Chinese F/V Attempts to Ram USCGC James –AP

In this photo made available by the U.S. Coast Guard, guardsmen from the cutter James, seen at background right, conduct a boarding of a fishing vessel in the eastern Pacific Ocean, on Aug. 4, 2022. During the 10-day patrol for illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing, three vessels steamed away. Another turned aggressively 90 degrees toward the James, forcing the American vessel to maneuver to avoid being rammed. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Hunter Schnabel/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

The Associated Press is reporting,

“…a heavily-armed U.S. Coast Guard cutter sailed up to a fleet of a few hundred Chinese squid-fishing boats not far from Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Its mission: inspect the vessels for any signs of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing…But in this case, the Chinese captains of several fishing boats did something unexpected. Three vessels sped away, one turning aggressively 90 degrees toward the Coast Guard cutter James, forcing the American vessel to take evasive action to avoid being rammed.”

Of course there is much more to the story.

Coast Guard Cutter Kimball encounters Russia and People’s Republic of China military naval presence in Bering Sea” –D17

A Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crewmember observing a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, September 19, 2022. (I believe it is a Russian Udaloy class destroyer–Chuck)
The Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea encountered a People’s Republic of China Guided Missile Cruiser, Renhai CG 101, sailing approximately 75 nautical miles north of Kiska Island, Alaska.

Below is a District 17 news release (HQ Juneau). The Chinese cruiser referred to is a Type 055, NATO designation Renhai class. The USN considers it a cruiser, but it is considered by many a large destroyer.

News Release

U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Alaska

Coast Guard Cutter Kimball encounters Russia and People’s Republic of China military naval presence in Bering Sea

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

JUNEAU, Alaska – The Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea encountered a People’s Republic of China Guided Missile Cruiser, Renhai CG 101, sailing approximately 75 nautical miles north of Kiska Island, Alaska, September 19, 2022.

The Kimball crew later identified two more Chinese naval vessels and four Russian naval vessels, including a Russian Federation Navy destroyer, all in a single formation with the Renhai as a combined surface action group operating in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

As a result, the Kimball crew is now operating under Operation Frontier Sentinel, a Seventeenth Coast Guard District operation designed to meet presence with presence when strategic competitors operate in and around U.S. waters. The U.S Coast Guard’s presence strengthens the international rules-based order and promotes the conduct of operations in a manner that follows international norms. While the surface action group was temporary in nature, and Kimball observed it disperse, the Kimball will continue to monitor activities in the U.S. EEZ to ensure the safety of U.S. vessels and international commerce in the area. A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak C-130 Hercules air crew provided support to the Kimball’s Operation Frontier Sentinel activities.    

In September 2021, Coast Guard cutters deployed to the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean also encountered Chinese naval vessels, including a surface action group transiting approximately 50 miles off the Aleutian Island chain. 

 “While the formation has operated in accordance with international rules and norms,” said Rear Adm. Nathan Moore, Seventeenth Coast Guard District commander, “we will meet presence-with-presence to ensure there are no disruptions to U.S. interests in the maritime environment around Alaska.”

 Kimball is a 418-foot legend-class national security cutter homeported in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Russia’s new maritime doctrine: adrift from reality?” –IISS

Russian Federation claimed territory. Disputed territory in light green.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has published a short look at Russia’s new maritime doctrine.

There are couple of things that caught my attention in the critique.

  • The Arctic, now comes first, replacing the Atlantic, and
  • No mention of China as a significant ally, while there is a reference to  partnerships and cooperation with India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others.

The doctrine does not overtly acknowledge a diminished role for Russia on the world stage, but these actions may reflect that realization.

The Arctic: 

“In terms of the regional priorities of Russian naval activities, there is a reordering compared to 2015, with the Atlantic dropping from first to third on the list. The first priority is now the Arctic, with the promise of strengthened capabilities for the Northern and Pacific fleets in response to threats in the region.”

