Tag Archives: Red Queen’s Navy

Challenging China’s Sub-Conventional Dominance

The Red Queen’s Navy

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

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

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

A recent RAND report underscored the significance of the strategy by certain states of employing measures short of war to attain strategic objectives, so as to not cross the threshold, or the redline, that trips inter-state war. China is one of the countries cited by the report, and the reasons are quite evident. The employment of this strategy by China is apparent to practitioners and observers of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. The diplomatic and military engagements in this region call attention to the South China Sea, where China’s provocative actions continue to undermine international norms and destabilize peace and security.

Vietnam and the Philippines are the two claimants determined to oppose such actions with the support of other regional security stakeholders. They intend to shore up their military strength, especially in the maritime domain. The Philippines decided to upgrade military ties with the U.S. through an agreement allowing forward basing of American military personnel and equipment. It will receive $42 million worth of sensors to monitor the developments in West Philippine Sea.  Additionally, India emerged as the lowest bidder to supply the Philippines with two light frigates whose design is based on its Kamorta class anti-submarine warfare corvette.

The recent visit of US. President Obama to Vietnam symbolizes transformation of the countries’ relationship to partners and opened the door for the transfer of lethal military equipment. Vietnam is considering the purchase of American F-16 fighters and P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Its navy is already undergoing modernization with the induction of Russian Kilo class submarines. India, which uses the same class of submarines, helped train Vietnam’s submariners. Talks with Vietnam to import India-Russia joint BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles seem to be in an advanced stage.

But, this military modernization is concentrated on strengthening the conventional domain of the conflict spectrum, while China accomplishes its objectives by using sub-conventional forces. China’s aggressive maritime militia and coast guard are the real executors of local tactical contingencies, while its navy and air force provide reconnaissance support and demonstrate muscle power.

This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam's maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China's deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea. MARITIME POLICE / AFP - Getty Images
This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam’s maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China’s deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea.  (MARITIME POLICE / AFP – Getty Images)

The 2014 HYSY 981 oil rig stand-off, when China’s vessels fired water cannons and rammed into Vietnamese boats, serves as a classic example of China’s use of sub-conventional forces. Some of these platforms are refitted warships, and the total vessel tonnage has far exceeded the cumulative tonnage of neighboring countries. China has also deployed coast guard cutters weighing more than 10,000 tonnes, the largest in the world. They cover maritime militia’s activities like harassing Vietnamese and other littoral fishermen from exercising their rights or defend China’s illegal fishing activities in the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Recently, they have forcefully snatched back a Chinese fishing vessel that had been detained by the Indonesian authorities for transgression.

Such provocative actions to forcefully lay down new rules on the ground need to be challenged, but using conventional air and naval assets will only lead to escalation. It is advisable to learn from China’s strategist himself in this context, Sun Tzu, who counsels that it is wise to attack an adversary’s strategy first before fighting him on the battlefield.

Therefore, both Vietnam and the Philippines must also concentrate on building up the capacity of respective coast guards and maritime administration departments with relevant assets like offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to secure the islands and exclusive economic zones. Operating independently in these areas inevitably hedges against China’s proclamation of South China Sea as its sovereign territory and requiring its consent to operate in.

Vietnam is inducting patrol boats furnished by local industries as well as depending on the pledge from the U.S. to provide 18 patrol boats. The Philippines contracted a Japanese company to build 10 patrol vessels on a low-interest loan offered by Japan’s government. It is also set to receive four boats from the U.S.

India should also take a proactive position and join its regional security partners in extending its current efforts in the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. India has built high level partnership programs to build the capacity of its neighboring Indian Ocean countries to ensure security of their exclusive economic zones. In the process, it delivered some of its OPVs to Sri Lanka. Recently, Mauritius became the first customer of India’s first locally built OPV Barracuda. India is now building two more for Sri Lanka. Additionally, Vietnam has contracted an Indian company to build four OPVs using the $100 million line of credit offered by the Indian government.

Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Image: Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)
Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)

The demand for these vessels will only grow as the strategic competition in the South China Sea escalates. India enjoys better political, historical, and security relations with the South East Asian countries, especially Vietnam. The Philippine government has underscored this relationship between India and Vietnam as the foundation for its own relations with India. Taking advantage of this situation not only improves India’s strategic depth in the region but also enhances its manufacturing capacity that is at the core of Make in India initiative.

The specific requirements like range, endurance, and armament depend on the customer countries. The more critical question at play is whether the regional security stakeholders are comfortable with the idea of upgunned coast guards along the South China Sea littoral.

The U.S. has forward deployed four of its Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore to tackle a variety of threats emanating in the shallow waters. The ships are smaller than a frigate but larger than an OPV in terms of sensor suites, armament, mission sets, and maintenance requirements. War simulations proved that upgunned LCS can cross into blue water domain with ease and complicate an adversary’s order of the battle.

Vietnam and the Philippines could specify higher endurance, better hull strength and advanced water cannons for their OPVs to defend proportionally against Chinese vessels. In addition to manufacturing ships, India should also train Vietnamese and Philippine forces on seamlessly integrating  intelligence from different assets for maritime defense.

