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An Allied Coast Guard Approach to Countering CCP Maritime Gray Zone Coercion

This piece originally published under the title of “Innovating the U.S.-Japan Alliance to Counter CCP Maritime Gray Zone Coercion: An Allied Coast Guard Approach,” in a monograph by the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. It is republished with permission. 

By Jada Fraser

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General-Secretary Xi Jinping shows no signs of tamping down on its assertive campaign to secure revisionist territorial claims throughout the East and South China Seas, China’s Coast Guard’s (CCG) maritime gray zone activities present a particularly acute asymmetric challenge for the U.S.-Japan Alliance. This is because apart from the highly capable U.S. nuclear force and allied conventional military forces, in the realm of maritime gray zone coercion, the CCG faces no proportionate U.S. counterforce.1 On the other hand, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and Coast Guard continue to implement new technologies, upgrade logistics, and undergo reforms enabling Japanese maritime forces to more effectively track and respond to instances of gray zone coercion.

U.S. administrations have placed different levels of priority on determining the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) role in countering maritime gray zone coercion in the Indo-Pacific and have yet to implement a coherent strategy. An analysis of recent reforms to Japan’s coast guard presents several models that the USCG can build off. Such an approach recognizes current U.S. resource limitations and accounts for how an important U.S. ally at the forefront of countering CCG gray zone activities has pursued its own reforms, even while under similar and additional constraints.

U.S. and Japanese maritime forces, especially both countries’ coast guards, must innovate allied approaches to more effectively counter gray zone efforts that undermine the rules-based international order. USCG reforms must center on expanding the force’s own role in countering CCG maritime gray zone coercion to be on par with that of the JCG. This will require that the USCG strengthen combined capabilities with JCG as well as expand interoperability with the U.S. Navy (USN). Modeling USCG operational and organization reforms on the JCG will enable an allied coast guard approach to countering PRC maritime gray zone coercion that bolsters the U.S.-Japan alliance’s overall deterrent effect in the Indo-Pacific.

Pride of Place: The Role of the CCG in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Activities

China’s increasing reliance on “gray zone activities”—defined here as means short of war but above the level of regular diplomatic efforts—exploits “asymmetric advantage[s] at a certain level or domain of conflict” to impose costs on or coerce capitulation from any state that takes actions inimical to the CCP’s interests.2 One area in which China holds considerable asymmetric advantages is in its utilization of non-military assets to perform military functions. The CCG figures prominently into the CCP’s toolkit for maritime gray zone activities, evidenced by the chain of command transfer in 2018 that reorganized the CCG to fall under the Central Military Commission (CMC).3 In a recent 2022 report on countering China’s gray zone coercion, RAND attempts to categorize different types of PRC military, political, economic, and information activities into three tiers from least to most problematic.4 Activities that do or can rely on the CCG claim three of the seven military gray zone activities identified within the most problematic ‘top tier.’ 

“Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022.

Unlike most coast guards around the world, the CCG is not separated from the military apparatus of the CCP as a law enforcement body and is in fact staffed with a large number of personnel from China’s Navy.5 The China Coast Guard Law passed in 2021 further muddied the waters on the rules of engagement with what is nominally a civilian entity, but clearly operates as a military force.6 These unique qualities prime the CCG to operate in the gray zone in a way that regional coast guards struggle to contend with.

As national sovereignty and territorial integrity reign supreme in the CCP’s conceptualization of security, sovereignty enforcement operations are at the core of the CCG’s role in maritime gray zone coercion.7 And indeed, because of the CCG’s assertive stance in enforcing CCP claims in the East and South China Seas, coast guards around the region have similarly had to take on a sovereignty-defending role– a function typically reserved for navies. On the other hand, the United States has not had to resort to using its coast guard to defend any of its own sovereignty claims (nor directly had to defend any of its allies’ claims thousands of miles away). In this view, compared to allied and partner countries’ direct experiences countering CCG gray zone activities, there has been a relative lack of pressure for USCG reform to improve maritime gray zone coercion responses.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and China Coast Guard vessel 2102 steam alongside each other during the transfer of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean June 3, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau)

 Japan’s Coast Guard Reforms

Among the first countries to explicitly recognize the threat presented by China’s gray zone activities, Japan’s government has faced the extraordinary challenge of defending its territory from China’s sovereignty claims for decades.8 At the forefront of countering CCG maritime gray zone activities, Japan’s Coast Guard has had to grow both qualitatively and quantitatively. Between 2012 and 2020, the JCG fleet of large patrol vessels grew from 51 to 66, with an additional 6,000-ton vessel set to enter service in 2023 and another four recently announced by Prime Minister Kishida to join the fleet in the near-term.9 Patrol vessels have not only grown in size, but more are now capable of operating on the open ocean rather than only near Japan’s coastlines.11 Since 2012, the JCG budget and personnel have seen annual increases and the Kishida administration intends to more than double the budget by 2027.11

The nexus of CCG sovereignty operations focuses on the disputed Senkaku Islands. After facing multiple altercations in the area that could have easily spiraled into open armed conflict, in 2016 the JCG established a 12-ship Senkaku Territorial Waters Guard Unit and upgraded the Miyako Coast Guard Station to an office, doubling its patrol staff and adding eight new patrol vessels.12 In addition, in 2015 the JCG and JMSDF held a rare joint exercise, the first to be exclusively focused on gray zone activities.13 Two more of these exercises have been held since, one in 2021 and another this year, underscoring the accelerating pressure Japan is under to shore up its own domestic defense capabilities.

Japan Coast Guard Mizuho-class patrol vessel PLH 21 Fuso. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

While reforms over the past decade all significantly enhanced JCG ability to respond to maritime gray zone activities, changes made in recent months and announcements for future reforms scheduled to take place over the next couple of years will exponentially improve JCG capacity to independently, jointly, and in a combined fashion with the USCG, respond to gray zone coercion. Importantly, these reforms seek to overcome remaining obstacles that have long been identified as impeding Japan’s ability to confront CCG maritime gray zone coercion most effectively.14

First, before the end of the fiscal year, the JCG and JMSDF plan to conduct the first-ever joint exercise to simulate an armed attack on the Senkakus.15 Such JMSDF-JCG cooperation is being made increasingly possible due to logistical and legal innovations and reforms. JCG intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities grew significantly with the recent commissioning of SeaGuardian UAVs in October 2022.16 Coinciding with this upgrade, JMSDF and JCG announced plans to transition to real-time data sharing from FY23.17 Moreover, soon after this announcement, the United States and Japan launched an intel-sharing unit that will “share, analyze and process information gathered from their assets, including drones and vessels,” in real-time. Considering future plans to streamline JCG-JMSDF intelligence-sharing, it is logical to assume that JCG intelligence will also be incorporated into the new U.S.-Japan intel unit as well.

Furthermore, it bears note that the SeaGuardian drones now being fielded by the JCG also have strike functions useful in anti-submarine warfare.18 This capability bears mentioning as JCG’s ability to take part in military actions has thus far been heavily constrained by Japan’s stringent legal framework which circumscribes the service as a purely civilian actor. While too soon to foretell any major legal reinterpretations of JCG scope in responding to armed conflicts, the GOJ recently reported plans to establish a framework for JCG-JMSDF cooperation.19

Japan’s newly released strategic documents also include a Joint Command Headquarters overseen by a joint commander, a position that will report directly to Japan’s defense minister.20 Japan’s general thrust toward greater jointness and interoperability portends opportunities for the JCG to be incorporated into such reforms. Indeed, the role of the JCG features prominently in Japan’s new strategic documents. In a significant organizational reform, the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy explicitly state that under situations of armed attack, JCG operational authority will move to the Minister of Defense, aligning with U.S.-style chain of command in contingency scenarios.21

Finally, with the Kishida administration’s plan to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by FY27, budgetary calculations will now include expenditures on Japan’s Coast Guard as a defense budget line item. Unlike NATO countries, Japan has historically not classified JCG spending as a defense expenditure.22 While this reform may seem entirely bureaucratic in nature, Japan is the textbook example of how seemingly esoteric organizational reforms can have remarkable impacts on foreign and security policy.23 By including JCG spending in the defense budget, the government is opening itself up to criticism and pressure to strengthen the coast guard’s role in Japan’s national security and national defense strategies.

