Sunday, October 28, 2018

Expensive Plaything? Consider the Tribe, the Natives and the Other Side

When defending a nation whose first military defeat may be its last, is there no price too high to pay to stave off national extinction?

With vulnerability as the start point for any discussion on expensive war machines, dissenting voices face an uphill battle making their point.

High price tag and costly sustainability over its projected life cycle? The nation can pay for it. So, Buy.

The flipside of not buying? Apocalyptic, nightmarish scenarios where the nation will pay a far higher price if certain capabilities are absent. So, Buy.

One does not have to resort to scare mongering to drive the point home. And in situations where theoretical possibilities are discussed and nobody has the definitive answer, it is natural and expected that one should err on the side of caution. So, Buy.

Unique to certain nations, the acquisition of high-priced armaments exerts a dynamic that goes beyond superficial arguments of whether one is getting bang for buck. Performance data will often be used to debunk skeptics. Mind you, these data points use numbers that outsiders like you and I will be forced to take at face value because the data is often hard to verify as they concern operationally sensitive or commercially competitive matters. You will find it virtually impossible to apply Reagan's advice to "trust but verify" when it comes to establishing whether MTBF, life cycle cost or cost per flight hour are what they are made out to be.

The dynamic we are talking about concerns human factors that impact feelings in the tribe, among the natives and also how people on the other side of the border view any arms purchase.

The Tribe
If we agree that expensive war machines have shrugged off teething issues and work as advertised, one has to work through the difficult issue of who gets to use these silver bullets.

Peculiar to geographies where CEP does not simply refer to weapon accuracy but the current estimated potential of men and women who step forward to serve the armed forces, this is a tricky issue.

There have been past instances where book smarts does not equate street smarts. Add a complex environment where one has to fight in three dimensions and one gets to realise why individuals with the right stuff are so highly cherished in established air forces.

But if one is to treat a command tour as a tick in the box, then you have a problem when an expensive war machine is used like a stage prop, or worst, a crutch so that a high flier has something nice to show on the resume, whatever the shortcomings. It's been done before: Sunrays who are extinguished within the opening bouts of mock battles. CMIs who miss the datum by minutes when precision is expected/demanded. Highly esteemed leaders who need someone to countercheck every command call.

Among the Few, those hand-picked to operate expensive war machines will emerge primus inter pares. In a highly-competitive environment with many talented individuals to choose from, it is up to the system to demonstrate that they truly deserve their perch.

The Natives
While what goes on within the tribe (usually) stays within the tribe, people deserve to know what they are paying for.

There's usually something nice to write about new war machines, more so for expensive ones. You can count on the arms factory concerned to trot out an impressive list of war-winning attributes for its product.

With an eye-popping price tag, one should hope tax payers get what they pay for.

The flip side is what happens if and when the armament fails to deliver. Defence enthusiasts would probably have come across the statistic of a certain warplane with a combat record of a hundred plus victories with zero losses. It makes a useful factoid journalists are likely to use. But that same war machine fielded against a rag tag militia (with no air force worth talking about) has not only failed to quell the opposition but is said to have been clawed out of the sky by ground-based air defences. Did the much-touted warplane deter? No. Did it defeat the enemy decisively? No.

The shock effect of situations where the highly-acclaimed fall from grace is magnified for small nations, particularly those with net-savvy natives. This means one should mind those sound bites right from the get go and not get blown away with the hype in an attempt to justify cost.

The Other Side
While mindsets in places with a tame mainstream media can be managed with careful curation of information, how folks across the border view new armaments is beyond one's control.

If new weapon platforms and systems deter or at the very least impress, then this is a good outcome.

But if for all the hype and ballyhoo nothing stirs in their loins (i.e. balls shrink), then you have a problem.

In some armed forces, it is popular and even fashionable to study the success in battle of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF's ability to bounce back from surprise attack from multiple foes, their conduct of a short war wrapped up in less than a week, their wielding of air and tank heavy forces with aplomb have won them acclaim and admiration from untested forces eager to emulate their mastery of the art and science of war.