Over time, a level of parity in the sub-conventional domain needs to be achieved and maintained to force China to either shift its strategy or escalate the situation into conventional domain whereupon the escalation dominance will shift to status quo countries.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Chinese 10,000 ton coast guard cutter, CCG 2901. (People’s Daily Online)

Turbulence for The Philippines: Blimps over the South China Sea

The following article is the first in CIMSEC’s first regular column: The Red Queen’s Navy. Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. The column will also identify relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

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

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

During his recent visit to the Philippines, the United States Secretary of Defense promised delivery of a variety of sensors and communications equipment worth $42 million to the host nation. One of the critical sensors in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the South China Sea (SCS), providing maritime domain awareness to the Philippines.

The Philippines is one of several claimants to sovereign rights over few SCS islands; they are faced with a coercive China claiming such rights over 80 percent of the sea. China has forcefully seized control of maritime features in the SCS from both Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, the PRC has started land reclamation projects and built artificial islands. Radars and missile batteries have been installed on some of the features, and military planes operate and land there routinely.

In 2012, China overwhelmed Philippine forces in a two month long conflict, resulting in China’s defacto control of Scarborough Shoal, located barely 140 miles off Manila. The Philippines filed a case against China before the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, challenging 15 claims from China’s so-called nine-dash line to Scarborough Shoal. The tribunal is likely to find China’s activities around the Shoal illegal.

In spite of this, China has refuted the authority of the arbitration tribunal to rule on these claims. It is reported that China is now considering construction of outposts on Scarborough Shoal. Military installations on this Shoal would allow China to control the Luzon Strait, a gateway to the Pacific and tremendously busy trade artery, therefore further consolidating its control over the SCS. The proximity of the Shoal to Manila would also allow China to monitor military installations and maneuvers on the Philippine islands, of particular interest as the US visiting forces begin to deploy.

The primary concern is the expansion of China’s coast guard and maritime militias around the Shoal to erode the Philippine legal rights like fishing, maritime trade, and exploitation of natural resources in these waters. Establishing new facts on the ground will defeat Philippines’ legal standing. Continuous monitoring of China’s actions is required for validating these assumptions and in order to respond proactively to new security threats.

A network of sensors established in and over the SCS would enable monitoring of land reclamation activities, build up of military assets on the islands, transits of coast guard and maritime militia units, oil exploration rigs, and any other object that can potentially fly or sail as China has become innovative in asserting its claims. The communications equipment offered to the Philippines will enable secure transmission of data from these sensors for faster and more transparent decision-making.

One of the critical sensor nodes in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the SCS using onboard radar. The blimp is a powered, gas filled lighter-that-the-air airship. It does not have a rigid structure like that of a balloon, but can instead be steered while floating in the air. Hindenburg is a famous example of these airships, which had a rigid structure.

Historically, airships have been used for both commercial and military activities, including ferrying passengers across the Atlantic, the American Civil War, bombing raids during World War I, polar exploration, advertisement campaigns, etc. The US Navy developed the airships USS Akron and USS Macon for ocean surveillance with the ability to launch and recover aircraft, dubbed flying aircraft carriers. Most of these airships crashed, but public interest truly faded with the Hindenburg disaster. The simultaneous advent of airplanes ferrying passengers far more efficiently across the oceans sealed their fate completely.

The potential of airships to provide constant mass area surveillance renewed military interest in them. Airships were useful to coalition forces in Afghanistan, forces along the US-Mexico border, and by Israel over Gaza, just to name a few.

The US Army initiated a $2.8 billion project called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) that uses a blimp-duo hovering about 10,000 feet and covering an area the size of Texas. One blimp is capable of providing high resolution 360 degree radar coverage while the other is used for focusing on specific targets including fixed or rotary-wing aircraft, cruise missiles, unmanned air vehicles, tactical ballistic missiles etc. JLENS is designed to connect to the nation’s air defense networks for faster response to incoming threats.  

Last October, one of the prototype JLENS blimps broke loose from the mooring station. Without the steering controls in place, the blimp dragged part of its tether across Pennsylvania causing power outages and damages to private property. Two F-16s were scrambled to monitor the movement of the blimp until it deflated and crashed into the trees.

Already looked upon unfavorably for cost overruns, the US Congress awarded a mere $2.5 million instead of the $45 million sought by the Pentagon, a measure supposedly aimed at killing the program.

Although details are yet to emerge regarding the size and observational scope of the blimp promised to the Philippines, this set of incidents and accidents points to knowledge gaps about the inherent risks of airships that contain highly inflammable gases and are prone to various atmospheric phenomena. Given this tenuous history of blimps, a loose one free floating over the SCS would invite further aggression from the PRC. It is in the interest of all parties to avoid such a situation. How can the US prove the blimp platform has been rigorously tested, despite Congress having killed the program? This is a critical question for the Philippines. It may be wiser to avoid creating, even accidentally, another tense situation in an already contested environment. Therefore the Philippines should explore additional options to improve its maritime domain awareness and security. Such options include acquiring patrol boats and light aircraft that can not only provide the Philippines maritime domain awareness, but also enhance the security of its territory and possessions.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Air and Marine, Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) Deming New Mexico. Photographer: Donna Burton