Tag Archives: Sea Control

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. Her views and those of Professor Fedyszyn are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Sea Control 124 – In Defense of the Littoral Combat Ship

By Sally DeBoer

Few platforms have introduced the degree of controversy that has resulted from the introduction of and growing pains associated with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). From online message boards to the less-than-enthusiastic 72 page Government Accountability Office report on the program, one doesn’t need to search far to find exasperated and at times vitriolic criticism of the program. Though LCS, like any program, is not without its flaws and growing pains, this episode of Sea Control explores the positive aspects of the program and possible applications to tomorrow’s conflicts against the United States’ proto-peer competitors.

Host and CIMSEC President Sally DeBoer discusses LCS with two military historians, Mike, and retired Navy Commander and Ph.D. candidate Mr. Steve Wills. CDR Wills is a retired Surface Warfare Officer who has written extensively on LCS and other naval issues for CIMSEC and other outlets.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 124 – “In Defense of LCS”

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. The views of the guests are their’s alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency. 

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (April 23, 2014) The littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) are underway in the Pacific Ocean (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney/US Navy)

No Time To Spare: Drawing on History to Inspire Capability Innovation in Today’s Navy

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By Bob Hein

Imagine a day sometime in the near future where tensions between the United States and Russia are high and ships are at sea; ready to strike each other at a moment’s notice if given the word. As his ship glides to the surface of the ocean, the enemy submarine commander raises his periscope and with it the electronic surveillance antennae. It picks up multiple signals of U.S. aircraft in the immediate vicinity. But the commander is not worried. These aircraft, their radar, and their weapons are optimized for attacks against land targets; they won’t see his periscope, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the weapons to do much about it. As long as he can avoid U.S. ships and submarines, which are spread out and in short supply, he knows he and his comrades have the upper hand in gaining control of the sea. As he leaves the surface, he works unimpeded toward his target, the American aircraft carrier.

At the same time, hundreds of miles away, a U.S. submarine commander is moving toward the enemy’s surface action group. He knows if he can get close enough and sink these ships, he can help ensure control of the sea for the rest of the force. Suddenly, the sound of weapons dropped from enemy helicopters fills the ship. He runs deep and aggressively, maneuvering to negate the threat. But in doing so, he loses contact with the group. And without an ability to shoot the helicopter, he misses an opportunity to take down an archer, who will now be able to shoot future arrows at him and his compatriots.

160324-N-QY430-523 ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 24, 2016) The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Helena (SSN 725) transits the Atlantic Ocean with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), the flagship of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. Ike is underway conducting a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) with the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group in preparation for a future deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rafael Martie/Released)
ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 24, 2016) The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Helena (SSN 725) transits the Atlantic Ocean with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), the flagship of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rafael Martie/Released)

Ten years ago, this scenario would have been a work of pure fiction, unimaginable to most national security experts and military leaders. But today, the rapid spread of technology, the rise of near peer competitors, and the proliferation of advanced weapons make this scenario more plausible than ever. If the Navy is to counter the above scenario, it must start emphasizing sea control while retaining power projection capability. That change will require the Navy accelerate its approach to this mission set, both in strategic terms of shifting mental focus and in more tactical terms of rapid repurposing of current platforms and payloads. While the Navy works to determine its future force structure, it must innovate beyond the traditional roles that ships and aircraft currently play. Designing and building new naval platforms takes time we don’t have, and there is still abundant opportunity to make the most of existing force structure. Fortunately for the Navy, histories of previous wars are a good guide for future action. World War II is an excellent model in particular, but the Navy must first recognize the historical context of its current predicament.

Bringing the Navy Back to the Sea

Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote extensively on how nations throughout history have used control of the seas to spread national power by ensuring freedom of trade and access. Over the course of the last century, the Navy’s primary focus of force application has shifted from sea control to power projection.

Arguably, the battle for control of the seas culminated in WWII, when massive navy-on-navy engagements raged in enormous clashes such as the Battles of the Atlantic, Midway, and Leyte Gulf. Navy strike groups were challenged by Axis Powers throughout the world’s oceans.

160920-N-NT265-725 PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 23, 2016) USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) lead a formation of Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships including, USS Momsen (DDG 92), USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Stethem (DDG 63), USS Benfold (DDG 65), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS Germantown (LSD 42), USS Barry (DDG 52), USS Green Bay (LPD 20), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), as wells as USNS Walter S. Diehl (T-AO 193) during a photo exercise to signify the completion of Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield is a biennial, U.S. only, field-training exercise with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. This is the sixth exercise in the Valiant Shield series that began in 2006. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 23, 2016) USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) lead a formation of Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships including, USS Momsen (DDG 92), USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Stethem (DDG 63), USS Benfold (DDG 65), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS Germantown (LSD 42), USS Barry (DDG 52), USS Green Bay (LPD 20), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), as wells as USNS Walter S. Diehl (T-AO 193) during a photo exercise to signify the completion of Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield is a biennial, U.S. only, field-training exercise with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. This is the sixth exercise in the Valiant Shield series that began in 2006. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released)

Following WWII, the U.S. had a massive navy and no real threat to its control of the oceans. The Navy and the nation were now unsure of the Navy’s role in this new world. The Navy received assistance from a 27-year-old theorist, Samuel Huntington. Writing in 1954, he had a clear vision for how the Navy should evolve in the second half of the 20th century: “Its purpose is not to acquire command of the sea, but rather to utilize its command of the sea to achieve supremacy of the land.” The Navy began shifting its focus to power projection, refining amphibious warfare techniques, developing a long range land attack missile, and building generations of air wings capable of delivering ordnance ashore. Even so, as the Cold War intensified and the Soviet Navy grew throughout the 50’s and 60’s, this focus ashore was balanced by the continuing requirement of maintaining control afloat.

Following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Navy, the U.S. Navy’s focus on sea control diminished and the pendulum swung squarely over to power projection. Anti-surface missiles were removed from ships, Trident missile submarines were converted to fire Tomahawks, and the carrier’s S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft were stripped of much of their anti-submarine warfare gear and were later retired. Major force structure investments were made in ships geared towards littoral power projection such as the LCS and Zumwalt-class destroyer. Generations of Sailors during the Cold War were trained to achieve sea control – it was part of their DNA. When the Cold War ended, and with it the Soviet Navy, that DNA withered away.

As Bob Dylan tells us, once again, the times they are a changin.’ The world is returning to a period of great power competition, and other nations’ desire to influence the world stage is forcing the Navy to rethink its focus. In the coming decades, the U.S. Navy may not have its current luxury of safely traversing the world’s oceans and projecting power. The rise of foreign capability could threaten carrier strike groups when they leave their harbors. The Navy must expand its focus from the last 25 years of projecting power, and strengthen its historic mission of sea control.

Make the Old New Again

When trying to convert this shift in focus to the platforms that will execute sea control, it is time to heed the old dictum, “If you want a new idea, read an old book.” Just as the Navy had to do in WWII, it is time to focus on repurposing platforms it already has rather than relying on new platforms.

Looking back to its height of sea control capability, the Battle of Midway in WWII, carrier air wings (at the time known as carrier air groups) consisted of about 72 aircraft, one squadron each of dive bombers, fighters, torpedo bombers, and scout planes (which could also carry bombs). Compare that with today’s air wing. While the number of aircraft is about the same, its composition has changed dramatically, with four fighter/attack squadrons, one electronic attack squadron, one command and control squadron, and two helicopter squadrons. The biggest difference is the shift in focus of the air wing from fighting other navies for control of the seas to a focus on delivering power ashore.

At over 40 years old, the USS Nimitz is the oldest carrier in the U.S. inventory. The reason she has survived is due to upgrades to her air wing. There is debate currently over whether the Nimitz, and follow on carriers are still valid in a world of anti-access and area denial. This debate centers on the Navy’s role in power projection but speaks little to its return to sea control. While the carriers are still the best platform for delivering power without the need for foreign basing permissions, adding an anti-submarine and anti-surface role to its newest fighters is necessary. Similar to efforts by the surface warfare community to modify the SM-6 anti-air missile for strikes against ships, the Navy should modify those ASW and ASUW weapons currently used by the MH-60R helicopter for use by its fighter-attack jets. Just as in WWII, not all aircraft would be configured for surface or subsurface missions, but providing that latent capability will certainly ensure that enemy ships and subs will think twice when they see the radar signature of a U.S. fighter.

Submarines are very effective at what they do – sinking other submarines and attacking surface ships – but many potential adversaries have fleets of helicopters designed to hunt them. Simply giving subs a basic anti-air warfare capability against these platforms would certainly give adversaries cause for concern. This system already exists in the German Navy. The Interactive Defense and Attack System for Submarines (IDAS) is currently being built for the German Type 212 submarine. With a 12-mile range, it will certainly make helicopters think twice as they drop their buoy search patterns. Submarine attacks against aircraft are not a new concept. In WWII, 120 Allied aircraft were shot down by German U-Boats.

Model of IDAS at the ILA 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)
Model of IDAS at the ILA 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

Military Sealift Command (MSC) is experiencing great success in expanding the role of its fleet, and has been a leader in creatively repurposing existing platforms. MSC has added intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and command and control capabilities to platforms such as the Expeditionary Fast Transport (formerly Joint High Speed Vessel) and the dry-cargo/ammunition ships (T-AKE). Marine Forces Pacific has experimented with the T-AKE extensively, using the ship for low-end operations, and even as a potential command and control platform. The MSC has shown there is a lot of opportunity in our current fleet. We just have to be creative.


As the challenges on the world’s oceans continue to rise, the challenge of sea control rises with them. With rapid repurposing of various platforms and payloads, the Navy can quickly adapt and overcome if and when required to fight and win this nation’s wars. By looking back at history, sometimes we can find the tools for the future.

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded the U.S.S Gettysburg (CG-64) and the U.S.S Nitze (DDG-94). You can follow him on Twitter @the_sailor_dog. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: A U.S. Navy Lockheed S-3A Viking aircraft (BuNo 159755) assigned to anti-submarine squadron VS-32Maulers on the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66), on 6 May 1982. (W. M. Welch, USN)

Sea Control 122 – The PCA Ruling with CAPT James Fanell

South China Sea Topic Week

By Sally DeBoer

As a part of CIMSEC’s South China Sea topic week and our regular Sea Control Podcast, we bring you a discussion on the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial disputes in the South China Sea with one of the China-watching community’s best known, most respected, and outspoken voices, retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell. Captain Fanell and host Sally DeBoer discuss the implications of the ruling, thoughts on Chinese, American, and international reactions to the court’s findings, and possible directions for the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific going forward. A transcript of the discussion can be found below, as well as a download link of the audio recording. This interview has been edited for clarity.

DOWNLOAD: The PCA Ruling with CAPT James Fanell

SD: On July 12th, the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on territorial disputes between the PRC and the Philippines in the South China Sea (SCS). The court ruled largely on the side of the Philippines, denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and upholding international law as outlined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, recognizing territorial seas, but not exclusive economic zones, of several disputed features, including the Spratly Islands. Further, the court found that China violated the Philippines’ sovereignty when they interfered with fishing and petroleum exploration activities in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. The court also upheld the right of both China and the Philippines to conduct fishing in and around Scarborough Shoal. China, who has denied and continues to deny the legitimacy of the court’s ruling, publicly stated its intention to both ignore the court’s findings and continue construction of artificial islands. Immediate responses from Chinese media stated that the ruling was an “American-backed farce,” while statements from Chinese officials echo this sentiment and reinforce their commitment to exercising control over their “nine dash line” claims. Clearly there is a great deal to unpack and discuss on this ruling and its implications going forward. Fortunately for us, our guest today is an expert on the matter. Joining us today is retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell, former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, and founder of Red Star Rising. In the tradition of our Sea Control podcast, we will give Captain Fanell a chance to introduce himself before we get started.

JF: Good Afternoon, Sally, thanks for inviting me to participate in Sea Control and CIMSEC’s valuable efforts to bring information to the general public and raise our consciousness on what’s going on in the maritime domain. I’m pleased to talk about this subject and there’s a lot to cover and I will just say that I am happy to be talking to you from Eastern Switzerland where I’m currently a fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

SD: I want to begin by characterizing the ruling. Sir, what was your general impression of the courts’ finding? Is the finding more or less sweeping than you had expected – are there any facets of the ruling that surprised you?

Itu Aba, also called Tai Ping. (Wikimedia)
Itu Aba, also known as Taiping island. (Wikipedia)

JF: The ruling itself is a resounding repudiation of China’s actions, statements, and posture over the last five years in the Asia-Pacific region. The court went much farther than I think anyone predicted in the academic or intelligence communities that I’m associated with. I think the court surprised many people by pointing out the things you described in your opening, which is to say they ruled on whether or not a feature is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or a territorial sea. [The ruling] raised the bar on what constitutes an island with respect to Itu Aba. Previously, many had thought that the requirements, based on a general reading of UNCLOS, would suggest that if [a party] could provide habitability from a land feature to include it’s own water sources, that would somehow guarantee an EEZ. The Court raised that bar and said, no, it has to be more than just water to be life sustaining, it has to demonstrate habitability and the ability to sustain life – in that case the court looked back and said there was nothing on Itu Aba that would suggest that. That’s caused a bit of a development between Taiwan and China.

But besides that one point, I think the larger issue is that there was nothing here for China. They had nothing to hang their hat on, there’s nothing for them to go forward with and from that standpoint, it is going to be very difficult for them in terms of saving face. But from an international law perspective and what most of the world accepts – China’s actions in the SCS were unilateral, aggressive, and threatening to their neighbors. This ruling states that this behavior is not correct and that this is not an accepted way to act in the international community.

SD: So definitely a precedent setting ruling then. You talk about China’s ability to save face. Let’s talk about the Chinese response to the issue. It is an understatement to say they have not taken the ruling well. Before we talk about their international response, I would like to briefly discuss China’s internal reaction to the ruling. In 2017, the PRC’s 19th party congress will occur and there is significant potential for change in the Politburo. How much of Xi Jinping’s response to the ruling is for domestic consumption and to maintain credibility and consistency with his domestic audience?

JF: I think that based on the research from Red Star Rising and open-source scouring of Chinese media and press reporting in English and Chinese, what we’re seeing is that China has presented a unified response across the domestic and world audience that says they refuse to accept this. You mentioned that they used the term ‘farce,’ just about every Chinese response to this ruling has used the word farce. The main Chinese press organs all have special web pages devoted to this SCS arbitration…“the farce should end.”

There’s no question that the party has set a pretty strict line on responding to this. The senior leaders of China, [up to and] including President Xi Jinping and Admiral Wu Shengli have said they’re not going to accept this and that China won’t abide by this ruling. What’s more worrisome is that they’ve said that they’re going to – if pushed, if challenged – respond in kind. So I think that’s the great concern for the international community – just how far will China go to disregard this ruling and will they use physical force, physical violence, to maintain their, if you will, physical possession of these disputed areas? They say they won’t do that, they say they are peace loving and they won’t inhibit anyone’s freedom of navigation, but in the same speeches they tell us that they’re going to not accept outside influence from non-parties of the region and that they’re not going to accept having their sovereignty violated. So that’s the concern that people have now.

SD: In your opinion, is this response to serve a larger Chinese narrative that the region is peaceful and that the U.S. is interjecting in affairs where it doesn’t belong?

JF: That’s exactly what they’ve said. They’ve characterized the U.S. as being the offending party. In fact, just today there was an article in one of the press organs that stated that just the presence of the United States is offensive and causes problems. Not just that [the U.S.] does FONOPS, but just [their] very presence has been a destabilizing factor. So the narrative over the last five years from China has changed [from having] said we’re not trying to displace the U.S., to this argument that the US’ very presence is causing the turmoil…they need to get out of here, it’s not China that is the problem. Which is in complete contradiction of what this impartial, unbiased tribunal out of the Hague handed down two weeks ago. As you can imagine, the Chinese press has gone after the Hague’s ruling, first to discredit them by saying they are not part of the UN, and now they’re going after one of the senior members of the tribunal, saying that he is a biased Japanese national and therefore was only implementing the desires of [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe. So their attack on this ruling is across the board and across all facets of conversation and ideological perspectives. They are 100 percent going after this thing, and I think that’s an indicator of what they’re actually going to do in the physical domain in the lead up to the party congress that you mentioned.

SD: This week, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Richardson visited China and had a discussion with the PLAN’s leader, Admiral Wu Shengli, where he was roundly assured that Chinese construction in the Spratly Islands would “never stop.” What do you make of this directness, and what can the United States do to reinforce the courts’ rulings?

