its significance, and do we care about it today?

TF: We lived and died by the GIUK gap back during the Lehman days. This is the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.” Just look at a map of the North Atlantic and you can see that it’s the rough equivalent of a choke point for any Russian submarine to get out into the Atlantic – it’s got to run that gauntlet. We did set up a veritable gauntlet there. We had all kinds of sonar and SOSUS activities, we had our own submarines up there, and we had probably the biggest maritime patrol aircraft base in the world up in Iceland, with P-3s flying everywhere. The likelihood that some of our forces would find you, if you were a Russian submarine running that gauntlet, was very, very good. This is essentially what we’re up against now. We had about 20 years of nobody trying to run that gap, and now they’re running that gap again and we’re seeing – or hearing them – again.

A map depicting the GIUK Gap (Heritage Foundation)

AO: Another thing that we didn’t used to hear about was Russian aircraft carriers. We thought the Admiral Kuznetsov was going into an extended maintenance period, and instead, she shows up off the coast of Syria. How did she perform, and what did we learn from that deployment?

TF: First, let me make a little editorial about Russian aircraft carriers. Russians have been talking about building aircraft carriers for a long, long time. It has effectively been talk. What we’ve seen, loosely, is that the Russians’ ability to build very large ships is not very good. With the possible exception of submarines, their performance in building large things that float has been at the “D”/ “D-” level. And of course aircraft carriers are part of that category.

So, when you get what we might call a “sea control” admiral in charge of the Russian Navy, invariably, he will talk about building aircraft carriers. I don’t think there’s been a time when there wasn’t someone in the Russian Navy talking about building aircraft carriers. But what they deliver – well, for their operations right now, they delivered one ski-jump carrier with a very limited air wing.

Do understand that it’s a very high-prestige ship in their navy. It’s unique, and it does give a special capability to their navy that no other ship brings. So, Russian people are very proud of it. Much as in American politics, domestic politics matters to them, too. And the fact of the matter is that the Russian press, which used to be reasonably free when I lived there 20 years ago, is no longer free. It’s very much controlled by the government, and it’s a propaganda tool. What you have now is an opportunity for the government to put a spin on aircraft carrier deployments, which obviously make them look good, and that’s what we saw.

Two stories: when Kuznetsov deployed to the Syrian coast, if you had only read the Russian press, you’d be convinced it was the most successful deployment in the world. Note, of course, that the air wing was only about half of what it might have been, and only a quarter of what we would consider a real air wing.

So, if you read the British press, all you’d see is a ship belching black smoke (and on some days, it even looked like white smoke, for all you surface warfare officers, not good). You’d also have seen the four British destroyers that were tailing it and having it in their sights the whole way.

So, was it successful? To the Russian people, absolutely, A+. To the western world, not so much. The air wing that they took was miniscule. Second, they don’t have much opportunity to exercise their air wing. While I’m not an aviator, I know that this is very difficult. So, I wasn’t at all surprised when within their first week they lost two airplanes due to an inability to operate a flight deck and an air wing properly. So when you only take over 20-25 airplanes, and lose two in the first week, we shouldn’t be surprised that effectively the entire air wing went ashore. That probably wasn’t anywhere in the Russian press, but it certainly was in the western sources. So, did Russia end up with more airplanes in their Syrian operation? Yes. Did the Russian aircraft carrier carry them down there? Yes. Was it a successful aircraft carrier operation? I would say no.

AO: Given that lens, my next question may seem a little silly, but what about the Shtorm 23000E, the next generation aircraft carrier? Defense News was reporting about it earlier this month, citing possible Indian Navy interest. Does this seem likely to be built? Will they keep trying?

TF: The Russian economy is built on exporting minerals (mostly oil and gas). Below that, it’s arms exports. They export almost as much as we do! But they have such a small economy that their arms sales really matter. So, when you look at Russian military capability, sometimes that’s just a small part of why they deploy. A larger part of why they deploy is to show off what type of technology they have and to try to sell it. You mentioned the Indian Navy. When I was in Moscow, there were more Indian officers there than from any other nation. U.S. was second. Why? Because the Russians, by the default of politics, ended up selling India its navy. Still today, about 70 percent of the Indian Navy is Russian. I’ve spoken to lots of Indian Navy officers about this. The sense is that they don’t like the Russian ships, they don’t work too well, they’re suboptimal, but they can afford them. The U.S. has this double-whammy where we’re not that good at selling high technology, and when we sell it, it costs a lot of money. And the Indian budget makes them buy Russian – and they continue to buy Russian. So, should the Russians be able to continue to build the Shtorm, India would be the most likely nation that would buy it.

But remember, of course, Russia just sold and delivered to them the Vikramaditiya, a ski-jump carrier which was 4 years overdue, 300 percent over budget, and every Indian naval officer I’ve spoken to has said, “Well, it’s not a good ship, but we needed an aircraft carrier and we could afford it, so we got what we got.” If this Shtorm really does turn out to be good, the Indians may well want it, but the Indians are also in the process of building their own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would be their first choice, and if they can build it (they’re not very good at building ships either, unfortunately), they’ll stick with their domestic product.

Now, will the Russians actually build it? I would be very pessimistic. When they talk about Shtorm, they talk about building between 3 and 6. That’s how definitive they are – they can be off by a factor of two. It seems that they’re leaning in the direction of nuclear power, but sometimes you can read press articles that suggest maybe not. So they’re so unsure of where this is going, and their track record of having a yard that can build a 65,000 ton ship…it’s unlikely. In fact, if they ever get around to it, they’ll probably have to build it in two sections and then weld it together. I’m no shipbuilder, but I know this can’t be easy.

AO: Let’s switch gears and talk about their new Maritime Doctrine, which was released in 2015. What’s changed since the last version?

TF: Their last one was in 2001, and I’m nerdy about this but I read these documents. It’s important because you need to know what changes there are from one document from the next. If you read American naval strategy, you’ll note that there are significant differences between the one that just came out on the street and the one in 2007 – those differences will affect how we operate and what ships we build. Same for the Russians. In 2001, they wrote what they called a Maritime Doctrine, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a Navy admiral present at the drafting. It was like the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Tourism, and the Secretary of Energy sat down and, at the last minute, invited an admiral in to come in and write a couple of words. It clearly was a maritime doctrine, not a naval doctrine.

In 2015, the new maritime doctrine was signed by President Putin in a formal scene built for television, aboard a brand-new frigate, named for Admiral Gorshkov, as you’ll recall, the founder of the great Soviet Navy, in Kaliningrad harbor. The only other people there were the admiral who ran Kaliningrad harbor, the chief of the navy, the chief of Russian defense, and Russia’s national security advisor. The Secretaries of commerce, tourism, etc. weren’t invited because this new document is significantly different. The tone is just wildly different. You will read phrases like, “The Russian Navy’s mission is to ensure non-Russian naval ships are not allowed to operate freely in the Arctic.” Things like, “NATO is the principal threat to Russia therefore the Russian navy must deploy to the Atlantic because the NATO Navy must be engaged before it gets to Russian shores” and “The Russian Navy will have a permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean.”

Remember, for a lot of years, there were virtually no Russian ships. When I deployed William V. Pratt there in 1989, we watched the 5th Eskadra leave the Med. We were fully expecting that we would be doing the usual tricks with our Soviet counterparts, cat and mouse games with their submarines, etc. They all left! And so the admiral called in all the skippers and said, “We have nothing to do. Any ideas?” I said, “15 port visits?” And he had nothing better, so we were able to have a loveboat cruise. But obviously the world has changed. The Russians are back in the Med. They’ve got a flotilla there, between 7-10 big serious warships, and the reason that they’re there, according to their maritime doctrine, is because of the NATO threat. You read “NATO threat” all over this document. When you read it in the Pacific, it’s clear that they are all about establishing better relations with the Chinese and Indian navies. And so they call a spade a spade. They’re not afraid to talk about which fleets are growing.