Emphasis on the Atlantic is inherently offensive, because they have to transit long distances through hostile waters to have an impact there. After all Russia has no Atlantic coast line. Access from either the Baltic or Black Sea looks increasing problematic.

Emphasis on the Arctic is primarily defensive. The Arctic is critical to Russia’s economy.  It is their front door. It is their longest border. Its Northern Sea Route is the strongest link between more populous industrialized European Russia and the sparsely populated Russian Far East, and with increasingly open water, the Arctic coast is increasingly exposed.

The Doctrine points out “…the ‘global naval ambitions’ of the United States, NATO activities close to Russia and at sea, an increase in foreign naval presence in the Arctic and efforts to weaken Russia’s control of the Northern Sea Route as the key challenges.” 

The US has made it clear it would like to conduct “Freedom of Navigation” exercises along the Northern Sea Route (which would require Coast Guard icebreakers). Russia has seen her control of the Northern Sea Route as a money maker and they are not eager to see it turned into open sea.

Notably China’s national interest is in opening the route to international traffic.

China: 

“…potential cooperation with China… is strikingly absent from the new doctrine.”

This and upgrades to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, along with improvements to the Northern Sea Route, may reflect a realization that perhaps China will not always be a friend, and ultimately China may turn on them.

A Second Analysis: 

There is a much more detailed analysis of the document here, done by Indian authors. This second analysis seems to confirm greater emphasis on the Arctic and discomfort with the isolation of the Russia’s eastern regions.

“In the 2015 doctrine, the Arctic was at second place after the Atlantic, which has been positioned at third place in the 2022 doctrine. Though the present sequencing may be in no specific order, it may also point to the priority of focus, as the Artic has found detailed mention as indicated earlier. It is evident that Russia recognises the Arctic not only as an area for global economic competition but as an area of military competition as well. The 21 focus areas enunciated for the Arctic region indicate a more positive and perhaps even aggressive approach as they:

—Posit Russia in the lead position in many areas of common regional interest.

—Espouse nuances of control, especially regarding foreign presence and shipping (particularly naval activities).

—Lay emphasis on protection of Russian sovereignty, especially resources.

—Indicate a growing focus on developing the requisite capacity and capability.”

When the Russian Empire fought the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Russia was a great power and appeared to have many advantages, but its logistical links with its Asian holdings were weak. Apparently this is still the case.

Placement of the Pacific at second place is, perhaps, indicative of the Russian approach to the ‘Indo-Pacific’, enunciated in 2012 by the Russian president as the ‘pivot to Asia’, which was aimed at promoting modernisation of the economy. The term ‘pivot to Asia’ is, perhaps, reflective of the belief that “Russia, like China, still strongly opposes the idea of the Indo-Pacific”.
However, Russia will engage nations with which it has long standing strategic relations, like India. Hence, the 2022 doctrine retains the term ‘Asia-Pacific’, and focuses on “overcoming the economic and infrastructural isolation of the Far East from the industrialized regions of the Russian Federation, establishing sustainable sea (river), air and rail links with cities and towns in Siberia and the European part of the Russian Federation, including the development of the Northern Sea Route: This focus apparently seeks to strengthen the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, which was termed as a failure, especially due to “Russia’s lack of a comprehensive approach to overcoming the social and economic hardships faced by its least developed regions, namely Siberia and the country’s Far East”.

No Longer a Great Power: 

Despite its ambitions, Russia is not the Soviet Union and is no longer a Great Power. It is a middle weight power with a lot of nuclear weapons, many of which are aging. Potential military power is largely based on economic power, and Russia’s GDP is similar to that of Canada, Italy, Brazil, or South Korea. Even adjusted for “Purchase Power Parity (PPP),” Russia is only number six, behind China, the US, India, Japan, and Germany. In terms of PPP Russia’s GDP is only 14.5% that of China and 17.2% that of the US. Differences are even greater in terms of nominal GDP, 9.2% that of China and 7.2% that of the US.

As systems built during the Soviet era wear out and become increasingly obsolete, Russia’s military power is rapidly fading.

