Into the Unknown: A Reading List for the Knowledge Warrior

By Wolf Melbourne

The stereotype of the naval intelligence officer is one of bookishness. It is a picture of an officer surrounded by well-worn books that impart the knowledge needed to inform a commander’s decision. Reality is a bit further from the truth. Look around any work center today and you might see a stack of dusty books here and there, but they seem more like props in a film rather than anything functional. Between racing to the next meeting, answering the incessant call of the email inbox, or once more adjusting those briefing slides rarely does one catch anybody actually reading books. Even with the twelve-hour day now a near standard, we somehow find ourselves time poor. “I wish I had time to read more,” the naval intelligence officer laments. Faced with the reality of our cult of busyness one must ask, “Are we actually a profession of readers?”

For a profession reliant upon the minds of its officers and dedicated to understanding an inherently chaotic and disordered world, it is strange to find the answer to be, “No.” Naval intelligence has not paid serious enough institutional attention to how books can develop the minds of our officers and provide an improved sense of order. Certainly, there is a subculture of reading within the profession with informal pockets of encouragement, recommendations, discussion, and thoughtful incorporation of literary lessons scattered across the discipline. These informal pockets yield exceptional results in terms of the quality of officers, their performance, and in organizational results. They remain, however, too far and few between. It is well past time for our profession to better harness the power resident in reading in a more formal and comprehensive manner.

In his Letters to Friends, Family & Editors, Franz Kafka believed books to be the “axe for the frozen sea inside us.” While certainly not a panacea, a more formal emphasis on professional reading would unleash our profession’s collective frozen sea and help us to answer the existential questions revolving around how we fit into the larger Information Warfare Community (IWC). Ultimately, a more formal reading program will guide us toward answering the essential question we face as a profession today, “What does it mean to be a naval intelligence professional?”

At the risk of descending into madness like Nikolai Gogol’s character Aksenty Poprishchin in Diary of a Madman, I humbly offer this recommended reading list as “food to nourish and refresh the mind.” It is intended for the newly minted and the more experienced naval intelligence professional alike who may be unconsciously waiting for Kafka’s axe to strike. It is not your standard recommended book list that all-too-often comes across as something between paternalistic condescension and false triumphalism. Nor is it one of those exhaustive lists that in its attempt to be comprehensive and all-inclusive it becomes indigestible and useless. Instead, it is one that identifies books that cultivate certain key traits and characteristics I feel are necessary for all naval intelligence professionals. At a time when our profession is awash in ever increasing information and consumed with fitting into the IWC, these characteristics and their associated books will help us to understand our core competencies and what it means to be a naval intelligence professional. In all, it is a list of the books I wish I had known earlier in my career and one that might make the next intelligence officer–and the profession as a whole–that much better.

Applies Historical Lessons

It is probably too cliché to justify why naval intelligence needs to know its history using the old line that those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps more appropriate is to use George Bernard Shaw’s view from Man and Superman that “if history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” Naval intelligence cannot afford the luxury of not learning from experience. Since the experience that produces good judgment often originates with bad judgment, it is critical that naval intelligence professionals know both the good and the bad parts of our historical experience.

The Good:

And I Was There by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton

It is simply the book on the history of naval intelligence in the Pacific during World War Two. It explains why we focus so much on operational intelligence and why, even as we are increasingly assimilated into the larger IWC, we must remain true to our profession’s primary mission – bringing the best possible knowledge of the adversary to the point of decision of a commander. While most readers will focus their attention on the key battles and events such as Pearl Harbor and Midway, I think our profession could learn a lot by examining the early chapters of the book. Those chapters detail how Layton and other naval intelligence professionals were “grown” in the interwar period. They spent years learning the language, culture, and other aspects of the U.S. Navy’s pacing threat – the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was this critical period in peacetime where Layton and others were deliberately given ample time to gain deep insights and knowledge of the adversary. This knowledge would go on to provide crucial advantages when great power conflict arose. In our age today when great power competition is at the forefront of the U.S. Navy’s mind, naval intelligence professionals should be given the time and space to think and learn about our current pacing threats. We could do much worse than following Layton’s recipe on how to be ready should great power competition turn into great power conflict.

Nexus by Jonathan Reed Winkler

A must read for understanding the decisiveness of the information domain in warfare. The need to have access and control of information in warfare is not just a recent phenomenon. Winkler’s book is an excellent examination of how the British exploited and dominated worldwide strategic communications before and during the early years of World War One. The United States, realizing the value of that advantage and the danger it posed to it own national security, successfully worked to gain and maintain control over its communication networks through the war and its immediate aftermath. At a time when strategic communications are more global and diffused, it is essential we understand the history of how we righted the balance of control over our strategic communication networks once before and why we will need to do so again if called upon.

And the Bad:

Joe Rochefort’s War by Elliot Carlson

We tend to be told the stories of Pearl Harbor and Midway in oversimplified narratives: Pearl Harbor was a case where naval intelligence was ignored and failure resulted, or Midway was a case where naval intelligence was used properly and victory ensued. What those oversimplified narratives ignore is the messy, ugly, confusing, difficult, and embarrassing process behind the end result. It was stove-piped cryptanalysis, disjointed intelligence dissemination processes, and downright hubris on the part of people like Admiral Kelly Turner that permitted crucial indications and warning to fall through the cracks in the lead up to the attack in December 1941. As for the Battle of Midway, it was a far closer run thing than people are led to think. In addition to the mistakes made by the Japanese and the ever-present role of pure chance, Rochefort fought daily against ignorance and professional jealousies across the naval intelligence bureaucracy to convince operational commanders like Admiral Chester Nimitz that the Japanese were heading to Midway. It is a testament to Rochefort’s penetrating knowledge of the adversary that he was able to convince operational commanders he was right and others in Washington were wrong. Without that knowledge of the adversary, he may not have been as convincing and history at Midway could have played out far differently. Digging into the mixed history of the process by which knowledge did or did not get to the point of decision of a commander is essential and Carlson’s book does it better than anyone else.

Neptune’s Inferno by James D. Hornfischer

Simply one of the best writers of history period, Hornfischer lays bare the human costs of not knowing or underestimating your adversary. Willful or not, ignorance and absence of knowledge of the adversary cost the U.S. Navy greatly in the Guadalcanal campaign of World War Two. Just a few short months after the victory at Midway, the U.S. Navy still did not understand Japanese doctrinal preference and proficiency at nighttime naval warfare and in their superior torpedoes. This led to horrendous losses at the battles of Savo Island and Tassafaronga. These insights into the Japanese adversary were in pre-war intelligence reports but were never filtered into the average tactical commander’s decision making. Naval intelligence professionals should use this history to justify expanding its role and responsibilities in the critical areas of training and planning.

Enemies of Intelligence by Richard K. Betts

There are of course many enemies of intelligence. We tend to think of these enemies only in an external sense, e.g. foreign navies. Betts makes the case there are far more consequential threats to naval intelligence beyond the external. There are, as he describes, innocent and inherent enemies. The former set includes bureaucratic and individual negligence, bureaucratic turf wars, and deliberate constraints placed by well-intentioned leadership yet still causes damage to effectiveness. It is the latter set of enemies where Betts makes his most thoughtful contribution to understanding why intelligence fails. Inherent enemies consist of cognitive limitations, trade-offs between objectives, and defects in organizational design. These enemies are prevalent throughout the intelligence cycle and are extraordinarily resilient. As Betts argues, it will take one, awareness of these enemies (not always so easy to admit) and two, a dialectic rather than linear approach to obtain solutions.

Thinks About Thinking

Social critic Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian argued, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” In our foundational training and throughout the on-the-job training we get from command to command there is, quite rightly, a lot of emphasis on what we think about the adversary and what we think about the process for producing intelligence.

Unfortunately, there is too little weight placed on how naval intelligence professionals actually think. How does our brain process information? How does one compare and contrast bits of information to form an assessment or make a decision? What is it that causes us to make mental mistakes and miscalculations? How do biases affect judgment?