Where Arab armies failed, a small force in Lebanon has proven otherwise. Combatants from Hezbollah have fought the IDF to bloody stalemates with no warplanes and no tanks. Their battle staff has been content to allow IDF complete air supremacy, knowing full well IDF warplanes are virtually useless once the rockets fly.

You can bet the neighbours will watch with interest whatever new kit is fielded.

Once can expect the difficult gestation for new platforms to be alluded to by observers on the other side. Snarky remarks are par for the course.

What's even more noteworthy and more difficult to discern - unless one makes the effort to know the neighbours better - is any pivot in their understanding of how warfare might be conducted if forced to decisive battle on their soil, and their confidence in emulating conditions that led to the IDF stalemate even if it means going to Paradise.

If the new playbook by the other side works, then you have a problem because the new, expensive war machine will fail to deter even before it arrives.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Best parts about the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (Malaysian Armed Forces)

The Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) has weathered the ups and downs of many economic cycles/crisis which have affected its defence budget.

Despite occasional bouts of belt-tightening, the ATM has scored noteworthy achievements in its transformation from a COIN-oriented to a full-spectrum conventional warfare force.

Shrewd defence planning by committed ATM staff officers willing to challenge conventional thinking has resulted in the following features that make the Malaysian war machine a force to be reckoned with:

* Tentara Darat (Malaysian Army) is the region's biggest user of M134 7.62mm miniguns (Indonesia's TNI is number 2). With a rate of fire of 50 rounds per second, the minigun is an ideal weapon for the ATM's anti-invasion block force.

* Malaysia will operate the smallest attack helicopter in Southeast Asia, the MD-530G Little Bird. Pound for pound, the yet-to-be-delivered Little Bird will be the region's most heavily-armed attack helo. Its diminutive size makes it ideal for out-of-base operations in jungle/plantation landing pads.

* TUDM is armed with the region's fastest anti-radiation missile, the Russian-made supersonic Kh-31P missile, tailored made to hunt and neutralise integrated air defence networks.

* An innovative naval staff worked closely with Malaysian industry partners to convert a former Petroliam Nasional mobile offshore production unit and an Malaysian International Shipping Corporation cargo ship as Sea Bases. This is HANRUH - Pertahanan Menyeluruh (Total Defence) - in action.

* TLDM (Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia, Royal Malaysian Navy) has been operating naval helicopters for years earlier than the Singapore navy. TLDM started with the Westland Wasp HAS.1 before trading these old birds for the Super Lynx 300 naval helicopter, which Malaysia ordered as its launch customer.

* Malaysia has as many air bases in West Malaysia as Singapore but has numerous (60+) alternate bases in the form of civilian airports, plantation and austere airstrips to disperse its air assets.

* TUDM was the first air force in Southeast Asia to train with United States Air Force F-22 Raptors. This took place during Eksesais Cope Taufan in June 2014.

* Speaking of HANRUH, multiple Malaysian agencies such as the National Security Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, Lembaga Tabung Haji (haji pilgrims fund board) and Markas TUDM (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia, HQ Royal Malaysian Air Force) planned and executed the farthest and largest non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) flown by a Southeast Asian air force. This was done at short notice with no opportunity for rehearsal. Codenamed Operasi Piramid, the February 2011 NEO airlifted Malaysian nationals from riot-torn Egypt using aircraft from TUDM, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. TUDM sent three C-130H-30s to the Middle East within 24 hours of activation, with airliners augmenting TUDM thereafter. A total of 3,482 Malaysians were airlifted via 18 sorties flown by TUDM and Niner-Mike assets.

* The ATM has far lower rates of myopia among its warfighters than the SAF compared to a neighbouring country.

* Malaysia has more hard copy and digital defence periodicals than Singapore to win hearts and minds.

* ATM's psywar network has amassed hard-won experience from the two emergencies.

* Malaysian forces are among the few in the world to have fought and defeated a communist insurgency.

* Jungle warfare expertise of ATM is world-renowed.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Aboard JMSDF ship JS Kaga in Singapore: Design shows lessons learned from Pacific War aircraft carrier operations

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) started the Pacific War with some of the most advanced, largest and innovative aircraft carrier designs in that era. By the end of hostilities in 1945, the IJN had learned hard lessons from the flaws in design and operational employment of its fleet carriers, light carriers, escort carriers, as well as aviation-capable ships such as the Ise-class hybrid battleships and Mogami-class aircraft carrying heavy cruisers.

