What Do You Call It? The Politics and Practicalities of Warship Classification

By Captain James P. McGrath, III, USN

The decommissioning of USS Simpson (FFG 56) in 2015 left the U.S. Navy without any frigates for the first time since 1950. Several pundits derided this “frigate gap” and suggested reclassifying the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a frigate to keep frigates in the inventory.1 These calls, which the U.S. Navy wisely resisted, are symptomatic of a century’s old challenge over how navies classify warships. Warship classification exists for two reasons, one practical and one political. Practically, naming a group of ships with similar characteristics allows for better comparison of capabilities within and among navies. Politically, warship classifications signal national intentions or influence political leaders who fund warship construction. While the practical reason may seem more functional, the political reason frequently determines classification.

Four common types of major surface combatants exist today: cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. Each title has historical roots and a variety of practical and political implications. This essay explores how these classifications came to represent modern ship types, how nations abuse them to suit their needs, and how they facilitate or hamper exploration of alternative fleet designs as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) challenges the U.S. Navy to do in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.2

Names, Roles, and Conventions

The classification of warships is as old as naval warfare. When historians evoke the ancient Trireme, naval scholars envision a large wooden vessel with three banks of oars and a prominent ram-style bow. During the golden age of sail, mentioning a ship-of-the-line conjured elements of national pride and a clear understanding of powerful broadsides that could only be defeated by similarly strong ships. Another commonly understood ship type during the age of sail was the frigate. Similar in length to ships-of-the-line and with comparable canvas, but significantly less broadside, frigates were swift ships, able to outrun what they could not outgun.

The rebirth of the American Navy authorized in the Naval Act of 1794 centered around a fleet of six frigates, “four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each,”3 conceived by Joshua Humphries and designed with the “outrun what they could not outgun” mantra in mind. Lighter and faster than ships-of-the-line, frigates often scouted for and covered the flanks of the battle line. Frigates also conducted independent operations, and several of the most famous naval actions of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were frigate duels. Corvettes carried even fewer guns on the smallest hulls capable of open-ocean operations. These ships often conducted raids or served as picket ships between fleets. The relatively consistent classification of warships in this age allowed for easy comparison and provided fleet commanders insight into the type of fleet required to defeat a foe.

Warship classifications evolved to describe new types of warships developed from the new technologies of the industrial age. With the advent of steam power ships gradually improved their propulsion with paddlewheels, and later screw propellers. Initially, these new warships kept the basic shape and mission of the frigates of old, so they kept the frigate name, albeit caveated as paddlewheel or screw frigates. With the addition of armor and turreted gun mounts, titles like cruiser and battleship emerged. By the mid-1880s, the terms “ship-of-the-line” and “frigate” fell out of use. The explosion of ship types resulted in an expansion of naming conventions with little commonality between navies. These new classes of ships came to describe the changing fleet designs of this new era of naval power.

Two common and modern warship classifications, both derived from descriptions of the ship’s mission, grew from this explosion of ship types. Designed to cruise the oceans independently, cruisers filled the role held by frigates in the age of sail, but capabilities varied widely across the world’s navies. The other type, the destroyer, represented a genuinely new classification of warship. The first ship to use the term “destroyer” was the Spanish torpedo-boat destroyer Destructor commissioned in 1887. What set Destructor apart as a new class of warship was her combination of size, large enough to operate in the open sea with the battle fleet; speed, 22.6 knots made her one of the fastest ships in the world in 1888; and her armament, seven rapid firing guns, and two torpedo tubes. Over the next three decades the destroyer evolved to provide all manners of protective functions for the fleet including usurping the role of torpedo boats and proving especially effective against the submerged torpedo boat, the submarine. Development of these new ship classes harnessed the technical advances of the industrial age and drove the development of modern fleets.

Spanish Navy torpedo gunboat Destructor, designed and built in the UK by Thomson and delivered to the Spanish Navy in 1887. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1906, Admiral Sir John Fisher of the Royal Navy shocked the world with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary, all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleship, which instantly made the world’s battleships obsolete. The capability gap between dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts sparked a naval arms race with the world’s maritime powers scrambling to build bigger and better battleships. This naval arms race is widely considered one of the principal causes of World War I. What constitutes a dreadnought, however, remains contentious, a situation confused by sub-classifications such as super-dreadnought and semi-dreadnought making fleet comparison challenging. Even more confusing and unfortunate is the classification of the battlecruiser. One of Fisher’s goals in developing Dreadnought was to help create a class of ships capable of outrunning anything they could not outgun – a large light-cruiser – the true successor of the sailing frigate. Unfortunately, and here is where ship classification can become dangerous to fleet design, politicians insisted on calling these ships battlecruisers since they looked like battleships, similar in size and armament but deficient in armor, which the designers sacrificed for speed. This unfortunate classification led to the battlecruiser’s misemployment in the battle line, which constrained their speed advantage, and where their lack of armor made them vulnerable to large caliber gunfire. This was demonstrated catastrophically at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when three battlecruisers exploded with incredible loss of life after only a few hits. Twenty-five years later, the last British battlecruiser, HMS Hood, met the same fate after only five salvos from the German battleship Bismarck. Classifying ships for political purposes can have deadly effects.4

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary exploding at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Queen Mary is surrounded by the explosion and smoke. To the left is HMS Lion, surrounded by waterspouts from enemy shots falling short. (Wikimedia Commons)

Treaties and Types

After World War I, in an effort to prevent a naval arms race like the one that preceded the war, world leaders aimed to curtail warship construction by treaty. Ensuring all parties met treaty obligations required common definitions of ship types. The Five Power Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 defined ship classes in a manner agreed upon by all signatories. The first treaty defined capital ships as those displacing more than 10,000 tons and carrying guns greater than 8-inches.5 Seeking an alternative to the now constrained battle line, Japan designed and built a series of cruisers right to these limits in the 1920s. These highly-capable warships caused great concern in the United States and Great Britain over the gap in cruiser capability. The London Naval Treaty, an attempt to further and more broadly restrict naval construction, especially of these “heavy” cruisers, defined lesser warship classes as follows:

Cruisers:

Surface vessels of war, other than capital ships or aircraft carriers, the standard displacement of which exceeds 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), or with a gun above 5.1 inch (130 mm.) calibre.

The cruiser category is divided into two sub-categories, as follows:
(a) cruisers carrying a gun above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre;
(b) cruisers carrying a gun not above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre.

Destroyers:

Surface vessels of war the standard displacement of which does not exceed 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), and with a gun not above 5.1-inch (130 mm.) calibre.6

By 1930, there existed a shared understanding of capital ships (BB), aircraft carriers (CV), heavy cruisers (CA), light cruisers (CL), and destroyers (DD), but that shared understanding quickly fell apart since not every nation building warships was party to the treaty. The re-building German Kriegsmarine, governed by the Treaty of Versailles and not the Washington Treaty system, built three 14,520 ton, 11-inch gun Deutschland-class ships in the early 1930s. Although capital ships under the terms of the Washington Treaty, the Germans initially called them Panzerschiffe (armored ships) and later classified them as heavy cruisers. The British press derisively dubbed them “pocket battleships” since the Panzerschiffe were significantly smaller than most other nations’ capital ships further confusing what type these ships actually were.

Wartime recognition drawing of the German cruiser or “pocket battleship” Lützow, produced by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

The collapse of the Washington Treaty system in 1936 removed the constraints on warship classification, but the nomenclature initially remained as nations prepared for war. During World War II, the belligerent navies significantly expanded in size, creating a vast array of ship types not envisioned in 1922 or 1930. To describe these new ships, navies returned to the pre-World War I practice of naming them as they saw fit. The British brought back the historical terms corvette and frigate to describe dedicated anti-submarine vessels designed for convoy escort. The Flower-class corvettes fit well with the sailing vessel definition as the smallest class of ocean-going vessels capable of independent operations. The British River-class began as a twin-screw corvette, but in 1941 was reclassified as a frigate. While the frigate rated above the corvette in the age of sail, this new class of ship bore no resemblance to the prestige and importance of sailing frigates.7 The Americans chose the title destroyer escort (DE) for their version of the vessel filling the open-ocean escort role, but they also employed a class of patrol frigates (PF), the Tacoma-class, built to a modified River-class design. The United States produced 96 Tacoma-class PFs between 1943 and 1945, 20 of which served in the Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy considered these vessels inferior to the indigenously designed DEs, so kept the frigate classification to differentiate them. By the end of World War II, the modern classifications of cruiser, destroyer, frigate, and corvette appeared firmly established, although at the time the application of these classifications lacked continuity among the Allied navies. The outlier was the newly designed and named destroyer escort possessed only by the Americans, faster, more maneuverable and better-armed than the frigates but less capable than the destroyer.

Warships in the Guided Missile Age

The advent of the missile age further upset the Washington Treaty system of warship classification as nations began developing new missile-armed platforms for fleet anti-aircraft defense. The Navy’s missile-firing surface combatants (marked by a “G” in their classification from their guided missiles) were first born from World War II-era heavy and light cruisers that had their main armaments converted from large caliber guns into missile batteries. These ships kept their base cruiser designations (CAG/CLG and later CG). But lacking a clear classification example for the new warships built around missile batteries instead of guns, the U.S. Navy initially applied ship classifications it already had. It designated larger missile ships destroyer leaders (DLG), medium-sized missile ships derived from destroyer designs remained destroyers (DDG), and ships derived from smaller destroyer escorts kept that classification (DEG).8 But politics is tricky and explaining to Congress the difference between a destroyer leader, a destroyer, and a destroyer escort, and why the Navy needed all three, became a challenge. The Navy solved the image problem by evoking the prestige of the age-old title of frigate for the larger missile ships. Thus, the destroyer leader became a frigate (although kept the DL hull designation) in 1950, to make building and funding them more politically palatable.

