PacNet #11 – Nuclear submarines for our Pacific allies: When to say yes

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”

But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced non-nuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.

A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the First Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced non-nuclear naval systems for these particular missions.

Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.

As for South Korea using nuclear submarines to launch conventional missile “second strikes”—yet another argument some South Korean naval advocates make for “going nuclear”—using these boats for this mission compares poorly against using air and mobile ground-launched missile systems. These are far more survivable, can fire many more rounds, and cost far less per flight. Finally, if Seoul is eager to secure a blue-water navy, then developing advanced surface combatants, including small aircraft carriers, is more cost effective and avoids compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarine friends and foes in the open Western Pacific.

Sensible for Seoul, this set of recommendation is also sound for Tokyo. From bases in Japan, super-quiet, advanced conventional submarines and other select non-nuclear systems can monitor and contain Chinese and North Korean naval threats within the First Island Chain far better than nuclear submarines.

What, then, about Australia? Located thousands of miles from China’s coast, Canberra requires naval platforms that can quickly travel significant distances and stay on station for extended periods. For this purpose, nuclear submarines make sense. In short, it’s different.

Why belabor these points? First, if Washington wants Seoul and Tokyo to make military investments that are leveraged to deter North Korea and China, preventing South Korea and Japan from wasting billions of dollars on nuclear submarine cooperation is essential. This, in turn, requires making a no-nonsense distinction between Australia’s naval requirements and those of Seoul and Tokyo.

Second, green lighting South Korea on nuclear submarines risks spreading the bomb. Nuclear submarines require enriched uranium fuel. Seoul, which attempted to build nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has been asking Washington to allow it to enrich uranium now for nearly a decade. So far, Washington has said no. Why? Even if Seoul promised to enrich uranium ever so slightly, it could flip any enrichment plant it ran to make weapons-grade uranium in a matter of days. Bottom line: If Seoul pursued its own nuclear naval program, it would alarm Japan (a historical antagonist that also has pondered going nuclear) and disrupt alliance relations with Washington, Seoul’s nuclear guarantor.

What’s to be done? It would help if Seoul weren’t the only one being asked to restrain its nuclear aspirations. In this regard, my center has proposed having Australia commit to a moratorium on enriching uranium tied to its 30-year AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. It also has recommended that the United States and Japan join South Korea in suspending their commercialization of fast reactors and the recycling of nuclear weapons explosive plutonium. This would help spotlight similar militarily worrisome plutonium production-related activities in China.

Finally, Washington should work with Europe to help Seoul and Tokyo tackle significant cutting-edge defense related projects of their own. For South Korea, this might be developing space surveillance systems. For Japan, it could be advanced communications, computing capabilities and cryptology to crack China’s great firewall.

Each of these steps would help. First, however, South Korea and Japan need to conclude that their acquisition of nuclear submarines would be, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

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Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B Zingaro

PacNet #7 — China’s growing confidence in drone warfare

After a decade of extensive research and development, China has begun demonstrating growing confidence in drones’ manufacture—and their use in warfare.

Although many militaries around the world use drones in military operations, none integrate them in such a comprehensive a manner as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan limited drone use to specific targets and individuals, the PLA, particularly its air force and navy, considers drones to be as important as any other offensive combat system. It does not see drones as mere auxiliaries, but a crucial combat component to compensate for some of its weakness.

For example, even though China has begun deploying modern combat carriers such as the J-20 stealth fighter and nuclear-armed submarines, it does so in relatively small amounts, and many believe its capabilities remain inferior to the United States’. To compensate, the PLA has adopted an asymmetric strategy. Thousands of missiles are deployed near the coast of Taiwan that can strike US aircraft carrier battle groups and reach US military bases as far as Guam. Drones complement the strategy of missile strikes in combination with modern fighter jets, submarines, and surface ships operating closer to China’s coast, which would be deadly for American forces.

