Category Archives: Fiction

Maritime and naval fiction.

NavyCon 2020: Navies, Science Fiction, and Great Power Competition

By Claude Berube

Three years ago, Jerry Hendrix, Mark Vandroff, CDR Salamander, and I were reminiscing about old sci-fi shows and their navy traits. Half-jokingly, I suggested we put together a science fiction convention focused on navies. And then it happened. The result was the first NavyCon in 2017 which was a one-day event held at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

At its conclusion, I received comments from the audience and emails from strangers asking when the next event would be held. We won’t wait three years for the next one. This event is intended to take a serious (as well as sometimes light-hearted) approach in understanding how science fiction might help us think differently about navies of today or the near future. Science fiction is often unbound by conventional thinking. The technologies and platforms we find commonplace might have been considered fantastical just a century or two ago. It is human imagination that envisioned going to the moon and human ingenuity that made it happen. It is that same creativity and inspiration that will move us forward together.

Thank you to the presenters, special guests, and all the people who made this happen. I hope you enjoy this NavyCon.

See the NavyCon 2020 Program Guide here, and the full video replay and a listing of specific presentations below.

00:00-02:05 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD
Director, US Naval Academy Museum

Opening remarks

02:06-07:25 CDR BJ Armstrong
Associate Chair, Department of History, U.S. Naval Academy

“The U.S. Navy and SciFi: From the Civil War to Midway”

07:26-09:04 Message from LT Kayla Barron
Naval Academy Class of 2010, NASA Astronaut

09:05-21:20 Keynote: Major General Mick Ryan
Commander, Australian Defence College
“Science Fiction and its Utility for the National Security Community”

21:21-30:02 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD
Director, U.S Naval Academy Museum
“How the Federation Overcame the Shipbuilding Gap before the Defense of Coppelius in
‘Star Trek Picard’”

30:03-42:28 Cory Hollon
U.S. Air Force
“The Kaiju Should Have Won: Force Deployment and Strategy in Pacific Rim”

42:33-43:52 Message from Dr. Kori Schake
Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

44:06-57:40 August Cole
Co-author of “Ghost Fleet” and “Burn-In”
“When A Robot Has The Helm”

Standalone Video Jennifer Marland
Curator, NSWC-Carderock
“A Navy is Essential for your Planet: Wars Between Barrayar and Cetaganda in Lois
McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosiverse” 

1:03:15-1:07:17 Message from CDR Salamander 

1:14:55-1:26:18 Clara Engle
Department of Commerce
“Babylon 5 and International Relations Theory”

1:26:45-1:41:37 Randy Papadopoulos
Historian for the Secretary of the Navy
“Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Why Space Warfare will be about Fleets”

1:41:47-1:43:38 Message from Hugh Hewitt

1:43:52-1:59:40 MAJ Thomas Harper, JAG, USAR
“It’s a Trap! The Intersection of the Battle of Endor & the Law of Armed Conflict”

2:00:02-2:12:08 Jonathan Bratten
Command Historian/Maine National Guard
“Perils of Joint Command: Imperial Disaster at Endor”

2:12:37-2:24-54 Ian Boley
PhD candidate, History, Texas A&M University
“Sidewinders, Sunbeams, and Negaspheres: Skunkworks and Rapid Innovation in the
Lensman Series”

2:25:21-2:38:40 CAPT Jerry Hendrix, USN (ret.) PhD
Vice President, The Telemus Group
“Honorverse: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Weapons Development Board”

2:38:53-2:41:55 Message from Congressman Mike Gallagher

2:42:49-2:56-53 David Larter
Reporter, Defense News
“Alien and the Operators”

2:57:00-3:06:21 CAPT Mark Vandroff, USN (ret.)
Deputy Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Defense Policy, National Security Council
“Engineering for Great Power Competition”

03:06:35-3:10:27 Message from author David Weber

03:10:40-03:31:10 Christopher Weuve
“Aircraft Carriers in Space!”

03:31:25-3:46:05 CDR Phil Pournelle, USN (ret.)
“Traveler’s Trillion Credit Squadron Game and Future Fleet Architecture”

03:46:21-3:47:05 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD 
Director, U.S. Naval Academy Museum
Closing Remarks

Commander Claude Berube, USNR, PhD, teaches history at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the Director of the Naval Academy Museum, and is a former Senate staffer and defense contractor. His next two books will be released in the next year. The views above are the author’s alone and not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Naval Academy.

