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Civilian Shipping: Ferrying the People’s Liberation Army Ashore

By Michael Dahm and Conor M. Kennedy

The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has been increasing its ability to use civilian roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries to move troops and equipment ashore in amphibious landing operations. In August 2020, the PLA conducted a cross-sea mobility evolution using RO-RO ferries. Exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (东部运投—2020A) was unique in that it discharged military vehicles from RO-RO ferries directly onto a beach using a modular floating pier. Commercial satellite imagery of a PLA amphibious exercise area in late-summer 2021 revealed that the PLA may have developed an improved floating pier system to support amphibious operations.  These capabilities, components of what the U.S. Navy calls “joint logistics over-the-shore (JLOTS),” allows the PLA to use civilian vessels to move large amounts of military equipment into unimproved amphibious landing areas without port infrastructure. A Chinese mobile pier system like those observed in these exercises may have particular application for the PLA in an invasion of Taiwan. 

The PLA has been using civilian transportation capabilities for military mobility for many years, moving military forces and equipment up and down the Chinese coast. RO-RO ferries provide significant capacity to move armor and other rolling stock. Recent PLA innovations are enabling greater roles for civilian ferries to move forces ashore. For example, some Chinese civilian ferries have been retrofitted with capabilities to deploy amphibious armored vehicles at-sea, essentially making them auxiliary amphibious landing ships. This is likely meant to compensate for the apparent shortage in PLA amphibious lift required to conduct a cross-strait landing. The PLA appear to be learning from their American counterparts with solutions for moving forces and supplies ashore in the absence of port infrastructure. This article explores a novel floating pier system that may provide a solution to some of the PLA’s amphibious lift shortcomings.

What the Chinese call an “offshore mobile debarkation platform” (海上机动卸载平台) was spotted in commercial satellite imagery along the fishing wharves of the Lanshan District in Rizhao City, China in September 2020. A PLA 2007 patent application for a similar system indicates sections include “square” or intermediate pontoon modules (方形模块), bow-stern modules (首尾模块), ramp modules (坡道模块), powered modules (推进模块), cargo ferries (货运渡船) and lighters (驳船) as well as warping tugs (绞滩拖船) to maneuver the different sections. The floating pier system was developed by engineers at the PLA Military Transportation University in Tianjin.

Chinese modular floating pier system in port Lanshan, China, September 27, 2020 (Google Earth, Image © Maxar Technologies 2021)

The Chinese system looks very similar to the U.S. Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS), produced by the Fincantieri Marine Group.  The INLS is used principally by U.S. Navy Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships. The system appears to have the same types of interchangeable modules as the U.S. floating causeway system. The U.S. system is used for off-loading MPF ships miles off-shore and then floating equipment and cargo to the beach. Alternatively, the INLS can be employed as a floating pier as shown in the images below from Exercise JLOTS 2008 off Camp Pendleton, California.

 USNS Pililaau (T-AKR 304) with INLS in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC2 Caracci)
 INLS employed as temporary pier in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC3 Morales)

China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee ordered development of an offshore mobile debarkation platform for the PLA in 2001. The system was one of the major focus areas under “Project 019” (019工程), an effort to resolve issues of vehicle and materiel lightering when port infrastructure is unavailable or degraded by “blue forces.” A team of engineers at the PLA’s Military Transportation University worked for over a decade to overcome the engineering challenges associated with the system, especially as they related to connections between the modules and shallow water propulsion. Chinese media reports indicate the system has been used in exercises since 2012, but trials likely began earlier.

The offshore mobile debarkation system was featured in news coverage of a 2014 Guangzhou Military Region (GZMR) exercise. This was reportedly the first time the PLA used a civilian, militia-operated RO-RO ferry to embark and offload a PLA unit using the system.  The 2014 exercise took place in the southern port city of Zhanjiang where an unidentified PLA mechanized infantry company (机械化步兵连) was loaded onto the Nan Fang 6, a commercial RO-RO ferry that normally provides service between the mainland and Hainan Island.  As part of the exercise scenario, the ferry was told its destination terminal had been damaged and was ordered to offload over the beach. According to the news report, the PLA dispatched and assembled a “sectional causeway” (拼装式栈桥) system to a beach landing area. Warping tugs were shown assembling five pontoon units, extending the floating causeway approximately 600 feet from the shore.

Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system assembled in 2014 exercise in Zhanjiang, China (CCTV)

Interestingly, a semi-submersible barge, often used in port construction projects, was placed at the end of the causeway to act as the pier head. With a ramp leading to the causeway, the semi-submersible barge could raise or lower its height above the water to accommodate different size RO-RO vessels.

Semi-submersible barge used with offshore mobile debarkation system in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

After the RO-RO ferry docked with the semi-submersible barge, PLA equipment and troops immediately began to stream out of the ship. Reporters stated that the sectional causeway was assembled in just under an hour, a boast that seems somewhat implausible. The GZMR military transportation department director told reporters the floating causeway fixed “a number of bottlenecks in carrying out maritime projection with civilian ships.” There have been few other publicized training events using this system since the 2014 exercise. Prototypes of this system may have seen improvements by PLA engineers over the years, but its basic concept of operation appears to have remained the same.

Civilian ferry off-loading armored vehicles to beach in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

A Chinese television report on the August 2020 PLA exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A shows army equipment being loaded onto civilian ships in the port of Lianyungang. Footage showed the port’s container cranes loading trucks and other military cargo into the 322 foot general cargo ship Sheng Tai. At the nearby ferry terminal, PLA armored and wheeled vehicles were loaded aboard the Sheng Sheng 1, a 394 foot, 10,000 ton RO-RO ferry as well as the much larger Bohai Baozhu (Bohai Pearl) a 535 foot, 24,000 ton RO-RO ferry. Like most newer Chinese-flagged ferries, the Bohai Baozhu was built to national defense specifications for carrying military equipment.  The Bohai Baozhu is owned by the Bohai Ferry Group (渤海轮渡股份有限公司), which operates eleven RO-RO ferries in the Bohai Gulf. The company’s ships have been organized into the “Eighth Transport Dadui” (海运八大队), part of the PLA’s strategic projection support ship fleet (战略投送支援船队). The Sheng Sheng 1 is seen briefly at the end of the television report offloading tanks onto the semi-submersible barge and onto the offshore mobile debarkation system.  The Sheng Sheng 1 was also seen in the July 14, 2020 high-resolution Planet Labs SkySat image, below, preparing to back into the same semi-submersible barge attached to the floating pier.

