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.”


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.


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. ( by Liu Jian)

Join Us for a CIMSEC Happy Hour/Lightning Rounds at the Front Page on Tuesday, Feb. 19

By Scott Cheney-Peters

Join the band of merry maritime revelers on Tuesday, February 19th at the Front Page for a CIMSEC happy hour and Lightning Round talks. 

CIMSEC’s Lightning Rounds are quick, 5-minute presentations by guests on their current work in the national security world or maritime security challenges they’re grappling with. 

If you’re interested in participating as a presenter or would like to RSVP, please contact CIMSEC DC Chapter co-President John Klein at All are welcome.

When: Tuesday, February 19th, 5:30-7:30pm

Where: The Front Page, 1333 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC (Dupont Circle metro stop, Red line.)

Featured Image: The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mahan (DDG 72) displays holiday lighting while moored at her homeport of Naval Station Norfolk, Va., Dec. 20. The ship was decorated as part of Naval Station Norfolk’s annual holiday celebration. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III/RELEASED)

Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing

By Bryan Clark

Regaining the Maritime “High Ground”

Aircraft carriers have been the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy since they came to prominence during the Second World War. Their mobility and firepower were essential to winning the Pacific Campaign during that conflict, and carriers’ adaptability enabled them to remain the fleet’s primary means of power projection through the Cold War and in multiple smaller conflicts thereafter. Unless the Navy dramatically transforms its carrier air wings (CVW), however, the carrier’s preeminence will soon come to an end.

America’s carriers, often the target of adversaries, are once again under threat. China and Russia are investing in networks of sensors and weapons designed to deter U.S. and allied forces from intervening in their regions. As part of their efforts, these great power competitors, in addition to regional powers like Iran and North Korea, are fielding anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, warships, and submarines to threaten U.S. carriers.

The Navy is developing ways to counter enemy kill chains from initial detection through engagement. Carrier strike groups (CSG) will need to maneuver, minimize their radiofrequency emissions, and limit flight operations to reduce the vulnerability of carriers to detection and targeting and maximize the capacity of their air defenses. But employing these capabilities and tactics could significantly constrain carriers’ sortie generation capacity.

To retain their ability to defeat aggression, CSGs will need to conduct wartime operations from areas where they can generate high-volume sorties and fires and their defenses can realistically defeat enemy attacks. This will likely place them about 1000 miles from concentrations of Russian or Chinese forces, or up to 500 miles from the missile batteries of regional powers. At these ranges, the Navy’ current and planned air defense capabilities will be sufficient for CSGs to protect themselves without having to rely extensively on countering enemy sensors.

Unfortunately, the Navy’s current and planned carrier air wings (CVW) lack the reach, survivability, and specialized capabilities to effectively protect U.S. forces at sea and ashore or attack the enemy from 1000 miles away. Carriers are an important, and in some scenarios essential, element of the National Defense Strategy’s “contact” and “blunt” forces that will counter enemy aggression because they are more heavily defended and less vulnerable than forward land bases. If CSGs cannot substantially contribute to degrading, delaying, or defeating aggression, the Navy should reconsider continuing its investment in carriers and their aircraft and shift those resources toward more effective approaches.

As arguably the ultimate modular military platform, carriers can address emerging threats and opportunities by changing the size and mix of aircraft they carry. Without the ability to evolve and support new missions, carriers and their CVWs would likely have gone the way of the battleship and left the fleet decades ago. Our new Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study describes how the Navy could transform its CVWs during the next 20 years to address the challenges posed by great power militaries.

Changing Carrier Strategy and Tactics

Some analysts recommend that rather than invest in new aircraft and improved carrier defenses, the Navy should use missiles from surface combatants and submarines to defend naval forces and attack enemy targets. This approach, however, would be unsustainable and may not deter a committed aggressor.

