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South China Sea: Continuous U.S. Presence or a New Law of the Sea Treaty

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By David Mattingly

National Security Situation:  The United Nations Convention for the Law of Sea (UNCLOS III) has failed to adequately define a nation’s territorial waters and to create a body which can enforce its judgements on nations involved in arbitration.

Date Originally Written:  February 7, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 6, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  David Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy and has sailed with U.S. Navy Carrier Task Groups in the South China Sea (SCS).  He holds a Masters of Arts in National Security Studies where he studied the geopolitics of the SCS and authored “The South China Sea Geopolitics: Controversy and Confrontation.”

Background:  Over the centuries, a few countries with strong navies controlled the world’s oceans.  The outcome of many conflicts fought on land often had a strong maritime element.  Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius first addressed the Law of Sea in his 1609 treatise Mare Liberum in which he established the idea of the freedom of the seas[1].  After  World War II and the emergence of the United Nations, the first Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concluded with four treaties being signed: Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (CTS); Convention on the High Seas (CHS); Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas (CFCLR); and Convention on the Continental Shelf (CCS); as well as the Optional Protocol of Signature concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes (OPSD)[2].  UNCLOS II convened in Malta to discuss territorial seas and fishery limits, however, the convention ended without agreeing upon a new treaty[3].  Today, UNCLOS III has been accepted by 167 nations and the European Union, however, although the U.S. has agreed in principle to the convention, it has not been ratified by the U.S.[4].  In the last attempt for ratification in 2012, it failed due to the “breadth and ambiguity” of the treaty and because it was not in the “national interest of the United States” to give sovereignty to an international body.  Ratification was overwhelmingly supported by the Department of Defense and the U.S. shipping industry[5][6].

Traditionally, a nation’s territorial boundary was established as a three-mile belt along its coastline based on the distance that a cannon could shoot a projectile.  All waters beyond the three-mile limit were considered international territory.

Today, the SCS is a possible flash point for confrontation over unresolved issues of the UNCLOS III between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), its neighboring states which have joined to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the U.S.  The islands in the SCS remained largely uninhabited until the mid-1970s when the PRC began to lay claim to a number islands and shoals which were claimed during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty in 1405 and later claimed by the PRC in what has come to be known as the “Nine-dash line[7].”  A map which was produced after World War II extended the PRC’s territorial waters claim deep into the SCS.  France challenged the PRC’s claim in 1931 by claiming the Parcel Islands and the Spratley Islands as territory of French-Indo China which then passed to the government of Vietnam after the Franco-Indo China War ended in 1954[8].

To understand UNCLOS III, it is important to first understand the definitions of terms such as the differences between an island and a rock.  The PRC began an aggressive land reclamation program where soil was dredged from the ocean bottom to create islands, which have standing under UNCLOS III, unlike rocks and shoals which are not recognized.  The islands created by the PRC can support military garrisons, home porting of both military and fishing ships, and extend the PRC’s territorial limits under the “archipelagos concept[9].”  Within UNCLOS III, this concept furthers a nation’s territorial rights by considering the seas between the mainland and the islands claimed by a nation as a connecting, rather than separating, element.  The PRC could therefore declare an emergency and suspend the “right of innocent passage” for its self-protection.

Significance:  Merchant shipping between Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas transverse the SCS and a PRC declaration of emergency which suspended the “right of innocent passage” would have major impact in global shipping.

Option #1:  The U.S. and coalition naval forces create a continuous presence in the SCS and actively challenge PRC naval activities and construction of and on islands and rocks in dispute.

Risk:  The PRC has openly harassed and attacked ships and aircraft of the U.S. and ASEAN member nations.  The PRC has established the SCS as its home waters and had several years to construct military garrisons on the islands which it created.  It is possible that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has placed surface to air missiles on the larger islands.  Additionally, the PLAN has aggressively modernized its ships and aircraft to include launching its first aircraft carrier.  As such, Option #1 may increase the possibility of a naval confrontation between the U.S. and the PRC.

Gain:  A naval coalition could provide protection for fishing and merchant shipping in the SCS and shape the narrative that the international community will not idly allow the PRC to control one of the most important sea lines of commerce.

Option #2   The U.S. and other nations could call for UNCLOS IV.  As evidenced by recent events in the SCS, UNCLOS III left many gray areas that are open for arbitration and the decisions lack the power of enforcement.  UNCLOS IV would address these gray areas and establish an enforcement framework.

Risk:  Major powers agreeing to a new UNCLOS could perceive that they have lost sovereign rights.  The UN lacks the ability to enforce treaties unless the major powers are onboard thus the text of a new UNCLOS would have to be carefully worded.

Gain:  In creating an agreement that is recognized by the international community, confrontation between the U.S., the PRC, and ASEAN may be avoided.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.

David Mattingly serves on the board of directors for the Naval Intelligence Professionals and is also a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views reflected are his own and do not represents the United States Government of any of its agencies. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


[1]  Harrison, James. July 5, 2007. Evolution of the law of the sea: developments in law -making in the wake of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

[2]  Treves, Tullio. 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea. United Nations.  http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/gclos/gclos.html

[3]  Second United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 17 March – 26 April 1960 Geneva, Switzerland. , January 8, 2017. Washington School of Law, American University. http://wcl.american.libguides.com/c.php?

[4]  The Convention of the Law of Sea. U.S. Navy Judge Advocate Corps. http://www.jag.navy.mil/organization/code_10_law_of_the_sea.htm

[5]  Patrick, Stewart M, June 10, 2012. (Almost) Everyone Agrees: The U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/-almost-everyone-agrees-the-us-should-ratify-the-law-of-the-sea-treaty/258301/

[6]  Senators Portman and Ayotte Sink Law of the Sea. July 16, 2012. Portman Senate Office, Washington, DC.

[7]  Tsirbas, Marina. , June 2, 2016. What Does the Nine-Dash Line Actually Mean? The Diplomathttp://thediplomat.com/2016/06/what-does-the-nine-dash-line-actually-mean/

[8]  Bautista, Lowell B. 2011.  Philippine Territorial Boundaries: Internal tensions, colonial baggage, ambivalent conformity.  University of Wollongong. New South Wales, http://jati-dseas.um.edu.my/filebank/published_article/3162/035 053%20Lowell%20B.%20Bautista-

[9]  Katchen, Martin H. 1976. The Spratly Islands and the Law of the Sea: “Dangerous ground” for Asian Peace. Presented at the Association of Asian Studies, Pacific Area Conference.  June.  Revised and published in the Asian Survey.

Featured Image: International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)

Sea Control 138: CAPT Klaus Mommsen (ret.) on Russia’s Navy: Potemkin or Power Projection?

By Matthew Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Captain Klaus Mommsen (ret.) of the German Navy to talk about the Russian Navy and its latest developments.

Download Sea Control 138 – Russia’s Navy: Potemkin or Power Projection?

The transcript of the conversation between Captain Mommsen (KM) and guest host from the University of Kiel, Roger Hilton (RH), begins below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Special thanks to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode and Assistant Producer Valtteri Tamminen for creating the transcript.

RH– Hello CIMSEC listeners and readers, my name is Roger Hilton, a nonresident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, welcoming you all back for another Sea Control episode. Before diving into our material today, it is my pleasure to introduce our listeners to the Kiel Seapower Series, with a wealth of information and resources, be sure to visit their website at kielseapowerseries.com for all your information on maritime security.

If you are an enthusiastic follower of international relations, or even a fair weather observer, it is hard to ignore the success being heaved on Russia’s current foreign policy, and of course it’s grandmaster, President Vladimir Putin. From their cyber prowess, to their acute intervention in the middle east theater, it seems the Kremlin is unbeatable at the moment. Amidst the blitz of publicity, any survey of Russia’s power projection would be incomplete without a survey of their naval forces.

Here with us today is retired German Navy Captain Klaus Mommsen, who will help us establish if Russia’s navy is a force to advance their great power aspirations, or merely a Potemkin projection. His contribution in the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security provides a succinct description of Russia’s naval history, as well as an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses.  

Captain Mommsen is a graduate of the Military Academy of the German Armed Forces as well as the Canadian Command and Staff College, after which he spent most of his career in naval intelligence, both as an analyst and in leading staff functions. He has also contributed to Marine Forum, the monthly magazine of the German Maritime Institute for 25 now. Finally, he’s also the author of a book on the history of Israeli Navy. Klaus, it’s a pleasure for you to be with us today.

KM– Good morning Roger, thanks for having me on your podcast.

RH–  Based on their impact and growing geopolitical influence abroad, your piece in the Routledge Handbook contrasts this with a sobering perception of their naval capabilities, both in piece and war time, and frankly provides a bleak outlook for the future. History confirms that Russia’s stage prop is a mixture of a siege mentality perception toward foreigners and the need to dominate their near abroad to guarantee their security. Which is manifested with the use of hard power tactics as we’ve seen recently in Georgia and Ukraine? And before diving into more detail, could you briefly describe how the current military maritime order is divided?

KM-Well the Russians can certainly navigate beyond the green water which means inland waterways or brown water which means coastal waters, to the blue oceans, so they have a blue water capability that makes them a blue water navy. They can send task groups or forces all around the world, even come back to combined exercises with friendly navies such as India. So they have a global reach but they do not have the capabilities for power projection. Russia in my opinion, and to my definition, is not a sea power, not using the navy to protect its global trade routes, its sea line of communications outside its regional borders, and with the exception of Syria, has never used the sea beyond mere presence and to actively intervene in conflicts abroad.

RH– When you talk about pure power projection, obviously the only country that has true global reach is the United States. But within this different category you have multi-regional power projectors, like Russia, India, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Could you go into a little bit more detail about multi-region power projection?

KM– The Russians are forced to be a multi-region power projector because Russia spans several regions, but the are not connected regions. Some people would argue that the recent deployment of the carrier Kuznetsov, was a power projection from the sea. It was not. It was totally redundant. Ground based aircraft did the work. They flew much over 10,000 sorties over Syria, but the Kuznetsov only a couple of hundred during the whole three months.

Just take the sortie rates of other navies, aircraft carriers, the new U.S. Navy carrier Ford will allow for a sortie rate of up to 207 sorties a day. The Nimitz in one exercise managed 197, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle is capable of 100. The Kuznetov, some analyst say that they might generate up to 30 sorties a day and not on a sustained level.

Other navies are operating globally and are also during power projection, the French do it, the British Royal Navy does it, the Indian Navy is just a regional navy, they are not really operating out of region. The same goes for some navies in South America which have blue water capabilities just because they have to deal with large areas of the Southern Atlantic or the pacific. That is not for the region, and not for the Russians.

RH- Klaus, thank you so much for actually distinguishing that a lot of their power projection in Syria was as a result of their Air force sorties and not their naval capabilities. It is often lost in the discussion. Can you quickly get into the organization of the Russian Navy? Specifically what are its priorities and areas of interest, and its current capabilities?

KM– It is currently organized into four fleets. The Northern Fleet in the Kola Peninsula, the Baltic Fleet based in the Gulf of Finland and in the Kaliningrad oblast. The Black Sea Fleet focused on Sevastopol, in now Russian Crimea and Novosibirsk and the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and Petropadstok. And then they have a fifth fleet which basically is a flotilla, they call it the Caspian Sea Flotilla, which is locked in the caspian sea. There are some inner water ways where they can transfer ships back and forth, but it is basically not out of region. The current focus is on the Arctic, with its vast resources, and on Western Europe and NATO. And in the southwest with the Black Sea being a jumpboard to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. That is also the only area where Russia sees wide possibilities to strengthen it political or military influence.

RH- With that goal in mind of strengthening its influence, what kind of hardware and capabilities do the four fleets and the Caspian flotilla utilize right now to pursue their objectives?

KM– They have very old warships and weapons systems, and very modern ones. Most of their arsenal is more or less outdated with many ships 30 or more years old. Modernization efforts are underway with emphasis on blue water capable vessels, such as frigates and submarines, which also are useful in regional waters.

The future sees new destroyers, cruiser refurbishment and even a new aircraft carrier, but we are talking decades to come. Progress is slow. The weapons systems are being modernized, currently they have new missiles in their arsenal. We all noticed the test firing and demonstration of their Kalibr cruise missiles from the Caspian sea or the Mediterranean to Syrian targets.

Generally the progress of modernization is very slow, and you mentioned Potemkin. The government announces huge progress with more than 80 warships commissioned in 2016. That was meant for the Russian people, with more than 70 of those warships being auxiliaries such as harbor tugs or diver support vessels, small boats. And some tend to just mention numbers in comparing navies, say they have 11 aircraft carriers vs just one. They have 60 destroyers, the Russians have just eight, yet these numbers do not count, it is the capabilities that count.

RH– Again Klaus, an excellent observation that it is not the numbers that are important as much as the modernization and capabilities at the disposal of the Russian navy. Moving on to their naval history, anyone who’s ever visited Russia knows that it’s known for its harsh winters and frozen waterway paths which proves to be a strategic disadvantage. Could you go into detail a little bit about how the geography has vexed the composition of the Russian Navy?

KM- The whole geography makes Russia landlocked. It is only a few months where sea passage is viable. Under St. Peter, the only viable seaport was Arkhangelsk at the White Seas, accessible only a few months a year. With inland trades, very little developed, you can imagine that no one is going by horse from Moscow to the far east. Czar Peter naturally focused on sea trade. He founded St Petersburg, he saw the Baltic as an access route to sea trade. He had a large commercial fleet, and a new Baltic sea port built at St Petersburg to and to protect these new assets he established a Russian Navy. By the way that is exactly what Mahan had in mind, he said to be a sea power you have to have a commercial fleet and a navy to support it, protect it. So Czar Peter followed Mahan’s aspect.

And going further down in history, 50 years later, Catherine looked south. She secured Crimea, founded Sevastopol, and got an access to the Mediterranean. Ice free all year, though she never managed to get hold of the Turkish Strait, we will come to that later. In 1860, Vladivostok in the far east was added and became a major Asia hub for trade. And only in 1916, Murmansk, mostly ice free due to the gulf stream, was available to the Russian commercial fleet and naval fleet. All these naval fleets created at these directions, to the west, to the north, to the southwest to the east, fulfilled merely regional missions. It’s huge distances forbade any combined operations, they tried it once during the Russo-Japanese war but failed, they deployed the Baltic Fleet all the way to Japan.

RH– I mean there is no doubt that it was a cataclysmic failure for the Russian Navy in the early 20th century when they embarked on that mission. We’ve established the principal reason for the expansion of the Russian Navy was primarily financial gain under Peter. On the Treaty of Montreux which regulated the Turkish straits, could you go into detail a little bit about why this is so important and how it impacts Russian Navy posture?

KM- Some people said that the Treaty of Montreux gives the Turkish control of the Turkish straits. It controls whoever is going in or out of the Black Sea, and regulates the passage of warships. It also restricts the numbers and times that goes for non-Black Sea residents as well as those inside the Black Sea. So Russia also has limitations in deploying its fleet. For example, no submarines may pass submerged, and no aircraft carriers are allowed to pass, even Russian ones. Which by the way lead to the designation of the Admiral Kuznetsov, which was built in the Black Sea in Ukraine, as a flight deck cruiser, not an aircraft carrier. Right now, the Russians stick to the Treaty of Montreux, even though it is restricting their own moves. They see it as a tool to protect their own territory. It is more important to them to keep others out of the Black Sea than to use it for themselves for out-of-area deployments, into the Mediterranean or elsewhere.

RH– Undoubtedly Klaus, everything you mentioned is valid but it is important to also assess the redistribution of maritime power with new NATO states including Romania and Bulgaria, and obviously Georgia aggressively looking to join NATO. So it puts a lot of pressure on the Russian Navy in Sevastopol due to these geopolitical factors. One last analogy that would be interesting to listeners, is the comparison between as Rome as a land power and Carthage as a sea power. Is this an accurate comparison at all of Russia?

KM– Not really, Rome acted as a land power, but geographically it was not forced to do so. Rome had an outspoken maritime geostrategic location with the Italian peninsula dominating the Mediterranean, they could have dominated the Mediterranean but they focused on land power. Russia on the contrary is landlocked with very few access points to the open sea.

RH– It’s beneficial for you to clarify as it is an analogy that is often promoted inside of Russian media sources. Moving on to the USSR, the emergence of the Soviet Navy and its red fleet, apparently from your text did not change or waiver that much from Imperial Russia. Again what was its existential purpose moving forward?

KM– Primarily to support land forces and for securing sea supply routes and protecting the seaside flank.

RH- So like you said, even during the Soviet times, at its nascent beginning, it didn’t possess the capability to assume a more defensive posture?

KM- An offensive posture, yes, but for the navy just posture. Except for the developments of the nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the so called bastion concept, defense of the homeland was dominating and has been dominating today. Increased naval presence abroad is part of that but just that presence is not combat presence. Once in awhile they use it for political bullying.

RH- Its great you were able to bring up the bastion concept because it really reinforces Russia’s siege mentality perception of foreigners as well as their need to dominate in the near abroad. An interesting focus comes with the major changes that took place under Admiral Sergei Gorshkov who was in charge of the Soviet Navy from 1956 to 1985. Its referred to as the golden age, could you provide details or elaborate on what major reforms took place under his tenure?

KM- Some people tend to see this as the Soviet Navy, the red fleet moving from the home waters to the oceans as an offensive posture. Basically, the thought behind it was still defensive in nature, with increasing range of weapons developed, nuclear missiles, submarine launched nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers, they could not wait in home waters for the enemy to arrive there. They had to leave home waters to challenge the enemy already embarked, the enemy meaning the U.S. and NATO. This could be understood as the strengthening of offensive capabilities.

They created a deeply layered line of defense. Starting in the open Atlantic with submarines and aircraft, antisubmarine warfare aircraft and cruisers with long-range missiles. All these assets were to counter U.S. carrier strike groups and the ballistic missile submarines to keep them away, out of reach of the Russian homeland, to protect the motherland’s coasts, ports, and naval bases. The first layer out in the Atlantic, the second layer just north of the North Cape, then came the Barents Sea, and then came protection of their own ballistic missile submarines as a second strike capability, which were basically holed up in the Kara Sea in the arctic waters, out of reach for the U.S. forces.

RH– I think we would both agree that Peter the Great would be  envious of Russia’s ability at this time to create such strategic depth while encountering a much more advanced western adversary. Against this backdrop, what would you suggest is the main takeaway from the USSR’s experience at sea?

KM- Their main mission was to protect the core of Russia. They had no real responsibility for maritime offensive operations. The flank protection of land operations was dominating. Offensive concepts of operations were part of the game. Submarines had to cut off NATO’s supply lines, again with the aim to favor their own land forces in Europe. In previous operations to gain the Baltic approaches, they were meant to open up lanes to the North Sea and North Atlantic and use Baltic rear facilities for logistics and repairs for ships of the northern fleet operating there. Ships like Kiev-class aircraft carriers were to facilitate quick shifts of focus in amphibious operations, just operations off the coast.

They were not meant for power projection in other reaches of the world. The overall aim was not to expand their operations to the world oceans, they were just integrating the oceans into their own homeland defense.

RH- Klaus, the last thing as we dive back into history, as they routinely say we’re entering a new Cold War. Would you say that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was arguable was arguably the greatest success of the Soviet Navy?

KM- It was definitely the greatest achievement in logistics operations. 86 navy civilian ships made 183 trips, transported 42,000 soldiers, and 230 tons of cargo to Cuba. That was a logistic operation. Again, they avoided military confrontation, the navy was insufficient to challenge the U.S. at sea. Especially when far away from home. So with only the nuclear option left, tThey eventually withdrew and backed down.

RH- Moving on now to the post- Soviet Navy, obviously a lot changed with its collapse and the Russian Navy was left in a dilapidated state. With the emergence of the new independent republics came the loss of basing rights, for example. What were some of the major operational consequences that the Russian Federation had to deal with as a result of the loss of basing rights and territory?

KM- They have to just look at the map to see that they lost major parts of the Baltic and Black Sea coast. In the Baltic they were driven back to the Gulf of Finland which is the most eastern part and the Kaliningrad enclave, that is all that was left. All of the Baltic state coast was gone. The same happened in the Black Sea, the Crimea went to the Ukraine and Georgia became independent. That left Russia a small portion of the Black Sea coast focused around the Novorossiysk. For two decades they made a deal with Sevastopol leasing agreements with Ukraine so they could stay and use Sevastopol in the Black Sea. What was gone also was all the shipyards in Ukraine. That was where large combat ships, including aircraft carrier,s were built. They were gone, and Russia was financially broke. The shipyard industry had completely refocused, they had no more subcontractors in former Warsaw pact states, except Ukraine which remained the sole manufacturer for gas turbines. A serious mistake to be felt after 2014.

What augmented it was the access to western technology and lack of funds, along with neglected indigenous development. More than half of their submarines were decommissioned, and large surface ships had to be laid up. They had no money to keep them afloat, no personnel to man them. Most ship engineers came from the Baltic soviet republics. They were gone out of country. They were forced to make due with a small combat corps. Just a few ships which they put all effort into keeping them combat ready. But basically they remained merely for coastal defense.

RH- There is no doubt after reading your text that after the collapse of the USSR, their competency to build ships vanished completely. But what is more exposed today I think you’ll agree is the indigenous development program and their overt reliance reliance on foreigners for both equipment and experience. Before we get into the strategic considerations and their objectives, there was a brief moment of rapprochement of former enemies joined in multilateral naval exercises. Today this is something that seems so far fetched, but maybe you can go into detail about this initiative that was taken immediately after the collapse of the USSR.

KM- The Yeltsin Russia was wise enough to see that it had no chance to survive in continuing confrontation with the west. Confrontation with the west had ruined it financially. Reagan had said that the Star Wars program had brought them to their limits and over their limits. So Yeltsin sought to engage with the west. The navies also did some programs, combined annual exercises with France, the U.K. and the U.S., where they rotated posting these exercises through the four countries. They had polar exercises with Norway, and they even joined the BALTOPS exercise, which before had been a U.S. hosted exercise for only NATO partners. They even joined NATO counter-terror operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean until approximately 2008.

RH- The third section of your piece talks about the strategic reconsiderations of Russia, the Russian Navy, and their motivation to get back to the oceans. You single out two seminal moments for this reformation of doctrine. One is the March 2000 assumption of the Russian presidency by Vladimir Putin and the subsequent introduction of the 2010 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which put an emphasis on transport routes for energy resources. What should be known about these two elements?

KM-When Putin came to power in 2000, he first continued the friendly relationship with the west, including all the naval programs. The 2010 military doctrine was after Georgia, which was in 2008. The doctrine puts an emphasis on the arctic. Other sea lines of communication are out of reach for the Russian Navy, at least for sustained operations under real threat. They did do anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, but with the emerging Mediterranean squadron, they had to skip that due to a lack of ships. Controlling sea lines of communication until today is not a mission for the Russian navy. They do not have the capabilities to do it globally. The arctic yes, because that is off their own coastline, some chokepoints possibly, but with limits to resources.

RH-  What then was the overarching objective of the Putin regime’s strategic reconsideration?

KM- To paraphrase, to make Russia great again. He does not like Russia to be called a regional power with just nukes. He does not want to be junior partner in multinational U.S.-led operations or world politic. He wants Russia accepted as a superpower, also at sea on the oceans. By the way, that was the main reason for the Kuznetsov deployment to Syria. To demonstrate they have the capabilities in a conflict, Syria, that has no maritime dimension at all. Together with the Admiral Kuznetsov, the missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy was deployed to Syria. But it was not mentioned a single time in any general staff briefings. Even the Kuznezov after flying some initial sorties, combat sorties, was totally out of reporting from general staff briefings for two months.

RH- Klaus, everything you said is very valid, anybody who was following Russia’s naval intervention must take the deployment of their aircraft carrier with a bit of salt, as photos of it around England with a tug for in the event that it would break down really demonstrated that maybe it wasn’t such a power projection tool as we thought, and how outdated it was to shoot off its planes for its sorties. Do you have any commentary about the flotillas and their less-than permanent presence far from home bases?

KM- The new flotilla concept for out-of-area presence was announced in 2012 and said it would create permanent squadrons in several places around the world. The first one was the Mediterranean squadron to be set up and commanded and controlled from the Black Sea Fleet. They had in mind that the Mediterranean squadron would be comprised of new frigates and submarines that were under construction then and were thought to be delivered and commissioned around 2014 or even earlier. They were centered around the Syrian base of Tartus for logistics. At that time they did not see the detrimental effects of the Ukraine crisis, which only developed in 2014.

And the embargoes, which combined with homemade deficiencies in naval shipbuilding, wrecked all of their ambitions for out of area deployment. Officially they even had to use other fleets to back up for the lack of the Black Sea Fleet. Northern Fleet and Baltic Fleet units had to deploy to the Mediterranean just to act with the Mediterranean squadron which did not do any operations. They just sat there with naval presence. Even the Pacific Fleet had deployed its missile cruiser Varyag for some time to be part of the Mediterranean squadron. In official statements I do not see a limited Black Sea Fleet. For them, the required use of Northern Fleet, Black Sea, Baltic Fleet, and even Pacific ships was just another demonstration of the growing capabilities for interfleet operations.

RH- Despite all of these official statements you would assume it’s very misleading to describe them as having high operational interfleet operations though right?

KM- Yes.

RH-  It’s still another example of Potemkin projection. As you said in principle, the potential creation of the standing task force for out-o- area operations has great merit. But unsurprisingly it appears that Russia is far removed from this capability. What has contributed to this impotent initiative?

KM- The permanent out-of-area squadrons are great for political purposes including propaganda meant for the Russian people, not the whole world. Naval presence as they had exercised it in the 1960s and 1970s in the Mediterranean was again to become a tool for strengthening political influence, especially in an unstable region as the Middle East after the Arab Spring. That’s why they chose the first permanent squadron to be set up in the Mediterranean. In theory the combat capabilities don’t matter there. It does not matter if three or four or five destroyers are there or just one. The problem for the whole permanent squadron concept is that they have no sea basing concept. They need access to shore facilities and they lack, of course, the required number of ships.

RH- As you said earlier, correct me if I’m wrong, but the only permanent base that Russia has access to is in Tartus, Syria, which is essentially a vassal state now of the Kremlin. In principle Vietnam has agreed, but there are other states who are hesitant about providing permanent presence for the Russian Navy. Do you have any commentary to add to this?

KM- Vietnam is the strongest candidate and they have no problems with the Russians replenishing in Cam Ranh Bay. Only they are not interested in the sharing of sovereignty, which the Russians want. They want their own part of the port where they have full control. All permanent squadrons would need some logistical support in the region where they are to operate, so they have been courting Vietnam. They talked to Cuba, they talked to equatorial Guinea, they talked to Mozambique, they talked to Yemen, even contemplated setting out on a port on the island of Socotra. They are even looking now, in my opinion, at a possible Syrian post asset option. They even courted Cyprus which said “no, no we don’t like it.” Currently in recent weeks they focused on Libya, in Benghazi or Tobruk, and are courting the east Libyan renegade government of Field Marshal Haftar. 

RH- Obviously their mediation with the potential government in Haftar reinforces their delinquent activity in the political process about assuming peace. As you said I think it’s most likely that that might be the second best option after Tartus if Assad is able to hold on.

KM- When the Kuznetsov had ended its deployment to Syria, it even made a short stop off Tobruk to welcome Haftar on board.

RH- If I remember correctly I think he had a video link with Defense Minister Shoigu. Getting back to the countries they have been courting, it’s not exactly the most attractive list of modernized and well-funded countries.

Back in the post Georgia conflict in 2008, obviously with their intervention they now occupy 20 percent of the territory, especially in Abkhazia and the port of Sokhumi, do you have any commentary to add to that rapprochement that was officially terminated?

KM- Yes it was officially terminated, but the problem was there were not real sanctions. We said we will not exercise with you anymore and military cooperation programs were terminated. But after two or three years relations were slowly returning to normal, when Putin came to power again. After that lack of Western response to the Georgian crisis, Putin probably thought that he could get away with Crimea. He just had to overcome a 2-3 year lean period and everything would slowly return to normal. He would have Crimea and would have won.

RH- It was definitely a dangerous precedent set by the international community not responding more forcefully to the centrally annexed territory of Georgia. As we established now, financial resources are scarce in Russia, they lack competency to manage shipbuilding, and there is rampant misuse of the budget. What would you say is the current state of affairs and progress of the 2020 state-sponsored shipbuilding program?

KM- The current state is in dire straits. They lack money, they have sanctions in place, the shipbuilding industry is down, subcontractors are not working anymore. While everyone is focused on non delivery of Ukrainian gas turbines, there are many other items lacking. It goes from air conditioning, convenience items, diesel engines, they got German engines from German MTU, now they are looking for China which has been building MTU engines under a license agreement. But those engines are 1980s technological standard so nobody cares whether they get them or not.

RH- Hardly a powerhouse on the sea if they are searching for 1980s engines…

KM- Yeah. Subcontractors cannot deliver systems, but that is not sanctioned necessarily. Just recently there was a report that the commissioning of two modern frigates has been delayed because a subcontractor cannot deliver the Russian-made air defense systems for them. They lack skilled workers. The shipyard infrastructure is degrading. There is confused planning. They use overly confident data brought in to save money or to get contracts, and then afterwards have to say “we calculated all wrong” which leads to more delays. They have corrupt and incompetent bosses, managers. And the Russian Ministry is very reluctant or not at all paying for military contracts. They have no quality controls. Just today there was news that Vympel shipyard has to pay fines for delivering faulty diesel engines for interceptor craft. Once in St. Petersburg one of the most renowned shipyards had to fire its director for inability to complete 3 arctic support ships. And completing them in the other shipyard, Kaliningrad, where the situation is not much better by the way. On the other hand. The Admiralty shipyard in St Petersburg delivered all six Kilo Submarines to Vietnam on time. One reason was most probably they had been paid on time.

RH- One sliver of hope most likely in the native shipyard industry, as we said the shipyards are incapable of producing indigenous replacements that substitute for sanctions post Crimea. Despite the apparent amicability between President Trump and President Putin, it looks as if the honeymoon is over. What could they take away in terms of the shipyard industry with this relationship?

KM- They used to announce great achievements, saying that in 2017 we will have new gas turbines to build into our new frigates, but only very few indigenous systems have made it to serious production. There are year-long delays, the gas turbines announced for this year are more likely to be available in 2019. And the problem is not only to replace sanctioned goods, but lack of quality with their very own weapons systems.

RH- Klaus, the sum total of your analysis paints an ugly picture moving forward for the Russian Navy. Despite this, you stated in the book that the Navy can expect greater autonomy, flexibility with higher sea endurance, and better sustainability with out -of-area operations. Based on the given strengths, financial resources, and less-than capable industrial complex, what is the likelihood that this will be achieved?

KM- I do not see them out of the doldrums anytime soon. To the contrary, in my opinion, economic shortfalls will continue to limit defense spending and delay nearly all shipbuilding projects. Just have a look at the oil prices. They are much too dependent on oil exports and natural resource exports and energy exports. The prices are much below what they need to sustain their economy. Just recently they announced slashing the fiscal year defense budget by 25 percent compared with 2016. Certainly this is not driven by a goodwill signal for arms reduction, but by economic shortfalls. We will continue to see several year delays to nearly all shipbuilding programs, at least complex major combat ships. They will roll out small port/harbor tugs and small boats. Publicly, meaning to their own people, they will claim huge successes. In reality they will basically stay where they are.

For the Russian Navy that means that they will stay in the marginal seas, they will be defending the motherland, and that will remain the main mission. There will be out-of-area operations, but merely in the form of cruises, no power projection from the sea. Programs do not perceive a major seabasing capability, which is required for projecting power from the sea.

RH- Well Klaus, based on our working hypothesis about if the Russian Navy was either a Potemkin or power projection, it seems quite evident that it is more Potemkin than anything. If you were advising Russian President Putin, what priorities would you set, and the final operational takeaway for assessing the Russian Navy with great power aspirations?

KM- If I were Putin, I would for the Navy focus on homeland defense and marginal seas. I would stop bullying neighbors, which can only lead to an arms race that Russia has no chance to win. I would try to mend broken ties. The instruments for dialogue with NATO are still in place, and in some fields, far from public view, Russia is even talking to NATO nations. Just yesterday, in Boston in the U.S., the Arctic Coast Guard Forum which includes Canada, Finland, Greenland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. signed a doctrine of tactics and information sharing for operations in arctic waters. So Russia is signing a document, a protocol for combined operations with NATO nations. That is worthwhile remembering. Putin, and we all should realize that Russia is a political superpower with its role in the the UN Security Council, militarily is a regional power, spanning several regions from the Pacific to the Atlantic and to the south. It is made a global power only by nukes. Except for maybe shows of force with global deployments, you will not see any power projection from the sea by Russia.

RH- Just to clarify for readers and listeners regarding the recent contract signed with arctic powers, both Finland or Sweden aren’t NATO members. Klaus, again, undoubtedly the current Russian statecraft shows no sign of being diminished. it is critical to never overlook their Potemkin posture on the high seas. There’s a litany of facts mentioned that range from a lack of competencies, insufficient funds, and incompetent management just to name a few. Captain Mommsen, thanks again for providing such a timely description on the Russian Navy. If you want to follow up on this podcast or other pressing maritime issues, you can find the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security online, and most importantly don’t forget to check out the official Kiel Seapower website for all the latest updates on marine security issues. As usual, listeners, I will be back shortly to discuss more maritime issues. From the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, I’m Roger Hilton saying moin moin and farewell. Thanks everybody.

Klaus Mommsen was born in 1948. In 1968, he joined the German Navy where after graduating he became a naval aviator. In 1982, he attended the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College. His subsequent career saw him mostly employed with military (both naval and joint) intelligence. In 2002, he retired as Captain (Navy) from his last posting as Deputy Chief of Staff (Intelligence) of the German Fleet. As early as 1992, Mommsen started writing for the German naval magazine MarineForum (which until today lists him as editor foreign navies) and since has become a renowned German columnist for international naval affairs. He is married and lives in Germany, near Bonn.

Roger Hilton is a nonresident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel.

Latin American Navies and Antarctica

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By Alejandro Sanchez Nieto and Brittney J. Figueroa

Latin American governments have a strong presence in Antarctica, with two countries, Argentina and Chile, formally claiming Antarctic territories while several others carry out annual scientific expeditions (apart from having research bases there). Regional navies are of paramount importance in these operations as they are the spearhead of their respective nations’ expeditions and security initiatives in Antarctic waters. In fact, in recent months, there have been new developments that signal a greater Latin American naval presence in the Antarctic in the near future: Peru has commissioned its new oceanographic vessel while Chile has commenced the construction of a new icebreaker.

Antarctic geopolitics will only increase in importance due to climate change and the upcoming year 2048 when the Antarctic Treaty will be open for review. Hence it is important that Latin America, broadly speaking, takes steps to maintain a continuous presence in Antarctica in order to have a voice when the frozen continent’s future is decided. Increasing budgets in order to modernize or replace aging vessels and expanding already successful scientific and security programs will play a critical role in regional navies’ future Antarctic operations.

Antarctica as a National Interest

The importance of Antarctica in Latin American security and defense strategies, as well as more comprehensive foreign policy concepts, cannot be overemphasized. One example of this is Antarctica’s frequent and prominent mentions in regional White Papers. For example, Argentina’s 2015 White Book repeatedly references Antarctica, and explains how “the Ministry of Defense considers of the upmost importance the upgrade [of military platforms] necessary for the scientific development, international cooperation and preservation of the Antarctic environment” (P. 43). Similarly Peru’s 2005 White Book mentions how the “Ministry of Defense, via the armed forces, has a fundamental role in the logistical support and the scientific research that encompasses the Peruvian presence in Antarctica” (P.42). Finally, Chile’s 2010 White Book has an extensive chapter on the Chilean Antarctic, explaining how the armed forces aim to “have a permanent presence, even during winter, in the Antarctic continent and its islands” and to carry out oceanographic scientific research in the region (P. 51 & 52).

These three different White Books exemplify Latin American nations’ interests in having a strong Antarctic presence and how militaries, particularly navies, are regarded as the tip of the spear of Antarctic operations.

Vessels and Patrols

Argentina and Chile possess several platforms that operate in Antarctic waters for expeditions, patrols, and to support their Antarctic bases. Argentina has the icebreaker ARA Almirante Irízar (Q5) and in 2014, Buenos Aires acquired four Russian Neftegaz-class multipurpose vessels to support its Antarctic bases. Meanwhile, Chile has the icebreaker Almirante Oscar Viel (AP46), and several other vessels capable of operating in Antarctic waters.

Additionally, the two countries set aside their differences—overlapping territorial claims in the Antarctic—to create the Joint Antarctic Naval Patrol (Patrulla Antártica Naval Combinada: PANC) in 1998. Via the PANC, naval platforms from the two countries come together during the Antarctic Summer months (November-March) to patrol Antarctic waters, assist vessels in need (e.g. the tourist vessel M/V Explorer in 2007), respond to oil spills, and visit and support various bases.

A picture taken by the Chilean Air Force shows the Explorer, which struck an iceberg in the Antarctic Ocean. (Fuerza Aerea de Chile via European Pressphoto Agency)

The PANC’s navies pride themselves on being prepared to safeguard the lives of those who work in and travel to the region, and are prepared for search and rescue missions along with other various emergencies at sea. The creation and success of the PANC should not be underestimated as it exemplifies the possibilities of collaborative naval efforts in the Antarctic. It is worth stressing that neither PANC country is a military power, and they do not have the same naval capabilities as some of their wealthier Antarctic counterparts, thus putting them at a great disadvantage (especially when considering each nation’s capabilities alone). However, despite the older vessels in their fleets, their partnership over the past two decades has proven to be effective both to patrol Antarctic waters, and also as a confidence-building mechanism.

Non-claimant nations also have important Antarctic programs. Peru, for example, recently received BAP Carrasco (BOP171), constructed by the Spanish Freire shipyard in 2016. Jane’s 360 explains that “the steel-hulled ship has a length of 95.9 m, a 6,000-tonne displacement, has a streamlined and raked superstructure with a meteorological sensor platform at the forward end,” which will be of great help for Peru’s future operations in the Antarctic. In addition, Brazil has a varied presence in the region that consists of the Almirante Maximiano (H-41), an ice breaker, the Ary Rongel (H-44), an oceanographic support ship, and several C-130 Brazilian Air Force (FAB) aircraft that are utilized to transport essential equipment and personnel to the Brazilian Antarctic Program (PROANTAR) facilities.

Regarding Chile, it has commenced the construction of a brand-new icebreaker as part of its Antarctica I project. Thanks to information provided to the authors by ASMAR, (Astilleros y Maestranzas de la Armada) Chile’s state-owned shipyard that has partnered with the Chilean Navy since 1895, we know that the new platform, an over $210 million project, will be capable of longer Antarctic missions in part due to its design which allows it to operate at temperatures as low as -30 Celsius. Additionally, the icebreaker will be equipped with modern, state-of-the-art scientific equipment in its microbiological and chemical laboratories. Construction commenced on 9 May at ASMAR’s Talcahuano facilities. The new vessel will be operational by the 2022-2023 season, and will greatly support Chile’s Antarctic operations.

As for Colombia, the navy has refitted one of its oceanic patrol vessels, ARC 20 de Julio (PZE-46), so it can better operate in Antarctic conditions. The vessel has already carried out two expeditions. 

Uruguay’s presence in Antarctica since 1985 is also worth noting. The ROU 26 Vanguardia is the small South American country’s primary platform used for scientific research and to support Base Artigas and Station Ruperto Elichiribehety. The Vanguardia, named Otto Von Guericke at the time of its construction, was built in Poland for East Germany in 1976. The vessel was purchased by Montevideo in 1991 and was then given its current name. It has a length of 72.62 m, displaces 1872 tons, and a maximum speed of 14.5 knots. Other ships that participate in the country’s Antarctic activities are ROU 04 Artigas and ROU 22 Oyarvide. Unlike the PANC, which focuses on patrolling and safety activities, Uruguay’s main operations in the continent take place via the Uruguayan Antarctic Institute, a national agency under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense that focuses on scientific, technological, and logistic activities.

The Chilean icebreaker ‘Veil.’ (EFE/Chilean Navy)

Finally, it is worth stressing the general spirit of camaraderie in the Antarctic among South American navies. The PANC is a security-related initiative of two navies coming together in spite of historical differences and ongoing territorial claims in the Antarctic. Similarly, Uruguay has shared the results of some scientific studies with Chile and Argentina. In addition, Uruguay’s Mobile Marine Meteorological Station Project (Proyecto Estacion Meterologica Movil Marina) is an ongoing project that provides real-time information such as wind direction and speed, atmospheric and barometric pressure; and wave period, height, and type to Argentine and Chilean stations. This is a prime example of Latin American navies and scientific centers coming together to build upon each other’s successes in Antarctica.

Slow Improvements

While the aforementioned developments clearly demonstrate how Latin American navies are growing Antarctic capabilities, they should not be overestimated as there are also troubling shortcomings, particularly due to budget issues. For example, while Argentina’s icebreaker Irízar recently commenced sea trials and will likely return to operational duty by the 2017-2018 season, it has taken a decade-long reconstruction effort to repair the platform after it was ravaged by a fire in 2007. Similarly, budget issues have affected Argentina’s recent Antarctic operations, best exemplified by the recent summer 2016- 2017 season, in which the government had trouble figuring out how to resupply its Antarctic bases.

As for other nations, platforms that are too old to continue operating safely are eventually replaced by other vessels, which is not the same as expanding a fleet in terms of numbers. For example, Peru’s Carrasco will replace BIC Humboldt, which was constructed in the late 1970s and has gone through extensive overhauls to extend its operational life. Similarly, the new Chilean icebreaker will replace Viel, which was constructed in the late 1960s. Other naval platforms utilized for Antarctic operations, including the PANC, will soon become outdated. For example, Chile deployed ATF Lautaro (67) to the 2016-2017 PANC mission, a vessel constructed in 1973, while Argentina deployed ARA Islas Malvinas (A24), constructed in the 1980s. While replacement platforms are always welcome, expanding fleets by acquiring newly constructed ships would be more practical as their operational lives would last much longer than repurposed, older vessels.

Map of Antarctica (NASA)

The aforementioned Argentine Almirante Irízar illustrates the benefits of a stronger commitment by regional states toward their Antarctic programs, including their naval platforms. While its post-fire reconstruction was extensive and lengthy, the Argentine government’s investment has made the vessel one of the 10 biggest icebreakers in the world, as well as one of the most capable. In a recent navigational test, the ship surpassed expectations, and showed no signs of the various previous problems it had when it first made its way to the Antarctic from Finland in 1978. Not only does the ship have improved navigation capabilities, but it is also now multipurpose, housing eight top-of-the-line scientific laboratories, and an overall scientific investigation sector six times larger than that of its original construction. Despite the lengthy timeline of the repair, the Argentine government’s decision to allocate scarce resources in revamping the Irizar is a Cinderella Story of sorts, as it exemplifies the benefits that could come from a bigger budget committed to Antarctic maritime operations. Obtaining a new vessel would have probably taken less time than repairing the Irizar, nevertheless, if reports are to be believed, this modernized vessel will be of great help for Argentina’s Antarctic operations for the foreseeable future.

Final Thoughts

Navies are usually viewed through the prism of defense and security; however they also play a critical role in Antarctic programs. Certainly other military services, government departments, and scientific institutions are other necessary pillars of any vibrant and robust Antarctic program, but navies are a sort of spearhead as they employ the primary platforms that deploy to this frozen continent. Hence it comes as no surprise that navies are prominently mentioned in the White Papers of several regional countries regarding Antarctic operations as they are engaged in various operations ranging from scientific activities to providing emergency assistance.

Countries like Peru and Chile are working on obtaining new platforms for Antarctic use while Colombia has refitted one of its navy’s vessels for these operations. Meanwhile, the Argentine and Chilean navies have come together to create a joint Antarctic naval patrol that has helped vessels and Antarctic bases in need. Finally, Uruguay’s scientific program and projects are also notable as they provide data that allows the multifaceted work of the Latin American countries in the region to continue operations safely and effectively.

The importance of Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics will increase due to climate change and the approaching year 2048, when the Antarctic Treaty is up for revision. The modernization of polar-capable vessels, such as Argentina’s Alimirante Irizar, if not the acquisition of newer ones like Peru’s Carrasco, will help Latin American navies increase the reliability and projection of already successful missions in Antarctica thereby fortifying Latin America’s presence and increasing its voice in regards to the future of the frozen continent.

For further info, see: “Reinvigorating Peru’s role in Antarctic geopolitics” (The Polar Journal, 2015) and “Argentina, Chile and the Joint Antarctic Naval Patrol: a successful confidence building mechanism” (The Polar Journal, 2017).

Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Brittney J. Figueroa is a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a Bachelors degree in Global Studies, and a Minor in Latin American Iberian Studies.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.

Featured Image: Chilean icebreaker in Brandy Bay, Antarctica. (Wikimedia Commons)

Beijing’s Views on Norms in Cyberspace and Cyber Warfare Strategy Pt. 1

By LCDR Jake Bebber USN

The following is a two-part series looking at PRC use of cyberspace operations in pursuit of its national strategies and the establishment of the Strategic Support Force. Part 1 considers the centrality of information operations and information war to the PRC’s approach toward its current struggle against the U.S. Part 2 looks at the PRC’s use of international norms and institutions in cyberspace, and possible U.S. responses.


A recent article noted a marked shift in Chinese strategy a few short years ago which is only now being noticed. Newsweek author Jeff Stein wrote a passing reference to a CCP Politburo debate under the presidency of Hu Jintao in 2012 in which “Beijing’s leading economics and financial officials argued that China should avoid further antagonizing the United States, its top trading partner. But Beijing’s intelligence and military officials won the debate with arguments that China had arrived as a superpower and should pursue a more muscular campaign against the U.S.”1

The nature of this competition is slowly taking shape, and it is a much different struggle than the Cold War against the Soviet Union – however, with stakes no less important. This is a geoeconomic and geoinformational struggle. Both U.S. and PRC views on cyber warfare strategy, military cyber doctrine, and relevant norms and capabilities remain in the formative, conceptual, and empirical stages of understanding. There is an ongoing formulation of attempting to understand what cyberspace operations really are. While using similar language, each has different orientations and perspectives on cyberspace and information warfare, including limiting structures, which has led to different behaviors. However, the nature of cyberspace, from technological advancement and change, market shifts, evolving consumer preferences to inevitable compromises, means that while windows of opportunity will emerge, no one side should expect to enjoy permanent advantage. Thus, the term ‘struggle’ to capture the evolving U.S.-PRC competition.

The PRC recognized in the 1990s the centrality of information warfare and network operations to modern conflict. However, it has always understood the information space as blended and interrelated. Information is a strategic resource to be harvested and accumulated, while denied to the adversary. Information warfare supports all elements of comprehensive national power to include political warfare, legal warfare, diplomatic warfare, media warfare, economic warfare, and military warfare. It is critical to recognize that the PRC leverages the American system and its values legally (probably more so than illegally), to constrain the U.S. response, cloud American understanding, and co-opt key American institutions, allies, and assets. In many ways, the PRC approach being waged today is being hidden by their ability to work within and through our open liberal economic and political system, while supplemented with cyber-enabled covert action (such as the OPM hack).

To support their comprehensive campaign, the PRC is reforming and reorganizing the military wing of the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), posturing it to fight and win in the information space. Most notably, it recently established the Strategic Support Force (SSF) as an umbrella entity for electronic, information, and cyber warfare. Critical for U.S. policymakers to understand is how the SSF will be integrated into the larger PLA force, how it will be employed in support of national and military objectives, and how it will be commanded and controlled. While much of this remains unanswered, some general observations can be made.

This reform postures the PLA to conduct “local wars under informationized conditions” in support of its historic mission to “secure dominance” in outer space and the electromagnetic domain. Network (or cyberspace) forces are now alongside electromagnetic, space, and psychological operations forces and better organized to conduct integrated operations jointly with air, land, and sea forces.2

This change presents an enormous challenge to the PLA. The establishment of the SSF disrupts traditional roles, relationships, and processes. It also disrupts power relationships within the PLA and between the PLA and the CCP. It challenges long-held organizational concepts, and is occurring in the midst of other landmark reforms, to include the establishment of new joint theater commands.3 However, if successful, it would improve information flows in support of joint operations and create a command and control organization that can develop standard operating procedures, tactics, techniques, procedures, advanced doctrine, associated training, along with driving research and development toward advanced capabilities.

While questions remain as to the exact composition of the Strategic Support Force, there seems to be some consensus that space, cyber, electronic warfare, and perhaps psychological operations forces will be centralized into a single “information warfare service.” Recent PLA writings indicate that network warfare forces will be charged with network attack and defense, space forces will focus on ISR and navigation, and electronic warfare forces will engage in jamming and disruption of adversary C4ISR. It seems likely that the PRC’s strategic information and intelligence support forces may fall under the new SSF. The PLA’s information warfare strategy calls for its information warfare forces to form into ad hoc “information operations groups” at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and the establishment of the SSF will save time and enable better coordination and integration into joint forces. The SSF will be better postured to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlespace, war readiness and comprehensive planning for “information dominance.”4

The establishment of the SSF creates a form of information “defense in depth,” both for the PLA and Chinese society as a whole. The SSF enables the PLA to provide the CCP with “overlapping measures of electronic, psychological, and political deterrents.” It is reasonable to expect that there will be extensive coordination and cooperation among the PRC’s military, internal security, network security, “commercial” enterprises such as Huawei and ZTE, political party organizations, state controlled media both inside and outside China, and perhaps even mobilization of Chinese populations.

Chinese Information Warfare Concepts and Applications

Recent Chinese military writings have stressed the centrality of information to modern war and modern military operations. Paying close attention to the way the West – principally the U.S. – conducted the First Gulf War and operations in Kosovo and the Balkans in the 1990s, the PRC has been aggressively pursuing a modernization and reform program that has culminated in where they are today. Indeed, there is close resemblance to PLA and PRC aspirational writing from the 1990s to today’s force structure.

In many ways, the PLA understanding of modern war reflects the American understanding in so much as both refer to the centrality of information and the need to control the “network domain.” “Informatized War” and “Informatized Operations” occur within a multi-dimensional space – land, sea, air, space and the “network electromagnetic” or what Americans generally understand as “cyberspace.” The U.S. has long held that the control of the network domain provides a significant “first mover advantage,” and the PRC is well on the way toward building the capability for contesting control of the network domain. Its writings consistently hold that the PLA must degrade and destroy the adversary’s information support infrastructure to lessen its ability to respond or retaliate. This is especially necessary for “the weak to defeat the strong,” because most current writing still suggests that the PLA believes itself still inferior to American forces, though this perception is rapidly changing. Regardless, the PRC understanding of modern war supposes a strong incentive for aggressive action in the network domain immediately prior to the onset of hostilities.6 These operations are not restricted geographically, and we should expect to see full-scope network operations worldwide in pursuit of their interests, including in the American homeland.7

There are three components to a strategic first strike in the cyber domain. The first component is network reconnaissance to gain an understanding of critical adversary networks, identifying vulnerabilities, and manipulating adversary perception to obtain strategic advantage. Network forces are then postured to be able to conduct “system sabotage” at a time and place of the PRC’s choosing. When the time is right, such as a prelude to a Taiwan invasion or perhaps the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, the PRC will use system sabotage to render adversary information systems impotent, or to illuminate the adversary’s “strategic cyber geography” in order to establish a form of “offensive cyber deterrence.” The PRC could take action to expose its presence in critical government, military, or civilian networks and perhaps conduct some forms of attack in order to send a “warning shot across the bow” and give national decision-makers reason to pause and incentive to not intervene.8

Indeed, unlike the American perspective, which seeks to use cyberspace operations as a non-kinetic means to dissuade or deter potential adversaries in what Americans like to think of as “Phase 0,” the PLA has increasingly moved toward an operational construct that blends cyberspace operations with kinetic operations, creating a form of “cyber-kinetic strategic interaction.” The goal would be to blind, disrupt, or deceive adversary command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems while almost simultaneously deploying its formidable conventional strike, ballistic missile, and maritime power projection forces. The PLA envisions this operational concept as “integrated network electronic warfare,” described by Michael Raska as the “coordinated use of cyber operations, electronic warfare, space control, and kinetic strikes designed to create ‘blind spots’ in an adversary’s C4ISR systems.”9 

The PLA has recently described this as a form of “network swarming attacks” and “multi-directional maneuvering attacks” conducted in all domains – space, cyberspace, ground, air, and sea. The Strategic Support Force has been designed to provide these integrated operations, employing electronic warfare, cyberspace operations, space and counter-space operations, military deception and psychological operations working jointly with long-range precision strike, ballistic missile forces and traditional conventional forces.

Essential to these concepts are China’s ability to achieve dominance over space-based information assets. PRC authors acknowledge this as critical to conducting joint operations and sustaining battlefield initiative. This includes not only the orbiting systems, but ground stations, tracking and telemetry control, and associated data systems. We can expect full-scope operations targeting all elements of America’s space-based information system enterprise.

Important to all of this is the necessity of preparatory operations that take place during “peacetime.” China understands that many of its cyberspace, network, electronic and space warfare capabilities will not be available unless it has gained access to and conducted extensive reconnaissance of key systems and pre-placed capabilities to achieve desired effects. We should expect that the PRC is actively attempting to penetrate and exploit key systems now in order to be able to deliver effects at a later date.

Chinese Understandings of Deterrence and International Law in Cyber Warfare

China recently released the “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace.”10 Graham Webster at the Yale Law School made some recent observations. First, it emphasizes “internet sovereignty,” which is unsurprising, since the CCP has a vested interest in strictly controlling the information space within China, and between China and the rest of the world.  This concept of “internet sovereignty” should best be understood as the primacy of Chinese interests. China would consider threatening information sources outside of the political borders of China as legitimate targets for cyber exploitation and attack. In the minds of the CCP, the governance of cyberspace should recognize the sovereignty of states, so long as the Chinese state’s sovereignty is paramount over the rest of the world’s.

Second, the strategy suggests that “[t]he tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust.” This appears to be aimed squarely at the U.S., most likely the result of Edward Snowden’s actions. The U.S. seems to also be the target when the strategy refers to “interference in other countries’ internal affairs by abusing ICT and massive cyber surveillance activities,” and that “no country should pursue cyber hegemony.” Of course, the PRC has been shown to be one of the biggest sources of cyber-enabled intellectual property theft and exploitation, and China’s cyber surveillance and control regimes are legendary in scope. Immediately after decrying the “militarization” of cyberspace, the strategy calls for China to “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities … to prevent major crisis, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.” These broad, sweeping terms would permit China to later claim that much of its activities that appear to violate its own stated principles in the strategy are indeed legitimate.

The strategy seeks to encourage a move away from multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet to multilateral decision-making among governments, preferably under the United Nations. This would certainly be in China’s interests, as China continues to hold great sway in the U.N., especially among the developing world. After all, China is rapidly expanding its geoeconomic and geoinformational programs, leveraging its state-owned enterprises to provide funding, resources, and informational infrastructure throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. As more countries become dependent on Chinese financing, development, and infrastructure, they will find it harder to oppose or object to governance regimes that favor Chinese interests.

Naturally, the strategy emphasizes domestic initiatives and a commitment to a strong, domestic high-tech industry. This would include the “Made in China 2025” plan, which has received a great deal of attention. The plan seeks to comprehensively upgrade and reform Chinese industry, with an emphasis on information technology.11

When considering deterrence in the Chinese understanding, it is important to remember that China approaches it from a different context than the United States. Jacqueline Deal noted that China’s basic outlook proceeds from the premise that the “natural state of world is one of conflict and competition, and the goal of strategy is to impose order through hierarchy.”12 While Americans understand deterrence as a rational calculation, the Chinese approach emphasizes the conscious manipulation of perceptions.

Indeed, the Chinese term weishe, which translates as “deterrence,” also embodies the idea of “coercion.” We might see examples of this understanding by China’s historic use of “teaching a lesson” to lesser powers. In the 20th Century, Chinese offensives against India and Vietnam – thought by many in the West to be an example of tragic misunderstanding and failed signaling of core interests – might be better thought of as attempts by China to secure its “rightful” place atop the regional hierarchy. It is a form of “lesson teaching” that has long-term deterrent effects down the road.

We can expect therefore that cyberspace would become one means among many that China will use in support of its “Three Warfares” (public opinion, media, legal) concept in support of its larger deterrent or compellence strategies. It will likely be much broader than the use of PLA SSF forces, and could include cyber-enabled economic strategies, financial leverage, and resource withholding.

LCDR Jake Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Carrier Strike Group 12. He previously served on the staff of U.S. Cyber Command from 2013 – 2017. LCDR Bebber holds a Ph.D. in public policy. He welcomes your comments at: jbebber@gmail.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. government department or agency.

1. Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/cia-chinese-moles-beijing-spies-577442

2. Dean Cheng (2017). Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. Praeger Security International.

3. Cheng 2017.

4. John Costello and Peter Mattis (2016). “Electronic Warfare and the Renaissance of Chinese Information Operations.” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Joe McReynolds, editor). The Jamestown Foundation.

6. Joe McReynolds, et. Al. (2015) “TERMINE ELECTRON: Chinese Military Computer Network Warfare Theory and Practice.” Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis

7.  Barry D. Watts (2014) “Countering Enemy Informationized Operations in Peace and War.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

8. Timothy L. Thomas (2013) “China’s Cyber Incursions.” Foreign Military Studies Office

9. See: http://www.atimes.com/article/chinas-evolving-cyber-warfare-strategies/

10. See: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2017-03/01/c_136094371.htm

11. See: https://www.csis.org/analysis/made-china-2025

12. Jacqueline N. Deal (2014). “Chinese Concepts of Deterrence and their Practical Implications for the United States.” Long Term Strategy Group.

Featured Image: The Center for Nanoscale Materials at the Advanced Photon Source. (Photo: Argonne National Laboratory)