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Opinion: Western Pacific Would Benefit From International Standing Maritime Groups

Recent and ongoing tensions in the Western Pacific, such as the verbal confrontation between a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft and a Chinese Navy ground station in the Spratly islands on May 20, will not be solved by the actions of one power.

An international solution that includes all relevant parties in the region, including China and the United States, is required to ease strained relations and create a way forward for nations in the region to adjudicate their competing claims. International vehicles of cooperation that allow these nations to interact equally and peacefully together at sea are a first step toward a full international solution.

One possible first step could be the creation of a Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group (SIPMG) for the purposes of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR), counter-piracy patrol and general assistance to mariners in distress in international waters. Its command structure could be based on the long-proven national rotation system of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs).

Its operational design might resemble the ongoing NATO Operation Active Endeavor (OAE) and the Turkish Operation Black Sea Harmony (OBSH) initiative or the ongoing multinational counter-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia.

Such a group would comprise primarily ships with capabilities that support relief and low-threat security operations. The act of bringing together military and coast guard personnel from the nations of the Indo-Pacific, and organizing them in support of peaceful security-building activity could have a positive impact on the stability of this region.

These people and the relationships they forge together are as much the product of this effort as are the potential activities of the standing maritime group. These relationships, especially those forged between U.S. and Chinese personnel could be of use in fostering amicable relationships between participating nations.

An international standing maritime group in the Indo-Pacific region could be organized primarily for the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). The Indo-Pacific ocean space is one of potentially volatile weather and volcanic activity.

U.S. Marine Pfc. John Evans assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 4 (CLB 4) distributes water on Nov. 23, 2013 to Palo residents affected by Typhoon Haiyan. US Navy Photo

U.S. Marine Pfc. John Evans assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 4 (CLB 4) distributes water on Nov. 23, 2013 to Palo residents affected by Typhoon Haiyan. US Navy Photo

Tsunamis associated with catastrophic geologic events in the Indo-Pacific have killed nearly 300,000 people since 2004, most in the Indian Ocean tsunami of that year and the tsunami that struck Japan and other nations on March 11, 2011. The long-term social, economic and environmental effects of these disasters will continue to affect the global community for decades. Such a group could also contribute to counter-piracy through its reporting of potential pirate activity to responsible national authorities. The group could also provide general assistance in international waters for mariners in distress.

International sanction in the form of U.N. resolutions has been successful in the past in the inspiration for and mobilization of international maritime activities. The Turkish-motivated Operation Black Sea Harmony (OBSH, similar to the NATO-led Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, was initiated in March 2004 in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1540, and 1566 for deterring terrorist and asymmetric threats worldwide.

On the request of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in late 2008, NATO started to provide escorts to U.N. World Food Program (WFP) vessels transiting these dangerous waters under Operation Allied Provider (October-December 2008). In addition to providing close protection to WFP chartered ships, NATO conducted deterrence patrols and prevented, for instance, vessels from being hijacked and their crews being taken hostage during pirate attacks. The European Union (EU) began a regular rotation with NATO units soon after to provide consistent coverage of the Bab al Mandeb strait and Gulf of Somalia region. A greater diverse coalition of over 30 international maritime forces further coalesced to provide wider coverage across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to the point that there have been no successful pirate attacks in the region since May 2012. The success of the international counter-piracy effort in the waters off Somalia demonstrates the power of international cooperation in a troubled region in support of common objectives.

Chinese troops operating in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. People's Liberation Army Navy Photo

Chinese troops operating in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. People’s Liberation Army Navy Photo

The multinational effort against piracy in Somali waters, in particular, illustrates the power of maritime diplomatic efforts. It drew the support of a diverse group of nations around a common maritime interest, including many who had not previously participated in international maritime efforts. The navy of the People’s Republic of China, for example, was a strong participant in the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) coordination mission undertaken by the nations participating in the counter-piracy mission off the Somali coast, according to 2011’s China Europe and International Security, Interests, Roles and Prospects. China has sent more task-force escorts to the region than any other independent participant and has assiduously supported all U.N. resolutions that underpin international counter-piracy efforts. Chinese participation would be a most welcome and useful addition to a Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group effort.

