Newsflash: The Is No “Wonder-Weapon” When it Comes to Modern War

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As Herman Göring might have said, “when I hear the name Carl von Clausewitz, I reach for my gun” (he actually made the comment about the word “culture”.). Particularly when the reference occurs early on in a speech and when it’s followed, in short order, with a machine-gun like spray of other military theorists—finishing up with Azar Gat. There was, however, method in  Australian Air Marshal Geoff Brown’s dinner speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the reference to Gat (who believes traditional war is in decline in today’s world) was certainly not accidental.

The Chief of Air Force began with a discursive explanation of how airpower had begun, during World War One, as little more than an ancillary to the real protagonists deciding the result on the ground. Then came the almost obligatory development of his theme, the transition from appendage to enabler in World War Two.

Perhaps I’ve listened to too many after-dinner speeches. I’d almost begun to drift off and count the rosettes on the ceiling. “Now,” I thought to myself, “there’ll be an elaboration of how the RAAF has subsequently become the decisive factor in the military equation.” That was a mistake.

When Brown turned to the present he suddenly became specific. Gone were the broad brush-strokes with their theoretical references; replacing them came details and particulars. But, and much to my surprise, there weren’t any references to the third generation of war—one where airpower reigned supreme. Instead the Chief emphasised something we journalists find it difficult to get our heads around: there are no simplistic answers in modern conflict. It requires a team to achieve the objective, and every player has their part.

It’s interesting to hear this sort of talk from one of the three service chiefs, particularly at a time of increasing financial stringencies. While it’s true the announcement that Australia is going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter means the RAAF has already been given its Christmas and birthday presents for many years to come, technology is developing fast.

The big question, of course, is how rapidly unmanned systems will develop. As long ago as 2011, even the Economist was predicting that the piloted plane could soon become a thing of the past. But, and as Brown pointed out, that’s misreading the lessons of history.

His message was that there is no silver bullet. Military effects are created by a system of systems. Brown had just as much time in his speech for the maintenance engineer as he did for the unmanned drone.

We don’t reflect on that often enough. It’s in our nature to look for the sensational breakthrough technology; the wonder-weapon. Those don’t exist. That’s probably not the message Brown wanted us to take away from his speech—but it’s not a bad one. And it’s a relief to see that even the head of the RAAF’s capable of understanding that airpower alone never wins wars.

Apart, of course, from Bosnia.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 


China vs. America: The "Freedom of Navigation" Debate

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Comments by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting recently highlighted the futility of the US-China dialogue over the freedom of navigation. In remarks to the press, Wang challenged Washington’s call for unhindered navigation of the high seas by arguing that the ‘current situation of the South China Sea is generally stable, and the freedom of navigation there has never seen any problems.’ The circular nature of this debate makes it clear that support for the US by third parties, such as Europe, will be necessary to break the logjam and reinforce a principle that Europe also relies on for its prosperity and security.

What was not apparent in Wang’s remarks is that the dispute between the US and China over the freedom of navigation is not about commercial ships, but military ones. According to Beijing’s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military activities within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – which extends 200 nautical miles seaward from a state’s coastline – are banned. Washington argues that this is a distorted understanding of the law, and is supported in this view by the majority of states worldwide. Only about two-dozen countries openly agree with China’s interpretation.

There are many facets of China’s disputes with the United States over the South China Sea, but none generates more rancor than the question of military activities within an EEZ. This dispute has been the source of most US-China flashpoints in the region, including China’s harassment of the surveillance ship USS Impeccable in 2009 and the near-collision of a Chinese vessel with the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens earlier this year. Following China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in 2013, it now appears that Beijing is seeking to exert sovereign control over the skies as well, and given China’s tendency toward harassment and coercion, mid-air confrontations with the US cannot be ruled out.