Two problems arose due to the American system. First, it ran counter to the rest of the world’s ship classification system, especially NATO’s. In NATO, the primary surface combatants were cruisers (which were quickly disappearing), destroyers, frigates (the small open-ocean escort version), and corvettes. The second reason is another example of politics driving ship classification. With the singular exception of USS Long Beach (CGN 9), America built no “traditional” cruisers after 1949, and by the mid-1970s most of the converted World War II-era cruisers had reached the end of their useful service. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a resurgent Soviet Navy built a number of ships it classified as cruisers, leading to an apparent “cruiser gap” of 19 Soviet cruisers to America’s six. That the American frigates outclassed the Russian cruisers mattered little to policymakers worried about fighting the Cold War. So in 1975, the United States reorganized its ship classifications with frigates reclassified as cruisers (CG), destroyers remaining destroyers (DD/DDG), and destroyer escorts becoming frigates (FF/FFG).9 Additionally, the Navy reclassified the Oliver Hazard Perry-class patrol frigate (PFG), then under construction, as a frigate (FFG). This reorganization also aligned U.S. warship classifications with its NATO allies, simplifying allied ship employment and doctrine.

The 1975 reorganization did not end the confusion over ship classifications. That same year, the first Spruance-class ship joined the fleet. Displacing over 8,000 tons, these ships equaled the size of the newly re-designated cruisers but lacked the robust anti-air capability. Since the U.S. Navy committed the cruiser designation to large anti-air ships, these new ships were classified as destroyers.10 Later that decade, the newly-developed Aegis weapons system was installed on the Spruance-class hull to create a highly capable anti-air warfare ship. Despite displacing only slightly more than the Spruance-class, the new Ticonderoga-class ships earned the designation of cruiser. The Navy’s rationale included the ship’s anti-air mission and the inclusion of command spaces suitable for flag officers to control fleets in battle.11

A bow view of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Spruance (DD-963), left, and the guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) moored at the destroyer and submarine piers at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia (USA), on 8 October 1983. Although the superstructures are different, these ships use the same basic hull and the same propulsion plant. The destroyer tender USS Shenandoah (AD-44) is visible in the left background. (Wikimedia Commons)

Classification and Politics

The United States is not alone in the questionable classification of ships. The Soviets designated the Kiev-class as heavy aviation cruisers, even though they operate fixed-wing aircraft and look like aircraft carriers. The cruiser designation allows the 45,000-ton ships to pass through the Turkish Straights in compliance with the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. The convention permits capital ships of Black Sea powers including Russia to transit the straights but excludes aircraft carriers. Fortunately for the Russians, the 1936 definition of aircraft carrier determines straight transit eligibility:

“Aircraft-Carriers are surface vessels of war, whatever their displacement, designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea. The fitting of a landing on or flying off deck on any vessel of war, provided such vessel has not been designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea, [emphasis added] shall not cause any vessel so fitted to be classified in the category of aircraft-carriers. ”12

By accepting the vessel as a cruiser whose primary purpose is not “carrying and operating aircraft at sea,” Turkey allows Kiev-class ships to transit the straights. Russia uses the same classification for the Kuznetsov-class, even though China classifies its Kuznetsov-class ship, Liaoning, as an aircraft carrier.

Classifying ships to skirt international convention is not the only reason to downplay a ship’s capabilities. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution prevents the nation from maintaining an offensive military capability.13 In the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force that equates to limiting ship types to destroyers or smaller, ostensibly since those types serve defensive roles. Within the last decade, Japan built four “helicopter destroyers (DDH)” which look suspiciously like aircraft carriers with full-length flight decks. The newest, the Izumo-class, can operate the fixed-wing, short take-off, vertical landing (STVOL) F-35B Lightning II. Despite recent reinterpretations of the Japanese constitution allowing the use of its military to defend allies in the event of an attack, calling these ships destroyers enabled the Japanese Diet to justify funding them as defensive.14

Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force helicopter destroyer Izumo (DDH-183) (JMSDF photo)

The German Baden-Württemberg-class (7200 tons) and Spanish Álvaro de Bazán-class (6300 tons) frigates both displace more than the destroyers they replaced, are only slightly smaller than contemporary destroyers, and are similarly armed with high-tech anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface sensors and weapons.15 Both the Deutsche Marine and the Armada Española emphasize the defensive roles of their naval forces, and building frigates is politically more palatable than building destroyers, even though these frigates are essentially equivalent to the destroyers of peer navies.16

The United States continued its Cold War tradition of confusing the world, and itself, with ship classifications with the development of the LCS. As then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “When I hear L, I think amphib, and it’s not an amphib. And I have to spend a good deal of my time explaining what littoral is.”17 Mabus even directed reclassifying LCS as a frigate, but the reclassification never came to fruition, partly because the LCS is significantly less capable than the world’s other frigates. Weighing in between 3100 and 3500 tons, armed with a 57mm gun, and with no real long-range anti-air capability, LCS more closely aligns with modern corvette classes than the frigates. But the United States does not want corvettes, because they are viewed as too small for its blue-water mentality.

The other oddly classified ship is the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Displacing over 14,000 tons, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) weighs as much as a World War II Baltimore-class heavy cruiser. Armed with 6.1 inch (155mm) guns, she meets the Washington Treaty system armament criteria for a light cruiser. She is also significantly larger than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers.18 Yet Zumwalt remains classified as a destroyer, again for political reasons. Derived from the “Destroyer for the 21st century (DD-21)” program of the early 1990s, the Navy continued to call this ship a destroyer even as it grew in size and complexity. When the U.S. Congress eventually authorized and funded the building of “a destroyer,” Zumwalt kept that classification.19

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Navy instituted a program called Surface Combatant for the 21st Century (SC-21). Designed to address the lack of land attack and fire support capability in the surface fleet, the program looked to develop a family of ships that would not necessarily fall in line with the traditional ship classes.20 Despite recognizing the potential for new ship classes, the U.S. Navy continued to shoehorn modern warships into the traditional ship classes until the development of LCS in the early 2000s. As mentioned above, LCS did not fit nicely into traditional categories, and its classification brought about more confusion than clarity.

Today’s U.S. ship designers also eschew the traditional ship classes. To meet the CNO’s goal “To better meet today’s force demands, [and] explore alternative fleet designs, including kinetic and non-kinetic payloads and both manned and unmanned systems,”21 the Navy’s Future Surface Combatant (FSC) program envisions three ship classes – Large Surface Combatant, Medium Surface Combatant, and an Unmanned Surface Combatant – to replace the current fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and the already retired frigates.

The Enduring Classification Gap

Today’s U.S. Navy still continues the century-old tradition of conforming ship classifications to more political instead of practical requirements. While it might appear trivial what a ship is called, ship classifications bring with them expectations such as armament and mission that may not match the practical needs of the fleet. The resultant ship tends to cost more and take on different missions than fleet designers initially intended in order to justify the higher price tag. Additionally, conforming to existing ship classification conventions limits the ability to develop ship classes necessary for exploration of alternative fleet designs. By naming its newest ship class “FFG(X)”, the U.S. Navy provides another illustration that while the classification of ships serves two purposes, political and practical, the political purpose usually wins.

Captain McGrath is a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer who commnded Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron Seven in Guam. After staff tours at Seventh Fleet, Naval Forces Europe, and the Joint Staff J7, he currently serves as a military professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any U.S. government department or agency.

References

1. Christopher P. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,” Defense News, 15 January 2015, https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2015/01/15/lcs-now-officially-called-a-frigate/ 

2. John Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority: Version 1.0 (Washington, DC, Officer of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2016), 6.

3. Naval Act of 1794, Session 1, Chapter XII, 3rd Congress (1794).

4. Philip Sims, Michael Bosworth, Chris Cable and Howard Fireman, Historical Review of Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions: SFAC Report Number 9030-04-C1 (Washington, DC, Naval Sea Systems Command, March 28, 2005, http://navalmarinearchive.com/research/cruisers/cr_navsea.html

5. Limitation of Naval Armament (Five Power Treaty or Washington Treaty), 43 Stat. 1655; Treaty Series 671, Article XI & XII.

6. Limitation and Reduction Of Naval Armament (London Naval Treaty), 46 Stat. 2858; Treaty Series 830, Article 15.

7. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

8. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000, http://www.hazegray.org/faq/smn6.htm#F4

9. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000, http://www.hazegray.org/faq/smn6.htm#F4

10. David W. McComb, “Spruance Class,” Destroyer History Foundation, Accessed 21 June, 2018http://destroyerhistory.org/coldwar/spruanceclass/

11. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

12. 1936 Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, Adopted in Montreux, Switzerland on 20 July 1936, Annex II, Section B.

13. The Constitution of Japan, Chapter II, Article 9, May 3, 1947. https://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html

14. Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Japan Takes Historic Step from Post-War Pacifism, OKs Fighting For Allies,” Reuters, June 30, 2014.

15. Contemporary destroyer tonnages: Russian Sovremennyy-class (6600 tons), Japanese Kongō-class (7500 tons), Chinese Type 052D (7500 tons), British Type 45 (8500 tons), and American Arleigh Burke-class (9600 tons).

