All posts by Michael DeBoer

Hunter Killer: The War with China – The Battle for the Central Pacific

Poyer, David. Hunter Killer: The War with China – The Battle for the Central Pacific. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 320 pp. $27.99.

By Michael DeBoer

In Hunter Killer, David Poyer adds a volume to his most famous series, the Tales of the Modern Navy, following his signature character, Daniel Lenson, through intense combat in the Western Pacific. The work, 310 pages in all, is organized into chapters of roughly fifteen pages, each following one of four characters; Lenson, now an admiral commanding a Task Force; SOCM Oberg, a prisoner in Western China; Hector, an immigrant Marine recruit pressed into service in exchange for citizenship; and Lenson’s wife Blair – a policymaker in the Defense Department. The book flows quickly and returns most of the major characters of the Poyer’s previous novel in this series, Onslaught.

Whereas Onslaught, contrary to its name, featured more of a slow-burn run up to major combat, Hunter Killer, contrasting the image of a cerebral and vicious combatant, forwards the beginning of the cataclysm. This takes the form of a Western Pacific where men and units are fed into the maw of combat between two great powers of a poorly-led United States and a militant and expansionist China. The major unit of action is Lenson’s Task Force 76. Like his namesake, a good man in crisis, the story begins with Lenson’s temporary flag promotion to command the amphibious/sea control task force centered on an LHA reconfigured for ASW. Lenson’s command is sent into a central-Pacific hornet’s nest of PRC submarines in a desperate attempt to open sea lanes to the U.S. West Coast and solidify the faltering American logistical train. Inside the engagement envelopes of the Chinese attack-boats, TF-76 (included in it Lenson’s former command Savo Island) fights for life against submarine-launched torpedoes and missiles while trying to maintain the cohesion of the far-flung task force.

Meanwhile, SOCM Oberg begins a horrific trek across the Tan Shian mountains, hauling a rag tag group of escapees and a horribly crippled leg away from a Chinese forced labor camp. Simultaneously, a new character, a Marine recruit named Hector, conducts infantry training with his newfound friends in the Southern California desert prior to shipping out on a risky attack at a vulnerable point in China’s fortress. All this while Lenson’s wife struggles to produce cogent policy against a backdrop of cognitively poor general and flag officers and divisive policy makers. The story is in many ways visceral, the combat fast and furious, and the objectives almost impossible.

One of the most enjoyable portions of Poyer’s work is his strong sense of history. Poyer is clearly well-read, and one can see many of  influences in his work. First, the author is practically begging his readers to pick up James Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno, and both Onslaught and Hunter-Killer feature imagery and emotions of the nouveau-classic. Oberg’s trek through the mountains is reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, although devoid of the magical realism of the seminal Vietnam-era work. Finally, Lenson’s experiences are vaguely familiar to his namesake’s. Nelson, like Lenson, found himself in increasingly more difficult situations, ending famously at Trafalgar, where it appears the series is headed, in a massive firestorm. Moreover, Nelson and Lenson, in their early careers, were aggressive commanders who lived by the axiom “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Like Nelson, Lenson’s thinking has evolved. He thinks more efficiently, more cerebrally as he makes difficult tactical decisions. Poyer does an excellent job of describing the burdens of command, operating with incomplete information while gambling with subordinates’ lives while attempting to accomplish almost impossible tasks with inadequate resources through the opaque lens of exhaustion.

Finally, Poyer’s volume is a warning.  Through the authenticity of his writing, he reminds the reader that in great power war, technical prowess is not guaranteed, logistics drive operational necessity, at least in a war fought in the Pacific’s vast expanse, that such a war will require the entirety of national effort in a way that this nation has largely forgotten and may be incapable of waging, and that such a war may be closer than many think.  If you liked Ghost Fleet, you’ll love this book, but unlike August Cole and Peter Singer’s work that introduces technical issues through the prism of a story, Poyer approaches war from a historian’s perspective: as the ultimate test of human will regardless of era or technology. 

Michael DeBoer is a Naval Officer and frequent book reviewer for CIMSEC.

Featured Image: Artwork for Battlefield 4. 

Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle

Poyer, David. Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 320 pp. $20.99
By Michael DeBoer

When I was in high school I was walking through a Borders (I know this dates me) when a book caught my eye. Its cover featured a small ship, photographed from directly above, in a sea of red. The book was China Sea, and when I read it, I made a lifelong friend. I’ve followed David Poyer’s character, CAPT Daniel Lenson, from his junior officer tour to the present series of novels of his major command, starting with The Cruiser published in 2014. Lenson’s integrity and competence was a part of my inspiration to accept an appointment to the Naval Academy when I was an enlisted Sonarman, and his stories provided me some measure of context when I was there and later, as I read the books through my career. In short, I’ve loved following Dan Lenson’s career and I’ll miss him when he is gone.

