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Arctic Security and Dialogue: Assurance through Defence Diplomacy

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Authors: Troy J. Bouffard, Elizabeth Buchanan & Michael Young*

For over two decades, key stakeholders have been confident that the Arctic Council was the appropriate forum for discussing most non-military Arctic issues. At the same time, UNCLOS, IMO and various international legal agreements, along with numerous forums, helped to manage a significant portion of the remaining challenges. Today, security concerns are heightening with new Arctic players and the days of a stable Arctic region, free from intervening security concerns, may be facing headwinds as military activity and rhetoric have increased over the past few years. Strategic competition in the Arctic has reemerged and is bolstered by recent rhetoric and increased investment from Washington in its national security agenda in the Arctic as well as associated NATO military activity.

Russia uses these developments as further justification to securitize the state’s largest open frontier. It is unsurprising Moscow views this behavior as foreign strategy to undermine Russia’s legitimate interests in the Arctic. In effect, the Arctic may be host to a new security dilemma which is driving militarization and strategic competition in the region. The problem is: there is no effective forum for Arctic defence authorities to discuss the potentially emerging security dilemma or the spectrum of associated and relevant issues involving Arctic non-/State interests.

Recognizing this apparent strategic forum gap, there have been recommendations from Arctic security scholars and strategists to consider the establishment of a designated Arctic security forum to lead collective and inclusive military-security dialogue. These calls are now echoed in some Arctic state policy circles, indicating the appetite for a security forum is growing. Tellingly,   Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during a high-level Arctic international conference with Putin in April 2019, suggested that annual meetings of the Chiefs of General Staff of the Arctic Council’s member-states should reoccur. For Lavrov, such meetings could become an effective mechanism of maintaining regional security, stating, “unfortunately, since 2014 these meetings have been suspended. For the purposes of resuming joint work we suggest as a first step to establish contact at the level of military experts of Arctic states.” In theory, such a proposal could effectively manage a growing security dilemma, in order to confront concerns of militarization and sharpened strategic competition in the Arctic. However, implementation of high-level security discussions between Arctic Council member states would not be easy in the contemporary political environment. Moreover, there must be an absolute separation between the purpose of the Arctic Council and any Arctic defence issues and forum. Such a requirement is not only based on the Council’s charter mandate, but also from a practical standpoint to avoid undermining or overlapping well-established practices.

Some current security forums capable of hosting dialogue on Arctic military-security affairs do exist, but these are inadequate for any real strategic discourse due to the fact that the Arctic’s largest stakeholder is not considered an ‘equal member’ in these fora. To date, limited study has been conducted into the feasibility of a circumpolar Arctic security forum, of which all Arctic-rim powers are considered equal. The authors explore the concept of establishing an Arctic military-security forum to navigate the resurgence of strategic competition in the region. To do so, the article examines challenges and opportunities associated with the establishment of an effective Arctic security forum through diplomatic aspects, including 1) establishing acceptable protocols, 2) the role of military diplomacy and 3) sustaining meaningful diplomatic commitments and outcomes.

Establishing Acceptable Protocols

The central goal of establishing formal protocols through a forum to discuss Arctic security issues is to prevent security related actions by one state from escalating to higher level military conflict due to misunderstandings among other Arctic states. There are already several agreements that include the United States and Russian Federation which govern the behavior of military forces when operating in close proximity to each other or in international waters, such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA, 1972), the Dangerous Military Activities Agreement (DMA, 1989), and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES, 2014).

Given that these agreements have no geographical limitations, they would also apply to military actions in the Arctic. What is not covered by these agreements, and what is missing in the Arctic currently, is a formal dialogue between Russia and the other Arctic states regarding issues of national security in the Arctic. Such dialogue is important so that all sides understand each other’s actions and the motives behind them, or at least provide a forum to discuss misunderstandings. There have been fora in the recent past which attempted to accomplish this in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, and the Arctic / Northern Chiefs of Defence meetings. These ended in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea when mil-to-mil engagements with Russia were suspended. However, an exception was later made for the ACGF. The ACGF now regularly meets and rotates chairmanships every two years according to the same schedule as the Arctic Council. The ACGF is an excellent forum for the Arctic states to “foster safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic,” but it does not specifically address military or national security issues. This is precisely why it was able to obtain an exemption from the ban on mil-to-mil activity. This is to Arctic security’s detriment.

Clearly, after six years it is apparent that the ban on mil-to-mil engagement with Russia is adversely affecting all Arctic states. There is an obvious need for crafting a defence forum for the Arctic states. As such, it would be useful to establish a mechanism for all Arctic states’ senior military leaders to engage annually for the purpose of discussing Arctic security issues. And this is in the US national interest. The question now becomes what the format, protocols and limitations should be so that such a forum could prove successful for all participants. It should also be considered apart from other mil-to-mil engagements with Russia, and therefore mostly exempt from sanctions. The following proposed components should be considered with regard to development of an Arctic security forum:

-Heads of delegation from each Arctic state would be their senior commander who has responsibility for their country’s Arctic defence.  For example, the US would send the Commander, US Northern Command (4-star), Russia would send the Commander, Northern Fleet Military District (3-star Joint Arctic Command) and the Deputy Defence Minister of the Russian Federation – Chief of Main Directorate for Political-Military Affairs of the Russian Armed Forces (3-star). Normally equivalent rank and position is a basic protocol requirement. However, Russia does not maintain nearly the same amount of 4-star generals as does the United States. As a result, the disparity would not be considered inappropriate or detrimental to the process. Each commander could designate a subordinate as the working representative during the year in the lead up to the conference, but each defence principal would be expected to attend the actual conference in person.

-Hosts for each annual meeting would rotate every year on a prescribed schedule among each of the eight Arctic states.

-The agenda for the annual meeting would have set, required topics each year, which at a minimum would include: 1) Arctic defence philosophy, 2) most important defence challenges in the Arctic, and 3) greatest threats to Arctic security, as perceived by each state. An additional mandatory topic would be ways to improve Arctic security cooperation and reduce tensions.

-The deliverable from the conference would be a report to all member states from the host country summarizing the discussions and outcomes. A joint statement would be optional.

-The conference would be nominally scheduled for one full working day, unless an extension is agreed to by all parties in advance.

However, this forum must stand completely apart from other forums, such as the Arctic Council, even though its membership would still consist of the eight Arctic states that hold sovereign territory in the Arctic. The Arctic Council functions well as an intergovernmental forum on Arctic issues, but its founding documents specifically exclude any discussions on defence or security.  Trying to bring security issues into the Arctic Council runs the risk of damaging a well-functioning mechanism.

It should also not involve NATO specifically, even though five of the Arctic states are also NATO members. Since the purpose of the forum is to engage in Arctic-specific security issues, the involvement of NATO could detract from the Arctic nature and openness of any discussions. Any NATO role in an Arctic security forum must be defined and accepted by Russia, if at all. First and foremost, the forum must be able to function from a setting of sovereign equals, of which any alliance would certainly complicate to say the least – a notion that diplomatically parallels the exact difficulties presented by consideration of the EU as an official Arctic Council observer. In the Arctic security forum, membership would only consist of the eight Arctic states – no observers.

While an Arctic defence forum described above is important, it should not exist as the only engagement between the Arctic states in understanding each other’s defence postures.  Ongoing traditional diplomacy and military diplomacy would continue to play important roles, as will existing bilateral security agreements. However, as mentioned previously, a new Arctic security forum must be able to function unilaterally with defined authority and jurisdiction.

The Role of Military Diplomacy

The role of military power in today’s world exemplifies a much different meaning from the past. Use of military might by developed nations to resolve or influence global issues increasingly represents options to be employed only as a last resort, if at all. The ever-growing economic interdependence and strong institutional architectures that help facilitate global relationships provide just an initial understanding concerning such world order, and such forces likely apply throughout the Arctic region also. One of the ways in which military organizations could integrate into constructive circumpolar affairs is through use of defence diplomacy. The Oxford Handbook provides a definition as ‘the employment, without duress, in time of peace of the resources of Defence to achieve specific national goals, primarily through relationships with others” as seen by “the shift from ‘club’ to ‘network’ diplomacy” reflective of advanced civilization. The Arctic Eight all have significant military resources and capabilities as well as experience around the world managing tensions. Certainly, the degree to which Russia participates in such endeavors remains difficult to ascertain meaningfully, but it does occur, and moreover, the Arctic region is somewhat of an exceptional case.

Defence diplomacy involves a desire to use military channels, and/or those of experts on defence issues, to help create a climate of trust and a convergence of interests. Those familiar with the Arctic region and its many issues might already be thinking of how the military could contribute within these definitional understandings. The most concerning defence-related issue still centers on continued Russian military buildup in their north, including significant bastion defence, several dedicated brigades, and an advanced coastal and offshore air-defence network. Such developments outpace the rest of the Arctic Eight combined by an order of magnitude, although not necessarily representative of individual or cumulative national capability. The lack of post-Crimea Western mil-to-mil contact with Russia as well as a collective Arctic security forum continues to suppress opportunities to build trust and confidence with purpose. Eventually, the United States and NATO will increase military capabilities and presence in the Arctic, and without dialogue, misunderstanding of intent and perceptions, among other things, will likely worsen.

