The People's Liberation Army Navy and the United States Navy just fought a running non-lethal battle off the coast of China, and the PLAN scored a tactical victory. Much of American media coverage focused on a single case of maritime harrassment, when some Chinese boats came way too close to USNS Impeccable, an unarmed Military Sealift Command sonar surveillance vessel. In reality, U.S. and Chinese ships and planes engaged in an escalating jousting match that stretched over nearly a week, involving almost every conceivable means of close-quarters physical engagement short of actually shelling or trying to board one another. Part of the action occurred 70 miles off China's new underground nuclear submarine base at Yulin, at the southern tip of Hainan Island facing deep water in the South China Sea.
On the night of March 4, Impeccable's near-sister ship USNS Victorious was closed on by a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries patrol boat that blinded members of her crew by shining a powerful searchlight in their eyes, then cut Victorious off aggressively by veering across her bow in the dark with no warning. That same night a Chinese Harbin Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft conducted a dozen low flybys over Victorious. On March 5, a heavily armed PLAN frigate crossed Impeccable's bow at barely one ship-length's distance; minutes later a Y-12 did 11 flybys of her, too. On March 7, a Chinese intelligence collection ship radioed Impeccable to leave the area, or else -- but she stayed. On March 9, in broad daylight, Impeccable was approached by a 5-vessel swarm.
They mobbed her, used poles and a grappling hook to try to sever and steal her expensive, classified towed array, threw chunks of wood in her path to try to damage her hull, then stood in her way to physically bar her egress -- all while failing to respond to repeated calls on her radio. Impeccable's use of fire hoses to dissuade one of the swarm only led to it closing the range even more in a reckless and threatening manner, coming within 25 feet. U.S. 7th Fleet sent the Arleigh Burke destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to the neighborhood "as a precaution." Finally, Impeccable was grudgingly allowed to depart from her floating detention by the PLAN.
These events were concentrated and coordinated in time and space. Each side had clear-cut objectives. China's goal was to exclude U.S. Navy ASW assets from a strategically critical theater of PLAN sub operations that lies within her 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. America's goal was to gather vital intelligence on those burgeoning sub ops occurring well outside China's 12-mile territorial limit. Because Impeccable did withdraw from the area, China scored an important tactical victory which might also create legal precedent.
The eventual strategic implications remain to be seen. The two sides have made accusations and counter-accusations; domestic Chinese media coverage is whipping up patriotic pride. The Obama Administration seems eager to tone things down, but there are deeper implications that mustn't be overlooked. Super-stealthy U.S. Navy fast-attack subs are ideally suited to snoop around Chinese undersea ops off Yulin. Congress needs to maintain funding for the two-per-year build rate of the littoral-optimized Virginia class SSN. Otherwise, our tactical loss in this non-lethal naval Battle of Yulin might lead to an eventual, irrecoverable strategic setback for America.
-- Joe Buff