Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.

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Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.

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Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.

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The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.

Canada’s Support Vessels: Good sense from an unexpected quarter

In a National Post article, the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie, proposes a better way to build up the national economy with the troubled and long-running Joint Support Ship requirement. Rather than having a Canadian yard build these ships at unnecessary expense, the contract could be used as an incentive in free trade negotiations, for instance with South Korea. The ships would be built cheaply by experienced yards, and benefits to the Canadian economy from the trade agreement would far outweigh the jobs that would have been created by giving the work to a Canadian shipyard. One could add that the same logic would apply just as well to the Surface Combatant procurement- and instead of getting fifteen frigates with destroyer price tags, Canada could instead end up with eight to ten highly capable destroyers for a reduced price.

Logically, it makes complete sense. Politically, it doesn’t deliver the ridings and looks like an admission that the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy was flawed, and so is unlikely to happen.

In related news, from the American Enterprise Institute and Mark Collins, an analysis of NATO’s incredible shrinking navies- begging the question of why the RCN needs a force on par with Britain or France.

Air-Sea Battle Debate Picks Up, South Korea Heads For Silent Eagle

Further to my posts on military doctrine and naval warfare in East Asia, and Mark’s posts on Air-Sea Battle, James Holmes reports over at the Diplomat on a debate that’s been heating up. Specifically, the question is whether Air-Sea Battle is needlessly escalatory, and whether, surprise surprise, a naval blockade approach (as for example the one suggested by Kline and Hughes a while ago) might be the better approach to a notional future conflict with China. Holmes provides some good sources and analysis, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have heard of Kline and Hughes’ take, dubbed “War at Sea,” going with Hammes’ somewhat less innovative “Offshore Control” concept instead. Some of the caveats that arise toward the end of the article might be better answered under the former framework than the latter.

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Meanwhile, South Korea’s fighter competition seems to have reached a point where Boeing’s Silent Eagle is the last bird flying. The F-35 broke the bank, and the Eurofighter consortium seems to have fudged some of their paperwork.

The Silent Eagle is an untried, radar cross-section reduced F-15 variant. Its low-observable characteristics depend on carrying missiles internally in what used to be the F-15 conformal fuel tanks, which both reduces range and provides only a four-missile capacity. Of course, it has all the expected goodies in terms of avionics, but it still lacks the various aerodynamic upgrades tested on the F-15 airframe. What’s so great about that? Well, for one thing, the Koreans really wanted a stealth aircraft, since China and Japan will both have stealth aircraft. While it is highly doubtful that Silent Eagle is any more stealthy than any other Generation 4.5 fighter (bearing in mind the F-15 layout was not designed for low-observability, unlike the Typhoon), the name might carry some weight. Also, South Korea already has a fleet of relatively new F-15Ks, so there are advantages in standardisation.

Roundup: Procurement Etcetera

Defence Industry Daily provides a typically thorough prĂ©cis of the Littoral Combat Ship program’s struggle to develop useable (and useful) mission modules. It’s one of those stories that would qualify as comedy if it hadn’t wasted so much money.

An article at the Diplomat finds cause, albeit tenuous, to hope that Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to reduce tensions in regional territorial disputes.

In the same publication, a review of South Korea’s ambitious submarine program on the occasion of the launching of their fourth Type 214 air-independent submarine. A new class of heavier domestically-designed submarines is planned from 2018.

From Forbes, it seems that BAE Systems is the new dynamo of support contracts, beating out well-established competition.

The Canadian-American Strategic Review has a piece on Canada’s long-running and distinctly unproductive program to replace the Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. Given that Canada tends to use these aircraft for anything and everything but their intended anti-submarine warfare and maritime strike role, who knows what their replacement might look like.

From Defense Issues, a how-to piece on evading air-to-air missiles, and of course, much useful material on many of the procurement programs mentioned here.

For those who don’t know it, The 3Ds, blog of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, is well worth checking out. Mark Collins provides excellent sources and commentary on (primarily but not exclusively) Canadian defence matters. You’ll also see a few of my articles, and occasionally material from great Canadian historian and defence expert Jack Granatstein, noted diplomat Colin Robertson and a range of other CDFAI associates, all of them interesting.

In the News: Nukes for South Korea?

Rep. Chung Mong-joon, longtime South Korean lawmaker and high-profile member of the ruling party, is speaking about the need for South Korea to either demand the return of American tactical nuclear weapons or develop its own. Why? To force China to take the North Korean situation seriously and keep its dog off the furniture. The reasoning is that only China still has the power to make North Korea listen to reason. The tactical nukes were removed as part of a de-nuclearisation agreement for the peninsula, which North Korea has clearly violated.

The US Navy will deploy a solid-state laser weapon aboard USS Ponce in 2014, the first time a viable laser weapon will have been operationally deployed.

In an unaccustomed display of competence, the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program is testing Thales’ excellent Sonar 2087 towed array for the ASW mission package, slated for operational capability in the 2016-2018 bracket. The Thales sonar has an outstanding reputation, and is reportedly able to operate effectively even at the high speeds of which LCS boats are capable. This would be an alternative to drawing on the production line for the MFTA towed array slated to replace the rest of the US Navy’s existing arrays.

