Hainan’s Maritime Militia: China Builds a Standing Vanguard, Pt. 1

Through the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the authors have just published China Maritime Report No. 1, entitled “China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA.” In it, they propose a more formal term for China’s maritime militia: the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The present article, the first in a three-part conclusion to their  nine-part series on the PAFMM of Hainan Province, will instead use the term “maritime militia” to maintain consistency with all preceding installments and to facilitate discussion of China’s broader militia construction.

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Hainan Province’s unique geography makes its buildup of maritime militia units the spear tip of China’s prosecution of gray zone operations in the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force whose leading units are lauded as models for other localities to emulate. This series has therefore examined Hainan’s leading maritime militia units, located in Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen (in parts one and two), and Sansha. To understand these grassroots units and their development, it has delved deeply into their respective local environments. Having examined these leading entities in depth, it is time to take a province-wide look at larger policy processes and trends in implementation. This installment will also examine the intentions of China’s leaders to construct new elite militia units tailored to meet heightened requirements in China’s armed forces. This new type of front-line militia will serve as a standing force for more regular employment in support of China’s objectives at sea. Part 1 of this final series will therefore explore maritime militia building in a more systemic organizational context, chiefly at the Provincial Military District level; while Part 2 will address specific challenges and how they are managed. Part 3 will conclude this series by appraising the results of Hainan’s maritime militia construction effort and discussing some additional dynamics at play in the provinces. This first part will thus start by probing how a frontier province like Hainan responds to national level militia building initiatives and the measures taken by provincial leaders to oversee its implementation.

China’s national defense system is divided geographically into Theater Commands, previously termed Military Regions. Each Theater Command contains several Provincial Military Districts (MD), where the militia’s direct chain of command begins. As each province is divided into municipalities, each MD is divided into multiple Military Sub-districts (MSD); within each are numerous county-level and grassroots People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). County-level PAFDs are staffed by active-duty personnel while the grassroots PAFDs are non-active duty organizations staffed by “full-time people’s armed forces cadres” (专职人民武装干部) who represent the direct interface between the militia and the PLA chain of command. Each MD oversees the militia work conducted by the MSDs and PAFDs within its area of responsibility.

Local governments provide funding and support while local military commands assume the bulk of responsibilities in maritime militia organization, training, and command. Government agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) assist with aspects of maritime militia building pertaining to their bureaucratic functions, such as training in search and rescue and instruction on maritime law and regulations relevant to their operations.

The National Environment in Which Hainan Province and Its Militia Operate

Propelled by strategies and policies at the national and provincial levels, China’s Maritime Militia continues to grow and develop robustly. Many PLA and government leaders from all levels have some understanding or experience in building or working with the militia as an official component of China’s armed forces. Leaders from the top echelons of Central Military Commission (CMC), Party, and State leadership; as well as leaders of the PLA services, military regions, and provincial MDs; all attended the last National Militia Work Conference held in Beijing on 15 December 2011, a meeting to establish guidelines for nationwide militia work. President Xi Jinping himself likely became intimately familiar with the militia system during his career, particularly as the former deputy director of the Nanjing Military Region National Defense Mobilization Committee from 2000 to 2003. Overall militia policy is first set in Beijing and implemented through the principal civilian and military leaders of the provinces and counties via a dual leadership system of militia work (民兵工作双重领导制度). The militia itself represents an important personnel-centric line of effort in China’s Military-Civilian Fusion concept, recently elevated to a “national strategy.”

Ongoing PLA reforms mandate a reduction in militia personnel nationwide, continuing a trend of replacing outdated infantry militia units with technically capable militia more suited to supporting each of the PLA services in modern, informatized warfare. Maritime militia, meanwhile, are growing in proportion to their land-based counterparts as China prepares for “maritime military struggle,” as highlighted in its 2015 Defense White Paper. This seaward shift is materializing in national-level militia policy as well as in actual militia unit construction. Coastal cities like Shanghai and Beihai have all reported increased maritime militia growth. However, as China’s southernmost province tasked with administering all of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hainan bears commensurately large expense for border and coastal defense militia construction.

PLA reforms have also modified management of the MD system by splitting the former General Staff Department (GSD) into several new departments, one of which is the new Central Military Commission-level National Defense Mobilization Department (CMC-NDMD). Already deemed to be in “post-transfer” (转隶后) status by China’s military press, the MD system is now managed by the CMC-NDMD, relieving Theater Commands of many administrative burdens, including the supervision of militia work in the provinces. Discussion in the PLA over the exact role of Theater Commands in the development of national defense mobilization capabilities appears to be ongoing, indicating that the exact relationship between Theater and MD commands in the building and management of reserves has yet to be clarified. Huang Xiangliang, director of the National Defense Reserve Force Department of the Nanjing Army Command College, explains how the PLA reforms strengthened “centralized strategic-level leadership over the nation’s militia and reserves” by directly connecting MDs to the CMC. As the reserves diversify to meet the demands of each PLA service, Huang elaborates, those “services will put forward their requirements for the reserves, which will then be organized, trained, and supported by each level of the MD system.” For the maritime militia, this will entail greater numbers of specialized units trained to support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations.

Statements and policies guiding maritime militia construction are emerging from the CMC-NDMD. During a March 2016 interview, the newly promoted head of the CMC-NDMD Lieutenant General Sheng Bin confirmed the prominence afforded maritime militia building in the 13th Five Year Plan. China, he declared, will “adjust and optimize the scale, structure and layout of its militia and reserves, emphasizing construction of the maritime militia, coastal defense militia, emergency response militia, and new types of reserves.” Indeed, the Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan emphasizes strengthening the reserves and “maritime mobilization forces” in particular. On 28 July 2016, the head of the CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Department, Major General Wang Wenqing, also gave public guidance for solving common issues in maritime militia building.

Implementation is progressing apace. As CMC-NDMD Deputy Head Major General Hu Yishu describes in an October 2016 article in China’s Militia, a PLA Daily publication guiding national militia work, that revisions are underway on the nation’s Guidance Law for Maritime Militia and Border Defense Militia Military Training Work. This will regulate the tactics and training methods for “maritime militia participating in rights protection actions and support for PLAN actions.” With significant PLAN South Sea Fleet presence, the Hainan MD will likely see greater demand for maritime militia units configured to support PLAN operations in the South China Sea.

The Provincial Command

The Hainan MD’s military leadership published extensive articles in late 2015 comprehensively outlining missions, organization, training, and other aspects of Hainan’s maritime militia development and operations. The writings, by MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin and MD Commander Major General Zhang Jian respectively, appeared in National Defense, a domestically-oriented journal sponsored by the PLA Academy of Military Science. They reveal much about how the Hainan MD envisions and plans to execute national militia guidelines to help operationalize Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. Essential to directing a province’s construction of its maritime militia, such leaders directly promulgate militia construction requirements to their civilian government counterparts. The works of Liu and Zhang thus warrant close examination.

Invoking Chairman Xi’s and the Central Party’s guidance on maritime militia building and “strategically managing the ocean,” Political Commissar Liu Xin focuses on the role of the maritime militia in “maritime rights protection” (efforts to uphold and enforce China’s maritime claims). Liu explains how drawing in the people, especially fishermen, will help give China freedom of action—and the initiative—in maritime rights protection. According to Liu, the bulk of the maritime militia force will comprise the province’s original units, but will be led by newly created emergency response units with “new types” of maritime militia as the core. Evaluations will be strengthened to ensure there is a core force of “new-type fishing vessels” and “elite standing maritime militia emergency response units.” They must “be able to respond when called upon and win emergency maritime rights protection wars of initiative” (打赢海上应急维权主动仗). Liu’s remarks reflect a combination of higher combat readiness levels for emergency response units—i.e., the elite units—and the more regular rights protection roles of the majority of maritime militia units.

