Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Beijing Ups the Ante


Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea include the Spratly Islands (inside the outlined area) and the Parcel Islands to the northwest, off the coast of Vietnam (New York Times graphic)

From our "this was inevitable," and "will Obama cower and hide (again)" files...

First, it doesn't take a diplomat or an East Asia analyst at DIA to understand that the granddaddy of all territorial disputes has been underway in the region for some time.  Beijing has asserted control over a number of small islands, reefs and other specks of real estate in the South China Sea--territory also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.  At stake is the ability to control important sea lanes that lead to and from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and of course, the PRC.

Beyond that, there are huge, untapped reserves of oil beneath the sea, and Beijing wants to control those assets as well. As a nation that relies heavily on petroleum imports, China understands the importance of oil resources it can control, reducing dependence on suppliers in the Middle East and North America.

To solidify its claims, the PRC has been establishing military bases on some of the atolls and even creating new "islands" on top of reefs that lie just below the surface.  As you'd probably expect, Beijing has been playing the long game, sustaining a multi-year effort to build landing strips, radar sites, barracks and other facilities for ground, air and naval forces.     

But over the past 18 months, the pace of these efforts has accelerated.  As The New York Times reported last summer, China is currently building at least two more airfields on small islands that are part of the Spratly chain.  The remote bases are actually closer to the Philippines than the Chinese mainland, which lies more than 500 miles away.  While the new installations won't support large units, they make it easier for Beijing to maintain air and naval patrols in the disputed region.

In response, the U.S. has sent Navy vessels and a B-52 bomber on patrols through the area.  The Navy ship, the USS Lassen, passed within 12 miles of Subi Reef last summer, and in December, two B-52s overflew a man-made Chinese atoll in the area.  Beijing protested the mission, prompting the Pentagon to suggest that the bombers strayed off course due to bad weather.  Never mind that international law prohibits the establishment of territorial limits around artificial islands.   More recently, a second ship, the USS Curtis Wilbur, conducted a patrol near Triton Island, part of the Parcel group, northwest of the Spratlys.  Both China and Vietnam claim the Parcels.

Now, Beijing has raised the stakes, making a move aimed at discouraging future U.S. military flights in the area.  Commercial imagery has revealed the deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, which is also part of the Parcel chain.  Analysts say two batteries, with eight missile launchers and a radar unit, were moved to the island between February 3rd and the 14th.  China claims the missiles have been there "for years," but no one is buying that claim.   The missiles and launchers were arrayed in a non-tactical arrangement along the beach, to make it easier for spy satellites and commercial platforms to detect their presence.



Chinese HQ-9 launchers and radars deployed on the beach at Woody Island last week (ImageSat International imagery via Fox News)

The HQ-9 is a Chinese knock-off of Russia's sophisticated S-300 air defense system.  With a range of 125 nautical miles, the missiles on Woody Island could threaten military and commercial air traffic across a broad swath of the South China Sea.

With this latest military move, Beijing has clearly thrown down the gauntlet to Washington.  And, as with the recent provocations from North Korea and Iran, the U.S. must decide how to respond.  Once upon a time--as recently as the 1990s--Washington would dispatch a significant military force to fly (or cruise) through the area.  But times have changed and so have regional perceptions. 

The U.S. remains a superpower, but our recent actions don't convey that status, as evidenced by our "apology" to China for the off-course B-52s and "thanking" Tehran for its treatment of our sailors that were detained after their patrol boat suffered a mechanical failure and drifted into Iranian waters.  Iran's kindness included forcing our personnel to kneel with their hands behind their head.  The Iranians also photographed one sailor who burst into tears and aired that video on state-run TV.

At some point, we will probably send another military aircraft on a freedom of navigation mission between the Spratlys and the Parcels.  It's doubtful the Chinese would launch a preemptive attack against a B-52, P-3 or another platform.  But it's quite possible that the HQ-9 battery may lock on to the aircraft with its target tracker radar.  Under international law, that is considered an act of war, and American aircrews would have the legal right to defend themselves.

U.S. officials haven't published our rules of engagement in the South China Sea, but its a fair bet that our pilots and Navy commanders have been told to avoid a conflict at all costs.  Obviously, no one wants to go to war over a localized incident, but until we show greater resolve, China will continue to test us in the South China Sea and both Iran and North Korea will be plotting their next challenges as well.      


Symbolic Deterrence

So far, 2016 is shaping up as a busy year for North Korea, and it's only February.

Less than a week into the New Year, Pyongyang conducted its fourth underground nuclear test.  The DPRK government said the device was a fusion weapon--an H-bomb--but most experts dispute that claim.

And more recently (on 6 February), North Korea placed a small satellite into orbit, using a rocket that will probably serve as a test bed for improved ICBMs, capable of striking targets throughout the CONUS.  Kim Jong un has already unveiled a long-range missile, designated the KN-08, which is probably capable of reaching the western United States.  Current consensus in the intelligence community is that Pyongyang has not yet developed a nuclear device small enough to fit on the KN-08, but that development is just a matter of time.

The U.S. reaction?  We'll be charitable and call it mixed, at best.

