The New Great Game: 17 Months On

Antipiracy multilateralism and SSGN Jump-Outs in 2010.

One of the first posts I made at this blog last year was “Not Your Father’s Cold War,” in which I criticized the US administration’s antipiracy approach of encouraging lots of navies to join the multilateral gaggle of forces laboring off Somalia.  My justification for viewing this with grave concern is outlined in the strategic background portion of that older post.  What I want to do today is update the situation for readers.  It has changed since February 2009, and significantly.

The biggest change is in China’s posture in the antipiracy force, something that has gotten almost no attention outside of defense wonk forums.  But there are developments worth mentioning with the EU’s approach (in Operation Atalanta, the name of its antipiracy campaign); with the command arrangements of the US-sponsored coalition task force (CTF 151); and with the local arrangements of nations like Japan and Iran.  As I predicted last year, using naval force in the antipiracy mission functions as a wedge for the aspirations of various nations to project power around the Middle East’s “great crossroads.”  Establishing a naval presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden creates an opportunity for power plays beyond the immediate piracy problem, something that has been easily foreseeable from the outset.  And the foreseeable is happening, “as we speak.”

China’s Naval Gambit

There has been a small flurry in the blogosphere recently, over the latest dispatch of a Chinese flotilla to the antipiracy mission.  This is the sixth naval task force sent by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), but the first one to feature an amphibious transport dock ship (LPD) as its flagship.  The Yuzhao-class LPD, or Type 071, is one of China’s newest ship types, intended to modernize and increase the PLAN’s capability to conduct amphibious assault.  It’s also China’s largest operational warship, capable of transporting up to 6 amphibious landing craft in the well-deck and 4 helicopters.

Type 071 LPD/Photo from

An LPD is less suited to the antipiracy mission than a destroyer or frigate, however, lacking the speed and agility of the escort warships.  The Chinese Type 071’s baseline armament – a 76mm gun forward, close-in-weapon-system (CIWS) air defense stations – is also less suited to the mission than the smaller-caliber machine guns with which coalition warships are routinely deploying.  The Chinese ship in question, Kunlunshan, may have been outfitted with machine guns before leaving her home port, but it remains the case that Kunlunshan would not be deployed for any reason related to her mission suitability.  Optimal mission suitability would dictate dispatching destroyers and frigates, as China did with the first five flotillas.

Deploying the Type 071 LPD is a political move; the sending of a signal.  One thing the deployment accomplishes is conditioning Asians (and Westerners with strategic maritime interests) to the “out-of-area” deployment of a maritime power-projection platform.  There is no defensive mission unique to an amphibious assault ship.  Of all naval ship types, its primary role is the most purely offensive.  Its inherent meaning is that a nation intends to be able to assault foreign territory.  Kunlunshan is not carrying a complement of naval infantry or assault craft on this deployment (it’s reportedly carrying two Super Frelon-type Z-8 naval helicopters), but the deployment itself sends the clear political signal that China can dispatch such a platform at will.

China made sure Kunlunshan would be noticed on the way to the Gulf of Aden.  Beijing puts out press reporting on all of the Chinese flotillas, but for this one’s transit, a special display was arranged:  an underway replenishment of the flotilla in the Strait of Malacca (SOM) on 7 July.  Now, if you can avoid doing an UNREP in the SOM, you want to:  it’s a heavily-trafficked strait and there is no good reason to constrain your maneuverability in it with a difficult, tightly-coordinated, and dangerous at-sea operation.  Performing an UNREP in the SOM is a political signal, not the first choice of a prudent mariner.  China’s participation in the antipiracy mission is as much about demonstrating naval power to Asian observers – who rely heavily on shipping through the SOM – as it is about protecting merchant ships from pirates off Somalia.

How did China get from sending destroyers and frigates to sending an amphibious assault ship to the antipiracy mission?  With help from the US.  One of the chief geopolitical vulnerabilities of the US multilateral approach is that what we and our allies do in the antipiracy operation paves the way for others to do the same.  When we stood up Combined Task Force 151 in January 2009, we designated USS San Antonio (LPD-17) as the task force flagship.  Another amphibious ship, USS Boxer (LHD-4), was the second CTF 151 flagship.

Although we have since used cruisers and destroyers in the flagship role, the precedent of using a larger amphibious ship to host the task force command staff had been set.  (It’s also worth noting that when San Antonio was acting as flagship, she – our newest LPD, like China’s Kunlunshan – was on her maiden operational deployment.  The PLAN move with Kunlunshan is thus a humorously exact replication of our inaugural arrangements for commanding CTF 151.  To doubt that it is also pointedly exact would be disingenuous.)