This is not to say that, during a war, Russia would not send at least some submarines into the Atlantic, but they cannot realistically deny the US and NATO control of the North Atlantic. Their SSNs will likely be more more concerned with protecting their SSBNs.

Russian and Soviet Naval thinking has long had an emphasis on coastal defense, that we saw in construction of a large fleet of torpedo and missile boats, corvettes, and light frigates. We still see that in the Karakut and Buyan-M class corvettes, and the retention of large numbers of Soviet era corvettes and light frigates, while they have not laid down a single carrier, cruiser, or destroyer since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even their frigates are smaller than their European counterparts.

Russia, it seems, is desparately trying to maintain its image as a great power, hoping no one, particularly China, will notice, but it simply does not have the means.

“U.S. aims at PRC in new illegal fishing policy framework” –Indo-Pacific Defense Forum

Fijian law enforcement officers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel from USCGC MUNRO board a Chinese-flagged vessel off the coast of Fiji in April 2022 during patrols to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. IMAGE CREDIT: PO1 Nate Littlejohn, U.S. COAST GUARD

Indo-Pacific Defense Forum passed along an Associated Press report on US efforts to forge an international consensus to combat Illigal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing, including  poor labor and environmental practices, first by applying a standard nationally,

It was expected to be followed quickly by new rules from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanding the definition of illegal fishing to include related labor abuses, a first step to the eventual blacklisting of flag states that fail to comply.

Followed by work on an international treaty.

Significantly subsidies are now seen as unfair trade practice with disasterous impact on fish stocks. China has used subsidies to build the world’s largest fishing fleet, and they use it for more than just catching fish.

President Biden’s administration’s announcement came as the World Trade Organization (WTO) heralded a historic agreement, reaching a deal during its June 2022 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to curb IUU fishing, reduce the strain on dwindling fishing stocks, and ensure more transparency and accountability through improved conservation and management measures. The WTO deal explicitly prohibits subsidies, considered by environmentalists to be the biggest contributing factor to depleting fish populations globally.

BRIDGING THE GAP: HOW THE UNITED STATES CAN IMMEDIATELY ADDRESS ITS ARCTIC CAPABILITY LIMITATIONS –Modern War

The Modern War Institute at West Point published an article that suggests that NOAA ships can help provide presence in the Arctic and that this will contribute to the defense of the Homeland.

Looks like NOAA has about 16 active ships. None are very large and I don’t think any of them are ice rated.

Certainly, NOAA has business in the Arctic, understanding the oceans is an essential part of readiness for conflict, but I don’t see them as any sort of deterrant. On the other hand I don’t see Russia’s large number of icebreakers as adding significant additional threat to US or Canadian security. They simply need a lot of icebreakers to support their economic operations in the Arctic.

Which Arctic are we talking about?

For most of the world, the Arctic is the region North of the Arctic Circle. For some reason the US defines the Arctic as including the Bering Sea and the Aleutians. That does include some pretty cold territory but really, it is not the Arctic, and there is no reason the US Navy should not be operating surface ships there, but they don’t.

I am talking about the Arctic North of the Arctic circle.

What are the military threats to North America that might come across the Arctic Ocean?

While the Russian Arctic build-up threatens Norway, maybe Iceland, and perhaps Greenland, let’s consider only North America.

Much of the Russian build up in the Arctic is defensive, and this is understandable. They have a lot of assets in the Arctic. Much of their national income comes from the Russian Arctic.

There is absolutely no chance the Russians are going to attempt to land an army in the North American Arctic as an overland invasion. It would be too difficult to move and virtually impossibe to resupply. They would be under constant attack by US and Canadian Aircraft. As a Canadian Officer once noted, if Russia landed troops in the Canadian Arctic they would need to be rescued. The most we are likely to see from the Russian Army is Special Forces assaults on sensor and associated communication  systems in the Arctic.

