Run Silent, Think Deep: Captain Bernard Cole Speaks

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As part of the research for my book and film Crouching Tiger, I interviewed 35 of the top experts in the world from all sides of the China issue. These are key edited excerpts from my sit-down with Captain Bud Cole. From the moment Captain Cole began to speak on camera, I sensed the precision of a chess master with many years at sea. He was as insightful in his remarks as he was gracious.

I began the interview by asking Captain Cole to size up the competing US and Chinese nuclear submarine fleets.

The U.S. nuclear powered submarine feet as far as I know is far superior to the Chinese, anything the Chinese Navy can put to sea. On the other hand, the numbers within the U.S. nuclear powered submarine fleet are decreasing. And I think that by 2020, we're only going to have 40 or so submarines available Navy-wide, not all of which of course will be in the Pacific fleet. So while a U.S. submarine is going to be far more capable than a Chinese submarine, numbers do count in the final analysis.

Where Captain Cole may be most at odds with many of his colleagues is on the importance - or lack there of - of Taiwan in the strategic calculus of both the US and Japan.

My own view is that Chinese control of Taiwan would not significantly increase the threat to Okinawa or U.S strategic interests. The Eastern Coast of Taiwan is not at all amenable to building naval ports. There's only one really significant naval base in Northeastern Taiwan and a smaller one down on the Southern part of the island. So from a practical ship home porting bases, Taiwan does not give the Chinese very much, and it would only extend their aircraft range by a hundred miles or so to the east.

So my personal opinion is that should China gain full operational access to Taiwan, it would not dramatically increase their strategic capability or operational abilities. However, I think I'm in the minority to be perfectly honest. Any Japanese naval officer that I've talked to is of the opinion that possession of Taiwan would, in fact, seriously impact Japan's defensive capability.

One of Captain Cole's biggest concerns is the ongoing dispute between China and the United States over freedom of navigation:

In 1982, the United Nations came out with a new set of Maritime regulations and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the acronym for which is UNCLOS.

When China signed the UNCLOS and ratified it, it expressed four declarations; and one of them was that sovereign territorial rights extend out to the two hundred nautical mile limit defined by "Exclusive Economic Zones" -- and possibly beyond. So from China's perspective, any foreign military aircraft or ship, steaming within that two hundred nautical mile EEZ limit is required to ask permission from the host nation to do so.

From a U.S. perspective, freedom of navigation dictates that a foreign ship or aircraft is not required to request host nation permission to steam within the Exclusive Economic Zone outside of sovereign territorial waters.

If China's view on sovereign territorial rights within the Exclusive Economic Zone and, and possibly all the way out to the 350 nautical mile Continental Shelf limit were to prevail worldwide, it would severely restrict freedom of navigation, potentially. And by freedom of navigation, I mean not just warships but also commercial trade afloat. It would have very serious consequences.

Here Captain Cole explains some of the serious economic consequences:

When merchant ships travel at sea, they don't steam randomly from port to port. There are sort of, I guess you could say there are highways at sea. So consider a merchant ship steaming, say, from Long Beach to Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf. If we broke out a chart, we could lay out exactly the course that ship is going to steer because they want to save fuel and they want to go by the most direct, most economical route.

Many of those routes go obviously well within Exclusive Economic Zones. So if these ships are somehow restricted in their transit, it could very much slow and increase the expense of sea born trade.

It's not just economic costs the world has to worry about from China's rogue view of Exclusive Economic Zones:

If you recall the EP-3 incident in 2001, a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying 70 nautical miles off of Hainan Island was intercepted by a Chinese Navy fighter. It collided with the EP-3, forcing the EP-3 to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island while the Chinese fighter went into the water, killing the pilot. This is the worst example so far where the differing interpretations of the sovereign territory rights within the EEZ under the UNCLOS led to a tragedy.

As a career naval officer, Captain Cole is particularly concerned about the ability of the United States to pay for the weapons systems it needs to defend itself. Says Cole:

One of the problems facing the Navy today, in fact the whole U.S. military, is the declining defense budget. Even though our defense budget is still huge by global standards, the fact is that our Navy has been used for decades and decades to operate globally all the time.

As the defense budget declines, that's going to become more and more difficult, particularly in terms of operational funding. If you want to maintain a constant global naval presence with a declining budget, it means longer deployments for the ships, more stress on the personnel manning those ships, and perhaps less money for fuel and weapons, weapons ordinance and, and other necessary systems.

Captain Cole is also increasingly worried about America's drift towards neo-isolationism and what it may portend for America's Asian alliances. While noting the American mood and the need for dialogue on a large US presence in Asia, there is no doubt where he stands:

In the Pacific, if we were to say, we're going to completely withdraw military forces from Japan and South Korea, it would dramatically change the strategic balance of power in the region. It's in the direct U.S. interest as well as in global security interest to keep those forces present that are required to reassure our friends and allies and to thus insure security and stability in the area.

What happens if we do not have a mutual defense alliance with Japan? Japan then would confront an expanding China, a relationship that is based on historic enmity and on current, very active disputes, and on a modernizing Chinese military. A logical assumption would be that Tokyo would then decide to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. This would not be in the interest of anybody in the world.

