Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This week…we attended the recent WEST conference in San Diego, where we heard a variety of naval and Marine Corps speakers, had dozens of interesting conversations, and visited two shipyards as well. We’ll break down some of what we saw and heard. We’ll also revisit some of the naval aspects of Russia’s war on Ukraine and discuss what we’ve seen and learned.
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This Week’s Naval Round Up:
Three missile destroyers able to defeat incoming ballistic missiles carried out a ballistic missile defense exercise February 22 in the Sea of Japan. The demonstration by the Japanese destroyer ATAGO, South Korean destroyer SEJONG THE GREAT and USS BARRY came after North Korea launched ballistic missiles February 18th and 20th into the Sea of Japan. South Korea, Japan and the US all issued statements highlighting the North Korean missile launches and the anti-missile response. In an apparent reaction to the naval exercise, North Korea launched a further 4 ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on February 23rd. The BARRY had just left Yokosuka to return to the United States after six years operating forward-deployed in Japan.
The Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier, ADMIRAL KUZNETSOV, was refloated Feb. 21 from a floating drydock at the 35th Repair Yard near Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle. The ship has been out of service and under repair since 2018. A series of incidents, including at least two significant fires and the sinking of the drydock in which the carrier was first placed have extended the overhaul far beyond earlier completion estimates. While the ship is now afloat, Russian authorities say the work will continue at least into mid-2024.
Five unmanned vessels from the US Navy and the United Arab Emirates operated together in the Persian Gulf in a series of exercises ending February 20. It was the first US-UAE unmanned vessel exercise, and included scenarios with visual information gathered by the USVs transmitted to shoreside operations centers where artificial intelligence systems analyzed the data. More than 100 unmanned surface vessels are being operated in the Persian Gulf region by the US Navy’s Task Force 59 and several Gulf Cooperation Council partners. Also in the Persian Gulf, International Maritime Exercise 2023, or IMX 2023, is set to begin February 26. The Middle East region’s largest maritime exercise, held annually, will be combined with the east African Cutlass Express exercise, and will involve 35 ships and 7,000 personnel from more than 50 partner nations.
Austal USA delivered the expeditionary fast transport APALACHICOLA T-EPF-13 to the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command on February 16th. Fitted with systems to allow it to operate autonomously, the ship carried out extensive trials in 2022 ranging as far as the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast. MSC has no requirement for the unmanned systems, but the Navy is considering incorporating the ship into existing developmental efforts, although no decisions have been announced.
Also at Austal, the expeditionary fast transport CODY EPF 14 was christened at the company’s Mobile, Alabama shipyard on February 25. CODY is the first Flight II variant of the Spearhead-class of EPFs, fitted with an enhanced medical mission capability that can support 41 medical patients. The vessel can also operate 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats and MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.
And the final resting place of the long-lost World War II submarine USS ALBACORE SS-218 has been located, the US Navy announced February 16. The sub apparently hit a Japanese mine off the coast of Hokkaido on November 7, 1944, and was lost with all 86 crewmembers on board. During her war career, ALBACORE scored a major achievement on June 19, 1944 when she torpedoed the Japanese aircraft carrier TAIHO, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s most advanced carrier and the flagship of the Japanese carrier force gathered to oppose the US invasion of the Marianas. Damage from the torpedo hit soon led to a major gasoline fire and the TAIHO exploded and sank.
There’s an ancient military axiom that says No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy. One of the great lessons of Russia’s war on Ukraine is just that – whatever Russia’s goals were, they weren’t achieved, and something happened that was quite the opposite of what they were expecting.
Ukrainians didn’t welcome the Russians. Russia didn’t roll over Ukraine. And the even greater goal – of fracturing and even possibly disbanding NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – created exactly the opposite effect. NATO is united as never before. The clear unambiguous threat of hostile Russian military and political intentions has thrust the alliance into a truly remarkable era of agreement – and action.
China is closely watching all aspects of the conflict, taking note of what works, what doesn’t, what could have worked better if done a bit differently. There are many technical and organizational aspects within their direct control that they no doubt already are revising and updating.
One of the outstanding lessons of the war is the need for allies. No nation can do it alone. Ukraine, of course, is fighting back valiantly using tools of war pouring in from NATO countries. Russia, thought to have virtually unlimited military supplies for a prolonged ground campaign, quickly found itself coming up short and has needed weapons from other countries including China, but others– including importing aerial attack drones from Iran.
In the Pacific, the analogy to Russia invading Ukraine is that of China invading Taiwan, the so-called 32nd province of China. Taiwan cannot be invaded by land, but must be assaulted from the sea – something the Chinese communist government in Beijing clearly is preparing to do.
But what happens if the Chinese apply their overwhelming military advantage in an attack and attempted occupation of Taiwan? Will other countries in the region simply turn their backs and count their lucky stars it’s not them? Or will they come together, in a united front, to oppose and expose the Chinese threat to them all?
Every deployed US Navy ship exercises with foreign allies, and one of the mainstays of a western Pacific deployment is to show US warships operating closely with those of allies – Japan, South Korea and Australia foremost, but also including India, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and more. The region lacks an established military organizational counterpart to NATO, but bilateral, one-to-one relations with the US are strong. US Indo-Pacific Command no doubt has contingency plans to provide a structure for allies to quickly consolidate their forces to oppose a military threat.
China, by contrast, has no real friends in the region. Russia maintains a significant military presence, including the Russian Pacific Fleet based around Vladivostok, but that port is vulnerable to containment and could quickly lose its effectiveness should a conflict break out. And the Russians have shown that they lack the kind of military prowess everybody assumed they had prior to a year ago. For their part, the Chinese have their own problems. They are not omniscient, and they have many weaknesses that can be exploited.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is absolutely a wakeup call. Not just to real dangers in the world, but also to the power of resistance in opposing clear aggression. It would be interesting to see how the Chinese are evaluating that.