Tag Archives: Strait of Hormuz

Carriers of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.

Less Liaoning

Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program.  After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications.  Is this single ship a regional or even global threat?  What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?

Stay calm, people.  After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.

Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups.  According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.

Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force.  It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions.  Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training.  To reach this, China must still walk a long road.

Eye on India

How important is Shark Week?
How important is Shark Week?

However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset).  The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience.  India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks.  China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has.  And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.

 

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews.  China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training.  Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations.  Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014.  The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015.  In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020).  Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.

New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys

Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France.  The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.

For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore.  Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy.  However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers.  Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts.  This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience.  China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.

Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India.  In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise.  Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased.  Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive.  Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs.  While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production.  In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA.  The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.

Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.

India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage

Andmanen und NikobarenFor all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to.  Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases.  Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby.  For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.

By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy.  Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy.  The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean.  Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

South_China_Sea_claimsFinally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.

As mentioned, India has the geographic edge.  New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked.  And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints.  Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.”  This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population.  Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case.  In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world.  Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.

With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too.  So will other countries, like Australia.  It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.

Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game.  Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too.  Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure.  Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.

No Strait Shooting

Strait Talking: A Canadian Perspective on Hormuz

By Michael Bonner

What’s it really worth?

Late last year, Iran began threatening to close the strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. At their narrowest point between Iran and Oman, the Strait are only 21 miles wide, but they have a perceived significance out of all proportion to their size, as some 17 million barrels of oil pass through them every day.

This story was recently brought home in a long article in the Financial Times on 5 October by author, Javier Blas. His source was a report by the US Energy Information Administration published 22 August 2012 entitled World Oil Transit Chokepoints

Here is the gist of Blas’ argument. International sanctions have taken a grim toll on Iran. The Iranian economy is in horrendous shape, and the oil has lost 60% of its value since the beginning of the year. Merchants have gone on strike as a result. President Ahmadi-Nezhad is in his final term in office and he and his supporters have been increasingly sidelined by more conservative elements within the Iranian regime. Could it be, as Blas suggests, that Iran has less to lose now than ever before and that closing the strait — even if only a diversionary tactic by the president — is now more likely than ever?

It should be remembered that the 17 million barrels passing through the strait of Hormuz daily constitute only 35% of the world’s oil. Apart from Iran itself exporters of oil primarily threatened by closure of the strait would be the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar. All their oil goes through the strait. Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, would also be affected, but not all their oil moves through the strait (the respective figures being 87%, 55%, and 48% of exported oil). So these countries, in so far as they are exporters of oil, would suffer greatly if the strait were closed.

But Gulf states such as Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have built pipelines which, when fully operational, will vastly reduce their reliance on the strait. It must be said, however, that the pipelines will only be ready in about 18 months, which may be too late. This strategy, though, is sound in principle, and other gulf states should find similar means to avoid relying on a single route of export.

What about the West? Though the effect of closing the strait would not be negligible, it would not be catastrophic either — at least as far as oil supply is concerned. Only 16% of America’s imported oil passes through the strait, followed by Germany’s total of 5% — numbers which are dwarfed by statistics for Japan, South Korea, India, and China whose respective figures are 82%, 74%, 63%, and 43%. So it would seem that western countries have much less to fear from a closure of the strait than does Asia, at least as far as oil supply is concerned.

None of this is to say that closure of the strait would not have a profoundly negative economic effect, which it certainly would. But the effect would not be permanent. And in every crisis lies opportunity. In the event that the strait were indeed closed, thereby denying enormous amounts of oil to Japan, South Korea, India and China, two countries may stand to gain from supplying them.

The first is Russia. Russia produces 10.41 million barrels of oil a day, just slightly higher than Saudi Arabia’s output. According to the CIA, Russian reserves must be about 60 billion barrels, and there is much more to be discovered, so we can expect output to go up. But this would surely be augmented by the supposed 100 or so billion barrels of oil in Central Asia, historically within the Russian sphere of influence, and which Russia would almost certainly monopolize. In theory Russia and Central Asia could well end America’s partial reliance on gulf oil and supply large amounts to Japan, South Korea, India, and China at the same time.

But the strategic concerns here would be enormous. Thanks to Presidents Putin and George W. Bush, Moscow now has renewed ties with Kabul, where it exercised influence throughout the 20th century. Could Russia pass up the opportunity to restart its drive towards the Indian Ocean in search of an ice-free port? Much of the necessary infrastructure is already in place, and if Russia developed oil reserves in the former Soviet Central Asian republics (as well as its own), transport to China and India via the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan and rail links from Uzbekistan via Mazar-i Sharif through Afghanistan and Pakistan would be essential. Construction of such links has been in planning for some time. But a port on the Indian Ocean, perhaps with Pakistan’s coerced permission, would be ideal for transport of Russian oil to India and beyond. Thus American naval superiority in the Indian Ocean (based on the tiny British atoll of Diego Garcia) would be entirely outflanked, and the Fifth Fleet, stationed on Bahrain, could not offset this. The result might be naval race of terrifying scale.

If closing the strait of Hormuz could lead to Russian dominance of the Asian oil market, many will argue that it would be best to keep them open at almost any cost. Many may therefore be pleased to know that the second country standing to profit from closure of the strait is Canada. Alberta’s Oil Sands are expected to yield about 4 million barrels a day by 2015, a puny amount that is easily outstripped by Russia’s colossal daily output. But Canada’s reserves are greater than those of Russia and Central Asia combined. In 2008, the government of Alberta estimated that 1.75 trillion barrels of oil could be extracted from the Oil Sands. Admittedly, however, only about 10% of this can be extracted in an economically viable manner at present. But 1.75 billion barrels is still a formidable amount and might well match or surpass Russian and Central Asian reserves. Output could also be increased with more investment that would further benefit Canada by creating jobs.

Canadians might look forward to a day when domestic oil reserves foster a massive national industry with international reach, both to America to the south and across the Pacific — and this without the alarming geostrategic concerns attending the rise of Russia. It is also worth noting that exporting oil from Canada across the Pacific would obviate another oil transit chokepoint: the strait of Malacca connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. Canada’s dominance as an energy superpower, as some have said, would require an enormous amount of investment in infrastructure and political will to see it through, but it might well be worth it.

The high potential of the Oil Sands is not in doubt, but transport of oil through pipelines (notably the proposed expansion of the Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Project) remains highly controversial both in Canada and the United States. And the environmental questions hanging over the Oil Sands themselves cannot be ignored either. So it may be some time before Canada can compete seriously with other oil-exporting countries — if ever. In the meantime, it will be best for everyone that the strait of Hormuz remain open. But Canadians may well wish to consider that Canada’s role as an ‘energy superpower’ may be infinitely preferable than other alternatives.

Michael Bonner studied Iranian history at Brasenose College in the University of Oxford. He is widely published on pre-Islamic Iran in both English and French, and his master’s thesis was published a year ago by Studia Iranica in Paris. Michael is a member of the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage project, an archeological team based in Oxford devoted to the study of the ancient city of Balkh near modern-day Mazar-i Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and the news agencies and do not necessarily represent those of the Atlantic Council of Canada. This article is published for information purposes only.