21.01.2016 Author: F. William Engdahl

China, Russia challenge the ‘Navy Second to None’

34233333The United States’ leading military planners following the Spanish-American War of 1898 studied carefully the imperial model of their English-speaking cousins in Britain. After 1873 as the British economy sank deeper into what they called The Great Depression, men like Junius Pierpont Morgan, the most powerful banker in America, Andrew Carnegie, her largest steelmaker, John D. Rockefeller, her oil monopolist—America’s first oligarchs—realized that for the United States to rival Britain as the world power numero uno, she would have to have a “navy second to none.” That US naval dominance may soon fade into the pages of past history. Look closely at what China and Russia are doing on the strategic seas.

In August 2015, an event occurred whose longer-term strategic significance is beginning to cause consternation in Washington and NATO headquarters. Russia and China, the two great Eurasian nations, engaged in joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan off coast from Russia’s far-east port city, Vladivostock. Commenting on its significance, Vice Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov, Deputy Commander of the Russian Navy, said at the time that the “scope of the exercise is unprecedented,” with 22 Russian and Chinese combat ships, 20 aircraft, 40 armored vehicles and 500 troops taking part. The exercises simulated anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare. It was phase two of joint Sino-Russian naval exercises, Joint Sea 2015, which began in May when 10 Russian and Chinese ships conducted their first combined drills in the Mediterranean Sea.

The strategic significance of joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in both the Mediterranean and in the waters off China’s and Russia’s far east shores is but the tip of what is clearly a far larger joint military strategy that potentially challenges US control of the seas.

Naval supremacy has been the vital prop of American power projection. In the Mediterranean, Russia has a naval base in Syria’s Tarsus, known technically as a “Material-Technical Support Point.” For Russia, the Syrian base is strategic, its only base in the Mediterranean. If Russia’s Black Sea fleet based in Crimea is required for support operations such as the present military intervention in Syria, Tarsus is invaluable, as well, for operations other far from Russian shores.

China’s first foreign navy base

Another seemingly minor event took place near the end of 2015 that caused little comment in the mainstream media. China announced that it was in negotiations with the government of one of the world’s most strategically placed and smallest nations, the Republic of Djibouti, for a Chinese naval base there. Djibouti has the geographical fortune, or misfortune, of being located in the Horn of Africa, directly across the narrowest waterway from Yemen where a bitter war is ongoing between a coalition led by Wahhabite Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Houthi, at the strategic chokepoint where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia in the west and south, and Somalia in the southeast.

China’s first-ever foreign naval base is being negotiated in Djibouti, one of the most important water routes for world oil and trade flows to China.

Technically, the Chinese base would be a modest naval logistics center for Chinese patrol boats engaged in UN operations to control Somali pirates. The Beijing Foreign Ministry stated that the new base was merely a maritime military infrastructure in Africa to assist the Chinese Navy in fulfilling its international peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the UN.

Significantly, the Chinese have chosen the desolate, tiny country of Djibouti, home to a mere 850,000 population, where the United States Navy also happens to have its only base in all Africa, Camp Lemonnier. Camp Lemonnier is a United States Naval Expeditionary Base, the only permanent base of US AFRICOM, and the center of a network of six US drone and surveillance bases across Africa. Djibouti port is also home to Italian, French, Japanese and Pakistani military facilities. Nice neighbors.

Despite the fact that it is only a modest, tiny facility compared to Camp Lemonnier, its geopolitical significance for China and for future US naval hegemony is far larger. Vasili Kashin, a Chinese military expert with the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies & Technologies, told a Russian newspaper, “the political significance of the event trumps its military importance. After all, this will be the first real Chinese military base abroad, even if it is truncated in form.” Kashin further stressed that the plans for the Djibouti base are, “a strong indication that China is becoming a full-fledged naval great power, on par with France and Britain, if not to speak of Russia or the United States. It is an indication that Beijing seeks to secure its interests abroad, including via the use of its armed forces. And its interests are very considerable.”

