Archive for September, 2010

This was a recent RSIS Commentary that I wrote concerning this subject.


My argument here is this: China’s naval power is indeed growing, but it still suffers from serious shortfalls that prevents China from having a more assertive and muscular strategy in the South China Sea.

Below, in full, is a comment from two scholars from the US Naval War College, also available at http://the-diplomat.com/2010/09/17/why-chinas-navy-is-a-threat/.

Why China’s Navy is a Threat
September 17, 2010, by James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara
Sceptics who downplay China’s growing maritime strength are mistaken. South-east Asian policymakers should ignore them.

Civilian academics who study military affairs like to hold forth on tactical matters. But this can lead to misguided advice. Exhibit A: Prof. Bernard Loo of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Relations recently maintained that there’s ‘less than meets the eye’ to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) combat reach in South-east Asia. Now, he insists, ‘is not the time to press the panic button.’

This upbeat appraisal rests on several flimsy assumptions and claims. If they heed Loo’s advice, South-east Asian governments that can ill afford complacency will seriously misjudge the Chinese maritime challenge. They need not panic, but they must cope with China’s waxing naval might—starting now.

First of all, Loo deprecates ‘an alleged aircraft carrier-killing cruise missile,’ suggesting a sea-skimming anti-ship missile with a range of a few score miles. But the anti-ship missile that vexes China-watchers is an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a weapon whose range, speed and hitting power dwarf that of any cruise missile. Estimates vary, but should the PLA perfect its ASBM, Chinese racketeers could pound away at ships underway up to 2,000 miles away.

What would this mean? It means that PLA forces could range the entire South China Sea from mobile launchers positioned on Hainan Island or elsewhere along the South China coast. Loo counsels Southeast Asian navies to simply wait out a Chinese Navy that lacks a robust logistics fleet. But if PLA forces can use land-based weaponry to sink ships in port or cruising the South China Sea, then this amounts to a strategy of defeat and destruction.

But sea power is anyway about more than the fleet. Even if the PLA Navy proves unable to mount a continuous presence in the South China Sea—an assumption growing more doubtful by the day—systems able to influence events at sea from the land provide continuous virtual presence throughout the spectrum of conflict, from peacetime to wartime. This versatility explains the emphasis Chinese strategists now place on extended-range shore-based weaponry.

Next, Loo claims that navies typically follow a three-phase tactical training and deployment cycle. This means one-third of the fleet is deployed at any given time, another third is refitting and unavailable for sea service and the remaining third is working up for deployment. From this Loo concludes that estimates of Chinese naval power wildly overstate the numbers of ships and aircraft available to Beijing at any given time.

There are two problems with this. For one, the 3:1 ratio isn’t an iron law of naval operations but a rule of thumb derived from standard US Navy practice. But the US Navy, today’s only global navy, is encumbered with commitments far more demanding than those confronting any regional fleet. As a result, American warships incur far greater wear-and-tear in the course of their duties. That requires frequent shipyard periods to refit.

Navies like China’s that mostly operate close to home can expect to have a bigger proportion of their fleet available at any particular moment. The maintenance burden is smaller and the time spent in port greater, allowing for generous overhaul time and crew rest.

For another, even if the 3:1 rule did apply to all navies, far more than one-third of the fleet can be combat-ready at any moment. In 2004 the US Navy simultaneously deployed seven of its eleven aircraft-carrier strike groups for ‘Operation Summer Pulse,’ a massive exercise spanning five theaters across the globe. If the US fleet can overcome the rigors of extended deployments and upkeep, a Chinese Navy with more modest missions could probably do so as well.

Bottom line: Prof. Loo takes maritime specialists to task for exaggerating PLAN force totals by a factor of three, but he understates available PLA Navy combat strength by half.

Moreover, Loo seems to think the US Pacific Fleet can easily mass overwhelming strength in the South China Sea to beat back a Chinese naval offensive. At first glance this appears reasonable. The navy recently finished realigning its force posture, concentrating some 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific. But at 287 vessels, the US Navy is now smaller in raw numbers than before World War I, and it is dispersed across the globe discharging countless missions.

This declining fleet must contend with a PLA Navy that has spent the last 15 years devising capabilities—of which the ASBM represents only one—aimed at exploiting US weaknesses in antisubmarine warfare, mine countermeasures and other niche areas. The result? Chinese mariners can now impose steep costs on the US Pacific Fleet, contesting its ability even to reach a theater of combat like the South China Sea—much less to wage war effectively once there.

True, the PLA Navy exhibits weaknesses of its own such as at-sea refueling and rearming. It therefore behooves South-east Asian governments to start exploiting such vulnerabilities. Heaving a sigh of relief at China’s supposed maritime weakness represents precisely the wrong approach. Government policymakers should beware of academics who purport to speak with authority on tactical and technical matters—drawing conclusions their experience and expertise does not support.

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-authors of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are theirs alone.


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From The Australian, a piece by the noted strategist Edward Luttwak …

THE Byzantines brought three skills to their foreign policy: intelligence, diplomacy and military force. Their superiority in each kept the eastern half of the Roman Empire intact for a millennium after the famed legions of the West fell to invading barbarians.

Today, in the contemporary West, we don’t even begin to approach the sophistication in these skills of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and now Istanbul, according to Edward Luttwak, author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

“The Romans had fought approximately 80 different foes in the process of [their] imperial expansion,” Luttwak said from Washington this week, on the eve of attending the Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne. “And then came one more: the Huns. They had such superior weapons, such superior agility on the battlefield and rapid mobility across vast spaces . . . The Romans were completely outclassed.”

