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The Navy of the Future: Classics, Science-Fiction, Contractors

The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville during a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/U.S. Navy/Flickr

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The renewed rivalry between the world powers, almost formally dubbed the second Cold War now, could not but fuel the development of new weapons and military equipment. Naval forces chose not to stand on the side-lines of this new race, despite a certain conservatism of the hardware they employ, which is predicated on the life cycle these products. Incidentally, many questions that the new round of technological advancement is set to answer were first raised back in the 19th century, and these questions remain relevant to this day.

Leaders in the Race

The guidelines for the development of national naval forces across the world, both today and in the foreseeable future, are governed by the rivalry between the United States and China.

The naval part of this confrontation is characterized by opposite trends in the development of their respective fleets, while the countries focus on similar approaches in exploring new types of weapons and military equipment.

Let us examine the main features that determine the similarities and differences in the American and Chinese approaches. In terms of similarities, both sides pay considerable attention to the development of new types of naval weapons and equipment, such as unmanned surface and submersible vessels, unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic missiles, laser and electromagnetic weapon systems, etc. An undeniable similarity lies in the level of attention that both countries devote to upgrading naval aviation (both carrier- and shore-based) and expeditionary forces, even despite the difference in their current standing with these components, where the United States has been the unconditional leader for many decades. Meanwhile, China has only joined the race this past decade after floating out its first two aircraft carriers and a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship.

The differences are just as striking: the approaches to the development of the naval components of both countries are diametrically opposed to one another. The concept of the shipbuilding programme implemented by the People’s Liberation Army Navy is primarily based on building blue-water surface ships: the pace of building large destroyers and cruisers resembles the shipbuilding efficiency typical for the great maritime nations prior to World War II. Suffice to say that during the past decade, China’s PLA Navy has received, on top of other equipment, a total of 20 capital ships without aviation capability, including 19 destroyers and the first “large destroyer” of new type 055, which many experts classify as a missile cruiser, plus two aircraft carriers. The United States, in addition to other armaments, got 11 destroyers and one aircraft carrier, thus yielding the lead in the construction of capital surface ships for the first time since World War II, even though the country is still able to retain notable superiority over China in the number of such ships and in the overall capabilities of the blue-water navy.

In the next few years, the United States intends to ramp up the commissioning of new ships, but its priority, according to a recent statement by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is to develop light naval forces. The United States will resume building frigates (the U.S. Navy has no frigates today after decommissioning of the last Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships), small and medium amphibious assault ships for island operations, other small surface combatants, including optionally manned and unmanned vessels, and finally light aircraft carriers, whose price forces the U.S. Navy to consider cutting their number.

Furthermore, the two countries demonstrate continued differences in the concept of their operations. It would appear that China adheres to the Soviet take on the role and place of aircraft carriers, whose first priority is to ensure the combat stability of the navy outside the reach of shore-based fighter jets. The strike capabilities of naval forces are concentrated in the missile armament of destroyers, cruisers and submarines.

In this context, media sources and experts continue to debate the future development of this class of ships by the PLA Navy and the rate at which it rolls out new elements of aircraft carrier technology. It was thought that the third Chinese aircraft-capable ship would be nuclear-powered, but experts now agree that it will have a conventional propulsion system.

One more issue at large is China’s readiness to introduce another important element of the latest carrier technology, namely, electromagnetic catapults. Some media sources have reported that PLA Navy had been planning to restrict the size of their carrier force to four ships and would start building a fifth after a number of essential technologies have been developed.

In the United States, carrier-based aircraft continue to play the role of the main strike power within the Navy’s general purpose forces, but this is also starting to change. First off, the development of light forces and their weapons under the Distributed Lethality concept will inevitably inflate the role of surface combatants, especially in the frigate/destroyer class. Secondly, the role of shore-based aviation is becoming more essential. For example, the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircrafts can be effectively employed against surface combatants, just like the U.S. Air Force strategic bombers B-1B carrying LRASM anti-ship cruise missiles.

The development of mine warfare by the United States and allied naval forces is another important trend: the amount of investment in new mine warfare technologies is growing, along with the capabilities of mine weapons. The allies focus on the development of smart naval mines that can form consistent sweeping-proof mine barriers and are capable of blocking enemy fleets inside their home stations or isolating the combat zone, thus throttling the most probable lines of approach. Mine countermeasures have also seen some substantial development, and the number of unmanned mine-sweeping systems, both surface-operated and submersible, is growing fast. This will possibly make mine warfare and mine countermeasures the initial fault line in the sea, where most operations will be carried out without the direct involvement of human operators.

Gaining a Foothold

The United States may have lost out to China in terms of overall strength at sea in 2019, but it retained its leadership in the number of capital ships. Today, however, it continues to rely on elements other than combat units.

The current progress in all of the nation’s armed services lies in the development of new-generation combat control systems that enable real-time communications among different detection devices, control facilities and weapon carrying systems.

The further development of these systems indicates that the United States is creating a “digital battlespace,” looking to make a quantum leap in increasing the awareness of commanding officers in the field and reducing the decision-making time to negligible values.

The key projects in this area are implemented under the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) programme, which is geared towards uniting all the detection and target acquisition systems employed across the U.S. Armed Forces into a single network. Cross-branch interoperation capabilities have been traditionally limited due to the differences in architecture of existing control systems. Establishing the chain of command, coordinating plans and assigning tasks often took days to accomplish when cross-branch coordination was required. By its design, the JADC2 project will render all processes automatic and reduce the required coordination time from hours to minutes, and in some instances to seconds.