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson (L) and PLAN Adm. Wu Shengli (R)

JF: Admiral Richardson’s visit has caused some level of controversy in the U.S. regarding the timing of this visit. He accompanied NSA (national security adviser) Rice to China – and the issue was – what kind of message was he taking and what kind of message did he receive? As you mentioned, the message he received was very clear and unambiguous from Admiral Wu. [He said] we reject the findings of this court, it has no legitimacy, it has no authority, and these are our sovereign territories…it’s been that way since ancient times, and it will be at our place and choosing to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), it will be in our time and choosing when to place military equipment on these islands, and we will do that in response to the challenges that we get from the Philippines, Japan, or the U.S. So, Admiral Richardson, in many respects, was given a lecture by Admiral Wu.

We can talk about that at another time, but the simplistic answer is that it appears the Chinese were able to spin this visit, which was surely prearranged while knowing the date the ruling would be released, and use that to their advantage to portray to the people of China that the U.S. kowtowing to the leaders of Beijing saying ‘hey, we’re in charge despite any piece of paper…possession is nine tenths of the law and we own and physically control it all.’

What will be interesting to see is what will come out of the dialogue between the CNO and Admiral Wu regarding the specific issue of Scarborough Reef. Admiral Richardson made some statements back in March that China was preparing to build up Scarborough Reef just like it had done in the southern Spratly Islands. The question is whether or not China will use this ruling as justification for going ahead and reclaiming land around Scarborough and building another base, another naval installation…not sure it will be a Naval Air Station as Hainan Island is fairly close. If they do they’ll have control of the northern approaches to the SCS just like they have physical control and possession of the southern approaches to the SCS. This is the concern, and I don’t speak for the CNO, but I feel disappointed and ashamed that he had to take that kind of public treatment when we knew that the Chinese were going to reject the ruling in the first place.

SD: So they’re sending an unambiguous message in terms of their statement, but they’re also sending a physical message. Earlier this week there was the H-6K over flight of Scarborough Shoal. What do you make of that, and what do you make of the exercises around Hainan Island that were likely planned before this ruling, where China announced they would be “closing off” a part of the SCS which is not in line with any legal precedent.

JF: Some Chinese experts commented in the press that this is the first time that we’ve publicly provided these pictures [of the bomber overflight]. Some were implying that this was the first time an H-6K had directly overflown Scarborough Reef, some made the point that the plane was vectored and pointing toward Manila, implying that it could be used to do more damage than maybe some would consider. In that same vein, some mentioned Chinese planes can now reach everywhere in the SCS and that China can control an ADIZ. This is an allusion to the fact that they declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea and haven’t been able to effectively control that given the amount of commercial air traffic there and the international community’s ire [should the Chinese] try to implement something that restrictive. It may be different in the South, and they may be practicing ‘salami slicing’ where they may just be slicing the slices very thinly to get to the point where they can implement the ADIZ. We should expect more flights of this nature, including flights down to the three new naval air stations.

Regarding the SCS exercise closure areas, I don’t know if those were timed ahead of time. One can imagine they were planned ahead of time knowing the ruling was going to come out sometime this summer, and that the PLAN had been prepared to conduct an exercise and were waiting for the timing to be right. I don’t know that for a fact, but I am just going off your assumption that it may have been already planned. The fact of the matter is they used the exercise to heighten and emphasize their displeasure at this ruling. I think that’s the real key, which is to say that it’s not just words and rhetoric, but it is actual physical movement of naval forces and other forces into the region or around the region in a show of force to the United States and the rest of the world.

The intention is to say, “not only are we (China) saying we don’t agree, but we will physically not agree with this ruling.” I think that’s the real question about how the United States should respond. I would submit that we need to sustain our commitment to the presence that we have demonstrated this year such as the dual carrier ops, the continued Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), the continued presence that we’ve displayed over 7 decades needs to sustain itself, and we need not fear that there will be conflict started because we’re down in the same water space. I don’t believe that the PRC, at this time, are ready to start a shooting war. They’re pretty upset, they may get very close, but they recognize they have too much to gamble, too much to lose, both internally and externally, for their dream of restoration and rejuvenation. I think you saw that even recently with some of the press reporting that the Chinese press is clamping down on internal protesters [sending the message that] patriotism is good, we understand why you’re upset because this ruling is abhorrent to us, but you don’t have to demonstrate your patriotism by protesting in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

SD: That was an interesting choice! Going on that same theme, you’ve talked about how the U.S. can counter this escalation or perceived escalation. Are continued FONOPS something you’d like to see there as well?