Civilian ferry Sheng Sheng 1 off-loading tanks onto semi-submersible barge and offshore mobile debarkation system in the 2020 exercise (CCTV)
Sheng Sheng 1 maneuvering for a stern docking with the semi-submersible barge and floating pier (Includes content sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc., Powered by Planet – SkySat Image © Planet Labs 2021)

A soon-to-be published paper presented at a recent conference on PLA amphibious operations hosted by the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute provides a comprehensive account of the 2020 exercise. Two dozen commercial ships, tugs, and military landing craft took part in the large-scale operation led by the PLA’s Joint Logistics Support Force. According to ship automatic identification system (AIS) tracks, RO-RO ferries and cargo vessels sailed from the embarkation port of Lianyungang 24 nautical miles north to Lanshan. According to Chinese media reports, just as in the 2014 Zhanjiang exercise, a major component of the exercise involved ferries off-loading using a semi-submersible barge and a floating pier.  Civilian ferries like the Bohai Baozhu and the Sheng Sheng 1 made several trips between Lianyungang and Lanshan, apparently transporting military equipment in each run before then returning to civilian ferry service across the Bohai Gulf. 

Typical tracks of exercise ships during Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (Supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence,

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system is large enough to be seen in lower resolution Planet Labs commercial satellite imagery acquired between June and August 2020.  The Lanshan beach area imaged is just north of the fishing wharf where the pier modules were imaged in September 2020.  The floating pier was set up and taken down several times over two months, each time with the semi-submersible barge attached or close by off-shore. The temporary piers in the Planet Labs images correspond to the lengths of the system seen in the much higher-resolution Google Earth/Maxar image – approximately 1200 feet for the green pontoon sections and 720 feet for the grey pontoon sections. The shorter floating pier was used throughout the course of the exercise for landing craft that were off-loading cargo ships and other ferries farther off-shore. Planet Labs imagery indicates the modular system remained in Lanshan until November 2020. Its current location is unknown.

Offshore mobile debarkation system moved to several locations during the 2020 exercise (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

In late-August and early-September 2021, a new modular pier system was spotted in commercial satellite imagery at a known PLA amphibious training area in Dacheng Bay, China near the southern end of the Taiwan Strait.  This improved system bears a closer resemblance to the U.S. Navy INLS.  It is much more substantial and longer than the older floating pier, extending approximately 1475 feet from the shore. According to AIS tracks, two Bohai Ferry Group ships, the Boahai Mazhu and the Bohai Cuizhu visited the Dacheng Bay amphibious training area on September 4, 2021, probably to off-load dozens of ten-man assault boats in support of an amphibious raid. One significant indicator of floating pier operations in the exercise area was the presence of the same semi-submersible barge that was used in the summer 2020 exercise, the Sanhanggong 8, operated by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).  The new floating pier system, the semi-submersible barge and an unidentified temporary pier may be seen in the low-resolution satellite image, below. Analysis of this exercise and its use of civilian shipping is on-going.

New-type modular floating pier observed at PLA’s Dacheng Bay amphibious training area in September 2021 (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

Beyond the media reports of the 2014 exercise and the 2020/2021 exercises, there is little open-source reporting available on the PLA’s use of these sectional causeways. It is interesting to note that in each example, the system was deployed in relatively sheltered areas with calm waters. The original Chinese patent for the system indicates it can operate in sea state 3 (wave heights up to 4 feet), which is identical to the advertised operating limit of the U.S. Navy INLS.

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system, while not as striking as the Chinese Navy’s newest amphibious assault ships, may have greater implications for how the PLA projects power over-the-shore, especially in a cross-strait amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Any large-scale landing by PLA Navy amphibious assault ships will require significant maritime lift for second echelon forces and logistics. This modular pier system may allow China’s substantial fleet of large civilian RO-RO ships to offload combat troops and equipment directly onto Taiwan’s beaches. Proficiency with this system and other JLOTS capabilities will be a critical capability in a cross-strait invasion if the PLA is unable seize Taiwan’s port infrastructure intact.      

Michael Dahm is a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. His research focuses on foreign military technologies and operational concepts.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate at the U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. His research focuses on Chinese military development and maritime strategy.

The analyses and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Naval War College, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) or APL sponsors. Commercial satellite images are sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc. and Planet Labs, Inc. and are published under license from Planet Labs, which retains copyrights to the original, underlying images. This work has also been supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence (

Featured Image: An amphibious infantry fighting vehicle attached to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps launches anti-tank missiles during a maritime live-fire training exercise in mid July, 2021. ( by Liu Yuxiang)

Expect China’s Coast Guard to Conduct Counter-Drug Patrols Off Latin America

By Daniel J. Kostecka

The China Coast Guard (CCG) is growing in capability, capacity, and confidence. With an established presence throughout China’s “near seas” in East Asia and further abroad in the North Pacific on fishery patrols, the possibility of additional long-distance deployments by the CCG should be seen as a matter of when and not if.1 This is especially true in waters where Chinese interests and citizens are threatened but the cooperative look of the CCG’s white hulls presents a more appealing optic than the more confrontational appearance of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) gray hulls. One such location is off the west coast of Latin America in the Eastern Pacific on counter-narcotic patrols due the increasing problem of illegal drugs from Latin America making their way across the Pacific to Chinese consumers.2

The expansion and modernization of China’s maritime forces, in particular the PLAN, has received a great deal of attention. The PLAN is also the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of over 360 ships, including more than 130 major surface combatants and more than 60 submarines along with its own aviation arm of more than 300 land-and sea-based fixed and rotary wing aircraft of all types.3 The PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force capable of conducting a wide range of peacetime and wartime missions at expanding distances from the Chinese mainland. From counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, to hospital ship deployments to Latin America, to submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean, and long-range operations in the Central Pacific, the PLAN is an increasingly global force. It now operates in all of the U.S. Navy’s numbered fleet areas of responsibility in support of China’s expanding interests.4

Matching the PLAN’s impressive modernization is the growth of the CCG. The modern CCG is the result of the 2013 consolidation of four legacy maritime law enforcement agencies. With a combination of the agencies’ older ships, repurposed PLAN ships, and increasingly new construction, the CCG has rapidly grown into the largest maritime law enforcement agency in the world.5 The white-hulled ships of the CCG are now a common sight throughout China’s “near seas” within the first island chain, particularly in contested waters near features such as Scarborough Reef, the Senkaku Islands, and Second Thomas Shoal as well as near foreign drilling rigs and survey operations.6 Backed up by the PLAN and the ships of China’s Maritime Militia, the CCG is Beijing’s tool of choice for intimidating rival maritime claimants throughout the region.7 However, with 140 ocean-going ships of 1000 tons or greater—including 60 ships of 2500 tons or greater—the CCG has more than enough capacity to expand its operations beyond regional waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class cutter USCGC Stratton (WMSL 752), left, and the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) maneuver into formation during Talisman Sabre 2019. (U.S. Navy photo)

