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The Secret Ingredients of “Collaborative Leadership”

Weisbrode, Kenneth. Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 110 pp. $79.955.

Weisbrode – The Art of Collaborative Leadership

By Erik Sand

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed command of Allied forces in Europe in early 1943, he faced a daunting task. Not only did he need to prepare to assault the vaunted Germany army, but he faced a complicated set of command relationships. His three subordinates, Harold Alexander, Arthur Tedder, and Andrew Cunningham, were all British officers. Two of the three were from different services. Moreover, they all outranked him! Later in his life, Eisenhower would define leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” Eisenhower’s allied command would test, if not forge, this philosophy. In Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, author Kenneth Weisbrode describes Eisenhower’s leadership style both as an Army officer, and later as president.

Two traits stand out in supporting Ike’s “Collaborative Leadership” – his capacity for empathy and his self-discipline. As a middle child in a large family, Eisenhower grew up needing to recognize, adapt to, and shape the feelings of others. In command, he applied these skills. He sometimes reworded messages to subordinates to ensure they had generous interpretations. He spent time in informal conversations with his subordinates outside of meetings to better understand their perspective. As Weisbrode notes, empathy is “not easy in asymmetrical relationships: for the senior there is every incentive to dismiss the views of the less powerful and to get on with things; for the junior there is often thus every incentive to feel undervalued to begrudge this.” The difficulty of displaying empathy highlights the second theme: the importance of personal discipline to Eisenhower’s leadership.

Ike’s particular forte was leading, and keeping together, alliances. Yet, he often complained about exactly that process. In 1942 he wrote in his journal, “My God, how I hate to work by any method that forces me to depend on someone else.” Later he wrote, “What a headache this combined stuff is. We spend our time figuring out how to keep from getting in each other’s way rather than in how to fight the war.” Historians have called Ike’s leadership as president “the hidden hand.” He carefully chose his moments of intervention in discussions so as not to influence them too early, even though he had frequently already thought through the issue at hand. Even his apparently offhand remarks often were not. To so carefully control his own behavior, as well as to excel in work he found frustrating, required immense self-discipline. Perhaps this combination helps explain why, when it flared, his temper was so famous.

While Eisenhower’s understanding of leadership is simple to state, implementing it is less straightforward. The naval service could gain by discussing both of empathy and self-discipline more explicitly in discussions of leadership. We speak of “knowing our people,” but rarely of having empathy for them. The two are similar, but not the same. Empathy requires sensing and understanding the emotions of the other party. Perhaps our general discomfort with emotions explains why we avoid a term that highlights them.

Discipline forms the foundation of any naval organization, but we do not often explicitly acknowledge the challenge of self-discipline. Even Weisbrode does not explicitly speak to the issue despite its frequent appearance in his descriptions. Few people will point out their leader’s failings directly until it is too late. Often, the discipline required is not to restrain oneself from misconduct, but from excessive intervention in the affairs of subordinates. The challenge becomes greater as leaders rise in the ranks, the temptations of authority grow stronger, and they become more confident in their own opinions. A leader’s discipline must be self-discipline.

In summary, while occasionally difficult to follow as it shifts between Eisenhower’s experiences and actions and the philosophy of friendship and leadership, Weisbrode’s short 93-page text provides a leadership study that focuses on less-commonly discussed leadership traits as displayed by one of America’s greatest leaders.

Erik Sand is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve and a PhD candidate in the MIT Security Studies Program. The views expressed here do not represent those of U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: 01/10/1944-Algiers: Prime Minister Winston Churchill,shown here w/ some of the ‘boys’, is smiling for the camera for the first time since his recent illness and donned his famous siren suit and a colorful dressing gown for the occasion. From left to right: General J.F.M. Whitely Air Marshal Sir Arthur W.Tedder, Deputy Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater; Admiral Cunningham; Gen.Dwight D.Eisenhower; Gen. Harold Alexander; Prime Minister Churchill; Lt.Gen.Sir Humprey Gale, Gen. Sir Henry Wilson and Gen. Smith.

Then What? Wargaming the Interface Between Strategy and Operations, Pt. 3

Read Part One. Read Part Two

By Robert C. Rubel

Filling the Gap

It might seem, from the discussion so far in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, that effective gaming of the operational/strategy interface is infeasible. It is certainly the case that if the matter was approached using regular gaming methods, it may very well be. However, the importance of the issue in the real world demands an attempt be made to incorporate it into the overall gaming posture of the military as a whole, not to mention games run by the State Department and other national security organizations. To understand the prospects for incorporating the interface of levels, we must examine how something, whether a phenomenon, factor, issue, etc., can be addressed in a game. There are three ways: simulation, representation, and discussion.

Simulation and Representation

Simulation involves an attempt to recreate some aspect of reality as an aspect of the game. Certain things are understood well enough to be accurately modeled mathematically and simulated in computer programs. But the simulation approach can also be used when computer modeling is not possible or appropriate. A frequent instance in gaming is command and control. Where multiple command echelons are involved, human players act as commanders and staffs. The game designer attempts to create the essential elements of a C2 environment, including organization of player cells and communications equipment, such that in the course of a game the process of C2 unfolds in a manner sufficiently like it would in the real world to allow lessons to be learned that are applicable outside of the game. Such simulations can be very instructive, especially when new communications concepts or technologies are involved.

The problem that commonly arises in games of this design is that such simulation occurs only on the Blue side. Red consists of a relatively small team of players that sit in a single seminar style cell, so C2 issues are obviated – not simulated. This introduces a profound asymmetry to the game irrespective of whether Red gets to engage in free play. Red can easily amalgamate strategy and operations in a way that is impossible for Blue. Creating a symmetrical C2 structure runs up against a number of feasibility issues. First is finding a sufficient number of Red players with the requisite knowledge of Red capabilities and doctrine. Second, simulating the cultural dynamics involved in foreign, multi-echelon interactions is normally beyond our intelligence capabilities. The third problem involves the inherent imponderables of free play at the strategic level. Even the real Red likely does not know what it would do in a crisis situation, and gaming experience has shown a reluctance of strategic level players to initiate hostilities on their own in a rational actor environment – with Red being played by U.S. personnel. All of this leads to the conclusion that the interface between the operational and strategic levels of war cannot be gamed via the simulation approach.

Those things that are well understood or whose effects are relatively simple and straightforward are susceptible to being represented by a rule. An easy example from board gaming is a rule that reduces a unit’s (say an Army armored regiment) movement factor if it enters hexes (six-sided cells that overlay the game board’s map) that depict forests. This represents the difficulties that real world units experience moving through such terrain. Some phenomena are more difficult to represent by rules. An example is command and control (C2). For a board game the author had used to support his wargaming theory and practice class, C2 was represented by a budget metaphor. Players had fixed numbers of C2 points that had to be spent in order for their pieces to move or fight.1 Players did not have unlimited numbers so they had to make decisions on where to spend them. This simulated the pressures on a commander’s ability to focus. In other cases, again commonly in board games, a unit’s combat strength factor might be reduced to reflect deficient training or morale. In some cases, such representations can be useful, but the problem is that they are at best impressionistic – like the simple brush strokes an artist might use to represent foliage – and unable to capture what might be qualitatively different effects in different situations.

A notable example of a game using a set of rules to represent political dynamics is Persian Incursion, a commercial board game that explores the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. In it a series of cards and look up tables produce a way to integrate operational actions and political effects. Its goal is not to determine whether Israel should attack Iran, it “… is an exploration of the consequences. What are the odds of it working? And what are the costs – to the attackers, the defenders, and everyone on the sidelines?”2 The game’s focus is limited, but the notion of superimposing a set of rules that provide a defined set of political inputs or outputs (rigidly assessed, in Francis McHugh’s terminology3) on an otherwise free-assessed operational game merits some consideration.

If such an approach is to have either analytic or educational value, it seems to require iterative gaming. The outcomes of a single game cannot be used as reliable indicators of future reactions. However, multiple games employing the same rules might produce insights into how various factors relate to one another. The challenge lies in mounting multiple games, especially large, detailed operational games that often characterize service gaming. On the other hand, some useful insights might be gained if the same rule set were to be used by all the services and its effects on each game were well documented.4


The final approach to incorporating something into a game is simply talking about it. While this may not appear at first to be a gaming technique at all, there is ample precedent for doing so. A good example involves cyber warfare. There are any number of obstacles to subjecting it to either of the first two approaches, including it being highly complex, new, and not well-understood. However, in a series of deterrence games, the Naval War College brought in cyber experts to advise umpires on how cyber might be manifested in the assessment of player moves. Nuanced, qualitative judgments replaced rules and simulation as the mechanism by which the effects of cyber were inserted into the game. This seems to be a useful way that the complex, cybernetic interactions that characterize the interface of the strategic and operational levels of war can be incorporated into games.

To understand and appreciate the utility of “talking about” the strategy/operations interface we can use a concentric ring framework similar to that adopted by Clausewitz for the purposes of what he called kritik, the historical analysis of battles and campaigns to arrive at a judgment of the relative merit of command decisions.5 We will proceed from an inside-out orientation.

The beginning and most narrow focus is that of the individual game. We have already established the difficulty of trying to address, via representation or simulation, the interplay of the strategic and operational levels. To assess the worth of talking about the interface, we must first break down the potential purposes of games. Broadly speaking, they can be categorized as research, education, training, and influence, admitting nonetheless that any game can have multiple purposes and effects. Research games are conducted to learn something about a potential military situation that cannot be learned any other way.6 Educational games support teaching of some sort, most often the curricula of the military war and staff colleges. In the training realm, games tend to be substrates for the principal teaching objectives including weapons systems operations, staff procedures, tactics, etc. Influence games are conducted to create consensus on an issue, build teamwork, or convince external parties of the position the game sponsor holds on a matter.

In training and influence games, any inclusion of the strategy/operations interface would likely constitute a distraction and serve to undermine game objectives. The role of the game as a substrate in training makes any auxiliary discussion of the interface irrelevant and superfluous. In influence games, unless the interface is central to game objectives, it would constitute a distraction and possibly interfere with the achievement of game objectives.

The situation is fundamentally different for research and educational games. Research games, especially those that focus on the operational level of war, require a degree of plausibility to stimulate player buy-in and realism sufficient to establish an intellectual link with the real world. This is sometimes termed validity. Both of these attributes could be enhanced by the inclusion of the strategy/operations interface via discussion in all phases of game design, execution, and analysis. The interface should permeate the game as both enhanced context and direct influence on player decision-making. Sufficient attention to developing a “road-to-war” scenario, including discussions between scenario writers and political scientists, would tee up more nuanced play, including move assessments. A dedicated “interface” control cell could inject political considerations into the game as both guidance to umpires and injects to players, keeping the “whys” of the conflict as visible as the “hows” as the game unfolds. This cell would be well-placed to conduct an end-of-game session on the direction of the conflict beyond where the game ended, otherwise described as the “then what?” question. The research insights and lessons learned would be colored and enhanced by doing this, and its demands on time and manpower would be manageable. The main ingredient would be an organizational commitment to the idea that the interface matters. The inclusion of the interface in educational gaming would use a similar approach, to include a more completely thought-out road-to-war scenario, an interface-oriented control cell, and a “then what” session included in the hot wash.

The discussion approach might also benefit from iterative gaming. Using the methods just discussed, a series of games featuring the same general scenario but with different “strategies” adopted by control would allow analysts to see how different sets of presumed political conditions and dynamics could affect approaches to military operations. However, due caution must be exercised if different players and methods are used in each game. Nonetheless, patterns may emerge that could provide valuable insight into the potential dynamics of the strategy/operations interface.


There are a number of reasons that the exploration, via gaming, of the strategy/operations interface may not yield directly actionable insights. Any game conducted in peacetime can only speculate on why a war would start, thus making gaming of the interface across the span of that conflict equally speculative. Moreover, the intellectual complications Clausewitz discussed are always present, further clouding any predictive value the game might have. However, well-run games can have indicative value; that is, they can reveal possibilities. But even in this realm, the narratives that emerge from gaming the interface cannot be directly distilled for principles. If this is the case, what value is obtained from the cost and effort of including the strategy/operations interface in gaming?

The value of gaming the interface is admittedly indirect, but nonetheless real. It would be manifested in the minds of game participants and eventually in the corporate reflexes of the national security enterprise. If the interface was routinely incorporated into the appropriate games, over time, individuals would start to reflexively consider it in their real-world tasks, whether developing plans, policy, or making real-time decisions. In the best case, experience in such gaming would inoculate practitioners and policymakers against mystical, “sure fire” concepts of wa and perhaps keep them from yielding to emotion in the heat of conflict. In this sense, it is like superimposing an influence game on a research or educational game.

Military officers and civilian national security professionals who experience the competitive narrative of a wargame are likely to be more aware of the strategy/operations interface, and adopt more nuanced approaches to their various national security tasks. In other words, just talking about something in the context of a wargame can have widespread and important effects, not the least of which is developing a reflex of asking the important question, “then what?”

Professor Emeritus Rubel is retired but serves as an advisor to the CNO on fleet design and architecture. He spent thirty years on active duty as a light attack and strike fighter aviator. After leaving active duty he joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. In 2006 he designed and led the War College project to develop the concepts that resulted in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. He has published over thirty articles and book chapters dealing with maritime strategy, operational art and naval aviation.


[1] Peter Perla and Michael Markowitz, Wargame Construction Kit, a one-off game produced at the author’s request.

[2] Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Larry Dougherty, Persian Incursion, Rule Book, (Sassamansville, PA: Clash of Arms Games, 2010) p. 4.

[3] Francis J. McHugh, The Fundamentals of War Gaming, Third Edition, originally published 1966,(Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), p.14.

[4] Robert Rubel, “Connecting the Dots: Learning from Multiple Wargames,” Phalanx, December 2016, (Arlington, VA: Military Operations Research Society).

[5] Clausewitz, Book Two, Chapter Five, p. 156 for a general explanation and pp. 159-161 for an example of his widening circle analysis concerning his moves in the 1797 campaign leading to the peace of Campo Formio.

[6] Robert C. Rubel, “The Epistemology of Wargaming,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2006, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), p. 111.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (May 5, 2017) U.S. Naval War College (NWC) Naval Staff College students participate in a capstone wargame. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)

Call for Articles: The Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept

By Dmitry Filipoff

Articles Due: February 25, 2019
Week Dates: March 4-8, 2019

Article Length: 1000-3500 words 
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

The U.S. Navy is pursuing a new Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept that will help redefine how the Navy fights and operates. This major operating concept will soon play a significant role in how the Navy organizes its future force development. This important line of effort was highlighted in the Chief of Naval Operations’ recently released Design For Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0

“Continue to mature the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept and key supporting concepts. Design the Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 2020 to test the effectiveness of DMO. LSE 2020 must include a plan to incorporate feedback and advance concepts in follow-on wargames, experiments, and exercises, and demonstrate significant advances in subsequent LSE events.”

CIMSEC invites authors to discuss the Distributed Maritime Operations concept and what it means for the future of naval power. What will it take to make this vision come alive? What new strategies and operational approaches could this concept enable? Authors are invited to discuss these questions and more as the U.S. Navy seeks to orient itself around this new concept. 

For related reading on distributed naval power, check out below the two topics weeks CIMSEC previously launched in partnership with the Navy’s Distributed Lethality Task Force.

Distributed Lethality Topic Week February 2016

Distributed Lethality Topic Week September 2016

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

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (Nov. 30, 2003) — USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Strike Group breaks formation in the Atlantic. Washington is conducting Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) in the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for their upcoming deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson.)