Watch Out, America: China Launches New Submarine 'Killer'

The Buzz

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy commissioned its latest anti-submarine ship, according to local media outlets.

As IHS Jane’s and others reported, citing Chinese state-media outlets, the PLAN officially commissioned its latest Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette last week. The Huangshi was inducted into service by the PLAN Northern Fleet, the reports said.

Type 056 vessels are 60 meters long and displace 1,500 tons. They “carry one 76 mm main gun, two triple-tube torpedo launchers, and four containerised YJ-83 anti-ship missiles,” IHS Jane’s reported. The report went on to note that the Huangshi’s flight deck enables it to operate a Z-9C helicopter, although the vessel lacks a hanger and therefore its ability to operate helicopters is limited.

Although the Huangshi is the twentieth Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette that China has commissioned, it is just the fourth of the class to be fitted with towed array and variable depth sonars. This makes it likely that the ship’s primary purpose will be to conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

As IHS Jane’s previously reported of the Type 056 corvettes, “The addition of a VDS will significantly enhance their potential detection capability, specifically when compared to the smaller, rudimentary equipped submarine chasers they are replacing, such as the Type 037 (Hainan) class.”

The launching of the new ships is indicative of China’s growing concern about its paucity of anti-submarine warfare capabilities, particularly further away from its coast. As The National Interest has repeatedly noted, many of the countries locked in maritime disputes with China see submarines as a crucial asymmetric capability they can use to beat back their larger neighbor’s military challenge. Consequentially, there is something of a submarine arms race currently engulfing Asia, with countries as diverse as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, India, Australia and even Taiwan all seeking to beef up their undersea capabilities.

This is not limited to small Southeast Asian nations or larger regional countries like Japan and India, however. Even many in the United States believe submarines will be essential if Washington is to contend with China’s growing military might. As Dave Majumdar previously argued on The National Interest: “A new class of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines could be the key to maintaining America’s future naval supremacy as new weapons increasingly challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.”

In general, the Type 056 corvettes are expected to be increasingly important to China’s navy in the coming years. As Sputnik News, a Russian-state media outlet, has noted, the “Type 056 Corvette was designed in 2012 to replace the older Jianghu class frigates and type 037 model. The Corvette was the first Chinese modular warship that can be deployed as an offshore patrol vessel or multi-role frigate. Designed and built by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), Type 056 Corvettes are set to become the backbone of the PLAN, with a class of more than 30 anticipated.”

China’s first Type 056 Corvette entered service in 2012. China has also exported variants of the ship to a number of other countries, including Thailand, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/樱井千一

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Is 'Shock and Awe' Military Strategy Dead?

The Buzz

I was recently asked to give a lecture at ANU about the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). For those born after 1990—of which I encounter a distressingly large number in my professional life these days—RMA was the buzz-phrase du jour for military types entranced by the clinical performance of American forces and technology of the Gulf War in 1991. Predating the popularization of ‘shock and awe‘ by over a decade, the application of advanced sensors, stealth and precision weapons including cruise missiles seemingly heralded a new wave of warfare in which strategic aims could be easily achieved through technology, and with remarkably few losses. (On the winning side at least—the other guys didn’t fare so well.)

So striking was the coalition victory at the time, that embarrassing failures like the ‘great Scud hunt‘ barely registered. And since there was no full-scale invasion of Iraq, the profound difficulties of counterinsurgency, even for RMA-enabled forces, didn’t spoil the celebration. It was difficult for the few hardy souls swimming against the tide to get a hearing. Israeli scholar Martin van Creveld managed to publish a major book arguing that high-tech state on state war was so yesterday about the same time that Iraq was running up the white flag in 1991:

We are entering an era … of warfare between ethnic and religious groups. Even as familiar forms of armed conflict are sinking into the dustbin of the past, radically new ones are raising their heads … Already today the military power fielded by the principal developed societies in both “West” and “East” is … more illusion than substance.

Van Creveld’s timing might have been poor, but his message was eerily prescient viewed from 2015. His prediction of the coming of low-tech adversaries who aren’t state-based, but instead spring from tribal and religious groups was spot on. I well recall him speaking to a packed audience of Australian Defense Force (ADF) capability developers back in the mid-1990s. They were falling over themselves to sign up for the RMA, especially Air Force—always the first in line for new technology. As a budding professional contrarian, I was learning at the feet of the master when he flicked through a few ‘ooh-ah’ slides of precision guided weapons and other sophisticated weaponry before dismissing it contemptuously as ‘high-tech junk’.