Long-range surface-launched missiles are more expensive and less numerous than the glide, gravity, and powered weapons carried by aircraft. Moreover, once a ship or submarine expends its missiles, it will need to withdraw from the fight to safely reload, even if that reloading could be done at sea. Using large numbers of missile-carrying merchant vessels to sustain fires would not solve these problems, because large numbers of expensive standoff weapons would still be needed, as well as defenses for the vessels carrying them.

Instead of replacing carriers with missiles, the Navy should use them as complementary capabilities. Missile-centric platforms such as submarines and surface combatants are well-suited for the NDS’ contact forces, which will be the first to engage the enemy and need to generate large volumes of offensive and defensive fires on short notice. Carriers should be used mostly in the NDS’ blunt force, which will reinforce and support the contact force. Carriers take time to generate sorties, but can sustain fires as long as the carrier is resupplied, allowing contact force ships and submarines to withdraw and reload. Without the threat of sustained resistance from the blunt force, an aggressor like China could choose to fight through ship-launched missiles until ships and submarines need to reload.

Under this construct, CSGs will be employed in four main categories of operations, which are similar to how carriers were used in previous great power competitions and conflicts:

  • Day-to-day training, port calls, and exercises inside contested regions during peacetime to build alliances and demonstrate U.S resolve not to cede waters to adversary intimidation or coercion.
  • Smaller-scale operations at long range against highly defended targets of great power adversaries, such as strike and surface warfare (SUW) attacks of 200 weapons or less, electromagnetic warfare (EMW) or escort missions, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW);
  • Sustained operations at the periphery of great power confrontations, such as in the Philippine or South China Seas against China or in the Norwegian Sea against Russia; and
  • The full range of operations against regional powers such as Iran or North Korea that lack integrated, long-range surveillance, anti-air, and anti-ship capabilities.

Within these broad categories, CVWs will need perform the same missions they do today, but using new operational concepts that address ongoing and future enhancements to adversary threats and the geographic advantages enjoyed by great power and some regional adversaries.

The predominant challenge facing U.S. forces against China and Russia is the threat of long-range precision weapons, making air and missile defense an important enabling concept for CVWs. To survive against Chinese or Russian surface-, air-, and submarine-launched missiles, U.S. forces will need to complement air defenses on ships and air bases with actions to thin out missile salvos in flight and attack enemy missile-launching “archers” before they can launch their “arrows.”

This updated version of the Navy’s “Outer Air Battle” doctrine would place defensive counterair (DCA) combat air patrols (CAP) along the most likely threat axes at the ranges of future anti-ship and land-attack missiles, or about 800 to 1,000 miles. Outside the most likely threat sectors, distributed fires from surface combatants, ground-based air defenses, and DCA aircraft would engage enemy aircraft using targeting from intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR&T) CAPs. Shorter-range CAPs operating 100-200 miles from carriers and other defended targets would thin out cruise missile salvos, effectively adding capacity to ship and shore-based air defenses.

21st Century Outer Air Battle (CSBA graphic)

Because of their operating areas and the challenge of air- and sea-launched missiles, future CVW strike and SUW operations will need to occur 500–1,000 miles away from the CSG, depending on the adversary. Using standoff weapons such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) could allow carrier aircraft to launch strike and SUW attacks from closer to the carrier, but these weapons are expensive and in short supply. Instead, strike and SUW operations will need to occur from shorter standoff ranges, employing a combination of survivable aircraft, and offensive counterair (OCA) and EMW operations.

With the growing number and sophistication of Russian and Chinese submarines, the Navy has reinvigorated its efforts at anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Today’s ASW platforms such as the P-8A Poseidon are potentially too vulnerable to conduct ASW operations near a great power adversary’s territory. Others, like the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, lack the range or endurance to conduct ASW operations beyond the 1,000-mile reach of enemy submarine-launched cruise missiles. To conduct ASW in contested areas, U.S. naval forces will need to rely increasingly on unmanned sensors to find and target submarines. CVW aircraft operating in ASW CAPs would then promptly engage possible submarines at ranges of up to 1,000 miles from the carrier or defended areas ashore.

U.S. adversaries are likely to protect valuable ports, airfields, and sensor and C2 facilities with their own DCA CAPs and air defense systems. To enable CVW or land-based attack aircraft to closely approach targets and use smaller short-range weapons, carrier-based escort aircraft could attack air defenses, help protect strike aircraft from CAPs, and launch expendable jammers and decoys to confuse aircraft and air defense radars and weapons.

Escort missions will require a combination of long-range fighters able to engage enemy DCA CAPs and attack aircraft with the payload capacity to carry missile- or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-borne jammers, sensors, or decoys. An attack aircraft could also carry high-power standoff jammers such as the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) that will be carried by the E/A-18G Growler until it retires in the 2030s.

A Needed Transformation

The operational concepts needed to implement current and likely future defense strategies will require new aircraft and a different CVW configuration than in today’s fleet. CSBA’s proposed CVW would include:

Long-range Multi-mission Survivable Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV)

Air and missile defense, ISR&T, strike, SUW, ASW, and EMW missions are all evolving in a way that makes them best conducted by aircraft with longer range or endurance, higher survivability, and a payload on par with today’s Navy strike-fighters. An attack aircraft such as an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) could achieve an unrefueled range of up to 3,000 miles through a fuel-efficient airframe optimized for subsonic speeds. A UCAV could also achieve high levels of survivability by combining a radar-scattering shape with electronic warfare systems and self-defense weapons. And although being unmanned would not necessarily increase its range, a UCAV would be capable of longer endurance than manned strike-fighters provided aerial refueling is available.

UCAV-based Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) Aircraft

The Navy plans to continue using the E/A-18G as its AEA platform into the 2030s and beyond, but its reliance on standoff effects from outside the range of enemy air defenses is likely unsustainable in the face of improving passive sensors and the increasing range of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and AAMs. A low-observable platform such as the proposed UCAV could be made into an stand-in AEA platform by incorporating subsystems of the E/A-18G into its mission bay and installing multiple active electronically scanned arrays (AESA) along its wings and fuselage. A UCAV-based AEA aircraft could also carry and deploy expendable EMW UAVs and missiles that would conduct ISR&T, jamming, decoy, and deception operations over target areas.

Unmanned Aerial Refueling Aircraft (MQ-25)

A dedicated carrier-based aerial refueling tanker could enable CVW aircraft to reach CAP stations 1,000 miles from the carrier and conduct long-range attacks against enemy ships and shore targets. The U.S. Navy is already pursuing the MQ-25 carrier-based tanker UAV for this reason and recently awarded design and construction contracts for the first MQ-25 demonstrators.

To fully exploit the potential of the MQ-25, the Navy should re-designate it as a multi-mission UAV. The initial version of the MQ-25 would remain focused on the aerial refueling mission to avoid delays in program development. The Navy could then develop modifications that would enable it also to conduct ISR, attack, and EMW missions in appropriate operational environments. Alternatively, the Navy could explore ways for the UCAV to also conduct the refueling mission once it is fielded.

Long-range Fighter (FA-XX)

Escort and OCA operations will require a long-range fighter to counter enemy DCA CAPs and enable land-based or CVW strike aircraft to closely approach targets and use smaller, short-range strike weapons. The range, sensor capability, and weapons capacity needed in a future long-range fighter could be provided with a modified version of an existing fighter or strike-fighter by shifting weapons payload to fuel capacity and incorporating additional fuel efficiency measures.

Planned Aircraft Retained in Proposed 2040 CVW

Between FY 2019 and FY 2023, the Navy plans to complete the procurement of MH-60R ASW and MH-60S logistics helicopters, E-2D AEW&C aircraft, and E/A-18G EW strike-fighters. The proposed 2040 CVW includes MH-60s and E-2Ds, which may require some life extension; both aircraft will, however, have reduced roles in 2040 compared to today due to their constrained range and survivability.

