Early in January, talk about a possible Chinese purchase of the incomplete Russian carrier Varyag revived when the Ukrainian Vice-Premier visited China. This time it was suggested that the ship might be towed to China and completed there; previously it had been reported that the Chinese had bought a design package for the class. In recent years the Chinese Navy has stated its interest in obtaining several carriers, and it has even been reported that carrier commanders have been selected and carrier pilots put through some kind of training. As for aircraft, although the Chinese have bought Russian-built Su-27s, they have not bought the carrier-capable version.
A Chinese carrier would provide China with the potential to exert control over any islands seized in the South China Sea, and defend them against counterattacks by land-based strike aircraft. It can be argued that, without the carrier, China can certainly land troops but that the troops cannot be supported in place. Some argue that the carrier is less important now that China has obtained air-to-air refueling technology. Experience suggests, however, that distant land-based aircraft, no matter how well supported, cannot easily respond to tactically urgent requirements, such as the need to intercept incoming bombers.
All of this speculation leaves open the question of whether the Varyag really can be completed. She has lain entirely unmaintained at Nikolaev for at least two years, and some have suggested that her structure and installed equipment (such as her powerplant) have long since passed the point of no return. It seems unlikely that when work stopped any effort was made to seal her for preservation.
One other point deserves mention. The Chinese Navy officer corps has grown considerably in recent years, and the highest-ranking Chinese officer is an admiral. Most of the growth, however, apparently has been accomplished through direct transfers from army units. At least in the West, it has long been understood that army and navy officers are not interchangeable—despite the claims of some “jointness” advocates—because the conditions under which they operate are so radically different. It seems unlikely that the Chinese have managed to overcome this limitation.
Three conclusions present themselves. One would be that the mass transfers are intended mainly to emphasize Chinese interests in the South China Sea and adjacent areas, perhaps foreshadowing a building program. Another would be that army officers are being removed en masse from their units so that they cannot cause problems in the event of turbulence following the death of Deng Hsio-Ping. The last might be that the Chinese government has little comprehension of how different a mind-set a naval officer ought to have, perhaps because the Chinese Navy is as yet a coastal force. Blue-water capability may have to wait at least a few decades, while blue-water officers advance. Navies are, after all, much more than hardware.
Meanwhile, a task force consisting of the Russian carrier Kuznetsov, the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Besstrashnyy, the modified Krivak I-class frigate Pylkiy, two Boris Chilikin-class oilers, and a salvage tug has steamed to the Mediterranean to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Russian Navy. Embarked on the carrier are 12 Su-27Ks, five Su-25 UTGs, and 20 Ka-27 helicopters. (See “Russia, Inc., Open for Business,” Proceedings, February 1996, pages 66-69.) Whether or not the carrier is fully operational, her voyage is sure to be seen in Russia as a demonstration of the value of the navy, an important one at a time of very tight resources. Traditional Russian thinking would favor the ground forces needed to maintain order and to deal with the old Central Asian republics. The current sad experience in Chechnya presumably reinforces any such thinking. Bosnia and the voyage of the Kuznetsov may suggest that a different military balance is worthwhile.
Of potential South China Sea contestants other than China, Brunei has just ordered a pair of 1,600-ton corvettes from Vosper Thornycroft of Britain, ending a very lengthy decision process.
Last year, Malaysia bought a pair of Italian-built missile corvettes (originally ordered by Iraq, and in limbo for many years) to supplement its two new British-built corvettes. The two classes are entirely incompatible—they may not have been the bargain they seemed.
Feeling pressure from China, the Philippine government has announced a $15 billion five-year defense built-up. Reports suggest that the government believes that, in the end, the United States will accept responsibility for Philippine problems, and finance its defense. That was certainly true in the past, when Americans felt a tie to their former colony, and when ties were very strong. It seems less and less plausible with the U.S. ejection from Subic Bay.
Professed interest in submarines in the region remains high, although orders have not been forthcoming. Last year, Singapore bought a used Swedish submarine, which is to be used in the Baltic for trials and training. It presumably superseded a reported German offer of second-hand Type 206 submarines. The Swedish deal suggests that Singapore ultimately will buy new Swedish-designed submarines, either from Sweden or from Australia, which will soon be completing the Collins-class program—a Swedish design from Kockums—and which will therefore be interested in foreign markets. Indonesia has a professed interest in further German-built submarines.
Both Malaysia and Thailand have expressed interest in submarines. The Russian Rubin design organization reportedly went so far as to design a version of the Kilo class (Project 636E) specifically for Southeast Asian waters, but thus far no orders have been announced.
Construction of surface combatants seems more likely, at least in the near term. For some years Malaysia has expressed considerable irritation at what it claims are Thai fishing violations. Since the sea provides much of the protein consumed in both countries, such activities (characterized by one Malaysian analyst as stealing fish) become serious issues. Fishery protection patrol boat crews have sometimes killed fishermen. Malaysia also has important offshore oil and gas resources. The government currently plans to buy 27 offshore patrol vessels, which would be used largely for fishery protection. Australia has a similar requirement, and has developed a 1,300-ton design suited to both countries’ needs. As of late 1995, the Australians were hopeful that a joint program would soon begin. To the extent that resource protection is so clearly a national concern, it seems unlikely that funds will soon be available for submarines.
It is striking that the Russians have been unable to capitalize on this situation. Clearly, their antisubmarine warfare patrol corvettes would roughly fit Malaysian specifications and these ships are probably available on very favorable terms. Too, the Malaysians proved willing to buy Russian hardware, in the form of MiG-29s.
The Indonesians’ experience may have had considerable impact on the Malaysians. At first it seemed that the Indonesians had gained a marvelous bargain by buying 39 ex-East German corvettes and lesser warships. Then the ships arrived without spares and without equipment documentation; maintenance required very large-scale reverse engineering. The yards that had built the ships and the factories that had made their engines and weapons are largely defunct, and plans for major refits and conversions have come to nothing.
For their part, the Thais have invested far more heavily than the Malaysians in a combination of surface warships (including a fixed-wing short takeoff-vertical landing/helicopter carrier that was launched by Bazan on 20 January 1995 and land-based strike aircraft—most recently 18 U.S. F/A-18s, which can fire Harpoon air-to-surface missiles; the Royal Thai Navy already operates 35 ex-U.S. Navy A-7Es. The F/A-18 deal apparently includes the AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to- air missile (AMRAAM), which has been justified on the ground that equivalent Russian missiles already have been exported for Malaysian and Vietnamese MiG-29s.
In a larger sense, rising needs throughout the region should be a major opportunity for Russian defense salesmen. The Malaysian MiG-29 deal was widely seen as a test case. Many fear that if they buy Russian equipment, they will be unable to maintain it because spares and service will not be forthcoming. The Malaysians thought they had solved this problem by arranging for India to assist in maintaining the aircraft, since that country also operates MiG-29s—but India withdrew, and the Malaysians must now deal directly with the Russians.
Given its combination of wealth and rivalries. East Asia seems to be the only part of the world likely to support growing arms exports. Many of the rivals are members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was formed during the Vietnam War as a purely non-military grouping. There was some hope at the time, at least in the United States, that it would help restrain a victorious Communist Vietnam. Now, Vietnam has joined the association, and there is some nervous discussion about adopting some form of alliance directed against Chinese expansion into the South China Sea. Any such combination would have to accommodate rivalries between the members, e.g., over fishing rights and over the Spratly Islands. Members may be encouraged by the knowledge that NATO has managed to accommodate Greece and Turkey.
The world arms market is clearly shrinking, which means that rivalry among major producers is heating up. Many Europeans see the moves to combine large U.S. producers, e.g., Lockheed and Martin-Marietta, and Northrop and Grumman, as preparation for more active competition against their own smaller companies. European governments seem unwilling to allow their own producers to disappear entirely in the name of economic efficiency and European Union integration. Also, the attempt to keep the small producers alive may begin to strain the “European Idea.”
France, for example, recently won a contract to build three Agosta 90-class submarines for Pakistan. When the contract was announced in October 1994, it was reported that the Pakistani Navy wanted to buy the British Upholder class, but that it was persuaded to buy French when the United States refused to sell submarine-launched Harpoon antiship missiles for the submarines. France approved the first export sale of the submarine-launched version of Exocet (the SM39) for these boats.
Now a more intriguing version of the story has come to light. The Upholders are equipped with a French sonar—Eledone. Reportedly, the French managed to veto the British sale by refusing to sanction the sonar’s transfer to Pakistan. Naturally, the Agostas actually sold have much the same sonar. If this story is true, then the French can stop any Upholder sale if they choose to do so.
French interest in the export market is likely to intensify. The economic crisis last year puts the French government in a very delicate position: It must balance its budget without cutting social spending. Defense undoubtedly will suffer. Any restructuring will entail privatization on a large scale.