JF: I think we need to do that, I think there’s been a lot written about that in the last week or so. Bonnie Glaser has written about that. I actually agree with her position that we should do [FONOPS] but not announce them or provide advanced warning. I disagree with her when she said [the U.S.] shouldn’t tell people what we’ve done. I think there is a process to report these out post-facto, post-event, to say “here’s what we’ve done this year and here’s the legal reasons why.” I think that’s important, but to advertise them ahead of time, to put our sailors in harms way, I think is not very smart.

I think we should not just [conduct] the FONOPS, which typically are a single ship or aircraft, but [consider] doing more naval exercises in the region unilaterally, but also bilaterally and multilaterally. I think the more we demonstrate that these are waters that anyone can work in and that China is going to have a tough time covering exercises down in the SCS and ECS.

One example is ANNUALEX with the JMSDF. We should be [conducting] ANNUALEX west of Okinawa to send this message to the Chinese: if you really want to prevent people from exercising their militaries all over the first island chain, then you’re going to be stretched very thin. Some would say, maybe the Chinese can match us ship for ship, and maybe they can against the U.S. 7th fleet today. But they cannot [do so] against the allied naval forces of the region and that’s the real strong position there. If we take that, we will demonstrate to China that they need to change their behaviors. 

SD: Going back to your point about FONOPS and pre-announcing them, I think the point has been made that the announcement itself implies some sort of wrongdoing. If we truly believe that its freedom of navigation and that these are international waters then there should be no need to announce. Is that what you are saying?

JF: Yeah, I think it’s daily business, just going about daily operations. If [warships] happen to sail through some place that is disputed, then they do that or they don’t do that, but they don’t have to make a big deal out of it. And I would say that there’s a nuance here. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it not because you’re concerned that China is going to get upset, and granted I don’t think we should go out of our way to antagonize China, but we should not limit our actions because we’re always concerned about that, which seems to be what we normally do. I think we don’t advertise for the security and safety of the sailors who are now going to be put in a position where someone knows they’re coming and may set up an ambush or a set of circumstances that could cause someone to lose their life. That’s really why I don’t think we should pre-announce the FONOPS.

SD: Its not hard to imagine a scenario where, intentional or not, something could happen. Accidents happen at sea, especially when ships are getting close, so that could be escalatory. Your point is very well taken.

JF: I think that the position here is nuanced, because there’s many inside the “China-watching” community that are suggesting we don’t want to embarrass or upset or provoke China. That seems to be our constant concern before acting in our national security interest. The U.S. seems to be more concerned about not upsetting [China] because there’s this belief that if we do, then our national security will be worse off.

I don’t think the evidence supports that logic over the last decade, but that still seems to be the predominant mindset, which is “provoking China makes things worse.” Instead of saying that China is the [party providing the provocation] and changing the status quo, not following their own declared and signed declarations like the ASEAN code of conduct from 2002, or even their signature on UNCLOS. The court of arbitration was very clear in its message, ‘you signed into this, China, you agreed to follow these rules and now you don’t want to.’ I think that’s the issue, and not so much that the U.S. is somehow parachuted into the SCS in the last two years and caused everyone to get upset. We’ve been there a long time, and we’ve given everybody a great opportunity to raise their standard of living across Asia, including China. We need to reject this notion that we’re the problem, and we need to start identifying that China is the problem. If we cant do that, they’re going to continue to take advantage of this [narrative].

SD: It was reported that China approached the Philippines for bilateral talks with the condition that both parties agreed to disregard the UN Court’s ruling. The Chinese did not even want to broach the subject at said talks and the Philippines declined to talk with these conditions. Is this an attempt by China to save face and does this indicate to you that there’s a politically acceptable way for an agreement on the outside of this ruling?

JF: It was informative to see the Philippines’ response under the new Duterte administration. There was some concern in certain circles in China and outside about [what] Duterte’s approach to China [would be]. Now on this first overture by the PRC, it is clear that the Philippines are not going to accept this kind of [off the table negotiation.] They won’t set aside the ruling and say that’s not valid.

This represents a classic Chinese approach. I live up here in the Alps and I see a lot of these granite rocks, and sometimes the rocks crumble off the face and crash down. They do that because every winter, water comes in and finds the smallest crevice, freezes, and expands. It does that over time and then finally the rock cracks and gives way. The Chinese approach to diplomacy is like this, find the smallest little crack, the smallest little diplomatic nuance or change in language, and try to break someone off from their core interest, and if you accept that you’ll be separated from your strategic national objective.

