Distant Corner Lab

The Latvian-built Skrunda

Crossing the Baltic Sea recently from Gdynia to Karlskrona, both major naval bases, I had the opportunity to observe ships of both the Polish and Swedish navies. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Tom Kristiansen and Rolf Hobson book Navies in Northern Waters. I began to wonder how a big navy could benefit by observing these small fleets. Smaller navies commonly  look at their big partners in efforts to predict future trends and developments.

Small navies should be aware that they operate on the edges of major naval war theories like those developed by Mahan or Corbett. Such theories were based on the historical experience of leading navies at their times. Although it is possible to imagine a “decisive battle” between offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) or fast-attack craft (FACs) (see Israeli-Arab wars), most probably small powers and their navies will balance between global or regional powers, allied with one of them against another or left alone against superior power. From a cooperative naval power point of view they could nicely fulfil diplomatic or constabulary roles. But there are also other areas worth mentioning, where small navies’ views, development, and operational experience could be of interest to leading navies. Studying small navies provides:

  • The potential to turn knowledge of small navies into a theoretical framework would enhance our understanding of special cases in major naval theories:  This could be of some interest in narrow seas and littoral areas, for example. In this year’s BaltOps exercises, the U.S. Navy was represented by an Aegis cruiser USS Normandy, but in coming years a more frequent participant will probably be an LCS. Participation in such exercises would offer the opportunity to observe how LCS works together with mine hunters, FACs and corvettes from regional, coastal fleets in scenarios similar to Northern Coast, perhaps somewhere in Finnish archipelagos. Such scenarios much more closely resembles Capt. Wayne Hughes’ works and would offer expertise applicable elsewhere.

 

  • Insight into the political decisions related to small navies’ development, roles, and applications:  Not a direct benefit for the U.S. Navy, but helpful in arranging and maintaining networks of alliances, if and when needed. In literature the PLAN navy is often described as proficient in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Is this a view smaller navies in the South China Sea region share? Even regional powers like India or Japan could hardly fear the PLAN’s current A2/AD capabilities. Unhindered access of the U.S. Navy to some specific waters doesn’t translate directly to feelings of strengthened security among smaller allies. The relation is more complex and understanding their, sometimes hidden motives, should give better results.

 

  • The opportunity to foster innovation: Small navies act under pressure of constraints not unknown to big navies, but the constraints can be even greater. In a small navy, a proposal to build a well-armed corvette can trigger hot discussions not only about the budget but even also about national policy. Everything is condensed. Links between strategy, tactics, budgeting, and force structure are more visible. Maybe this is the reason why small navies have to be both pragmatic and innovative at the same time. A good example of the pragmatic approach I found in Navies in Northern Waters is the fact that in the 18th-century both Swedish and Russian navies still used oared galleys. Examples of innovation are not limited to modularity or ships like Visby. Take a look at the Latvian navy, non-existant some 20 years ago. It acquired used ships from different navies and created the core of mine warfare and patrol capabilities. This was very pragmatic, and the first new construction, the economic SWATH designSkrunda, shows great attention to versatility.

 

  • Educational value: Let’s use an example. Say the task is to propose a force structure for a navy that’s been neglected in recent years. Historically, the military conflicts in this country have been decided on land. The adjacent narrow sea has an average depth of around 170 feet. The navy has no independent budget, but is instead centralized in the DoD’s. The yearly shipbuilding budget is forecasted at $200 million and the navy is given the time span 20 years to build the fleet. Although there is a shipbuilding industry, it has never built sophisticated warships. Anyone attempting to solve this kind of problem gains a much greater understanding of decisions faced by and made by senior staffs in the real world. 

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

Sea Ghost Enters the Fray

Is the stealth worth it?

On Friday Lockheed Martin announced its entrant, the Sea Ghost, in the hunt for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) contract. On Sunday, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, winner of the contract to demonstrate the feasibility of a carrier-based drone “launched from Pax River and flew for a planned 35 minutes. The aircraft reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and an air speed of 180 knots during its flight over the Chesapeake Bay before successfully landing back at Pax River.” The X-47B is testing operations in a land-based simulated carrier environment. Next year it will start carrier-based testing, followed by a demonstration of autonomous aerial refueling in 2014. The Navy expects whatever frame wins the UCLASS prize to enter the fleet in 2018. I’d like to take the moment to share a few unsolicited thoughts on the battle for the U.S. Navy’s carrier drone contract. With LM’s revelation, the field of contenders has most likely solidified into four, backed by well-known names:

  1. Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost
  2. Boeing’s X-45C Phantom Ray (or some follow-on design)
  3. General Atomics’ Sea Avenger
  4. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Pegasus

Wired’s Danger Room has a good review of the contestants, and one similarity is worth noting. All but the Sea Avenger are of the “flying wing” variety, similar to the USAF’s B-2. This design confers some advantageous stealth properties through a reduced radar cross section, but comes at some cost of stability and handling. Instead, the Sea Avenger is essentially a souped-up version of General Atomic’s famous Predator drone.

 

While Navy has yet to release the contract’s request for proposal (RFP), detailing the requirements and criteria by which the contenders will be judged, the NAVAIR website states the Navy is looking for an, “aircraft system providing persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities.” This closely matches the capabilities highlighted by the aforementioned companies’ websites.

 

Demonstrating the future of carrier aviation, but can it be done cheap enough?

With this, and with the shrinking range of carrier-based strike aircraft in general, in mind, the most attractive attributes will be stealth, range, mid-flight refueling (to further extend range), ISR capabilities, and the ability to carry stand-off weapons. By eliminating the weight and crew limitations of a strike aircraft, a UAV can greatly increase its range. But this does not eliminate the costs of crews, it merely shifts the crews’ location, tentatively increasing their safety and reducing some training and replacement costs. In fact, with extended ranges and increased ISR collection, each airframe may require more pilots and analysts than traditional manned craft.

 

The current state of UAV technology will allow the military to demand many automated functions in the UCLASS including carrier landings, following flight plans, and executing pre-approved weapon strikes. Unlike drones like the predator, the UCLASS is expected to be able to follow flight plans, essentially executing its mission devoid of human input unless an emergency or unexpected situation arises, in a way similar to how tomahawks or other missiles execute their strike packages. Technology has its limitations however. UAVs are not yet designed to perform intercept missions, or air-to-air combat. They can conceivably be programmed to use counter-measures such as executing limited defensive maneuvering or deploying chaff in the event of a certain input, such as detecting an inbound enemy missile. Yet because the UCLASS won’t be shooting its way through high-threat environments, it will have to rely on either escorts (limited by their range), the distance of its stand-off weapons, or stealth.

 

As pointed out at Information Dissemination by Rep. Randy Forbes, stealth can be quite expensive, and may have diminishing returns. The CNO also singled out the pursuit of stealth perfection as the potentially errant end of the cost-curve in an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, “Payloads over Platforms,” widely (mis)perceived to be a critique of the F-35. In the context of the carrier battle, the single most important determinant beyond technological maturity may rightly be cost. To steal a common refrain from the debate over shipbuilding, quantity matters. Determining whether the ability to carry out deep penetration strikes far into an enemy’s territory will be better served by larger numbers of less-stealthy drones or a smaller number of super-stealthy drones will be an interesting exercise in analysis. That is until the drones are cleared for air-to-air combat, which could either be accomplished by human pilots taking temporary direct control, or eventually by programming the UAVs to fight themselves. Some final factors that will drive navies towards endowing their carrier drones more complete autonomy (see the writings of Adam Elkus for more on the ethical discussions surrounding such a move) are the vulnerabilities that satellite-based comms links with the UAVs will introduce, and the difficulty of maintaining and securing those links.

 

While the players for the first big U.S. Navy UAV contract may be familiar, there is room for innovative new companies to capitalize on emerging technologies like 3D printing to cheaply create UAVs tailor-made to the requirements of the Navy. Without the risk of human casualties, being willing to accept the loss of a few less-costly drones for an overall increased strike capacity is a trade-off worth exploring.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Divers Find Sunken WWII German U-boat off Nantucket

Side-scan sonar image of U-550 from GK Consulting & AWS Expeditions.

Divers using side-scan sonar on Monday found the wreck of U-550This discovery is a reminder that the oceans that flank America, and have often shielded the nation from the direct wrath of enemies, are not impregnable. 

NBC news provides an account of the naval action that sent the U-boat to the bottom:

On April 16, 1944, the U-550 torpedoed the gasoline tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania, which had lagged behind its protective convoy as it set out with 140,000 barrels of gasoline for Great Britain, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website and research by Mazraani.

 

The U-boat slipped under the doomed tanker to hide. But one of the tanker’s three escorts, the USS Joyce, saw it on sonar and severely damaged it by dropping depth charges.

 

The Germans, forced to surface, manned their deck guns while another escort vessel, the USS Gandy, returned fire and rammed the U-boat. The third escort, the USS Peterson, then hit the U-boat with two more depth charges. The crew abandoned the submarine, but not before setting off explosions to scuttle it. The submarine hadn’t been seen again until Monday.

Crew of the U-550 abandon ship.

The American ships were destroyer escorts (DEs) of Escort Division 22 and manned by Coast Guard crews plus the Gandy, a Navy DE. The surviving German crew were taken to Great Britain. 

China’s Maritime Policies: An Opportunity for Canada

China now regards some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as part of its “core interests.”

