Today, a survey of two hot spots where trouble is brewing in the Eastern hemisphere. In a different time, there would have been a pause to acknowledge America’s years of earnest preparation to meet the requirements of “two major regional conflicts” simultaneously, and consider how the current moment measured up. But the irony that we quietly stopped doing that a decade ago is a bit too melancholy to dwell on now.
These two developments are being couched, antiquely, as “tests” for the Biden administration. The Biden administration is applying little but words to them, but in any case, we are really beyond Russia and China “testing” new U.S. administrations at this point. The leaders in Moscow and Beijing see the leaders of the West more clearly than the Western media do. Their purpose is not to test the reaction of the U.S. but to achieve objectives.
At the western end of Asia, Russia’s objective appears to be consolidating the division of Ukraine begun seven years ago. NATO is growing more alarmed and jittery. Ukraine says some 20,000-25,000 Russian troops have been moved to Ukraine’s eastern border (in 28 “battalion groups,” which would be optimized for dispersed infantry combat) and believes there are about 3,000 Russian “advisers” in various guises, in separatist-held portions of Ukrainian Luhansk and Donetsk.
Separately, according to the BBC, “The Russian military has confirmed that an airborne assault brigade – about 4,000 troops – is being redeployed to Crimea from Volgograd in southern Russia this year.” The redeployment may or may not have happened yet, from what I can tell.
Media reporting has relied on social media posts with dramatic footage of infantry fighting vehicles and missile launchers being transported by rail across Southern Russia. Hence, the media are caveating their reports with cautions that they can’t say for sure what Russia intends with this mass movement.
Russian 9K330 Tor surface to air missile unit on the move. Allegedly heading towards #Crimea, but no verification.
It's definitely a bigger unit than a single battery as there are 6 TLAR:s and multiple command vehicles.#Russia pic.twitter.com/WY4oy6cW9a
— Petri Mäkelä (@pmakela1) April 2, 2021
— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) April 2, 2021
A late-breaking social media video showing S400 launchers on the road in what the user says is Voronezh (a Russian oblast on the Ukrainian border) is significant, of course.
Hadn't seen anything before this (on soc media) certifiably closer than Balashov. Voronezh has border w/Ukraine.
Moving in S400 suggests expectation of confronting front-line strike-fighters; i.e., NATO.
Big signal. Doubtful the signal will be left to sit there & grow cold. https://t.co/WBPeok5Jlk
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) April 4, 2021
But NATO doesn’t have to rely on social media reporting. And U.S. European forces have been put on the highest state of alert short of hot lead, indicating that what U.S. and NATO intelligence is looking at is significant and well understood.
It is well to understand also that the “correlation of forces,” to use the popular Russian concept, is unfavorable for NATO in Eastern Ukraine. Russia occupies Crimea, and has effected its de facto separation from Kyiv-administered Ukraine. Parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, as mentioned, are already hosting Russian offices and “instructors” in significant numbers, and Russia has the full advantage of interior lines of communication to her rear and her logistics pipeline.
NATO, for all our years of exercising military capabilities with neighboring nations, is on a long tether for any supporting effort in Ukraine, and one that relies entirely on the political willingness of neighbors who fall inside threat envelopes of every kind emanating from Russia.
We can’t expect to have free rein in the Black Sea in 2021, and Romania and Bulgaria will want to be assured NATO can protect them if they support the operations of NATO forces. Turkey isn’t likely to agree to the use of her bases for NATO combat forces potentially exchanging fire with Russia in Ukraine. (If you were Turkey, you wouldn’t either – even if you weren’t Erdogan. The decisive factor here is not who’s in charge in Ankara, but who’s in charge in Washington, D.C.)
The Black Sea nations have to live with Russia when this is over. Putin’s Russia has a vision; NATO doesn’t. Prevailing against a Russian push would require having an actual plan for holding the Black Sea open to NATO use, regardless of Russia’s posture, and there is no evidence of such a plan. In default of one, NATO may have to choose between Ukraine and the Black Sea; i.e., retaining Black Sea access on the longstanding Montreux Convention basis in exchange for an unfavorable settlement for Ukraine.
Keep in mind: we do care about the Black Sea, and as more than just an important token of the status quo. Because Obama gave away our missile defense plan for interceptors in Poland back in 2009, the Black Sea is geographically central to NATO’s missile defense architecture for threats from South Asia (i.e., Iran).
Russia doesn’t like our presence in the Black Sea for missile defense (never has). Any settlement that left the Montreux Convention undisturbed would be conditional, as long as the West is weak. And if Russia is going to go for a big ball of wax in Ukraine, Putin may be ready to actively destabilize the Montreux pillar of East-West relations as a follow-on objective.
Unbalancing power in the Black Sea is the kind of move that has loomed since Obama began shifting the emphasis of U.S. alliances in the region, and leading from behind. He effectively unwrote the Truman Doctrine back in 2016; the work is already done. The pins have been pulled out from the infrastructure of global stability for a decade now, and shaking is to be expected.
Note that I don’t foresee the prospect of full-blown combat between Russian and NATO forces. What I do foresee is Russia taking advantage of the situation to clamp down on the Black Sea. If Russia is going to do this, it wouldn’t pay to act tentatively or with self-limited goals. Other than Ukraine, those likely to be hardest hit are Georgia, Romania, and Bulgaria – again, not necessarily in the literal sense, but in terms of Russia coming out of it with a veto over their political independence.
It would take a whole separate article to summarize all the reverberations outward from a confrontation in Ukraine between a determined and prepared Russia and an overstretched NATO. The Greece-Turkey competition in the Aegean Sea is an obvious starting point.
But to keep this brief, we need to shift to the other end of Asia for the parallel hot spot coming into play there. National Review posted an editorial on Friday pointing out the increasing imminence of a Chinese menace to Taiwan, up to and including an invasion.
This is a very real concern, and it’s an operation, notably, that China could execute with a minimum of prior warning. Beijing has had the requisite forces assembled in a rapidly deployable location on the mainland for years. We will not get weeks or even days of force movements to ponder and react to, before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Navy (PLAN), and Air Force (PLAAF) could strike.
What my eye sees shaping up is the real possibility that Russia and China intend to launch their operations at or near the same time, to create distractions for each other and overstretch the forces of the U.S. and our allies even further. In the Far East, the neighbors (and U.S. allies) with the most significant risk would be Japan and the Philippines. (I wouldn’t count out a clampdown on North Korea as well, to keep things stable there during a Taiwan operation. As a near-term possibility, that would explain the recent mini-exodus of foreigners from North Korea noted by observers in the South.)
Meanwhile, as with the Russians moving the S400 to Voronezh, there was a noteworthy update just reported Saturday on Chinese activity in the South China Sea. The report shows China recently moving dozens of boats into place and lashing them together around reefs there.
The report takes the perspective that this measure is about boosting China’s claim to the disputed reefs and islands. That’s a valid perspective, but not the only dimension in which to see this.
These precautions in a given location won’t last very long. Indeed, the New York Times article indicates that lashed boats have already been moved from their original locations. The boats are on the open sea; their service as barriers – barriers to marine navigation – formed by lashing them together has a natural expiration date that the sea will set.
The very recent increase in this activity looks like preparation for an action that could start at any time. The two locations mentioned in the article – Whitsun Reef and Thitu Island – don’t appear especially significant, although it’s notable that they lie along a path from the strait between Palawan (Philippines) and Brunei, leading into the South China Sea from the Sulu Sea. The second map below shows how congested that path is with the Spratly Archipelago. They’re also in the western Spratlys close to the major shipping lanes through the SCS.
But their significance may be more in conditioning observers to expect this activity and attribute it to long-term goals, rather than associate it with imminent action. China must be prepared to frustrate global shipping and baffle all the maritime approaches in an invasion of Taiwan. A measure like this one, executed rapidly, would serve the purpose well – and long enough to matter.
As for Taiwan, if I were China, there’s one thing I would want to do in a lightning move right at the outset, and that’s seize and hold the disputed islands off Northeast Taiwan which Japan calls the Senkakus, and China calls the Diaoyu Islands. The idea would be to keep them out of Japan’s hands during the invasion of Taiwan.
The U.S. recognizes Japan’s claim to the islands. But whether we want to use armed force to prevent China from grabbing them is another story.
If China doesn’t keep them from being available to U.S. (and potentially Japanese) forces, they would form a wedge with Japan’s southernmost islands in Okinawa prefecture for operations in support of Taiwan’s defense.
But if China can seize and hold them, they become a flanking position versus Japan’s southern islands.
Holding them, if they were either side’s main objective, would be the very devil – but as a sniper perch to be made use of until the issue is decided, it mainly matters to get there first. If China can then hold Taiwan, the Senkakus become the Diaoyus. If China is repelled, Japan will be empowered to slap the Senkaku sticker on them for good.
So it is of exceptional importance that Japan’s other disputed-island vulnerability, north of Hokkaido, was recently overbalanced to a decisive degree when Russia deployed the S-300V4 air defense system to it, effectively reaching well into Japanese air space to hold Japan’s northern defenses at risk.
Any operation against Taiwan is likely to begin not only with the move against Taiwan but with maneuvers to hem in and intimidate Japan, the host of most of the U.S. forces that would come into play.
Putting the squeeze on Japan is a measure we’ve see the outlines of for some time. Regarding U.S. support to Taiwan, the key geographic anchors are Japan, the Philippines, and of course Guam. All would come under some level of threat from China.
As with Russia and Ukraine, I don’t foresee China making a point of exchanging fire directly with U.S. forces, if that can be avoided. China won’t want to exchange fire directly with Japan or the Philippines either.
But all three nations should expect a robust level of electronic and information warfare, including disruption of civilian services as well as military forces and infrastructure. If the third-party forces shoot at China, China will shoot back.
And as Russia does on the Ukrainian border, China has the correlation-of-forces advantage on her eastern flank. China is backed by her vast interior. The U.S. is at the end of a taut-stretched tether, mandated by geography to hold and approach from the sea, with only more sea and mostly-small islands to the rear.