16. Deutsche Marine official website http://www.marine.de/; Armada Española official website, http://www.armada.med.es/

17. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,”

18. Even though Zumwalt’s guns are effectively useless with the cancellation of the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), but the guns are still mounted and available if projectiles are procured.

19. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

20. Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2004), 434-5.

21. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 6.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (December 8, 2016) The Navy’s most technologically advanced surface ship USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS 2) and USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) on the final leg of her three-month journey to her new homeport in San Diego. (U.S. Navy Combat Camera photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume/Released)

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 1

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It will be republished in two parts.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

The U.S. Navy submarine force has set the standard in undersea warfare for at least half a century. America’s submarines made a vital contribution to victory in the Second World War, and they formed an elite force of truly innovative capabilities during the “Cold War at sea” with the Soviet Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the submarine force has been a leader among U.S. military warfighting communities in transforming itself to remain relevant against militant Islamist extremism and other emerging threats.

In such missions, the submarine force conducts strategic deterrence, intelligence and surveillance, extended-range land attack, and insertion of special forces, in addition to forming the essential backbone of the Navy’s mission of sea control—the all-important, enabling task of maintaining command of the seas for the U.S. armed forces. With the launch of the first of the Virginia class in 2003, the Navy’s position at the forefront of global submarine forces was set for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps partly inspired by the great successes of the U.S. submarine force, navies around the world have invested heavily in undersea warfare, especially in submarine capabilities. China stands out among these as an emerging submarine power. Over the last decade, Beijing has been building four different classes of boats while importing the Kilo-class diesel submarine from Russia in large numbers. Indeed, China’s intense focus on undersea warfare has led some to speculate that a transpacific rivalry is already under way, at least with respect to submarine capabilities. As policy makers in Washington grapple with the challenge of China’s rise, therefore, it may be wise to consider how Beijing is approaching its evolving naval strategy dilemmas. This article examines Chinese views of the American submarine force. As that submarine force constitutes one of the most vital elements of Washington’s overall strategy for establishing and maintaining sea control in times of conflict, Beijing’s assessment of those capabilities may be critical to uncovering the future evolution of this nascent rivalry.

More specifically, then, this research was undertaken for three reasons:

  • The U.S. Navy submarine force is thought to represent a key capability for conflict scenarios involving China.
  • This part of the U.S. Navy has undertaken major efforts at transformation within a new geostrategic and technological environment.
  • The American submarine force represents a rather well-defined warfare area and thus lends itself to a bounded research effort.

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of publishing in China on all subjects, including strategic and military-technical research. Thus, there are at least five serious journals devoted to naval warfare and dozens of more technically oriented journals.1 In this project, well over a thousand Chinese articles were surveyed, of which approximately 150 were judged worthy of closer scrutiny and analysis by the research team. The danger of circularity—attributing to Chinese analysts ideas that have simply been translated from original English-language sources into Chinese—is real, but one that the research team carefully considered throughout. Most Chinese journals now openly attribute English-language articles to their original sources. By and large, this kind of material (direct translation from English) was not evaluated in this study, in favor of articles that appeared to represent the actual opinions of Chinese naval and defense analysts.

This article is divided into five parts. The first section surveys Chinese reactions to a variety of current issues in the U.S. submarine force, including recent deployments and incidents of special interest. A second section examines Chinese evaluations of specific submarine force capabilities, focusing especially on new factors (e.g., the development of SSGNs) that have been central to transformation efforts. Section three considers some critical historical issues, particularly Chinese perceptions of U.S. submarine operations during the Cold War. A fourth section considers how Chinese analysts believe their antisubmarine forces would match up against the U.S. submarine force. Section five reviews Chinese perceptions regarding the overall future trajectory of the U.S. submarine force. A conclusion summarizes the article and offers policy recommendations.

Overall, this article finds that Chinese naval analysts study the U.S. submarine force in excruciating detail, as concretely manifested in thousands of both strategic and technical articles that focus on it.2 As one Chinese naval analyst puts it, “Nuclear attack subs are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms. . . . During a regional conflict, [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines are the first in and last out.”3 Nevertheless, there is also a keen appreciation that the U.S. Navy is focusing primarily on ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing in the official PLA journal 当代海军 (Modern Navy), one analysis declares, “The U.S. Navy’s capabilities to wage war at sea are gradually declining, and open ocean warfare is already not a focal point.”4 Recognizing the potentially major role of the U.S. submarine force in China contingencies, another analyst suggests: “On the basis of a great quantity of research, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] believes that U.S. nuclear submarines are very quiet, and difficult to discover and counterattack; at the same time, [their] attack power is great, [and] must [be] restrain[ed].”5 Such assessments underline the importance of a closer examination of Chinese perspectives concerning the American submarine force.

Current Developments

In order to give a sense of what Chinese analysts believe to be the trajectory of U.S. submarine force development, it is useful to examine their assessments of two significant recent events: the grounding of the Los Angeles–class submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) and the stationing of nuclear-powered submarines on Guam.

The Grounding of the USS San Francisco

The collision of San Francisco with an underwater mountain on 8 January 2005 greatly interested China’s naval press. The articles published then, which prominently feature official U.S. photos of the damaged vessel, express admiration that a submarine that received such damage could have returned to port. This respect is couched in terms of the fundamental strength designed and built into the ship, however, not in terms of the critical factors of crew training and damage control. Author Qi Yaojiu, for example, wrote approximately four months after the incident in a typical article, “In order to investigate battle damage strength, the U.S. undertook strength tests [for submarines] under the conditions of nuclear weapons detonation.” Additionally, “almost every U.S. submarine, before entering into active service, undergoes tests that use underwater explosives to evaluate resistance to battle damage.”6 Notwithstanding this apparent respect, the author recognized that the damage San Francisco incurred would have amounted to a “mission kill,” stating: “If the San Francisco collision had occurred during wartime, and crew members had experienced such wounds, the San Francisco would essentially lose its basic combat effectiveness.”7 A realization that submarines do not have to be destroyed in order to lose combat effectiveness could influence Chinese operational calculations.

Also characteristic of Chinese discussions of San Francisco’s grounding is an undercurrent of bewilderment, asking in effect, “Why were they going so fast?” The tone of analysis implies that such a high-speed transit is somewhat reckless. Thus, one Chinese analyst states that “a nuclear submarine in the process of underwater high speed transit is confronting serious danger” and that “even some U.S. Navy officials expressed that they could not understand the incident.”8 Another author declares, “It is well known in all navies that as soon as a submarine enters international waters in order to protect its stealth, the submarine will not rely on its active sonar. Objectively speaking, a submarine at high speed that is not operating its active sonar is in danger comparable to a vehicle without headlights traveling in the pitch dark.”9 Perhaps because China’s submarine force consists primarily of diesel submarines that rarely make high-speed, long-distance transits, the circumstances surrounding the collision seem peculiar to Chinese naval analysts.

Chinese analyses of the San Francisco incident recognize the United States as a world leader in submarine rescue.10 As one author observes, “Overall, the USN employs the best submarine rescue vehicles and has the most extensive exercises, so its submarine rescue capability leads the world.”11 This appraisal is corroborated in Modern Navy: “Over the last few years, the U.S. Navy has continuously explored submarine rescue methods, and thus strengthened international cooperation, enhancing submarine rescue exercises with its allies. For us this represents a certain inspiration.” Moreover, the Chinese author states, “small groups at various bases are alternatively ready for war or ready to go out and undertake the rescue of an American or allied submarine at any time.”12 Even though the Chinese Navy evidently has extreme respect for the U.S. submarine force, the analyses of the San Francisco incident appear to show awareness that even this elite force can make errors and must invest in cutting-edge rescue technologies.

SSNs in Apra Harbor

As might be expected, China’s naval press has watched the military buildup on Guam with great interest, particularly that of the American submarines.13 A 2004 article in Modern Navy suggests, “The U.S. Navy has stationed three nuclear powered Los Angeles–class attack submarines on Guam. At present, the U.S. military has considered dispatching an additional 6 nuclear submarines. . . .Deployment of such weapons would give the U.S. military considerable capacity to ‘gain the initiative by striking first’ at us from the sea.”14

The same journal a year later described the basing of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) on Guam in greater detail, observing that the United States officially reestablished Submarine Squadron 15 on Guam under Submarine Group 7 in February 2001 and deployed three nuclear-powered attack submarines there: the first and second in fall 2002 and the third in summer 2004. Moreover, as administered by Commander, Submarine Force Pacific, the submarine group “on the basis of troop deployment plans regularly dispatches 4–5 submarines under its 7th fleet jurisdiction. The duty period of these submarines is ordinarily 6 months. Each submarine can execute missions independently, or can attach to a carrier battle group.”15

The operational significance of stationing SSNs on Guam is not lost on Chinese naval analysts. One observes that “if [a submarine] sets out from Guam, especially in a Taiwan Strait crisis, it may only require 2 days or so.”16 A significant finding of the present study is that even in official journals, Chinese analysts are exploring Guam’s vulnerabilities. The same author notes that Guam, in addition to conferring some advantages to the United States in a Taiwan crisis, also carries self-defense vulnerabilities having strategic implications:

“The U.S. military has still not established a defense system of anti-aircraft, antimissile, and other defense systems on Guam—[there exists] only a pittance of coastal patrol forces. Once there are hostilities, Guam’s defense can only rely on the U.S. Navy’s sea-based missile defense system and Air Force joint operations. Consequently, in wartime, Guam’s defense is still a problem; also, because it is in a special position surrounded on four sides by ocean at the intersection of three major international sea lanes, it is impossible to defend effectively. If the other side’s long-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles, long-range bombers or maritime special forces operations units, etc., can break through Guam’s peripheral warning and defense, [to] destroy or seriously damage its naval port, airfield, munitions warehouse, and communications system, [then] the entire operational system of America in the Pacific Theater can become ineffective, its sustained warfare capability can greatly fall short of requirements [and] its resolution and dynamics of military intervention would have to change.”17

Regardless of the validity of their specific claims, then, it is clear that some Chinese analysts perceive Guam to be vulnerable to offensive attacks.

