Tag Archives: China

PLA Air and Maritime Maneuvers Across the First Island Chain

By Ching Chang

Between late 2016 and early 2017, there were several People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and maritime maneuvers penetrating the so-called First Island Chain, including a deployment of the only People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning battle group, for a routine exercise in the South China Sea. It went through the Miyako Strait between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island as well as the Bashi Channel, a part of the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and Philippines. All these maneuvers were perceived by strategic commentators and military observers as a milestone that can be signified in the efforts of the PLA’s force building.

Nonetheless, all the military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain during this period of time were not entirely revolutionary. Since early 2015, similar air maneuvers have been executed eight times. The Liaoning battle group only cruised through the waters on the east side of the First Island Chain, but no significant or even substantial drill was executed during this leg of maritime maneuvers. While these air and maritime maneuvers are intentionally showing off the PLA’s strength, these military deployments exposed many weaknesses strategically, operationally, and tactically.

First, it is debatable whether these maneuvers are really fulfilling the strategic blueprint of maritime dominance of various island chains as set forth by PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing in 1982. Liu’s perspectives are widely addressed by many Western strategic thinkers, yet his argument had never been converted into any official PLAN doctrine. At least, the actual developments of PLAN deployments and operations are not consistent with Liu’s original concepts. We must consider whether the PLAN’s strategic planning is still directed and guided by Liu’s visions as presented in 1982. Otherwise, the blindness of self-fulfillment conviction can be a fatal factor in interpreting the PRC’s maritime or naval endeavors.

Second, penetrating the First Island Chain itself is not a strategic barrier but merely a psychological threshold. There are three factors in operational planning and execution: force, space, and timing. The essential strategic space is a geographical space which must be dominated or be occupied by the offensive forces as well as secured or controlled by the defensive side. The nature of the strategically essential space is quite dynamic. A perfect match of the three operational planning and execution factors may turn any geographical space into a strategically essential space at the right time for the right forces. It is meaningless for maritime forces to cruise in the waters that nobody would like to utilize and declare the dominance of these waters. 

On the other hand, cruising through several international waterways during peacetime does not prove the capacity of breaking wartime blockage since no other party had ever expressed objection to these legitimate maritime maneuvers. The fundamental question about these PLAN air and maritime maneuvers is how these maneuvers may imply potential wartime actions. The answer will be inconclusive since these maneuvers can be interpreted as everything but will not be firmly identified as anything. If dominating the waters around the East side of the First Island Chain failed to undermine potential adversaries’ maritime interests, then all the significance emphasized by various strategic commentators are in essence overstated. No matter how routine the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force crossing the First Island Chain for air and maritime exercises may be, the strategic significance is relatively limited.

Third, unless all the island territories of the associated island chains can be well-controlled before executing any maneuvers, dispatching maritime forces and their airborne counterparts through the First Island Chain runs many risks during wartime periods. In fact, adopting the island chains as the relative geographical indexes may expose the strategic thinking as nothing but an extension of coastal defense. The core of maritime strategic thinking should be the command of the sea, including sea control and sea denial. The essence of maritime majesty is to compel adversaries to follow your will, not to control a space with no strategic value. As compared with Chinese global maritime activities, interests, and naval presence, the actual deployments of the PLAN fleet are already beyond those island chains. Without the dominance of the island chain land territories, the wartime operational sustainability beyond the island chains can be very questionable.

Fourth, many political commentators insisted these People’s Liberation Army exercises and military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain are about sending coercive signals to neighboring states, particularly, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, about the Taiwan issue. The viewpoint can be another overstated bias. Given the three major channels of the PRC for declaring external policies associated with Taiwan, those spokesmen of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office had never taken the initiative to deliver any related intimidating statements during these military maneuvers. In contrast, as many media expressed such speculations, all the PRC mouthpieces, including these three formal spokesmen systems, denied any association between the situations in Taiwan and these military activities. Of course, we still need to scrutinize the realities with the People’s Republic of China’s official statements. Although the cross-strait relationship has significantly deteriorated after President Tsai’s inauguration, the likelihood of employing these military exercises to coerce the Republic of China is still reasonably slim.

Fifth, as reflected by these military maneuvers and exercise scenarios, many operational and tactical features are worthy of discussions. These air maneuvers not only put the focus on air battles but also emphasize the considerations of engaging with the surface combatants, either surface vessels or military sites on land. Attempts for combining different air platforms and integrating units from People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) are obvious. Certain rules of engagement can be expected since a stable modus operandi is revealed by these maneuvers in different periods of time. The major task for the PLANAF is to practice engagement tactics for targeting surface vessels. Several PLAN surface vessels are concurrently directed as the counter forces for such exercises. Maritime patrol aircraft attend as the scouting platforms, and the airborne early warning and mission control platforms are effectively conducting their command and control functions for air combat and surface attack missions.

No indication of live fire exercise has  been seen with the air and maritime maneuvers across the First Island Chain conducted by PLAN surface vessels or their airborne counterparts so far, but it is only a matter of time. Also, very little evidence proves any significant electronic warfare drills having been executed during these maneuvers, though certain platforms may have the inherent capability for electronic warfare. There are flaws in the exercise plans as well. There are few indications for search-and-rescue arrangements or mechanisms or contingency measures for malfunctions or emergencies. Whether we need to praise the bravery of these PLA military professionals for long-range exercise without a bailout mechanism or speculate the reckless of the PLA operational staff is a topic for further observation.