Featured Image: “Star Wars: Battle of Coruscant” by Dave Seeley via Artstation.

Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Dustin League and Dan Justice

“Motor vessel Pangjang, you are entering a United States-designated exclusion zone. Due to the current state of war between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), immediately secure your engines and await further instructions. In accordance with *static* you will be directed to proceed to a nearby inspection and control point. If you deviate from these instructions, your vessel will be stopped with appropriate force.”

The master of the Chinese owned-and-operated bulk carrier Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng shook his head in disgust, only some of which was due to the American bastardization of his ship’s name. On the outbreak of war, the U.S. had designated the whole of the South China Sea along with the entire Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos as exclusion zones, ordering all merchant traffic to comply with strict traffic lanes and subjecting all vessels to inspections as part of their effort to blockade the People’s Republic into submission. Even long-time allies of the U.S. had voiced concerns over the scope of the U.S. restrictions, and protests had been logged not only by the PRC but by several affected ASEAN nations.

The PRC protest had largely been a pro forma move even as they recognized the toothless nature of the orders. The U.S. Navy, even with the support of local allies, lacked the capacity to simultaneously combat the People’s Liberation Army and Navy’s consolidation of rogue Taipei and patrol their exclusion zone. Even maintaining sufficient forces near chokepoints such as Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits represented an unaffordable strain on USN forces. The Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng, like all of the carriers whose cargoes the PRC had designated as national resources, had been provided with daily status reports by the government on the status of enemy forces in the area and that, confirmed by his own shipboard radar, showed no Americans or their allied warships within hundreds of miles. Their Coast Guard had established an inspection station roughly halfway between Sunda and Lombok Straits off the south coast of East Java. It was undermanned and overloaded with compliant shipping. Some of the PRC’s own vessels, those with less strategically important cargos, had even been directed to the station in order to provide reports on its operations. In addition to U.S. and allied Coast Guard vessels, there was apparently a sizeable contingent of U.S. Marines conducting visit and inspections.

Militarily, the ship’s master had more limited information. He knew that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) operations around Taipei were proceeding successfully despite America’s futile attempts to roll them back. The U.S. carriers were being held at bay and kept beyond their ability to strike by the Second Artillery, and the PLAN surface fleet had established a secure perimeter around the island. Supposedly, the U.S. had established missile batteries on the northern tip of the Philippines, but they lacked the range needed to hit the fleet. Purportedly the U.S. submarine force remained a significant threat, but the ship’s master had no information on their operations. Neither the PRC nor the Americans were revealing any details on lost submarines, so it was impossible for him to gauge which side held the advantage in the undersea war. When the ship’s master had been notified that his vessel was now considered a critical national asset and subject to the military command to run the U.S. blockade, he’d been assured that the U.S. submarines would not bother wasting a torpedo on his vessels. They would need to save their inventory for PLAN vessels which, he had also been assured, could protect themselves.

There had been news of American amphibious forces trying to hop across the south Pacific on small, empty coral islands like they had done eighty years ago, but no warships. Even the challenge had been sent not by a USN warship or Coast Guard vessel but from a large unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) circling high above. The master also had reports on those UAVs, they were long-endurance reconnaissance types with no organic armaments. Another empty threat. Once he passed through the Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea, the risks he took in running the U.S. blockade would increase, but he would also be entering into the PRC’s own backyard where they could provide direct protection.

“Maintain course and speed,” He ordered. “Ignore all further hails.” His bridge crew acknowledged his order with calm, quiet professionalism. If any of them disagreed with the assessment of the situation as he’d briefed that morning, none showed their concerns. The drone circling overhead continued to pace them, repeating its message, its demands growing increasingly terse and harsh. The ship’s master counted no less than three times his vessel was threatened with lethal force with never a blip on the radar to indicate a closing vessel or aircraft. Open seas, open skies, and toothless demands.

Twenty-five minutes after the initial challenge, two long-range anti-ship missiles, their telemetry continually updated by the overhead drone, slammed into the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng. One hit amidships just above the waterline, its warhead punching through the hull to let the ocean flood in. The second, less than a second later, struck the superstructure, taking out the entire bridge. The missile hits were insufficient to sink a vessel as large as the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng, but they were more than capable enough to leave it a helpless derelict. Mission kill.


First Lieutenant Tommy Hart, Commanding Officer of Charlie Platoon, 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, reviewed the video footage, noting the impact points and subsequent motion of the vessel. Smoke billowed thick and black in a column that rose as high as the UAV’s own operating altitude before being thinned by the wind. Finally satisfied, he logged the first kill of his maritime interdiction platoon.

“Flash , Flash, Flash, Alpha Sierra, Alpha Mike, this is Hotel Charlie Six,” Hart said into the radio, calling both the Surface Warfare Commander and the Amphibious Element Coordinator at the same time, “Splash, Skunk Two, with Bruiser, Over.” The acknowledgment came back. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it was the first such kill of the war and he felt pride in his team. And maybe just a twinge of instinctual moral qualm. He’d joined the Marines to defend his nation and he’d fully expected that would mean killing the enemy during times of war; but when he’d joined Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps he hadn’t thought of unarmed oil tankers as “the enemy.”   

He noted the position of the tanker – fifty miles south of Lombok Strait and eighty miles from his own position on East Java. Well inside the range of the anti-ship missiles on his High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) but close to the edge of his targeting UAV’s range. The range from the strait was critical. Hart wasn’t privy to the governmental horse-trading that had to be going on behind the scenes, but he knew that Indonesia had demanded strong assurances before allowing the Marines to deploy their chokepoint control stand-in forces on their territory; chief among those was the requirement that no vessels be sunk within twelve nautical miles of any of the straits’ entrances.

Against almost any kind of PLAN warship the strike would have been impossible. First there would have been the difficulty in finding a target – warships maneuvered too often, too fast, and refused to follow predictable transit paths – which would have exhausted his small UAVs’ endurance. Then there was the problem of PLAN anti-air defenses. Even with the new missiles, the HIMARS’ ability to generate a large enough salvo to overwhelm a modern frigate or destroyer’s defense was woefully insufficient. But merchant vessels and oil tankers were another matter. Those he knew where to find – if they wanted to deliver to resources the PRC so desperately needed, they would have to come through Lombok Strait or one of the other chokepoints in the archipelagos surrounding the South and East China Seas. Lombok was the responsibility of his company, the others were guarded by similar U.S. Marine Corps units. Small stand-in forces, rapidly deployed around the First Island Chain, teamed with unmanned systems for patrolling the adversary’s sea lines of communication, finding and challenging their shipping, and finally targeting them for the HIMARS’ missiles.

“Nice flying, Torres,” he said to the young Marine who’d been piloting the UAV. Torres has been near the top of her class at Fort Huachuca and could always seem to squeeze an extra 30 or 60 minutes out of the UAV’s batteries. Endurance wasn’t a big factor now, the drone had only been up six hours. Seventh fleet had sent them the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng track earlier that morning from a Triton that was up, allowing Hart to plan his UAV time well. In a combat zone as large as the Pacific, even the remarkable range and endurance of Hart’s tactical UAVs was insufficient to large-area search problems. The coordination of assets and passing of track data through the Global Combat Support System – Navy Marine Corps was critical to the platoon’s mission.

“Push their updated position, course, and speed to Geeks so the Coasties can send someone out to haul her to port.”   

“All right everyone, time to move,” he ordered the rest of the platoon. “Handoff to Baker Platoon in fifteen.” They were outside the PRC’s anti-access/area-denial zone of control, but there was still enough risk in detection that no one wanted to wait around for a retaliatory PLAN strike. His platoon was already making preparations to step off. The HIMARS crew were completing final post-firing checks and battening down for departure. His entire platoon consisted of four elements; two semi-truck sized HIMARS batteries, a UAV carrier roughly the same size that could carry four of the long-range drones; a counter-precision guided munition point defense battery; and a small transport. A lot of firepower for a first lieutenant, though he’d feel unarmed until he could get the HIMARS batteries re-loaded from one of the company’s caches.

They had only been on Lombok for a week, dropped off from the Essex, their gear and the HIMARS truck brought ashore by some of the “Mike Boats” the Marines had started picking out of the various boneyards across the country. Already Hart was starting to fantasize about a shower and a burger when they would be picked back up after another 10 to 12 days. Or would there be enough shooting that they’d go Winchester early? He shook those thoughts from his head and returned his attention to the pack out. They would be packed up and on the road within thirty minutes. Until he could reposition and redeploy his force, this sector of the U.S. exclusion zone would be the responsibility of Baker Platoon who, he knew, was roughly fifty miles west of his position, on the other side of Lombok Strait itself.