Defence organizations often track sensitive, conflict-laden issues within categories often known as elevated, escalated, and the most dangerous, zones of miscalculation. Other issues involve tensions regarding international maritime law and increased control over disputed Arctic waters Russia considers internal. Such an ‘excessive maritime claim’, per the United States, would likely benefit from defence discussions and subsequent counsel amongst individual national authorities. Most recently, the United States and United Kingdom conducted a naval exercise in the Barents Sea from 03 – 08 May 2020. Although advanced notification was provided to Russia and the media largely conflated the event and meaning, Russian authorities were able to conduct observations and consequently reported findings (figure 1). While characterizing the exercise as provocative, Russian authorities noted that Northern Fleet capabilities effectively deployed to track NATO weapons and thereby avoid any incidents. When conducting the official briefing, Colonel-General Rudskoy stated that “the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has always adhered to a course aimed at building a constructive dialogue with NATO” and furthermore, emphasized European concerns that “all our proposals to reduce military tension and prevent incidents were set forth in a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In fact, our suggestions were ignored.” Although possibly a demonstration of aggrandized rhetoric, such messages could be much different through use of military diplomacy and dialogue. National interests are often conveyed through strategic communications and military activities, and as a component of foreign-policy objectives already, the addition of deliberate discourse can leverage the influence of military capability and experience toward purposeful defence diplomacy.

Figure 1: Russian Ministry of Defence briefing on recent NATO activity in the Arctic

Source: Russian Ministry of Defence

Sustaining Meaningful Diplomatic Outcomes

The pace at which media attention and policy rhetoric is focusing on calls of a ‘new’ Cold War in the Arctic is representative of renewed global attention in the High North. Ultimately, in an age of social media, this attention creates strategic fog for northern stakeholders and indeed can cultivate strategic distrust further between Arctic neighbors. All the official dialogue in the world matters little unless it can be sustained and implemented meaningfully. Nor can a representative principal and staff conduct hasty preparations and expect to be effective during diplomatic maneuvering and negotiations. An established cycle of dialogue helps to develop and enable an active national program that requires substantial time, money and effort toward preparations that categorically culminate through the dialogue events. Such processes foster purposeful information development and sharing by Arctic defence staffs, both domestically and within the network, further elevating an understanding of each other’s’ policies, strategies and intent. Furthermore, regularly scheduled diplomatic events require continuous learning and processing, leading to more sustained and confident diplomatic outcomes as opposed to sporadic events.

Preparation involves more than studying different tier-level issues. A delegation must be effectively empowered to participate in a diplomatic setting, to include delivery and status of domestic positions on matters, extent and limits of compromise on issues, and introduction of propositions and interests, to name a few. Such preparations also require domestic prioritization of issues and executive agency synchronization as well as input in order to avoid inadvertent internal marginalization of national interests – again, not nearly as efficacious in an ad hoc fashion. At the same time, a major component of successful preparations – far more complex and difficult – requires an understanding of adversarial as well as competitive positions on agenda and relevant non-agenda items. Indeed, it can be a very bad day when a delegation is diplomatically outmaneuvered as a result of inadequate preparation on a reasonably expected issue. This circumstance might represent a best-case scenario when a competitor out-prepares another and scores a diplomatic win without the need to give up anything through a compromise on equal settings. Such an instance occurred on Day 10 of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a UN Security Council meeting, when US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson thoroughly ‘dressed down’ Soviet Ambassador Zorin through superior preparation in anticipation of the USSR position. Similarly with regard to the Arctic, having a forum ready to host this security discussion could be the difference in preventing Arctic conflict, especially when domestic and foreign goals tend to universally prefer that issues remain within the cooperative or competitive realm. The Arctic is naturally geared for sustaining diplomatic outcomes and ironically, all Arctic states hold a common strategic interest: stability.

Additionally, the value of multinational defence dialogue not only benefits from agreements, but  also in the development and implementation of national strategies. Domestic policies can significantly gain advantage from positive results of dialogue as well as clarification of issues involving tension, not to mention reference to the forum itself as a venue of reliable structured discussion. Furthermore, such fora often facilitate and promote inclusivity and coverage of issues through agenda setting. However, while agendas can be abused by more influential states, today’s advanced understanding and conduct of diplomacy and negotiation can help overcome inequalities through thoughtful charter establishment.

Conclusion

Many fora already exist to address most issues in the Arctic from a circumpolar perspective (see Figure 2). The Arctic Council provides an excellent forum to jointly tackle environmental issues and scientific research, and it also has provided an excellent platform to negotiate several joint agreements between the Arctic states, such as search and rescue, oil spill response, and scientific cooperation. The International Maritime Organization provided a framework to negotiate the Polar Code for shipping traffic in the Arctic. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum proves to be excellent at discussing and solving shared maritime law and regulatory challenges across the Arctic. The Arctic Economic Council facilitates sustainable Arctic economic and business development. A glaring gap in these fora is one that addresses Arctic security or defence issues. The need for an Arctic security forum is clear. Given the increasing re-militarization of the Arctic in recent years and unproductive rhetoric likely to continue, the time to establish an Arctic security forum has already passed. Dialogue between senior Arctic defence leaders and their staffs could complement other Arctic national efforts through the conduct of military diplomacy, leading to enhanced mutual understanding of defence challenges as well as the prevention of unintended conflict escalation.

