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Arms Race in Asia
U.S. to Dock Stealth Destroyers in Japan

The U.S. Navy is modifying Japan’s Sasebo base so that it can host high-tech Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer ships. The Japan Times reports:

It is not known when a Zumwalt-class missile destroyer will arrive at Sasebo. The Navy is scheduled to receive the delivery of its second ship in the class in fiscal 2017. The first vessel will be home-ported in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the pier repairs at Sasebo appear to be in line with the U.S. military’s strategy of deploying its newest weapons in the Asia-Pacific region.

With China looming and North Korea lurking nearby, Tokyo has plenty of reason to welcome American reinforcements. So we may see more renovations of Japanese ports over the next few years to permit the U.S. Navy to dock its ships in them. The Zumwalt-class destroyer incorporates some of the Navy’s latest technologies. CNN ran a profile of it in 2014:

Much of the ship is built on angles that help make it 50 times harder to spot on radar than an ordinary destroyer. “It has the radar cross-section of a fishing boat,” Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told CNN last year.


In its current configuration, the Zumwalt will carry a considerable arsenal of weapons, including two Advanced Gun Systems (AGS), which can fire rocket-powered, computer-guided shells that can destroy targets 63 miles away. That’s three times farther than ordinary destroyer guns can fire.

The U.S. intention to station these ships in Japan is a reminder to China of the sophistication of U.S. weapons systems. With China upgrading its own naval capabilities and putting greater emphasis on maritime territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas, this arms race between Washington and Beijing is one to keep an eye on.

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  • Blackbeard

    Inadequate response. Some things we could do that would get China’s attention: (1) Open negotiations with Vietnam to base warships at Cam Rahn Bay, (2) Reopen Subic Bay in the Philippines and base warships there, (3) Open negotiations to sell Vietnam high tech weapons, (4) Encourage Japan to start building it’s own artificial islands and militarize them, (5) Buy modern diesel-electric AIP submarines from Europe (or reestablish the capability to build non-nuclear subs in the US) and station them at various points around the South China Sea. Etc.

    Of course the ultimate poke in China’s eye would be to resume selling fully modern weapons to Taiwan. However I judge that to be too provocative at the present time.

    The point is we have many actions, far short of the use of force, to pressure the Chinese. This president chooses inaction by and large but others may choose differently.

  • Rodney

    I have to wonder just how smart the Chinese might be in dealing with a Zumwalt. It may be stealth underway, but the pier to which it is moored is not. Nor are the oilers and other supply ships that provide underway replenishment support. Hopefully, our military leadership is thinking about the vulnerabilities of our newer high-dollar weapons systems and how to compensate for them.

    • Andrew Allison

      There’s also the issue of satellite tracking.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Satellite tracking would be problematic, as the ship is low observable, and thus hard for the satellite to lock in on in the first place. This is, in fact, the entire point of a ‘stealth’ warship.
        The more pertinent question is what real value does this have? There is only one of these ships right now, and even if we continue to build the others currently under construction (a dubious assumption, given the serious budgeting issues the Navy currently faces), we will have a total of 3, which would mean that only 2 would ever be deployable at one time.
        Rodney raises the very good point that even if the Zumwalt was somehow immune from detection and targeting (it is not), the base that it operates from certainly is not, and would be a prime target early in any conflict. The Chinese have a large number of conventional IRBMs that in fact are already targeting our bases in the Western Pacific, including Sasebo. That port, as well as the support vessels, aircraft, etc. based there would likely be reduced to rubble within a few hours of the start of hostilities.
        Bottom line, we don’t have enough ships, we don’t have appropriate anti-missile weapons in the Western Pacific, and we are doing very little to convince the Chinese that a war with us would be catastrophically bad for them. This sort of deployment is trivial, and reeks of PR…pretty much what I would expect from this administration.

        • Nevis07

          Regarding the Zumwalt, it seems to be the same fiscal “death spiral” issue as the air force confronted with their F-35. Each weapon system is getting more and more expensive to build and operate. The US navy’s fleet has shrunk quite a bit over the last couple of decades – though the experts in the field will tell you that each ship more than makes up for it’s replacements. On the plus side for the Zumwalt class according to the CNN article, the minimal crew is half of some of the ships they’re replacing due to automation. But still, as we all know, quantity has a quality all of its own.

          Stealth may be a prerequisite of future major power wars, but like many others, I’m concerned we’re becoming overly reliant on it’s effects/abilities. In reality, our stealth capabilities are not really battle proven against an adversary that has an advanced and competent military force.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The navy certainly has some capable ships (they also have some real losers like the LCS), but no matter how good each ship is (and the Zumwalt isn’t bad) you simply have to have a minimum number of them to do the job. Zumwalts lack several key capabilities (notably serious protection against saturation ballistic attack, though this will be added within the next few years), and we are unlikely to have more than 1 or 2 deployable ones at any time. We would be better off with some of the more advanced Burke class, though for ANY of these ships to be useful, we are going to have to deploy some better long range missiles and add a LOT more drones. The fleet is being called into too many places at once, and that isn’t a good sign.

            Regarding the high level of automation, that is fine until something breaks down or is damaged, at which point you don’t have enough people to fix it while keeping everything else operational. We have already seen this in the trails of the LCS, though we saw the same sort of thing with DEs during WWII. Warships (which get lots of sudden, random damage at critical moments when the entire crew is busy) aren’t the same sort of thing as merchant vessels, and automation, which is great for the latter isn’t always as useful for the former.

            I am NOT a fan of the military’s current obsession with Stealth, as it adds huge costs for limited value. Most naval vessels in a high threat environment aren’t going to be terribly stealthy (all those radar systems essential for air/missile defense radiate quite nicely, and are easily picked up by anyone listening if they get close enough), and if you really need stealth, you have subs. For aircraft, stealth has some advantages in some cases, but slapping it on everything is a huge mistake…

        • Andrew Allison

          The vessel has a low radar (surface-to-surface) profile, but photo-reconnaissance via satellite is eminently doable (the US can read an automobile license plate via satellite, and the plan view of the vessel is much easier)). Other than that, we’re in agreement, sigh, again.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Actually it isn’t terribly easy to spot from orbit or from maritime patrol aircraft, both of which typically rely upon radar for wide area searches. Photo-recon is nowhere near as easy as you suggest (yes, you can see objects down to the centimeter range, but you have to have some idea as to where they are in the first place, or do you really want to try searching thousands of square miles of ocean to find a specific few meters?), and even then, you are looking for a very small needle in an extremely large haystack. IR and radar searches can help, but it is far, far from being able to spot everything…

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