“Taking Centre Stage in the World”

By

   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

            First published in the author’s column on the IPCS website on 28 Nov 2017.                                                                                                 

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, “Let’s Party like it’s 1793.” The Economist May2013, https://www.economist.com/.

When Chairman Xi declared at the opening of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world,” he may have drawn this deduction from two perceived shifts in the global strategic environment. Firstly, the sensed flagging of US interests in global pacts emblematized by the “America First” agenda that most resembled an impending abandonment of regional partnerships that did not recognise US pre-eminence; and secondly, apparent US distraction in providing decisive security leadership in the troubled parts of the world. Of course, the issue of whether any grouping of major nations wanted Xi’s leadership never entered the debate.

China in recent years has become a major funder of infrastructure in the developing world. Its arrival has challenged existing institutional lenders, particularly when Xi in 2013, announced a scheme to resurrect the medieval Silk Road through a vast network of roads, pipelines, ports and railways that connected China with Europe via Central Asia, West Asia and ports in South Asia and East Africa. China intends to provide proprietary financial support to the project. The innards of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by ‘over the line’ issues such as client-government superintendence and financing on a scale not seen before or, remarkably, with such indistinct terms. Essentially, the scheme’s purpose is strategic influence of global connectivity; while at the same time, deploying close to 30 per cent of China’s substantial dollar reserves (over $3 trillion) that has hitherto held low yielding American debt, on more strategically beneficial ventures.

And yet restoring the lost grandeur of the Silk Route has many other challenges that may not be overcome by Xi’s ‘fiat.’ Beginning with internal corruption, since the entire programme is to be funded largely by state owned banks. In the instance, as a wit put it, “then, how does a barber cut his own hair?” The matter of an opaque dispensation attempting to break from its political roots to gain a mandate of the people must add to planners’ discomfort. The questionable economics of committing billions of dollars into the world’s most impoverished and unstable regions hardly instils confidence in the programme. Already falling prices of primary products and unhinged host politics have undermined some of the 900 constituent projects. Compounding matters is the cost of freightage by rail, which is as much as four to five times that of cargo movement by sea. Besides, the current state of the enterprise is unidirectional as rakes return largely empty on the east-bound leg. Chinese ideology is hardly welcome in the region. The recent use of trade as a tool of punishment, specifically in the case of Philippines from where banana imports were cut, while rare earth exports to Japan were curbed, tariff barriers raised unilaterally, and the general economic retaliation on South Korea, does not in any way serve the ends of free trade-flow or economic inclusiveness.

Chinese historians do not tire of reminding the world of its recent past that staggered between the collapse of an empire to humiliating colonization, from bloody wars to the civil anarchy of Maoism and now in the success of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism,’ some even perceive a return of the Middle Kingdom. But even if the old world order were to make way, slipping into a mire of lost belief, there remains the problem of a potentially bizarre future where not nearly-quite-dead Capitalism is controlled by a totalitarian regime fervently dependent on magnifying growth, perpetuity of dispensation and a disruptive brand of nationalism for stability; all of which echo a past not quite from the Orient but from a more recent Europe of the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In response, for Xi to turn to an even more assertive military-led foreign policy, brings to the fore the probability of conflict; specifically, on the Korean Peninsula, where China’s role as agent provocateur is becoming more and more undeniable. If the generalised theory of war suggests causes of armed conflict as introduction of weapons of mass destruction, a revisionist agenda stimulated by significant change in the balance of power, and lastly, a contrarian and often disrupted structure of order; then these are all eminently resident in the region. Yet global remedies adapted to date have neither generated a consensual course of action nor has the status quo been emphasised. In the on-going brinkmanship polity on the Korean Peninsula, the antagonists have, predictably provided partisan military support and embraced a skewed one-sided stoppage of financial and economic flows that fuel the causes of conflict (being the main donor to North Korea, Chinese leadership sees no reason to check continuance.) Similarly, dialogue has focused on little else than a dual-stance posture: delivery of military threats and a litany of in-executable demands.

The littorals of the West Pacific have, in the meantime, rediscovered the Trans-Pacific Partnership sans the USA; while on the security front the Quadruple Entente (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) is averred for revival. These undercurrents suggest not just a hesitancy to endorse a China-led order, but also a push back on belt-and-road craft as well as Chinese blue-water ambitions.

