VICE News has been covering Ssong Yang 14, a joint US-South Korean amphibious military exercise that involves more than 20 ships, about 60 aircraft, and more than 13,000 troops. On Monday, just a few hours before North Korea fired artillery over the ocean border, we got the chance to chat about geopolitics and developments in the Asia-Pacific region with the fellow in charge of the whole roadshow, Brigadier General Paul Kennedy.
VICE News: China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan are all acquiring really big new amphibious warfare systems, and are otherwise increasing their emphasis on this stuff. What’s behind all this?
BGen Kennedy: An amphibious capability is really the only way you can move force around the Pacific. Because of the distances you have to go, the uncertainty on basing rights, and the exposure to threats associated with being a target sitting in the middle of an airfield in some country, it’s better to put stuff on a ship. The ocean affords you maneuverability that being land-based does not afford you.
I think a lot of these other countries in the region are seeing the fact that there’s not always going to be an airfield to land a C-17 full of soldiers, so the best way to do it is by surface means. Also, amphibious landing is almost an all-weather means of getting ashore, while movement by helicopter or airplane is limited by weather.
Having an amphibious capability is a way to put a large force (and a base of operations) where you need it when you need it, instead of sending an army ahead of time, or shipping it via overnight airfreight. Military spending by Asian countries suggests that folks throughout the region are interested in having the flexibility to suddenly have a base whenever and wherever the mood strikes. Providing an instant military base has been a major role for big US aircraft carriers. In American politics, amphibious forces are seldom talked about in this way.
We in the US place great stock in aircraft carriers for power projection. Asking, “Where are the carriers?” in the event of an international crisis has become commonplace. But in recent years, there has been a big jump in the purchase of submarines in Asia and the southern Pacific. What does this mean?
BGen Kennedy: You really ought to think in terms of, “Where are the subs?” The US Navy submarine fleet has no peer. There are probably some foreign attempts to duplicate that, but they aren’t anywhere near matching the US.
This answer is interesting, in part because submarines are carrier killers. The best way to kill a sub is with another sub, but not all power projection is created equal. Some of it is simply military force. Other times, the visibility of the signal is the important bit. Carriers are hard to miss when they’re parked off shore. Smaller ships aren’t as dramatic. What's more, submarines are all about being stealthy and ninja-like. Almost by definition, ninjas are the worst possible guys to send saber rattling. Either they are easily detected on their way to rattle sabers, which makes them lousy ninjas, or the ninjas have to break cover and make a point of being visible, which runs contrary to being a ninja.
Submarines, amphibious forces, and carriers are all ways for a country to reach out and touch someone, but not all of these methods are made equal. This goes back to what a country is looking to do by beefing up its military power projection. Does it intend to scare the crap out of its neighbors, or is it fixing to go postal?
Are regional powers looking at more robust amphibious capabilities and aircraft carriers as an intro to the big leagues? The US has had both for a long time, and never really had to make a choice about which one to go after first.
BGen Kennedy: I would say the carriers and amphibious capabilities are probably parallel efforts. Whether they have blue-water ambitions [i.e. an expeditionary naval force], I don’t know.
The US Navy provides a certain amount of public good by controlling the international waterways. You couldn’t run a tanker of oil through the Straits of Hormuz — Lloyd’s of London would never insure those ships — if it weren’t for the US Navy, so I’m not sure what [other countries] want to duplicate.
What the guy in Kansas doesn’t realize is that he’s part of a maritime nation — 95% of the goods he enjoys came by sea, they weren’t flown to the US. As a maritime nation, your economy is based on shipping.
If you [as a maritime nation] don’t have a strong navy to ensure the delivery of those goods and create stability wherever they were exported from, your economy will suffer. Japan’s a sea-going nation. I think they would have the same sort of aspirations.
This talk about protecting “sea lines of communication” is pretty deeply baked into the US Navy’s organizational culture. The oceans are a global commons that the worldwide economy relies on. One of the open questions about militarization in Asia is whether any of the nations who want more robust power projection capabilities are interested in preserving the openness of the sea.
There has been a steady increase in tension throughout the region — China’s expansion of its air defense identification zone, for example. Could Japanese observers regard this training exercise as an illustration of the US fostering South Korean military capabilities that could one day be used against Japan? How do you manage that trilateral relationship when Japan and South Korea aren’t the best of friends?
BGen Kennedy: I think that relationship has improved incredibly. When I was here way back when, the two militaries would have never spoken. But recently, we hosted a group of Korean officers in Okinawa and held an amphibious working group.
The Japanese are obviously interested in an exercise like this, and would probably like to duplicate this sort of joint training event, as they build up to the same sort of amphibious capacity that the Republic of Korea has.
This conversation highlights an interesting planning dilemma for the US. America's presence in Europe relies heavily on the capabilities of the Army, while the Asia-Pacific region is a more natural venue for the Navy. The situation in Ukraine and Crimea compel the US global posture toward one orientation, while President Obama’s pivot to Asia reflects a different emphasis. Combined with a declining US defense budget, these tensions and stresses likely mean that the world isn’t in danger of becoming less messed up or confusing any time soon.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan