Tag Archives: Force Planning

Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift?

By Ben Hernandez

This article originally appeared on The Strategy Bridge. You can read it in its original format here. This article originally featured on CIMSEC on Aug. 20, 2015, and has been updated for inclusion into the Russia Resurgent Topic Week

The Russian defense industry has always had a flair for the dramatic. The Soviet military-industrial complex carried so much sway in the Politiburo that at times, it operated with little oversight from the General Secretary.1 It produced wonder weapons and prestige platforms with little regard for their cost and strategic value.

The past few years have seen a resurgence of this mindset. Russia has embarked on a massive recapitalization project, seeking to replace aging Soviet-era platforms that were often built to lax production standards. Their military-industrial complex takes great pride in trumpeting its achievements and ambitious projects through Russian language media and state-owned foreign language outlets, such as RT.com. While it is important to listen to what an adversary is saying, it is also important to see what is behind the bluster. In fact, many of Russia’s wonder weapon projects are far too grand to come to fruition — and may even signal a revival of the same discord within the Russian defense industry that plagued the Soviet Union; a discord that acted as a key forcing-function in the destabilizing Cold War arms race that brought the world to the brink of ruin.

Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.

Consider the notional future Russian Federation Navy (RFN). Their fleet, once outnumbering the U.S. Navy 3.5:1, now spends most of its time in port. 2 Russia’s major shipyards are now going full tilt, building frigates and nuclear powered — and armed — submarines. Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.

Dubbed the Lider class, these warships would feature the nuclear power and armament capacity of the massive Soviet-era Kirov battlecruisers. For reference, the 28,000 ton Kirov class has thrice the displacement of and carries roughly twice the armament of its nominal U.S. Navy counterpart, the AEGIS cruiser. Cutting a distinctive silhouette, the Lider would easily outgun the largest ships in the US or Chinese arsenals. Their nuclear power plants would allow them to sortie worldwide, limited only by food and ammunition supplies — the finest naval power projection to be found outside of aircraft carriers.

Given the grandiose design of the ship, it is worth examining whether the Russian military intends for it to ever exist at all or if it is nothing but a propaganda piece. Recently, the Russians have announced truly fantastic projects, such as a fleet of supersonic stealth transport aircraft capable of covertly inserting an armored division overseas.3 Open sources show that the RFN has desired a next-generation, medium to large surface combatant for years, and that more reasonable proposals gained traction before losing out to the current design.4 Additionally, a video about the Lider focuses on the wide array of Russian corporations contributing to its construction rather than the ship’s actual capabilities. Moreover, it was produced by an industry-focused media concern rather than the expected propaganda outlets, such as RT.5

Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity.

Russian officials announced they will build twelve of these battlecruisers.6Realistically, most observers should expect to see one or two. A ship’s size tends to drive the cost of constructing it, and there’s a catch to building ships with the massive weapons capacity and power plant of the old Soviet battlewagons: they’re probably going to be about the same size. Some sources suggest they’ve even been designed by the same firm responsible for the Kirovs.7 This implies the Lider will be a budget breaker like its predecessor.

Russian designs on this Lider class represent a gulf between strategic direction and capabilities. Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity. If the RFN succeeds in acquiring them, it will find itself with a handful of massive power projection tools unsuited to any of the conflicts it is most likely to fight.

One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection.

The Russians are setting themselves up for a major discontinuity between ends and means. A recent statement by the CEO of Russia’s state owned shipbuilding conglomerate reveals that his view that future submarine construction should focus on defending ballistic missile submarines, a mission that would take place relatively near to Russian territorial waters.8The acquisition of the Lider battlecruisers — plus recently announced plans to acquire a nuclear powered supercarrier — may suggest the forces that drive the development of the surface fleet are not in synch with the forces driving the submarine fleet. One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection. Neither of these tracks would be of much value should Russia attempt to invade one of the Baltic states, a prospect that recently gained some overt support in the Russian government.9

