Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update: A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific

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Two ships that point to the future of Pacific naval combat

In May this year, military commentator H.I. Sutton identified a ship being built deep inland, at a Yangtze River shipyard, suggesting that it may be a new Chinese ‘drone carrier.’  This story has been widely reported and if the assessment is correct provides an interesting insight into the evolution of naval warfare.  The ship being built is a large catamaran with a deck shaped like a conventional aircraft carrier but is about one-third the size of a normal aircraft carrier. Sutton’s analysis is that the vessel is designed to operate medium -sized drones, probably the Chengdu GJ-1 roughly equivalent to the US Predator either to simulate a potential enemy threat, or more likely to test new operational concepts.  A catamaran hull does not provide internal hanger space for large crewed aircraft but has speed and stability advantages compared to monohull configuration. 

The Chengdu GJ-1 has an operational radius of about 2000km, excellent surveillance systems and can carry up to 200kg of bombs or missiles. A war load of four AKD -10 guided missiles, China’s equivalent to the US Hellfire is probably typical.   A drone carrier operating these aircraft provides a range of strike and surveillance options either within a task force or operating independently supporting littoral operations. A fleet of drones could be used within a task group to monitor large areas of land or sea, locating targets for more powerfully armed crewed aircraft to attack. Perhaps, even using drone fired missiles to suppress enemy air defences. 

Further, in the realms of hybrid operations a drone carrier could provide useful capabilities with less threat of escalation than a conventional warship. A drone carrier could support a proxy’s campaigns in a less escalatory manner than a conventional warship. Plenty of new capabilities to explore and test.  

Meanwhile, The US has been quietly developing its own new maritime capability targeting low-intensity operations in the Pacific. In 2017, the US Navy launched the USS Lewis B Puller, an Expeditionary Mobile Base (ESB) vessel. The ESB concept developed from a long-running US Navy programme to develop more cost-effective ships to support amphibious operations. The Future Maritime Pre-positioning Programme is a project designed to provide cost effective solutions for amphibious operations far from large US bases. 

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USS Lewis B Puller is designed to provide support for littoral operations.  It has large fuel storage capacity, ammunition storage, a large flight deck able to accept heavy transport helicopters and a lower deck area able to operate de-mining Remote Operating Vessels (ROV) or moor smaller craft against. Essentially, it can provide a re-fuelling and re-arming point for helicopters and smaller surface vessels.  An operating base that is many times cheaper than a conventional amphibious warfare ship.


It is not a great leap to see the potential for a ship like the USS Lewis B Puller to operate air, sea or submersible drones.  Particularly, in the context of small littoral conflicts in which drones are likely to play an increasingly prominent role probably operating from ships like the new Chinese drone carrier the USS Lewise B Puller or even other re-purposed warships. The Royal New Zealand Navy’s HMNZS Canterbury providing a salient example of a small existing amphibious ship that could fulfil a similar role in littoral operations with minimal modification. 

In my opinion, vessels that can provide sustainment (food, fuel and ammunition), operate helicopters or landing craft to move troops, and use drones for surveillance and attack purposes are essential for operations in the South West Pacific.  An area with vast oceans and rugged terrain where mobile bases like these will be essential.  The use of vessels like these is sure to become increasingly common.  

The key features of future design and development are likely to be modular air defence systems, the ability to operate submarine drones and greater emphasis on command-and-control functions. It is also likely the command-and-control function will expand to include supporting civilian and diplomatic staff, an essential element of humanitarian and peace-support operations. Although, unsuitable for near-peer conventional combat, vessels like this provide a level of strike, sustainment and surveillance capability that a small littoral task force can be built around. A couple of hundred well-trained infantrymen, a handful of fast patrol craft and helicopters supported by drones providing surveillance and attack functions out to 1-2000km is a useful force in the South West Pacific because it can dominate a large area cost effectively.  

The drone carrier concept also raises an interesting question about escalation in hybrid conflict.  Already, in the Persian Gulf and over the Black Sea US drones are shot or forced down by hostile forces, raising a question about whether an attack on a nation’s drones needs to be responded to militarily. And, it may be that a facet of future conflict is a new type of ‘grey zone’ escalation as drones spar with drones without necessarily escalating into conventional war-fighting. 

A link to H.I Sutton’s article 

 

RIMPAC 2024 exercise starts on 27 June

The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) bi-annual exercise is a large multi-national exercise. This year’s RIMPAC involves 29 nations and approximately 25,000 personnel, exercising together in Hawaii from 27 June – 1 August. 


RIMPAC is hosted by the US and is an opportunity to work with allies and partners, testing capabilities, improving inter-operability and most importantly building relationships. The exercise is carefully structured with contingents from different parts of the Pacific assembling into taskforces locally and exercising together before concentrating into a large multi-national force in Hawaii. A huge undertaking that brings 40 warships and three submarines together in a combined force.

On land, soldiers from 14 different nations will be exercising to test their inter-operability, and both land and sea components are supported by 150 aircraft.  A large exercise like this provides the opportunity to use a range of scenarios to test war-fighting skills across a range of ‘domains’ including anti-submarine warfare, surface naval warfare, amphibious operations and fighting on land. 