Over the past few decades a whole science of cognitive behavior has emerged that is exploring and coming up with the answers to these questions. The relevance to a profession that relies almost exclusively on the minds of its people is obvious. For the foreseeable future analysis will remain a very human endeavor and as such how our mind works will play a crucial role in our performance. Thinking is certainly something our profession ought to think a bit more about.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Too often we mistakenly assume rational thought when we predict the behavior of potential adversaries when in actuality human thinking and decision-making is often quite irrational. Kahneman did much to dispel the myth that humans rationally maximize gain and minimize loss. From Prospect Theory (the work that led to his Nobel Prize in Economics) to his examination of the many heuristics and biases that affect decision making, Kahneman’s work is the foundation and inspiration of later cognitive scientists. It should be mandatory reading at the Naval Intelligence Officer’s Basic Course (NIOBC).

Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

I could begin and end the summary of this book by simply stating that in a forecasting competition sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Tetlock took a team of amateurs using his theories on how best to predict the future and beat a team of intelligence professionals with access to classified information. While some will counter-argue there is a nuanced distinction between forecasting and the estimation intelligence is generally more involved with, it is a distinction without a difference. For a profession that is expected to be able to assess what adversaries will do next, Tetlock’s findings and recommendations on the skills and talents required of good forecasters are absolutely essential to understand in order to advance our profession into an age of big data and machine learning.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

A solid argument for how to organizationally apply Tetlock’s work and think about the future using more Bayesian strategies. If you are unsure what “Bayesian” means, you definitely need to read the book (in summation, think probabilistically and update often). At a time when we are awash in informational noise Silver offers a path for any naval intelligence officer or work center to find the knowledge-bearing signal.

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards D. Heuer, Jr.

Another book that ought to be handed to each naval intelligence officer upon entering NIOBC. The former CIA analyst takes a lot of what Kahneman and other behavioral and cognitive scientists have discovered and created a series of methodologies and structured analytic techniques useful to any naval intelligence officer and work center.

Possesses Deep Knowledge of the Adversary

While it is not as pithy as Chinese military strategist Sunzi’s popular quote from The Art of War, I think the importance of knowing your adversary is far better described by science fiction writer Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game:

“There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong. And the rules of the game are what you can do to him and what you can stop him from doing to you.”

As we learned from Layton’s story, acquiring deep insights of the adversary necessary for great power conflict does not happen quickly. It takes time, resources, and dedicated initiatives to grow naval intelligence officers into experts on the adversary. We can get an early start, however, just by taking the time to read what those who have spent their lifetime studying them have to say about our potential adversaries. Instead of overreliance upon on-the-job-training and occupational osmosis naval intelligence officers should be encouraged and expected to read about adversaries over the entire course of their career. They should read books by different authors with contrasting positions or outside views not all necessarily in line with current analytic consensus. Naval intelligence commands should also consider having discussion groups and inviting authors and academics to discuss their works. As someone who chose to seek knowledge on China, I offer up the following books to my China watching comrades but there are certainly similar works for those looking at other potential adversaries.

The Burning Forest by Simon Leys

To be honest I could have listed any book written by Simon Leys, the pseudonym for Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian China Watcher who passed away in 2014, and it would be at the top of the list. To defend the importance of Leys to naval intelligence please forgive me for referring back to Ender’s Game where Ender explains how he is able to defeat the enemy, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. And then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them.” Leys’ writings will take you from art to literature to politics to history to poetry with a passion that makes it clear Leys is truly someone in love with China. He will widen your awareness of how all these subjects intersect and influence each other. He will help to identify where China is weak and where it is strong. Where it can hurt us and where it can be hurt. Passionate, objective, immersed, and thoroughly erudite, Leys is the standard by which any China Watcher should measure themself.

A Treatise on Efficacy and The Propensity of Things by François Jullien

To understand an adversary one must be able to know the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings behind their thought process. French philosopher and Sinologist François Jullien provides a fantastic and usable historical examination of Chinese philosophy on efficacy and ultimately on strategy and decision making. Both of these works explore how the Chinese tend to think more about the potential in a given situation rather than in a linear plan of action and their preference to induce change rather than impose it. As we think about, gauge, and predict China’s intentions in the world we would be wise to understand the underlying philosophy behind their strategies.

Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett

Similar to Jullien, Nisbett provides another examination of Chinese thinking, this time through the lens of a psychologist rather than a philosopher. Using academic research Nisbett finds dramatic differences between how Westerners and Easterners think about self and group; certainty and probability; truth and harmony; and permanence and change. These differences in thought naturally lead to insights into the positions, opinions, and decision-making of China’s leaders.

To Change China by Jonathan Spence

Before today’s current reassessment on China’s ability to transform into a more liberal state there was James Mann’s The China Fantasy. Before Mann there was the optimism of three American presidents who believed that ascension into the World Trade Organization will change China for the better. Before the optimism of three presidents was the Tiananmen Square massacre. Before the Tiananmen Square massacre there was Jonathan Spence and his cautionary reminder that the West has a long history of thinking it can transform China and ending up with tragic disappointment.

Prisoner of the State by Premier Zhao Ziyang

Rarely are the deep insights of foreign government officials found in English. But the rarest of all are those insights given by individuals under confinement and forbidden from communication with the outside world. The secret journal of former Chinese Premier Zhao, who was an integral part of Reform and Opening Up and led the government during the turbulent period of Tiananmen Square in 1989, provides an unmatched look at the innermost machinations of the usually opaque Chinese Community Party (CCP).

The Communist Party of China and Marxism 1921-1985, by Laszlo Ladany

Speaking of the CCP, perhaps the first China Watcher of the post-1949 era was a Jesuit scholar based in Hong Kong from 1953-1982. Producing a weekly newsletter, “China News Analysis,” Ladany analyzed official Chinese news sources to report on political and social trends within the secretive and relatively closed off state. After retiring (and after China began to open up), Ladany went on to write one of the most definitive histories of the CCP. Using primary sources, party historical documents, and interviews with principle actors involved, Ladany’s history generated a most profound and necessary understanding of the machinations of the CCP. At a time when the CCP appears to be ascendant, the insights and lessons of Ladany’s book remain quite relevant for the newest China Watchers.

Understands the Bigger Picture

Naval intelligence is but one part of a larger whole. From naval intelligence there is the larger intelligence community and naval force. But even those parts contribute to a larger assemblage of strategy, the joint force, and geopolitics. Understanding this larger whole is crucial in being able to properly frame the answer to one of intelligence’s hardest questions, “So what?” Without it we risk devolving our course of enquiry into the unnecessary, distracting, and perhaps most insidious – the self-serving. The bigger picture is lightly touched upon in our early training but not again until we reach our mid-careers through the war colleges. Instead we should, as 3rd-century BC Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi teaches, “fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” While our efforts and attention should weigh most heavily on naval intelligence’s core competencies, missions, and tradecraft, we should ensure we remain relevant by always keeping in mind the larger environment within which we operate.

On War by Carl Von Clausewitz

Certainly an obvious choice for understanding the bigger picture of war. What makes Clausewitz so important is not in the pithy quotes that are often casually bandied about but in his deep insights into the nature of war. While the character of warfare is changing especially for those of us operating in the information domain, Clausewitz uncovers eternal truths about its nature that will always apply. From the importance of balancing the “remarkable trinity” of emotion, chance, and reason to understanding the results of war are never final to war’s inherent nonlinearity, Clausewitz speaks across the generations.

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy by Julian Corbett

Often seen as secondary in importance to Alfred Thayer Mahan when it comes to maritime strategy, Corbett’s thinking is of far more practical use for those working at the operational level of war and below. While Mahan is certainly brilliant when it comes to thinking about a national maritime strategy, he has far less value when it comes to operational and tactical planning. It is at those levels that understanding Corbett’s conception of command of the sea is essential. Corbett’s command of the sea was a relative and fluid term whose achievement should be seen not as an end to itself, but as a condition to enable follow-on military operations. It is a simple idea yet often forgotten or neglected when maritime planning seeks to synchronize with other warfare domains. He is also an excellent balance against the tendency of some who argue that all a navy is good for is to destroy the other person’s navy.

“Naval Warfare Publication 5-01 Naval Planning”

I originally intended to use Professor Milan Vego’s Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice here to speak to the importance of planning but at 1500 pages and close to ten pounds I erred on the side of safety and went with the U.S. Navy’s shorter version. As President Dwight Eisenhower so famously remarked, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What makes planning so essential is going through the steps of the process itself forces the examination and competition of ideas, options, and contingences for the employment of military force. Through that process knowledge about objectives, the adversary, and ourselves is discovered and improved upon. It is improved to the point that, provided the process is thorough, the planning staff is able to react to any of the complex, nonlinear, and surprising events that always unfold in war.

Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan

While I think many of his other books are problematic, I do think Kaplan in this specific book is quite useful as he makes the classic realism of geopolitical theorists Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman very accessible to those who would not otherwise be inclined to read the far dryer primary sources. I think we often forget/ignore/incompletely understand the geopolitical factors involved in the world. As an example, back in 2010 China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, in response to questions over other nation’s maritime rights in the South China Sea, retorted with the now infamous line, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” As crass and brazen as that statement was, it was also an accurate description of geopolitical reality. China is a big country in terms of people, physical size, and economic potential. It also occupies a commanding and central position on the Eurasian landmass. If we really are realists (as most in the military would probably self-identify) and think the world largely turns on issues pertaining to state power, that geopolitical reality matters a lot. Rather than as an eternal struggle for power, we often look at world politics through the lens of a leader of the rules-based international order. As a result, we wrap our narratives in the idealistic trappings of international law and the liberal order. That view blinds us to the elemental drivers and rationales – like geography – for how and why state actors behave the way they do. Mackinder and Spyckman understood those realities and went to great lengths to warn us against ignoring them. Kaplan’s book does a solid job in bringing those ideas to a usable light.

The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon

At first glance it may seem odd to suggest a book focused on a naval battle conducted over one hundred years ago. From the centrality of command and control, to the importance of training under war-like conditions, to incorporating new technology, to the danger of hubristic thinking in peacetime, Gordon’s examination of the Battle of Jutland during World War One provides an extraordinary trove of invaluable insights relevant to the naval intelligence profession today. If we want to stave off the “creeping sickness” that a peacetime fleet tends to invite during the “canker of the long peace” we have found ourselves in since the end of World War Two, every naval intelligence officer needs to read this book.

Embraces the Contrary

General George Patton is quoted as once saying, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” It is fortunate to have someone of Patton’s war winning– ilk exposing the paradox of the two opposing characteristics necessary for military success– contrarianism and obedience. Neither characteristic should dominate the other, but each is essential. We would not want a military consisting of nothing but contrarian thinking anymore than we would want one full of complete obedience. The genius is in finding the right balance for the right time.

Within naval intelligence we too often favor a form of obedience through our infatuation with analytic narratives. Narratives attribute an overarching rationale for behavior and are used to drive our estimates of enemy courses of actions and color our everyday assessments of adversary activities. Recent academic research into attribution bias discovered behavioral attributions made through adherence to a preconceived narrative do not always reflect reality. While convenient for justifying or explaining assessments, an overuse of narratives risks systemic bias and analytic errors over time. These types of errors are threaded throughout the case studies on intelligence failures conducted by Robert Jervis and Thomas Mahnken in Why Intelligence Fails, and Uncovering Ways of War, respectively.

Based on her research into the effect of dissent within groups, psychology professor Charlan Nemath finds in In Defense of Troublemakers that dissent “breaks the blind following of the majority and stimulates thought that is more divergent and less biased.” Thus, the contrarian offers a remedy to the obedience of narrative bias with little downside. Through an insistence on looking at a problem differently, the contrarian provides two possible benefits: one, successfully defending a narrative against a contrarian will subsequently improve it; or two, if the narrative falls apart the opportunity to alter or abandon it arises. As writer Malcolm Gladwell emphatically suggests it is our “responsibility as a person to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” Similarly, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It is essential naval intelligence professionals update our analytic positions constantly and be able to pass Fitzgerald’s test.

The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

At the heart of Taleb’s thinking is the idea that most failures or surprises are born from “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises.” We think we know something but in reality we do not. To overcome the biases that drive most of this misunderstanding, Taleb argues it is far more important to understand what you do not know because we underestimate its value and take what we do know “a little too seriously.”

But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

In a field where we can often find ourselves making predictions out of assumptions and minimal evidence, it would be good for naval intelligence to keep Klosterman’s Razor – “the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with” – always in mind.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F. Dixon

This is an outstanding inquiry into the social psychology of military organizations and the pathologies of individual military leaders. Using historical case studies and cognitive behavioral theories (of the time the book was written), Dixon masterfully identifies key traits and behaviors in organizations and the leaders they create that lead to military incompetence. Dixon’s analysis of how militaries tend to encourage and promote “authoritarian”-type commanders, fawning to superiors and often harsh or uncaring to inferiors, is especially useful for a profession still wrestling with talent management and how to grow senior leaders for the IWC.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

For a profession that is time poor and finding itself increasingly overloaded with information, Newport’s critique of the assumed benefits of ever-present technology and constant connectivity should be considered closely. Our profession is entirely reliant on the mind of its professionals and Newport points to the empirical studies showing the negative impact technology and social connection has on mental health and cognitive performance. He argues we need to better prioritize what is essential in our work and ensure that technology is not making us worse. He also possesses a confidence to offer ideas that are not immediately popular and often derided initially. In the face of that societal pressure, his commitment alone to his contrarian ideas is one naval intelligence officers would do well to emulate.

Thinks Outside the Conventional

Naval intelligence professionals should make time to read fiction as well. For those that see this recommendation as frivolous or something without connection or meaning to the real world I offer two reasons to do so. The first is a singular reliance on nonfiction and its objective descriptions of the happenstance of life is insufficient to acquire deeper knowledge and wisdom. As valuable as it is, nonfiction tends to trap itself in objective accuracy. Fiction on the other hand can move you beyond the objective and into something more real than accuracy–it can reveal what is true. Even though technically untrue fiction is able to, as novelist Ernest Hemingway describes, “be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he [the writer] has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.” Fiction thus can uncover a deeper truth behind the objective realities that preoccupy our profession.

The second reason for reading fiction is it inherently draws from the imagination. It drives the mind to think well beyond what has happened and toward what is possible. Naval intelligence, as with many other occupations, is often trapped into a sense of complacency based on observations of past events. As polymath Nassim Taleb’s Thanksgiving turkey in The Black Swan discovers, just because it was well-fed and taken care of every day of its life does not guarantee that this day will be the same. Fiction offers an approach to break out of the conventional thinking that can lead us unwittingly to the butcher’s block. Novelist Umberto Eco wrote in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, “To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world.” That is certainly a game naval intelligence has always played and will need to continue to do so. We will be poorer at the game for ignoring Eco’s observation.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Hemingway once remarked that Tolstoy “made the writing of Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles.” An epic chronicle of czarist Russia’s wars with France and the effect on the Russian aristocracy from 1805 to 1820, War and Peace gives the reader a view into warfare that does not follow the grand cause-and-effect narrative found in most histories. Tolstoy demands room for chance and randomness. He demands acknowledgement of confusion and the unknown. He demands the small and seemingly inconsequential be seen as the drivers of history they actually are. Ultimately Tolstoy demands we admit, “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of Hemingway, his fictional tale of a Republican guerrilla unit in the Spanish Civil War is an emotionally moving story of war, love, and loss. It is an important reminder that ideas are powerful. They are powerful enough to compel people to fight and die for them even when they are lost causes. As the central character Robert Jordan reminds us, “If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” There are things worth dying for – and both sides of a conflict can think it.

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu; Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong; Water Margin by Shi Nai’an and Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

To reinforce the importance of deep knowledge of the adversary discussed earlier, it is critical that we are also reading their fiction. You can certainly learn a lot about another culture from nonfiction, but you learn so much more when it is supplemented with knowledge of how they imagine and dream. While it is foolish to extrapolate too much from what one author writes, I do think each of these books offer examples of how fiction can provide additional insights into potential adversaries (in this case, China). Cixin Liu’s work exposes approaches to confrontation and conflict as well as how best to find solutions to societal problems. Jin Yong’s (pen name of Louis Cha) speaks to the importance of history and a not too subtle hint of the superiority complex of Chinese people. And lastly the importance of reading two of the classics of ancient Chinese literature is best summed up by the old saying, “The young should not read Water Margin [with its glorification of rebellion and lawlessness] and the old should not read Romance of the Three Kingdoms [with its deviousness and plotting].” Naval intelligence professionals should read them all.

