Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle

Poyer, David. Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 320 pp. $20.99
By Michael DeBoer

When I was in high school I was walking through a Borders (I know this dates me) when a book caught my eye. Its cover featured a small ship, photographed from directly above, in a sea of red. The book was China Sea, and when I read it, I made a lifelong friend. I’ve followed David Poyer’s character, CAPT Daniel Lenson, from his junior officer tour to the present series of novels of his major command, starting with The Cruiser published in 2014. Lenson’s integrity and competence was a part of my inspiration to accept an appointment to the Naval Academy when I was an enlisted Sonarman, and his stories provided me some measure of context when I was there and later, as I read the books through my career. In short, I’ve loved following Dan Lenson’s career and I’ll miss him when he is gone.

Poyer’s stories feature a mix of the high drama and the cold technical nature of combat at sea. In that aspect the author’s latest story, Onslaught, is an excellent contribution to the series, I would argue one of the most notable collections of sea literature of the modern era. Fans of the series will find old friends inside, while new readers will discover a set of strong, relatable characters: Teddy Oberg, Poyer’s Navy SEAL, Aisha Ar-Rahim, NCIS Special Agent, ADM Jung, South Korean Navy commander, Cheryl Staurlakis, indefatigable XO, Matt Mills, ultra-competent Ops Officer, and Amy Singhe, impertinent upstart JO, are all back. Poyer’s characters are believable and rich, with complex motivations and deep emotions. Moreover, all are strongly affected by events around them. In Poyer’s typical fashion, the work features four concurrent stories: Lenson’s command of USS Savo Island on an ASW barrier in the Miyako Gap, Special Agent Aisha Ar-Rahim’s investigation of a violent rapist onboard Savo, SOCM Teddy Oberg’s assault on Woody Island, and Lenson’s wife Blair’s participation in strategic planning for the coming war with China at SAIC. These four stories are interspersed with the searing exhaustion that only members of the sea services can recognize as an authentic portion of Navy life.

Poyer’s Onslaught describes where many think the series was always headed: an all-out war with the People’s Republic of China. However, despite my expectations that the book would take off into ultra-intense combat immediately, the novel instead features the slow burn of increasing tensions and asymmetric tactics. Lenson’s Savo Island heads a surface action group on ASW station in the East China Sea attempting to hold against attempts by PRC submarines to gain the Philippine Sea while providing missile defense to Taipei. Lenson’s Savo, a notional Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) configured cruiser, allows the author to write rich and genuine series of combat. Only Poyer’s shootout in the Strait of Hormuz during Tipping Point exceeds the vignettes in this book. Moreover, the author’s depiction of BMD operations makes a complex and often arcane art easily accessible and exciting.

Poyer’s story features many operational considerations familiar to CIMSEC readers. The ballistic missile barrage across the Taiwan Strait, PRC aggression in the South and East China Seas, Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles, and a U.S. Navy struggling to maintain access to the East Asian littoral remain the major security issues of our time. Moreover, lack of ASCM inventory, of launcher capacity, and the vulnerability of multi-mission ships when operating in a BMD role are tactical issues well known to U.S. naval planners.

Onslaught, like Poyer’s previous book Tipping Point, has an air of the coming of a cataclysm. Images of the Guns of August abound, as do instances reminiscent of the Solomon Islands and Sunda Strait. Poyer clearly fits the difficult portions of America’s last naval war in Asia, entirely forgotten by the American public and largely ignored by the strategic community, into his narrative. The result is a sense of high tension and intense foreboding.

If I could provide a slight criticism, Special Agent Ar-Rahim is at times irritating. She remains the worst developed Poyer character and contributed little to the story. Aisha can, at times, who at times comes off as more of a caricature than an actual person, though Poyer’s effort to convey diverse viewpoints is indeed commendable and usually very effective.

Poyer’s work should be strongly recommended by CIMSEC readers, especially to friends who may not understand both the complexity, tension, feeling, and exhaustion of combat at sea. In an era where many question the value of allies, the importance of forward naval forces, and likelihood of great power war, Onslaught provides a stunning and believable narrative of the importance of all three. The pace is fast, the combat visceral, and the emotions intense. Poyer remains one of our modern masters of nautical fiction and the emotions of war at sea. Tipping Point and Onslaught are strongly recommended to anyone who is interested in potential conflict with a hegemonic China, loves a good story, or lives their professional life at sea.

Read CIMSEC’s interview with author David Poyer here.

Michael DeBoer is part of the CIMSEC book review team.

Featured Image: Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher. (Getty Images)

Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War

Hooker, Richard D., and Joseph J. Collins. Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War. National Defense University Press 2015 473pp. 