Pardon the ready-room, shotgun brevity here; this is basically an operational brief rather than an extended analytical treatment.
Here are some noteworthy points.
The U.S. government has been at pains to disclose to the media in recent weeks that our friendly-force war game players have been losing the all their tabletop war games against China. I’m increasingly skeptical that this theme is being flogged in the media for some noble but naïve purpose of impressing the American public with how much work we need to do. It seems at least possible that we’re being conditioned to expect a big loss.
Meanwhile, take note of what our priority apparently is as Russia and China shift into position. The Biden team is sending a delegation to Vienna to not sit in the same room with the Iranians, but nevertheless call it holding talks on restarting the JCPOA.
We have the Air Force back in Iraq attacking “ISIS” positions north of Baghdad. “Attacking ISIS” served as an all-purpose excuse for supporting the activities of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq during the Obama years.
And strangely, the same week the Pentagon announced that we would be leaving a “carrier gap” in CENTCOM, we actually ended the carrier gap in CENTCOM. Almost immediately after the M/V Ever Given was cleared from the Suez Canal, USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) transited through the canal from the Mediterranean, where she had been since the beginning of March.
— U.S. Naval Institute (@NavalInstitute) April 2, 2021
It’s not clear why – with that movement in the offing – the Pentagon went to so much trouble to point out that we’d be accepting a carrier gap in the CENTCOM theater. This was in the same disclosure that announced the withdrawal of a Patriot missile battery from Saudi Arabia, and made a point of how we’ve actually withdrawn multiple batteries from Saudi Arabia recently.
Yet the withdrawals referred to took place nearly a year ago, during the Trump administration, and were reported at the time. Emphasizing them as if they reflect Biden administration policy in some fresh way looks odd.
The whole report on support to Saudi Arabia and the carrier gap, when measured against the timeline of the-real-world movements involved, looks like pure messaging, rather than an informative explanation. If it says anything about U.S. intent, it seems to be, “Hear what I say; don’t judge by what I’m doing.”
Why is Eisenhower headed into CENTCOM just now? Good question. Perhaps to provide more strike-fighters to “attack ISIS” with. The French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91) has been in the theater for a couple of weeks, so now a theater we were going to rebalance forces away from has two NATO carriers in it.
For those wondering, it would be difficult for the carriers, functioning in their intended role, to affect the force situation or any combat developments in Ukraine. Carriers from non-Black Sea nations are prohibited from entering the Black Sea by the tonnage limitations of the Montreux Convention. Trying to fly from the Aegean or Adriatic would require overflight permission from neighboring nations, so the carrier air wing advantage would be eliminated. The Air Force can fly if overflight is granted.
That said, it can only be a striking circumstance that as Russia piles up forces on Ukraine’s border and U.S. forces are put on high alert in Europe, the two operational aircraft carriers NATO has available, with fully-assembled air wings and strike groups, are both in CENTCOM. There is no ready carrier with the capability of either Charles de Gaulle (smaller air wing) or Eisenhower (50 strike-fighters) in the EUCOM theater.
(Aside: even if there were a U.S. Navy amphibious group in EUCOM, it would also be unable to operate in the Black Sea. The “big deck” amphibious assault ship with fixed-wing aircraft – the “LHA” or “LHD” – is too big to enter the Black Sea under the Montreux Convention. Our big-decks, whether carriers or amphibs, are out of the Ukraine fight. Nevertheless, they do represent a significant capability to project power and protect alliance interests in the broader European theater during a crisis. It is an odd signal to send both of the carriers off through the Ditch to the Middle East at this particular time.)
As for our other carriers, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) has been in the Indian Ocean for at least the last 10 days, and conducted an exercise with the Indian navy this past week.
Sharing a common desire for a #FreeAndOpenIndoPacific ?? ⚓ ??
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) March 29, 2021
— U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (@INDOPACOM) April 3, 2021
Theodore Roosevelt, a West-coast carrier, is combat ready and deployed to cover the Far East at the moment. The USS Makin Island (LHD-8) amphibious assault ship is also in the Indian Ocean region, last reported to be in the Gulf of Oman about a week ago. Makin Island ARG has the 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked.
The Japan-based carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is in a pierside availability, or maintenance period, in Yokosuka, Japan. She’s not combat ready, and could not get underway on short notice. At need, at least some of her escort ships could join the Theodore Roosevelt in an operation in Southeast Asia.
USS America (LHA-6) is in port in Sasebo, Japan, according to the U.S. Naval Institute fleet tracker. One of the amphibious ships in her strike group, dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD-48) of Expeditionary Strike Group 7 (ESG 7), has been in the Philippine Sea throughout February and March with a detachment of Marines from the 31 MEU/III MEF conducting exercises. USS Germantown (LSD-42), USS Green Bay (LPD-20), and USS New Orleans (LPD-18) appear to have been underway off Okinawa as recently as mid-February, according to social media reports from Japan.