« Iraq Briefing - 09 March 2009 - Reasons for Success by Lt. Gen. Austin | Main | A Pox On All Their Houses »

March 14, 2009

A Challenge From China

Last Saturday, March 8, Chinese "fishing trawlers" harrassed an unarmed US Navy ship, the USNS Impeccable. From the original story March 9 on Fox News

Chinese ships surrounded and harassed a Navy mapping ship in international waters off China, at one point coming within 25 feet of the American boat and strewing debris in its path, the Defense Department said Monday. The Obama administration said it would continue naval operations in the South China Sea, most of which China considers its territory, and protested to China about what it called reckless behavior that endangered lives.

At one point during the incident Sunday the unarmed USNS Impeccable turned fire hoses on an approaching Chinese ship in self defense, the Pentagon said. At another point a Chinese ship played chicken with the Americans, stopping dead in front of the Impeccable as it tried to sail away, forcing the civilian mariners to slam on the brakes.

PLAN/Trawlers & USS Impeccable

Photo Fox News

It's pretty obvious that China is testing President Obama. How he responds to this and other challenges will determine much of what happens internationally over the next 4 or 8 years.

What exactly the Impeccable was doing is anybody's guess. It's mission is described as "surveillance" and it is part of the Navy's Special Missions Program, which includes a variety of innocuous tasks as well as "Submarine and Special Warefare Support." According to the Wikipedia article linked to above, "The mission of Impeccable is to directly support the Navy by using SURTASS passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track undersea threats." It is outfitted to tow a sonar array, which as all Tom Clancy fans know is the best way to detect submarines. The ship has a civilian crew, and is unarmed.

Interestingly, while reading the official Pentagon statement I found that the March 8 incident was only the latest in a series of incidents in which the PLAN (People's Liberation Army/Navy) had harassed US Navy ships in the area:

On March 4, a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Patrol vessel used a high-intensity spotlight to illuminate the entire length of the ocean surveillance ship USNS Victorious several times, including its bridge crew. USNS Victorious was conducting lawful military operations in the Yellow Sea, about 125 nautical miles from China's coast. The Chinese ship then crossed Victorious' bow at a range of about 1400 yards in darkness without notice or warning. The following day, a Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft conducted 12 fly-bys of Victorious at an altitude of about 400 feet and a range of 500 yards.

On March 5, without notice or warning, a Chinese frigate approached USNS Impeccable and proceeded to cross its bow at a range of approximately 100 yards. This was followed less than two hours later by a Chinese Y-12 aircraft conducting 11 fly-bys of Impeccable at an altitude of 600 feet and a range from 100-300 feet. The frigate then crossed Impeccable's bow yet again, this time at a range of approximately 400-500 yards without rendering courtesy or notice of her intentions.

On March 7, a PRC intelligence collection ship (AGI) challenged USNS Impeccable over bridge-to-bridge radio, calling her operations illegal and directing Impeccable to leave the area or "suffer the consequences."

Again, it's plain for all to see; the Chinese leadership is testing President Obama.

Why Do We Care?

The far right and far left say that we have no business in the area anyway, and we should content ourselves with homeland defense. This is wrongheaded for several reasons.

We need to protect our interests around the world. Our interests are political, economic and moral. By political I mean fighting the War on Jihadism (choose another term than "political" if you like, I'm just trying to make a point). The War on Jihadism requires a global presence where our forces can operate without being seriously threatened.

Economics means trade, and yes that includes access to energy such as oil. Whether we like it or not we are and will be dependent on petroleum for the foreseeable future. It is also in our interest to have friendly nations that we can trade with freely. We do not want countries to be intimidated by the likes of China, Iran, or Venezuela. It is bad enough that the (temporarily) reemerging Russia is causing trouble, we don't need to add to the list.

It is in our moral interest because although we are not the world's policeman we must counter egregious threats to our sensibilities. Democracy stands no chance if anti-democratic regimes rule the waves. Further, we need to have the capability of providing humanitarian relief, and as we have seen, when a tsunami hits somewhere no one can coordinate activities better than the US Navy.

Diplomacy without military power is powerless. No one will listen to you if you can't back it up with at least some military power. This is not to denegrate the importance of economic or "soft power" (two somewhat different things). They are very important as well. But they are more useful when coupled with military force.

So we need to maintain the ability to project power around the globe.

The Chinese Objective

China wants three things:

  1. Regional hegemony
  2. Reincorporation of Taiwan/ROC into mainland China/PRC
  3. Control of sea lanes to and from energy producing regions of the world

I base this and what follows upon everything I have read and heard over the past several years, see China/Taiwan under "Categories" at right for background.

Achieving the first objective will lead to two and three. In order to achieve the first they need to do three things

  1. Become the strongest military power in the region
  2. Remove the US Navy as a regional threat
  3. Ensure that no other regional power emerges that can challenge the PLA/PLAN

They are on their way towards the first with a massive shipbuilding program (details here and here). While the number of ships in the US Navy has been going down, the number of PLAN ships has been increasing. Further, while the quality of US ships has been increasing, so has that of the Chinese. As Mark Helperin pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last year, do not assume US supremacy in a shoot-out. While Helperin's recommendations for a US building program go a bit far, there is little doubt in my mind that we are in a very dangerous position with our current forces.

If Obama backs down, and/or cancels or cuts back on U.S military programs mentioned below, China may make a move to take Taiwan. This move could come in many forms, which I've discussed at some length before, but either way China needs to remove the United States as a military threat before they proceed.

China, like other regional players, are sensitive about Japanese military power. This may have made sense as late as 20 years ago, but the "another World War II" holds little water today. They use it more as a stick with which to beat Japan, and keep the latter from getting any ideas about helping the United States or Taiwan in case of war. Nevertheless, US, Japanese, Australian, India and Singapore held very large military exercises in the Bay of Bengal a year and a half ago to demonstrate resolve in the face of challenge.

Not only is China seeking hegemony in it's own backyard, for the first time in it's history it has sent large military forces abroad. two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship were dispatched dispatched to Somalia last December to counter the threat from pirates. On the one hand we should be glad for the help, on the other it represents a potential challenge to our interests.

I do not expect Obama to significantly increase spending on defense. I do expect him not to cut the U.S. programs mentioned above.

The U.S. Response

While China demanded that we end surveillance missions off their coast, Obamasent a warship:

Chinese Navy officers reacted with annoyance today when it emerged that the United States had sent a destroyer to back up a surveillance vessel in the South China Sea after it was harassed by People's Liberation Army sailors.

The decision by President Obama to send an armed escort for U.S. surveillance ships in the area follows the aggressive and co-ordinated manoeuvres of five Chinese boats on Sunday. The vessels harassed and nearly collided with the unarmed USNS Impecccable.

This is encouraging. Of course, we hear the usual talk about "the need to reduce tensions" and "face-to-face dialogue in Beijing and in Washington will go a long way to clearing up any misunderstanding about this incident," and it's impossible to know what's really going on behind the scenes.

If Obama orders that we reduce our surveillance missions, China will have won a large victory. If we don't, we keep the status quo, with which we have a check on Chinese ambitions.

Just as important is what President Obama does with the defense budget. We're currently in a situation where we're understandably concentrating on counterinsurgency. This is fine and good with regards to the War on Jihadism, but we need to be aware that we face a variety of threats around the globe. Just recently Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered his country as a temporary base for long-range Russian bombers. Iran is on a mad dash to develop nuclear weapons. A shoot out with either Venezuela or Iran, let alone China, will require every bit of high-tech weaponry we can lay our hands on. A year and a half ago I wrote

Let's not also be overconfident or arrogant with regard to our own capabilities. This attitude got a lot of US pilots killed during the early days of the Vietnam War, when we discovered that the MiG-21 was the equivalent of our F-4 Phantom, and their pilots nearly as good.

Further, some of our weapons are getting very old. The F-15 first flew in 1972. The F-16 in 1979, and the F-18 1982. The first Los Angeles class sub was launched in 1976. The CH-53 first flew in 1981, and the H47 in 1962. You get the point.

