Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Omphalos Gazing

James Holmes, naval analyst and friend of our fair isle, posted an excellent piece today in the Taipei Times on the production strategies of the Chinese Navy. Holmes argues that the reason for the seeming pause in the Chinese navy's rapid growth is because of its production, development and ship retirement strategies. The fall in numbers masks improvements in quality that mean that the PLA navy is getting stronger....

Two narratives are making the rounds among China--watchers this year. One alleges that the buildup of high-end People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships has slowed or ended. The other claims that Chinese policy toward the South China Sea remains innocuous despite saber-rattling over a “core interest” there. Supporters of each view conclude that fears of a seafaring China are premature and overblown.

We dissent. Neither argument bears serious scrutiny. By Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most compelling explanation is that China’s naval project is simply entering a new phase. The most convoluted, least compelling explanation is that Beijing has curtailed its seagoing aspirations for some mysterious reason, along with the fleet that puts substance into these aspirations.

For example:

The PLAN, it seems, is not foregoing new DDGs after all. Nor does the plateau in submarine numbers say much. The navy is wisely scrapping older craft that are so noisy and therefore easy to detect underwater. Decommissioning them makes way for new, stealthier, more heavily armed boats.

As retirements balance the rate of new construction, the undersea fleet’s numbers temporarily steady out. However, the average capability of PLAN submarines is improving in the process and overall numbers will resume growing once all elderly boats are gone. Indeed, new photos indicate that the PLAN has introduced a new diesel boat this year, even while older models are still sliding down the ways. By no means has Beijing aborted submarine production.

Holmes goes on to point out that China's deployment of fisheries enforcement and smaller vessels in support of its expansion into the South China Sea is merely common sense -- no nation deploys large vessels to enforce its will on other nation's fishing trawlers in its own coastal waters. Another view of this is offered here in a discussion of how China may see its future force projection -- Pacific vs. Indian ocean:
China is mainly eyeing the South Chinese Sea which it completely claims as its own territory. It would especially like to claim the oil and gas rich Spratly isles as its own because this area could allow China to provide in its own energy needs. This puts the PLAN in direct conflict with the navies of the surrounding countries. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia however don’t possess a fleet to counter the PLAN. The Philippines and Indonesia are mostly caught up in combating smuggling operations in between the many islands that make up those countries. Malaysia does not have the budget to keep pace with the growing power of the PLAN in this region. Only Vietnam owns several Kilo class submarines and a couple modern Russian frigates that could somehow balance the PLAN in the region. Outside of Vietnam nobody can counter the Chinese influence in the South Chinese Sea without direct support of the United States Navy. If China would however be able to deter the US Navy from operating within the First Island Chain it would become a lot easier to claim the whole South Chinese Sea as its own territory.

So does China have a desire to cross the First Island Chain and perform operations there? Theoretically this is possible. After the last months we have seen that China does possess the necessary forces to conduct operations up to the First Island Chain, for this reason it is not unthinkable that China could pass the chain in the near future while still sufficiently protecting its own coastal waters within the First Island Chain. On the other hand, China has no direct interests across the First Island Chain in the direction of the Pacific, its main naval interests are located within the island chain and in the Indian Ocean. We can expect the PLAN to deploy itself more into the South Chinese Sea in order to aggressively claim the territory as Chinese. It is also possible that China will eventually cross the First Island Chain in the direction of the Indian Ocean, where it could fulfill the objective of securing China’s economically essential supply lines.
Yoshihara and Holmes have produced several good pieces on local naval issues. Earlier this year they offered this discussion on whether Taiwan can still maintain sea control in its own waters. This issue has grown more urgent as the Taipei Times reported today that there is an apparent slowdown in Taiwan's own naval construction....

The navy yesterday was asked to justify an apparent decision to delay plans to launch a program to build submarine chasers to increase the nation’s coastal defense capabilities.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) told a Foreign and National Defense Committee meeting at the legislature that while the navy had assigned budgets for the Hsun Hai Plan, under which the nation would develop a 900-tonne, 40m-long twin-hull corvette, the plan had since been delayed.

The navy first announced the plan in April. The submarine chasers would reportedly carry up to eight Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles, with a range of 150km, and eight recently developed Hsiung Feng III supersonic anti-ship missiles. The corvettes are to be designed by United Ship Design and Development Center, with assistance from the academic community.

Military officers present said that the project is classified and that they wouldn't answer questions. But it is another in a slew of unsettling Taiwan defense matters -- delays in weapons purchases due to budget issues, the continuing inability of the island to obtain advanced attack aircraft to upgrade its defenses, and President Ma's comments that Taiwan is going to rely on "soft power." Oy ve.
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