World Naval Developments

By Norman Friedman

The review aligned Britain with the United States in the ongoing revolution in military affairs, reflected in the U.S. Joint Chiefs' Vision 2010. That is a natural development. It reaffirms the close British military link with the United States. It also reaffirms the historic British choice of quality over quantity in military forces. The "revolution" is intended to provide small agile forces with effective precision-strike weapons.

From a U.S. naval point of view, the revolution goes hand in hand with the new emphasis on fire support. Naval forces carry only limited numbers of weapons. To the extent that very small numbers can be decisive, that is not a great handicap. The mobility of naval forces more than makes up for the numbers, to an extent much greater now than in the past. Moreover, the naval forces provide the one thing the advocates of the revolution do not mention: pre-combat presence, which may deter a potential opponent. These arguments are much more important to a smaller organization like the Royal Navy's. From a procurement point of view, the White Paper seems to support the recent British decision to buy the Tomahawk cruise missile and its emphasis on the revolution suggests that the Royal Navy will want other precision weapons, such as the Standoff Land Attack Missile with Expanded Response.

The one inconsistency is in the White Paper's support of the present Anglo-French-Italian frigate project, Project Horizon. Like Eurofighter, Horizon is a Cold War concept, with substantial antiair (including antimissile) firepower but only limited precision strike capability, given its limited number of vertical launchers (much the same can be said of the new Dutch and German frigates). Since the Royal Navy has only a limited number of surface combatants, it would seem arguable that they need the largest possible magazine capacity, as in the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class or the published sketches of the new land-attack destroyer.

Probably Britain, as a loyal member of the European Union, cannot lightly abandon a transnational project (whose somewhat obsolete concept reflects the interminable delays and compromises any such project entails). The Royal Navy may be counting on collapsing French finances to take France out of Project Horizon and thus to allow it to buy something more in keeping with the forward-looking defense policy to which its government has just subscribed.

China's Technology Goes Abroad

In mid-July Iran test-fired a ballistic missile with a claimed range of 800 miles. Although the test was not successful (the missile exploded in flight), it was a dramatic reminder that ballistic missile technology is spreading rapidly. The Iranian test, moreover, came soon after a special U.S. committee, reviewing the ballistic missile situation, concluded that the United States might well be facing the threat of attack by Third World ballistic missiles with little or no warning time. Thus it may soon be a matter of considerable urgency for the United States to set up some sort of national missile defense. This view directly opposes that of the current administration, which would prefer to avoid any such development. Those who support a national defense have suggested that the administration's opposition is based not on judgment but rather on a determination to preserve the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which arms controllers had considered a Cold War triumph.

The situation now is that Iran and Pakistan have tested 800mile missiles derived from the North Korean Nodong (a U.S. nickname reflecting the missile's original test site) with varying degrees of success. These missiles quite possibly incorporate Chinese technology; in the past, the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on China as punishment for transferring both technology and missiles to Pakistan and Iran. Cynics may imagine that the civilian administration, determined to maintain close ties to China, prefers to credit the spread of missile technology to North Korea, an acknowledged rogue state. For its part, North Korea has said that it will continue to export missiles because it has little else to sell. (Americans have argued that any money earned by missile sales goes back into North Korean arms and thus does not help North Korean civilians.)

The Iranian missile was fairly well known in the missile-proliferation community, and a test had been predicted for late 1998 or early 1999; it is, then, about six months ahead of expectations. Most observers, however, did not know about it, and for them it was a shock. It can range into Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Of course, without an effective warhead it cannot do much damage, and there must be some question as to just how much it will affect regional politics. During the Gulf War, the Iraqis quite happily fired Scuds at Saudi Arabia and the Saudis did not fire back. It might be argued, of course, that the Saudis know quite well that they depend on Western support, which would evaporate if they should fire their missiles. The Iranians are a very different proposition.

The Chinese connection is an interesting question. If indeed the Chinese were involved, they have concluded that the U.S. government lacks the stomach to confront them. Perhaps trade is too important to the administration. With all the publicity about Chinese campaign contributions, it is easy to forget that several large U.S. companies, which can quite legally contribute to U.S. campaigns, have very strong interests in Chinese trade.

There is another aspect to the Chinese issue. The Chinese Army is deeply involved in trade. Because the government depends on the military as the ultimate bulwark of its rule (as it demonstrated in Tienanmen Square in 1989), it cannot easily control that trade. Almost as dramatic as the 1989 massacre was the General Staff's refusal to stop selling satellite dishes (on which it was making a considerable profit) at the behest of the government. To the government, the dish sales were extremely dangerous, because they let in uncensored television programs. They were certainly much more significant than control over who buys Chinese military technology.

In a one-superpower world, China's main foreign policy problem is to limit the power that any single nation can wield against it. Missile proliferation has two virtues in this regard. First, the United States will have to devote more of its defense budget to missile defense, rather than to power projection. Second, potential targets of that projected power (which is exercised mainly by the U.S. Navy) may be gaining the means to deter the United States. Conversely, effective U.S. national missile defense may well be a prerequisite for continued free use of U.S. national power abroad.

A defense might well involve many Aegis missile combatants carrying various forms of the Standard Missile. Should that be the case, one would have to wonder whether the mere threat of missile attack will tie down a major part of the U.S. ability to project power in the form of an armed presence overseas. Or will there be extra money for missile-defense ships? Given the projected U.S. budget surplus, there is the money to build defenses up, but probably not, just yet, the political will.

Another important aspect of Chinese government policy is nationalism: the Chinese Communist Party and the government it runs recognize their mission to restore the territories tom away by a variety of foreigners over the past three centuries, hence the vital importance of restoring Hong Kong last year. Since the greatest slice of territory was taken by the Russians, one might suppose that eventually China will find itself colliding with Russia in Siberia.

The Asian financial disaster is now a factor. Throughout South Asia, the Chinese make up a commercial class at once vital and hated. In 1965, for example, the fall of Sukarno and his communist allies was accompanied by a massacre of Chinese; as many as half a million people may have been killed. In Malaysia, the large Chinese population is forced to accept restrictions in favor of the ethnic Malay majority. As the financial disaster worsens, mistreatment of the Chinese inevitably will grow; recently, there have been widespread reports of the systematic rape of Chinese women in Indonesia.

The Chinese government sees itself as the shield not only of those living in China but also of the ethnic Chinese abroad. It must have seemed particularly galling that the warships that turned up in Indonesia a few months ago came from Taiwan.

Then, there are the Spratlys, which lie atop a supposed sea of oil. If the Chinese Navy projects power into the Spratlys, the United States will be forced to decide whether to respond. We may or may not consider it our business. However, if the intervention is to deal with an anti-Chinese pogrom in Indonesia or Malaysia, we will almost inevitably sympathize with the Chinese. At the least, it seems likely that those within the Chinese government pressing for naval expansion will see current outrages as a powerful argument for a more powerful fleet. Of course, whether China has the industrial power to produce that fleet may be quite another question. The Chinese Navy is still overwhelmingly a coastal force; even its destroyers generally lack endurance. Very few of its ships have modern combat direction systems or, for that matter, any sort of self-defense against air attack. If the situation continues to worsen, however, the government in Beijing may feel compelled to act, if only to prove its legitimacy.


Norman Friedman is a prominent naval analyst and the author of more than thirty books covering a range of naval subjects, from warship histories to contemporary defense issues. He is a longtime columnist for Proceedings magazine and lives in New York City.

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