The largest portion of the Russian Naval fleet (30-35%) is based in the Arctic, but not because it is intended to operate exclusively in the Arctic. Much of it is based there because they don’t have better choices. The Northern Fleet has their only relatively unrestricted access to the Atlantic. Even Northern Fleet units have to transit the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap (or the English Channel) to make it into the Atlantic Sea Lanes, The Baltic Fleet is surrounded by potential adversaries and would have to exit through the Danish Straits. The Black Sea Fleet is bottled up behind the Turkish straits and even after exit would have to cross the Mediterranean and through the Straits of Gibralter.

Russian Submarines do operate under the ice and may launch missiles or conduct commando raids in the Arctic.

The serious threats that could come across the Arctic Ocean will be in the air or in space–aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles including the new hypersonics.

Coast Guard icebreakers could have a role in facilitating deployment and continuing support of sensor systems in the Arctic.

Gray Zone threats to Sovereignty

The more probable near term threats to the US come in the form of Gray Zone Ops that are intended to reshape the World’s view of normal. We have seen this with China’s Nine Dash Line and their attempts to recast rights associated with the Exclusive Economic Zone.

It appears Russia is trying to do the same. We have seen it in the Black Sea, and we are likely to see it in the Arctic.

The extent of Russia’s continental shelf is as yet undecided, but their claims are expansive.

Looks like China intends to do some resource extraction and fishing in the Arctic and they have not been particularly respectful of the rights of others.

The US Coast Guard will need to do fisheries protection inside the US Arctic EEZ and the Canadian CG inside theirs. There are probably going to be opportunities for cooperation and synergy between the two coast guards in the high North.

With the increase in traffic as ice melts, NOAA probably needs to do a lot of oceanographic research and survey work in the Arctic, but they are probably going to need to either build their own icebreakers or ride Coast Guard icebreakers to do it.

“While China makes Pacific islands tour, US Coast Guard is already on patrol” –CNN

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro is tied up in Suva, Fiji, during a visit to the port city April 22, 2022.  The port call was part Operation Blue Pacific, that aims to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and strengthen relationships to enhance maritime sovereignty and security throughout the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Office of the FMSRCC, Republic of Fiji Navy)

The Coast Guard got some national recognition for its work in the Western Pacific from CNN. It is being recognized as a counter to increasing Chinese influence in the region.

The Coast Guard’s website shows cutters have spent hundreds of days and steamed thousands of miles in the past two years helping Pacific island nations.

I have not seen this website, but I would like to. I found this one, but it is not a Coast Guard website.

The story mentions the Coast Guard’s role in the administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which goes well beyond fisheries. The Strategy was discussed here.

“THREE ROUNDS OF COERCION IN PHILIPPINE WATERS” –CSIS

China CG Cutter 5203

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative brings a report of Chinese tracking and harassing vessels conducting legitimate activities in the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on three occasions.

There are some things worth noting about these three encounters:

  • In the first the Taiwanese Coast Guard was successful in allowing the research vessel to complete its task. In the second encounter, the Philippines appears to have surrendered preemtively while the Chinese vessel came no closer than 0,9 miles. In the third, the two Philippine vessels were successfully intimidated and turned away by China Coast Guard vessels supported by maritime militia vessels.
  • While Chinese vessels approached these vessels and came with 100 meters in the third incident, there was no indication that they attempted to ram or block movement, though blocking did appear to be the ultimate intent in the third incident. Chinese vessels have intentionally rammed in the past, but I cannot recall a Chinese government vessel ramming another government’s vessel. Chinese maritime militia have employed this tactic.
  • In the first encounter the Taiwanese Coast Guard used some of their largest ships as escorts. 5001 is more than 5000 tons full load, larger than the Bertholf class ships (4,500 tons full load). Taiwan Coast Guard’s CG129 is also relatively large at 120 meters (394 ft). It is nominally 3,000 tons, but probably over 4,000 tons full load. China Coast Guard (CCG) 5203 is reportedly 102 meters (335 ft) in length and 14 meters of beam.  It is probably around 3,000 tons full load.
  • The two Philippine Coast Guard cutters mentioned, BRP Capones and BRP Cape Engaño were both Parola class patrol boats, built in Japan and delivered in 2017 and 2018 respectiely. These 44 meter/146 ft vessels are just a bit smaller and slower than the Webber class. They were much smaller than the CCG vessels.
  • Only the Chinese employed vessels were armed with medium caliber naval guns. I was unable to find specs or photographs of CCG 5303 or 5304 but at least CCG 5203 was armed with a modern 3″ gun. The Taiwanese vessels were armed with auto-cannon of up to 40mm. The Philippine CG vessels were armed with nothing larger than .50 cal.
  • Taiwanese and Philippine CG vessels appear to have had a speed advantage, but the CCG had a speed advantage over the vessels being escorted. In the third incident any speed advantage was also largely negated by the larger number of Chinese vessels.

