Is the U.S. Navy Weak? The Chinese Seem to Think So.

Chinese military commentators have shared their thoughts on recent U.S. Naval accidents and what they think it means for the larger geopolitical struggle in the Asia-Pacific.

When the USS Fitzgerald, a Burke-class destroyer and part of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, was mysteriously struck by a merchant ship outside of Tokyo Harbor in June 2017, seven sailors perished in the tragic navigation collision. The episode was deeply shocking since a whole series of redundant technologies and shipboard procedures should have made that accident impossible. But when a similar episode befell another Seventh Fleet destroyer, the USS McCain, in August, in which ten sailors were lost, it became clear that the U.S. Navy (USN) had entered into a period of rather severe crisis. After mourning our dead, these disasters demand a top-to-bottom reexamination of training techniques, command paradigms, technological integration and operational patterns, at a minimum. This proud and venerated service must, above all, avoid the temptation to find easy answers and scapegoats.

Part of the reckoning, of course, concerns the strategic fallout of these accidents. That must be counted, of course, among allies, but perhaps most importantly with respect to strategic competitors. It will surprise no one to learn that Chinese military commentators, who watch U.S. Navy operations with utmost attention, have formed some preliminary conclusions regarding the meaning of the incidents for the larger geopolitical struggle in the Asia-Pacific.

Two articles (from 25 August and 1 Sept) in the Chinese military newspaper China National Defense [中国国防报] reveal the rather disturbing conclusion that they view the U.S. Navy as comprised of “men [that] are weary, [with] their steeds spent, helmets askew, and armor bent” [人困马乏盔歪甲斜]. With some evident sympathy, the article does note sometimes that “when it rains, it pours …” [祸不单行] There is a recognition that the waters off of Singapore (where the McCain was struck) are among the busiest in the world. But on the other hand, the Chinese analysis observes that U.S. warships have good maneuverability and a U.S. expert is quoted lamenting the failure of on-board sensors. The analysis notes that the two major collisions were also preceded by two additional serious incidents in the Western Pacific earlier in 2017, involving the USS Lake Champlain, and separately the USS Antietam. The Chinese analysis, moreover, demonstrates an understanding that both the McCain and the Fitzgerald are ships that provide unique ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities that are not limitless.

These articles do broach a few explanations for the two major collisions. The possibility that hackers penetrated and interfered with the ships’ information systems is discussed briefly, but then it is stated matter-of-factly that the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson has declined to embrace that particular theory. A subhead in one of the Chinese articles puts forward some rather blunt hypotheses: “The Result of Excessive Self-confidence and Crudeness?” [过于自信和鲁莽所致] The analysis goes on to assert that the USS McCain incident has “exposed to a significant degree that major problems exist in the US Navy training regimen…” A Fox News statement by an anonymous U.S. Navy official is then quoted, asserting that current USN exercises are not up to past standards. The second analysis also suggests that basic personnel training has been neglected, leading to an overall decline in proficiency of the force. This editorial from 1 September 2017, pulls no punches when it concludes: “… the US Navy finds itself getting into accidents lately against the background of commonly entering other countries’ nearby seas and sensitive waters to undertake so-called patrols with ships in bad condition, personnel physically and spiritually exhausted, and with lax safety knowledge.”

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