News reports state that Liu lead a new initiative in early 2016 to promulgate policies and plans for maritime militia organization and involvement in rights protection. Under his lead, the province passed the 13th Five Year Plan on Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia Construction,” providing systematic planning for missions; as well as guidelines, requirements, and measures for maritime militia building. Liu reportedly devoted great time and effort to key maritime militia construction issues, visiting numerous islands and reefs in the process. He was also reported to have been personally involved in multiple joint training events with active duty forces, emergency response plan drafting, and the strengthening of over ten maritime militia emergency response detachments. He also spent time working with local governments, ensuring that such pressing issues as expenditures and maritime militia base construction were included in their military affairs meetings.

Hainan MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin (center) and Sansha Garrison Political Commissar Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi (left) inspect one of Sansha City’s new “militia fishing vessels.”

Writing in more operational terms, MD Commander Zhang Jian explains how to increase the professionalization of maritime militia personnel and vessels. According to Commander Zhang, ships must be large-tonnage, high-speed, seaworthy steel-hulled fishing vessels strong enough to withstand collisions. These vessels should be drawn from fishing enterprises and cooperatives whose vessels frequent the sea areas in which their services are required for missions, as well as those vessels whose crews have previous experience engaging in rights protection. Furthermore, material and equipment are allocated according to the requirements of maritime rights protection and naval combat support, including communications and reconnaissance equipment and “defensive combat weaponry.” Personnel from different specialties should be grouped in units according to the following formulation: “Recruit experienced fishermen to serve as vessel operators as well as military personnel and veterans with maritime specialties to be core combatants; and select People’s Armed Forces cadres with maritime rights protection experience and medical staff with at-sea experience to be command and support personnel [respectively].” This implies that a mixture of personnel may crew maritime militia vessels, as embodied in the widespread phrase “determine troops based on the vessel” (以船定兵) for maritime militia organization. This style of organization could also conceivably be tailored to different missions. This is echoed in other provinces as well, such as Liu Xuan, head of the Shuidong Township PAFD in Guangdong Province. He stated in early 2016, “next year we will take in even more experienced and hardened fishermen with good work ethics, bolster them with primary militiamen, and hold targeted training in the subjects of maritime rights protection and war time support.” Liu Xuan’s statement indicates that formerly land-based coastal militia may also be assigned to maritime militia vessels. This demonstrates how local military commands are mobilizing current resources in varying ways to produce stronger maritime militia forces.

Commander Zhang stipulates three types of operations for the maritime militia:

  1. Their use as “civilians against civilians for regular demonstration of rights” (以民对民常态示权). The government will take the lead in implementing command and organizing maritime militia to fish in even the more remote waters (within the Near Seas) with greater organization and scale. This ensures that a certain number of China’s fishing vessels are present in “China’s waters” at any given time, achieving regular presence and declaration of sovereignty. Maritime militia are to be summoned immediately when foreign civilian vessels from neighboring countries are found encroaching on fishing rights or disrupting Chinese development of islands and reefs, resource extraction, or scientific surveys. Such civilian countermeasures against other civilians are envisioned to gain the initiative rapidly.
  2. Their use in “special cases of rights protection by using civilians in cooperation with law enforcement” (以民协警察专项维权). Maritime militia will “receive orders” from their command to conduct special rights protection missions when neighboring countries violate China’s maritime rights and interests and when China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) requires their assistance. This often entails the combining of maritime militia and MLE forces to form a joint law enforcement force, whereby the militia participate directly in rights protection law enforcement actions by supplementing MLE forces. In these actions, together with MLE forces, maritime militia primarily conduct perimeter patrol (外围巡逻), sea area control (海区封控), alerting and expulsion (警戒驱离), confrontation (海上对峙), and combining to push back (合力逼退) foreign vessels.
  3. “Participation in combat and support-the-front by using civilians to support the military” (以民援军参战支前). When a maritime armed conflict or maritime local war erupts, coastal cities and counties will organize their maritime militia to participate in combat and support-the-front operations, exploiting numerical advantages in personnel and vessels, as well as their familiarity with the seas, islands, and reefs. Units will conduct transport, supply, rescue, repair, and medical support in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) and on front-line islands, reefs, and mission areas. Meanwhile, maritime militia will assume direct combat support by coordinating with maritime combat forces to conduct reconnaissance, sentry duty, and guarding against surprise attacks.

The Hainan MD leadership emphasizes that Hainan’s maritime militia forces contain a core set of more professional units with higher levels of readiness, ensuring that militia forces can mobilize rapidly out to sea. These points echo the call to action by Major General Wang Wenqing, head of CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Bureau, for resolving issues involving maritime militia construction nationwide. He affirmed the emphasis on an elite standing force of maritime militia composed of captains, engineers, and veterans operating year-round. These are the elite front line units that are most likely entrusted with sensitive missions involving foreign vessels, such as potential interference in future U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and routine operations; as well as the disruption and attempted sabotage of foreign survey vessels.

Joint Military-Law Enforcement-Civilian Defense (军警民联防)

The National Border and Coastal Defense Conference, last held in Beijing on 27 June 2014, provides guidance for the Border and Coastal Defense Committees (BCDC) established to coordinate defense of territorial sovereignty, protect maritime rights and interests, and ensure border security. Organized in a similar fashion as the mobilization work of China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee System, the BCDC system assembles leaders and staff at each level of government and military command into a single body for planning border and coastal defense work. President Xi Jinping stated in the 2014 meeting that China’s border and coastal defense will “wield the features and advantages of joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense” (发挥军警民联防的特色和优势). Also contained in China’s defense white papers, such as the 2013 Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, and featured frequently in Chinese reporting on the militia, this operational concept has been a part of China’s coastal defense system since the PRC’s founding. It is the primary means for the militia to participate in combat readiness for coastal defense. It entails the mobilization and integration of the various military, law enforcement, militia, and societal forces into a joint defense force.  

Today, Hainan Province is actively implementing this joint defense concept. The joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense concept is also often referred to as the “three lines,” with the maritime militia constituting the front line, backed up by a second line of CCG and a third line of PLAN forces. The Hainan MD has reportedly held workshops and major exercises with active duty forces since 2013 to determine campaign and tactical guidance for the maritime militia. Located in a key maritime frontier province, the Hainan MD is continually working alongside the PLAN and CCG to fine-tune its joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense through large-scale exercises.

Provincial Implementation

Following the 2011 National Militia Work Conference, Hainan began a pilot project for maritime militia development in February 2012. The Hainan MD sent research groups to study grassroots maritime militia organizations, gaining better understanding of the force through meetings with unit leaders. On 20 September 2012, the Hainan Province Party Chief and Hainan MD First Party Secretary Luo Baoming launched a Provincial Committee Military Affairs Meeting on the subject of “Advancing to a New Level Party Control of the Military and Construction of National Defense Reserves in Preparation for Military Struggle in the South China Sea.” As Hainan Party Secretary since August 2011, Luo has been a champion of maritime militia building, instructing during a 2015 Provincial MD Conference on Maritime Defense Work that the province “expend great effort to strengthen maritime defense construction focusing on maritime militia.” While Luo was in Beijing in March 2016 working on his province’s 13th Five Year Plan, a Reuters reporter raised the topic of Hainanese fishermen acting as militia. Denying nothing, Luo stated publicly that the fishermen in his province participate in the protection of maritime rights and interests, and undergo training in self-defense. Meanwhile, other influential voices in the province, such as former head of the Provincial Government Center for Social and Economic Development Research Liao Xun, were emphasizing the role of the maritime militia in their writings.

Provincial civilian and military leaders were busy crafting policies and plans for bolstering the maritime militia, releasing the “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2013. This also resulted in an official “Notice on Further Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” released by the Hainan Provincial National Defense Mobilization Committee. These two official documents stipulated manifold requirements for the 2013 annual reorganization of the militia force guided by the MD and executed by counties. This annual reorganization process is conducted to implement reforms and correct outstanding issues in militia organizations. The documents also required that provincial and county governments split the cost of maritime militia construction. By the end of 2013, the province added 28 maritime militia companies with 2,328 personnel and 186 vessels to its maritime militia force.

