By Alan W. Dowd 

Hainan II?

Two years after forcing a US reconnaissance plane to crash-land on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea, China is reasserting its control over a vast stretch of international waters, this time through a new decree.  

The decree aims to prevent surveillance involving state secrets anywhere within a 200-mile economic zone. According to The Washington Times, the new law requires “Chinese civil and military authorities [to] approve all survey and mapping activity in Chinese-controlled waters.” The problem for China is that the law has no authority over US action.  If conducted in international waters, surveys, surveillance and old-fashioned spying are permitted under international law.  

The US Navy routinely conducts such missions in the international waters off China’s coast, which begin just twelve miles out—not 200 miles. And according to the State Department, the United States will continue to do so: “The United States will exercise our maritime rights in accordance with international law,” a State Department official told the Times.  

As in 2001, when the US reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided, neither side appears willing to blink.

Coasties at War

As Air Force and Navy pilots swarmed over Iraq, Marines and the 3rd Infantry troops slammed into Baghdad, and Special Forces unraveled Saddam Hussein’s regime from the inside-out, the Coast Guard was on guard in the Gulf. In fact, some 650 Coastguardsmen participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, as usual operating in the shadows of their larger cousins in the US armed forces. 

Playing a major role were Port Security Units 311 and 313, which guarded two key oil platforms near the Iraqi coast. Navy SEALs had seized the platforms early in the conflict. PSU 311 (out of San Pedro, Calif.) and 313 (out of Tacoma) also saw action during the early phases of Operation Noble Eagle, the military’s homeland-defense mission in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. 

At the height of the war in Iraq, the Coast Guard deployed four patrol boats, a cutter, a tender, two law-enforcement detachments, a harbor-defense command unit and elements of its National Strike Force. The National Strike Force is an elite group of Coastguardsmen trained to respond to oil spills and other hazardous substance releases. But thanks to a lightning-fast war, the threatened ecological disaster the NSF was sent to fight never materialized. 

The Cost of War

Another pre-war fear that never materialized was heavy US casualties. Between the initial strike on Baghdad and the liberation of Iraq four weeks later, 84 US troops were killed in action. Another 45 died in accidents or other non-combat incidents. A USAToday analysis compared the figures to the first Gulf War as well as other wars in US history. And while the pain cuts just as deep for those 129 families as any in other war, the findings are nonetheless stunning.  

Perhaps the most stunning comparison is the most obvious. In 1991, US forces pursued far fewer objectives, covered far less ground, and faced an enemy that was not fighting for its very survival. Yet the US military deployed and lost fewer troops in 2003. Of course, the Iraqi military was much weaker and much smaller this time around largely because of Desert Storm.

Between the 1991 war and the 2003 war, accidental deaths were reduced by 75 percent. In Desert Storm, 35 of 147 combat deaths were due to friendly fire; in Iraqi Freedom, friendly fire accounted for just seven combat deaths. Land mines claimed 20 Americans in 1991, but none in 2003. The USAToday report found that there were three combat deaths per day in Iraqi Freedom, compared to 18 per day during the thick of Vietnam and 221 per day in World War II.

According to retired Adm. Stephen Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, all of this is attributable to technology. “Technology has changed our strategy, and that’s changed the face of war.” As USAToday notes, it is technology that enables US forces to use air power effectively, thus keeping US casualties low and limiting the kind of collateral damage that undermined air power in the past.  It is technology that equips US troops with protective gear and enables them to gain a mastery over the battle space. And it is technology that makes training more realistic and more effective.  

Published monthly in the American Legion Magazine, Under the Radar provides a snapshot of current challenges in international politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security.