The New 'Battleship': Are Submarines Set to Become Obsolete?

The Buzz

Much has been made of the recent release of the report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) into the emerging era of undersea warfare. The wide coverage that the report received in Australia (see here, for example) focused largely on the assertion that “submersibles drones would make submarines obsolete.”

The report’s author Bryan Clark posits that “technological advancements, many of them driven by rapid increases in computer processing power, will likely spur a new round of dramatic changes in undersea warfare.” Those changes are expected to be new capabilities to find submarines, improvements to submarines that will improve stealth and submerged endurance, and new underwater weapon, sensor and communication systems.

Clark doesn’t advance a position as to whether these technological developments will fundamentally affect the current submarine/anti-submarine warfare (ASW) balance. He prefers to make the case for the U.S. to continue research and engagement in this important area in order that the United States retains its technological and operational lead.

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This report raises some interesting issues for Australia, for instance, how do we address the more than 300 submarines that are expected to be in the Indo-Pacific by 2030? How will maritime operations be affected into the future, and what are the implications for SEA 1000? In February 2000, at a conference on maritime warfare in the 21st century, I considered a number of the points now being made by CSBA; namely that advances in processing technology would allow the construction of large virtual arrays and hence improve submarine detection, and that the move to low frequency multi-static sonar would force the submarine to adopt noise-cancellation on a ‘pulse-by-pulse’ basis.

Advances in submarine detection have the potential to fundamentally change the way ASW is undertaken. The construction of large virtual arrays, coupled with the move to bi-static low frequency sonar, will dramatically increase sonar array sensitivity and submarine detection ranges. This will serve to inhibit a submarine aiming to engage a surface task group, and either push torpedo engagement ranges further out or force a reversion to long-range anti-ship missile engagements. Either way, the submarine engagement dynamic will have changed.

A warship operating alone won’t be capable of achieving the same extended submarine detection range. An independent ship will have to rely on its own systems as there will be no cooperative platform with which to form the virtual array; although low frequency active sonar will provide some improvement in detection capabilities. The changed dynamic in task group engagements will therefore force submarines to become more ‘opportunistic’ with a greater focus on the interdiction of naval ships acting alone or on merchant shipping. The latter is a serious operational consideration for Australia.

However, one serious problem will remain, made worse by the increased array sensitivity and increased detection ranges, and requiring significant research effort in the coming years: identification. How will it be possible to positively identify a submerged submarine in Indo-Pacific waters prior to engagement, or to avoid engagement? How will it be possible to make the definitive call that a sonar contact is Indonesian, Singaporean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Thai or some passing Frenchman? Some sonar techniques will assist—as will water space management arrangements to exchange submarine positional information between close allies—but identification will remain elusive. Declaration of exclusion zones will not solve the problem.

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And what will be the impact on SEA 1000? Submarines will continue to have a valid role in the future Australian force structure due to their ongoing ability to exert psychological pressure on an adversary, and for anti-submarine operations, intelligence gathering, interdiction of shipping, and a range of other covert operations. Continuing relevance will however come at a cost, with improved stealth becoming increasingly expensive. As highlighted in the CSBA report, improved through-water communications will also see submerged submarines included in battlespace-wide area networks, and using a variety of underwater autonomous vehicles and sensors. The SEA 1000 solution needs to be cognizant of these trends in underwater warfare if the preferred solution is to be relevant long term.

Submarines and ASW are of high strategic importance to Australia. Investment in networked ASW—both for the detection of adversary submarines and the broader use of our own submerged submarines—is warranted to address strategic risks. Significant research into techniques for the identification of submerged platforms is also required. We cannot and should not just wait for the U.S. to develop these techniques and expect to simply leverage off their investment.

Australia has a vibrant submarine and sonar processing industry—and success in the areas outlined above could be a game changer for Australia in both the operational and industrial sense. We need to be on the front foot for these technical challenges—even it has taken us 15 years to reach this point.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

China Plays the Victim in the South China Sea

The Buzz

The strategic discussion between the U.S. and China can’t be called a dialogue of the deaf. The talk is loud and each side hears the other.

Yet a lot of mishearing is happening. Perhaps the metaphor should be a security debate shaking on a sea of scrambled semiotics.

Everybody purports to be talking about the same thing when really they’re talking about different things. Same subject, divergent understandings.

Take the subject du jour: the South China Sea. The issue under discussion should be clear and well understood. This is about rocks and reefs, contested ownership and rights in some vital maritime territory. When each side talks about the South China Sea, however, they’re also talking about lots of things that look nothing like rocks and reefs; scrambled semiotics in spades.

