Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Flotilla SITREP: Concentrate the Fleet for War; Land Power in the Indo-Pacific

By Dmitry Filipoff

This month the CIMSEC Warfighting Flotilla will be hosting sessions on concentrating the fleet for high-end warfighting, and how land power can bolster sea power in the Indo-Pacific. If you haven’t already, sign up through the form below to become a Flotilla member and receive the invites to our upcoming off-the-record March discussions. The full listings for these upcoming discussions are featured down below.

Feel free to visit the Flotilla homepage to learn more about this community, its activities, and what drives it.


Upcoming March Sessions

Concentrate the Fleet for High-End Warfighting

The forward force posture of the U.S. Navy is widely spread across the globe. At home, the fleet is divided across two coasts separated by thousands of miles. Should the U.S. Navy change its force posture and basing so it can better deploy larger formations that are better suited to high-end warfighting? What changes in strategy will facilitate this rearrangement of naval power? Join us to discuss these questions as we consider the merits of concentrating the fleet.

Read Ahead: Concentrate the Fleet for Wartime Readiness,” by Chris Rielage

How Land Power Can Bolster Sea Power in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is traditionally viewed as a predominantly maritime theater, but land power still has a major role to play. How does land power factor into the military balance in the Indo-Pacific? How can Army forces complement naval forces in the pursuit of high-end sea control and maritime access? Join us to discuss these questions as we consider the role of land power in the Indo-Pacific.

Read Ahead: To Upgun Seapower in the Indo-Pacific, You Need an Army,” by General Charles Flynn and Lieutenant Colonel Tim Devine, U.S. Army

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of the Warfighting Flotilla. Contact him at

Red Dragon Rising? Insights from a Decade of China Conflict Studies and Wargames

By Robert Kitchen


China and the United States see each other as the pacing challenge,1 with Taiwan the obvious potential flashpoint. Correspondingly, different governments and think tanks repeatedly featured the Taiwan conflict in wargames. However, results from these studies varied significantly, ranging from swift Taiwanese capitulation and pyrrhic United States victories to bloody Chinese failures. This review compares several studies, explaining differences in the objectives, outcomes, and implications. As such, it is the first review to collate findings from a broad sample of wargames held over eight years between 2016 and 2023. It identifies a clear, regressive trend in the United States and Taiwanese chances of victory over the period and crucial factors influencing the outcomes for the People’s Liberation Army, the Republic of China, the United States, and allied forces. It concludes with recommendations for future wargame iterations.


This review focuses on published United States military rather than economic or non-kinetic influence studies. These studies were unclassified or substantively reported in open sources and addressed a conflict in the Western Pacific, usually involving Taiwan and the United States. However, similar studies were undertaken in China, Japan, and Taiwan, which have established military wargaming capabilities.2 The United Kingdom also has wargaming and net assessment capabilities.3 While this paper looks at published studies, it also includes officially announced insights about classified ones.

For comparison purposes, this review groups studies into three discrete eras: before 2017, 2017 to before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and those conducted afterward. The timeframes were chosen as they represent three distinct trends. Pre-2018, wargames tended to end favorably for the United States, Taiwan, and allies, albeit at great cost. Between 2018 and February 2022, outcomes grew increasingly pessimistic for the United States and Taiwan, with only one victory, four losses, and two stalemates. Finally, in the two games since February 22nd, 2022, the immediate insights from the larger Russian invasion of Ukraine have tilted the outcomes towards the defender.

Each era is divided into three sections. ‘Overview of studies’ briefly summarizes outcomes and recommendations. ‘Insights and analysis’ provide an overview of trends, differences, and future areas for study. ‘Conclusions’ provides a focus for future United Kingdom iterations.

Overview of studies

The studies table summarizes a range of twelve wargames across three distinct timeframes: three from pre-2018, seven from 2018 to February 2022, and two post-February 2022. Results are color-coded red when China can secure its objectives, yellow when objectives remain contested, and green when China cannot achieve its objectives against the Republic of China, the United States, and other opposition.

Table of studies and wargames.

Studies Before 2017

RAND war with China, 2016.4 This study concerns four general cases of the United States and China’s conventional conflict in the East Asia region, a brief or long duration, and severe versus limited. It examines how specific systems (i.e., aircraft, surface ships, submarines, missiles, command and control) compare against each other. In the 2015 war games, Chinese losses were greater than those of the United States; however, the United States’ losses could be much heavier in a 2025 war.

The report recommended the United States increase interoperability and planning with allies, in part to increase its deterrent posture but also because it recognized that existing weapon stockpiles were insufficient to sustain prolonged campaigns. RAND recommended that the United States improve its ability to sustain protracted conflict to bolster deterrence and invest in more survivable force platforms like submarines and counters for anti-access systems.

RAND Scorecard, 2017.5 This detailed study created a scorecard and periodically examined United States and Chinese military capabilities in ten operational areas. By the last iteration in 2017, the People’s Liberation Army was considered inferior to individual United States capabilities, but its proximity to operations mitigated shortfalls. Based upon then-current trajectories, the United States’ dominance progressively receded over the next fifteen years.

The report suggested that the United States procure bases to improve dispersed redundancy and increase the survivability of aircraft, submarines, and space assets. The report also recommended intensifying diplomatic efforts to secure access to Southeast Asian countries, prioritizing building strategic depth through alliances.

The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia, 2017.6 Ian Easton’s book is still one of the best authorities on Taiwan’s military disposition. Many other studies cite its maps, especially vital beaches, and other assessments. Whilst not a net assessment, Easton lays out many building blocks for one. It also recounts the results of the Republic of China’s military wargames, which Taiwan could hold out in 2017 and 2018 simulations. The book uses primary sources to compellingly lay out the People’s Liberation Army and the Republic of China’s concept of operations, their assumptions, and the likely order of battle. It gives a good account of internal doubts within the People’s Liberation Army and the since lost bullishness of the Republic of China’s military. However, it is prescient regarding the trend in the military balance of power towards China.

The study’s recommendations advocate for the United States to support Taiwan. Still, it makes a compelling case that Taiwan’s position was defensible, and much could go wrong with an attempted invasion. Easton’s look at the captured lessons of the People’s Liberation Army indicates that chief of their concerns is the Republic of China’s long-range strike capabilities and projects to harden the Taiwanese islands, military facilities, and command and control capabilities. Therefore, long-range strike capabilities and infrastructure hardening need reinforcement. The book was relatively silent on preparations for operations other than the full-scale invasion of Taiwan. There were few, if any, lessons on countering People’s Liberation Army pressure campaigns through blockade, air incursions, or diplomatic isolation.

Studies from 2018 to pre-invasion of Ukraine

United States Marines wargame 2019.7 This United States Marine Corps wargame was set in Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan and forced the United States to react to simultaneous crises. Before the start of the game, the sides could invest in emergent capabilities such as artificial intelligence and quantum processing. The United States possessed insufficient forces and logistics to fight and win in all three conflicts simultaneously. Instead, the United States took a Europe-first approach, accepted risk regarding the Republic of China’s ground forces, and attempted to mitigate through naval and air assets. People’s Liberation Army forces were able to land in Taiwan but were unable to subdue the Republic of China and Japanese reinforcements. All theaters ended with local Russian or United States commanders seeking to employ nuclear weapons.

Reported classified Department of Defense (DOD) wargames, October 2020.8 One of the wargames of the series focused exclusively on the United States and People’s Liberation Army forces fighting over Taiwan. The United States Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commented after the completion that the concentration of combat power for maximum efficiency and effect, and the United States military’s information dominance, is no longer guaranteed. After initial failures, the United States could reverse fortune by testing a new concept known as “expanded maneuver,” which involves the dispersal and disaggregation of combat power across all domains.9 The conclusion was the People’s Liberation Army benefited from extensive study of adversary tactics, techniques, and procedures over the previous two decades and implemented changes that challenged the previous way of war. The Department of Defense is pushing the United States military to adopt the expanded maneuver concept by 2030.

RAND Corporation comments to the media in August and October 2020.10 A RAND Corporation representative asserted that, in wargames set in 2025 and beyond, the United States loses assets in theater very quickly and cannot project power into the battlespace to defeat an invasion. Using multiple airborne and amphibious assaults, the People’s Liberation Army could reinforce a successful lodgement before effective United States assistance arrived.

Another report notes the United States could improve its chances by relying on a new generation of long-range anti-ship missiles combined with space-based reconnaissance. Additionally, using artificial intelligence to locate enemy targets and unmanned undersea drones that can fire torpedoes at the People’s Liberation Army landing craft could further blunt an attack. These capabilities reportedly could be achieved with about five percent of the current Department of Defense’s budget.

Reported United States Air Force wargame, Autumn 2020.11 In this wargame, the United States Air Force repelled a Chinese invasion of Taiwan set in 2030. The Air Force succeeded by using drones as a sensing grid, cargo planes dropping guided munitions, and other novel technologies, but with a large loss of life and equipment. Taiwan also increased defense spending before the conflict, buying drones and electronic warfare equipment. This outcome marked an improvement to similar war games held in 2018 over the South China Sea and Taiwan in 2019. In both those wargames, it ended in catastrophic losses. United States improvements in 2020 effectively deterred the People’s Liberation Army player from launching an invasion. The United States Air Force reportedly needed more and newer tactical aircraft, greater numbers of drones and ‘loyal wingmen’ teamed with crewed aircraft, and more strategic bombers, tankers, and airlift to win a war after 2030.

Center for New American Security Slaughter in the East China Sea, 2020.12 This limited study explored China’s seizure of one of the Senkaku Islands and the Japanese efforts to reclaim them. The United States assisted Japan but with constrained rules of engagement. Both sides sought to contain the crisis, but the conflict escalated nevertheless, culminating with the United States and Japanese forces being unable to reclaim the islands.

Center for New American Security Poison Frog, 2021.13 This study explored the Chinese seizure of Taiwan’s outlying Pratas Islands, which China quickly seized. The United States and its allies found few ways to push China out, without using escalatory military options, while economic and information campaigns failed. Close cooperation between Taiwan, the United States, and Japan could isolate China but did not lead to a return to the status quo. The report recommended close cooperation, clear deterrence policies, and Japan’s involvement.

United States Army-backed wargame blog, 2021.14 This United States Army-supported article provides a detailed narrative generated through a commercially available wargame. Ultimately, Taiwanese forces surrendered within a month. The People’s Liberation Army was able to utilize its modern, flexible forces near Taiwan, while their anti-access, area denial capabilities created problems that the United States forces were unable to overcome.

Studies post the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Center for New American Security Dangerous Straits, June 2022.15 This study is set in 2026 and conducted a strategic-operational war game over Taiwan. Despite the People’s Liberation Army’s objective to decapitate Taiwanese leadership and inhibit a United States response with preemptive strikes on Japan and Guam, it indicated no quick victory for either side. Neither side had the upper hand after the first week. The wargame showed that a People’s Liberation Army presence in northern Taiwan possessed very vulnerable lines of communication. It also highlighted rapid escalation, crossed red lines, attacks on the Chinese and United States homelands, and a demonstrative nuclear detonation.

The study recommended the Department of Defense invest in long-range precision-guided weapons, undersea capabilities, additional basing in the western Pacific, and joint planning with Japan and Australia. It also noted the requirement to plan for a protracted conflict, mitigate escalation risks, and support Taiwan’s military posture.

Center for Strategic International Studies The First Battle of the Next War, 2022.16 This study is an impressively detailed and wide-ranging assessment of a war game involving China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. It examines conflict variations over twenty-four different iterations. It clearly details which factors increase or decrease Taiwan’s chances and is clear about assumptions and limitations. The study assessed that China was always able to get troops into Taiwan. People’s Liberation Army forces were so numerous and close that outright defeat at sea was impossible.

Conversely, the United States could not land any forces on Taiwan within the month the games were played. The studies found that the United States, Taiwanese, and Japanese forces prevailed if four key conditions held: Taiwan ground forces could hold out, Taiwan is properly supplied before a conflict, the United States could access bases in Japan, and the United States could rapidly strike the underway Chinese fleet. The study acknowledges that it is more optimistic regarding the chances for Taiwan and the United States, contrasting with some internal United States wargames (see above).

The study’s recommendations included clarifying war plans with Taiwan and Japan, expanding United States facilities near Taiwan, demonstrating a political willingness to incur heavy casualties, and preparing Taiwanese forces properly.

Insights and analysis

Trends over time. The reviewed wargame studies reveal a worsening trend for Taiwan and its defenders. The worrisome trend is especially pronounced for scenarios that take place in the period 2025-2030.17 Studies written before 2018 typically showed that the Republic of China and United States forces hold Taiwan at increasing cost. Studies after 2018 are more pessimistic, as the growing People’s Liberation Army capabilities and the inability of the United States to project sufficient power led to Taiwan’s defeat at worst or pyrrhic victories at best. However, this general trend is not uniform.18

The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a reversal in this generally pessimistic trend. The latest studies reflect a greater uncertainty over the result of a Chinese invasion and the capabilities of its People’s Liberation Army. It became clearer that assessments need to model more factors, principally logistics, robust satellite-enabled communications, the introduction of greater numbers of uncrewed systems, and man-portable missiles. These factors all impeded Russia’s invasion. In recent studies, the changing character of warfare tended to favor a determined defender, which decreased China’s chances.

Whilst these newest studies are more optimistic for Taiwan, the identified general trend will worsen unless the United States enacts major improvements. Without massively increasing the number of missiles available and the ability to strike People’s Liberation Army transports, the Republic of China’s forces are overwhelmed. In most scenarios that assume the United States makes such changes, the coalition defeated a conventional amphibious invasion and maintained an autonomous and democratic Taiwan; however, no study resulted in the successful retaking of lost Taiwanese territory by allied forces. A successful defense of Taiwan would come at a high cost. Allied forces lose dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of service personnel while Taiwan’s economy is devastated. Such high losses would damage the United States’ global position for many years.19

Explaining differences between the studies. It is worth considering how these wargaming studies come to such a range of different results. Wargaming is a valuable tool for commanders, leaders, and managers. Well-executed wargames before and during hostilities delivered significant competitive advantages in numerous conflicts, although wargaming does not, and cannot, guarantee success.20 The United States, China, and Taiwan have all wargamed the issue of Taiwan extensively.21 But wargaming studies tend not to be done if the answer is self-evident and beyond doubt. For example, no wargame assumes Taiwanese forces are unwilling to fight as China could then accomplish its objectives quickly and consolidate control.

Therefore, distinct scenarios are used in the various studies above to seek insights in different situations. Conflicts may include various actors and involve basing from a range of countries. Involved parties would use different concepts of operations, like a deliberate full-scale invasion or limited attack on outlying islands, with different levels of strategic and tactical warning for defenders and reinforcers. One alternative approach involved letting a Chinese invasion run out to see how long Taiwan could hold on while assuming some best-case scenario conditions for the People’s Liberation Army. The scenario provided insight into the allowable delay for the United States to intervene before the Taiwanese capitulation. The answer was thirty-one days after the initial People’s Liberation Army landings.22

This review does not cover how to conduct a wargame. Conducting wargames is covered in places like the Ministry of Defense wargaming handbook and the methodology sections of some wargame studies.23 However, setting assumptions is critical to validation and fidelity.24 Many factors need to be assumed, whether significant, like which parties are involved, or insignificant, like the chances a missile can knock a ship out of action. But even a relatively simple assumption could be initially in error or become outdated during a conflict as sides adapt their tactics. For example, the effectiveness of depth charges in the Second World War25 or the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the sensor-kill chain in Ukraine were instances where initial assumptions did align with reality.26

Unless bound by a common rulebook, studies will make different assumptions. These can account for variations in results. The First Battle of the Next War, 2022, specifically looks at how its study differs from classified Department of Defense wargames.27 It asserts differences come from rival values attributed to the probability of kill, different aims and objectives of the wargames, the focus on shorter time frames (when United States forces are less ready), and assuming Chinese capabilities are more potent for a worst-case scenario hedging effort. Differences are exacerbated by changes in force structure, capabilities, and the relative power balance between the People’s Liberation Army and its adversaries in proximity.

Besides tactical probability of kill metrics, assumptions need to be made about other factors. Some will be easier to make than others. For example, the order of battle of all sides is unlikely to change significantly in the short term. Still, the organizers also need to assume which forces would be saved for other contingency operations. For example, forces reserved by the United States for Europe or for China to commit to the Indian border. Weapon stockpiles, the will to fight, the effectiveness of forces, the concept of operations, allied support, availability of future weapon systems, strategic messaging, and tactical warnings must all be decided and agreed upon by the adjudicators and players. Moreover, as wargames look further into the future, more unknown variables come into play, all of which will affect the play’s fidelity and outcome.

Each of these factors and variables could prove pivotal in a closely balanced conflict, to say nothing of the usual frictions. Furthermore, any general conflict involving the United States and China would likely include all domains of warfare at a scale not seen since the mid-20th century, cover a vast area of the western Pacific, and comprise actors using a range of new and some unknown and classified capabilities. Therefore, modeling a future United States versus China conflict is, perhaps, wargaming’s most difficult challenge.

Sensitivity analysis: What factors increase the chance the United States, Taiwan, and allies will prevail?

