An unknown number of civilian passengers on Mahan Air flight 1152 were injured on Thursday when a pair of US fighter jets approached it over Damascus, forcing the airliner to change direction to avoid colliding with the warplanes.
The abrupt change tossed passengers around, and several were injured in the process. The plane landed in Beirut, and after a stop-off returned to Tehran without incident. There is no word on the condition of the injured.
Reported earlier this afternoon, the US interception was initially reported as a single Israeli warplane, which would’ve been the latest in a string of Israeli incidents against Iranians. The airliner pilot, however, said he contacted the jets in question, and that they were Americans.
CENTCOM has confirmed as much, saying they intercepted the airliner “in accordance with international standards” [according to which they have no business being in Syria's skies in the first place] to ensure the safety of US ground troops at the [illegal] al-Tanf base inside Syria. They confirmed it was identified as a Mahar Air flight, but did not specify any contact.
The US has blacklisted and sanctioned Mahar Air, accusing them of smuggling arms. There was no indication this played a factor in the US intercepting the plane.
A major reversal of fortunes at sea has gone largely unnoticed. Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy sped past the Japanese maritime service across key measures of material prowess. The trendlines suggest that China will soon permanently displace Japan as the leading regional naval power in Asia. This historic power transition will have repercussions across the Indo-Pacific in the years to come. It behooves policymakers to pay attention to this overlooked but consequential shift in the naval balance between two great seafaring nations.
The Power Transition at Sea
The growing power gap between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is stark and will widen at an accelerated pace. China already boasts the largest navy in the world with more than 300 ships and submarines. [By vessel count but not by displacement.] By comparison, the JMSDF’s naval strength in 2019 included four light helicopter carriers, two cruisers, 34 destroyers, 11 frigates, three amphibious assault ships, six fast-attack missile boats, and 21 submarines. By 2030, the PLAN could have more than 450 ships and close to 110 submarines while the JMSDF will likely not be much larger than it is today.1
In aggregate tonnage for principal surface combatants, a rough measure of latent capacity and capability, China surpassed Japan in 2013. By 2020, the PLAN exceeded the JMSDF in total tonnage by about 40 percent. By average tonnage per combatant, a more precise measure of capacity and capability, the Japanese fleet continues to maintain a comfortable lead of about 45 percent over its Chinese counterpart. Japan’s position, however, may not hold for long as China puts to sea more carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.
In terms of firepower, the vertical launch system (VLS)—a grouping of silos that holds and fires shipborne missiles—furnishes a useful proxy for a fleet’s lethality. In this category of naval power, China’s catchup story is stunning. The JMSDF introduced VLS a decade earlier than the PLAN in the early 1990s. Yet, the Chinese quickly caught up and zoomed past the Japanese in 2017. By 2020, the PLAN had 75 percent more VLS cells than the JMSDF.
More troubling still, China’s large arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) outranges that of the JMSDF by considerable distances.
In a hypothetical fleet-on-fleet engagement, the PLAN could launch large salvoes of ASCMs that could reach its opponent’s warships well before the Japanese side could get within range to hit back, conferring a significant first-strike advantage to China. It remains to be seen whether Japan will introduce enough long-range ship-killing missiles, including the repurposed Standard Missile 6 air-defense interceptors, to close the range gap.
China’s air force and rocket force further tip the scales in its favor. Chinese airpower and missiles ashore would almost certainly join the fray in any conceivable conflict. The JMSDF’s surface fleet would have to fend off volleys of air-launched ASCMs and land-based anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles as well as missiles fired from ships and submarines. Japan’s maritime service thus inhabits a vexing and inhospitable operational environment.
Beyond Bean Counting
Fleet size, tonnage, and firepower do not provide a full measure of a navy’s combat power. Operational proficiency, tactical elan, regular and extended deployments in blue-water environments, and real combat experience are equally critical, if not more so, when evaluating a navy’s prospects for fighting and winning a war at sea.
Even in this qualitative area, however, it is no longer axiomatic that Japan holds a decisive advantage over China.
Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy has proven itself a capable expeditionary service. The PLAN’s various open ocean activities suggest that it has accumulated substantial at-sea experience. Notably, the Chinese Navy has sustained a continuous rotation of anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean since 2009, an impressive feat by any measure. The PLAN has also dispatched flotillas for long-distance transits throughout the Western Pacific and beyond.
Peacetime exercises and constabulary operations may not be reliable indicators of how the Chinese Navy will perform in combat. The well-worn remark that China has not fought a war since 1979 remains valid. Of course, neither has Japan since 1945. The reality is that no one knows for certain how each side will fare until the shooting starts.
