Tuesday, 28 August 2012

South Asia and gunboat diplomacy. The emerging lessons identified from recent disputes.

In recent weeks there have been a growing number of reports about territorial disputes between various nations in South East Asia, including Japan, Korea, the Philippines and China. These disputes seem to be marked by common features, namely the use of maritime assets in near conflict to push the case for a nations sovereignty over a particular island group or Archipelago. There has been plenty of film footage shot of warships, coastguard vessels and even protest groups publicly coming close to blows to pursue various nations territorial claims.

The purpose of this short article is consider whether there are any emerging lessons for the wider maritime environment coming out from these disputes. Humphreys view is that they have highlighted a number of points worth remembering.

 The Vessel is the Nation, the Nation is the Vessel.
One message emerging clearly from the disputes is that to many nations, using naval vessels (or coastguard / paramilitary vessels) is a means of asserting national pride and sovereignty. Warships occupy a peculiar place in the heart of a nations psyche – most people in the UK can remember the loss of HMS SHEFFIELD, but would struggle to tell you the names of any service person killed in Afghanistan over the summer. A warship is much more than just a steel machine, it is the embodiment of a nations pride and treasure, her decks represent national turf, and her appearance is a symbol of the nation. The loss of a warship, or her grounding, damage or even being boxed in by other nations represents more than just a minor tactical problem; it is a huge blow to national pride.

One thing clearly emerging from these disputes is the continued place at the heart of national pride held by many nations’ navies. The loss of face caused by a vessel being boxed in, or the stubborn unwillingness to up anchor and leave, represents both national pride, and a desire to avoid humiliation.

Many of these on-going disputes would arguably have had far less public impact had they involved two Companies of soldiers facing off against each other. It is easy to film a warship from a distance, far harder to show troops dug in and prepared for action. A warship represents a very visible sign of a nations determination to push a particular course of action, or to assert its claim. The old maxim of ‘sending a gunboat’ remains true to this day – dispatching a vessel shows a nation is willing to stake national prestige over an issue in a manner which the dispatch of ground forces, or over flights cannot do.

The first lesson identified would be this:


1.       Warships will continue to be the most physical representation of a nations security policy, and the desire to avoid humiliation may cause escalations in tensions.

Sustainability is everything
In the disputes over the various island groups, archipelagos and groups of rocks in the region, one thing remains common; the complete reliance on external assistance by people based on these locations to sustain their way of life. Unlike other island groups elsewhere, most of the disputed territories are barely able to support human life, being short of arable land, potable water, and the other necessities of life. Anyone landing on these islands to make a political protest is utterly reliant on the sea to provide them with their support.

For nations seeking to put forward an assertive policy, it is not enough to put people onto these islands, control of the sea lanes remains essential too. Any nation wishing to support their people, and prevent them starving to death, will have to possess the ability to exert sufficient control to get supply vessels through on a continual basis. Therefore, the second lesson identified would be:

2.       Future island based territorial disputes will rely on effective maritime force to be sustainable. A nation without the ability to sustain a distant territorial claim will face certain humiliation.

The Sea is a Battlefield
One key factor in these disputes has been the sight of vessels practically ramming each other or blocking each other’s ability to manoeuvre effectively. Again this shows the importance, and danger, of maritime power – aircraft would not be able to engage in such manoeuvres, at least not without causing a crash, while land forces exchanging blows would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

The maritime environment permits nations to engage in proxy conflict in a manner unthinkable in other domains. At the same time, it has potential to cause even greater accidental escalation when things go wrong. All it takes is poor weather jolting a ship at the wrong time, or a misjudged decision to both turn into each other’s course (thus ignoring the Rules of the Road), and suddenly catastrophe looms. Look at the collision between HMS ARK ROYAL and a Kotlin class destroyer in the Med in 1975, or at various RN warships with Icelandic trawlers during the ‘cod war’ – these sort of disputes can cause real damage to vessels, and in the worst cases get people killed. This returns to the first point- where national pride is at stake, the sea can be a dangerous place to have a disagreement. In 1904 the Russians nearly came to the brink of war with the UK when they mistook a trawler fleet for Japanese torpedo boats, opening fire and killing many innocent fishermen. The same could occur in this sort of dispute – poor timing, or poor judgement on the part of an Officer of the Watch could see his nation on the brink of war. This then leads to further lessons:

3.       Confidence building measures at sea are essential to avoid conflict. Nations in dispute need to invest in ‘hotlines’ to try and ensure accidents are not mistaken as an act of war.


4.       There needs to be effective training of, and trust invested in, junior officers to give them the confidence to carry out ship handling without worrying that it could start a war. Good training is everything.

 The Navy is not always the answer – but ensure you have joined up Government
One interesting sight is the way in which some disputes are not carried out using traditional naval vessels, but instead through government agencies. The Chinese government has multiple agencies with a maritime constabulary role, many of which have been drawn into territorial disputes. This highlights the importance of investing in not just a navy, but a wider constabulary fleet. The deployment of a warship is a serious escalatory measure, and not always a welcome one in a crisis. A nation only possessing warships has no other means of visibly upping the ante in the event that a dispute continues. By contrast the deployment of other Government vessels can sometimes highlight a Governments concern on a specific situation without involving military personnel. At the same time though, it is essential that each different department is working to a joined up plan – if one agency has different rules of engagement to another, then there is a real danger of crisis escalation.

5.       Investing in joined up government, building trusted relationships between departments, and ensuring common approach to ROE is essential to avoid escalation of maritime disputes.

6.       Government investment in effective Maritime constabulary will be of increasing importance in the 21st century, as a means of demonstrating concern, without resorting to military involvement.

7.       The nature of conflict in the maritime environment means it is less likely that shots will be fired, but that any ramping up of the stand-off could rapidly escalate out of control.

OPVs are neither glamorous or sexy, but they have staying power
A strong case can be made that frigates, while vital to high end naval capability, are probably the wrong vessel for the sort of blockade duties we see occurring in the region. A frigate is a highly complex vessel, capable of projecting power and defending itself against a range of threats. Is it the best vessel though to try to spend weeks or months in a standoff with another nations rusty old tug or NGO supporters in a boat? Similarly, if things turn more physical and ships start colliding, the potential loss of a frigate to heavy damage, forcing it to depart from the scene would not only cause national humiliation, but reduce many nations front line force. By contrast, the presence of OPVs, able to maintain station for long periods of time, which are not hugely complex, but which can sit and engage in stand offs with other nations are likely to be increasingly important. They can take damage without the same loss of pride or capability, and can spend days, weeks or months sitting in a region without reducing wider naval high end capabilities.

8.       Investment in OPVs will be an increasing priority for some nations, probably ahead of higher end capabilities. Similarly, supply and replenishment vessels extending the ability to remain at sea will become more important.

It's clear that there will be more of these disputes over time, as nations grow more assertive over sovereignty, and resources diminish. There will be more such disputes in the future, and although they may not meet the more popular image of naval combat, they reflect the continued and age old tradition of ‘blockade’. There is a danger that without proper investment in command and control, better co-ordination of a complex range of government assets, then situations could rapidly spiral out of control. Nations are unlikely to take the loss of a major warship or vessel lightly, so although shooting wars between countries over territorial disputes remain highly unlikely, when they do occur, then the consequences could be very grave indeed.

This is just a quick set of ideas, designed to try and think out about the potential implications of the growing number of maritime territorial disputes in the world. They were formulated in the authors head during a long running session recently, and reflect possibly some quite ‘immature’ thinking. Humphrey would welcome comments from readers as to whether they agree or disagree, as this is an area where a very healthy debate can be had.



  1. Alfred_the_Great28 August 2012 at 22:26


    I'm not really sure, but I don't know why. I think it's a combination of the fact that the RN isn't involved and that this is mainly a SE Asia problem, which not an area I am au fait with. I think the exam question might be who benefits from a conflict? Following the good German's maxim, what are the politics involved - pissing China off, exploiting natural resources, getting the US on their side, etc etc? Only from that can we worry about Naval Operational Art and Tactics....

  2. Interesting read, not so sure either - we have interested in the region, but who knows when resources become more constrained and population continues its climb... I think if there was ever such need for action there, away from the usual frigate or typhoon squadron waving the flag over there... it'd be banded together in an EU/UN force...

