NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Two U.S. destroyers sailed into waters of some of China’s militarized islands in the South China Sea this week in a challenge Beijing’s expansive maritime claims, the Pacific Fleet said.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble conducted freedom of navigation operations in the sea on Feb. 11. “Spruance and Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman, a fleet spokesman, told Inside the Ring.
China’s Defense Ministry protested the action but disclosed that the warships sailed near Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys. Mischief Reef is the location of a 10,000-foot runway that is part of China’s efforts to militarize newly built islands in the strategy waterway.
It was the first time since at least 2015 that warships have passed near Second Thomas Shoal, a partially submerged reef that is the location of a Philippine military outpost aboard an intentionally grounded transport ship, the Sierra Madre, that is staffed by Philippines marines.
U.S. warships have conducted at least 15 freedom of navigation operations in the sea since October 2015.
During the Obama administration, the warship passage operations were halted to avoid upsetting China.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that freedom of navigation operations are not always carried out in international waters, and in some cases are done in disputed waters. The admiral said as part of an initiative to challenge China’s island claims, regional U.S. allies have begun conducting freedom of navigation operations in the sea.
The four-star admiral warned that China’s militarization of South China Sea islands had increased the dangers for both shipping and aircraft.
Since April 2018, China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers on some of the islands, Adm. Davidson said. The weapons threaten both military and civilian ships and aircraft transiting the sea.
“I think it’s critically important to messaging China that it’s not just the United States that is concerned about the freedom of the South China seas, but indeed all nations,” he said. “And I expect allies and partners to continue to help here in the months ahead, both with some combined operations that will be executing as well as some individual operations as well.”
Cmdr. Gorman, the Pacific Fleet spokesman, said freedom of navigation operations are routine and not directed at any one country.
“U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” he said. “All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
A Chinese military spokesman criticized the warship passage and said Chinese warships and aircraft were dispatched to ward off the U.S. destroyers conducting what the spokesman said were provocative actions.
People’s Liberation Army Sr. Col. Li Huamin, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command said the U.S. warships transited near the two disputed islands without Chinese permission.
Col. Li said the latest passage “violated China’s laws and relevant international laws, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, and endangered regional peace and stability,” state media reported.
North Korea expands special ops
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un is expanding his military’s large force of special operations commandos, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea disclosed this week.
Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the new commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the special operations troops are a threat to South Korea and to U.S. commandos.
“Since Kim Jong-un assumed responsibility for leading his regime, this has been one of his specific investments in terms of increasing the size and capability of a special operations forces,” Gen. Abrams said. “And secondly, they spend a considerable amount of time doing training.”
Asked by Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, if the military is doing more to prepared to counter the expanding North Korean commandos, Gen. Abrams said, “we are.”
“We have a very small special operations command Korea, but extraordinarily capable,” he said. “They punch way above their weight class. We are fortunate to have a rotational U.S. Army special forces [Operational Detachment Bravo team], so for instance, today on the peninsula, we have five [Operational Detachment Alpha teams’] persistent presence embedded with [South Korean special operations forces] training and partnering every single day.”
B-teams are support forces usually made up of 11 commandos who provide support for A-Teams. Each A-Team is made up of 12 highly-trained commandos who conduct different types of combat and intelligence operations.
North Korea’s 1 million-strong armed forces include more than 60,000 special operations commandos who are considered critical asymmetric warfare forces.
The Pentagon’s 2018 annual report on the North Korean military stated that Pyongyang’s commandos “are among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed and highly motivated forces in the” North Korean army.
Strategic SOF units dispersed across North Korea appear designed for rapid offensive operations, internal defense against foreign attacks, or limited attacks against vulnerable targets in” South Korea, the report said. They operate in specialized units, such as reconnaissance, airborne and seaborne insertion, commando, and other specialty units. All emphasize speed of movement and surprise attack to accomplish their missions.
The North Korean commands are transported in AN-2 Cold transports or helicopters.
A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report from 2004 revealed that North Korea dispatched commando teams to the United States in the 1990s in preparation for attacks on nuclear power plants and major cities in a conflict.
Five units of commandos were trained for the attacks, the report said. The North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the ministry in charge of the military, “established five liaison offices in the early 1990s, to train and infiltrate operatives into the United States to attack nuclear power plants and major cities in case of hostilities,” the report said.
U.S. special forces commandos have been trained to conduct raids into North Korea to seize or sabotage Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and infrastructure.
Obama covered up treaty violation
Many arms control advocates are lamenting the Trump administration’s announcement this month that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry tweeted this week that “nuclear weapons are the next geopolitical crisis waiting to happen that no one is talking about. We are sleepwalking into a new nuclear arms race.”
Mr. Perry was responding to a Feb. 10 New York Times editorial blaming President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin for abandoning the INF treaty, especially saying Mr. Trump was wrong to say the United States had no choice but to reject the treaty.
While dire warnings of a new nuclear arms race have been issued, little is said about the reason for the INF withdrawal — the development, testing and deployment by Russia of a new ground-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile called the SSC-8. The road-mobile missile has been deployed in significant numbers in areas of Russia that threaten U.S. troops and NATO allies in Europe.
Paula A. DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance from 2002 to 2009, notes that the Russian violation was known for many years and covered up by the Obama administration. The Obama White House knew about the illegal Russian missile development but kept the violation secret until after it was disclosed by The New York Times five years ago.
“The Obama administration has known about a Russian violation of a major arms control treaty for four years but has only now reported the violation to Congress, as required by law,” Ms. DeSutter wrote in a 2014 article.
The 1987 treaty eliminated an entire class of missile with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles until Moscow began cheating with the SSC-8.
Ms. DeSutter told Inside the Ring the Russian cruise missile program likely began around 2008 and “was covered up by the Obama administration from 2010 to late 2013.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.