It remains unclear how the economic contraction following the COVID-19 crisis will impact China’s investment in its navy. What is certain, however, is that Japan will not escape the economic fallout from the global pandemic and the attending fiscal pressures on defense spending. The momentum behind the Chinese naval buildup, moreover, will likely not slow down enough to reverse the tilting naval balance in Beijing’s favor.
Why the Naval Imbalance Matters
Japan’s eroding naval position not only reduces its ability to defend the liberal international order, but it also weakens the deterrent posture of the U.S.-Japan alliance and, in the process, undercuts American strategy in Asia. Consider the centrality of Japanese seapower to the regional security architecture.
In peacetime, Japan’s maritime service helps deter aggression and keep the seas open to all, an essential condition for free trade and global prosperity. Should deterrence fail, the JMSDF would sweep clear the major maritime approaches to the theater of operations along the Asian littorals and conduct operations to obtain and exercise sea control alongside the U.S. Navy. Moreover, the sea service complements U.S. naval strengths, including undersea warfare, while making up for American capability gaps in such areas as minesweeping.
A revisionist China must carefully consider Japan’s still-formidable maritime service when calculating its options vis-à-vis the United States. Beijing would likely think twice about coercion or aggression if it believed that the alliance possessed overwhelming military superiority. Conversely, if Beijing concluded that Tokyo was becoming a crack in the armor, then it might be tempted to gamble.
The bottom line is that it is the combined power of the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed naval forces and the JMSDF that helps to keep the peace in Asia. It is thus imperative that U.S. policymakers perceive the relative decline of Japanese seapower as a proxy for the corrosion of American power in the Indo-Pacific.
If past is prologue, China’s rapid accumulation of naval power—and Japan’s inability to keep up—portends unwelcome great power relations. The most striking historical parallel is Britain’s naval decline during the Cold War. In the late 1970s, the Soviets had far outstripped the British across major measures of naval power just as the PLAN is eclipsing the JMSDF today. By the early 1980s, it became increasingly doubtful whether Britain could defend its own backyard against Soviet designs.
Britain’s relative decline posed global dilemmas for the United States. If the U.S. Navy were tied down in an emergency elsewhere, there was concern that the Soviets might seize the occasion to test European resolve in the North Atlantic. It was feared then that the Royal Navy’s impotence in the face of a Soviet naval challenge would severely undermine stability, deterrence, and allied cohesion while opening the way for Moscow to advance its aims in Europe.
It does not stretch the imagination to foresee a similar risk today. American global commitments, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, could draw Washington’s attention to faraway theaters. In such circumstances, the United States would likely expect Japan to do much more to deter, if not oppose, Chinese opportunism. The extent to which the JMSDF upholds its end of the bargain would be a major test for the alliance.
To be sure, any assessment of the Indo-Pacific strategic balance would be incomplete without accounting for the U.S. military, including its forward-deployed assets and its surge forces around the world. The combined naval power of the United States and Japan still outweighs that of China. But that margin of superiority is diminishing as China continues its ascent at sea, pulling even farther ahead of Japan.
Consequently, the security partnership’s capacity to deter aggression is likely to come under more strain. Equally worrisome, the PLAN and its sister services are already able to project power across and well beyond the first island chain, deliver ample firepower over long distances, and impose heavy costs on U.S. and Japanese forces. These developments are likely to challenge, if not upend, longstanding allied assumptions about escalation dominance and warfighting.
Allied policymakers must recognize that a historic power shift has already taken place in maritime Asia. For too long, defense planners and the broader strategic community have focused exclusively on the bilateral Sino-U.S. naval rivalry while slighting the local balance between China and Japan. In the past, when allied superiority and the JMSDF’s qualitative advances appeared insuperable, it was safe to take Japan’s role for granted.
Yet, today, as the balance tilts increasingly in China’s favor, Japan’s relative decline could emerge as a weak link in the alliance’s deterrent posture. Understanding the extent to which Japan has fallen behind, to include how the Chinese perceive the local imbalance, should assume a far more prominent place in allied decision-making. Such a comprehensive estimate must be integral to the allied calculus about strategy, posture, operations, and competitiveness.
The Government’s long-anticipated Strategic Defence and Security Review, or SDSR, comes at a pivotal time for the UK. Our political relationships with our closest allies, in Europe and with the United States, are fraying, and the global system of rapidly evolving great power competition presents challenges we do not yet fully understand and are ill-prepared to meet.
