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Iran, China Intent on Countering Navies

by JINSA Editorial Assistant Jonathan Howland.


by JINSA Editorial Assistant Jonathan Howland.

The aircraft carrier – a mobile island of air power – provides U.S. officials with a range of options in conducting relations with hostile or potentially hostile states – from merely a “presence” to the insertion of power ashore in wartime. Often, the enormous firepower that the aircraft carrier and its associated group of ships bring to bear is sufficient to deter acts of aggression before they are carried out or quickly extinguish any that may have begun. Not surprisingly, enormous military resources have been invested into protecting these critical assets. Recent events in the Pacific Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea could indicate that carrier force protection has slipped even as regional powers increase their ability to project power above and below the water’s surface.

On November 13, roughly 24 hours before experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly discovered traces of plutonium and enriched uranium at an Iranian nuclear waste facility – further escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington – the Iranian government released what it claimed to be video from an indigenously-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that penetrated the air defenses of a U.S. carrier group operating in the Persian Gulf. The one-minute movie aired on the state-run Al Alam television network and showed a U.S. aircraft carrier underway with a flight deck packed with aircraft. While the Iranian broadcast did not mention when the footage was shot, it was claimed that Iranian officials possess ten such films that show, “more precise information and details about military equipment, foreign forces, and their activities in the Persian Gulf.”

Iranian officials claimed to have over flown another U.S. aircraft carrier in May 2006. And although no footage from that incident was released, Iranian press reports claimed that U.S. naval aircraft were launched in response to the incident but the UAV was able to return to Iranian airspace unscathed. U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Bashon Mann “categorically denied” the incident took place and dismissed the media accounts of the story as “erroneous,” insisting, “no [U.S.] planes were scrambled at all, that did not happen,” according to the Navy Times, June 2, 2006.

Iranian/Russian Surveillance

U.S. Navy officials believe the video of the aircraft carrier released by Iran on November 13 is much older than Tehran claims. One reason in particular is the presence of F-14D Tomcat fighters on the flight deck. The F-14 was retired from U.S. Navy service in September and hasn’t operated in the Persian Gulf since late February. Moreover, the U.S. Navy puts out a public media release when U.S. ships are entering and exiting the Gulf, so claims by the Iranian government to surreptitiously locate and track American naval vessels, if accurate, are greatly exaggerated.

A confirmed breach in carrier air defense, however, did occur some six-and-a-half years ago when two Russian military jets conducted high-speed, low altitude flyovers of the USS Kitty Hawk in the Sea of Japan. On December 9, 2000, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon acknowledged Russian warplanes flew over the Kitty Hawk on three different occasions, October 12, October 17, and November 9, 2000. During one of these encounters, a Russian Su-24 Fencer and a Su-27 Flanker allegedly buzzed the Kitty Hawk‘s tower at an altitude of 200 feet and the ship was unable to launch an intercept for 30 minutes because it was taking on fuel from another ship and was on a reduced “Alert-30” status of readiness, a level of alert congruent with their location and lack of regional threats, Captain Kevin Wensing, a spokesman for the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, told Stars and Stripes, December 9, 2000.

Bacon added that carrier personnel had detected the inbound aircraft when they were 30-45 miles away from the Task Force. “We see Russian aircraft and Russian ships … all the time. We’re not in the Cold War anymore. No one looked at this as being much of an incident,” Commander Matt Brown, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet Command in Yokosuka, Japan, remarked, according to Stars and Stripes. Adding to the perception that the fly bys were a bit of showmanship, the Russian pilots allegedly sent hi-resolution photographs to the Kitty Hawk‘s website and Russian officials reportedly released the same images a few days later that showed a flight deck in disarray and chaos as the crew scrambled to launch intercept aircraft.

Referring to Kitty Hawk‘s reduced alert status, Wensing told Stars and Stripes “the battle group decides what kind of status they should be on. If you’re in the middle of the Persian Gulf, it would be a lot different than if you were in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” where the 2000 flyover took place. And it involved a non-hostile country. “If [the incident with Russia took place in] 1960, it would be a different sort of scenario. But it’s 2000.”

Six years later the same cannot be said of Tehran, where the international community may well be on a collision course with Iran over the country’s nuclear enrichment program. Tensions in the Gulf region remain high and the ability of foreign UAVs to penetrate U.S. carrier airspace, if true, is alarming for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be Iran’s ability to locate, identify and track U.S. Navy vessels and monitor operations in the Persian Gulf.

Israel Blunders and Ship is Struck

A breakdown in fleet security occurred in the recent summer war between Israel and Hezbollah forces operating in southern Lebanon. An Israeli Saar-5-class missile corvette, the INS Hanit, was struck on July 14 by a sea skimming, anti-ship missile launched from the Lebanese coast, killing four sailors, crippling the vessel’s steering system and staring fires below the helicopter pad.

