Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: The Value of OSINT for the U.S. Navy

CIMSEC is committed to keeping our content FREE FOREVER. Please consider donating to our annual campaign now so we can continue to provide free content.

By Dave Andre

“Intelligence means every sort of information about the enemy and his country.” –Clausewitz, On War, 1832 

Though it often goes unrecognized, history shows publicly available information (PAI) consistently plays an integral part in the development of the intelligence picture. With the advent of the Information Age, a rapid evolution of technological innovations democratized and decentralized information, creating a digital universe and a surfeit of open source intelligence, or OSINT. In the past decade alone, the world produced more information than it had in the rest of human history. This diffusion of information holds significant promise for the Naval Intelligence community, whose own rich history is replete with examples of OSINT being an integral part of the analytic picture.

From the Age of Sail to the Global War on Terror and beyond, OSINT has proven valuable across the range of maritime operations. Despite this history, Naval Intelligence treats OSINT as an oxymoron, relying on an analytic culture biased against unclassified data. This bias is a mistake. To maintain maritime superiority the Naval Intelligence community needs to orient its collection and analysis toward a truly all-source effort and harness the full potential of OSINT as an intelligence discipline on par with the classified disciplines or it risks ceding the advantage to adversaries and competitors.

OSINT in the Information Age: Problems and Promise

Since the end of the Cold War, the democratization and decentralization of the information landscape resulted in a sharp rise in information quantities, altering the intelligence community. As publicly available information that anyone can lawfully obtain proliferated, the advancements of the Information Age affected OSINT more than any other intelligence discipline. The Internet and cellular technology means individuals enjoy unprecedented access to information, particularly in otherwise underdeveloped regions. Meanwhile, social media makes individuals active participants in the production of information.

Studies estimate that this digital universe is doubling in size every two years. Globally, an estimated 50 percent of the population has Internet connectivity; 34 percent are active on social media; and there are enough mobile subscriptions that every person on earth could have one. Gone are the halcyon days where OSINT was local papers, television, and radio broadcasts. With each passing year, OSINT expands further past those conventional means and now includes information from the deep web, commercial imagery, technical data, social media, and gray literature with more sources inevitably to follow.

According to the author, the exponential growth of PAI offers OSINT “a competitive advantage over the traditional intelligence disciplines in terms of speed, quantity, and usability.” (Image: International Data Corporation study, “Data Age 2025.”)

The changes to the information environment affected more than individuals; government agencies and militaries embrace these information platforms, readily divulging information, pictures, budgets, and material status of platforms to the public to champion causes and promote transparency. It is no wonder some experts estimate that 80-90 percent of intelligence originates from OSINT. There is no reason to think these trends will abate soon.

The Naval Intelligence community has been slow to recognize and adapt to these changes in society’s relationship with information. In 1992, speaking at the First International Symposium on Open Source Solutions, Admiral William Studeman discussed the importance of OSINT and the associated challenges that accompanied its acceptance on par with Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Human Intelligence (HUMINT), and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Twenty-five years after Admiral Studeman’s speech, the Naval Intelligence community still treats OSINT at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the established intelligence disciplines, viewing it as unclassified “low-hanging fruit.” This second tier status is shortsighted and history shows it is detrimental to the analytic process.

In a world that moves increasingly faster, OSINT holds a competitive advantage over the traditional intelligence disciplines in terms of speed, quantity, and usability. Sensors, signals, and human sources take time to collect and exploit. In addition, classified means tend to be resource constrained—there simply are not enough assets to cover everything everywhere.

In contrast, PAI, by its very nature, is everywhere and does not require significant resources to exploit. These strengths are why OSINT is “the outer pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” and why it is useful in framing a problem. This framing allows an analyst to focus on effective use of the technical disciplines, thereby acting as a resource multiplier. Acknowledging these factors underscores the important roles that PAI and the resulting OSINT play in the analytic process.

OSINT analysis draws from a multitude of publicly available information sources, such as those illustrated here. (International Institute for Counter-Terrorism)[Click to expand]
Despite the promise that OSINT holds, the Naval Intelligence community has been slow to adopt it, underutilizing this glut of publicly available information. There is no formal pipeline for OSINT training and there is scant reference to OSINT in doctrine, which underscores an analytic culture that subordinates OSINT to the covert and technical disciplines of HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and Measures and Signals Intelligence (MASINT). Considering the modern information environment, the current treatment of OSINT within the Naval Intelligence community is a mistake.

Reliance on the technical disciplines has traditionally come at the detriment of OSINT, but this is unnecessary. Learning how to exploit PAI as an organization necessitates a paradigm shift that begins with training and doctrinal inclusion. This shift needs to occur today. Resource constraints will continue to hamper classified collection methods and as information continues to increase, it will become easier to hide information in plain sight—a real boon for adversaries. The U.S. Navy acknowledged as much in 2013, describing nations that were “simply using the Internet and the commercial global information grid as their own C4ISR system for networking their low-technology military forces.” To buoy this change the Naval Intelligence Community needs to take stock of its history with OSINT.

OSINT Lessons from Naval History: An Important Resource

Naval Intelligence history is replete with successful stories of monitoring, filtering, transcribing, translating, and archiving PAI to produce OSINT. Indeed open source maritime intelligence is as old as the U.S. Navy itself. In Nelson’s ‘old lady’: Merchant news as a source of intelligence, Jane Knight details how, in 1796, intelligence derived through the analysis of a merchant woman’s correspondence with her husband proved useful.1 As the story goes, Frances Caffarena, an Englishwoman married to a Genoese merchant, supplied Admiral Jervis and Lord Nelson’s Mediterranean campaign with a steady stream of information gleaned from open sources. These reports filled a critical gap in intelligence, informing the decision-making of both men as they waged war against Napoleonic France and her allies. This episode marks the beginning chapter of a long history of OSINT supporting and defining the maritime intelligence picture.

Since these early years, OSINT has played a vital role in a wide range of naval operations from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) and Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs) to combat on land and sea. During the Second World War, analysts pored over enemy magazines and newspapers and monitored radio broadcasts. These open-source efforts yielded valuable intelligence. One notable example of specific value to Naval Intelligence was the first mention of German submarine tenders through a newspaper article.2

Collecting, translating, and analyzing PAI – i.e., OSINT – has proven valuable throughout historical conflicts. Locations like this WWII-era BBC listening room monitored broadcasts originating from Nazi Europe as one more piece of the intelligence puzzle. (BBC)

Another integral OSINT lesson from that era was the importance of a distributed network that leverages partner nations’ ability to exploit information with knowledge of local sources and local languages. Such cooperation produced significant results during the Second World War as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) monitored foreign radio broadcasts across many theaters, sharing the information with the United States. This distributed network is not limited to international partners; it has application across the services as well. One enduring example of an OSINT network is the U.S. Army’s Asian Studies Detachment, which has collected and analyzed PAI on Asian topics since 1947. Developed for U.S. Army tactical units throughout the Pacific, the Asian Studies Detachment has relevance for host of consumers throughout the Pacific region.