It should be clear that if the Philippines intends to operate in their EEZ, in areas included in the “Nine Dash Line,” they should expect the Chinese will confront them. If they intend to operate there, they need to decide to either support the effort strongly or operate not at all. Being chased out repeatedly strengthens China’s position.

Should the Philippines decide to operate in the disputed waters, it does have some advantages at least for operations of short duration. While the China CG is much larger, the Philippines has the advantage of proximity. Far from their bases, the Chinese cannot reinforce quickly. The Philippines can surge large numbers of units the short distance from their bases quickly.

The Philippines has been pushed around. Perhaps it is time to push back. Not an escalation, but a reponse in kind.

A coordinated sweep of Chinese fishing vessels fishing illegally should be possible.

To deter shouldering, size is important, so the Philippine CG should include their largest ships.

To deter the Chinese from resorting to weapons, Philippine law enforcement vesssels should be supported by Philippine Navy vessels. It would not hurt if Philippine light attack aircraft were airborne.

It would also help if vessels of other nations, including the US, were on scene to witness the encounter.

BRP Capones in Davao Gulf. Philippine Information Agency.

Thanks to Paul for bringing this to my attention.

“Indonesia stands up to PRC’s aggressive moves in South China Sea” –Indo-Pacific Defense Forum

A China Coast Guard ship is seen from an Indonesian naval vessel during a patrol north of Indonesia’s Natuna islands. (Antara Foto via Reuters)

Indo-Pacific Defense Forum reports,

“Indonesia has successfully defended its sovereignty off the northwest coast of the island of Borneo by standing up to aggressive incursions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which maintains that its widely dismissed territorial claim in the South China Sea gives it authority to enter the area unimpeded.”

Indonesia is demonstrating it is possible to resist China’s bullying without starting a war.

“From Chinese ambition to Saami tradition, an Arctic snapshot” –The Watch

A small-boat crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley medevacs a man from the Chinese research vessel Xue Long, 15 nautical miles from Nome, Alaska, in 2017

NORTHCOM’s on-line magazine, “The Watch,” reports on a conference on the Arctic. This is a follow-on to an earlier post.

The Watch report looks at China’s interests and roles in the Arctic and a perspective from a representative of indigenous peoples in the European Arctic.

“On the front lines against China, the US Coast Guard is taking on missions the US Navy can’t do” –Business Insider

US Coast Guard cutter Munro transits the Taiwan Strait with US Navy destroyer USS Kidd in August. US Navy

Business Insider reports on the increasing demand signal for Coast Guard assets in the Western Pacific and the necessary balancing act that results. They sum it up this way.

  • The US military has turned more of its attention to the Pacific amid competition with China.
  • The Coast Guard has been key, conducting missions other services aren’t equipped or allowed to do.
  • But it already has worldwide commitments, and higher demand in the Pacific could tax its resources.

None of this should come as a surprise to regular readers here, but it is a nice overview and there are some beautiful photos.

Perhaps more importantly these realities are being brought to a general audience.

Thanks to Mike B. for bringing this to my attention.