Within hours, Hart knew, the crippling of the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng would be all over the news. The PRC would shout in protest and the U.S. would again assert its ability to enforce exclusion zones during a time of war. The Navy and Marine Corps would explain both the need and the precedent for such operations – one had only to look back to World War II when the Navy had declared unrestricted submarine and air warfare against Japanese commercial traffic. He suspected other PRC vessels would continue trying to run the blockade and there would be a handful of more high-profile sinkings, but he doubted they would last for long. Once it became clear that the Marines could and would effectively target and destroy any uncooperative vessel, there would be very, very few ship masters willing to take the risk.

Hart had not joined the Marine Corps expecting this kind of mission. He’d joined at a time when the USMC had just begun a major re-alignment, shifting from protracted ground operations back to a role supporting naval operations in the littorals. Even then he’d expected to be employing the capabilities of his platoon against adversary naval targets – against warships. But there’d been a need to expand the USMC role beyond naval and into maritime support. The Corps had purchased the weapons and developed the skills needed to combat a great power, but like the submarine force in World War II, they’d found that those same capabilities could be far more effective against an adversary’s commerce. And, like the silent service, what had once been seen as a “lesser included mission” had become a critical role in a major war.


The vignette described above is an attempt to expand on some of the concepts described in Commandant Berger’s Planning Guidance to the US Marine Corps.[1] The capabilities employed by Lieutenant Hart’ platoon –  the HMARS armed with anti-ship missiles, the tactically-controlled long-range UAVs, and the counter-precision guided missile defense – are all explicitly called for in that document. The uses we postulate for them – the destruction of unarmed merchant vessels in defense of a distant blockade – are not. Such use relies on several underlying assumptions about the nature of a future conflict which may or may not be borne out. First that the United States enters into war with another great power. Second, that in such a war the U.S. would again resort to a similar commerce destruction strategy that was a keystone of the Pacific War against Japan. Third, that the U.S. Marine Corps would be tasked with such a role. Fourth, that U.S. allies or neutral nations in the region would allow a force like Hart’s to operate on their territory. Even with the 350 nautical mile missiles and 200 nautical mile drones the Commandant of the Marine Corps has called for, the Marines need somewhere to stand.

Berger has called on the Marines to become an integrated naval force to prioritize operations in the littorals that support the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept and counter great power rival investments in anti-access/area-denial capabilities. The missions implied in the guidance call for Marine stand-in forces to operate inside contested zones and provide anti-ship and anti-air fires, with the strong implication that the target set will be the enemy’s military assets. Going against the PLAN on their home turf, the Navy should certainly welcome the additional firepower; however, it may not be the best use of the Marines’ new capabilities.

There is no shortage of commentary on the tyranny of distance the USN would face if it finds itself in a shooting war with China. It bears repeating again. Assuming an invasion of Taiwan as the source of conflict, and PLAN deployments converge around the island nation, there is precious little real estate for the USMC to place its stand-in forces and still have the range to hit their targets. Additionally, simply getting missiles in range will be of little use if they cannot penetrate the target defenses. The PLAN has capable warships with modern anti-air defenses that will require extremely capable missiles fired in large salvos to defeat. How many HIMARS batteries will be needed to achieve a mission kill on even a single PLAN destroyer, let alone a surface action group with coordinated defenses? 

The U.S. Navy went through a similar experience in the lead up to World War II. The submarine community had spent the interwar years developing a fleet of boats to combat the Imperial Japanese Navy, softening it up before the expected battle line confrontation by attriting IJN warships. Instead, those boats which had been built to sink battleships spent much of the war sinking Japanese merchant vessels, choking Japan’s critical supply lines. What had been seen as, at best, a lesser included mission, became the defining task of the community.

Joel Ira Holwitt’s Execute Against Japan[2] details the evolution of U.S. Naval thought and policy on unrestricted warfare. It chronicles the long process of legal, ethical, and strategic issues the Navy had to work through before executing the doctrine. The analogy is not perfect of course. China is not an island, dependent on outside resources to the same extent as was Japan. However, this line of thinking is still valid, and it is important to consider if what we might need to do wasn’t already planned for. Similarly, the Marine Corps should be exploring the larger mission set inherent in maritime operations. That may involve commerce destruction in support of blockade operations and chokepoint control. It may involve seizure of China’s “string of pearl” bases around the globe. As the Marines conduct the extensive wargaming and analysis Gen. Berger also calls for, they should look beyond the inherently military target set in a specific region and embrace the potential for action across the larger maritime domain.