Recently, OSINT has been particularly useful in areas—both functional and geographical—that do not typically use classified assets. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is a good example of how important OSINT can be to U.S. Navy operations. During OPERATION UNIFIED RESPONSE analysts from United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) used social networking sites, blogs, clergy, non-governmental organizations, and the Haitian diaspora to supplement traditional ISR capabilities with firsthand accounts of the situation that focused humanitarian response efforts. This shaped the picture in a way that classified, technical sources could not because of sharing limitations and processing and exploitation timelines.

OSINT’s utility is not limited to non-kinetic operations. The Arab Spring and OPERATION ODYSSEY DAWN exemplify OSINT’s effectiveness in providing intelligence during kinetic operations, especially without “boots on the ground” to provide tactical updates. Throughout ODYSSEY DAWN the Joint Task Force J2 derived valuable intelligence from social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter, with NATO specifically acknowledging that Twitter had become a leading source in developing the intelligence picture and assisted analysts in target development. Additionally, during NEO planning in Libya and Egypt, OSINT was a significant factor in answering intelligence requirements for the 26th MEU embarked on the USS Kearsarge. Meanwhile, OPERATION ATALANTA, the European Union Naval Force’s response to Somali piracy, overcame the dearth of intelligence and the resulting lack of situational awareness by working primarily off PAI; in this case, local newspapers. This proved to be a double-edged sword, as local Somali news sources were heavily biased or censored, oftentimes resulting in “corkscrew journalism” where uncorroborated statements, repeated often enough, turned into truths. These operations illustrate how OSINT may sometimes be the most accurate and timely intelligence available to analysts; and in the case of Somalia, underscore the importance of training and corroboration while using OSINT. 

Satellites providing Google Earth imagery captured this publicly available overhead shot of China’s then-new aircraft carrier LIAONING. Exploitation of PAI such as this offers timely and relevant maritime intelligence that the Navy has yet to fully capitalize on according to the author. (Google Earth)

Despite changes over the years, the communal and commercial nature of PAI proves to be its most pertinent contribution to the intelligence picture. OSINT is different from the other intelligence disciplines by virtue of its accessibility. Unlike national sensors, sources, and satellites, a private individual or company usually owns the production method and dissemination of PAI. More often than not, these individuals and companies derive more benefit from making the information available than they do restricting it.

A 2017 Janes IHS article highlighted this relationship, describing how public webcams that overlooked Severomorsk Naval base confirmed the departure of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. This episode also highlights the difficulty in determining the veracity of PAI as these webcams were contradicting what news networks were reporting. In a similar manner, Google Earth offers a great example of how PAI can provide valuable OSINT for analysts. A 2013 TIME magazine article covered how Google Earth imagery provided analysts with a wealth of information as they examined China’s construction of its first indigenous aircraft carrier.

Unfortunately, history is also replete with examples of military planners neglecting OSINT to their detriment. In their history on the Battle of Gallipoli, Peter Chasseaud and Peter Doyle detail how a private geological survey omitted from military planning held the key to vital terrain intelligence, which may have mitigated or prevented the ANZAC force’s defeat.3 

In one of the most well-known cases of intelligence failure, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor illustrated just how important OSINT could be in the realm of indications and warnings. As the recently established Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was listening to and translating broadcasts from Japan, they noted increasing hostility towards the United States; the attack on Pearl Harbor commenced before the intelligence could yield value.

The Intelligence Community re-learned the importance of OSINT six decades later as classified data failed to predict, let alone prevent, the Sept. 11th attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks, it became clear there were open source resources that may have offered insight into the attackers plans. A similar assessment was made after the bombing of the USS Cole a year before.4 In each of these examples, the lack of OSINT was just one of many failures, but it is a failure that the Naval Intelligence community perpetuates and one that is relatively easy to fix.

OSINT Tech for the Future Navy

The technological advances of the Information Age are germane to the future of OSINT within the Naval Intelligence enterprise. Across all levels of warfare, PAI represents an opportunity and a challenge to naval intelligence analysts. From the fight against violent extremist organizations (VEOs), which use social media for recruitment and propaganda dissemination, to the understanding of national strategies as world leaders increasingly employ the media to make the case for military operations, OSINT can enable or enfeeble analysis. Irrespective of geography or subject, the Information Age has virtually guaranteed the proliferation of PAI.

Every intelligence discipline has limitations and OSINT’s biggest limitations are the volume and veracity of information. Fortunately, technology continually provides tools to assist in overcoming these obstacles. Some are technical and require training, while others are simple and low-tech, merely requiring familiarization and practice; yet others involve incorporating government technology or commercial subscription services. Regardless of their particular details, these tools are all available to assist the analyst in filtering the overwhelming amount of data available today. These technological advancements also indicate that OSINT is rapidly becoming as technical a discipline as SIGINT or IMINT and Naval Intelligence needs to treat it as such.

There are processes that assist in categorizing useful information versus distracting and irrelevant information and procedures that help determine reliability and credibility. There are increasingly effective ways to use search parameters to cut through the large swaths of information. The Open Source Indicators (OSI) program is one such initiative. A program run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), OSI aims at automated and continuous analysis of PAI in an effort to predict societal events.

Additionally, the proliferation of foreign language media will pose a challenge for analysts, though there are promising tools such as the U.S. Army’s Machine Foreign Language Translation Software (MFLTS), which allows analysts to understand foreign language documents and digital media across a variety of platforms. In a similar vein, initiatives like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Deep Exploration and Filtering of Text (DEFT) program and Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology aim to help analysts collect, collate, and process information. In addition to these Intelligence Community initiatives, there are commercial programs like Google’s Knowledge Graph that hold promise for intelligence analysts. Using a semantic search, a Knowledge Graph query returns results that determine the intent and context of a searched item, allowing an analyst to avoid the irrelevant responses a traditional keyword search returns and establish relationships between people, places, and events.

Even the socio-technical aspect of social media lends itself to optimization, with Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) now championed, despite privacy concerns, as an emerging intelligence discipline in its own right. Reputable blogs, forums, and chat-rooms – operated by individuals with a strong interest in a subject – act as a form of crowdsourcing where these philes compile large amounts of data for their own interest while simultaneously filling intelligence gaps.

Technically savvy and unencumbered by corporate or government constraints, the individual citizen has proven to be a remarkable source of information for analysts. Whether it is pictures on Instagram of their latest work trip to a naval installation or their Facebook comments about government policies, individuals routinely expose important information to the public. Acknowledging OSINTs role in counterintelligence is at the core of the U.S. Navy’s stringent OPSEC program.

Mainstreaming OSINT Analysis

Whether it is traditional media, social media, or any other element of PAI, the Naval Intelligence community needs to develop the analytic skills to cash-in on this information. Unfortunately, this explosion in information is not without its downside. Concurrent booms of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda threaten to hamper the analysis of PAI just as social media has become a tool for disseminating fake news. Much as these information distractions present a challenge, they also underscore the importance of all-source analysis. The OSINT landscape has changed dramatically since the days of the Cold War. Despite these changes, the core challenge of open source analysis remains the same — parsing the salient from the trivial — and that takes skill.