Chinese sources report that a twin-seat version of the J-20 is under development. The extra pilot will allow the aircraft to perform more tasks, including operating several air drones which could be used for recognizing and partaking in attack missions, providing a protective barrier to the J-20 and improving its odds against superior American fighters. The Chinese air force’s most ambitious project is the “flying aircraft carrier,” a mother ship air drone that would carry several drones to be used in swarm attacks against enemy aircraft and air defense systems. Airshow China 2021 displayed the GJ-11 stealth air drone, designed for reconnaissance and attack missions in heavily defended air space. The GJ-11 is the most advanced drone of its kind; more advanced than anything the United States currently has in its inventory.

The Chinese air force is not merely relying on state-of-the-art drones. It is also converting obsolete fighter jets such as the J-7 into drones. Some analysts have speculated that these conversions have been used for incursions into Taiwan’s Air Identification Zone. Though no match for Taiwan’s modern fighters, when used in large numbers and mixed with modern fighters, they can confuse an opponent’s air defenses.

The PLA Navy (PLAN), just like the US Navy, believes that the odds of war between China and the United States will increase in the coming years and that naval warfare will be crucial. To counter US aircraft carriers, nuclear-armed submarines, and modern fighters, the PLAN is also investing heavily in drones. In July, one source reported that China was testing a “cross medium UAV,” a drone that can operate both underwater and in the air. The United States operates such drones, but those developed by China are far more sophisticated.

China’s Yunzhou Tech is developing a drone ship carrying six smaller water drones to attack the surface of enemy ships. The six-armed drones are to work in a coordinated manner to surround and proceed with its offensive operations. The growing sophistication of Chinese technology suggests that these ship drones will become more powerful and carry greater numbers of smaller attack drones. Chinese scientists have also developed a shark-shaped drone to attack submarines. In December 2020, for instance, an Indonesian fisherman found a Chinese underwater drone off the coast of South Sulawesi, close to northern Australia.

In September, several media reports claimed that China successfully landed a hypersonic drone. If such reports are accurate, China will be the first nation to achieve such prowess, placing it ahead of the United States in both drone and hypersonic technology.

If a conflict were to break out with the US Navy over Taiwan, the PLAN has no intention of fighting the United States in an open conventional naval battle, like the Battle of Midway. US forces will have to come closer to China’s coast, where the PLAN and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) enjoy the advantages of proximity to their logistic base and the protection of its missile umbrella. That means reaching Taiwan will be a difficult and bloody operation for the United States.

The US military has the upper hand in many areas, such as aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, nuclear-armed submarines, and satellites. However—and such a possibility is by no means certain—if China were to acquire the lead in hypersonic missiles, hypersonic and stealth attack drones, cruise and ballistic missiles, and cyber warfare, it is no longer clear that the balance of power favors the United States.

What’s clear is that the PLA believes that drones are the future of modern warfare, which is why it has embraced it. The United States would be well-advised to invest more in drone technology and the means to counter it.

Loro Horta (embajadorlorohorta@gmail.com) is an academic and diplomat from Timor Leste. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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PacNet #12 – To succeed in space, the US must become the partner of choice

Space remains a key defense vulnerability for the US, and one that weakens US superiority in all other domains. To mitigate this vulnerability, it is essential that the US fosters a more competitive mindset in space. This will require substantial investment into the newly formed Space Force and much larger investment into NASA. It will also require a shift in the mindset of senior government officials to see space as a domain of national security, as well as an opportunity for economic growth across the short, medium, and long term. The result needs to be a more fluid and robust partnership between the government and private industry, helping to generate innovative solutions for problems the US will encounter in space, today and tomorrow. The result should be a direct linking of competitiveness in space to competitiveness globally, transcending the competition we’re seeing unfold in areas such as the Indo-Pacific.

The US military undertakes four key missions if and when needed in times of conflict, in and through space: superiority, denial, preservation, and assurance. These missions do not have static conditions defining success; rather, success must be considered its own dynamic path constantly requiring adjustment. US decisions today will enable, but also constrain, future strategic and operational maneuverability in the space environment.

Superiority remains the most difficult mission to define and attain. The US has a long history with the defeat and deter construct in other domains and theaters, and this construct can be applied to space. Yet a key question is whether the defeat and deter framework for success aligns with the structural conditions of the space environment. The use of space to achieve terrestrial political objectives does not yield clear cut conditions for success during times of peace; rather it yields operationally specific conditions dependent on often quite contrasting terrestrial objectives. Superiority in space will likely remain tied to a series of these dynamic conditions, each linked to the terrestrial objectives of highest priority. The Indo-Pacific, and Russian and Chinese competition in space in relation to Indo-Pacific strategic touchpoints, is an essential element of assessing and rating the success of the US space superiority mission.

With this in mind, ability to deny the space environment to others in times of conflict will remain the yardstick by which space power will be ranked for many years to come. Space denial is ultimately a multi-domain objective but can perhaps be defined as the ability to deny or compromise space-based information to an adversary when they most need it. As a strategic objective, denial must be coupled with preservation, and that involves more than the stewardship and custodianship of the civilian and military space environment. To outmaneuver adversaries in space, the US must regularly demonstrate the capability to field new satellite constellations on demand, in both the civil and military realms. To out-innovate, the US must constantly iterate the hardware and software of these constellations. Today’s description of space environment risks as “highly reliant on highly vulnerable assets” only rings true for space powers without redundant satellite constellations ready to proliferate all orbits on demand. It is hard to imagine how the US could engage in this “on demand space proliferation” without also engaging in large-scale public-private partnerships.

The mission of assurance, however, provides a very different challenge. Within the next five to 10 years, leading space powers, like China, Russia, Japan, and the EU, will be able to provide competing geospatial data to their partners and customers – potentially creating spheres of interest linked to the underpinning space infrastructure of any given geography. If every space power can distribute a daily download of their own curated version of Earth, then it remains to be seen what will happen to the digital truth of geospatial information. Which country’s geospatial data will the world come to trust and rely on for their most essential services? Or will different truths hold for different geographies. This will be particularly important as geospatial refresh rates continue to decrease between competing commercial geospatial providers.

For the US to out-partner its adversaries in space, it needs to provide high levels of geospatial assurance at both the civil and military level. To out-partner Russia and China, it needs to provide this assurance across all countries within the Indo-Pacific. The US must also assure its partners and allies of its own space situational awareness. If the US were to lose global confidence in its civil and military satellite data, it would seriously undermine its ability to prosecute superiority, denial, and preservation missions in space. Perhaps more importantly, it would seriously undermine the ability of the US to publicly declare the bad actions of adversaries in space. The recent innovations of fake news and deep fake capabilities are only indications of what a Balkanised internet with imperfect information flows can do. The US needs to prepare for the “truth” of the space environment to be just as contested a location.

Tomorrow’s space operations will no doubt share similar characteristics to recent terrestrial information and influence campaigns. A key question in the coming years will be, is Space Force ready for these kinds of operations, and are they prepared to train and equip those who will need to carry them out? The answer to these questions will communicate to all regional actors whether or not the US is ready to defend the Indo-Pacific from non-traditional operations that seek to undermine confidence in a space-reliant order. That order currently relies on US-owned space assets but there is no guarantee that reliance will continue.

Thom Dixon (thom.a.dixon@gmail.com) is Vice President for the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW and a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University.

David Kirichenko (davishjr@gmail.com) is a researcher focused on understanding the strategic nexus between China, Russia, and the United States in global diplomacy and conflict resolution. He is a former Mosaic Taiwan fellow and an alumnus of the Yenching Global Symposium imitative.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #16: Fostering Trust and Dialogue to Manage US-China Strategic Competition

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Early this month, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. In the said document, the DOD stressed the primacy of the Indo-Pacific Region in terms of priority level and citing inter-state strategic competition with China’s as the chief concern for US national security. This view about China is shared by the analysts and strategists, at least on the US side, who attended the recently-concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held at Lahaina, Maui on 17-18 June 2019.

For outside observers, this perspective is understandable. On the military front, China has undergone massive military modernization, upgraded its nuclear capability, fortified its assets in the artificial islands in the South China Sea it occupied to the point where some experts believe that these man-made facilities can now be capable of serving as offensive and defensive bases for China in the Pacific, heightening security risk for the US and its allies who view China’s military rise as threatening. The Chinese government has also used its economic clout to gain political advantage, providing loans to least developed and developing countries to build their infrastructure, primarily through “the Belt and the Road” Initiative, and using predatory economic practices to coerce these nations to support China’s interests, to the detriment of the US and other nations.   

The explicit articulation of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in official documents is a major concern expressed by the representatives from the Chinese side during the Dialogue. The change of perception about China being a “strategic competitor” instead of a partner for cooperation has led to the worsening of the relationship between the two countries. China has always forwarded, and it is a view that is consistently articulated by Chinese practitioners in Tracks I, II, and III, its policy of peaceful development where it does not seek absolute security for itself, but common sustainable comprehensive security for all.

The problem with this claim, however, goes back to a point that is repeatedly brought about during the Dialogue, that of the inability of China to provide reasonable assurance in face of facts to the contrary. The Chinese side always insist on the purity of its intention and the US side remaining unconvinced, just as what we have seen during the Dialogue. Chinese representatives kept on harboring that it does not intend to use its nuclear force against the US, for example. It begs the question then if it is not meant for the US, then whose actor/s are they targeted on. Because of the US commitment with its allies in the Region, China’s nuclear program is of particular interest. 

China, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned with the US’s use and deployment of more low-yield nuclear weapons, a strategy noted in the 2018 US Nuclear Policy Review. They fear that because low-yield missiles create lower collateral damage and are equipped with better navigation system and mobility, the risk of such weapon being activated is higher compared with high-yield bombs. Deployment of these missiles therefore exacerbate the security situation in the Region.    

This element of distrust is exacerbated by asymmetric information, wherein both sides are second guessing each other in the absence of formal dialogues at the high-level to discuss pertinent issues, especially in relation to military and nuclear capabilities and strategy. In the absence of complete information, the tendency for both sides is to prepare for the worst case scenario, which might lead each party to assume that the other is carrying more arsenal than it has in reality. Arms build-up is the natural recourse, which further breeds insecurity not only between the two countries, but also within the region and outside of it. 

The importance of maintaining communications and transparency, especially at the high-level, is very important to help resolve information asymmetry and arms build-up. Both sides, however, are currently at an official deadlock, with only Track 1.5-2 levels like Pacific Forum providing platforms for dialogues. While these kinds of talks create an avenue to exchange views and sides, it cannot displace Track I in terms of informing and directing policies and interventions at the State-level. 

The reasons behind the non-existence of official talks, especially now at a time when such dialogues are necessary and when situation is not at its worst, have to be addressed. The representatives from the Chinese side during the recently-concluded US-China Strategic Dialogue offered some areas that the US can work on. First is in the matter of agenda. The Chinese representatives noted the tendency of the Americans to include other sensitive topics, sometimes at the last minute, that derail talks from happening in the first place. There is also the issue of venue and visa issues, which prevents or limits the participation of some experts due to travel bans or sanctions imposed on some vital organizations to the talk. Another sticking issue is the prevailing perception on the Chinese side that the US is not sincere in its offer for talks. An example that was cited during the Dialogue is when the US invited China to be part of the New START, knowing full hand that statistics wise, it cannot be an effective party to such agreements.  

When in talks with the Chinese, one almost cannot escape hearing references to great Chinese thinkers. To understand the Chinese psyche is something that every negotiator should also consider. China has always aspired to realize the “Chinese Dream” – a grand process of national resurgence that will return China to the position of global centrality it enjoyed before it suffered from a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. It views Asia as its Region and will always try to assert itself as the main regional power in Asia. 

It will be very difficult for the US to force its ideology on China given “historical hurts” and current regional ambitions. The best recourse is therefore to endeavor to open up official dialogues and mitigate the problem of asymmetric information. This will help prevent militarization of the Region and minimize the likelihood of “accidents” that can de-escalate the current situation into a full-blown crisis and confrontation. It is in the interest not only of the two countries for such talks to exist, but also the rest of the players, big and small, whose very existence might be placed in jeopardy because of competition between the US and China, who both ironically, claim to be the main arbiter of peace and security in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Andrea Caymo (PH) is the Vice Consul and Economic Officer of the Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.