Operational and technical matters aside, the failure to recognise the extent to which its naval code had been compromised by Royal Navy and United States Navy cryptographers and inadequate anti-submarine protection also contributed to the loss of many IJN vessels.

An opportunity to tour the JS Kaga showed that the ship's designers have incorporated lessons learned from aircraft carrier operations in the past. Kaga is the second of the two-ship Izumo-class, which are the largest surface combatants in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

Hurricane bow: The enclosed bow was a feature of the British Pacific Fleet's fleet carriers. This design feature improves sea keeping in heavy seas. Only one IJN aircraft carrier, Taiho, had her bow fully enclosed. JMSDF Izumo-class helicopter destroyers and the smaller Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers were built with enclosed bows.

Island superstructure: You might think an island on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier helicopter destroyer is a basic necessity. But IJN carriers like the Zuiho-class, Ryujo, Ryuho and smaller Taiyo-class escort carriers among others dispensed with the island totally, making these ships quite literally flattops. Over in England, the Royal Navy's WW2 aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, was also built with a flattop and no island superstructure.

IJN carriers such as the Akagi and Hiryu had their islands built on the "wrong side", i.e. on their port side when designs of the period all tended to place the island on the starboard side of the carrier. The reasoning was that the landing pattern for Akagi and her carrier division partner, Kaga, could take place simultaneously with both carriers sailing alongside.

The vertical funnel trunked within the JS Kaga's superstructure marks a departure from previous Japanese designs that had a curved funnel that vented the exhaust efflux downward towards the sea. JS Kaga follows current design convention where the island superstructure is offset to starboard.

Hangar and elevator deck: JMSDF Izumo-class ships have two methods to move her air group from the hangar to the flight deck. Helicopters can be lifted by the elevator or deck edge lift. Note that US Navy Nimitz-class carriers have ditched the deck elevator totally, with her designers opting instead for the deck edge lifts. Among the advantages of the deck edge lifts is the freeing up of precious hangar space. Kaga's deck plan above shows that the deck elevator well occupies about 20% of the floor area on the hangar deck. Deck edge lifts also allow oversized aircraft to move between hangar and flight deck, without dimensional limits imposed by the deck elevators. In addition, there is a school of thought that the deck elevators compromise the integrity of the flight deck with the large opening. 

During the Pacific War, dive bomber pilots used to aim their bombs at the carrier's deck elevators as a successful hit on the elevator would have a better chance of penetrating to the hangar deck. IJN carriers such as the Hiryu and Taiho both had their elevators inoperable/jammed after dive bomber and torpedo attacks. 

Kaga's deck plan also shows that the hangar deck can be sub divided into four separate compartments. This improves the ship's survivability by preventing fires from spreading quickly in the hangar as the compartments are screened off from one another by blast-proof doors.

Kaga's deck elevator takes about 20 seconds to move from the hangar to the flight deck. 

Kaga's hangar, looking towards the bow and the deck elevator in "down" position. When Kaga is closed up for action stations, the view forward would extend till the first row of blast-proof doors that will move into position on rails visible on the hangar roof, at the frame just before the yellow forklift on the ship's portside.

A single blast door is used to seal off the hanger from the deck edge lift, turning the hangar into an armoured box. Note the arrangement of pulleys at the left side of the door. The US Navy's USS Wasp (CV-7) successfully pioneered the use of a deck edge lift and this feature was added to the Essex-class fleet carriers.

Eleven panels of blast-proof doors seal off a compartment on Kaga's hangar deck. On US Navy Nimitz-class carriers, the conflagaration or CONFLAG stations seal off their sections using blast doors that move into position from either side of the hanger. On Kaga, these doors roll into place from the ship's portside. Such doors prevent fire from spreading quickly throughout the hangar, isolating damage within sealed compartments for fire-fighting and damage control teams to deal with.

