Royal Navy Woes Come at the Worst Possible Time

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The decline of the Royal Navy in ship numbers, and capabilities since the end of the Cold War has been well documented. British participation in the Global War on Terrorism was funded in large part by the systematic cutting of RN assets as a cost cutting measure to ensure the troops on the ground were funded. Promises were made regularly about the cuts being rectified one day when the money was available. Unfortunately, that day has yet to come.

Now Great Britain finds itself facing a maritime crisis in the Persian Gulf. Iranian gunboats attempted to intercept a British oil tanker and had to be driven off by a Royal Navy frigate that had been shadowing the tanker. Following the incident, the Ministry of Defense announced that a second warship, the destroyer HMS Duncan will be heading to the Persian Gulf to reinforce the frigate HMS Montrose, and the mine countermeasures vessels currently on station.

As far as major deployments go, this one is anything but. Moving a single British warship from the Mediterranean to the Gulf should not be considered anything but routine, and standard. Unfortunately, given the current condition of the RN, redeploying a single warship is about the extent of what the once mighty Royal Navy can accomplish at the moment.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf was consistent with the Armilla patrols. British warships patrolled the Gulf waters regularly in response to the increased danger to British shipping and interests in the region. At least one warship, and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship were present in the Gulf at any time. During times of high tension, the force was bolstered by an aircraft carrier or task group. Today, such a reinforcement is almost impossible. Britain only has one aircraft carrier at the moment and it has yet to reach initial operational capacity. Therefore, any fixed wing support for the Royal Navy will have to come from the US Navy aircraft carrier operating in the area.

With British shipping in the Persian Gulf now facing threats from Iran, additional RN warships are desperately needed. Unfortunately, it will be quite some time before enough are available and deployed to the Gulf to make a difference.

Will the Convoy Option Return to the Persian Gulf?

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With the crisis between Iran and the United States showing no signs of cooling down anytime soon, the prospect of possible US military action is now increasing. The US is presently moving additional forces into the Persian Gulf region. The latest deployment’s numbers are modest, totaling 1,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Not a massive surge of forces by any means, however, the deployment does increase the level of combat power available to US commanders in the area.

The current crisis is similar in some ways to the 1987 US-Iran crisis and confrontation in the Persian Gulf. As was the case back in ’87, the recent attacks against oil tankers threatens to spark a conflict that would have a detrimental effect on world markets to say the least. The unhindered flow of oil from the Middle East to Europe and Asia is crucial to the global economy. Further attacks on oil tankers will interrupt the oil flow, and lead to a longer, more consequential disruption.

In order to prevent that from happening now, the protection of oil tankers needs to be guaranteed. The US Navy was faced with basically the same situation in 1987 and adopted a convoy system. It was a successful operation even though there were additional Iranian attacks on oil tankers, most notably the Bridgeton incident. Operation Earnest Will, as the effort was named, became the largest naval convoy operation since World War II and ran from July, 1987 through September, 1988.

Along with convoy protection, US naval forces also made significant efforts to stop Iranian forces from attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. In some instances where Iranian forces successfully struck a ship, the US retaliated swiftly and decisively. In October of 1987 a reflagged US tanker was hit by an Iranian Silkworm missile. US naval forces responded by shelling oil platforms used by Iranian military units to launch attacks, eventually seizing and destroying them. In April, 1988 the USS Samuel B Roberts, a frigate, hit a mine in the Persian Gulf. The US response was Operation Praying Mantis, a large-scale air-sea attack that put Iran’s navy out of business, directly led to Iran ending its attacks on shipping, and motivated Tehran to seek a ceasefire in its eight year long war with Iraq.

As the situation in the Gulf stands today, it is not outside the realm of possibility to see a similar US military option developing soon.

Polish President Coming to Washington This Week

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Polish President Andrzej Duda is visiting the United States later this week. His first stop will be Washington DC for a working visit with President Trump at the White House. Discussions between the two leaders are expected to revolve around energy security, defense, and economic issues. It is no secret that Duda, as well as a majority of Poles, want a larger contingent of US troops to be permanently stationed in their home country. Along with this, Poland has its sights set on increasing American investment, and ultimately on acquiring American natural gas as a new energy source.

Energy security is a matter of national importance for Poland. Through its time under the bootheel of Soviet occupation, the nation relied on Russia for most of its natural gas and oil. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved this did not change. Poland continues to be reliant on Russian gas and oil to meet its energy needs. Duda is anxious to find an alternative source for energy, and the hope is that US natural gas will be it. Duda’s second stop on his US trip will be Houston, Texas, home to a number of major US oil and natural gas corporations.

Defense will also be a major topic. While in Washington, the Polish leader is expected to announce that his country will be purchasing thirty-five F-35 Lightning II fighters. Duda will also likely push for US troops to be relocated to Poland from bases in Germany. US and Polish defense officials have been working on a deal to bring a large military base, and permanent US troop presence to Poland. Earlier this year, Polish media reported that the US was considering basing a US Army division headquarters in Poznan, a special operations base near Krakow and making the US Air Force detachment in Lask permanent.

The plan for an increased US presence in Poland has to be weighed against the potential of it escalating tensions with Russia. A balance needs to be found given the brittle geopolitical foundation in Eastern Europe.

High Seas Harassment

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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.

South China Sea: Will China Conquer?

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It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.

The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.”  Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.

In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.