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Jewel of the Indo-Pacific: The Quad as a Maritime Security Diamond

By LT Matt Little, U.S. Navy

On August 26th, ships, aircraft, and personnel from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States commenced, for the second year in a row, a combined naval exercise to demonstrate “cooperative planning, training, and employment of advanced warfare tactics.”1 The exercise, Malabar 2021, marks a significant step toward increased maritime cooperation between the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which has emerged as a promising but unproven partnership for regional security in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad nations are united by their agreement on the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific but have not yet defined their mutual role in the region. Lingering ambiguity surrounding the Quad’s intended function breeds doubt about its potential for success and prompts dismissal by critics of the current, informal relationship.2

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first described a vision for the Quad as a “security diamond” meant “to safeguard the maritime commons” of the Indo-Pacific.3 How might the current leaders of the Quad nations defy the critics and bring Abe’s vision to fruition? Maritime security is an innately multinational interest with challenges such as unregulated fishing, smuggling, and piracy that occur in international waters and traverse borders between states.4 The Quad, comprised of four democratic nations committed to the rule of law, is well-suited to muster a collective response to these illicit activities. The United States, for its part, would be wise to embrace such cooperation. U.S. policymakers concede that America’s military advantage in the region is eroding and that allies and partners are crucial to achieving U.S. policy objectives.5 The combined national powers of the Quad provide an opportunity to exert the military and law enforcement presence necessary to respond to security threats while actively pursuing increased cooperation with rising regional powers. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue should focus the combined diplomatic, information, military, and economic power of its member nations to promote maritime security in the Indo-Pacific by fostering and strengthening rising partners in the region while coordinating to detect, analyze, and interdict illicit maritime activity.

Invest in ASEAN

The Quad’s main line of effort in the tense Indo-Pacific region should be diplomacy, and the primary avenues of approach should be relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Quad provides a vehicle for its members to engage ASEAN on common goals as one body, rather than as separate parties. ASEAN’s own published “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” echoes many of the Quad’s priorities for the region, indicating that engagement would likely be worthwhile. The ASEAN nations aspire to play a central role in promoting maritime security by combating transnational crimes such as “trafficking in persons or of illicit drugs, sea piracy, and armed robbery against ships” and by cooperating for “sustainable management of marine resources.”6 The Quad, in turn, has publicly committed to ASEAN centrality in the region and voiced support for ASEAN’s “Outlook.” Such agreement between the two multinational partnerships is a starting point for increased diplomatic efforts and consensus-building.

Another diplomatic component of maritime security in which the Quad nations are highly capable is the realm of humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR). The Quad could expand its soft power in the region with little political resistance by incorporating HADR into its diplomatic agenda.7 By continually promoting itself as a force for good in the region, the Quad will retain the necessary diplomatic capital to enforce maritime law and stave off allegations that its purpose is as a military alliance for great power competition. As China’s presence and power in the region continue to grow it will be increasingly important for the Quad to remain an attractive, non-threatening partner for ASEAN cooperation. HADR will likely prove a key component in sustaining goodwill among both ASEAN political leaders and the people of Southeast Asia.  

After establishing firm diplomatic ties with ASEAN nations and other cooperative partners, the Quad should coordinate economic investments to help those partners strengthen their own maritime security efforts. Several Quad nations already have existing economic programs meant to address such security challenges. The Maritime Security Initiative of the United States, for example, is a $425 million program that provides grants to ASEAN nations for technologies such as automatic identification systems; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; data collection capacity; and secure communications.8 The promise of the Quad is the ability to direct the economic efforts of all four nations toward a single purpose to maximize effectiveness. By acting as one body the Quad can dedicate more resources towards providing ASEAN nations with the technologies and capabilities required to make them effective maritime security partners. 

In addition to assisting ASEAN nations with their maritime security capabilities, the Quad could improve economic security in the region by responding to violations of ASEAN economic exclusion zones (EEZs). For example, as signatories to the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the Quad nations would share an interest in conducting boarding and inspection of fishing vessels to ensure compliance with international rules.9  Enforcing the rule of law in EEZs would help ensure that ASEAN nations have the right to protect and benefit from their own natural resources. Improving their economic situation would provide ASEAN nations with more financial resources to dedicate towards maritime security initiatives. 

Enforce Maritime Order

While diplomatic and economic efforts should largely be spent fostering new partnerships for the Quad, the information and military levers of power should be directed toward improving the Quad’s ability to respond to current issues in the region. One of the major challenges to fostering maritime security in the vast Indo-Pacific is maintaining continuous maritime domain awareness (MDA). The individual Quad nations already possess many of the resources and doctrine required to contribute to a robust MDA picture. In the area of maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, for example, all four nations field comparable assets. The United States, Australia, and India all operate the P-8 Poseidon, and while Japan chose to build the Kawasaki P-1, it shares many standard operating procedures and tactics with the United States and Australia from many years of operating the P-3 Orion.10 The Quad’s immediate focus in the information realm should be combining the MDA efforts of its assets into a shared Common Operational Picture (COP) that provides all four nations with situational awareness of maritime security concerns.

The primary hurdles for the development of a shared COP are limits on information sharing. The Quad should build upon recently signed agreements such as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) between the U.S. and India and the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement (TISA) between the U.S., Australia, and Japan to craft a quadrilateral agreement that allows for universal sharing of maritime intelligence.11,12  With information sharing architecture in place, the Quad should next form a maritime intelligence fusion center where analysts from all four nations can assimilate information and coordinate military or law enforcement responses to illicit maritime activity. Ideally, this fusion center would be developed in a central, strategic location such as India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.13

In addition to instituting formal information sharing and analysis, the Quad should take several steps to improve its military response to maritime security issues. First should be organizing and conducting ongoing training for proficiency and interoperability, both among its own nations and alongside willing participants from ASEAN. Most of the training should focus on law enforcement and response, which would be less politically sensitive than regular drilling of warfighting tactics and would address the most common concerns in the region, such as smuggling, piracy, human trafficking, and illegal fishing.14 The Quad could even consider involving Chinese authorities in law enforcement training as a way to foster cooperation on mutual concerns.

After a period of successful training, the next step for the Quad should be to create an on-call force comprised of Quad naval and coast guard assets that would share responsibility for responding to illicit activity across the region.15 The four nations would coordinate the placement of maritime assets across the region to minimize response time to any located threats. These assets could then respond to information gathered by the Quad maritime fusion center or reports from ASEAN nations concerning incursions of their sovereignty. By working together to detect, analyze, track, and respond to illicit maritime activity, the Quad could grow into a functional maritime security enforcement organization that would promote a rules-based order across the Indo-Pacific.

No NATO-of-the-Pacific?

More aggressive proponents of the Quad might argue that the group’s maritime security efforts should not be directed solely at partner-building and maritime domain awareness but rather towards deterring China’s malign actions in the region, such as the militarization of the South China Sea. But while recasting the Quad as a NATO-of-the-Pacific may seem like the arrangement’s logical strategic destiny, proceeding too quickly towards open opposition to China would inevitably break the partnership. The greatest challenge for the Quad will be keeping the strategic priorities of the four nations aligned in the face of inevitable pressure from the PRC.16  All four Quad nations are deeply entangled with China economically and, as democracies, would face the difficult task of messaging the economic consequences resulting from a military standoff. Forcing the Quad too quickly into an anti-China alliance would likely produce political pressures leading to its demise. Additionally, the various interests of ASEAN nations align with both China and the Quad. If the Quad were solely aimed at great-power competition with a rising China, ASEAN would not support it.17 Lacking cooperation with ASEAN, the Quad would have little influence or legitimacy in the region.

The Quad’s maritime security efforts should focus on politically insensitive missions that foster cooperation and interoperability and could later be scaled to meet deteriorating strategic conditions. If China continues its record of coercion and pressure in the region, the governments of Canberra, Delhi, Tokyo, and Washington will all recalibrate their threat perceptions, and may very well see the value in intensifying their military cooperation.18 In the meantime, the Quad can still take some steps to counter Chinese aggression. For example, the recent participation of the Quad nations in Malabar 2021 should be repeated. An annual exercise that brings together the capital assets of all four nations fosters high-end interoperability and builds the combined capabilities of the Quad militaries, thereby improving deterrence in the region by demonstrating an increased capacity for response.19

In conclusion, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue should focus the combined diplomatic, information, military, and economic power of its four member nations to promote maritime security in the Indo-Pacific by fostering and strengthening rising partners in the region while coordinating to detect, analyze, and interdict illicit maritime activity. The Quad is the premiere U.S. partnership in the region for addressing maritime security, a critical component of the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. will not achieve its objectives in the region if Quad efforts towards maritime security are misdirected or ineffective. Diplomacy and economic measures should focus on improving the willingness and capability of ASEAN nations to join the Quad in pursuing their mutual goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Quad information and military capabilities should be combined and coordinated to improve maritime domain awareness and provide a response mechanism to address illicit maritime activity. These measures would all be politically viable and would preclude a looming China from driving a wedge between the partners. U.S policy recognizes the Indo-Pacific as “the single most consequential region for America’s future.”21 If the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue embraces its potential for fostering maritime security, America’s future looks much brighter.

Lieutenant Matt Little, USN, is a Naval Flight Officer who most recently served as the P-3 NATOPS Program Manager aboard Patrol Squadron Thirty (VP-30). His views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency. 