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Click to read.

By Ching Chang

Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War is a collection of research reports edited by Richard D. Hooker, Jr. and Joseph J. Collins published by the U.S. National Defense University Press in September 2015. It originated from a top-down request from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond to two inquiries: What were the costs and benefits of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were the strategic lessons of these campaigns? The final product of this instruction may eventually benefit many military professionals, and possibly, certain politicians who may have ambitions to be the national or political leadership within the national security community of the United States.

Success could never be easily repeated by itself, yet, mistakes causing failures always repeatedly occur in different occasions in human history. When conducting a war, mistakes happen everywhere from the strategic level jointly formulated by the national leadership and their subordinated senior military commanders, to those operational and tactical decisions made by the military professionals in varying levels of command and authority. Certain tactical decisions may have some devastating consequences at the strategic level. Specific bias and selfishness in higher level decision making may increase the statistics of fatalities in the battlefield. To grasp the mistakes that have occurred in the history of war is more important, therefore, than understanding the rationales assuring victory, since all the theories of victory are fundamentally similar. Following previous tracks, however, is no guarantee of success. Such is the well-known truth for every military professional.

Of course, this publication is tailored for  senior military professionals who may attend the Joint Professional Military Education programs offered by war colleges or command and staff colleges in various services of the United States Armed Forces. Nonetheless, senior national security civilian executives who also join these courses may also enhance their understanding of coordination with military professionals. On the other hand, how the military professionals should serve their political masters by following the principle of civilian control of the military is another vital issue addressed by this publication. The best lesson of this masterpiece is to help the leadership of the national security community learn principles related to advocating armed conflict, as opposed to the opposite approach of gaining awareness only through battlefield experience and lost blood and treasure.

Many lessons encountered and learned during the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are listed at the beginning of this text. The whole course of these two warfighting cases include high tier decision-making processes as well as very detailed situations of the battlefield, described and analyzed thoroughly.

Any war itself is essentially a dynamic process. Situation assessment and adaptations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels are routines for warfighting. Likewise, the associated politics are also a dynamic progression. Criteria changes are necessary to reflect the concerns from the general public. Positions and arguments held by political leadership may also vary accordingly. From observing the developments of establishing the security in these two different battlefields and the exit strategy formulated by the U.S. political leadership for two different operational situations, we may notice the difficulties inherent in conducting two simultaneous campaigns.

The legal issues discussed in the final chapter may be the most striking content to readers whose concerns include the directives and moral cause for fighting the next war. However,  the sincerity of self-criticism is valid evidence that conscience remains a central element of military ethics. Likewise, the courage to face those mistakes is the fundamental indication of hegemony. Many people may question how long the United States may sustain its position as a superpower in the world. As long as the United States military produces such reports that honestly review all the mistakes, oversights, and downright stupidities that occur in their war efforts, no one should underestimate the capacity of the United States to amend those mistakes at some point. Particularly, many of the military professionals interviewed and pointed out those flaws may have the possibility to continue their careers in the political realm in the foreseeable future. We may discover how well they may perform after shifting their roles to be politically appointed features in Washington.

Chinese translation of the reviewed text. (Author photos)

As a foreign reader and translator reading this text, the author would like to mention that the Chinese translation of this book was recently published by the National Defense University, Republic of China, in December 2016. As many other civilizations pay their efforts to understand the United States by translating these texts, we hope that the United States should also pay the same scale of effort to understand other civilizations in order to avoid the many mistakes analyzed in this book. After all, si vis pacem, para bellum, is quite true, yet, the Chinese wisdom of “winning a war without fighting” can also be worthy of consideration after reading this text.

Ching Chang is a Research Fellow with the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China. The views expressed in this review are his own.

Featured Image: by Ron Haviv, April 9 2003, Reproduced as part of TIME’s series, A Decade of War in Iraq.

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course

Andrew S. Erickson, ed. Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course. Naval Institute Press, 2016 pp 376. $39.95

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By Michael DeBoer

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding Capability: An Uncertain Course, adds the most recent volume to Dr. Andrew Erickson’s excellent edited collections on the increase of the People’s Republic’s military, economic, and industrial power published by the Naval Institute Press. Erickson’s credentials include a professorship in strategy at the Naval War College, a research associateship at Harvard’s Fairbank School for Chinese Studies, and a regular congressional witness on areas pertaining to Chinese capabilities and strategy. He is a giant in the field. The work combines seventeen articles written by thirty-two authors, among them storied names such as CRS naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke and former former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2) for U.S. Pacific Fleet CAPT James Fanell (ret). The volume provides a nuanced and insightful view of a major Chinese strategic investment, its shipbuilding industry, and is required reading for anyone, academic or laymen, trying to understand the associated capabilities and implications of the People’s Republic’s maritime rise.

The three hundred-forty-page tome is broken into five sections, describing the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s foundation and resources, infrastructure, approach to naval architecture and design, remaining challenges, and a section which provides strategic conclusions and predictions for the future of American naval and maritime power. The articles are easily readable, each approximately ten to fifteen pages of crisp, synthesized content, with end notes allowing readers to further explore the author’s research, although most references are translated from Mandarin Chinese. The works also feature multiple graphs, tables, and illustrations, providing further resources for students and researchers. While each article provides fascinating insights into the past, present, and future of Chinese shipbuilding, four areas of study especially stood out as enjoyable, informative, and useful.

First, Christopher P. Carlson and Jack Bianchi’s Chapter I review of the People’s Republic’s naval and maritime history from the formation of the communist state to Xi Jinping provides a concise review of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) strategic development. Carlson and Bianchi first review the PLAN’s operational shift from Near Coast Defense, to Near Seas Active Defense, and finally to Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Operations, as the PLAN’s resources, capabilities, and objectives adapted to match the nation’s goals. The pair provide an excellent linkage between China’s strategic situation since Mao’s victory and the requirements of PLAN platforms as the force shifted from a coastal force to a limited blue water force and finally to a force intended to defend Chinese interests on both the near and far seas. This evolution brought an increase in the complexity and technical sophistication to the Chinese military shipbuilding industry.

Second, Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce and John Costello provide insight into a major limitation of Chinese military shipbuilding: combat electronics. Ragland-Luce and Costello point out that, while PLAN hull and mechanical systems are regularly manufactured using modern industry standards such as modular construction, the PLAN remains unable to field a top-tier indigenously developed combat control system. The authors use the Jiangkai-II (054A)-class guided missile frigate, a modern warship by any standard, whose combat control system (CCS) is based upon the French TAVITAC, vice a comparable Chinese design. This potential lack of integration between the French CCS and developing Chinese weapons and sensor systems might well prove a combat handicap for PLAN forces in future conflicts. Similarly, editor Andrew Erickson with Jonathan Ray and Robert T. Forte provide an excellent dissertation on the limitations of Chinese propulsion plant designs. According to the trio, the PLAN appears proficient in coastal diesel submarine propulsion technologies. The PLAN effectively integrates Sterling Engine Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems into its Yuan-class diesel-electric boats (SSPs), and it leads research into safe Lithium-Ion battery storage systems, potentially increasing coastal submarine endurance. It still lags considerably in both modern integrated surface propulsion plants and nuclear powered propulsion designs.

Third, the work uses present shipbuilding capacity to extrapolate future PLAN capability and force structure. CAPT James Fanell (ret) and Scott Cheney-Peters (Founder of CIMSEC) provide a realistic warning regarding the long-term challenge of Chinese strategic depth in military shipbuilding. Ronald O’Rourke caps the work with a set of implications for the U.S. Navy if PLAN force structure continues to expand.

Fourth, the work also provides an excellent overview of the curious public-private nature of an industry. The ten-year old split of Chinese shipbuilding into competitive public-private corporations Chinese State Shipbuilding Company (CSSC) and Chinese Industrial Shipbuilding Company (CSIC), induced formidable challenges to reintegrate as demand for commercial Chinese-built shipping demand drops and the People’s Republic attempts to cut excess overhead in its public ventures. The work also appropriately conveys the confusing and byzantine structure of the Chinese military-industrial complex, broken into multiple institutes and directorates with potentially overlapping responsibilities.

The edition could have improved by better integration between authors. Several articles re-visit the growth of PLAN naval strategy over the PRC’s history, which becomes redundant. Secondly, in some cases, it is difficult at times to compare Chinese shipbuilding structure and practices to those of other industries worldwide. Is China’s anticipated post-merger structure in line with other shipbuilding industries? The work does not, at times, draw clear comparisons.

Overall, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding provides a very useful window into an area of intense Communist Party strategic investment. The work gives the reader an excellent overview of the industry as a whole, overlapped with strategic context and geopolitical implications. As discussed, the volume also provides a unique look at the industry’s challenges, including increased engineering costs, poor integration with modern combat systems, and challenges in surface ship engineering plants and nuclear propulsion technologies. Nuanced and complex, it describes both the accomplishments of an industry that now leads the world in commercial tonnage produced, but also lags behind in critical areas mastered by much smaller and less-rich nations. Erickson’s volume is a worthy addition to his series and an enjoyable read.


Read CIMSEC’s interview with editor Dr. Andrew Erickson on this book here.