Taken together, these reforms will lead to significant improvements in interoperability both at the joint JCG-JMSDF level and more broadly within the scope of the U.S.-Japan alliance between the JCG and USCG and the JMSDF and USCG, perhaps even with all three forces working together trilaterally in the future. Yet the USCG still has far to go in order to capitalize on these potential areas of cooperation.

The USCG-JCG Partnership

Over the past half a decade, the USCG has gradually awakened to the challenges presented by the PRC’s gray zone activities in the Indo-Pacific. This realization is reflected in the 2020 tri-service strategy “Advantage at Sea” which sets the seapower services’ objectives over the next 10 years.24 The strategy emphasizes five objectives to effectively compete with China: integrated all-domain naval power; strengthened alliances and partnerships; operating more assertively to prevail in day-to-day competition; if conflict escalates, denying and defeating the enemy; and modernizing the force. The third objective explicitly highlights the Navy’s, Marines’, and Coast Guard’s role in countering maritime gray zone coercion (aka “day-to-day competition”). Moreover, the strategy document identifies the Coast Guard as the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to this kind of coercion. Finally, it recognizes the Coast Guard as the singular force able to provide additional tools for crisis management through capabilities that can de-escalate maritime standoffs non-lethally. This is a role especially critical to managing conflict with the CCG.

Japan is home to one of only two overseas U.S. Coast Guard commands.25 Commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, described the USCG-JCG relationship as “amongst its most valued partnerships.”26 And indeed, over recent months, the relationship has seen significant upgrades and could well be the USCG’s most important partnership. In May 2022, the two countries expanded formalized cooperation at what was dubbed a “historic document signing.”27 Building off an already 12-year-old partnership, Operation SAPPHIRE22 institutionalized standard operating procedures for combined operations, training and capacity building, and information sharing, with the aim of increasing USCG-JCG interactions over time. Taken together, these improvements will all greatly enhance USCG-JCG interoperability.

U.S. and Japanese Coast Guard assets operating together during exercise SAPHIRE22. (Japan Coast Guard photo)

A few months into SAPPHIRE22, it appears quite clear what underlying motivations and goals fuel this mission. USCG and JCG have already conducted joint training and capacity-building activities with the Philippines Coast Guard twice since the memorandum of understanding was signed. JCG press releases of these activities explicitly link them to Japan’s strategy to realize a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”28 USCG’s relationship with Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces has seen recent upgrades as well. Last year, the Japan-U.S. ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) was applied to the USCG for the first time to enable a JMSDF supply shop to replenish a USCG patrol vessel.29

These upgrades evidence the recognition of both countries that effectively competing with China will require updates to alliance cooperation at the technical, operational, and strategic levels. On the part of Japan, such recognition has played out in particularly pronounced ways. The government of Japan’s recent overhaul of the country’s strategic documents will likely produce historic evolutions in Japan’s defense orientation and security role within both the U.S.-Japan alliance and in the Indo-Pacific region more broadly. These changes are equally likely to create new possibilities for USCG cooperation with both the JCG and the JMSDF. But the burden will lie on the United States Coast Guard to implement reforms of its own in order to best take advantage of these new opportunities.

A Model for USCG Reforms

As stated earlier, there is increasing awareness in the White House and in the force itself that the U.S. Coast Guard’s role in the Indo-Pacific to counter maritime gray zone coercion needs to be strengthened. As Edgard Kagan, senior director for East Asia and Oceania on the National Security Council, recently made clear,

“The Coast Guard is an extraordinarily important tool, one that we are looking to see if there’s ways of expanding the presence and the level of engagement, because the issues that really matter to countries in the Pacific in many cases are much more aligned.”

There is much that could be done to broaden and strengthen this USCG role, specifically within the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

Model JMSDF-JCG Gray Zone Response Exercises

First, the USCG and the U.S. Navy should observe the gray zone exercises being conducted by the JCG and JMSDF and develop their own operational concepts for joint responses to gray zone activities. This would enhance the abilities of current and future USCG cutters home-ported in the Indo-Pacific to jointly respond with the Navy to gray zone activities throughout the region. But more importantly, it would enable both the Navy and the USCG to incorporate specifically targeted gray zone response activities as part of regular exercise and training deployments with regional partners, including Japan.

Strengthen Multilateral Coast Guard and Navy Cooperation

Second, beyond USCG training and capacity building deployments to the region (which are already strained by over-stretched resources), the U.S. Coast Guard should place a greater emphasis on coordinating to bring regional coast guards to Hawaii to train. One specific opportunity for this could be first to institutionalize regular USCG participation in multilateral naval exercises, such as RIMPAC, and then gradually expand to incorporate regional coast guard participation starting with Japan. RIMPAC has hosted USCG participation on the rare occasion, most recently last year. USCG participation in RIMPAC22 gave rise to several firsts. The coast guard participated in anti-submarine warfare exercises for the first time, and a national security cutter was the first ever to be equipped with the Link 16 tactical network system which enabled operational integration with the U.S. Navy.30 Traditionally, coast guard ships are not outfitted with the same network and communications platforms used by the military.31 Including both USCG and JCG in RIMPAC will enhance inter-service cooperation in addition to facilitating trust-building and cooperation between partnered and allied coast guards and navies. This will also add to overall regional deterrence by building important security linkages between partner and allied forces.

Enhance USCG-USN Interoperability to Expand Capacity for Combined Operations with Japan 

Third and finally, modeling recent reforms to JCG-JMSDF interoperability, USCG platforms should be integrated with U.S. military network and communications platforms to enable more seamless real-time intelligence sharing and interoperability. To be best equipped for joint responses to gray zone escalation in the Indo-Pacific and to most effectively operate with Japanese forces, the Coast Guard and Navy cannot afford to maintain this current stove-piped system of communications.


Japan’s coast guard reforms and innovations offer several lessons for how the USCG can more effectively counter gray zone activities and best take advantage of the quickly growing partnership between the two forces as well as between the USCG and the JMSDF. By modeling USCG-USN gray zone exercises from JCG-JMSDF ones, the U.S.-Japan alliance can better prepare for joint responses to gray zone escalation in the region. Moreover, both the USCG and the Navy can incorporate these gray zone exercises and trainings into their own partnerships with regional coast guards. Institutionalizing USCG participation and including Japan’s Coast Guard in RIMPAC would maximize resource efficiency, enhance USCG-Navy interoperability, and strengthen regional coast guard and navy partnerships. Connecting USCG and Navy networks and communication platforms would enable both forces and the alliance to get the most out of the above reforms. Taken together, modeling USCG reforms on JCG operational and organizational innovations will enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance’s ability to counter CCP maritime gray zone coercion through an allied coast guard approach.

Jada Fraser is currently pursuing her Master’s in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs. Jada has previously worked as a Policy Research Fellow for the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and as a Research Assistant with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a member of Pacific Forum’s inaugural cohort of the U.S.-Japan Next Generation Leaders initiative. Her work has been published by outlets such as Nikkei Asia, the Lowy Institute, and Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


1. Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia,” (CSIS, 2017).

2. Ibid.

3. Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Other Army: The People’s Armed Police in an Era of Reform,” Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, April 2019,

4. Bonny, Lin, Cristina L. Garafola, Bruce McClintock, Jonah Blank, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Karen Schwindt, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Paul Orner, Dennis Borrman, Sarah W. Denton, and Jason Chambers, “Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022, 

5. Tsukasa Hadano, “China Packs Coast Guard with Navy Personnel,” Nikkei Asia, September 25, 2019; Ying Yu Lin, “Changes in China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, January 30, 2019,

6. “People’s Republic of China Coast Guard Law” [“中华人民共和国海警法”], January 22, 2021, Article 47.

