Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Naval Buildups in the South China Sea

Southeast Asian naval capabilities are surging. But how meaningful is that?

Naval Buildups in the South China Sea
Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

After decades of operating legacy Soviet platforms, Vietnam’s navy is acquiring advanced new frigates from Russia and the Netherlands, capable new Russian diesel-electric submarines, and a host of modern anti-ship cruise missiles. The Philippines has nearly doubled its fleet of surface combat vessels in the last five years and is working to acquire two advanced new frigates. Malaysia was among the first in the region to add advanced submarines to their fleet and is indigenously building six new advanced French-designed frigates. Meanwhile, Indonesia is building two new Dutch-designed frigates and acquiring two improved South Korean submarines as part of an ambitious 20-year modernization and expansion program.

It is hardly a new observation that naval capabilities in Southeast Asia are surging. Harder to assess, though, is who has the advantage in a peer competition, or sufficient ability to prohibitively raise conflict costs to a more powerful aggressor. Focusing on what the region’s navies are acquiring is not that informative. It glazes over questioning the region’s strategic first principles – namely, assumptions about a country’s goals and what they think they need to achieve those goals – and whether (or to what degree) investments in naval capabilities are relevant to the ongoing disputes that appear to motivate them.

Meaningfully assessing naval capability requires more than adding up fleet tonnage or ship numbers, and even more than tabulating a collection of ship “spec sheets.” It depends strongly on the scope of analysis and an understanding of technical, logistical, human, and operational limitations in the context of the intended missions – and, most crucially, the expected adversary’s capability. Capability should not be considered a generic measure (e.g., the ability to conduct anti-surface ship operations). Rather, it must be considered in relation to an expected opponent (e.g., the ability to conduct anti-surface operations against whose surface ships).

As the starting point for evaluating capability, private analyses often lack understanding of the requirements new systems are notionally fulfilling. Observers should be wary of assertions that a new weapon system will “increase the capacity to conduct [insert mission type]” or “present a more credible defense against [insert threat or adversary].” Such statements may be true, strictly speaking, but they may lack meaning in the context of the required mission scope and adversary capability.

To help understand the nature of requirements, we can begin by considering capacity, which at all levels of analysis is an expression of capability on its own. By itself, China’s South Sea Fleet has more major surface ships than Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore combined, and its similarly sized East Sea Fleet is stationed close enough to the region to quickly provide additional forces. If much of the regional buildup is in response to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, does adding handfuls of ships, however individually capable, make a difference?

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As part of a cost-imposing deterrence strategy – making success costly enough for an aggressor to dissuade the effort – maybe so. But then other factors become important. Not all frigates are created equally (the Philippines’ new Gregorio del Pilar frigates are built on 50-year-old ex-U.S. Coast Guard hulls and do not have any missile systems installed yet), not all crews are equally trained, and not all navies are equally operationally proficient.

Capability’s foil, then, is limitation. In the U.S. Navy the two ideas are an aggregate concept: capabilities and limitations. Both are crucial to understanding that operational reality is constrained by factors that act as frictions and bleed away from a capability’s “design” ideal. Among the most important are destructive capability (how many targets you can hit and how well they are incapacitated), sensors and command and control (how far away you can detect and work together to engage a target), operator and maintainer proficiency (how well the crew can use and keep-up their systems), operational and tactical proficiency (how optimally systems and tactics can be employed), the platform’s self-defense and survivability (how well it can protect itself against a threat and the ability to recover from damage), system reliability and robustness (how prone systems are to malfunction and how sensitive to damage), and logistical and institutional support (the training, supply, and repair support to keep systems running).

The adequacy of a fleet’s capabilities and limitations must be measured against concrete requirements that are determined by the expected adversary and the way the fleet will be used. We must consider those limiting factors and the need to evaluate capability against specific requirements – a specific enemy capability set rather than a generic mission assertion.

For example, say a given anti-ship missile can travel 100 nautical miles, but the sensors on the firing platform can only target out to 50 nautical miles, leaving the other 50 mile capability unusable. Say further that the target vessel can successfully defend against that missile, but its combat systems can only deal with some given number of missiles simultaneously and only against some number in total (due to defensive magazine capacity, which may or may not be greater). If the defensive capability of your target can be gauged, then a technical problem can be reduced to a capacity problem: You only need to fire more missiles than the target can defend against. But then other questions arise. What if the firing platform cannot carry that number of missiles? Or cannot fire that number near-simultaneously? What if the missiles are unreliable or poorly maintained, resulting in a significant failure rate that requires many more missiles to be fired for a successful salvo? Is the total missile inventory sufficient against the expected number of adversary units, and can firing platforms be rearmed under adversarial conditions? The answers to these questions are the real measure of what a Navy is capable of achieving.

Consider this example from history of the potential for mismatch between the intended (“design”) employment of a fleet and its actual employment. British battlecruisers in World War I possessed enormous capability on paper: They were large, fast, and heavily armed. But when pitched against the German battleship fleet – a role they were not originally envisioned for because their speed came at the expense of heavy armoring – these ostensibly capable ships were disastrously un-survivable against a peer adversary. A weapons system’s capability is irrelevant if the platform that carries it cannot survive an engagement long enough to use it.

Clearly, then, information useful for determining capability is also useful for identifying vulnerabilities. The sensitive nature of this technical and “readiness” information means governments will understandably classify it, and defense contractors will keep many technical details confidential, hindering independent research and analysis. Fortunately for researchers, the business opportunity the Southeast Asian defense market represents means that a substantial amount of useful information is still available from sales literature.

But fundamentally, discussing regional naval capability is implicitly asking how to solve problems with ships and explosives, and skips over asking whether ships and explosives are the right way to solve them. The overarching strategic narrative of South China Sea maritime disputes can be broken into three major strains: Stalled diplomatic initiative; “white hullconfrontations; and a regional naval arms race. The interest of peaceful resolution demands asking how relevant naval capability is to satisfactorily resolving the disputes respective to each state’s particular circumstances.

Deterrence may one day break down and the South China Sea disputes escalate into open armed conflict, in which case a nuanced capability discussion might simply be redundant. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database of global military expenditure shows that while the major Southeast Asian naval powers have increased their defense spending by over one and a half times since 2003, combined, this is still less than one-fifth of China’s spending, which has increased over five-fold in the same span. It may be true that the addition of a new ship or submarine increases a navy’s capability to conduct a particular mission and makes a given state’s defense more credible, but even a very capable ship can be overwhelmed.

Further, the comparative close-quarters of the South China Sea means that naval capability may not even be a meaningful measure on its own. The geography suggests that many potential crises could involve land-based aircraft or missile systems, a potentially disruptive new avenue of defense expansion in the region. And for all the regional naval expansion, the potential flashpoint maritime disputes in the South China Sea are, for now, being most actively prosecuted using a law enforcement “white hull” strategy, begging how relevant the expanding navy “gray hull” fleets are to solving the problem.

For comparatively smaller powers, perhaps they are. Modernizing and expanding their navies might be useful for a variety of deterrence strategies, such as the cost-imposition described earlier. But while regional naval modernization writ large is a boon to the foreign defense sector, it is not clear these are the best tools for the problem. China’s most notable gains in the South China Sea have come without relying on its navy, rather using its para-military and law enforcement vessels to press its maritime claims. Since aggregating its marine law enforcement capability under a unified Coast Guard in 2013, China’s expanding “white hull” fleet continues to be the front line against other South China Sea claimants. The advantage to using “white hulls” in this way is that lacking large armament, law enforcement vessels inherently cap the level of potential escalation an incident between warships might cause. In addition, the diplomatic danger to a claimant that counters a lightly armed “white hull” with its “gray hull” navy is appearing to be aggressive or escalatory, and a forceful encounter between them could even inadvertently provide casus belli to the owner of the “white hull.”

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In the 1960s, the comparative military capabilities of the U.S. and North Vietnam were never in question and the U.S. proceeded to drop nearly two and a half times the weight of bombs on that country than the Allies dropped in the combined European and Pacific theaters during World War II. That the U.S. nonetheless failed to achieve its political objectives is demonstrative of the fact that destructive power was not the most salient factor for determining that political outcome. Bureaucratic and institutional imperatives (on the political and government side), and funding and profit motives (on the think tank and defense contractor side) can easily incentivize acquisition-based solutions to political problems – and sometimes those might be the right ones. But as the comparative capabilities in Southeast Asia are reported and evaluated, it is more important to first ask whether explosives can solve the problem, rather than how good those explosives are.

Steven Stashwick spent 10 years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer, made several deployments to the Western Pacific, and completed graduate studies in international relations at the University of Chicago. He is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed here are his own.