U.S. Navy Capabilities

Having set the scene by reviewing major submarine force developments noted by Chinese analysts, we now turn to a more comprehensive survey of the major American capabilities that have attracted their attention. These include nuclear powered cruise missile–armed submarines (SSGNs) and Tomahawk cruise missiles, Trident submarines, fast attack submarines, sensors and systems, and research and development.

SSGNs and Tomahawks

Chinese analyses demonstrate interest in the Navy’s four new SSGNs, their conversion from Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, and their mission areas.18 A fairly typical article observes that:

“refitting focal points are refitting the first 1–2 of 24 ballistic missile launch tubes for the use of special forces; tubes 3–10 into special forces use or for Tomahawk cruise missiles; [and] tubes 11–24 for Tomahawk cruise missiles. After refitting, the submarine can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and 66 special forces personnel, a dock/shipyard cover, a frogman transport ship (SDV), and an advanced Seal Transport System (ASDS).”19

Although they clearly recognize the potential value of an SSGN’s embarked special operations forces, Chinese analysts appear to be much more impressed by the implications of one SSGN’s potentially large inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the high readiness rate that SSGNs will be able to maintain. One perceptive article observes that these features will allow other ships to focus on different mission areas:

“After being refitted, SSGNs will be deployed 65% of the time each year on average. . . . As such, the USN will always have at least 2 SSGNs ready for battle at any time, and in wartime, 1 SSGN can take over the duties of many attack submarines and surface ships. Once the SSGN goes into service, this will significantly reduce the land attack burden shouldered by the surface fleet and allow it to focus on providing air defense against missile threats. At the same time, the SSGN will reduce the land attack role of SSNs, enabling them to concentrate on anti-surface and ASW [antisubmarine warfare] missions.”

The same analysis also recognizes with some alarm that “it is conceivable that in the future the arsenal ships could from a safe distance simultaneously rain 500 or more guided missiles upon several points of an enemy’s territory. Using [the SSGN] would be stealthier and faster than an air raid by carrier based aircraft and would also avoid pilot losses.”20

Chinese literature on SSGNs suggests anxiety regarding this capability and what it may mean for Chinese forces. One analysis calculates that SSGNs will allow the United States to engage in saturation attacks: “The ground forces that have relied on the traditional deception against air attack, such as fake targets and positions, will be severely tested under future conditions in which the U.S. armed forces are able to employ saturation attacks by low-cost [cruise missiles].”21 Another analyst, however, points out that Tomahawks are expensive, estimating that Tactical Tomahawks cost anywhere between $5.7 and 8 million dollars a round.22 One Chinese lesson from the Kosovo conflict was that the United States does not possess an infinite inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles; even in that relatively minor conflict, it adjusted its weapons stocks to cope with apparent resource limitations.23

Trident Submarines

Chinese writings about SSBN capabilities express concern about potential U.S. plans to place conventional warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. One scholar writes that “the new Trident II D5 can achieve a CEP [circular error probable—generally, accuracy] of nine meters. Therefore, as far as point targets are concerned, there already exists the ability to achieve nuclear destruction with a conventional warhead.” This accuracy, he worries, might raise the risk of war overall: “One can see that through lowering one’s own barriers to war, one can more realistically deter the enemy. This undoubtedly reduces war’s actual combat threshold.”24 This may reflect a Chinese concern that Trident conventionalization could give the United States more ability to coerce China in a variety of combat scenarios.

The nuclear deterrence provided by American nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) is well recognized in the majority of Chinese writings, as is the significance of the shifting of five Ohio-class SSBNs (USS Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Maine) from the Atlantic to Pacific fleets from 2002 to 2005. This transfer occurred as the four oldest Ohio-class SSBNs, which had all been stationed in the Pacific, were temporarily taken out of service for conversion to SSGNs; the two transactions effectively rebalanced the American SSBN force from a Pacific/Atlantic ratio of ten/eight to nine/five.25

Fast Attack Submarines

Chinese observers are intensely interested in and closely follow other modern U.S. nuclear submarines, including the USS Jimmy Carter, Seawolf, and Hawaii. Highly detailed, full-page color photos of Seawolf– and Virginia-class submarines appear in China’s most prominent naval journals. These photos are usually accompanied by articles that imply an advanced state of technology and advanced acoustic quieting. Thus, for example, Seawolf is described as having

“an X type stern, [sic] employ[ing] a non-circulating main pump SbW [sic] pressurized water reactor, rel[ying] on natural circulation [of cooling water], thereby reducing noise; us[ing] an advanced pump jet propulsor, [thereby] reducing noise, us[ing] anechoic tiles on the hull. Anechoic tiles can absorb the enemy’s active sonar survey waves as well as both separate and reduce the submarine’s own noise radiation. Moreover, this ship’s own machinery power equipment also employs [sound isolation] technology. These measures reduce the Seawolf-class’s noise level to 95 decibels, making it the world’s quietest submarine (ocean background noise is 90 decibels, Kilo 636 noise is 105 decibels).”26

Additionally, Chinese authors believe Seawolf possesses “beyond-first-class performance” and is regarded as the most sophisticated and lethal submarine yet to go to sea, despite its “tortuous development history.”27

The Chinese also respect Virginia-class submarines for their advanced technology and quietness. An author in Modern Navy states that “compared with the Sea Wolf–class submarine, the Virginia is slower and carries fewer weapons, but is just as quiet. Its acoustic signature is lower than that of the improved model of Russia’s Akula-class attack submarine and Russia’s fourth-generation attack submarine that will hereafter be in active service.”28 Another analyst, in discussing the Virginia class’s acoustic achievements, reports, “The Virginia-class has been called ‘the world’s quietest submarine,’ with a cruising sound level that is only 1/10 that emitted by a Los Angeles class boat pierside.”29

The techniques used to build Virginia and its sister ships also evoke respect, with one author noting, “The use of modular construction has been a major breakthrough in the construction of the Virginia-class SSN. . . . This construction method is a revolutionary breakthrough compared to the methods used to build the Los Angeles–class.”30 Modular construction is widely perceived as a tremendous advantage, allowing the United States to “promptly design and build new nuclear submarines on the basis of new circumstances and requirements.”31 Plans for Virginia, it is implied, having been generated by computer-aided design tools and relying on modular construction, could be used as the basis of a new SSBN design.32 Chinese authors argue that Virginia’s impressive technology allows it to “scout, reconnoiter, and keep watch from a concealed position using its modern sensors to gather intelligence; analyze it; fix radar positions, missile bases, and command centers; as well as watch and track warship movements.”33 The Virginia class is thus seen as “a completely new attitude emerging on the world military combat arena.”34 Some Chinese analysts believe “the U.S. will keep building Virginia class boats and the final number could exceed 30.”35

Los Angeles–class submarines receive significant attention from Chinese authors. One article on this class notes, “The American Navy believes that: nuclear attack submarines are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms, have the advantage of being stealthy, and have become one of the premier threats at sea.”36 Another author rates their performance as “outstanding,” with the reservation that although they have superior weaponry, they “might not [have proved] an effective counter to new types of Soviet nuclear submarines.” This impending disparity, in turn, is credited with precipitating U.S. follow-on designs.37 Still another observer notes that Los Angeles–class submarines are aging: “By the year 2020, the U.S. military intends to have built 30 nuclear attack submarines. However, by the year 2016, all of the Los Angeles–class submarines will exceed 30 years of service life”; the writer emphasizes the great expense of replacing them with Virginia-class vessels.38

Chinese naval observers regard American torpedo technology highly. Noting an enviable six decades of torpedo experience, one Chinese author observes, “Since World War II and for a relatively long period, U.S. torpedo technology has always been among the best in the world.”39 With specific reference to the Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo, another analyst assesses that “the [Mark 48] torpedo’s outstanding effectiveness in all combat circumstances has been proven and it can be used to attack surface ships, nuclear submarines, and also diesel electric submarines.”40 The same author describes the aggressive U.S. torpedo-testing program: “The USN has already carried out more than 6500 exercises and warshot firings [with the Mark 48], in addition to 20,000 simulations and 9 million mathematical simulations, so that this torpedo reaches a high state of reliability.” Perhaps in reference to the sinking of Russian Oscar-class submarine Kursk, and also as part of an overall effort to improve submarine safety consciousness, this analyst later observes that “the [Mark 48] system has been in active service since 1982 and there have been no safety accidents.”

Not every Chinese analyst would readily agree that the Mark 48 torpedo or its Advanced Capability (ADCAP) variant is especially fearsome. In a 2005 article, a Chinese author flatly stated, “Traditional heavy-weight torpedoes practically have no way to cope with modern diesel submarines in shallow waters.”41 The author notes that “shallow waters constitute a very acoustically complex warfare environment” and that the U.S. Navy has allocated significant resources to developing sonars suitable for littoral combat against diesel submarines.42 Another analyst, however, appreciates the U.S. Navy’s ability to upgrade the weapon: “At the moment, [the Mark 48] torpedo is still being upgraded, so that it can correspond to the challenges associated with shallow water environments and threat—it is expected to be in service with the USN until 2025.”43

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.

