Tag Archives: Book Review

Hunters and Killers

Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Hunters and Killers: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2015/2016, $44.95.

By Joe Petrucelli

In their two-volume work, Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written the first comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. As the authors note in their preface, there are histories of ASW campaigns as well as  both adversary and U.S. submarine operations, but no one has examined the discipline of ASW from its humble beginnings. Polmar and Whitman do just that in these two volumes, starting with the rudimentary ASW operations of the American revolution through the massive campaigns of the First and Second World War and finishing with the nuclear revolution and post-Cold War implications. Through their analysis, one can discern four factors that make ASW campaigns effective throughout history: numbers, technology, intelligence coordination, and organizational integration and concepts.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Polmar and Whitman’s analysis is that in ASW, numbers matter. While acknowledged as important, most navies do not appear to consider ASW as one of their most important capabilities and invest in it accordingly. Thus, during the interwar period, Polar and Whitman observe that the U.S. and Royal Navies drastically cut their ASW platforms both in absolute and relative terms, preferring to expend limited resources on larger, more prominent line combatants. Unfortunately, all the successful ASW campaigns they examined required presence over a large open-ocean area and a small number of highly capable combatants were not necessarily helpful, leaving the Allies to suffer severe losses until embarking on emergency building programs. To emphasize this point, in 1940 none other than Winston Churchill observed that large surface combatants (even if equipped with ASW weapons and sensors) were not effective escorts because they were valuable enough to become targets themselves. The most effective force structure during the ASW campaigns they examined consisted of long-range patrol aircraft and a large number of small, relatively expendable escorts.

The history of ASW is one of technological innovation by both submarines themselves and ASW forces. Polmar and Whitman do an excellent job explaining these complex technical developments in ASW (i.e. sound wave attenuation, convergence zones, etc) and translating them into layman-ese. However, it is important to note that they do not present technology as the solution for ASW dominance, but rather as a never-ending balance between offensive and defensive technologies. As ASW forces developed new technical capabilities such as depth charges, radar, and sonar, submarines countered with technologies such as snorkels, longer-range torpedoes and air-independent and nuclear propulsion. In the end, technology provided necessary tactical capabilities for an effective ASW campaign, but by itself was not sufficient to practice effective ASW.

Additionally, the authors explores the role of intelligence and cryptology in ASW, a vital factor in historical ASW campaigns. Allied cryptology efforts, known as ULTRA during WWII, were vital to cueing ASW forces and helping convoys avoid known U-boat patrol areas, while HF/DF capabilities deployed on escort ships gave ASW forces more tactical-level cueing. Polmar and Whitman describe a similar cueing role for U.S. undersea surveillance assets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not just intelligence and cryptology capabilities by themselves that gave ASW forces an advantage, but the fusion of intelligence capabilities into operational forces. By devising employment schemes to utilize intelligence and cryptology windfalls in the short time window that they were relevant, the Allies gained critical advantages in the ASW fight.

Underlying all of these factors and capabilities is the awareness that ASW is a team sport. Integrating ASW platforms from multiple services, intelligence/cryptology sources, and new technical capabilities into an effective campaign required new organizations and employment concepts. The most well known ASW concept, one that was initially resisted during both World Wars, was the convoy system. While convoys probably had the biggest impact in reducing the effectiveness of enemy submarines, German submarines were able to at least partially adapt to it with their own “wolfpack” concept.  Other operational concepts that proved crucial to effective ASW included the development of hunter-killer groups (including escort carriers) to reinforce the convoys and the creation of dedicated ASW organizations (such as the WWII U.S. Tenth Fleet).

USS Providence (SSN-719) snorkeling at her berth in Groton, CT before having honors rendered by the Sloop Providence. (Source)

Although these volumes are a history of ASW and do not explicitly present policy recommendations, there are some lessons from Polmar and Whitman’s work that seem increasingly relevant today. First, reliance on a breakthrough technology to turn the oceans “transparent” is a risky proposition, as the Royal Navy discovered during World War II when their planned reliance on ASDIC (or active SONAR) for ASW proved not nearly as effective as hoped. Additionally, numbers matter, and effective ASW requires a force structure we lack today – namely small surface combatants and escorts (admittedly the LCS is small, but in this reviewer’s opinion it lacks range, combat capability, and is not designed as an escort). Lastly, ASW requires organizational integration in a way that has not been stressed in recent years. While the U.S. Navy (and close allies) have maintained ASW organizations and periodically exercised those capabilities since the end of the Cold War, convoys were last utilized during Operation EARNEST WILL in the Persian Gulf while the last ASW convoys appear to have been during World War II. It is not clear if we have truly exercised convoy tactics (much less having the merchant shipping in the current era to string together a convoy system) or have war-gamed a theater level war against dozens of commerce raiding submarines.

Overall, Polmar and Whitman’s two volumes are an amazingly comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. This reviewer’s only complaint is that the analysis largely ends with the end of the Cold War. While the intensity of ASW operations declined at this time and more recent issues are admittedly difficult to research due to classification issues, there are a number of public ASW incidents that would have been worthy of including, from the 2007 incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced inside a U.S. carrier battle group to the 2009 deployment of a Russian Akula SSN in the Western Atlantic. These recent incidents, as well as changes in technology and command structures, would better complete their description of ASW. Despite that one critique, this is a very readable and informative set of books and one that should be required reading for every naval officer serving with surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and undersea surveillance organizations.

Joe Petrucelli is a former submarine officer and current Naval Reserve officer. He is a PhD student at George Mason University and a Student Fellow at the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or his employer.

Featured Image: An allied ship is seen sinking through the periscope of a German U-Boat in WWII. 

Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read CIMSEC’s interview with author David Poyer here.

Michael DeBoer is part of the CIMSEC book review team.

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

Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War

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

lessonsencounted
Click to read.

By Ching Chang

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese translation of the reviewed text. (Author photos)

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

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

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

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course

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

chinesenavalshipbuilding

By Michael DeBoer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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