Tuesday, 1 October 2013

September 2013 Thoughts: Sea Basing

Global interests[1] require a global presence to protect them; which means a nation that has such interest’s needs to find a way of supporting operations globally. This can be done by forward basing, setting up establishments & agreements with allies to allow for support – i.e. a large footprint, or by using vessels such as aircraft carriers and amphibious ships to provide air support, maintenance, logistical hubs, command & control with small staging facilities ashore – i.e. a small footprint. Now both options have advantages and disadvantages; for forward basing those facilities & agreements bind nations together for good and bad (which can be potentially be embarrassing should the regime do something which does not fit with the basing nations preferred rules of conduct) but they are also a permanent platform which doesn’t need to return home for maintenance or be redeployed to a more pressing system. However, the biggest problem is that the use of those facilities can be denied at any time by the host nation – it’s not uncommon because they have to consider their own security and their own politics before anything else.

Sea basing in comparison is more complicated to set up and run; but it is also more flexible in that it can be redeployed from region to region depending upon changing operational focus, furthermore it could never be denied for use by another nation except by enemy action. A scenario is which sea basing has an advantage as it can’t be profiled, mapped and targeted using information available to anyone with access to Google maps. However, whilst an aircraft carrier or large amphibious ship, escorts and auxiliaries do cost a little more than an air base, a battalion or so of troops to secure it, a fleet of ships & trucks to supply it: the cost differences between the two systems shift though when the issues of establishing, securing & supplying multiple bases to achieve equivalent levels of global reach as the sea based system are taken into account; not to mention the political capital that would have to be expended, and the fact the sea based systems[2] are procured from within keeping the money within the national economy, rather being spent to support another’s. Sea basing though is about more than global reach, and it is because of its other geo-strategic attributes that it is of use to all nations, whatever they size/form.

From a strategic perspective countries can be profiled to fall into five categories of nation state – although they can prefaced with either the phrase aspiring or declining if that’s the case:

·         Super Power

·         Global Power

·         Regional Power

·         Local Power

The old classification of medium power is really no more; as a category it has divided into two based upon national interests/willing. A nation which used to fit in that category now is either a global power, which is a nation that needs to be able to project itself and defend its interests globally, or is a regional power, which is a nation allowed the luxury by its interests of being able to focus on the events within its region/continental area. Local Powers are small states which are mainly interested in self-defence and national security rather than national interests. A super power is of course a nation which like a global power thinks globally, but thinks it on a far bigger scale; whereas a global power will seek to react with force but maintain presence as much as possible everywhere, a super power will maintain force as much as possible everywhere. For all these nations Sea Basing can be a very useful system; even for the nations not seeking a global reach.

For smaller countries like Estonia & Israel, nations which in their strategic situation are facing at least a theoretically numerically superior land force, the sea, and sea basing, offers something which they are lacking – strategic depth. There is no space for a strategic reserve, no secure routes for it to utilise to move to be moved to position, no space for the frontline to withdraw it if becomes necessary to sacrifice space for time. The sea offers this and more, for example an amphibious vessel the size of the Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), 27,500tons, which are currently under construction by the Royal Australian Navy(RAN)[3], can provide the base for 18 aircraft and up to 1000 troops which can be moved by those aircraft or by landing craft that it also carries; therefore it has the ability to pick up and deposit troops and equipment at will.

The ship would be the strategic depth of the nation, and it’s not only in moving ships that the ‘strategic depth’ can be useful for; large enough warships carry what are called Strategic Length Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) – this means they can carry Ballistic Missile Defence Missiles (like the Raytheon SM-3) or Tactical Land Attack Missiles (like the Tomahawk), along with powerful radar’s and other sensors. Providing the nation with the capabilities necessary not only to detect and defend itself even should positions be overrun by advancing enemy, but also the ability to strike back. Now it’s not cheap and a ~£1.7billion (for both ships) is more than likely out of the range of Estonia (Defence Budget £200million), even if the Baltic powers clubbed together and bought them as a group – but the Royal Navy (RN) Bay class Landing Ship Logistics Dock (LSL(D))[4] cost £127million. Now with a hangar, increased defences and sensors that could well push £200million; so buying 2 such vessels, over 4-5 years between the defence and emergency service budgets of all Baltic states (combined defence budget of £695million, combined ministry of interior budget of ???) would be possible.