The Boundary Between the Known and the Unknown

I hold two hopes for this article. The first is to see this nascent attempt at a naval intelligence professional reading list improved upon. I have no doubt there are more books to be listed. Reading naturally spawns more reading. Impactful books create a need to read others and so on and so on–with knowledge increasing along the way. That is one of the great joys of reading. It never stops. It is always incomplete and that is what makes it wonderful. As the 14th Century Japanese hermit-aesthete Yoshida Kenkō so perfectly put it in Essays in Idleness, “something left not quite finished is very appealing,” it is “a gesture towards the future.”

This endlessly fruitful process leads me to my second hope, that we use this list to begin a conversation that is less about how we fit ourselves into the mold of the IWC and more about what it means to be a naval intelligence professional. In his book The Island of Knowledge, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser describes how knowledge expands concurrently with increased awareness of what we do not know. Like an expanding island representing knowledge in a sea of the unknown, the lengthening coastline symbolizes the increasing realization of what we do not know. That is the realm in which naval intelligence officers need to operate –the unknown. We need to move ourselves off the comfortable island of the known. We need to seek out and advance into the waters of the unknown and increase that island of knowledge for the naval force. In an age where information is ubiquitous, we, the naval intelligence profession, must make creating knowledge out of the uncertain and unknown our core competency. Books, and the knowledge and questions they spawn, will play a key role in transforming us into warriors of something far more decisive than mere information–we will become knowledge warriors.

A reading list by itself will not be sufficient to create knowledge warriors. We will need to also create a culture of “professional sailor-scholars” as sailor-scholar himself, Commander Chris Nelson describes it. We need more teachers, more naval intelligence leaders, and more peers reading and encouraging reading to create a professional culture that produces knowledge warriors. To paraphrase science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, while this book list does not pretend to have all the answers, it does lead to asking better questions and “the questions are certainly worth thinking about.” This reading list is only a start. Our island of knowledge needs expanding. Knowledge warriors, what books do we need to add?

Commander Wolf Melbourne USN, is a naval intelligence officer currently on an exchange assignment in the United Kingdom. It is rare to find him without a book in hand pursuing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.”

These views are presented in a personal capacity. 

Featured Image: Pixabay

The Spanish Civil War at Sea: Limits to Sea Power’s Influence on History?

By Mark Munson

Sea power advocates traditionally justify the role of navies as a national security tool by their function in winning and deterring wars. The U.S. Navy’s current maritime strategy articulates this idea by stating that sea power is “the critical foundation of national power and prosperity and international prestige.”1 However, past wars at sea have been won by states or combatants in spite of significant naval disadvantages. The Spanish Civil War provides one such example of a less capable power defeating an enemy with a bigger navy. A successfully executed strategy can overcome a larger fleet, where victories by smaller navies can be enabled by factors like air power and the active support of willing allies, allowing them to successfully apply sea power in support of national objectives.


In 1936, right-wing Spanish military officers (later referred to as “Nationalists,” an example of successful historical branding as they were actually the rebels in this case) mutinied against the republican government that had ruled Spain since the end of the monarchy in 1931. While the Spanish Civil War is not typically considered one of the major naval conflicts of the twentieth century, control of the seas around Spain, particularly the Strait of Gibraltar, was vitally important at the start of the conflict since most of the rebel troops were based across the strait in Spanish Morocco, where the Spanish Army had been conducting a brutal pacification campaign for decades.

The Spanish Legion (El Tercio, Spain’s attempt at replicating the French Foreign Legion) and Spanish Army units referred to as Regulares (composed of Moroccan natives) were at the core of the Army of Africa that the right-wing Nationalists would rely on in their revolt against the Republic’s Popular Front government. Moving those troops across the strait would require support from the Spanish Navy.

While some historians claim that senior naval officers coordinated with the eventual Spanish dictator Francisco Franco before the mutiny,2 others argue that General Emiliano Mola, the main organizer of the rising, had “made no serious provision for naval commitment to the plot,”3 assuming that “the Spanish Navy would remain impotent and neutral” after Spanish Army officers had rebelled.4 The aristocratic and “strongly monarchist” Navy officer corps was more socially homogenous than its Army counterpart, which had some “liberal pockets.” The mutineers gambled that most Spanish Navy officers would side with them, a move that would be borne out.

Immediately before the rising, however, the Republican government, suspecting a possible coup, had already deployed warships to the strait to deter a potential crossing from Africa.5 The Navy Minister, Jose Giral, had kept ships deployed away from potential strongholds of the mutineers, and more importantly, tasked “loyal telegraph operators” to monitor communications both ashore and afloat.6 Enlisted sailors, meanwhile, had also intuited the rising, holding a secret meeting in Ferrol on 13 July to prepare for a rebellion by their officers.7

That planning was timely. On 18 July, a civilian radio operator working at Navy headquarters in Madrid intercepted a message from Franco transmitted to senior officers encouraging them to rise up in support of the mutiny initiated the previous day by Army units in Morocco. Giral responded to the news by instructing all fleet radio operators to “to watch their officers, a gang of fascists,” and issuing a follow-up command “dismissing all officers who refused government orders.”8

Sorting Sides

Many Navy personnel first learned of the rising that day when they received Giral’s orders to attack rebel Army units.9 Disregarding the pleas of their officers to support the rebellion, crews of many Spanish Navy ships spread word of the rising, deposed their officers, and formed committees to run the ships.10 Onboard the battleship Jaime I, the crew “overwhelmed, imprisoned, and in many cases, shot those officers who seemed disloyal.”11 After the skirmish between officers and their men, the crew had a famous exchange with Madrid:

“Crew of Jaime I to ministry of marine. We have had serious resistance from the commanders and officers onboard and have subdued them by force…Urgently request instructions as to bodies.”

“Ministry of marine to crew Jaime I. Lower bodies overboard with respectful solemnity. What is your present position?”12

A similar series of events reportedly took place onboard the cruiser Miguel de Cervantes, whose officers reportedly “resisted the ship’s company to the last man.”13

Line drawing of the Spanish Republican battleship JAIME I. (Wikimedia Commons)

The captain of the destroyer Sánchez Barcaiztegui, off the shore of North Africa near Melilla, attempted to sway the men to the cause of the mutineers, but after pleading his case he “was greeted by profound silence, which was interrupted by a single cry “To Cartagena!” This cry was taken up by the whole ship’s company.” After ousting their officers and bombarding Nationalist positions in Melilla and Ceuta, the crew returned in command of the ship to port in Cartagena, where the Navy base had remained loyal to the Republic.14 On station near Melilla, the officers of the destroyer Churruca remained in control because of a malfunctioning radio that had left all aboard oblivious to events.15 Once communications were restored, however, the crew seized control of the ship after it had delivered troops to Cadiz.16

Officers not killed during the rising were imprisoned ashore, where many were later executed.17 According to one account, “230 out of 675 naval officers on active service” were killed during the first months of the war.18 After rejecting the Ministry’s command to attack the rebels on 18 July, most naval officers were deposed by the crews per Giral’s orders, with chief engineers assuming duty as new commanding officers.19 By the time the Spanish Navy had sorted itself into two warring factions, the Republic was left with a tiny fraction of the former Spanish Navy’s senior uniformed leadership: only two of the 19 admirals, and two of the 31 commanding officers of large combatants sided with the Republic. According to one estimate, “only 10 percent of the Cuerpo General,” the Navy’s sea-going line officers, stayed loyal to the Republic.20 Those who stayed loyal were often “demoralized by the murder of their comrades and the insecurity of their own position.”21

It is unclear whether their exodus left the Republican fleet a leaderless and undisciplined rabble, or the officer corps’ preference for service with the Nationalists gave it an intangible, war-winning, leadership advantage. Regardless, the workers committees formed by the Republican sailors to replace the officers afloat failed to translate revolutionary zeal into victory at sea. Nikolai Kuznetsov, then a captain serving as the Soviet naval attaché in Madrid, recalled that the shipboard committees resulted in much talk but little action, citing a visit to the battleship Jaime I in which “the phrase ‘conquer or die’ was heard everywhere, but the anarchists neither conquered nor died.”22