An expansion of its operating areas on the world’s oceans in the coming years should be expected,8 particularly as the CCG is already quietly increasing its participation in international fisheries patrols in the Northern Pacific.9 Since 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has hosted its Chinese counterparts onboard U.S. ships operating in the Northern Pacific in support of efforts to stem illegal high-seas driftnet fishing, much of it by Chinese fishermen.10 Since joining the Japan-based North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) in 2015,11 the CCG has also sent its own cutters to patrol waters in the North Pacific, oftentimes in a cooperative manner through joint patrols with exchanges between the USCG and the CCG in the North Pacific. These patrols serve as welcome examples of cooperation during times of maritime tensions in East Asia.12

In addition to building on the model established by its operations in the North Pacific, deploying the CCG further abroad in a cooperative manner has additional precedent in how Beijing has used participation in internationally sanctioned missions to expand the global footprint of the PLAN. For example, in early 2009 the PLAN deployed a task group to the Gulf of Aden to participate in international counter-piracy patrols under UNSCR 2125; in early 2014 a PLAN frigate assisted in escorting the removal of chemical weapons from Syria; and in 2011 and 2014 the PLAN assisted with non-combatant evacuation operations in Libya and Yemen. The Yemen mission involved evacuating over 200 non-Chinese citizens.13 Additionally, deployments by the PLAN’s hospital ship Daishan Dao to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania help establish the legitimacy of the PLAN as a purveyor of goodwill and maritime security.14 Similar to the deployment of the PLAN for counter-piracy patrols under the auspices of UNSCR 2125, the Chinese could deploy CCG ships to Latin American waters under the provisions of UNSCR 2482 which specifically calls out criminal activity, including drug trafficking, in aiding and abetting terrorist groups.15

Latin America is a region of growing importance to the PRC. China’s massive Belt and Road initiative now involves over 130 countries and over $500 billion in investment and includes a growing list of nations in Latin America with Panama the first to sign on in 2017.16 However, it is the enduring problem of drugs produced in Latin America that could lead to a CCG presence in the Western Hemisphere. Growing Chinese affluence and the fact that drugs often fetch higher prices in Asia and Australia than North America make China a natural market for cocaine produced in Latin America.17 According to some estimates, a kilogram of cocaine can fetch between two and three times as much in Hong Kong as in Los Angeles.18 While increased transportation costs factor into the higher prices found on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it is easy to see why cocaine producers and distributors in South America view China—and the rest of East Asia for that matter—as a lucrative market. At this time, Chinese authorities are cooperating with those from other nations in combating the problem in East Asia. However, it is possible that in the future Beijing could decide it has an interest in establishing a Chinese military/law enforcement presence in the Western Hemisphere to help stanch the flow of drugs at their source.19

The CCG’s involvement in North Pacific fisheries patrols and the PLAN’s involvement in internationally sanctioned missions provide the basic template and rationale for CCG counter-drug patrols in the Western Hemisphere. The PLAN’s deployment to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 was generally viewed as a welcome addition to the navies already operating in the area; the CCG’s presence in the North Pacific is viewed positively as well.20 With U.S. and partner nation forces stretched thin to battle the never-ending flow of drugs coming from South and Central America, a deployment by the CCG of one or two cutters would likely be welcomed, at least by some of the regional governments that increasingly enjoy good relations with Beijing.21

USCGC Morgenthau and CCG 2102 in the Northern Pacific. (Photo via U.S. Coast Guard)

From a capacity standpoint, the CCG can easily take on this mission. It is worth noting that while approximately 75 percent of the CCG’s 140 cutters displacing over 1000 tons were added in the past decade, the USCG—with fewer than 40 cutters of equivalent size—still relies on some ships built in the 1960s.22 Further, in this specific case the CCG’s white hulls would likely be a preferred option over the PLAN’s gray hulls since counter-drug activity is seen as primarily a law enforcement mission. Even U.S. Navy ships engaged in counter-drug operations on the high-seas embark Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments due to the provisions of the Posse Comitatus Act.23 PLAN ships could also raise additional concerns in the U.S. due to long standing American sensitivities over the presence of foreign military forces in the Western Hemisphere dating back to the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine.24 A more visibly cooperative presence by the CCG in Latin American waters could also serve an additional purpose of calming growing concerns in the region over illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen. CCG assets deployed for counter-drug patrols could even find themselves diverted to performing a mission similar to what they are currently performing in the North Pacific in cooperation with regional maritime forces.25

USCG long-distance operations provide an additional template for CCG deployments in distant waters. While primarily responsible for maritime safety and security in waters close to the United States, the USCG is no stranger to global operations. The Coast Guard’s proud history includes escorting convoys across the Atlantic in both world wars, riverine patrols during the Vietnam War, and sanctions enforcement in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield. In recent years, the USCG is once again answering the call to expand its operations beyond home waters by deploying ships and personnel to the Western Pacific.26 During 2019 the cutters USCGC Stratton and USCGC Bertholf deployed to the Pacific under the command of the US Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet, conducting operations such as sanctions enforcement against North Korea and a transit of the Taiwan Strait by Bertholf in March alongside the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur.27 The USCG is also increasing the number of ships homeported in Honolulu, Hawaii, with plans to base three Sentinel-class fast response cutters in Guam. In October 2019, two Honolulu-based cutters, USCGC Joseph Gerczak and USCGC Walnut, operated in Oceania with ships of the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Navies. The United States has also sold surplus cutters to nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, and USCG personnel assisted with maintenance and logistics support for these ships.28

USCG goals in the region are ambitious. As the Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz stated, “My goal for the Coast Guard is to be a partner of choice in the region. So, we tailor our services to the needs of the nation we are supporting… Through engagement, partnership and presence, we are a maritime bridge between the Department of Defense’s lethality and the State Department’s diplomacy.”29 Admiral Schultz’ diplomatic language aside, the rationale for an increased presence in the Western Pacific for the USCG is clear: supporting great power competition with the People’s Republic of China. Furthering this point, Admiral Schultz stated:

“In the face of coercive and antagonistic behavior, the United States Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership. There’s the Chinese Coast Guard – used to be under civilian authority, it is now through the People’s Military Police, a direct report to the CCP government. You look at the Maritime Militia. I think we are seeing behaviors out of the Chinese Coast Guard, out of the Maritime Militia, that are not consistent with the rule-based order.”30

The CCG’s coercive operations are an increasing concern in East Asia, particularly in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Engagement and partnership building by the USCG in the region provides American strategists and planners with another tool to respond with, particularly since Coast Guard white hulls sometimes provide a better image than Navy gray hulls.31 Such considerations are valid and there is no doubt the USCG will make contributions to maritime security in the Western Pacific and East Asia. However, while USCG operations in East Asia will not be why the CCG deploys to the Eastern Pacific, the possibility that Beijing would publicly call out the precedent established by the CCG’s American counterpart in establishing a CCG presence in foreign waters cannot be discounted.

