Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Submarines around China, and Some Thoughts on World War III

There is a lot of activity in the world's navies these days. There is a building boom for hunter-killer submarines, both nuclear-powered (SSN's) and Diesel-Electric (SSK's) in Asia. According to this article
The area most eager to have submarines now is Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian countries have been trying to build up their navies since the superpowers’ withdrawal after the Cold War. The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) operates four Sjoormen-class submarines which were delivered from Sweden in the early 2000s. In 2005, the RSN purchased two Vastergotland-class submarines again from Sweden which will replace some of the Sjoormen-class submarines about 2010. It is reported that Vietnam got two North Korean Yugo-class submarines in 1997. The Indonesian Navy had several submarines bought from the USSR and Poland at the end of the 1950s but decommissioned all of them in the 1970s. It later bought two submarines from Germany in 1981. In 2007, Jakarta signed a US$1.2b billion defense deal with Russia that included the purchase of two submarines. The fact that these navies have submarines must be a powerful incentive for the Malaysian Navy to buy submarines. The RMN’s Scorpene submarines were ordered from France and Spain in 2002. The Royal Thai Navy too came close to joining the submarine club in the late 1990s.
 The other nations in the region are madly buying or building submarines, too.
Japan is in the process of adding six diesel attack boats to its current force of 16. Australia aims to double its fleet of six diesel boats. South Korea is also doubling its six-strong undersea fleet. Two years ago, Vietnam purchased six Kilos from Russia.
In reaction to the number of submarines about its shores, the "Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force" (JMSDF or, more simply, Japanese navy) has been developing sophisticated anti-submarine capabilities. According to Wikipedia:
The JMSDF is known in particular for its anti-submarine and mine-sweeping capability. Defense planners believe the most effective approach to combating submarines entails mobilizing all available weapons, including surface combatants, submarines, aircraft and helicopters.
Japanese interest in anti-submarine warfare must have been confirmed when Japanese warships had to see off a Chinese submarine that intruded on Japanese waters.

What is the reason for this military build up? One reason is that China is exerting its claim on almost the entire South China Sea, ignoring the competing claims of Taiwan, the Phillipines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. The result is that "Tensions have been rising in the region."

  1. Macclesfield Bank is claimed by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Phillipines and, apparently, Vietnam. Part of it, Scarborough Shoal, was the site of a standoff in 2012 between Chinese fishing boats and the Phillipines navy.
  2. China and Vietnam each controlled part of the Paracel Islands until the Battle of the Paracels in 1974, in which the Chinese military evicted the Vietnamese.
  3. The Spratly Islands have competing claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. All except Brunei occupy some of the islands. China, Malaysia and Vietnam have garrisons.
On June 21, 2012, China set up Sansha City to govern Macclesfield Bank, the Paracels, and the Spratly Islands, although all of that territory is disputed and only a portion of it is under Chinese control.

Competing claims for islands and seabeds also strain relations in more northerly waters. For example,
  1. Tsushima is administered by Japan but claimed by South Korea.  
  2. In contrast, the Liancourt Rocks (called Dokdo by the South Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese) are administered by South Korea and claimed by Japan. In 2012, a treaty to share military information between South Korea and Japan struck those rocks. Japan had repeated its claim to the rocks, so South Korean politicians opposed the treaty.
  3. Both South Korea and China claim Socotra Rock (called Ieodo or Parangdo by the South Koreans and Suyan Rock by the Chinese). South Korea recently built observation posts there which the Chinese navy has since destroyed. 
  4. Four of the Kuril Islands are disputed between Japan and Russia. A visit to the Kurils by Prime Minister Medvedev in 2010 received protests from the Japanese. Since then, in 2011, Medvedev has called for stronger defences on the Kurils. 
  5. The Senkaku Islands (also called the Diaoyu Islands) are administered by Japan but claimed by Taiwan and China. China claims that the Senkaku belong to it because they belong to Taiwan and Taiwan belongs to China. An incident in 2010 saw a Chinese fishing boat colliding with Japanese naval ships.
None of this mess of overlapping and potentially dangerous claims compares with the gorillas in the room, the biggest and most dangerous disputes in the region.
  1. North Korea, according to its constitution and consistent government statements, claims all of South Korea.
  2. South Korea, according to its constitution, claims all of North Korea.
  3. The Republic of China (Taiwan), according to its constitution, claims all of the People's Republic of China.
  4. The People's Republic of China, according to consistent government statements and military preparations for invasion, claims all of Taiwan.
One result of the disputes is an arms race in submarines. On the one hand,
The Chinese Navy is expected to procure 30 more submarines by 2020 and bring the total from the current 62 to 100 by 2030, Hong Kong's Ming Pao daily reported on Tuesday.
On the other (from the same source),
Bloomberg News quoted experts as predicting that Asia-Pacific nations will have up to 86 more subs by 2020. 
In addition to very quiet diesel-electric submarines like the Song class, China has launched long-endurance nuclear-powered submarines such as those in the Shang class and nuclear-missile launchers (SSBN's) such as those in the Jin class.

We may ask, "why submarines?" but one incident probably gives much of the answer: On October 26, 2006, a Chinese Song-class attack submarine surfaced within nine miles of the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. This is easily close enough to have fired its torpedos on the Kitty Hawk, but the Americans had not detected its approach. Some Americans concluded
"The Chinese are building a credible submarine force which will make it very difficult for the US Navy to maintain sea control dominance in or near coastal waters off of China," warned Rear Adm. Hank McKinney, former commander of the US Pacific Fleet’s submarine force.
It seems the Chinese realized that neither the Chinese nor any other navy in the world, nor all of them together, could realistically challenge the American surface fleet. However, an affordable fleet of submarines combined with land-launched missiles designed to strike American aircraft carriers (the DF-21D) and missiles that can destroy satellites in space could make the American fleet stand off outside of the Sea of Japan or the South China Sea. For example, it would have difficulty in preventing an invasion of Taiwan, if China chose to launch one, without resorting to nuclear weapons.

The Chinese submarine fleet may not be able to expand past the number of American submarines, though. It has had to slow down its purchases, and the United States has speeded up.
With the Kilo [a class of Russian attack submarines] purchase complete, Beijing added just two boats in 2007, none in 2008 and two each in 2009 and 2010. It appears that, barring a major reversal of the current trend, the PLAN will acquire no more than two submarines a year over the medium term.
That’s the same submarine production rate as in the United States – though only recently. In the early 2000s, Washington purchased just one submarine a year, on average. A cost-savings initiative launched in 2005 drove the price of the current Virginia-class attack submarine down to around $2 billion apiece, allowing the US Navy to purchase two Virginias annually starting this year.
I cannot think of any region of the world that is more likely to start a Third World War than Eastern Asia. It has multiple disputed territories that have led to confrontations and even short wars. It has an arms race. It has China, which is determined to make its claims stand through economic power, diplomatic pressure, and discreet sabre rattling. It has America, which is "pivoting" its military to the region to counter China's strength, keep the sea lanes open, and reassure its allies. The result may be this (from The Hunt for Red October).

That film was set during the Cold War, when superpower confrontations threatened the world. For a while it looked as though such fears were gone. They are returning.

To see how firm at least Korea is on its claims to disputed land, look at the names of its Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships. These are large vessels (18,800 tons fully loaded, 199 m long) that combine the capabilities of a light aircraft carrier with the ability to land a battalion of troops.

 In other words, these are the craft that would be involved in battles for disputed islands.

The ships are
  1. ROKS Dokdo (named after islands administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan).
  2. ROKS Ieodo (named after islands claimed by both Korea and China but administered by neither).
  3. ROKS Baengnyeongdo (named after the island that is the closest point to the disputed maritime border with North Korea. According to Wikipedia, there have been "several naval skirmishes" between the two countries near the island and the ROKS Cheonan was sunk, supposedly by North Korea, close to this island on March 26, 2010).
  4. ROKS Marado (named after the islands that mark the southernmost portion of Korea).
The ships' names are clear and firm statements that the claims to Dokdo and Ieodo are not negotiable. Thank heaven Japan does not have an amphibious assault ship named JS Takeshima nor China one named Suyan Rock.

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