The commandant is committed to designing a Marine Corps which will remain the “Force of Choice.” He has outlined the salient features he believes that force will require, the challenges it will face, and the path to getting it built. While General Berger’s assessment, goals, and methods are welcomed, a broader vision for the naval services is needed, one which harnesses their capabilities across the whole range of maritime security.

Dustin League is a Senior Military Operations Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and a former U.S. Navy Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of SPA, Inc.

LCDR Dan Justice is a U.S. Navy Foreign Affairs Officer and former Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy.


1. Berger, G. D. (2019, July 17). Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Retrieved from Marine Corps Electronic LIbrary:

2. Holwitt, J. I. (2009). Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

Featured Image: “S-300V” by Mikhail Selevonik via Artstation

Announcing the CIMSEC and U.S. Naval Institute Short Story Fiction Contest

By the Editorial Staff of CIMSEC and USNI Proceedings

Fiction has long served as a powerful means for exploring hypotheticals and envisioning alternatives. CIMSEC and the U.S. Naval Institute have partnered to invite authors to share their vision of the future of international maritime security, in this world or another. Authors can explore the future and flesh out concepts for how potential conflicts may play out. They could probe the past, and use historical fiction as a device to explore alternative histories. Authors are invited to submit their stories along these lines and more as they craft compelling narratives.


Open to all contributors—active-duty military, reservists, veterans, and civilians.

Submission Guidelines

Word Count: 5,000 words maximum, 1,000 word minimum (excludes any endnotes/sources). Include word count on title page of short story but do not include author name(s) on title page or within the short story. Submit essay as a Word document online at

Deadline: September 30, 2020. Note: Your short story must be original and not previously published (online or in print) or being considered for publication elsewhere. Limit to one story per contestant.

Selection Process

The Naval Institute and CIMSEC staffs will evaluate all entries submitted in the contest and provide the top essays to a select panel of military novelists for judging. All essays will be judged in the blind—i.e., the judges will not know the authors of the essays.

Finalists will be judged by August Cole, Peter Singer, Kathleen McGinnis, Ward Carroll, David Weber, and Larry Bond.


First Prize: $500 and a 1-year membership
in the Naval Institute and CIMSEC.
Second Prize: $300 and a 1-year
membership in the Naval Institute and CIMSEC.
Third Prize: $200 and a 1-year membership
in the Naval Institute and CIMSEC.

Additional prizes may also be awarded.


The winning essays will be published in Proceedings magazine, and on the Naval Institute and CIMSEC websites in early December. Non-winning essays may also be selected for publication.

We look forward to receiving your submissions, and for partnering with the U.S. Naval Institute on CIMSEC’s Project Trident to enhance the conversation around maritime security.

Featured Image: “Super Hornet” by Ivan Sevic via Artstation

At the Commissioning of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Aircraft Carrier Baekdusan

By JD Work

The cheers of the crowd were deafening as the sharp prow of the Baekdusan fast carrier (CVL) slid into the dark waters of the protected basin at Sinpo. The adulation may have even carried some genuine enthusiasm by those caught up in the sight of North Korea’s first aircraft carrier officially launching, mixed in of course with mandatory nationalism under compulsion for fear of “encouragement” by watchful political commissars. The former Mistral-class amphibious assault ship was nearly unrecognizable after more than a decade in the yard, resulting in profound changes to the vessel. These changes go far beyond the superficial difference of the dazzle camouflage paint scheme that replaced the earlier haze gray given to her by the original French builders of Chantiers de l’Atlantique. The oddities of the unusual, algorithmically-derived dark blue pattern were perhaps a fitting metaphor for the long, strange journey that brought this hull to North Korean shores. Bringing a new light carrier into service would be an impressive feat for any naval enterprise, let alone the Korean People’s Navy.