“Attempts over the past four years to articulate a coherent, post-Brexit foreign policy,” the thinktank RUSI cautions, “have largely been unsatisfactory,” and the Government’s grand-sounding but content-free Global Britain rhetoric does “not provide sufficient guidance for those charged with determining how to prioritise the use of scarce national resources.”
With our foreign policy establishment “at a loss about what to do next,” the SDSR is tasked with reshaping the Armed Forces to support a grand strategy in flux, and defend us from this newly dangerous world. It is unfortunate, then, that previous SDSRs, focussed on incorporating the hard-won lessons of the near past, have had a poor record of predicting the challenges of the near future.
The 2010 SDSR assumed that the future of conflict would be interventions within failed states rather than against powerful adversaries, and cut the Army’s numbers drastically, only to see Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine prove that war between states remained a serious threat even on our own continent.
The 2015 SDSR arrested cuts to the Army’s capabilities to meet the new Russian challenge, and placed greater focus on a terrorist threat made newly-salient by the rise of the Islamic State, yet it also explicitly aimed to “build a deeper partnership with China, working more closely together to address global challenges,” an assumption that now looks dangerously naive. The challenge for this year’s SDSR will be how to prepare our armed forces to defend Britain’s interests in an era of multipolar competition, where COVID has simultaneously heightened the risk of great power confrontation and ravaged the domestic tax base on which our defence budget depends.
In this context, the details published in the Times of the proposed cuts to the armed forces the SDSR is expected to unveil are alarming. According to the leaks, the Army will lose a quarter of its personnel, shrinking from its current size of 74,000 down to 55,000 soldiers; the Royal Marines will lose their capacity to deploy as an amphibious brigade, losing their landing craft, artillery and engineering assets; and the RAF will lose its Hercules transport planes, diminishing its strategic airlift capacity, as well as its fleet of Puma helicopters.
Instead, the UK will commit a greater share of the defence budget to managing threats to cyber-security and in space, essentially leapfrogging the known and rapidly increasing risks of war between states to face the nebulous hybrid threats of the future.
Of course, alarming leaks like this are a traditional feature of defence reviews, designed to either make the actual cuts seem less disastrous when revealed, or, as part of the internecine warfare within Whitehall, to make the political pressure on the MOD so great that planned cuts are quietly reversed. We can expect and hope, then, that the actual cuts will be less severe than the early leaks make them seem, and it’s reassuring that the defence secretary Ben Wallace has come out with a strong denial that the Army in particular will face such a brutal pruning.
The crucial question from which all these decisions spring is one of grand strategy: what are our armed forces actually for? How will they be deployed, against which threats, and to what ends? Looking at our newly unstable world, the most pressing threats are of a great power conflict with China in the Pacific, of a need to defend NATO’s eastern frontiers in the Baltic against actual or threatened Russian encroachment, and of a need to intervene in failing states in Europe’s “near abroad” of the Middle East and North Africa.
At the heart of the problem, as recent analysis argues, is the question of whether “post-Brexit, the UK wishes to be a European or global actor… the more European security dominates, the greater the case for Army size and investment in recapitalising land equipment, while a more global Britain places greater emphasis on the rapid projection of UK forces, which tends to favour the maritime capabilities.”
But with the limited budget at our disposal meaning we are unable to adequately prepare for all these threats simultaneously, we are left to either gamble the nation’s security on which will be the most likely, or spread our bets evenly to meet all these challenges with insufficient resources, guaranteeing failure from the start.
Of the three likely conflict scenarios facing us — a land confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe, a naval one with China in the Pacific and stabilisation operations in the greater Middle East — the first two are beyond our current capacity to sustain, and the third has been a disaster almost every time we have attempted it. Even the significant armoured forces we deployed in Germany throughout the Cold War would have had a lifespan of days in the event of war, and we have long lost the ability to assemble such a force, let alone sustain it in the field.
The extravagantly expensive new aircraft carriers that have soaked up so much of our defence budgets were sold as enhancing Britain’s global reach and standing, but seeing them sent to the bottom of the South China Sea in the first hours of a major conflict would have the opposite effect. The prospect of stabilisation missions in failing states have long since lost whatever savour they once held for British politicians seeking glory on the world stage. Of the options available to us, then, none of them are enviable with our current capabilities.
A recent RUSI paper on the forthcoming SDSR is instructive on the debates within the foreign policy establishment on how we should plan for the future. Regarding intervention in failed states, it notes with brutal frankness that the SDSR should start “with an honest examination of the lessons that need to be learnt from the failure of recent interventions. The track record of recent discretionary state-building interventions has been so poor, and so consistent, that it no longer makes sense to use the possibility of future such operations (such as those in Basra and Helmand for the UK) as planning assumptions for force design.”
