A US Navy freedom of navigation exercise (FON) in the Sea of Japan appears to have attracted the attention of the Russian government. On Tuesday, according to the Russian defense ministry, the USS John S McCain crossed Russia’s maritime border in Peter the Great Bay. A Russian warship, the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov warned the McCain she would be rammed if it did not depart from Russian territorial waters and then chased the US ship into international waters.
The US Navy’s version of events was decidedly different. A 7th Fleet spokesman called the Russian claim false. “USS John S McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.” He said the US would “never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.” Incidents at sea between US and Russian warships are rare, yet similar incidents occurred regularly in the later years of the Cold War. Placed in modern context, this encounter bears a resemblance to those taking place occasionally between the US Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea.
One must wonder about Russia’s motivation for trying to turn this rather minor matter into something more substantial. The prospects of an incoming Biden administration could be a mitigating factor. After all, Biden has claimed throughout the course of the 2020 campaign that he would take a stronger stance towards Russia if elected. This, coupled with the four year long rant from Democratic politicians about how Russia is consistently attempting to undermine America’s democracy may finally be coming home to roost in 2021. If Biden’s presidency does become a reality, Russia will likely test the new American leader early on in his first term.
On the other side of the coin, this matter might simply be Russia’s response to the US formally leaving the Treaty on Open Skies this past weekend.
Despite a global pandemic, the South China Sea has become more active over the past week, owing in large part to China’s aggressive posturing in the area. Concern is growing now with COVID-19 seriously affecting US Navy readiness in the Pacific, China could be preparing to take advantage of the pandemic and assert its dominance over the South China Sea. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak China has expanded its claims in the sea, announced new research stations at its military bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and has started landing military aircraft at Fiery Cross.
Late last week a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese coast guard ship near the Parcel Islands. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims the boat was conducting normal fishing activities in sovereign Vietnamese waters. Shortly after the incident the Chinese laid the blame on Vietnam, claiming the fishing boat was in illegally fishing inside of Chinese territorial waters. Both nations lay claim to the Parcel Islands and this incident is helping to ramp up tensions between them. On Wednesday, the Philippines rebuked Beijing and released a ‘statement of solidary’ with Vietnam. The move came as something of a surprise given the large amount of aid China has given to the Philippines during the coronavirus crisis, and the fact that Manila’s stance on the South China Sea dispute has softened in recent years.
Yesterday, a US Navy destroyer transited the Taiwan Strait amid increasing Chinese air activity in the area. US reconnaissance and ELINT aircraft arrived and were operating in the vicinity later in the day. Since mid-March, following a surge of US Navy activity in and around the South China Sea, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) exercises, and activity have become almost daily occurrences. Now, with a growing number of US 7th Fleet warships contending with infected crewmembers, the PLAN operations tempo could be rising once more.
China’s moves in the South China Sea have to be monitored closely now with the world’s attention focused on the pandemic. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, so to speak and Beijing will not hesitate to take advantage of this situation if it will strengthen its position in the South China Sea both militarily, and economically.
The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) is underway in Southeast Asian waters this week. The exercise marks the first time that the US and navies from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states have formally worked together. AUMX is taking place on a large area of sea, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Gulf of Tonkin, and south to Singapore. Parts of the exercise are taking place in the South China Sea and this fact could likely worsen the simmering tensions in the region. US and ASEAN officials have stressed that the exercise is not directed at China. No matter if this is the case or not, China will likely regard AUMX as a message being sent its way.
The timing and locations of the exercise has raised some eyebrows. Vietnam and China are currently locked in a standoff over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank. The Philippines has also been complaining about Chinese intimidation tactics in Manila’s claimed sea areas. More significant, perhaps, are reports that Cambodia has given China an exclusive access agreement to its naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand. If true, Chinese a naval facility could significantly affect the balance of power in the area. Thailand, Vietnam, and India are watching developments closely.
With BALTOPS 2019, a major NATO maritime exercise set to begin in two days, it should come as no surprise to see Russian naval and air units actively harassing their US counterparts in other parts of the world. This has been the pattern in recent years. In the leadup to a major exercise, or when NATO or the United States make a military move that Russia regards as unfriendly, incidents of harassment generally begin and last for a few days.
Today’s incident took place in the Philippine Sea, The Russian Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov almost collided with the US cruiser USS Chancellorsville. The Russian destroyer made an “unsafe maneuver” placing itself only 50-100 feet away from the US warship. “This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” 7th Fleet explained the consequences of the Russian action in a released statement. Russia has insisted it was the Chancellorsville that hindered passage of its destroyer. Predictably, each side has dismissed the other’s version as being propaganda.
This was the second harassment incident between US and Russian forces in recent days. Earlier this week, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft was intercepted by a Russian Su-35 fighter off the Syrian coast. The Russian plane undertook a series of dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to the P-8, though fortunately no collision took place. The US has lodged a formal complaint over that incident, although it is not expected to make a difference. These dangerous harassments will likely continue in the future.
Monday’s collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in Malacca Straits has to serve as a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for the US Navy. Ten sailors are either dead or missing, a destroyer is damaged and will have to go into dry dock for extended repairs, and the service’s senior leadership needs to determine whether the seamanship skills of its sailors and officers are lacking. The Chief of Naval Operations has ordered an Operational Pause fleet wide as the investigation into what happened aboard McCain gets underway. Shortly after the incident rumors of cyber intrusion or sabotage possibly being the cause of the incident surfaced online. For the moment it does not appear that any sort of hacking played a role. Until the investigation is completed it will not be known for certain, however, for the moment this appears to be an accident and nothing more nefarious.
This marks the fourth major incident with a US warship in the Pacific this year. The destroyer Fitzgerald, McCain’s sister ship, collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal two months ago. Seven sailors were killed in the collision, and several other men were injured. Earlier in the year, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground and spilled 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid in Tokyo Bay. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat with little damage inflicted to either ship. This incident was clearly the fault of the civilian boat and not the Lake Champlain’s.
The McCain collision comes at the worst possible time for the US Navy, and the 7th Fleet. The forward deployed fleet is now down two destroyers, and a cruiser at a time when its tensions are rising around its AOR and the tempo of operations is significantly higher than normal. 7th Fleet’s woes are symptoms of a larger problem that has been allowed to erode the US military’s capabilities in recent years. President Trump’s claims during the 2016 campaign that the US military’s needs were greatly neglected in the Obama years appear to have been accurate. Sequestration, high ops tempos, and an emphasis on non-operational priorities combined to place the services in a difficult position.
With uncertainty, and tensions dominating the world at the moment, the US military needs get its act together quickly. The enhanced defense budget will begin pumping money through the pipeline to the services, however, this is a problem that cannot be solved with money alone.