The Russian military is at a conventional disadvantage against NATO. As oil money begins to dry up and sanctions take their bite, the Russians do not appear to be adjusting their acquisition efforts to compensate. On one hand, they appear to be gravely concerned about the security of their nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces, fearing US missile defense efforts, have invested heavily in new ICBMs. Similarly, the submarine force is building new ballistic missile submarines and advanced new missiles to go with them. On the other hand, the Russians are also attempting to achieve some kind of conventional parity with NATO by producing new stealth fighters, tanks, and apparently battlecruisers. A budget is by definition zero-sum, and as Russia’s economy slowly recovers from its free-fall, the money to build all their desired means simply will not exist. This could leave Russia with an arsenal of top-of-the-line nuclear weapons while intensifying its conventional disadvantage against NATO.

Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism.

So, what is there to worry about here? Why not celebrate as the Russians procure themselves into the hole, spending exorbitant sums to acquire prestige platforms that do not contribute to their strategy? Because Russia may well attempt to achieve its ends through whatever means are available. The weaker and less focused its conventional forces are, the more likely it is to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to win a conflict with NATO. Painted into a corner by their belligerence and poor acquisition decisions, Russia may become dangerously prone to acting upon its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.

Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism. It seeks to achieve ends (building a “buffer zone” of pro-Russian states by force while protecting its nuclear deterrent) through dangerous ways (“hybrid” and conventional warfighting, with the option to “escalate to de-escalate”) without the means to fully execute those ways. The end result could be disastrous for all involved.

Ben Hernandez is one of the hundreds of students under instruction at Naval Station Newport, R.I. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Read other contributions to Russia Resurgent Topic Week.

1 Hoffman, David, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, New York, N.Y., 2010)

2 Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, Soviet Naval Strategy and Programs through the 1990s, NIE 11–15–82/D. (CIA Historical Review Program, approved for release 31 January 1995)

3 RT.com, Future Russian Army Could Deploy Anywhere In the World — In 7 hours, 19 March 2015, accessed 17 July 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/242097-pak-ta-russian-army/

4 GlobalSecurity.org, New Construction Destroyer, accessed 17 July 2015,http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/ddg-newcon.htm

5 Concern Agat — Russia Leader-Class Nuclear Guided Missile Destroyer Concept, 16 August 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORVVK6OCr74

6 Sputnik News, The Destroyer “Leader” and the Future of the Russian Navy, 16 March 2015, http://in.sputniknews.com/russia/20150316/1013781801.html

7 Hassan, Abbass, World Defense Review, Russian Navy approves the proposed future destroyer, 14 February 2013, accessed 17 July 2015.

8 Keck, Zachary, Russia’s New Nuclear Submarines to Target U.S. Aircraft Carriers, 6 July 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-building-aircraft-carrier-killer-nuclear-submarines-13266

9 Laurinavicius, Marius, Russia’s Dangerous Campaign in the Baltics, 16 July 2015, http://www.cepa.org/content/russias-dangerous-campaign-baltics

October Member Round-Up Part Two

Welcome to Part Two of the October 2015 Member Round-Up, covering the second two weeks of the month. Over the past two weeks the U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea have dominated the attention of the maritime security community. Although the incident was a significant development in the region, CIMSEC members have focused on several other international maritime issues in addition to the FONOPS. These issues include Russian operations in the Middle East, Canada’s blue-water naval capabilities, strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific and features of the U.S. Navy’s procurement strategy requirements.

Beginning the Round-Up at The National Interest, Scott Cheney-Peters discusses the necessity of U.S. FONOPS directed at China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Mr. Cheney-Peters explains that the U.S. position was twofold; it was critical to uphold commonsense interpretation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea while also reassuring commitment to regional allies concerned with China’s growing military capabilities. Mr. Cheney-Peters also explains the FONOPS repercussions and implications in an article at Sputnik.

Bryan Clark is interviewed at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concerning the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation maneuvers and the potential consequences of such operations. He explains the possibility that these U.S. operations may initiate FONOPS response equivalents off the U.S. West Coast from PLA-N vessels. However, Mr. Clark also notes that inaction would abandon sovereignty disputes over the artificial islands ceding the region to the Chinese, a circumstance at odds with regional U.S. interests.

