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We’re Looking In The Wrong Strategic Direction

Posted by Bob Kohm on June 23, 2011

Last night President Barack Obama gave what has been billed as one of the most important speeches of his Administration to discuss the winding down of hostilities in Afghanistan. While this speech was undoubtedly as important as it was purported to be and contained very significant news, the major address of the day on American and global strategic issues was given by Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai.

Speaking about recent tensions that have been spurred by the Chinese government over the Spratly and Paracel Island chains in the South China Sea, Mr. Cui  rattled China’s saber by saying, “I believe some countries now are playing with fire… And I hope the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.” These comments come on the heels of two weeks of comments from the Chinese government instructing the United States to stay out of the South China Sea entirely.

To understand the gravity of this situation it is necessary to have a firm grasp on the background of a conflict that has seemed meaningless for decades but that is now growing into what may become the fulcrum of the United States’ claim to relevance in the Pacific Ocean. The Spratly and Paracel Islands are a collection of minuscule reefs, islets, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea, with the Paracels located off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam and the Spratlys located off the

Map of the South China Sea, showing China's claims

coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. The Spratlys are located over 635 miles from the nearest Chinese coastline on Hainan Island while the Spratlys lie roughly 185 miles from Hainan and the Vietnamese coast, respectively. Both island groups have multiple claimants– the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the PRC all lay claim to territory in the Spratlys while Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to the Paracels, which have been administered by the PRC since fighting a minor war with Vietnam over them in the mid-70s.

As is the answer to most questions in Asian strategic puzzle, the importance of the island groups themselves lay in the natural resources they harbor. The Spratlys in particular are thought to be extremely rich in untapped undersea natural gas and oil deposits and both island groups are extremely rich fishing grounds. That was enough to maintain this conflict at the low simmer it has been on for nearly forty years, with ludicrous military bases being built on stilts on islets to small to hold a Boy Scout camp, occupations and counter-occupations of rocks, naval skirmishes and fisheries fights. Money has always been a good enough reason to spur on a conflict, but in the past several months the South China Sea issue has grown tenfold in strategic importance and tension for reasons rooted firmly in the geopolitics of an emergent China and its decision to test what it sees as a weakening America.

As America has become mired in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns over the preceding decade and seen its economy dive, China has sensed an opportunity to transform its economic power into regional hegemony in East Asia and the Western Pacific. In the early part of the previous decade, China committed to increasing its ability to project power off of its own shores and into the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the creation of a true blue water fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing started building out the Type 054 destroyer program, kicked off several submarine production programs and obtained from Russia and rebuilt the Varyag (now PLAN Shi Lang), an aircraft carrier started during the Cold War for the Soviet Navy and abandoned before completion with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Additionally, China focused on the concept of denying the United States access to the oceans within striking distance of the Chinese mainland itself by investing in advanced ground to sea and air to sea cruise missiles and finally the DF-21 ballistic anti-ship missile, the first system ever built to utilize a land based ballistic missile with a maneuverable conventional warhead  specifically to strike at ships at sea. Interestingly, the Chinese carrier will go to sea for the first time next week to undergo sea trials, almost certainly at the heart of the tensions in the South China Sea.

Coupled to the increase in China’s strategic military capability is an increase in China’s strategic vision. Sorely wounded by then President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two US carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 during a period of high tension between China and Taiwan, China started to evolve a strategy that had as its end goal the replacement of the United States Navy as the preeminent force in the Western Pacific Ocean and the limitation of America’s ability to hem China in with the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines-Guam wall of American allies. China, once divided into “spheres of influence” by the United States and the European powers, would now seek to carve out its own sphere of influence running from the Russian border to the Indian border to Myanmar on the land and which would encompass the entirety of the South China and Yellow Seas. It ultimately foresees “reunification” with Taiwan, economic and military influence over Japan and the Philippines and practical control over the nations of South East Asia. Additionally, China would seek to outflank its major Asian rival, India, by establishing forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Further into the future, China also would seem to be laying the groundwork for an eastward expasnsion, purchasing large blocks of land and coastal facilities on the West Coast of South America as it attempts to control the Pacific Ocean in 2050 in much the way as the United States has controlled it since 1945.

All of this leads us back to the current question, that of the greatly increased tensions over the past several weeks in the South China Sea. The PLAN and the Chinese Maritime Security Ministry have made unprecedented deployments of ships to the South China Sea region and have acted extremely aggressively, bumping and even ramming foreign fishing vessels, menacing Vietnamese and Philippine patrol boats and installations and issuing proclamations of Chinese sovereignty over the entire South China Sea– prompting– in the one funny bit of this whole imbroglio– the Philippine legislature to rename the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea” to assert their claims.