References

  1. This article draws extensively on five of the serious PRC professional publications concerned with naval warfare: 当代海军 (Modern Navy), 人民海军 (People’s Navy), 舰船知识(Naval and Merchant Ships), 舰载 武器 (Shipborne Weapons), and 现代舰船 (Modern Ships). Modern Navy is a monthly magazine published by the official PLAN newspaper People’s Navy, which is the daily newspaper published by the Political Department of China’s navy. Modern Navy offers articles that are often concrete and revealing of important capabilities, initiatives, and exercises. See, for example, 徐红明, 刘新民 [Xu Hongming and Liu Xinmin], “‘敌后’布 雷–中国海军某潜艇突破反潜编队训练 目击记” [Lay Mines “In the Enemy’s Rear Area”: An Eyewitness Account of a Certain PLAN Submarine Exercise Involving Breaking Through Antisubmarine Formations], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 4 (2003), p. 38. 舰船知识 (Naval and Merchant Ships), a semitechnical monthly publication of the Chinese Society of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, has directly involved a retired PLA Navy rear admiral, Zheng Ming, formerly head of the PLA Navy’s Equipment Department, in its publication activities. See “我刊召开作者, 读者, 编者座谈会” [Our Journal Convenes a Discussion among Writers, Readers and Editors], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2006), p. 8. An active-duty PLA Navy admiral has contributed to the journal. See 杨毅 [Yang Yi], “谁 的潜艇今后说了算?” [Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?], 舰 船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (July 2006), p. 28. Shipborne Weapons and Modern Ships are both monthly journals published by the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), China’s largest designer, manufacturer, and trader of military and civilian vessels and related engineering and equipment. In addition to these naval-oriented publications, 中国军事 科学 (China Military Science) is published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences.
  2. Because of the difficulty in conclusively identifying the authors of many Chinese writings on naval issues, this article will use a very broad definition of “naval analyst” —namely, one who engages in research and publication concerning naval affairs.
  3. 钱晋 [Qian Jin], “影子 ‘前锋’ 洛杉矶: 我伴 航母走天涯” [The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class: Escorting Carriers to the Far Corners of the Earth], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2002), pp. 38–41.
  4. 张建平, 高倚天 [Zhang Jianping and Gao Yitian], “透视美海军 2035 年: 远 景规划” [Perspective on the U.S. Navy in 2035: Prospective Plans], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2005), p. 37.
  5. 林长盛 [Lin Changcheng], “潜龙在渊: 解放军水雷兵器的现状与发展” [The Hidden Dragon in the Deep: The Present Situation and Development of PLA Mine Weaponry], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 9 (May 2005), p. 32.
  6. 齐耀久 [Qi Yaojiu], “‘旧金山’号核潜艇触 礁事故的再思考” [Reflecting Again on the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Collision Accident], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (July 2005), p. 41.
  7. Ibid., p. 42.
  8. Ibid., pp. 41–42.
  9. 止戈 [Zhi Ge], “旧金山’号核潜艇事故分 析” [Analysis of the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Accident], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (March 2005), p. 59.
  10. 孙晔飞, 聂其武 [Sun Yefei and Nie Qiwu], “从美核潜艇出事: 瞧潜艇非战时事故规 律” [Looking at Patterns of Nonwar Submarine Accidents, from the Perspective of 15 Collins et al.: Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Published by U.S. Naval War College Digital Commons, 2018 82 naval war college review collins, erickson, goldstein, & murray 83 the U.S. Nuclear Submarine Incident], 当代 海军 [Modern Navy] (March 2005), p. 20.
  11. 临河 [Lin He], “常备不懈—美国海军潜 艇救生及启示” [Always Prepared: The Inspiration of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Rescue Cooperation], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2004), p. 11.
  12. Ibid., pp. 9–11.
  13. Among the many articles that examine the U.S. military buildup on Guam are台风 [Tai Feng], “中国需要反潜巡逻机马?” [Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], no. 3 (March 2005), pp. 70–75; “美国陈兵关岛虎视台海” [U.S. Troops Deployed in Guam Vigorously Watch the Taiwan Strait], 世界新闻报 [World News Report], 15 February 2001; “美核攻击 潜艇欲驻关岛意何为” [Why America Stations Nuclear Attack Submarines in Guam], 信息日报 [NewsDaily], 3 November 2000, p. 22; “美国核潜艇关岛触礁” [U.S. Nuclear Submarine Strikes a Reef near Guam], 环 球时报 [World Times], 20 January 2005; Zhao Xiaozhuo, “The United States Does Not Want to Get Involved in a Crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” Huanqiu Shibao, 3 January 2005, FBIS CPP20050114000176; “核潜艇进 关岛: 美国居心叵测” [Nuclear Submarines Enter Guam: The U.S. Harbors Unfathomable, Evil Intentions], 中国国防报 [China National Defense News], 2 April 2002, p. B04.
  14. 李杰 [Li Jie], “对美系列海上演习之思考” [Reflections on the Series of U.S. Exercises at Sea], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2004), pp. 20–21.
  15. 赵宇 [Zhao Yu], “全景扫描: 美太平洋第 七舰队战力, 中部” [Scanning the Entire Panorama: The Combat Power of the U.S. Pacific Seventh Fleet (middle part)], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (February 2005), pp. 53–57.
  16. 韩江波 [Han Jiangbo], “关岛—美军控制 西太平洋作战体系的‘纲’” [Guam: The “Key Link” in the U.S. Military System to Control the Western Pacific], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2006), p. 33.
  17. Ibid., p. 34.
  18. For the SSGN program and related operational opportunities and issues, see Charles D. Sykora, “SSGN: A Transformation Limited by Legacy Command and Control,” Naval War College Review 59, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 41–62.
  19. 杨修水 [Yang Xiushui], “2010, 世界大洋的新 生代—核潜艇篇” [In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans: Writing on Nuclear Submarines], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 9 (September 2004), pp. 50–55.
  20. 天鹰 [Tian Ying], “SSGN 即将面世的水下武 库舰” [The SSGN Will Soon Be the World’s Premier Underwater Arsenal], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (December 2004), p. 67.
  21. 李文盛, 程建良 [Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang], “威胁自海上来: 美海军对陆火力 突击能力的发展特点及影响” [Threat from the Sea: Development and Implications of Development Trends in the U.S. Navy’s Surprise Strike Firepower against the Land], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (March 2003), p. 20.
  22. “美国海军拟部署战术‘战斧’导弹” [U.S. Navy Intends to Deploy Tactical Tomahawk], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2000), p. 36.
  23. See Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang, “Threat from the Sea,” p. 17.
  24. Both quotes in this paragraph are from董 露, 郭纲, 李文胜 [Dong Lu, Guo Gang, and Li Wensheng], “析美国战略导弹常规 改装的动因及影响” [Analysis on the Motives and Effects of U.S. Strategic Missiles Armed with Conventional Warheads], 中 国宇航学会 [China Space Institute] (paper distributed but not presented at Tenth PIIC Beijing Seminar on International Security, Program for Science and National Security Studies and Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, Xiamen, China, 25–28 September 2006).
  25. See, for example, 朱伟 [Zhu Wei], “美 9 艘战 略核潜艇聚集太平洋” [Nine U.S. Strategic Nuclear-Powered Submarines Assembled in the Pacific Ocean], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (November 2005), pp. 58–59. In addition to commenting on the significance of the United States transferring SSBNs and SSNs from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, this lengthy, wide-ranging article also devotes substantial space to alleged aging problems in the W76 nuclear warhead, criticizes as overly large and unstable the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and decries the negative effects of all this on Asia-Pacific security.
  26. Yang Xiushui, “In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans,” p. 50.
  27. 汪玉, 姚耀中 [Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds.], 世界海军潜艇 [World Naval Submarines] (Beijing: 国防工业出版社 [National Defense Industry Press], 2006), p. 127.
  28. 河山 [He Shan], “‘弗吉尼亚’号能否成为新 世纪海上霸王?” [Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (October 2004), p. 21.
  29. “‘弗吉尼亚’ 潜艇浮出水面” [Launching of the Virginia Class], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (October 2004), p. 23.
  30. Only three Sea Wolf–class submarines were ever built. The Cold War’s end made it impossible to justify construction of additional hulls, because this submarine had been optimized for combating the Soviet Navy. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 129.
  31. Ibid., p. 29.
  32. 陈位昊 [Chen Weihao], “美国海军调整 部署: 美国核潜艇云集太平洋妄图威摄 中国”[The U.S. Navy Adjusts Deployment: U.S. Submarines Converging in the Pacific Vainly Attempt to Deter China], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 6 (March 2006), p. 13.
  33. 曹家伟 [Cao Jiawei], “杀向近海—美海军弗 吉尼亚级新型攻击型核潜艇”[Fighting into the Littoral: The U.S. Navy’s Virginia-Class Nuclear Attack Submarine], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs], no. 18 (2004), pp. 26–29.
  34. Ibid.
  35. He Shan, “Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?” p. 21.
  36. Qian Jin, “The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class,” pp. 38–41.
  37. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 121.
  38. 世画 [Shi Hua], “世界未来潜艇发展前瞻” [World Submarine Development Prospects], 海事大观 [Maritime Spectacle] (January 2007), p. 86.
  39. 黄龙华 [Huang Longhua], “潜艇克星: 世界 反潜鱼雷概览” [The Star for Subduing Submarines: A Survey of World ASW Torpedoes], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs] (August 2006), p. 48.
  40. 崔峰 [Cui Feng], “Mk48 ADCAP: 美国海军主 战重刑鱼雷” [The Mk 48 ADCAP: The U.S. Navy’s Primary Combat Heavyweight Torpedo], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], no. 4 (2004), p. 31.
  41. 刘伟[Liu Wei], “外军的鱼雷及鱼雷防御技 术” [Foreign Torpedo and Torpedo Defense Technology], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (May 2005), pp. 34–37.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid. This three-page article is accompanied by full-color pictures of Mark 48 ADCAP circuit boards, torpedo body sections, detailed propulsion system schematic diagrams, and tables with performance criteria.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 7, 2012) The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Mississippi (SSN 782) conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat/Released)

The Battle of the Atlantic: Command of the Seas in a War of Attrition

This article originally featured in The Submarine Review and is republished with permission.