While there is no guarantee the CCG will deploy to the waters of the Western Hemisphere and the Eastern Pacific to conduct counter-drug patrols off Latin America, U.S. planners and strategists who wrestle with how to deal with the growing presence of the PLAN and the CCG on the high-seas need to be open to this possibility. China is a global economic power and a global commercial maritime power.32 China’s growing economic footprint in Latin America and concerns about the flow of drugs from Latin America to China are legitimate national interests that Beijing needs to protect. Given the law enforcement nature of counter-drug operations and the CCG’s success in participating in North Pacific fisheries patrols, the CCG is a more logical choice than the PLAN for the establishment of an initial maritime presence in the Eastern Pacific.33 Obviously, this could grow into something more robust that includes a PLAN component in the future, just as the PLAN’s presence in the Gulf of Aden has led to the establishment of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti.34

It is something of a cliché to state that the fleet follows the flag. However, there is truth in that statement, and at some point, China’s fleet is likely to follow its flag to the Western Hemisphere in a way that is more substantive than the occasional exercise or goodwill cruise. This eventuality needs to be considered along with the possibility that when China’s fleet arrives on station, it will be led by the white hulls of the CCG as opposed to the gray hulls of the PLAN. 

Mr. Daniel J. Kostecka is a senior civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy. Mr. Kostecka has worked for the Navy for 16 years and has worked for the Department of Defense and the Government Accountability Office. He was an active-duty Air Force officer for ten years and recently retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of lieutenant colonel and over 27 total years of commissioned service. Mr. Kostecka has a bachelor of science in mathematics from The Ohio State University, a master of liberal arts in military and diplomatic history from Harvard University, a master of arts in national security policy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and a Master of Science in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University. Mr. Kostecka is also a graduate of Squadron Officer School, the Air Command and Staff College, the Air War College, and Joint Forces Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


[1] Mark Godrey, “China patrols target IUU in North Pacific,” Seafood Source, 28 August 2019,   

[2] “Chinese Cocaine Haul Shows Growing Drug Problem in Region,” South China Morning Post, 27 June 2018,  

[3] Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 3 August 2021,

[4] Dave Makichuk, “China’s Naval Fleet Delivers Loud Message to US,” Asia Times, 27 February 2020, and Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019: Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: OSD, May 2019,

[5] Andrew S. Erickson, “Surging Second Sea Force – China’s Maritime Law Enforcement Forces,” Naval War College Review 72, no. 2. Spring 2019, pp. 1-25.   

[6] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019: Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: OSD, May 2019,

[7] Richard Heydarian, “US Coast Guard Churns South China Sea Tensions,” Asia Times, 30 October 2019,     

[8] Andrew S. Erickson, “Surging Second Sea Force – China’s Maritime Law Enforcement Forces,” Naval War College Review 72, no. 2. Spring 2019, pp. 1-25.    

[9] Mark Godrey, China patrols target IUU in North Pacific, Seafood Source, 28 August 2019,

[10] LT Katie Braynard, “Interdiction on the High Seas,” Coast Guard Compass, 12 June 2014,

[11] “North Pacific Fisheries Commission,” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, FAO 2020,    

[12] Jesse Johnson, “Chinese and US Coast Guards Perform Joint Operations – Rare Bright Spot in Sino-American Relations,” Japan Times, August 26 2016, and “US and China Coast Guards Interdict Vessel for Illegally Fishing on the High Seas,” Coast Guard News, 3 June 2014,

[13] UN Security Council Resolution 2125, 18 November 2013, and Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy – New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: ONI, December 2015, and “China Evacuates Citizens and Foreigners from Aden,” BBC News, 3 April 2015, and Khushbu Shah and Jason Hanna, “Chinese Ship Arrives to Help in Removal of Syrian Chemical Weapons Materials,” CNN, 8 January 2014,  

[14] Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy – New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: ONI, December 2015, and Michael Field, “Chinese Hospital Ship Cruises the South Pacific to Spread Influence,” Nikkei Asian Review, 9 August 2018,     

[15] UN Security Council Resolution 2482, 19 July 2019,

[16] Pepe Zhang, “Belt and Road in Latin America – a Regional Game Changer?” Atlantic Council, 8 October 2019, 

[17] “US $168 Million Cocaine Haul Sparks Fears South Korea Becoming Gateway to China and Rest of Asia,” South China Morning Post, 18 December 2018,  

[18] “Cocaine Prices,” Narcotics News, 2020,

[19] “Chinese Cocaine Haul Shows Growing Drug Problem in Region,” South China Morning Post, 27 June 2018,  

[20] Jesse Johnson, “Chinese and US Coast Guards Perform Joint Operations – Rare Bright Spot in Sino-American Relations,” Japan Times, August 26 2016, and in 2009 the author served a four month rotation as a reservist at Headquarters US Central Command and the view there at the time regarding the deployment of a PLAN task force to the Gulf of Aden was positive and appreciated due to the need for additional assets to combat pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

[21] “Coast Guard National Security Cutter Departs for Eastern Pacific Counter-Narcotic Patrol,” Coast Guard News, 31 March 2020, and Pepe Zhang, “Belt and Road in Latin America – a Regional Game Changer?” Atlantic Council, 8 October 2019,      

[22] Andrew S. Erickson, “Surging Second Sea Force – China’s Maritime Law Enforcement Forces,” Naval War College Review 72, no. 2. Spring 2019, pp. 1-25 and “Oregon-Based Coast Guard Cutter Returns Home After 65-Day Counternarcotic Patrol,” Coast Guard News, 23 April 2020,   

[23] William H. Thiesen, “The Long Blue Line – LEDETs,” Coast Guard Compass, 5 July 2018,      

[24] Robbie Gramer and Keith Johnson, “Tillerson Praises Monroe Doctrine, Warns Latin America of ‘Imperial’ Chinese Ambitions,” Foreign Policy, 2 February 2018,

[25] Mark Godrey, “Argentine Coast Guard Opens Fire on Chinese Fishing Vessel,” Seafood Source, 4 March 2019,  

[26] Gidget Fuentes, “Pacific Deputy – Coast Guard a Continuing ‘Force Multiplier’ with Navy in Global Missions,” US Naval Institute, 27 August 2019,

[27] Caitlan Doornbos, “As One Cutter Departs, Another Deploys to Maintain Coast Guard Presence in Western Pacific,” Stars and Stripes, 14 June 2019,   

[28] Dan Lamothe, “To Help Counter China – US Turns to the Coast Guard,” Washington Post, 20 April 2019,    

[29] Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Schultz – Coast Guard Expanding Western Pacific Operations,” US Naval Institute, 7 July 2019,

[30] Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Schultz – Coast Guard Expanding Western Pacific Operations,” US Naval Institute, 7 July 2019,

[31] Caitlan Doornbos, “As One Cutter Departs, Another Deploys to Maintain Coast Guard Presence in Western Pacific,” Stars and Stripes, 14 June 2019,

[32] Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, “Becoming a Great Maritime Power – a Chinese Dream,” Center For Naval Analysis, June 2016,

[33] Jesse Johnson, “Chinese and US Coast Guards Perform Joint Operations – Rare Bright Spot in Sino-American Relations,” Japan Times, August 26 2016,

[34] Tyler Headley, “China’s Djibouti Base, a One Year Update,” The Diplomat, 4 December 2018,    

Featured Image: The crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell trains with the China coast guard on August 18, 2007. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)

A Conversation with General Anthony Zinni (Ret.) on Leaders and Strategic Thinking

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the first of what we hope will be several conversations with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) about leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, in 2000.

In this installment, General Zinni discusses themes in his “Combat Concepts” lecture, his recently completed doctoral dissertation, his time at the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group, and the state of strategic thinking.

Were you influenced by any particular interests, books, or mentors?

Zinni: First, on people, General Al Gray was probably the biggest influence on me. I’ve known him since I was a captain. He had a set of people. He mentored us and sought us out all the time. He was unusual to us junior officers. He was willing to talk about things we were interested in—tactics, leadership, and those kinds of things. It was hard to find senior officers who really had that kind of connection. Plus, his personality was such that he drew people to him. He seemed to understand what we were going through, what we were thinking. You must remember we had come back from a couple of tours in Vietnam, so our first decade in the Marine Corps was formed by Vietnam. Of course, he was there, too—more senior, but he really understood what we saw and our reaction it.

Lieutenant General Mick Trainor was my battalion commander. He had a reputation in the Marine Corps for being a highly intelligent officer, and he was someone who really understood warfare, especially in Vietnam. He was another mentor—I have had several, most of them later made general officer—so I was a pretty good chooser of mentors [laughs].

Anthony Zinni, 1967. Personal Photo

In terms of books, I read a lot, but I don’t have a particular way of listing them. I talk with Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper about this a lot. He really focuses on specific books, and I don’t. I read a lot of books. I always get taken aback when junior officers ask me, “Can you give me a reading list or a list of recommended books?” I say, “You should read all the books you can get ahold of, and then sort out what you think are the important books.” Usually, they get onto doing that. But it’s also a lazy way of saying, ‘I don’t always remember what I’ve read in all these books’—I gather it in and hopefully integrate it.

One of the big themes in your well-known “Combat Concepts” talk is the need to extend maneuver thinking beyond warfighting concepts to application. For you, General Gray, and others, it seems this wasn’t a contrast. Maneuver warfare was a way of thinking and a practice at the same time.

Zinni: Yes, I would say it’s a way of thinking. It is more a way of how you form concepts about operational art. However, what I felt was lacking in some discussions was going to the next step—to application, to practice. People who didn’t want to take that step bothered me. Execution is just as hard as conceptualizing. John Boyd talked about that. He took the concepts and talked about applications. He was the maneuverist who tried to bring in some form of application. Of course, General Gray was that way, too. He was always interested in application. He asked us all the time, “How would you translate that into action, or into application?” He always wanted to take it to the next step, but it was rare to find people who thought conceptually like that—and then extra rare to find people who tried to translate it into application.

Regarding your experience in Vietnam, it seems like, for you and your peers, it was a very formative part of your career. It became critical for what drove you and others to embrace education, self-study, learning, and some more maverick ways of thinking since it was obvious the things we were doing needed to change. How can we foster that kind of maverick thinking in our organizations today? How well do you think we are doing?

Zinni: Well, from my experience, it must start at the top. You need license to be a maverick. That is how most effective change comes about. In my dissertation, I looked at our senior military leadership during World War II. If you look at George Marshall, Earnest King, or Hap Arnold, they were not necessarily mavericks, but they believed in the freedom to innovate. They believed in cultivating thinkers and mavericks that acted and thought differently. They protected the Nimitzs, the MacArthurs, and the Stillwells—all the guys in the Pacific at that time that I looked at. These were majorly flawed people. Nimitz ran a ship aground when he was a young officer! MacArthur had a checkered past, was not very well liked in the Army, and his actions in the Philippines were disastrous. Stillwell was a character nobody liked to be around. But Marshall and King saw in them what was needed for that war. They had rebel spirits. Marshall and King recognized the war would be different, so they sought out the innovators, the thinkers, and that sort of cascaded down.

The top leadership out in the theater began to move the traditionalist thinkers aside. They did not take an axe to, or fire, everyone. Rather, they moved them into positions where they couldn’t influence or affect the process of change. The first fleet commander at the Guadalcanal landing was an old school guy who didn’t get it, so Nimitz moved him out and brought in Halsey to lead the fleet. That basically saved the day at Guadalcanal.

You can go down this concept of innovate, test, adapt, and adopt. This goes all the way down the ranks to squadron officers figuring out new formations, new patterns to fly. It gets diffused in the organization where it breaks down resistance. It is not kept as something separate, which is a problem we have today and what causes most organizations to fail. Your whole organization must feel part of the team and involved in change. Isolating a special section of super innovators in an organization fails 95 percent of the time in the corporate world. Everybody resents them.

In your dissertation, you mention the importance of seeing things in a strategic or visionary way. Why has there been a decline in national-level strategy and strategic thinking?

Zinni: Well, I think there were flashes of strategic thinking of some quality, maybe with George Washington, but that was more operational. Then, I think the next time you see it is Grant as a commander. Lincoln knew he needed a strategy but didn’t know how to develop one until he found Grant. But that was a moment. The next time you see it is with Roosevelt because as soon as Pearl Harbor was attacked, he called in Marshall and said, “We need a strategy.” He started to give the principles of a strategy: we will become the arsenal of democracy. What that meant is we will go to our strengths, which was our industrial base, and we will out-produce the enemy. We were producing more tanks in a month than the Germans could produce in a year at the height of their industrial capability. In 3.5 years, we built 90 carriers. He also said we must get our act together with our allies. He went to the UK, formed the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and said it is Europe first. These are strategic principles.