A key part of the naval exercises is ‘multi-axis defence of a carrier strike group’ or it lay terms, how ships and aircraft from different nations can work together to protect US carriers from being swamped by air and missile attacks.  A key capability for potential near-peer conflict in the Pacific. 

Another notable aspect of this year’s RIMPAC is the inclusion of the largest humanitarian component of the exercise. An important indication that the US is responding to local concerns about the environment and the role inter-operable militaries can play in supporting communities effected by natural disasters. An example of the usefulness of military forces as agents of ‘soft power,’ able to be deployed in more that just war-fighting roles.  

Melanesian update 

A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia. 

New Fijian patrol boat runs aground on first patrol

On 10 June, RFNS Puamau, a Guardian Class patrol boat donated to Fiji by Australia, ran aground on its first patrol.  The patrol boat is reported to be stuck near the Lau Islands in the south-east of the Fijian archipelago and reports indicate that vessel is badly damaged, the engine room flooding and the crew evacuated. The area around the Lau Islands has rough seas and is experiencing bad weather two factors that make salvage operations difficult. 

The loss of the vessel would be an embarrassment for Fiji and an expensive loss for Australia. RFNS Puamau was handed over in March this year, so has had little opportunity to deliver on its capabilities.  

New Caledonia, French President suspends constitutional reform

On 12 June, French President Emmanuel Macron suspended proposed electoral reforms reducing the voting power of New Caledonia’s indigenous people, the Kanaks.  The proposed reforms sparked violence in March and May this year.  The riots in May requiring France to deploy approximately 3000 police and soldiers to the island to restore order.

The proposed reform would allow all residents of New Caledonia to vote rather than just long-term residents is approved by both the French National Assembly and the Senate and was due to become law on 31 June. 

However, Macron’s decision to call a snap election to ‘head off’ a rise in support for far-right politics meant the new law can no longer be passed before a new government is formed. A point Macron summed up as follows “We cannot leave ambiguity during this period. It must be suspended to give full strength to dialogue on the ground and the return to order.’’ Essentially, the suspension ‘kicks the can down the road’ for the new government to address. 

In the short-term this decision is good news for the pro-independence campaigners but the issues that underlie the conflict are not resolved, and are unlikely to be.  New Caledonia is too valuable to France, and likewise the desire for independence is not going to go away. Therefore, we are likely to see more violence in New Caledonia unless there is a sudden change in France’s colonial aspirations.  

Papua New Guinea police force to expand

Prime Minister James Marape announced this week that the Papua New Guinea Constabulary will grow, reaching 10,000 by 2030.  An indication of the scale of Papua New Guinea’s internal security issues is the current ratio of police officers to citizens, roughly 1 to 1,845.  The UK’s ratio is 1 to 251, Australia’s is 1 to 350 and New Zealand’s is 1 to 480.  

Looking at these ratios and considering factors like the size, ruggedness and dispersion of the population it is easy to understand why Papua New Guinea suffers a range of internal security issues, like the ongoing war in Enga Province or piracy.  

Australia supports training the Papua New Guinea Constabulary and funds the nation’s premiere police training facility the Bomana National Centre of Excellence.  An important contribution to supporting stability in Melanesia. 

Papua New Guinea ‘No Confidence’ motion in Prime Minister update

The Papua New Guinea parliament’s opposition faction legally challenged the Speaker’s decision last week to reject the ‘No Confidence’ motion in Prime Minister James Marape. 

Parliament is currently adjourned, while MPs await the legal ruling.  The Speaker, Job Pomat previously stated that he would resign if the court found against his decision.

The situation is tense and distracts the nation’s leadership while advice is provided by the courts. 

Yes, for constitutional reform in Vanuatu referendum 

Two weeks ago, people in Vanuatu voted on whether the nation’s constitution should be amended to reduce political instability. The referendum proposed inserting two new articles in the constitution. The first requiring any elected representative that is expelled from their party to vacate their seat in parliament. The second amendment requiring all Members of Parliament to declare their party allegiances within three months of being elected. The aim of the amendments is to stop the fluid politicking that destabilises Vanuatu’s parliament.  

The votes are counted and Vanuatu’s people voted ‘Yes’ for both amendments, changes that will hopefully reduce political instability in the nation. 

 

 




 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

3 COMMENTS

  1. The French should get the fuck out of the Kanaky Islands and take their racist citizens back to their ancestral homelands!! Nineteenth century Colonization is finished it time for the french to use their own country’s resources instead of stealing from the Kanaky. The Africans have kicked these bastards out after centuries of stealing their wealth the time has come for these fuckers to leave the Pacific and head on back home.

    • Agree, the French should get the fuck out. Not sure why all the hand wringing about China in the Pacific, when we have Western imperialism already here and shooting down protesters in the streets.
      Not to mention testing their nuclear weapons down here and driving indigenous peoples off their homelands in order to do this (Marshall Islands).

  2. This is hilarious. NATO Ben is skiting about his american masters creating a ship that can be used solely to terrorize a civilian population without any ability to strike back beyond small arms.

    Against a enemy with the capability of say, the government of Yemen, that yankee trash goes straight to the bottom.

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