Yes all of the above systems have undergone major upgrades. I know all this. But you can only do so much with an old airframe. Sure, we could build a new helicopter instead of the tilt-rotar V-22 and it would be better than what is in the inventory. But we are really at about the limit of what you can do with helicopter technology, so it would be an exercise in the point of diminishing returns.

Instead of the F-22 Raptor we could rely on the somewhat less expensive F-35 Lightning II. This, however, would have been the equivalent of canceling the F-15 and relying on the F-16. Ask any pilot about the wisdom of that potential decision.

Among other things, I concluded that we needed to

We need to do two things. The first is to ensure that we have a balanced force. We need Special Forces, and we need F-22s. We need Virginia Class submarines and we need the MRAP. We cannot predict with any certainly who we might have to fight in the forseeable future, and different wars will require a different set of weapons.

The second thing we need to do is to simply spend more. Critics have a point when they say that the Army is stretched thin. The solution, however, is not to pull out of Iraq or anywhere else, but to build up the force. As the editors of National Review reminded us a few months ago how much our forces have shrunk recently:

From 1974 to 1989, the Army had 770,000 to 780,000 active troops (all of them volunteers). Today, we have around 508,000. The Navy had 568 ships in the late 1980s; today it has 276, and its manpower is so reduced that it often has to helicopter sailors from homebound ships to outbound ones in order to keep them staffed. The Air Force's number of tactical air wings has shrunk from 37 to 20, and the average age of its aircraft is 24 years (as compared with nine years in 1973).

There is disagreement about whether the armed forces should be restored to their Cold War size, but there is consensus among military analysts across the political spectrum that they are too small. Today's strategic environment requires them to be able to engage in multiple regional wars and peacekeeping operations simultaneously, and still have enough resources left over to deter threats and respond to unforeseen dangers.

During the last part of the Cold War I think we spend about 8% of GDP on national defense. Today it's at about 3.7% or so. While we don't need to go back to Cold War levels, we do need to do more. The unfortunate fact of history is that there will always be another war.

The only thing I'd add to this list is missile defense. We badly need to move forward with the new sites we are planning for Europe; ABM missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic,. We also need to maintain if not add to our radar and ABM missiles in Alaska. None of thse will help us much with regard to China, but are meant to counter the threat from countries like Iran and North Korea.

Hopefully President Obama will not cut vital systems such as those mentioned above. The Chinese are not sitting still, and are building new aircraft and rumored to be building or buying an aircraft carrier. In addition, Russia and other countries are still producing a variety of new fighter aircraft at breakneck speed.

How Would You Like It If...

Let's address this one and get it out of the way before we go any farther. You'll occasionally hear the far left or far right make an argument along the lines of "how would you like it if they did the same thing to us?"

This is moral equivalency, and as such must be swatted down. The argument presupposes that all nations are as chess pieces, with the differences being superficial.

The difference between the US and China, the UK and Iran, or France and Syria for that matter, is the same as that of the police officer vs the gang member. It is right and good that the police officer be armed and conduct surveillance of gangs; it is wrong and bad for gang members to be armed and harass police officers. This does not mean that the police officer can do anything, there are and must be limits on what the police can do. Likewise, it is right and good that democracies are armed vis a vis nations like China, Iran, or Syria. Continuing the analogy, it does not mean that there are no limits to what we should do.

In Conclusion

So far Obama doesn't seem to be backing down, which is good. What's going on behind the scenes, though, is anybody's guess. The Senate is moving ahead with the Law Of The Sea (LOST) treaty, which some say will help and others hurt our ability to project power around the globe. It is in our interests to control sea lanes, and while we must avoid belligerence we cannot back down in the face of challenges. China has challenged us, and we must stand firm.


Commenter jason and I disagree on a lot of social and economic issues, but he sees pretty clearly on energy policy and foreign threats to our nation, and I like guys like that. Mostly though I'm jealous because he and his wife are taking something of a world tour and I'm stuck here in northern Virginia. Check out his travelblog.