What gave China the impression that a greater level of naval force would be accepted by her multinational partners?  The agreement in principle that China could chair the multilateral forum in which antipiracy operations are now being coordinated.  The forum is called SHADE – for Shared Awareness and Deconfliction – and brings together NATO, the EU, the US-led navies of CTF 151, and the various individual nations that have agreed to participate in the SHADE exchange.  In late 2009, the forum accepted the idea of China assuming rotational leadership of it at some point – with the provisos that China integrate a ship with the coalition piracy deterrence mission (as opposed to merely escorting merchants), and bring the same command-and-control capabilities mounted by the other task forces.

SHADE’s leading lights do seem to recognize that this is not a strategically neutral solicitation. Earlier this week, they suggested to India – another forum participant – that she consider assuming rotational leadership as well, signifying their understanding that China’s ascent, even in such a specialized forum, is fraught with implications for the other Asian powers.  It would be an even better sign if the Western nations seemed to understand that all of this has implications for them as well.

China has been making good use of her participation in the antipiracy effort.  In January, one of her warships on station conducted the first-ever Chinese navy port visit in Africa with a high-profile call on Djibouti.  The visit came shortly after a senior Chinese admiral made headlines with his speculation that Beijing might establish a base for naval operations in the Horn of Africa.  China is not alone in speaking publicly of such ideas:  Japan is developing a military operating base in Djibouti, her first such overseas facility since World War II.  As with the amphibious assault ship deployment, China can point to the actions of a US ally and G-8 stalwart in justifying her contemplation of a similar plan.  Japan, of course, cannot simply stand by and let China develop a crusading naval profile without a compensating response.

Another key opportunity presented by participating in SHADE is China’s chance to make proposals about the overall conduct of antipiracy operations.  Some of these have clear long-term implications.  A principal example is Beijing’s preference for providing escort to merchant ships over performing area suppression and deterrence of piratical acts.  These are two different ways of approaching the mission, and China favors the former.  SHADE has reached the understanding that the two methods of operation can coexist; but China has also proposed that the area of operations (AO) be divided geographically among the major subgroups in the operation (of which China constitutes one), with one subgroup having responsibility for escort in each assigned area.

India, for her part, is adamantly opposed to assigning a geographic area of responsibility to China’s navy.  But the longer this effort goes on, the more likely such proposals will be to gain acceptance through custom, incremental implementation, and tacit approval.  India will not simply oppose the idea; she will plan – however reluctantly – to assume a parallel role herself if it comes to that.  Japan has as little positive urgency as India about projecting naval power in this manner, but both will be galvanized by any Chinese triumphs in this regard, however minor they may seem from the standpoint of day-to-day antipiracy operations.  So will Russia.

China’s emerging naval posture has obvious implications for the future.  Few would fail to recognize the implications for Taiwan’s security in mainstreaming the deployment of PLAN amphibious assault ships.  The whole South China Sea is included in those particular implications.  PLAN ships have to transit strategically significant waters – the South China Sea, the SOM, India’s back yard – to get to the Horn of Africa AO; antipiracy operations are a made-to-order justification for making such politically-fraught transits routine.  China’s diligent effort to blend with and shape the multinational operations off the Horn of Africa has more than one application too:  with piracy on the uptick this year in the South China Sea, another made-to-order opportunity could well be emerging.  In this one, however, China would expect to assume the lead from the outset.

Multilateralism Opening Doors

As discussed, what the US and our allies do in an operation like this – one into which we have invited numerous non-allied participants – becomes a precedent for aspiring power-projectors.  The US Navy’s use of amphibious assault ships as antipiracy flagships set the stage for China’s “copycat” deployment.  Tokyo’s development of a forward operating base puts Beijing in “good company” when her senior leaders float a similar idea.

France’s decision in this interim to establish a forward base in Abu Dhabi, and the persistent rumors about Russian intentions in this regard, in the Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf, increase the general sense of this being a generic trend, as does Iran’s reported development of a military base, nominally for its antipiracy patrol ships, in the Eritrean port of Assab on the Red Sea.  The free-for-all was effectively green-lighted by the US policy of encouraging a broad-based, global antipiracy coalition and facilitating the accession to it of as many participants as possible.