In this case, they suggested they could work with the Philippines, as long as they said the ruling was invalid and they’re not going to accept it. Maybe the Philippines will, and maybe they wont, but right now they’ve said no. I think it should be informative to people to watch how the Chinese approach these things. That’s the soft sell. There’s the hard sell, which is the bomber overflight, the declaration of SCS exercise areas, there’s the speech that Admiral Wu gave to Admiral Richardson, and then there’ll be this behind-closed-doors deal making.

SD: How much of the Philippines’ calculus on rejecting these talks has to do with the fact that they tried that angle with China over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and were betrayed? China did not uphold their side of the deal.

JF: I think that’s an excellent point, and now some would say “how much does the new administration know about what happened in 2012?” I think most people in the Philippines do know that they were hoodwinked by the Chinese in that agreement. Their fingers are still numb from being burned before. So they’re less likely to buy into something like this. But, China is very persuasive in their soft power attempts and so things like business opportunities for Philippines in China and visa versa. These will all be brought up in closed door sessions, away from the media, and there’ll be extreme pressure exerted on this administration to dismiss this ruling and “go from there.” But you can go back to 2002 and say the same thing, China told everyone they agreed that no one should change the status quo in the SCS, and then they did over the next 14 years. China has a track record of saying one thing and doing something else. I think the more people are exposed to this through bad experiences ,the less inclined they are to buy into it again.

SD: So, if that “soft sell” is rejected, how do you see the Chinese responding? How will they amend their strategy, this two-pronged approach of soft and hard sell, if nobody’s buying anymore? What’s next for China?

BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), grounded at Second Thomas Shoal. (Jay Directo/Agence France Presse — Getty Images)

JF: As I mentioned earlier, possession is nine tenths of the law. They’re betting that no one is going to launch a major naval operation or invasion of these islands to kick them out based on the PCA’s ruling. I don’t think anyone on the planet is planning to do that or would want to do that. I think China knows that. So the reality is, what do we do from here? Where do we go from here? Is there a way to stop China’s expansionism? Well, Scarborough Shoal will be that test. They’ve built up most of the islands that they want in the Spratlys, Second Thomas Shoal is another one, there’s the grounded LST Sierra Madre they could try to physically take, so the Philippines and our allies need to watch for that.

China’s already been vociferous over the last 5-6 years; since 1999 they’re been very upset about this. Now, with the ruling out, they may use this as one of those areas to seize in the middle of the night. [China could] come in with a bunch of warships in the cover of darkness against a poor indications and warnings network. We need to watch Second Thomas Shoal, we need to watch Reed Bank, [there are places] that China could just move in and begin dredging. Scarborough, clearly, is a place where the Chinese already have a toe hold, they have a section of it, so it would be easy for them to try to do something. The U.S., Philippines, and other allies in the region have to ask themselves what they’re going to do to physically prevent China from doing this. Taking back Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross, Subi Reef, or Caurteron Reef is going to be hard and nobody really wants to do that. Those may be gone forever.

The other areas I just mentioned are areas where [the U.S. and its allies] can go on a routine basis and show continuous presence, which is going to require more than the 60/40 split from the U.S. Navy. It is going to require more assets, it may require our Coast Guard, it may require other nations’ Coast Guards to be physically present and prevent China from [taking ownership of these features]. That would be the strongest signal we could send, and it would require not just ships, but subs and also aircraft, and reconnaissance flights with fighter escorts. This would get across to China that they really crossed a line without publicizing red lines, and without getting into that geopolitical mess, just a physical presence. I think what we’ve seen with the [USS] Stennis Strike Group’s operations are a nod to that, but now it’s got to be more than just high profile exercises and dual carrier ops. It has to be a commitment to a daily presence. Otherwise, China knows they will be there daily, having increased their presence in the SCS by my own estimates at last tenfold. They have a lot of platforms from the Coast Guard and Navy that are in and around those waters 24/7/365. If we really want to stop them from expanding, we’re going to have to be there and match them hull for hull in some sense.

SD: Understood. I want to wrap up with this question on how the disparity between the Chinese response to this ruling and the American public’s response could not be more disparate. Having a presence there will cost money and will take increased investment and a larger navy. How can we as navalists, or China watchers, communicate to the larger American public the importance of this issue?