US political analyst, James Poulos writing in The Week, a Washington publication, warned that Washington’s presence in the resources-rich African continent was fading while China’s is growing strongly. He notes, “…Ethiopia just booted the US out of a drone base Washington had hoped to expand…In other words, as China sets up shop in Djibouti, the US finds itself restricted to that country for its eastern African operations – a precarious toehold in a competitive environment. This year, Africa could become a new albatross for the US – and a new lifeline for China.”

A Navy no longer ‘Second to None’

Since the preparation for its entry into the First World War in 1916, with Congress’ passage of the 1916 Naval Expansion Act, Washington strategy has been to build a Navy force “second to none.” Today, at least in sheer numbers, the USA is still “second to none.” But that’s only on paper. Her Navy has 288 battle force ships, with a third underway at any given time. It has ten aircraft carriers than the rest of the world together. It has nine amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers, 17 frigates and 72 submarines, including 54 nuclear attack submarines . The US Navy also has the second largest air force in the world with 3,700 aircraft, and is also the largest navy in terms of manpower.

Look now at the combined potentials of both the Chinese and the Russian naval fleets and the picture assumes a quite different dimension, something Pentagon planners are only waking up to, as the foolish neo-conservatives’ war and provocation policies against China in the Asia Pivot of Obama and against Russia via Ukraine, have brought about the geopolitical reality that Sino-Russian military cooperation today is closer than ever in their history.

Over the past 25 years of economic modernization, the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy, PLAN has dramatically transformed into a true blue water navy, a remarkable feat. PLAN currently has one aircraft carrier and two more in construction, three amphibious transports, 25 destroyers, 42 frigates, eight nuclear attack submarines and approximately 50 conventional attack submarines, with 133,000 personnel, including the Chinese Marine Corps. The PLAN Air Force has 650 aircraft, including J-15 carrier-based fighters, J-10 multirole fighters, Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, and Z-9 antisubmarine warfare aircraft.

If we then combine with the Russian Navy, currently being dramatically modernized after the neglect following the end of the Cold War, the picture is challenging for Washington to put it charitably.

The Russian Navy has 79 ships of frigate size and larger, including one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 52 submarines. Russia’s naval strength is its submarine force with 15 nuclear attack submarines, 16 conventionally powered attack submarines, six cruise missile submarines, and nine ballistic missile subs. The nine ballistic missile submarines represent Russia’s valuable second-strike nuclear capability. Russia plans to acquire at least one more aircraft carrier, a new class of guided missile destroyers, the Borey II ballistic missile submarines, Yasen II nuclear attack submarines, and the Improved Kilo and Lada conventional attack submarines.

Russia is undergoing a “deep modernization” of its submarine fleet. In 2013 the fleet obtained a new Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), and plans five more over the next decade. The fleet got one Dyugon-class landing craft in 2014. The modernization campaign is part of Russia’s major naval re-armament program over the next 20 years, clearly driven by the relentless US pursuit of its destabilizing Ballistic Missile Defense strategy aimed at Russia’s nuclear strike force.

Another Borei-class SSBN or nuclear ballistic missile-firing submarines, the Vladimir Monomakh, went active in 2015. Its sister ship, the Borei-class SSBN Alexander Nevsky, recently conducted a successful single test-launch of the Bulava inter-continental ballistic missile in the Kamchatka Peninsula. The new submarines will have implications for strategic nuclear operations in the Pacific: they will be quieter and capable of carrying twice as many nuclear warheads than the current class of Delta III submarines with far more accuracy. The Borei-class SSBNs at Rybachiy will sail on deterrent patrols into the Pacific officially to protect Russia. The first of six Yasen-class multi-purpose attack nuclear submarines (SSGN) projected to enter service in the Far East over the next ten years will join the Pacific Fleet in 2017 at the earliest.

Taken together, the significant Russian naval experience during the Cold War combined with the ambitious Chinese expansion and creation of a modern blue water navy challenge US domination of the world seas as never before. This might be a good time for US institutions and military planners to consider de-escalating plans for world war before it is too late. Is that naïve? Why should it be.

 F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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