US Navy CNO Admiral Greenert is trying to raise awareness of hacking and electromagnetic spectrum vulnerability in US forces. As I’ve written, this angle plays a major part in China’s strategy for dealing with carrier strike groups should they ever face them in combat.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on the US and China to build “strategic trust” during a speech in Washington, while continuing Singapore’s tradition of asking for increased US presence in the region. The problem is that from a Chinese viewpoint, those positions are in conflict. Building international trust requires creativity, and while inviting China to next year’s RIMPAC exercise was certainly creative, it was the exception in a relationship that both sides seem to be putting less and less effort into.

The US military has published its crowning joint doctrine document, covering military doctrine for all services. Creatively titled Joint Publication 1, it’s probably nothing to get excited about, especially if its lower-tier predecessors, Air-Sea Battle and the jargon-based Joint Operational Access Concept, are anything to go by.

The US Navy is also contemplating major procurement changes. The plan had been to design a Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to take the new AMDR radar. Unfortunately, the design seems not to have enough room to do that economically, and so the current Flight IIA may continue in production until a new design, possibly a cruiser successor, can be fielded. Also, the planned order of 52 Littoral Combat Ships may be cut to 24, with a single mission package including urgently-needed minesweeping equipment and possibly a vertical launch system for missiles. It seems that the Navy has decided it can’t afford $650 million ships that do nothing.

North Korea Reveals War Strategy

North Korea is to restart its Yongbyon nuclear plant, deactivated under the 2007 disarmament-for-aid deal. Assuming the facility can be reactivated, it could produce both enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. As wars go, this one is rather odd. In fact, North Korea’s war strategy is the same as its peacetime strategy, and can best be formulated as, “Give us food or we’ll keep hurting ourselves.”

North Korea has scrapped the armistice on a war that never officially ended, threatened nuclear war, actually stated that they are at war, and are now threatening to reactivate a facility that may be able to produce material that may be used in a bomb in a few years. They have threatened to target Guam, Hawaii, Los Angeles and, for some reason, Austin, Texas. Just how many steps can there be between war and actual combat?

The answer, apparently, is as many as they want, particularly since all this sound and fury has been met with little but strong language and the scheduled annual Foal Eagle exercise by the South and the United States. Sure, the US sent B-2 bombers and F-22s to participate, but that was it. Why isn’t the North being taken seriously in its tantrum?

Well, in a diplomatic sense, the answer is that it has proven an untrustworthy partner. There is very little appetite left to prop up North Korea with aid when it is clear that nuclear disarmament is not going to happen- particularly when the Chinese and the South are so obviously willing to help the DPRK undertake economic reforms and develop a Chinese-style economy. The Chinese have taken every visit by the North Korean leadership as an opportunity to emphasise the advantages of this path. And yet somehow, it hasn’t sunk in.

South Korean K1 Tank

South Korean K1 Tank

North Korean Pokpung-ho Tank

North Korean Pokpung-ho Tank

We can only speculate on the bizarre psychology of the situation. But in a military sense, it is clear that the North doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Nuclear war would be suicide. Conventional war would also be suicide, at least for the regime. North Korea’s armoured forces, though numerically impressive, are dominated by the 1950’s vintage T-54/55 and the 1960’s vintage T-62. The most recent indiginous design, which may incorporate more recent Russian and/or Chinese technology, has insufficient numbers to counter the K1 and M1 tanks of the South and the US. The DPRK Air Force is dominated by MiG-21 “Fishbeds”, the same aircraft faced by F-4s and F-8s during the Vietnam War, with around 120 newer MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s, and would prove little more challenging than the Iraqi Air Force in 1991. North Korea’s two advantages are numbers and a very dense air defence system, equipped with significant numbers of the modern SA-17 medium-range missile. Their chances, to put it mildly, are not good.

In summary, neither the Americans nor the South Koreans will be intimidated into perpetuating the cycle of nuclear blackmail at this point, and any follow-through on the DPRK’s threats would be both hopeless and tragic. The question is what Pyongyang will do next. Coming away from this encounter with neither face for the young leader nor desperately-needed aid, at what point will they feel forced to break out of their current futile paradigm- and in which direction will they go?

News Roundup: Alliances, Espionage and Fishing Boats

Vietnam accuses a Chinese vessel of firing on a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands. China denied inflicting damage but said its response was “appropriate.”

Amid this environment of simmering territorial tensions, Japan is officially offering to make common cause with ASEAN as a vice-ministerial level conference in Japan takes off. The call for “closer security ties” is vague for a reason- aside from the ASEAN nations’ basic reluctance to form true alliance partnerships, China remains a key economic actor in Southeast Asia despite geopolitical tensions.

On the anniversary of the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan, President Park calls on North Korea to change or perish, North Korea threatens to strike the US with long range missiles it doesn’t have, and may also have launched cyber attacks on South Korean banks and broadcast networks.

A Chinese engineer is jailed in the US for illegally taking hundreds of classified files with technical data on US drone systems out of the country, apparently in an effort to attract a Chinese employer. Given the vast scale of Chinese military-industrial espionage in the United States, catching this amateur is a rather pathetic victory.