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – Attributed to statistician George Box28

While many studies differ, combining their findings can give valuable insights into what factors may prove pivotal in a future conflict. The most compelling conclusions arise from sensitivity analysis, which attempts to understand how different assumptions affect the outcome.29 These studies’ usefulness comes from testing the effects of different assumptions, as they demonstrate what factors would most increase or decrease the United States and Taiwan’s chances of victory.

The Center for Strategic International Studies’ The First Battle of the Next War, 2022, is the single best example of the comparative analysis of sensitive variables and is worth looking at closely. The study ran twenty-five different games, testing several variables the study deemed most important.30 The Center of Strategic International Studies identifies four critical conditions for success: Taiwan’s people and military must effectively resist, Taiwan must have sufficient stockpiles at the start of the war, the United States must begin operations against China immediately, and the United States must be able to use its bases in Japan for combat operations.31 Without these conditions, allied missiles and United States submarines were insufficient to defeat an invasion.

The report discusses the effects of twenty-five variables. The most important variables benefitting the People’s Liberation Army invasion were an isolated and indecisive Taiwan, a neutral Japan, delayed entry of United States combat forces (as much as D+14), and few modern anti-ship cruise missiles available to counter-invasion forces. The most important factors that benefit Taiwan’s defense were the People’s Liberation Army not being as proficient in conducting amphibious operations or defending their ships from missiles, immediate combat operations from the Japanese Self Defence Forces, increased hardened aircraft shelters in Japan, and more airbases or airports to conduct operations from for the United States.

From reading the studies in this review, the author considers these variables the most likely to determine the outcome of a conflict involving China, Taiwan, and the United States. First and foremost, the role of Japan (and, to a lesser degree, other allies) will be fundamental to Taiwan’s survival for two reasons. First, it increases and disperses the number of bases the United States can operate from, and second, it increases the mass and number of allied forces opposing China. The availability of Japanese and other regional bases, like the Philippines, increases the survivability and ability to surge assets into the theater of operations. A few Chinese strikes could utterly disrupt United States operations with just Guam and the United States’ nearby aircraft carriers. Adding Japanese and possibly other allied forces to the defensive order of battle makes it easier to increase fire rates against Chinese aircraft, ships, and transports.

People’s Liberation Army Navy vulnerability, or the ability to absorb attrition, is the vital kinetic variable. The more long-range missiles the coalition possesses and can direct against People’s Liberation Army invasion elements, the greater Taiwan’s chances. “They need anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, mobile artillery, mobile air defenses, unmanned aerial vehicles… It comes down to sinking about 300 Chinese ships in about 48 hours”.32 However, projected production rates of missiles like the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LASRM) and maritime strike Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) are limited, and in many wargames, the allies quickly deplete these specific missiles. The time needed to transport these missiles to relevant bases or ships affects wargame outcomes. If Taiwan has access to significant stockpiles of material at the start of the conflict, especially missiles, this buys Taiwan more time to await United States intervention. Additionally, with China’s anti-access capabilities limiting the effect of allied short-range air attacks, submarines offer an effective way to attack Chinese amphibious shipping. If United States submarines can reliably enter, engage in, escape, rearm, and return to Chinese shipping channels, Chinese chances for success are significantly diminished.

In most wargames without external support, the Republic of China’s forces remain effective only for a few weeks. Delays in the response of the Taiwanese, United States, Japanese, and allied forces significantly increased China’s chances. Delaying factors include allied indecision and the success of Chinese deception activities. While strategic surprise may be difficult to obtain, tactical surprise, like mounting an assault from fake exercises, increases China’s chances.

Fundamentally, the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s success depends on two factors. First, China’s ability to project its anti-access capabilities further from its coast will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to deploy forces at sufficient ranges to affect the outcome of a conflict. The second factor is China’s ability to plan and execute an opposed amphibious assault. This is an important area of uncertainty identified in many studies where China’s inexperience could result in a disaster for them in numerous ways.33,34

Areas of most uncertainty that require further study

Wargaming on a Taiwan invasion inevitably has limitations. As noted earlier, the scope of this conflict could be vast. All operational domains and political, diplomatic, economic, and information effects are in play. Not all permutations of the assumptions nor the interdependent effects can be tested. For practical reasons, wargames tend to cover shorter periods than a conflict with the People’s Liberation Army might take. Furthermore, many developments in warfare were demonstrated in the Russia-Ukraine war, which wargames have only started to attempt to model.

Wargaming studies sometimes helpfully discuss what they do and do not model. For example, the RAND scorecard, which considers more aspects than most, does not consider ground combat or drones, and it does not model the effects of the threat of nuclear weapons.