China’s new airstrip built over Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea (CSIS image)

Mira Rapp-Hooper, at Lawfare, explains the U.S. FONOPS in the South China Sea through an international law context. The objective of her article is to outline the key legal and factual features of freedom of navigation while accurately describing the relationship between the military operation itself and maritime law. Also following a legal perspective, Alex Calvo for The Asia-Pacific Journal provides a comprehensive analysis on the ongoing legal dispute in the South China Sea. Mr. Calvo explains that the arbitration case currently being held in the Netherlands will contribute to the future dynamic of the entire South China Sea region and the ability for international law to resolve territorial conflicts peacefully and without recourse to military options.

Concluding the Round-Up’s discussion on the South China Sea FONOPS, James Goldrick at The Interpreter discusses the political and strategic need for Australia to assert freedom of operation throughout China’s artificial island network and its corresponding contested waters. Mr. Goldrick maintains that Australia should dispatch a naval force to operate in the vicinity of the Chinese artificial islands to demonstrate commitment to upholding international law and support for regional allied interests.

Darshana Baruah, at Offiziere, discusses the developing relationship in the Indo-Pacific between India and Australia. The article explains that the recent completion of the first bilateral naval exercises between the two countries indicates an aim to strengthen interoperability between their respective navies for the purpose of increased maritime security. Further to this, Ms. Baruah identifies the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and the rise of China as having contributed to geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, which has resulted in strategic opportunities for Indo-Pacific actors to collaborate in bilateral or multilateral arrangements.

Bryan Clark, before the House Armed Services Seapower and Power Projection Forces Subcommittee, argued that the U.S. Navy must increase development of advanced undersea systems to sustain American dominance in undersea operations. Mr. Clark explains that U.S. undersea warfare capabilities face the threat of being effectively challenged as a result of new detection technologies and quieter submarine fleets being developed by U.S. competitors.

To conclude Part Two of the October Member Round-Up, Ken Hansen for The Conference of Defense Associations Institute discusses the loss of Canada’s two primary logistical ships and the implications the loss will have on the Navy’s operations. Mr. Hansen explains that the decommissioning of the HMCS Preserver and the major fire onboard the HMCS Protecteur has entirely eliminated the Navy’s ability to conduct global force projection operations due to a lack of at-sea replenishment. Mr. Hansen explains that the Canadian Navy has acquired Spanish and Chilean logistical ships for temporary use for blue-water training operations and to maintain task group readiness throughout the logistical ship replacement process.

Members at CIMSEC were also active elsewhere during the second part of October:

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on the NextWar blog or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honours Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies and defence policy and management.

October Member Round-Up Part One

By Sam Cohen

Welcome to Part One of the October 2015 Member Round-Up, covering the first two weeks of the month. Over the past two weeks CIMSEC members have examined several international maritime security issues, including the U.S. South China Sea Initiative, Russian military operations in Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, the strategic importance of the Arctic and aspects of the U.S. Navy’s procurement strategy.

Beginning the Round-Up at The Diplomat, Ankit Panda discusses the changes made by the Senate to the National Defense Authorization Act 2016 (NDAA 2016). The bill’s new features include Taiwan among a list of countries that will receive financial and military assistance from the U.S. for operations in the South China Sea. Additionally, the NDAA 2016 outlines the new U.S. South China Sea Initiative, which aims to increase maritime security and maritime domain awareness for foreign countries in the region. Also for The Diplomat, Ankit Panda shares a second article where he discusses Chinese coast guard operations near the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. These operations have substantially increased East China Sea tensions as the Chinese coast guard continues to enter Japanese territorial waters to support their claim over the islands.

ADM. James Stavridis in an interview with Bloomberg Business discusses the U.S. government’s position towards the artificial islands being constructed in the South China Sea. ADM. Stavridis states that from the U.S. perspective the islands will not affect freedom of navigation (FON) considering the islands represent international sea and air space and not sovereign Chinese territory.

Leaving the Asia-Pacific, ADM. Stavridis speaks with Bloomberg News concerning Russian and U.S. operations within Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. He explains that both countries’ naval and air forces in the region have not established deconfliction processes meaning their local command structures are not communicating with each other. In addition, ADM. Stavridis states that the U.S. will need to prioritize ISIS over other security objectives in the region, a strategy that will consist of significant increases in ground force deployments in Iraq and eventually Syria.

Chuck Hill, for his Coast Guard Blog, discuses the recent cruise missile attacks launched by Russian naval forces from the Caspian Sea against targets throughout Syria. Mr. Hill identifies that these attacks demonstrate Russian surface combatant capabilities similar to that of a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile being launched from a U.S. vessel. Further to this, Mr. Hill explains that the Russian vessels launching the attacks resemble less-lethal equivalents in the U.S. Navy, revealing that Russian naval forces are practicing distributed lethality while the U.S. Navy is still deliberating over its implementation.

Sam LaGrone, at U.S. Naval Institute News, also discusses the expanding Russian operations within Syria. Mr. LaGrone analyzes the deployment of a Black Sea-based Russian surface action group to the Eastern Mediterranean to provide an air defense bubble in support of Russian fighters striking targets in Syria. These deployments are in addition to the arrival of a Russian surveillance ship as well as several Russian amphibious assault ships in the region.

Dave Majumdar, for The National Interest, discusses features of the U.S. Navy’s plan to acquire rail-guns, lasers and nuclear power across the entire future surface combatant fleet. Mr. Majumdar identifies that the future Navy warship will require large amounts of eclectic power to run advanced systems including power-hungry radar systems and energy weapons. Additionally, the current DD-51 and Ticonderoga-class hull-forms will need to be replaced to allow for developing guided-missile destroyers to be equipped with Raytheon’s AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar.

To conclude Part One of the October Round-Up, Chuck Hill for his Coast Guard Blog analyzes the U.S. Navy’s decision to commit to the selection of the Longbow Hellfire missile as a provisional weapon system to offer offensive capabilities for Littoral Combat Ships. Mr. Hill explains that the Longbow Hellfire missile system will be extremely effective against highly maneuverable and high speed fast-attack craft and if deployed in large volumes, can also be effective against larger surface threats.

Members at CIMSEC were also active elsewhere during the first part of October:

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on the NextWar blog or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honors Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies and defense policy and management.







China’s Military Modernization: The Legacy of Admiral Wu Shengli

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This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s China Watch. You can view it in its original format here.

By Jeffrey Becker

Earlier this month, Caixin reported on another round of Chinese military promotions, highlighting the youth and operational experience of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) newly minted generals (Caixin, August 12). Moreover, in roughly two years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 19th Party Congress, a critical time to enact important military and civilian leadership changes. One change that is all but certain to occur as the PLA continues to promote a new generation of leaders is the appointment of a new PLA Navy (PLAN) commander. While rumors swirled in the Hong Kong press before the 18th Party Congress in 2012 that long-tenured PLAN Commander Admiral Wu Shengli might retire or be appointed Defense Minister, neither of those scenarios occurred (China Leadership Monitor [CLM], January 14, 2013). Instead, Admiral Wu remained PLAN Commander, becoming the oldest member of the Central Military Commission and one of the longest tenured commanders in China’s naval history. [1]

With no more than two years left before his likely retirement, it seems appropriate to begin looking back on the career of one of the PLAN’s most influential and successful commanders. This article attempts to begin that process. The challenges Wu faced and overcame in his early career provide insights into his leadership as PLAN commander. Additionally, Wu’s career has spanned the largest and fastest buildup in the PLAN’s history. Examining the Chinese Navy’s greatest accomplishments under his tenure may therefore help point toward future directions the PLAN could take under the possible candidates to succeed him in the post-Wu era.

A Product of China’s Revolutions

Admiral Wu’s early life and military career reflects some of the most tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history–the war of resistance against the Japanese, the Chinese civil war and establishment of the People’s Republic, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Born in August 1945, Wu was raised in Zhejiang Province as a well-known “princeling” (太子)–the son of the famous Wu Xian, a Red Army political commissar during the Anti-Japanese war and the Chinese Civil War. Indeed, Wu is purported to have been given the name shengli (“victory” 胜利) in commemoration of the victory over Japan (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015). After the wars, the elder Wu held important political positions, to include mayor of Hangzhou and vice governor of Zhejiang. Although Wu was raised by his father in Zhejiang, his family’s ancestral home is in Wuqiao County, Hebei Province, about 200 miles south of Beijing. [2]

Wu joined the PLA in August 1964, and began studying at the PLA Surveying and Mapping College in Xi’an, earning a degree in oceanography in 1968 (Guoqing, February 1, 2012). His timing was fortuitous, as his affiliation with the PLA likely helped shield him as the Cultural Revolution decimated Chinese social, government and Party institutions in what amounted to a low-intensity civil war. Over 12 million of Wu’s generation, including current senior PLAN officers, were forced to work on rural communes as part of China’s “sent down youth” movement. [3] As a member of one of the only institutions left standing, however, Wu was saved from this fate by joining the PLA. However, given what we know about the Cultural Revolution’s impact on the nation’s academic institutions, the quality of training he received in Xi’an was highly questionable, and Wu would not receive formal training again until 1972, when he attended the captain’s course at the Dalian Naval Vessel Academy. [4]

After Xi’an, Wu’s early career was spent gaining experience as a surface warfare officer in the East and South Sea Fleets in the 1970s and 1980s, serving as both commander of the East Sea Fleet’s (ESF) 6th Destroyer Flotilla and as deputy chief of staff for the Shanghai Naval Base. The fact that future President Jiang Zemin was serving as Shanghai Party secretary at this time has led some PLA-watchers to speculate that Wu may have cultivated ties with Jiang. [5]

Yet Wu and his colleagues lacked combat experience. The closest that Wu is known to have come to combat was as the commander of the ESF’s 6th Destroyer Flotilla, when he had authority over the FrigateYingtan (CNS 531), one of the vessels which took part in the 1988 Johnson South Reef skirmish with Vietnam. [6]

In 1992, Wu became chief of staff of the ESF’s Fujian Support Base. This was soon followed by an appointment as commandant of the Dalian Naval Vessel Academy, a highly influential post, which allowed him to affect the direction of training for future PLAN officers. Wu returned to the ESF as a deputy commander in 1998. He was appointed South Sea Fleet (SSF) commander in 2002, and promoted to vice admiral in 2003. In 2004, he became one of the few naval officers to serve as a deputy chief of the PLA General Staff, a position equivalent to a commander of one of China’s seven Military Regions and the second-highest-ranking operational officer in the PLA Navy (Center for China Studies [Taiwan], June 5).

Shepherding the PLAN’s Transition

Wu’s background, family connections and professional experiences made him a strong candidate for top leadership roles. Thus, when cancer forced Admiral Zhang Dingfa into retirement in 2006, Wu was promoted to PLAN Commander just as the navy was on the cusp of an organizational transformation. In 2004, Hu Jintao gave his landmark address on the PLA’s “New Historic Missions,” which declared that China’s interests abroad were expanding, and that the PLA had an important role to play in defending those interests (Xinhua, June 19, 2006).

This new direction provided the PLAN with a substantially increased role in the implementation of China’s national security and military engagement policy. For Admiral Wu and his contemporaries, this challenge was exacerbated by years of isolation from the international naval community, which, along with the domestic effects of the Cultural Revolution, led to a dramatic erosion of professional and technical skills, as well as a severe decline in human capital and basic quality of life within China’s navy. [7] Indeed, Admiral Wu seems to have personally taken an interest in improving the quality of life of China’s sailors. Wu’s writings include details about the difficult and backwards conditions onboard PLAN ships earlier in his career, noting how PLAN sailors routinely “would go into port but not go ashore, eat while squatting on deck, hold meetings on folding stools and sleep on metal siding.” [8]