By Joelle Westlund

In some ways overshadowed by events elsewhere in its maritime claims, China added fuel the regional fire that has characterized its relations with neighbouring states for the last several decades on July 10th. This time it did so by launching a naval exercise in the waters near the Zhoushan islands in the East China Sea. The maneuver comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed a ban on shipping and fishing vessels entering the designated exercise area. The CCP have chosen a heated time to send the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Navy to practice its ability to operate in contested waters. But the timing of this maneuver was far from fortuitous.

The exercise in the Zhoushan has been interpreted as a demonstration of China’s ability to specifically counter the claims on another set of islands in the East China Sea – Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – that have been at the center of an ongoing row between China, Taiwan, and Japan. The territorial dispute over the islands recently resurfaced when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda offered to purchase the chain of islands from their private owners. University of Tokyo professor Akio Takahara pointed out that the offer was submitted in an attempt to “stabilize the situation […] not to escalate the situation.” Logistically, Japan’s acquisition of the island makes sense, given that its central government rents the three islands and keeps them protected through landing restrictions and access to nearby waters. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin responded curtly to the proposition by stating, “China’s holy territory is not ‘up for sale’ to anyone.” State-owned news agency, China Daily called for “more aggressive measures to safeguard its territorial integrity […] Should Japan continue to make provocative moves.”

The disputed islands are not the only quarrel in which China finds itself. The Asian superpower is currently locked in a wrangle with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Sovereignty claims to the islands are touchy since the islands are believed to provide rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil and gas reserves. The situation has escalated since the beginning of April when Chinese civilian vessels found themselves in a standoff with the Philippines Coast Guard. Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Hua stated, “The Chinese side has been urging the Philippine side to take measures to de-escalate the situation.” In response Philippine President Benigno Aquino ordered the withdrawal of its government vessels in “hope[s] this action will help ease the tension.” China, however, has yet to do the same as it still has seven maritime vessels encircling the Shoal and has rejected attempts to resolve the tiff through the employment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, as recommended by officials of Vietnam and the Philippines.

China is well versed in threatening navigational freedom in territorial waters, making countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia weary, since China appears to have set its sights on the Malacca Strait. The Strait is one of the most critical maritime choke points as over 1,000 ships a day pass through its channels that link the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. At the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s Minister of Defence Liang Guanglie called for China to take a more active role over the management of the Strait of Malacca. For China, which relies on nearly 80 percent of its crude oil imports from the Middle East and Africa, security of the passage is crucial and military involvement offers the opportunity to mitigate terrorist and insurgency risks in the lanes.

But given China’s aggressive posture adopted towards its neighbours, expansion into the Strait warrants concern and suspicion from regional powers. Exactly how states should tackle China’s multiple squabbles dominated discussion among senior diplomats at ASEAN’s latest meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has continued to look to the United States to increase its role in the area to minimize tension and this year’s gathering echoed a similar appeal. China however, has expressed its distaste for U.S. involvement and “hyping” of the dispute, arguing, “This South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the U.S. because the U.S. doesn’t have claims over the South China Sea.”

A Role for Canada

To many Asian states, Canada represents an affluent and pluralistic country ripe with opportunity. Its diplomatic engagement in the region has predominately played a supportive and capacity-building role in maritime security initiatives. Canada has sought to expand its role in the area militarily and economically, and has done so most recently with Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s trip to Singapore. MacKay spent the weekend in talks with Asian defence ministers regarding the enlargement of a Canadian presence and toured potential sites for a ‘hub’ for Canadian military operations. 1,400 Canadian sailors, soldiers, and air force personnel will also be taking part in the biannual ‘Rim of the Pacific’ military exercises held from June 29 to August 3.

This involvement represents an important opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its commitment to the region, but even still, there needs to be a more concrete diplomatic engagement to secure relations. With announcements like U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s latest statement that 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be stationed in the Pacific by 2020, Canada must to buff up its presences before it loses out.

The disputes over the South China Sea, the Scarborough Shoal and the potential strain over the Malacca Strait, opens the door for Canada’s involvement. James Manicom of The Globe and Mailargues that Canada can use its status as an impartial dialogue partner to engage in regional track-two diplomacy. If Canada hopes to expand its economic relations in the region, such engagement outlined by Manicom is necessary. Canada currently stands as the ASEAN’s ninth largest investor and 13th largest trading partner, totaling over $1.6 and $9.8 billion, respectively. The Harper government needs to ditch the reluctance that has defined Canada-Asia relations and push for a peaceful resolution of the current disputes with China. Doing so would allow Canada to gain credibility in the region and supplement U.S.-Japanese-Philippine calls for stability. Further, as China continues its somewhat predacious behavior towards its neighbours, Canada can reassert itself as an agent of peace and diplomacy in the region.

Joelle Westlund is an Asia-Pacific Policy Analyst at The Atlantic Council of Canada. She is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Joelle holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto and has studied at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

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.

Blog cross-posted with our partners at the Atlantic Council of Canada

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.