NavWeek: Keeping Asian Waters Pacific

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As the rhetoric boils and simmers over North Korea’s increasingly capable ballistic missiles, it might be wise to consider a thought posed recently by Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, the U.S. Navy director of staff, during an interview with Aviation Week.

“Preventing conflict is as important as prevailing in conflict,” Hunt says.

He was talking specifically about how ships like the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) could bring a presence into certain areas – like parts of Asia – to a degree the nation has not enjoyed before, and by that presence put the U.S. in a better position to stop the bullets – or missiles – before they start flying.

Indeed, the backbone of the Navy’s Pacific Pivot plan seems built around such a concept of prevention by presence.

While budget delays and financial uncertainties may play with some of the details of the Navy’s plan, the basic structure will remain the same, as outlined recently by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, in a piece for Foreign Policy.

Day-to-day naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region will increase by about 20%, to 60 ships, by 2020, Greenert says.

Basing four destroyers in Rota, Spain, he says, will actually shift six destroyers out of the usual rotation plan for that region and free them up for Asia-Pacific deployments.

LCSs and their cousin ships, Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV), will be able to help with the Pacific pivot in two ways, according to Greenert – by performing missions not only in Asian waters but also by deploying to Africa and Central or South America, freeing up larger Navy warships in those areas to go to Asia.

The U.S., Greenert says, will increase deployments of aircraft in the Pacific and expand cooperative air surveillance with regional partners, such as Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. The Navy also intends to operate its version of the MQ-4 Global Hawk UAV from Guam when it enters the fleet in the middle of this decade.

And the service also intends to improve its aerial anti-submarine warfare capability, replacing the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft with the P-8A Poseidon.

While the spotlight is shining squarely on North Korea for the moment, there’s no doubt which power is driving the U.S. capability concern in the region.

“Many of the Navy’s programs for acquiring highly capable ships, aircraft, and weapon systems can be viewed as intended, at least in part, at improving the U.S. Navy’s ability to counter Chinese maritime anti-access capabilities,” notes a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. “Examples of highly capable ships now being acquired include Ford (CVN-78) class aircraft carriers, Virginia (SSN-774) class attack submarines, and Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class Aegis destroyers, including the new Flight III version of the DDG-51, which is to be equipped with a new radar for improved air and missile defense operations.”

Examples of highly capable aircraft now being acquired by the Navy, CRS also notes, include F-35C carrier-based Joint Strike Fighters, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye early warning and command and control aircraft, the Navy carrier-based Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS program) demonstrator program, and the follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.

But the secret to prevention in the region may reside not in what the U.S. does deploy, but what others think may or may not be deployed.

“Countering China’s naval modernization effort can also involve stating publicly (while withholding classified details) the U.S. Navy’s ability to counter improved Chinese maritime forces,” CRS says. “Such public statements could help prevent Chinese overconfidence that might lead to incidents, while also reassuring regional allies, partners, and neutrals.”

Of course there are risks. “Conversely, some observers might argue, having an ability to counter Chinese maritime military forces but not stating it publicly could invite Chinese overconfidence and thereby be destabilizing,” CRS says.

Which just goes to show – there’s nothing pacific about this region at all.

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