Yet while the US has defended its right to conduct military activities during recent crises, Washington is coy about raising the issue on a routine basis, favouring instead a vaguer call for ‘freedom of navigation.’ This could be due to a lack of support in the region for the US position. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Japan have all expressed reservations over the rights of foreign military vessels to operate in their EEZs. While these countries are all vigorous proponents of UNCLOS, and are skeptical of the legality of China’s historically based maritime claims, they are largely silent over the EEZ issue. This of course adds to the potency of Wang’s recent comments: they suggest that the US is an outlier in the region and has a policy that is not recognized by others.

Some countries believe that unfettered military activities in coastal waters may invite gunboat diplomacy or threaten their resource sovereignty. Others, such as Japan, are hedging directly against China. Amid doubts over the US ability to uphold the principle of the freedom of the high seas, Tokyo believes that the proscription of military activities within its EEZ may be one day come in useful in deterring intrusive activities off Japan’s own coastline.


The stakes in this dispute are clear. First, while the freedom of military navigation within EEZs has undoubtedly contributed to the US Navy’s global supremacy, it has also ensured the security of merchant traffic from the predations of state and nonstate actors, and underpinned the stability of world shipping lanes for centuries. The days of piracy, arbitrary taxation, and trade monopolies are long over – partly because navies around the world are free to conduct constabulary operations.

Second, for any law to be effective, it has to be clear. Freedom of the high seas should be, as the British saying goes, ‘exactly what it says on the tin.’ Exceptions to this rule muddy the waters over what is permissible and impermissible behavior. To paraphrase Thomas Schelling, theoretically, limits can be set on the freedom of navigation, but only on terms that are qualitatively distinct from the alternatives. ‘Freedom of navigation’ is clear and easy to understand. ‘Freedom of navigation under some circumstances’ is more problematic, and leaves ships open to selective enforcement of the law by the coastal state.

Third, freedom of the high seas is important in achieving stability among major powers. While the EEZ question has led to spats in the past, in general, the regime has fostered predictability, knowledge of one’s adversaries and awareness of conflict ‘red lines.’ Throughout most of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union conducted maritime surveillance operations in each other’s EEZs and while these operations were never welcomed, they were tolerated as a part of an open global system. This attitude explains why the US accepted a Chinese spy ship shadowing the RIMPAC exercises last month, and why Washington is disappointed that Beijing is not returning the courtesy.

What should Europe do?

As the world’s largest economy, Europe has benefited from freedom of the high seas as much as the United States, and it is within its interests to defend it. The continentalist vision of maritime security, in which states can dominate the sea in the same way they do the land, would not only put an end to uninterrupted maritime traffic, but also see the extension of territorial disputes to the sea, where strong states would carve out their spheres of interest at the expense of the weak.

The US can achieve any number of its security objectives in East Asia through the commitment of military hardware, diplomatic effort, and economic resources. Yet it cannot shape global norms alone. Freedom of the high seas is a norm that grew out of international recognition, not the efforts of one country. If it is to be sustained, it must enjoy similar levels of support. This is a role that likeminded partners such as Europe should play.

Europe could assist in a number of areas. It should invite emerging powers such as China and India to take a greater stake in ensuring security of the maritime commons. This means continuing to conduct joint operations in counter piracy, disaster relief, and civilian evacuation. It would also mean accepting China and other big regional players need powerful navies with expeditionary capabilities, but this is a price worth paying.

Second, Europe should seek to engage China in a discussion about its desire for a closed maritime system. China has historical reasons for this approach – some of which are fed by a contemporary sense of insecurity – but there is no proof that the current system is not working in Beijing’s interests, and lots of proof that it is. As one senior Chinese official made clear at the 2014 Shangri La Dialogue, as a global trading nation ‘freedom of navigation is important to China […] we are very much dependent on it.’ How would China cope in a system in which these benefits would continually be under threat?

Third, and most importantly, Europe must come out in open support for the freedom of military activities with EEZs. This would embolden Washington to state its position more clearly – force Beijing to do the same – and would reassure other countries in the region that the principle is being fought for and not forgotten. Europe is accustomed to feeling powerless in East Asia, but on this question its role could be vital.