And similarly, South Korea, is in a very difficult strategic situation, sandwiched between Japan and China. It might also feel the need in the absence of a treaty with the United States to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

I personally believe that the more nuclear weapons in the world, the more unstable the world becomes, not the opposite. This is one justification for maintaining a U.S. nuclear guarantee, if you will, in these areas.

Captain Cole notes that many of the weapons systems China is now fielding originate in some way from beyond its shores - either through reverse engineering or through the provision of so-called "dual use" technologies from countries like Germany and Australia that are supposed to be American allies.

Any military modernization system has to take advantage of both indigenous and foreign systems if you will. In China's case, they have relied heavily on foreign systems either by importing the systems directly or by reverse engineering systems.

The Chinese have proved to be very good at reverse engineering in systems they've imported from Russia or using systems they've acquired through duel use. In other words, a Chinese civilian company may form a joint venture agreement with a foreign company, import goods that are nominally civilian in intention, but then adapt it to military use.

Let me give you some examples. In the 19080s, the German diesel company, Siemens, established a joint venture with a Chinese company. The first time I want on board a Chinese frigate in 1994 and I went down into the main engineering spaces, this frigate was powered by diesel engines; and the diesel engine had a big Siemens logo right on the engine. Okay? A diesel engine's a diesel engine. Whether it's designed to drive a tractor or a ship, it can be adapted.

The other area I'm aware of is ceramic engineering technology. A French company formed a joint venture with a Chinese company for the purpose of developing ceramic engineering. Well, the principle technology that goes into constructing a sonar dome aboard a surface ship is ceramic engineering. So here again we have an incidence of a legal importation or establishment of French technology into the, which converted into the Chinese military.

A third example, which is perhaps most egregious, is, in the 1990s, an Australian company designed a catamaran passenger ferry. And this, again they formed a joint venture with a South China company to build passenger ferries, and of course South China is rife with waterways that are very amenable to use of ferries. And this basically provided the whole technology for the Hubei Class [Type 022] missile boat. This is a catamaran boat that's designed for relatively inshore, short-range operations carrying, I believe it's four anti-surface ship missiles. Potentially a significant weapon system.

In the case of Russian technologies, the situation is even more complex. By selling China SU-27 and SU-30 tactical fighter aircraft, Russia basically gave China the engineering technology for those aircraft, technology China has reverse engineered -- to the great annoyance of the Russian military, I might add.

Such Chinese theft of Russian fighter technology hasn't, however, stopped the flood of sophisticated weapons from Russia to China.

The Chinese have bought 12 kilo-class conventionally powered submarines from the Russians. Those are near the top of the list as the best conventionally powered submarines in the world.

As China rapidly expands its submarine fleet, Captain Cole sees great danger, particularly from China's growing fleet of conventional diesel-electric subs.

Obviously we could discuss many different Naval missions. The one that's most difficult in my personal experience and in my view today remains combating submarines.

China has developed a variation on conventionally powered submarines, which is utilizes something called air independent propulsion. A conventionally powered submarine generally has to surface every four days to recharge its batteries, which means it has to have access to fresh air. A submarine equipped with air independent propulsion can generally steam for at least fourteen days before surfacing to recharge its batteries.

On the role of conventional submarines in the Chinese strategic calculus, Captain Cole notes:

Anti-submarine warfare is extremely difficult, and I think China feels, correctly in my view, that if it can deploy two or three dozen conventionally powered submarines - submarines that the U.S. Navy feels it has ta at least localize before it can interject itself into a specific scenario - that will slow U.S. interventions sufficiently

China's conventional submarine threat is not the only one of concern. Captain Cole predicts it is only matter of time before its ballistic missile nuclear subs will easily range America.

The idea of home-porting their new ballistic missile submarines, the Jin-class, out of Sanya [on Hainan Island] first indicated to me that they were going to follow a sort of a bastion strategy for having a sea-born nuclear deterrent.

Up until now China has followed a policy of a minimal nuclear deterrent. That means they want just enough nuclear missiles available so that should some other nation - and obviously they're looking primarily at the U.S. or perhaps India - decide to engage in nuclear warfare against China, China could at least put one or two missiles on the opposition.

The problem with China following a bastion strategy, that is keeping their nuclear arm ballistic missile submarines within the South China Sea, is that the JL-2 [Julang class] missile does not have the range to reach most of the United States so the boat would have to exit the South China Sea and steam a considerable distance into the Philippine Sea to be within range of the United States.

I think eventually they would like to be able to do that. I think that's something that we should expect them to do.

Cole counts himself among the skeptics regarding China's much-ballyhooed DF21-D antiship ballistic missile:

The DF-21D is an intermediate range ballistic missile that China has been attempting to develop so that after it reenters the atmosphere and after ballistic flight, it can be redirected and targeted against a specific target, usually termed the U.S. aircraft carrier. It's a very difficult technical problem. And I am not convinced that China has accomplished that achievement yet.

In fact, Captain Cole sees a far more conventional missile threat.

As China has modernized its military, of course it's engaged in developing or acquiring a whole host of weapon systems. The one that's most dangerous in my mind, apart from the conventionally powered submarine itself, is cruise missiles; and of course the reason that submarines are dangerous is not only because they can fire torpedoes but because the modern boats can also fire cruise missiles from a submerged position.

A cruise missile is an air breather. That is, it is launched from a submarine or a surface ship or an aircraft.

If it's a modern cruise missile, it generally flies at a relatively low altitude, seeking out its target, and this is a key to the employment of missiles. They need targeting information; and it's only been within the last decade that China has begun developing the space-based assets and other sorts of radars to enable them to locate the target and to direct the missile onto it.

China's also recently, apparently, been developing hypersonic cruise missiles, that is cruise missiles that can go faster than the speed of sound at some multiple. These are experiments that I assume the U.S. is also engaged in. Cruise missiles are very challenging.

Beyond China's missiles and submarines, China's advanced mine warfare is very much on Captain Cole's mind.

There are are few Naval weapon systems that are as adjustable if you will or as dangerous as Maritime mines. There's a whole raft of families of mines, some of which include ship counters. In other words, if there's a proximity fuse on the mine, you can set it so the third or fourth or tenth ship passing over it will be the one to detonate the mine.

You have mines that can be fired from the ocean bottom like torpedoes when a ship passes over it. You have mines that are, are set off by a ship's magnetic field or by the noise from a ship's propeller. China apparently has access to all this sort of technology, none of it's really new or revolutionary. What's more the point is the fact that no Navy in the world has really very significant mine sweeping or mine hunting capability.

You may recall that during Operation Desert Storm, two U.S. ships struck mines in the Persian Gulf. One of those mines was an Italian design plastic-encased mine that Iraq had acquired on the open market. Another one was a Russian design that was designed by Tsarist Russia in 1908. It was the old John Wayne movie kinda mine, you know, with horns sticking out that John Wayne usually exposed by shooting one of the horns with a rifle. So modern warfare is not new but it's still very, very dangerous.

There's no question that China has thousands of mines that they could lay in specific scenarios. Our mine sweeping capability or mine hunting capability is pitiful.

On China's equally ballyhooed strategy of asymmetric warfare, Captain Cole has this terse critique:

I don't like the concept of asymmetry because it simply implies to me what any intelligent military Captain does, which is trying to find the enemy's weakness and attack that. You don't attack an enemy's strength on purpose.

As for China's operational concept of anti-access area denial, here's Captain Cole's more subtle take through the lens of history:

One of the things we've seen described in the last few years is not a strategic concept really but more of an operational concept on the part of Chinese maritime strategists is called anti-access, area denial; and that is the idea that if you take the waters within the First Island Chain, the Three
Seas, and if you can prevent U.S. incursions into those Three Seas, you therefore could win a Maritime conflict.

Now there's nothing new about anti-access, area denial. You could go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson with his gunboats against the British Navy as that sort of strategy.

You could look at Japan's strategy in 1941 to build a defensive perimeter about 2,000 miles into the Pacific, the idea being: If it could prevent the U.S. Navy from re-entering that area of the Pacific for two years, it could then force a truce. That's really anti-access, area denial.

Or you can look at the Soviet campaign during the 1980s against the U.S. Navy where it thought it establish defensive zones off the Soviet Coast and preclude U.S. naval entry into those zones.
China's campaign tries to take advantage of that theory and to implement it within the First Island Chain. It's never succeeded before in history so we don't know if China's effort would or not.

Here's Captain Cole on the very the critical difference between fighting the China of today versus the Soviet Union of yesterday:

For China, it's not necessary to match the U.S. military missile for missile, ship for ship, tank for tank. Rather, I think what China is consciously trying to do in its military modernization is to develop the capability to achieve very specific strategic aims during very specific periods.

In other words, should Taiwan declare independence and China decide to employ military force against Taiwan, it wants to have the military strength necessary to accomplish that specific purpose. Not to establish command of the seas within the first or second island chain permanently. So I think that's a crucial difference between what the Soviet Union was trying to do during the Cold War and what China is trying to do today.

To end our interview, I asked Captain Cole how probable war might be with China. His remarks were encouraging for the cause of peace - with an important caveat.

The chances of a conflict, I think, are relatively minor. There are many, many territory disputes in East Asia. We have many areas of disagreement economically with China. None of these threats, none of these disagreements are existential, that is none of them threaten the existence of either China or the United States or any other nation in East Asia, other possibly than, if we look at the Korean Peninsula.

I think if North Korea were to attack the south, either conventionally or nuclear, with nuclear weapons, that North Korea would very rather quickly cease to exist as an independent nation. So I don't see potential conflict between the United States and China.

Now I hasten to caveat that with if we were sitting here a hundred years ago, we would be saying the same thing with respect to the European area of operations and yet, unfortunately people tend to do stupid things sometimes. But sitting here today, in Roosevelt Hall, in Washington D.C., I personally don't see a conflict emerging between the United States and China.

Peter Navarro is a business professor at UC-Irvine and author of Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World.