The United States, of course, does not and will not acknowledge China’s spurious claims to sovereignty over an area of ocean that lies mainly outside of China’s territorial waters and economic exclusion zone under every recognized international charter. Much of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, including almost all of the oil and raw materials that feed Japan’s industrial society and oil shipments from the Gulf States to the United States’ West Coast, compounding the US opposition to any restriction on the right of free passage through open waters.

Here’s is where China’s gamble comes into play. During the pre-War on Terror era, the United States would likely rush carrier strike groups into the South China Sea to stare down the Chinese and put an end to these claims and tensions. Today that is a much more difficult proposition. China holds extensive economic leverage over the United States, which is undoubtedly being exercised behind the scenes in a dual strategy– China issues very public warnings to the United States to stay hands off while it militarily bullies our allies prompting them to look to us to stand up for them, but in private the Chinese are threatening to inflict tremendous damage on the US economy if we move to challenge them. The Philippines are already publicly seeking to invoke provisions of a 1951 calling on the United States to come to its defense in the event of a naval attack, upping the pressure on America to show the flag. China is betting that we will not do that in any meaningful way and thus break the confidence our Pacific allies have in us, forcing them to accept the “reality” that accommodating  China is their only way forward. This is made more important to China by the reaction of the United States to the inter-Korean conflict several months ago over the shelling of Yeonpeyong Island and the near shooting war that broke out over it; China did not anticipate the United States so strongly backing South Korea’s military play and was deeply offended by the revelation that US cruise missile and attack submarines were operating in the Yellow Sea, which China has always declared to be sovereign territorial waters. That particular move, the operation of US submarines in  a sea that China regarded as its own and which bolstered the United States at the expense of China at a time that China felt it had clear advantages over the United States, is a mirror image of the Chinese assertion of sovereignty claims over yet another entire sea as we are seeing today.

How will this play out? There are several possibilities– it seems almost inevitable that China, which is issuing point blank warnings to all other claimants of the islands to get out of its way, will wind up in a minor naval skirmish with the Vietnamese in the coming days and weeks. If it sees no dire reactions to that, it will challenge a Filipino ship to really test the resolve of the United States. All along it will continue to publicly warn and attempt to embarrass the United States over this issue with the intent of eventually putting us in a position where we either have to deploy a carrier strike group and a host of subs back to the South China Sea with the threat of massive Chinese disruptions to our economy or put our tail between our legs and show our Pacific allies that they have to obey Beijing. Expect to see in the news over the coming weeks an increase in cyberattacks against the American government and financial systems coming from China to further push the message to the White House and Congress and continued increases in naval tensions in the South China Sea.

China, historically long in thought and slow to act, believes it has reached a point where action is wise. It knows that the period for this action is limited– the American economy will recover over the coming five years and the US debt spending regime of the past several Presidencies will be more limited, so the period of magnified Chinese influence will ebb back to more balanced levels. It is for this reason that I believe that we will see China continue to very aggressively press this claim, even at the risk of a minor Chinese economic disruption caused by damaging the American and global markets or even at the risk of a limited engagement with the US Navy if it believes that the PLAN can gain the strategic advantage.

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Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Submarines | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Skivvies and Soundwaves

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

Sometimes the greatest crises start in the silliest ways.

Earlier this week, in what on the surface sounds like a navalized version of the Keystone Kops, Chinese fishing boats and coastal patrol boats surrounded and harassed an unarmed American ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, waving large Chinese flags and taunting the crew while generally making life uncomfortable for the much larger ship. When Chinese seamen tried to snag the long sonar cables that Impeccable was towing, the American crew turned high pressure fire hoses on the Chinese… who promptly stripped to their underwear and continued taunting until the American ship departed the area.

It all sounds very juvenile, a slightly higher stakes game of penis waving on the high seas. In reality, it was the largest incident in a week-long series of events that portend major problems for US-PRC relations as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao prepares for his initial meeting with President Obama in two weeks.

USNS Impeccable is, without question, an interesting ship. Operated by the US Military Sealift Command, Impeccable is an “ocean surveillance” ship, whose stated mission is oceanographic research and investigation. It is, of course, in actuality a major intelligence platform, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) system tasked to gather intelligence on and keep track of enemy submarine forces. Impeccable carries the most sophisticated and sensitive sonar arrays in the American inventory, capable of locating and tracking submarines at ranges of hundreds of miles under the right circumstances and also making recordings which can be enhanced and downloaded to the fleet and by which our submarines and surface combatants can positively identify enemy subs. Given that Impeccable was operating in international waters off of China’s new submarine base at Hainan Island, its mission was clearly tracking the new generation of Chinese subs stationed there.

To understand the Chinese sensitivity to spying on its submarines it is necessary to look back at the 1995-’96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The Chinese, in the run-ups to the 1996 Taiwanese elections, decided to flex their muscles to dissuade Taiwanese voters for voting for a pro-independence government by conducting a series of “missile tests” that overflew Taiwan and several live fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to the Chinese provocations, President Clinton ordered Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) into the area, with USS Nimitz transiting the Strait in December of 1995 and then again in March 1996 with the USS Kitty Hawk battlegroup. The Chinese got the message—if American CBGs could operate in the Strait, they could destroy China’s economic and military heart, which exists along the Chinese Pacific Coast. This changed China’s entire military development program, causing them to see the Taiwan Strait as the key to their national sovereignty. As it is realistically very difficult to challenge America’s CBGs from the surface or air, China turned to the third attack venue—undersea—to stop America from threatening the Chinese littoral again.

China has spent extraordinary amounts of money over the past decade in developing its attack submarine forces in the hope that swarms of Chinese subs could make entering the restricted waters of the Taiwan Strait too risky for the American carriers, standing them off to the fuel limits of their embarked air wings and thus greatly complicating American participation in any future PRC-Taiwan crisis. The quality of the newer Chinese nuclear subs, however, is extremely questionable—the Chinese are not, to be polite, particularly good at naval development and have suffered many problems in their undersea programs. Their boats are quite noisy, the kiss of death for a sub, and their seaworthiness has not been demonstrated to be adequate for extended operations on a regular schedule. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests the newer Chinese boats coming on line have been relieved of those problems, hence the extreme interest of the United States in learning all that we can about them. Are the boats capable? The Chinese certainly want us to believe so whether they are or not, and they certainly don’t want us to learn enough to make a decision either way.

Enter Impeccable, Chinese sailors in the skivvies, and two incidents earlier in the week in which Chinese military aircraft buzzed American ships and in which a Chinese destroyer cut in front of the bow of a US ship and you have the beginnings of a Chinese power play.

China has long maintained that its economic and security interests are not limited to the twelve mile international waters boundary acknowledged by all nations and they have attempted to exercise that claim on many occasions, the most famous of which was when a Chinese J-8 fighter rammed and forced down a US Navy EP3 surveillance aircraft at… wait for it… Hainan Island in April of 2001, causing a several week long crisis that saw the Chinese first downing the aircraft and then engaging in that most Chinese action, disassembling it to steal its technology.

The Chinese were trying to do something very similar with Impeccable when they got doused with the fire hoses—they were using their boat hooks to try and snag and steal the sonar towed array cables being pulled by the ship while at the same time trying to exercise their claim on waters far beyond those they are entitled to.

Given the timing, with the first meeting between Hu and Obama on the near horizon, it is easy to imagine what the Chinese are up to. With America in financial crisis and with its military distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is trying to upset the balance of power quickly before America under Obama can regain its footing. It’s hard to blame them—they are in no position to directly challenge an America that can respond at full strength, so why not challenge America while it is still weakened from the misadventures of the previous Admin and under financial pressure that China can make worse? In some ways this is very much like the Soviet provocations that accompanied the beginning of the Kennedy Administration; the question now is whether or not Obama will respond from strength, sending Impeccable and its sister ships back to the waters off of Hainan with a military escort or whether he is too constrained by China’s economic position to do so.

Undoubtedly Hu will come to the meeting with demands that the United States back off in the East Pacific, Yellow and South China Seas or else China will have to consider economic actions detrimental to the United States. The gravity of those threats will be easily determined—if they are made publicly or are allowed to leak very quickly, then China will be placing its prestige and power on the line by directly challenging America, signaling that they think they have a seriously strong hand. If they are made quietly and without fanfare, then they are merely a test of America’s resolve. China has traditionally been hesitant to engage in open confrontation, preferring the subtle maneuver to the exercise of main force. This will be an interesting exercise in power for both sides. Expect to see China take steps on the economic front in the coming ten days, perhaps a Chinese professor giving a “major interview” questioning the continued wisdom of helping the US economy or perhaps a signal from China’s Central Bank that it is considering dumping US Treasuries, to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.

We all know the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It will be a major test of Obama’s capacity to lead in seeing if he can make China’s life equally interesting.

Posted in China, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Submarines, Warfare | 2 Comments »

Submarines Collide, Questions Abound

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 17, 2009

It’s a big ocean. There aren’t that many submarines in it.

There are even fewer nuclear missiles subs (SSBNs) in it. The US has the largest contingent with 10 Ohio boats  assigned (with 4 usually on patrol at any one time), the Brits and French have four each, and the Russians sometimes send a few into the North Atlantic but generally keep them much closer to home in the Barents Sea.

