About a week ago, wire services and networks ran an interesting story that appeared and disappeared in the flash of an eye. It’s a shame because it was a major story, it is plausible, and because we no longer owe the US military the benefit of a doubt when receiving its version of events. Via Reuters, China says it ‘drove away’ U.S. warship on anniversary of tribunal ruling.
China’s military said it “drove away” a U.S. warship that illegally entered Chinese waters near the Paracel Islands on Monday, the anniversary of an international court ruling that held Beijing had no claim over the South China Sea.
The Chinese comments resembled the usual reaction from Beijing following freedom of navigation operations by U.S. warships held almost every month in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Navy destroyer Benfold entered the waters without China’s approval, seriously violating its sovereignty and undermining the stability of the South China Sea, the southern theatre command of the People’s Liberation Army said.
“We urge the United States to immediately stop such provocative actions,” it said in a statement.
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no historic title over the South China Sea, a ruling that Beijing said it would ignore.
Think about it for a second. China is claiming that it drove, by unspecified means, a US surface combatant, in this case, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold, out of international waters.
This is how the Navy described events several days later.
USS Benfold was going to conduct a “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, in the South China Sea, specifically near the Paracel Islands.
The US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) has conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.
The ship is forward-deployed to the US 7th Fleet area of operations that conducts missions in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The USS Benfold (DDG 65) sailed through the South China Sea while performing its routine operations.
The FONOP operation was carried out in accordance with international law and demonstrated navigational freedom in maritime territories that are unlawfully claimed by some nations.
As per the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, ships of all countries have the ‘right of innocent passage’ through a territorial sea.
The US 7th Fleet said in a statement: “This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for the South China Sea littoral nations.”
The Paracel Islands are a flashpoint for any potential war between the US and China as China is claiming critical international routes of commerce as territorial waters. China is building reefs, recklessly exploiting the natural resources, bullying ships of other nations, and doing everything possible to establish “facts on the ground” that support its ownership of the area. Freedom of navigation is one of the historical missions of the US Navy, and we’ve done that since the era of the Barbary pirates. My personal view is that we are very near to war with China, a view which I explore in How Close Are We to War With China?
There is good background information on the issue and situation here:
In ordinary times, this is the kind of story that one would guffaw at. But since 2016, that has not been the case. In January 2016, two US Navy riverine patrol craft were boarded by Iranian forces in the Arabian Sea. Ten sailors, nine described as male and one described as female (I say “described” because in the Navy of Obama and afterwords, we really aren’t sure what these words actually mean anymore), were taken prisoner to the everlasting shame of a once-great maritime power. And who can forget the ugly, mutinous spectacle of how a Navy admiral refused to obey a US President exercising his Constitutional authority as commander in chief
More recently, Senator Tom Cotton teamed up with Representatives Dan Crenshaw, Mike Gallagher, and Jim Banks to publish “A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet.” It paints a sorry picture of a service that can barely, barely sail its ships, much less fight them.
This was the top-line of the report:
Insufficient leadership focus on warfighting. Perhaps the most concerning comment and consistent observation amongst interviewees was that the service does not promote or advance surface ship warfighting in a meaningful way. Finding and sinking enemy fleets should be the principal purpose of a Navy. But many sailors found their leadership distracted, captive to bureaucratic excess, and rewarded for the successful execution of administrative functions rather than their skills as a warfighter. There was considerable apprehension that the surface warfare community in particular lost its fighting edge in the years following the end of the Cold War. With China building and operating a competitive fleet, the lack of proper attention on warfighting was of deep concern to many interviewees.
A dominant and paralyzing zero-defect mentality. A prevalent theme emerged over the course of the interview process: near universal disdain for the so-called “one mistake Navy,” the practice of treating certain errors with career termination and offering no opportunity for recovery. A former senior leader framed this problem using an evocative historical analogy, suggesting that none of the four key Admirals who led victorious fleets in World War II would have made it to the rank of Captain in today’s Navy. The general unwillingness to rehabilitate one-off mistakes, the disinclination to weigh errors against the totality of a naval career, and the practice of discipline-by-paperwork were broadly understood to be a drain on the Navy’s retention efforts.
Under-investment in surface warfare officer training. The investment in surface warfare officer training pales in comparison to investments in aviation and submarine communities. Compounding its under-investment problem, the surface Navy has “re-imagined” its officer training programs multiple times in the past 20 years, often seeking efficiencies (i.e. even smaller investments) and leaving the commanding officers with inconsistent, often ill-prepared wardrooms.
Poorly resourced and executed surface ship maintenance programs. Nearly every interviewee had a story of a cancelled, delayed, or drastically reduced major maintenance availability. Often this was identified as a problem driven by senior civilian leadership and combatant commanders who consistently accepted the “maintenance risk” to squeeze an extra month or two out of a deployment. But this was also seen as a failure in manning and training the surface community to develop and assess maintenance work packages. Finally, there was an overwhelming perception that the surface Navy is the “billpayer” as aviation and submarine nuclear maintenance packages were seen as too risky to underfund. The cumulative effect of this underfunding and poor execution has left the surface warships less modernized and less ready for combat operations.
Expanding culture of micromanagement. Concerns of micromanagement within the surface warfare community are alarming. Sailors’ concerns were two-fold. The first is that technology has empowered admirals and commodores to exercise greater, arguably unhealthy, levels of control over ship captains. The second was that this control drives a level of toxicity and lack of accountability and initiative in the Navy’s warfighting command hierarchy. Given the increasing likelihood that naval commands may be isolated or cut off from communications in a high-end fight, creating undue dependence on higher headquarters for day-to-day direction could negatively impact future naval combat operations.
Corrosive over-responsiveness to media culture. Sailors believe that Navy leaders are excessively reactive to an unyielding U.S. news cycle, and are unable to distinguish between stories that demand a response and stories that do not. A pervasive sentiment is that Navy leaders have subverted the responsibilities of the chain of command to the pages of Military.com or the Military Times, and make punitive decisions based on negative news reports rather than the service’s own standards of discipline.
Other themes that a majority of interviewees mentioned included:
– The surface Navy wardroom has lost its focus on growing good ship-handlers;
– Sailors are distracted by a tsunami of administrative tasks not related to their ships’ lethality;
– The Navy is too small to accomplish all the missions with which it is tasked by senior civilian leaders and combatant commanders;
– Sailors and officers lack sufficient resiliency and are unprepared for the difficulties of combat, in part because their training has deemphasized persistent exposure to adversity.
The quickness with which the story went away leads me to believe China’s to be much more representative of what happened than the Navy’s response. China made its point to the audience it was trying to reach, that would be those nations with territorial claims to the Paracel and Spratley Islands. Our fearless firefighters in the media shut down the story before Stumblebum Joe, and the Blown Hair Brigade at State were showed to be the feckless poseurs that they are.
I don’t think anyone, right or left, really thinks Joe Biden can afford to hold Beijing to account for much of anything due to the degree to which he and his drug-addled, sex-addicted grifting son are compromised by China’s intelligence services. It is also difficult to believe that Navy leadership, which has to be at least as aware of the Navy’s ineptitude as the rest of us, didn’t give the Benfold orders to skedaddle when faced with Chinese pushback. The US Navy, indeed the US military, is simply not capable of carrying out a limited conflict to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and protecting the territorial integrity of the nations in the region, including those of our allies. The Chinese know it. Our allies know it. Our military and political leadership know it. Maybe, eventually, the American people will wake up to just how poorly they are being served before too many young Americans have to die to make the point.