For Israel with no local ally to club together with this could be more difficult, as it is in fact virtually surrounded. However a budget of ~£9billion makes a partner less of issue; although again they might prefer something smaller than the Canberra, perhaps something like the San Giorgio class LJD[5] of the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI). These vessel displace ~8,000tons; due to this they can only accommodate only 350 soldiers, 30 tanks & 3 medium helicopters, as well as carrying 3 large landing craft and 3 small landing craft – but the design is small enough and similarly sized/equipped vessels would conceivably be cheap enough for Israel to afford 3 or even 4 to provide for her ‘strategic depth’. Allowing for rapid redeployment of armour + personnel, perhaps enabling a withdrawal – more likely considering historical Israeli strategic thinking, a daring counter attack behind the enemy front; the point is all would be enabled by the flexibility such vessels would bring the Israeli forces- as well as in times not war, supporting a global reach capability to support small operations worldwide.

It’s not only small nations which have need for such mobility and deploy-ability though; Australia, a regional power in South East Asia, if not soon the Far East as has been highlighted is building 2 medium sized LHDs.  Another example is Brazil, which not only possess a carrier and amphibious ships, but is seeking to maintain that level of force for the future[6]. Whilst both of these countries are resource exporting economies and have largish EEZs[7]; these are all concentrated – they are mainly contiguous to their coastline, they don’t include islands at the opposite end of the earth as does the UKs (which is the 5th largest EEZ in the world, and which in fact makes up ~96% of its sovereign territory[8]). So the sea basing capability is not primarily a response to those security needs; they are though a response to a problem which is the opposite of the smaller nations previously discussed, they are really big but their population and infrastructure is concentrated in specific areas meaning to support operations around their own country mobile infrastructure (such as sea basing) is of a necessity. Furthermore, these nations are seeking to project power within their region, mostly for the protection of their security and interests or to support the cause of stability and peace; which is in their interest as such conditions provide the best circumstance for trade and therefore to support economic growth. For these nations the global reach that such a system also provides is a benefit but not a primary requirement; although there is a nation which is an exception to this generalisation, Russia.

The former Superpower still has a lot of commitments, interests and the fact it spans so much of the world’s surface as well as being a link between Europe and Asia it could be argued to be a Global power; however, the political transition since the fall of communism and economic troubles of redeveloping it’s industry/economic restructuring have led to a level of investment more in keeping with it being a regional power - although it is now starting to rebuild those capabilities. It’s building up its amphibious force with French Mistral class LHDs[9] as well as launching corvettes[10] & other small ships, flexing its muscles by deploying its aircraft carrier[11] & several other ships to the Mediterranean[12] in response to the recent crisis and is announcing plans build new carriers[13] along with other ships. It’s doing this all because it’s a big country, which like Australia & Brazil does not have total infrastructural coverage[14]; but unlike them it has been a Superpower, and it liked the status, power and global resonance that came with that – Russia sees itself as a major player on the world stage, and it knows that the thing that matters in world events is being there and taking part. A nation which isn’t there isn’t involved, and if it isn’t involved then no matter how much diplomatic noise it makes it can’t really affect anything. Sea basing is an effective method of being able to turn up, to have an impact without having to take an overt and binding action which they might later regret.

Super Powers & Global powers are combined because they’re the same only one is bigger; furthermore in the current mono-polar world, whilst other nations are coming on there is still only one superpower, America. Nation & Nations which fit in these categories are all extremely ‘plugged in’ to the existing world order, this is both as a protection for their interests – which are stability, trade and adherence to the norms of international behaviour. For them the ability to operate and influence events globally is not a desire but a necessity; for them disruption in world trade could equal devastation, economically if not other forms as well.

Sea Basing is more expensive in simple terms, an aircraft carrier does cost more than an air base; the question is do 3 aircraft carriers cost more than 20-30 airbases needed to cover the world with similar coverage – and this of course is not placing a value on the fact that those bases could be denied at any time by the host government, that those bases will have to be supplied, that heavy equipment will still have to be moved by sea rather than air which will require some security of the sea and that any money spent on an air base in a foreign country is automatically go out of the source nation’s economy, whereas building a ship keeps it within the source nation’s economy; as well as serving as mobile advertisement for the source nation’s skill base & industry. This though is the accounts and the real reason to choose sea basing is the strategy, the reach, the flexibility it provides the nation possessing it with.

[1] These interests could relate to Diplomatic Commitments, Trade, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)/Resources and Strategic requirements, or of course any combination of two, three or even all.
[2] Recent procurement of MARS vessels in South Korea notwithstanding
[7] Australia’s is 8,505,348km2, and Brazil’s is 3,660,955km2 (so Australia’s is ~25% bigger than the UKs, 6,805,586km2, whilst Brazil’s ~46% smaller)
[14] It’s even building mobile nuclear reactors, an interesting way of getting round planning, security and safety issues, which countries like the UK might also want to consider. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_floating_nuclear_power_station (28/09/2013) although possibly a very high risk strategy dependent upon the regions they will be in for their security…

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