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.
Since September of 2015 the skies over Syria have been crowded with combat aircraft from multiple nations. Russia, Syria, and the nations of the US-led coalition fly sorties on a daily basis, often in close proximity to each other. The threat of an accident or inadvertent incident has been a serious possibility since then. The Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer in November, 2015 highlighted the dangers present in and around Syrian airspace. Deconfliction measures were taken between the US and Russia to minimize the possibility of a chance encounter between US and Russian warplanes, including a hotline that officials can use to inform the other side of air operations taking place in specific areas at certain times. Although there have been a handful of close calls, the deconfliction measures have largely been successful.
Unfortunately, the Syrian Air Force has been operating in willful ignorance of the rules. Yesterday, it paid the price when a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it dropped ordnance on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the vicinity of Tabqa, Syria. The US fighter acted within the active rules of engagement which include self-defense, and the defense of forces belonging to coalition partners. SDF fighters are considered coalition-partnered forces.
Russia has reacted angrily to the shootdown, considering it to be an act of aggression. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defense Minister stated today that his country will now consider US planes to be threats when flying over certain regions of Syria. All US and coalition aircraft east of the Euphrates river will be actively targeted, according to Shoygu’s statement. In addition, all deconfliction efforts will be suspended.
If the Russians hold firm on these promises, the skies over Syria are about to become even more dangerous and the Syrian conflict is now on the doorstep of a major escalation. There is a very real danger of clashes between US and Russian warplanes happening in the coming days if things remain as they are right now.
It all boils down to how far Russia is willing to go in backing its Syrian allies. If Moscow concludes that Syria is worth a confrontation and potential war with the US, expect Russia to push the US even farther as the week unfolds.
The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
Following last week’s meetings between President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the US is wasting no time in applying pressure to North Korea. With a North Korean nuclear test possible at any moment, and concern increasing over the ambitions of its long-range missile program, the US has rerouted the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and her battlegroup to the Sea of Japan, off the eastern coast of North Korea. The move was announced by US Pacific Command (PACOM) on Saturday in advance of the carrier arriving back in the Western Pacific region. Rarely are the movements of a carrier group announced to the public. In this case though it is apparent the US wants to send a clear signal to North Korea and influence Kim Jong Un’s thought process.
Gunboat diplomacy is an auspicious tool for the United States to have available in its foreign policy toolbox. Nothing demonstrates US power and resolve like an aircraft carrier, as history has shown in countless examples since the end of the Second World War. The mere presence of a US carrier group off the shores of a volatile region is often enough to stabilize a tense situation. Now it is being applied to an agitated part of the world at a particularly strained moment.
North Korea is not used to being treated in such a blunt manner. For the past five and a half years the US has gone out of its way not to provoke an irrational response by Kim Jong Un. Now the movement of American warships to a point off of his east coast will force Un to come to terms with the fact that the new US administration is playing by different rules.
Early Thursday US naval forces launched a number of Tomahawk missiles against Houthi-controlled radar sites in southern Yemen. The strikes came in response to Houthi rebels firing missiles at US warships operating in the waters off Yemen. Twice in the past four days, anti-ship missiles were fired from shore against the destroyer USS Mason. In both instances, Mason took steps to defend herself and nearby US ships. The inbound missiles were destroyed and there was no damage to US ships or casualties.
The strikes were limited to the three radar sites and justified under the circumstances. Mason was attacked and the response is clearly act of self-defense. The Houthis used the radar to identify and track ships that would ultimately become their targets. Destroying the radars will diminish the Houthi’s ability to target US warships in the Bab-al Mandab Straits and Gulf of Aden. The second element of justification for the action falls under the freedom of navigation principle. Ships flying the flag of a sovereign state should not be interfered with by any other state. The fact that the Houthis are rebels and not a sovereign nation-state does not alter the principle. Under international law, the missile attacks by a non-state actor is something akin to piracy. One final element of justification is the fact that Bab-al Mandab Straits is a choke point between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as being a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The amount of merchant traffic that transits the area is very high and recent Houthi activity in southern Yemen serves as a reminder of how easily the area can be destabilized. Should that happen, the economic results could be catastrophic.
What happens next remains to be seen. Will the Houthis refrain from further attacks, or will they double down and attempt to find a new way to threaten US warships in the area? Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole so one has to wonder if that played a role in the Houthi attacks. One also has to speculate about whether or not the Houthis are acting on their own or taking their orders from Tehran.