In truth, much would depend upon the will to order, the universal repugnance to leaving centre stage untenanted, or the unlikely event of China’s amenability to sharing the stage.

 

 

The Curious Case of USS McCain

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Vulnerabilities of computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks: the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

On 21 August 2017, in the darkness of astronomical twilight, a destroyer USS John S. McCain bound for Singapore after a sensitive ‘freedom-of-navigation’ operation off one of China’s illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea, collided with a 30,000 ton, oil and chemical tanker ‘Alnic MC’, in the Eastern approaches to Singapore. Ten sailors lost their lives in the collision while the hull of the ill-fated McCain, was stricken by a large trapezium-shaped puncture on its port quarter abaft the after stack. The greater base of the trapezium was below the waterline and extended at least 40 feet along the hull to a height of 15 feet. Two months earlier a similar collision involving another Arleigh Burke destroyer could advance a more-than-accident theory.

Initial reports suggest loss of course keeping control caused the McCain’s fatal collision. That, and the computer aided nature of the ship’s steering and navigation system, has led to the conjecture that McCain’s manoeuvring system may have been “hacked” into and then manipulated to force a deliberate collision.

The Singapore Strait extends between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea in the east. The strait is about 8 nautical miles (15 km) wide and lies between Singapore Island and the Riau Islands (Indonesia) to the south. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The Port Authority of Singapore periodically warns mariners of the special rules applicable for safe pilotage in these waters. In its marine circulars (#20 of 14 November 2006) it draws attention to the traffic separation scheme (TSS) and the hazardous character of these waters. By law, the significant burden placed on vessels is: to proceed in the appropriate traffic lane in the general direction of flow; to keep clear of traffic separation lines or zones; cardinally, masters of vessels are warned to take extra precautions and proceed at a safe speed. In determining safe speed, experience advocates several factors be considered which in addition to traffic density include: state of visibility, manoeuvrability of the vessel, state of wind, sea and current, proximity of navigational hazards and draught in relation to the available depth of water. In the circumstance, the prudent mariner very quickly appreciates that the primary hazard presented by the narrows is not geography, but density of traffic and the perils of disorderly movement. On an average 200-220 ships transit this passage daily of which more than 100 are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre due deep draught.

The organisation on board a warship for negotiating such waters are the Special Sea Dutymen; a group of highly specialised and trained personnel charged with manning critical control positions involved in evolutions that potentially could endanger the ship, such as berthing, transiting pilotage waters and close-quarter manoeuvring. The key is the instancy of human judgement and failsafe control.

A standard fit on most USN warships is the Integrated Platform Management Systems (IPMS). It uses advanced computer-based technology comprising sensors, actuators, data processing for information display and control operations. Its vital virtue is distant remote control through commercial off the shelf elements (some may argue “its critical vulnerability”). Modern shipping, for reasons of economy and only economy, was quick to adopt the system. Warships systems, however, demand redundancy, reliability, survivability and unremitting operations; all of which militate against cost cutting expediencies. Incidentally, the Indian Navy, as early as May 1997, introduced the IPMS as a part of Project ‘Budhiman’ with the proviso that it would not intrude into critical control and combat functions.

It is not entirely clear the extent to which the IPMS had penetrated systems on-board the USS McCain but in the last two decades it is well known that USN has resorted to deep cuts in manpower and heavily invested in control automation. Inferences are evident.

On 21 August nautical twilight was at 0618h (all times Singapore standard) the moon was in its last quarter and moon rise at 0623h, it was dark, however, visibility was good and sea calm. Collision occurred at 0524h; USS McCain was breached on the port side causing extensive flooding. Examination of the track generated by the Automatic Identification System (AIS) video indicates the Alnic MC approaching Singapore’s easternmost TSS, about 56 nautical miles east of Singapore, at a speed of 9 knots when it suddenly crash stops and turns hard to port, which we may assume was the result of the collision. Unfortunately, military vessels do not transmit AIS data, so we do not have the track of the McCain. However, since the McCain was headed for Singapore it is reasonable to assume that she was overtaking the slow tanker from the latter’s starboard side when she lost steering control and effected an unbridled turn over the tanker’s bulbous bows. The trapezoid form of the rupture and elongation aft would suggest events as mentioned rather than a north south crossing by the destroyer at the time of collision (after all destination was Singapore).

