Tag Archives: South China Sea

The PRC’s New Garrisons in the South China Sea: A U.S. Perspective

The following article originally featured on Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on November 30, 2016 and is republished with permission. 

By Paul S. Giarra

Some international observers minimize the importance of military facilities and operational capabilities on the People’s Republic of China’s various claimed features, rocks, and islands in the South China Sea. They should reconsider.

Each location in isolation is not that potent. However, in the aggregate, this island base network poses a more resilient capability (geographically dispersed cluster bases) which, at the very least, would require a significant effort to neutralize, detracting significantly from other priority missions.

PRC military aircraft and missile batteries spreading throughout the South China Sea serve a number of important functions, all to the disadvantage of the United States and its allies and those who have a stake in freedom of the seas, the rule of law, and their own territorial claims.

First, they fortify the PRC’s maritime approaches.

Second, they militarize the PRC’s political claims, making it much more difficult to challenge them legally.

Third, they make it operationally much more difficult and risky to dislodge the PRC from these positions.

Fourth, these individual military capabilities are part of a larger fixed and mobile PRC military network, not only throughout the South China Sea, but on the Chinese mainland.

Fifth, the PRC now has four large People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airfields in the South China Sea, and these extend dramatically the operational range of PLA land-based aircraft, which can recover on these fields, refuel, and swap crews in shuttle missions which change the military equation considerably.

Sixth, these maritime facilities push out the limits of the PLA’s maritime footprint. This helps the PRC achieve a goal of establishing maritime control throughout the first island chain by magnifying the PLA’s anti-access (A2) and area-denial (AD) capabilities and bringing a considerably larger portion of the PRC’s maritime approaches under PLA firing arcs. Planners will have to take into account future deployments of DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, for instance, and the likelihood of an extension of PRC seabed acoustic sensors like the U.S. SOSUS system, tracing the contours of China’s Nine Dash Line territorial claims.

What happens when advanced systems are deployed to these island outposts?

As one example, it was only a matter of time before Russia announced the transfer of the S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) advanced air defense system to the PRC, following on the earlier transfer of the less-capable but still potent S-300. Given its extremely long range and effective electronic warfare capabilities, the S-400 is a game-changing system which challenges current military capabilities at the operational level of war.

Depending upon where in the PRC it is deployed, and which variant is transferred, its very long range would extend over Taiwan and the Senkaku (Daioyutai/Daioyu) islands. If Russia provides the S-400 with the longest range — 250 miles — in essence this would have the effect of turning a defensive system into an offensive system, and extend the PRC’s A2/AD umbrella over the territory of other regional states and the high seas.

Effective air defense systems like the S-400 are consequential because of the cost equation involved. Surface-to-air missile systems are much less expensive than the manned (and unmanned) aircraft they are designed to target or deter. The very long range of the S-400 multiplies the advantage. Without effective countermeasures, aircraft would be held away from China’s coasts, giving teeth, for instance, to the PRC’s assertion that surveillance missions in the PRC’s EEZ are not allowed.

Modern air forces expect to have to fool, suppress, pick their way through, or go around good integrated air defense systems, and countermeasures and tactics for doing so are well developed. In a move-countermove air warfare competition, the Russian transfer of the S-400 to the PRC would make doing so much more difficult (although not impossible).

Of course, one must wonder what the Russians are thinking in their defense technology relationship with PRC as all of this unfolds. Moscow is clearly aware that, while the PRC is expanding to seaward to challenge East Asia’s maritime and littoral states, Beijing’s list of revanchist claims must have motivated PLA leaders to consider plans for northward expansion as well.

Seventh, as Beijing consolidates political, economic, and military control over the South China Sea, one obvious purpose in mind will be to establish secure bastions there for the new Chinese SSBN force. Doing so would be consistent with what we saw the Soviets do when pressed by U.S. and allied ASW forces as envisioned by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (1978-82) Adm. Thomas Hayward’s Maritime Strategy, subsequently made famous by U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1981-87) John Lehman.

Unfortunately, these aggressive PRC developments illustrate the old maxim that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. While the PRC’s construction on its collection of artificial islands must consist of dual-use infrastructure at this point, the military purpose behind the PRC’s new South China Sea bases is transparent. It would have been much easier to prevent the building of these facilities than it will be to dislodge them. The U.S. and the Allies learned this lesson, to Japan’s disadvantage, at Guadalcanal during World War II, where Japan and the United States fought desperately for six months to prevent Japan from building an airfield and dominating the lines of communication from the United States to Australia and New Zealand.