By Ryan Hilger

Captain Gallery picked up the radio: “Ride ’em cowboy.” Lieutenant David’s boarding party worked quickly to clear the submarine and make up Pillsbury‘s towline, despite the rudder being jammed hard over and the submarine still making ten knots. Chatelain and Jenks broke off to pick up survivors. Commander Trosino, Guadalcanal‘s Chief Engineer, and another boarding party made for the submarine to begin salvage efforts. Flooded compartments and potential booby traps slowed repair efforts. Pillsbury radioed back that the destroyer didn’t have the power to maintain the tow and keep the submarine afloat. Gallery ordered Guadalcanal into position, taking up the tow. After a challenging several days, U-505 was turned over to Naval Operating Base Bermuda for evaluation.1 The capture of U-505 on June 4th, 1944 was the zenith of Allied anti-submarine warfare efforts, indicating that German submarines would not play a decisive role in what became the final year of the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic spanned the entire duration of the war, stressing the endurance and resourcefulness of all involved, from fleet commanders to heads of state to cryptographers to ordinary seamen in anti-submarine trawlers and U-boats everywhere. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, worth quoting at length here, frames the issue:

“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. Invasion, I thought, even before the air battle, would fail. After the air victory it was a good battle for us. We could drown and kill this horrible foe in circumstances favourable to us, and, as he evidently realised, bad for him. It was the kind of battle which, in the cruel conditions of war, one ought to be content to fight. But now our life-line, even across the broad oceans, and especially in the entrances to the Island, was endangered. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.2           

This unforgiving war at sea challenged the conventions of Mahan and Corbett on the meaning of sea control and, in that philosophical struggle, informs strategic thought as we face asymmetric threats abroad. Several anecdotes from this long, grinding campaign provide insights as American naval forces grapple with the nascent possibility of a modern, protracted war of attrition at sea.

The Essentiality of War Games

Convoys HX-229 and SC-122 were eastbound for Britain. Their air cover had lapsed until the Liberator squadron in Iceland could reach them. The base courses of the convoys were continually altered around wolfpack locations revealed by Ultra, the Allied radio intercept and cryptanalysis program.3 But this time, the routings had placed them on a collision course with each other and three wolfpacks, the U-boats still high after battering SC-121 and HX-228 the day prior. On March 16th, 1943, they “hurled themselves like wolves first on the Halifax convoy, then on the Sydney convoy as soon as it was sighted, and finally on the great combined mass of ships.”4 38 U-boats exploited the next three days, relentlessly attacking day and night, sinking 21 of 61 ships.

The massacre of convoys SC-122 and HX-229 began twenty-five years prior to the coup de main, southeast of Sicily with then Lieutenant Commander Karl Doenitz in UB-68 and his near death at the hands of a British warship escorting a convoy just out of the Suez Canal. UB-68 was hit, but managed to blow her ballast tanks to the surface, where the submarine sank beneath him, the convoy continuing on to Britain unmolested. At that moment, floating in the warm Mediterranean waters with his lifejacket and a piece of salvaged cork, Doenitz recalls,

“That last night, however, had taught me a lesson as regards basic principles. A U-boat attacking a convoy on the surface and under cover of darkness, I realized, stood very good prospects of success. The greater number of U-boats that could be brought simultaneously into the attack, the more favorable would become the opportunities offered to each individual attacker.”5

The seed of wolfpack tactics had been planted. Several other German submariners would come to the same conclusion independently during the Great War, but none seemed to gain traction with the German High Command. Revolutions do not come about overnight.

Doenitz would rise slowly during the interwar years, eventually being selected to take over the first reformed U-Boat Flotilla in 1935. He found like-minded officers under his command and proceeded to develop cooperative tactics. In 1937, during the German Armed Forces Maneuvers, U-boats operated for the first time together, tasked to “locate, concentrate and attack an enemy formation and convoy somewhere on the high seas to the north of the coasts of Pomerania and West and East Prussia.”6 The operation was wildly successful, and U-Boat Command continued with large-scale exercises into 1939, including under the review of Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, until the Second World War started a few months later. The exercises provided Doenitz with the opportunity to further refine the span of control, communications, and tactics the U-boats would need in combat to bring wolfpacks to their highest potency.

Interestingly, Doenitz reveals that the British were caught largely unaware in the first year and a half of the war that the Germans were employing cooperative tactics against their convoys. Citing Captain Stephen Roskill, the eminent British naval historian, Doenitz writes,                       

“But as the numbers controlled by Admiral Doenitz increased, he was able to introduce attacks by several U-boats working together…The change caught us unawares…but the Development was, from the British point of view, full of the most serious implications since the enemy had adopted a form of attack which we had not foreseen and against which neither tactical nor technical countermeasures had been prepared.”7

This is shocking revelation for the preeminent Navy in the world at the outbreak of the war. The roots of this negligence, Roskill continues, are found in the interwar period:

“When British naval training and thinking in the years between the wars are reviewed, it seems that both were concentrated on the conduct of surface ships in action with similar enemy units and that the defence was also considered chiefly from the point of view of attack by enemy surface units.”8

Doenitz theorizes that the invention of active sonar lulled the British into thinking that oceans had been made transparent and that the submarine became instantly irrelevant.9 In conjunction with the technological advances, the development of wolfpack tactics also reveals the grave threat presented by sclerotic British thinking during peacetime. The bold and decentralized command of the Nelsonian navy had slowly devolved over a century into untested, theoretical doctrine, the fleet “[enjoying] a peace routine and that its title of Mistress of the Seas [not having been] seriously challenged.”10 Arthur Marder relates the state of the Royal Navy in 1897 prior to the reforms of Admiral Jackie Fisher: “the British Navy at the end of the nineteenth century, numerically a very imposing force, was a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism.”11 The ramifications of stultified strategic thought and the unacknowledged strategic draw at Jutland in 1916 further ossified British tactical development for the next twenty years.12 Doenitz, on the other hand, presents a case for the importance of war games for tactical and operational developments, and the consequences for the navies that spend the peacetime steaming around the world to “show the flag,” fueled by achievements of past wars while the guns rust from lack of meaningful combat exercises. 

Tactical Innovation and Credulity in Technology

In the Clausewitzian sense, the nature of the Battle of the Atlantic changed little over the course of the war. The merchant ships plodded along the routes provided by the Allied convoy routing commands, ever in existential peril, while the U-boats prowled about the waves in search of prey. However, a closer examination of the operational level of war provides a plethora of examples of technical innovation—focusing on the development of active sonar here—the first applications of operations research, and a clear warning about immature faith in technological advancements without any corresponding evidence of efficacy beyond first principles or development of doctrinal employment.13

The first hydrophones were fitted to warships for submarine detection as early as 1915, but provided such inaccurate bearings, and without a suitable close attack weapon, to render then operationally irrelevant. In September 1918, the British formed a scientific committee, the Anti-Submarine Division International Committee (Asdic) to develop echo-ranging methods to fix a submarine’s position. The system was fielded shortly before the war ended in 1918 and continued to be developed during the interwar years, now able to provide both bearing and range.14 Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalls his experience with the refined Asdic sets:

“On June 15, 1938, the First Sea Lord took me down to Portland to show me the Asdics [italics original]… Standing on the bridge of the destroyer which was using the Asdic, with another destroyer half a mile away, in constant intercourse, I could see and hear the whole process, which was the Sacred Treasure of the Admiralty, and in the culture of which for a whole generation they had faithfully preserved.”15

The British began World War II with 220 sets installed on various small combatants and trawlers, with many more sets waiting for ships to install them on—Churchill’s maritime building program would take a year or two more to reach fruition.16 Of note, Churchill does not record the doctrinal development of anti-submarine warfare in the same way that Doenitz discussed the refinement of tactical and operational doctrine for submarine wolfpacks. Doenitz records in his Memoirs the seeming blind faith by the British that the new technology would render submarines useless as a weapon of war: “in 1937 the Admiralty reported to the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee that ‘the U-boat will never again be capable of confronting us with the problem with which we found ourselves faced in 1917.”17 Churchill, at the outbreak of the war, agreed:

“I had accepted too readily when out of office the Admiralty view of the extent to which the submarine had been mastered. Whilst the technical efficiency of the Asdic apparatus was proved in many early encounters with U-boats, our anti-U-boat resources were far too limited to prevent our suffering serious losses.”18

This failure to grasp the limitations of the new technology, both in technical performance and the employment of it, required a rapid development program and the founding of operations research.19

The British anti-submarine forces had dwindled in the interwar period to less than ten percent of the forces available to the Allies at the signing of the Armistice in Versailles.20 The shortage would cost them dearly in operational tempo and merchant shipping lost while waiting for the Americans to enter the war or for their own shipbuilding program to start delivering. Even with Asdics on their warships, merchant shipping losses totaled more than 900 ships and 4,000,000 tons by the end of 1940.21 Yet a significant inventory of Asdics still sat on shelves, waiting for ships to enter service, and in that lies another lesson for gaining superiority in the war of attrition—cooperation with allies.

