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Special Report: Asia-Pacific Spending Spree

China, Rivalries Drive Naval Buys

Apr. 21, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
Standing Guard: A Japanese Maritime Defense Force's destroyer Kongo launches a missile off Hawaii. Japan has successfully shot down a ballistic missile over the Pacific.
Standing Guard: A Japanese Maritime Defense Force's destroyer Kongo launches a missile off Hawaii. Japan has successfully shot down a ballistic missile over the Pacific. (Agence France-Presse)
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TAIPEI — The Asia-Pacific will comprise 26 percent — nearly $200 billion — of global naval and maritime security builds in the next 20 years as complex relationships and rivalries drive procurements designed for particular regional challenges.

New builds in Asia and Australia include six aircraft carriers, 128 amphibious and 21 auxiliary ships, 12 corvettes, two cruisers, 42 destroyers, 235 fast attack craft, 115 frigates, 34 mine countermeasures, 82 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), 255 patrol craft and 116 submarines, said Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International, a naval analysis firm based in Bremerton, Wash.

This list includes China with 172 hulls, South Korea at 145 and Japan at 74, he said.

The OPV market in particular is maturing, with a total regional market forecast for 2013-2030 of $4.6 billion.

Trends indicate OPVs are not displacing frigates in fleet mix, but OPVs do meet growing demand for “other-than-war” ship designs for maritime security and law enforcement, Nugent said. This makes OPVs more likely to be ships first on the scene at potential flashpoints. The relative simplicity and appeal of OPVs allow local shipyards to take a larger role in designing and building them.

Premium OPVs, at 1,500 tons and up, can successfully substitute for corvettes and frigates for most requirements, Nugent said.

Singapore’s Formidable corvette design, Malaysia’s second-generation patrol vessel/littoral combat ship and Brunei’s OPVs are evidence of a move toward smaller platforms.

However, OPVs appear to be favored among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who are “more at the lower end with corvettes, light frigates and OPVs, while in northeast Asia, it’s larger vessels, including Aegis destroyers and large amphibious vessels, the latter vessels in particular seem more in response to bilateral issues” beyond perceptions of China’s military modernization, said Sam Bateman, a senior research fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “After all, who is going to invade China?”

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Concerns over China have shaped some Japanese and South Korean submarine programs, and Aegis and large amphibious ship programs but, “initial program decisions for those platforms predated the rise in the China Navy as primary threat driver — they had/have Russia, in Japan’s case, and North Korea planning scenarios as drivers for ship design and numbers,” Nugent said.

The fact that all surface ships are vulnerable to air attack and are well within the range of land-based fighter bases is largely ignored, Bateman said.

“This is a consideration that should mitigate against putting a lot of money into surface warships,” but when “regional naval procurements are being discussed,” this issue “surprisingly” is not given much attention, he said.

While Washington analysts view Asia’s naval and maritime buying spree as the result of Chinese belligerence in the East China and South China Seas, Bateman said, some countries, including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, see a more complex scenario.

“Other factors include longer-term force modernization aspirations, regardless of China, the greater availability of resources with growing economies, energy insecurities and lingering bilateral concerns between neighboring countries,” apart from any perceived threat from China, Bateman said.

“There is also a ‘demonstration effect’ associated with the increased level of naval activity in the region ... as well as a ‘supply side’ push from the major arms producing countries,” Bateman said.

Japan: Ensuring Access

For Japan, sea-lane defense is coming to the fore in its steady naval buildup, along with deterring future Chinese threats against Japan’s Nansei Islands, which stretch from the southern island of Kyushu almost to neighboring Taiwan.

In explaining Japan’s defense needs for this year’s budget, which runs from April 1, 2013 to March 2014, the Ministry of Defense has put defending the Nansei Islands and deterring Japan’s territorial waters as top priorities.

“Japan is a maritime nation that depends on access to the sea for its survival,” said Alessio Patalano, a Japanese naval expert at King’s College London. “Japanese maritime capabilities are therefore designed to allow Japan to retain regular access to sea lanes.”

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“China’s assertiveness at sea is, at this stage, a potential concern for Japan primarily in relation to the archipelago’s territorial integrity,” he said.

Accordingly, Japan is spending ¥ 70.1 billion (US $720 million) this year to build one of a new class of 5,000-ton multipurpose destroyers, the DD class, which has improved submarine detection capability. The purpose is “to respond to higher performance and silence of submarines of other countries,” according to the MoD’s budget explanation, a veiled reference to China’s new, more stealthy Type 93 submarine.

Pressure from China is pushing Japan in two ways, Patalano said.

“One is geographical, with greater emphasis on the defense of the southwestern part of the archipelago; and the second is in approach, with greater emphasis given to conventional deterrence, particularly in the form of more regular presence and enhanced ISR,” he said.

One example is maintaining Japan’s destroyers. With its budget constrained over the decade, the MoD has pushed to extend the life of 14 ships of four different classes. according to MoD documents.

In addition, the Maritime Self-Defense Force is spending ¥ 53.1 billion yen this year building a new SS-class submarine, but also investing to extend the life of its submarine fleet and increase it numbers from 16 to 22.

“This is one of the most important assets in the Japanese fleet, for they offer a significant source for ISR in patrol missions, but also a powerful stealth asset for conventional deterrence, or if necessary, a significant punch to the fleet,” Patalano said.

Much attention has been focused on the four Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers, comprising two 13,500-ton ships that Japan has deployed, and now the two 19,500-ton (empty) and 27,000-ton (full load) helicopter destroyer (DDH) class of helicopter carriers under construction.

Speculation surrounds the strategic purpose of the ships, primarily whether they can be converted to accommodate the F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft.

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James Manicom, research fellow in Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, said the putative aircraft carriers are only what the MoD says they are — an important new ASW capability against the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

“I’m not convinced that the debate in Japan has gotten to the point that people are seriously considering projecting air power in such a fashion,” Manicom said.

ASEAN: Varied Motives for Buying

ASEAN is divided into two threat perception groups: mainland states (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and maritime states. The latter includes nations that are involved in territorial disputes — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei and those that are not — Indonesia and Singapore.

Most of these ASEAN groups are expanding their naval procurements but for different reasons, Nugent said.

The Philippines and Vietnam, for instance, have experienced harassment and ramming of their naval and maritime patrol vessels by Chinese vessels.

In 2011, in response to aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, Manila authorized a new defense strategy, said Carl Thayer, a regional maritime specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino earmarked $60 million for a new naval patrol vessel and six helicopters to secure the Malampaya oil and gas project. Then in 2012, Manila implemented a five-year, $900 million modernization program and announced the procurement of a refurbished frigate, C-130 aircraft and utility/combat helicopters.

Vietnam has been improving its naval and air power capabilities due to Chinese antics in the South China Sea, with the procurements of platforms that can carry anti-ship missiles.

Thayer said Vietnam’s defense budget for 2012 was $3.3 billion, an increase of 150 percent from 2008 to 2011, and the naval budget alone was expected to hit $400 million by 2015. In 2009, Hanoi announced it would procure six Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, scheduled for delivery in 2014.

In 2011, Thayer said, Vietnam stepped up its force modernization with the delivery of four additional Su-30MK2 fighter aircraft, which will be equipped with the Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missile. ■


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