JF: You’re exactly right. It will take a larger navy. I think that’s a topic of discussion [for] one of the parties in this upcoming election cycle. What’s the size of our navy and is it big enough to do the kinds of things we need it to do? There’s arguments on both sides that there’s not enough money to procure this, and even if we had the money, it would take years to get. That’s a difficult issue. But we need to address [the need for a larger Navy] in a dialogue with the American people. As I mentioned before, it’s the responsibility of senior naval leadership to articulate this message to our senior policymakers, and to make it something that gets articulated to the American people. When I talked to a naval officer a week ago, after the ruling had come out, the response I got was ‘hey, these are just a bunch of rocks, and they have no bearing on U.S. National Security.’ That really troubles me.

In the 1980s, when Secretary of the Navy Lehman helped create the maritime strategy, there was no question about our national objective of making sure that the spread of communism didn’t go worldwide. There was no question that the U.S. Navy was a key part of that national objective. We need to have naval leaders explain to the American public and policy makers from both parties that the reason we need this large Navy is because if China can control the SCS and can control who can come in and out, (even though they’ve denied that they will do that, we do have knowledge that they may have plans to do that), this will adversely affect our national interests, the interests of all the countries in the region, and the global economy. We need to have leaders that are going to be more forceful in articulating this requirement. The pivot, the re-balance, is one step. The 60/40 split that [the U.S.] announced for our Navy is good, some of the new capabilities that we’re bringing out there like the P-8, Virginia-class submarines, and Zumwalt-class destroyers, are all good uses of our bully pulpit with the resources that we have.

But I’m concerned when I see things like our State Department giving an anemic response the day after the PCA ruling. [The statement] basically equivocated and said that China and the Philippines are co-equals in the ruling and they both need to pay attention to it. We had a chance, in that small window, to come out and endorse international law, this ruling, and [state] that we will back it up with not only our own physical forces but those of our allies. This would build on cooperation of nations to suppress China’s unilateral aggressive behavior; we missed that opportunity. I’m still waiting from the State Department’s detailed analysis of the ruling. It’s now been well over a week and a half, and we still don’t have that, yet, very smart people like Jerome Cohen have already come out with a detailed analysis of the court’s 500 plus page ruling and given it an endorsement. I think this is the kind of comprehensive national power that China applies to a problem that we seem to be lacking. I think we need to come together on this. Otherwise we risk our ability to say that Freedom of Navigation is around the world.

SD: There’s a fundamental misunderstanding, coming back to your “bunch of rocks” quote, where the U.S. Navy has been the arbiter of the freedom of the global commons for a long time now, and it has fostered a system that has allowed people to raise their standard of living and a successful global system that is unprecedented. Perhaps people don’t appreciate the U.S. Navy’s role in that.

JF: If you believe that, and not everyone does, but if the people within the [U.S. Navy and U.S. policy making bodies], can’t get unified on that belief, then we’re going to fail in articulating that to the American public. Especially in times when we’re in crisis in other areas of maritime endeavors, like Russia and what’s going on in the Mediterranean, Syria, Iran, and the threats that they’re making to naval forces in the Persian Gulf. These [issues] are not just isolated to the East Asian arena. This is a global issue. We’ve been a global navy. People say we can’t be the world’s cop, okay got it, maybe not in different land areas, but we have been committed to being the ‘world’s cop’ in the maritime domain.

If we’re not going to do that, let’s have a discussion about that as a nation and let’s save billions of dollars and cut back, bring the 7th fleet back to Hawaii or San Diego, quit building Ford-class nuclear aircraft carriers, SSBN(X), etc. There are a lot of things that are implied in this idea of standing down from being a global navy. We are being challenged right now in East Asia. It is not just in the SCS, but the ECS as well, and Japan will be one of the next points of attack for the Chinese based on how they do in this SCS scenario.

SD: It has been an honor to speak with you today, Sir. I’m sure that there will be a lot more to discuss on this topic in the future, and I hope you will join us again. If our readers want to subscribe to Red Star Rising, and I recommend they do, how can they do so?

JF: Interested readers can subscribe to Red Star Rising by contacting me at kimo.fanell@gmail.com.

Captain James Fanell, USN (Ret.) is currently serving as a fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He previously served as Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

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