Will the Pentagon Respond to Chinese Media Reports of Rockets in the South China Sea?

South China Sea Analysis: Could US strategy in the South China Sea involve a new use for artillery weapons in the region?

A Chinese state-run Defense Times newspaper has said Norinco CS/AR-1 55mm anti-frogman rocket launcher defense systems with the capability to discover, identify and attack enemy combat divers had been installed on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.

While Pentagon officials did not wish to specifically comment on this report, saying they do not discuss intelligence matters, officials are clear that the US military "watches the area closely," Cmdr. Gary Ross, Pentagon spokesman, told Scout Warrior. 

While few are likely to view this particular development as extremely provocative, the presence of these weapons are, most likely, not a surprise to the Pentagon. However, the Pentagon has been very vocal in its criticism of China for "militarizing" the region, in some cases placing mobile artillery in disputed areas. 

It is not clear how long the weapons have been there, multiple reports say. However, the Chinese paper did specify that the rockets were in place to defend against Vietnamese divers from encroaching upon their territorial waters. The anti-frogman rockets could well have been in place since 2014, according to the state-run report, which cited a need to prevent Vietnamese divers from installing fishing nets in the area. 

The rockets were placed in the Fiery Cross Reef, a hotly contested area of the Spratly Islands; it is a Reef administered by China but also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, according to a report from Reuters. 

Continued tensions in the region come as senior Army and Pentagon strategists and planners consider ways to fire existing weapons platforms in new ways around the globe – including the possible placement of mobile artillery units in areas of the South China Sea to, if necessary, function as air-defense weapons to knock incoming rockets and cruise missiles out of the sky.

Having mobile counter-air weapons such as the M109 Paladin, able to fire 155m precision rounds on-the-move, could prove to be an effective air-defense deterrent against Chinese weapons in the region. 

The U.S. has a nuanced or complicated relationship with China involving both rivalry and cooperation; the recent Chinese move to put surface-to-air missiles on claimed territory in the South China Sea has escalated tensions and led Pentagon planners to consider various options.

Officials are clear to emphasize that no decisions have been made along these lines, yet it is one of the things being considered. Pentagon officials have opposed further militarization of the area and emphasized that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea need to be resolved peacefully and diplomatically. 

At the same time, Pentagon officials have publically stated the U.S. will continue “freedom of navigation” exercises wherein Navy ships sail within 12 miles of territory claimed by the Chinese - and tensions are clearly on the rise.  In addition to these activities, it is entirely possible the U.S. could also find ways to deploy more offensive and defensive weapons to the region.   

Naturally, a move of this kind would need to involve close coordination with U.S. allies in the region, as the U.S. claims no territory in the South China Sea. However, this would involve the deployment of a weapons system which has historically been used for offensive attacks on land. The effort could use an M777 Howitzer or Paladin, weapons able to fire 155m rounds. 

“We could use existing Howitzers and that type of munition (155m shells) to knock out incoming threats when people try to hit us from the air at long ranges using rockets and cruise missiles,” a senior Army official said.

Howitzers or Paladins could be used as a mobile, direct countermeasures to incoming rockets, he said.  A key advantage to using a Paladin is that it is a mobile platform which could adjust to moving or fast-changing approaching enemy fire.

“A Howitzer can go where it has to go. It is a way of changing an offensive weapon and using it in dual capacity,” the official explained. “This opens the door to opportunities and options we have not had before with mobile defensive platforms and offensive capabilities."

Mobile air defenses such as an Army M777 or Paladin Howitzer weapon could use precision rounds and advancing fire-control technology to destroy threatening air assets such as enemy aircraft, drones or incoming artillery fire.

They would bring a mobile tactical advantage to existing Army air defenses such as the Patriot and Theater High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which primarily function as fixed-defense locations, the senior Army official said.

The M777 artillery weapon, often used over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, can fire the precision GPS-guided Excalibur artillery round able to destroy targets within one meter from up to 30-kilometers or more away.  Naturally, given this technology, it could potentially be applied as an air-defense weapon as well.

Using a Howitzer or Paladin could also decrease expenses, officials said.  

“Can a munition itself be cheaper so we are not making million dollar missiles to shoot down $100,000 dollar incoming weapons,” the Army official said.

While Pentagon officials did not formally confirm the prospect of working with allies to place weapons, such as Howitzers, in the South China Sea, they did say the U.S. was stepping up its coordination with allies in the region.

Strategic Capabilities Office

The potential use of existing weapons in new ways is entirely consistent with an existing Pentagon office which was announced publically last year.  It is called the Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO, stood up to look at integrating innovating technologies with existing weapons platforms – or simply adapting or modifying existing weapons for a wider range of applications.

“I created the SCO in 2012 when I was deputy secretary of defense to help us to re-imagine existing DOD and intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies -- the emphasis here was on rapidity of fielding, not 10 and 15-year programs.  Getting stuff in the field quickly,” former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last year.

Senior Army officials say the SCO office is a key part of what provides the conceptual framework for the ongoing considerations of placing new weaponry in different locations throughout the Pacific theater.  An Army consideration to place Paladin artillery weapons in the South China Sea would be one example of how to execute this strategic framework.

In fact, the Pentagon is vigorously stepping up its support to allies in the Pacific theater. A 2016 defense law, called the Southeast Asia Maritme Security Initiative, provides new funding to authorize a Department of Defense effort to train, equip, and provide other support to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, Pentagon officials explained. 

Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter committed $425M over Fiscal Years 2016-2020 for MSI (Maritime Security Initiative), with an initial investment of $50M available in fiscal year 2016 toward this effort, Pentagon officials said. 

Army Rebalance to the Pacific

While the Army is naturally immersed in activities with NATO to deter Russian movements in Eastern Europe and maintaining missions in Iraq and Afghanistan – the service has not forsaken its commitment to pursuing a substantial Army component to the Pentagon’s Pacific rebalance.

Among other things, this involves stepped up military-to-military activities with allies in the region, coordinating with other leaders and land armies, and efforts to move or re-posture some weapons in the area.“The re-balance to the Pacific is more than military, it is an economic question. the Army has its hands full with the Middle East and with Europe and is dealing with a resurgent problem in Europe and North Africa,” an Army official said. “We have been able to cycle multiple units through different countries,” the senior official said.  

Also, the pentagon has made the Commander of Army Pacific a 4-star General, a move which enables him to have direct one-to-one correspondence with his Chinese counterpart and other leaders in the region, he added.

As of several years ago, the Army had 18,500 Soldier stationed in Korea, 2,400 in Japan, 2,000 in Guam, 480 in the Philippines, 22,300 in Hawaii and 13,500 in Alaska. The service continues to support the national defense strategy by strengthening partnerships with existing allies in the region and conduction numerous joint exercises, service officials said.

“The ground element of the Pacific rebalance is important to ensure the stability in the region," senior officials have said. Many of the world's largest ground armies are based in the Pacific. 

Also, in recent years Army documents have emphasized the need for the service to increase fire power in the Pacific to increased fielding of THAAD, Patriot and the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS in the Pacific region. ATACMS is a technology which delivers precision fires against stationary or slow-moving targets at ranges up to 300 km., Army officials have said. In 2013, the Army did deploy THAAD missile systems to Guam. More recently, THAAD has been deployed to South Korea in light of growing tensions on the Korean peninsula. 

Army officials have also called for the development of a land-based anti-ship ballistic missile, directed energy capability, and additional land-based anti-ship fires capabilities such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System.

Army officials have also called for the support a potential adaptation of the RGM-84 Harpoon and the development of boost-glide entry warheads able to deploy “to hold adversary shipping at risk all without ever striking targets inland.

Boost-glide weapons use rocket-boosted payload delivery vehicles that glide at hypersonic speeds in the atmosphere. An increase in the Army’s investment in boost-glide technology now could fast track the Army’s impact in the region. 

UN Law of the Sea Convention

The group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea, called the Spratly Islands, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region. Some of the islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, 

Pentagon officials have widely criticized an ongoing Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 4,000 acres to island territories claimed by China.

The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.

 However, the Law of the Sea Convention does not recognize artificial or man-made structures and legitimate island territories to be claimed. Therefore, the U.S and its Pacific allies do not support or agree with China’s aggressive territorial claims.  In fact, citing the definition of islands articulated in the Law of the Sea Convention, Pentagon officials do not recognize the artificial structures as islands – but instead refer to the effort as “land reclamation.”

 The U.S. position is grounded in several key provisions of the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which specifies that man-made or artificial structures do not define or “constitute” legitimate island territory. The Law of the Sea also specifies that sovereign territory of a given country extend 12 miles off the coastline.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a “naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide.” Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says “artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas.”

As a result, Pentagon officials have stressed that US military forces will continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises at sea and in the air to the extent they wish – in a manner consistent with international law. On several occasions, Navy ships have deliberately sailed within a 12-mile boundary of China’s claimed territory.

Navy officials tell Scout Warrior that they may conduct additional maritime freedom of navigation exercises as well. Naturally, neither Air Force or Navy officials wish to signal any particular plans or specify a time when this may happen – however both services are clear to explain that operations of this kind are likely to continue.

 "The South China Sea is international waterspace where the U.S. Navy will continue to operate. While we cannot comment on specific operations in the South China Sea, the United States does take a strong position on upholding the principles of international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful resolution of disputes," a Navy Spokesman told Scout Warrior.

In the past, senior leaders from China’s People’s Liberation Army have asserted that the South China Sea “belongs to China,” echoing an often-mentioned mentioned Chinese territorial claim – called the nine-dash-line dating back many years – indicates that the South China Sea in its entirety is Chinese territory.

China appears to claim most, if not all of the South China Sea through its so-called nine-dash line, which vaguely asserts control, access and sovereignty over 1.4 million square miles of islands, Pentagon officials said.

 

Although U.S. officials say China has not clearly articulated what it means, the nine-dash line can be traced back to China’s ruling party from 1928 to 1949 – the Koumintang. The Koumintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Party of China took over following civil war in the country, however the concept of the nine-dash line has endured.

Naturally, U.S. senior officials and U.S. allies in the region do not recognize this Chinese claim either.

The U.N. treaty also specifies that up to 200 miles off the coast of a country is consider part of an economic exclusive zone, or EEZ. This means the host country has exclusive first rights to resources and any economic related activities. As a result, China’s “island” building could bring implications for EEZs as well.

This means countries cannot, for instance, fish in the waters of an EEZ or set up an oil-drilling effort without securing the permission of the host country. However, activities within an EEZ that do not relate to economic issues are allowed as part of the freedoms associated with the high seas, Pentagon officials explained.

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Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@Scout.com 


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