This makes Admiral Wu’s success in overseeing the PLAN’s transformation all the more compelling. While he and members of his cohort were responsible for overseeing a rapidly transforming navy, complete with formally trained officer candidates, they themselves had only limited formal training. Though tasked with preparing the PLAN to conduct blue water operations, the navy Wu Shengli had joined was still overwhelmingly a coastal defense force. Despite these challenges, within a few years of assuming command, the PLAN would be conducting anti-piracy escort operations in the Gulf of Aden, evacuating Chinese citizens far from China’s borders, (first in Libya in 2011 and later in Yeman in 2015), and participating in progressively more complex multinational maritime exercises, including the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2014 (RIMPAC-14) (China Brief, April 3; China Brief, May 1; Also see “Six Years at Sea… And Counting”).

Viewed in this context, what Wu and his contemporaries have accomplished in transforming the PLAN has been even more remarkable. The PLAN Commander and his staff must have truly been followed Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism to “cross the river by feeling the stones,” in part learning as they went about modernizing the PLAN and partly relying on younger, more technically trained PLAN officers–individuals who constitute the next generation of PLAN leadership. The history of China’s naval transformation in the 2000s has yet to be written, but understanding how Admiral Wu and his advisors managed this will be fascinating reading when the details come to light.

Improving USN-PLAN Relations

Navies often play the lead role in a country’s foreign military relations, and after having spent almost a decade developing the personnel relationships and diplomatic acumen that facilitates international engagement, Admiral Wu has in many ways become the face of the PLA abroad. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the PLAN’s growing engagement with the United States Navy (USN). Throughout this time, Admiral Wu has been a constant presence, meeting with each of the past three U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). In 2014 alone, CNO Greenert met with Wu on four separate occasions, the most of any foreign navy leader (USN, September 8, 2014).

Like any PLA officer with whom the U.S. Navy interacts, Admiral Wu’s talking points have been carefully selected and vetted by the Party. His statements in official settings reflect what the Party views as primary objectives for the military-to-military exchange. However, Wu’s long years of experience appears to have helped create a degree of stability in the U.S.-China navy-to-navy relationship not seen in the past. The two navies have worked together in multiple settings, including in the Gulf of Aden and in Hawaii at RIMPAC-14. They have conducted reciprocal port visits in Zhanjiang, San Diego and Hawaii, established the Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) through cooperation in the Western Pacific Navy Symposium (WPNS) and continue to move forward on additional confidence building measures (Xinhuanet, April 23, 2014; Xinhuanet, December 14, 2014).

At the same time that the PLAN appears to have pushed its relationship with the U.S. Navy to new heights, the PLAN continues to play a vital role asserting China’s interests closer to home. For Admiral Wu, this ability to do both simultaneously reflects an adept and skillful use of maritime diplomacy. As China continues this assertive behavior however, this skillful balancing act may become increasingly difficult to maintain. Moreover, as Wu Shengli moves closer to retirement, his experience in helping manage this tension will surely be missed.

The Chinese Navy in the Post-Wu Era

While PLA decision making has become more transparent, opaque factors, including personal connections, family relationships and ever present corruption, make predicting who Wu’s successor will be impossible. That however, has never stopped China analysts from putting forth possible candidates for future promotion. With that in mind, the following three officers have been discussed at length as possible candidates to replace Admiral Wu:

Admiral Sun Jianguo: As the PLA’s deputy chief of staff in charge of intelligence, Admiral Sun is the second highest-ranking operational officer in the PLA, a position that Admiral Wu once held before becoming PLAN Commander. [9] Unlike Wu, Admiral Sun’s experience has largely been as a submariner, and he has captained both conventional and nuclear submarines, including those involved in espionage missions in the Taiwan Strait. [10] However, as a contemporary of Wu’s (Sun was born in 1952 and joined the PLA in 1968), he would be 65 by the 19th Party Congress, and thus would likely serve only an abbreviated tenure as PLAN commander.

Vice-Admiral Tian Zhong: A less likely but interesting alternative choice is Tian Zhong, who earlier this year was transferred from his former position as North Sea Fleet commander to deputy PLAN Commander, a position that provides him a seat on the PLAN Party Standing Committee. Relatively young at 59, Tian’s has moved through the ranks at a rapid pace. In 2007, he was promoted to NSF Commander after serving only a year as NSF chief of staff (Center for China Studies, August 3). Perhaps more tellingly, Tian was the youngest and lowest-ranking PLAN officer to serve on the CCP Party Central Committee. While still a fleet commander, Tian served on this elite organization alongside PLAN Commander Wu Shengli, PLAN Political Commissar Liu Xiaojiang and Admiral Sun Jianguo (Xinhua, November 14, 2012).

Vice-Admiral Jiang Weilie: Like Tian Zhong, former SSF commander, Jiang Weilie also became a PLAN commander in 2015. Jiang appears to be something of a technocrat, having served in the PLAN Equipment Department in 2010. [11] This is a highly unusual career move–few operational officers spend time in technical departments, a separate career track. [12] While in this department, Jiang was tasked with overhauling the PLAN’s equipment acquisition systems, after which he was rewarded with a fleet command. As the PLAN seeks to replace Wu’s international engagement experience, it should be noted that Jiang has also had multiple engagements with his U.S. Navy counterparts, most recently traveling to Hawaii in 2014 to serve as China’s VIP during its first-ever participation in RIMPAC-14 (Phoenix Online, July 22, 2014).


Whoever is selected as Admiral Wu’s replacement will be taking charge of a dramatically different force than the one Wu Shengli took command of in 2006. Thanks in part to his leadership, China’s navy today is far more capable, active and engaged with the rest of the world. It is staffed by more professional and formally trained personnel than at any time in China’s recent history, and enjoys a stable and robust working relationship with the USN and other international navies in large part due to his years of experience in maritime diplomacy and careful cultivation of relationships.


1. Although former PLAN Commander Xiao Jingguan nominally served as PLAN Commander for almost 30 years from 1950 to 1979, he was effectively sidelined during much of this time as a result of factual political infighting during the Cultural Revolution.

2. Jeffrey Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 2013), p. 136

3. This includes for example current North Sea Fleet Commander Admiral Yuan Yubai. Before joining the PLAN in 1976, Admiral Yuan spent two years as a full-time member of his “Basic Line Education Work Team,” in Gongan County, Hubei Province. “Work Teams” were ad-hoc organizations invested with local authority during the Cultural Revolution. Jeffrey Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy, p.183.

4. Cheng Li, “Wu Shengli – China’s Top Future Leaders to Watch,” Brookings, accessed March 18, 2015.

5. Ibid.

6. Yang Zhongmei, China’s Coming War: The Rise of China’s New Militarism (中國即將開戰: 中國新軍國主義崛起) (Taipei: Time Culture Press, 2013), p. 210–211

7. Admiral Liu Huaqing’s biography provides some exceptionally painful examples of just how far the PLAN had fallen immediately following the Cultural Revolution. See Liu Huaqing, Memoirs of Liu Huaqing, (刘华请回忆录), (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp. 417-432.

8. Wu Shengli, “Beginning to Bid Farewell to Sleeping and Eating Aboard the Ship in Port: The Lifestyle Revolution for Chinese Sailors,” PLA Life (Jiefangjun Shenghuo; 解放军生活), no. 9 (2010).

9. Jeffrey Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy, p. 173.

10. Shih Min, “Hu Jintao Actively Props up ’Princeling Army,” Chien Shao, April 1, 2006, no. 182.

11. Ma Haoliang, “High-Ranking Officer Adjustments in the Navy with a Focus on Having a Technologically Strong Military (海軍將領調整 凸顯科技強軍),” Ta Kung Pao, February 9, 2011

12. Kenneth Allen and Morgan Clemens, The Recruitment, Education, and Training of PLA Navy Personnel(China Maritime Studies Institute, 2014).