Inside Kaga's spacious wheelhouse, with flat screen navigation panels and the ship's wheel (below). Air traffic control and deck handling areas for embarked helicopters are located in a separate station aft of the superstructure. During the Pacific War, experience aboard IJN fleet carriers like Akagi and Kaga showed that their small island superstructure had inadequate space for ship and aviation control functions.

Note the compartmentalised sections in Kaga's hangar, deck edge lift and the space taken up by the deck elevator forward.

Despite the readiness of Japanese ship designers to embrace features such as the hurricane bow, enlarged island, deck edge lift, improved FFDC and sectionalised hangar space found on foreign aircraft carrier designs, some traditions have been retained on Kaga. JMSDF ships continue to use bugle calls to sound activities like flag raisings and salutes.

You may also like:
Yashukan War Memorial Museum shows Japan's road to war. Click here
Visit to the Hikawa Maru Museum. Click here
Visit to Yashukan War Memorial Museum. Click here

Friday, October 19, 2018

JS Kaga visits Singapore as part of Indo Southeast Asia Deployment ISEAD 2018

You choose your words carefully when describing the JS Kaga (DDH-184), the Japanese ship that arrived at Changi Naval Base at 9am on Thursday morning (18 Oct'18) with her destroyer escort, JS Inazuma (DD-105), for a six-day visit to Singapore.

Though she is painted haze grey and conforms to the mental picture most people would have of an aircraft carrier, with a flight deck stretching the 248-metre length of the ship from bow to stern, the Japanese describe her simply as a "helicopter destroyer".

Looking every bit a warship in her grey warpaint and armed with guns, missiles and anti-submarine helicopters, the 19,500-ton Kaga does not serve with a navy but the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

You watch your metaphors too when mulling over whether Kaga's arrival was intended to send any signals to defence watchers. Regional defence chiefs are now in Singapore for the 12th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), which will take place over the duration of Kaga's visit to the Lion City. In addition to defence ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations, the ADMM-Plus summit involves defence ministers from Australia, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United States and of course, Japan.

Asked about the timing, the JMSDF admiral commanding the deployment brushed it off as "a coincidence".

Stretch that metaphor and one realises that Kaga's port call comes close on the heels of last Sunday's Self-Defense Forces Day, which was marked by a parade, drive past of tanks and flypast by warplanes and combat helicopters. After reviewing SDF troops and their armaments, Japan's Prime Minister Shizo Abe used the occasion to renew his pledge to push for a revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, specifically Article 9 that expressly forbids mention of SDF forces.

The delicate handling of Japan's military posture may sound petty until one realises that Tokyo pulled out Kaga's sister ship, the JS Izumo, from South Korea's International Fleet Review just last week after a disagreement over what flag Izumo should fly. The diplomatic kerfluffle was triggered by Seoul's insistence that the Rising Sun flag, which reminds Koreans of Japan's militaristic past, not be flown on the Izumo during the fleet review.

Decades after the end of the Pacific War, wounds run deep in Asian countries once occupied by Japan.

Tokyo therefore realises it must tread carefully even as it adjusts the SDF's defence posture overseas. The JMSDF has maintained a presence in regional waterways for years, perhaps on account of the fact that some 90 per cent of Japanese oil imports from the Middle East have to sail through regional sea lanes. So while the United States makes headlines every now and then with its assertive rendition of freedom of navigation operations spearheaded by US Navy warships, it is worth remembering that Tokyo is also fully aware that a forward presence in Southeast Asia is necessary to watch over its economic lifelines.

Despite the high-profile US Navy presence in the Indo Pacific, it may surprise you that apart from the Thais, the Japanese are among the top two visitors to the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base. JMSDF ships use the base and others in the region to sustain a presence far from home but many of these routine deployments go unpublicised.

Singapore's strategic location at the southernmost tip of Asia, which is the swing around point for all ships using the straits of Malacca and Singapore to move from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, has made the city-state a popular port call for regional navies.

According to Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Singapore facilitates the transit of vessels from many countries through our ports and facilities. Navies across the world, from Brunei, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the US, to name a few, routinely visit RSS Singapura - Changi Naval Base (CNB) for refuelling and replenishment. MINDEF's records show that ever since CNB began operations in 2001, the naval base flanking the Singapore Strait has hosted more than 2000 visits by foreign warships from 30 countries, a testament to the strong friendships forged between the Republic of Singapore Navy and other navies. In other words, a foreign ship docks at CNB about once every three days.