From Egypt to the East Sea of Korea

The complex saga began in the bizarre spring of 2020, as the world reeled under the uncertainties of pandemic. Kim Jong Un had already been in isolation out of fear of the disease, and following a cardiac scare that gained worldwide attention, would emerge even more determined to make his mark upon the global stage through his nation’s military.1 Among these assets would be a stunning set of naval capabilities, built around a ballistic missile submarine (SSB) program and the fleet to protect those boats. During these months, an intrusion attributed to the Reconnaissance General Bureau by commercial cyber intelligence services was attempting to compromise the networks of a cleared defense contractor in the United Kingdom.2 The incident was part of a long-running cyber espionage activity – known commonly as HIDDEN COBRA, Lazarus, or HERMIT – that targeted individuals associated with high-profile defense acquisition efforts to seek out information related to aviation, shipbuilding, missile development, and other critical capabilities.3

Almost overlooked in the flurry of ever-changing malware and forged documents that furthered these machinations, the UK incident was notable only in that the decoy message repurposed a glossy promotional photo from the UK Royal Navy’s Future Aircraft Carrier program. But while this specific lure was detected and the attempt defeated, it was not the last such attempt. Other efforts would persist and ultimately provide sustained access to the shipbuilder, systems integrators, and strike aviation programs. This espionage not only gave the National Defense Commission insight into the capabilities and deployments of newly introduced systems, but the aggregation of stolen documents, technical information, software code, and problem-solving correspondence allowed various Machine Industry Bureaus to circumvent years of research and development activity. Integrating this espionage haul into an ossified and overly centralized military industry was the work of almost a generation of intelligence officers, scientists, and production managers.

For all the edge that stolen intellectual property could offer, the DPRK’s heavy industry could not muster the resources and expertise to construct a major surface combatant out of nothing. To overcome this deficiency, the Korean Worker’s Party turned to the shadowy entity known informally as Office 39. This group essentially served as the organized crime racketeering function of the North Korean state, tasked with generating the illicit revenue required to keep the country functioning and the Kim family in power under the crushing weight of international sanctions. Its far-flung operations ranged from gold smuggling, drug trafficking, cybercrime and other pursuits on a massive scale.4 It would be Office 39’s access to the proceeds of these continuing criminal enterprises that would fund the operation, laundered through the vast markets of the online videogaming industry and the many quasi-legal virtual gambling ventures launched by the casinos of Macau, Manila, and Hanoi – each desperate for gamblers to replace those driven away by pandemic and the downturn of the mainland Chinese economy.

Office 39 would score its grandest coup to date as the Egyptian state collapsed into yet another endless series of coups that continued to ripple out from the Arab Spring. The regime had long established itself through corrupt relationships with key power figures that increasingly were backed by intelligence advantages offered by compromised Orascom telecommunications networks. The HIDDEN COBRA intrusion set subgroup known commonly as APT37, REAPER, Scarcruft, or RICOCHET CHOLLIMA had enabled an initial foothold in the country’s networks after the collapse of a joint venture between the Egyptian firm and the North Korean Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.5 APT37 / REAPER operators built upon this initial access to develop an unprecedented signals intelligence interception architecture across the backbone of telecom infrastructure in the region. Years later, in the frantic uncertainty before Cairo’s ultimate fall, this combination of insider knowledge and powerful friends would give Office 39 the chance to purchase what was then the nearly unserviceable Mistral-class multipurpose amphibious assault ship, ENS Anwar El Sadat. The LHD was the last surviving vessel of two purchased from France after a Gallic deal with the Russian Navy had fallen through in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.6 The Sadat’s sister ship, the Nasser, had been sunk at her higher-profile port in Alexandria by Ikwan saboteurs, and the Sadat was left to rust.

The ripple effects of serial pandemics throughout the 20s would again prove key. The near total collapse of the recreational and luxury cruise industry left hundreds of vessels at sea in makeshift flotillas, crewed by unpaid and increasingly desperate mariners abandoned by corporate headquarters which had rapidly ceased to exist.7 These ungainly, massive ships were unsuitable for merchant commerce, and poor choices as pirate motherships – although many crews tried both just to survive. Eventually, they would be destined for the shipbreakers in order to extract any value that could be salvaged. The ordinary yards of Alang and Chittagong, already under immense pressures over environmental regulation and worker safety, could not accept hulls encumbered by high profile, already years-long bankruptcy litigation – and especially would be unable to pay a master and crew whose only tenuous claim to ownership was mere possession.8

But the great decoupling had also killed many other vessels no longer needed for trade with an increasingly broken Chinese market, and like countless oil tankers and container ships, these hulls would be stripped in the newly emerging breaker yards of Africa. Here, the remnants of Belt and Road Initiative mercantilist outposts still raced to extract any resources that could be used to offset crippling debts to Beijing, heedless of legality or consequence.9 One more sale to one more shell company, paid through a Southeast Asian nation banking institution cutout, passed without notice. The Sadat would sit at anchor for nearly two years at harbor in Nacala, Mozambique; just another hulk among the many waiting to be beached and broken in a forgotten port at the wrong end of a frequently failing rail corridor.