Coincidentally, two Chinese merchantmen the Guang Zhou Wan and the Long Hu San were in close proximity through the episode; so, was that a chance presence? Or does it add to the probability of deliberate cyber engineering of the mishap? And, why else other than to damage the strategic credibility of the US Navy deployed in tense conditions in the South and East China Sea. Or was it, indeed, a case of gross crew incompetence? While, time and ‘sub-rosa’ inquiries could put to rest speculations, vulnerabilities of highly computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks may well remain the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

The Scorpene’s Sting

by

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in The Wire, http://thewire.in/64410/the-scorpenes-sting/)

Submarines are anomic platforms of stealth, concealment and lethality. Each of these mortal attributes is integrated in the body of the weapon to form a very efficient and secretive marauder from the deep. The early years of deployment gave vent to some unsavoury remarks about the use of this weapon; most uncharitable was Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s outburst on the submarine: “…underhand…and damned un-English…treat all submarines as pirates…and hang all the crews.” But this perhaps echoed a visceral fear of the unknown rather than any sense of morality. A century later, the submarine’s tactical advantage remains its capability to use the medium to hide, to strike and then to hide again in waters that firstly complicates and then frustrates detection. To a target within its strike radius it continues to generate the same primeval anxiety that made Sir Arthur quiver.

To appreciate fully the impact of the more than 22,000 page leak of design parameters of the French Direction des Constructions Navales Services’  (DCNS, French naval defence company) Scorpene submarine being built in India for the Navy, one must first come to grips with the problem associated with combating modern conventional submarines such as the Scorpene. The aim of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is to deny the enemy effective use of his submarines. This can be achieved by adopting tactical as well as material measures. The former is achieved through intelligence gathering, surveillance, detection and localising the submarine before destroying it with stand-off weapons that permit the hunter to remain out of the kill range of the submarine. It involves adopting doctrines for co-ordinated operations, setting up dispositions that inhibit freedom of submarine manoeuvre, and tactics that trap it into a ‘destruction-zone.’ Material undertakings, on the other hand, are largely driven by advances in technology that keep platform design, sensors and weapons in a progressive state of change that enhance effectiveness in ASW operations. Marriage of intelligence, efficient tactics and resourceful doctrines with capabilities of contemporary sensors and weapons lies at the core of successful anti-submarine operations. Within this framework, for intuitive foreknowledge to be confirmed by information leakage boosts both probabilities of submarine detection as well as kill.

Anti-submarine operations begin with establishing a submarine probability area. This area is based on intelligence or on inputs from wide area surveillance networks which include remote sensing satellites and sea-bed sensors; and indeed it may be based on electronic or capability indiscretions (surfacing, use of active sensors, communications etc.) of the target submarine. The search phase which involves a systematic and continuing investigation of the area then commences. The area may be demarcated to confirm the absence of a submarine or the search may be launched to locate and destroy it; in the latter instance it is centered on a datum that is based on the last or best known position of the target submarine. Choice of scouts is determined by search rate and degree of vulnerability to submarine counteraction; for obvious reasons ‘time-late’ at datum is a critical factor that can enlarge the search area to an extent when probability of detection diminishes geometrically as it follows an ‘inverse cube law.’ For this reason the preferred scouts for ASW are anti-submarine aircrafts using sensors such as sonars, sonobuoys, magnetic anomaly detectors, radar and infra-red sensors. Inherent in the detection concept is sensor ‘sweep width’ which uses a definite detection law—no probability of detection outside specified range capability, while targets within the specified range are detected with increasing probability. Clearly, successful operations are critically founded on knowledge of enemy capabilities, the specification of adversary weapons and sensors, combat systems, acoustic signature, magnetic profile, and infra-red characteristics. Thoroughness of search, technically termed as the ‘coverage factor,’ is heightened if operating parameters along with design features of the submarine are known.