Edward Schwarck is a research fellow in the Asia Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The following article first appeared in CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A Time for Deterrence

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American politician and poet Eugene McCarthy once said that the media are like blackbirds on a telegraph pole. Once the impulse goes through, they all jump in the same direction. Fortunately for McCarthy, the Washington punditocracy was not as developed then as it is now.

No sooner did Washington and the European Union announce that they were considering new sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine then the Beltway cognoscenti sprang into action with a new line. Unfortunately, it is the same line echoed by Moscow, consisting of the following arguments: First, the new sanctions will not work or really hurt Russia, but will push Moscow and Putin into a corner from where Putin might lash out and stage an even bigger invasion of Ukraine than has hitherto been the case. Second, and related, is that we therefore have to negotiate with Russia over the future of its role in the lands of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow has added to this line of reasoning through its own arguments. Not only do Russian spokesmen breathe defiance and dismiss Western sanctions as ineffectual, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has complained disingenuously that Moscow does not know what Washington wants of it. He has further added that even if there had been no Ukrainian crisis, NATO would, in any case, have found new ways to commit aggression against Russia.

The fallacies of these arguments are obvious. First, they do not square with the facts. It is quite clear what the West wants: namely, an end to the invasion of Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the cessation of all acts of belligerency against Ukraine and neighboring states, and the recognition of the new Ukrainian government.

As well, in the wake of mounting sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has doubled down, sending more weapons to Ukraine, evidence suggesting the shelling of Ukraine from Russia, and dispatching more of Moscow’s “specialists”, including Vladimir Antufeyev.

As a result, there is nothing to talk about. It is abundantly clear that Moscow does not accept existing borders or respect the sovereignty of the countries of the “post-Soviet space,” despite a host of treaties that it has signed to that effect. Offering negotiations that might reward its aggression only strengthens Putin’s belief that he is dealing with weak, corrupt governments lacking in the courage to defend their interests openly.

Classical deterrence theory teaches us that it is necessary to make the deterrent threat to an aggressor sufficiently credible and palpable so that he can readily see that that his costs will escalate out of control unless he reverses course. Having bet his future and that of Russia in a struggle over Ukraine, Putin can be stopped only by a deterrent threat of sufficient magnitude—such as providing Ukraine with the military weapons and financial assistance it needs to expel the invaders and begin to set its house in order. Only such a step will register in Moscow as a sign of unmistakable resolve on the part of the United States and Europe.

It is the collective fault of Western governments that to date they have been too timorous and concerned for their investments to grasp this state of affairs. Their hesitation has allowed Putin to bring us to this point, at which the threat of a wider war in Europe now lurks in the wings. But it is not too late for us to regain the policy initiative and take the steps necessary to not only sustain Ukraine, but also preserve Europe and bolster international security in the process.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Should Asia be Afraid? China's Strategy in the South China Sea Emerges

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China continues to play a long game in asserting its territorial claims and hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea (SCS). After its confrontation with Vietnam over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in May this year, Beijing has recently announced that it intends to build lighthouses on five islands in the SCS, two of which appear to be in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Indeed, China’s traditional position of “strategic ambiguity” regarding its willingness to compromise on its territorial claims within what it calls the ‘nine-dash line’ looks increasingly obsolete.

Its assertiveness in the SCS needs to be seen as part of a new framework of Chinese foreign policy emerging under President Xi Xinping. China watchers point out that the new leadership appears to have conducted a reassessment of China’s security environment, its relative position and policy responses. Predecessor Hu Jintao’s description of the international environment as a “harmonious world” has disappeared. So too has Deng Xiaoping’s guideline to “hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.” Instead, the security environment is assessed to be “under a new situation” and according to Xi, China “needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunity period to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

From a Chinese perspective, the “new situation,” characterized by the U.S. strategic shift to Asia and growing tensions over maritime territorial disputes, requires “proactive assertiveness” in the SCS. And the leadership is optimistic about winning a decade-long game for hegemony there. Bonnie Glaser and Deep Pal succinctly outline the thinking behind that approach:

“Beijing’s proactive economic diplomacy [in Southeast Asia] is part of a larger strategy aimed at binding its neighbors in a web of incentives that increase their reliance on China and raise the cost to them of adopting a confrontational policy towards Beijing on territorial disputes. At the same time, China continues to engage in a steady progression of small steps, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in its favor. In the near term, China’s leaders anticipate some resistance. Over time, however, they calculate that their growing leverage will be sufficient to persuade weaker and vulnerable neighbors to accede to Chinese territorial demands.”

Can this strategy succeed? If regional and external players display a lack of political will and coordination to raise the costs for China, it well may. It’s difficult, for instance, to counter Beijing’s tactic of using swarms of fishing vessels backed by heavily-armed coast guard vessels to intimidate weaker neighbors.

But that outcome isn’t inevitable. So far, China hasn’t attempted to use military force to occupy disputed islands, which would be a dramatic escalation. It’s reasonable to assume that Beijing is aware of the significant reputational damage it would incur through such a move. There’s also the risk of unwanted escalation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, states do go to war over territorial disputes that seem devoid of strategic value. The end of strategic ambiguity in the SCS provides China’s neighbors with a clear understanding about its intentions and the need to respond strategically. That response should include both investments in military capabilities (such as maritime domain awareness and asymmetric denial assets), as well as paramilitary, civilian and political tools to raise China’s reputational costs in the event of a major crisis.

It has also encouraged Southeast Asian countries to develop (or revitalize) stronger defense ties with external actors. More than ever, the region looks to the U.S. for strategic support. Sensing the broader challenge to its leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has stepped up its rhetoric against China’s ‘nine dash line’ and has intensified its Southeast Asian defense engagement as part of its “rebalance.” China can’t exclude the possibility that attempts to settle the territorial disputes by military force could well draw in the U.S. Moreover, major external Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea now engage in regional defense capacity building, aware that what happens in the South China Sea will matter for maritime Northeast Asia.

Thus, China’s strategic success in the SCS is far from a done deal. Somewhat paradoxically, the end of China’s strategic ambiguity might increase regional stability by forcing all players to signal their intentions more clearly. Greater strategic competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps to define the parameters of mutual restraint in conflict situations.

What does that all mean for Australia? The Abbott government is on the same page as the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations about the need to manage maritime disputes peacefully. Australia also has a major interest in strengthening Southeast Asia’s strategic resilience against coercion by outside powers. Whilst that doesn’t mean sending warships or fighter aircraft into the region, the ADF should, for instance, offer its expertise in maritime-domain awareness to countries such as the Philippines. Moreover, it should seek to utilize the U.S. alliance more actively as a vehicle for multilateral regional defense engagement. Careful playing of the long game in Southeast Asia must become a priority for Australian strategic and defense policy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Coming to the South China Sea: Asia’s Big Energy Mistake?

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Editor's Note: Please see Stewart Taggart's previous articles: A Plan to Save the South China Sea from Disaster as well as A Plan to Save the East China Sea from Disaster.

Planned Floating Liquid Natural Gas(FLNG) projects in Asia raise hard questions about the technology’s suitability.These include unproven durability,  questionable efficiencies and
“Tragedy of the Commons” resource exploitation. Regionally-interconnected gas pipelines look like a much better long-term deal.

To date, the largest FLNG project planned for Asia is Shell’s US$12 billion Prelude project off Northwest Australia. Further north, Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas  has approved a two billion cubic meter per year FLNG project for the shallow waters off Malaysian Borneo. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum is studying FLNG for Northwest Australia’s offshore Browse Field. Japan’s Inpex is considering FLNG for its Abadi project in offshore Indonesia. China National Overseas Oil Company (CNOOC) is considering FLNG to develop gas supplies in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The costs of offshore pipelines and FLNG can be compared by adjusting each for distance to market (in kilometers) and annual capacity (in billion cubic meters). The result is a pipeline or LNG project’s US dollar (US$) cost per billion cubic meters of capacity per year (bcm/yr) per kilometer (km) -- or US$/bcm/km/yr. This allows pipelines and LNG project costs to be compared on a common basis. It excludes inflation.