It is not enough to recognize the utility of OSINT; the Naval Intelligence community must train, equip, and organize around the process of collecting and analyzing PAI. It is time to adhere to the guidance put forth since the 1992 Intelligence Reorganization Act, which acknowledged the importance of “providing timely, objective intelligence, free of bias, based upon all sources available to the U.S. Intelligence Community, public and non-public.” More explicitly, in 1996, the Aspin-Brown Commission concluded, “a greater effort also should be made to harness the vast universe of information now available from open sources.”Again, in 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) emphasized the need for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to “ensure that the IC [Intelligence Community] makes efficient and effective use of PAI and analysis.” Despite these repeated issuances and a long history that demonstrates the importance of OSINT, the Naval Intelligence community continues to pay scant attention to OSINT relative to other intelligence disciplines.

Currently, the Naval Intelligence community has no formal training pipeline to develop open source analysts, no formal guidance on collection methods or best practices, and it receives little direction from Navy doctrine. As such, OSINT within Naval Intelligence resides (unreliably and disparately) at the grassroots level, where intrepid intelligence professionals and the occasional Mobile Training Team (MTT) delve into the realm of open source.

This approach is akin to a person who knows just enough information to be dangerous. PAI is going to continue to increase in scope and value, but also difficulty, which is precisely why the Naval Intelligence community needs to develop a formal training pipeline so they can begin addressing the problem from the bottom-up. In the meantime, the Navy can leverage open-source training that exists within the larger Intelligence Community or employ private organizations like Jane’s IHS that offer OSINT training on effective collection methods, monitoring social media, conducting safe and optimized searches, and conducting analysis of PAI. Such training will allow analysts to exploit the full potential of OSINT and move past mere regurgitation of previously reported information.

The author argues that the U.S. Navy should take note of international and joint force partners who have emphasized the institutional value of OSINT. In the above photo, Canadian LTC Ian MacVicar provides a period of instruction to African officers as part of CJTF-Horn of Africa’s Open Source Intelligence Course. (Image CJTF-HOA)

The lack of a formal training pipeline is not the only limitation that undermines the realization of OSINT’s role in the Naval Intelligence community. OSINT is barely mentioned in Naval doctrine, all but ensuring that the training and cultural issues will remain. Moreover, the absence of OSINT in doctrine provokes discord amongst intelligence professionals and creates an environment where commanders default toward a pre-conceived emphasis to classified sources.

This is where the Navy can learn a lesson from the other services and the larger intelligence community, which have all made significant steps towards including OSINT in their doctrine. These lessons, borne of years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, lend themselves to adaption by the Navy. For example, both the Marine Corps and Army detail the collection and production of OSINT, considerations to judge reliability and credibility, and reporting and dissemination procedures. Similarly, both DIA and NGA recognize the importance of OSINT and the emerging technologies that support its exploitation.

Adding OSINT to doctrine will work in tandem with a formal training pipeline and change the culture from top-down. Together these changes can overcome what is perhaps the greatest barrier that OSINT faces: an analytic cultural that does not afford OSINT the same respect as other disciplines. A 2005 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) summed up this sentiment, stating “analysts tend to give more weight to a folder stamped ‘SECRET’ than to the latest public broadcast of an Al Qaeda message on Al Jazeera Satellite television network.” Changing the culture will take time and money, but not changing the culture will certainly be more costly. The time is perfect, the officers and sailors joining today are accustomed to social media and the Internet, as are our adversaries.

Conclusion 

The referenced instances of OSINT’s successes and failures are not exhaustive, but serve as examples of the breadth and depth of OSINT support to the intelligence picture. History shows that OSINT has always been important, but the future indicates that OSINT will play an increasingly critical role in the intelligence picture. The Information Age profoundly altered the way PAI is produced, collected, analyzed, and disseminated, which has led to changes in the quality and quantity of that information.

Fortunately, the Information Age has also brought with it a host of tools to address these changes in the information landscape. It is time the Naval Intelligence Community transforms its approach and attitude to OSINT. Disregarding these changes risks a painful reiteration of past lessons where intelligence failures were the result of poor policy, not analysis.

LT David M. Andre is a prior enlisted Intelligence Specialist, and has served as an Intelligence Officer onboard the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65), an Intelligence and Liaison Officer assigned to AFRICOM, and as N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He is currently serving as an analyst at STRATCOM’s JFCC-IMD. He can be reached at dma.usn@gmail.com.

References

1. Jane Knight, “Nelson’s ‘old lady’: Merchant news as a source of intelligence: June to October 1796,” Journal for Maritime Research, Vol. 7, Issue 1, (2005): 88-109, DOI: 10.1080/21533369.2005.9668346.

2. William J. Donovan, “Intelligence: key to Defense” LIFE, 30 Sep 1946. Vol. 21, No. 14; 108-122.

3. Peter Chasseaud and Peter Doyle Grasping, Gallipoli: Terrain, Maps and Failure at the Dardanelles, 1915. (London: Spellmount, 2005): 173-174.

4. Arnaud De Borchgrave, Thomas M. Sanderson, John MacGaffin, Open Source Information: The Missing Dimension of Intelligence: A Report of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, CSIS Report (2006):3.

Featured Image: Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Michael Tolbert, left, and Information Systems Technician 2nd Class An-Marie Ledesma upload geographical data onto tactical Apple iPads for combat operations in the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 operations room aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Carl Vinson and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 are conducting maritime security operations and close-air support missions in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher K. Hwang/Released)

Reviewing the U.S. Navy’s LCS Deployments to the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region

CIMSEC is an all-volunteer, 501(c)3 nonprofit that relies on its readers to continue. Consider making a donation here today.

By Swee Lean Collin Koh

The littoral combat ship USS Coronado, upon recent completion of its 14-month Indo-Asia-Pacific stint, marks the conclusion of the U.S. Navy’s third LCS rotational deployment to the region. Thus far, the LCS has not operated without problems, including criticisms about its lack of a potent offensive strike capability.

Designed in two separate variants – the monohulled Freedom, and the trimaran-hulled Independence classes – the LCS forms part of broader plans to forward-deploy the bulk of the U.S. Navy to the region. Following the retirement of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates which used to be the U.S. Navy’s general-purpose workhorse, the LCS represents an alternative platform spanning between a huge, heavily-armed Aegis surface combatant and a small, under-armed Cyclone-class coastal patrol craft which had once engaged the Southeast Asian brownwater navies. The LCS also banks on its modular mission concept, enjoying up to 60-percent of reconfigurable below-decks internal space compared to less than 10-percent on board the Aegis surface combatants.

Of especially significant value is the LCS’s shallow draft, less than four meters compared to over 10 meters of the Aegis destroyer or cruiser, allowing entry into areas that other ships could not in the Indo-Asia-Pacific littorals characterized by archipelagos, congested sea lanes, shallow water, and small ports. “In that arc between the Philippines and Sri Lanka, nearly 50 ports are accessible to larger ships,” Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, Commander, Task Force 73 described in January 2017 but the LCS, he pointed out, “can dock in well over a thousand ports in the same range of locations.”

Trial and Error: Early LCS Deployments

 The LCS has come a long way since the first vessel, the USS Freedom (LCS-1), debuted in the type’s maiden rotational deployment. But this ship was unfortunately bogged down by systems breakdown, which was attributed to it being “a research and development platform,” even though the ship remained available for 70 percent of the time – on par with most other forward-deployed vessels. Despite its problems, the LCS even managed to render humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the Philippines in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. The U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin have since made design changes in follow-on Freedom-class ships, such as improved diesel-electric generators, main reduction gear coolers, and other software modifications.

Following the Freedom, her sister ship of the same class, USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), became the second LCS to be rotated through Southeast Asia. It was also the first LCS to deploy for 16 months under a “3-2-1” manning concept, that is, having three rotational crews to support two LCS and one ship deployed at any time. This envisages fully-trained crews to be swapped roughly every four months, thus allowing it to deploy six months longer than the Freedom which swapped crews only once every 10 months, thus extending LCS forward presence and reducing crew fatigue. The Fort Worth deployment served as a U.S. Navy test-bed for how the LCS can be employed for sustained periods taking into consideration that the small crew size, rotational crew concept, contractor-reliant maintenance structure, and swappable combat systems modules are all relatively unique compared to the rest of the fleet.

Crewing remained a challenge, considering that the Fort Worth was manned by around 100 sailors, compared to 180 on board the Perry-class frigates. Then in January 2016, a machinery problem sullied the LCS’ otherwise noteworthy performance, resulting in the ship being side-lined for extended periods. After a prolonged period of rectification work, the Fort Worth managed to join the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in July. Overall, the Fort Worth fared reasonably well – underway for 185 out of 298 days for its entire deployment – totaling over 18 months with the 7th Fleet. It managed to complete numerous bilateral and multilateral engagements, and assisted in the search-and-rescue operations for AirAsia flight QZ8501 in late 2014.

New Milestones with the USS Coronado

The USS Coronado (LCS-4) arrived in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility in early October 2016 – becoming the first Independence variant to deploy to Southeast Asia. Compared to the Freedom variants, the Coronado possesses more fuel capacity thereby providing increased operational capabilities. It is also equipped with the Surface Warfare mission package, comprising two 11-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boats, two teams for visit, board, search and seizure operations, and two 30mm chain guns. Most significantly, this variant boasts a bigger flight deck allowing for expanded aviation operations including two MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and for the first time on board an LCS to Southeast Asia, an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter.

In response to criticisms about the LCS’ lack of long-range offensive strike capabilities, the Coronado was outfitted with four RGM-84 Harpoon Block-1C anti-ship cruise missiles. This is roughly equivalent to the four YJ-83 missiles typically fitted on board the Chinese Type 056 Jiangdao corvette. The Harpoon is a venerable but aging design despite numerous upgrades. Until new ASCMs such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) arrive, the LCS will have to make do with the Harpoon. This armament, hitherto not seen in the Freedom and Fort Worth deployments, represents a step, albeit an interim one, toward bolstering the LCS’ combat capabilities.

The Coronado became a test-bed for surface strike concepts integrating both the newfound missile capability and its organic aviation capacity. The LCS captured the first inverse synthetic aperture radar pictures of surrounding surface contacts with the Fire Scout, marking a critical step toward providing a recognized maritime picture for the LCS, and for over-the-horizon (OTH) Harpoon missile targeting. The first OTH test-fire failed to hit its target in July 2016 during RIMPAC, but following rectification work, in August the following year the Coronado successfully fired a live Harpoon ASCM off Guam in OTH mode using both Fire Scout and MH-60S to provide targeting support.

PHILIPPINE SEA (Aug. 22, 2017) A Harpoon missile launches from the missile deck of the littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) off the coast of Guam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaleb R. Staples/Released)

Compared to the previous LCS deployments, the Coronado also attained several new breakthroughs for the LCS Program. Amongst various skillsets including small-boat defense, the Coronado demonstrated a first for the LCS in integrating special operations forces during RIMPAC 2016. Moreover, the ship was able to complete in just seven days extensive “D” Phase maintenance, the most intrusive period of organizational-level maintenance which normally takes as long as 2.5 weeks for the MH-60S helicopter while deployed – another achievement.  

The Coronado also advanced the 15-4 maintenance concept of shaving the average repair time for maintenance casualties while deployed from 15 to just four days, thus increasing ship availability and readiness, according to Lieutenant Commander Arlo Abrahamson, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 73. Furthermore, in June 2017, the LCS conducted an expeditionary preventive maintenance availability in Cam Ranh International Port, Vietnam – marking the first demonstration of such capabilities for the Independence variant to be conducted outside the normal maintenance hub in Singapore – and a similar feat was accomplished in Lumut, Malaysia.

Adding Value to Southeast Asian Maritime Security

Southeast Asian maritime forces may have invested in larger surface combatants such as frigates, but they continue to operate numerous coastal and patrol combatants which mainly operate well within the shallow 12-nautical mile territorial sea limits. With its shallow draft, the LCS gains more opportunities to engage these often obscure Southeast Asian “brownwater” counterparts, availing the crew to the latter’s diverse range of useful experiences and intimate familiarity with the local littoral operating environment. “The LCS is a comparable sized platform to ships of navies across South and Southeast Asia, which provides an opportunity to conduct a variety of operations and missions with partner nations… and our LCS sailors learn just as much from operating with the partner navies of the region – so the learning goes both ways,” Gabrielson wrote.

Such engagements would not have been possible if Southeast Asian brownwater naval elements are unable to venture beyond those littoral confines to train with the U.S. Navy’s large surface combatants. This is also a matter of managing perceptions – a gigantic Aegis destroyer might not make good contrasting optics with the puny Southeast Asian vessels; it could appear too overpowering yet at the same time, excessive for the limited nature and scope of engagements with these much simpler and capability-constrained counterparts.

In all, throughout the entire 14-month deployment to Southeast Asia, the Coronado continued and built on the work done by its predecessors. In its 15 port visits across the Indo-Asia-Pacific, the Coronado called on Cam Ranh and Lumut in July and September 2017 respectively – the first for the LCS. In the Sulu Sea, where kidnap-for-ransom attacks by militants were reported, it conducted coordinated counter-piracy operations with the Philippine Navy. The Coronado implemented ship-rider programs by embarking regional naval officers on board the vessel. It also rehearsed the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) procedures during Naval Engagement Activity Vietnam – another continuation from its predecessors, such as the Fort Worth which practised the mechanism with Chinese warships during its May 2015 South China Sea routine patrol.

Notably, however, the Coronado adds to Southeast Asian maritime security capacity-building – leveraging upon its capabilities hitherto not found on board its predecessors to enhance interoperability especially in conventional warfighting. Building on the Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercises in August 2015, when several Southeast Asian navies conducted deck landing practice with their helicopters on board the Fort Worth for the first time, the Coronado’s UAS capability brought new value to the interoperability training – in particular OTH targeting.

This capability is especially relevant given the interest lately evinced in Southeast Asia in shipboard UAS capabilities, which constitute a cost-effective force multiplier for budget-conscious regional navies, such as Singapore which retrofitted the ScanEagle UAS on board the modernized Victory-class missile corvettes. In this context, UAS-enabled OTH missile targeting constitutes one of the key focus areas of contemporary Southeast Asian naval warfighting capacity-building. The Republic Singapore Navy refined OTH targeting of Harpoon ASCMs during the inaugural bilateral Exercise Pacific Griffin off Guam in September 2017, and the Coronado participated in the effort.

The significant utility of LCS rotational deployments to the region mean that plans are afoot to ramp up the ship’s presence. In February 2015, the U.S. Navy announced plans to operate four LCS out of Singapore – one at a time – by 2018. The LCS was viewed as “a pillar of future U.S. maritime presence in Southeast Asia,” Abrahamson remarked, adding, “We expect the next LCS to deploy to Southeast Asia in mid-2018 with multiple LCS operating from the region in the near future.”

Inherent Limitations

But given the need to balance between fulfilling an ever-growing list of operational demands in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and enhancing operational safety, especially in the wake of the recent ship collisions, capacity constraints may pose potential challenges. Despite extensive automation on board the LCS which meant less sailors required for daily tasks, thereby allowing a rotational crew concept and keeping ships deployed longer than other platforms, a smaller crew also has less time for maintenance. This was addressed by the U.S. Navy’s implementation of a contractor-reliant LCS maintenance structure. During its deployment, the Fort Worth docked in Singapore once every few weeks to be serviced by the maintenance personnel. To boost LCS availability, the Navy also purchased an expeditionary maintenance capability, which consists of two large shipping containers – one acting as a workstation and the other containing spare parts for the LCS, which can be shipped to most ports worldwide.

However, the small crew size on board the LCS still poses the issue of getting sufficiently qualified crews to man the LCS, in order to keep up with the high operational tempo that characterizes forward deployments to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. For instance, the delay in getting a new crew qualified to replace them after a change in training standards led to the open-ended deployment of the Coronado’s Crew 204. Crew 203, which was supposed to replace Crew 204, required a ship to get underway to qualify under the new standards. Unfortunately at that time, all available Independence  ships were either in overhaul or undergoing repairs – an unintended consequence of a complete reorganization of the LCS Program’s manning system triggered by the earlier spate of LCS engineering woes, such as the breakdowns which afflicted the Freedom and Fort Worth.

Considering that demands for security cooperation missions which typically characterize engagements with Southeast Asian maritime forces will probably increase, and given that the LCS is also required for crew qualifications besides rotational deployments, fleet availability would hinge heavily on the U.S. Navy’s overall scheme for small surface combatants (SSCs) that are tailored for such low-end tasks.

The current LCS Program envisages a total of 40 ships though the U.S. Navy has maintained a requirement for at least 52 to conduct security cooperation exercises with allies and the low-end missions the ship was originally designed for. A total of 29 LCS had been procured through FY2017 and for FY2018, the Navy would procure the 30th and 31st ships. The December 2015 program restructuring saw the reduction of planned annual procurement rate from about three ships to just one or two. As part of its FY2018 budget submission, the Navy decided to shift from procuring LCS to the FFG(X) separately from the LCS Program, starting in FY2020. But the FFG(X) design may or may not be based on one of the existing two LCS designs. This generates uncertainty overall for the SSC scheme.

Conclusion

That said, notwithstanding problems faced by the LCS throughout the three iterations of its rotational deployment, the presence of this type of warship not only fulfilled its intended missions but also opened new vistas for engagement with Indo-Asia-Pacific littoral navies, especially in helping build Southeast Asian maritime security capacity. As pertinently, in such times of troubled peace given the persistent maritime flashpoints and ensuing angst amongst many of the regional governments, the LCS does symbolize Washington’s deepening security commitment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

Swee Lean Collin Koh is research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Featured Image: The USS Coronado at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Oct. 16. (Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese Maritime Strategy for the Indian Ocean

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Week

By David Scott

Chinese maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean reflects a couple of simple inter-related planks; espousal of a “two ocean” navy and espousal of the Maritime Silk Road. 2017 has witnessed important consolidation of each maritime plank. Each plank can be looked at in turn.

“Two Ocean” Navy

In expanding naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China is pursuing a “two-ocean” (战略, liang ge haiyang) strategy. This is the manifestation of China’s new strategy of “far-seas operations” (远海作战, yuanhai zuozhan) endorsed since the mid-2000s, to be achieved through deployment and berthing facilities across the Indo-Pacific, in part to meet energy security imperatives and thereby achieve “far seas protection” (远海护卫, yuanhai huwei) and power projection by the Chinese Navy. This shift from “near sea” to “far sea” is the decisive transformation in Chinese maritime thinking; “China’s naval force posturing stems from a doctrinal shift to ocean-centric strategic thinking and is indicative of the larger game plan of having a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”1 This naval force posture has brought Chinese naval operations into the eastern and then western quadrants of the Indian Ocean on an unprecedented scale in 2017.

In the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean, February 2017 witnessed the Chinese cruise missile destroyers Haikou and Changsha conducting live-fire anti-piracy and combat drills to test combat readiness. Rising numbers of Chinese surface ship and submarine sightings in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean were particularly picked up in India during summer, a sensitive period of land confrontation at Doklam – e.g. Times of India, ‘Amid Border stand-off, Chinese ships on the prowl in Indian Ocean,’ July 4; Hindustan Times, ‘From submarines to warships: How Chinese navy is expanding its footprint in Indian Ocean’, July 5. This Chinese presence included Chinese surveillance vessels dispatched to monitor the trilateral Malabar exercise being carried out in the Bay of Bengal between the Indian, U.S., and Japanese navies, which represents a degree of tacit maritime balancing against China. Chinese rationale was expressed earlier in August by the Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet, Capt. Liang Tianjun, who said that “China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” but that China would also not “be obstructed by other countries.” India is increasingly sensitive to this presence (Times of India, ‘Chinese navy eyes Indian Ocean as part of PLAs plan to extend its reach,’ 11 August) in what India considers to be its own strategic backyard and to a degree India’s ocean for it to be accorded pre-eminence. In contrast, China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean lends maritime encirclement to match land encirclement of India.

In the western quadrant of the Indian Ocean, another first for Chinese deployment capability was in August when a Chinese naval formation consisting of the destroyer Changchun, guided-missile frigate Jingzhou, and the supply vessel Chaohu conducted a live-fire drill in the waters of the western Indian Ocean. The reason given for the unprecedented live fire drill was to test carrying out strikes against “enemy” (Xinhua, August 25) surface ships. The “enemy” was not specified, but the obvious rival in sight was the Indian Navy, which was why the South China Morning Post (August 26) suggested the drill as “a warning shot to India.” Elsewhere in the Chinese state media, Indian concerns were brushed off (Global Times, ‘India should get used to China’s military drills,’ August 27). Finally in a further development of Chinese power projection, in September a “logistics facility” (a de facto naval base) for China was opened up at Djibouti in September, complete with military exercises carried out by Chinese marines.

The Maritime Silk Road

At the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, the Congress formally wrote into the Party Constitution the need to “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative.” The “Road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pushed by China since 2013, with the “Belt” referring to the overland land route across Eurasia. The MSR is a maritime project of the first order, involving geo-economic and geopolitical outcomes in which Chinese maritime interests and power considerations are significant. May 2017 saw the high-level Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing, focusing on the maritime and overland Silk Road projects. A swath of 11 Indian Ocean countries participating in the MSR were officially represented, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia (President), Iran, Kenya (President), Malaysia (Prime Minister), the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan (Prime Minister), Singapore, and Sri Lanka (Prime Minister).

Major nodes and hubs of China’s One Belt, One Road project. (ChinaUSfocus.com)

On 20 June 2017, China unveiled a White Paper entitled Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. This vision document was prepared by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). It was classic win-win “pragmatic cooperation” involving “shelving differences and building consensus. We call for efforts to uphold the existing international ocean order.” This ignored China’s refusal to allow UNCLOS tribunal adjudication over its claims in the South China Sea.

The MSR presents a vision of interlinked ports and nodal points going across the Indian Ocean. The significance of the MSR is that China can expect to be involved in a three-fold fashion. Firstly in infrastructure projects involved in building up the nodal points along these waters that was alluded to in the Vision document by its open aim to “promote the participation of Chinese enterprises in such endeavors” and which could “involve mutual assistance in law enforcement.” Secondly, Chinese merchant shipping is growing greater in numbers, and thirdly, deploying naval power to underpin these commercial interests and shipping.

This pinpointing of ports across the Indian Ocean reproduces the geographical pattern of the so-called String of Pearls framework earlier mooted in 2005 by U.S. analysts as Chinese strategy to establish bases and facilities across the Indian Ocean – a chain going from Sittwe, Chittagong, Hambantota, and Gwadar. China of course consistently denied such a policy, but its drive during the last decade has been to establish a series of port use agreements across the Indian Ocean, now including infrastructure and facilities agreements at Mombassa and Djibouti.

Chinese penetration of ports around the Indian Ocean rim gathered pace during 2017. September saw Myanmar agreeing to a 70 percent stake for the China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) in running the deep water port of Kyauk Pyu. The port is the entry point for the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline. CITIC is a state-owned company, and so represents deliberate central government strategy by China. In July Sri Lanka agreed to a similar 70 percent stake for the China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPH) in the Chinese-built port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease. CMPH is another state-owned company, and so again represents deliberate central government strategy by China.

Gwadar, nestled on the Pakistan coast facing the Arabian Sea, has been a particularly useful “pearl” for China. Built with Chinese finance, it was significant that its management was taken over by the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) for a 40 year period in April 2017. This is deliberate strategy on the part of the Chinese government, given that COPHC is another state-run entity. The Chinese Navy has started using Gwadar as a regular berthing facility, in effect a naval base established for the next 40 years. Gwadar is also strategically significant for China given its role as the link between maritime trade (i.e. energy supplies from the Middle East) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is set to improve infrastructure links between Pakistan and China.

From a strategic point of view, China’s use (and control?) of Gwadar and Kyauk Pyu will enable China to address its present vulnerability, the so-called Malacca Dilemma, whereby Chinese energy imports coming across the eastern Indian Ocean into the Strait of Malacca, could be cut either by the U.S. Navy or the Indian Navy.

It is significant that although India has been invited to join the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, India has avoided participation. Its absence at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May 2017 was conspicuous. The official explanation for this Indian boycott was China’s linking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (which goes through Kashmir, a province in dispute between India and Pakistan) to the MSR initiative. In practice, India is extremely wary of the whole MSR initiative. Geographically, the MSR initiative surrounds India, and geopolitically Indian perception tends to be that it is but another Chinese way to encircle India. China of course denies any such encirclement strategy, but then it would deny such a policy anyhow.

The geo-economics of the Maritime Silk Road present China with interests to gain, maintain, and defend if need be. How can China defend such interests? Ultimately, through the Chinese Navy.

A More Powerful Navy

Chinese maritime strategy (a “two ocean” navy) is not likely to change, what will change is China’s ability to deploy more powerful assets into the Indian Ocean. This was evident at the 19th Party Congress. The formal Resolution approving Xi Jinping’s Report of the 18th Central Committee included his call to “build a powerful and modernized […] navy.” 2017 has seen Chinese naval capabilities accelerating in various first-time events.

One indicator of capability advancement was the unveiling in June at Shanghai of the Type 055 destroyer, the Chinese Navy’s first 10,000-ton domestically designed and domestically-built surface combatant. The Chinese official state media (Xinhua, June 28) considered this “a milestone in improving the nation’s Navy armament system and building a strong and modern Navy.” The Type 055 is the first of China’s new generation destroyers. It is equipped with China’s latest mission systems and a dual-band radar system

Chinese Navy’s new destroyer, a 10,000-ton domestically designed and produced vessel, is launched at Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) in east China’s Shanghai Municipality, June 28, 2017. (Xinhua/Wang Donghai)

So far aircraft carrier power has not been deployed by China into the Indian Ocean. China has converted one ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag and inducted it into the navy in 2012 as the Liaoning. But China is already deploying “toward” the Indian Ocean where in January 2017 the Liaoning led a warship flotilla into the South China Sea, including drills with advanced J-15 aircraft. This was the first Chinese aircraft carrier deployment into the South China Sea, and constituted a clear policy to project maritime power. This projection was partly in terms of demonstrating clear superiority over local rival claimants in the South China Sea, and partly to begin matching U.S. aircraft carrier deployments into waters that China claims as its own, but which the U.S. claims as international waters in which it could undertake Freedom of Navigation Exercises.

A crucial development for China’s aircraft carrier power projection capability is the acceleration during 2017 of China’s own indigenous construction of aircraft carriers. This will deliver modern large aircraft carrier capability, and enable ongoing deployment into the Indian Ocean. China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier Type 001A, probably to be named the Shandong, was launched in April 2017 at Shanghai, with mooring exercises carried out in October at Dalian. Consequently, this new aircraft carrier is likely to join the Chinese Navy by late 2018, up to two years earlier than initially expected, and is expected to feature an electromagnetic launch system. It is expected to be stationed with the South China Sea Fleet, thereby earmarked for regular deployment into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This marks a key acceleration of China’s effort to build up a blue-water navy to secure the country’s key maritime trade routes and to challenge the U.S.’s dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea as well as India’s position in the Indian Ocean.

Countervailing Responses

The very success of China’s Indian Ocean strategy has created countervailing moves. In reaction to China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India has pushed its own Mausam and Cotton Route projects for Indian Ocean cooperation, neither of which involve China; and alongside Japan has also started espousing the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor (AAGC), which again does not involve China. U.S. espousal of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) connecting South Asia to Southeast Asia is also being linked up to the Indian and Japanese proposals. With regard to China’s “two-ocean” naval strategy, the more it has deployed into the Indian Ocean, the more India has moved towards trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. Australia beckons as well in this regional reaction to China, as witnessed in the revival of “Quad” discussions between Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. officials in 12 November 2017. This countervailing security development includes trilateral MALABAR exercises between the Indian, Japanese, and U.S. navies, in which their exercises in the Bay of Bengal in July 2017 showed a move of venues (and focus of concern about China) from the Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, and with Australia likely to join the MALABAR format within this “Quad” development. China has become a victim of its own maritime success in the Indian Ocean, thereby illustrating the axiom that “To every action there is an equal and opposed reaction” – which points to tacit balancing in other words.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

References

1. Kupakar, “China’s naval base(s) in the Indian Ocean—signs of a maritime Grand Strategy?,” Journal of Strategic Anaysis, 41.3, 2017

Featured Image: Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zakaullah visits Chinese ship on visit to Pakistan for participating in Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 12, 2017. (China.org.cn)

The Evolution of the PLA Navy and China’s National Security Interests

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Steve Micallef

Since the beginning of the 21st century the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has steadily developed into a blue-water force able to rely on an ever increasing amount of modern equipment and platforms. This has been the result of years of intense effort on the part of naval planners in support of a more-forward oriented Chinese foreign and security policy. Indeed, until the 1990s, the PLAN was mostly a littoral or brown-water force tasked with protecting China’s waterways and never venturing far from coastal waters. Today the PLAN is enjoying an influx of money and new equipment as well as the fruition of development programs started in the 1990s and 2000s. All this has resulted in a professional force which is able to protect Chinese interest abroad, further Chinese foreign policy, and build Chinese prestige worldwide.