  1. Task Force 71 Public Affairs. “Australia, India, Japan, U.S. Kick Off Exercise Malabar 2021.” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command News. 26 August 2021. https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2748502/australia-india-japan-us-kick-off-exercise-malabar-2021/.
  2. Jaishankar, Dhruva. “The Real Significance of the Quad.” The Strategist. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 24 October 2018. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-real-significance-of-the-quad/.
  3. Abe, Shinzo. “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond.” Project Syndicate. 27 December 2012. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe.
  4. Percy, Sarah. “Maritime Crime in the Indian Ocean: The Role of the Quad.” Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. The Centre of Gravity Series – Debating the Quad. March 2018. P. 24. http://bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/uploads/2018-03/cog_39_web_-_debating_the_quad.pdf.
  5. S. Department of Defense. “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” June 2019. P. 16. https://navalwarcollege.blackboard.com/bbcswebdav/pid-798267-dt-content-rid-3941012_1/courses/T.SHARED.FSP.TSDM/tsdm_fsp_19_20/bb_reads_19_20/strat_4_4.pdf.
  6. “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” 23 June 2019. P. 3. https://asean.org/storage/2019/06/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf.
  7. Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Australia-India-Japan-United States ‘Quad’ Consultations.” Media Release. 4 November 2019. https://www.dfat.gov.au/news/media/Pages/australia-india-japan-united-states-quad-consultations.
  8. Smith, Jeff M. “The Quad 2.0: A Foundation for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Center, Backgrounder No. 3481. 6 July 2020. P. 7. https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/BG3481.pdf.
  9. Hornung, Jeffrey W. “The Potential for the Quadrilateral” The RAND Blog. 22 February 2018. https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/02/the-potential-of-the-quadrilateral.html.
  10. “The Potential for the Quadrilateral.”
  11. Cheng, Dean. “The Importance of Maritime Domain Awareness for the Indo-Pacific Quad Countries.” The Heritage Foundation. Backgrounder No. 3392. 6 March 2019. P. 8. https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/BG3392.pdf
  12. Australian Government, Department of Defence. “Australia, Japan, U.S. Sign Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement.” Media Release. 28 October 2016. https://news.defence.gov.au/media/media-releases/australia-japan-us-sign-trilateral-information-sharing-arrangement.
  13. Panda, Ankit, “What the Recently Concluded US-India COMCASA Means.” The Diplomat. 9 September 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/what-the-recently-concluded-us-india-comcasa-means/.
  14. “The Quad 2.0: A Foundation for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” P. 21.
  15. “The Importance of Maritime Domain Awareness for the Indo-Pacific Quad Countries.” P. 9.
  16. “The Importance of Maritime Domain Awareness for the Indo-Pacific Quad Countries.” P. 8.
  17. Shearer, Andrew. “Quad Redux: A New Agenda for Asia’s Maritime Democracies.” The Interpreter. 10 November 2017. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/quad-redux-new-agenda-asia-maritime-democracies.
  18. Saha, Premesha. “The Quad in the Indo-Pacific: Why ASEAN Remains Cautious.” Observer Research Foundation. 26 February 2018. https://www.orfonline.org/research/asean-quad/
  19. Graham, Euan. “The Quad Deserves Its Second Chance.” Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. The Centre of Gravity Series – Debating the Quad. March 2018. 7. http://bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/uploads/2018-03/cog_39_web_-_debating_the_quad.pdf
  20. “Quad Redux: A New Agenda for Asia’s Maritime Democracies.”
  21. S. Department of Defense. “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.” P. 1.

Featured Image: Leaders of the Quad countries meet virtually in March 2021. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

Minding the Interoperability Gap

By Tim McGeehan and Douglas Wahl

A significant science and technology gap currently exists between the military forces of the United States and those of most of the rest of the world. This gap is by design and has long served as a centerpiece of U.S. defense strategy. While it has allowed the U.S. to maintain military primacy for decades, the technical capabilities of many allies and partners now lag far behind, raising concerns about the gap’s impacts on interoperability. This gap can drive critical tactical and operational decisions on where, when, and how forces are employed in a multinational environment, often with political ramifications. While the science and technology gap must be maintained over adversaries for strategic reasons, just as much effort should go into mitigating it to ensure maximization of allied capability in today’s coalition environment.

Creating the Gap

It is interesting to note that America’s allies helped it get to the top and establish the science and technology gap in the first place. Microwave radar, gyroscopic gun sights, and penicillin were key innovations critical to World War II military success and all of the initial work was performed by European scientists.1 One technology transfer episode stands out in particular when in 1940, a group of British scientists came to Washington, D.C., on what would become known as the “Tizard mission.” In a series of meetings during September and October 1940, the British shared examples and schematics of advanced technology, including rockets, explosives, superchargers, the cavity magnetron (the key to airborne radar), self-sealing gas tanks, advanced sonar, and three pages concerning a project known under its code name TUBE ALLOYS, which was the seed for the Manhattan Project.2 The British provided this giant leap forward in technology because they required America’s technical expertise to further refine these inventions, but more importantly, required the American industrial base to put them into practical use and production. This mutually beneficial exchange helped to later turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor.

The U.S. also leveraged German advances in science and technology. OPERATION PAPERCLIP was an effort to collect and extract German scientists before the Soviet Union could capture them in the closing days of World War II. These Germans were experts in aerodynamics, rocketry, and chemistry, and had invented or contributed to several of Hitler‟s “Wonder Weapons,” including the V-2 rocket (ballistic missile), V-1 flying bomb (cruise missile), and jet fighter.3 Many of these scientists had been classified as war criminals, but instead of facing prosecution were protected and put to work by the U.S. government in many programs, including what would become the intercontinental ballistic missile program and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The father of the U.S. space program himself, Werner von Braun, was one of these scientists.4

Dr. Wernher von Braun stands in front of a Saturn IB launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Flight Center. Dr. von Braun led a team of German rocket scientists, called the Rocket Team, to the United States, first to Fort Bliss/White Sands, later being transferred to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. They were further transferred to the newly established NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama in 1960, and Dr. von Braun became the first Center Director. Under von Braun’s direction, MSFC developed the Mercury-Redstone, which put the first American in space; and later the Saturn rockets, Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V. The Saturn V launch vehicle put the first human on the surface of the Moon, and a modified Saturn V vehicle placed Skylab, the first United States’ experimental space station, into Earth orbit. Dr. von Braun was MSFC Director from July 1960 to February 1970. (Photo: NASA)

The U.S. military continues to leverage technological contributions from allies and partners, with agreements like the recently established Science and Technology Project Arrangement between the U.S. and the U.K. for energetic materials research and the Statement of Intent between the U.S. and Sweden to conduct cooperative research and development of undersea warfare and air defense technologies.5 Programs like these are the legacy of the Tizard Mission and OPERATION PAPERCLIP that helped propel the U.S. military to forefront of military science and technology, a position that it has sought to maintain ever since.