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Featured Image: China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier CV-17/001A under construction at Dalian shipyard. (CJDBY.net)

Initiative of the Subordinate: Dudley Knox and the Modern U.S. Navy

Kohnen, David. 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. Naval Institute Press, 2016 176pp. $24.95

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By Dale Rielage

A century ago, Dudley Knox was one of the U.S. Navy’s up-and-coming leaders. His operational resume included combat experience in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippines insurrection. In a generation that learned its trade from Mahan, Knox achieved intellectual distinction as an observer of naval command and control. Between the First and Second World Wars, Knox developed into one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of naval history, a respected commentator on maritime issues, and advisor to political and naval leaders. Through his professional associations, writings, and commentary, his influence reached to the battles of the Second World War and beyond.

It is precisely to rescue naval thinkers like Knox from obscurity that the Naval Institute Press began the “21st Century Foundations” series. In 21st Century Knox, David Kohnen has selected key writings spanning Knox’s more than fifty year career and combined them with a thoughtful introduction and commentary that places these writings in contemporary context. The result is a handy collection of short articles that speak both to the U.S. Navy’s history and to the challenges it faces today.  

Knox came of age in a nation that was finding its place among the world’s great powers. The U.S. Navy was growing rapidly in capability, capacity and stature. While the new battleships that comprised the Great White Fleet were the most public face of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick, Knox himself preferred service on torpedo boats and destroyers, whose small size and independent operations offered maximum opportunity for initiative and responsibility. These smaller units also offered junior officers a glimpse of the challenges of coordinating multiple units in coordinated action – a challenge that was preoccupying Royal Navy leaders on the far side of the Atlantic.

Within the British Royal Navy, the tug-of-war between centralizing command and control and decentralizing authority had been playing out for more than a century. During the nineteenth century, the highly decentralized command style of Nelson had given way to a more centralized style, enabled by increasingly sophisticated means for signaling between units. Andrew Gordon, in his seminal study of the issue, noted how the trend towards centralization limited Royal Navy success at Jutland.

The U.S. Navy’s rapid growth in the 1880s and 1890s made command and control issues secondary to more fundamental issues of fleet proficiency and organization. Thanks to reform efforts spearheaded by Admiral William S. Sims, the U.S. Navy had significantly modernized its gunnery training – the foundation of applying combat power at sea at the time. However, this focus on the tools of tactical excellence had not yet expanded to a sophisticated system for managing large fleet actions.

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A 1934 Portrait of then Captain Knox. (Wikimedia commons)

It was the interplay between initiative and command that prompted Knox to produce his first significant writings. In 1913, then-Lieutenant Commander Knox placed in the U.S. Naval Institute annual essay contest with the article “Trained Initiative and Unity of Action.” It is no surprise that Knox, having experienced independent command as a junior officer, would instinctively support the decentralization of command. As a relatively junior officer, he dared to critique the current attitude in the service – a service which had enjoyed overwhelming victory and acclaim in its first modern combat experience against the Spanish Navy just fifteen years prior. “It is hardly necessary to enter into a description of our present system of command…it has never stood the supreme test of a large fleet action against a formidable enemy; and it is safe to say that even our greatest triumphs were accomplished in spite of glaring faults which most of us will candidly admit.” Knox then offered a detailed inventory of the impact of excessive control from above in both peace and war. Perhaps more perceptively, he asserted that detailed oversight invites unhealthy critique of seniors by juniors, where a delegated leadership style requires subordinates to own the actions of the team. Knox concluded his essay by asserting that the “initiative of the subordinate” should be the governing principle in U.S. naval doctrine and leadership.

It is important to note that Knox did not base his advocacy of decentralized control on the limitations of command and control mechanisms. In his mind, no improvement in the mechanics of command and control could meet the requirement for speed of action in the face of an adaptive enemy.  As he wrote, “neither signals, radio-messages, nor instructions, written or verbal, can suffice…to produce the unity of effort – the concert of action – demanded by modern conditions in a large fleet.”

Knox followed his 1913 success by winning the Naval Institute Prize in 1915 with an examination of “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare.” An examination of history convinced Knox not only that speed was critical in exploiting opportunity, but that command and control systems inherently degrade in combat. Well articulated and understood doctrine offers the first defense against this challenge, Knox asserted, by ensuring that subordinate commanders approach operations with the same basic assumptions. This doctrine should, in Knox’s mind, clarify for the force to what extent they should act offensively or defensively, as well as what actions should be carried out by the “primary force” (i.e. the entire fleet, with a focus on battleships) or the “secondary force” (i.e. mines, submarines, and small combatants). Knox emphasized that the development of doctrine should be a broad, collaborative process within the Navy in order to ensure buy-in from different communities and continuity of approach and investment across the tenure of different leaders.

