Category Archives: Foreign Forces

Code of Conduct in the South China Sea Undermined by ASEAN Disarray

Code of Conduct in the South China Sea Undermined by ASEAN Disarray

For government officials and regional analysts following the security dialogues in Phnom Penh last week (9–13 July) there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the key elements of their Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. The bad news was that the ASEAN foreign ministers could not agree on the wording of the South China Sea section of a joint communiqué.

Good News: ASEAN Agrees on a Code of Conduct

In 2002, ASEAN and China failed to reach an agreement on a COC in the South China Sea. As a compromise they signed off on a nonbinding political statement that took the form of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The signatories agreed to work toward the eventual adoption of a COC.

Implementation of the DOC languished for nine years until China, in an about face, resumed discussions with ASEAN and agreed on guidelines to implement the DOC. China’s change of mind was in reaction to pressure from the international community, led by the United States, criticizing China’s assertive actions against the Philippines and Vietnam. The agreement on the DOC guidelines prompted ASEAN to move on to the next phase—drafting a COC for the South China Sea.

ASEAN has not yet released the official text of its COC. But a detailed outline provided to the author shows it to contain three parts. The first is a preamble listing agreements between ASEAN and China obligating them to settle their disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, including the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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Iranian Mines in the Strait of Hormuz not 'Showstoppers'

Iranian Mines in the Strait of Hormuz not ‘Showstoppers’

A version of this story originally appeared in June. It has been updated by the author to reflect recent events.

Iran threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz, petroleum markets react, world economies take notice, and more U.S. and allied naval forces are sent to the region, upping the ante for Tehran and the U.S. Navy.

Iran’s top naval commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, late last year warned that closin the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Obama administration publicly dismissed the threat as “aber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that attempting to close the strait would trigger a U.S. military response.

U.S. Navy photo of the USS Enterprise and USS Cape St. George transitioning through the Strait of Hormuz on May 11.

U.S. Navy photo of the USS Enterprise and USS Cape St. George transitioning through the Strait of Hormuz on May 11.

“The laying of mines in international waters is an act of war,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview.

“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening. We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining,” he noted, “it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”

Whether an “act of war” or not (the international rules — admittedly more honored in their breach than observation— do allow for peacetime mining of high-seas areas under certain strict conditions. Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to U.S. and international sanctions over its nuclear program.

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America's Small Stick Diplomacy

America’s Small Stick Diplomacy

120503-N-CZ945-496We might rephrase Theodore Roosevelt’s famous saying about “big stick” diplomacy thusly: Speak softly and carry a small stick, and you will go far—provided you have a big stick handy. That maxim has yielded good results for China in Southeast Asia. It could do so for the United States as well—if it manages its alliances and partnerships well and arranges its forces to match purpose with power.

Overpowering military might opens up new strategic vistas for the strong, letting them get their way while looking inoffensive if not magnanimous to foreign eyes. China has brandished a small stick in recent months, using unarmed ships from nonmilitary government agencies like China Marine Surveillance as its political implement of choice in the Scarborough Shoal imbroglio with the Philippines, and in its war of words with Vietnam over oil and gas exploration rights within Vietnam’s offshore exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. The EEZ is a 200 nautical mile belt (more in some cases) adjoining a coastal state’s shores. The coastal state holds exclusive rights to natural resources in those waters and the seabed underneath. Control of resources is critical to economic development—hence the passions expanses like the resource-rich South China Sea rouse.

Gunboat diplomacy without the gunboats sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here’s how small-stick diplomacy works. A country whose armed forces decisively outmatch a competitor’s can afford not to openly display those forces in international controversies. It can make the weak an offer they can’t refuse, and they have little recourse. It can hope to win without fighting—and get its way without even looking like an aggressor before the court of world opinion. Why unlimber the big stick when virtual coercion or deterrence promises the same results?