On the positive side, the Obama Administration is holding serious talks with Seoul about deployment of THAAD batteries in South Korea.  Adding the high-altitude, long-range system to existing missile defenses will improve coverage against North Korea's expanding missile arsenal.  Currently, Seoul relies on a mix of Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 batteries to defend against missile attacks.  Previously, South Korea claimed that its lower-tier system was adequate for the task, but the recent nuclear test and rocket launch have forced President Park Geun-hye to reconsider.

But deploying THADD radars, launchers, support equipment and troops to the peninsula may not be as easy as you might think.  China is adamantly opposed to the move, realizing that THAAD could also provide protection against its some of its missile systems from an operating location in South Korea.  Beijing is also concerned the U.S. may market THAAD to both Seoul and Tokyo, creating an advanced, extended missile defense network that would impact the balance of power in northeast Asia.

There's also the matter of logistics.  The Army has only five THAAD batteries currently in service (out of a planned total of seven).  All are normally based at Fort Bliss, Texas, and at least one is reserved for training new crew members; additionally, one battery is now deployed to Guam, in response to the North Korean threat.  That leaves only three batteries to cover other contingency tasking, including a deployment to South Korea.  Operations are also constrained by planned THAAD purchases by the UAE and Oman.  So, even if the U.S. wanted to build more, the contractor team must devote a portion of their resources to fulfilling that export contract.

Beyond the expected THAAD deployment, Washington's military reaction to recent events in Korea has been largely symbolic.  The Obama Administration has touted the dispatch of other assets to the region, including the attack submarine USS North Carolina, and a B-52 bomber.  The sub is in Korean waters this week, participating in three days of joint exercises.  Next month, the aircraft carrier John Stennis will take part in another drill with South Korean forces, affirming our support for the Seoul government.  As for the B-52, a single Stratofortress made a highly-publicized flight across South Korea in January, just days after the latest North Korean nuclear test.  The sortie was aimed at reminding Pyongyang that we have multiple platforms capable of putting conventional weapons (and nukes) on targets in North Korea.

But all of these military moves are fleeting, at best.  The Pentagon has just announced that four F-22 Raptors will deploy to Korea by 17 February, further upgrading allied air capabilities in the region. The USAF has maintained three F-16 squadrons on the peninsula for decades, and Seoul has spent billions for its own fleet of F-16s and more recently, the F-15K, a variant of the Strike Eagle customized for the ROKAF.  The Air Force hasn't announced how long the Raptors will remain in Korea, or if they will actually operate from the peninsula.  A small detachment of F-22s and support personnel have been deployed to Japan since last month; there is some speculation the four Raptors that appeared in Korean skies this week are actually operating from Yakota AB, Japan and not Osan or Kunsan AB in South Korea.

Compare that to our reaction almost 50 years ago, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and took the crew prisoner.  In response, President Johnson mobilized over 14,000 Air Force and Navy reservists; the U.S. sent scores of aircraft to the region, along with a huge naval task force that (at one point) included five aircraft carriers.  Recently-declassified documents revealed that LBJ considered a wide range of military options, including potential nuclear strikes against North Korea if tensions escalated into a full-scale war.

Obviously, we won't see a response like that again.  For starters, the U.S. military is much smaller than it was in the late 1960s; we no longer have the additional air and naval assets that could be dispatched to Korea for an extended period.  Executing a similar move today would have a crippling impact on operations and training around the globe; never mind that current assets (like the F-22) are far more capable than the fighters sent to the Far East during the Pueblo crisis.   

This reality hasn't escaped notice in Pyongyang; Kim Jong un has ordered more rocket launches, assessing he has little to fear in terms of American military action.  Indeed, conditions on the peninsula are likely to get worse, despite the periodic presence of the F-22 and other state-of-the-art weapons systems.  Firepower is essential to deterrence, but so is persistence.  That value is lacking in our current approach to North Korea, and we will almost certainly pay a price for its absence.   


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Two and Only, Redux

Back from a winter break, there's no shortage of blog-worthy material, from North Korea's latest ICBM test...err, space launch, to Hillary's ever-escalating e-mail scandal and of course, the "official" start of the 2016 presidential campaign (at least the part where caucus and primary votes are actually cast). 

But that stuff can wait, at least for a moment.  There was a notable passing during our absence.  Bob Elliott, one-half of the legendary comedy duo of Bob & Ray, passed away at his home in Maine last week at the age of 92. 

Almost eight years ago, our colleague George Smiley wrote an appreciation of Elliot and his long-time partner Ray Goulding, who died in 1990.  Definitely worth another read, as we remember one of most original teams who ever worked behind a microphone...

ADDENDUM:  After migrating from WHDH in Boston to their first network gig at NBC, Bob & Ray almost immediately ran afoul of the federal government.  No, the angry bureaucrats weren't at the FCC or the IRS, but rather the Smithsonian Institute.  At the end of a skit, the duo casually informed listeners that anyone who wanted a home dismantling kit (like the "model" they touted on the air) could obtain one by writing to the Smithsonian.  Thousands did, and the feds weren't amused.  Undeterred, Bob & Ray closed another show by announcing that copies of their script were available from the Library of Congress, provoking another flood of letters.