Marshall, who thought and acted strategically, started putting these things together. On the Navy side, they were thinking strategically in terms of the Pacific, but in the Atlantic, it was more of a support role. Certainly, Hap Arnold and strategic bombing was also being thought about. You see strategy in wartime. The greatest time of U.S. strategic thinking came from 1944 to 1950. Truman was President; Marshall was Secretary of State and then Defense. You have people like Vandenberg who worked with them across political differences. If you look at that period, we were stabilizing the world economy, we created NATO, we passed the 1947 National Security Act. All these things were happening, and we were developing the ideas of deterrence. That carried us through the Cold War. There were moments when it lessened, like during the Vietnam War, where we had no strategy, and Korea was not much better. But the overall grand strategy was solid in terms of how we were dealing with the peer threat.

You began to see it wane, and when the Cold War ended, it totally ended our strategic thinking. When George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev talked about a peace dividend and a new world order, every reporter asked them, “What does that mean? How do you build a new world order? What is this peace dividend?” They never provided an answer. Bush got so frustrated he said, “Oh, you mean the vision thing”—the vision being a key element to strategic thinking. One needs a vision, but he couldn’t be bothered by it. Subsequent presidents also dismissed it. Obama, for example, said something like, “I don’t need any Kennans,” when he got pressed by a reporter.

What the heck is your strategy if you don’t have a vision? We totally lost the ability at the senior leadership level in America to provide, at the very least, strategic principles and underpinnings. Instead, we went off and launched conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with no idea of what we were trying to do. I blame the uniformed military for a lot of this because it is their job to ask those questions. I had retired, and I was asked by a subsequent commander at CENTCOM to come to his headquarters and talk. I talked to him at length. He was frustrated. He said, “You know what, I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I have no idea what I am supposed to do.” He had a war going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he has no idea what the political objectives are, what the desired end state is, how it ends.

If a lack of national-level strategy makes it difficult for our organizations to do anything strategic, how do we get better at it again?

Zinni: That’s a key question, but it is hard to answer because we change administrations every four years. Even if a President gets eight years, his cabinet turns over at least once during his time, so there is no consistency. No one who comes into these offices goes through a strategy course before becoming Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, or the National Security Advisor. What strategic education or training do they have? The problem is that in the military we build this tremendous planning and thinking construct, and the whole thing—as magnificent as it is—ultimately relies on plugging it into a strategy, a vision, an end state.

The only time I personally saw a moment of strategy was in the 1980s when we had fixed the military, if you will, with the all-volunteer force, and we began to test operational skills. That became a critical point to be promoted and be successful. The military decided to take on at least some of the upper end of operational art and strategy. You had the Maritime Strategy, AirLand Battle, Deep Battle—these at least were high-end, conceptual ways of doing business. I always told people I was at the bottom end of strategy as a combatant commander. I had to have a theater strategy, but I had no delusions that I was preparing grand strategy or anything like that. I was where strategy touched operational art.

I had to have a theater strategy, and I had to have a matching set of applications to go with it. I had no real guidance. I was basically on my own. I read everything that said “strategy” on the cover. My staff piled it up on tables in my office: content from all the other combatant commanders, the National Security Strategy, every country plan in my area of responsibility. I read all the DoD and State Department stuff. It was not very useful. First, very little of it said anything. Then, when you looked at it, even the terminology for the same things was different. Everybody made up his own, and there were so many inconsistencies in what was going on. There were no driving principles, no driving strategic goals and objectives. Nothing drove or directed our processes.

You know, Goldwater-Nichols, most people miss the part that says the President will provide a strategy within the first 150 days of his or her presidency. Then, every year it is to be updated, with the budget, and sent to Congress. I think Goldwater and Nichols tried to elevate the debate about how the resources being provided had to be based on strategic understanding and coherence between the providers in Congress and the executors in the Executive Branch. It never happens that way.

You were involved with the Navy Strategic Studies Group (SSG). How did you get involved with it, and would that be something we could reinvigorate to help nurture and educate strategic thinkers?

Zinni: You know, it started out that way, as a forum to do just that. My group may have been the last one that was truly doing a strategic study. The SSG was originally formed by the Chief of Naval Operations to take a strategic issue and spend a year studying it. Then, come back and answer the question the CNO wanted studied. This later deteriorated, maybe during the group after me, into doing studies on recruiting, manpower, things like that.

We had an interesting one. The Maritime Strategy had been on the street for a while, and the CNO wanted to know if it was getting any reaction from the Soviets. We spent the first half of the year delving into intelligence to see if the Soviet commanders responded to the Maritime Strategy. We spent the second half of the year determining whether they responded in a way that necessitated an update to the Maritime Strategy either to counter their reactions or take advantage of their reactions.

What was eye opening to me was interviewing a defector who was with the GRU. I was going over things we did operationally to see how the Soviets responded to it. He put up with this for an hour or two before he finally started laughing. I asked, “What’s so funny?” He said, “You are going about this the wrong way. Do you understand that you feed the Soviet Army?” Reagan had approved grain sales to Russia after their five-year plan failed and they had big food shortages. This was very controversial in the United States, but Reagan saw this as a benefit to our farmers. He got enough support in Congress to do this, but this guy was telling me, without that, the Soviet Army doesn’t eat! That made us think we might be going about this the wrong way. We were thinking in terms of kinetic exchange, battlefield stuff.

What if we cut off outside resources? How dependent is the Soviet Union on outside resources? We looked at dependencies—this was one, but also other dependencies on raw materials and food stuffs. Then we looked at a broader maritime strategy. We could blockade the Pacific ports of the Soviets. Cutting off supply and resupply of critical elements was of greater strategic advantage than what we were thinking about doing kinetically on their maritime flanks. These were the kinds of issues we were thinking of in the SSG.

We are just not very good at strategy anymore. Back when we had a decent approach to it, during Desert Storm/Desert Shield, we at least had some idea strategically. We did not want to make Iraq the 51st state; we didn’t want to own it. We wanted to stamp out Saddam, then go to containment, and do it in a way that we didn’t end up with a broken Iraq on our back. Brent Scowcroft understood the limits of the military there. He was an Air Force two-star, and you had James Baker as the Secretary of State, who was a former Marine officer, and also a decent strategic thinker. And, of course, you had Colin Powell as the Chairman, who had a lot of influence within the administration, above just being the Chairman.

They crafted the strategy to not go to Baghdad, and then the containment strategy after that, which we were able to define and refine down to just 23,000 troops, on any given day, containing Iraq. Less than the number reporting to the Pentagon every day. The effort was to avoid making those 23,000 waste their time, so we created live fire ranges out in Kuwait so they could get trained. We tried to create an environment with our allies for joint training that made the containment more than sitting around somewhere.