In early 2014, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee, the State Council-level coordinating body, hosted a symposium in Hainan entitled “Maritime Mobilization 1312” to ensure that each level of Hainan’s government focused on maritime militia development. The meeting featured maritime rights protection demonstration events in Tanmen Township’s harbor and also established a leading small group to coordinate the province’s maritime militia construction, headed by Provincial Deputy Party Secretary Li Xiansheng. National directives likely bolstered maritime militia readiness in the province, preparing them for the province-wide mobilization of maritime militia to defend the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014.

According to Political Commissar Liu, Hainan will develop its maritime militia in three phases. The first phase entails finding the proper regulations through pilot projects, research and discussion of tactics, and at-sea testing. The second phase will focus on increasing capabilities through intensified training of the new, elite maritime militia and improving its support system. There should also be further testing and evaluation to ensure that the maritime militia are readily available and operationally effective. The third phase will focus on the “regular use” of the maritime militia (mechanisms for enduring maritime militia organization and employment). This effort will integrate units into the “three lines” joint rights protection system and increase their ability to regularly conduct reconnaissance and escort support missions in relatively “remote waters” (within the Near Seas). Progress to date in Hainan’s maritime militia forces suggests that they may have begun phase one after the 2011 National Militia Work Conference; and entered phase two with the development of a core force of maritime militia, through the introduction of increasingly capable vessels, communications equipment, and joint training. Looking forward, increased maritime militia presence in the Spratlys may also be an indicator of advancing progress in phase three.

Since militia building must proceed in accordance with local conditions, different provinces may exhibit distinct practices in organizing their maritime militia forces. Reflecting their large marine economies, Hainan and Guangdong provinces have signed cooperation agreements involving many fields of social and economic development. During the recent meetings to deepen cross-provincial cooperation in September 2015, Hainan Party Secretary Luo made several proposals for the two provinces. These included cooperation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, marine science and technical research, maritime joint rescue, rights protection and law enforcement, and—most pertinent to this article—maritime militia construction. It remains unclear if the provinces have fostered some form of cooperation regarding their respective maritime militia forces. In October 2015, however, Sansha City mayor Xiao Jie hosted a forum to consult with Guangdong- and Guangxi-based fishing companies on the development of Sansha’s marine fishing industry, including the Sansha Fisheries Development Company, a state-owned maritime militia organization. Cooperation in maritime rights protection efforts was one of Xiao’s key points to Guangdong and Guangxi fishing companies, suggesting that Party Secretary Luo’s provincial maritime militia cooperation initiative may have gained traction rapidly.

This image from the August 2014 edition of National Defense shows former director of Sanya City’s National Defense Mobilization Committee and city mayor Wang Yong visiting (看望) the maritime militia.

Despite apparent enthusiasm within Hainan’s leadership, however, there appear to be broader concerns about the lack of initiative shown by local governments across China in building the militia, centering on the “separation between construction and use” (建用分离). With little prospect for utilizing reserve forces, local governments may show less enthusiasm for supporting their construction. For example, the Lingshui County Government leadership used to avoid meeting its military counterparts, which previously consumed money and materials without providing reliable troops to respond in emergencies. Having the militia serve as a source of manpower during emergencies and disasters helps rectify this discrepancy, as encapsulated in the oft-used slogan “a reserve force that responds in times of war and emergencies” (一支战时应战、平时应急的后备力量).

The Tanmen Maritime Militia, for instance, is lauded for its daring rescues of mariners in distress over the years, providing an organic emergency response force that is most familiar with local marine conditions. A recent example was when the Sansha Maritime Militia was mobilized when a Hainanese fishing vessel ran aground near Fiery Cross Reef on 28 February 2017. Having received numerous distress calls, the Sansha Maritime Militia mobilized one of its vessels, Qiongsanshayu 000312, to attempt a rescue. However, shallow waters and poor weather conditions prevented them from getting close enough. After two days of standing by, a nearby PLAN helicopter flew in to evacuate the stranded fishermen.

Maritime militia play a significant role in responding to emergencies, helping local governments with search and rescue and disaster relief. When PLAN aviator Wang Wei went down in waters 70 miles south of Hainan after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane in 2001, Hainan’s fishing fleet and militia contributed notably to the search effort. Sanya City alone organized over 500 fishing vessels to search at sea while more than 4,000 people and militia scoured the coast for Wang. Sanya’s PAFD Head Zhou Naiwu also ordered the Tianya Maritime Militia Rapid Response Unit out to sea to join the effort. Other neighboring localities involved included Ledong Autonomous County, which dispatched hundreds of fishing vessels and over 3,000 cadres, militia, and fishermen. That event demonstrates direct support by local government-built militia forces for national military objectives. Today, increasingly capable maritime militia forces can more effectively assist local governments and military organs in responding to future emergencies at sea.

July 2015: A maritime militia company from Chengmai County conducts “near seas” training. A banner declaring in Chinese and Vietnamese China’s maritime jurisdiction, likely in the Gulf of Tonkin, is hung across the port side of the vessel’s house. (Chengmai County Government Website)

Conclusion: Trolling Together for Sovereignty Claims

A confluence of national strategy, structural reforms, and development plans has informed China’s future national militia development, giving increased prominence to the maritime militia. The front-line maritime militia units documented throughout this series have developed and operated within the Hainan MD’s evolving reserve force structure and PLA chain of command. As such, Hainan’s principal military and civilian leaders have critically shaped maritime militia force development, and continue to do so. Part 1 of this series has illustrated how national-level guidance has resulted in actual implementation in China’s key maritime frontier province, and how the Hainan MD leadership envisions the construction and use of maritime militia under its jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Additionally, while fishermen constitute a core body of personnel to operate maritime militia vessels, there may also be a variety of other personnel aboard to fulfill other functions within their units. Part 2 will address specific policy implementation to date, and how Hainanese officials are working to manage challenges in maritime militia development to achieve further progress. Part 3 will evaluate the results of Hainan Province’s maritime militia construction and suggest corresponding implications. Due to the varying economic conditions and geographies among the provinces, understanding how MD leaders execute maritime militia force planning, construction, training, and utilization can help to anticipate the extent and limits of Chinese Maritime Militia capabilities at sea.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: June 2013 Sansha Maritime Militia personnel were sent to a militia training base on Hainan Island to receive a week of intensive training by the Hainan Provincial Military District, including weapons training as shown in this photo.

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Maritime Civil Affairs

The following article originally featured on Small Wars Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Paul W. Taylor

“We will look for new ways to enhance relationships and form partnerships with traditional and nontraditional maritime partners who share a stake in international commerce, safety, security, and freedom of the seas.”[i]

In March 2015, the Sea Services (the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) jointly published an updated version of their Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21), which “affirmed our focus on providing presence around the world in order to ensure stability, build on our relationships with allies and partners, prevent wars, and provide our Nation’s leaders with options in times of crisis.”[ii]

This strategy repeatedly emphasizes the role of partnerships in projecting American influence, gaining access, building security, and protecting and promoting trade.[iii]  Such partnerships are in fact necessary to both of the two “foundational principles” upon which the CS-21 is built: that “U.S. forward naval presence is essential to accomplishing the … naval missions derived from national guidance” and that “naval forces are stronger when we operate jointly and together with allies and partners.”[iv] But development of partnerships (even primarily military partnerships) often requires and nearly always benefits from engagement with non-military partner nation organizations. And this is the bailiwick of civil affairs (CA) forces, an area in which the U.S. Navy is particularly weak.

The Problem

While each military service is required to maintain a civil affairs capability,[v] the US Navy recently divested itself of its only civil affairs capability, the Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command (MCAST).[vi] This policy required each of the Services to maintain civil affairs capabilities and directed the Secretary of the Navy to “provide for civil affairs personnel and units in the Navy and Marine Corps military force structure.” While it may be disputable whether the structure of MCAST (a headquarters that would assemble CA teams when requested) fully satisfied the formal requirement for civil affairs units, it did provide a niche capability that was in clearly in demand by the Geographic Combatant Commands, particularly SOUTHCOM, AFRICOM, and PACOM. Its participation in efforts like Community Watch on the Water—a campaign conducted in collaboration with the Kenyan government, local law enforcement, and local citizens to build trust and reduce crime and violent extremism[vii]—proved its value as a member of the civil affairs community despite its small size and short lifespan.