The incident reportedly involved two missiles in a coordinated, simultaneous “high/low” attack – the first “high” missile passed over the Israeli ship. Missing the target, it continued flying, hitting and sinking a civilian Egyptian ship cruising 32 miles from the shore. The second missile followed a sea-skimming flight profile hitting the Israeli vessel at the stern, killing the four sailors and setting the flight deck on fire and damaging propulsion and steering systems, according to media reports citing Israel Defense Forces sources. The Hanit was towed to Israel’s Ashdod naval base for repairs. This attack method, according to defense-update.com’s July 17 article “INS Hanit Suffers Iranian Missile Attack”, would require the launch of two types of missiles, a C-801/802 for the “high” profile and a C-701 TV-guided missile for the “low” profile. Both missiles are assembled in Iran from Chinese designs.

“We were not aware that Hezbollah possessed this kind of missile,” Israeli naval operations chief R. Adm. Noam Faig told Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 18, 2006. “We are familiar with that missile from other areas but assumed that the threat was not present in Lebanon.”

Missiles such as the C-802/C-701 present an extreme challenge because of their high speed and small radar cross-section. According to press accounts, the Hanit‘s crew did not detect the inbound missile prior to impact because they had failed to activate all of the ship’s defenses, a serious error considering that the ship was but 10 miles from the coast of a hostile state during wartime. For reasons not revealed, the Hanit‘s electronic countermeasures and electronic support measures, as well as the last-chance Vulcan Phalanx close-in weapon system also was not engaged, Jane’s reported. The early accounts were validated by an IDF/Navy inquiry whose findings were released in early January 2007. R. Adm. Nir Maor, a reserve officer who led the probe, declined to discuss specifics with the media but “acknowledged that technical issues were negligible compared to conceptual, operational and command deficiencies surrounding the July 14 event,” Defense News reported, January 8, 2007.

IDF/Air Force F-16s, however, were able to detect, intercept and shoot down a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) flown by Hezbollah into Israeli airspace this past summer. One of the shot-down UAVs recovered by Israeli forces was equipped with explosives and officials believe it was to be used as rudimentary cruise missile for high-priority targets within Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. According to numerous media accounts, the Hezbollah drone was suspected of being an Iranian Ababil, a 183-pound UAV with a 10-foot wingspan capable of carrying an 80-pound payload and can be manually- or GPS-guided.

While it appears that Tehran’s UAV surveillance claims may be a crude attempt to send a message to the U.S. government that the ships keeping the Straits of Hormuz open and the oil flowing are being watched by the Iranian military, UAVs remains a novel asymmetric threat for carrier defenses, especially when operating in the confines of the Persian Gulf where most ships may be on alert for fast moving aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

According to a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer who requested anonymity because of his current occupation, “most UAVs have a very small radar cross-section and unless you are looking for them, they could be difficult to detect and properly classify. When a U.S. carrier, or any ship in the U.S. Navy for that matter, enters an area of operations, they review what known capabilities and weapon systems hostile nations may leverage against them, including vessels, missiles, and aircraft. That usually means a radar operator is looking for faster targets and UAVs are slow. So, while the radar operator may see it [UAV] on the screen, he may not identify it as a threat platform.”

Iran, however, isn’t the only country of concern to U.S. Navy analysts and intelligence specialists.

China Expands its Navy’s Reach

A Chinese Song-class diesel attack submarine shadowed the USS Kitty Hawk Task Force undetected until it surfaced five miles from the Task Force on October 26, 2006 in waters off Okinawa, Japan. Unnamed defense officials told the Washington Times, November 15, 2006, that it is believed the Chinese submarine was conducting tracking and targeting maneuvers designed to attack U.S. aircraft carriers, which the Pentagon recently identified as the primary focus of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) given their emphasis on specific weapon platform acquisitions including long-range, precision guided anti-ship cruise missiles, or ‘carrier killers’ in their annual report to Congress. The Song-class submarine is known to be equipped with Russian-made wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles, according to the Washington Times.

“It would be pure conjecture to assume that the battle group commander was surprised by the appearance of the Chinese Song-class submarine in those particular waters off Okinawa, that the force ASW (anti-submarine warfare) readiness status was not alert, or that China’s diesel submarine tactics are well defined. The surfacing may very well have been merely a ‘poke-in-the-eye’ signal that he had achieved a vantage position on the force, and that he had best reveal himself before the force initiated deadly counter action. [The Chinese sub commander] had made his point,” Vice Admiral Bernard “Bud” Kauderer, USN (ret.), a member of the JINSA Board of Advisors and a former Commander of Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet, said.

The fact that a Chinese submarine went undetected until it surfaced within weapons range of a U.S. carrier was described as provocative and could have resulted in “a miscalculation,” said Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Pacific Command, according to the Times.

But naval strategists are just as alarmed that a Chinese submarine was conducting patrols so far from the coast of mainland China, indicative of a power projection maritime strategy. In comments made in late December 2006 to Communist Party delegates and published in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, Hu Jintao, Chinese president and commander in chief, urged his country to build a “powerful navy that adapts to the needs of our military’s historical mission in this new century and at this new stage,” Investor’s Business Daily reported, January 2, 2007. Hu also urged “sound preparations for military struggles and (to) ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time.”

