NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China‘s military dispatched a spy ship to collect war fighting secrets during the U.S. Navy‘s major international exercises known as Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) that ended earlier this month, according to defense sources.
No details of the activities by the People’s Liberation Army navy auxiliary general intelligence ship, known as an AGI, were disclosed. The naval spying was detected near Hawaii during the military maneuvers.
One source said the Chinese ship did not disrupt the exercises involving 25,000 troops, 38 warships and more than 170 aircraft that ended Aug. 4.
However, with rising tensions and growing fears of a conflict with China over Taiwan, government and military officials were said to be concerned by the spy ship’s presence during the war games.
The vessel is believed to have gathered valuable warfighting information. Data gathered likely included details of tactics and procedures used in joint and international naval operations. Significantly, the vessel is believed to have scooped up large amounts of electronic signals intelligence and military communications.
Such intelligence is viewed by analysts as the kind of information that would give the PLA advantages in a future conflict.
An Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson did not comment on the presence of the PLA spy ship at RIMPAC. But she said the command regularly monitors adversary naval activities in the region.
“U.S. Indo-Pacific Command routinely monitors air and maritime traffic in the Western Pacific to ensure security and stability of the region alongside our allies and partners,” the spokesperson told The Washington Times.
“As part of our normal daily operations, we closely track all vessels in the Indo-Pacific area of operations through maritime patrol aircraft, surface ships, and joint capabilities,” she added.
Chinese intelligence monitoring of the RIMPAC exercises appears increasingly routine.
Chinese spy ships were detected near the naval maneuvers most recently in 2018, and an AGI conducted spying operations near RIMPAC in 2014 — at a time when Chinese navy ships were taking part. None were spotted in 2020 when limited maneuvers were held due to the pandemic.
The AGI spotted in 2018 was identified as a PLA Type 815 Dongdiao-class intelligence ship, the type of vessel likely sent to monitor RIMPAC this month.
Such spying operations are legal when carried out in international waters.
However, the Chinese spying on RIMPAC could provide the military with a convincing counter to frequent Chinese military complaints about U.S. and allied ships operating in the South China Sea that Beijing says are improperly spying and undermining trust and U.S.-China military relations.
A total of 26 nations took part in the latest RIMPAC with 38 surface ships, nine nations’ land forces, three submarines and around 170 aircraft.
In addition, the more than 25,000 troops involved in the exercises, 30 unmanned aircraft and ships, including MQ-9A and MQ-9B Reapers, and drone surface vessels Nomad, Ranger, Sea Hawk and Sea Hunter also participated. The drones shared intelligence with allied participants, according to the Navy.
“By coming together as capable, adaptive partners, and in the scale that we are, we are making a statement about our commitment to work together, to foster and sustain those relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of the sea lanes and the security of the world’s interconnected oceans,” said Vice Adm. Michael Boyle, RIMPAC 2022 combined task force commander.
A Chinese military spokesperson could not be reached for comment. In 2014, a PLA spokesperson defended the dispatch of an AGI near Hawaii as legal. “We hope the U.S. respects the legitimate rights of the Chinese ship,” Sr. Col. Geng Yansheng said at the time.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said he is disappointed that Indo-Pacific Command would not confirm the recent presence of the Chinese AGI.
“The PRC has a 10-year history of dispatching AGIs to collect intelligence on the U.S. Navy and other RIMPAC participants,” he said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “Unfortunately, it appears the specter of secrecy that was most prominent during the Obama administration has returned.”
Capt. Fanell added, “From a tactical perspective, these operations do in fact provide the PRC and PLA critical information about U.S. and allied combined operations, especially in the maritime environment.”
The pieces of intelligence gathered by the AGI can be used by the Chinese to conduct attacks on U.S. naval and air forces in the western Pacific, he said.
Navy to scrap 39 warships
As China expands its navy by building and deploying new warships at a rapid pace, the Navy announced plans this month to decommission 39 warships in fiscal year 2023, which begins Oct. 1.
Five guided missile cruisers and nine Littoral Combat Ships are among the ships slated for scrap or transfer to foreign nations.
The list of ships the Navy plans to take out of service was published in a Navy memorandum published Aug. 12 by Vice Adm. S. D. Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for war fighting requirements and capabilities.
Inactivation of the warships is subject to approval by Congress of President Biden’s 2023 defense budget.
A total of 16 warships could avoid decommissioning under several pieces of congressional legislation that set limits on the Navy from removing too many warships of a certain type.
The Navy cuts come as China has overtaken the service numerically as the largest navy in the world.
The Congressional Research Service said in a recent report that China now has 355 warships, including major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and fleet auxiliaries. The Chinese navy plans to have 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030, according to the report.
“China‘s navy is viewed as posing a major challenge to the U.S. Navy‘s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific — the first such challenge the U.S. Navy has faced since the end of the Cold War,” the CRS report said.
The U.S. Navy is required under a 2018 law to maintain a force of 355 warships. A new 30-year plan released in April calls for a naval force of 321 to 404 manned ships bolstered by 45 to 204 large unmanned vessels.
The current deployable Navy warship force includes 298 battle force ships, including 11 aircraft carriers and 49 nuclear attack submarines.
The Biden administration remains divided on how to increase the number of warships in the coming years.
U.S., Japan, S. Korea join missile defense drill
The U.S., Japanese and South Korean navies joined together in carrying out an international missile defense exercise that ended Sunday, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The exercise is a significant step forward for key U.S. allies in the area military cooperation. The governments of Japan and South Korea have squared off against each other in the past over Tokyo’s past colonization of the Korean peninsula.
The exercise from Aug. 8 to Sunday included the first live firing of a SM-3 anti-missile interceptor in a drill involving the three militaries.
The drill was described by the Pentagon as a missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercise that was part of the Pacific Dragon exercise.
It was held off the coast of the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii.
The exercise involved sharing tactical data link information under an international information sharing accord.
In June, defense leaders from the United States, Japan and South Korea agreed to resume the missile defense drills in response to increased North Korean missile launches.
The Navy’s Third Fleet said in a statement that the Australian navy and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency also took part in the exercise, now in its 10th year.
The exercise was “the first iteration of exercise Pacific Dragon that included a live fire intercept of a short range ballistic missile using a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) Block IA.”
Five destroyers and one frigate from the U.S., Japanese, South Korean and Australian navies took part.
North Korea, meanwhile, fired two cruise missiles on Wednesday as the U.S. and South Korean militaries prepared to hold a major exercise slated to begin next week.