The enlisted crews did secure more of the fleet than their officers, particularly most of the newest combatants, including Jaime I, three cruisers, twenty destroyers, and twelve submarines. The Nationalists seized the battleship España from drydock, two cruisers, a destroyer, some gunboats, two submarines, and five Coast Guard vessels. Crucially, they also captured Canarias and Balaeres, two new cruisers under construction in Ferrol at the time of the rising.23

Somewhat mitigating their deficiency in numbers of ships, the Nationalists seized major naval bases on the Spanish mainland in Ferrol, Cadiz, and Algeciras, while the Republic was left with Cartagena and Mahon on the island of Minorca, both of which both had comparatively limited maintenance facilities. Republican control of major civilian ports and shipyards in Barcelona and Bilbao, along with two-thirds of Spain’s merchant fleet, ultimately failed to influence the course of the naval war.24

Nationalist Operations (The Rebels)

By late July 1936, the two Spanish navies had begun to contest the strait, since control of that chokepoint would prevent any Nationalist attempt to move their troops from Morocco. By early August the bulk of the Republican Navy was operating there, trying to bottle up the enemy Army of Africa25 as Italy began to deploy Savoia Marchetti 81 bombers (SM.81) to Nationalist bases in Morocco.26

An Italian SM.81 like those used to magnify and enable the limited sea power of the Spanish Nationalists. (Wikimedia Commons)

When most of the Republican ships left the strait to replenish supplies in Cartagena on 5 August, the Nationalists immediately seized the initiative. The Italian bombers pounced on the few destroyers left behind, damaging Almirante Valdes and Lepanto, and clearing the way for the sealift of Nationalist troops to Spain.27 The German battleships Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, also operating near the strait at that time, likely deterred the Republican ships from interdicting the convoy of Franco’s troops.28

The Italians scattered the Republican fleet, allowing 3,000 men from the Army of Africa to cross by sea.29 The so-called “victory convoy”30 that sailed on “the day of the Virgin of Africa” was critical at that stage of the war. Those troops would form the bulk of the force that “cut off the Portuguese frontier from the republicans” and joined “forces with the Army of the North,” establishing the Nationalists firmly on the ground for the rest of the war.31

The German Luftwaffe also contributed to saving the Nationalist cause, with German air power playing a vital role in the airlift of troops essential to Nationalist logistics. Hitler reportedly said that “Franco ought to erect a monument to the glory of the Junkers Ju 52. It is the aircraft which the Spanish revolution has to thank for its victory.”32 “The first major airlift of troops in history” transported 1,500 troops in its first week. Eventually the German and Italian air forces transported up to 12,000 soldiers to Spain in the opening months of the war.33 The real impact of the airlift may have been qualitative rather than quantitative, however, with German aviation demonstrating Nazi commitment and thereby stiffening rebel resolve. While the number of men flown by the Nazis was significantly less than the number of troops ferried cross the strait by sea, it “had an enormous influence both on the nationalists’ morale and on the international assessment of their chances of victory.”34 While the airlift may not have been the decisive moment in the war, as “the Army of Africa would have got across eventually,”35 Hitler’s intervention is what turned “a coup d’etat going wrong into a bloody and prolonged civil war.”36

The war at sea was also one of allies, with the Nationalists benefiting from more active support from their German and Italian allies at sea than any aid the Republic received. Germany evaded the Republic’s blockade of their commercial shipping by using vessels registered in Panama, and the Nationalist Navy convoyed in Italian ships.37 The German and Italian navies steadily increased their support to the Nationalists throughout the early months of the war, organizing arms shipments and convoying them through the Republic’s “flimsy blockade,” monitoring the Republican fleet at sea, “openly transmitting periodic position reports,” and establishing formal liaison relationships with the Nationalist Navy.38 The Italian Navy also trained and equipped the Nationalist Navy with submarines and torpedo boats.39

The Italian Navy flagrantly abused the concept of neutrality to justify anchoring warships and landing marines in the nominally-neutral port of Tangier, claiming that they needed to evacuate endangered Italian citizens. By the time thousands of Italians and other third-country nationals had left the city, Italian forces had managed to deter the Republican Navy from entering the port and discouraged Republican loyalists from taking control of that vital haven on the southern side of the strait.40

Map of the Strait of Gibraltar (BBC)

Republican Operations (The State)

In contrast to the straightforward German and Italian support to the Nationalists, the Republic’s reliance on the Soviet Union subjected it to constraints and conflicting objectives. The German and Italian navies prevented the deployment of Soviet warships in the Spanish theater, and Nationalist forces could interdict Soviet-flagged merchant shipping that attempted to transit the Mediterranean.41 Soviet arms shipments to the Republic had to be carried by Spanish shipping, with British-flagged shipping carrying the bulk of “legitimate trade” like “oil, coal, food and other supplies.”42 But despite difficulties, including the lack of sympathy by most of the remaining senior Republican Navy officers for Soviet or Spanish communists, the Republican Navy was able to maintain maritime lines-of-communication with the Soviet Union- “between October 1936 and September 1937, over twenty large, mostly Spanish, transport ships made journeys from the Black Sea to Spain without difficulty.”43

Despite the success of those convoys, critics of the Soviet naval strategy correctly point out that it “was narrowly defensive and was essentially derived from the assumptions of inevitable material inferiority to imperialist navies which could only be defeated by a kind of proletarian guerilla warfare at sea.” This strategy made little sense for a Republican Navy that started the war with every “material and geographical capability to carry the war to the enemy.” Rather than taking the initiative, the Republic ceded use of the sea by limiting their scope of naval operations mainly to escorting Soviet shipping.44

Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, the Soviet adviser to the Spanish Republic and future Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union. (Wikimedia Commons)

Soviet influence had an operational impact later in 1936 as well. On 29 September, the Nationalist cruisers Almirante Cervera and Canarias sunk Almirante Ferrándiz and damaged Gravina at the battle of Cape Spartel,45 in what has been called the “turning point of the naval war.” Afterward “the Republican Navy would never regain the initiative or its confidence, while the Nationalist Navy would never lose them.” Kuznetsov had approved the diversion of Republican ships from the strait, but eventually acknowledged “it was a terrible blunder.”46

It should be noted, however, that the Soviets controlled the Republican Navy in virtually the same manner as they influenced Republican Army operations ashore during the first two years of the war.47 Ironically, the Spanish Communist Party vigorously criticized “the passivity of the Republican fleet,” not realizing that its caution at sea was dictated by a naval strategy crafted by Soviet officers to meet Soviet objectives.48 One assessment of Soviet assistance argues that “Stalin’s material aid kept the Republic temporarily alive, but his military advisers helped dig its grave.”49

Neutral or Complicit Onlookers?

While France and Great Britain tried to maintain neutrality in their relations with the two sides, the international regime they attempted to implement and enforce at sea actively harmed the Republican cause. The Non-Intervention Agreement of September 1936 not only failed to stop the flow of fighters and materiel to both sides, but one-sided adherence to the agreement by the “genuinely” neutral UK and the “formally” neutral France did little to diminish the flow of German, Italian, or Soviet aid into Spain.50 Franco-British neutrality did not extend to actually ensuring that other European powers behaved as neutrals, as they chose to overlook direct Italian and German naval participation in the hostilities.51

The French left-wing Popular Front government did make some moves to help the Republican government with which it had much ideological sympathy, but on a smaller scale than Italy or Germany aided the Nationalists. On the maritime front, however, even a minimal French commitment in support of the Republic was undercut by a British refusal to cooperate. Overtures by the French Navy’s Admiral Francois Darlan to the British to counter Italian and German naval support to the Nationalists were rebuffed in 1936.52 Lord Chatfield, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, told Darlan that Franco was a “good Spanish patriot” and that the Royal Navy was “unfavourably impressed” by “the murder of the Spanish naval officers.”53

The British reluctance to support the Republic with Royal Navy operations afloat was not just officer-class solidarity with the Nationalist sympathies of their Spanish Navy peers, however. It also reflected larger geopolitical concerns and diverging imperial interests not aligned with the Anglo-French naval alliance. While fears of “combined Italian-German-Spanish naval operations” in the Mediterranean drove French planning, British desire for a rapprochement with Italy after disputes over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led to a less aggressive British policy.54


Despite its initial significant naval advantage, the Spanish Republic was ultimately defeated by the Nationalists in 1939. While both sides operated at sea throughout the conflict, the Republic had lost the naval war within the first few months. Historians have justifiably blamed the Republican Navy for its failure to keep the Army of Africa bottled up in Morocco, but it is unfair to attribute this failure to anarchist shipboard committees and the few officers that remained loyal to the government in Madrid. The smaller Nationalist fleet exploited air power and vigorous allied support to more effectively apply sea power in order to win the war. Sea power proved decisive in the Spanish Civil War, just not in the narrow understanding of naval strength typified by measuring numbers of vessels. Ships and other materiel of war are tools, and the Nationalists proved better at using theirs at sea between 1936 and 1939.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a naval officer assigned to Coastal Riverine Group TWO. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


[1] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015.

[2] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain (New York: Penguin, 2006), 71.

[3] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 212.

[4] Willard C. Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” Naval War College Review 38, no. 1, (January/February 1984): 24.

[5] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 24.

[6] Thomas, 204.

[7] Beevor, 71-72.

[8] Beevor., 57, 72.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 25.

[11] Thomas, 243.

[12] Beevor, 72.

[13] Thomas, 243.

[14] Ibid., 72.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Beevor, 72.

[17] Thomas, 243.

[18] Ibid., 243 (footnote).

[19] Ibid., 227.

[20] Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” War in History 6, no. 3 (1999): 345.

[21] Thomas., 331-332.

[22] Ibid, 549.

[23] Ibid., 331-332.

[24] Ibid., 331-332.

[25] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 25.

[26] Ibid., 28.

[27] Ibid., 28; Michael Alpert, La Guerra Civil Española en el Mar (Madrid: Siglo XXI de España Editores, 1987), 92.

[28] Thomas, 370-371; Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” War in History 6, no. 3 (1999): 334.

[29] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 29; Thomas, 370-371; Beevor, 117-118.

[30] Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography (New York: Basic Books, 1994) 161-162.

[31] Thomas, 370-371.

[32] Hitler’s Table Talk: 1941-1944, trans. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens (New York: Enigma Books, 2000), 687.

[33] Beevor, 117-118.

[34] Ibid., 117-118.

[35] Ibid., 427.

[36] Preston, 160.

[37] Peter Gretton, “The Nyon Conference – The Naval Aspect,” The English Historical Review 90, no. 354 (January 1975): 103.

[38] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30.

[39] Sullivan, 10.

[40] Ibid., 9.

[41] Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” 348.

[42] Gretton, 103.

[43] Thomas, 549-550.

[44] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 32.

[45] Beevor, 144; Willard C. Frank, “Canarias, Adiós,” Warship International 2 (1979), accessed at

[46] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30-31.

[47] Ibid., 32.

[48] Ibid., 39.

[49] Ibid., 48.

[50] Gretton, 103.

[51] Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” 346.

[52] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 28.

[53] Thomas, 389.

[54] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30.

Featured Image: The Spanish cruiser Canarias (Colorized by Irootoko Jr.)

The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 2: Chain-of-Command Reforms and Evolving Training

This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s Chief Brief. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One here.

By Dennis J. Blasko and Roderick Lee

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part article discussing organizational reforms and evolving missions for the PLA Navy (PLAN) Marine Corps. The first part, in our previous issue, focused on the growing order of battle for the PLAN Marines. This second part focuses on the creation of a service branch headquarters for the PLAN Marines, and their expanding training for expeditionary warfare and other missions. Taken as a whole, this two-part article provides significant new information and analysis to update the December 3, 2010 China Brief article titled “China’s Marines: Less is More.”

New Marine Headquarters Established

Along with increasing the number of PLA Marine Corps (Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Haijun Luzhan Dui, 中国人民解放军海军陆战队) combat units, a corps-level Marine Corps Headquarters also has been formed. Its first commander is Major General Kong Jun—who shared responsibility with Political Commissar Yuan Huazhi, until Yuan was reassigned in early 2019 (Pengpai News, May 27 2017; Pengpai News, January 15). Kong spent most of his career in the Army, rising through the ranks as an armor officer and commander in the former 12th Group Army. After being assigned to the Marines, he led the Marine formation that took part in the July 2017 parade at Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. Yuan spent most of his career as a naval political officer with service in the South Sea Fleet—where the two existing Marine brigades have been located—but was transferred to the Air Force. His successor has not yet been identified. The two leaders are assisted by deputies and a staff; among the headquarters staff, Senior Colonel Chen Weidong, former commander of the 1st Marine Brigade since at least 2010, is now a deputy chief of staff (PLA Daily, July 29 2018). Due to his long experience in the Marines, he is likely to move up the ladder as leadership positions become available.

The location of the new Marine Corps Headquarters appears to be near Chaozhou, Guangdong, just north of Shantou and slightly to the east of Jieyang, where a new Marine brigade is stationed (Xiangqiao Regional Government, July 26 2018). By locating its headquarters outside of Beijing, the Marine Corps organization parallels the PLA Air Force Airborne Corps—which maintains its headquarters in Xiaogan, (Hubei Province), and which also commands subordinate brigades dispersed in multiple regions. By locating its headquarters a great distance from many of its subordinate units, this structure implies that the Marine Corps is not intended to deploy and fight as an organic whole, as may be the case for Army group armies. Instead, like the Airborne, Marine brigades likely are conceived and designed to be employed independently, but supported by other elements of its parent service. As such, Marine brigades do not appear to be directly subordinate to the Theater Command Navies in whose regions they are located; rather, they fall under the direct command of Marine Corps Headquarters (MCHQ).

A major responsibility of the MCHQ will be to manage the distribution of the increasing number of missions Marine units are now required to support. These real-world tasks include: providing forces to the Gulf of Aden escort mission, which rotates among the three fleets roughly every four months; deploying personnel to the Djibouti Support Base, which opened in August 2017; and manning garrisons and newly constructed facilities in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Headquarters will also manage training for the brigades, determining which units travel to what training areas and participate in which military competitions and exercises, both within and outside of China. It also will coordinate with the fleets to ensure that Marine units are available for service and joint exercises. Undoubtedly it will also inspect training and other brigade activities, such as political indoctrination, logistics, and maintenance.

Expanded Training Since 2014

For most of the past two to three decades, Marine brigades conducted the majority of their training in the South China Sea and near their bases on the Leizhou Peninsula. Most training was conducted independently, supported by Navy assets, and focused on island and reef operations. Only on a few occasions—such as the Peace Mission 2005 exercise with Russia on the Shandong peninsula—did Marine units engage in joint training outside of southern China. After Peace Mission 2005, Marine units began to exercise more often with foreign militaries, both in China and overseas. These opportunities increased as Navy task forces assigned to the Gulf of Aden escort mission traveled to and from their patrol duties, stopping along the way for port visits or bilateral exercises. Marine units have also hosted a variety of foreign visitors to their garrisons and opened a few of their exercises to outside observers.

Those training patterns changed in 2014 when the Marine Corps conducted its first winter training at the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. This was followed by trips to the Taonan Training Base in Jilin in 2015 and Korla, Xinjiang in 2016, which also included elements from the Navy SOF Regiment (PLA Daily, January 31 2015). In addition to the cold weather, units had to contend with desert, forest, and plateau terrain, very different from the sub-tropical climate and terrain in southern China. In a second out-of-area exercise in 2015, jungle training was conducted in Yunnan in August 2015 (PLA Daily, August 25 2015). In early 2018, Marine units, apparently including newly formed units, returned to Yunnan and also exercised simultaneously in Shandong (PLA Daily, March 16 2018). In July 2018, the PLA hosted the “Seaborne Assault” competition for Marine units as part of the International Military Games 2018 in Shishi, Quanzhou city (near Jinjiang and at one of the new Marine brigade’s garrisons) (PLA Daily, July 23 2018). These changes in Marine training indicate the determination of the PLA leadership for the Marine Corps to be ready to perform expeditionary missions in any terrain and climate.

PLAN Marine Corps Education

With the number of Marine Corps personnel roughly tripling in size and its missions expanding, one might assume that the PLAN Marine Corps Academy (海军陆战学院) in Guangzhou would also expand to provide education and training for aspiring PLANMC officers. However, the Marine Corps Academy is not currently listed among the PLA’s 37 professional education institutions. As a component of PLANMC restructuring, the Marine Corps Academy has been converted into a training base; it remains active in this capacity, but it does not appear to provide college education to young Marine Corps personnel.1 Accordingly, Marine officers and NCOs will be educated in other academies—some perhaps with Marine Corps Departments—and undergo specialized training at the training base or within their unit.


