TOKYO – The U.S. pivot toward Asia – and the potential for confrontation with China – became a little more real this week with the arrival of a new class of warship designed to fight in coastal waters.
The USS Freedom crossed into the Western Pacific Wednesday on its way to Singapore, where it will be deployed for the next eight months. Eventually, up to four of the new Littoral Combat Ships will operate continuously out of Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, close to some of the most hotly contested waters in the world.
China claims territory and resources over nearly all the South China Sea and is engaged in a tense standoff with Japan over uninhabited islands in the nearby East China Sea. Worries over China’s growing military capabilities and territorial ambitions are largely behind U.S. plans to build up, or “rebalance,” military forces in the region.
So far, little has moved beyond the planning stages. The Marines have boosted manpower in Okinawa from about 10,000 to 18,000, but that’s basically a return to pre-Iraq and pre-Afghanistan levels. About 200 Marines were sent to Australia for six months last year and a similar contingent will return this spring – symbolically important, perhaps, but negligible in terms of combat power.
The Freedom represents a significant new capability, though its actual effectiveness remains to be seen. The Freedom and its sister ships are designed to be fast, stealthy and relatively cheap. They are intended to operate mostly in shallow waters or close to coastlines, where carriers and other big warships are increasingly vulnerable to shore-based missiles and aircraft.
The new warships can be outfitted with different “modules” for minesweeping, surface warfare or anti-submarine operations. The Navy plans to buy up to 55 of them, at about $420 million each, and plans stage most of them in the Asia-Pacific region.
Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in Tokyo, says the littoral combat ships represent a direct challenge to China. The new ships will operate largely in the narrow Strait of Malacca, though which passes 40% of the world’s trade (much of it bound to or from China), and in the shallow waters of the South China Sea, which China views at its own.
“The deployment of USS Freedom is not only symbolic but also substantial, given its combat capabilities. Asia’s future rests on whether China respects or challenges that deployment,” says Kotani, who toured the Freedom at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, last week.
The new littoral ships – of which there are two completely different designs — are not without critics. The first two vessels, including the Freedom, have been dogged by structural problems, construction defects and cost overruns.
Though built with high-tech materials and the latest electronics, the ships are thin-skinned and “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” according to the Pentagon’s independent director of testing and evaluation.
That’s OK, says the chief of naval operations, since high-intensity combat is not where the new ships are going.
Littoral combat vessels are “not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for,” Admiral Jonathan Greenert said last year. Instead, the new ships will focus on exercises, port visits, anti-piracy missions, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
That will free up larger ships for other things – like confronting the Chinese, perhaps.