Head Games in Maritime Asia

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Head Games in Maritime Asia

Winning the battle of perceptions could be crucial for those countries eyeing mastery of the seas in Asia.

Forgive me for waxing Hegelian, but much of the competition for naval mastery in Asia is taking place in the realm of consciousness—in the minds, that is, of decision makers and their constituents in seafaring nations like the United States, China and Japan.

No one wants a sea war. Sun Tzu proclaims that the ‘acme of skill’ is to win without fighting, while conceding that few reach this exalted degree of excellence in statecraft. St. Augustine weighs in from the Western standpoint, observing that ‘even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace which suits them better.’ If preparedness to fight is the key to prevailing in war, shaping perceptions through perceived capability and skill represents the critical determinant of peacetime encounters.

As scholar Edward Luttwak has pointed out, the outcome of a peacetime crisis involving naval forces depends on how important stakeholders think a hypothetical trial of arms would turn out. Hence the attention military analysts pay to the technical specifications and combat performance of ships, aircraft and armaments. Convincing a prospective antagonist that one possesses the wherewithal to prevail in combat is central to prevailing in a peacetime confrontation. Manipulating perceptions of one’s arsenal helps forge a powerful implement of strategy, influencing decision-making by all parties to a foreign policy contest. Whoever most people think will win in battle, does.

That casts the recent news about naval weaponry in a new light. US Pacific Command chief Adm. Robert Willard, for instance, told the Asahi Shimbun’s Yoichi Kato that China’s Second Artillery Corps had reached ‘initial operating capability’ with the world’s first antiship ballistic missile. If so, Beijing has multiplied the range and destructive potential of shore-fired weaponry many times over.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has also evidently started up the engineering plant on board the refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, judging from pictures showing smoke wafting up from the flattop’s smokestack. If so, the ship may be ready for sea this year, beating Western expectations. The much-ballyhooed rollout of the J-20 stealth fighter, a new diesel submarine, photos of a purported new class of PLA Navy guided-missile destroyers…the list of emerging Chinese weaponry goes on and on.

On the American side, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) awarded defence contractor Lockheed Martin contracts totalling $218 million to develop air- and ship-launched versions of a long-range antiship missile, or LRASM, for US warships and warplanes. If successful—and if completed on DARPA’s very ambitious two-year timetable—the LRASM will put teeth into the ‘AirSea Battle’ doctrine under development by the US Navy and Air Force. AirSea Battle is designed to preserve or restore US military command of the global commons in the face of ‘access denial’ measures by regional powers like China. Last autumn, the US Navy set a record by testing the world’s first electromagnetic ‘railgun,’ a device able to hurl a projectile over 100 miles at hypersonic velocities, without using explosive propellants. For the first time, directed-energy weapons such as high-energy lasers are apparently becoming feasible for combat use. Technical innovation is by no means exclusive to China.

Not to be outdone, the Japanese government has unveiled plans to replace its longstanding ‘Basic Defense Force,’ composed of largely static weapons intended to deter invasion, with a nimble ‘Dynamic Deterrent Force’ able to surge to trouble spots in Japan’s southern islands, territorial seas, or exclusive economic zones. One high-profile element of Tokyo’s modest defence build-up is an increase of the submarine fleet from 16 to 22 diesel-electric boats. Interestingly, Japan seemingly has a leg up over the United States and China in the war for perceptions. While the Chinese and American hardware catalogued here remains largely under development or unproven, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) compiled an enviable track record for antisubmarine warfare during the Cold War. JMSDF aircraft and diesel submarines confined Soviet submarines within the first island chain, filling an important gap in US maritime strategy in Asia. If potentially potent systems help determine the outcomes of peacetime encounters, known capabilities are even better.

Advantage: Tokyo.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.