The PRC’s island building also reminds how unforeseen developments can have dramatic cascading consequences. At Guadalcanal, before the almost casual Japanese decision to build an airstrip at the location of what became immortalized as Henderson Field, the two sides had no specific intention to fight in the region, or to lose almost 50 ships in the ensuing naval battles. Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto focused the Imperial Japanese Navy on Guadalcanal (previously an Imperial Army operation), because that was where the U.S. fleet and Marines were. Building airstrips and importing missile batteries has that sort of galvanizing effect, and in the case of Guadalcanal it preserved the Coral Sea strategy — keeping open the sea lanes between Australia and the United States — which remains a key pillar of U.S. and Australian national security strategy to this day.

What the PRC has been doing on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, it can do on various other claimed features and rocks in the South China Sea. In fact, Beijing is doing what the United States and its allies — in a strategically logical world — should also be doing: expanding operational perimeters; distributing significant firepower along operational peripheries; and combining the psychological and legal elements of modern warfare in an integrated campaign.

Paul Giarra, a former U.S. naval aviator and strategic planner, is the President of Global Strategies & Transformation, a Washington, DC, area strategic planning consultancy. He has an extensive background as a national security analyst on Japan, China, East Asia, and NATO futures.

Featured Image: Cuarteron Reef, November 15, 2014 (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Catch of the Day: Reflections on the Chinese Seizure of a U.S. Ocean Glider

By Heiko Borchert

On 15 December 2016, China seized an Ocean Glider, an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), used by the U.S. Navy to conduct oceanographic tasks in international waters about 50-100 nautical miles northwest of the Subic Bay port on the Philippines. Available information suggests that the glider had been deployed from USNS Bowditch and was captured by Chinese sailors that came alongside the glider and grabbed it “despite the radioed protest from the Bowditch that it was U.S. property in international waters,” as the Guardian reported. The U.S. has “called upon China to return the UUV immediately.” On 17 December 2016 a spokesman of the Chinese Defense Ministry said China would return the UUV to the “United States in an appropriate manner.”

Initial legal assessments by U.S. scholars like James Kraska and Paul Pedrozo suggest the capture is violating the law of the sea, as the unmanned glider can be defined as a vessel in international maritime law that enjoys U.S. sovereign immunity. China, by contrast, justifies the capture with reference to its national security. According to Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the PLA Academy of Military Science, the glider “could have threatened the interests of China’s islands, or China’s ships and submarines. It must have damaged Chinese interest that caused the seizure.”

As this incident evolves and more information will become available, it might be useful to start thinking about some of the more long-term consequences of this UUV seizure. Building on a previous analysis of the impact on UUV in the Asia-Pacific region, I would like to suggest three observations for further consideration:

Unmanned Assets are Attractive Targets that Challenge Strategic Communication

This is not the first time an unmanned asset has been captured. Defense News reported that “an ‘unknown vessel’ grabbed another underwater vehicle operated by a U.S. ship near Vietnamese waters, but the vehicle was recovered.” In 2011, Iran seemed to have downed a RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by jamming its radar system in order to force the UAV to land in an area it was not supposed to land.

In line with these incidents, the most recent UUV capture reinforces the message that unmanned assets that have been designed with benign operating environments in mind and are attractive targets that can be easily captured or attacked. This is a prime challenge for strategic communications.

Seizing a U.S. UUV during the transition phase of the U.S. administration is a first rate headline grabbing media event, which might explain why it occurred now. It illustrates, as a Chinese scholar quoted by the South China Morning Post said, “the power of the Chinese army.” However, a UUV that hovers at the surface can be more or less easily captured. This time no one shot a picture of the “catch”, but this could be different next time. This might prompt a rethink of the media-related cost-benefit analysis of deploying UUVs in hotspots, which leads to the second thought.

Ready to Catch and Ready to Lose?

Testing the U.S. response certainly was a motive in the UUV capture. As Michael S. Chase et. al. have shown, China closely follows the U.S. use of unmanned assets also in view of justifying its own action and developing its own policies and concepts. The incident underlined China’s growing self-confidence and readiness to seize UUVs. But what about the U.S.?

At first sight, the U.S. response was measured and adequate by prompting China to return the captured asset to comply with international law. ‘We play by the rules, you don’t’ – this was the U.S. message. Apart from the question, if you can deter someone who just broke the rule by reminding him not to do so, there is a more trenchant issue at play.

Unmanned systems are attractive because they are easy pickings, but the emphasis on the need to return the U.S. UUV could undermine this very key advantage. In this case the UUV is treated like a manned asset because the overall message is about norm compliance. However, if you want the other side to hand back a relatively low-cost glider, can you credibly convey the message you would be ready to lose a much more sophisticated Large Displacement UUV?

This is the policy question the new U.S. administration and other governments using unmanned assets will need to work on, because a similar incident could occur in the Arabian Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, or the Baltic Sea.

Catch Me If You Can: Thinking About More Nuanced Counter-Responses

 Emerging powers have had enough time to study the use of unmanned assets in particular by the U.S. Their first line of defense focused around mimicking U.S. practice in order to catch up. The second line of defense evolves around counter-measures. The seizure of the U.S. glider clearly signals that UUVs need to be prepared to fend off counter-measures as well. Thus more nuanced responses will be needed.

First, more thought needs to be given to when and where to deploy UUV in a non-benign naval environment. The current incident clearly shows that the tactical and strategic benefits of UUVs can quickly turn into a strategic liability if other actors are not willing to back down on their own policy line.Second, this incident should accelerate the development of swarms of Extra Small UUV (XSUUV) that would be radically smaller than current gliders and more difficult to track and trace.

Third, the XSUUV swarm could also help deconflict the policy dilemma. XSUUVs would hardly qualify as vessels enjoying sovereign immunity. Other forms of countering XSUUV notwithstanding, the risk of losing them would be much lower, which could make it far less attractive to catch them.

Fourth, self-protection will become more important in particular for more sophisticated UUVs that execute different missions at the same time. However, solutions should keep the above policy dilemma in mind: if measures to protect the UUV from adversarial interference become too demanding and thus might outstrip the benefits of using UUV, something is probably wrong about the operational concept guiding the respective UUV use.

Dr Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Littoral Battlespace Sensing, LBS, glider (U.S. Navy)

Russia’s Maneuvering of Conflicts for Enhancing Military Exports

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy


Contrary to Western assessments that Russia’s military intervention in Syria would only deepen the economic crisis it is already facing, Vladimir Putin is tactfully turning this situation into an advantage. He is betting on the enormous Russian military-industrial complex with the logic that increasing the cash flow into this sector would create jobs and enhance military exports, reviving the economy. He is not alone in this thought. Foreign military sales is one of the principal sectors of the U.S. national economy creating millions of jobs, supporting local industries, and promoting innovation.

Russia provided ideological and military support to Communist forces in Asia, influencing the outcome of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts during the Cold War. The fallout of these conflicts continues to overshadow emerging security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. In this context, the Asia-Pacific region, which is grappling to respond to the rise of a regional hegemon, appears to be most promising for exporting Russian weapon systems.

Russian Arms Sales in the Asia-Pacific

It is hard to substantiate whether Russia is a direct stakeholder in the stability of the Asia-Pacific. Its principal support to China in the South China Sea dispute is more of a measure to obtain a reciprocal response from China in its own altercations in Europe and West Asia. The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria continue to interrupt Russia’s plans to establish a network of energy pipelines, which is a major source of revenue for the country. The deteriorated political relations with Ukraine also means a setback for Russia’s military exports since it is dependent on Ukraine-made engines and sensors.

Amid these tensions, Russia has swung to Asia-Pacific, concluding a string of strategic partnerships and securing export orders for its defense industry. China is set to buy 24 Russian Su-35 fighter jets and 36 S-400 air defense systems. India has also finalized a deal to buy the S-400 which only adds to the dominance of Russian military equipment in its arsenal. India and Russia are also discussing the exportation of jointly developed BrahMos cruise missiles to other countries such as Vietnam.

During the recent BRICS Summit in Goa, India finalized the $2 billion deal to lease a second nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) from Russia. India is currently operating an Akula II class SSN, rechristened the INS Chakra, on lease since 2012 for a period of ten years. India will also be buying four improved Talwar class frigates from Russia for $3 billion. Two of these ships will be built in Russia and the other two in India with the former’s assistance. These four add to the six commissioned warships of the same class, all built in Russia.

The decision to let the initial two warships be built in Russia has come as a surprise since India has already built the next generation Shivalik-class frigates domestically and has approved the construction of seven follow-on Project 17A stealth frigates by Indian shipbuilders. India will also need to buy the required power plants for these new frigates independently from Ukraine as the latter refuses to export military equipment to Russia due to the ongoing conflict. The fact is that Russia has already semi-built these frigates in its shipyard, but is struggling to obtain the engines from Ukraine. The Indian-Russian deal will arrange for these engines to be supplied to Russia through a third party (India) and the finished platforms will be commissioned for the Indian Navy.

The cruise missile salvo launched from the Caspian Sea flotilla against the targets in Syria is not only a show of force for Russia but also a live demonstration for elevating the export potential of its missiles. Several international customers including a few countries in Southeast Asia have expressed interest in the Russian Klub cruise missiles. As Russia’s official arms exporter Rosoboronexport puts it, this interest in cruise missiles leads to more orders for Russian warships and submarines because these cruise missiles require transportation and command and control platforms for deployment. Vietnam is keen to acquire land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles given the ever increasing threats from China to its territorial integrity. It has already purchased six Kilo class submarines from Russia, which will be armed with the Klub.