Figure 2. Example of Current Arctic Organizations and Responsibilities

To move our proposal forward, we offer the following considerations as areas for further research. First, initiative could be seized by Moscow during its forthcoming Arctic Council Chairmanship (2021-2023) to officially propose and promote a forum – an enterprise opportunity completely separate from the work of the Arctic Council yet benefits from the overall Arctic emphasis during its leadership. Moreover, Russia could craft the forum and keep it void of mandated leadership, instead recommending an acceptable rotation schedule – similar or otherwise to the Arctic Council. Second, in terms of the security forum’s construct, we see three viable options. Option A: The forum is limited to the Arctic Eight defence authorities and their select delegations. This is the ideal approach as it affords the most lateral movement for military diplomacy in the Arctic. Option B: Implement Option A but also develop an observer mandate. Using similar criteria to that of the Arctic Council, this would allow for NATO to engage as a clear subordinate to Russia. This signal acknowledges Moscow’s concerns and perhaps also helps get around NATO’s ‘limited engagement with Russia’ policy still in effect. Most importantly, this option ensures that any potential NATO forum role develops under Russian required consensus. This option also easily extends toward further research consideration and potential roles of other interested participants, such as China. A final study option is Option C: the development of a security forum led by the Arctic ‘Western’ states with an offer extended to Russia to join. This may be the least viable option given Moscow would likely reject ‘junior partner’ overtures. Additionally, the current fragmented Arctic defence efforts somewhat demonstrate problems with this option.

The Arctic needs a productive forum for military dialogue – one already established, functioning well and possessing the institutional maturity ready to confront future strategic challenges. It is in the best interests of the Arctic region to have a credible body in place to navigate and preemptively negotiate military-security issues and threats involving mutual interests. Military tensions in the Arctic could severely marginalize years of stabilizing accomplishments, not the least of which includes critical natural resource and environmental activities. Compelled dialogue driven by negative incidents will only invoke frustrated hindsight from stakeholders and concerned advocates. The situation is clear, and prospects obvious. Defence authorities should pursue the opportunity to effectively steer military-related Arctic security issues before circumstances force preventable crisis management.

*Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies with Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College and a Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. Dr. Buchanan holds a Ph.D. in Russian Arctic strategy from the Australian National University and was recently the Visiting Maritime Fellow at the NATO Defense College. Experiences also include a recent discussion she moderated with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, during an official visit to Australia.

Michael J. Young is a Fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy focusing on Arctic policy and security.  He is a retired Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State whose tours include working as the Arctic Affairs Officer in the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs and the Foreign Policy Advisor to Special Operations Command North, where he also focused on Arctic issues.  He was the U.S. Head of Delegation to the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group from 2013-15.  He previously served as a Surface Warfare Officer and nuclear engineer with the U.S. Navy for 15 years.

Troy is retired from the US Army and currently serves as faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbank. As a defense contractor, he is the co-principle investigator for the USNORTHCOM / ALCOM Arctic Defense and Security Orientation (ADSO) program started in 2014. Troy’s experience alsoincludes various roles involvingArctic Track I diplomacy.He is a research fellow with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS) and member of the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (NAADSN).

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Will India be sanctioned over the S-400 Air Defense System?

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The Russian S-400 air defense system has emerged as a serious concern for US policymakers. Amongst other states, US allies are seen purchasing and acquiring this state-of-the-art technology despite Washington’s objections.  Earlier in 2019, Turkey received the S-400 setting aside American concerns. India, a critical strategic partner of the US, also secured a $5.4 billion deal for the system in 2018 despite US opposition.

The US administration was considerably confident that it would succeed in persuading India to abandon the deal. The Indian government was warned by the Trump administration that the purchase of S-400 may invoke sanctions under the ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA). It was also communicated to the Indian government that presence of Russian S-400 is likely to increase the vulnerability of American weaponry stationed in India which could limit the extent of US-India cooperation. The threat was largely ignored and India went ahead to pay an advance of $800 million to Russia for the system which is indicative of India’s desire to maintain strategic autonomy and its reluctance to form an official military alliance with USA.

When President Biden took office in January 2021, efforts were made once again to convince India to let go of the deal. Then-Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III discussed the air defense system with Rajnath Singh during his visit to India in March 2021. However, India showed no willingness to change its stance over its S-400 policy. 

The issue was also discussed during the three day visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on 6th October, 2021. She commented that the decision over the sanctions related to S-400 will be made by the US President and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She further added that the US policy regarding any country that uses S-400 is considerably evident and the air defense system is not in anybody’s security interest. 

Historically, Indian air defense systems have largely comprised of Russian equipment and the Indian Air Force (IAF) predominantly operates Russian systems. India is unlikely to recede to American demands of abandoning the S-400 deal which is evident from the recent statements of two senior Indian officials. While addressing the Indian media on the 89th anniversary of IAF on 8th October, 2021, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari stressed that the S-400 should be inducted during the same year. Similarly, shortly after Wendy Sherman commented on S-400, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson gave a statement suggesting that the government was in negotiations with the US. Responding to a question on the S-400, Arindam Bagchi stated, ‘This has been under discussion between our two countries for some time. It was raised and we have discussed it and explained our perspective. And discussions on this are ongoing.’

Noting that India may receive the systems by the end of year, the US will soon be in a position where it will have to make a decision over whether to sanction India or not. The Indian attitude towards this issue suggests that it sees itself in a position where it can get a waiver by the US administration despite disregarding the latter’s concerns. Sanctioning India will erode the bilateral relationship of India and US at a time when Washington needs New Delhi in its larger objective of containing China. This is especially relevant since India is the only QUAD member which shares a border with China. Therefore, this option is not in American interest taking into account the current geopolitical situation.

The US President has the authority to waive off CAATSA sanctions if deemed necessary for American strategic interests. However, in February 2021, US openly declared that a blanket waiver was not a possibility for India. The rationale behind not providing a blanket waiver is that such an action can motivate other states to opt for the same in the hope of a potential waiver since countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown interest in acquiring the S-400 air defense system. This factor will also be taken into account while devising the sanctions.

It is likely that India may be sanctioned under CAATSA but the sanctions will largely be symbolic with little long-term implications. However, the Indian policy of strategic autonomy raises questions on the extent of the envisaged partnership between India and the US. Increasing dependence and use of Russian equipment will become a concern owing to the interoperability problems vis-à-vis US military systems. The role of India as an effective strategic ally against China is also questionable noting its strategic decisions which will harm American interests in the region. 

As a strategic partner, India has placed the American leadership in a difficult situation by purchasing the S-400 system. It will be interesting to see how the US articulates the sanctions against India over this purchase.  

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American submarine mangled in the South China Sea

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Tensions in the western Pacific have been simmering for the past many months. The western world led by the United States has begun to transfer more assets into the Indo-Pacific, in a bid to contain, if not restrict, the rampant rise of Chinese power in the volatile region.

The Americans have continued to expand their naval presence in the Western Pacific and the China seas. In October 2021, two carrier strike groups of the Nimitz-class supercarriers were deployed around the first island chain, led by the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). The British, in an attempt to regain lost momentum in the Indo-Pacific, deployed the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which sailed through the South China Sea earlier last month. The aforementioned vessels also sailed through the Philippine Sea alongside the Japanese MSDF Hyuga-class helicopter-carrier JS Ise (DDH-182), as part of multilateral naval exercises.

These actions, however, cannot be viewed as an unprecedented act of offence against the People’s Republic of China. The mainland Chinese have since late September been upping the ante in its long-lasting dispute with Taiwan. The Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has been consistently violated by aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. On 4 October 2021 for instance, 52 aircraft of the PLAAF were identified in the southwestern sector of the Taiwan ADIZ. This included 34 Shenyang J-16 multirole fighters, 12 Xian H-6 nuclear-capable bombers, 2 Sukhoi Su-30 MKK multirole fighters, 2 Shaanxi Y-8 ASW aircraft and 2 Shaanxi KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft.

Figure 2: Illustration of PLAAF incursions into Taiwanese airspace on 4 Oct 2021 (Source: Ministry of National Defense, ROC)

Actions on such a massive scale are becoming increasingly frequent and are posing a serious threat to Taiwanese sovereignty and independence. The dynamics in the region are quickly evolving into a scenario similar to that of the cold war, with the formation of two distinct blocs of power. The United States and its allies – especially Japan – are keeping their eyes peeled on the developments taking place over the airspace of Taiwan, with the Chinese completely bailing out on promises of pursuing unification through peaceful means.

This aggression emerging from the communist regime in Beijing must be met with in order to contain their expansionist objectives. In pursuit of containing Chinese aggression and expansionism, the US Navy deployed the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) – a Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine – on patrol in East and Southeast Asia. It made stops for supplies at Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan, and US Naval base Guam, before departing for the South China Sea. While the public announcement was made on 7 October 2021, the USS Connecticut was struck by an unknown underwater object, while submerged in the disputed region, on 2 October 2021. The incident did not affect the nuclear plant of the attack submarine, nor were there any serious injuries reported.

While the US Navy has not yet disclosed locations of where the submarine incident took place, Chinese think tank South China Sea Probing Initiative made use of satellite imagery to spot what they suspect as being the Seawolf-class submarine sailing 42.8 nm southeast off the disputed Paracel island group[1].

