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China’s Far Seas Naval Operations, from the Year of the Snake to the Year of the Pig

By Ryan D. Martinson

Every year, about this time, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) send their regards to Chinese sailors deployed overseas during the Lunar New Year. Every year these messages are covered by the Chinese press. Few in China pay attention to these reports. Fewer foreign observers even know of them, but they should. This annual ritual tells the story of China’s emergence as a global naval power.

A Tradition is Born

PLAN leaders made their first Lunar New Year’s call in the second year of China’s anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. On the afternoon of February 11, 2010 PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Liu Xiaojiang met in the PLAN Operations Command Center. There they held a video teleconference (VTC) with the members of China’s 4th escort task force. According to Chinese press reports, the two leaders expressed their “holiday wishes” and “enthusiastic regards” to all Chinese sailors who were “fighting on the frontlines” in China’s anti-piracy mission.1

This VTC established the pattern for future lunar salutations. Admiral Wu praised the sailors for all that they had achieved while abroad. After 105 days, they had escorted 359 commercial ships, rescuing three from pirate attack. In doing their duty, they had portrayed an image of China as a responsible great power and “won wide acclaim both at home and abroad.” Wu entreated his sailors to faithfully implement the policies and instructions of the Central Military Commission and its Chairman, Hu Jintao. He warned them against complacence—they can and should strive to do better. Liu Xiaojiang followed with more praise, and orders for the task force commander to arrange fun activities so that sailors could have a safe, auspicious, and happy Spring Festival.2

During the two years that followed, only the anti-piracy mission kept Chinese sailors in the “far seas” (远海) during the Lunar New Year.3 From their station off the Horn of Africa, these forces helped protect Chinese commercial vessels and personnel transiting the Gulf of Aden. They also performed other non-combat operations, such as evacuating Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015. Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy was developing another far seas mission set—high-intensity combat operations east of the first island chain. In 2013, this objective brought Chinese sailors to sea on the most important holiday of the year.

Year of the Snake (2013)

On February 6, 2013, Wu Shengli and Liu Xiaojiang held two VTCs—a first in the history of New Year’s salutations. They called Task Force 570, which was conducting escort operations in the Gulf of Aden, China’s 13th escort task force to date. For their second call, they connected with Task Force 113, then doing far seas training in the Philippine Sea. It comprised three vessels from the North Sea Fleet: the destroyer Qingdao and two frigates, the Yantai and Yancheng.4

Deployments to the Philippine Sea were not unusual. The PLAN routinized operations east of the first island chain in 2007. Task Force 113 represented just one of six (or more) far seas deployments in 2013, and it was certainly not the biggest. Indeed, in October of that year elements of all three PLAN fleets—North, East, and South—congregated in the Philippine Sea for MANEUVER-5, the PLAN’s first large-scale confrontation exercise in the far seas. But Task Force 113 was the first to conduct far seas training during the Spring Festival. With this decision, Wu and Liu showed that China was serious about its plans to transform the PLAN into a force capable of conducting high-intensity operations east of the first island chain, against the only potential adversary that could conceivably be there—the U.S. Navy.5 The years since have seen a dramatic acceleration in the pace of this transformation.

Year of the Horse (2014)

As Chinese citizens prepared to celebrate the year of the horse, hundreds of PLAN personnel were abroad. Wu and Liu made two calls on January 27, 2014. Aside from the 16th escort task force, they talked to Task Force 989, then pioneering a new model for far seas training.6 Up until then, PLAN far seas training mostly involved forays into the Philippine Sea. Task Force 989 conducted the PLAN’s first “two-ocean” (两洋) deployment. The task force—which comprised three surface combatants from the South Sea Fleet—departed Sanya, Hainan on January 20th.7 It sailed through the South China Sea, where it drilled with China’s submarine force, sharpening skills and tactics needed to break an enemy blockade. After that, the task force continued south, lingering at the James Shoal to hold a ceremony marking the southernmost extent of claimed Chinese territory. It then sailed through the Sunda Strait, into the Indian Ocean. After training in waters south of Java, the three ships next proceeded north into the western Pacific via the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and Celebes Sea. After operating in the Philippine Sea, Task Force 989 crossed the first island chain at the Miyako Strait, before heading home to Zhanjiang, Guangdong, where it arrived on February 11th. During its 23-day deployment, the task force conducted “realistic” (实战化) training along the strategically-important waterways connecting the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.8

The “Two-Ocean” Deployment of Task Force 989 (January 20-February 11, 2014)

Year of the Goat (2015) and Year of the Monkey (2016)

The years 2015 and 2016 saw increased emphasis on noncombat operations in the far seas. In the past, anti-piracy escort task forces relieved before the Lunar New Year always arrived home before the holiday. This changed in the year of the goat. When Admiral Wu and the new PLAN Political Commissar, Miao Hua, called the navy’s overseas forces on February 15, 2014, Task force 547 was on its third month of escort operations in the Gulf of Aden.9 Meanwhile, the 18th escort task force was then in Piraeus, Greece, on a four-day port visit.10 It would not arrive home until March 19, 2015. Wu and Miao also connected with Task Force 138, led by the East Sea Fleet’s Sovremenny-class destroyer Taizhou, which spent the Lunar New Year training in the Philippine Sea.

The year of the monkey looked much the same. When Wu and Miao called on the afternoon of February 2nd, they spoke to three different PLAN task forces operating abroad. Task Force 57, the 21st escort task force, was then just pulling into India to participate in an international fleet review. Its relief, Task Force 576, was conducting anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, a task force led by the North Sea Fleet’s destroyer Harbin was deployed somewhere in the Western Pacific.11

Year of the Rooster (2017)

No PLAN surface forces operated east of the first island chain during the 2017 Lunar New Year—at least none that Beijing cared to admit.12 The PLAN’s new Commander, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, and Political Commissar Miao Hua made the annual New Year’s call on the morning of January 20, 2017. They spoke to two escort task forces: the 24th (then preparing to arrive in Qatar), and the 25th (on station off the Horn of Africa).13 Shen and Miao inaugurated a new tradition on this day. They held a VTC with PLAN personnel involved in the construction of China’s massive new military bases in the disputed Spratly Islands. In his remarks, Shen described them as operating “on the front lines of island/reef construction.” He praised the sailors for “resolutely implementing Chairman Xi’s policy” and achieving the “strategic aims” (战略目标) of the new construction, which he did not define.

Why did Shen and Miao conduct a VTC with sailors in the Spratly Islands in 2017, when PLAN personnel had been there since the 1980s? Why only the Spratlys, not the Paracel Islands, which were also in the midst of a construction boom, or naval forces operating along other parts of China’s maritime frontier? This decision suggests that PLAN leaders regarded the new Spratly bases as more than just installations with which to influence events in the South China Sea, but also as key components of the Navy’s far seas force structure.

Year of the Dog (2018)

On the afternoon of February 12, 2018, PLAN leaders held four VTCs—more than ever before.14 Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong and new Political Commissar Qin Shengxiang talked to the 28th escort task force, which had just completed an escort mission to Kenya. They also called Task Force 173, then in the eastern Indian Ocean conducting a “two ocean” deployment.15 This task force comprised four ships from the South Sea Fleet—the destroyer Changsha, frigate Hengyang, LPD Jinggangshan, and supply ship Luomahu. After the call, it would sail north into the Philippine Sea, disappointing widespread media speculation that it might head to the Maldives during the climax of that country’s political crisis. Task Force 173 arrived home on February 25, 2018.

Shen and Qin also called PLAN sailors stationed at China’s first overseas military base. According to Chinese reporting, Shen praised the sailors for “blazing the path for overseas base construction,” clearly indicating that while Djibouti may be the first, it would not be the last. Shen and Qin also called Chinese sailors stationed in the Spratly Islands, which they now called the “Spratly Garrison” (南沙守备部队). Shen thanked them for “their important contributions to guarding and constructing the Spratlys.”16

Shen and Qin made four calls on that day; but they should have made a fifth. Chinese reporting on the VTC excludes any mention of Task Force 171 (i.e., the 27th escort task force). It comprised three vessels—the destroyer Haikou, the frigate Yueyang, and the supply ship Qinghaihu. In the second half of January 2018, after making port visits to Tunisia and Algeria, Task Force 171 passed through the Strait of Gibraltar before navigating south along the west coast of Africa. On February 7th, the warships held anti-piracy exercises somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.17 Reporting on Task Force 171 then went quiet for 12 days, until February 19, when the ships arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a two-day port visit. This timeline indicates that when Shen and Qin made their calls on February 12, Task Force 171 was somewhere in the South Atlantic.

Shen and Qin almost certainly called Task Force 171—why would they exclude them? But if so, why choose not to publicize the call? There is no clear answer. Was the mere presence of the task force in the Atlantic judged too sensitive? Unlikely, since this was not the first time that PLAN ships had been there. Just six months earlier, Task Force 174 took the long way home from the Baltic, where it had held exercises with the Russian Navy.18 In mid-August 2017, it conducted simulated “missile attack exercises” somewhere in the Atlantic.19 But its activities were only publicized in the PLAN press, not the wider media, as New Year’s salutations always are. Perhaps the problem was that allowing press coverage of the VTC would require that PLAN leaders publicly explain what the task force was doing in the Atlantic, and why.

Year of the Pig (2019)

February 2, 2019 was a very busy day at the PLAN Operations Command Center. On the eve of the lunar holiday, Shen Jinlong and Qin Shengxiang called five different Chinese task forces operating abroad. Only one anti-piracy escort task force was on their list—the 31st. The 30th escort task force had arrived in Qingdao on January 27, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As in 2018, Shen and Qin called the Spratly Garrison and the PLAN’s base in Djibouti. However, for the first time in PLAN history, two task forces conducted far seas training deployments during the Spring Festival. The first comprised a task force led by the East Sea Fleet destroyer Zhengzhou. Chinese press coverage did not indicate where Task Force 151 was, or what it was doing.