Russian Navy ships fire cruise missiles into Syria nearly 1000nm away from the Caspian Sea. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia’s military equipment has a steady demand in the Asia-Pacific and other regions, partly due to the absence of issue linkages such as the human rights record the Western democracies would entangle their prospective buyers with. Russia is also generally insensitive to the security interests of its clients as evidenced by large deals with Vietnam, China, and India despite those nations’ concerns about one another.

Building on this demand and increasing its political leverage, Russia is even mulling reopening Soviet-era bases in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. For example, Russia is in discussions with Egypt, which is keen on allowing Russia to operate military bases in the country, thereby increasing the latter’s military footprint in the Mediterranean. There is speculation that Russia is also interested in renewing bases in Cuba and Vietnam. This will allow Russia to closely monitor both U.S. and Chinese naval activities, especially in the South China Sea.


Military might has always been a source of inspiration and pride for Russians, but military power does not automatically translate into economic well-being for the country. This is where Putin’s strategy comes into play, building on Russia’s vast military industrial apparatus for both international stature as well as the economic build up of the country. The Syrian conflict and the emerging security situation in the Asia-Pacific are being exploited for this purpose. The success of this economic strategy can only be awaited.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Featured Image: Russian warships are seen during a naval parade rehearsal in the Crimean port of Sevastopol (Moscow Times) 

Members’ Roundup: September 2016

By Sam Cohen

Welcome to the September 2016 members’ roundup. Throughout the month, CIMSEC members examined several international maritime security issues, including the successful testing of Raytheon’s SM-6 surface-to-air-missile by a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, developments surrounding the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, the rise of non-state actors in international maritime security affairs, continued hostility between China and regional nations relating to the South China Sea maritime disputes, and the worsening of security tensions between American and Russian air and naval forces patrolling the Black Sea. 

Dave Majumdar, for The National Interest, discusses the Raytheon SM-6 Standard surface-to-air missile test that recently set a new record for the longest-range over-the-horizon intercept in naval history. The interceptor, which also has a long-range anti-ship variant, is a central component of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network. He highlights that the missile is effective against cruise missiles, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and enemy surface combatants while its range is estimated to be as great as 250 nautical miles. He also explains that the SM-6 interceptor is a major reason for why the U.S. Navy is confident in its ability to operate in highly contested environments, including regions where near-peer competitor powers have employed anti-access/area-denial weapons, such as the Baltics or the Western Pacific.

Bryan McGrath, for Scout Warrior, provides several recommendations for how the U.S. Navy should methodically approach future fleet architecture and force structure planning. He explains that developing the fleet to meet the challenges of great power competition should be central to this approach, largely because the capabilities this requires will allow for other critical security demands to be met as a byproduct, including control over trade routes, combating non-state actors, and enforcing maritime security. He also suggests that the relationship between the Navy and the Marine Corps should be funded as an asymmetric advantage unique to American seapower capabilities, while Congress should increase the overall resource allocation the Navy receives in order to meet the rigors of growing great power dynamics and the increasingly complex, multi-domain operational objectives associated with those adversaries.  

Steven Wills, for U.S. Naval Institute News, provides a review of the changes made to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and explains that although the ships’ new training procedures, modularity, and operational organization may seem revolutionary, these new features simply reinforce the ship’s core missions. He explains that the majority of the LCS force will be forward deployed in support of operational commander tasking while personnel swaps will be undertaken to keep the ships forward deployed for longer periods of time. He also adds that mission modules will be exchanged between different LCSs to meet strategic operational requirements. Although the LCS has received significant opposition from both military and political officials, he notes that the large numbers of LCSs planned for forward deployment will meet the fleet’s specific demand for 52 small combatant vessels, and more generally, the need for increased warfighting capacity across the force. 

Paul Pryce, for The NATO Association of Canada, discusses the rise of non-state actors across the international maritime environment, highlighting the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese Coast Guard’s training and funding of fishing militias to support China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. He explains that the advent of these actors and their practices represent an overall increase in hybrid warfare on the oceans, a development which is likely to undermine regional security across the highly contested waters in the Asia-Pacific. With non-state actors offering plausible deniability for the states that support their activities, he suggests that states should seek greater cooperation in the enforcement of international maritime law by launching frequent and functional joint patrols as a means of building mutual trust between countries. He explains that this trust will increase constructive dialogue towards resolving ongoing disputes and will mitigate the tensions non-state actors and militias can induce between nations. 

Members at CIMSEC were active elsewhere during the month of September:

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on CIMSEC or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honors Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies, international law and defense policy.

Featured Image: A P-8A Poseidon flying alongside a Lockheed P-3 Orion, close to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, 2010 (U.S. Navy photo by Liz Goettee)