“There should be no doubt that China intends to extend its sphere of influence well beyond the littorals to the outer island chains, and to challenge American dominance in the Western Pacific,” Kauderer said. China has embarked on a massive submarine build-up in the last decade that has seen the addition of 14 new submarines in the last four years alone with some16 new submarines currently under construction and additional vessels on order. These include a new class of nuclear attack submarine designated the Type-093 and a new nuclear ballistic missile sub, the Type-094. The Type-094 is reportedly equipped with the JL-2 ballistic missile, a sub-launched version of its land-based DF-31 ICBM. The JL-2 is equipped with multiple warheads and penetration aids that could reach the continental U.S. from China’s coastal waters.

According to the Washington Times, November 15, 2006, Admiral Fallon said the Kitty Hawk Task Force was not conducting active anti-submarine patrols when the Chinese submarine successfully infiltrated the carrier Task Force, but said the U.S. Navy nevertheless was reviewing submarine defense protocol. But Kauderer warned, “there can be no ‘time out’ periods during which a Battle Group Commander can assume that a submarine threat has been reduced to zero, anti-submarine warfare is an art to be practiced 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

As such, the event could be seen as a lapse in U.S. Navy efforts to protect aircraft carriers from undersea threats, especially in light of the Defense Department’s recognition that U.S. aircraft carriers have become the Chinese Navy’s primary focus and the USS Kitty Hawk serves as one of America’s primary deterrents in the Pacific, especially against Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. “We should not ever be surprised by the appearance of Chinese ships and submarines in any waters previously considered beyond their capability. They are developing their skills and tactics, while coincidently ‘marking their turf,'” Kauderer said.

“It wasn’t so much the anti-submarine technology, it’s good and being improved. The problem is there were no standard anti-submarine procedures in place during this carrier group’s operation. I think this will result in the 7th Fleet significantly re-posturing its anti-submarine procedures and tactics,” the former U.S. Navy officer told JINSA.

But the U.S. Navy has, for a number of years, recognized its atrophying anti-submarine capabilities since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline in the Russian naval threat.

ASW Must Be Practiced Continuously

“The decline of the USSR paralleled the decline in our focus on ASW,” Kauderer, said in a previous JINSA article that explored the issue. “Instead, our naval forces became more involved in strike warfare.” ASW is an art that demands “practice, practice, practice, in order to hone [ASW] skills,” Kauderer explained.

In the last few years, the U.S. Navy has initiated a number of new programs designed to improve its ASW capabilities. The introduction of modern Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems in non-nuclear submarine fleets led to this re-invigorated focus on ASW. Such systems address the diesel-electric submarine’s Achilles heel – the need to run near the surface to draw air for the diesel engines via a snorkel tube. The engines drive generators that charge the banks of batteries to power electric motors that drive the submarine. Quiet running time on battery power is severely limited to the charge held in the batteries unlike the case with the nuclear-powered submarines of the U.S. fleet whose underwater operation is indefinite, limited only by the supply of food aboard.

The most developed AIP technology is the “Stirling engine” that runs on liquid oxygen and diesel fuel to drive generators for either propulsion or charging batteries. The AIP endurance of the 1,500-ton Gotland-class boats built by the Swedish firm Kockums is said to be around 14 days at five knots (9 km/h). The German firm Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft AG’s Type-209-class also features the Stirling technology. These companies can be expected to actively market AIP-equipped submarines worldwide. “The advent of Air-Independent Propulsion has made the easily detected, noisy diesel submarine a relic of the past,” Kauderer noted. “This is a significant threat to our surface forces.”

In 2005, the U.S. Navy approached the Swedish Navy, one of approximately seven countries utilizing AIP technology, to lease a Swedish AIP-equipped Gotland-class submarine and its crew of 25 for ASW training. Stationed in San Diego, the Swedish boat participated in a number of ASW exercises with the U.S. Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

AIP Subs Increasingly Present

America’s future plans to reduce the number of attack submarines in its fleet could have a dire consequences for the U.S. Navy’s future ASW capabilities, Kauderer warned. “The SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine), by virtue of its ability to operate in the same stratum as a threat submarine, may be the best detection system available to the force commander. Unfortunately, long-range plans for the composition of our Navy call for the reduction of our attack submarine force to a level of 55, which at the current building rate of one per year, will not be sustained.”

Meanwhile, “it is anticipated that China will continue to increase the capabilities of its submarine force by the acquisition of modern, top-of-the-export-line Russian submarines, such as the Kilo-class, while continuing the development of its indigenous diesel and nuclear powered attack boats. A worldwide intelligence network is gathering industrial technology that will expedite the fielding of ever more capable ships, not unlike the rapid increase in quality we have witnessed in their commercial products. China also has access to weapons … which pose a long-range threat to our carrier forces, and to sub-surface to surface anti-ship cruise missiles,” Kauderer said.

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