Offsets: Sustaining the Gap

The atomic bombs that ended World War II in Japan were a clear demonstration of the value and power of scientific superiority. With this lesson in mind, the U.S. engaged in massive national efforts to maintain its scientific edge. In particular, after being shocked by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the U.S. government passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.6 At its signing, President Eisenhower said it would “do much to strengthen our American system of education, so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by considerations of basic national security.”7 Adjusting for inflation to 2017 dollars, the act provided $850 million for student loans for science majors, $2.5 billion for science equipment, and $8.5 billion worth of fellowships for graduate students in science.8 The rationale was that only federal investment in the sciences would allow the nation to achieve the technological superiority over its primary competitor, the Soviet Union.9

This was particularly important because the U.S. could not compete numerically against the conventional forces of the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration knew it had to rely on its science and technology advantage, specifically nuclear deterrence, to avoid the costly option of deterring the Soviet Union via a massive increase in conventional capabilities. This was the first “offset strategy” and maintaining the technological lead was absolutely imperative for it to work.
By the 1970s the Soviet Union had closed the gap in nuclear weapons. In 1973, the forerunner of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program to seek out a second offset strategy.10 It pursued “conventional weapons with near-zero miss” which resulted in networks, stealth, and high tech precision munitions. Again, the science and technology gap drove the offset. This focus served the U.S. well through the next 30 years, but adversaries are now acquiring increasingly complex technology in pursuit of anti-access and area-denial strategies; the gap is rapidly closing again.

In response, the Department of Defense is currently developing a third offset strategy and innovation is the vehicle to get there.11 The Defense Innovation Initiative, overseen by the Advanced Capabilities Deterrence Panel, is chartered to maintain U.S. military supremacy against any challenger. In November 2014, Secretary Hagel explained “our technology effort will establish a new Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program that will help identify, develop, and field breakthroughs in the most cutting-edge technologies and systems – especially from the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including three-dimensional printing.”12 He went on to say “we will not send our troops into a fair fight. A world where our military lacks a decisive edge would be less stable, less secure for both the United States and our allies, and the consequences could ultimately be catastrophic.”13 Note that he said “our military” (U.S.) not “our militaries” (including allies) need the decisive edge.

Impacts of the Gap

Examples throughout history have shown the value of allies and partners, both in peace and in war. Allies and partners bring authority, access, signal international resolve, and enhance the legitimacy of any endeavor. However, the opportunity to reap these benefits is increasingly put in jeopardy as advances in U.S. systems hamper interoperability.

For instance, while the U.S. Navy must maintain its technological lead amongst naval competitors, it cannot afford to operate alone. The Global Network of Navies concept illustrates how valuable allies and partners can be moving forward.14 While not every navy can afford the latest high tech systems, they often bring niche capabilities, experience, and expertise such as icebreaking, counter piracy, littoral operations, etc. One particular example is the Standing North Atlantic Treaty Organization‟s (NATO) Mine Countermeasures Group TWO (SNMCMG2). SNMCMG2 comprises mine hunters, minesweepers, support ships, and explosive ordnance disposal personnel from Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the U.S. No one nation can field this level of capability (or capacity) alone. However, this interoperability is more common at the lower-intensity end of the naval warfare spectrum. Fielding systems with the speed and complexity required to win the high intensity engagements of modern war at sea (and any domain for that matter) is costly and creates major challenges to interoperability.

PHILIPPINE SEA (April 26, 2017) – USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), foreground, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Ashigara (DDG 178), left, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Samidare (DD 106), back, transit the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano)

Interoperability between forces takes many forms. Compatible tactics, techniques, and procedures are required for forces to work together and achieving proficiency is largely a function of training. However, there are technology and equipment components of interoperability that are much harder to address. The U.S. military boasts a sustained long-term and large-scale investment program in science and technology, unmatched by any nation. The result is that the U.S. has fielded extremely capable but highly complex and expensive systems that are often far more sophisticated than those of its allies. Many of these systems are not capable of easily interfacing with allied systems (if they can interface at all), placing limitations on the missions that can be shared. Using an Air Force example, the fifth-generation American F-22 Raptor cannot send encrypted messages to fourth-generation fighters such as the British Typhoon or French Rafale. To remain stealthy, it was designed to communicate via encrypted messages with other F-22s and U.S. systems, but has to use traditional voice communications with these allies that nullify its stealth advantage by having to talk ‘in the clear.’15 Procuring the latest and greatest hardware from America‟s defense industry may cause the U.S. military to price itself out of fighting in and with coalitions.

The gap between U.S. and European capabilities had become so glaring that at a 2006 NATO conference a Canadian delegate remarked “NATO’s transatlantic capability gap has been at the heart of a debate over the viability and relevance of the Alliance in the new security environment.”16 To question the Alliance is shortsighted, but the concerns are valid.