As we now know, the past 20 years has been as much van Creveld as RMA. ‘High tech junk’ carried the first phase of the second war against Iraq, but it proved remarkably ineffective in the later insurgency phases, which are arguably still running today. In fact, you don’t hear RMA mentioned much anymore. Partly that’s because fashions change and new buzzwords take over—anyone for network centric warfare?—but partly because it never was what it seemed at the time.

The largely futile hunt for Scuds in the deserts of Iraq in 1991 actually better represented the long-term trends in warfare than did the hideous tactical error of Iraqi forces in concentrating their forces and digging into well-defined positions. That just made them a perfect showcase for the effectiveness of superior ISR in finding them and precision firepower in destroying them. As I’ve written in the past, the trend in warfare over centuries has been towards an ever more rapid deployment of ever more accurate and lethal weaponry. The RMA was simply ‘more of the same’ in those trends. The result has been an ever-greater dispersion of forces in order to limit exposure to the new technologies, resulting in lower daily casualty rates.

When operating against technically sophisticated adversaries, irregular forces take that advice to heart, melting away into the jungle, mountains or the civilian population. Ambushes and raids by small groups who choose the time and place of engagements are the order of the day. Even groups such as ISIL who aim to seize and hold territory can minimize their exposure to coalition air strikes by staying close to civilian centers. They’ve also modified their combat tactics to be less obvious targets when maneuvering in battle.

The response to these tactics can’t be even more investment in ‘silver bullet’ platforms, doubling down on ‘high-tech junk’. The answer to a foe that’s highly dispersed and adaptable isn’t ‘shock and awe’, it’s ‘here and now’—the ability to be there to act decisively when they fleetingly show themselves. If you look at the platforms that have been most effective in the Afghanistan and Iraq–Syria theatres, you’d conclude that the persistence and ability to hit a target with adequate (rather than awesome) force that a Reaper drone brings with it is preferable to the greater firepower but ephemeral presence of a $100 million fast jet. Both use the ISR and precision weapons of RMA, but one does it far more efficiently.

Of course, that’s only one facet of modern warfare. The danger of state-on-state confrontation hasn’t gone away, and there are different challenges to face in that realm. But for reasons I’ll explain in my next post, some of the answers might have more in common with the prosecution of irregular warfare than you’d first think.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here


Currying Favor at Camp David

Paul Pillar

As crown princes and other leaders of Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf meet this week with President Obama, the first thing to keep in mind as background to this encounter is a truth that the president spoke last month in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times. The president observed that the biggest threats those Arab countries face “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries” based on “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” Of course that's not an observation that the rulers of those countries want to hear, and the president acknowledged that talking about such things is “a tough conversation to have” with those regimes, “but it's one that we have to have.” Sound foreign policy for our own country requires dealing in truths, even ones that make our interlocutors uncomfortable.

The president would have been on sound ground to make his point even more forcefully than he did. There will be no Iranian flotilla carrying an invasion force against the gulf. Anything remotely resembling such a fanciful scenario would be obvious folly for Iran and, even if were to occur, would be met with a forceful U.S.-led response with or without any explicit security guarantees from Washington. Nor does it require any instigation from the outside for the danger of internal unrest and instability to arise from the anachronistic, undemocratic political systems, coupled with narrowly based economies and sometimes sectarian-riven social structures, that prevail in these countries. The most serious instability that has occurred in the last few years in the immediate neighborhood of the Gulf Arab countries, in Bahrain and Yemen, was internally initiated and not instigated by any outside power, be it Iran or anyone else.

The next thing to ask about the gathering at Camp David is what these Arab regimes would, or even could, do if they return home displeased. The answer is: not much at all. Those regimes need the United States more than the United States needs them. They are highly reliant on U.S. help just to enable their military forces to operate their advanced weapons. They are even more reliant on the tacit blessing that the world's most powerful democracy confers on them every day by not making much of an issue of their undemocratic nature, notwithstanding how much talk one has heard in Washington, especially under the previous administration, about spreading democratic values in the Middle East. Moreover, the Gulf states are not in position today to express any displeasure by trying to wield oil as a weapon, 1970s style; Saudi Arabia has its own reasons right now not only to keep oil flowing but to keep prices low.

Administration policymakers surely are smart enough to realize all this, but they feel obligated to play a political game that involves catering to the Gulf Arabs' expressed anxieties, no matter how opportunistic those expressions may be—hence this week's meeting. The game is played mostly within Washington; it is a matter of the administration having to keep the Gulf Arabs from complaining too loudly about reaching an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, lest the administration's domestic opponents amplify their accusations that the administration is selling “allies” down the river (or down the gulf) by making a deal with Tehran. The nuclear agreement actually does no such thing. The Gulf Arabs have reached their own rapprochements with Iran in the past, and they are smart enough to realize that an agreement that restricts the Iranian program and precludes an Iranian nuclear weapon is better for their own security than the alternative of no agreement and no restrictions.

Although some coddling of the Gulf Arabs may be worth it if this helps reduce the chance that the Iran agreement will be killed in the U.S. Congress, it would be a mistake to extend new security guarantees or similar commitments that would risk entangling the United States more deeply in the Arabs' own peculiar quarrels. Those quarrels involve religion, ethnicity, and intra-regional rivalries where the United States does not have an interest in taking sides, and that give rise to fights in which the United States does not have a dog.

The United States unfortunately has already gotten itself involved in a very local, very messy, and very multi-dimensional fight in Yemen—involvement that would be incomprehensible except as a kind of compensatory stroking of Saudi Arabia. If one looked for a more direct U.S. interest in the Yemeni fight it would involve long-distance terrorist threats from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—but AQAP is on the opposite side of the Yemeni fight from the people the U.S.-backed Saudi military intervention is going after.

There are good reasons for the United States to maintain cordial and even close relations with the Gulf Arab countries, notwithstanding their political systems and values that are so antithetical to our own. But such relations should be part of an independent and flexible U.S. policy in the Middle East that does not involve getting dragged into other people's pet quarrels and does not involve getting held hostage to the Gulf Arabs' own expressions of displeasure or discomfort.

An additional complication in trying to please such “allies” is that pleasing one can annoy another. More arms sales to the Gulf Arabs has gotten talked about, but that quickly runs into the assumption that whatever any Arab state gets in the way of armaments must be kept inferior to whatever Israel gets. Israel illustrates better than any other case the futility of trying to buy cooperation from a complaining “ally” with not just arms aid but other supportive measures. The extraordinary largesse, political and material, that the United States bestows on Israel does not buy such cooperation—certainly not regarding the nuclear agreement on Iran, where the Israeli government vigorously opposes U.S. foreign policy and attempts to sabotage it at every turn. The Gulf Arabs are too polite to imitate Israel in blatantly poking sticks in their benefactor's eyes. But expect from them a more restrained “what have you done for me lately” posture.                   


TopicsSaudi Arabia Iran Yemen RegionsMiddle East

Get Ready: China Eyes Strategic African Naval Base

The Buzz

China may build a permanent naval base in a strategic African port.

On Sunday, Ismail Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, told AFP that “discussions are ongoing” over Chinai building a military base in his country, adding that Beijing’s presence would be “welcome.” The country also hosts American, French and Japanese military installations.

“France's presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region," Guelleh said during the interview.

“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy — and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome," he added. The report went on to say that China would likely establish the base at Obock, Djibouti's northern port city.

When asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying refused to deny its veracity, and in fact stopped just short of confirming it.

“We have noted the relevant report,” Hua said, before adding:

China and Djibouti enjoy traditional friendship. Friendly cooperation between the two sides has achieved constant growth over recent years, with practical cooperation carried out in various fields. What needs to be pointed out is that regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end (emphasis added).

China has long participated in an international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, near where Djibouti is located. As Hayes Brown notes over at Buzzfeed, some in China have previously raised the possibility of Beijing establishing naval bases on the African contentintent. About five years ago, one top Chinese admiral was quoted as saying that ““I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our [anti-piracy] operations.” However, China’s Defense Ministry quickly shot down the idea, stating that: “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking (in the Gulf of Aden region).”

Djibouti already hosts Camp Lemonnier, which serves as the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the horn of Africa. The base is used primarily to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region, including launching unmanned drone attacks.

Japan opened its own base in Djibouti back in 2011 to bolster its ability to conduct anti-piracy operations in the region. Before then, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) had been using Camp Lemonnier as its base of operations. Earlier this year, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced that it would be expanding the operations it conducts from its lone foreign operational base.

The negotiations over establishing a naval base in Djibouti underscores China’s desire to bolster its presence in Africa. Back in 2014, China and Djibouti inked an agreement that gives the Chinese military access to Djibouti port. China is also heavily invested in infrastructure projects in Djibouti’s landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia.

As I’ve previously argued, China is better positioned to prevail over the United States in their ongoing competition for influence in the region.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales​

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfrica

Geopolitics Is Back—and Global Governance Is Out

The Buzz

As the Middle East implodes and the planet bakes, one wishes the world would stand still long enough for governments to catch up. Today’s most burning issues—from terrorism to climate change—loom larger than ever. Worse, by definition, these transnational problems cannot be solved with national approaches alone. They require unprecedented cooperation among the world’s most influential countries.

The problem, though, is that geopolitics is back. The world turns out to be a lot more red in tooth and claw than many had anticipated, and international cooperation is suffering as a result. Strategic rivalry is heating up. The geopolitical clash in Ukraine is the perhaps clearest instance, but it is only one example of the growing gulfs between the West and strategic competitors, not least Russia and China. Beyond the risk of major confrontation, these tensions are preventing effective responses to transnational threats.

The world is left to muddle through, even as countries face mounting crises within their borders that are heavily influenced—even caused—by events in neighboring countries or across oceans.

Today, the Council of Councils, a network of think tanks spanning twenty-six countries, released a Report Card documenting the troubling consequences of waning international cooperation. The leaders of these institutions judged the international community’s recent performance to be severely lacking—barely deserving a gentlemen’s C.

Across the board, experts expressed extreme concern about the grinding conflicts in Syria and Ukraine—and at the apparent inability of the United Nations and other cooperative mechanisms to respond to them.

This is not the world the Obama administration trumpeted in its first National Security Strategy in 2010. Back then, the White House described a new global era in which the primary objective of statecraft was no longer to temper geopolitical rivalry but to manage shared dilemmas of interdependence. “Power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Alas, neither the Russians nor the Chinese (among others) got the word. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the South China Sea, great power frictions are not only exacerbating regional insecurity but also bleeding over into other realms, handicapping joint efforts to address transnational threats like cyber-insecurity.

In the background, a historic diffusion of power to emerging economies has chipped away at U.S. supremacy, leaving the world without a clear leader. Since 2000, the world has experienced the fastest and most dramatic redistribution of economic might in history. In principle, this would allow  rising players to do their fair share. But in practice, emerging and established powers are colliding both on their policy preferences and their willingness to assume new responsibilities.

Climate change is one prominent example, where major developed and developing economies remain split about how to share the burden of the painful cuts required to preserve the planet. Meanwhile, the momentum for economic cooperation generated by the Great Recession has almost entirely faded. The U.S. failure to approve reforms to the International Monetary Fund has only validated Chinese doubts that the West would ever integrate rising powers.

In response, China is leading a charge to create parallel institutions, which the United States is resisting—revealing a potentially dangerous fissure in the international economy.  Similarly, on cyber-security, competitive posturing between major players like China, Russia, and the United States—as well as radically different views about citizen rights—are preventing countries from negotiating norms to reduce the risk of a major conflict online that spills into the real world.

Given these tensions, unfortunately, prospects for addressing the world’s most explosive problems, such as the wave of conflicts in the Middle East, appear grim. The central body set up to preserve international peace and security—the UN Security Council—is paralyzed when its members believe that their core interests are at stake, and thus was powerless to address the conflagration in Syria—to say nothing of Ukraine.

The return of geopolitics portends a rocky road for international cooperation, which has always depended on a convergence of great power interests. We should not be surprised to see deepening strategic competition bleed over into areas, including those—like counterterrorism cooperation—that have been relative bright spots.

Still, the report  identifies important opportunities for breakthrough that U.S. policymakers can and should capitalize on. These include expanding global trade through the TPP/TTIP negotiations, pushing through reforms to bolster the World Health Organization’s capacity to respond to crises like Ebola, and working toward mutual commitments to combat climate change. Finally, the negotiations with Iran present an unprecedented opportunity to address one of the most intractable risks to international peace and security in decades. Forging ahead with international cooperation on these issues may even help calm the tensions preventing progress in other areas. 

Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow and Isabella Bennett is an assistant director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Niruku