Regarding the Pacific theatre, where China’s sudden assertiveness has rudely awoken British politicians from their Global Britain dreams, the RUSI paper notes that “the UK should operate on the assumption that it would only deploy forces on significant operations in these regions in a supporting role to the US, and then only with a small part of the UK’s available force.”
Instead, it argues, “the UK’s expeditionary capabilities should be optimised for their contribution to NATO forces for the defence of Europe,” leaving the role of garrisoning NATO’s eastern borders to our European allies, particularly a Germany that has long shirked its defence responsibilities.
Instead of amassing our dwindling armoured forces on the plains of Eastern Europe , Britain should “optimise its ground forces (British Army and Royal Marines) for responding rapidly against a wide range of hybrid and limited threats across Europe’s periphery.”
The strategy proposed here is that our area of focus should be “the defence of the UK homeland and its immediate neighbourhood” on Europe’s outer borders, working alongside NATO allies, but only in pursuit of limited goals, providing strategic capabilities our European partners lack, but leaving them with the responsibility of supplying the critical mass of troops we can no longer field.
Yet cutting the Royal Marines’ capacity to deploy by sea or the Army’s ability to deploy by RAF Hercules would seem to be the exact opposite of planning for limited interventions even in our near abroad. Focused on the expensive big-ticket purchases that allow us to project air power on a global stage in support of our American patron, we may be distractedly cutting our ability to defend ourselves from the threats closer to home with which the US, distracted by China and by its own domestic instability, may have limited interest in engaging.
Indeed, given our total strategic dependence on the United States, it’s worth following American discussions on how they see the role of their allies in future wars. To this end, a fascinating recent paper from West Point’s Modern War Institute ought to give our planners pause for thought. It argues that, given China’s inbuilt advantage in a Pacific war, and the extreme vulnerability of US carrier fleets, let alone those of weaker allies like ourselves, to withstand Chinese missile barrages, “the United States has little use of mid-sized nations that pay a premium for expeditionary, high-tech capabilities” — a succinct description of the UK’s current defence posture — but should “encourage its allies to build forces that can withstand war in their area instead.”
This plan to rebalance America’s assets to cope with the stresses of a multipolar world explicitly cites the British Empire’s policy of complementing naval hegemony through alliances with European powers willing to take up the unwanted burden of land warfare, and tallies well with the developing consensus in British think tanks that we should do much the same on a far smaller scale.
Yet even this is only a stopgap solution. As for the pivot to a low-cost, high-tech future, the hope that investing in technology can fill the gap between our growing needs and our dwindling resources must be seen for the wishful thinking it is.
The rebalancing of our armed forces to focus on the hybrid threats of cyber-warfare, allegedly Dominic Cummings’ pet project, threatens to make an undoubtedly necessary additional capability our main effort, and RUSI is right to warn that “pretending that future war will be bloodless, limited to creating virtual or cyber casualties, makes the carnage of real war more likely,” and that ultimately, “the use of hard power to inflict pain on an adversary in pursuit of national political objectives remains at the heart of a state’s power.”
While Cummings’ drive to reform the MoD’s grotesquely mismanaged procurement strategy is urgently necessary, there is, unfortunately for the government, no other way out of addressing the strategic threats facing us over the coming decades than taxing voters more and spending more money on defence, whatever the political costs in doing so. Doing more with less was shortsighted even when the times were good, and with the international situation deteriorating so rapidly, underinvestment is a luxury we can no longer afford.
The risk of major conventional warfare between states is greater than it has been in any of our lifetimes, and Britain needs to maintain the ability to deploy hard power quickly enough and with sufficient threat of force behind it to deter our adversaries from escalating threats to a level we are unable to match.
Given that “the UK’s relationship with the US is now less reliable than at any time over the last half-century,” it is in our interest to maintain our ability to defend ourselves from as many of the rapidly accumulating risks on our own doorstep as possible, while rebuilding alliances with our estranged European partners and enhancing military ties with like-minded powers further afield.
In the meantime, our defence aspirations should be focused on the regional threats we still — just — retain the capacity to manage, leaving the more ambitious global challenges to our American patron. For too long, there has been a striking mismatch between the government’s “global Britain” aspirations and the more homely reality of our capabilities, and we are perhaps fortunate that by accelerating global trends that may otherwise have taken decades to play out, COVID has helped reveal our meagre hand before we have committed ourselves to playing it.