It appears that the Navy’s current position is that while it fully supports the Joint Staff effort to ensure adequate maritime civil affairs capabilities in order to shape the security environment and promote global prosperity, instead of having standing general-purpose civil affairs capability, Navy maritime civil affairs capabilities are available through the existing Request For Forces (RFF) process once a specific maritime need is identified. Assuming that an RFF adequately identifies the desired expertise, the Navy will provide an adaptive force package to meet the maritime civil affairs requirements detailed in the request.

But implicit in this policy is that the Navy will provide maritime-specific civil affairs capabilities rather than generalized civil affairs capabilities, such as those found in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Thus, in order to support the Navy position on civil affairs, some definition of maritime civil affairs is required. However, to date, no comprehensive definition or description of maritime civil affairs has been promulgated by the Navy, in joint doctrine, or in Department of Defense policy guidance.[viii] Without such a definition, it is impossible to assess whether the Navy is achieving the standards it has set for itself, or to inform the other services and interagency partners what support they may be able to expect.

The following paragraphs approach this issue from several directions, first by simply “marinizing” the joint doctrine definition of civil affairs, next by exploring the mission sets which would most likely require some form of maritime civil affairs, and lastly by looking at some of the maritime skill sets that may be required in civil affairs missions. These aspects, taken together, will form the basis of an improved understanding of this little-understood military specialty.

Defining Maritime Civil Affairs

A basic approach to developing a definition or description of maritime civil affairs is by asking what is “maritime” about it. Civil Affairs in the general sense is defined as:

“Those military operations conducted by civil affairs forces that enhance the relationship between military forces and civil authorities in localities where military forces are present; require interaction and consultation with other interagency organizations, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, indigenous populations and institutions, and the private sector; and involve application of functional specialty skills that normally are the responsibility of civil government to enhance the conduct of civil-military operations.” (JP 1-02)

Simple “marinization” of this definition would be the easiest method of developing a definition of maritime civil affairs. According to this method the definition of maritime civil affairs would be something like:

“Those military operations that enhance the relationship between military forces and civil authorities in localities where maritime forces are present; require interaction and consultation with other maritime interagency, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations; indigenous maritime populations and institutions; and the maritime private sector; and which involve application of maritime functional skills to problems that normally are the responsibility of civil government to enhance the conduct of civil-military operations.”

This definition may be passable for doctrinal purposes, but standing on its own it would not answer many of the fundamental questions: which civil authorities are maritime? What populations are considered maritime? What is the maritime private sector? Answering these questions is the much harder part of developing a workable understanding of “maritime civil affairs.”

Maritime Civil Affairs Missions

A fact sheet from the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) described MCA as “an enabling force working directly with the civil authorities and civilian populations within a Combatant Commander’s maritime area of operations to lessen the impact of military operations imposed during peacetime, contingency operations, and periods of declared war.”[ix]

One method of developing a definition or description of maritime civil affairs is to identify types of missions that would require civil affairs that are unique to the maritime domain or by their nature require naval personnel. In this vein, maritime civil affairs missions can be categorized in three ways: missions that require a good grasp of maritime culture; missions that require a good grasp of the maritime environment; and missions that require a good grasp of the U.S. Navy’s unique organizational culture and capabilities.

The first category, grasp of maritime culture, includes qualities such as the ability to engage with maritime professionals and industry; understanding the risks and rewards of maritime life and livelihood; grasping the “dual pattern of life” characteristic of seafaring professions; and being conversant in maritime legal issues such as exclusive economic zone management, sovereign rights and responsibilities in the maritime domain, and freedom of navigation.

The second category highlights the unique characteristics of the maritime environment. Civil affairs practitioners operating in the maritime domain must have a clear understanding of maritime resources, such as natural and man-made harbors, fisheries, seabed resources, aquaculture resources; maritime economy and infrastructure, such as ports, harbors, fishing, undersea resource extraction, aquaculture, channel and lock usage and maintenance, and the riparian economy; and threats and opportunities in the maritime environment, including severe weather, the water-dominated environment, piracy, sea fauna. Performing standard CA activities such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and population and resources control take on additional planning, training and resourcing considerations to address the challenges presented by operating in the maritime domain.

Missions requiring a depth of understanding of the Navy’s unique organizational culture and capabilities include naval operations that may require civil affairs capabilities, whether specialized or general. These requirements are often seen in requests by Naval Special Warfare Command and Construction Battalion (Seabees) requests for CA augmentation or CA training. Civil affairs capabilities would also be greatly beneficial for missions requiring sustained interaction with ports and fishing communities, especially those close to congested sea lanes. Lastly, some landward missions may require an understanding of USN resources and culture. 

While some of these requirements may be sufficiently satisfied by U.S. Army or Marine Corps civil affairs personnel who receive specialized pre-deployment training, the number of requests for maritime specialization will likely far outstrip the availability achieved through this method.

Maritime Civil Affairs Functional Areas

One major shortcoming of MCAST, which likely contributed to its demise, was its failure to distinguish itself from the capabilities provided by other services. Available sources on MCAST’s civil affairs capabilities do little to explain what MCAST provided that an Army civil affairs team would not. However, focusing on functional specializations, in addition to better aligning with the Navy position, will help to elucidate what it different about maritime civil affairs, and what benefits a Maritime Civil Affairs Team (MCAT) might provide to a combatant commander.

Whereas CA generalists work to reduce “civilian interference with military operations, [mobilize] civilian resources to support military operations, and [conduct] humanitarian operations,” CA functional specialists provide specific expertise in civilian subject matter areas, typically to assist in the protection and reconstruction of civilian systems, infrastructure, and ministries, or to support niche requirements for civil-military teaming.[x]

The sixteen joint civil affairs functions provided in Joint Publication 3-57, Civil-Military Operations are food and agriculture, economic development, civilian supply, emergency services, environmental management, cultural relations, civil information, dislocated civilians, public administration, public education, public safety, international and domestic law, public health, public transportation, public works and utilities, and public communications.

None of these areas are explicitly maritime in character, but most if not all can be conducted in the maritime domain. Furthermore, the difference in the operating environment constitutes a different problem set from that faced by land forces. For example, food and agriculture in the maritime domain includes such activities as fisheries and aquaculture, economic development at sea can range from shipping to undersea extractive industry, emergency services such as search and rescue and tsunami warning systems are constant demands, environmental management is required to protect sensitive ecosystems at sea and riparian areas from military operations and poorly regulated economic activity. Additionally maritime-specific forms of international and domestic law, public health and safety, transportation and public works and utilities all exist, all of which makes for a credible implication that a generalist in maritime civil affairs may be needed.

But focusing on the more specialized functional areas, a 2007 brief from the commander of the Maritime Civil Affairs Group (MCAG), a predecessor to MCAST, stated that in addition to the sixteen joint CA functions, the functional areas of MCA include port operations, marine resources, harbor and channel construction and maintenance, and fisheries.[xi]

Based on the above mission sets and the operational role of CA officers, we can identify some basic knowledge and skill sets required for maritime civil affairs, which may provide the basis for functional specializations:

  • Protection of the maritime environment;
  • Operation and maintenance of ports, harbors and waterways;
  • Governance of maritime environments, industry, and resources; and
  • Maritime law enforcement, security, and safety, including migration control.

Each of these functional areas overlaps to a significant degree, but no more so than many of the joint civil affairs functions listed in JP 3-57. Nor is this overlap necessarily a drawback, given the interconnectedness of governance issues in any reasonably well-defined domain. Indeed, each of these areas is also interconnected with land-based civil affairs areas. For example, watershed and water table management would be a necessary component of both food and agriculture and environmental management joint functional areas, but would immediately impact protection of the maritime environment as both are part of the same hydrologic cycle. Similarly, the operation and maintenance of ports, harbors and waterways would tie directly into the public transportation joint functional area in particular, but also most other functional areas as well.

Recommended Changes to Navy Policy

Maritime civil affairs capabilities can play an important supporting role in in overseas operations of all types, from humanitarian aid and disaster relief to major combat operations. MCAST proved this in its operations ranging across South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Maritime civil affairs, especially when partnered with its more traditional land-based counterpart, can enhance the effectiveness of military operations through engagement with civil components of the maritime environment and providing civil information management for use in planning in all operational phases.

But the Navy’s current plan for providing these requirements is not workable. That its role spans the breadth of the conflict spectrum, and its required skill sets are difficult to build (or to identify within the resident force), suggests that ad hoc measures to develop “tailored” civil affairs capabilities to a given operational requirement will result in capabilities being provided too little and/or too late.

Additionally, this assumes that combatant commanders know that the ad hoc capability is available to them. However, given the sharp decline in requests for Navy CA capabilities following the disestablishment of MCAST, this is very unlikely. Instead, anecdotal evidence suggests that combatant commanders have shifted their requests for maritime CA capabilities primarily to the US Army.

The CS-21 states that the Navy will “take advantage of adaptive force packages to enable persistent engagements that build the capacity of allies and partners to respond to future crises.”[xii] Civil affairs capabilities are an important tool to add to this toolbox, whether as part of a maritime component theater engagement effort or as a part of a joint contingency operation.

While the Navy position is relatively clear that maritime CA is not envisioned as the province of a generalist, but is a relatively narrow functional specialization, the third mission area listed above implies a generalized maritime CA requirement. This does not necessarily mean that the Navy should produce true “generalists” in civil affairs. Instead the same effect could be  provided in several ways. One is by ensuring that the training provided to maritime functional area specialists includes a portion designed to ensure that they are able to integrate not only into maritime civil-military operations planning teams, but those operating in multi-domain environments as well. This is something that should be done in any event, since few missions requiring civil affairs capabilities will be purely maritime.

A second method would be for the Navy to provide “generalists” in maritime civil affairs, with some training in all functional areas, but focusing on maritime functional areas. In this sense, there would be only one “specialization” in maritime civil affairs writ large, even as individual practitioners would naturally be more skilled in one or two specific functional areas. This option would comport best with the Navy’s general approach to officer professional development practices, which favors generalization and broad professional communities that are then further narrowed as one drills down into the specifics.

In either case, without some standing method of generating maritime civil affairs practitioners, there is little hope that the demand for maritime civil affairs will ever be satisfied. There are multiple ways of achieving such a capability at relatively little cost. For example, SeaBees seeking civil affairs capabilities are regularly admitted to the U.S. Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School (CMOS). An agreement could likely be reached with relatively little effort to set aside a certain number of seats at CMOS for Navy personnel. This, combined with a course (likely also hosted at CMOS) on the maritime functional areas, would generate maritime civil affairs practitioners at very little cost to the Navy.  A similar partnership may be possible with the U.S. Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard does not practice “civil affairs,” many of its international training activities closely parallel many of the maritime civil areas functional areas discussed above.

Conclusion

Maritime civil affairs capabilities play an important supporting role in in overseas operations. However, without an established method of generating maritime civil affairs practitioners, the demand for maritime civil affairs will never be adequately satisfied. However the result is achieved, the U.S. Navy should seriously consider developing a true maritime civil affairs capability, not only because it is required by Department of Defense policy, but more so because the evident demand for such a capability on the part of the combatant commands and the clear benefits that such a capability provides for the Navy’s own strategic ends to “defend the homeland, deter conflict, respond to crises, defeat aggression, protect the maritime commons, strengthen partnerships, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”[xiii]

Paul W. Taylor is an enlisted Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, now providing support to the US Navy as a defense policy and strategy analyst in maritime irregular warfare at the Pentagon. Paul holds a JD and MA from Seton Hall University, where he focused on security and rule of law issues.

The views presented here are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Endnotes

[i] Statement 0f Rear Admiral Kevin Donegan U.S. Navy Deputy Chief Of Naval Operations For Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5) – Acting and Major General Andrew W. O’Donnell, Jr. U.S. Marine Corps Assistant Deputy Commandant, Combat Development and Integration before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection of Forces of The House Armed Services Committee and the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, 18 March 2015.

[ii] Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (March 2015) (hereinafter CS-21).

[iii] E.g., “By expanding our network of allies and partners and improving our ability to operate alongside them, naval forces: foster the secure environment essential to an open economic system based on the free flow of goods, protect U.S. natural resources, promote stability, deter conflict, and respond to aggression.” CS-21

[iv] CS-21

[v] “It is [Department of Defense] policy that the DOD must maintain a capability to conduct a broad range of civil affairs operations necessary to support DOD missions and to meet DOD Component responsibilities to the civilian sector across the range of military operations.” (DOD Directive 2000.13, March 11, 2014)

[vi] instruction disestablishing MCAST; Navy Disestablishes MCAST, USN press release, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=81067 (accessed 9/26/2016).

[vii] MCAT 205 Keeping Partnerships with Kenyans Alive, USN press release, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=54803 (accessed 9/26/2016).

[viii] Joint Publication 3-57, Civil-Military Operations discussion on the Navy contribution to civil-military operations largely resorts to describing the capabilities of the now-disbanded Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command.

[ix] Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, Public Affairs. Apr 2010. Fact Sheet. Subject: NECC Force Capabilities.

[x] COL Dennis Edwards, US Army War College, 2012, www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA560775

[xi] Vera Zakem and Emily Mushen, Charting the Course for Civil Affairs in the New Normal , July 2015, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/COP-2015-U-010995.pdf (accessed 26 September 2016); see also Rosemary Speers, Ph.D., Shaping the Future of Maritime Civil Affairs: Lessons Learned from the Maritime Civil Affairs Teams: 2006-2014, http://www.faoa.org/Resources/Documents/2-Speers%20Maritime%20Civil%20Affairs%2014%20Nov%2014.pdf (accessed 26 September 2016).

[xii] CS-21R

[xiii] CS-21

Featured Image: TRUJILLO, Honduras (Feb. 23, 2017) Lt. Lisa Daily, assigned to Naval Branch Health Clinic Kings Bay, Ga., demonstrates stretches and exercises during a physical therapy session at the Continuing Promise 2017 (CP-17) medical site in Trujillo, Honduras. CP-17 is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian assistance, training engagements, medical, dental, and veterinary support in an effort to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America. (U.S. Navy Combat Camera photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni/Released)

Sea Control 130 – Stephen Biddle on Future Warfare in the Western Pacific

By Matt Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Professor Steve Biddle of George Washington University. Hosted by Mina Pollmann, the conversation examines the competition between A2/AD technology and the Air-Sea Battle concept in the Western Pacific. The conversation draws on an article Prof. Biddle coauthored with Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia.” Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Download Sea Control 130-Steve Biddle

MP: Dear CIMSEC listeners, my name is Mina Pollmann, and as Director of External Relations for CIMSEC it is my honor today to be interviewing Professor Steve Biddle at George Washington University at the Elliot School of International Affairs. Professor Biddle, thank you for joining us today.

SB: Thanks for having me.

MP: Our first question is about anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) which has become a popular concept when discussing China’s maritime strategy in the Western Pacific. What is the political and strategic motivation for China to pursue A2/AD and what are the greatest technical limitations of A2/AD? How limiting will a fully mature Chinese A2/AD capability be  for U.S. operations in the Western Pacific?

SB: Denial strategies of this kind are very common historically for either weak maritime powers or rising maritime powers that are still at a disadvantage relative to a stronger foe. For example the Soviet Union during the Cold War began with an effort to protect its coast and inland waters from the U.S. Navy and only as it got stronger over time did it make any effort to project power further from its shores than that. So it’s a natural beginning point for any emerging maritime power. What makes A2/AD unique is that the particular technologies that have been emerging for the last two decades or more have the potential to take this philosophy of defending the coast and inland waters from a superior power projection capability and to push it out way beyond what would normally be considered the extent of a coastal defense strategy. If you look at the reach of modern reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RTSA) technologies and the range of the missiles targeted by these technologies, then in fact you could imagine a Chinese A2/AD zone extending all the way out to or beyond the second island chain, a long, long way from the Chinese coast and far enough to threaten all of the U.S. major allies in the Pacific rim. If that capability were fully realized by the Chinese, it would be a major change in the geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific.

You mention the issue of potential vulnerabilities in A2/AD, as I mentioned RTSA is part of the whole concept. If you can’t find it, you can’t destroy it. The heart of this is one of A2/AD’s greatest vulnerabilities. To get the kind of all-weather, day-night, 24/7 surveillance coverage to make the most of what precision-guided missiles could do at these kinds of ranges largely requires radar. And radar is an active emitter, and as an active emitter gives away its location and makes it vulnerable to counter-attack. Many of the technologies that create A2/AD threaten A2/AD. As long-range precision guided weapons proliferate, it’s particularly easy to target transmitting, emitting radars. And if you destroy the radar you then make it much harder for the Chinese to extend the reach of these kinds of technologies to anything like the distances people talk about when they talk about the second island chain.

MP: Is the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JCAM-GC), previously and more commonly known as AirSea Battle, a meaningful way to deal with the A2/AD challenge? And how cost-effective is this concept compared to A2/AD?

SB: The concept formerly known as AirSea Battle, and the new concept whose name no one uses because it’s so awkward, is a natural response very much in the tradition of the way the U.S. military responds to these kinds of capabilities if you’re worried about Chinese A2/AD getting out to the second island chain: preemptively destroy it. Rather than tolerating this, the basic idea behind the concept is that we are going to reach into the Chinese mainland and destroy before they can be used the radars, the logistical infrastructure, and the mobile missile launchers that are required for A2/AD to actually reach out very far at all beyond the Chinese coast. It involves a lot more than just that idea, the bygone name of AirSea Battle was meant to harken back to the Cold War concept of AirLand Battle which was all about the Army and the Air Force combining their activities in two different domains, the land and the sky, to be more effective against Soviet forces in a potential invasion of Western Europe. The concept of AirSea Battle would similarly combine multiple domains with the Navy and the Air Force cooperating to make it easier to deal with what would be an extremely difficult problem in penetrating hundreds of miles inland to the Chinese mainland to destroy mobile targets that can hide amidst the complex background of the earth’s surface. Not withstanding all the advantages of multi-domain operations in this respect, it is still an immensely difficult project.

It seems to me that the right way to think about this project, AirSea Battle versus Chinese A2/AD, is that you have to look out beyond the immediate military balance into the fairly distant future because the technologies we are talking about won’t mature to the point where they are a serious threat to the second island chain until you get out into the more distant future.

But when you decide that to evaluate this fairly we have to look out beyond 2017, beyond 2020, the paper I wrote recently looks out to 2040, then you have to assume that both the U.S. and China are going to be engaged in a rather energetic, two-sided, adaptive competition in which they each try to thwart the other’s capabilities and where both of them are plausible economic peers after a decade or two of this competition. If you think of the competition between A2/AD and AirSea Battle as a long-term, mutually adaptive competition between economic peers, then the cost-exchange ratio becomes decisive. If the way the U.S. is going to deal with the A2/AD threat to the second island chain is to spend China into the ground, which we did successfully against the Soviet Union in the Cold-War, we are going to spend ourselves into the ground.

Where the Soviet Union was a declining economic power that you could beat in an all-out economically exhausting arms race, we are not going to be able to do that with China unless the economic projections are way wrong. So what that means in turn is if one side or the other has the cost advantage, it means that they are going to win the race if it’s fought to extremis. When you look at the details of how AirSea Battle operates against A2/AD, there is a systematic cost advantage in creating and maintaining area denial as opposed to battering it down in a preemptive strike as AirSea Battle would do.

MP: In your paper you give several concrete suggestions for the U.S. going forward, such as investing in larger, heavier missiles and an anti-ship missile with a range of at least 600km, deploying long-range mobile surface-to-surface missiles to the region, and making policy decisions to reduce U.S. reliance on space and restrict Chinese access to space. What are the greatest limitations for implementing these recommendations politically and operationally?

SB: Before I discuss the challenges let me explain very briefly why these things are important. They emerged naturally from the problem of RTSA and countering RTSA in a long-term competition. Radar is a central technology in all of this, that means defending radar and limiting the range of the opponent’s radar is critical, and much of what the paper does is talk about a long-term competition between an attempt to push radar coverage further out and an attempt by its opponents to keep it from getting further out. The modernization and acquisition agenda is driven largely by the requirements of the competition. In space, the easiest way to extend radar coverage over an arbitrarily great distance is to put a radar in space. The Soviets did something like this during the Cold War, this isn’t a particularly exotic capability. If in fact the U.S. grants military sanctuary to space what we are doing is enabling China, through space-based radar, to establish RSTA that could threaten any U.S. ally in the Western Pacific. The capability produced by the range of the missiles and the ability of terminal guidance to take advantage of that range, given surveillance that can localize targets, is very impressive.

It seems that unless the U.S. is prepared to blind Chinese space-based radar then A2/AD could undermine the entire U.S. alliance system in the Pacific. Therefore, it’s important the U.S. seriously consider both the technologies and programmatic capabilities to develop anti-satellite weapons to remove this threat, but also to think very hard about the policy issues about whether we want to wage war in space, whether we want to pursue weapons bans in orbit. The conventional wisdom of the U.S. for a long time is that space is a unilateral U.S. advantage and if we could somehow make space a demilitarized zone that this could benefit the U.S. In the emerging world of potentially very-long reach Chinese A2/AD, that older assumption that space is a unilateral U.S.-advantage is subject to serious challenge. If China has military access to space, the military prognosis in the Western Pacific could be radically different.

If you then say let’s at least take seriously the idea that the U.S. might want to deny military sanctuary in space to the Chinese, what would be involved in that is the Chinese won’t grant us sanctuary either. Anti-satellite weapons have massive cost advantages over satellites. If sanctuary is denied in space either side is going to be able to destroy satellites vastly more cheaply than either side can replace them, but that means the U.S. would have to be prepared to make war without access to space.

There’s no reason in principle why we can’t do this. All of the things that we do with space could be done with airborne alternatives such as communications relays and airborne radars for surveillance. We could, if we chose to do it, develop the capacity for redundancy where we can make war without these capabilities, but we have not expected to do that for a very long time, so it seems to me that one important acquisition priority and planning priority is to recover the ability to wage war in the Pacific without space-based assets.

This is not a popular agenda. The general thrust of U.S. force design and modernization for at least a generation, maybe two, has been to rely more heavily on space-based assets to enable smaller, more widely distributed maritime and terrestrial force structure to survive. It’s time to seriously rethink that but that’s subversive of very longstanding tradition of thinking about force design.

Also as important as acquisition and modernization issues, if you think about the military problem in the Western Pacific, you need to develop capabilities with the range needed to keep Chinese radars from venturing too far beyond China’s shores and extending A2/AD beyond what we argue in our paper is a natural limit in the neighborhood of 400-600km from the coastline. If we deploy things like long-range radiation-homing missiles that can take advantage of the range you would need to force Chinese radars back over the mainland. Similarly, A2/AD in the long-term, two-sided mutually adaptive competition is something both sides will be able to employ and should want to employ. Just as, in our view, the impracticality and the cost disadvantage of preempting Chinese A2/AD should prevent us from doing it, so China would have a cost disadvantage in trying to preempt an American A2/AD capability, and the capacity to close much of the Western Pacific to Chinese maritime traffic is an important military capability the U.S. would want to have. To do that, we need anti-ship missiles of a range for exploiting a 400-600km U.S. A2/AD bubble beyond friendly homeland masses and that will require anti-ship missiles of substantially greater range than today’s Harpoon.

MP: What really struck me was the space part of this, but as you put it this is a debate we should be having more actively and publicly. It’s going to have implications across all of U.S. security policy. To quote from your book Military Power, “In continental warfare, many great powers failed to master complicated modern-system force employment, and variations in such behavior have been more important that technology per se for observed outcomes” (43). Could you elaborate on this central finding of Military Power? How do you weigh the relative importance of technological change versus force employment?

SB: Arguably, the most important trends in land warfare or continental warfare since about 1900 has been the discovery by most great power militaries very early in the 20th century, before the end of the first world war actually, that the complexity of the earth’s surface offers enough cover and concealment to substantially shield land forces from the increasing potential lethality of modern weaponry. However, to operate a mass military of potentially millions of soldiers in a way that can exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment means accepting tremendous complexity in tactics and operational art. Relative to, for example, Napoleonic tactics where armies could be lined up in shoulder-to-shoulder linear formations and simply marched towards an objective, if you’re going to use the complexity of the earth’s surface to provide cover in ways those massed shoulder-to-shoulder formations couldn’t do, then you’re going to have to break down those massed formations into small handfuls of soldiers few enough in number that they can fit into the folds in the earth that create what militaries ironically call dead ground, where dead ground is of course where you can live (I didn’t coin the term).

But that means you’ve got thousands upon thousands of small formations of independently maneuvering soldiers working their way through the terrain trying to find their way forward by the path that provides the most cover and the least exposure, to do that and not get caught by surprise in the open requires thousands of junior officers to have the professional training to use their own eyes, judgment, and ability to size up the terrain and ascertain likely fields of fire of enemy weapons to be able to wind through complicated terrain and find the right way forward.

Moreover, even if they do that, they are going to occasionally get caught in the open. If you are going to advance any significant distance toward a meaningful objective, sooner or later you’re going to get caught in the open. To cross those open patches of ground require suppressive fire. The weapon types best suited for suppressive fires are machine guns and artillery with access to enough ammunition to keep the enemies’ heads down as you sprint from one patch of cover to another. Access to that kind of ammunition requires location in the rear where you can safely amass that quantity of ammunition, that in turns means that not only do we have thousands of small formations lead by junior officers winding their way through complex terrain toward an objective, they are depending on coordinated activity from fire support systems that they can’t see. And they’re firing over their head or across their frontage at targets in front of them that the gunners can’t see. And if they get this just a little bit wrong, the result is catastrophe if the gunners fire a bit short they slaughter their own forces. If the gunners fire a bit long they fail to suppress the enemy and you get slaughtered when you get caught in the open. So the sheer complexity of all these moving parts and all of this communications demand and coordination requirement is a daunting undertaking for mass militaries consisting often of people who just recently were drafted into military services and have not had a 40-year military career to learn how to do this.

The net result of all that is, in principle, that the complexity of your surface can in fact substantially mitigate the nominal technical lethality of improving weapons. But only if the military is capable of carrying out very complicated techniques on the battlefield and some militaries have and others have not. And in fact the book argues that much of the variants in military outcomes in continental warfare since 1900 is attributable to variations in how well or badly any given mass military masters this very complex set of tasks, much more so than whether their weaponry was more lethal than the other side’s weaponry.

But all of that is driven at its base by the complexity of the earth’s surface and how that impacts the military environment. Now let’s transfer this picture to maritime warfare and air warfare and now the background and environment is much simpler. Obviously maritime environments aren’t as simple as the brown wooden tabletop on which the recording device is for this interview sits. There are thermoclines in the oceans, sea states can create background clutter, there are clouds in the skies, so it’s not literally transparent. On the other hand, it’s a lot more transparent than the Fulda gap in West Germany or than the Ardennes forest from the 1940 campaign.

What that means is that whereas maritime warfare can be extremely complex and A2/AD in the way we are talking about it now requires very rapid coordination among a significant range of very different pieces of equipment located in very different places–not a trivial enterprise–but by comparison with the kind of complexity we are talking about on land this is a lower order of difficulty. What that suggests is that probably in the maritime and air domain the relative contribution of technological variations to combat outcomes is likely to be greater relative to skill and mastery of the earth’s complexity by comparison with the picture on land. None of that is to suggest that tech is irrelevant on land or that skill is irrelevant at sea and in the air – certainly that is not true. But given that they both matter in both domains, the interesting question is the relative importance of these two things that both matter and I think there is very good reason to argue that the relative importance of tech is lower on land and the relative importance of tech is higher at sea and in the air above the sea.

MP: This definitely highlights the importance of innovation and tech in the maritime domain. Moving on, what strategic and operational advantages are offered by blockade versus other acts of war and how can a blockade compliment both Chinese and U.S. strategies in a Pacific conflict?

SB: Blockade has played a big role in the debate over the military balance in the Western Pacific, usually people assume that it’s something the U.S. is going to do to China, especially distant blockade at maritime straits that the Chinese would use to import oil. And it seems to my coauthor and I when we were writing the paper that, yes, that’s an important capability but that it’s too narrow a way of thinking about blockade. In particular, A2/AD is a natural blockade weapon. If you assume a two-sided long-term competition in which both sides are doing this sort of thing then the capacity of the Chinese to invade Taiwan, Japan, or other U.S. allies in the region will be very limited because our ability to exclude the logistical shipping the Chinese would need to sustain an amphibious invasion ashore would be very powerful. We think it is very unlikely that China would be able to master what is at best an extremely demanding logistical challenge, an amphibious invasion in this kind of environment.

By contrast, even if you have mutual A2/AD exclusion over an area of water, that sets up a very impressive blockade potential. Perhaps Chinese surface shipping couldn’t get access to Taiwan, but if Taiwanese surface shipping can’t get access to Taiwan, then Taiwan is looking at a potential economic catastrophe. Not only does the country’s economy depend on trade, but keeping the population fed depends on trade. In fact, many of the U.S. major allies in the region are island nations that are dependent for their very survival on seaborne commerce. If A2/AD is used to deny access to commercial shipping bound for these ports, that is potentially a very impressive coercive lever that China could use to contest control of the various territorial stakes that constitute the normal casius belli in conversations about a potential war. So we tend to focus more attention than most on the prospect of not just the U.S. blockading China but on the prospect of China blockading U.S. allies, because that looks to us like a more viable threat than amphibious invasion. It is also more viable in a variety of ways than missile-based strategic bombing.

The same tech that created A2/AD can also destroy power plants, they can destroy bridges and comms systems, and can be used to do what Americans have traditionally used airplanes to do – essentially a form of coercive strategic bombing. Whereas this hits targets that are ashore and often in close proximity to populated areas, and therefore is very likely to involve large scales of collateral damage not just to the civilian economy but also to lives, blockade need not. Blockade takes place at sea against container ships that in the modern world have remarkably small crews – it would in principle be possible for a coercive Chinese campaign aimed at the interdiction of maritime shipping to impose a truly impressive level of economic pain on U.S. allies while killing very few civilians and physically destroying very little civilian property – therefore posing substantially lower escalatory perils in a potential conflict with a nuclear armed superpower like the U.S. We think that a two-sided consideration of blockade in an A2/AD environment is an increasingly necessary part of the strategic debate.

MP: Seems politically less costly as well–the escalatory dynamics and risk of retaliation if you’re pursuing a strategy where your own troops aren’t at the front lines. The U.S. DoD is pursuing a third offset strategy to restore conventional deterrence against peer competitors with an emphasis on battle networks and human-machine teaming. In this vein, what sorts of OPCONs and capabilities do you see offsetting a mature Chinese A2/AD capability and establishing a credible deterrent in the mid- to long-term?

SB: Third offset is the flavor of the moment in the U.S. defense debate, I find it a difficult thing to evaluate in part because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what it is. Now that we have offset language floating around, the first offset was pretty easy to identity – nuclear weapons – you can analyze their effects. The second offset, precision guidance, similarly is a relatively discrete set of things that you can talk about – you can talk bout their effects in an integrated way and build out some analysis. The third offset is a pretty amorphous collection of things we think we’re going to be good at, the connection between, for example, big data and robotics, is kind of hard to pin down, so, given that it has this kind of scattered amorphous quality to it, it’s hard to produce a coherent assessment of it as a thing.