Last but not least, nobody could ever properly describe the exact scenario for these air and maritime maneuvers until now. There is no clear PLA doctrinal norm to support these exercises with different combinations of platforms. The possible operational concepts reflected by these exercises are still yet arguable. Whether these military exercises may well support the possible political aim is still a myth to be further scrutinized. We fail to generalize any possible operational directive from the same well-known modus operandi for concluding possible rules of engagement since it is very hard to tell what should be the expected operational situations for employing these air or maritime maneuvers. After all, to firmly conclude any meaningful implication from events that only occurred less than ten times is indeed a challenge.

At most, we may successfully exclude some plausible speculations and groundless accusations with political smear intentions. To summarize a prompt judgment on these PLA maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain recklessly, without military professionalism and political consciences, would be a sin of contributory negligence as we misperceive the potential challenge today and are forced to swallow the catastrophic failure in the future.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings. 

Featured Image: J-15 fighters launching off of PLAN carrier Liaoning (China Daily)

Reminder and Location Update: CIMSEC DC Happy Hour w/Guest Jim Fanell: What’s the PLAN in 2017?

Location Update: Join our DC chapter for its January DC-area informal happy hour. We will be meeting on the second floor of Fuel Pizza on K Street for an informal discussion on the latest developments of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with CAPT Jim Fanell, USN (ret.).  Jim is a Government Fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, having spent 30 years as a naval intelligence officer specializing in Indo-Asia Pacific security, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations.

Time: Monday, 23 January 6:00-8:00pm
Place: Fuel Pizza, 1606 K St NW, Washington, DC 20006 (2nd floor)
Washington D.C. 20003

All are welcome – RSVPs not required, but appreciated: director@cimsec.org

Sea Control 126 – End of the Year Episode 2016

By Matthew Merighi

It’s the end of the year, so the CIMSEC team gets together to talk about the events of 2016 and does its best to look into the crystal ball to see what is on the horizon in 2017.

Happy New Year from the entire CIMSEC team!

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control and the Host of Sea Control: North America. He works as Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

China Seizes U.S. Navy Underwater Drone

By Armando J. Heredia

Grpahic by CIMSEC Member Louis MV

On December 15th 2016, the Chinese Navy seized an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters off the Western coast of the Philippines. The USNS Bowditch, an unarmed T-AGS class hydro-graphic survey ship, was being shadowed by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) salvage vessel identified as a Dalang-III class (ASR-510).

The UUV had surfaced as part of a pre-programmed instruction, and sent  a radio signal marking it’s position for pick-up. As the Bowditch was preparing to recover the drone from the water, a small boat crew from the Dalang III raced in and plucked the unmanned vessel. The incident occurred approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic, Luzon.

While the exact type of drone is unknown, there have been several instances of U.S. Navy Slocum Gliders snagged in local fishermens’ nets or washed ashore on beaches in the Philippines. This type of drone is not weaponized, and is used to collect a variety of environmental readings such as water temperature and salinity, to improve forecasting accuracy of extreme weather such as typhoons. The UUV uses wave movement to propel itself without any on-board engines, with an endurance time of months. The Department of Defense estimates the seized drone’s value to be around $150,000.

The crew of the Bowditch immediately contacted the PLAN vessel on bridge-to-bridge radio asking for the return of the drone. The PLAN vessel reportedly acknowledged the message, but then stopped responding and sailed away with the UUV. On Friday the 16th, the U.S. State Department issued a formal protest, or demarche, with the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding an immediate return of the drone. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chinese government has not responded.

Purpose

Motivations behind the seizure are unclear, but tensions between the two nations have recently increased over President-Elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what Beijing considers a blatant disregard of the standing One-China Policy. It could also have been a quick riposte to undermine Head of Pacific Command U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris’ recent comments that the US is “ready to confront [China] when we must.”

Notably, the Philippines has chosen to remain silent over the incident. While traditionally a U.S. ally, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a deterioration of relations between Manila and Washington. Thanks in no small part to Duterte’s bloody prosecution of an Anti-Drug war punctuated by high civilian casualties and accusations of extra-judicial killings, a large multi-million dollar U.S aid package was just withdrawn this week – prompting the volatile President to threaten abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Philippine Department of National Defense indicates they had no idea that the incident was ongoing; highlighting the enormous capability gap the Philippines has regarding Maritime Domain Awareness. The Philippine government became aware via communications from the U.S. State Department to their embassy in Washington D.C.

Coupled with Duterte’s increasingly close orbit of China following last month’s visit to Beijing, the United States could potentially find itself without bases that would ease the mission of maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea. Recent analysis shows China has expanded militarization of their Spratly Island outposts by placing what appear to be defensive anti-aircraft and close-in weapon systems on Hughes and Gaven reefs, while fortifications have sprouted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs; the latter group are in close proximity to other claimant outposts in the region.

Taken together, China appears to be using it’s famous “Salami-slicing” techniques to slowly ratchet up its presence and capabilities within the region without crossing any significant “bright lines” leading to a military confrontation. The UUV seizure is consistent with opportunistic interference of U. .Navy operations while striking propoganda points with regional states. Notably, the unresponsiveness of Philippines to an international incident within their EEZ tells a tale that the U.S. cannot count upon its traditional ally going forward to assist in the presence mission.

Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries.  The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.

Featured Image: Slocum Ocean Glider. (University of South Florida)