Communication and interoperability of data enable the construction, maintenance, and sharing of a common operational picture (COP). This is critical for the commander’s situational awareness and allows them to mass forces and effects as required. However, some high-end systems can only communicate with similar systems or have proprietary data formats unreadable by others. In these cases, sharing the COP with incompatible units can be difficult, time consuming, and prone to errors. A lack of shared awareness adds to the fog and friction of operations, induces vulnerabilities, and in worse cases, leads to fratricide.

Incompatible units operating in close proximity can even be a detriment to mutual safety and efficiency of operations. For example, electromagnetic (EM) spectrum management is far more demanding in multinational operations than in joint operations.17 For the Navy, while operating in a tight Carrier Strike Group (CSG) formation (e.g. during a strait transit), unless explicitly deconflicted, an allied ships radar or communication system might cause EM interference on a U.S. system (or vice versa) with impacts ranging from blinding a radar to deafening a communications system. Likewise, in today’s cyber world not all defenses are created equal, and one nation’s military with lesser capabilities may inadvertently open the door to an adversary intrusion that threatens others, weakening trust.

There are also logistical concerns associated when operating with less capable forces. Highly sophisticated systems often cannot share replacement parts or components and may have unique fuel or power requirements. Additionally, a weapon system may rely on ordnance not found anywhere else in the multinational force. The aggregate effect of these issues necessitates that the U.S. maintains a unique logistical system for the sustainment of its units in the field, the burden of which usually cannot be shared by our allies. There are exceptions, like the recent Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements process whereby a U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force destroyer exchanged maintenance parts.18 However, the fact that this transfer (in March 2017) was the first one ever completed illustrates how rare it is.

Another possible impact of operating with less technologically advanced allies or partners is that they may have slower decision cycles, be less lethal, or be less survivable, thus presenting softer targets to capable adversaries. The U.S. may need to provide enhanced force protection or over-watch assets to assist them, lest they be targeted by the adversary at a disproportionate rate. Such a situation could threaten the integrity of the coalition both politically and operationally. If the U.S. assigned additional resources to mitigate this situation, it would do so at the expense of finite resources available to accomplish the mission elsewhere.19 This situation could lead to U.S. attempting to micromanage coalition partners, which would further stress the coalition.20

U.S. joint doctrine states that the composition of multinational task forces “may include elements from a single nation or multiple nations depending on the situation and the interoperability factors of the nations involved.”21 In Desert Storm the coalition utilized a parallel command structure with some forces falling under a U.S. chain of command while the Arab contingent fought under a Saudi chain of command. While this arrangement was primarily adopted for political considerations to avoid the optic of a U.S. dominated effort, it was also due in part to military interoperability concerns.22

Coalition command relationships for Operation Desert Storm. (Public Domain)

This all begs an important question: if the science and technology gap leads to so many interoperability challenges, why isn’t there more effort to close it? The reality is that there is little incentive to close it.

Lack of Incentive to Close the Gap

A discussion of the incentives to close the science and technology gap between the U.S. and its allies and partners inevitably leads to the bigger question of how to best share the global defense burden. Even though the U.S. has exquisite capabilities doesn’t mean that it can afford to do all of the high-end warfighting alone. However, many other nations do not have the funding, technology, or industrial base to assume more of the burden. More importantly, many of them do not have the political will to do so. Secretary of Defense Carter and more recently Secretary of Defense Mattis both called Europe out for “not doing enough” to ensure their own security in that they have become reliant on the U.S. military to bear a large part of the collective burden.23 In 2002, NATO nations agreed to pay two percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but many nations have not made good on their commitment.24 What incentive do they have to make the substantial investment to develop their own science, technology, and industry to close the technology gap when the U.S. can be counted on to do it for them?

That said, in some ways, the U.S. may not have as much incentive to assist its allies in closing the gap as one would think. Despite the previously mentioned tactical challenges, the uncomfortable truth is that at the strategic level the U.S. has contributed to and in some ways benefited from this arrangement. As long as other countries lag behind U.S. military in science and technology, they will continue to rely on U.S. for the associated forces and hardware. This provides the U.S. influence and leadership capital. For example, the European Phased Adaptive Approach provides European ballistic missile defense (BMD). However, the U.S. has not provided Europe their BMD technology, but has instead secured permission to station four BMD-capable Aegis destroyers in Rota, Spain. The U.S. has also established an Aegis Ashore capability at the U.S. Naval Support Facility in the countryside of Devesulu, Romania.25 The U.S. readily accepts this role as senior partner for smaller countries and in doing so secures basing rights and strategic footholds, builds coalitions, and offsets attempts at hegemony by regional powers like Russia.

Often when the U.S. sells advanced, sophisticated equipment to other nations the agreement comes with U.S. training, support, and logistics which are other avenues for influence. This carries the threat of suspending the deal or making sustainment contingent on some other national behavior. This dynamic recently played out in 2014 when France refused to deliver two new Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia based on its activity in the Ukraine.26 Likewise, the U.S suspended military sales and the delivery of 20 F-16 C/D fighters to Egypt in 2013 due to political unrest27 and the overthrow of their democratically elected president,28 and then again the U.S. suspended military assistance to Thailand following their 2014 military coup.29

The fluidity of today’s strategic environment also dictates that today’s ally could be tomorrow’s adversary. Iran still has F-14 Tomcats, F-4 Phantoms, and P-3 Orions in its inventory from the time when a previous regime enjoyed close relations with the U.S. Sharing sophisticated technology with an ally could be disastrous if they become overrun, captured, or surrender their equipment to an enemy. Luckily the Iraqi army had no game-changing technology to abandon to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but the recent episode is a cautionary tale.

Another reason the U.S. won’t assist its allies in closing the gap is that it wants to prevent proliferation of strategic technologies. Through strategic nuclear deterrence the U.S. extends a guarantee to allies thereby discouraging them from pursuing their own nuclear capabilities and with fewer such weapons in play reducing the likelihood of their use. A notable exception is the joint strategic program with the United Kingdom which is currently developing the Common Missile Compartment for new ballistic missile submarine classes.30

Handover/takeover ceremony for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission at Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Fly-by of a mixed formation of Polish MiG-29, British Typhoon, Portuguese F-16 and Canadian CF-188. (Photo: NATO)

Finally, it is interesting to note that allies could likely narrow the gap by more frequently combining their efforts and resources to avoid duplication. While they do cooperate (on the F-35 for example), coordinating the defense enterprises of multiple nations is a monumental task and there remains significant fragmentation. For example, the European members of NATO use 27 different types of howitzer and 20 different fighter aircraft. They collectively spend more than four times as much on defense as Russia but much of it is duplicative.31 While nations are expected to first and foremost provide for their own defense and maintain a stand-alone range of capabilities tailored to their specific national requirements and circumstances, consolidating efforts could lead to economies of scale and drive down costs to develop and field more advanced technologies.

Mitigating the Gap

As there is lack of concerted effort to close the gap there must be a focused campaign to mitigate it. Formal alliances and regular exercises provide a venue to work out interoperability concerns before the crisis comes. There are also opportunities for cooperation in development of technological standards and shared doctrine. Even though coalitions are by their nature more temporary ad-hoc arrangements, some mitigation can be achieved through the use of liaison officers and loaned equipment.

There is also a human and cognitive element to interoperability. Programs like International Military Education and Training (IMET) allow foreign militaries to send their officers to a variety of courses, to include American service academies and war colleges. Beyond the content of the education, they build relationships and learn the mindset and approach of their U.S. military counterparts (and vice versa). Building on this to increase allied participation in wargaming and experimentation could further enhance commonality in how to address future challenges and boost interoperability.

Even if the science and technology gap prevents some multinational forces from full integration with their U.S. counterparts (e.g. into a Navy CSG), the gap can be mitigated by shifting consideration from just the operational factor of force to the interrelated factors of space – where to employ them and time – when to employ them.

The technical capability of a platform is often the largest determinant in where (in geographic space) it is employed. For example, an ally with a BMD capability may be assigned an operating area that will put them in the best position to make an intercept. A ship with traditional surface capabilities might be best to act as an escort or cover a transit corridor to deter piracy, just as a capable antisubmarine platform could be assigned along a submarine threat axis. As such, multinational force laydown is largely a function of technical capability. Political concerns and national rules of engagement also play a large role in this calculus.

JEJU JOINT CIVIL-MILITARY COMPLEX, Republic of Korea (Mar. 25, 2017) – Cmdr. Douglas Pegher, left, commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63), shakes hands with Rear Adm. Kim, Jeongsu, commander of Maritime Task Flotilla 7, following a meeting between the two regarding the historic arrival of the ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan Harper/Released)

Another consideration is when to employ less technologically advanced forces. Platforms with more rudimentary capabilities can make large contributions, particularly during Phase 0 shaping operations or security cooperation, where much of the effort relies on presence and partnership development. Likewise, they can play significant roles in the later phases of stabilization and enabling of civil authority. However, depending on the threat, less capable forces may be positioned elsewhere during the high intensity phase of an operation. This could be politically problematic, contributing to perceptions of “ally X has no skin in the fight” or “the U.S. doesn’t trust us or consider us to really be a member of the team.” Every effort should be made to give credit where it is due and highlight the importance of the diverse contributions made by multinational forces in supporting the overall effort.

Interoperability in a particular task is often constrained by the least technologically proficient participant.32 However, some data can be reformatted to comply with other standards and forwarded to feed less capable systems, such as when forwarding between tactical data links (Link 16 and Link 22 to Link 11).33 Likewise, some attributes can be stripped from data to make information releasable to partners by using systems like Radiant Mercury.34 Technology like this will be increasingly critical going forward.


America’s technological lead is perishable and due to the global connectivity afforded by the internet, advances are proliferating at an incredible rate. Unmanned aerial vehicles like quadcopters were science fiction a few years ago, but can now be purchased commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) at Walmart and flown with a smart phone. Satellite-based imagery, encryption software, secure communication gear, and navigation systems are widely available to anyone, including adversaries. The science and technology gap remains a strategic imperative that the U.S. must focus efforts to maintain. However, in the face of increasingly capable and assertive adversaries, the U.S. must use every available avenue to mitigate the gap to ensure interoperability with allies and partners.

Tim McGeehan is a member of the Navy’s Information Warfare Community.  He has previously served in S&T positions and as an exchange officer to the UK Royal Navy.  

Douglas T. Wahl is the METOC Pillar Lead and a Systems Engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.