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The big shared understanding is that the South China Sea is one element in a much larger process—the shift in Asia’s balance of power.

Beyond that, though, the South China Sea becomes a subject of conflicting and confusing signs and symbols and understandings.

For everyone else, China’s rampant terraforming in the South China Sea shows the raw power of Asia’s biggest player, grabbing what it wants on the international commons. China, though, sees it as a domestic issue, restoring historic rights torn from China in its time of humiliation. The Party has been telling the people the humiliations-of-history story for a long time—and the people believe it. Domestic imperatives mean the Party must press on or be punished by the people. This is about domestic politics, not the international system.

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Listening to Beijing is to hear a litany of complaints about all the injustices imposed on China despite its indisputable rights and interests. The language of valiant victimhood is striking. Everyone is ganging up against poor China, but China will emerge victorious. The deep wounds of history throb. China proudly proclaims its power but the message is wrapped in a teenager’s question: Why is everyone so mean to me?

The crucial question that Beijing constantly worries about, often glimpsed, is the valiant victim conviction that everyone is plotting to foil its inevitable success. No wonder China faces huge problems and difficulties, with so much ranged against it.

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So it was that I turned on my mental decoder to listen to the Shangri-La speech by Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the PLA.

Admiral Sun spoke of China’s ‘enormous restraint’ and its goal of peace and stability:

We hope relevant countries will work together in the same direction to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

My decoder heard: We’re certainly going to keep building. Mountains of sand! Get used to it. Accept the new facts of our fait accompli. And by the way, America, this is our equivalent of the Caribbean.

Admiral Sun concluded: ‘We hope that all countries in the world will, in the spirit of win-win and all-win cooperation, strengthen communication and consultation, and make concerted efforts to safeguard peace and stability.’ Ah, yes, communication and consultation. The decoder offered this understanding: win-win means Beijing wins twice, all-win means that China always wins. Scrambled semiotics, indeed.

The U.S. speaks about freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. And, crucially, rule of law. The decoder, though, keeps throwing up Barack Obama’s State of the Union line that the U.S. should write the rules, not China.

Who rules and who is writing the rules?

When Xi Jinping proclaims an Asian future run by Asians for Asians, there’s a big power surge on the U.S. decoder. The American translation, as offered by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its 2015 Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment is that China’s objective is ‘to weaken U.S. alliances, erode American centrality in China’s neighborhood and eventually create a new security order with Asia at its core.’

When the U.S. says freedom of navigation and rule of law, what does China’s decoder hear? As Yanmei Xei interprets it, Beijing:

likely does not see the U.S. Navy’s action as being aimed at upholding international law. Rather, it thinks Washington is mainly out to block its rise, a narrative that already dominates China’s geopolitical consciousness.

Evelyn Goh saw something similar in what has become the well-rehearsed theatre of the annual Shangri-La Show:

For the Chinese, the Shangri-La Dialogue tends to highlight the uncomfortable reality that the Asia Pacific is filled with American allies and friends, many of whom have superior resources.

Beijing is acting on the assumption that its island-creation in the South China Sea (the assertion of its natural rights in its Caribbean) will be only a second or third order issue in the great power relationship with the U.S.

The U.S. takes no position on the merits of any claims. Fine by Beijing. The U.S. concern is freedom of navigation. Tick, says Beijing. And quickly on to more important matters.

The overarching concern, Beijing assumes, is to build the g2 to become the G2, the shadow condominium of the world’s top two powers. Many in Washington see the logic. Xi Jinping’s ‘new type of great power relationship’ will get another big show when he visits the U.S. in September.

The only problem with this view of the South China Sea as a non-core g2 issue is that Beijing’s decoder may not be picking up all the different signals coming from the U.S. For the U.S. Navy, this is core business. And, as the old line goes, the 7th Fleet steers a lot of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a reason the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command is always a Navy man.

From the U.S. Navy perspective, what the U.S. says about the South China Sea is exactly what it means. China may need to turn up the power of its decoder to consider the question posed by Nick Bisley: Why does the U.S. risk upsetting the tenor of Sino–American relations over rocks, islets and reefs?

Nick thinks China has been ‘genuinely surprised by the shift in tone and behaviour’ by the US over the South China Sea. To lessen the chance of any more surprises, Beijing should go back and re-read the speech that Admiral Harry Harris made to ASPI in March about China’s ‘great wall of sand.”

When Harris made that speech, he was Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Now he’s just stepped up to the top job: Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

When decoding what the other side is saying, it’s always important to see who is saying what, and what power they have to enforce their words.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This piece originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Why America Should Fear China's Hypersonic Nuclear Missile

The Buzz

China all but confirmed it tested its hypersonic missile delivery vehicle a fourth time.

On Friday, China’s Defense Ministry seemed to confirm U.S. reports that Beijing tested its Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle on Sunday, June 7. Responding to an inquiry by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, China’s Defense Ministry said, “The scheduled scientific research and experiments in our territory is normal, and those tests are not targeted at any country and specific goals.”

The statement was eerily similar to the one China’s Defense Ministry issued following the January 2014 test of the Wu-14. At that time, the defense ministry said: “It is normal for China to conduct scientific experiments within its borders according to its plans. The tests were not aimed at any nation nor any specific target.”

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Last week’s test was the fourth one China has conducted in just 18 months, suggesting it is a priority of China’s military. The Wu-14, which can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, can travel at ten times the speed of sound, or 7,680 miles per hour. Its maneuverability enables it to bypass U.S. missile defense systems.

This point was underscored by He Qisong, a defense expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Speaking to the SCMP, He said that “The Wu-14 … is designed to penetrate US missile defence systems, meaning the PLA is capable of defending China's territorial sovereignty."

He added: "But such a test is only a nuclear deterrence. Neither China nor the U.S. wants to declare war over the South China Sea issues."

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Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military, has previously explained that “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

Unlike the previous three tests, Bill Gertz's report on last week’s test said that the Wu-14 practiced “extreme maneuvers” designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems, which are only capable of destroying missiles that use predictable ballistic trajectories. Thus, the Wu-14, when officially fielded, will be a huge to boost to China, which has a small nuclear arsenal compared with the United States and Russia.

China has been improving its strategic deterrent in other ways in recent years. For example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is using a new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Type 094, to conduct deterrent patrols for the first time. In April of this year, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), said that the PLAN currently has three Type 094 SSBNs and could field eight of them by the end of the decade.

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China is not the only country developing hypersonic capabilities. It is also believed that the United States, Russia and India are also pursuing these capabilities. Regarding America’s hypersonic capabilities, Robert Farley has previously explained on The National Interest:

“The United States is working on the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a long-range, land-based glide vehicle that operates within the atmosphere in order to avoid the appearance of a ballistic missile. The United States has also done work on the X-51 “Waverider,” an air-launched, scramjet-powered vehicle capable of Mach 6.”

The fourth test of the Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle came just a day before Fan Changlong, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, began an extended trip to the United States where he has met with the likes of Ashton Carter and Susan Rice. It also comes as tensions grow in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s massive land reclamation projects.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Foreign Policy, Politics, and the Zivotofsky Decision

Paul Pillar

The Supreme Court's decision this month in Zivotofsky v. Kerry was not only the correct outcome of the case at hand and of the specific issues it raised but also an important statement about the need for consistency and coherence in the administration of U.S. foreign policy. The Court's majority scrupulously avoided wading into the politics underneath the case, but its decision has helped to minimize the extent to which political undercurrents make for incoherence in foreign policy.

The decision struck down, as an unconstitutional Congressional encroachment on executive branch powers, the portion of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2003 that would have required the State Department to indicate on passports issued to U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem that the place of birth was “Israel” if the individual requested that designation. This requirement contradicted the longstanding U.S. position that the sovereignty of Jerusalem is a matter yet to be decided by international negotiation. That position also is consistent with the policies and practices of every other country besides Israel itself.

Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion was firmly rooted in the concept that in foreign relations, the United States must speak with one voice. Recognition of foreign states—and the terms under which recognition is extended, as was true with the Carter administration's recognition of Communist China and the related special status of Taiwan—has always been a presidential prerogative. Even when Congress also has played a role, as was true with legislation relating to relations with Taiwan, presidential primacy on this subject has not been seriously challenged. And according to the majority opinion, what is said on a passport is inseparable from the broader issue of recognition.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a dissent joined by Samuel Alito, questioned that last connection, contending that only a “perception” of recognition was involved, and that the majority was in effect submitting to an “international heckler's veto.” But there is no doubt that recognition was what Congress was attempting to deal with in the nullified section of the legislation, the title of which is “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel”. Roberts's further argument that Congress is constitutionally empowered to do all sorts of things contrary to a president's policy toward a foreign government, including declaring war or establishing an embargo, is off the mark, since even a war or embargo does not necessarily speak to recognition of the foreign state in question. (E.g., the United States currently is sanctioning Russia but still recognizes it as a sovereign state.)

A separate dissent by Antonin Scalia, joined by Roberts and Alito, is best read in conjunction with a concurring opinion by Clarence Thomas, who, in a rare break with Scalia, agreed with the majority regarding the key question concerning passports. Thomas points out how loosely and expansively Scalia tries to apply the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I of the Constitution in arguing for a Congressional role regarding the birthplace box on passports—far more loosely and expansively than is Scalia's custom in addressing many other issues. Thomas quotes back some of what Scalia has said on other cases and concludes that his conservative colleague's opinion in the present case represents a ”dubious way to undertake constitutional analysis.”

Strictly maintaining the policy that sovereignty over Jerusalem is yet to be settled through negotiation is essential if the United States is to have any hope of maintaining (or rather, salvaging) a useful role in attaining a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Going beyond the Jerusalem matter, the issue that first comes to mind as involving similar political dynamics is the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. As with the Jerusalem question, this is another instance of members of Congress marching to the Israeli government drummer and taking actions that contradict and undermine the executive branch's execution of an important element of U.S. foreign policy. The Iran issue has already demonstrated the chaotic result when Congress (or more precisely, what happens to be the current majority party in Congress) tries to conduct its own foreign relations at odds with the official policy that the executive branch is running. The chaos has included the notorious letter of Republican senators to the leadership of Iran and the uncoordinated invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address Congress for the purpose of denouncing U.S. diplomacy. The Supreme Court's decision represents at least a modest backtracking from this sort of damage.

More generally and more broadly, the Court's majority has reaffirmed that there is such a thing as the pursuit of national interests in the international arena that is distinct from domestic politics. In this regard it is worth noting that the U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem has been maintained by every U.S. administration, Republican and Democratic, ever since the United States recognized the new State of Israel during Harry Truman's presidency.

The domestic political process, including actions by the U .S. Congress, does play an important role in determining U.S. national interests, though more as a matter of broad objectives and values than as tactics and administrative details. That process is essential in addressing unavoidable trade-offs involving major decisions and major interests—such as weighing expected gains versus likely costs in any resort to warfare. That is why Congress ought to devote more of its energies to efforts such as enacting an authorization specifying objectives and limits for the current use of military force than to telling the State Department what it ought to write in a box on someone's passport.



TopicsIsrael Congress RegionsUnited States Middle East

China Warns Japan to Stay out of South China Sea

The Buzz

China is “gravely concerned and indignant” over Japan’s plans to step patrols in the South China Sea.

In a regular scheduled press conference on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, warned Japan to stay out of the South China Sea dispute.

“The Chinese side is gravely concerned and indignant about the negative moves of the Japanese side. We have lodged multiple solemn representations with Japan,” Hong stated.

He went on to say:

Japan is not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue. Recently it has behaved in an abnormal way, deliberately thrust a hand in the South China Sea issue, driven a wedge among regional countries and maliciously created tensions in the South China Sea. Japan’s moves do no good to solve the South China Sea disputes, or safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea. It also severely damages the political and security mutual trust between China and Japan, and runs counter to the momentum of improving bilateral relations. We once again urge the Japanese side to abide by its commitment of not taking sides on the South China Sea disputes, put an immediate end to the hyping up of the South China Sea issue and groundless accusations against China, stop provoking conflicts among different parties for self-serving interests, genuinely maintain the momentum of improving Sino-Japanese relations and respect the efforts by China and ASEAN countries to safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea.

The spokesperson’s comments come on the heels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces announcing it will hold a joint military exercise with the Philippines in the South China Sea later this month.

“We will announce the details such as the schedule and assets we will send as soon as the plan is fixed,” Tomohisa Takei, chief of staff for the Maritime Self-Defense Force, told Japanese reporters earlier this week. Nonetheless, Japanese media outlets have reported that Tokyo will dispatch a P3-C Orion patrol aircraft for the exercise.

Last month, Japan sent two destroyers to the South China Sea to hold a one-day exercise with the Philippines, which reportedly had one of its newest warships participate. That exercise took place just 300 kilometers away from the Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2011.

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The United States strongly backs Japan’s participation in the South China Sea, and in fact has reportedly proposed joint U.S.-Japanese patrols in the area.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this year, Admiral Robert Thomas, America’s top naval officer in the Western Pacific, said that "I think that JSDF (Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces) operations in the South China Sea makes sense in the future.” Thomas noted that Chinese capabilities in the region currently outmatch those of its neighbors, and therefore Southeast Asian nations see Japan as a stabilizing force.

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The United States has also increased its calls for China to stop its reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently trying to pass legislation that would give the JSDF the right to engage in “collective self-defense.” This would significantly reduce the legal barriers inhibiting Japan’s ability to play a military role in the South China Sea dispute.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia