About that Freedom of Navigation Exercise last week in the South China Sea.

So, on October 27, the USS Lassen conducted a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise in the South China Sea (SCS) sailing within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese built artificial island in the area.  Historically, and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), artificial islands have never been recognized as sovereign territory, and thus, have no territorial waters associated with them. * That is, all the ships and planes of the world are able to freely operate or conduct commerce in those waters, including transit or passage, or fishing, or routine military operations. There are any number of places in the world where nations have staked out a claim of territorial waters, and the US has responded by conducting FON exercises. Probably the most famous was the 1986 Gulf of Sidra “Line of Death” incident, where Muhamar Ghaddaffi declared the gulf as territorial waters for Libya. The US Navy promptly mounted large scale FON exercises in those waters, with destroyers operating just outside the recognized 12nm territorial limit, and placing Combat Air Patrols well inside the limits claimed by Libya.

Libya responded with hostile acts that quickly ended badly for Libya.


Don’t bring a Nanchuka corvette to an A-6 Intruder fight.

While tensions with China aren’t as great as those with Libya in 1986, they are also likely a greater cause for concern in the long run.

After news leaked out that the Navy had not conducted any FON exercises near the artificial islands in the SCS, eventually the White House caved pressure from Congress, leading to USS Lassen’s voyage.

But as @AmericanHipple of CIMSEC notes, Chris Cavas writing in DefenseNews.com shows us that the exercise may accidentally undermine the Freedom of Navigation exercise.

New details about the Lassen’s transit became available Oct. 30 from a US Navy source, who said the warship took steps to indicate it was making a lawful innocent passage with no warlike intent. The ship’s fire control radars were turned off and it flew no helicopters, the source said. Although a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was in the area, it did not cross inside the 12 nautical mile limit.

Here’s the problem with the statement from that source- innocent passage.

Innocent passage is a well established legal doctrine, both historically and under UNCLOS, that applies only to territorial waters of a sovereign state.

UPDATE: A clarification from Matt Hipple. He’s not arguing that it was an exercise in futility, but notes that if in fact it was conducted as Innocent Passage, it undermines the entire point of the FON exercise. It should be noted that Hipple’s views are his personal views, and not necessarily those of the United States Navy nor CIMSEC.

That’s not to say the US should commit overtly hostile acts within the areas claimed by China. But to fail to exercise genuine Freedom of Navigation, and to characterize the voyage as innocent passage is to tacitly acknowledge Chinese sovereignty.

Several actions could and should have taken place to emphasize that the US considers the waters to be international, and not territorial. Sailing on varied  courses and speeds, having the accompanying P-8A enter the 12nm zone, flying the embarked ship’s helicopter while within 12nm, and conducting fire control tracking drills against that helicopter, and small boat operations all would serve to drive home the point that the international waters of the world are available for the use of all nations.

Speaking of CIMSEC, a couple of Hipple’s coauthors have a very interesting piece on the paramilitary aspects of Chinese maritime power, and how they use it to frustrate US and other nations efforts in the region.

*Nor do they have an associated 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone, which actually might be of more interest to China.

Patrol Planes in the South China Sea

For years, there have been tensions between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, particularly in the region of the Sprately Islands. There have also been tensions between the US and China over operations in the same region, among others.  The US recognizes no Chinese sovreignity over the disputed areas, and maintains its rights to freedom of navigation in the area. And to do so, they regularly exercise those rights, often via Maritime Patrol Aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon. Recently, to show how this plays out, a US Navy P-8A brought along a CNN crew to show just what is involved.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lBCRCnOUVk]

China is unlikely to be so rash as to actually attack an American military aircraft. On the other hand, you don’t have to go too terribly far back into the Cold War to find incidents where they did just that, costing American lives.


Via Alert 5

US-Chinese Tensions in the South China Sea rise

It’s now being reported that last week saw a tense incident between the USS Cowpens*, a Ticonderoga Guided Missile Cruiser, and a Chinese landing ship, where the Chinese LST forced the Cowpens to manuever to avoid collision.

From the Free Beacon:

A Chinese naval vessel tried to force a U.S. guided missile warship to stop in international waters recently, causing a tense military standoff in the latest case of Chinese maritime harassment, according to defense officials.

The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which recently took part in disaster relief operations in the Philippines, was confronted by Chinese warships in the South China Sea near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning, according to officials familiar with the incident

“On December 5th, while lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA Navy vessel had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” a Navy official said.

On the one hand, this is quite reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War when the Soviets routinely ignored virtually every Rule of the Road in attempts to hassle and annoy US warships. Near misses were common and even the occasional swapping of paint took place.

On the other hand, this is slightly different, as China has long asserted that the entire South China Sea is territorial waters (though absolutely no other country recognizes this, and there is no historical precedent).

It’s not as if the Chinese haven’t done this sort of thing before. In 2001 there was the EP-3E incident, when a Chinese fighter intercepted a routine US surveillance flight (fair enough) but then maneuvered so aggressively it caused a mid-air collision, and the EP-3E had to make an emergency landing in China. The Chinese soon repatriated the US crew, and eventually returned the heavily damaged top-secret spyplane.**

The Free Beacon article also describes the 2009 incident when Chinese assets harassed the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship, operating in international waters, again, waters claimed by China as territorial, or at least as part of the  Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Chinese objective here isn’t to provoke a shooting incident. The attempt is to subtlety exert influence. Every time they can force the ships and aircraft of another nation to change their operations, they bolster their claim to the waters, and cause other nations to lose face.

In ordinary times, the US Navy is rather absolutist about the Freedom of Navigation in international waters. The Gulf of Sidra incident, when Ghaddafi claimed those waters were territorial to Libya, arose when the US Navy promptly conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises in those waters. When the Libyans came out to play, they found out they were sorely ill equipeed to challenge the varsity, losing ships, planes and SAM sites in the process.

But will our current administration stand firm in the face of the Chinese? Do more than pass a mild diplomatic note? There is cause for doubt. ADM Locklear, US Pacific Command commander, has sounded conciliatory in the face of Chinese claims. Mind you, when PACOM’s lips are moving (on a diplomatic matter, at least) the Obama administration is speaking.

One fears the current administration’s unwillingness to embrace US strength and resolve will prompt the Chinese to further engage in aggressive behavior, and continue to escalate tensions in the region.

To be sure, this is a fairly minor incident. But failure to curb Chinese actions in the region will embolden them, and increase the chances of a more serious incident, one our current administration is wholly unprepared to face.

**One wonders how the USS Cowpens would have fared were the infamous CAPT Holly Graf still in command.
*After, of course, they had plenty of time to examine every classified bit in minute detail.

Links and Stuff

Israeli air raid on Hezbollah weapons in Syria?

Hardly surprising. The IAF has a long history of strikes against high value targets in neighboring countries. And even some countries way the heck and gone away.


Some folks are starting to realize that the GOFO ranks might be just a touch bloated.

The Navy is the focus of the article, but they’re hardly the only sinners here.




As far as I can tell, the LA Fire Department’s S-70 Firehawks are the only civil registered Sikorsky Hawk type helicopters in the US.



Almost time for the Kentucky Derby. Guess who is a favorite among veterans?


We poked fun at the Navy’s pink helicopters yesterday, but here’s a pic of one using a Bambi Bucket to help fight the wildfires ravaging Ventura County.



We’ve seen a lot of press about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and western Pacific. But they’re also being a tad un-neighborly toward India.

If this was a Pakistani incursion, India would be shooting already.


Have some Sox:




And have a great weekend!