 Planning an anti-submarine search is a complex craft. It is based on the search theory and the discipline of operations research, both of which were born at the same time and indeed share a common lineage: the necessity of securing the survival of allied naval shipping against submarine attacks during World War II. Passage of time has not changed the need, though ASW is conducted differently today than in World War II, search techniques used in ASW have potentially remained unchanged in concept, structure, and application. Where changes are apparent is in the use of advanced analysis methods and data processing systems using computers, wide area networks and data bases with provision for processing, identification and cueing located ashore. Target characteristics form an important consideration in modelling, for simulation and combat preparation. The first determination in planning and deploying ASW searchers is the probability of contact necessary for accomplishment of the mission from which is obtained the coverage factor. Armed with this and knowing the sweep width of the sensor to be used, scouts are disposed at mathematically determined spacing and move along computed tracks such that early detection is rapidly followed by localization and destruction. This theoretically is how ASW works, but in the real hydrosphere many factors remain unknown. ASW is a complicated warfare discipline, and proficiency can only develop through extensive simulation and training. Destroying a submarine is the hardest task in naval warfare; it can never be the submariners’ case to make this task easier.

Somewhere nestled in those 22k compromised pages, there is certainty of a small section that outlines the Scorpene’s operating “Tactical and Technical Parameters” which is the distillate of all those many thousand folios. And herein lies the rub. We have noted in previous paragraphs (at some length) the various considerations that go into an adversary mounting a search, localizing and then prosecuting a submarine and how ready availability of specifications that answer these considerations largely increases the efficiency of the search-and-destroy operations. They in addition provide critical inputs required for computer modeling and simulating the manoeuvring and operating characteristics of the Scorpene. All this simplifies classification and confirmation of a detected contact. Even to the uninitiated reader it must now be substantially clear that what has been provided on a platter is the ability to generate a computer based virtual reconstruction of the vessel. This ‘cybernetic Scorpene’ can be played with over and over again on a simulator in a variety of hydrological and meteorological scenarios till sensor operators and tacticians gain a very high degree of proficiency in recognizing and fingerprinting the noise, magnetic, electromagnetic and infra-red signatures under all conditions of machinery loading across the entire spectrum of speeds and operating depths. So now the question that begs to be answered is: has the Scorpene lost its sting?

 Investigations are currently in progress to establish just how the leak occurred and to what ends the information found its way to the public domain. There is no clarity why the leak took the tortuous route of passing from the hand of a “disgruntled” DCNS employee through two unknown South East Asian agencies where a fourth hand is alleged prior to falling into the disc drive of the associate editor of The Australian from where it cascaded into the public domain. While reasons for the leak may be many ranging from incompetence at DCNS, cyber hacking by mala fide parties to cut-throat antagonism and resentment between competitors (Japan, Germany) at the loss of the $ 50 billion new design Short fin Barracuda submarine contract for the Australian Navy to DCNS; clearly the strategic beneficiaries of this significant disclosure are the Chinese and Pakistan Navies.

In the meantime, understandably, the Indian Navy have gone into damage control mode. Besides the enquiry that has been launched, it would be in the fitness of things that they also constitute a Special Operations Research Group that begins with two premises: firstly, that compromise has occurred and secondly, that major design changes to the ‘Scorpene’ are not practicable (at least not for the first block if at all there is to be a second). The Special Operations Research Group may then be mandated as follows:-

  • Establish what specific tactical capabilities have been compromised.
  • Device signature masking and spoofing techniques through material and tactical measures.
  • Adopt innovative manoeuvring and operating profiles that stretches and provides permutations to its operating envelope.
  • Ensure that crew turn around is such that expertise aggregates.
  • Identify clauses in the Scorpene contract that have been violated by the leak and replace them with instruments that oblige DCNS to accommodate material alterations that may be warranted to fulfil the mandate of the Special Operations Research Group without prejudice to contractual liabilities of DCNS.

Some portions of the Scorpene’s invisibility cloak may indeed have fallen off in the recent episode, but its brain and sting-lethality remains as potent as was. To regenerate its combat effectiveness may well mean to re-invent operating profiles and devising astute masking techniques. This no doubt is a tough ask, yet by no means beyond the capabilities of the professional savvy of the Indian Navy; there is only one caveat, keep DCNS in a response-only mode.