South China Sea conduit code closer

By Carl Thayer*

Several questions about Vietnam and the South China Sea are looked at by Carl Thayer.

Q1. What is your forecast for the general situation in the South China Sea in 2020? ANSWER: Two separate but inter-related developments will play out in 2020. First, China will continue to press ASEAN members to complete a South China Sea Code of Conduct through diplomatic negotiations. As witnessed by the ASEAN-China senior officials meeting in Da Nang this year, China will press to complete a second reading of the COC as soon as possible.

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Australia’s new strategic geography

The NASAMS High Mobility Launcher on a HMMWV, firing an AMRAAM missile. [HMMWV: High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle]

By Mark O’Neill

Australia’s strategic geography is not what it used to be. Technology has made the “sea-air gap”, an artefact treasured since the 1980s by a generation of Australian strategic planners, obsolete.

Three developments compromise the idea that geography offers Australia defensive depth and opportunity: the proliferation of long-range precision missiles with the Indo-Pacific region (including the development of hypersonic capabilities), the emergence of space-based weapons systems, and the pervasive penetration of digital communications in contemporary Australian society.

The Army has been grappling with the implications of the proliferation of long-range precision missiles on the modern way of war. An important realisation has been such systems give rise to “killing zones” stretching for thousands of kilometres. Not only is the distance to our homeland quickly annulled by modern missile systems, the “sea-air” gap of the 1980s that notionally afforded space to manoeuvre for air and maritime forces engaged in the defence of Australia is now far from benign. Contemporary and emerging surveillance and targeting acquisition technology focused the on the “gap” will present air and naval assets persistently operating within it, stealth technology notwithstanding, as tin ducks in a high-tech shooting gallery.

(While stealth technology enables some platforms, most platforms in the Australian Defence Force and the current Integrated Investment Plan are non-stealthy. Further detracting from those platforms with stealth ability, the majority of their system enablers – such as command and control, surveillance, logistic support and infrastructure – are not stealthy.)

The relative pervasiveness of contemporary and emerging target detection and acquisition systems reaches a pinnacle with consideration of space-based systems. Not only are such systems in “perpetual overwatch” over geography, their potential and possible weaponisation further collapses comfortable old sureties of defensive distance.

We readily conceive of missile and space-based offensive systems reducing or displacing the perceived strategic advantage of distance or gaps afforded by physical geography. It is vital in the digitally connected world of the 21st century we also acknowledge how the information domain further dislocates previously accepted wisdom, rendering physical standoff irrelevant, and warping time.

Warfare in an age of unprecedented digitisation and digital influence now begins at an interface with the digital device in the hands of an estimated 88% of Australians. The fight for influence is free of geographical constraints, and Australians are in the engagement zone. There is no distance between spreading political falsehoods for political effect and disinformation campaigns that attack the heart of national will and cohesion during war – distance is technically irrelevant. Old conceptions of geographical gaps are mute in response to digital technology enabling political warfare and subversion at the heart of Australia’s modern, connected society.

This raises some important questions. For example: what might the ethical and legal application of military power to achieve information advantage within sovereign boundaries in wartime (or a time of political warfare) look like compared to the freedom and proliferation of information that is our currently accepted norm? Short of conflict, is the flow of potentially harmful data or information our new border security problem – how might we “turn back the bytes”?

Geography, previously a useful strategic advantage for island nations, is less of an asset when facing 21st century technologies that are agnostic about distance and domain. This is not to say geography no longer matters – it remains important in some ways. We still define national sovereignty through delineation of physical features and in cartographical terms, although this will doubtless come under increasing pressure as our use and reliance upon the information and space domains grows. Moreover, while physical geography may be increasingly problematic as an ordering principle of strategy, it has enduring utility as a factor in tactical and operational considerations. It is useful to unpack some implications of these assertions.

The impact of the information and space domains require a new conception of our strategic geography. We now must think in terms of multi-domain approaches to the Australian homeland and the idea of securing virtual sovereign geography. In the 21st century, Australian strategic thought must provide answers to how we deter, deny, defend, and defeat across all of the domains and approaches to our continent – not merely the sea and air ones.

The turn of the technological wheel, combined with the attributes of land power in the modern era (which include persistent presence, lethality, survivability, and endurance), offers an opportunity to address Australia’s new strategic geography. Land-based joint teams will be able to dominate air and maritime approaches for an extended duration, enable joint force manoeuvre and fires, as well as create virtual sovereign territory in the space and information domains.

Geography has always been meaningful for strategy, but tomorrow’s geography is not what it was yesterday. Technology is warping the physical bounds of Australia’s strategic geography through increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and the realisation of new domains. It compels us to grasp the opportunity to reconsider our approaches to defining and defending sovereignty. Our new geography demands it.

Republished with permission of the Lowy Institute

Walk away from subs deal considered

Defence secretly considered walking away from the $50 billion French submarine deal during protracted and at times bitter contract negotiations, and started drawing up contingency plans for the new fleet, the ABC reports.

The revelations are contained in a new report by the auditor-general that also confirms the program is running nine months late and that Defence is unable to show whether the $396 million spent so far has been “fully effective”.

But the Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said the program was complex.

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Serious problem s with subs project: Audit

By Kym Bergmann of the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter

Despite repeated assurances by Defence, the RAN and relevant Ministers that the Future Submarine program is on track – the reality revealed by the Australian National Audit Office today shows that this is far from true.  Titled: “Future Submarine Program – transition to design,” it reveals that the current critical phase has already been granted a 9 month extension – after prime contractor France’s Naval Group requested 15 months.  It states:

“The program is currently experiencing a nine-month delay in the design phase against Defence’s pre-design contract estimates, and two major contracted milestones were extended. As a result, Defence cannot demonstrate that its expenditure of $396 million on design of the Future Submarine has been fully effective in achieving the program’s two major design milestones to date. Defence expenditure on design represents some 47 per cent of all program expenditure to 30 September 2019.”

To say that this is a problem for the project – worth either $50 billion or $80 billion depending on the methodology used –  is a major understatement.  To date, Naval Group France has received $448 million.  Defence itself has assessed the program to build 12 new submarines as high risk, but has never had a proper Plan B, apart from extending the life of the current 6 Collins class submarines.  Even this activity is proceeding at a disturbingly slow pace.

APDR has been cautioning about this looming capability shortfall disaster for the last two years ever since it became apparent that behind the scenes the relationship between Defence and Naval Group was poor. This led to a 12-month delay in signing the Strategic Partnering Agreement, which finally took place in February last year.  However, now is not the time for point scoring and the time has come for Defence to urgently examine the feasibility of acquiring a New Generation Collins class.

On the other side of the world, Saab-Kockums is offering just this solution to the Netherlands for their Walrus class replacement contract.  If successful, they will deliver the first of these long-range, high technology submarines in 2027.  Even if the current (delayed) schedule for SEA 1000 is met – and it almost certainly will not be – the RAN will not have their first Attack class in service until 2034.

A cynic is entitled to wonder why the ANAO report has been released today during the school holidays and in the midst of the bushfire crisis.  The ANAO answers to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is hardly impartial on the topic of the future submarine.  At any other time of year, this story would be front page news on every paper in the country.

History of Nelson Battalion of Royal Naval Division

Nelson at war, 1914-19: the history of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, by Roy Swalea. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2019 (GBP 14,99; USD 29,95).

Reviewed by  John Johnston

When war broke out in the late summer of 1914, the Royal Navy hastily raised a division’s worth of men, most of them stokers from the fleet reserve, to serve ashore as infantry soldiers. The organisation of the division into two naval brigades and a Royal Marine Light Infantry brigade, with four battalions in each, suggests that the intention was to create a force to guard the English coast against a German invasion, the fear of which had been a constant theme in military and naval writings for much of the previous quarter of a century. However, the RND had scarcely had time to muster before it was sent to reinforce the Belgian defence at Antwerp, a debacle in which it lost more than a third of its original strength.

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Anti-ship missile evolution

By Jon Lake of Asian Military Review

There are a bewildering array of weapons systems optimised for the destruction of surface vessels. At the height of the Cold War, the RAF’s Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft had an arsenal that included TV- and radar-guided Matra Martel missiles, longer-range BAE (now MBDA) Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles, Texas Instruments (now Raytheon) Paveway laser-guided bombs and tactical nuclear weapons, while during the Falklands War, the courageous and highly skilled Argentinian pilots wreaked havoc on Britain’s naval task force – largely using unguided ‘iron bombs’. The Royal Navy (RN) was saved from disaster largely because some of these weapons had not fused by the time they hit their targets. During an engagement between the US Navy and Iranian forces in 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis), US aircraft attacked enemy vessels using AGM-84 Harpoon missiles, AGM-123 Skipper rocket-propelled bombs, Walleye TV-guided bombs, and unguided 1,000lb (453kg) bombs.

But with the increasing sophistication and lethality of today’s anti-aircraft defences, anti-ship attacks are better carried out without having to overfly the target, and ideally from significantly greater stand-off range, and to do this requires the use of (ideally guided) anti-ship missiles (AShMs).

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Increasing lethality of surface force

By Dmitry Filipoff*

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the growth and evolution of the U.S. Surface Navy’s lethality with Rear Admiral Scott Robertson, commander of the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). In this discussion RDML Robertson discusses the cutting edge of Surface Navy training and tactical development, and how SMWDC is planning to take its efforts to the next level.

Much of SMWDC’s effort is geared toward being a learning organization, whether through experimenting with tactics, training WTIs, and digesting technical data gathered from exercises. Going across your various lines of effort, what exactly is being learned and taught by SMWDC?

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Chinese ‘spy’ ship in Indian waters

According to the Indian Press, Chinese ‘Spy & research’ Ship SHI YAN 1 entered Indian territory near Port Blair in Indian Ocean and chased away by Indian Navy warships, Navy News reports.

The Indian Navy recently drove away a suspicious Chinese vessel from Indian waters near Port Blair. The Chinese vessel named Shi Yan 1 was detected by a maritime surveillance aircraft of the Indian Navy when the vessel was supposedly carrying out research activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) near Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

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Glasgow Museums – The ship Models

Glasgow Museums – The Ship Models. A History and Complete Illustrated Catalogue. Emily Malcolm & Michael R Harrison. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by David Hobbs

This beautifully produced book was published in co-operation with the Glasgow Museums with the intention of both illustrating and giving background information about their remarkable collection of over 600 ship models.  The majority represent ships built on the Clyde between the late eighteenth and early twenty-first centuries and the collection as a whole is an important international resource for the study of shipbuilding as well as being a delight for generations of model-makers and collectors.  

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