The ideas presented here are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. National Air and Space Museum, The Tizard Mission – 75 Years of Anglo-American Technical Alliance, November 17, 2015, http://blog.nasm.si.edu/aviation/the-tizard-mission/

2. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 158

3. National Air and Space Museum, “Buzz Bomb”: 70th Anniversary of the V-1 Campaign, June 13, 2014, http://blog.nasm.si.edu/history/buzz-bomb-70th-anniversary-of-the-v-1-campaign/; Annie Jacobsen, Remembering ‘Operation Paperclip,’ when national security trumped ethical concern, PBS Newshour, March 31, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/operation-paperclip-national-security-trumped-ethical-concern/

4. Marshall Space Flight Center History Office, Bio: Dr. Wernher von Braun, 2015, http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html

5. Nikki Ficken, US, UK arrangement allows joint research, AMRDEC Public Affairs, February 23, 2017, https://www.army.mil/article/183095/us_uk_arrangement_allows_joint_research; Megan Eckstein, U.S., Sweden Sign Agreement To Collaborate On Anti-Sub, Anti-Air R&D, Exercises, USNI News, June 8, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/06/08/sweden_us_agreement

6. https://www.ida.org/~/media/Corporate/Files/Publications/STPIPubs/ida-d-3306.ashx

7. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=11211

8. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 208; http://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=1&year=1958

9. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 208

10. Bob Work, The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies, January 28, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606641/the-third-us-offset-strategy-and-its-implications-for-partners-and-allies

11. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1877

12. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1877

13. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1877.

14. Jonathan Greenert and James Foggo, Forging a Global Network of Navies, USNI Proceedings, May 2014, http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-05/forging-global-network-navies

15. Dan Lamothe, What happens when the most advanced fighter jets in the U.S., France, and Britain prepare for war, The Washington Post, December 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/12/17/what-happens-when-the-most-advanced-fighter-jets-in-the-u-s-france-and-britain-prepare-for-war/

16. Pierre Nolin, Interoperability: The Need for Transatlantic Harmonization, NATO Parliamentary Assembly Annual Meeting, 2006, http://www.nato-pa.int/default.asp?SHORTCUT=1004

17. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_16.pdf

18. Megan Eckstein, U.S., Japanese Destroyers Conduct First-Of-Kind Parts Swaps During Interoperability Exercise, USNI News, March 17, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/03/17/u-s-japanese-destroyers-conduct-first-ever-parts-swaps

19. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA383687, p. 22

20. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA383687, p. 22

21. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_16.pdf , p. xv

22. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA383687, p. 52

23. Robert Burns, Pentagon Chief Carter: Europe ‘Not Doing Enough’ On Defense, Associated Press, April 22, 2015, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_CARTER_EUROPEAN_DEFENSE

24. Stephen Fidler, NATO Leaders Vow to Lift Military Spending, The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-leaders-to-vow-to-lift-military-spending-1409832341

25. Luke Meineke, Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Team Arrives at NSF Deveselu, June 6, 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=87534

26. BBC News, Russia Mistral: France halts delivery indefinitely, November 25, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30190069

27. Mark Landler and Thom Shanker, U.S., in Sign of Displeasure, Halts F-16 Delivery to Egypt, July 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/25/world/middleeast/us-halts-delivery-of-f-16-fighters-to-egypt-in-sign-of-disapproval.html?_r=0

28. Ernesto Londono, U.S. halts delivery of F-16s to Egypt, Washington Post, July 24, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-halts-delivery-of-f-16s-to-egypt/2013/07/24/f227ac7a-f495-11e2-aa2e-4088616498b4_story.html

29. Rachel Stohl, Shannon Dick, and Axelle Klincke, US Military Assistance To Thailand, May 28, 2014, http://www.stimson.org/spotlight/us-military-assistance-to-thailand-/

30. Tomkins, Richard, US Navy authorizes building of Common Missile Compartment Tubes, UPI, October 31, 2014, http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Security-Industry/2014/10/31/US-Navy-authorizes-building-of-Common-Missile-Compartment-tubes/8481414785104/

31. The Gryfs of Europe: Europe is starting to get serious about defence, The Economist, 23 February 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21717391-under-pressure-donald-trump-herbivores-are-thinking-about-eating-meat-europe-starting

32. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_16.pdf , p. III-21

33. Northrup Grumman, Understanding Voice and Data Link Networking, December 2014, http://www.northropgrumman.com/Capabilities/DataLinkProcessingAndManagement/Documents/Understanding_Voice+Data_Link_Networking.pdf

34. Barry Rosenberg, Addressing security challenges of a common operating environment, Defense Systems, June 11, 2013, https://defensesystems.com/articles/2013/04/26/one-on-one-quinn.aspx

Featured Image: POHANG, Republic of Korea (April 7, 2017) – Staff Sgt. Robin McClain a cyber-technician assigned to the 621st Contingency Response Wing stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., shares knowledge with two Republic of Korea Airmen during exercise Turbo Distribution 17-3 at Pohang Air Base, Republic of Korea, April 7, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Gustavo Gonzalez/Released)

Collective Defense in the High North: It’s Time for NATO to Prioritize the Arctic

By Sally DeBoer

In late May of this year, NATO, along with Sweden and Finland, participated in the Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) 2015. The aerial exercise, which included more than 100 aircraft and 4,000 ace_4personnel, predictably ruffled a few feathers in Moscow; Russia responded by mobilizing their nascent but formidable ‘Arctic Brigade’ for an unannounced inspection. Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic (and in general) are thinly – if at all – veiled. Russia unabashedly considers itself the preeminent actor in the High North. Recent remarks by U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft seem to codify this self-assessment. On July 8th, Zunkunft conceded that the U.S. is “not even in the same league as Russia right now” (this assessment was based on a comparison between U.S. and Russian Arctic investment and infrastructure). The discussion of the changing Arctic landscape is hardly new, nor is it limited to re-freezing Cold War tensions. The United States, NATO, and their Nordic allies have a vested interest in building and sustaining a meaningful presence in the High North. While a good start, ACE and other exercises like it won’t be sufficient to secure not only these actors’ self-interested notions but also the idea of the Arctic (and its rapidly opening maritime corridors) as a freely accessible extension of the global commons. The U.S. and their arctic-minded allies should encourage NATO to make the Arctic a higher priority now.