But the Byzantines in their surviving Eastern Roman Empire figured out how to manage the Huns with skilful intelligence gathering and wily diplomacy.

The best historical sources on Attila the Hun are still those intelligence reports, Luttwak says. “Intelligence in the broadest sense. Not just counting how many spears the enemy has but knowing where he’s from, how he dresses, what he eats, what frightens him, what he hopes for.

“Intelligence blinded by ideology cannot see. . . . You need to have an open mind and you need to have the freedom to call a spade a spade. They did and we can’t.”

Luttwak’s scholarship is contested and his politically incorrect views may leave readers gasping. But there’s something about his logic: in a jam, you don’t want an idealist covering your back but a hard-nosed pragmatist.

The most obvious spade we can’t name is Islam. We pussyfoot around motives for going to war. And we lack the intellectual curiosity that fuels serious intelligence gathering.

The lack of Arabic and Pashtun language skills in US intelligence, even as the US was leading the coalition into the Middle East after 9/11, is legend. Luttwak refers scathingly to Michael Scheuer, the bestselling author of Imperial Hubris, who headed the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden for three years, not knowing Arabic, not trying to learn it and not ordered to by his superiors.

This lack of professionalism, in all three spheres in which Byzantium excelled, is Luttwak’s core message. A senior associate at the conservative Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he has advised the White House, the State Department and all branches of the US military, and clearly relishes telling truth to power.

“Look at the casualty lists from Afghanistan,” he says. “Some of the people who have been killed there are 18 years old, which means they went to Afghanistan with less than a year’s training.

“A Byzantine general would be horrified by the idea of sending someone into combat with less than two years’ training.”

It’s not a matter of resources, he says, but philosophy. The Byzantine empire went to war as a last resort, but when they did, they went with superior forces, not with cannon fodder, and with concrete goals: to preserve the tax-paying lands of empire and defend the Orthodox faith. Our philosophy, by contrast, is ideological.

“Why are we in Afghanistan? To bring democracy?” Luttwak asks rhetorically. “The US is spending $US7 billion [$7.7bn] a month doing things like funding the Afghan parliament. What has a frigging parliament got to do with Afghanistan? All the generals and statesmen who make these wars are slaves of words and concepts. The Byzantines fought for real things, not to save this or liberate that. Their soldiers were skilled craftsmen of war, and you cannot be skilled craftsman of war if you are an 18-year-old boy.”

Phew. Mostly, Luttwak seems to think we should keep our noses out of other people’s business. And we should think very carefully before we blunder in. He uses the example of Americans arriving to save Europe during World War II, and the speed with which they called up millions of men, gave them “shake and break” training, and sent them off to fight.

The Byzantines would have sat down and said: “Hitler’s not very nice guy but, after all, if we defeat him with the Soviet Union, the next thing will be a conflict with the Soviet Union. So we should just take him down several pegs first, make sure these real bad guys get replaced by good German army people, and then we’ll wean them off some of the more embarrassing things.” Then “you call in your army chiefs and say, ‘How long would it take you to get the army ready to go over to Europe?’ and they will say, ‘For proper training we’ll need 18 months’ .”

But what about the Holocaust? You can’t take a long-term view when that is in train.

“But, as you know, they [the US] did nothing about that,” he replies without missing a beat. “What interrupted the Holocaust was the advance of the Russians. And the Russians advanced because they were counter-fighting. They had been attacked first.

“The Holocaust should have been a reason to go to war. I’m Jewish myself, I would have been very happy if it had been interrupted. But it was not even attempted.”

Luttwak was born in Romania in 1940. The family fled while he was a toddler and fetched up in Italy, where the battled-scarred environment moved him not to play soldiers, he says, but to wonder about the causes of war, the conditions for peace.

“I wanted to look at who were the really good practitioners, and they were the Romans, the Byzantines and the Mongols. Everybody else was second league.”

He studied at the London School of Economics, then earned a doctorate in Roman Empire strategy at Johns Hopkins University. Next he tackled Byzantine strategy.

Post-Enlightenment prejudice against Byzantium, a society permeated with religiosity, was so intense that scholars had barely touched it. Instead of the organised wealth of primary sources he was used to, Luttwak had to hunt down documents and often translate them himself (he is fluently multilingual). His studies reinforced an uncompromising view of the world.

He says the Rwandan genocide could easily have been stopped if the world had had the will.

“All you had to do was fly in 3000 European troops,” he says. “Not UN troops in their baby-blue berets standing around watching while the massacres take place. Combat troops, and you tell them to kill any Hutus they see carrying machetes. And Sudan — which is a cardboard government with a cardboard army and jellybaby influence — has killed at least 200,000 people in Darfur. But nobody has gone in, knocked off the Sudanese, and stopped it cold.”

Which brings us to Luttwak’s view of Islam. He pays no lip service to the idea of Islam as a religion of peace: it has been militaristic from the outset.

“We are actually fighting Islam exactly as the Muslims say we are, but we pretend we are not,” he says. “If you take Islam out of the picture in Afghanistan, who would you be fighting? Politically, militarily, or culturally, absolutely nobody.”

What we have created in Afghanistan, he says, is a cargo cult. “All you have to do, if you have a really tin-pot no-good nuisance country, is get a few men together, get them to wear long beards and go round saying death to everybody, and next thing you know the Americans will come and build schools and hospitals for you. And they will give you lots of money so you can build all the villas that are going up in Kabul and stash money in Swiss banks.”

The reality, he says, is that we ought to be fighting Islamism. “But we should be doing it Byzantine way: by staying out of their territory, securing our own and leaving them to fight each other. Instead of going in to your neighbour’s garden to straighten up his weeds, look to your own garden.”

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