The function of navies, most of the time, is to achieve national objectives without having to come to blows. Naval superiority is one of the most effective forms of deterrence and influence a nation can have. But when the deterrent works effectively, political leaders too often begin to assume that the secure stasis maintained by projecting naval power will simply persist if the naval power is withdrawn.
The thoughts of Defense Secretary Bob Gates appear to be shifting in that direction. In a speech to the Navy League last week, he questioned the need for the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers and suggested the programs to build new-generation destroyers and ballistic-missile submarines were in jeopardy. Equally disquieting were his musings about the price tags of existing naval platforms, in the context of an allegation that the Navy has not advanced beyond a Cold War mindset.
Each of the services has come in for its share of such criticism since 1991; in many instances it’s justified. Gates’s goal of cutting the defense budget is also not necessarily objectionable in and of itself. And the goal of streamlining and improving our weapon systems to meet emerging threats, rather than remaining stuck on old concepts, is always appropriate.
But everything has to be done on the basis of a valid understanding of the threat – and that’s where Gates’s remarks are jarringly ill-timed. There is a greater threat to US maritime dominance than Somali piracy. It has been on display this spring in multiple theaters. The threat is regional navies establishing maritime power over the seas and chokepoints through which global commerce passes, and setting up arbitrary regimes of regulation and permission.
The two most obvious actors in this regard are Iran and China. Iran chose unilaterally to detain and inspect two foreign merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz during her big military exercise in April. The Iranian press has also celebrated two unusual and provocative moves from that exercise and one being held this week. In April, Iran’s navy sent a small reconnaissance aircraft, a Fokker F-27, to make a close approach to USS Eisenhower, our Nimitz-class carrier on station in the Persian Gulf. In the exercise this week in the Gulf of Oman (the approach to the Strait of Hormuz from outside the Gulf), Iranian forces warned a US reconnaissance aircraft out of the exercise area.
These actions seem minor and incremental because they are. But small regional navies take such provocative actions against dominant navies only if their national leaders think they can get away with it. The more Iran thinks she can get away with, the greater will be the naval force required to counter the provocations. If it becomes a naval problem for the US to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to global shipping, the small guns and low-lethality weapons suitable for antipiracy operations will be badly outclassed. Only the big, expensive platforms Gates decries can do that job: aircraft carriers, Aegis cruisers and destroyers, attack submarines – and lots of them.
China’s navy, meanwhile, conducted its largest long-range deployment to date in March and April 2010. This deployment involved a task force of 10 ships and submarines making passage – twice – between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako, during which Chinese helicopters made close approaches to the Japanese destroyers sent to monitor their activities (see IISS map). While the broad strait between the Japanese islands – the Miyako Strait – is an international waterway through which commercial shipping passes routinely, the Chinese navy’s use of it is unprecedented and obviously provocative. The Chinese task force proceeded to the South China Sea and performed exercises, including naval bombing simulations, in the Spratly Islands and near the Strait of Malacca.
The significance of these actions cannot be overstated. Japan is a US ally, of course, and long time rival of China. Like Iran, China does just as much as she thinks she can get away with, taking action that Japan is bound to find objectionable but that falls short of a casus belli. China’s action did, however, prompt Japan to issue threats to move forward on seabed exploration near the Senkaku Islands that Tokyo disputes with Beijing.
But the major naval deployment also occurred in conjunction with China’s declaration of a new policy of patrolling fisheries with armed patrol ships in the South China Sea, ostensibly to protect her fishing fleet. The record of piracy in the South China Sea, however, implicates syndicate crime from China along with insurgent groups from the Philippines and Indonesia, which use it to make money. The political origin of China’s new patrol policy at least as usefully traced to the dispute in March 2009 over the presence of the US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea, south of Hainan Island. It was at that time, as reported here last year, that China began the program to arm and repurpose fishing vessels to serve as patrol ships.
The Impeccable event of 2009 is a superb illustration of the basic principle I’m getting at in this piece. Impeccable is an unarmed surveillance ship, and therefore, to enforce our policy of having her operate – as she is entitled to – in the international waters south of Hainan Island, we dispatched an Aegis destroyer to provide her a security escort. Nothing short of an Aegis destroyer – one of the expensive platforms Gates attributes to the Navy’s Cold War mindset – would have been up to the job. The capabilities of an Aegis destroyer represent, in fact, the minimum required to perform that function in the South China Sea, where the potential threat comes from China.
China has long asserted national prerogatives over her contiguous waters – waters, that is, outside the internationally-recognized 12-nautical-mile territorial limit – that go well beyond what other maritime powers like the US, Japan, Australia, Russia, and Britain recognize (see the linked piece “Sonar Wars,” on the Impeccable incident, above). Those asserted prerogatives have been the basis of Chinese objections to the passage of US naval ships through the waters in question. They have also been the basis of China’s strong-arming of Vietnam in the international waters of the South China Sea (see here and here). China’s intentions with maritime superiority would not be to maintain the freedom-of-navigation regime the US enforces; what Beijing would do is constrain, limit, and extort maritime traffic. This is likely to begin happening very shortly with the “fishery patrols” in the South China Sea.
China is, in fact, putting together a force package that can deny the maritime space of Southeast Asia to the US and our allies. This policy trend is analogous to Iran’s preparations to hold the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf at risk, but on a larger geographic scale. Such a “sea denial” effort would only be undertaken in a serious clash of interests between the US and China – but to assume that such a clash could not occur is absurd. Besides the security of Taiwan, there are the very basic US interest in unfettered global access to the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea waterways, and the equally basic interest in our allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines having the freedom to pursue their national courses unintimidated and unextorted by China. These conditions are the ones that keep the Far East open, in balance, and non-hostile across the Pacific Ocean. They cannot change without undoing our security in the Pacific. But a shift in the naval balance of power – of who controls the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, and whose maritime policies set the boundaries for exclusive economic zone use and denial – would inevitably change those conditions from bottom to top.
Cheap, small, light-footprint, low-lethality weapons, and minimal force presence: these are inadequate to the task of counterbalancing a Chinese maritime thrust from East Asia. The point is not even whether we will have to fight China; the point is what force level will prevent our ever having to, while enforcing our maritime policy. The desired outcome is that China never succeeds in bringing her unilateral maritime-claim assertions to the point of confrontation, with the US or other nations in the region, most particularly our allies. Unarmed reconnaissance drones and hydrofoil ships with small guns can’t achieve that outcome. Only the expensive platforms Gates questions the need for so many of, deployed widely and often, are up to the task.
Small provocations that go unanswered turn into larger ones. Iran and China have both engaged in such provocations this spring. Today it would take only a moderate portion of our force level to make a show of force and send tacit but unmistakable messages. But if we fail to do that, at the same time we are drawing down our most lethal and effective weapon platforms, the loss of superiority will be catastrophic. Opponents will begin to act because they are no longer intimidated, and because they know it will take longer and longer for us to assemble an intimidating level of force. Allies will begin to consider the wisdom of making other arrangements for their security. The trend has already started. Now is not the time to question the very need for our most capable naval platforms.