|US Naval strategy in South China Sea
6 June 2012
Jim Thomas, Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, oversees CSBA’s research programmes and directs the Strategic and Budget Studies staff. Prior to joining CSBA, he was Vice President of Applied Minds, Inc. Before that, he served in a variety of policy, planning and resource analysis posts in the Department of Defense, culminating in his dual appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy. In these capacities, he was responsible for the development of the Defense Strategy, conventional force planning, resource assessment, and the oversight of war plans. He spearheaded the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and was the principal author of the QDR report to Congress. Jim Thomas received the Department of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 1997 for his work at NATO, and the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the department’s highest civilian award, in 2006 for his strategy work. Jim Thomas spoke to Observer Research Foundation’s South China Sea Monitor. He was interviewed by Iskander Rehman, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, and former Visiting Fellow at the ORF.
Q. 1. Shortly after the tense standoff between the Philippines and China in the disputed lagoon of Scarborough Shoal, you co-wrote an article with Harry Foster entitled "The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines", in which you argued that the United States needed to do more to help the Philippines defend itself. The best way, you argued, to forestall a creeping finlandization of the Philippines would be to discreetly provide it with the wherewithal to develop its own A2/AD capabilities; thus enabling Manila, in a manner of speaking, to do a China on China. Could you explain to our readers how you would envision such a strategy being implemented? What advantages would it hold over other more conventional military alliance strengthening mechanisms?
Jim Thomas (JT): The difficulties that China’s A2/AD capabilities pose for the US military are well understood. They have the potential to erode over time the ability of the United States to project power (P2) in the familiar ways it has for many decades. What is less appreciated is that with the proliferation of precision-guided weaponry and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, the "A2 versus P2" dynamic will likely become more universal ? this isn’t just a problem for the United States, but for almost any country contemplating force projection beyond its borders. Countries with inferior conventional militaries could use systems we associate with A2/AD, such as anti-ship cruise missiles and mines, to constrain the power projection gambits of regional hegemonic aspirants. In the case of the Philippines, constructing a local A2/AD posture in the face of potential Chinese naval expansion would place a premium on improved maritime domain awareness. The Philippines needs to be able to continuously monitor its territorial waters, detect foreign intrusions both on the surface and undersea, and locate such threats with precision so that they can be engaged. Complementing such ISR capabilities, the Philippines might also benefit from land-based, mobile coastal defense systems like the Bastion anti-ship cruise missile system that Vietnam has fielded. The advantage of this approach would be that by encouraging the Philippine Armed Forces to look more like China’s and less like America’s, they would be better suited to defend their own sovereignty and counter any aggression or coercion.
Q. 2. Since the shuttering of Subic Bay in 1992, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly made it clear that the revival of permanent large-scale US bases is not in the offing. In light of recent events, do you think that this position will change? Or is it in both nations’ interests for United States to pursue a strategy of "places rather than bases" in Asia? The latest iteration of the US National Security Strategy, for example, places much emphasis on the value of "rotational deployments" and of a "light footprint" over permanent bases. Is this indicative of the future form of America’s "pivot" to Asia, or will the United States have to seriously contemplate erecting additional large bases in the region?
JT: It is in the mutual interests of the Philippines and the US to cooperate militarily on a closer basis in the future. At the same time, the kind of large-scale, permanent US bases that America maintained at Clark and Subic during the Cold War might not make sense in the future ? either politically or militarily. The Philippines doesn’t want a large, permanent US footprint, and such a footprint might be an enormous vulnerability for the US militarily, given the ease with which potential adversaries might target fixed bases within the reach of their missiles. A better approach might be frequent rotational deployments of US forces to train and exercise with their Philippine counterparts. Perhaps the most important step the Philippines could take in this regard would be to conduct occasional exercises in which US military aircraft are launched from and/or recovered on airfields on Luzon and Palawan. This would send a strong signal to others in the region of allies’ strategic solidarity and complicate the designs of any potential aggressor. Such exercises might be replicated with other regional states.
Q. 3. The South China Sea has been described as the "throat of maritime commerce", forming the vital connective tissue linking the Western Pacific to the wider Indian Ocean. Over the past year or so the term "Indo-Pacific" , which argues for a more holistic perception of the Asian maritime sphere, has become something of a strategic leitmotiv within the Washington beltway. How central do you think the South China Sea will become in American naval strategy? Will the South China Sea emerge as Asia’s epicenter of conflict? And if so, should the US begin to devise a coherent South China Sea Strategy?
JT: The term "Indo-Pacific" better captures what should be the focus of future US military activities, and the intertwining challenges and opportunities between the two oceans. The South China Sea is the hinge between the two through which more than half the world’s shipping traffic, as well as China, Japan and South Korea’s oil supplies. It has become the carotid artery of East Asia. Current disputes, however, revolve around what lies under the sea, rather than what transits through it. The problem is that no one yet knows with any degree of certainty how much oil and natural gas may lie under the South China Sea, so there is little appetite to compromise over maritime claims. In some ways it is reminiscent of the era of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries as European states staked claims in the New World despite the lack of complete information. If the past four hundred years were the era of cartography in which conflict stemmed from the definition of land frontiers drawn on a map, the next several centuries may be an era of oceanography and geology defining nations’ claims in three dimensional space, particularly at sea. For the US military, this means a return to regions of the world such as the South China Sea that it has neglected in recent decades to ensure a stable security balance, resolution free from coercion of maritime disputes, and continued freedom of navigation in international waters. Central to any new US regional strategy should be the importance of building up the security capacity of friendly states in the region to defend their sovereignty in the face of external "high end" maritime threats.
Q. 4. Chinese military theorists frequently portray their maritime environment as being bounded by "island chains", with the first so-called island chain encompassing the region composed of its more immediate waterways, extending from the Kurile islands to Borneo, and the second island chain stretching all the way from the Philippines Sea to the Marianas islands. Owen R. Cote. Jr. from MIT has described the island chains construct as being largely inadequate and prefers to divide the South China Sea into two different operating environments-the first being closer to China’s littoral and extending along China’s continental shelf; and the second being further out in the deeper, southern portion of the South China Sea. It is in the latter maritime expanse, he argues, that China’s lack of capabilities in terms of sustained air support and open-ocean anti-submarine warfare would play to its disadvantage in the unhappy event of a conflict with the United States. Do you agree with this assessment? What role do you see submarine warfare playing in the South China Sea within an AirSea Battle framework, for example?
JT: China is building a sizeable submarine force but faces two significant problems: its diesel-powered submarines are quiet but lack speed and endurance. Its nuclear submarines have far greater endurance but lack sufficient stealth. Only its nuclear submarines would have the endurance to operate in the southern South China Sea, but would be vulnerable running up against the anti-submarine capabilities of the US Navy and allied navies in the deeper waters. Closer to its own shores, the PLA’s ASW capabilities are rudimentary. US submarines would be able to operate with relative impunity near Chinese submarine pens in shallower waters. Submarines may factor heavily in Air-Sea Battle because they have the greatest potential to penetrate contested A2/AD zones prior to a conflict or in the early stages of a conflict, and can hold ships as well as land targets disproportionately at risk. China’s navy would be particularly vulnerable to US submarines as they exit or return to their ports.
Q. 5. Finally, and as a follow-up question to the previous one, what is your opinion on the potential for cooperation with the Philippines in the field of anti-submarine warfare? CSBA’s AirSea Battle Concept, for instance, advocates the establishment of anti-submarine barriers along certain critical chokepoints, such as the Luzon Strait. Should the joint establishment of a cable-based undersea surveillance array in the Philippine Sea figure highly on both Washington and Manila’s agendas? What comparisons can be drawn with the strategic dynamics leading up to the establishment of the famous GIUK Gap (Greenland-Iceland-UK) system, which monitored Soviet submarine deployments in the Northern Hemisphere throughout much of the Cold War?
JT: Geographically, the Philippines are ideally situated to play an important role in maritime domain awareness, including undersea detection and surveillance, either unilaterally or with external support and/or cooperation. The Philippines sits astride China’s two widest approaches to the open sea: the Luzon Strait in the north and the South China Sea. As Owen Cote has noted, both are no wider than the GIUK Gap. Both could be instrumented with undersea surveillance arrays with shore terminals in the Philippines. The Philippines could also host anti-submarine warfare aircraft conducting patrols over both the South China Sea and the Luzon Strait. It is potential contributions such as these that underscore the strategic value of the Philippines.