The 2018 Department of Defense (DOD) report to Congress states that “large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations.” As such, amphibious operations require specialized equipment (both for landing and for naval/air support forces), extensive training, and intricate planning and timing in execution. Accordingly, considering the previously existing Marine and Army amphibious units and new Marine units under development, DOD concludes:

The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.2

Campaigns against small or medium islands in China’s near seas likely would involve hundreds to the low thousands of troops delivered over the beach by a portion of the PLA Navy’s roughly 50 medium landing ships (LSM) and tank landing ships (LST) and scores of additional smaller landing craft, supported by ship-based helicopters and land-based aircraft. These assets are dispersed among all three fleets, but could be concentrated for an amphibious campaign. The Navy’s relatively new Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) large amphibious ships also could provide support to assaults on small or medium islands. Numerous civilian roll-on/roll-off ships and other transport ships may not be necessary for such limited operations, but would likely be employed in larger campaigns after a port is secured.

For missions beyond China’s three seas, the Navy’s fleet of six Type 071 LPDs, the first of which entered service in 2007, is the PLAN’s primary means of moving Marine units over long distances. These ships each can carry approximately a battalion of infantry, about 20 to 30 vehicles, and two to four helicopters for extended periods of time. Additional Type 071s are expected to enter service; and several new, larger amphibious ships, generally called the Type 075 amphibious assault ship (LHA), likely will also enter the force in coming years (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2018; National Interest, March 31 2017). Depending on the availability of ships, multiple battalions, amounting to a brigade or more, could be at sea for several weeks or months. In addition to combat, anti-terrorist, or deterrence missions, these forces could be used for disaster relief or emergency evacuation operations. But assembling a multi-ship, multiple battalion task force, with some degree of sea-based air support, is probably is at least a decade away as sealift is added and the PLA Marine Corps expands its resources and capabilities.

The expansion of Marine Corps is a major component of the goal to develop the PLA into a “world-class military” by the middle of the century (2049). When fully manned, equipped, and trained, the Marine Corps will provide Chinese leaders with options previously unavailable. As in Djibouti, PLA Marines will continue to be seen in places they’ve never been seen before. And, as they sing in their 2018 recruiting and propaganda videos, “We are different!” (PLA Daily, March 11 2018; PLA Daily, December 21 2018).

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).

Roderick Lee is an analyst with the United States Navy. His work focuses on Chinese maritime forces and strategy. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed herein by the authors do not represent the policies or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, and are the sole responsibility of the authors.


[1] People’s Navy, December 18, 2017.

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 95.,-85,733.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Marine Corps are seen in training at a military training base in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, January 11, 2016. Picture taken January 11, 2016. (Photo by Reuters/CNS Photo)

Don’t Forget Our Allies! Interoperable Maritime Operations in a Combined Environment

By LT Jason Lancaster, USN


“I’ve engaged with heads of navies from around the world, upwards of 72 different countries, in the concept that I call a 1,000-ship navy. It’s a thousand ships of like-minded nations working together to get at the emerging challenges of weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, drugs, weapons, pirates, human trafficking and immigration. These are challenges we all have, and we need to work together to ensure that the sea-lanes are secure.” -Admiral Mike Mullen1

In 2006, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mullen, put forward the idea of the navies of the world uniting to fight shared challenges to promote freedom of the seas. While today’s attention focuses more on great power competition and less on trans-national terrorism and piracy, the idea of like-minded nations fighting together for freedom of the seas remains.

The U.S. often fights wars as part of a coalition of like-minded states, and has frequently done so for over a century. The U.S. Navy has not fought a naval war alone since the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898. From the Boxer Rebellion to the War on Terror, the U.S. fights in conjunction with its allies and partners. The third theme of A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 is, “The Navy fighting with the Joint Force and with our allies and partners will control the high end of maritime conflict.” High capability allies increase the lethality of U.S. forces. Allied forces can complement a carrier strike group (CSG) by providing additional air defense units, contribute ships and Marines to amphibious operations, and support Theater ASW with submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and surface ships. Many allies also specialize in areas the US Navy is weak in, such as mine warfare.

Despite a lengthy pedigree of combined naval operations, the U.S. Navy must continue focusing on interoperability with allies. The U.S. Navy’s attention must remain firmly set on interoperability. It is a mindset that must be consistently reinforced by leaders and sailors operating in a combined environment. The operational staffs at CSGs and Destroyer Squadrons are vital to the successful execution of combined operations because they write the operational tasking messages (OPTASKs) and control the communications paths that enable our allies to fight with us. Without being able to communicate and operate together and understand the capabilities of allies, the U.S. Navy will not be able to take advantage of allied navy skills in a distributed environment.


There are four types of interoperability: Strategic, Operational, Tactical, and Technological. Strategic Interoperability is durable relationships with partner nations, organizations like NATO, or Mutual Defense Treaty relationships in Asia. These high level agreements indicate shared mutual interests and a long-term desire to cooperate and determine that an operation is required. Operational Interoperability can be achieved through a myriad of ways: a combined fleet or dividing tasks and territory between nations to accomplish individually. Tactical Interoperability is operating ships or aircraft from different countries together, and the technological level is the data links, radars, or weapons that they utilize to accomplish their missions.

Understanding the capabilities and limitations of allied platforms is vital for effective use of those assets.2 Without an understanding of what partner units can do, both sides will be incredibly frustrated during the operation. The Allied Interoperability and Coordination Guide published by the NATO Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence gives specific examples of areas that have given combined forces problems during U.S. naval exercises. Unsurprisingly, many of those examples are communications related.

Four levels of interoperability (Interoperability A Continuing Challenge in Coalition Air Operations/RAND)

High-Capability Allies and Technological Interoperability

“Link-11 is for NATO because they’re cheap.”
-SWO Lore

Today’s Allies have modern, capable warships. If one was reading Janes and saw “AEGIS Weapons System, SPY-1 Radar, SM-2 Missile, and Mk-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS),” one might assume that it was a U.S. Navy ship. But today, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Spain, Denmark, and Norway have warships with the AEGIS Weapons System,  SPY-1 radars, and vertical launch cells. Italy, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany all have ships that have similar combat system capabilities. These ships have Link-11, Link-16, and satellite communications. Over 18 nations operate the P-3 Orion, Australia and India operate P-8 Poseidons, and the U.K. is expected to deploy them by 2020. Nine nations’ navies and air forces are buying variants of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft. Between the new ships and the new planes, the U.S. and its allies are technologically interoperable. The main interoperability friction points are communications and doctrine.

Mexican, German, and US warships conduct Underway Replenishment during UNITAS 2009 (Author photo)

Because of defense budgets and population size, many U.S. allies expect to fight in a combined task force. For example, Denmark has deployed Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates in support of U.S. and French CSGs, and plans to do the same with the British. These ships have regularly made cooperative deployments with the United States Navy. These frigates have AEGIS and SPY and are capable air defense platforms. In 2013, another capable air defense platform, the FGS Hamburg made a cooperative deployment with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG in 2013, the first cooperative deployment for the Bundesmarine.3 The Spanish frigate Mendez Nunez is scheduled to deploy with the Abraham Lincoln CSG.4 Cooperative deployers go through their own domestic training cycle, followed with certification by the British Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), before sailing to the United States to participate in a Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) and follow-on deployment.

Large scale exercises such as BALTOPS in Europe, KEEN SWORD and COBRA GOLD in the Pacific, and UNITAS in the Americas are a chance to flex all four levels of interoperability. The strategic aspect includes messaging that partner nations are resolved to work together and are ready and willing to fight tonight together. At the operational and tactical level, these exercises give navies a chance to train together, build relationships, and work through interoperability challenges. These relationships, established through frequent exercises, enable confidence in both forces’ ability to fight together. This trust is vital to teamwork and success in a future conflict.