Figure 3: (Left) Map released by SCSPI marking claimed location of USS Connecticut on 3 October 2021 (R) Satellite imagery of suspected Seawolf-class submarine (Source: SCS Probing Initiative)

If this information is accurate, one cannot rule out the chance of this incident being in fact offensive action taken up by the Chinese against an American nuclear submarine sailing so close to a disputed group of shoals and isles over which Beijing adamantly claims sovereignty. But then again, the South China Sea is well known as being a tricky landscape for submarines to sail through submerged, with sharp ridges and a seabed scattered with shoals. Hydrographic and bathymetric failures have taken place in the past, resulting in devastating consequences. For instance, the USS San Francisco (SSN 711) collided with a seamount southeast of Guam in 2005. If one is to compare and contrast the claimed location of the USS Connecticut in Figure 3, with the bathymetric map of the South China Sea in Figure 4, it can be seen that the claimed sighting area is home to tricky geography, with steep ridges connecting waters as shallow as 1300 m to as deep as 3500 m.

Figure 4: Bathymetric of the South China Sea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, given the vast improvement in the gathering of bathymetric and hydrographic data by US Navy Hydrography vessels, it can be possible to rule out the scenario of the USS Connecticut colliding with submarine features. One must then look into other possibilities and scenarios that incurred heavy damage onboard the USS Connecticut, which resulted in injuries to 11 of its sailors.

The possibility of this incident being the result of a nefarious Chinese attack on an American nuclear submarine sailing near territories claimed and occupied by Beijing must not be ruled out. The Chinese have exponentially increased their military aggression and activity over the past months and years, as can be viewed on the Indo-Sino border in the Himalayas and the cross-strait aggression in Taiwan. In the South China Sea, uninhabitable shoals have been converted into military bases supporting aerial capabilities as well as housing advanced radar systems and barracks. A submarine, warship, or any other vessel for that fact, can be considered to be ‘sailing behind enemy lines’.

Among several possibilities, one can be that the Chinese made use of unmanned underwater vehicles to counter the American submarine. In 2019, the PLA Navy put on exhibition its first autonomous underwater vehicle named HSU-001 (Figure 5). Submarine authority H I Sutton’s analysis of the paraded AUV described it as being worthy of long-range operations, with side-scanning sonar arrays and a magnetic anomaly detector to detect underwater targets. Such a vessel can be used for a vast variety of operations including marine surveying and reconnaissance, mine warfare and countermeasures, undersea cable inspection, and anti-submarine warfare.

Figure 5: Two of the HSU-001 AUVs on display in Beijing, 2019 (Source: Forbes).

The Chinese have also developed smaller underwater glider drones. In late December 2020, Indonesian fishermen fished out the ‘Sea Wing’ (Figure 6), which is an entirely different type of drone with no powerhouse to propel its movement. The Sea Wing family of underwater gliders depend upon variable-buoyancy propulsion that makes use of an inflating and deflating balloon-like device filled with pressurised oil, causing them to sink before rising to the surface again, moving along, aided by wings. Unlike the HSU-001, the Sea Wing is much smaller in size and does not support any fittings for combat missions.

Figure 6: Indonesian Fishermen caught a Chinese underwater glider drone in December 2020 (Source: The War Zone)

In July 2021, the communist regime in China in an unprecedented move declassified detailed results of an experimental project that has apparently spanned through decades. The results showcased the field test of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), seemingly in the Taiwan Strait in the year 2010. Reports stated that the UUV currently operates individually, but with future upgrades could be capable of operating in packs. The document stated that the UUV pointed its sonar arrays to various sources of sound, while artificial intelligence tried to filter out ambient noise and determine the nature of the target, firing a torpedo upon verification. The ability to fire, assumably a standard-sized torpedo, would suggest that the UUV in question would be of a larger size than the Sea Wing glider. It could, perhaps, be even larger than the HSU-001, given the physical largeness of earlier technologies. Sophisticated technologies of today, however, are also being diverted to reduce the size of torpedoes without impacting their effectiveness.

UUVs are undoubtedly going to change the path of modern warfare, being used for both detecting targets and, in the future, also eliminating them. Military designers and researchers are paying an increasing amount of attention and resources into the development of advanced platforms and assets, keeping in mind the concepts of high precision, small loss and big technology. These assets will prove to be invaluable in shallow seas, and indeed the South China Sea, with all of its treacherous hydrographic features, and being easily modifiable for mission requirements.

One remote understanding of the incident that took place in the South China Sea involving the USS Connecticut can be that the Chinese made use of a UUV to attack the American SSN. Several analysts and submarine experts in the field including former American submariner Aaron Amick suggest that the bow dome of the Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine was severely damaged. Since no explosions were reported, we can rule out the possibility of the use of torpedoes to attack the American vessel. It could also not have been a ‘dud’ torpedo fired at the American submarine since such a non-lethal thin-metal structure could barely have a major impact on the two-inches thick HY-100 steel alloy that comprises the hull of the Seawolf. This leaves us with the scenario of a drone being used to physically ram the hull of the submarine. It is unlikely that the Chinese made use of a Sea Wing glider given its small size and nature of operations. It would be more probable that if such a scenario did take place, it involved the PLAN making use of a UUV as large as the HSU-001, if not larger.

This would raise the question of what went wrong with the equipment aboard the Connecticut? How is it that the advanced sensors and sonar array could not pick up on an incoming object? Or in the case of a collision with geographical features, what went wrong with the hydrographic and bathymetric systems onboard one of the most advanced nuclear attack submarines in the world?

Submarine navigation is a highly sensitive field of expertise requiring extremely thorough and comprehensive data of the areas in the vessel’s immediate surroundings. Navies across the world maintain classified databases storing detailed hydrographic and bathymetric data that are invaluable for submarine operations. However, submariners also make use of high-frequency sonars that calculate water depths and surrounding features to verify chart data. Active sonar pulses are used to reveal nearby underwater objects including submerged objects such as mines, wrecks, other vessels, as well as geographical features.

The USS Connecticut, alongside other vessels of the Seawolf-class SSNs, began its life with the BQQ 5D sonar system. The Seawolf was refitted with AN/BQQ-10(V4) systems which is an open architecture system that includes biennial software upgrades (APBs) and quadrennial hardware upgrades. The new system, however, continues to make use of the 24 feet wide bow-mounted spherical active and passive array and wide-aperture passive flank arrays installed on the submarine. The class of vessels was also to be retrofitted with TB-29A thin-line towed array sonar systems, developed by Lockheed Martin. The successor of the Seawolf-class – the Virginia-class – has also been fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) sonar processing system, making use of a bow-mounted active and passive array, wide aperture passive array on the flank, high-frequency active arrays on keel and fin, TB 16 towed array and TB-29A thin line towed array. The Seawolf and the Virginia are both fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) system and the TB-29A towed array sonar system which could become worrisome for future operations since this is a relatively newer system.

Operators of the system must look into strengthening any blind spots that the system may possess. There may also be the minute chance that the Chinese have identified such a blind spot and have attempted to exploit it. These systems have been developed by Lockheed Martin in Virginia, USA – also the developer of the F-35 Lightning II JSF. Further alleviating suspicions is the fact that the Chinese have in recent months boasted claims of having developed radar systems that are capable of detecting the most advanced and stealthy of American combat jets, including both the F-35 as well as the F-22 Raptor. This, as per the Chinese, is now possible through the use of their latest radar system – the YLC-8E – which was developed by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). The research team at Tsinghua University said that the platform generated an electromagnetic storm which would serve to acquire the location of incoming stealth aircraft. To engage in the highest degree of speculation, could China have managed to acquire sensitive data from one of the largest US defence contractors, enabling it to detect and even malign some of the finest American technological suites onboard various platforms?


[1] SCS Probing Initiative [@SCS_PI]. (2021, October 8). Is this USS Connecticut? Which is reported to suffer an underwater collision in the #SouthChinaSea Oct 2. Satellite image from @planet spotted a suspected Wolf-class submarine, sailing 42.8NM southeast off the Paracel Islands, Oct 3. Retrieved from Twitter.

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Defense

The Road Leading Nowhere

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A few days ago, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, announced the expulsion of several diplomats from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization. The only justification NATO could muster up for this was the traditional rhetoric of Russia’s alleged “malign activities” in NATO member states. As it so usually happens, no evidence or illustrations of such activities were ever provided. It is almost as if NATO’s leadership is consistently trying to destroy everything that Moscow and Brussels have built to bolster European security architecture through joint efforts during the last two decades.

Russia launched its Permanent Mission to NATO in 2003 following the establishment of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) on May 28, 2002 in Rome. Prior to that, Russia’s ambassador to Belgium had also acted as the nation’s non-resident ambassador to the Organization. The establishment of the NATO–Russia Council was a momentous event, which is evident by the fact that the heads of state and government of all NATO member states as well as the president of the Russian Federation gathered in Rome to sign the Declaration on “NATO–Russia Relations: a New Quality” at an official ceremony.

I happened to be present at that ceremony in Rome. The atmosphere was very spirited, and the leaders were quite optimistic about the prospects of the new mode of cooperation between Russia and the West. Those present at that memorable event unanimously welcomed the new mechanism, while U.S. President George W. Bush stressed that should Russia be left behind the alliance would fail in resolving the issues facing the world in the new century and responding to the new security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond. Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada, noted that NATO was “opening a new chapter in strengthening our ties with Russia,” emphasizing that the surest way of responding to the challenges of the 21st century would be to coordinate the efforts of the international community at large. He concluded, “It was high time that Russia be involved in the process.”

For his part, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia expected “the Rome Declaration to be a sound solution to work in a cooperative and constructive spirit rather than a mere statement of intentions.” He went on to say that Russia and NATO have a fraught history—however, the two had made real headway, shifting the paradigm “from opposition to dialogue, from confrontation to cooperation.” The Rome Declaration, Russia’s leader argued, was only to mark the beginning of the endeavours to arrive at fundamentally different relations.

While the reason why the two parties agreed two decades ago to establish the NATO–Russia Council and the extent to which the new joint mechanism indeed proved an agent of change for the military and political situation in the Euro-Atlantic (and globally) remain subject of persistent speculation, I believe it would be hard to refute the idea that the old shibboleths of the Cold War needed to be revised amid the evolving circumstances at the dawn of the new millennium. First and foremost, this had to do with security issues. By that time, sober-minded politicians in the West came to realize that Russia was far from what posed threats to world peace and international security. The foreground now featured a new set of global challenges, such as terrorism, WMD proliferation risks, illegal migration and regional crises, with no nation—even the largest and most powerful among the powers that be—able to counter them on their own. Russia was the first to face the challenge of global terrorism. Following hard on Russia’s heels, this threat engulfed the United States and other countries in its most cruel and dramatic form.

In accordance with the Rome Declaration, Russia and NATO member states committed to cooperating as equals in areas of mutual interest. The members of the Council, acting in their national capacities and in a manner consistent with their collective commitments and obligations, agreed to take joint decisions and bear equal responsibility, individually and collectively, for the decisions to be implemented. The Council saw some 25 working groups and committees established to foster meaningful cooperation in critical areas.

Following a meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson in November 2002, President Vladimir Putin offered the following vision of Russia’s relations with NATO, “Never before have we raised the question of our full-fledged participation in NATO. Nor do we raise that matter today. Should our relationship, should our cooperation develop as positively as is the case now… And if NATO as an alliance transforms in implementing institutional reforms… And as long as our cooperation is in line with Russia’s national interests, meaning that we’ll see that this framework could serve a tool to pursue our own interests… Then our cooperation with NATO will surely be changing to encompass a broader involvement and participation.”

It has been some 20 years since the NATO–Russia Council was established. Can we deem this experiment to be a success? Both a “yes” and a “no.” On the one hand, we all could see for ourselves that dialogue and cooperation were, in fact, possible. Over the years, joint working groups were offering decisions whose implementation was in line with the fundamental interests of both parties. These included combatting terrorism, engaging on the Afghanistan dossier, enhancing military and technical cooperation, addressing arms control in Europe as well as other issues.

On the other hand, we also discovered that the old stereotypes were deeply entrenched in the minds of some strategists in the West who still believe Russia to be the principal and indispensable factor to cement “Western solidarity.” Otherwise, how can we account for the fact that NATO’s leadership chose to freeze all the Council’s proceedings and contacts with Russia contrary to what is stipulated in the Rome Declaration that provides for an urgent session of the NATO–Russia Council in the events such as brutal conflicts in South Ossetia or Ukraine?

NATO’s only approach to Moscow as of today is to expel as much staff as they can from Russia’s mission in Brussels. The purpose of all this is not hard to guess. NATO is busily getting ready for its next Summit, which is due to be held in 2022 in Madrid. At that summit, NATO plans to approve a new strategy for the alliance to make it “even stronger.”

This will not be an easy task in the wake of the alliance’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is why it has been taking strides to shift attention and search for an adversary whose presence would justify the organization’s continued existence as well as another hike in military budgets of its members. Individual statements make it clear that the new conceptual framework should bring NATO back to its former rhetoric of approaching Russia (and China) as a threat.

Apparently, the alliance would rather wave a final goodbye to the NATO–Russia Council by the time of the upcoming summit. This explains why they are trying to elicit a response from Moscow, which will definitely happen in the near future, likely to affect both Russia’s mission to NATO in Brussels and NATO’s Information Office in Moscow. It seems to be obvious that the only way an international organization can be effective is if this is indeed what all the parties want—in deeds rather than in words. If NATO has for whatever reason decided that it no longer needs the NATO–Russia Council, NATO should then be responsible for dismantling it.

However short-sighted and dangerous such a step on the part of NATO could be, this does not erase from the agenda the question of what the Euro-Atlantic security architecture would look like in the future. New challenges and threats continue to undermine the entire system of international security. Therefore, the feat of building a full-fledged and equal dialogue between Moscow and the West on a whole range of strategic stability issues is more relevant than ever. Under the current circumstances, such a dialogue being absent is fraught with risks that are too high for all the parties. These problems can surely be covered up and left to fester beneath the surface. For how long, though?

From our partner RIAC

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