Another US practice in CTF 151 – positive though it is from some perspectives – will have the effect of lowering mental barriers to a Chinese leadership role in the coalition.  The EU task force is composed solely of ships from EU member navies, as is the NATO task force.  But CTF 151 operates ships from a number of individual contributors, from Saudi Arabia to South Korea.  In recent months, a Singaporean admiral has commanded CTF 151, using USS Farragut (DDG-99) as his flagship, and a South Korean admiral has assumed command of the task force from aboard his navy’s destroyer, ROKS Kang Gam Chan.

These are certainly positive steps for maritime outreach and multinational interoperability, but they set a precedent that is likely to come back to haunt us.  Whatever we make routine in an avowedly multilateral, coalition-of-the-willing operation, others will be emboldened to do themselves.  Antipiracy is peculiarly suited to low-cost participation and leadership; there is no real capability barrier to China seeking greater leadership stature in the context of a multilateral coalition with such a mission.  Such a pursuit may or may not be undertaken in a US-led forum.  With the American emphasis on multilateralism in the antipiracy effort, barriers to the acceptance of leadership from outside of any standing alliance are falling.

An antipiracy effort that emerged in the South China Sea would be a more natural fit for an assumption of Chinese leadership.  But there is less than we imagine now blocking a substantive Chinese leadership role, at the tactical level, in antipiracy operations off Somalia.  If China is recognized as her own participatory subgroup, with the standing of the coalition subgroups like NATO or CTF 151, the political stature that comes with that is a boost to copying the activities of other subgroups – like assuming tactical command across subgroups in designated situations, or forming China’s own coalition-of-the-willing.

Another precedent set this spring bears watching, and has implications for great-power contributors like China and Russia.  The EU made a unilateral political decision in February to modify its approach in Operation Atalanta: its forces would extend their reach ashore to include “control of Somali ports” and interdiction of pirate mother ships before they had launched attacks.  (I wrote about this here in March.)  The invitation this represents to mission creep is one noteworthy aspect of it, but another is that this was a unique EU decision, not taken in concert with NATO’s Atlantic Council or the CTF 151 coalition.  In fact, as I wrote at the “contentions” link, the US State Department was at pains to distance itself from any collateral implication that the US had the slightest interest in interfering ashore in Somalia.

It would be an overstatement to suggest this development indicated a crack in US-European unity.  But what it did unquestionably represent was the EU exercising freedom to adopt its own separate strategic approach to antipiracy operations.  We must not miss the significance of this:  proposing to control Somali ports, as an antipiracy method, is an order-of-magnitude step beyond what the coalition subgroups had tacitly agreed to cooperate in doing.  It has implications for political interaction ashore.  This major methodological decision was taken separately by one coalition subgroup, the EU – not in overt conflict with the express intentions of the other subgroups, but nevertheless unilaterally.

This precedent is tailor-made for nations like China and Russia:  it entails the possibility of official acceptance in a broad coalition while retaining a very interesting latitude for unilateral initiative.  Given the prickly, often counterproductive independence of both these nations in the nominally unified “P5+1” approach to Iran, we would be obtuse to doubt their disposition to act unilaterally – while within a coalition – in other situations.  We’d be equally obtuse to be blind to their many efforts, already underway, to assume leadership and preempt the US in multinational approaches to everything from North Korea to Nagorno-Karabakh to European security, missile defense, and the Quartet and the Middle East peace process.

It’s only a matter of time before this pattern of initiative becomes apparent in the geostrategic realm in which the United States has been the ascendant – and most of the time the sole – global actor for the last 70 years:  maritime and expeditionary operations.  The beauty of the antipiracy mission, besides the opportunities presented by the US emphasis on multilateralism, is that the entry price is so low.  You don’t have to be a superpower or have the world’s biggest, most powerful navy to assume leadership in antipiracy.  And when you do assume leadership, you can effectively claim the privileges of previous leaders as well as the prerogatives of your peer-participants.

Iran, like China, has taken advantage of this to the extent she can.  Without the US proclamation of a multilateral regime for the effort, Iran could not have leveraged the antipiracy operation to put warships in the Red Sea and off the coast of Yemen.  If Iran had been in doubt of our willingness to tolerate such deployments, she would not have tried them.  We sent a much bigger signal than we may have intended with the affirmation of multilateralism in the antipiracy effort, and we have been signaling incrementally ever since that naval power exercised by others, for reasons independent of ours if not overtly antithetical, is, in principle, fine by us.

