Assessing Naval Buildups in the South China Sea

Chinese and U.S. ShipsBy Steven Stashwick

The Diplomat

After decades of operating legacy Soviet platforms, Vietnam’s navy is acquiring advanced new frigates from Russia and the Netherlands, capable new Russian diesel-electric submarines, and a host of modern anti-ship cruise missiles. The Philippines has nearly doubled its fleet of surface combat vessels in the last five years and is working to acquire two advanced new frigates. Malaysia was among the first in the region to add advanced submarines to their fleet and is indigenously building six new advanced French-designed frigates. Meanwhile, Indonesia is building two new Dutch-designed frigates and acquiring two improved South Korean submarines as part of an ambitious 20-year modernization and expansion program.

It is hardly a new observation that naval capabilities in Southeast Asia are surging. Harder to assess, though, is who has the advantage in a peer competition, or sufficient ability to prohibitively raise conflict costs to a more powerful aggressor. Focusing on what the region’s navies are acquiring is not that informative. It glazes over questioning the region’s strategic first principles – namely, assumptions about a country’s goals and what they think they need to achieve those goals – and whether (or to what degree) investments in naval capabilities are relevant to the ongoing disputes that appear to motivate them.

Meaningfully assessing naval capability requires more than adding up fleet tonnage or ship numbers, and even more than tabulating a collection of ship “spec sheets.” It depends strongly on the scope of analysis and an understanding of technical, logistical, human, and operational limitations in the context of the intended missions – and, most crucially, the expected adversary’s capability. Capability should not be considered a generic measure (e.g., the ability to conduct anti-surface ship operations). Rather, it must be considered in relation to an expected opponent (e.g., the ability to conduct anti-surface operations against whose surface ships).

As the starting point for evaluating capability, private analyses often lack understanding of the requirements new systems are notionally fulfilling. Observers should be wary of assertions that a new weapon system will “increase the capacity to conduct [insert mission type]” or “present a more credible defense against [insert threat or adversary].” Such statements may be true, strictly speaking, but they may lack meaning in the context of the required mission scope and adversary capability.

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Picture: Official U.S. Navy Page from United States of America 130909-N-ZZ999-001/U.S. Navy (U.S. and Chinese navy ships operate together.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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