Enter Kaga's latest foray into the region and the media attention generated at each port of call. Her voyage comes a year after JS Izumo, the name-ship of the JMSDF's largest class of ship, made her maiden trip to Southeast Asia. JS Kaga is accompanied by the destroyer escorts, JS Inazuma and JS Suzutsuki (DD-117. This ship did not join Kaga in Singapore as she is en route to Japan). Kaga's longest deployment from Japanese home waters has seen her visit the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Singapore is her last stopover before she returns to Japan via the South China Sea.

One can tell the Japanese are serious about projecting the right image for Kaga when they dedicate a microsite in Japanese and English on the JMSDF webpage to her two-month deployment. What's more, they coined a new acronym, ISEAD 2018, for this deployment. This stands for Indo Southeast Asia Deployment.

There are two stakeholders intended for this public relations blitz: Japan's Asian neighbours and her domestic audience. The former need to be desensitised to the notion of Japanese ships operating in regional waters while Japanese nationals need to be exposed to and accepting of Tokyo's push to deploy the SDF on missions farther and of longer duration than ever before, even as Article 9 awaits a review.

This year, the Japanese have apparently made special efforts to ensure its message is not lost in translation. At the media briefing aboard Kaga, Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukuda, commander of Escort Flotilla 4 and the senior JMSDF officer leading ISEAD 2018, delivered a four-minute speech on the deployment and took questions from the media in English, surprising even Japanese correspondents who expected his remarks to be delivered in Japanese. This was unlike last year's briefing aboard Izumo, which was done in Japanese with the sparse English translation after lengthy remarks in Japanese leaving journalists to surmise that key sound bites had been somehow omitted.

Seen at face value, Kaga's presence appears to underline Tokyo's intention to build on Izumo's high-profile regional tour last year. Implicit in this deployment is the message that Southeast Asian nations should regard JMSDF visits as the new normal.

In this regard, one can expect Tokyo to play the long game by using its largest JMSDF vessels in emissaries of naval diplomacy, during which joint exercises with regional navies serve as confidence-building measures. During ISEAD 2018, the JMSDF's decision to step up engagements by planning, coordinating and hosting exercises with partner navies during Kaga's deployment marks a noteworthy departure from its largely passive presence during Izumo's voyage, which saw the ship joined in maritime training hosted by other naval forces. 

There is also real training value for JMSDF personnel as they navigate regional sea lanes, especially through choke points such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore which are among the world's busiest sea lanes. The experience running a big ship through narrow and congested sea lanes, constrained by the traffic separation scheme (TSS) as AIS collision alarms flash regular warnings and as some vessels ignore rules of the road is something that simulator training cannot faithfully replicate. It has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Over time and with successive deployments, the JMSDF will enlarge the pool of personnel who have experience sailing in the region even as their port calls become less newsworthy. Tokyo will come to regard regional waters as its traditional training or deployment areas, especially after neighbouring countries grow accustomed to the JMSDF's annual flag-waving deployments.

There is, however, a new aspect peculiar to ISEAD 2018 that last year's deployment of Izumo did not have to contend with. Kaga's name once graced one of six Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, bringing the United States into the Pacific War. When you strip away all the niceties that downplay Kaga's obvious naval capabilities, her farthest voyage from Japan serves as a trial balloon to test the waters - figuratively speaking - and gauge the readiness of regional partners in accepting a man-of-war whose name echoes of Japan's militaristic past.

With Singapore marking her last port call before her return trip to Japan, Tokyo must count itself fortunate that Kaga's name has not rankled regional sensitivities.

When Kaga sets sail for Japan next Tuesday (23 Oct'18), you can bet the planning cycle for next year's instalment of ISEAD will attempt to set the bar even higher.

For Southeast Asia's maritime nations, this means adusting to the new reality that the JMSDF can be expected to assert itself even more in years to come and will return time and again to regional waterways, in peace but in strength.

You may also like:
Straits Times commentary on JS Izumo's 2017 deployment. Japan's warship on long and distant service. Click here