Allies and the Fielding of Capabilities

In May 1940, Churchill first laid bare the British needs to President Roosevelt: “All I ask now is that you should proclaim non-belligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are, first of all, the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers to bridge the gap…”22 The use of mothballed destroyers seems a logical and prudent policy to pursue, but the American political scene then, records Samuel Eliot Morison, was still rooted in quasi-pacifism.23 It would take President Roosevelt a great deal of time and political capital to secure the Lend-Lease program.

Churchill pressed again several months later, indicating how their mutual, albeit still private, goals could be served: “We can fit [the older destroyers] very rapidly with our Asdics, and they will bridge the gap of six months before our war-time new construction comes into play.”24 This string of discussion would continue between Roosevelt and Churchill for the remainder of 1940, even with the offer of British crews to man and transport the destroyers across the Atlantic. President Roosevelt would eventually find a loophole in the Neutrality Act of 1939 and sign a bilateral agreement with Churchill on September 2, 1940, on the trade of fifty older American destroyers for 99-year leases for naval bases from Great Britain. British sailors would bring the American ships back to life and take the fight to their common enemy in a shining example of the importance of bringing capabilities rapidly to bear in a war of attrition to gain a tactical edge.

The Unbiased Tyranny of Geography

It is rare for terrain in war to be so unfavorable to the contesting parties. Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz speak of the ground as preferential to a particular side depending on the value accorded to it.26 The sea, however, retains the ability to be the great equalizer, especially in the modern, globalized era, while simultaneously being supremely cruel to those who lose their respect for it. The Atlantic Ocean and the martial contest for it offered different challenges for all involved—British, German, and American. For Britain, the sea was survival. For Germany, the sea presented the longest contiguous battlefront. For the Americans, the sea represented the lifeline to Britain, under constant threat which, for the majority of the war, they lacked the necessary escorts to fully protect. Not until the summer of 1943 did the Allies begin to achieve sea control. Corbett puts this battle into theoretical prospective:

“By general and permanent control [of the sea] we do not mean that the enemy can do nothing, but that he cannot interfere with out maritime trade and overseas operations so seriously as to affect the issue of the war, and that he cannot carry on his own trade and operations except at such risk and hazard as to remove them from the field of practical strategy.”27

Corbett, vice Mahan, defines the heart of the struggle: “By occupying her maritime in which they terminate we destroy the national life afloat, and thereby check the vitality of that life ashore so far as the one is dependent on the other.”28 Britain needed the sea for survival and Germany rightly discerned that the sea was the key to Britain’s destruction. Thus, the Battle of the Atlantic was not simply another battle on the road to victory, but rather an extended campaign at the operational level of war, and a matter of national strategic policy for all contestants.

Churchill, never shy at communicating the necessity of commerce to the survival of Britain, again indicates the British national policy to President Roosevelt: “North Atlantic transport remains the prime anxiety… I am sorry about [stopping food subsidies to Eire], but we must think of our own self-preservation, and use for vital purposes our own tonnage brought in through so many perils.”29 The American policy, still protected by pre-war isolationist policies, took more time to develop. Admiral Stark, then the Chief of Naval Operations, submitted his thoughts on American grand strategy to Navy Secretary Knox in late 1940: “Our major national objectives in the immediate future might be states as preservation of the territorial, economic, and ideological integrity of the United States…the preservation of the disruption of the British Empire with all that such consummation implies…”30 These views would be fully developed and codified in the American-British Conversation (ABC) agreements, first completed in March 1941.

In the years prior to the war, Germany began finalizing how they would structure the Navy to strangle the British islands. Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, saw the unfolding situation plainly: “Britain imported fifty million tons of goods annually and her very existence depended on the keeping open of her supply lines. An effective attack on Britain’s oversea supplies therefore had to be the main aim of any German naval building programme.”31 In contrast, Raeder believed that “[as] for our surface forces, they were so inferior to the enemy in strength and numbers that about all they could hope to do was go down fighting.”32 Raeder has grasped the four Clausewitizan factors of success in war.33 This attitude shaped the shipbuilding program in the final years of prior to the war, resulting in Germany beginning the war with near four times as many submarines as all surface ships combined.34 Geography shaped the battle, forcing widely distributed forces against a highly distributed threat.

For Germany, though, the execution of the maritime strategy would be anything but trivial.35 The development of wolfpack tactics and the technological advances added the efforts at the tactical and operational levels, but the distances involved pressed the strategy to its limits. Due to distance, geographic positioning, maintenance, and training cycles, only eight of the 57 U-boats in commission could be engaged in the Atlantic for the first year of the war. The early fall of France and capture of the French ports on the Bay of Biscay provided a significant improvement, both in geographic position as well as the addition of dockyards and repair facilities. Doenitz summed up the strategic value of this gain:

“Before July 1940 the U-boats had to make a voyage of 450 miles through the North Sea and round the north of Great Britain to reach the Atlantic. Now they were saving something like a week on each patrol and were thus able to stay considerably longer in the actual area of operations. This fact, in its turn, added to the total number of U-boats actively engaged against the enemy. It was thanks to these direct efforts of the possession of the Biscay bases….”36

The improvement in position, combined withe the building program, allowed Germany to eventually keep nearly one hundred U-boats at sea.

Control of the Sea

Captain Roskill records that the utter destruction of HX-229 and SC-122 “made a profound impression upon the British Admiralty, which later recorded that ‘the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943.'”37  Yet the German euphoria and Allied dejection would decisively reverse in the subsequent two months as the Allies shifted the balance of power with the introduction of additional long-range aircraft. Roskill recalls,

“[A] sweeping victory was gained in April and May; and of the 56 U-boats sunk in those two months 36 were destroyed by ships and aircraft operating as convoy escorts or in support of convoys. Doenitz thereupon abandoned the battle of the convoy routes. The reason was, so he said, that his losses had increased to about one-third of all the submarines at sea— losses much too high.”38

Doenitz and his submarines would never again gain the upper hand.

The Allies would subsequently introduce greater measures to fight the U-boat menace, including the introduction of the hunter-killer groups like the one that captured U-505. The industrial machine in both Britain and the United States would pick up steam, churning out Liberty ships every 42 days and escorts even more rapidly, turning the tide of the battle through sheer numbers.39 Control of the sea in the Corbettian sense would be achieved, but that control did not mean that hostilities would cease—quite the contrary. Both sides would continue to feed grist to the millstone until the end of the war; each side would lose roughly 30,000 Sailors or airmen.40 Tenuous control at best.

The Battle of the Atlantic contains many more lessons for control of the sea in a war of attrition.41 But the essence of the battle should alert strategists to the necessity of exercises in merging revolutionary technologies into new doctrine and the need to deploy capabilities, not just platforms. Above all, strategists need to know that establishing and maintaining maritime superiority in today’s environment, as in the Battle of the Atlantic, is more than the capacity to destroy the enemy in a fleet action—the Battle of the Atlantic repudiated Mahan. Captain Wayne Hughes provides the simple summation: “Naval battle is attrition centered. Victory by maneuver warfare may work on land but it does not at sea. At sea, first effective attack is the aim of every tactical commander.”42 An enemy can fight a war of attrition at sea, a guerre de course in which he has many advantages and vulnerabilities. Force composition cannot be determined without due regard for the economic implications of the naval role in national strategy. Commanders must continue to innovate, experiment with new technologies, and evolve how they wage war at all levels. Failure to stay abreast of technology or properly incorporate it will engender strategic surprise on the battlefield, thus driving your forces from the sea, or to the bottom of it.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is an Engineering Duty Officer and former submariner. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

1. “Oral History-Battle of the Atlantic. Recollections of Captain Daniel V. Gallery, USN, commander of USS Guadalcanal Task Group concerning the capture of German submarine U-505 on 4 June 1944,” Naval History and Heritage Command, August 2, 2002, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/oral-histories/wwii/recollections-of-captain-daniel-v-gallery.html

2. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1949, p. 529.

3. The Ultra program was the highly secretive cryptanalysis efforts to break German radio encryption. See also “Ultra and the Battle of the Atlantic.” National Security Agency. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/cryptologic-spectrum/assets/files/Ultra.pdf. Accessed on February 6, 2017.

4. Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Boston, MA: De Capo Press, 1997, p. 329.

5. Ibid, p. 4.

6. Ibid, p. 21.

7.  Ibid, p. 22.

8. Ibid, p. 23.

9.  Ibid.

10. Marder, Arthur. “Admiral Sir John Fisher: A Reappraisal.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1942, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1942-03/admiral-sir-john-fisher-reappraisal.

11. Ibid. 

12. See also: Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013 and Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Chapters 2 and 3 of Hughes, in particular, have a concise discussion of this topic.

13. This essay focuses on the development of active sonar, but the list can certainly be expanded to include technological developments on both sides: radio direction finding, acoustic torpedoes, an air induction mast, or snorkel, the mathematically-based attack tactics for bombers and depth charging, and the prodigious industrial efforts of the American shipbuilding industry to churn out the Liberty ships and destroyer escorts. A myriad of resources provide greater information on these individual developments.

14. Sternhell, Charles M. and Alan M. Thorndike. “Antisubmarine Warfare in World War II.” Operations Evaluation Group, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington D.C., 1946, p. 2. 

15. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume I: The Gathering Storm. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1948, pp. 127-8.

16. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

17. Doenitz, p. 23.

18. Churchill, p. 325.

19. See Part II of Sternhell and Thorndike for an excellent exposition on the various scientific approaches to anti-submarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic. This section truly summarizes the first operational application of operations research, at the time a nascent field. See also: Koopman, B. O. Search and Screening: General Principles with Historical Applications. New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1980. Budiansky, Stephen. Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boat and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013.

20. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

21. Churchill, p. 569 and Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 639.

22. Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 23.

23. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I:  The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 33.  

24. Churchill, p. 117.

25. Ibid, p. 361.

26. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Edited by Basil Liddell Hart, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 114-115.

 Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 345.

27. Corbett, Julian S. Principles of Maritime Strategy. Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2004. pp. 102-3.

28.  Ibid, p. 91.

29. Churchill, Volume I, pp. 535-6.

30. Morison, p. 42.

31. Raeder, Erich. Struggle for the Sea. London: William Kimber and Co. Ltd., 1959, p. 128.

32. Ibid, p. 136.

33. Clausewitz, p. 261.

34. Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015, p. 34.

35. See also: Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015. This collection comprises the surviving documents that Doenitz ordered preserved, not destroyed, when he headed the German government at the end of the war. The volume shows the difficulties that the German Navy faced in executing the naval component of German national strategy given Hitler’s general disposition toward ground forces and the influence of Hermann Goering and the German Air Force.

36. Doenitz, p. 112.

37. Ibid, p. 329.

38. Roskill, Stephen. “CAPROS not Convoy: Counterattack and Destroy!” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1956, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1956-10/capros-not-convoy-counterattack-and-destroy.

39. Winston, George. “The Amazing Achievement of Baltimore’s Shipyards: One Liberty Ship Every 42 Days.” War History Online. November 24, 2015. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/military-vehicle-news/baltimores-liberty-ship-legacy.html

40. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 363.

41. See also: Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, pp. 361-4. Here Morison draws conclusions about the American role in the battle, which he generally confines to the development and deployment escort carrier groups. He writes that the British and Canadian forces were on the whole more skilled and experienced than American forces, and that British and Canadian forces did more to contribute to victory in the Atlantic than did the United States. His full conclusions about the battle are worthy fodder for strategists to consider.

42. Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval

Featured Image: Colorized photo of German U-boats. (Public Domain)

Will the Revamped Xiangshan Forum Displace the Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Earlier this year, the author published an analysis comparing and contrasting the 2017 and 2018 Shangri-La Dialogues (SLD) in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes; and more importantly, surmising what message Beijing was trying to convey and assessing what the message portends for the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and the world.

The author posited that Beijing views the SLD as a confrontational international forum used by Washington and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value, but not the overwhelming need, to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept criticism in these forums as a natural outgrowth and accepted cost of its rise as a global power.

That said, Beijing may one day conclude with respect to opportunity cost that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the seemingly biased and fading SLD when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum (XF)? The regional forum is widely regarded in Beijing as an increasingly viable and desirable counter to the SLD. The forum can function as the security component to the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more significantly, an integral part of a strategic agenda (the Chinese Dream) to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one lacking dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect soon a resurgent, revitalized, and revamped XF after an unexpected and self-imposed one-year hiatus. The decision to temporarily suspend the XF is not clear. If indeed Beijing did decide to use the XF in the aforementioned manner, then the pause may be a deliberate structural reset to re-orient itself to a new role.  

None had to wait long. On 30 August, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that the China Association for Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies  will co-host the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum (BXF) in Beijing from 24-28 October, 2018. Therefore, it is useful to examine the “restated” goals and objectives and discuss what it may mean for America, the region, and the international community.  

Restated Goals and Objectives

The theme of this year’s forum is “building a new-type of security and partnership featuring equality, mutual trust, and win-win cooperation.” Participants include defense authorities, military leaders, representatives of international organizations, former military and civilian officials, and scholars from 79 countries. They will meet and discuss ideas for new approaches to international security governance, terrorism threats and countermeasures, prospects for maritime security cooperation, and United Nations peacekeeping operations. Participants will also exchange perspectives during various special sessions and panels on the new dynamics in Northeast Asian security, ways and means of addressing the security issues in the Middle East, military and security confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific, and artificial intelligence and the conduct of warfare. Beijing hopes the forum will “further strengthen strategic dialogue and communications, accumulate consensus, deepen practical cooperation, and find ways to jointly respond to global challenges and jointly maintain peace and stability.”

The theme of the previous 7th Xiangshan Forum held 11-13 October, 2016 was “building a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation.” Participants from around 60 countries discussed the role of militaries in global governance, responses to new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific through cooperation, including maritime security cooperation, and counterterrorism policy. Additional panel discussions included major power relations and global strategic structure, globalization versus deglobalization and the implications for international security, latest developments in terrorism and creative approaches to cooperation, and maritime crisis management and regional stability. Beijing had hoped the forum would “strengthen mutual trust, accumulate consensus, promote regional security cooperation, and jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”

All in all, the language and tone of this new forum is more assertive and forward-leaning than previous forums – reflective of a more confident and insistent China, who seems determined to move forward from Mao’s revolutionary legacy and Deng’s iconic dictum of “hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never ever claim leadership” and now to promote abroad “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era (Xi’s Thoughts).” The plenary and special session topics underscore Beijing’s aspiration to be a respected global leader who has a say (and sway) in world events and issues, and perhaps lay the groundwork to eventually displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation. If so, the forum is a convenient and opportune platform to offer developing countries an alternative economic and political choice of Chinese “benevolent” governance involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances (economic development with supposed political independence). In other words, developing countries in Africa, Central Asia, South Pacific, and South/Central Americas should take heed and carefully consider the Chinese model – a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that feels it does not have to make political accommodations to others.

Of note is the last panel topic on artificial intelligence. There has been plenty of reporting on robust Chinese investment in this emerging technology, particularly in the area of military applications. Some have even speculated that China has already surpassed the United States, and strongly urge Washington to make up for lost ground. If so, could this be Beijing trying to allay these growing concerns? China may be attempting to get ahead of the strategic issue by shaping and influencing international legal frameworks and accepted norms of behavior on the future development, deployment, and employment of artificial intelligence capabilities.

What to Expect

The BRI – Beijing’s trillion-dollar, transcontinental infrastructure enterprise to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing – needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics to guarantee the BRI’s continued expansion and future sustainment. The BXF is that security framework. The forum and the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) promote and advance a new global political, economic, and security order under Beijing’s terms. Together, they constitute a new Chinese strategic approach that calls for the balanced integration of interests. These include long-term overseas economic development and concurrent domestic security reforms intended to safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Hence, in the coming years, expect China to subtly undermine the SLD while incrementally building up the revamped BXF as evident by the new competing theme to that of the extant SLD’s theme of “building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among the region’s most important defense and security policymakers.” The scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. Beijing seems content for now to send a relatively lower rank delegation head to the SLD, limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

This hedging posture may transform over time to more of a balancing one that will directly challenge the SLD for regional preeminence. If so, Beijing will slowly draw down its participation in the SLD, while subtlety pulling away the other participants through a calibrated program of incentive (carrot) and intimidation (stick). First to go will be the regional countries already in China’s growing sphere of influence (Laos, Cambodia), and then other countries within region and the world, possibly similar to how Beijing picks off countries that formally recognize Taipei. Those that are contemplating withdrawal from the SLD may face increasingly forceful political and economic persuasion (coercion) to do so as part of a pressure campaign, while those that will continue to participate in the SLD will receive growing political and economic backlash as part of a retribution campaign. Countries saddled with BRI-related debts will face the most risk, and in time they may be given a stark binary choice – bend toward Beijing’s will or face economic consequences.

Beijing may also establish its own version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise to further advance the security component of the BRI. China and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states held the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (table-top) in Singapore on 2 August, with plans to hold a follow-on field exercise in China involving navies from all the participating countries later in October. If successful, Beijing may make this a recurring exercise and gradually expand its scope, nature, and extent of the exercise to eventually rival that of RIMPAC.

At the end of the day, the strategic conundrum for the United States will be whether or not to participate in the BXF if invited by China. There are two schools of thought on this matter.

Those in favor may argue non-participation would be a miscalculation. By not participating in the BXF, Washington would cede the strategic narrative and initiative to Beijing. Specifically, the United States would yield to China and like-minded nations a public platform to stake out their strategic positions unchallenged; and lose an opportunity to counter Chinese strategic messaging and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

Those not in favor may suggest that in the early years of the BRI, Washington policymakers faced political and economic pressures to join the ambitious Chinese infrastructure project over the worrying prospect of being left behind. Contrary to conventional wisdom at that time, the U.S. government resisted the clarion call and chose not to join. In hindsight, the decision was the correct call given the political and economic difficulties that have emerged from the project. The same logic and rationale should be applied to the BXF. Resist the strong temptation to join in the false hope of changing  or reforming the BXF from within, and instead challenge the forum by continuing to offer countries an alternative security framework (such as the SLD) to accompany the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) economic strategy.

Conclusion

In terms of great power relations Beijing views itself as a destined rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power. And both are seen as being interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global preeminence. In this competition the Chinese BRI and BXF and its opposing counterparts – the FOIP and SLD – are the preeminent and enduring platforms in these contested economic and security battlespaces, respectively. The victor of this great power competition will determine not only the future course of the Indo-Pacific, but perhaps also the world.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: Seventh Xiangshan Forum (South China Morning Post photo).

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.