NATO’s stance on the Arctic has, to this point, been non-committal. As recently as 2013, NATO outright rejected idea of establishing a strong direct military presence in the Arctic High North, citing laudable diplomatic hopes that cooperation would win out over confrontation in the region. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a lack of meaningful counterweight in the High North will lead to more cooperative regimes or greater adhesion to existing legal precedents. The Arctic is dynamic and should be treated as such. The following analysis provides just a few reasons to support a defined, consistent, and robust role for NATO in the Arctic.

Arctic actors, including many NATO member states like the U.S., Iceland, and Norway, have much to gain economically from a rapidly opening Arctic in terms of both resources and newly navigable shipping routes. The Arctic is often described as a vast storehouse of resources – oil and natural gas, other minerals, fisheries, and forests- and the prospect that climate change will permit increased exploration for, and exploitation of, these presumed resources has generated a great deal of interest, both public and private.[1] The High North has long been a lynchpin of the Russian petro-state. Indeed, as of 2013 eleven percent of Russia’s GNP, 93 percent of its natural gas, and 75 percent of its oil came from the Russian Arctic.

Gazprom's pioneering Arctic drilling platform Prirazlomnaya
Gazprom’s pioneering Arctic platform Prirazlomnaya

With access to these lucrative resources increasing and costs to exploit them decreasing, so too will conflict over access to those resources increase. In addition to tangible reserves, climate change has also opened previously impassable shipping lanes, some of which overlie disputed sovereignty claims. The national interests of NATO and allied actors with either Arctic real estate or interests would be best served by a consistent, cohesive NATO policy on the Arctic that would serve as a counterweight to Russia’s economic ambitions; a prospect that has thus-far eluded the alliance.

A sustained allied naval presence has been, over the past several decades, been the primary arbiter of freely accessible global maritime arteries as an extension of the global commons. This protection must extend to the Arctic, particularly as new shipping routes progressively open. The Northwest Passage just to the north of Canada could become an economically viable shipping route, passable most of the year, by mid-century. Russia’s rather extensive territorial claims in the Arctic encroach on the Northern Sea Route

Map of Arctic territorial claims (2015)
Map of Arctic territorial claims (2015)

above Siberia, an issue of particular concern to the U.S. Thus far, efforts to resolve disputes over the High North have been cooperative and civil, but that civility has never been significantly challenged. As the Heritage foundation’s Luke Koffey and Daniel Kochis argue, “NATO should consider the implications of Russia’s recent aggressive military behavior; NATO is a collective security organization with five members that are also Arctic countries and two close allies (Finland and Sweden) with Arctic territory. NATO’s commitment to a consistent and robust presence in the High North would be the surest protection of continued rules-governed behavior if (and likely when) tensions rise. Rather than contribute to tensions in the High North (which, this author predicts, will be the narrative Russia will pursue in response to a more cogent NATO Arctic policy), NATO’s presence and prescience, if such a policy is meaningfully pursued, would be a stabilizing force that would ensure free access to newly navigable waters and accessible resources in accordance with international law and orderly management of territorial claims.

The practicalities of achieving the consensus necessary within NATO to move forward with such a step cannot be overlooked. Historically, the alliance has struggled with a general scarcity of consensus. U.S. leadership on the issue of the Arctic will be indispensable in convincing member states with no direct Arctic interests (and plenty of competing security concerns) to move forward with policy and action on the High North, as well as convincing fellow arctic actors that non-Arctic member states deserve their share of influence in NATO’s Arctic policies. Despite any challenges inherent in alliance operations, supporting a greater and more carefully defined role for NATO in the changing Arctic remains far preferable, in this author’s estimation, to a unilateral attempt to provide a counterweight in the High North.

A possible first step might be to cooperatively drafting a statement of intention on NATO’s intentions and intended role in the Arctic, officially acknowledging NATO’s interests and stakes in the region. Further, continued and broader participation in exercises like ACE send a clear signal to Arctic allies like Finland and Sweden, along with the international community at large, that NATO is prepared to face the unique challenges inherent in Arctic operations. The sooner that NATO can find cohesion and take action on their Arctic policy, the better. Already playing from behind in terms of investment and strategy, a comprehensive NATO Arctic policy and presence will provide the best chance to sustain not only for NATO members’ and allies’ economic interests but also the concept of the changing Arctic as an extension of the global commons.

[1] Le Miere, C., & Mazo, J. (2013). Economic Opportunities. In Arctic Opening: Insecurity and Opportunity. The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Sally DeBoer is an associate editor for CIMSEC.  She is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a recent graduate of Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Diplomacy program. She can be reached at Sally.L.DeBoer(at)gmail(dot)com.

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.