Poyer’s stories feature a mix of the high drama and the cold technical nature of combat at sea. In that aspect the author’s latest story, Onslaught, is an excellent contribution to the series, I would argue one of the most notable collections of sea literature of the modern era. Fans of the series will find old friends inside, while new readers will discover a set of strong, relatable characters: Teddy Oberg, Poyer’s Navy SEAL, Aisha Ar-Rahim, NCIS Special Agent, ADM Jung, South Korean Navy commander, Cheryl Staurlakis, indefatigable XO, Matt Mills, ultra-competent Ops Officer, and Amy Singhe, impertinent upstart JO, are all back. Poyer’s characters are believable and rich, with complex motivations and deep emotions. Moreover, all are strongly affected by events around them. In Poyer’s typical fashion, the work features four concurrent stories: Lenson’s command of USS Savo Island on an ASW barrier in the Miyako Gap, Special Agent Aisha Ar-Rahim’s investigation of a violent rapist onboard Savo, SOCM Teddy Oberg’s assault on Woody Island, and Lenson’s wife Blair’s participation in strategic planning for the coming war with China at SAIC. These four stories are interspersed with the searing exhaustion that only members of the sea services can recognize as an authentic portion of Navy life.

Poyer’s Onslaught describes where many think the series was always headed: an all-out war with the People’s Republic of China. However, despite my expectations that the book would take off into ultra-intense combat immediately, the novel instead features the slow burn of increasing tensions and asymmetric tactics. Lenson’s Savo Island heads a surface action group on ASW station in the East China Sea attempting to hold against attempts by PRC submarines to gain the Philippine Sea while providing missile defense to Taipei. Lenson’s Savo, a notional Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) configured cruiser, allows the author to write rich and genuine series of combat. Only Poyer’s shootout in the Strait of Hormuz during Tipping Point exceeds the vignettes in this book. Moreover, the author’s depiction of BMD operations makes a complex and often arcane art easily accessible and exciting.

Poyer’s story features many operational considerations familiar to CIMSEC readers. The ballistic missile barrage across the Taiwan Strait, PRC aggression in the South and East China Seas, Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles, and a U.S. Navy struggling to maintain access to the East Asian littoral remain the major security issues of our time. Moreover, lack of ASCM inventory, of launcher capacity, and the vulnerability of multi-mission ships when operating in a BMD role are tactical issues well known to U.S. naval planners.

Onslaught, like Poyer’s previous book Tipping Point, has an air of the coming of a cataclysm. Images of the Guns of August abound, as do instances reminiscent of the Solomon Islands and Sunda Strait. Poyer clearly fits the difficult portions of America’s last naval war in Asia, entirely forgotten by the American public and largely ignored by the strategic community, into his narrative. The result is a sense of high tension and intense foreboding.

If I could provide a slight criticism, Special Agent Ar-Rahim is at times irritating. She remains the worst developed Poyer character and contributed little to the story. Aisha can, at times, who at times comes off as more of a caricature than an actual person, though Poyer’s effort to convey diverse viewpoints is indeed commendable and usually very effective.

Poyer’s work should be strongly recommended by CIMSEC readers, especially to friends who may not understand both the complexity, tension, feeling, and exhaustion of combat at sea. In an era where many question the value of allies, the importance of forward naval forces, and likelihood of great power war, Onslaught provides a stunning and believable narrative of the importance of all three. The pace is fast, the combat visceral, and the emotions intense. Poyer remains one of our modern masters of nautical fiction and the emotions of war at sea. Tipping Point and Onslaught are strongly recommended to anyone who is interested in potential conflict with a hegemonic China, loves a good story, or lives their professional life at sea.

Read CIMSEC’s interview with author David Poyer here.

Michael DeBoer is part of the CIMSEC book review team.

Featured Image: Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher. (Getty Images)

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course

Andrew S. Erickson, ed. Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course. Naval Institute Press, 2016 pp 376. $39.95

chinesenavalshipbuilding

By Michael DeBoer

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding Capability: An Uncertain Course, adds the most recent volume to Dr. Andrew Erickson’s excellent edited collections on the increase of the People’s Republic’s military, economic, and industrial power published by the Naval Institute Press. Erickson’s credentials include a professorship in strategy at the Naval War College, a research associateship at Harvard’s Fairbank School for Chinese Studies, and a regular congressional witness on areas pertaining to Chinese capabilities and strategy. He is a giant in the field. The work combines seventeen articles written by thirty-two authors, among them storied names such as CRS naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke and former former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2) for U.S. Pacific Fleet CAPT James Fanell (ret). The volume provides a nuanced and insightful view of a major Chinese strategic investment, its shipbuilding industry, and is required reading for anyone, academic or laymen, trying to understand the associated capabilities and implications of the People’s Republic’s maritime rise.