The proposed 2040 CVW would buy the first half of the F-35C program to supply one squadron per CVW, but the second squadron would be replaced with the FA-XX. Although not formally part of the CVW, the proposed 2040 CVW assumes the Navy’s ongoing plan to replace the C-2A logistics aircraft with the CMV-22 Osprey. The 2040 CVW also includes in its helicopter squadrons a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) Vertical Take-Off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV) based on ongoing development efforts in the Navy and Marine Corps for an unmanned multi-mission aircraft, known as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary (or MUX).

Future CVW Composition

CSBA’s proposed 2040 CVW, shown below, includes the new and existing aircraft described above in a mix that improves the Navy’s CVW range, endurance, survivability, and payload capacity. Whereas the Navy’s planned CVW would center around 20 F-35C and 24 F-18 E/F or FA-XX strike-fighters, the proposed CVW is built around 18 UCAVs, ten FA-XX fighters, ten F-35C strike-fighters, and six UCAV-based AEA aircraft. Although the aggregate payload capacity of the proposed CVW is about the same as the Navy’s plan, the 2040 CVW could deliver its payload twice as far or remain on station much longer.

The proposed CVW also incorporates more specialized aircraft to address the growing capability of great power competitors. The long-range FA-XX fighter will be better able to counter enemy DCA aircraft, and the UCAV will be a more effective platform to support long-endurance CAP missions for air defense, ASW, SUW, and ISR&T than the Navy’s planned CVW of short-range strike-fighters. The CVW also includes more MQ-25 tankers to maximize the CVW’s reach and endurance.

CSBA’s Proposed 2040 CVW (CSBA Graphic)

Making the New CVW a Reality

There are several different combinations of programmatic changes that could be used to reach the proposed CVW by 2040. CSBA recommends the following actions, starting with the President’s Budget for FY 2020. Notably, the new procurement proposed by this study would not begin until after the FY 2020–2024 Future Year’s Defense Plan (FYDP), although some research and development funding would be repurposed within the FYDP.

  • Sustain procurement of F/A-18 E/Fs as planned through 2023. Although the future CVW requires half the strike-fighters of the Navy’s planned CVW, these aircraft will fill near- to mid-term capacity gaps. F/A-18 E/Fs still in service by 2040 can be used in place of UCAVs or F-35Cs if those aircraft are not yet fully fielded.
  • Sustain F-35C procurement as planned through the first half of production, ending in 2024, to support the proposed 2040 CVW’s squadron of ten F-35Cs.
  • Develop the FA-XX fighter during the 2020–2024 timeframe as a derivative of an existing aircraft, with production starting in 2025. Block III F/A-18 E/Fs and F-35Cs will be in production during the FY 2020–2024 FYDP, and either they or another in-production fighter or strike-fighter could be modified into an FA-XX. Although this approach will require some additional funding for non-recurring engineering between about 2020 and 2024, it will save billions of dollars compared to the Navy’s plan to develop a new fighter aircraft from scratch.
  • Develop a low-observable UCAV attack aircraft during the 2020–2024 timeframe, with production starting in 2025. Although the UCAV could be based on an existing design such as the X-47B, 1–2 years of development may be needed to create a missionized version.
  • Continue development of the MQ-25, transitioning the program to the UCAV-based refueling aircraft when sufficient attack UCAVs are fielded. Increase the overall procurement of MQ-25 and UCAV-based refueling aircraft to support twelve per CVW.
  • Retire E/A-18Gs as they reach the end of their service lives starting in the late 2020s, replacing their capability with NGJ-equipped UCAVs and UAV- and missile-expendable EMW payloads.
  • In concert with the U.S. Marine Corps, field a MALE rotary-wing UAV such as the Tactically Exploitable Reconnaissance Node (TERN), which can augment CVW helicopter squadrons and could take over some of their ASW operations by the mid-2030s.