Strategic Context

The communist victory in 1949 was achieved through the efforts of the Army. The PLA could not project power far beyond Chinese Communist shores, indeed Taiwan remained under Kuomintang rule whilst the Kuomintang navy sailed with impunity, raiding coastal installations, merchant craft, and fishing vessels. The PLAN’s first task was to secure the Chinese coast and the Yangtze River and prepare for an invasion of Taiwan.1

Despite this there was a great lack of amphibious equipment and training, naval transportation and air cover for a successful invasion of Taiwan. Despite this, the PLA did manage to occupy Hainan although at a very heavy cost. Renewed American interest in the area at the start of the Korean War and the perceived American commitment to defend Taiwan stopped any further expansion.2  

This highlighted the main problem that the PLAN has faced since then, that is, it has limited ability to project power beyond its shores. Although during this period it was mostly due to technological and equipment deficits, geographically China is also disadvantaged. Even if it had managed to acquire blue water capability in the 1950s, China is surrounded by U.S. bases and allies checking its expansion. To an extent this also remains the problem today.

Looking outward from China, one immediately realizes how precarious its geographical position is. Its economy depends on the manufacturing of goods and their export.  China depends on oil imports to maintain its economic growth. All shipping movements have to pass through narrow straits and shipping lanes that can be easily cordoned off in case of war. Indeed, the whole of East Asia can be cordoned off through a series of islands that run from north to south, these include the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. This is known as the first island chain3 and having control of the features and waterways of the chain effectively means control of access to both the China Seas and the Sea of Japan. Similarly, there is also the Second Island and the third island chains. The second island chain runs from Japan in the North, South towards Indonesia encompassing the North Mariana Islands, Guam, and Palau.4 The third island chain includes the Hawaiian Islands and runs through the mid-Pacific to New Zealand in the South. From Beijing’s perspective these island chains cut off China’s access to the high seas, keeping it isolated.

Understandably, the Chinese are obsessed with these geographical features and their naval strategy is dictated by them. As its economy grew and became more dependent on sea trade, China set out to remedy its weakness at sea. For a traditional continental power like China, what Chinese admirals and generals see looking out from Beijing are concentric rings of American naval power stretching all the way across the Pacific (many would consider the U.S. West Coast as the fourth chain with Naval Base San Diego at its center). All these island chains are either directly occupied by the U.S. or by allies who give the U.S. access to ports and facilities.

The first to envision a shift in role for the navy was General Liu Huaqing (1916-2011) in the mid-1980s.5 Until this point the PLAN’s role was that of a subordinate to the PLA, it was a brown-water navy operating close to shore. Using its small units, it was expected to operate up and down the coast in guerrilla style attacks under the cover of land-based artillery and aircraft. This has been labelled as the “coastal defense” strategy. General Liu was instrumental in shifting the PLAN’s strategy into one of “Offshore Defense” and transitioning the navy from a brown-water force to a green-water force, and subsequently to a blue-water one. For this, he has been labelled as “the father of the modern Chinese Navy.”6

According to Liu, the PLAN should strive to develop four important capabilities: the ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time, the ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes, the ability to fight outside China’s claimed maritime areas, and the ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent.7 To achieve this Liu suggested expanding the Navy and strongly advocated for the PLAN to acquire aircraft carriers. Huaqing outlined a three-step program for the PLAN. In the first phase, which was to be achieved by the year 2000, the PLA Navy needed to be able to exert control over the maritime territory within the First Island China, namely the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. In the second phase, which has to be achieved by 2020, the navy’s control was to expand to the second island chain. In the third phase, to be achieved by 2050, the PLA Navy is to evolve into a true global navy.8 This is the broad outline of the PLAN’s strategy and since the 1980s it has been gradually acquiring the capabilities to carry it out.

Today we are seeing the outcomes of this strategy. The PLAN has expanded rapidly, acquiring the capabilities for a true blue-water force able to protect Chinese interests abroad while Chinese foreign policy expanded concurrently.

The Early Years of the PLAN

In the early 1950s most of the PLAN’s equipment was taken from the naval forces of the Republic of China as they retreated from the mainland. Officially the PLAN was established in September 1950, grouping together all the regional forces, some of which had defected, into a centralized command. The state of the PLAN was nothing to boast about. It was increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union to provide it with training and advisors, while home-built systems were basically none existent. As many as 2,500 Soviet naval advisers were deployed to China to boost the training of Chinese sailors while the Soviet Union also provided much of the PLAN’s equipment.

With the help of the Soviet Union the PLAN was reorganized in 1955 into three operation fleets9 and divided into five distinct branches. Today, the PLAN mostly maintains the same composition: its units are divided between the Submarine Force, the Surface Force, the Coastal Defense Force, the Marine Corps, and the Naval Air Force (established in 1952). All these fall under the responsibility of the three main commands: the North Sea Fleet, based in the Yellow Sea; the East Sea Fleet, based in the East China Sea; and the South Sea Fleet, based in the South China Sea 

Throughout the 1950s indigenous shipbuilding programs were instituted, shipyards were constructed, and Soviet-licensed designs were constructed without Soviet assistance. In 1958 when the Soviet Union refused to support the development of Chinese SSNs and SSBNs, the PLAN opened up the first institutes dedicated to the study of shipbuilding, naval weapon systems, underwater weapons, hydro acoustics, and other areas in a bid to remove its dependence on foreign designs.

Expansion continued into the 1960s with the Chinese licensing more complex ship designs and weapons from the Soviet Union. By the mid-70s the PLAN could call upon a series of indigenous designs. In 1971 the Type 051 destroyer was commissioned. This was the first modern surface combatant to be designed and built in China, and the first Chinese ship to be fitted with an integrated combat system. This was followed by the commissioning of the Type 053 frigate and its various subclasses for air-defense, anti-surface, and export purposes. In 1974 the first indigenous designed nuclear submarine started service (the Type 091). Together with this a host of other smaller surface combatants, including gun boats and torpedo boats, also entered service.

However, China had little interest in dominating the seas beyond defense. Its large border with the Soviet Union and the Sino-Soviet Split meant that China preferred to spend its resources guarding the border with the Soviet Union and Vietnam. The risk of a land invasion was perceived as a greater threat and  took precedence over maritime power projection. Preoccupied with matters closer to home, the navy continued its training and expansion, competing for resources from other branches.