  3. The aim of the post wasnt really to do with the RN, more some general thoughts about the nature of conflict. the chance of the RN being involved in this sort of event is very low (see my posts on the UK involvement in Asia pacific for more details).

  4. Hi Sir Humphrey

    From who's perspective where you looking for?

    China has already started with the new type 056 corvette that will replace/ augment the six Type 037 corvettes. In the littoral environment a smaller, cheaper vessel is going to be preferred due to the inherent risk of ships being operated in that environment. No navy is willing to lose an expensive ship with a large crew as you said in your article.

    Though both India and China's will focus to some extent on creating a good mix of vessels to operate in these littoral waters. Both have the desire to join the big league and be able to operate a proper blue water navy that can operate globally. This desire may mean that OPVs/corvettes aren't given so much attention but as both countries are experiencing rapid growth they should see an expanding navy.

    The USA though has the problem that they need/want a navy that has global reach for their role as world superpower/policeman. Corvettes and OPV especially don't fit with this requirement as they don't have the range or the same status as "destroyers, carriers". Of course they have tried to rectify this with the LCS which in my view is too expensive to operate in the littorals. I personally feel the Americans will rely on their allies in the region S.Korea, Japan etc to provide corvettes/OPV to control littoral areas while their fleet can maintain complete dominance in the blue water environment.

    The main strategic interest of the UK apart from trade is the British Indian ocean territories. Though this is in the middle of the Indian ocean which needs a well equipped blue navy. Though I do think it would be best for the UK to operate a more OPVs/corvettes that could replace destroyers/frigates currently being used to stop piracy and drug smuggling.

  5. Alfred_the_Great30 August 2012 at 08:47

    Why would you take an OPV over a FF? If I'm going to go into a (putative) fight I'd take the biggest stick I could find - so I'm bringing a FF. If I'm bringing a big stick you can bet the other side(s) will be bringing a big stick too.

    I reckon a helicopter can increase my sustainability and give me extra ISR reach. If necessary I could RAS, but more likely I'll head back from the South China Sea to re-fuel, re-store and then bugger off again in a couple of days.

    But I'll come back to the political point - what are they trying to achieve?

    1. "Why would you take an OPV over a FF? If I'm going to go into a (putative) fight I'd take the biggest stick I could find - so I'm bringing a FF. If I'm bringing a big stick you can bet the other side(s) will be bringing a big stick too."

      Because an OPV costs about 1/3 of a FF. The problem is you "have to make the stick and you only have so much wood" From a strategic point of view you start small when trying to asset your claim to a territory so that in the case of rivalry you can escalate tensions. If you deploy your most expensive bit of kit to a region what can you do to escalate matters? Declare war?

      "I reckon a helicopter can increase my sustainability and give me extra ISR reach. If necessary I could RAS, but more likely I'll head back from the South China Sea to re-fuel, re-store and then bugger off again in a couple of days. "

      I don't quite understand your point here.

      They are trying to dismiss other peoples claim while asserting theirs so that any resources in the disputed territory can be claimed as theirs.

    2. Alfred_the_Great31 August 2012 at 08:22

      I bet that most nations would rather take a FF - if they can't afford them I'm not sure they get to play the big boy's game that is annexing territory.

      The point I was making re a helo (which can't be embarked in an OPV) is that it is a force multiplier - it can either fly back to home base or conduct ISR - it is in effect an extra hull in many ways.

  6. For constabulary duties in a low-threat environment, OPVs are fine. For anything else they aren't. A situation could quickly escalate and the OPV find itself facing a threat which it is not equipped to meet, with potentially disastrous consequences. In my opinion, a frigate equipped with a helicopter and able to intervene/defend itself robustly if needed is a much better option.

    1. What does the RN do most of the time? How many times do you think it has torpedoes,missiles being fired at any vessels. While a situation can progress and change, intelligence and other information gathering techniques mean that a commander should know the threat and when an OPV needs to leave an area for its own protection. Should that government/navy still want influence in the area it can then dispatch a more sophisticated vessel/fleet that can cope with the threat level. An OPV can carry a helicopter like an FF/DD.

    2. Anon well not quite... OPV are fine for several soft power low threat missions and can be armed better initially. Also space and weight allowances can allow for quick upgrades when needed. Key is OPVs can be procured at lower per unit cost therefore more to relieve the corvette/warships which are presumably more expensive and fewer.
      I agree a key desing distinction is the avaition capability. While many curren OPVs have small helo/UAV decks, most corvettes & frigates NEED a much better flight deck and aviation support capability.

    3. mick 346
      And what happens if a situation suddenly escalates and there is no time to withdraw the OPV and send a more capable vessel? A lightly armed OPV could be regarded as a soft target and therefore invite hostile action. Also, as leesea points out, OPVs tend to have small flight decks and no hangar facilities which limits their effectiveness as platforms for helicopter operations.

      But higher specification or larger hulls to allow for upgrades = significantly increased costs. The danger is that you end up with a ship 1/2 the price of a frigate with 1/4 the capability, therefore relatively poor value for money.

    4. One of the things to consider is how likely is it that things will turn violent. My instinct is that shooting wars between warships are far less likely now - the danger for escalation is too great.
      What I believe we will see is conflict by proxy - the stand offs, the ramming, the general face off, but we will not see much, if any, physical conflict. Hence my view that OPVs will be a more useful asset in the medium term, so that they can stand off and maintain presence.

    5. My concern there is that significant anti-ship nastiness is proliferating beyond warships and nation states: Lebanese Hezbollah's acquisition of C802 and C704 missiles is a good example.

      "Conflict by proxy" may involve some quite dangerous kit being thrown around, and assuming that OPVs won't find themselves engaged by it, or will have warning time to withdraw or be backed up, is... not exactly in accordance with the historical precedents.

  7. I would like to raise another point relating to this topic, which is the rise in the number of diesel submarines in the region. As has been proven in the pasts such weapons have proved extremely effective and having such vessels complicates matters for any nation that wishes to operate vessels in the region.

    " Future island based territorial disputes will rely on effective maritime force to be sustainable. A nation without the ability to sustain a distant territorial claim will face certain humiliation."

    This could be very true of smaller nations using asymmetrical tactics such as submarines to blockade islands

    1. I agree. And to counter the potential threat posed by SSKs a capable ASW frigate is a lot more use than an OPV!

    2. Who in the region operates effective SSK fleets though? Beyond the well known players (Japan, China, Korea), most nations have no real SSK capability, or at best a tiny embryonic capability.

    3. REF "http://www.globalfirepower.com/navy-submarines.asp"

      China 63
      N. Korea 58
      India 15
      Japan 14
      Singapore 6
      Taiwan 4
      Indonesia 2
      Malaysia 2

      Its rather hard to comment on the effectiveness of each nations submarines but in local operations i would assume they have at least some proficiency.

      Anonymous while frigates are needed to counter the threat of Submarines, there are other missions that need to be carried out. These can be done more effectively by a OPV while a helicopter on board can threaten enemy ships/submarines or protect the OPV from these threats.

    4. Mick

      A good use of stats, but lets try and break them down a bit more. Of that list, the North Koreans have likely got barely any operational and I would place a very large wager that their operational experience outside a narrow coastal strip in their area is hugely limited. In home waters I'd have some concern. In more distant waters, then I'd be impressed to see a DPRK boatr present.
      The Taiwanese fleet is not only aging (2 x ex US SSK, 2 x Dutch SSK, earliest is nearly 30), but its primarily optimised as a deterrent against the PRC Chinese. It is unlikely that it would be risked away from home waters.
      The Malaysians are still working their fleet up (the French provided them with boats that couldnt actually submerge), while the Indonesians are having some problems ensuring their boats are operational (media reports suggest 2 x senior Indonesian personnel were killed during trials on an SSK recently).
      What I would say is that you need to look at the operational status, the effectivness, the intended role of the SSK fleet and also how worked up it really is.
      I'm not trying to discount that there is a clear SSK threat, but I think its unreasonable to suggest that there are 164 SSKs / SSNs fully worked up and ready to go. My own personal estimate is at a vastly lower figure...

    5. The North Koreans may play close to home, but that doesn't mean they lack all capability: remember the CHEONAN?

      The problem is that, like the Persian Gulf, we may have to go to their back yard and deal with what they can throw at us there: life would be far simpler if our concern with the Iranians (for example) was limited to keeping them out of the North Sea and the Western Approaches...