Problems in Tactical Interoperability

Tactical interoperability is the ability to communicate and operate together. The ability to communicate effectively is a complex, never-ending battle. HF, UHF, EHF, SHF, and VHF paths are favored by different nations for different missions and different nets. The U.S. military’s large satellite constellation enables the U.S. Navy to operate at sea with a focus on UHF, SHF, and EHF communications. This enables internet bandwidth which further enables the dominance of SIPR chat as a means of C2. The destroyer’s Tactical Action Officer (TAO) is inundated with chats in multiple chat rooms from higher headquarters expecting reports on everything from enemy actions to hourly potable water percentages or other minutiae. SIPR is a U.S.-only domain which precludes allies from participating. U.S. comfort in SIPR utilization means that oftentimes allies are left outside of the communications chain.

The U.S. also operates BICES and CENTRIX computer networks for use with allies, however there are fewer computers available aboard ship for use, which restricts the ability to operate those systems. This issue can be mitigated by focusing on voice communications. Some commanders utilize chat and then use voice when they remember to include their allies in the operation. This wastes time and sidelines allies, leading to frustration. It is better to utilize the radio nets instead of chat for C2.
U.S. ships are used to operating a myriad of circuits simultaneously, but not all partner nation ships have the same capability to use a broad spectrum of circuits. Understanding the limitations of partner nation radio shacks to limit the number of circuits U.S. vessels use is important for designing stable and effective comms architecture.

Cryptographic keying material (crypto) is another major issue for successful communications. One cannot communicate effectively if the crypto is wrong. Different types of crypto rotate at different times and sailors have to understand the nuances of those rotations. As an example, during an operation, two U.S. ships and one allied ship were conducting an exercise. The two U.S. ships did not shift crypto when they were supposed to, but the allied ship did. That allied ship mysteriously fell out of the net and no one knew why. The two U.S. ships did not switch, and said it was the allied ship’s fault they dropped out because the two U.S. ships could still communicate. Eventually, it was realized that the two U.S. ships had not shifted crypto within periodicity, and once crypto had been shifted, comms were restored. This problem is more pronounced when operating with aircraft that cannot reload crypto until they return home which eliminates an asset from the operation.

The N6 community should focus on ensuring that OPTASK Comms are written with interoperability in mind. Ship’s radio shacks must be trained to seamlessly utilize allied crypto. When a ship drops communications, all ships in the squadron should verify that their settings are correct and not assume the other person is wrong. Most importantly, the staff should prioritize voice communications over chat. Emphasis on these things will enable the commander to turn an allied warship from a liability into a useful asset.


Once allies can communicate, it is time to operate together. Interoperability is a mindset. Commander’s intent can drive a CSG or DESRON to be interoperable. During exercises, the CSG and DESRON can demand that the training and doctrine commands, like Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center (SMWDC), ensure that their support during exercises is releasable to allies. The CSG and Destroyer Squadron must understand the capabilities and limitations of partner nation ships and aircraft and task them appropriately. Many naval vessels are multi-mission, however like most things, some ships are more appropriate for certain missions. A NATO air defense frigate with AEGIS that lacks a towed array sonar might be better suited as plane guard than part of an ASW search and attack unit.

U.S. forces are trained on U.S. publications such as Naval Tactical Techniques and Procedures (NTTP) and Naval Warfare Publications (NWPs). They typically receive less training on Allied Tactical Publications (ATPs). Yet NATO nations expect to fight as a unit and train from the ATPs. U.S. forces operate globally and tend to focus on their own doctrine which is similar to, but often slightly different from NATO doctrine. Part of this is a releasability issue. Since the U.S. partners with nations like Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea that are non-NATO countries, the U.S. needs doctrine it can release to them, but also doctrine that is the same in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. If OPTASKs are written using only U.S. doctrine it makes it more difficult to share with allied cooperative deployers. If a CSG has a cooperative deployer, it makes sense to utilize ATPs instead of NTTPs and ensure the OPTASKs are releasable to NATO, reducing the time required by short-staffed Foreign Disclosure Officers. The process of releasing critical information to cooperative deployers must be improved so that CSG staffs on deployment can rapidly transfer information required for day-to-day operations to allies.

OPTASKs can be written from ATPs or U.S. publications. The CSG’s OPTASKs should be written early enough for U.S. and allied ships to train to them. ATP-based OPTASKs will require adjustment for the U.S. ships, but will seamlessly incorporate any allied ships for operations on deployment. U.S. ships are supposed to utilize allied publications and procedures when operating with NATO allies; the commander should ensure that his OPTASKs are written to follow that.

U.S. Arleigh Burke Flight IIA warships lack Harpoon missiles and a significant surface strike capability. Most NATO frigates that are equipped with Harpoon or Exocet can provide additional missiles for the surface fight. The Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate carries 16 Harpoon missiles, the equivalent of two U.S. cruisers or FLT I DDGs combined. This large quantity of Harpoons greatly eases the salvo sizes required for successful engagements. The U.S. Navy needs to ensure that once new Distributed Maritime Operations concepts, C4I processes, and techniques are developed, they are released to regular NATO cooperative deployers like Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom so that coalition assets strengths can be utilized.

The Korean Theater of Operations provides an interesting confluence of interoperability. The U.S. Navy regularly works with the ROK Navy and is interoperable with them, but in the event of a war, United Nations Command expects 11 United Nations Sending States – nations including European nations, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines – to contribute forces to the campaign. Currently there are few opportunities for European and ROK navies to train together. There are occasional passing exercises (PASSEXes) in CTF 151 and the occasional Tri-lateral Exercise when a European ship passes through the KTO or a Korean ship visits Europe, but those opportunities rarely stress complex interoperability issues like communications and tactical data links.

SEOUL, Republic of Korea (Oct. 11, 2016) More than 80 mine-warfare specialists from 12 nations including the U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) pose during a break at the annual Mine Countermeasure Warfare Symposium in Seoul. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jermaine M. Ralliford)

There has not been much discussion over what doctrine will be used, including NATO Allied Tactical Publications or U.S. doctrine, and how to incorporate nations like the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. One area where the United Nations Command has been successful in incorporating U.N. Sending States is mine warfare. Since 2014, the U.S. and ROK Navies, and United Nations Sending States have come together to conduct mine countermeasure exercises familiarizing themselves with the local conditions and operating as a coalition. As United Nations Command ramps up that exercise, the doctrine and releasability aspects will hopefully solve themselves, however one must identify issues to solve it.


As fleet sizes around the world decline, Admiral Mullen’s thousand ship-navy vision becomes more important and CSGs composed of coalition partners will become more common. Since many U.S. allies operate the same or similar aircraft and ships, these coalitions are technologically interoperable, but tactical and operational interoperability starts with the commander and his intent. As the U.S. Navy creates new C4I systems and tactics, they need to be rapidly released to close partners to ensure the continued interoperability of naval forces. With good communications and releasable tactics, these nations can make excellent contributions to the fight. Without emphasis on partner nations’ interoperability, the U.S. Navy will waste valuable assets, and eventually receive fewer coalition assets on deployment.

LT Jason Lancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an M.A. from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. The above views are his own and do not reflect the position of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. U.S. Navy. Office of the Chief of the Naval Operations, “Speeches” (accessed 31JAN19)

2. Hura, Myron, Gary W. McLeod, Eric V. Larson, James Schneider, Dan Gonzales, Daniel M. Norton, Jody Jacobs, Kevin M. O’Connell, William Little, Richard Mesic, and Lewis Jamison, Interoperability: A Continuing Challenge in Coalition Air Operations. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000. (Accessed 31JAN19).

3. Gorman, Tim, Hamburg First German Ship to Deploy in U.S. CSG, 3Apr2013. (Acessed 31JAN19).

4. NATO, Allied Interoperability & Coordination Guide Version 1.0, November 2018.

5. Richardson,John M, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority Version 2.0, December 2018.

6. Gause, Kennth, U.S. Navy Interoperability with Its High End Allies, Alexandria VA, Center for Naval Analyses, October 2018, (Accessed 31JAN19).

7. Jean-Gilles, Jacques,Carrier Strike Group Twelve Welcomes Spanish Frigate Mendez Nunez to Naval Station Norfolk, 14Jan2019,, (accessed 16FEB19).

Featured Image: SATTAHIP, Thailand (Feb. 10, 2019) – Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) discuss vehicle capabilities with Royal Thai Navy Rear Adm. Chatchai Thongsaard, Commander Amphibious and Combat Support Service Squadron, during a ship tour. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anaid Banuelos Rodriguez) 190210-N-DX072-1037

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.