Monday, October 15, 2007

Lost in Lost in the Pacific Ocean

A few weeks ago Robert D. Kaplan, a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, raised quite a few eyebrows with an opinion article, published in the International Herald Tribune, that presaged the premature rise of great naval powers challenging the dominance of the U.S. Seventh Fleet:

Lost in the Pacific Ocean
International Herald Tribune

The ultimate strategic effect of the Iraq war has been to hasten the arrival of the Asian Century.

While the American government has been occupied in Mesopotamia, and our European allies continue to starve their defense programs, Asian militaries - in particular those of China, India, Japan and South Korea - have been quietly modernizing and in some cases enlarging.

Asian dynamism is now military as well as economic.

The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance. A few years down the road, according to the security analysts at the private policy group Strategic Forecasting, Americans will not to the same extent be the prime deliverers of disaster relief in a place like the Indonesian archipelago, as we were in 2005. Our ships will share the waters (and the prestige) with new "big decks" from Australia, Japan and South Korea...

Wow! Or should I say, "Woo, woo! Here's to the badass East and South Asian maritime homies! Yippee!"

Except that, when you look at the details, Kaplan's claims fail to inspire quite so much shock and awe.

Take, for example, this claim:

...China, whose production and acquisition of submarines is now five times that of America's. Many military analysts feel it is mounting a quantitative advantage in naval technology that could erode our qualitative one. Yet the Chinese have been buying smart rather than across the board.

In addition to submarines, Beijing has focused on naval mines, ballistic missiles that can hit moving objects at sea and technology that blocks GPS satellites.

Wait just a darn minute.

"Ballistic missiles that can hit moving objects at sea"

Ballistic missiles are fired up into the atmosphere by a boost phase. The booster then separates and the warhead falls or glides into the target. Maneuverability is limited...or so I have been led to understand.

A guided missile...a cruise missile...a ramjet...OK.

But a ballistic missile?

Somebody help me out here.

Or how about this section:

China's military expansion, with a defense budget growing by double digits for the 19th consecutive year, is part of a broader, regional trend. Russia - a Pacific as well as a European nation, we should remember - is right behind the United States and China as the world's biggest military spender. Japan, with 119 warships, including 20 diesel-electric submarines, boasts a naval force nearly three times larger than Britain's. (It is soon to be four times larger: 13 to 19 of Britain's 44 remaining large ships are set to be mothballed by the Labour government.)

First things first. "Right behind the United States and China as the world's biggest military spender."

True, if you are not too particular about the meaning of the phrase "right behind the United States and China," that is.

"Right behind China," maybe. "Way behind the United States," definitely.

Then there is this claim that the Maritime Self Defense Forces has 119 fighting ships, including 20 diesel-electric submarines, and is nearly three times larger than Britain's Royal Navy.

Let us start with the submarines. The MSDF has 16 commissioned attack submarines. Never more; never less.

The MSDF also has two unarmed diesel electric subs for training purposes only. Well, actually only one right now. The older one had a little mishap eleven months ago.

That makes a total of eighteen, only 16 of which can attack anything.

Not 20.

As for the claim that Japan has 119 "fighting ships" it really depends on what you call "fighting ships," I guess.

Let us take Mr. Kaplan's implicit definition from his claim that the Labour government intends to retire "13 to 19 of Britain's 44 remaining large ships" in the near future. The Royal Navy's 44 large ships include:

3 aircraft carriers (22,000 dwt)
1 helicopter carrier (22,500 dwt)
2 large amphibious assault ships (18,500 dwt)
25 destroyers and frigates (all greater than 4820 dwt)
4 strategic nuclear submarines
9 attack submarines

Right off the bat, Japan has neither aircraft carriers nor strategic nuclear submarines. Its Ōsumi class helicopter carriers are tiny at only 8900 dwt. Japan's only amphibious assault ships are a pair of midget 590 dwt Yura class vessels. Only 15% (8 out of 55) of the MDSF's destroyers and frigates are larger than 4820 dwt, the smallest size of a Royal Navy ship-of-the-line.

Being generous, however, let us consider all of Japan's attack vessels above 500 dwt, including the little Yura-class vessels and the sad 85m long, one-of-a-kind, 1,290 dwt Ishikari frigate, to be "fighting ships."