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Russian Ships to Syria

Russian Ships to Syria

In late June, Russians reportedly dispatched two large landing ships full of marines to their naval base in Tartus, Syria. However one of the ships at the center of the immediate media firestorm never left port and the other executed a normal training mission in the Black Sea before quietly returning to base a few days later. Russia is not above meddling in the internal affairs of other countries if it thinks it can get away with it, but escalating the Syrian conflict clearly was not in Russia’s national interest and was flatly contrary to all of its previous diplomatic activity.


Now less than a day after Russia allegedly decided to stop delivering arms to Syria until the situation calms down, media reports Tuesday said Russia is sending a flotilla of ships drawn from the Baltic, Northern, and Black Sea fleets to Syria. The move that would represent a dramatic change in tone from the past year, when continued arms sales to the Assad regime were considered sacrosanct, and while negotiations were being held in Moscow between the Russian government and members of the anti-Assad Syrian National Council.


View Russian Ships to Syria in a larger map

Russian sources indicate the following ships are part of the group that is heading towards Syria: the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, the frigates Yaroslav Mudry and Smetlivy (“sharp” or “keen-witted”), and three large landing craft carrying a contingent of marines (the names of those ships have not been mentioned in any reporting to date). It is worth noting that the landing craft in question, while unidentified, are clearly not the landing craft from the Black Sea Fleet that were at the center of the controversy in late June, but three different ships, from the Northern Fleet.


The media reports on the Russian fleet heading toward Syria have all originated with an Interfax story that quoted an unnamed)“military-diplomatic source” with knowledge of the situation. On this particular issue Interfax doesn’t have the best track record as it was the original “source” for the non-story in late June. Smetlivy is based in the Black Sea and if it is heading to Syria it will have to pass through the Bosporus sometime in the next few days. Until then, given past history and the strangely convenient timing of the announcement it probably is wise to remain skeptical.

By American standards this task force is not particularly impressive. By the greatly diminished standards of Russian naval operations, however, this is a significant concentration of ships. Two, Admiral Chabanenko and the Yaroslav Mudry, are among the newest and most capable members of the Russian fleet, coming into service in 1999 and 2009 respectively. Smetlivy, on the other hand, is more than 40 years old.

The precise mission of this Russian flotilla is unclear — assuming the flotilla is heading for Syria and isn’t a crude invention of bureaucratic infighting. Most of the ships will take around three months to reach Syria because they’re leaving from Severomorsk in Russia’s far north and face an extremely lengthy and circuitous route. Mudry will also take several weeks to reach Syria as it is being dispatched from the Russian naval base in the Baltic. The official line from Interfax’s unidentified source is that it is all a training exercise that is not in any way connected with the ongoing violence in Syria: the ships in question need to practice all of the tasks associated ferrying marines a lengthy distance. Some defense experts on Russia have speculated that the landing craft are carrying valuable military cargo, perhaps refurbished MI-25 helicopters. Other experts have speculated that the landing ships aren’t carrying any cargo but will instead be used to evacuate Russian citizens and military personnel, or even embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates.

While such speculation is interesting, considering how long it is going to take the landing ships to reach Syria it is unlikely that they’re on an urgent and time-sensitive mission. If the Russians were planning an evacuation by sea they would use ships from the Black Sea Fleet which can be in Syria in a matter of days, not ships that are many weeks of hard steaming away. Assuming that all of the ships in question are in fact heading to Syria, it is far more likely that the Russians are trying to show the flag and underline their continued interest in the country. Particularly after taking two steps, that are clearly anti-Assad in nature, meeting with the Syrian National Council and cutting off arms shipments Russia needs to avoid giving the impression that it is overly weak and conciliatory.

It is possible to say what this flotilla is not: a serious attempt to intervene on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and his swiftly destabilizing regime. None of the three warships heading toward Syria is a serious instrument of power projection: they are surface combatants with an anti-surface or anti-submarine focus. Even if these ships wanted to, they could not meaningfully impact the correlation of forces in Syria, anti-ship missiles being about the most useless weapon imaginable in urban guerilla warfare. The best guess is that the flotilla is yet another clumsy attempt to show the flag and highlight Russia’s continued importance in the region.