Anyway... in a comment below he links to an excellent FAS article that explains much of the Impeccable was surveilling where it was (yes I know the Federation of American Scientists are a bunch of liberals, but they still put out some good stuff). Text and pictures are from the FAS article:

Impeccable Incident Map

The incident that unfolded in the South China Sea Sunday, where the U.S. Navy says five Chinese ships harassed the U.S. submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable, appears to be part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters.

News media reports cite Pentagon reports of half a dozen other incidents just within the past week in which U.S. surveillance vessels were "subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft."

The latest incident allegedly occurred in international waters only 75 miles south of a budding naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island from where China has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. The U.S. Navy on its part is busy collecting data on the submarines and seafloor to improve its ability to detect the submarines in peacetime and more efficiently hunt them in case of war.

The U.S. Navy's description of the incident states that "a civilian crew mans the ship, which operates under the auspices of the Military Sealift Command." Yet as one of five ocean surveillance ships, the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS 23) has the important military mission of using its array of both passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track submarines. The USNS Impeccable works directly with the Navy's fleets, and in 2007 operated with the three-carrier strike battle group in Valiant Shield 07 exercise in the Western Pacific

USNS Impeccable is equipped with the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), a passive linear underwater surveillance array attached to a tow cable. SURTASS was developed as a floating submarine detection system for deep waters, and the Navy wants to add an active Low Frequency Array (LFA) to improve long-range detection of submarines in shallow waters.

Impeccable Sonar

mong Chinese submarines the USNS Impeccable was monitoring is probably the Shang-class (Type-093) nuclear-powered attack submarine, a new class China is building to replace the old Han-class, and which has recently been seen at the Yulin base.

A commercial satellite image taken September 15, 2008, shows two Shang-class submarines present at the base, the first time - to my knowledge - that two Shang-class SSNs have been seen at the base at the same time.


Posted by Tom at March 14, 2009 1:30 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Look, China has a new submarine base near Sanya, on the Island of Hainan (Yulin). I have read that the incident occured 75 miles from the island, but this doesn´t make much sense. Regardless, it´s fairly evident that this base has some of their most sophisticated nuclear class submarines (including jin class subs visible in aerial photos at the new base).

If the Chinese had a spy ship that close to a base of ours, I doubt we´d let them conduct ´research´ so close with no response.

That said, I´m sure the US navy knows the law and walks right up to the edge of what is allowed under international law when conducting ´research´ near military sites. Based on the lack of profesionalism shown by the Chinese during the April 1, 2001 Hainan Island spy plane collision, in which a J-8 pilot clumisily ran into a US spy plane, I would bet the Chinese are at fault.

But really, using something like SURTASS LFA near a sub base? Imagine if the Chinese did something like that outside of King Bay Georgia, but respected all international laws. I really doubt we´d let them do that without some time of response, either covert or overt.

Obama sent the USS Chung-Hoon to provide protection, we´ll see what happens next.

Posted by: jason at March 14, 2009 3:02 PM

Here´s a very good (FAS Link) and well informed debate on the topic.

Posted by: jason at March 14, 2009 3:05 PM

Ol' Joe Biden was correct; before this new, untested president has settled into his chair, and has taken charge as 'Commander-in Chief' of the most powerful military force in history, "he will be tested."

First by five Chinese vessels in open waters, then by the arrogant belligerance of Iran's improved long-range missiles...and potential nuclear capability. reb

Posted by: Ralph E. at March 14, 2009 3:15 PM

Thank you both for stopping by. Ralph E., you are so right about what Biden said. Obama is being tested, by China and others.

jason, thank you especially for the FAS link on why the Impeccable was conducting surveillance in that area. FAS is a great resource and I should have looked there myself.

And I think you're absolutely right that we walk it right up to the line. Also right about the lack of professionalism shown by the PLAN both in this incident and the one with the J-8. Our pilots can be court-marshaled for "hot-dogging."

Of course we should expect the Chinese to respond to our surveillance. But just as with the Hainan Island incident between our EP-3 and their J-8, they have an obligation to act professionally, just as you say.

Clearly, the Chinese have a problem in this area.

Remember the incident in January 2008 in which the Iranian speedboats harassed three US Navy ships? In a press briefing shortly afterwards Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff remarked that in years past Iranian Navy ships had behaved quite professionally, and that the incident stood out because the speedboats were probably Revolutionary Guard units, not regular navy.

My point is that we and the Iranian Navy get along quite well in the gulf, by all accounts exchanging correct signals and the like when coming nearby. This is a good thing and prevents the sort of "incident" that can lead to war.

As I'm sure you're well aware, there were any number of terrible incidents between the US and USSR, especially during the 50s and 60s, in which they shot down a number of our surveillance aircraft (check out this amazing list). Of course, in many of those incidents we were well withing Soviet airspace, so we had no one to blame but ourselves. And we're damn lucky none lead to World War III.

Bottom line I think the Obama Administration is doing the right thing by talking to the Chinese as to make our intentions clear ("we're going to spy on you, get used to it") but at the same time let's both act professionally ("because we can blow your ships out of the water"). I just hope Obama doesn't order our Navy to back off.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at March 14, 2009 8:35 PM

How much does China's hold over our economy play into whatever response this administration gives?

Just asking.

I'm not sure that we can isolate our response from the economic realities.

Posted by: Always On Watch at March 15, 2009 9:16 AM

That's a great question, AWA, and I don't think anyone really knows the answer.

We just need to remember that economics works both ways; we need the Chinese to buy our debt, but they also need us as a market for their goods. If they get tough with, we can hit them back by closing off our market. It hurts everyone, which is a sort of Mutual Assured Destruction that keeps each side from doing anything foolish.

I think it also helps reduce the likelihood of war. These economic ties and their influence on behavior is something that I should have paid more attention to in my earlier analyzes. I'm not saying that they will prevent war, for it may happen, but they do cause everyone to think twice.

Like everyone else, China wants to achieve it's objectives without war. We must keep them from achieving theirs without war also. This is why in the post I stressed so heavily that we must keep up our military strength. The Chinese will not fight us if they know we can sink their navy with minimal losses to ourselves.

Posted by: The Redhunter Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 9:40 PM

Does the Navy not have those sonic cannons that have been effective in deterring pirates?

Posted by: Mike's America Author Profile Page at March 19, 2009 11:01 AM

Hey Tom,

I wrote a post about some of the legalities involved a while back. Kind of relevant to the whole, "How would you like it if...," argument.


Posted by: The Foreigner at April 2, 2009 2:57 PM

Just noticed this link over at Michael Turton's site -- Chinese Develop Special "Kill Weapon" to Destroy U.S. Aircraft Carriers


Posted by: The Foreigner at April 2, 2009 3:24 PM

Thank you for stopping by, Foreigner.

I commented on your post on your blog.

RE the "Chinese Kill Weapon" yes, I've read about these ASBMs for awhile now. The concept makes sense, and is no doubt one reason why the USN is making sure it's Ticonderoga and Burke class ships are armed with ABMs. It's hard to know how effective all these weapons will be, and hopefully we'll never find out.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at April 2, 2009 8:22 PM

This ship really doesn't do research. Suveillance is part of a broad military activity known as "indications and warning". This is an overt activity where the ships sail in international waters with a clear mission of detecting foreign submarines. In numerous places of the world, local governments claim as territorial waters portions of the ocean that are considered "high seas". This portion of the South China Sea is one of those regions. The Chinese would like it to be considered territorial waters.
- The standard response to such claims is "freedom of navigation" missions, where the US Navy deliberately conducts operations in the claimed waters in order to re-assert the international right to acess.
- Once again, this is an overt activity. The US Navy does not pretend to be doing marine research. It is, however, deliberately conducted with a vessel with no weapons except small arms so that it is not provacative. The ships do not even carry shoulder launched missiles.

Posted by: Paco at April 30, 2009 8:08 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)