There was a flickering of some strategic thinking in there, but again, what you saw was a 4-star general, General Powell, who had a lot of influence in the government, and a National Security Adviser who was a retired Air Force general. They understood what the limitations were. But it was controversial. There were many politicians who thought we should have gone to Baghdad even though we would have been handed a mess, but at least back then, we had overwhelming force, which was a tenant of what Powell advocated. By overwhelming force, Powell didn’t just mean military force. He meant bringing in allies, making sure the international community is behind you, getting that UN resolution, because you want to have the overwhelming moral force, not just the military force. But they, and that kind of strategic thinking, got discarded and pushed aside.

Regarding the 1980s Maritime Strategy, what can we do now to get back to that kind of approach?

Zinni: I really think it is time to think about a Maritime Strategy, much the way we framed it back in the 80s. In the 80s, there were several motivations for doing it. We weren’t that far out from Vietnam. The concentration in the 70s was on rehabilitating the services from the effects of Vietnam, building the all-volunteer military, and creating more education opportunities in the military. When we hit the 80s, it opened up for the next step, which was sort of a renaissance, and we began looking at operational art.

You saw maneuver warfare, AirLand Battle, and the Maritime Strategy in the 80s. The Navy and Marine Corps came together and thought about a lot of questions pertaining to possible conflict with the Soviet Union, and people wanted to become more creative about how we would engage in such an operation. The Navy and Marine Corps said, “OK, how do we play in that? We are not central front forces. Is there a role on the flanks?” This opened and challenged thinking. Traditional thinking, for example, is you never take a carrier close into the shore. Well, we ended up proposing that carriers go into the fjords in Norway. We looked at seizing areas in the Mediterranean and the Baltic and then pressuring the flanks of any Soviet effort in the central region.  

What we looked at in the SSG was very insightful because those were things we hadn’t thought about at the strategic level. The SSG, unfortunately, fell off. Its high-water mark was in the 80s. By the time the 90s came around, the SSG wasn’t doing anything strategic. They became an administrative analysis group, rather than a strategic thinking group. It lost its strategic nature, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we went into a pause in our strategic thinking overall.

How do we make sure we develop people who are asking the right questions and not falling victim to biases and projecting what we want to believe, or what we want to believe is happening in other countries?

Zinni: It’s a great question, and I go back to people like George Marshall, who had the same question. What Marshall did—and General Gray was like this, too—Marshall wanted to know who his senior leaders, mid-range leaders, and maybe even some of his junior leaders were. Marshall spent a lot of time talking with his leadership, trying to understand who they were. There were always rumors about Marshall having a little black book about the leaders he thought were the best or had something. People later realized he never really had a black book, but he had a black book in his mind.

When World War II started, he immediately knew who he had to move out and who he wanted to move in. The people he identified early on as promising were put in at the division, corps, and field Army levels, and they were remarkably good. He then started to form these groups where he encouraged them to come together afterhours to discuss the art of war, operational art, and the profession of arms. He wanted this dialogue to continue amongst these groups that he established. General Gray and Lieutenant General Trainor did the same thing. Within these groups, they could begin to see who the thinkers were.

You must not only go after the thinkers, however, but also those who can lead, execute, and apply. You must marry the two together. There is a place for people who can only do the conceptual, but you are really looking for the future leaders who can tie the conceptual to the application. Our senior leadership needs to do what Marshall did and try to personally discover these people and identify them, and not just believe the system can do it on its own.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of NWSI and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: Sgt. William J. Puckett, an assault amphibious crew chief with Alpha Company, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, watches from the turret of his AAV as Marines with his unit conduct a Gator Square after disembarking from the USS Whidbey Island off the coast of Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sept. 10, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Justin Updegraff / Released)

Use Virtual Reality to Prepare Maritime Crews For Terrorist and Piracy Attacks

Emerging Technologies Topic Week

By Selina Robinson and Dr. Amy Meenaghan

Sea blindness (the tendency toward ignorance of the role and importance of the maritime domain by uninvolved persons) must be carefully considered when planning and implementing measures designed to prevent maritime terrorism and piracy. Governments and security apparatus across the world have dedicated billions to fight against perpetrators of violence, terrorism, and destabilization efforts, collectively known as violent non-state actors (VNSA) on land.1 However, the maritime domain has been relatively overlooked. Efforts to mitigate risk at sea and plan responses are largely limited to the threat posed by piracy within discrete geographical locales. A key factor influencing this is the fact that it is exceptionally difficult to manage the physical space of the maritime domain. There is also the additional struggle to allocate limited resources, such as coastguards or police, especially for states with minimal assets in the maritime domain.2 As a result, VNSAs have exploited sea blindness to their strategic advantage and have been left largely unchallenged by law enforcement agencies.3

Despite the pandemic, 2021 has seen the Gulf of Guinea remain a hotspot for piracy, including a new trend where violence against crew members onboard ships have increased in comparison to previous years. It is becoming increasingly clear that technological advantages in communication and movement by sea may pose a considerable threat to various subcategories of vessels, particularly as the capacity for VNSAs to take advantage of existing shipping channels to their advantage grows. While maritime piracy tends to pose a threat to large cargo ships, terrorism presents a risk to a range of ‘soft’ targets, such as cruise ships, ferries, and yachts, which collectively form the bulk of the leisure industry in the maritime domain. The scale of media attention possible in response to attacks on the leisure industry demonstrates the potential for significant political gain. This, combined with the potential to disrupt the essential logistical work conducted at sea, highlights the need for consistent, reliable, and evidence-based policy and training.

The leisure industry should exploit new training technologies, in particular virtual reality (VR), to prepare maritime crews for terrorist and piracy attacks. Simulated environments have been demonstrated to be effective in facilitating the development of intuitive, implicit, and functional knowledge. The use of VR allows for a flexible learning environment that is not limited by time, cost, and practical constraints. Gamification can be utilized in formative and summative assessment with positive effects on learner satisfaction and outcomes. In the current research a simulated environment, designed in Unity Pro, will be developed to reflect training needs identified by maritime security experts.  The simulation will undergo rigorous testing to inform further refinement to produce a training package that reflects the specific and current requirements of the industry. A flexible design will allow for adaptation according to vessel type, anticipated area of risk, and the fluidity of offence type.