Punch Them in the Nose...and Then Leave

Punch Them in the Nose…and Then Leave

KuehnF1July12Proceedings, July 2012
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet client government in Afghanistan. Mark Twain, and more recently Niall Ferguson, claimed that history does not repeat itself, rather, it rhymes. If this is the case, then the poem the United States has written in Afghanistan is a tragic one of the Greek variety and highlights hubris in ways we have not seen since that other tragic poem named Vietnam. There is an even more similar Soviet one, also in Afghanistan.


Reagan Readied U.S. Warship for '82 Falklands War

Reagan Readied U.S. Warship for ’82 Falklands War


President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the White House in 1981 The Reagan Library Archives

While publicly claiming neutrality between Argentina and the U.K. during the 1982 Falklands War, President Ronald Reagan’s administration had developed plans to loan a ship to the Royal Navy if it lost one of its aircraft carriers in the war, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, told the U.S. Naval Institute on June 26.

Lehman and then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger agreed to support U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the loan of the amphibious warship USS Iwo Jima, he said.

“We agreed that [Weinberger] would tell the President that we planned to handle all these requests routinely without going outside existing Navy channels,” Lehman said in a speech provided to the U.S. Naval Institute he made in Portsmouth, U.K. “We would ‘leave the State Department, except for [Secretary of State Al] Haig, out of it.’”

Reagan approved the request without hesitation and his instructions to Weinberger had been simple, “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it,” Lehman said in the speech.

At the time, the Royal Navy had deployed HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes to the Falklands. Each carrier fielded five vertical takeoff Sea Harriers armed with American Sidewinder missiles — all major components of the U.K.’s air war in the Falklands.
The contingency plan to provide a replacement carrier was developed at the Royal Navy’s request.
“As in most of the requests from the Brits at the time, it was an informal request on a ‘what if’ basis, Navy to Navy,” Lehman said.

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30 Years Later: U.S. and the Falklands War

30 Years Later: U.S. and the Falklands War

reagan_and_maggieReagan Readied U.S. Warship for ’82 Falklands War

While publicly claiming neutrality between Argentina and the U.K. during the 1982 Falklands War, President Ronald Reagan’s administration had developed plans to loan a ship to the Royal Navy if it lost one of its aircraft carriers in the war, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, told the U.S. Naval Institute on June 26. more

Combat Fleets ’82: U.K. Carriers in the Falklands

In the event of the loss of a British carrier in the 1982 Falklands War, the U.S. was prepared to loan a helicopter carrier to the U.K. Royal Navy.
Collected are the entries from the 1982/1983 Combat Fleets of the World of the British carriers and the ship the U.S. had prepared to loan the Royal Navy. more

Combat Fleets '82: Falklands Carriers

Combat Fleets ’82: Falklands Carriers

In the event of the loss of a British carrier in the 1982 Falklands War, the U.S. was prepared to loan a helicopter carrier to the U.K. Royal Navy.

Collected are the entries from the 1982/1983 Combat Fleets of the World of the British carriers and the ship the U.S. had prepared to loan the Royal Navy.

USS Iwo Jima (LPH 2)

USS Iwo Jima underway in 1984[U.S. Naval Institute Archives]

USS Iwo Jima underway in 1984
[U.S. Naval Institute Archives]

Builder: Puget Sound NSY
Laid down: 2-4-69
Launched: 17-9-60
In service: 26-8-61
Displacement : 11,000 tons light (17,515-18,300 fl)
Speed: 23 kts
Dimensions: 183.6 (169.5 wl) × 31.7 (25.5 wl) × 7.9 (hull) meters
Armament: 4/76.2-mm DP (II × 2)—2/Mk 25 Sea Sparrow launchers (VIII x 2)
Aircraft: 20-24/ CH-46 helicopters 4/CH-53 heavy helicopters 4/HU-1 utility or AH-1 attack helicopters
Electronic Equipment: Radar: 1/LN-66, 1/SPS-10, 1/SPS-40, 1/SPN-10 or SPN-43
Electronic Counter Measures: WLR-6, ULQ-6, 4/Mk 36 SRBOC chaff TACAN: URN-20
Machinery: 1 set GT; 1 prop; 23,000 hp
Boilers: 4 Combustion Engineering (LPH 9: Babcock & Wilcox); 42.3 kg/cm2, 467°C
Electric: 6,500 kw
Manning: 47 officers, 605 men +190 officers, 1,900 Marines

Remarks: LPH 9 conducted V/STOL suitability trials during 1972 and for
several years thereafter operated up to twelve AV-8A Harrier. The
ships have also aeted as carriers for RH-53 minesweeping helicopters.
One folding side elevator forward, to port; one to starboard, aft of
the island; 70-m hangar. Excellent medical facilities (300 beds). LPH
9 has an ASCAC (Air-Surface Classification and Analysis Center).
LPH 12, to a slightly different design, carries two LCVP in davits.
Two Mk 63 gunfire control being removed. Two 20-m Vulcan/Phalanx AA to
be added.

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Syria’s Itchy Trigger Finger

Syria’s Itchy Trigger Finger


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday rebuking Syria’s dowing of a Turkish RF-4 [NATO photo]

On Friday Syria shot down a Turkish F-4. A statement the Syrian government released that night said: “Our air defenses confronted a target that penetrated our air space over our territorial waters pre-afternoon on Friday and shot it down. It turned out to be a Turkish military plane.”

A short time later, Syria allegedly engaged a second Turkish aircraft. According to a statement on Monday from Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, a Turkish CN-235 searching for the wreckage of the RF-4 came under fire by Syrian forces who ceased when warned by the Turkish military. As the wreckage of the craft was reportedly found Sunday, it is unclear when the plane came under fire or what shot at it.

Turkish and Syrian planes and coast guard vessels continue their search as the F-4’s crew has yet to be found. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said Friday, “Regarding our pilots, we do not have any information, but at the moment four of our gunboats and some Syrian gunboats are carrying out a joint search there.”

How Turkey responds is of great interest to the region. Turkey invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty, calling on member nations to assemble in Brussels for a meeting of the North Atlantic Council earlier today at which Turkish officials presented their version of events. As expected, the outcome was one of condemnation but no immediate military response. Following the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed solidarity with Turkey and condemned the shoot-down “in the strongest terms.” NATO also released a statement with unanimous endorsement calling the incident, “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”

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Iran: Atomic and Underwater?

Iran: Atomic and Underwater?

Iran7nahangReports in early June indicated that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in the early stages of developing nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. The initial response from many observersmyself included, was to concentrate on the mechanics. Iran has no tradition of building submarines, apart from a few mini-subs and, apparently, plans for a 1,000-ton “semi-heavy” boat. Iran’s navy thus has no working Nautilus onto which to retrofit a nuclear plant. There are no shortcuts.

Iranian Kilo-class Nahang-class diesel submarine

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has no tradition of naval nuclear propulsion. Combine the naval-architecture challenge with the nuclear challenge, and Tehran’s entry into the SSN club confronts steep engineering and financial barriers. Considering these barriers and the time it will take to surmount them, it appears whimsical for Iranian officials to assign much priority to an SSN program.

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that it appeared far-fetched to think China would invest lavishly in refitting an unfinished, 20-year-old hulk of an aircraft carrier it had purchased for scrap. And yet it did. Today the ex-Varyag plies the sea as a training platform for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. We kid ourselves if we project our own assumptions and cost-benefit calculations onto foreign nations with very different histories, customs and worldviews.

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