How Effective Are Freedom of Navigation Operations? A US Navy Officer’s Perspective



Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The East and South China Seas have emerged as one of the principal potential flashpoints in China-US military relations. It is the one region in the world where significant U.S. and Chinese military forces operate in close proximity to each other.

Beijing has extended claims to a large portion of the ECS and SCS and has also asserted claims to various island groups within the region. As part of those claims, China has constructed and subsequently militarized seven artificial islands. These actions have been part of an increasingly assertive Chinese military and foreign policy toward its maritime neighbors and have been underscored by repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace by Chinese air forces over the last year.

Taiwan controls a number of island groups in the contested area that are in close proximity to the Chinese mainland and whose seizure by Chinese military forces could become a test of U.S. resolve to defend Taipei from Beijing’s aggression, as well as a trial run for an invasion of Taiwan.

To get a firsthand look at the region and its military dynamics as they appear to a serving U.S. naval officer familiar with the area, we recently sat down with Capt. Robert C. Francis Jr. for his perspective. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the interviewee and do not reflect any official policy or view of the Council of Foreign Relations or the U.S. government.

Francis commanded the Navy destroyer Lassen, making multiple patrols to the ECS and SCS. He has also served on multiple aircraft carriers; guided-missile frigates conducting counter-narcotics, counter-piracy and freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS; and supported multiple Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom missions. His staff assignments include military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs and the assistant readiness officer on the Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet staff. Currently, he is a Military Fellow, U.S. Navy, at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Francis earned a Bachelor of Arts in physics from the University of San Diego; a Master of Business Administration from National University; and a Master of Science in engineering management from Old Dominion University.

JM: The U.S. has been conducting FONOPS in the South China Sea since 2013. To date, dozens of naval and aerial operations have been carried out.

Additional FONOPS have been carried out by the naval forces of Great Britain, France, Japan, and Australia. Beyond the symbolic value of formally rejecting China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, is there any practical benefit to conducting these operations? Do you believe that these FONOPS operations have had any impact?

RF: Passing through the South China Sea each year is $3.5 trillion of world trade, which includes 40% of Japanese and 30% of the world trade; 10% of the fish consumed worldwide also comes from the region. Therefore, any threat to the free flow of goods through this important waterway could lead to significant impacts on the global economy.

Freedom of navigation operations by their very nature are designed to challenge unlawful restrictions and excessive maritime claims by any coastal state that chooses to impose restrictions that are contrary to the international laws as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Therefore, by the United States and like-minded nations challenging coastal states that impose threats to the legal foundation of the rules-based international order, we are ensuring that freedom of the seas, a right afforded to all nations, is preserved.

The freedom of navigation operations conducted by other countries also send a strong message to the Indo-Pacific region that, in addition to the United States, there’s a network of capable navies that are committed to deterrence and preserving the peace. Therefore, the operations have the added benefit of shaping the maritime balance of power in our favor.

JM: Since 2014, China has built seven artificial islands with a surface area totaling about 2,000 acres in the South China Sea. Initially, Beijing claimed that the islands would not be used for military purposes. In the last several years, however, China has deployed anti-missile batteries on the islands and, on at least one occasion, deployed an H-6J bomber. Many of the islands have 3,000-plus-meter runways capable of handling virtually any aircraft in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or PLAAF. How significant a threat do the military forces on these islands pose to U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea and will they have a bearing on the ability of the U.S. Navy to conduct FONOPS in the region?

RF: It is common for our forces to interact with multiple People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, vessels and PLAFF aircraft in the South China Sea. U.S. forces are also queried by controllers from the Chinese artificial islands. However, most of our encounters from PLAN vessels during freedom of navigation operations are professional and have not resulted in escalation.

If competition with China was to turn to conflict, the threat faced by our forces would be bigger than just that posed by the Chinese militarized artificial islands. Our forward-deployed forces must also consider the multilayered fleet of the PLAN, the Chinese Coast Guard, and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, or PAFMM. Additionally, Chinese force modernization efforts mean that U.S. Navy commanders must account for highly capable surface ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and nuclear-capable missile forces, as well as robust space, cyber, electronic and psychological warfare capabilities.

JM: There have been several reports that the artificial islands lack structural integrity and that their airfields cannot sustain the tempo of sustained air operations. Any merit to those claims? Are those islands more for show than a serious threat to U.S. naval forces?

