As local headlines and scandals attest, Saipan has been so busy stealing itself blind that it probably can't even see to Managaha Island anymore. But don't worry, I've been keeping a keen vigil from my beach chair. So allow me to don my eye patch for dramatic pirate effect, then use my remaining gimlet eye to survey the strategic situation. Indeed, if you've noticed our regional news, you'll note that the west Pacific's military equation is getting ever warmer, as more islands, rocks, and shoals join the list of hotly disputed turf.
As various nations growl at each other, I'm trying to separate the bark from the bite, so I can envision how things might eventually play out. I think a good way to find the serious players is to look at who is serious about submarine fleets.
I'll tally some of the various fleets some other time, if ever. But today I'm just mentioning why I think submarines are a good index of which navies are really serious about things. The bigger navies have a lot of subs, of course, but it's the not-so-big navies I'm pondering today.
On that note, much of the west Pacific balance is going to depend on what the small- and medium- sized fleets do. This isn't just a “multi-polar” gig, it's a downright chaotic scrum of over a dozen fleets.
Navies, like all militaries, have competing doctrines and specialties within their own ranks. So by focusing on submarines, I'm not trying to discount the other stuff such as surface ships, aircraft, and such. In reality, all serious navies use a mixture of these assets to perform their missions.
Still, given the nature of things in the west Pacific, I think that a fleet without a capable submarine presence is risking getting hit without being able to hit back.
There's a lot of vulnerability for ships these days. You can thank cruise missiles for that. Unless you can control an entire chunk of area around your fleet-I'm talking thousands of square miles-you're going to get an Exocet up your snoot.
The math? OK. Let's assume you want to secure a mere 40-mile radius around your ship. Many cruise missiles go a lot further than that, but I'm keeping things conservative. So, just confining ourselves to the plane of the surface, not the volume of air above it, nor of ocean beneath it, you'd need to secure over 5,000 square miles of area.
Even advanced navies have a hard time securing the smallest of areas from missile encroachment. In 1982, Argentina hosed at least two British warships with Exocets. And the Iraqi military, hardly a superpower, smoked a U.S. Navy frigate with an Exocet as well in 1987.
And we're talking old-school missiles, by the way, made before many Saipan Tribune readers were even born. Newer missiles are far nastier.
I'm not saying that ships aren't important. But I am saying that merely having a few nice-looking ships as token fleet, showing the flag and such, isn't always going to cut the mustard in the west Pacific. Much of that stuff is showmanship. Not bad if you've got something to back it up with. But not all do.
By contrast, submarines are the opposite of showmanship. Those guys hide until it's time to get down to business.
The vast majority of submarines in the west Pacific are diesel-powered, not nuclear-powered, but diesels can pack a lot of punch if they are used correctly.
Time for a fast case study? OK. One military I always heed is Vietnam. It's hardly a rich country. Yet the Vietnamese bloodied three large powers in the post-WWII era: France, the U.S., and China. Vietnam knows how to look after itself. And, despite its humble financial circumstances, with a per-capita GDP of only $1,400 or so, Vietnam has ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Russia.
Here's another smart nation: Singapore. It's tiny, with a population of just 5 million people. That's smaller than many Asian cities. Heck, that's probably smaller than many Asian traffic jams I've seen. Yet even Singapore has a fleet of six subs.
Six diesel subs, admittedly, won't get a whole lot done, given that some will be in port for maintenance and provisioning, and others will be in transit to and from their operating areas. Still, it's a start. Over the next few years, I'll be interested to see if the small sub fleets grow into more substantial ones; I expect they will.
Overall, then, as headlines huff and puff over various maritime disputes and claims, and as everyone is talking nautical smack, I think the serious players, be they big, medium, or small, are the ones with submarines. And, as things play out, some fleets will simply back down and yield to stronger fleets, since the alternatives won't be pretty.
There's more to be said on that note. But for now it's time to take off my pirate's eye patch and muster the buccaneers for grog.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at [URL=”http://edstephensjr.com”]EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.