Gretel C. Kovach, San Diego Union-Tribune
6 June 2015
CHANGI NAVAL BASE, Singapore – The U.S. Defense Secretary flew over the Strait of Malacca last month during a visit to Singapore, getting a bird’s-eye view from a Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor of one of the busiest waterways in the world.
The maritime superhighway of container ships the Pentagon chief looked down on will get a bit more crowded in coming years, with an expanding fleet of U.S. Navy warships deployed full-time to the South China Sea gateway.
Singapore, a global shipping hub, is the extended home-away-from-home for the littoral combat ship Fort Worth (LCS 3), one in a new class of small and fast surface combatants designed for shallow coastal waters. The Navy plans to add a second littoral combat ship to Singapore in 2016 and as many as four simultaneously by 2017-2018.
Why the growing military investment in this island city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula?
In a word: China.
The rising power has accused the U.S. of meddling in its backyard and challenged its right to freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
During a Singapore stop on a 10-day tour through the Indo-Asia-Pacific that ended Thursday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed to protect principles of free passage, saying they had ensured security and prosperity in the region for decades.
“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world,” Carter said in a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit.
The growing fleet of littoral combat ships based in Singapore is one of the most tangible signs of the U.S. pivot, or rebalance, to the Pacific after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plan calls for 60 percent of U.S. naval resources to be based in the Indo-Asia-Pacific by 2020, up from the customary 50-50 split with the Atlantic. The shift has already spurred more frequent military exercises with allied forces, visits by U.S. carrier battle groups and amphibious warships, and extended rotational deployments of troops in places like Darwin, Australia.
The USS Freedom launched the new Singapore deployments last year, then was replaced in December by the Fort Worth. Although still officially home-ported in San Diego, the Fort Worth is tethered to Singapore for 16 months, with a 50-member crew swap from San Diego every four months.
Deepening U.S. ties are a counterbalance to threats of Chinese hegemony in the region, where a Chinese claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea sparked hot protests and distress calls in recent years from its smaller and weaker neighbors.
At stake for the U.S. is its ability to conduct maritime military operations, including surveillance by ships and aircraft.
China, which built an underground ballistic nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island several years ago, objects to any foreign military activities within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of its territory – an interpretation of international maritime law that the U.S. and most other nations reject regardless of who owns the disputed lands.
The littoral combat ship and other Navy vessels patrolling the South China Sea are backup for U.S. tough talk about freedom of navigation and overflight, and insurance against potential military clashes in the region.
Last month, Navy officials announced that the USS Fort Worth had conducted a “routine patrol” in international waters near the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea for the first time, where the ship and its aircraft – a reconnaissance drone and a Seahawk helicopter – encountered a Chinese warship.
When queried afterward by The San Diego Union-Tribune and international journalists at Changi Naval Base, U.S. Navy officials declined to say whether the crew of the Chinese frigate accused the Fort Worth of trespassing in Chinese waters.
“We had safe and professional operation by both navies,” said Cmdr. Matt Kawas, commanding officer of the outgoing ship’s crew, shortly before returning to San Diego.
The Fort Worth first encountered a Chinese warship in February, as it routinely does while transiting the South China Sea, Kawas said. U.S. and Chinese crews communicate during these run-ins with a new code of conduct for unplanned encounters at sea to clarify intentions, he said.
“It’s basic courtesy at sea, and it’s happening every day,” added Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7.
Asked if the Spratly patrols would continue, Kacher said: “We’ve been operating in the South China Sea as an international body of water for a long time with many ships. We’ve had regular operations there and we think we’ll continue to see that...
“The good news is we are out there. We are engaging and cooperating with neighbors, including the Chinese.”
Singaporeans speak of “two Asias,” one in which close ties to China as top trade partner are coupled with the stabilizing security presence of the U.S.
The tiny nation surrounded by formerly hostile neighbors announced this spring it was boosting its defense budget 5.7 percent to $9.5 billion, because of new security threats such as hybrid warfare and booming military spending by China and other Asian nations. That amounts to roughly 3.3 percent of Singapore’s gross domestic product.
As a global shipping hub, Singapore is also concerned about the rise of piracy in Southeast Asia.
Over one third of world shipping passes through the Strait of Malacca annually, and an estimated 15.2 million barrels of crude oil each day.
Last year may have been the most dangerous for Southeast-Asia seafarers in nearly a decade, although the 22 percent jump from 2013 to 183 incidents involved mostly petty theft and crimes of opportunity, according to the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).
Increased reporting may also be a factor. The intergovernmental network began operating an information sharing center in 2006 to increase transparency and counter the threat. It now includes 20 nations, including the U.S. and other countries with significant trade interests in the region.
Littoral combat ships racing at more than 40 knots are ideal for chasing pirates and protecting sea lanes in the South China Sea, with its miles of coastline and thousands of islands, Navy officials say.
“Maritime security underwrites economic prosperity” in a region where more than 620 million people live near the sea and produce a combined gross domestic product of more than $2.4 trillion, wrote U.S. Ambassador Kirk Wagar and Rear Adm. Charlie Williams in a December editorial in The Straits Times.
On the home front, the littoral combat ships remain vulnerable to defense budget-cutters.
The program initiated in 2002 has been plagued with design and construction problems and ballooning costs. Critics call the warship underarmed, overpriced and un-survivable in high-intensity battle.
Originally 52 ships were planned, but purchases were capped last year at 32, with the difference devoted to modified up-gunned versions reclassified as frigates.
Navy officials point to Singapore to prove the utility of the new ships. The Fort Worth, at 3 years old, still has a new car smell in its bridge, where push-button controls can be operated by just three people or left to autopilot.
The month it arrived in Singapore, the Fort Worth joined search operations for the AirAsia jet crash, reaching the Java Sea off Indonesia within 24 hours. From its Singapore base, the ship ranges from South China Sea shallows that would ground a destroyer to deeper waters near northern allies like Japan and South Korea.
Kacher, who has been based in the region two and a half years, said Singapore is a smart place for a fleet of littoral combat ships.
“When there is a challenge, the ships will not have to come from somewhere else. They will already be here,” he said. “We think that’s a very powerful thing.”
Gretel C. Kovach reported this story as a Jefferson Fellow with the Honolulu-based East-West Center, during a three-week tour studying South China Sea conflicts with stops in China, the Philippines, Singapore, and Hawaii.