The three hundred-forty-page tome is broken into five sections, describing the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s foundation and resources, infrastructure, approach to naval architecture and design, remaining challenges, and a section which provides strategic conclusions and predictions for the future of American naval and maritime power. The articles are easily readable, each approximately ten to fifteen pages of crisp, synthesized content, with end notes allowing readers to further explore the author’s research, although most references are translated from Mandarin Chinese. The works also feature multiple graphs, tables, and illustrations, providing further resources for students and researchers. While each article provides fascinating insights into the past, present, and future of Chinese shipbuilding, four areas of study especially stood out as enjoyable, informative, and useful.

First, Christopher P. Carlson and Jack Bianchi’s Chapter I review of the People’s Republic’s naval and maritime history from the formation of the communist state to Xi Jinping provides a concise review of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) strategic development. Carlson and Bianchi first review the PLAN’s operational shift from Near Coast Defense, to Near Seas Active Defense, and finally to Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Operations, as the PLAN’s resources, capabilities, and objectives adapted to match the nation’s goals. The pair provide an excellent linkage between China’s strategic situation since Mao’s victory and the requirements of PLAN platforms as the force shifted from a coastal force to a limited blue water force and finally to a force intended to defend Chinese interests on both the near and far seas. This evolution brought an increase in the complexity and technical sophistication to the Chinese military shipbuilding industry.

Second, Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce and John Costello provide insight into a major limitation of Chinese military shipbuilding: combat electronics. Ragland-Luce and Costello point out that, while PLAN hull and mechanical systems are regularly manufactured using modern industry standards such as modular construction, the PLAN remains unable to field a top-tier indigenously developed combat control system. The authors use the Jiangkai-II (054A)-class guided missile frigate, a modern warship by any standard, whose combat control system (CCS) is based upon the French TAVITAC, vice a comparable Chinese design. This potential lack of integration between the French CCS and developing Chinese weapons and sensor systems might well prove a combat handicap for PLAN forces in future conflicts. Similarly, editor Andrew Erickson with Jonathan Ray and Robert T. Forte provide an excellent dissertation on the limitations of Chinese propulsion plant designs. According to the trio, the PLAN appears proficient in coastal diesel submarine propulsion technologies. The PLAN effectively integrates Sterling Engine Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems into its Yuan-class diesel-electric boats (SSPs), and it leads research into safe Lithium-Ion battery storage systems, potentially increasing coastal submarine endurance. It still lags considerably in both modern integrated surface propulsion plants and nuclear powered propulsion designs.

Third, the work uses present shipbuilding capacity to extrapolate future PLAN capability and force structure. CAPT James Fanell (ret) and Scott Cheney-Peters (Founder of CIMSEC) provide a realistic warning regarding the long-term challenge of Chinese strategic depth in military shipbuilding. Ronald O’Rourke caps the work with a set of implications for the U.S. Navy if PLAN force structure continues to expand.

Fourth, the work also provides an excellent overview of the curious public-private nature of an industry. The ten-year old split of Chinese shipbuilding into competitive public-private corporations Chinese State Shipbuilding Company (CSSC) and Chinese Industrial Shipbuilding Company (CSIC), induced formidable challenges to reintegrate as demand for commercial Chinese-built shipping demand drops and the People’s Republic attempts to cut excess overhead in its public ventures. The work also appropriately conveys the confusing and byzantine structure of the Chinese military-industrial complex, broken into multiple institutes and directorates with potentially overlapping responsibilities.

The edition could have improved by better integration between authors. Several articles re-visit the growth of PLAN naval strategy over the PRC’s history, which becomes redundant. Secondly, in some cases, it is difficult at times to compare Chinese shipbuilding structure and practices to those of other industries worldwide. Is China’s anticipated post-merger structure in line with other shipbuilding industries? The work does not, at times, draw clear comparisons.

Overall, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding provides a very useful window into an area of intense Communist Party strategic investment. The work gives the reader an excellent overview of the industry as a whole, overlapped with strategic context and geopolitical implications. As discussed, the volume also provides a unique look at the industry’s challenges, including increased engineering costs, poor integration with modern combat systems, and challenges in surface ship engineering plants and nuclear propulsion technologies. Nuanced and complex, it describes both the accomplishments of an industry that now leads the world in commercial tonnage produced, but also lags behind in critical areas mastered by much smaller and less-rich nations. Erickson’s volume is a worthy addition to his series and an enjoyable read.


Read CIMSEC’s interview with editor Dr. Andrew Erickson on this book here.

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Featured Image: China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier CV-17/001A under construction at Dalian shipyard. (CJDBY.net)