Only commercial imagery satellites recorded when the Sadat vanished from port under cover of darkness, and even despite the high revisit rate of increasingly more capable constellations, some uncertainty would persist over exactly which night it happened. Active interest had long since faded and monitoring was reassigned to mere automated change detection algorithms, which dutifully flagged the discrepancy as being lost in the sea of other low-profile vessel movements. The system, triaged only by a bored Office of Naval Intelligence analyst, who did not speak French, apparently did not pick up on the significance of the type designator BPC (for Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement) as he might have then tagged the vessel as an LHD. Instead, it was mistaken for one of many legacy British Petroleum entries that had never been corrected following Brexit. The error would prove costly, especially as the KPN prize crew now sailing the Sadat would embark on a route that would take her through the most desolate and empty waters imaginable.

The over 9,000 nautical mile journey would depend heavily upon Office 39’s prior experience conducting illicit transfers at sea, especially for the clandestine movement of oil to keep the Sadat’s bunkers topped up.10 Over nearly three months at sea, a quarter of the crew would perish from accident, malnutrition exacerbated illnesses, and what became an infamous purge responding to what the KPN would describe as a mutinous plot by so-called “wreckers.” The global community further failed to respond effectively when the Sadat was at last spotted approaching Indonesian waters, initially unclear on her destination. The distractions of the Taiwan crisis further delayed consensus for action as she transited east of Hokkaido. A promised interdiction operation by Russian forces from Vladivostok did not materialize when the lead Lider-2 (Project 23780M) class destroyer allegedly suffered an unspecified mechanical failure, reportedly preventing pursuit – an event which remains viewed with much skepticism by international diplomats and navalists alike.11


The ship once called Sadat was transformed in years-long process in the yard at Sinpo. Her flight deck was extended, and featured a new ski-jump ramp that offered a Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) capability for somewhat limited aircraft weights.12 Her obsolete and degraded onboard networks were refitted with an indigenously developed Red Star operating system.13 Somewhat surprisingly new, Iranian-origin 15 Khordad radars and missile canisters would be integrated for air defense, along with multiple CHT-02D torpedo mounts and small arms weapons stations.14 Concept graphics reported by Chinese defense analyst sources also depicted KN-23 SRBM TELs positioned on the aft deck, possibly intended to mimic the U.S. Marine Corps deployment of HIMARS systems on light amphibious warships, although the North Korean missiles have not been observed to date in handheld imagery of the platform.15

On the day of the Baekdusan’s launch, the pierside static display of light aircraft that would operate from her decks also commanded attention, with the ranks of their future pilots assembled alongside in full Nomex suits and oddly shaped augmented reality flight helmets. The two delta wing fighters, a supposedly navalized variant of the country’s indigenously developed “next generation pursuit assault plane,” had been observed through overhead commercial imagery for years. It was still unclear if the North Korean aircraft industry had produced more than a dozen airframes – nearly half of which had already been lost to mishaps during development.

One of these mishaps had claimed the third aircraft previously intended for display, where the platform was lost during the long road movement from the airstrip at Iwon down to the port in the weeks before the ceremony. Handheld imagery of the mishap had circulated among the country’s elites-only StarMesh social media network, where in virtue signaling posts they condemned the heavy transport truck driver for careless driving. It had just as quickly been censored – but not before being picked up and reported to the world by a sharp-eyed Chinese defense blogger.

The obvious gap in the display arrangement had been hastily filled with a Kimchaek unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). While manned flight operations were still considered the prestige assignment, it was the dark composite of the cranked kite design that brought the Baekdusan its truly operational airwing. A nearly direct two-thirds scale copy of the CASIC CaiHong-7, the stealth platform had been a revolutionary development for DPRK strike capabilities despite its quintessentially 2020s vintage design.16 When fitted with beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, the UCAV could also serve in the combat air patrol (CAP) role, as a pair of Republic of Korea (ROK) KF-X fighters found to their surprise when ambushed near the Northern Limit Line a few years ago. Named for the former Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force Academy, the Kimchaek UCAV’s resemblance to the Northrup Grumman X-47B demonstrator was a constant reminder of the path not taken by the U.S. Navy. The Kimchaek fighters were also fitted for delivery of autonomous standoff naval mines, using a bolt-on kit of Chinese origin for glide, underwater propulsion, fusing and guidance that could be fitted to low-cost conventional gravity bombs that themselves were well within North Korean production capacities. This too incorporated stolen designs that could be originally traced to cyber espionage against the defense industrial base conducted by Chinese Ministry of State Security operations known as APT40, Periscope, KRYPTONITE PANDA, or GADOLINIUM.17

Implications and Outlook

Baekdusan is in many ways a counter-intuitive platform to Western eyes. The KPN still does not appear to have a genuine strategic requirement for the kind of force projection options that are the traditional role of a carrier or expeditionary strike group. However, to a dictator the investment could be justified solely on its basis as a prestige capability – to say nothing of the propaganda value in continued demonstration to domestic audiences of the Juche ideology of self-reliance. It mirrored the accomplishments of their larger neighbor in acquiring and fielding a modified CV, much as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy managed to convert their purchase of the Varyag heavy aviation cruiser (TAKR) into the fleet’s first carrier, Liaoning.18 But this is likely not the whole story, suggesting both wider ambitions and a new strategic depth to the regime’s ultimate priority: the survival and continued rule of the Kim dynasty.

The Gorae SSB and its successors remain a key linchpin of this priority. These submarines continue to represent a significant wildcard in any potential strategic exchange – despite the relative obsolescence of their design, terrible acoustic profile, and frequent maintenance casualties.19 Even as advances in Western intelligence capabilities, prompt conventional strike options, and other left-of-launch methods increasingly threaten the DPRK mobile missile force, the ability of the Korean People’s Navy to sustain a sea-based second strike delivery platform presents an unknowable challenge to deterrence. This challenge becomes especially salient in the case of an ROK attempt at leadership decapitation, whether due to Pyongyang’s feared bolt out of the blue or Seoul’s anticipated crisis escalation scenarios.

The Baekdusan fast carrier (CVL), or drone carrier (CVLQ) as some would prefer to argue, may instead represent a substantial further investment to protect the Gorae SSB as a second strike retaliation capability, drawing upon older Soviet naval doctrine developed when facing similar correlations of forces and qualitative disadvantages. The bastion model of patrol within confined seas, where access may be controlled via strategic chokepoints or sea denial, may have unexpectedly re-emerged in part as a function of the new time and distance equations that bound the contemporary weapons engagement zone. In this, the DPRK may also be mimicking emerging thinking observed over recurring deployments of the PLAN SSBN force.20 A North Korean carrier provides the option, at least as a matter of doctrine, to delay regional or international naval intervention in order to buy necessary operating space for the survival of the Gorae and her sister boats.

It still remains to be seen if this costly and audacious program will be nothing more than a white elephant. Certainly, the debate is far from finished regarding the limited survivability of a large surface platform like a carrier in the face of contemporary precision guided munitions fires, especially given ever-increasing ranges, loiter times, sensor integration, and autonomy. The remarkable accomplishment of the Baekdusan may be merely reduced to the first flaming datum in a future peninsular conflict.

Still, one cannot help but reflect on what might have been different. The combination of factors that had to line up “just-so” for this carrier to be built was the result of remarkable North Korean tenacity, and no small degree of luck. So many opportunities existed where intervention could have halted Pyongyang’s progress, starting from the earliest cyber espionage campaigns against defense industrial base contractors. But very much like the reaction to early Chinese forays toward a blue water navy in the 1990s, serious people would not take the idea seriously. After all, everyone knew the immense hurdles of building a naval aviation warfare community to operate from a narrow deck at sea. This simply could not be achieved using a rusting hulk headed to the shipbreakers, by the kinds of people more at home in a casino than in a banker’s office or a uniform. Likewise, conventional wisdom demands that serious naval strategists focus on power projection in the open ocean, unencumbered by the distractions of littoral operations in close and confined seas.

But what if they were wrong?

JD Work serves as the Bren Chair for Cyber Conflict and Security at Marine Corps University, and as a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. He holds additional affiliations with the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and as a senior adviser to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He can be found on Twitter @HostileSpectrum. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or other organization.


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Featured Image: “Modified Aircraft Carrier” by Jack Cong via ArtStation