JADC2 envisages the development of a cloud-based platform for exchanging data transmitted via numerous communication networks to fast-track the decision-making process. The project team uses commercial online taxi services as the grassroots model for the JADC2. Under the programme, new control systems are being developed for individual armed services, many of which are already in the trial phase. The key outcome of these trials is the capability to automate data exchange among different platforms that were not originally designed as interoperable systems: for example, Marine Corps fighter jets and Army howitzers, or U.S. Navy destroyers and Army multiple rocket launcher systems, etc.

The development of a new generation of radars for both maritime and aviation navigation systems, including orbital, reconnaissance (including space reconnaissance assets), command and control, and data exchange systems (also involving space vehicles) and weapons capable of real-time receipt and modification of target acquisition data from remote sources, as well as the development of the “digital battlespace” with the heavy interoperation with unmanned aerial vehicles, and the employment of new air-to-air and air-to-surface controlled weapon systems—all this leads us to the conclusion that the United States and a number of other developed nations are gradually and consistently shaping a new type of combat environment, most importantly in the air.

Its pivotal differences from the existing environment are represented by the spike in the level of situational awareness, along with increased analysis capabilities and reduced decision-making time.

Arctic Reflections

The U.S.–China standoff at sea should not eclipse the processes that are more obvious to Russian readers, namely the development of the Russian Navy that is also unfolding in the context of the renewed adversarial relationship with the West. The key element of this confrontation is the fundamental economic imbalance that pushes weapons designers in Russia to look for unorthodox solutions.

It is safe to say that the key trend in the evolution of the Russian Navy is the enhancement of missile weapons, from air defence to strategic missile systems, as well as the development of submarine and special operations forces that are meant, on one hand, to ensure the deployment of the national naval component in the most comfortable conditions and, on the other hand, to make similar deployment by the adversary as challenging as possible.

In this regard, the focus is on designing domestic combat and surveillance unmanned underwater vehicles and stationary underwater acoustic surveillance systems, as well as on developing new technologies for locating enemy submarines and surface ships that enable early detection of such units in a conflict zone and employ both existing and prospective missile weaponry. This development resonates with the ongoing effort to rehabilitate infrastructure along the coast and on the islands of the Arctic Ocean, which is once again becoming an arena of confrontation, like it was during the first Cold War.

To some extent, the current developments in the Arctic may be viewed as a reflection of the U.S.–China showdown in the west of the Pacific. Just like China, Russia has an infrastructural advantage in the vicinity of its continental territory (with its “Arctic” hang, which includes a robust icebreaker fleet) and a larger force deployed in the theatre of operations. At the same time, NATO’s overall supremacy over Russia is more significant than that of the United States and its allies over China in the Far East, making Russia fear the outcome of a potential conflict in this area.

Such an awareness of the inadequacies of Russia’s Armed Forces dictates that the country turn back to the operational strategic approaches employed in similar situations in the past. As a result, the defence system that is now being deployed in the Arctic region to set up the bastions, (so-called “Protected Operating Area” in Russian military terms), may be compared with the central mine and artillery position that the Baltic fleet was primarily tasked to develop and defend during the First World War, now adjusted for geography and technological advancement. The transformation of this concept depends not only on the future development of the Russian economy and the creation of new types of weapons, but also on the evolution of views on the naval force, which Russia has seen for more than a hundred years as an auxiliary asset, rather than an independent strategic element.

Who is Next?

Speaking of trends in the development of naval forces in second- and third-world countries, we chiefly point out their dependence on cooperation with one of the leaders (or balancing between them), and this aspect largely governs the series of technological and operational solutions. It is important, though, that this mostly applies to countries that are not among the top five, and often not among the top ten largest naval powers.

There are several common trends in this context. For instance, a number of countries are showing increasing interest in deploying shore-based maritime patrol aviation. The market offers several light aircraft of this class today—typically redesigned turbo-prop passenger planes used for local flights or light military transport aircraft, such as ATR-42/72, С-212, 235, 295 and others.

In this case, relatively inexpensive and commonly used local-fight (less often medium-range) airliners and business jets are used in maritime patrol aviation. With this approach, even relatively poor countries can purchase individual units or small sets of such airplanes, thus being able to control their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. For major powers, this approach, combined with the use of long-rage radar detection aircraft, opens the door for building special operations wings and setting up major anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zones with a robust control and target acquisition systems, depending on the country’s economic capacity and views on existing threats.

Speaking of ships, in the vast majority of cases, secondary naval powers do not trouble themselves with building a balanced and self-sustainable naval element, which would be an extremely expensive initiative. Instead, they focus primarily on coastal defence systems with the deployment of individual components for operations in offshore maritime zones and blue-water theatres, predominantly as part of a coalition.

This dependence on coalitions, coupled with the constant need for support from arms and military equipment vendors, who rarely permit self-maintenance by the end user, makes such second- and third-world countries rely on the aid provided by coalition leaders, thus severely limiting their room for manoeuvre. Incredible as it may seem, “freedom of action” in this regard is directly proportional to the age of the available materiel: more often than not, nations that own ships and weapons dating back to the Cold War times already know how to service, maintain and even manufacture some component parts, or they can make up for any parts needed from the vast and hard-to-control “grey” market of weapons and components of the 1970–1990s that were supplied in abundance by certain satellites of the Cold War superpowers. The upgrade or replacement of the old fleet often turns into a honeytrap, increasing the efficiency of their weapons, on one hand, and severely narrowing their leeway on the other. They certainly understand the situation and see the acquisition of military equipment, especially something as complex and expensive as combatant ships and their weapon systems, as a political step, with all that such steps may entail for the decision-making process.

Could we take the next logical step and say that buying these complex weapons systems today also means choosing which military coalition to joint in the future, which is no less important for understanding the prospects of war at sea than the development of naval equipment per se? Perhaps this point of view can at the very least be seen as having its reasons.

From our partner RIAC

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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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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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