The Indo-Pacific region already has a recent history of successful cooperative maritime efforts. The coast guards (or equivalents) of Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States established the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum to promote information-sharing and foster international cooperative efforts related to safeguarding maritime commerce, stemming illegal drug trafficking, protecting fisheries, and deterring human smuggling. Biannually, member organizations from each of the forum nations meet to focus on issues affecting the northern Pacific, participate in training and exercises, and conduct joint operations at sea. The forum is built on a simple formula: All members voluntarily work equally toward solving shared problems and achieving mutual interests. The takeaway: Robust precedent exists for international navies and coast guards to cooperate in furtherance of mutual interests in the maritime domain.

The group’s organization could be based on models successfully employed over decades of operation. The NATO Standing Maritime Groups (SNMGs) have been in operation for nearly 50 years. The Standing NATO Maritime Groups, conceived in the late 1960s as the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT), were an attempt to create a regular deployment of the Alliance’s warships to promote common operational standards. A current inspiration and possible foundation for a Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group is the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, whose membership just met in Manila in April of this year and approved a member supported Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) program in April 2014. The CUES program provides basic communications and maneuvering instructions. It could be expanded as the foundation for intra-group communications and operations of a Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group.

The operational concept of the group might also be derived from past successful models of international maritime command and control. The Standing NATO Maritime groups have practiced a system of rotation by which the participating nations alternate the staff billet assignments amongst themselves. All nations are afforded the opportunity to command the group and provide the formation’s flagship for regular periods of operation. Communication has traditionally been in English and facilitated by common multinational methods. Standing Maritime Groups have traditionally conducted a workup period to operations and communication skills before they begin active operations. Staff members live on board the flagship and work together as a close-knit watch-keeping and administrative team. The close interaction of the commander and other staff members for months at sea is often the basis for lasting professional and personal relationships among this unique group of naval personnel.

USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60), top, and the Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulaman (PV 08) conduct maneuvering exercises while participating in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei 2014. US Navy Photo

USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60), top, and the Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulaman (PV 08) conduct maneuvering exercises while participating in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei 2014. US Navy Photo

The ships assigned to the group could possess capabilities suited to humanitarian operations including medical facilities, ample fittings and stowage for small boats, robust communications capabilities, and operating endurance suited to long stretches at sea in the Indo-Pacific region. The flagship, at a minimum should possess facilities for air operations beyond a single rotary-wing aircraft. A refueling/replenishment platform would be a welcome addition to the group, but some host organization account would be required to allow nations to pay for the fueling costs of their respective ships.

Multinational standing maritime groups have facilitated positive relations over the course of fifty years in multiple locations and organizations. A Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group (SIPMG) could be the beginning of a similar period of understanding and cooperation in the Indo Pacific region.

  • vincedc

    And then we have John McCain telling DoD not to let the Chinese play in our Pacific exercises, that would be critical to the success of such a plan. This looks like a good idea until you put politics into the equation…especially with an election year right around the corner.

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  • PolicyWonk

    Great idea, and an excellent example of a solid use case for our new MLP’s: add a few choppers; 2-4 ghost; 2-4 Mark VI patrol boats; maybe a pair of V-22’s, etc., to create a large patrol region to promote maritime safety (etc.).

    Our allies/friends can send similar or complementary craft to work in concert with our assets in this contested part of the world.

    • redgriffin

      Maybe we need to include a number of OPV’s also.

    • leesea

      It is useless to include the MLPs in this task group since they are USMC centric and have no capability to support small craft nor a flight deck.
      IF you meant the AFSB version, while they have a flight deck, there is little cargo capacity for relief materials and no cargo gear to move that up to flight deck and nothing to offload larger vehicles etc needed ashore. Nor do they have organic aircraft.
      Not to mention they are few in number and very slow platforms.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Nice suggestions, but obviously from a Westerner’s understanding of the Asian mentality. If these Asian countries cannot pull together in their already established organization, ASEAN, then how could one honestly expect them to all pony up & provide a costly military solution to patrol a hotly contested area, the SCS, which China has established as their own by possession rule of 9/10ths? This suggestion strikes me as just another lead-in to pursuing yet another Cold-to-Hot War in the region & nothing less than an arms race, benefiting no one other than the military services & Defense Contractors. To see what the future in the SCS will be, look to the past & what the “Root Causes” are. Start around 1890 & work your way forward to get a sense of the grudges that still persist to this day, especially against Japan. There will be war in the Pacific eventually, as China, Russia & the Koreas seek to exact revenge upon Japan for past atrocities…it is just the way the Asian mind works. The big question is if the U.S. will recognize this thirst for revenge & stay out of the way, or as usual, try to get involved with every other country’s affairs, offering to be their champion, all the while, these countries remain as they are, weak & corrupt, relying once again on the U.S. to fight their battles for them, waste precious American lives, while they refuse to fight, waste precious American resources, while they continue their rampant corruption, & continue to leave the homeland of America completely exposed along our Southern Border, while we pursue military adventurism…

    • Lazarus

      The level of cooperation required for a Standing Indo-Pacific Maritime Group is minimal and not nearly on the size/scale of ASEAN. NATO successfully integrated a number of non-member states into its Operation Active Endeavor, including some that did not see eye to eye with each other on many issues.

    • redgriffin

      Maybe that was the idea with the “Pivot to Asia” By putting US Military assets close to problem areas an aggressor would think twice before confronting someone but with the US and Europe’s History in the area it is harder then one may think plus there is the economic factors that NATO didn’t have to contend with upon it’s inception. What we as a Nation have to commit to is a long range plan and for once stick with it and not fold at the first sign of resistance.

  • Curtis Conway

    I don’t care who stands up the force, or under who’s colors, as long as its not led by the PLAN. The ASEAN organization is the obvious choice to lead this effort. However, look at the search assets provided, and the cooperation during our recent airline disappearances. Leaves one to wonder, but we know that China is in the background influencing everything they can to deter this obvious answer to the problem.

    • Elvis

      Neither the US or China have historically permitted their forces to be commanded by a foreigner in the post-WW2 world. China demonstrated this in its counter-piracy activities. Likewise the U in previous multinational task forces and commands.

      • Lazarus

        The US has long permitted its ships to be commanded by a NATO commodore in the Standing NATO Maritime Groups. This situation would be different and more complicated, but no nation who contributes to NATO, EU, UN or other past maritime organizations has allowed its ships to participate in activities not sanctioned by its government. There were always NATO nations who “opted out” of some operations, or only participated in certain locations under very specific terms and conditions. It’s just the price of international cooperation on a day to day basis.

        • Elvis

          The supreme commander of NATO forces though has been American, and that is the position that counts since the Standing NATO Maritime Groups are ultimately under his command.

          • Lars Hansen

            The contributing nations can – at any moment – withdraw their contributions.

  • Elvis

    Good idea, and it would work best where command would be rotated between the US, India, Japan, China, Russia, & ASEAN.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Edited from radio transmissions:

    “You go ficky self, OK, chop-chop? Go back mainland, leave sand piles in water. Bye-Bye. This US military flying international airspace, over & out…” [static]

  • No,No,No…let us stop being wishy washy the Chinese and Russians are not our allies and or friends. They are our potential adversaries and the sooner we accept this fact and get on about our businesses the better. What is needed is warships, real warships with weapons. The S. Koreans. the Japanese, and the US have operated together, have common systems (AGEIS), and I hope the same goals – containment of the PRC’s expansion into the South China Sea and beyond. What assets are required? The group should be a standing force of the fore mentioned countries with other countries rotated in for training. India would a welcome addition to a standing force. Navies exist for the projection of power and to keep the freedom of navigation open to all. Of course it is a given that they are instruments of nation power and should be used as such. Humanitarian assistance, great, but it should be down on the list of any standing forces missions. Junk the LCS, MkIV, etc. A robust force of surface, subsurface, air is what is required. What is missing from the essay – ships/boats(submarines) and power projection. All those tiny man made or semi man made islands are nothing more than targets and would be toast in the first few minutes if the situation became hot. I might not have the so called command credentials that the authors have but I have read history including Adm. Mahan and what I read in the above goes against many of his doctrines. A LCS dose NOT project power and I am sorry to say can not even go in harms way w/o protection. I am frustrated by senior officers who continue to suggest patches and semi fixed for the basic problem: The PLAN is building a blue water fleet to control at a minimum the Western Pacific. We can not let this happen even if we have to go it alone.
    MMCS(SW)(SS) USN Ret.