There has been some inconsistency in this regard, if we compare the determination we showed last year – to persist in maritime surveillance operations near China – with our quiescent, welcome-all-comers stance elsewhere.  What’s important, though, is that the inconsistency is mainly apparent to everyone but us.  As long as we think of ourselves reflexively as the maritime hegemon, inconsistent enforcement of that hegemony will not seem confusing to us, but merely selective.

We have reached a dangerous point, at which we have such a sense that the status quo we are fond of is invulnerable that we are unable to see the designs of others on it, or recognize their different perspective.  The truth is that we are not unchallengeable, particularly not in regional or asymmetric situations where our conventional military might outstrips our political will.  Inviting aspiring competitors into a quiescent multilateral situation that we created is not being nice, it’s actively cultivating our own challengers.

The Next Door Opening

NATO has decided to deploy a submarine to the antipiracy operation.  One of the Netherlands’ Walrus-class diesel-powered attack submarines will reportedly join the operation in September, and presumably other NATO nations will provide submarines in the future.  NATO’s EU nations may do so as well, under the EU banner, and the possibility that CTF 151 will supply submarines – like Japan’s or South Korea’s – cannot be discounted.  Both nations have deployed submarines to major exercises across the Pacific; the Horn of Africa would be a long haul for them, but quite a feasible one.  If US submarines participate overtly, they will probably do so under the aegis of the NATO task force, since they have supported NATO operations before.

Independent contributors with submarine forces include Russia, China, India, and Iran.  NATO’s initiative to deploy an attack submarine is very likely to encourage some or all of the independents to do the same.  A deployment by Russia would involve the least unprecedented activity; during the Cold War, the Soviet navy routinely deployed submarines to the Indian Ocean and replenished them from its anchorage off Yemen’s Socotra Island.  Russia’s navy has labored to send submarines on an increased number of long-range deployments since 2007, and while they have not included deployments to the Horn of Africa, putting a submarine there would not involve an absolute change of posture for today’s Russian navy.

India, with its long South Asian coastline, operates submarines frequently in the central Indian Ocean, and a deployment to the Horn of Africa would represent an unusual but still regional expansion of that pattern.

Iran, meanwhile, would find a deployment to the Horn of Africa feasible, if not a good idea under certain conditions (e.g., if the mullahs thought it necessary to keep the submarines – they only have three ocean-going attack submarines – close to home to respond to an attack).  I regard Iran as the least likely to deploy a submarine for the antipiracy mission, either overtly or covertly; Tehran’s naval limitations set narrow boundaries on the scope of Iranian operations.

But China is likely to take maximum advantage of the tacit invitation to deploy attack submarines to the Horn of Africa – and that would be a real departure from longstanding regional patterns.  The nature of the multilateral antipiracy effort is such that China could conduct the deployment overtly enough to make the point, all across Asia and the Middle East, under cover of the announced NATO policy – but still not owe the other participants anything from the submarine’s operations (e.g., intelligence reports or targeting information on pirate deployments).  In the matter of deconflicting submarine operations with the other participants, China (like Russia) would be able to be as secretive as she preferred, but would probably also be able to glean information on what other participants’ submarines were doing from having visibility on their deconfliction practices.

Opening the Wrong Door

At this reassuring juncture in US geopolitical history, Time magazine’s Mark Thompson writes that what the Obama administration has chosen to do is announce that all four of our converted Ohio-class “SSGNs” – submarines that used to carry Trident ballistic missiles and are now equipped with large load-outs of the Tomahawk cruise missile (signified by the “G”) – are deployed forward for the first time ever.  On 28 June, three of the Ohio SSGNs reportedly surfaced simultaneously in US-frequented strategic ports in the Philippines, South Korea, and the British-administered island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.  Thompson says the US made sure this cross-continental water ballet made headlines in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post – on 4 July, the day China was expected to conduct an at-sea test of her unique DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

USS Ohio (SSGN-726) in 2008, before participating in SSGN Jump-Out in 2010 (Navy photo)

Thompson quotes think-tank expert Bonnie Glaser of the Central for Strategic and International Studies as follows:

There’s been a decision to bolster our forces in the Pacific.  There is no doubt that China will stand up and take notice… [The Tomahawks’ arrival] is part of a larger effort to bolster our capabilities in the region.  It sends a signal that nobody should rule out our determination to be the balancer in the region that many countries there want us to be.

“No doubt,” says Thompson, “Beijing got the signal.”