The Chinese media did cover the movements of the other far seas training task force then at sea. Task Force 174 left Zhanjiang, Guangdong on January 16. It comprised the destroyer Hefei, frigate Yuncheng, LPD Changbaishan, and supply ship Honghu. When Shen and Qin contacted them, they were not in the Philippine Sea, but somewhere in the Central Pacific—that is, somewhere in the vast expanse of ocean between Guam and Hawaii.

Also new, the Chinese press described Task Force 174 as a “far seas joint training task force” (远海联合训练编队). It was working in conjunction with other services under the Southern Theater Command—the PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force. Official Chinese media sources revealed that one of their aims was to “explore methods and approaches for building joint operations combat capabilities to win modern war at sea.”

Conclusion

The information shared in the PLAN’s annual New Year’s greetings does not account for everything the service is doing abroad. The case of Task Force 171 proves that. These short news reports tell us nothing about the expansion of Chinese submarine operations into the Indian Ocean. Nor do they acknowledge other naval activities best kept secret, such as intelligence collection and hydrographic surveys.

Still, the short history of China’s Lunar New Year’s deployments tells us much about the key events in China’s rise as a global naval power. This history shows a growing emphasis on both the combat and non-combat elements of China’s far seas naval strategy. It highlights the geographic expansion of China’s overseas deployments—where once Chinese ships were concentrated in the northwest Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, they now operate as far away as the Atlantic Ocean and the Central Pacific.

In the year of the snake, China’s far seas force structure comprised small task forces largely reliant on at-sea replenishment and the expensive hospitality of foreign ports. In the year of the pig, it included significant shore-based infrastructure, including the country’s first—but not last—overseas military base in Djibouti and colossal new installations in the Spratly Islands. This chronicle of the PLAN’s New Year’s deployments also shows how China’s growing emphasis on jointness is affecting naval operations abroad, and informing Beijing’s preparations for high-end conflict at sea. All of these things have happened in a single decade.

This history is far from over. By all accounts, the Chinese Navy has a long way to go before fully realizing its nautical ambitions. Xi Jinping has told the PLAN to set its sights on becoming a “world-class navy” by mid-century. What that means is impossible to tell. The PLAN has not shared its benchmarks for success. What is clear is that the decisions of PLAN commanders on the eve of each Lunar New Year will continue to serve as a useful gauge for progress in this journey, wherever it ends up.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

References

1. 袁珍军 [Yuan Zhenjun] 海军首长视频慰问525编队全体官兵 [“Head of the Navy Holds a Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to All Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 525”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2010, p. 1.

2. Ibid

3. In Chinese military discourse, the term “near seas” (近海) refers to the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. The term “far seas” refers to all waters beyond the near seas.

4. 蒲海洋 [Pu Haiyang] 海军首长视频慰问570,113 编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 570 and Task Force 113”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 8, 2013, p. 1.

5. During the VTC, Admiral Wu told the sailors that their sacrifice “held important significance for strengthening the concept of readiness embodied in the phrase ‘being able to fight and win’ exploring and putting into practice a mechanism for normalizing far seas training, exercising and improving the service’s ability to conduct far seas missions and tasks, and realizing a good start to the surface fleet’s annual far seas training.” See Pu Haiyang, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

6. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问546,989编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 546 and Task Force 989”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 28, 2014, p. 1.

7. The task force included the LPD Changbaishan, the destroyer Haikou and the destroyer Wuhan.

8. 高毅 [Gao Yi], 南海舰队远海训练编队返港, 海军副政委王森泰到码头迎接并讲话 [“Far Seas Training Task Force from the South Sea Fleet Returns to Port, Deputy Political Commissar of the Navy Wang Sentai Meets Them Pier Side and Gives a Speech”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], February 12, 2014, p. 1.

9. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问547,138编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 547 and Task Force 138”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 16, 2015, p. 1.

10. The task force was in Greece from February 16-20, 2015. Perhaps because the crew were too busy ashore, Wu and Miao sent their New Year’s salutations via written message. See Wang Yuayuan, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

11. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问海上任务编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Task Forces at Sea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 2, 2016, p. 1.

12. A task force departed Sanya, Hainan for a “two-ocean” training deployment on February 10, just after the holiday ended.

13. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问112,568编队和岛礁建设部队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Officers and Enlisted from Task Force 112, Task Force 568, and Island/Reef Construction Unit”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 23, 2017, p. 1.

14. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军领导视频慰问海上任务编队,驻南沙岛礁和海外保障基地官兵 [“Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Sailors from Task Forces at Sea, Located at Spratly Islands/Reefs, and Overseas Support Base”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 13, 2018, p. 1.

15. The People’s Navy newspaper reports that on February 13, 2018 the task force was operating in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, doing an anti-piracy exercise. See 周启青 [Zhou Qiqing] 大洋深处的”飓风营救” [“A ‘Hurricane Rescue’ in the Depths of the Ocean”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 26, 2018, p. 1.

16. Wang Yuanyuan, “Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

17. 刘鑫 [Liu Xin] 我护航编队几内亚湾组织机动巡航训练 [“Navy Escort Task Force Holds Maneuver Patrol Training in the Gulf of Guinea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2018, p. 1.

18. Task Force 174 comprised the Type 052D destroyer Hefei, Type 054A frigate Yuncheng, and supply ship Luomahu.

19. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 砺兵,万里航程真如铁—174舰艇编队远海大洋实战化练兵纪事 [“Grinding the Sailors, A Long Journey is Just Like Iron—A Chronicle of Task Force 174’s Realistic Far Seas Training”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] September 27, 2017, p. 1.

Featured Image: Leading by the amphibious dock landing ship Kunlunshan (Hull 998), vessels attached to a landing ship flotilla with the South China Sea Fleet under the PLA Navy steam in formation during the maritime live-fire training in waters of the South China Sea from January 17 to 19, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Liu Jian)

Fight the Next Fleet Problem in the Solomons

By Ryan Hilger

“There’s a good chance…we’d lose the opening stages of this war,” remarked one high ranking official at a recent conference on Multi-Domain Operations.1 Many senior officials are rightly worried that our potential adversaries have spent the last fifteen years developing capabilities tailored against us as while the U.S. military has been focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, a plethora of other low-intensity operations occurring all over Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and perpetually overdrawn budget. Staffs in the Pentagon and at the systems commands fret over how we will maintain, much less expand, our competitive advantage as these countries undertake very public campaigns to develop capabilities such as hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence.

Lost in the moment it is easy to forget that we have been in a similar situation before in the 1930s and 1940s. During the interwar period, the Fleet Problems were strategic proving grounds and tactical classrooms, incubating revolutionary tactics such as carrier warfare. The Navy refined those strategies in the crucible of World War II, and the lessons from those campaigns, not just the battles, are key to maintaining operational superiority in a new era of great power competition. Admiral Scott Swift, while the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, reinstituted Fleet Problems to prepare the Navy for the high-end fight using the tools on hand today.2 Taking the Fleet Problems to the next level by including our joint forces will yield greater dividends and prepare the Navy for fighting campaigns, not just battles—something we haven’t done since World War II.3 Conducting the next one in the Solomons will reinforce the lessons of the campaign there in 1942 and stress the harsh, indiscriminate effects of geography on prolonged maritime campaigns.

Maritime Parallels and Analogues

China, like Japan in the 1930s, seeks to be a major regional, if not global, power. China continues to expand its presence and capabilities in the South China Sea, recently established a naval base in Djibouti, and begun making overtures to Vanuatu in the South Pacific.4 The Chinese, always with the long view, have embarked on a campaign to protect their global supply lines which are needed to fuel their industrializing economy. The Philippines, traditionally an American stalwart, openly denounced ties with us and moved directly toward Beijing.5 This sounds familiar. As early as 1931, the Japanese began pushing out into the same waters, seeking natural resources for their growing economy. By 1941, the Japanese had secured their western and northern fronts with campaigns in China and Manchuria, signed a pact with Russia, and established strong naval bases in the Marshall, Marianas, and Caroline Islands.6 Japanese naval power grew stronger by the day.

The conditions were becoming ripe for further expansion to secure their sea lines of communications and expel all western influence in Asia. After the war, the Japanese told an American survey team that their strategic plan for conducting the war against the Western powers was initially to be a “series of simultaneous and overwhelming surprise attacks on all of the Pacific bases of the western powers.”7 They succeeded brilliantly. The Japanese push to the their second island chain—both through the Marshalls and Gilberts toward Samoa, and through the Solomons with the capture of New Guinea as the final stroke—was predicated on the strategic desire to interdict supply lines between the United States and Australia, provide a defense-in-depth for maritime resource flows back to Japan, and to fight the remnants of the American Navy far from their shores. The same is true of Australia and its pivotal relationship to a Pacific campaign today.

The geographic conditions are eerily similar to China’s expansion today, and the “range, lethality, and sophistication of [their] new anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities constitute an unprecedented array of A2/AD capabilities that threaten the U.S. model of power projection and maneuver.”8 Additionally, today’s fiscal constraints, aging force structure, and readiness issues lends credence to the fear that the United States and its partners could be overrun in the opening phases of a conflict, just as it was almost eighty years ago with near-simultaneous defeats at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island, and the Java Sea. The subsequent campaign through the Solomons provides many lessons to inform maritime strategy today. Understanding these lessons requires a shift away from celebrating Mahanian naval battles, like Midway, to embracing the need to fight prolonged, joint campaigns to deter aggression or regain access.         

Island Chains and the Maritime Siege

Nowhere is the tyranny of distance felt more than in the Pacific. This was true in 1942 and it is just as relevant today. Coming from Asia, both the Japanese in the 1940s and the Chinese today have a number of stepping stones to project power, are able to create overlapping barriers to deter and attrite forces moving west, whether as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the 1930s or the Chinese Nine-Dash Line claims today. Captain (Ret.) Sam Tangredi identified these attritional operations as one of the central elements of an anti-access strategy.9 To this he adds four more: perception that the attacking force is superior; the maritime domain is the dominant conflict space; information, intelligence, and deception are critical and; unrelated events elsewhere have a decided impact.10 The Pacific theater, then and now, has many of these elements in abundance. 

The Japanese followed up on their successes of December 1941 with a series of rapid offensives through the south-central Pacific, sweeping aside nearly all allied garrisons in the process. At the outset, Admiral Yamamoto believed the American Navy was superior and needed to be reduced before giving in to a decisive battle. Lawrence Freedman notes that the Americans knew that an early attack was probable, but only looked to “the Philippines as a target and had underestimated Japanese capabilities. They had assumed that the strength of the Pacific Fleet would serve as a deterrent.”11 

In late January 1942, the Japanese pushed through the Bismarck Archipelago in the southern Pacific and seized a major objective at Rabaul.12 The development of Rabaul would be critical in flowing forces into the region to extend Japanese power into the Solomons and threaten allied supply lines to Australia.13 Subsequent Japanese Army operations in the region developed mutually supporting bases. Chinese movement toward Vanuatu today appears quite similar to the Japanese moves in 1942. Chinese port infrastructure projects in Vanuatu will be able to support warships once complete and the development of Chinese naval presence there would represent a major threat to both intercontinental supply lines and any naval forces moving through the region—the foundations of an anti-access strategy. However, in War Plan Orange, Miller notes that distance, so onerous for the United States to overcome, would prove a fickle mistress for the Japanese should Americans penetrate the barriers and establish advanced bases, giving it the ability to “sever Japan’s trade lifelines, neutralize its outlying stations, overwhelm its fleet in battle, and bombard its homeland. Defeat would follow inevitably.”14 The same could be said in a protracted conflict with China today.         

Joint Maritime Campaigns

The Battle of Midway brought the American Navy its first true victory of the war, but it was not the decisive battle of the war. As both navies recovered from the losses sustained, Admiral Nimitz knew that the Japanese buildup in the Solomons had to be stopped and that the course of the next campaign would decide the war. The allied forces had to take the offensive to gain the initiative. In just over one month’s time, American forces planned, organized, and executed Operation WATCHTOWER, or as it was better known given the dearth of resources afforded it, Operation “Shoestring.”15 The next four months following the amphibious landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7, 1942 would prove pivotal and decisive. 

American surface forces had yet to meet their Japanese counterparts in battle. The ferocious fighting in and around the Solomons, a true back and forth affair, shows the grind of the campaign and the absolute necessity for the campaign to be joint. The American Navy could not have won it alone then, nor, as Admiral Swift asserts, will we be able to do so in a future conflict.16 Taking a solely naval perspective of the Solomons campaign would fall into Rear Admiral Joseph Wylie’s strategic trap, in that “[t]oo often the first or blue-water phase of maritime strategy is regarded as the whole process rather than no more than the necessary first half.” The second phase, after adequate sea control is established, is “the exploita­tion of that control by projection of power into one or more selected critical areas of de­cision on the land.”17 Our fleet must necessarily remain aligned with our national objectives, supporting other operational campaigns by our joint partners, which force a decision of our adversary on land—neither the Japanese nor Chinese navies can capitulate on behalf of the national government should they choose to continue resisting. Thus, the success of the Marine and Army effort to secure Guadalcanal rested directly on the joint maritime campaign to keep them from being overwhelmed.

Solomon Islands map. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese held a formidable position in the South Pacific. The Solomon Islands were within range of land-based aircraft and naval forces from Rabaul, Buka, and other bases, which could all be quickly reinforced from Truk. Combinations of these forces could deny the seas around Guadalcanal nearly around the clock. American land-based airpower—Army B-17s based at Espiritu Santo, Efate, and Port Moresby—could only provide marginal support, and the aircraft carriers had to steam within range of Japanese air power to effectively use their air wings.  The amphibious forces of Task Force 62 under Admiral Kelly Turner, which needed several days of continuous unloading operations, would be exceptionally vulnerable until the airstrip on Guadalcanal could be made operational. Admiral Frank Fletcher, commanding Task Force 61, believed that he could only risk the carriers that close to Guadalcanal for three days at most before the likelihood of Japanese attack was too great to continue. Events forced them to withdraw after only two.18

The Japanese, though surprised, responded rapidly. American surface forces patrolled the waters to the north of Guadalcanal near Savo Island, protecting the landing forces. On the night of August 8th, Samuel Eliot Morison writes:

“Sailors onboard the cruisers were still talking of their performance during the two days past. They had helped the Marines to land by chasing Japs into the hills with 8-inch shells; they had protected the transports with anti-aircraft fire. But they were dog-tired after two days of incessant action and excitement…It was a hot, overcast and oppressive night, ‘heavy with destiny and doom’ as a novelist would say, inviting weary sailors to slackness and to sleep.”19

The American technical edge, radar, was ill understood by the senior leadership and ineffectively employed. The Japanese forces, on pins and needles, passed by the radar-equipped Blue around 0143 and surprised the heavy cruisers in the Southern Force when the shutters of their searchlights flicked open. At that same moment, HMAS Canberra shuddered from two torpedoes and the first of 24 shell hits. Her war would be over in less than five minutes. U.S. ships “replied at first only with their antiaircraft batteries and with machine guns. Subsequently a few main battery salvos were fired.” The Japanese, well trained in night surface gunnery, poured a steady stream of shells into the surprised cruisers. The Southern Force was finished as an effective fighting force in less than six minutes as Admiral Mikawa’s forces sighted Vincennes and the Northern Force.20 In less than an hour, Quincy and Vincennes were on the bottom. Astoria, gravely wounded, would succumb hours later. One can imagine a modern day onslaught with anti-ship cruise missiles in the opening engagement.

Photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. USS Quincy (CA-39), seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. (Wikimedia Commons)

By August 11th, the American position was critical. The Marines had been able to offload less than half of their supplies. Already exhausted Marines were put on half rations. “The 1st Marine Division was virtually a besieged garrison.”21 Admiral Fletcher’s aircraft carriers had been withdrawn hours after the defeat at Savo Island, much to Marine General Vandegrift’s alarm. None of the Marine defense battalion’s 5-inch coastal defense guns, surface search radars, or fire control radars had made it ashore. Those radars and coastal defense guns, coupled with the Army B-17s in the region, may have helped tip the scales of sea control in the waters north of Guadalcanal at a crucial juncture. Just as Admiral Fletcher’s forces were ordered to protect the landing forces moving ashore, so too the Marines and Army could have assisted the Navy in setting the conditions necessary for their continued survival and success on land.

Geography dictates, according to Tangredi, the need to tailor forces and “that modern counter-anti-access operations need not be the sole province of naval and air forces.”22 Today, the Army, Marines, and Air Force are all investing in maritime warfare systems that can support the Navy. The Army is retooling its Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) for anti-ship missions out to 186-nautical miles.23 The Marines are exploring similar capabilities from their High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).24 The Air Force recently completed several test firings of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) from B-1B bombers, indicating that they want to play a part in sea control as well.25 Sea control in and around expeditionary advanced bases, which the Marine Corps is reviving, needs to be a joint affair.

In a statement just as relevant today, especially when considering cruise missiles, Admiral Ghormley, commander of the South Pacific Area, foresaw the need for truly joint operations and communicated this to his task forces in the Solomons: “What we wish to achieve is the combination (no matter where the enemy may strike) of our shore-based aircraft and our carrier aircraft against the following targets in order of priority: Carriers, transports, battleships, cruisers, destroyers.”26 

The Navy should fully integrate the other services into its Fleet Problems and other exercises to develop the joint capabilities needed for maritime warfare. As Miller notes, despite the hasty tactical planning for Guadalcanal, the Allies “had a broad and well-established base in the doctrines governing landings on hostile shores which had been developed during the years preceding the outbreak of war.”27 We should do the same again, starting by conducting the next Fleet Problem in the Solomons as a joint force on a campaign timescale.

Campaigns Require Sacrifices

By November 1942, three more major naval battles and countless skirmishes would rack up painful losses for both sides, from aircraft carriers down to destroyers. Each side knew that the final decision for the island, and potentially the war, was drawing near and continued to pour every available asset into the area to sway the outcome. The lessons from those previous battles had been learned, and the new, fiery leadership of Admiral Halsey reinvigorated American forces.

On November 12th, reconnaissance indicated another Tokyo Express run headed to the Solomons to reinforce the Japanese garrison, shell Marine positions, and put Henderson Field out of action—this time with battleships. Admiral Halsey, desperately short on forces but having no other choice, ordered Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan and Rear Admiral Normal Scott to the area in two groups consisting of a few cruisers with a handful of destroyers—a pickup force—against a Japanese force of two battleships, half a dozen cruisers, and a dozen destroyers. Morison remarks that the Japanese force was “obviously too large a bite for Callaghan’s two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers. Yet, with Kinkaid’s carrier-battleship force too far away to help, there was nothing else to be done but for Callaghan to block, and block hard.”28 Captain Cassin Young of the San Francisco remarked to Admiral Callaghan, “[t]his is a suicide mission.” Callaghan replied, “Yes I know, but we have to do it.”29 The Marine position on the shore, and the fate of the campaign, had to be protected at all costs.

Helena first detected the Japanese force at 27,000 yards and immediately sent warnings to Admiral Callaghan in San Francisco. That was the first and last thing to go completely right. San Francisco’s inferior radar left Admiral Callaghan with an incomplete tactical picture, and he was unable to discern whether the returns were his ships or the Japanese. In the ensuing melee, both Admirals Scott and Callaghan and twelve of the thirteen American ships were sunk or damaged. But the desperate action saved Henderson Field from bombardment by two Japanese battleships and kept the airfield in service. Admirals Callaghan and Scott and Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, who assumed command after Admiral Callaghan was killed, would all receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that night.

Non-Linear Effects

The next day, Enterprise, the only remaining carrier in the theater and not fully capable of sustained air operations because of previous battle damage, flew off some of her air wing to operate from Guadalcanal under General Vandegrift.30 Over the next few days, U.S. joint air forces in the region, including the B-17s, would ravage Japanese surface forces. The crew of the battleship Hiei, whose ship was hit more than 85 times the night before and marooned near Savo Island with a jammed rudder, would scuttle their ship on the 13th after a prolonged day of repeated aerial assaults from Marine, Army, and Navy air forces.

B-17s of the 11th Bombardment Group based at Espiritu Santo bomb the damaged Japanese battleship Hiei north of Savo Island on November 13, 1942. Hiei, which was damaged in a naval battle off Guadalcanal hours earlier, appears to be trailing fuel. (Wikimedia Commons)

On November 14th, Enterprise steamed within range and launched coordinated strikes against Admiral Tanaka’s transport force, which was still steaming south to land reinforcements at Guadalcanal. The Americans launched a combined twelve sorties from Enterprise, Henderson Field, and Espiritu Santo, sinking seven of the eleven transports, with Enterprise pilots flying sorties from both Henderson and the aircraft carrier in the same day—the joint force operated fluidly to achieve a higher sortie rate than Enterprise alone could have generated.31 The remaining transports, though heavily damaged, continued on to Guadalcanal attempting to unload while being constantly harassed and further damaged by Marine fighters and B-17s. Admiral Halsey knew that the carriers could not be readily replaced and thus shepherded the platforms carefully. Air power was the critical capability, but the aircraft and aircrews were expendable. In this three-day battle, Admiral Halsey showed the novel fighting concepts of disaggregating the air wing and how effectively using the joint force in the maritime domain could reduce the risk to irreplaceable forces that needed to defend the objectives on land.

After four months of vicious, close-in fighting on land and sea, the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30th brought the initial campaign to a close. The United States had penetrated the Japanese barrier and gained a foothold in the region—the anti-access strategy had been broken. A captured Japanese document, reflecting on the campaign, put the case plainly: “It must be said that the success or failure in recapturing Guadalcanal Island, and the vital naval battle related to it, is the fork in the road which leads to victory for them or for us.” President Roosevelt would note, “It would seem that the turning point his this war has at last been reached.”32 Admiral Nimitz and his forces had gained the initiative only through a joint campaign.

Conclusion

As the Navy returns to conducting Fleet Problems and increasing readiness, the lessons from the campaign in the Solomons should be imbued into them.33

Geography reveals cold, hard truths about the ability to sustain a fleet beyond a single engagement. Campaigns at a distance require good stewardship of resources, national level commitment for support, and demands well-founded strategies at the strategic and operational levels to succeed. It drives how battles and wars are fought and won.

Resources will never be as plentiful as you would like. Learn to operate on a “shoestring” budget and still achieve your objectives. It requires tactical and operational level innovation and the freedom to experiment to prevail. Sometimes precious resources—ships and Sailors—must be sacrificed to protect the greater good. Do not forget the desired strategic outcome that put you there in the first place.

The pace of technological advancement and deployment is accelerating, but it cannot be allowed to drown our ability to fight. Officers and Sailors, on ships and shore alike, must embrace and thoroughly understand these technologies, and marry them with well-rehearsed, innovative doctrine to stay ahead of the enemy and prevail.

Maritime campaigns are fundamentally a joint effort at the strategic level. Failing to practice more creatively without joint (or even interagency) partners will harm combat effectiveness as a nation. Well-honed, integrated doctrine and tactics will deliver the non-linear effects in combat capabilities that we need to successfully deter aggression in the Pacific.

Our Navy plies the historic waters off the Solomons now; we need learn to fight there again. Send the joint force there now to figure it out.

Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer with the Strategic Systems Program in Washington, DC. His views are his own and do not reflect the opinion of the Department of Defense.

References           

[1] Sydney Freedberg, “Generals Worry US May Lose in Start of Next War: Is Multi-Domain the Answer?” Breaking Defense, May 14, 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/05/generals-worry-us-may-lose-in-start-of-next-war-is-multi-domain-the-answer/

[2] Scott Swift. “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3, March 2018, https://www.usni.org/print/92920

[3] Scott Swift. “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 5, May 2018, https://www.usni.org/print/93518

[4] David Wroe, “China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 9, 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/china-eyes-vanuatu-military-base-in-plan-with-global-ramifications-20180409-p4z8j9.html

[5] “Duterte: Philippines is separating from US and realigning with China,” The Guardian, October 20, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/20/china-philippines-resume-dialogue-south-china-sea-dispute

[6] Naval Analysis Division, Marshalls-Gilberts-New Britain Party. The Allied Campaign Against Rabaul. United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific), 1946, p. 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michael Hutchens, William Dries, Jason Perdew, Vincent Bryant, and Kerry Moores. “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons: A New Joint Operational Concept.” Joint Forces Quarterly, Volume 84, 1st Quarter 2017, p. 135.

[9] Samuel Tangredi. Anti-Access Warfare. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), p. 13.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lawrence Freedman. The Future of War: A History. (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2017), p. 65.

[12] John Miller. Guadalcanal, The First Offensive. (Washington, DC: Department of the Army Historical Division, 1949), p. 4.

[13] The Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, p. 7.

[14] Edward Miller. War Plan Orange. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), p. 32-33.

[15] Elmer Potter. Nimitz. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 177-179.

[16] Scott Swift, A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight.

[17] Joseph Wylie. “On Maritime Strategy.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 1953, p. 468.

[18] John Miller, pp. 20-79.

[19] Samuel Eliot Morison. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942-February 1943. Volume V. (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1949), p. 32.

[20] Ibid, p. 40.

[21] John Miller, p. 81.

[22] Tangredi, p. 16.

[23] Jeremy Hsu. “The Army Gets back in the Ship-Killing Business.” Wired, March 1, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/03/army-converting-missiles-ship-killers-china/

[24] Sydney Freedberg. “Marines Seek Anti-Ship HIMARS: High Cost, Hard Mission.” Breaking Defense, November 14, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/11/marines-seek-anti-ship-himars-high-cost-hard-mission/

[25] Ben Werner. “Pentagon Tests Next-Gen Anti-Ship Missile from Air Force B-1B Bomber.” USNI News, December 14, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/12/14/pentagon-tests-next-gen-anti-ship-missile-air-force-b-1b-bomber

[26] James Steele. “Running Estimate and Summary, 7 December 1941 – 31 August 1942.” War Plans and Files of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. American Naval Records Society, 2010.  Vol. 1, p. 605.

[27] John Miller, p. 58.

[28] Morison, 235-6.

[29] James Hornfischer. Neptune’s Inferno. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2012, p. 254.  

[30] John Miller, p. 186.

[31] Morison, pp. 264-269.

Naval Analysis Division, Marshalls-Gilberts-New Britain Party. The Campaigns of the Pacific War. United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific), 1946, p. 126.

[32] Morison, p. 287.

[33] Swift, Fleet Problems.

Featured Image: STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Dec. 21, 2018) An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, Dec. 21, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Grant G. Grady/Released) 181221-N-OM854-0135

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 7: Strategy and Force Development

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards. Read Part 5 on Material Condition and Availability. Read Part 6 on Strategy and Operations.

By Dmitry Filipoff

Force Development

Exploring the future of conflict while preparing to wage it is a daunting task. Military forces are constantly attempting to perceive how war is evolving, and subsequently orienting their institutions along that vision in order to be ready. However, what makes a military unique from most other organizations is that it does not execute its primary function (aside from deterrence) until war breaks out. This makes it especially difficult to prepare for major war since it is a rare experience that usually cannot be fully understood until it finally occurs. When war arrives, years of preparation are immediately put to the test, and deficiencies are violently revealed. How well a military has prepared for conflict in peace helps determine how much it will have to adjust in war. In this sense, force development is the peacetime equivalent of wartime adaptation. 

The term force development has been used here in place of a term that is often used to describe military evolution, “modernization,” which tends to have an inherent bias toward high-end capability and not full-spectrum competence. The idea of “modernizing” implies a focus on pushing for better technology, yet “modernization” 20 years ago could have meant preparing for low-end conflicts where technological superiority conferred little advantage. The term “modernization” can also encourage a habit of using the procurement of newer systems as a major milestone for progress, and promote the fallacy that once new technology is bought and fielded a shortfall has been filled or an advantage has been gained. What has to be recognized is that once the taxpayer has purchased new military tools the warfighter has an obligation to execute follow-through in the form of developing new tactics and training around those tools. Otherwise, the benefits or pitfalls of new technology will not be fully realized.

Force development as it has been described here intends to convey that the institutions that focus on tactics and doctrine, not procurement, are what primarily drive competitive military advantage. It intends to convey that operator understanding of how to execute and evolve tactics and doctrine is how to best define warfighter competence. Tactics and doctrine must not only be well-understood by the warfighter, they must be thoroughly validated so that they actually make sense in application. The professionalism of the force will punch far below its weight if warfighters are well-versed in warfighting concepts that turn out to be brittle.

Force development still occurs even in the middle of war, but it takes on a far more urgent character. Militaries are often forced to innovate and experiment in the middle of conflict, and spend precious time and resources on force development when those resources could be applied to the battlefield. However, even in the middle of a war (or especially so) militaries often choose to make those considerable investments because wartime adaptation can be decisive. Wartime force development can seek to correct deficiencies revealed by combat experience, rapidly field new capabilities built on fresh tactical insight, or remain ahead of the curve in a general sense as all sides continually pursue better tactics. If a force can enter a conflict with sturdier warfighting concepts then it can focus more of its wartime force development on proactive evolution instead of painful corrective action.

An example of failed peacetime force development and a subsequent effort to urgently correct deficiencies in the middle of war can be found in the U.S. submarine force. The submarine force entered WWII with ill-conceived concepts of operation, a highly risk-averse culture, faulty weapons, and underdeveloped tactics. Submariners at first expected to mostly use sonar to attack their targets (a dubious tactic at the time), were equipped with torpedoes that often failed to detonate upon impact, and had little doctrine for unrestricted anti-submarine warfare. These deficiencies forced American submariners to experiment with new tactics and doctrine in the midst of conflict.1 This force development failure happened in spite of the interwar period wargames, Fleet Problem exercises, and Admirals King and Nimitz both having a decent amount of submarine experience. U.S. naval commanders even had the especially useful experience of watching German U-Boats earn combat experience as they sunk hundreds of merchant ships in the Atlantic before America entered the war. However, as a result of poor force development, U.S. submarines punched far below their weight for many months while the rest of the force still relied heavily on them to take the fight to enemy home waters.

The U.S. military suffered a historically painful force development experience in recent years. Despite after crushing the initial opposition in the opening phases, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to falter hard as insurgents made impressive gains in territory and manpower. The counterinsurgent fight proved to be extremely difficult in these countries due to the complexity of interagency operations, unfamiliar frontline roles, war-torn societies, and a host of many other significant challenges. But as the Department of Defense sought to adapt itself to a difficult fight it at least had the benefit of history. Insurgency is perhaps the most common form of warfare, with around 100 such conflicts in the past century.There was no shortage of case studies to learn from.

The Navy’s current situation couldn’t be more opposite. High-end fleet combat between great powers using precision weapons has never happened before. This is why realistic exercising for the sake of experimentation and investigation is so important. Because there are zero historical examples to draw on, the Navy must dedicate an especially large effort toward building its own case studies of networked fleet combat actions in the form of unconstrained, large-scale exercises. However, the Navy’s long tradition of highly unrealistic exercising translates into very poor institutional understanding on many specifics of future combat.

The Navy’s chronic lack of realistic exercising and its bloated certification system reveal a force development enterprise in disarray. The Navy has many institutions that produce tactical memoranda, concepts of operation, and doctrine, all of which seek to evolve the force. Yet many of these ideas have not been effectively validated because exercises were not used to meaningfully test ideas in realistic environments. The few tactical and doctrinal ideas that did have the opportunity of being tested in large-scale exercises were likely pitted against handicapped opposition forces. This undercuts the process tremendously. Scripted exercises that guarantee easy victory are far more likely to produce brittle tactics and doctrine. These concepts will rarely experience multiple rounds of revision and refinement born from a series of iterative exercises. Clearly there will be many rounds of trial and error if one is testing warfighting ideas against capable opposition. As a result of using weak opposition to validate warfighting concepts many of the Navy’s most important wargames, tactical memoranda, concepts of operation, and doctrine never left the level of a rough draft.

Even if it was effectively validating concepts through realistic exercises, the Navy’s ability to teach the average Sailor new tactical lessons is severely handicapped. Warfighting certifications are supposed to institutionalize the Navy’s force development, but the bloated character of the certification system is strangling the Navy’s ability to become a learning organization. Tactical and doctrinal products cannot turn into meaningful learning if they take the form of just another certification event or inspection Sailors have to check off among the dozens if not hundreds of other events. Many Sailors already feel it is virtually impossible for them to get good at the numerous certifications that have been forced upon them. Because of this, institutions that work on producing tactics and doctrine are having many of their efforts effectively wasted because their products simply cannot compete for time within the certification system. And even if the Navy somehow made enough time for Sailors to effectively study tactical and doctrinal publications, they are being given little opportunity to use meaningful exercises to distill those lengthy publications into actionable and digestible insights. The scarcity of meaningful exercising and the bloated certification system have combined to produce numerous warfighting ideas that are untested, unrefined, and untaught.  

Under these conditions, the U.S. Navy is hard-pressed to define requirements that can remain durable in great power war. There should be absolutely no doubt that an incredible number of latent problems have been accumulated over the years as a result of lax force development and using weak opposition to validate concepts. If the Navy decides to embark on a serious path of transformation for the high-end fight then it must steel itself for difficult corrective actions, stubborn bureaucratic pushback, and the possibility that it may be stuck with tactically disadvantageous investments that could prove fatal in war.

Wargaming

Soon after leaving his term as the first president of the Naval War College he founded, Stephen B. Luce grew frustrated. Just before opening the War College, Luce commanded the North Atlantic Squadron, a unit he used to test warfighting concepts through at-sea experimentation and exercises. After finishing his term at the War College, Luce came back to the Squadron, hoping to conduct more exercising in pursuit of new tactics. Others had something else in mind.

After rejoining the Squadron, Luce’s attention was almost immediately diverted by higher ups. He was ordered to handle brewing fishing disputes that consumed much of his attention for the first year of his command. Unrest in Haiti prompted the Navy to detach one of his ships to the Caribbean. A request from the State Department took another ship. Not long after Luce’s flagship was also stripped from his command to serve elsewhere, the Navy Department inquired about his summer training plans.

Luce had finally had enough. With only two ships remaining under his command Luce fired off a stern letter to Secretary of the Navy William Whitney, and described how a fundamental mission of the Naval War College was being undermined:

“The fundamental idea (emphasis added) is to make theoretical instruction and practical exercise go hand in hand; or, in other words, to correlate the work of the Squadron and that of the College. In the lecture room certain tactical propositions are laid down, or war problems given out, to the officers under instruction. Their merit is then tested in the School of Application, the Squadron, and the result afterwards discussed in the lecture room. This system raises our Squadron exercises to a higher plane than those of any other known to me, and places our Navy, comparatively insignificant in all else, in advance of the Navies of the world in respect to professional education.”3

Today, the Naval War College stands as one of the most important institutions to the Navy’s force development. Aside from educating cohorts, the College performs critical force development functions for the Navy by playing a leading role in its wargaming enterprise. These wargames seek to answer some of the most critical questions of strategy and future development. They can inform war plans, test contingencies, and support major programmatic decisions such as future warship procurement. They can explore new tactics, doctrine, and warfighting concepts. However, the problem that afflicted Luce’s squadron also holds true today. The Navy has allowed operational demand to strip units away from its wargaming enterprise, and no serious effort has been made for decades to “correlate the work of the Squadron and that of the College.”

The Navy continues to use wargaming to make major decisions and provide important insights. However, the validity of wargaming is being diminished by both the rising complexity of networked warfighting and a lack of real-world testing. The Navy is heavily leaning on a tool that is growing ever more dependent on real-world testing for the sake of accuracy, yet the Navy’s exercise agenda appears to rarely reflect major wargaming initiatives. 

Wargames, because they are virtual simulations of conflict, operate on a far wider spectrum of tactical assumptions than real-world exercises. Attempting to recreate tactical accuracy in wargames stretches them to their limits and takes considerable effort. High-fidelity wargames can be extremely intricate programs, requiring meticulous inputs, powerful processing capabilities, and are governed by many rules. Elements of chance can be introduced through randomized results, similar to a dice roll.

Exercises and wargames must work together when exploring tactics and doctrine. Wargames can play out many scenarios in a preliminary manner to narrow down options and ideas. What remains can then be played out in the real world using exercises. In addition to testing out the ideas themselves, exercises can uncover assumptions and collect important technical data that can update the models the wargames operate on. This point was elaborated on by renowned wargamer Peter Perla:

“Careful observation, reconstruction, analysis, and interpretation of exercise events and system and unit performance can provide the insights and data to improve the form of mathematical models and the quality of parameter estimates. In addition, the physical execution of maneuvers and procedures required to carry out the operation can help to identify important operational opportunities or potential problems that the analysis and wargaming may have downplayed or failed to consider at all.”4

As powerful and complex wargames are, they are still only simulations, and cannot come close to the realism of exercises. Exercises have to be used to refine wargames in a continual feedback loop for the sake of refinement, and to keep wargames grounded in reality. Many types of wargames are not supposed to be static, but fluid simulations that are continuously updated through exercises to improve their realism and ensure their accuracy. Significant tactical discoveries should also be enough to prompt the replaying of certain wargames. Exercises can help wargamers more precisely understand the very things that make a wargame artificial, such as factors that must be reduced to dice rolls, inputs, and rules. In short, exercises help wargamers understand their assumptions.

The complexity of Information Age warfighting is one of the most powerful forces diminishing the value of tactical- and operational-level wargaming. As warfare becomes more complex, it becomes more difficult to simulate. This holds true for both exercises and wargames, but it is especially more true for the latter given they are simulations and not real maneuvers. The world of inputs required to accurately simulate warfare has grown to unprecedented heights, especially because so much decisive tactical space now exists within electronic means that are especially difficult to replicate in a simulation.

Networked warfare involves many complex and nuanced electronic interactions between opposing forces. The nature of sensing, deciding, and engaging has become an ambiguous electronic battlefield. Opposing sides will seek to jam, intercept, and deceive communications and sensors across the spectrum. Cyber attacks will seek to cripple systems, collect sensitive information, and proliferate throughout infrastructure. As an anti-ship missile closes in, its seeker can use a variety of sensors to pinpoint its target, and a variety of countermeasures such as electronic warfare will respond in an attempt to confuse the seeker. Bandwidth limitations will shape decision-making, and data will be processed and refined by both man and machine. Operators and autonomous actors will attempt a variety of real-time workarounds in response to electronic attack, and these attacks can cause them to lose confidence in their equipment and each other.

It is already extremely difficult to replicate many of these network combat dynamics in exercises, and for wargames many elements are outright impossible. While a wargamer can make due by using dice rolls to distill combat ambiguity into specific outcomes, this will not often satisfy the tactician or the trainer. Even the supposed strengths of wargaming are challenged by networked warfare. According to Perla, wargaming “is a tool for exploring the effects of human interpretation of information. Wargames focus on the decisions players make, how and why they are made, and the effects that they have…The true value of wargaming lies in its unique ability to illuminate the effect of the human factor in warfare.”5 Yet so much decision-making in modern war is completely beholden to electronic nuances that wargames struggle to replicate, and decision-making is often the direct objective of electronic attack.

Because networked warfare poses immense realism challenges to wargaming, a force development strategy in the modern era demands an especially exercise-heavy process of tactical investigation. Wargames have become more dependent than ever on exercises because exercises can probe whether decisive tactical truth lies undiscovered within the seams of simulation.

Exercises are indispensable to wargames because they can provide the important baseline input of the competence of the force. Even though it can be difficult to program human performance factors into a simulation, these are some of the most important variables to know for the sake of realism. By benchmarking human performance through exercises, wargames can have a realistic baseline of how well the force can perform and then build ideas within the limits of that potential. Otherwise, wargames will be misaligned with the training of the force, and can run the grave risk of producing tactics, doctrine, and war plans that are beyond the ability of the force to execute. To paraphrase a certain quote, you go to war with the fleet you trained, not the one you wargamed.

Force Structure

Soon after guiding at-sea experiments to test future warship concepts, Wayne Hughes became frustrated. The USS ­Guam had been modified to test concepts for the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a warship concept touted by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Zumwalt who desired a large platform dedicated to anti-submarine warfare. However, according to Hughes, the tests were hamstrung by a lack of imagination and poor understanding of how to use exercises to make a warship concept come alive:

“It was my task to design an experiment from which as much information as possible could be gleaned during ten days of intensive interactions between submarines, their target (played by the Guam), and the assorted screening units…SCS success depended on new tactics (emphasis added), which we didn’t have, and the tactical commander’s staff lacked enthusiasm to develop. I had frustrating conversations with the admiral, who thought his responsibility began and ended by rigidly following the test plan…An exercise at sea is as much for tactical development and training as it is for statistical testing. Most new weapons, sensors, and command-and-control systems entail new tactics to reach their full potential.”6

This experience points to a fundamental principle of designing military forces: force structure is founded on tactics.

How a fleet will be used in war is fundamental to its design, and the shape of force structure is guided by a perception of what capabilities and tactics will dominate. When it appeared advantageous to use aircraft to attack ships, nations built aircraft carriers. When a torpedo fired from an undersea platform could produce a powerful combination of surprise and lethality, nations built more submarines. When aerial threats took the form of missile salvos the U.S. Navy led the way in building warships focused on long-range air defense. When platforms were deemed to have lost their tactical relevance, whether ships of sail, ironclads, or big-gun battleships, nations stopped making them.

Three congressionally mandated force structure studies set out to understand what the future fleet could look like, and examined various considerations such as cost, forward presence models, and national strategies. However, while a force structure assessment can be shaped by many factors, the assessment is inherently incomplete if it does not attempt to understand how future tactics and doctrine will define the composition of forces. While the studies took various analytical approaches, the assessment conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies stands out in this regard. 7 It devoted extensive attention to trying to understand the character of future conflict, how capability development is trending across numerous warfare areas, and what new operating concepts may require. All of the studies acknowledged to some extent that visions of tactics and operating concepts are fundamental to designing force structure.

The existence of a platform or payload is solely justified by the tactical options and advantages it offers. The structure of a fleet is therefore the embodiment of concepts of operations that are built on tactics that are meant to work well together. However, the extent to which those warfighting concepts are proven or not is another question. Aligning force structure planning with an ever-evolving vision of future war is a major strategic challenge, and goes to the very core of force development. This point was made clear by maritime strategist Julian Corbett:

“The truth is, that the classes of ships which constitute a fleet are, or ought to be, the expression in material of the strategical and tactical ideas that prevail at any given time…It may also be said more broadly that they have varied with the theory of war…It is true that few ages have formulated a theory of war, or even been clearly aware of its influence; but nevertheless such theories have always existed, and even in their most nebulous and intangible shapes seem to have exerted an ascertainable influence on the constitution of fleets.”8

Those who favored battleships in the interwar period did not accurately predict their fate because their “theory of war” had failed to keep pace with change. They had a flawed understanding of how future war at sea would develop at the tactical level, especially with respect to how the air domain could dominate the surface domain. The American capital ships that were long expected to be the dominant offensive platform for anti-surface warfare instead spent most of their fleet combat actions serving as ships focused on the defensive anti-air mission. New tactical truth led to battleships being modified in the middle of the war to carry additional anti-air weapons and bolster their defensive firepower. However, their enormous guns, the core weapons that originally justified their construction, were totally irrelevant in this new role. If the interwar Navy had accurately predicted the tactical fate of the battleship would it have built them differently? Would it have built them at all?

For all the good the interwar period wargames and Fleet Problem exercises did for the Navy’s force development they often made one major mistake – scripting battles to guarantee a clash between the battleline.9 The potential of the aircraft carrier was rapidly growing, but in the minds of many interwar leaders the fleet combat actions of the era would still frequently feature fights between battleships. Interwar period exercises and wargames were artificially fulfilling this warfighting theory, thereby lending weight to programmatic decisions to procure battleships. It is quite possible that if not for the revealing combat experiences of WWII then navies would have continued building big-gun warships.

Modular force structure can act as an insurance policy against the sort of tactical irrelevance that befell the battleship. Modularity helps ease both peacetime force development and wartime adaptation. A “payloads not platforms” approach can help a force compensate for poorly-adjusted warship designs once conflict reveals hard lessons. Deep magazines and the large variety of missile payloads could allow a modern ship to change its mix of capabilities in far less time than it took a battleship to undergo a refit.

However, net-centric warfare has made adapting modern warships more difficult in certain respects, even with modularity. A key challenge will be in trying to ascertain how tactical outcomes heavily influenced by ambiguous electronic effects will translate into an ideal mix of capabilities. If defensive electronic warfare or jamming proves to be especially capable at defeating missile seekers then an adaptation could take the form of equipping a different missile loadout. Missile loadouts could also be affected by how well datalinks and network nodes can concentrate fires while being degraded by electronic attack. If the network is less resilient than anticipated, then a new missile loadout could focus on making a warship more independent from forces it would have originally relied on for networked fires.

An enduring principle of successful warfighting is optimizing the concentration of firepower. This principle has especially dominated naval force structure, and can be seen in how successive capital ship designs often grew larger and larger to concentrate more firepower. Preferable ways to concentrate firepower through force-wide tactics can also translate into how a fleet is built. Ships of various sizes offer different levels and types of firepower, and the way tactics affect concentration can translate into an ideal mix of platforms. Interwar period navies did not build fleets of only the most powerful platforms in the form of battleships or carriers even though large-scale fleet combat featured prominently in their minds. Rather, their fleets struck a balance between large capital ships and many smaller combatants such as cruisers and destroyers. They felt that their visions of fleet combat created relationships between tactics and concentration that encouraged a degree of platform variety.

Optimizing platform variety has become far more difficult in the age of networked warfare because assumptions about network performance can have a powerful effect on designing force structure. Network resilience will strongly dictate the extent to which capabilities can be effectively distributed and concentrated in combat, but the distribution and concentration of capability is also exactly what force structure seeks to optimize. A fleet that is built on a vision of a well-functioning network could very well have a vastly different composition compared to a fleet that anticipates fighting mostly in the dark.

To use a modern example, a U.S. Navy cruiser has 122 launch cells and a possible version of the Navy’s future FFG(X) frigate could have 16 launch cells. Would the Navy be better served by buying 20 frigates or 10 cruisers, where the cruiser could cost twice as much as the frigate but has seven times the missile capacity? A well-grounded understanding of how retargeting and engage-on-remote tactics shape a distributed force’s ability to mass firepower should inform such a debate.

Today the Navy finds itself at a critical inflection point in building the future fleet. It is currently finalizing designs and requirements for the next generation of surface warships in the form of a future frigate FFG(X), and a family of future surface combatants (FSC). The FFG(X) frigate and FSC warships are expected to serve well into the latter half of the 21st century. The request for proposals for the FFG(X) frigate offers interesting concepts of operation for how the Navy intends to use the platform:

“This platform will employ unmanned systems to penetrate and dwell in contested environments, operating at greater risk to gain sensor and weapons advantages over the adversary. The FFG(X) will be capable of establishing a local sensor network using passive onboard sensors, embarked aircraft and elevated/tethered systems and unmanned vehicles to gather information and then act as a gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks…In terms of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept, this FFG(X) small surface combatant will expand blue force sensor and weapon influence to provide increased information to the overall fleet tactical picture while challenging adversary ISR&T efforts.”10

This is a preview of future tactics and missions, but it hints at a major force development challenge. Requirements for these ships have to try to align with major transformations the Navy has planned. The Distributed Maritime Operations Concept is still in its early stages. The Distributed Lethality concept envisions numerous surface action groups that combine various types of ships into tailored force packages. Networked warfighting can feature various multi-domain tactics and distributed fleet formations, each with a different ability to concentrate firepower and facilitate command and control. Tactics for key capabilities like NIFC-CA, CEC, retargeting, and engage-on-remote will be the bread and butter of networked warfighting. An unprecedented increase in long-range anti-ship firepower is about to hit the Navy as a new generation of anti-ship missiles is fielded.

In short, these future ships must somehow reflect the implications of many net-centric tactics and roles the Navy has yet to develop or discover.

The Navy is heavily relying on simulations such as wargames and tabletop exercises to test concepts of operations for these future ships. According to Navy officials, the FSC program was “preparing for a big wargame…to test out ideas for the FSC family of systems” and that “Based on the outcome of the June wargame, officials should have a ‘surface force initial capabilities document’ written by July to get FSC into the acquisition pipeline.” One Navy official emphasized, “We’ve got to get these wargames right…”11

The Navy’s void of high-end experience is now a critical foundation upon which it is deciding its future. The Navy is led by officers who spent most of their careers in a fleet that failed to train them in sea control, abstained from equipping them with essential weapons like anti-ship missiles, and neglected to give them enough opportunity to test their tactical imagination in exercises. Many of the Navy’s most important wargames and simulations have not been properly tested or refined by real-world experimentation. The Navy has virtually no concrete doctrine for a very complex form of warfare that’s never happened before. This is a recipe for producing flimsy requirements for future capability. 

The experience of testing the Sea Control Ship concept suggests there may be merit to the idea of using real ships to test ideas for future ships. The Navy’s surface warfare directorate has already teased the idea of standing up an “experimental squadron” within the next year, and include a Zumwalt-class destroyer, a Littoral Combat Ship, an Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer, and an unmanned surface ship.12

However, compared to most other force development missions, the enormous investment that comes with a new generation of force structure should already pose one of the strongest possible demand signals for rigorous at-sea experimentation. The modern fleet should already be acting as an experimental squadron for the future fleet. But it appears the Navy is making some of the most important naval force structure decisions of the 21st century without using a series of major exercises to inform requirements. Now the Navy is poised to set sail into the future with a new generation of ships inspired by doctrine born in a simulation, and not in the fleet.


The eighth and final part will offer a Force Development Strategy.


Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

References

1. F.G. Hoffman, “The American Wolfpacks: A Case Study in Wartime Adaptation,” Joint Forces Quarterly, January 2016. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/643229/the-american-wolf-packs-a-case-study-in-wartime-adaptation/

2. Christopher Paul et. al, Victory has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies, RAND, 2010. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG964.1.pdf

3. James C. Rentfrow, “The Squadron Under Your Command: Change and the Construction of Identity in the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron,1874-1897,” 2012. https://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/handle/1903/12855/Rentfrow_umd_0117E_13092.pdf;jsessionid=A0AEFD1C57596CDFFEAF23292597ECA4?sequence=1 

4. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1990. 

5. Ibid.

6. Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN, “Navy Operations Research,” Operations Research, 2002. https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/pdf/10.1287/opre.50.1.103.17786 

7. Bryan Clark et. al, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture of the U.S. Navy, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6292-Fleet_Architecture_Study_REPRINT_web.pdf 

8. Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 1911http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15076?msg=welcome_stranger

9. Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet For War, Department of the Navy, 2010. 

Excerpts: 

“While no fleet problem was scripted from start to finish, some portions of each were usually set-up in order to play out certain ideas or test particular tactics. After all, the actual playing out of a scenario might not have resulted in a particular type of action developing, such as a battleline clash. So the stage was often set for these, in order to test ideas, new or old. Unfortunately, pre-planned portions of the fleet problems seem to have led to many officers to draw the wrong conclusions about the future of naval warfare. As Mark Allen Campbell observed, ‘The dramatic images of battle lines engaged in long-range gunnery duels with one another may very well have persisted longer in the memories of the officers present than the remembrance of the artificial conditions necessary to get the dreadnoughts into firing range of each other.'”

“For example, as late as 1940 Admiral Richardson concluded that the fleet problems demonstrated carriers needed to stay close to the battleline, in order to be protected by its heavier firepower. Concern about the potential value of the autonomous carrier task force was not necessarily the result of blind unwillingness to see the obvious. Carriers had been “sunk”or “damaged” by surface ships during Fleet Problems IX (1929), X (1930), XII (1931), XIV (1933), XV (1934), and XVIII (1937), and had come under “gunfire” on numerous other occasions. It was not until almost literally the end of 1941 that the Navy had dive bombers and torpedo bombers capable of harming heavy ships in long range operations or fighters with the “legs” to escort and protect them. Until then carriers had to take great risks in order to be effective. The possibility that a carrier might be caught by surface forces was very much on the minds of senior naval officers during the 1920s and 1930s, as can be seen by the 8-inch guns carried by Lexington and Saratoga.”

For Wargaming see: John M. Lillard, Playing War, Potomac Books, 2016.

10. RFI: FFG(X) – US Navy Guided Missile Frigate Replacement Program, Department of the Navy, July 10, 2017. https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=cdf24447b8015337e910d330a87518c6&tab=core&_cview=0 

11. Megan Eckstein, “Wargames This Year to Inform Future Surface Combatant Requirements,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 21, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2017/02/21/wargames-future-surface-combatant-requirements 

12. Ibid.

Featured Image: The USS Zumwalt makes it way down the Kennebec River as it heads out to sea. (The Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty)

Maritime Partnerships and the Future of U.S. Seapower in the Indo-Pacific

By LCDR Arlo Abrahamson

Introduction

“Relationships don’t stay the same, they either get better or they get worse.” These were the words of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Mattis was speaking about the importance of avoiding the status quo in America’s defense relationships by exercising “strategic reliability” through enduring military presence and meaningful security cooperation.1

Mattis’ concept of strategic reliability is an appropriate frame to examine the future of U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific. America’s rise as a naval power was predicated on the ability to form alliances and partnerships with nations that believe cooperative maritime security benefits common interests and enhances regional and global stability. The backbone of these alliances and partnerships derives from a fundamental belief in freedom of the seas, a central tenant of the international rules-based order, to which the former Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris said “ensures all nations, big or small, have equal access to the shared  domains.”2 Since the fall of the Soviet Union, in what the late Charles Krauthammer described as “America’s unipolar moment,” U.S. seapower, along with the alliances and partnerships that bolster its preeminence in the Indo-Pacific, has largely gone unchallenged.3 However, with a rising China and its focus on building its own world-class, blue water navy, the future of U.S.-led, cooperative maritime security in the Indo-Pacific cannot be taken for granted.

The underlying question is can U.S. seapower with its existing framework of maritime alliances and partnerships remain the leading guarantor of Indo-Pacific  maritime security, or will China take on that role? The collective wisdom is that the U.S. Navy will continue to lead and foster cooperative maritime security efforts in the Indo-Pacific, but only with a careful reexamination of how the U.S. projects its seapower and postures itself in a new era of great power competition with China.

Alliances and Partnerships, the Foundations of U.S. Seapower  

With the presence of the U.S. Asiatic squadrons in the 19th century, the U.S. Navy made its debut in the Indo-Pacific region. Like most global navies, the U.S. Navy emerged in the region to protect and promote America’s growing interests in commercial trade and diplomatic relations. From the U.S. Navy’s debut in the region, alliances and partnerships helped bolster and sustain U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific. Those alliances and partnerships were cemented with the spoils of victory in World War II, with the establishment of U.S. naval bases and forward operating locations throughout the region.

Today, the U.S. Navy enjoys unprecedented access to the Indo-Pacific region, with naval forces forward or rotationally deployed in Guam, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, and Singapore, and visiting force agreements in the Philippines and Australia. This access enables the U.S. Navy’s power projection in the region and yields opportunities for the U.S. to play a constructive role in strengthening cooperative maritime security networks by, with, and through the assistance of allies and partners.

In February 2018 while underway in the South China Sea, Rear Admiral John Fuller, commander of the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group, told a group of academics and reporters that “nations in the Pacific are maritime nations. They value stability…That’s exactly what we are here for. This is a very visible and tangible presence. The United States is here again. U.S presence matters.”4

The prosperity and upward economic trajectories of Indo-Pacific nations are a byproduct of the relatively stable period that emerged after World War II. This prolonged period of regional stability was underwritten for the last 75-plus years in part due to unfettered U.S. naval presence. Sustained by a strong network of alliances and partnerships, the U.S. Navy has focused its forward presence on deterring conflict, ensuring access to the global commons, protecting U.S. commerce, while promoting U.S.-led security cooperation.

The U.S. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower underscores the value of maritime security cooperation directly tied to U.S. interests, particularly in the economic and security spheres:

“By expanding our network of allies and partners and improving our ability to operate alongside them, naval forces foster the secure environment essential to an open economic system based on the free flow of goods, protect U.S. natural resources, promote stability, deter conflict, and respond to aggression.”6

The Indo-Pacific region features a complex stratosphere of global and economic interests with growing importance for the U.S., China, and the international community at large. The United Nations estimates more than 80 percent of global trade by volume travels by sea; with 60 percent of seaborne trade volume traveling through the Indo-Pacific region.7 Moreover, $5.3 trillion in seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea each year, nearly a third of all global trade. This includes $1.2 trillion in trade destined for U.S. ports and 80 percent of China’s hydrocarbons that pass through the strategic chokepoints of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and onward to the South China Sea.

In such a dynamic maritime environment, the existing framework of rules, standards, norms and laws that assures free access to the global commons and open sealanes remains essential for regional stability. James Manicom notes that  “free access to the seas fosters not only economic growth within individual East Asian states, but also the creation of robust economic interdependence between East Asian states that creates a powerful disincentive for war.”9 A strong belief in free and open sealanes has not lost its relevance among Indo-Pacific nations, even with the threat of a rising and revisionist power in China that seeks to adjust the international order to benefit its own interests. Accordingly, great power competition with China presents both challenges and opportunities for the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Pacific. While Indo-Pacific nations make room for China’s rise as a maritime power, U.S. seapower should remain focused on preserving the rules-based order while enhancing stability that binds its existing network of allies and partners.10

Forward Presence and Cooperation in the Midst of a Rising Maritime Power

A rising Chinese maritime power harkens to the realities of geo-strategic position. The U.S. Navy serves as a mostly non-resident, yet established maritime power in the Indo-Pacific while China is embracing its role as the resident, emerging maritime power.

Against the backdrop of the routine presence of the U.S. Navy across the Indo-Pacific, nations are increasingly hosting the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) in their waters and ports. The PLAN is growing rapidly as a regional maritime powerhouse and blue water navy, and nations in the Indo-Pacific know they must cooperate and work with their Chinese neighbors at sea to maintain cordial and friendly relationships with the fledgling superpower.

In August 2018 China conducted its inaugural multilateral exercise with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) noting the maritime drills aimed “to expand China and ASEAN’s military communications and security cooperation.”11 Singapore, currently at the helm of the rotational leadership of ASEAN, lauded the exercise as a notable first step in enhancing interoperability with the PLAN. “At the end of the exercise, we have strengthened our ability to work together,” said Colonel Lim Yu Chuan, commanding officer of the Singapore Navy’s 185 Squadron.12

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Nov. 16, 2018) Cmdr. Albin Quiko, assigned to the Expeditionary Resuscitative Surgical System (ERSS) team, discusses medical capabilities with Lt. Miranda Norquay, the medical officer aboard the Royal Australian Navy landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Adelaide (L01), in the surgical room of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) during a tour. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anaid Banuelos Rodriguez/Released)

Despite the emergence of China as a rising maritime power, the U.S. still embodies its role as the principal leader of cooperative maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Navy facilitates multilateral, cooperative security engagements such as Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), Malabar alongside the Japanese and Indian navies, and Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) that enables the U.S. to operate with ASEAN and South Asian partners such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. When manmade and natural disasters afflict the region, nations in the Indo-Pacific frequently request the assistance of the U.S. Navy in relief operations such as in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the search and rescue of Air Asia Flight 8501 that crashed into the Java Sea in 201, and more recently to assist in flood relief efforts in Sri Lanka in 2017.

Collin Koh, maritime studies researcher at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), notes that nations in the Indo-Pacific generally regard U.S. naval presence as constructive in promoting collaborative partnerships, capabilities, and stability:

“The U.S. naval presence is still seen as a stabilizing element in a geopolitically uncertain time in the region. Operationally, regional militaries see their engagements with the U.S. as a vehicle for extracting knowhow, expertise, and best practices for their own capacity building processes.”13

The U.S. Navy should use its credibility in the Indo-Pacific to advance the National Defense Strategy that advocates for strengthening the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships through “mutually beneficial collective security,” “reinforcing regional coalitions and security cooperation,” and “deepening interoperability.”14 Indo-Pacific nations have no choice but to cooperate with China as the emerging, resident maritime power, but that doesn’t diminish the U.S. Navy’s role in the region. In fact, fears of how China is using its rising maritime power may even strengthen it.

Focusing on Relationships as a Means to Balance China’s Influence

Edward Luttwak postulates that seapower during peacetime equates to “passive suasion” that can reassure allies and/or influence the behavior of nation states.15 In an increasingly competitive and contested maritime environment in the South China Sea and

Northeast Asia, the U.S. Navy’s mere presence in the region is increasingly viewed by nations within the context of strategic hedging of great power capabilities. In Richard Fontaine’s view, this hedging is “creating regional security challenges that incentivize cooperation and counterbalancing.”16

While some Indo-Pacific nations are careful to temper their public sentiment regarding U.S. naval presence, countries of the region clearly support U.S. seapower and continue to enable it. James Manicom argues that by virtue of Chinese maritime assertiveness in contested waters, “there is clearly still an appetite for U.S. seapower among East Asian states, which reinforces the legitimacy of American power.”17

In recent years the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore have upgraded their enhanced defense cooperation agreements with the U.S. that allows rotational deployments of ships and aircraft. Moreover, the U.S. has significantly enhanced maritime security cooperation, information sharing, and logistical support agreements with Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and India.18

MANILA, Philippines (Sept. 27, 2018) – Adm. Philip Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and Gen. Carlito Galvez, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, sign agreements on security cooperation activities for 2019 at this year’s Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board Meeting at Tejeros Hall, AFP Commissioned Officers Club, Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City. (Photo by SN1 Donald Viluan PN/PAOAFP)

Despite its strong regional security networks and amicable relations with allies and partners, the U.S. Navy cannot take its status quo for granted. An easy assumption may be that maritime alliances and partnerships can endure through periods of non-engagement when priorities for naval platforms and people are needed for other pressing operations. This would be a strategic mistake for the U.S. in an environment where China is eager to fill even the smallest void left by the U.S. Navy’s competing priorities. Consequently, U.S. strategic choices in projecting routine naval presence and its investment in long-term military relationships correlate directly with Mattis’ concept of strategic reliability. On the operational and tactical levels, this translates to meaningful and routine maritime security cooperation where relationships form the foundation of trust for the alliance or partnership.

Dzirhan Mahadzir, former researcher at Malaysia’s Maritime Institute, notes that while fostering relationships through routine engagement is paramount, these relationships and persistent naval presence also “dissuades or prevents countries like China from diminishing the U.S. role in leading cooperative security.”19

Every time the U.S. Navy conducts a security engagement or exercise with its allies and partners, it sends a strategic message that aligns with America’s stated commitments to the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, in the age of tweets and 24-hour news cycles where organizational memories are short, the Navy’s engagement with allies and partners must be routinely executed to demonstrate U.S. resolve and commitment. Rest assured, U.S. friends and allies will take note of how it postures its seapower and forward presence to match words with deeds.

What could marginalize U.S. Seapower in the Indo-Pacific?

The task of fulfilling global commitments remains a challenge for the U.S. Navy with competing priorities both globally and domestically. Critics can point to the findings of the Navy’s reviews of surface force incidents that the U.S. 7th Fleet is overstretched in both commitments and platforms, a challenge complicated by the sheer geography of plying the waters of a vast Indo-Pacific operating area.20

After at-sea collisions by USS Fitzgerald near Japan and USS John S. McCain in the Singapore Strait, China took full advantage of the disarray and characterized the U.S. Navy in its state-run press as dangerous and undependable for Indo-Pacific nations.21 The U.S. Navy cannot be everywhere, and it certainly is not immune to accidents, but the solution to restoring any lack of faith in U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific is to remain engaged and double down on the U.S. commitment to free and open seas and regional stability by way of its alliances and partnerships.

GULF OF THAILAND (June 3, 2017) The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) is underway in formation with ships from the Royal Thai Navy as part of a division tactics exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released)

William Choong, Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), posits that “Southeast Asian countries usually prioritize economic development over U.S. military presence in the region” as means for advancing their upward economic mobility.22 This trend in the region will continue and China is equipped to assert its economic leverage through ambitious programs such as the One-Belt, One Road initiative, which could be a potent undercurrent in nations’ decisions to engage with the U.S. in the maritime security sphere.

However, even with growing economic ties between Indo-Pacific nations and China, Collin Koh notes China’s economic influences have not discouraged most allies and partners from working closely with the U.S. in security cooperation engagements:

“Even as Indo-Pacific countries move toward China in economic ties, we don’t see a let down in enhancing and building security relations with the U.S. This can only mean these governments are intent on keeping these military ties with the U.S. in the midst of their wariness towards a growing Chinese shadow.”23

The U.S. Navy possesses adequate technology, diverse naval platforms, and perhaps most important, the creativity and ingenuity in its people, to remain relevant and engaged with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific and retain its principal leadership role. Yet with the realities of great power competition, skepticism will not cease completely, and tepid or inconsistent engagement will cast doubts of U.S. resolve. In essence, any marginalization of U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific will be a strategic choice, not a preordained destiny.

Practical Considerations for Sustaining U.S. Seapower

The National Defense Strategy contends the U.S. military must “outthink, out maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate” America’s adversaries and competitors.24 In this vein, practical considerations for cooperative maritime security engagement should be considered carefully. The U.S. Navy must continue to demonstrate credible, lethal, and distributed seapower.25 This must be accomplished using the full breadth of naval power and associated platforms that can operate adeptly in the littorals, global commons and in contested grey zone spaces.

The 3rd Fleet forward initiative is a prudent step to deploy additional naval assets to the Indo-Pacific to enhance presence operations and maritime security cooperation engagements and exercises. Moreover, the U.S. Navy should continue to harness the employment of Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships in security cooperation engagements ranging from logistics interoperability to operating with partner navies at sea. Progress has already been made with the inclusion of expeditionary fast transport ships (EPF) and expeditionary transfer docks (ESD) in a number of exercises and engagements throughout the region.26 The value of security cooperation with small, expeditionary units should not be underestimated. Diving and salvage subject matter expert exchanges, explosive ordnance disposal team engagements, civil engineering exchanges with Seabees, and small boat operations are in high demand for many of the U.S. Navy’s partners in the region, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.27

Lastly, the U.S. Navy should seek more opportunities to work jointly with other U.S. military services during cooperative security engagements. Partnering with other U.S. services, including the U.S. Coast Guard, increases opportunities, scope, and the quality of engagements with allies and partners while prudently managing finite resources in manpower and available platforms.

In practical terms, maritime security cooperation is military diplomacy. As with all forms of national diplomacy, the task is never quite finished.28 The byproduct of a broad cooperative maritime security strategy is cumulative when measuring the value of all engagements and activities. The late Admiral J.C. Wylie posits that cumulative operations, much like effective diplomacy, can advance national interests systematically:

 “…the entire pattern is made up of a collection of lesser actions, but these lesser or individual actions are not sequentially interdependent. Each individual one is no more than a single statistic, an isolated plus or minus, in arriving at the final result.” 29

Wylie’s view of cumulative operations provides a suitable template to assess the value of cooperative maritime security engagements across the Indo-Pacific. Engagements large and small all matter when assessed holistically and contribute toward the greater goal of advancing U.S. interests and strengthening seapower.

More importantly, the cumulative effect of sustained U.S. naval presence and engagement sends an important message to allies, partners, and adversaries alike that America is an Indo-Pacific maritime power that remains committed to its role as the principle guarantor of regional stability.  

Conclusion

The future of U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific is filled with challenges yet ripe with opportunity. As the National Defense Strategy notes, “the willingness of rivals to abandon aggression will depend on their perception of U.S. strength and the vitality of our alliances and partnerships.” 30

China’s rising maritime power should not threaten U.S. maritime superiority. U.S. seapower will only be marginalized by inaction induced by lack of will or by strategic choice. While both the U.S. and China have an important role to play in preserving peace in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Navy is uniquely positioned to remain a regional leader of cooperative maritime security due to the values it promotes and the stability it underwrites through sustained naval presence.

Competing operational priorities and finite resources are a reality for a forward-deployed maritime power. Yet these challenges should not deter routine security cooperation with allies nor should it equate to neglect of smaller, less strategic maritime partners. China’s growing economic influence, sometimes coercive in nature, also raises doubts about the sustainability of U.S. alliances and partnerships.

The future of U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific remains viable so long as it remains embedded in the alliances and partnerships that sustain it. This requires routine naval presence, reassurance when necessary, meaningful military relationships, and as Secretary Mattis suggested, these actions culminate in strategic reliability. In this frame, U.S. seapower in the Indo-Pacific remains as relevant today as it ever was.

Lt. Commander Arlo Abrahamson is a career public affairs officer with the U.S. Navy and current graduate student at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He has served operational and staff tours in Japan, Korea, and Singapore with the U.S. 7th Fleet operating as a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy while supporting major exercises and security cooperation engagements across the Indo-Pacific. Abrahamson holds a Masters Degree in Mass Communication from San Diego State University.

References

1. James Mattis, Remarks at Plenary Session of Shangri-La Dialogue, 2 June 2018, accssed 25 Sept, 2018,  https://dod.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1538599/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-at-plenary-session-of-the-2018-shangri-la-dialogue/

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Featured Image: YOKOSUKA, Japan (June 14, 2018) Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Joey Legaspi (left) verifies a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) patient during a mass patient disembarkation bilateral training exercise between the United States and JMSDF. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams/Released)