Reading these two pieces, many readers will be impressed that they could be written today. Indeed, with minor updating in style and references, they could be published as commentary on today’s U.S. Navy. It is encouraging for today’s innovators that Knox did have profound influence on the culture and conduct of the U.S. Navy, albeit indirectly. Knox built a network of shipmates who were also interested in innovative ideas. Many of his friends, such as Ernest King, Earl “Pete” Ellis, Harold Stark, and Bill Halsey, would rise to positions of influence over the years. Knox’s work was also heavily influenced by his studies at the U.S. Naval War College, where he enjoyed the encouragement of Admiral Sims. Sims – himself the subject of another volume in the 21st Century Foundations series – and who offered an example of a passionate innovator who as a Lieutenant had written a letter to the President trying to drive improvements in U.S. Navy gunnery.

After Sims departed the War College for operational command in the Atlantic, he pulled Knox and a number of other promising young officers onto his staff. Shortly after, with the U.S. on the verge of entering the First World War, Knox was hand-selected to join Sims’ staff in London, placing him at the heart of the U.S. Navy’s first experience in modern coalition warfare. There, Knox was instrumental in tying U.S. Naval Forces in Europe into the Royal Navy’s extraordinary intelligence network. While an informal arrangement, it laid the groundwork for the “very special relationship” between U.S. and British naval intelligence during World War II.

By the 1920s, Knox’s philosophy of command and control had slowly moved from counter-culture to accepted doctrine. Knox’s articles became standard reading at the Naval War College and influenced the famous student wargames which contemplated naval war against Japan. Almost every senior navy leader in World War II attended the War College during this era was influenced by these games. In his outstanding history of naval command and control, Michael Palmer observes that the U.S. Navy would be exceptional in enshrining decentralized command and control and aggressive exercise of initiative in its doctrine. For example, Palmer notes that the U.S. Navy’s 1924 war instructions specified that “when attacked by an enemy, American ships were to turn towards the threat, and not away from it as had Jellicoe, in conformity with his own doctrine, at Jutland.”1 

The summit of Knox’s indirect influence on his navy was reached on the eve of World War II. In his CINCLANT Serial 053 of January 21, 1941, Knox’s shipmate, Admiral Ernest King, instructed the entire Fleet that “initiative of the subordinate” was the “essential element of command.” King noted that he had “been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency…to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told “how” as well as “what” to do to such an extent and in such detail that the ‘Custom of the Service’ has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command.” The Navy was close to war, King wrote, and the force was often “reluctant (afraid) to act because they are accustomed to detailed orders and instructions.” If this tendency was not reversed, asserted CNO King, “we shall be in a sorry case” when war arrives. Reversing this tendency required strong leadership, but ultimately the U.S. Navy’s victories in World War II were in no small part due to a culture of finding the right commanders and allowing them latitude to conduct combat operations with a deliberate economy of detailed higher headquarters direction.2

As Knox grew more senior and moved into retirement, his professional focus shifted to history and naval commentary. It is fair to say that today Knox is mainly remembered for his efforts to establish naval history as a discipline and to motivate the U.S. Navy to preserve its own history. That reputation, however, obscures Knox’s ongoing influence during his “historical” period. During the interwar years, a close relationship existed between naval intelligence, naval history and planning; and Knox was a regular if unofficial advisor of naval decision makers through the end of World War II.

Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. (Wikimedia commons)
The Dudley Knox Library at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. (Wikimedia commons)

If there is a weakness in this book, it is that Dave Kohnen sometimes comes across as a historian admiring another historian. Knox was a practitioner, a status that made him acutely interested in the impact of this analysis. Nonetheless, in making Dudley Knox readily accessible to the current generation of naval professionals, Kohnen and the Naval Institute Press have done a significant service. With the Chief of Naval Operations calling for the U.S. Navy officer corps to read, write, and fight, Knox offers an example of how an officer with ideas and the willingness to challenge the status quo can have a profound influence on the U.S. Navy. CIMSEC is one place for that writing to find a voice today – and 21st Century Knox is a great place to start reading.

Captain Dale Rielage serves as Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. He has served as 3rd Fleet N2, 7th Fleet Deputy N2, Senior Intelligence Officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence and Director of the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group. His opinions do not represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or Department of the Navy.

1. Michael Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 255.

2. The full text of King’s memo is found in The Administration of the Navy Department in World War II, Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1959, as appendix 1.

Featured Image: USS BB 30 “Florida” – April 1919.