It’s hard to be patient with this fatuous, game-theory-esque analysis – and with the overly clever signal-sending posture suggested by the Great SSGN Jump-Out on 28 June.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the signal-infested Kennedy-McNamara years, when foreign policy was executed by a combination of melodramatic announcement and Secret Decoder Ring.  If opening the Somali coast to all comers isn’t the right thing to do with submarines, neither is this.

Besides the fact that it’s just annoying to see sabers rattled as if they are props in a B.F. Skinner behavior-modification scenario, calling attention to the big gaggle of Tomahawks doesn’t carry nearly the psychological weight the Obama administration may think it does.  Countries like Saddam’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Sudan couldn’t shoot down Tomahawks in the 1990s.  But China in 2010 can.  The Tomahawk is a great weapon for many applications, but it’s a subsonic cruise missile; China has at least three air defense systems, with trained operators, that can shoot it down.

The Tomahawk isn’t an intimidation weapon for a nation like China.  The US could use it effectively against China only in a major combined-arms conflict, one in which we committed multiple front-line weapon systems, in a fight the size of which we haven’t engaged in since the Korean War.  China is not Iraq or Sudan.

The signal we are sending with our overall naval posture, much of which is communicated through our antipiracy approach, comes through far more strongly and consistently than whatever we were trying to say with the Great SSGN Jump-Out.  It hasn’t helped that Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to save defense dollars by further reducing investment in the big-ticket weapon systems by which we project power and exercise sea control.  Unfortunately, with our defense secretary wanting to cut down on the only weapon systems that do intimidate China (and Russia), and with the American policy of effectively disclaiming key aspects of leadership for the antipiracy problem in the “great crossroads,” the sophomoric and illogical character of the Great SSGN Jump-Out of 28 June 2010 just makes the Obama administration look clueless.

9 thoughts on “The New Great Game: 17 Months On”

  1. They are clueless.

    There may however, be a silver lining in all of this in that China will find that deeper international involvement carries a price in exposing it to international media criticism when China inevitably runs afoul of politically correct sentiments.

    Entanglements it may someday regret forming are highly likely. Africa is a chaotic mine-field of potential ‘loss of face’ for the Chinese.

    The Yuzhao-class LPD, as China’s largest operational warship puts their naval power in perspective and while the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is potentially a real threat to our CSG naval forces, any attack upon a CSG with ballistic missiles would be an act of war impossible to ignore and a prelude to WWIII…

  2. I fear you’re right about the cluelessness, GB.

    I’m not really very worried about the DF-21D; it’s exotic and fascinating but I’m far from convinced of its effectiveness. Harassment would be its most productive use, I think.

    What concerns me most of all is — well, two things. One is the influx of naval forces into the Middle East, with their bases and national agendas and many moving parts. We’re fooling ourselves if we think the steam’s not running out of our easily-maintained maritime primacy there. The days of France and China, or Japan and Russia, making deals we don’t like is not far off. The world is not a kindly place in which its richest, fattest prize (that would be us) can afford to become irrelevant in the power-brokering realm.

    The other thing is the Chinese trend outlined in the post. China has no interest in confronting our aircraft carriers. What China wants to do is become the default maritime hegemon in — to begin with — East Asia, by creeping erosion. Half of that process has to be China establishing herself as a power-projecting naval power. If it weren’t for the US posture on the anitpiracy methodology, what China is doing right now would be seen as alarming rather than incremental and evolutionary. China would hate it, and a lot of foreign pundits would complain, if we behaved more suspiciously and hegemonically about China’s gambit in the Gulf of Aden — but we’re carrying China’s water by doing the opposite.

  3. I find myself a bit less concerned than you J.E. not because I think you overstate your concerns but because of other factors. Which is not to imply that we shouldn’t be doing things differently.

    Rather I doubt that France and China, or Japan and Russia, making deals in the M.E. will, in the long-run, actually work out to the advantage of those nations. Middle Eastern nations have their own agenda. Islamic radicals are NOT going to welcome infidels establishing naval bases in the ummah…

    The Chinese attempting to establish regional dominance as the default maritime hegemon is going to run smack up against regional antipathies. Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and many other Asian theater nations are not going to take kindly to Chinese efforts to dominate. There will be resistance such as the 2007 “Quadrilateral Initiative”, which brought together the US, Japan, India and Australia.

    Just as our efforts to dominate have been met with passive but effective resistance, so too will China’s efforts be obstructed.

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