The fixed-wing carrier aircraft inventory associated with these recommendations is shown below. Under this plan, research and development of the planned MQ-25, modified FA-XX, and new UCAV would occur during the 2020–2024 timeframe, with production of new aircraft starting in 2025. Today’s F/A-18 E/Fs and E/A-18Gs would begin retiring in the late 2020s, to be replaced by UCAVs. The overall inventory of CVW aircraft will decrease as unmanned aircraft replace manned platforms, because operators and maintainers of unmanned aircraft can practice using simulators that will be as realistic as actual UAVs, eliminating the need for unmanned aircraft in training squadrons or in fleet squadrons that are not deployed or preparing to deploy. The smaller number of aircraft and squadrons results in a cost savings for unmanned aircraft compared to manned aircraft.

Fixed-Wing CVW Aircraft Inventory to Build Proposed 2040 CVW. (CSBA graphic)

The approximate cost of the proposed 2040 CVW is shown below. Except for developmental spending associated with the proposed UCAV, proposed new development, procurement, and operations spending does not begin until FY 2024. The cost associated with the proposed 2040 CVW is less than the Navy would likely incur with its planned strike-fighter focused CVW. The continued reliance on manned strike-fighters results in a larger overall number of aircraft being required compared to the proposed CVW, primarily to train pilots and maintain their proficiency when not deployed. The higher aircraft inventory increases operations and maintenance (O&M) costs during the first decade of the period shown and raises procurement costs during the 2030s when today’s F/A-18 E/Fs are replaced with a new manned strike-fighter.

Total Cost of Proposed and strike-fighter Focused CVWs (CSBA Graphic)

A Clear Choice

The proposed 2040 CVW will be more expensive in the near-term than the Navy’s planned CVW, but the Navy will need to incur these additional costs if it is to prevent carrier aviation from becoming irrelevant to the most pressing defense challenges of the near future. The threats posed by great power competitors, and increasingly by regional powers such as Iran and North Korea, preclude relying on legacy capabilities to protect American allies and interests overseas.

Naval forces will be instrumental in deterring and defeating aggression by these adversaries, as described in the NDS. Carrier air wings provide the ability to sustain naval combat operations beyond the first few days, when ship and submarine missile inventories are depleted. Without a clear plan to improve the Navy’s CVWs, the United States may not be able to implement its defense strategy, and DoD leaders would need to reconsider if they want to continue the Navy’s investment in carrier aviation or shift resources to other, more effective, capabilities.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was a career enlisted and officer submariner and held several positions in the Chief of Naval Operations staff, including Director of the CNO’s Commander’s Action Group.

Featured Image: South China Sea (Feb. 10, 2018) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Jasen Morenogarcia/Released)

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 2

Read Part One here

By Tuan N. Pham

Part one of this three-part series revisited past recommendations for a new space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means. It made the case for America to guarantee the freedom of space, embrace space preeminence, and adopt a broader and more complete approach toward space deterrence.

Part two will now take a step back for strategic context and re-examine a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. The dialogue will set the conditions for further discussion in part three on how America (through the Space Force) can promote stability, while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century.

Dynamics of Space Instability 

Instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security, and unbridled strategic competition for space preeminence. 

Competing Space Powers. For now, America is the preeminent space power that enjoys unprecedented and unrivaled national security advantages (and dependencies) derived from its space capabilities. Other space powers and strategic competitors like China (and Russia) have long taken notice and actively continue the development of significant capabilities to erode the U.S. strategic advantages in space and to protect their own growing reliance on space capabilities. They regard the freedom to use space-based systems and deny the adversary access to space-based systems as fundamental to enabling modern warfare. For Beijing especially, space preeminence is necessary if they are to achieve and maintain aspirational global preeminence (the Chinese Dream).   

Space-Terrestrial Preeminence Linkage. Strategic competitors are also acutely aware of U.S. terrestrial preeminence enabled by U.S. space preeminence, and see an opportunity to undercut the former through the latter. Of particular concern is a rising China, who appears to be asymmetrically targeting dominant American warfighting capabilities and exposed dependencies on space assets. This is problematic for the United States who has more vulnerable high-value space assets and is more reliant on space capabilities than the other space powers and strategic competitors. Therefore, U.S. deterrent or response actions limited to just the space domain where the stronger power has more to lose than a weaker power may not be practical.

Offense-Inclined Nature of Space Warfare. Ambiguous indications and warning, attack attribution, and battle damage assessment; uncertain resiliency and assured retaliation; and vulnerability, predictability, and fragility of space assets give the operational and tactical advantages to the attacker and increase the strategic temptation to attack. Hence, offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities are attractive options for a weaker power because they offer asymmetric means to undermine the terrestrial preeminence of a stronger power by exploiting its reliance on enabling space capabilities.   

Destabilizing Partnerships. Exclusive enterprises can be perceived by excluded parties as indirect efforts to isolate and undermine them. Case in point is how Beijing perceives the new National Security and Defense Strategies, Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Shangri-la Dialogue, ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war, and other U.S. efforts to strengthen and expand the principled network of economic and security relationships. To a certain extent, this offers China validation for strategic narratives regarding its regional assertive actions and its sense of aggrieved historical victimhood. 

Dynamics of Space Stability 

Stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security and universal acceptance that “space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all.” 

Stabilizing Partnerships. The ubiquitous benefits of space affect the everyday lives of people around the world. Multinational corporations are collaborating more and more in space. They see vast business opportunities for shared profits and shared costs in the lucrative areas of space situational awareness, scientific exploration, commercial ventures, and space tourism. In the geopolitical realm, inclusive enterprises share risks and promote mutual trust and cooperation amongst the parties involved. If all share the same risks, then a space attack on one is a space attack on all. 

Common Space Dangers. There are over 60 nations and government consortia that own and operate satellites. All of whom share the same domain, a common interest in stability, and a desire for free access to space for all.

Space debris accumulated over seven decades of space activities impacts current and threatens future space operations and activities. The U.S. military tracks approximately 22,000 “man-made” objects in addition to the 1419 active satellites. Nonetheless, there may be as many as hundreds of thousands of additional pieces of debris that are too small to track with current sensors. There is also an increasing global awareness of potential catastrophic space threats (asteroid, solar events, cosmic radiation, etc.) and a growing interest for global contingency planning and preparedness. 

Space Deterrence. Many space strategists view deterrence through the doctrinal lens of imposing costs, denying benefits, and encouraging restraint to deter or make a potential adversary believe that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so. 

Impose costs. OCS capabilities are necessary at some level to enable deterrence and retaliation if deterrence fails, unless space assets can be given far greater resilience than the little they have today. OCS capabilities like nuclear, cyber, and developing hypersonic weapons are now permanent fixtures of the strategic arsenal. In other words, the genie is out of the bottle. Those who possess OCS capabilities are unlikely to surrender them. Those who do not have OCS capabilities will try to acquire them, while those who do have OCS capabilities could try to prevent others from getting them.

Deny benefits. A resilient space architecture may be able (in varying degree) to blunt the effectiveness of OCS capabilities and offset the offense-inclined nature of space warfare by lessening the vulnerability space assets. This would help reduce the temptation for a first strike, and assure a second-strike capability, thereby creating more dynamics for deterrence. 

Encourage restraint. Uncertain consequences in terms of second- and third-order effects and uncontrolled escalation may give pause to the attacker and possibly decrease the temptation to attack. A space attack can inadvertently impact the attacker as well in terms of degraded or lost global services, space debris, political costs, and indirect economic costs.     

Space Governance and Managing the Peace. An existing body of international agreements (treaties) and legal principles forms a framework of accepted norms of behavior for the space domain. However, more diplomatic and legal conventions are still needed to manage the constantly evolving landscape in space. More is to be desired, particularly in the areas of space debris, space traffic regulation, resource exploitation, OCS capabilities, arms control, and arms reduction. 


This concludes a short discourse on a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. The dialogue sets the conditions for further discussion in part three on how America (through the Space Force) can weaken the former and strengthen the latter, while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century.

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: A soldier adjusts a satellite dish. (United Kingdom Ministry of Defence/Wikimedia Commons)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.