Shell’s $12 billion, 5 billon cubic meter per year Prelude project will export natural gas compressed into LNG to markets in Japan and South Korea 9,000 kilometers away. That results in an investment cost of roughly US$300,000 bcm/km/yr. By contrast, subsea sections of the proposed Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline (TAGP) network range from $100,000-$160,000 bcm/km/yr for the biggest capacity (18 bcm/year) segments of the network, according to the ASEAN Centre for Energy. Smaller capacity (1-3 bcm/year), shorter-distance (100-200 km) subsea segments of the TAGP range from $250,00-500,000 bcm/km/yr. This suggests powerful economies of scale,  a suggestion supported by costs of other gas pipeline projects.

The 2007 North Sea Langeled gas pipeline between Norway and the UK (1,200 kms, 25 bcm/yr) cost roughly $100,000 bcm/km/year while the 2011 Nordstream pipeline connecting Russia to Germany (1,200 kms, 54 bcm/yr) cost roughly $170,000 bcm/km/yr.

In addition to apparent cost advantages, pipeline networks also deliver gas to multiple destinations and can also handle multiple fuels. By contrast, FLNG can only carry natural gas between fixed locations using single-purpose infrastructure -- a huge technological rigidity.

This flexibility of pipelines will become increasingly apparent over time as Asia adopts policies to limit climate change, reduce geopolitical tension and enhance long-term economic growth through deepening regional market integration.

Opposition to FLNG is beginning to emerge. For instance, the use of FLNG to develop Northwest Australia’s offshore gas resources is being opposed by Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett. Barnett believes FLNG short-changes host regions by reducing land-based investment.

China’s CNOOC  is studying FLNG  for developing gas fields in the South China Sea’s disputed waters for just that reason. CNOOC says FLNG avoids any need for regional land-based facilities. Any move by China to deploy FLNG in disputed waters  is certain to raise geopolitical tension, particularly with  the Philippines and Vietnam. These two countries also claim areas of the South China Sea likely to be targeted CNOOC.

The result is that FLNG could create a “Tragedy of the Commons.”

This occurs when unsettled resource property rights lead to conflict because ambiguous property rights favor “first movers” who, in turn, have no incentive to develop the resource sustainably. Instead, “first movers” have every incentive to develop the resource rapaciously, since waiting may require sharing it.   

A first step in this direction occurred earlier this year when China placed an exploratory rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, a move that sparked violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam.

In both the South China Sea and Australia’s Northwest Shelf, large new gas supplies will be developed in coming decades. These are going to require large capital investment better directed to multi-purpose pipelines. In Australia’s Northwest Shelf a gas pipeline would enable aggregration of onshore and offshore natural gas supplies for delivery to Northeast Asia. This would create economies of scale for construction of a large, common-carrier, open-access natural gas pipeline system. This pipeline system could later offer a route to market for Timor Sea and Eastern Indonesian gas supplies. In the South China Sea, meanwhile, Joint Development Areas shared by China and her Southeast Asian neighbors could link into this larger, regional common-carrier, open-access gas delivery network. Both China and her neighbors already voiced support for Joint Development Areas as one way to peacefully manage conflicting territorial claims.

In coming years, Asia and the world must make a transition to cleaner forms of energy. This requires long-term thinking and investment of trillions of dollars in new infrastructure. Subsea pipelines represent a long-term solution. FLNG, by contrast, looks like an example of short-term thinking that costs more in the long run.

Stewart Taggart is principal of Grenatec, a research organization studying the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of high-capacity power lines, natural gas pipelines and fiber optic cables stretching from Australia to China, Japan and South Korea.

TopicsEnergy RegionsChina