What one can do though is talk about the underlying physics of the problem when you’re looking at this long-term, mutually adaptive, two-sided A2/AD competition. And ask, what would you have to ask of AI or big data or of robotics or miniaturization, all the various bins that make up the third offset in an environment where you can reasonably expect the Chinese will be doing the same thing. At the end of the day, I don’t think any of these things overturn what we see as the central asymmetry at the heart of A2/AD versus its assailants, which is the complexity of the earth’s surface as a military environment as opposed to the water and the air. So in an environment which both sides are going to be getting better at big data, both sides will deploy AI, both sides are going to be looking at robotics with ultimately seekers and searchers in the air penetrating the Chinese mainland looking down into this complex environment to try to find things like air defense, mobile missile launchers, and logistics bases. They are looking at a background that poses a much more complicated targeting problem than they have looking up at you – you’re silhouetted against an open sky, you’re burning fuel at a prodigious rate in order to stay airborne which means you’re producing a tremendous amount of heat and you’re moving very rapidly which simplifies Doppler processing.

You look at all these things and it’s a profound and systematic asymmetry between the survivability of things that can operate on the land in the midst of this complicated environment and things that cannot. Nothing that I see in the third offset will affect that underlying asymmetry in any profound way – it may very well improve both sides ability to find each other, but it’s the difference between the two that determines the outcome of the campaign and the only source of fundamental asymmetry in this long-term, two-sided mutually adaptive competitive is the asymmetry in the military environment that one is operating in. I don’t see the third offset overturning that.

MP: What would be the strategic effect of China launching a first strike on U.S. Pacific allies and forward-deployed forces in the region in a 2040 timeframe and what could such a strike entail?

SB: The long-range precision-guided missile technologies we’re talking about may or may not have any easy time finding mobile targets. But, fixed targets are going to be increasingly vulnerable, and especially things like runways. If the U.S. deploys in peacetime large air forces or naval assets in fixed forward bases, a preemptive strike would be able to destroy whatever we choose to deploy there and it’s going to be very difficult to provide terminal defenses that will protect those kinds of targets given their static nature and the increasing capacity of long range missiles to destroy especially fixed targets.

That does not however mean that China will have the ability to destroy the U.S. military in the Pacific. If for example the U.S. responds to a crisis by dispersing aircraft, some of which will be beyond the range of Chinese A2/AD, or if the U.S. in peacetimes simply deploys the majority of its military beyond the 400-600 km plausible reach of Chinese A2/AD, China will have very limited ability to preemptively destroy any asset that we don’t deliver to them with gift wrapping on by predploying them on fixed bases within reach of Chinese missiles. Mobile targets will become very difficult to find once radar and satellites are destroyed and once airborne radars are restricted to a 400-600 km reach from the Chinese mainland. And that means that dispersed air bases for example, or aircraft carriers for sea basing, operating beyond the reach of Chinese A2/AD, will be able to provide basing assets that China will then have a very difficult time destroying. This is especially true if you posit an environment in the future in which modern airborne radar will be less relevant, a very important technology for A2/AD which was designed in an era in which the processing technology and the human crew needed to do that processing had to be carried in the airframe. In the future, improvements in microelectronic tech and high bandwidth secure comms will allow more and more of that to be offloaded to mobile ground stations, which in turn enables the airplane to be made substantially smaller and therefore able to operate from smaller and less elaborate basing structure. In fact, it’s plausible to imagine airborne radars with range comparable to that of today’s JSTARS will in the future be put on airplanes that can operate off unimproved highways. In an environment in which you can, if necessary, operate from an unimproved highway or operate from small regional airports, and in which runways repair continues to mature in the way that it has in the last two generations, it becomes harder and harder to imagine that a cost effective competition between basing attack and basing repair and basing dispersal can be won by the attacker. Assets forward deployed in peacetime and struck preemptively will be very vulnerable. Their replacements, once long-range surveillance is taken down, will be vastly more survivable.

MP: What strategic and operational benefits and limitations do Chinese naval forces incur by operating under an A2/AD envelope in the Western Pacific?

SB: We tend to believe that naval assets that venture within range of an American A2/AD zone are going to be extremely vulnerable in the same way that an American naval asset would be if they sailed into the teeth of the Chinese A2/AD system. If the competition unfolds in the way that we expect, we’re going to be looking at an environment in which surface maritime operations that reach the enemy’s A2/AD zone are simply going to be too vulnerable. What that means, however, is that naval assets can be viable if either a) they’re operating more than 400-600 km away from enemy-held land areas or b) if they’re operating in close inland waters where they’re within reach of protection by anti-missile systems that are deployed in a mobile basing mode on land that emits the complexity that I talked about earlier.

That suggests in turn though that if the way China is going to think about a future war with the U.S. is by building a seagoing blue water navy, it’s going to sally forth and extend the reach of Chinese A2/AD beyond 400-600 km which cannot threaten U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea. Instead, they may use naval assets to extend that bubble further out, but they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty enabling those surface naval platforms to survive because they’re going to have to move within reach of U.S.-friendly A2/AD capabilities deployed on allies like South Korea, the Philippines, or Taiwan.

MP: How do you envision deception operations factoring into the strategy for both those forces seeking to deny access and secure it?

In a sense, the whole analysis I just presented is premised on an argument about deception. It’s premised on the argument that the complexity of the earth’s surfaces makes things harder to find. Cleverer forms of deception, causing the corpses of convicts to wash ashore with phony orders in their pockets and so on, to take an analogy from an earlier era, have incredibly difficulty in an environment in which RSTA technologies are as good as they’re going to be. Certainly there are all sorts of forms of electronic deception that are part and parcel to these technologies, but at the end of the day, we tend to think that the power of searchers, if the environment is conducive, is going to make it harder and harder to hide unless the environment is conducive. The two-sided searcher/hider competition where the hider is embedded in the complexity of the earth’s surface is a situation in which the hider can use deception. When using deception to win if you’re a stealth bomber trying to penetrate into a heavily defended airspace silhouetted against a blank sky burning huge amounts of fuel moving at very high speed into the teeth of very powerful, mobile land based radars isn’t a deception strategy we think has much potential.

MP: Thank you so much, this was a really fantastic conversation Professor Biddle and I am excited to share this with our listeners.

SB: My pleasure.

Dr. Stephen Biddle is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining the GW faculty in fall 2012 he was the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and previously held the Elihu Root chair in military studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI). Dr. Biddle served on General Stanley McChrystal’s Initial Strategic Assessment Team in Kabul in 2009, on General David Petraeus’ Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Baghdad in 2007, and as a Senior Advisor to General Petraeus’ Central Command Assessment Team in Washington in 2008-9. He has served as a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board, and has presented testimony before congressional committees on issues relating to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; force planning; conventional net assessment; and European arms control. His book Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2004) won four prizes, including the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Award Silver Medal for 2005, and the 2005 Huntington Prize from the Harvard University Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. His other publications include articles in Foreign Affairs, International Security, Survival, The Journal of Politics, Security Studies, The Journal of Strategic Studies, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, International Studies Quarterly, The New Republic, The American Interest, The National Interest, Orbis, The Washington Quarterly, Contemporary Security Policy, Defense Analysis, Joint Force Quarterly, and Military Operations Research; shorter pieces on military topics in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other news outlets; various chapters in edited volumes; and 31 SSI, IDA, and NATO reports. He co-directs the Columbia University Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS), and has held teaching and research positions at Columbia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), and Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA). His research has won Barchi, Rist, and Impact Prizes from the Military Operations Research Society. He was awarded the U.S. Army Superior Civilian Service Medal in 2003 and again in 2006, and was presented with the US Army Commander’s Award for Public Service in Baghdad in 2007. He holds AB (1981), MPP (1985), and Ph.D. (Public Policy, 1992) degrees, all from Harvard University.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control and the Host of Sea Control: North America. He works as Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Contact him at seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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