And by the way, every fleet is growing according to this document. You wouldn’t think it, but the Black Sea fleet, which was supposed to go away, now because of Ukraine and Crimea is now getting bolstered more than almost any other fleet. They’re talking about expanding each of their fleets – qualitatively and quantitatively. Finally, there’s a huge chapter on shipbuilding this time. They have a huge shipbuilding organization, and it is tasked with building navy ships in response to the demands of the navy – the missions that the navy intends to do. So, in tone and in tenor and in content analysis, the words in the 2015 document are significantly different. The picture of Putin and chief of defense sitting there in the wardroom of the frigate Gorshkov, I think is worth 10,000 words by itself.

From let to right: Victor Chirkov, Dmitri Rogozin, Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu and Anatolii Sidorov onboard the frigate Admiral Gorshkov (Kremlin.ru)

AO: Let’s pick apart this modernization plan. There’s a strategy, then there’s a modernization plan inside of that strategy. Let’s talk about the surface navy, first. How do they expect to evolve and modernize?

TF: They’ve got a plan, and I’ll give you another editorial, too. Whatever they say, decrease it by about 50 percent. They lie, cheat, and steal when they talk about how many ships they intend to operate this year. When I look back on what they say and what they actually do, they get about half. Once again, it’s one of these “how tall are the Russians?” questions. During the Cold War, the debate always used to be, “are they 8 feet tall? 10 feet tall?” We ended up saying maybe 5’6.” Today, we’re having that debate again. No one is saying that they’re 10 feet tall. We’ll get to that later. But, for about 20 years, they were about 0 feet tall. They built virtually nothing. The ships that they had – which was the second-biggest navy in the world back in 1989 – they pulled the plug on it. The ships were just tied at the pier, they began to rot. Though quantitatively it was still huge, qualitatively it was a mess. I can attest to that because I was at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-90s and probably a lot of the reports that I wrote on the Russian Navy at the time, when they were read in Washington, were laughed at. They were so horrifically bad. Now when you talk about modernization, they went from nothing to the point where they’re building a few ships now. The few ships that they did build were aimed at arms exports. So yes, they sold submarines to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, the Chinese Navy; they kept very little. Just ones and two of everything they built.

That started to change around 2008. They continued to build ships, but increasingly to build it for themselves. In the year 2000, it wasn’t uncommon when they started to build, say, a frigate, to take 14 years from the time they laid the keel to the time that they delivered it. Laughable, yes. But that was the way life was back then. Understand, of course, Russia. Russia is a small economy. They lost the Cold war because their economy couldn’t keep up with our economy. We outspent them to death. They’re very aware of that. But what we had was that if we forced them to build a lot of ships, they would run out of money fast. They knew that, therefore they didn’t build a lot of ships. Starting around 2005-2007, economists can help us here, but the economy started to go up. I don’t mean to say this with scorn, but to a great extent, Russia is a large Nigeria. They’re dependent on the price of oil. And if the price of oil goes up, their wallets are very thick. Price of oil goes down, they’re threadbare. Price of oil went up – it was over $100/barrel, and they had more money than they knew what to do with. They had a brand-new secretary of defense back in 2008, Serdyukov. Maybe we don’t know him in the west, but in Russia, they really appreciate what this guy did. He demanded that a lot of money be spent on all the services, and the navy got more than their fair share – 40 percent – of this building budget.

He did that, one, and two, he also kicked a lot of butt and took a lot of names with respect to the operational readiness of the fleet. He saw, full well, that the Russian Navy couldn’t operate with the Russian air force, or the Russian Army. Remember that, back in the 70s and 80s in the U.S.? That’s what they started to grow out of. Under Serdyukov, he understood that they had a conscription-based military, many sailors were almost illiterate, and they, of course, were not the type of sailors that you and I would like on our ships. He started a policy that said, “if it goes to sea, and certainly if it’s new construction…no conscripts.” Conscripts were left to be mess cooks at navy bases. And the real sailors, the contract sailors, went to ships. Remember before I told you ships didn’t go to sea too much in 2000-2002. But they started to go to sea more, without the conscript sailors, and so you got a qualitatively improved force. And at the same time, you were building ships that weren’t just for arms export. They were for your navy. I’m bragging here – get over this – but it used to take them 14 years to build a frigate and now they can build one in five or six. OK, that’s not very fast, but they’re getting better at it. They’ve consolidated their shipbuilding, and they’re building a couple of ships per year. They announce they’re putting out eight warships a year. I’ve yet to see a year where eight ships came out. But, three and four, yes. And of course, they’re not big ships, they’re smaller, they might even be enhanced patrol boats, but at least they are putting out ships. But there are meaningfully, a few classes of ships and submarines that they’re putting out that do appear to be successes.

AO: So speaking of submarines, perhaps you can give a brief overview of today’s submarines, especially how they stack up against U.S. submarines. Are they as good as they once were?

TF: The answer is yes, remembering of course that they were never as good as our submarines. But they got close, and they’re getting close again. Two general areas. First of all, boomers, SSBNs. We have the luxury of having a blue water sea control navy. They don’t. We can talk about that later. But first and foremost, their navy is there for strategic deterrence. So when they get a dollar, they spend it on strategic deterrence, first. Their most successful building program is what they call their Borei class – the 955 class SSBN. They’ve got three in the water already and five more coming, and most western analysts look at it as a successful building program. The bigger problem that they have is with the solid-fuel missile that they’re trying to mate to it, the Bulava. That’s had a very checkered past, in which at times virtually every shot was a failure. Now they’re getting about a 50 percent success rate. They’re happy with that. They’re mating the Bulava to the SSBN, and they claim they’re ready to operate. Their deployments have been short. They tend to be in the old Bastion areas that we got used to looking at during the Cold War. But the point is that their SSBNs are going to sea again with an SLBM. And even though they did have a few other Delta IIIs, Delta IVs, Typhoons, these were unreliable, it was rare for them to deploy. The Russians were proud to say that if necessary they could fire a ballistic salvo from pier side. That’s true. But I’m not sure that’s anything to brag about. So yes, they did have a submarine force with ballistic missiles. But now they’ll have a force, with more to follow, that I expect will be delivered on time. So now they’ll have a force of about eight SSBNs that can deploy and shoot missiles from sea.

Russian Navy Borei-class submarine (RIA Novosti)

Now, SSNs, they’ve got a very impressive new submarine. It’s large, has got a lot of new weapons systems, and is reputedly very quiet. At least in the unclass world, it looks to be close to, but not quite, an LA and Virginia class. It’s got a lot of things, but the problem is that it’s so sophisticated by Russian standards that they’re having a hard time following it with what they claim to be seven more of the Severomorsk class warships. I think it’ll happen, but it’ll happen very slowly, and it’ll be almost like custom-made cars. They’ll happen, but it won’t be like an assembly line. It’s a little too difficult for them to put them on an assembly line yet. But they will be very good, once they do come out, and they’re now talking about a follow-on class of SSN with hypersonic cruise missiles and more sophisticated gadgetry. But if I can summarize, their submarine building is way better than their big surface ship building program. That’s where they’ve concentrated, where they’ve put their talent, their money, where they’ve had most of their successes, and that was true back during the Cold War much as it is today.

AO: Continuing our scope through “things the Russians might build…” missiles. What does it mean that Russian corvettes were able to successfully launch missiles out of the Caspian Sea last year?

TF: Well first of all, cynics say, ‘boy won’t a lot of people want to buy that missile?’ We’re sure that the Russians are wanting to sell it, and they’ll probably sell it a lot cheaper than the U.S. will. But the Russians couldn’t get over how great this was because they were able to shoot this Kalibr-class missile from two different directions, from two different, small platforms. The Buyan patrol boat, which is a 1000 ton patrol boat, can carry 8 of these missiles, with a range of 1500 miles, which is a lot, and, depending on what you read, only three of them were misfires. 23 out of 26 hit something, presumably a target. You know, when we were shooting our first cruise missiles 25 years ago, we had a worse failure rate than that. And they not only shot from Buyans in the Caspian flotilla, but then they also shot from diesel submarines, the brand-new improved Kilo-class submarines, which are delivering to the Black Sea fleet. They shot a series of them from the Med. So they had cruise missiles coming from both directions, from unsophisticated small-ish ships. Very sophisticated weapon, and the world took note of that.

AO: Changing gears a bit, let’s go a bit bigger picture and talk about maritime power. Is it fair to call Russia a maritime nation? Most people would call it a land power. How does that figure into Russia’s national security posture?

TF: That’s right. It’s mostly a land power. But it’s a land power that knows how to use maritime power in selective and judicious ways. I’m going to inject a bit of personality into this too. I think Vladimir Putin prides himself on his navy. I think he identifies with his navy. The navy is sleek, it looks cool, it packs a quick punch. He is a judo master after all. He has used his navy in a number of ways – Syria is the classic example – not only does he have a force off of the Syrian coast, but he is protecting the logistics with his flotilla. 99 percent of all the Russian logistics that goes to Syria comes from the Black Sea, through their port in Tartus. It’s defended by his naval forces, they’ve delivered air power also, and there’s air defense that they’ve set up there. What he has is an opportunity to play a weak hand and to play it forcefully. To a great extent, he played his navy in the 2013 red line on Syria chemical weapons – that’s when he deployed his force. And he was quick to point out that he had a naval force in the Med, when we really did not. His naval force would watch and ensure that the Syrian chemical weapons were delivered to the right place for destruction. It’s a small hand, but he plays it and isn’t afraid to over play it.

He sends his ships, when we were discussing reestablishing relations with Cuba – he sent a cruiser into Havana harbor, and it was sitting there while our diplomats were discussing relations with the Cubans. So, he does a lot with a little. And he’s more than happy to identify with his navy. There’s really no navy celebration that he doesn’t put on his navy hat. With the exception of going barechested, he is most likely seen in Google wearing navy hats. He just seems to like his navy. And he’s been funding his navy very well for quite some time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in naval attire (AP)

So, I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s a maritime nation, because it’s not a sea control navy. He has admirals that have been telling him to build a sea control navy. But our 6th fleet commander did take a look at what he would be up against, and he was not afraid to admit that while it isn’t a sea control navy, it’s not just an A2AD navy, either. It can do more than bloody our nose if we decide to get into a fight with them in the Black Sea, in the Baltic, and certainly in the Arctic. It can do a number of things that can hurt us. They just don’t have the sailors, the seamanship, the tradition, the Admiral Gorshkov, to go after us again in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific. But near their shores, they’re extremely potent.

AO:  Is there anything else you think our listeners need to know, that you think we’ve missed, to wrap up our discussion?

TF: Sleep well at night. If it were a fair fight, our navy still can so wildly outperform their navy that they would never seek a fight like that. As you see Russian doctrine talking about things like hybrid warfare – they’re always interested in an unfair fight. So, they may very well want to take their hybrid warfare, their little green men equivalent, to sea, and they may be interested in provoking us in other ways that we have yet to predict, and we should be ready for that. This would not be existential. But it could certainly hurt us, and it could hurt our pride, and it could certainly surprise us. So I would say let’s be ready for that.

But on the positive side (assuming you look at Russia as an adversary or as an aggressor), their military, much as the Soviet leaders, is dependent on their economy. Their economy has performed very poorly over the past couple of years. Partly price of oil, partly western sanctions, but the bottom line is they’ve had a negative GDP for a couple of years. What’s happened under Mr. Putin is that his budgets have had to shrink in every area. If you were a provincial governor, your budget shrunk by 50 percent last year. If you were a pensioner, your pension was cut 50 percent last year. If you were the chief of navy, your budget wasn’t cut, and you were about the only guy whose budget wasn’t cut. If their economy continues its bad performance, I would argue that the chief of navy is going to get his budget cut next year. All of the grand plans for the new aircraft carriers, destroyers, will be put on hold, and it will be again, sometime in the future. Don’t expect to see it in the near term.

AO: Professor, this has been a super interesting Sea Control podcast, and I want to thank you for joining us. We really appreciate your time, insights, and hope to talk to you again soon.

TF: Ashley, thank you very much. Time did fly and I had a great time.

Ashley O’Keefe is the CIMSEC Secretary for 2016-2017 Editor. Her views and those of Professor Fedyszyn are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.