Somehow, on the night of February 3-4, one of those four French subs found one of those four British subs and crashed into it, placing a big chunk of each nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent on the shelf for the foreseeable future. It’s almost unbelievable. Actually, it’s totally unbelievable; let’s explore why.

To say that these subs had the entire Atlantic to operate in would be incorrect; SSBNs have “patrol boxes” based on factors like their missile ranges, security requirements, transit times to and from port, etc.  which greatly reduce the area of ocean they can operate in. The French L’Triomphant class carry up to 16 M45 missiles with a range of 6000km, the British Vanguard boats sport 16 US designed Trident II missiles with a classified range known to be upwards of 7300km, so that is the first stricture on their patrol areas– they must be maintained within range of their primary targets, assumed to be European Russia and the Middle East. The French doctrine also is rumored to demand that their SSBNs be maintained within land based air cover. Combine those strictures– a flight radius of 5000-5500km of Tehran and Moscow and under land based air cover– and you can see why the widely assumed operating area for French SSBNs has always been the western Bay or Biscay and its approaches in the East Atlantic. The British boats, given the much longer range of their missiles, operate considerably to the northwest of that area.

Another limit to patrol areas is an Agreement by NATO on carving out operating areas for member subs. The Atlantic is broken up into sectors, with those sectors being assigned to the US, British, Norwegians, Dutch, Germans and Belgians, all of whom have operated subs during the last thirty years. They are not exclusive operating zones, but if the boats from one nation crosses or operates in the zone of another they are expected to notify the “owner” nation. The zone system wasn’t put into place to prevent collisions; it was put into effect so that if a Dutch sub picks up a sub operating in its AO on passive sonar it can be reasonably sure that it was tracking a Soviet/Russian sub, not an American 688 or British Trafalgar. Notably missing from the hunting preserve list is France, who maintains itself outside the NATO military command structure and thus refuses to acknowledge this orderly system or notify other allied nations of the transit of their subs.

So, we’ve greatly carved down the swath of available ocean that these boats operate in. That still leaves not only an incredibly huge tract of ocean relative to the size of these subs, but an incredibly huge swath of ocean multiplied by the operating depth of these submarines. Subs, of course, operate in two dimensions– the incredibly unlikely event of the two boats being in the same geographic place doesn’t alone give us a collision– they must also both be operating at depths basically in the same sixty foot band out of the roughly 1500 foot operating ranges of these boats.

So, even though we can’t say these two subs had an entire ocean to play in, we can safely say they had a huge amount of water, both in area and volume, with which to miss each other. To put in in perspective, let’s totally clear the airspace over the United States from Maine to Florida to Cleveland. Now let’s randomly put two airplanes in the skies in that area… and watch them smash into each other. That’s a decent example of what we’re talking about in this collision… only with 48 nuclear warheads and two nuclear powerplants involved.

Want to know the most disturbing bit of all of this? From photos taken of the two subs, it is apparent that the French L’Triomphant crashed nose-first into the side of HMS Vanguard, t-boning her in the kind of accidental collision you’d see if someone ran a red light. What makes that quite so crazy in this instance (just in case we need more crazy here…) is that the bow of the submarine is where her sonar dome is located. Assuming that these subs were both operating under passive sonar– basically just listening to the water in front of and around them with their hydrophones– the one place above all others that the L’Triomphant should’ve had an excellent picture of the water around them was right in front of the bow. Granted the Vanguard is an extremely quiet ship and the L’Triomphant a bit less so but still quiet, but still… they didn’t know they were about to hit Vanguard? While not impossible, it is highly unlikely barring the sonar operators being asleep at their consoles or the sonar being degraded in some fashion. Quite strange.

So, how did these two boats with different operating areas defy all odds and crash into each other under the Atlantic Ocean on the night of February 3-4? It is believed that this collision occurred well to the northwest of the assumed French patrol area, probably within the British patrol box. What was the French sub even doing there, at the very edge or even outside the range of its missiles from their primary targets? Given the secrecy with which SSBN operations are handled, we may never know, or more likely we probably won’t know until twenty years from now when some retired Royal Navy captain spills the beans in a book, much as American and Russian captains and civilian contractors have been doing over the past five years with regard to US-Soviet submarine games and disasters.

That being said, do you really think this was compeltely a fluke occurrence, against astronomical odds, of two subs being in the same place at the same time, one of them with no discernible reasons for being there?

Me either.

Last week satellites collided against huge odds, this week it’s nuclear missile subs. What crashes next week?

Posted in European Union, NATO, Nuclear Weapons, Submarines | 1 Comment »

 
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