7. State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in the New Era (2019), 3-15; Morris, Lyle J. (2017) “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 70 : No. 2 , Article 5,

8. Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines has identified “gray-zone situations” as a core security challenge since FY2011. Ian Bowers and Swee Koh, Grey and White Hulls: An International Analysis of the Navy-Coastguard Nexus, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

9. Saito Katsuhisa, “The Senkaku Confrontation: Japan’s Coast Guard Faces Chinese ‘Patrol Ships,’” Nippon, April 26, 2021,; “MHI Launches 2nd 6000-Ton Patrol Vessel For Japanese Coast Guard,” Naval News, July 1, 2022,; “Deployment status of large patrol vessels,” Japan Coast Guard Organization,; “Japan to up coast guard budget 1.4-fold as Senkaku tensions rise,” Kyodo News, December 16, 2022,

10. Bonny Lin, et al., “Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022,

11. “Japan to up coast guard budget 1.4-fold as Senkaku tensions rise,” Kyodo News, December 16, 2022,

12. Ibid.

13. Céline Pajon, “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force: Cooperation among Siblings,” National Bureau of Asian Research, December 1, 2016,

14. Scott W. Harold, et al., “The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Deterring Gray Zone Coercion in the Maritime, Cyber, and Space Domains,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017, 

Céline Pajon, “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea: Can a Black-and White System Adapt to a Gray-Zone Reality?” Asia Policy 23 (January 2017), 129; Ian Bowers and Swee Koh, Grey and White Hulls: An International Analysis of the Navy-Coastguard Nexus, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

15. “MSDF, JCG to hold drill simulating armed attack on Senkakus,” Yomiuri Shimbun, November 9, 2022,

16. Mike Yeo, “Japan starts operations with SeaGuardian drone, receives two Hawkeyes,” Defense News, October 20, 2022,

17. “Japan Coast Guard to share real-time surveillance info with navy,” Kyodo News, November 7, 2022,

18. “Japan puts modern drone into operation to enhance maritime security,” Radio Free Asia, October 26, 2022,

19. “MSDF, JCG to hold drill simulating armed attack on Senkakus,” Yomiuri Shimbun, November 9, 2022,

20. “Japan plans new joint command to manage armed forces, Nikkei reports,” Reuters, October 29, 2022,

21. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “National Security Strategy of Japan,” December 16, 2022,

22. “Japan mulls adding coast guard costs to defense budget,” Stars and Stripes, September 10, 2022,

23. Michael J. Green, Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, pp. 183-184.

24. “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power,” Department of Defense, December 2020,

25. Christopher Woody, “On the front lines against China, the US Coast Guard is taking on missions the US Navy can’t do,” Business Insider, January 11, 2022,

26. Dzirhan Mahadzir, ” U.S. Coast Guard Continues to Expand Presence in the Western Pacific,” USNI News, September 3, 2021,

27. Fatima Bahtić, “US, Japan coast guards expand cooperation, establish new operation Sapphire,” Naval Today, May 20, 2022, 

28. “SAPPHIRE22 US-Japan Joint Training for the Philippine Coast Guard (Summary of results) – Promoting the joint USCG-JCG efforts toward the realization of a Free & Open Indo-Pacific,” Japan Coast Guard, November 7, 2022,

29. “JS OUMI conducted bilateral exercise with U.S. Coast Guard,” Japan Ministry of Defense, August 26, 2021,

30. Sean Carberry, “SPECIAL REPORT: Coast Guard Packs a Punch at RIMPAC,” National Defense Magazine, August 17, 2022,

31. Ibid.

Featured Image: Ships from the U.S. Coast Guard and Japan Coast Guard conducted exercises near the Ogasawara Islands of Japan, Feb. 21, 2021. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Cutter Kimball/Released)

Hard Truths: The Navy and Marines Need Another #MeToo Moment: Part One

By Captain John P. Cordle, USN (ret.) and K. Denise Rucker Krepp

Hard Truths. This article is a collaboration between two authors with very different experiences, in the hopes that some combination of their views – one as a former Commanding Officer and the other as a federal agency chief counsel with 30-plus years of Sexual Assault/Harassment (SASH) experience – will resonate and drive tough conversations among mid-grade leaders. The Department of Defense has received over 65,000 reports of sexual assault since 2010 and each of us has a role in holding individuals who commit sexual assault and sexual harassment accountable for past crimes and creating an environment where sexual assault and sexual harassment are not tolerated.

Part One

Denise: Nine years ago, I testified before the Congressionally mandated Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel. My 2014 testimony was based on my experiences as a Coast Guard JAG and Chief Counsel, US Maritime Administration (MARAD). I was invited to testify after writing a September 2013 article for Roll Call entitled “Female Military Personal Aren’t Whores.” I wrote the Roll Call essay after reading Washington Post articles about a USNA female student who was sexually assaulted. She was required to tell defense attorneys in court whether or not she felt like a whore, how she performed oral sex, and whether or not she wore underwear to a party. That line of questioning was demeaning, and offensive. I was appalled that not a single Department of Defense (DoD) leader expressed outrage, so I put pen to paper.

A few months after I wrote the article, I was invited to testify in a closed-door, no press allowed hearing. In my January 2014 testimony, I spoke about the sexual harassment I had seen as a young Coast Guard officer. I also told the panelists about the Inspector General investigation that I requested in 2011 after being notified of numerous sexual assaults occurring at sea and at the US Merchant Marine Academy. I was serving as the MARAD Chief Counsel at that time, and shortly after requesting the investigation I was directed to resign or be fired. The panelists asked if I was ever aware of an illegal order. “Yes,” I responded, “Secretary of Transportation LaHood told Deputy Secretary of Transportation Porcari to fire me because I had asked for the sexual assault investigation.” But retaliation is illegal, is it not? And yet…

John. Two years ago, I assisted a young officer in drafting an article in which she told her story of how the system had failed her personally and professionally as a victim and as a Sexual Assault Prevention Representative (SAPR) for a staff. She advocated for change, especially the idea that the investigation process should be separated from the chain of command. This proposal was widely panned by senior leaders, as such a change would undermine the “sanctity of command.” She finally withdrew the article, despite it being selected for publication, because it was simply too painful and too personal.

To her credit, the idea did go forward and (I believe) contributed to the conversations that led to major changes in the treatment of sexual harassment and sexual assault investigations. Then something important happened – the DoD 2021 Annual Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment1 revealed some very troubling data and findings, resulting in the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) directing an independent committee to produce a report entitled Hard Truths and A Duty to Changewhich essential repeated almost everything in my friend’s prescient white paper. Unfortunately one year later, many leaders do not appear to have read these documents. This article is an attempt to bring these findings to a larger, more junior audience along with a deck plate leadership perspective. Their words are included verbatim for one reason – they are profound and hard-hitting, requiring no amplification. A photographic from the DoD report is shown here:

Figure 1. Summary of DoD Sexual Assault Report for 2021(Source: DoD FY21 SA Report). USC = Unwanted Sexual Contact.

To bring this graphic closer to home, imagine you are in a room with 100 Sailors and Marines. You ask, “How many of you have been sexually harassed this year?” Twenty-nine raise their hands. “How many were sexually assaulted?” Nine raise their hands. Of these 38 people, you ask, “Keep your hand up if you were unsatisfied with the support you received?” Eighteen raise their hands. “Keep your hand up if you were retaliated against?” Nine hands stay in the air. The room falls silent, and everyone is looking at you. Look them in the eye. What do you say to them?

Common Themes: the following are provided verbatim (italicized portion) from the DoD report, followed by our respective comments.

1. Broken Trust – When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, the Independent Review Commission (IRC) concluded that there is a wide chasm between what senior leaders believe is happening under their commands, and what junior enlisted Service members actually experience. This is true across the enterprise. As a result, trust has been broken between commanders and the Service members under their charge and care.

John: Those are incredibly strong and damning words. They tell us what many junior personnel routinely tell us via Command Climate and other surveys, and told Task Force One Navy. That statement should drive leaders at all levels to take a long look in the mirror – and do something about it. More on that later.

Denise: In 2009, MARAD surveyed students at the US Merchant Marine Academy about sexual harassment and assault. We learned that students arrived at the school trusting school leaders to properly address sexual assault allegations. Per the survey results, the students did not have that same level of trust by the time they became seniors. Something clearly happened in three years to break their trust.

I thought back to that lack of trust when notified in 2010 of a possible sexual assault at Kings Point. I asked to talk with the student and the student declined to talk with me, the agency chief counsel, because the student did not trust the agency to properly address the crime.

I spoke about the lack of trust when I testified twice in 2014 before the Congressionally mandated Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel and again in 2019 at a US Commission on Civil Rights hearing about sexual assault in the federal government. The gist of my testimony was that the lack of trust in the system – and its leaders–creates a toxic environment that is harmful to victims. To read the same thing in 2021 was, to say the least, disheartening, and deeply disappointing.

2. Leadership is Paramount Preventing, responding to, and supporting Service members who are the victims of demeaning language, sexual harassment, and sexual assault is a command responsibility. Commanders must be held accountable for their unit climates and for their action—or inaction—when it comes to protecting their people.

John: This is a stark reminder that this is not a SECNAV or Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) issue. This is directed at the unit commander, the Command Master Chief, even the Department Head, Division Officer, and Leading Chief Petty Officer. Think back over the past year. Have you repeated, instigated, or ignored an off-color joke, a sexist or racist remark directed at one peer by another, or even worse, from a supervisor at a subordinate? Have you engaged your junior personnel about the work environment they face each day? Have you been guilty of looking away when your best performers step over the line? If so, look in the mirror, ask yourself “am I doing enough?” and act.

Denise: Last fall, I gave a SASH lecture at the U.S. Naval War College. I shared how sexual assault is a leadership issue, one that leaders have to address head on and not ignore. Ignoring SASH creates a toxic environment, one that encourages other negative – and sometime illegal – behavior. During my visit, U.S. Naval War College professors shared that sexual harassment and sexual assault are becoming common topics in class and students are advocating for more discussion on the issue. Students want to talk about the problem because they want to be ready to address it when they take command. This was actually quite encouraging to hear – their proactive requests for help should be encouraged.

3. The Military Justice System is Not Equipped to Properly Respond to Special Victim Crimes
Special victim crimes disproportionately impact certain victims because of who they are, or what motivated the crime. These crimes are often interpersonal in nature, in which the victim and the alleged offender may have a pre-existing relationship or acquaintance. Special victims—particularly survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—deserve all critical decisions about their case to be made by a highly trained special victim prosecutor who is independent from the chain of command.

John: This finding is a slap in the face of the “Big Navy” as reflected in the 2021 DoD report where only 60 percent of those reporting an incident were satisfied with the way it was handled. Another damning statement—and percentage. To their credit, SECNAV has made drastic changes in policy and process, including to separate the investigative process from the chain of command, to not prosecute the alleged victim for minor offenses, and to fund a cadre of investigators and counselors to improve the system. Is that enough? Not yet, but these are the largest steps in decades and a credit to the current leadership. At the unit level leaders must ensure that professional help is available and is used as soon as possible, and sound the alarm if it is not available.

One huge gap as noted in the report is in the cyber domain, where bullying and threats on social media are often considered outside the jurisdiction of the command, especially if cross command, and the rules governing this area are practically nonexistent – inexcusable in today’s day and age. Threatening or body shaming another service member on social media is not “free speech” and urgent action is required in this arena.

Denise: I have been part of the SASH community for 30 years. I have seen firsthand the trauma to victims, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers. Sexual assault is crime that haunts people for decades and each person reacts differently to the crime.

Training to help a sexual assault victim cannot happen via PowerPoint. Neither is it a one-day or one-week course. It takes months and, I would argue, years to fully train personnel to help sexual assault victims.

In Fiscal Year 2021, the Department of Defense was notified of 8,866 sexual assaults. Victims are reading the annual reports, they know the number of cases filed, and they are watching to see how many of these cases are prosecuted. A sizable number of the assault cases didn’t result in prosecution in 2021 and in past years. I encourage military leaders to ask why cases aren’t prosecuted. Victims won’t trust the “system” if the cases before theirs aren’t prosecuted, and absent trust, victims won’t report the crimes committed against them.

Lastly, I supported the recent changes removing the chain of command from prosecution because, as I painfully learned as MARAD Chief Counsel, the chain of command is often part of the issue and may not always support prosecutions.

4. Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Exist on a Continuum of Harm
Sexual assault does not stand alone, but rather exists on a continuum of harm which may begin with sexual harassment and escalate into sexual assault. This is particularly true in the military, where survivors of sexual harassment are at significantly higher risk of later experiencing sexual assault. To think of them as two separate problem sets is to fundamentally misunderstand the challenge the Department–and the force–face, especially with regard to unit climates.

John: I once heard a very senior SAPR officer, when asked about a sexual harassment issue, state that “that is not in my lane.” He later retracted the statement, but it is reflective of a system that treats the two as separate problems. It is still a weakness in these programs that at most levels they are tracked and reported by different people at the command, with little data sharing or recognition that the two are intrinsically related. The 2021 report stated that in commands where sexual harassment is tolerated, there is a fourfold greater change of sexual assault. Again, for the reader at the command level, it is imperative to look at these two issues together and holistically. In this author’s opinion, the Navy and Marines have work to do here at the higher echelons, but that should not stop all leaders from taking a fresh look at the data and engaging their wardroom and Chief Petty Officer (CPO) mess.

Denise: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not separate in the eyes of the victim and they should not be separate in the eyes of leaders. To treat them separately is to facilitate both, and it shows in the numbers. To put it bluntly, if leaders do not stop sexual harassment, why should victims think that they will stop sexual assault?

John Cordle is a retired Navy Captain who commanded two warships, was awarded the Navy League John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership, and the 2019 US Naval Institute Proceedings Author of the Year.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp spent several years on active duty in the U. S. Coast Guard, graduated from the Naval War College, and served as Chief Counsel for the U.S Maritime Administration. Krepp also served as a locally elected Washington, DC official and Hill staffer. She is a longtime advocate for the rights of sexual assault and harassment victims.


[1] Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, 2021

[2] Independent Review Commission Recommendations on Countering Sexual Assault in the Military, 21 July 2021

Featured Image: 190119-N-KW492-1054 MANAMA, Bahrain (April 11, 2019) Capt. Jason Rimmer, commanding officer of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), speaks to the crew during an all hands call on the flight deck. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryre Arciaga/Released)

RO-RO Ferries and the Expansion of the PLA’s Landing Ship Fleet

By Conor Kennedy

The role of civilian roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries in a PLA invasion of Taiwan deserves its growing notoriety. With port access secured or coupled with developing logistics over the shore capabilities, RO-RO ferries could deliver significant volumes of forces across the Taiwan Strait, offsetting shortfalls in the PLA’s organic sea lift.1 Some analysts have even described mobilized civilian assets like RO-ROs as a “central feature of [the PLA’s] preferred approach” to a cross-strait invasion.2

But the PLA appears intent on assigning RO-RO ferries to another mission: launching amphibious combat forces directly onto beaches from offshore. The PLA has long lacked sufficient landing ships to deliver its full complement of amphibious assault forces, from both army and Navy Marine Corps forces, in the initial assault landing on Taiwan. Rather than building numerous grey-hulled traditional landing ships, the addition of RO-RO ferries into a combined landing ship fleet could quickly close this gap. 

To make this possible, the PLA has been modifying RO-RO ferries with new stern ramps enabling in-water operations to launch and recover amphibious combat vehicles. The first publicly demonstrated use of the new ramps occurred in 2019 during an exercise involving the 15,560-ton RO-RO ferry Bang Chui Dao, owned and operated by COSCO Shipping Ferry Company and a regular vessel supporting military transportation training exercises. Other ferries have received similar modifications, giving the PLA a significant boost in the total volume of amphibious lift the PLA could muster in a cross-strait amphibious landing.3 This expansion in PLA amphibious capabilities has generated very little attention by the international media despite its clear purpose.

July 2020: A PLAN Marine Corps ZBD-05 loading onto the Bang Chui Dao, featuring a temporarily installed stern ramp that uses hydraulic ram assemblies and hinged preventer stays. (Source: CCTV)
PLAN Marine Corps units in floating embarkation and debarkation training aboard a Type-072A Landing Ship Tank of the Southern Theater Navy in June 2022.4

Amphibious warships are optimized for launching and recovering amphibious combat forces, including swimming armor. They feature well decks closer to the waterline, sometimes submersible, making it easier for forces to launch or recover out of the water. The above image depicts a ZBD-05 approaching the LST Wan Yang Shan’s (No. 995) stern gate and illustrates the challenge of RO-RO ferries in conducting amphibious launch and recovery, which feature freight decks much higher above the waterline that are suited to the height of quay walls. Providing ramp strength that can span that distance requires strong hydraulic rams and stays.   

An army ZTD-05 climbing out of the water up onto the Bang Chui Dao’s vehicle deck via its modified stern ramp. (Source: CCTV-Military Report)

COSCO Shipping Ferry Co., Ltd.

The Bang Chui Dao belongs to COSCO Shipping Ferry Co., Ltd., under the state-owned shipping conglomerate COSCO, which operates ten large passenger RO-RO ferries in the Bohai Gulf. COSCO Shipping Ferry has provided service for PLA transportation support for over 25 years.5 It continues to provide its vessels as a “transport group” (海运大队) of the PLA’s strategic projection support shipping fleet (战略投送支援船队), one of many organized within COSCO businesses and other major commercial shippers to support PLA transportation requirements.6

COSCO Shipping Ferry Co. has been developing capabilities for offshore amphibious launch for its ferries over a number of years. In 2016, the company reported having installed a number of new features into four of its ferries, in response to new national defense requirements. The report suggested the Long Xing Dao and the Yong Xing Dao were among the modified vessels, built in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Noted modifications included rapid egress corridors for personnel and some small equipment, measures in compartment design to resist sinking when damaged, and new hydraulically driven systems to enable greater stern ramp extension for moving amphibious armor on and off the vessel at sea.7

The Yong Xing Dao, Long Xing Dao, Hu Lu Dao and the Pu Tuo Dao have each had their stern ramps upgraded within the past couple of years. These ramps likely utilize the same mechanical principle behind that used for the Bang Chui Dao. Structurally, they appear stronger, longer, and are actuated by heavier-duty hydraulic rams. Noticeably, the ramps are flanked by large, multi-hinged steel support arms that act as preventer stays to maintain ramp rigidity when under tension by the hydraulic rams. These are mounted externally as shown below. The Bang Chui Dao’s ramp-mounted hydraulic assemblies had similar preventers but were mounted internally due to the lack of room between the stern ramp and the quarter-stern ramp.  

Yong Xing Dao with new ramp system installed in July 2022.

Some modified ramp systems will not be permanent installations. For example, recent public footage of the Bang Chui Dao indicates the ramp featured in the 2020 PLAN Marine Corps exercise was removed, and the regular commercial service ramp reinstalled. While suited for launching amphibious armor, the modified system clearly reduced the horizontal clearance of the stern ramp and would not be practical for commercial operators that need to accommodate various sizes of vehicles and trucks. Thus, the PLA likely has these systems held in storage to be installed on vessels like the Bang Chui Dao and the Hai Yang Dao, which features the same quarter-stern ramp, when needed.

Observations of vessel activities also indicate additional COSCO ferries have been similarly modified. In two recent reports, Michael J. Dahm found the Hu Lu Dao took part in amphibious landing training exercises in July 2021, and the Chang Shan Dao in July 2022.8 This implies at least seven COSCO passenger RO-RO ferries have the ability to conduct offshore launch of amphibious combat forces.   

Conversions to BH Ferry Group

Ramp conversion practices have matured enough for wider application in other companies. This is evident within the Bohai Ferry Group, a RO-RO shipping company also concentrated in the Bohai Gulf and comprising the Eighth Transport Group.9

Over the last 15 years, Bohai Ferry Group has expanded its fleet and its cooperation with the PLA.10 The company began implementing national defense requirements in new vessel construction when the former Jinan Military Region Military Transportation Department participated in the design of the 36,000-ton class of ferries starting in 2010 with the Bohai Cuizhu. With inputs from regional military units regarding equipment requirements, the new ferries received helicopter pads, reserve medical spaces, improved command and communications equipment, greater freight deck ventilation, improved firefighting systems and other features.11 While some modifications are difficult to observe directly, some of the latest ramp conversions are readily apparent.

At some point in the last two years, Bohai Ferry Group modified the stern ramps on four of its 36,000 gross-ton ferries, the Bohai Mazhu, Bohai Cuizhu, Bohai Jingzhu, and Bohai Zuanzhu. Specifically, large hydraulic assemblies have been installed on the transom flanking the stern ramp. Similar to the Bang Chui Dao’s assembly, heavy-duty hydraulic cylinders will be released from their secured positions and assisted via a smaller hydraulic ram into a set of clevis brackets affixed to the ramp. As designed, this new position allows for further depression of the ramp into the water, and thus the launch of amphibious combat vehicles.

The Bohai Mazhu in 2017 prior to conversion.
The Bohai Mazhu with new hydraulic assemblies installed in 2022.
A closer view of the Bohai Zuanzhu’s new system.12

These new systems are also operational in recent PLA amphibious exercises, deploying and recovering amphibious forces from offshore, as documented by Dahm. Participation of all four of the 36,000 gross ton class, as well as the 24,777 gross ton multi-purpose ferry Bohai Hengtong was observed in late summer exercises of 2021 and 2022.13 The Bohai Hengtong’s stern ramp is likely long enough for amphibious launch, but may require additional ramp-mounted support due to the presence of the vessel’s quarter-stern ramp. The specific ramp modification for this vessel or its sister ship the Bo Hai Heng Da is unclear.


These modifications to civilian RO-RO ferry ramps have the potential to significantly augment the PLA’s access to amphibious lift. The ferries previously identified contain the following lane in meter (LIM) dimensions and deadweight tonnage (DWT – i.e., a ship’s total carrying capacity) which can help analysts determine the total volume of amphibious combat forces they can add to the PLAN’s organic amphibious lift.

RO-RO Ferries Likely Capable of Offshore Amphibious Launch/Recovery (as of February 2, 2023)

Vessel Name Conversion Method DWT LIM
Bohai Cuizhu (渤海翠珠) Permanent external installation 7,587 2,500
Bohai Jingzhu (渤海晶珠) Permanent external installation 7,598 2,500
Bohai Mazhu (渤海玛珠) Permanent external installation 7,503 2,500
Bohai Zuanzhu (渤海钻珠) Permanent external installation 7,481 2,500
Bohai Hengtong (渤海恒通) Unknown 11,288 2,700
Yong Xing Dao (永兴岛) Permanent installation 7,662 2000
Long Xing Dao (龙兴岛) Permanent installation 7,743 2000
Chang Shan Dao (长山岛) Likely permanent installation 7,670 2000
Pu Tuo Dao (普陀岛) Permanent installation 3,996 835
Hu Lu Dao (葫芦岛) Permanent installation 3,873 835
Bang Chui Dao (棒棰岛) Requires internally-mounted system 3,547 835
Hai Yang Dao (海洋岛) Requires internally-mounted system 3,547 835
TOTAL   79,495 22,040

Note: Most of the modified vessels included in this table have been visually confirmed through openly available imagery and video sources online.

While simply dividing each vessel’s deadweight tonnage by vehicle weights can yield hundreds of vehicles per vessel, the impressive advertised carrying capacities of these ships do not translate directly into the volume of PLA forces they can transport. Crew, passengers, fresh water, fuel, and other various cargo will take up some of the deadweight tonnage listed above, and the remainder will be portioned out to vehicles, as permitted by the total vehicle lane space. Other basic characteristics such as the spacing of vehicle tie down anchor points in vessel decks will also be important factors in determining capacity.     

Internal spatial dimensions and freight deck strength will better determine what kind of vehicle and how many can load. PLA transportation experts find that most of China’s RO-RO passenger ferries feature 3.1-meter wide vehicle lanes, which do not satisfy the width requirements for large numbers of tracked armored vehicles. In addition to not optimizing occupied deck space, improper positioning of heavy loads outside of vehicle lanes could also result in damage to freight decks. Additional internal clearance constraints along ramps and elevators will also limit what types of vehicles and cargo are stowed on each deck, likely only permitting the heaviest armored vehicles, such as main battle tanks, on the main freight decks.14 For example, the four 36,000-gross ton Bohai Ferry Group ferries each have 2,500 total LIM. Despite this impressive volume, PLA experts have noted limitations in their ability to carry large, armored vehicles.

The Bohai Mazhu, the last of the four to enter operation in April 2015, has internal ramp widths of 3.5m and elevator widths of 3m, limiting heavy tanks to only the main freight deck.15 It is likely the Bohai Mazhu’s preceding sister ships also feature the same limiting dimensions. These issues impact transport of the PLA’s heaviest equipment but could also limit their ability to transport amphibious combat vehicles such as the Type-05 series of vehicles. Boat-like in its hull design, a ZBD-05 has a reported width of 3.36 meters and length of 9.5 meters, which could cause difficulty in making turns and accessing upper or lower decks.16 Other vessels may be more accommodating. For example, the Chang Shan Dao reportedly has a 3.6 m-wide elevator and 3.5 m-wide internal ramps, as may its sister ships, the Yong Xing Dao and Long Xing Dao.17

More importantly, while total loading capacities may be useful for gauging how the PLA might optimize its loading plans for relatively secure terminal to terminal delivery operations, offshore amphibious launch entails very different considerations. The stowage of amphibious combat forces will likely be done according to combat loading plans that do not emphasize the maximization of forces occupying deck space. Instead, forces would load according to their assigned assault waves, which likely include both armor and infantry aboard assault craft, and other support elements. Each wave must be positioned and readied to access and launch from the vessel’s stern ramp.

Moreover, launching amphibious combat forces brings vessels closer to active combat areas. The threat of adversary attacks could lead the PLA to disperse forces across many ships. Multiple units confined to a single ferry could be a vulnerability demanding more protection of that single vessel. It is likely that ferries participating in this mission will not be loaded to the brim. As pure transporters, they may seek to launch forces as quickly as possible to reduce their own exposure and swiftly return to ports of embarkation to load follow-on forces.

Despite this, these vessels offer a significant additional source of amphibious lift for the PLA, especially for delivery of first echelon amphibious combat forces critical to securing areas for landing the follow-on invasion force. With the previously-mentioned spatial limitations in mind, a conservative estimate of the total capacity of the ships identified in this article adds on capacity sufficient for half the PLA army’s primary amphibious combat forces (12 amphibious combined arms battalions).18 This places one battalion on each vessel, with room for additional supporting elements from their respective brigades. Depending on internal space constraints, vessels like the Pu Tuo Dao could probably deliver a single battalion, while some of the larger vessels could likely carry up to two battalions if the PLA accepts the risk. Having fewer forces embarked would also make it easier for these vessels to support forces loaded well in advance of an invasion, as many ferries market to tourists their berthing compartments complete with toilets and showers, and feature mess halls and recreational facilities. Spare vehicle deck space could also be employed to support embarked amphibious units. If done right, such early loading could relieve pressure on PLA loading operations, but also make detecting a force build up more difficult.     


The PLA has rapidly expanded its landing ship fleet over the last few years. It has not taken the form many may have expected, such as the construction of numerous naval landing ships, instead focusing efforts on civilian RO-RO ferries to fulfill the PLA’s requirements. This article set out to identify the PRC-flagged RO-RO ferries with ramps that can enable offshore amphibious launch. It has likely failed to enumerate all the various ramp configurations and identify all the vessels involved.

Both COSCO Shipping Ferry Group and Bohai Ferry Group have ferries capable of supporting this mission. Some ramp systems are temporary, suggesting preparations for some ferries to rapidly refit when needed, while others are permanent observable installations. The ferries themselves are dual-commercial and military use ships, however, their ramp modifications have a sole purpose, the offshore launch of amphibious combat forces in a landing operation against Taiwan. Furthermore, these capabilities are not simply theoretical, as some of these ships take part in landing exercises with PLA amphibious ground units.  

The PRC appears to have significantly expanded its amphibious lift capacity with little notice from the international community, much less criticism. While many PLA experts write openly on the important roles of the commercial RO-RO fleet in a cross-Strait invasion, specifically their roles in transporting large volumes of heavy follow-on forces, they have generally steered clear of discussing their role in offshore amphibious launch. If these RO-RO modifications and their application in military exercises are observable by a foreign audience, they should be readily known by PLA military transportation professionals. This supports the author’s original assertion in 2021 that this expansion in capacity could occur quickly and quietly.

There are still many more questions to be answered regarding the effectiveness of this approach. The PLA must tackle coordination between the joint forces, including organic landing ships and civilian assets. There are organizational, command and control, communications, security, and numerous other issues to solve before RO-RO ferries can effectively support a joint island landing campaign, especially if they are to join in delivering landing assault waves. Nonetheless, an initial understanding of the scale of this approach is important for gauging the significance of its contribution toward delivering the PLA’s joint landing forces.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute in Rhode Island.

The analyses and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Naval War College.


1. For an analysis of a PLA invasion against port locations, see: Ian Easton, Hostile Harbors: Taiwan’s Ports and PLA Invasion Plans,” Project 2049 Institute, July 22, 2021,; For an analysis of PLA logistics over the shore capabilities, see: Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 16.; and “China Maritime Report No. 25: More Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021-2022” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 25.

2. Henley, Lonnie D., “China Maritime Report No. 21: Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion” (2022). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 21.

3. Conor Kennedy, “Ramping the Strait: Quick and Dirty Solutions to Boost Amphibious Lift,” China Brief, Volume 21, Issue: 14,

4. 严家罗, 周紫春, 周启青 [Yan Jialuo, Zhou Zichun, Zhou Qiqing], 海军陆战队某旅海上浮渡装卸载训练 [“A Navy Marine Corps Brigade in Afloat Loading and Unloading Exercises”], 当代海军 [Navy Today], No. 7, 2015, p. 31.

5. 潘诚, 王正旭 [Pan Cheng, Wang Zhengxu], 沈阳联勤保障中心某航务军代处与企业共同制定军运细则 [“A Shenyang Joint Logistics Support Center Navigational Military Representative Office Jointly Formulates Military Transportation Rules with an Enterprise”], 中国国防报 [China Defence News], June 15, 2017, p. 3,

6. Conor M. Kennedy, “China Maritime Report No. 4: Civil Transport in PLA Power Projection” (2019). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 4.

7. 王正旭, 高勇, 贾文暄 [Wang Zhengxu, Gao Yong, Jia Wenxuan], 客轮首尾开门运兵运超重军事装备 可起降直升机 [“Passenger Ships Carry Troops and Overweight Military Equipment, and Can Land Helicopters”], 中国国防报 [China Defence News], September 29, 2016,

8. Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 16. pp. 33-38,; Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 25: More Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021-2022” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 25. Pp. 34-36,

9. 李远星, 王丙 [Li Yuanxing, Wang Bing], 新时代战略投送支援力量建设运用研究 [“Research on Construction and Use of Strategic Projection Support Forces in the New Era”], 国防 [National Defense], No. 12 (2017), 20–23.

10. Since 2006, Bohai Ferry Group has constructed over 16 large RO-RO ferries ranging from 20,000 to 45,000 gross tons. See: 关于我们 [“About Us”], 渤海轮渡集团股份有限公司 [Bohai Ferry Group Co., Ltd.], Undated,

11. 李响 [Li Xiang], 军民融合领域的一次成功实践: “渤海翠珠” 滚装船提升我军海上战略投送能力纪实 [“Record of a Successful Practice in Civil-Military Fusion: the RO-RO Ship ‘Bohai Cuizhu’ Enhances Our Military’s Maritime Strategic Projection Capabilities”], 国防科技工业 [National Defense Science and Technology Industry], No. 1 (2012), 53.

12. 建设打仗后勤 [“Building Warfighting Logistics”], CCTV –《追光》[CCTV- Chasing the Light], Episode 11, October 9, 2022,

13. Dahm, “China Maritime Report No. 16,” pp. 33-39; Dahm, “China Maritime Report No. 25,” pp. 36-44; For an image depicting the Bo Hai Heng Tong launching vehicles, see: H I Sutton and Sam LaGrone, “Chinese Launch Assault Craft from Civilian Car Ferries in Mass Amphibious Invasion Drill, Satellite Photos Show,” USNI News, September 28, 2022,

14. 孙琪, 刘宝新 [Sun Qi, Liu Baoxin], 民用客滚船军事应用研究 [“Research on Military Application of Civil Ro-Ro Passenger Ships”], 军事交通学报 [Journal of Military Transportation], No. 2, 2022, p. 26.

15. Ibid.

16. “ZBD-05 or VN-18,” Army Recognition, July 9, 2021,;

17. 吴克南 [Wu Kenan], 我国滚装船运输军事重装备的适用性研究 [“The Applicability Research of China Ro-Ro Ship Used to Transport Military Heavy Equipment”], 大连海事大学-硕士学位论文 [Dalian Maritime University – Master’s Thesis], March 2016, p.

18. This is based on the estimated size of an army amphibious combined arms battalion consisting of 80 vehicles and 500-600 troops. See: Blasko, Dennis J., “China Maritime Report No. 20: The PLA Army Amphibious Force” (2022). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 20, pp. 3-4.

Featured Image: A CCTV report showed a cargo ship that was being used to carry troops, weapons and supplies in a recent PLA exercise. (Photo via CCTV)

Distributed Maritime Operations – A Salvo Equation Analysis

By Capt. Anthony Cowden, USN (ret.)

A recent article published by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) – the first in a series – does an outstanding job of describing and explaining the Navy’s “core operating concept” of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). In short, DMO calls for “…the massing and convergence of fires from distributed forces, complicating adversary targeting and decision-making, and networking effects across platforms and domains.”1

The strike effectiveness of the DMO operating concept requires further investigation. In pursuing this, it is important to recall that a fleet does four things – it Scouts, it Screens, it Strikes, and it Bases.2 As currently envisioned, at least in open source definitions, DMO is not yet well-developed in the Scouting, Screening, and Basing functions of a fleet. Rather, DMO seems mostly focused on the offensive functions of a fleet, the Strike function.

The first step in this analysis will be to analyze a traditional concentrated force versus another concentrated force using the salvo equations. The second step will be to look at a distributed force that is able to mass fires against a concentrated force. The final step will be to look at a concentrated force that engages part of a distributed force. We will also look at what “firing effectively first” means in practice, and what happens if the enemy force distributes.

The Salvo Equations

The salvo equations were developed by the late Captain Wayne Hughes and are discussed in detail in Chapter 1 and Appendix A of Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat. With the salvo equations, Captain Hughes showed:

“how modern naval combat follows a salvo model: opponents apply a pulse of combat power to each other in an instantaneous salvo exchange. A salvo exchange is an interaction of offensive combat power (e.g., mines, torpedoes, bombs, or missiles) and defensive combat power (e.g., surface-to-air missiles [SAMs], jamming, chaff, decoys). Combat power remaining from these interactions is applied against a target’s staying power (the number of hits of a particular weapon that a target can withstand and still be useful for combat purposes).”3

The salvo equations are presented here for reference:

Concentrated versus Concentrated

The first step in our analysis will be to look at two concentrated forces engaging one another. To simplify the analysis, it is assumed that each force is exactly equal, where each force consists entirely of the same number of missile-equipped surface ships, with the same offensive and defensive capabilities. These include:

  • Each force consists of six surface ships (A = B = 6).
  • Each surface ship has a displacement of 8,000 tons. Using the “cube root rule,” this means that it takes two “thousand-pound bomb equivalents” (TPBEs) to put a ship out of action. Given the destructive force of modern explosives, that equates to 2 x 660 lbs, or 1,320 lbs of modern warhead explosives. Assuming a warhead size of 500 lbs, it would take 2.64 warheads to put an 8,000 ton ship out of action. (a1 = b1 = 2.64).4
  • Each surface ship is equipped as follows:
    • Eight anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) equipped with a 500 lb warhead. All ASCMs are considered to be “well-aimed” (i.e., unless otherwise destroyed, decoyed, or defeated, the ASCM would hit its intended target; this is not always true, as discussed in Chapter 1 of Fighting the Fleet.5 b = ).
    • A surface-to-air missile (SAM) system capable of destroying two incoming ASCMs in a general engagement involving multiple incoming missiles.
    • A close in weapons system (CIWS) capable of destroying two incoming ASCMs.
    • An electronic countermeasure system (ECM) capable of defeating one ASCM.
    • A decoy system capable of defeating one ASCM.
    • Therefore, given the combined capabilities of the SAM, CIWS, ECM, and decoy systems to destroy or defeat incoming ASCMs, a3 = b3 = 6.
  • Each force has equivalent organic and inorganic scouting capabilities, and is able to detect and localize the opposing force at the maximum range of their ASCMs.

Based on these assumptions, the salvo equations for an engagement between two concentrated forces are featured in Figure 1:

Figure 1.

Predicting damage to warships in combat is always difficult, but a change in the number of units in force A and B () of 4.55 indicates enough hits to put 4.55 ships out of action in each force.6 Of course, this is highly dependent on hit distribution, which, if evenly distributed across the force, would mean that each ship in each force received some damage, but was not put out of action. In addition, this scenario assumes that each force was able to launch an attack “simultaneously,” where simultaneity is defined as each force being able to launch its ASCMs against the other force before it is hit by the other force’s ASCMs.

The essence of Captain Wayne Hughes’s admonition to “fire effectively first” then is to launch an attack and have missiles hit the opposing force before that force can launch its missiles.17 Assume that if force B was able to “fire effectively first,” then proceeding from the salvo equations above, force A would be reduced by a total of 4.55 ships, so force A’s subsequent attack on force B would result in the following:

Figure 2.

A negative number for DB indicates that the B force is likely to be able to defeat all of force A’s incoming missiles; and the bigger the number, the more likely it will defeat the incoming strike. Such is the advantage of being able to “fire effectively first.”

This highlights two other aspects of offensive and defensive fires. First, close-range defensive fires such as point-defense missiles can often be replenished prior to another salvo attack. While they may be limited in their ability to defeat an incoming salvo, they can generally be reloaded and prepared to defend against a future salvo, without any reduction in capability. Second, this is not always true of ASCMs, many of which are housed in dedicated launchers and are limited in number and cannot be reloaded quickly or at sea. As the reader will see in this example, there is arguably little incentive to retain offensive fires for possible future engagements, as it often takes all the offensive firepower available to overcome the opponent’s defensive capability.

Distributed versus Concentrated

The second step in this analysis is to look at a distributed force that is able to mass its fires against a concentrated force. However, at this point the reader should be able to see that the results are likely to be similar as in the scenario presented above, assuming that the concentrated force is able to launch against all elements of the distributed force. An issue associated with the distributed force is the coordination required for a distributed force to mass its fires against a common target. Scouting information about target location, course, and speed would need to be communicated to all elements of the distributed force, and some sort of coordination and communication would need to occur for the distributed elements to mass their fires against the target. This is inherently more complex than attacking with a concentrated force, and more subject to communication and coordination failure.

The third step in this analysis is to look at a concentrated force that engages part of a distributed force. The danger in distributing one’s own force in the face of a competent – or lucky – opponent is that the opposing force will defeat one part of own force “in detail”; that is, the entire opposing force will engage just part of own force and be able to destroy it. Assuming that force A divides itself into two equal parts, A(1) and A(2), and assuming that force B engages A(1) before A(2) can become involved in the fight, such an engagement is characterized in the salvo equations as depicted in Figure 3:

Figure 3.

Here we see that force B has a preponderance of offensive firepower that overwhelms A(1)’s defensive capability, and force B’s defensive capability is able to defeat force A(1)’s inadequate offensive punch. Should A(2) get off a shot against force B, its results would look exactly like those of force A(1), as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4.

The net result of the damage to force A in the distributed case would be the likely destruction of all three A(1) ships, with no damage to the opposing A(2) ships. Recall that in the concentrated case, the damage to force A ships (i.e., 4.55 put out of action) would be distributed over the six ships of the force. Here, however, enough offensive power from force B to put 11.36 ships out of action would only be distributed over the three ships of force A(1), virtually ensuring that all three ships would be put entirely out of action. Force B would not suffer any damage at all. Compare this to the concentrated case or the case where a distributed force A had been able to mass its fires (Figure 1), where force B would have suffered an equal amount of damage.

What happens if force B only detects one of the distributed parts of force A (force A(1)), but distributed force A is able to mass its fires against force B?

Figure 5.

The result is depicted in Figure 5. All three ships of force A(1) would likely be put out of action, no damage would be incurred by force A(2), and force B would incur the same damage as if force A were concentrated. It turns out this is the one case where a distributed force has a strike advantage over a concentrated force. However, it should be noted that this is not an advantage conferred by distribution, it is an advantage conferred by effective Screening and Scouting. One part of the distributed force drew the attention and the fire of the concentrated force, but was able to combine its fires with the undetected portion of the distributed force.8

Next, what would happen if force B knew that force A had distributed itself, it had detected force A(1), and it assumed that force A(2) was nearby? If it retained half of its ASCMs for a possible future engagement with force A(2), the engagement with A(1) might look like the results contained in Figure 6:

Figure 6.

Of course, a future engagement with force A(2) would look much the same, and note that force B does not suffer any damage. Given the uncertainty of combat, it makes much more sense for force B to launch all of its ASCMs against force A(1), likely destroying all of force A(1), and use screening to scuttle back into port before any other force can attack it – a classic case of Corbett’s “arrested offense.”

“Fire Effectively First!”

In Figure 2, the value of firing effectively first was illustrated for the base case of two concentrated forces engaging one another. This also applies to a concentrated force and a distributed force that engage each other simultaneously. The following looks at the value of “firing effectively first” for two of the other cases discussed previously:

  • A concentrated force that engages part of a distributed force (Figure 7). It should be self-evident that if the concentrated force, B, fires effectively first, the engaged part of the distributed force will be put out of action. But what happens if the part of the distributed force A(1) fires effectively first against the concentrated force B, and then B launches an attack on A(1)? As we can see in the following equations, B is able to defeat A(1)’s incoming salvo, and since it is undamaged, if it is able to launch an attack against A(1), it will overwhelm A(1)’s defenses.
Figure 7.
  • A concentrated force only detects one of the distributed parts of force A (Figure 8). In this case, force B fires effectively first against force A(1), which is put out of action, and force A(2) launches a retaliatory strike against force B. A(1) is destroyed, and force B is able to defeat A(2)’s inadequate attack.
Figure 8.

Whether a force distributes or not, what is essential to victory – and survival – is the ability to “fire effectively first,” and firing effectively first is a function of scouting, not distribution or concentration of platforms. That being said, even if the distributed force fires first, it will be unable to defeat or even damage the concentrated force unless it can effectively coordinate its attack.

What if the Enemy Distributes?

If distribution is a good idea, then we must expect the other side to distribute as well. The combinations of possible engagements begin to escalate quickly, depending on how each side distributes its forces. We can, however, look at some of the more interesting cases, based on the assumption that each side distributes evenly into two equally-sized groups of three ships:

  • Both forces are able to launch coordinated attacks on each other near-simultaneously. The results will be the same as those depicted in Figure 1. Both sides being distributed provides no advantage to either side in terms of strike.
  • One force is able to attack one part of the other force, but the entire other force is able to attack both parts of the first force. The results will be the same as those depicted in Figure 5. Both sides being distributed provides no advantage to either side in terms of strike.

These dynamics yield a set of recommendations, including:

  • No matter how forces are deployed – concentrated, distributed, or some other way – win the scouting contest and “fire effectively first.”
  • If forces are distributed but the communications capability is not able to coordinate their fires, then force posture must be rearranged to respect the limits of communication. If this cannot be done in time, then better to disengage to fight another day.
  • Improve screening. Decoys, for example, can be very useful in diluting the effect of the enemy’s salvo. The effect of each ship in force A being able to decoy just one more missile each is shown in Figure 9: it effectively halves the amount of damage force A could expect to receive.
Figure 9.


The salvo equations are analytical tools, not predictive ones. They do not result in “the answer” as to exactly how any single engagement will turn out. Combat entropy and instability, discussed at length in Fighting the Fleet, is a factor worth appreciating, such as how six bombs sunk four carriers at Midway, but five kamikazes did not sink one destroyer, USS Laffey, at Okinawa.9 That being said, the salvo equations can be used as an analytical tool to provide insight into probable outcomes. As they say, the race does not always go to the fastest, or the contest to the strongest, but that is the way to bet.

It should be noted that the single point of failure for a distributed force is the ability to coordinate a strike on another force. This coordination becomes even more complex with greater distribution of one’s own force, and even more so when the other force is distributed.10 If the distributed force cannot coordinate their fires then they lose in every scenario. This may be caused by jamming or some other interruption of communications, but it could also be from any failure to efficiently coordinate a strike, which could be as simple as poor distribution of weapons, training shortcomings, and other shortfalls.

The one case where a distributed force comes out ahead of a concentrated force is the case where only one part of the distributed force is detected by the enemy and absorbs the enemy’s attack, but is able to combine its strike with the other part of the distributed force before it dies. But that is not a “concept of operation,” it is more of a scouting tactic, and in prior generations this was better implemented with a LAMPS Mk III, Hawklink, and the naval tactical data system (NTDS).

DMO might be able to “complicate adversary targeting and decision-making” and it should be noted it would apply to one’s own force if the enemy distributes as well. But when it comes to the Strike function of a fleet, a distributed force had better be able to efficiently mass its offensive fires, or it runs the risk of being defeated in detail, resulting in, at best, a disappointing exchange in the number of destroyed and damaged ships.

Anthony Cowden is the Managing Director of Stari Consulting Services, co-author of Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat, author of The Naval Institute Almanac of the U.S. Navy, has published numerous articles on a range of topics, and was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy for 37 years.


[1] Filipoff, Dmitry, Fighting DMO, Pt. 1: Defining Distributed Maritime Operations and the Future of Naval Warfare, Center for International Maritime Security, February 20, 2023,

[2] Cares, Jeffrey R. and Anthony Cowden, Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022), pp. 71-73

[3] Cares and Cowden, p. 16

[4] Cares and Cowden, p. 23. Estimating the number of hits to put a ship out of action is probably the most controversial aspect of using the Salvo Equations. The reader is invited to substitute whatever value they desire and conduct the analysis themselves. One useful approach is to use a parametric range of values and discover the sensitivity of the force to the number of hits required.

[5] Cares and Cowden, pp. 19-22

[6] How to interpret the Salvo Equations, as well as the concept of “Combat Entropy”, is discussed extensively in Chapter 1 of Fighting the Fleet.

[7] Hughes, Captain Wayne P., USN (Ret.) and Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), Chapter 13.

[8] Quick show of hands: who wants to serve in force A(1)?

[9] Cares and Cowden, pp. 19-22

[10] Distributed networked operations can become amazingly complex. Those interested in the theory and application of distributed network operations are invited to read Cares, Jeff. Distributed Network Operations: The Foundations of Network Centric Warfare. Newport, RI: Alidade Press, 2005.

Featured Image: Amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) fires a NATO Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile to intercept a remote-controlled drone as part of Valiant Shield 2016 (VS16). (U.S. Navy photo)