The State of Training 

Existing training and guidance aimed at enabling crew members to mount a quick and effective response is arguably inconsistent and limited. Indeed, there may be a lack of agreement regarding the nature of any mitigation efforts or response planning, particularly as there is no one singular means of attack. Drone attack, attempted boarding, threat from radicalized passengers and crew, environmental damage, IEDs, remote weapon assault, and cyber-attack are just some of the diverse areas of concern.4 Already, the frequency of such attacks is worryingly high: in the first three months of 2021, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) reported 38 piracy incidents: 33 vessels boarded, two attempted attacks, two vessels fired upon, and one vessel hijacked.5 Recent incidents demonstrate that areas of risk extend beyond those traditionally known for piracy, prompting calls for comprehensive training in hostile takeover situations for all maritime crew members, not just those navigating the traditional ‘high-risk’ areas such as Somalia.6 7 In 2020, for example, events following the discovery of a group of Nigerian stowaways on board the Nave Andromeda, an oil tanker off the coast of the Isle of Wight in the UK, escalated to a point where the lives of the crew were deemed to be at considerable risk.

Current training in pirate and terrorist response by maritime crew is largely guided by the Best Management Practices for Protection (BMP5) manual; however, the specific procedures and guidance vary widely according to the location and management/flag status of the vessel. Managing the physical space of the maritime domain, securing, and preventing terrorist attacks, and navigating a tangle of dated legal clutter (including the laws of the flag state, international law, exclusive economic zones, and domestic law) is fraught with complications.8

Additional and updated training would be invaluable in reducing the impact of any attempted strike, but the capacity for, and commitment to, such an initiative by cruise and ferry companies may be hampered by the ongoing impact of COVID-19. The global pandemic has hit the tourism industry hard, and the priority of organizations that rely on maritime travel is understandably to get ships back in the water. As such, changes to policy alongside innovative approaches to training are needed to ensure the required buy-in. The use of VR presents a cost- and time-efficient approach to instruction, while also providing the opportunity for interactive learning.9 Standardized, evidence-based training programs would provide a valuable step forward in protecting maritime vessels and their crew from unpredictable events, including terrorist attacks.10

Make it Virtual

Simulated environments have been utilized for teaching and learning in a range of domains, most notably aviation, medicine, and the military, with undeniably positive results. The scope for the use of VR in andragogy is boundless. Skills and knowledge can be modelled and repeatedly practiced, hard-to-reach situations can be replicated, and a wider range of scenarios can be presented. A simulated environment allows for learning objectives to be demonstrated and practiced with ongoing feedback, enabling learners to experience high risk situations in a safe and replicable virtual space.11 Technological advances, including not only virtual reality, but also augmented reality and 360 immersive videos show considerable promise for facilitating the development of intuitive, implicit, and functional knowledge. The immersive nature of the experience increases learner engagement, improving the transfer of knowledge to the real world.12 With the technology to host VR capabilities becoming more affordable, this is an opportunity to take formidable steps forward to strengthen security and risk management capabilities for an under-developed discipline across the maritime leisure industry.

For cruise ship crew and security staff, pilot work is currently underway in the development and testing of an evidence-based training program. This program has been informed by an in-depth evaluation of existing protocols and discussions with experts in maritime security, training, and industry. Initial feedback and research-based findings show great promise for the development of this approach to tackling real and current threats in the VNSA domain. Nonetheless, to provide a comprehensive response to terrorism, piracy, and the related security issues associated with trafficking, illegal trade, and thievery, this must be located within robust policy development and increased awareness of the national dependence on the accomplished and essential work of the wider maritime industry.


The future of VR has a rightful place in maritime security. Already, the use of VR has been implemented by armies around the world who are able to train in battlefield scenarios and normalize high stress situations, whilst improving a range of fundamental skills from effective communications to critical combat techniques. In the maritime industry, the unexpected and ongoing attacks at sea require a different way of thinking and a different point of view on safety and procedures. Already, maritime simulators have become one of the most advance forms of education across the world. Even the most experienced professionals are regularly trained in such simulators on emergency operations, demonstrating a renewed emphasis on operator training. VR-training software is an efficient and easy alternative to face-to-face training. It increases learner attention, promotes flexibility and accessibility, and results in higher levels of information retention. It also enables measurable training progress indexes. VR presents an invaluable, evidence-based approach to promoting the efficient and effective decision-making required to respond to and minimize the impact of an attempted attack on a maritime target at sea.

Selina Robinson is a Teaching Fellow in Forensic Investigations at the University of Portsmouth. Her areas of research lie with maritime security in cruise ships and the use of XR simulations in education and training. Previous work experience involves counter terrorism and crime scene investigation.

Dr. Amy Meenaghan is a lecturer in Psychology in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth. Her background is in the use of virtual reality to understand offender decision making. She is currently working on various VR projects within the field of Criminal Justice, with a focus on optimizing such technologies to benefit education, training and crime prevention initiatives.


[1] Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain. (2020, August 11). Stable Seas.

[2] Ahmad, M. (2020). Maritime piracy operations: Some legal issues. Journal of International Maritime Safety, Environmental Affairs, and Shipping, 0(0), 1–8.

[3] Lehr, P. (2006). Violence at sea: piracy in the age of global terrorism. Routledge.

[4] Barnett, R. W. (1983). The U.S. Navy’s role in countering maritime terrorism. Terrorism, 6(3), 469–480.

[5] IMB Piracy & Armed Robbery Against Ships — Report for the Period, 2021.

[6] Onuoha, F. C. (2009). Violence at sea: the ramifications of maritime piracy in Nigerian and Somali waters for human security in Africa. Institute of African Studies Research Review, 25(2), 21-44.

[7] Pérouse de Montclos, M. A. (2012). Maritime piracy in Nigeria: Old wine in new bottles?. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35(7-8), 531-541.

[8] Bell, P., & Webster, J. (2010). Teaching and Learning in Maritime Security: A Literature Review. Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 5(2), 23–39.

[9] Markopoulos, E., Lauronen, J., Luimula, M., Lehto, P., & Laukkanen, S. (2019, October). Maritime safety education with VR technology (MarSEVR). In 2019 10th IEEE International Conference on Cognitive Infocommunications (CogInfoCom) (pp. 283-288). IEEE.

[10] de Armas, C., Tori, R., & Netto, A. V. (2020). Use of virtual reality simulators for training programs in the areas of security and defense: a systematic review. Multimedia Tools and Applications, 79(5), 3495-3515.

[11] Gibson, D. & Baek, Y. K. (2009). Digital simulations for improving education: Learning through artificial teaching environments. Hershey PA.

[12] Berki, B. (2020). Experiencing the sense of presence within an educational desktop virtual reality. Acta Polytechnica Hungarica, 17(2), 255-265.

Featured Image: An advertisement for VR training applications for the fire, oil and gas, and aviation sectors. (Credit: