NavWeek -- Singapore Fling


The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man.

-- The Trembling of a Leaf, W. Somerset Maugham

Of course W. Somerset Maugham could have had no idea just how appropriate his words would be more than a century later as the U.S. Navy gets set this month to essentially – if unofficially – christen its “Pacific pivot” with a coming-out party of sorts for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1) USS Freedom at the Imdex Maritime Defense Show in Singapore.

Imdex is nothing new and there will be plenty of other warships from around that region – as well as the world – showing off their wares and weapons where the concerns of East meet West near the fabled Straits of Malacca. But there’s no doubt that this year, and this ship, represent something different and special. This year’s Imdex is the first since the U.S. put forth its Pacific pivot policy, a strategic shift of resources to the Asia-Pacific region.

By all accounts, this focus is distinctly maritime, and therefore naval, in character.  Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, have spared no time advertising their interests and efforts in the region.

And it is a region that remains “inconstant and uncertain,” more so than ever. As the Pentagon notes in its annual report on China released earlier this month, the Asian giant is intent on building its military might in the region.

“The People’s Republic Of China (PRC) continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program designed to improve the capacity of its armed forces to fight and win short-duration, high-intensity regional military conflict,” the Pentagon says in its annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013,” released May 6.

“Dealing with a potential contingency in the Taiwan Strait remains the PLA’s (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) primary mission despite decreasing tensions there – a trend that continued following the re-election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in January 2012,” the report says. “In this context, should deterrence fail, the PLA could be called upon to compel Taiwan to abandon independence or to re-unify with the mainland by force of arms while defeating any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.”

China’s leaders in 2012 sustained investment in advanced short- and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, land-attack and anti-ship cruise  missiles, counter-space weapons, and military cyberspace capabilities, the Pentagon says, which “appear designed to enable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missions  (what PLA strategists refer to as ‘counter-intervention operations).”

The PLA also continued to improve capabilities in nuclear deterrence and long-range conventional strike; advanced fighter aircraft; limited regional power projection, with the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning; integrated air defenses; undersea warfare; improved command and control; and more sophisticated training and exercises across China’s air, naval, and land forces, the Pentagon reports.

China has made it clear recently that it is laying claim to a large portion of the maritime domain in the region, and its ready to use force if necessary to protect its interests in what it considers to be its own backyard.

Then there’s North Korea, which continues to threaten both global and regional interests for the U.S. and its Asian partners. Like China, North Korea also has shown its willingness to use maritime military might to enforce its own interests.

As for the rest of the region, it’s a web of interlinked interests that are often at odds – a geopolitical, religious and cultural hodge-podge of countries and governments.

The U.S. is honor-bound by certain treaties and agreements to help and protect allies throughout the region and, as highlighted in recent Congressional Research Service reports, those partnerships could create some legal, military and diplomatic headaches for the nation.

The U.S. Navy’s strategic shift, though, is underpinned by a new mindset. In times past, the service was looking to display its power; now it’s looking to establish its presence. Before, the Navy’s strategy relied mostly on parking an aircraft carrier or even large-deck amphibious ship off a coast, emphasizing the idea that the U.S. doesn’t need permission to operate or a base to operate from.

But the new emphasis is on the “small footprint.” And while the U.S. does not necessarily want to rely on a foreign nation’s permission to base and operate a ship, the U.S. Navy does want to establish the right kind of partnerships with allies to develop the kind of operational construct in which permission is simply a given.

“We operate around the globe using bases such as those in Hawaii and Guam, but also, more importantly, through places such as in Japan, Singapore, Rota, Djibouti, and Bahrain that our partners and allies allow us to use,” Greenert says in a recent blog. “These bases and places allow us to rest, repair, refuel and resupply while staying forward and engaged.”

And that’s where the USS Freedom comes in. In many ways, the ship is the linchpin, the poster-ship, for this new forward-presence strategy. It’s big enough to be noticed, but too small to be considered a menacing threat.

Many old-time Navy hands frankly don’t like this new-think. They say the LCSs are undermanned, thinly armed and too vulnerable to put into harm’s way. Recent Navy and Pentagon reports underscore those sentiments, and the Freedom’s operational history thus far has only fueled those fires. The ship has had trials canceled and had a fair bit of time down for repairs because of maintenance and related issues. The ship’s transit across the Pacific was marred by brief power outages and the Navy reported more minor leaks once the vessel reached Singapore.

Mabus recently dismissed some of the recent mishaps, calling the Freedom an “experimental” ship.

One could catalog the different labels Navy officials have put on Freedom – operational, research and development (R&D), operational R&D – and note that purely “experimental” ships are manned by specially trained research teams, not a regular working crew.

Congressional staffers point out Navy officials have testified before that Freedom would not be a science project.

That’s all wake-spray by now. What the Freedom was meant to be, or what Congress thought it was meant to be, matters little to the ship’s officers and crew as they get ready for the rest of the Singapore deployment, scheduled to last into 2014. The ship is operational and deployed and right in the thick of it.

What Mabus was likely getting at with his recent comment is that the Freedom is a novel ship and the Navy is experimenting with how it should be best used; the service even now has a pilot program on Freedom to see how the ship operates with more sailors.

But the grander experiment really is how this “small-footprint” maritime mindset will work out, especially in the inconstant and inconsistent Pacific that is now the focus of the nation.

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