In the 1980s naval construction fell below the levels of the 1970s. Up until that point the PLAN was still considered a regional naval power with green-water capabilities. Emphasis was placed on personnel development, reformulation of the traditional coastal defense doctrine, and force structure in favor of more blue-water operations; as well as  training in naval combined-arms operations involving all elements of the PLAN (submarine, surface, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces). The PLAN also started to venture beyond coastal waters and into the Pacific. However the strong Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay kept most naval units tied down in defense of the coast. It also prevented more Chinese involvement in the various Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes.

Gen. Liu Huaqing in March 1996, at closing ceremonies for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Credit Greg Baker/Associated Press

Spurred in part by the growth of the Chinese economy and the concentration of industry to coastal areas the Chinese increasingly looked at the sea as an economic lifeline. This was also the era when Liu came to prominence. His friendship with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping allowed him to influence the development of the PLAN. His programs included the reorganization of the navy, redeveloping the Marine Corps, upgrading bases and research and development facilities, and reforming the school system.10 These efforts can be considered as the origin of the professional navy that it is today.  

Despite these advances the PLAN was still largely subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force until the 1990s. However, during this decade the PLAN continued with its modernization with the acquisition of more modern equipment from Russia and deployments to the Western hemisphere with visits to the U.S., Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

The 21st Century Navy

The PLAN came into its own in the first decade of the 21st century. In terms of equipment the navy is increasingly relying on indigenous constructions. Today, of the entire surface force, only the 4 Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers and a number of Kilo and improved Kilo-class submarines are of foreign origin.11 The PLAN has also managed to acquire an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine which it has commissioned into service as the Liaoning. Whilst its combat capability is limited, it is being used as a testbed and indigenous designs are already under construction.

A number of destroyers and frigates of indigenous design capable of blue-water operations are also in service. The Type 052 destroyers and the Type 054 frigates are all indigenous, proven designs which have been deployed in various operations worldwide. Effort has also gone into the creation of quieter indigenous SSBN.

One may argue that it is not the equipment used but rather the way it is used that is of most interest. While in the early years the PLAN was mostly in charge of coastal defense this has now changed, the main reason being the growing Chinese economy which relies increasingly on the maritime domain for the export and import of goods. The PLAN’s main mission today is to “independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, to guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests.”12

The world got its first demonstration of the PLAN’s new worldwide presence in 2008 when for the first time PLAN vessels were deployed operationally off the Horn of Africa on an anti-piracy mission. PLAN vessels have been escorting merchant shipping in collaboration with other navies ever since.13 The message here is clear, the Chinese leadership is placing the security of its seaborne trade as critical for the overall development of the nation. The sea lines of communication must remain open.14 Overall these missions have been a resounding success for the PLAN and the Chinese have demonstrated remarkable willingness to collaborate on this issue, presenting China as a responsible player on the world stage but also gaining important operational experience in the process. Indeed, short of an all-out war, these operations were the closest that PLAN personnel got to quasi-combat missions.15 The construction of a PLAN base in Djibouti in 201716 is expected to enhance the Chinese presence in the area while also increasing the Navy’s capabilities to project power abroad. This is part of a wider effort to secure vital sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean.17

The PLAN has been more active worldwide since the first decade of the 21st century. It has been invited and attended RIMPAC in 201418 and 2016,19 and has again been invited in 2018.20 It trained with the Russian Navy during Joint Sea 2016 and 2017 military exercises, the later involving exercises in the Sea of Japan21 and the Baltic Sea.22 The fact that Chinese ships travelled to the Baltic is a testament to how far the PLAN has come. En route the flotilla of Chinese ships made various goodwill visits to Western ports.

Whilst the PLAN has been active in combating piracy abroad, closer to home it has also been employed for less ‘noble’ purposes. The PLAN has been actively supporting the Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea. The dependence on seaborne trade, the relative ease by which South China Sea-bound maritime traffic can be blockaded, and the ability of the USN to sail in it without impunity (as during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when two aircraft carrier groups were deployed near Taiwan) have reinforced Chinese conviction that it needs to strengthen its defenses. Through its claim of the South China Sea, China has been engaged in a significant land reclamation project and turned minuscule features into military bases, from where aircraft, ships, and shore-based weapons could readily target the shipping transiting the critical waterway. As Admiral Harry Harris put it, the Chinese are building a “Great wall of sand.”23

While the Nine-Dash Line is hardly new, never before has China been able to enforce it. Indeed, after the Second World War, none of the features in the Spratly and Paracel islands were occupied, today various claimants maintain a multitude of facilities.24 This could not have been possible without naval support. China has also demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise, as events regarding Scarborough Shoal, Vietnam’s oil drilling, and the ITLOS ruling have demonstrated. The Chinese Navy and coast guard have steadily pushed out Philippine fisherman from traditional fishing grounds, and China has been left in de facto control.25

In this situation might has made right and China is certainly succeeding in getting its way in the South China Sea. Beyond the protection of trade this could also have other implications. Since the end of the Second World War the U.S. has been able to maintain a permanent presence in the region through a network of alliances and military bases. Under its hegemony the region has prospered economically. A powerful navy would allow China to challenge U.S. dominion in the region and usher in an era where China could be the hegemon in Asia, perhaps even envisioning its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

Conclusion

The modernization of the PLAN and the broadening of Chinese foreign policy are both linked. A larger, more advanced navy has allowed China to be more present on the world stage. Beyond prestige the PLAN has allowed China to be more engaged and aggressive in its foreign policy dealings. The need to maintain sea lines of communication has pushed China to further develop its navy. One can only speculate on what effect this will have in the long run; whilst some welcome a more present PLAN which can help secure the seas for all, there are those that reason that Beijing will increasingly use its newfound naval strength to expand its sphere of influence, creating an international or regional system that more suits its needs at the expense of others. After all, navies are the chief tool of global power projection and why build capability if not to use it?

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

References

[1] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 7.

[2] Ibid. 8-9.

[3] Yoshihara, T., & Holmes, J. R. (2013). Red star over the Pacific: China’s rise and the challenge to U.S. maritime strategy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 20.

[4] Ibid. 21.

[5] http://cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 176.

[9] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/plan.htm

[10] Ibid. 16.

[11] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). (2017). The Military Balance, 2017. London: Routledge. 281-283

[12] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 66-67.

[13] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 144-147.

[14] Kamphausen, R., Lai, D., Scobell, A., Army War College. Strategic Studies Institute, Bush School of Government & Public Service, National Bureau of Asian Research, . . . Texas A & M University. (2010). The PLA at home and abroad: Assessing the operational capabilities of China’s military. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. 296.

[15] Ibid. 301

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti/china-formally-opens-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti-idUSKBN1AH3E3

[17] https://www.csis.org/analysis/issues-insights-vol-14-no-7-revisiting-chinas-string-pearls-strategy

[18] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/2014/participants/

[19] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/participants/#

[20] https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/rimpac-2018-china-to-participate-in-major-us-naval-exercise/

[21] https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/chinese-russian-navies-hold-exercises-in-sea-of-japan-okhotsk-sea/

[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html

[23] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

[24] Hayton, B. (2014). The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.61.

[25] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-philippines-witne/a-journey-to-scarborough-shoal-the-south-china-seas-waterworld-idUSKBN17E09O

Featured Image: Chinese carrier Type 001A is transferred from drydock on April 26, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)