South China Morning Post

July 4, 2010 Sunday

US submarines emerge in show of military might

Submarines show up in E Asia ports in show of US military might;
Message unlikely to be lost on Beijing as 3 vessels turn up in Asian ports

Greg Torode Chief Asia correspondent

In a scarcely noticed move last Monday, three of America's largest submarines surfaced in Asia-Pacific ports in a show of force by the US Seventh Fleet not seen since the end of the cold war.

The appearance of the USS Michigan in Pusan, South Korea, the USS Ohio in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, and the USS Florida in the strategic Indian Ocean outpost of Diego Garcia not only reflects the trend of escalating submarine activity in East Asia, but carries another threat as well.

The three Ohio-class submarines have all been recently converted from carrying cold-war-era nuclear ballistic missiles to other weapons - improved intelligence sensors, special operations troops and, significantly, a vast quantity of Tomahawk cruise missiles, a manoeuvrable low-flying weapon designed to strike targets on land.

Between them, the three submarines can carry 462 Tomahawks, boosting by an estimated 60 per cent-plus the potential Tomahawk strike force of the entire Japanese-based Seventh Fleet - the core projection of US military power in East Asia.

While the move has been made with little fanfare, it is starting to resonate across the region. US officials insist it reflects long-term deployment plans and is not directed at a single country or crisis - such as intensifying tensions on the Korean peninsula following North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship - but the message is unlikely to be lost on Beijing.

One veteran Asian military attaché, who keeps close ties with both Chinese and US forces, noted that "460-odd Tomahawks is a huge amount of potential firepower in anybody's language".

"It is another sign that the US is determined to not just maintain its military dominance in Asia, but to be seen doing so ? that is a message for Beijing and for everybody else, whether you are a US ally or a nation sitting on the fence."

Other Asian diplomats said it might reflect a rising chorus of concern in recent months from China's neighbours, who have been discreetly urging the US to do more to stand up to China's growing naval assertiveness in East Asia. Chinese exercises have been expanding in size and scope in recent months, with vessels appearing beyond Japan's offshore islands and appearing deep in the disputed South China Sea.

"Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia - all these countries have been active behind the scenes in expressing concerns," another Asian diplomat said. "There is no hotter topic at the moment than China's naval ambitions."

In Washington, meanwhile, concern is mounting about missile deployments in East Asia. Pentagon estimates suggest China is increasing its stocks of short-range ballistic missiles and precision cruise missiles, and boosting their capabilities.

Its last report on China's military modernisation estimated that a September 2008 stockpile of between 1,050 and 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles was rising at a rate of about 100 per year, the bulk concentrated on Taiwan. South Korean estimates show North Korea has fielded more than 650 short-range ballistic missiles. A recent report from the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute think tank noted that expanded conventional ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles were now "the centrepiece of [China's] political and military strategy".

Coupled with other improved aerospace capabilities, such as electronic sensors, over the next 15 years China might be "increasingly confident of its ability to dominate the skies around its periphery", the report said. It noted that the PLA could challenge the defences of Taiwan, Japan and India, as well as US forces in the western Pacific.

"This may lead Beijing to become more assertive in its dealings with its neighbours," says the report, written by analysts Mark Stokes and Ian Easton.

"A strategic shift in [the] regional aerospace balance also may increasingly unravel the fabric of US alliances and prompt allies and friends to consider weapons of mass destruction ? as an insurance against unfavourable imbalances," it says.

In policies drafted under then-president George W.Bush, a Republican, and continued by the administration of his successor, Democrat Barack Obama, the Pentagon is shifting 60 per cent of its 53 fast-attack submarines to the Pacific - a process that is now virtually complete.

But the presence of the larger cruise-missile submarines shows that, at times, the US forward posture will be significantly larger.

While nominally based on the west coast of the United States, the Ohio, for example, has been operating out of Guam for most of the last year, taking advantage of the island's expanding facilities to extend its operations in the western Pacific.

It is due to return soon, but the Florida and the Michigan are likely to remain in the region for many months yet, using Guam and possibly Diego Garcia for essential maintenance and crew changes.

The presence of the Florida, based on the US east coast, appears to confirm the US is still routinely bringing submarines under the arctic ice cap to East Asia. Some US east coast ports are closer, via this route, to the region than some west coast bases, such as San Diego.

Just one other submarine has been converted from ballistic to cruise missiles and all four are currently deployed simultaneously for the first time.

Announcing the move earlier this month, Submarine Squadron 19 Commander Captain John Tammen noted the "transformational capabilities" of the cruise missile submarines. "[They] provide the combatant commander a significant increase in war-fighting ability, and options for resolving and deterring conflict," he said.