Based on the list of vessels posted on the MSDF's ship's gallery page of the MSDF's website, Japan has 79 attack vessels.


Not 119.

Oh, there are nine little missile attack ships, none of which surpass 200 dwt...and three destroyers for training purposes only...and a "test ship" destroyer for exams.

But 119 "fighting ships"?

Not even close.

As for Japan's fleet being "larger," the differences in the physical bulk of the U.K.'s warships tip the scales in the Royal Navy's direction.

Total tonnage of 44 Royal Navy warships = 317,690 dwt

Total tonnage of 79 JMSDF warfare ships = 281,510 dwt
(for the MSDF the listed total is a maximum--actual total is probably lower)

I am afraid I just cannot be as afraid of what Mr. Kaplan wants his fellow Americans to be more afraid of if being afraid of Asians with haze gray ships is what Americans should be more afraid of.

Unless Mr. Kaplan is warning us of the menacing rise of a terrible new power in the East--the ghostly white ships of the Japan Coast Guard.

Later - To be clear about the ballistic missile question, I am asking about a ballistic anti-ship missile not tipped with a tactical nuclear warhead.

Later still - "James" in comments provides suggestions for improving my argument. A worthwhile read.


Unknown said...

The figures that Kaplan uses for the MSDF are ludicrously overinflated, but there are a number of mistakes in your post.

I think you are mistaken in you characterisation of the Osumi class as a "helicopter carrier." The MSDF page you linked to describes them in English as an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and in Japanese as a 輸送艦. Indeed, the last time I remember seeing them was when one of them transported the GSDF's vehicles to Iraq.

Currently the MSDF posesses 4 Destroyer-Helicopter: the 2 Haruna-class and 2 Shirane-class destroyers. The Haruna are to be replaced by the 2 ships of the Hyuga class, the first of which was launched this year. The Hyuga-class will be about 18,000 DWT, which is about the same size as the Invincible-class aircraft carrier.

Also, the Royal Navy only has 2 aircraft carriers. The Invincible has been laid up.

According to my calculations, the proper tonnage comparison should be:
Total tonnage of 43 RN major warships and submarines = 340,380 tonnes
Total tonnage of 79 JMSDF major warships and submarines = 320,880 tonnes (including training vessels)

I think the comparison you make between the strength of the destroyer/frigate fleets of Japan and the Royal Navy is rather useless. Whilst it is true that only 9 (not 8) ships of the MSDF’s escort fleet are above 4,820 tonnes, this is a rather arbitrary number to fixate on. I could make an equally valid comparison by saying that there are equal numbers of escort ships (25) in both navies over 4,550 tonnes. However this is again a rather arbitrary number. The comparison becomes even more unhelpful when you note that the 5 (soon to be 6) Aegis destroyers in the MSDF are twice the size of any of the RN’s destroyers.
Comparing the total tonnage of the MSDF and RN escort fleets shows that they are 233,000 tonnes and 125,000 tonnes respectively.

As you say, the physical bulk of the RN's ships (and submarines, especially the SSBN's) tips the balance in the favour of the RN. Notwithstanding the numerical superiority of the MSDF, the aircraft carriers, cruise missiles and nuclear submarines of the Royal Navy make it a stronger force. The comparison that Kaplan makes between the RN and the MSDF is wrong and rather sensationalist, but this does not mean that the MSDF is as weak as you make it out to be. And that does not mean that there is not a lot of naval ship-building going on in Asia. Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and India are all building new ship and weapon systems, strengthening their navies. Whilst the article may be rubbish, that doesn't mean that it has no truth to it at all.

REM said...

Good post and good points from James. I do think that the analysis is largely, as James says, rubbish. It presents facts, absent context, in such a way as to support Kaplan's argument - which was the crux of your post, I think, MTC.

This is another example of a phenomenon I've noticed since acquainting myself a little bit with Asian affairs: Americans know so little about Asia that a big name can write a bit of half-assed analysis about something he's just stumbled upon, and it's taken as truth.

For what it's worth, Kaplan is not a naval expert. I know he's a visiting professor at the Naval Academy, but so was Victor Davis Hanson before him.

REM said...

I should specify that I meant the analysis in Kaplan's article is largely rubbish - in case there was any confusion there.