RF: I cannot comment on specific vulnerabilities to our rival’s defensive network. However, as a part of that defense network, the Chinese man-made islands pose an overlapping threat to our forces in a conflict. Because the region is persistently surveilled and robustly defended, agile naval forces are needed to offer dynamic and flexible options from which to project combat power. That is why the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are focused on increasing our emphasis on capabilities and operational concepts that will allow us to control the seas to provide joint and allied forces with the freedom of maneuver to attack adversary forces and impose costs globally.

JM: In a recent article, you proposed that the U.S. Navy should adopt a more assertive stance when challenged by the PLAN, China’s Coast Guard, PAFMM or unofficial units like military vessels under the control of the PLAN masquerading as fishing boats or other civilian craft. Specifically, you noted that when “forward-deployed forces are assertive without being aggressive, interaction between rivals need not lead to escalation.” Can you explain the distinction between assertiveness versus aggressiveness and how to translate those differences into specific rules of engagement?

RF: Our rivals are continuing to employ tactics that fall below the threshold that would normally elicit a military response. For example, PAFMM vessels pretending to be fishing vessels have been called out by their military controllers to intercept and cross in front of U.S. Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation transits. During routine operations at sea, all vessels are required to abide by the international rules of the road as formalized by the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. These PAFMM vessels disregard the rules that all mariners are required to abide by, to impede the FONOP.

Instead of responding only in accordance with the rules of the road and maneuvering out of the way of the fishing vessel, naval vessels should also treat these vessels as force protection threats. This would mean using non-lethal means to deter the inbound fishing vessel from closing on the U.S. Navy vessel and, if necessary, using warning shots to dissuade them from continuing inbound.

For the situation described above, if the U.S. Navy vessel only maneuvered out of the way, then that would be a defensive maneuver. If the U.S. Navy vessel issued warnings to the fishing vessel, then used non-lethal force protection measures like flashing lights and laser dazzlers, then that would be more assertive. An aggressive action would be if the U.S. Navy ship maneuvered in a manner to collide with the fishing vessel and sink it.

The assertive maneuver gives the operators of the fishing vessel the opportunity to reconsider their actions. The aggressive action in this example could cause a loss of life or severe damage to the fishing vessel, and that’s an outcome no one wants. How far we go along the continuum of force would also be a determining factor between assertive and aggressive.

JM: China has adopted an increasingly belligerent attitude toward Taiwan. This has included numerous violations of Taiwan’s airspace; staging military exercises designed to mimic an invasion of the island; and threats that Beijing would eventually forcefully incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. Twice in the 1950s, the U.S. threatened to go to war with China, when Chinese military forces shelled the Taiwanese-controlled Quemoy and Matsu Islands. These islands are only 10 nautical miles off the coast of China. The Paracel Islands are another Taiwanese-controlled territory and within China/Hong Kong’s air control zone. How could the U.S. Navy respond in the event China attempted to seize control of either one of those island groups?

RF: The U.S. maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity. This means that the U.S. government would respond to acts of aggression to reunify China and Taiwan. However, no U.S. president has clearly committed to using military force to do so. Therefore, any military plan for defending Taiwan or Taiwanese-controlled islands is only one of many options available to the president in resolving a potential conflict in the Taiwan Straits.

While Indo-Pacific Command maintains plans to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression, it is my sincere hope that we can manage this potential flash point in a manner that will not lead to conflict. Specific to the Paracel Islands — which Taiwan, China and Vietnam all claim — the United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS and SCS. Therefore, I am unclear how the U.S. government would respond to a conflict over the Paracel Islands.

For the U.S. Navy and our joint partners to present a credible deterrent and create space for diplomatic solutions, we need to deploy and sustain combat-credible forces in and around the region. The reassuring presence of forward-deployed naval forces in Asia raises the risk of escalation for our rivals, including any attempts at China-Taiwan reunification that could lead to a U.S.-China conflict.

If deterrence fails, then a military response to defend Taiwan will involve not only the U.S. Navy, but also the U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Space Force, and several allies and partners working together to deny the Chinese from achieving their objectives and eventually bringing an end to hostilities. Given the network of long-range precision weapons, sensors, missile batteries, highly capable aircraft, surface ships and submarines, it will be an all-domain fight requiring our forces to employ Distributed Maritime Operations and other emerging joint warfighting concepts to complicate the level of uncertainty for the Chinese while maintaining the ability to achieve surprise and prevent meaningful operations.

Rest assured, these operations would be costly for both sides, hence we must continue our focus on modernizing our forces while developing and fielding capabilities to the fleet that will allow us to maintain our technological advantage at sea.

JM: Thank you!

— The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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