At the strategic level, several variables have been marginalized or overlooked. Xi’s long rule and centralization of power follow the pattern of many other authoritarian leaders. A lack of robust internal challenge could lead to a greater chance of strategic misjudgments than wargames currently assume.35 One war game considered multiple crises simultaneously (Russia, China, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).36 The West’s rivals would likely seek to take advantage of crises if they could, either during or after a conflict. The effects of nuclear weapons deterrence were replicated by players imposing limits on themselves, like restricting attacks against mainland Chinese assets,37 but this was rare. None of the other studies directly calculated the effect of the use of nuclear weapons, and their use was considered beyond the scope. Xi and the People’s Liberation Army likely took note of the effects of Russia’s nuclear threats against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

While some wargames model how long it takes various actors to engage in conflict, few have enough players to test Chinese efforts to break up coalitions and their impact on a conflict. The permutations of those alliances and coalitions are also worthy of study; the United States, Japan, and Taiwan are well covered but are not the only variations. With enough notice and favorable dispositions, other capable actors could become directly involved, like forward-deployed submarines from allies. China fears a multi-front war, so more consideration to Indian contingencies could be given. The role of other regional actors in South and South East Asia should be considered as active participants or potential threats that China needs to reserve forces to counter. Further, the will to fight for Taiwan’s population (and China’s effectiveness in undermining it) beyond its leadership has rarely been considered in depth.38 Still, it would be a vital contributor to the assessment. Most studies assume attacks would be limited or not occur in the United States and Chinese homelands. Some do,39 but more study is warranted on how such attacks could escalate or be deterred.

Similarly, the role of People’s Liberation Army forces based outside China is not covered. The People’s Liberation Army currently has limited self-defense capabilities, and China’s main effort will be concentrated on Taiwan. But, in later time periods, People’s Liberation Army bases worldwide could complicate allied intervention.40 As many studies find the most critical period is relatively short, studies on the effectiveness of sanctions and blockades are rare. Studies that look at economic sanctions tend not to consider military action and vice versa.41 Despite numerous predictions of long-duration conflict, most wargames consider a shorter, tightly bound period. Should China fail to take Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party would be unwilling to give up its claim and accept the outcome. What China would do next is an important area for study.42 Barring state or party collapse, China would seek to rearm and re-contest the war. After and even during a period of conflict, the need to replenish stockpiles and material will be acute and could be wargamed.

Most studies assume China will deliberately mobilize military and civilian assets, like civilian sealift, that would be readily noticed unambiguously by the Taiwanese and other nations. China has a clear incentive to reduce the predictability of its efforts by staging more realistic-looking exercises to gain tactical, if not strategic, surprise. China’s normalization of increased activities, exercises, and incursions near Taiwan complicates allied decision-making.43 Furthermore, the invasion of Ukraine showed that not all allies perceived the warning signs and came to different conclusions regarding Russia’s intent.44 Some studies examined sensitivity analysis in the competing doctrines of the People’s Liberation Army and the Republic of China’s forces. However, the effects of the operational inexperience of the People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan should be better tested, especially on critical amphibious landings. Any conflict is unlikely to follow established and conditioned doctrine dogmatically. Besides mobilizing for a full-scale invasion, China could choose different coercive measures against Taiwan, including island seizures (salami slicing),45 maritime or air blockade, missile bombardment to destroy leadership or undermine will, or a surprise air assault.46 The United States’ concepts of operations will also change.47 Fighting in and around Ukraine has shown a significant increase in the use of drones for direct attacks and tactical reconnaissance. Wargames have not caught up with the increasing number and use of drones on battlefields, including at sea. While some studies note the growing role of larger drones in the air and maritime order of battles, more assessment of the role of drones in direct attacks and tactical reconnaissance, especially at long distances over the sea, will be needed. The robustness of drone data in electronic warfare must be examined. Reliable and resilient communication networks are required. China could quickly degrade Taiwanese command and control. However, China warily noted Ukraine’s ability to utilize massive proliferated low-earth orbit satellite constellations, like Starlink or OneWeb. Chinese losses would increase if Taiwan’s communications and computing networks were more robust.

United Kingdom (U.K.) military and civilian personnel from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) conducted a wargame on the High North as part of DSTL’s inaugural Influence Wargaming Conference on July 19th, 2021. With the Indo-Pacific and Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) of increasing importance to the U.K., the time is right for MoD to build on previous Taiwan/South China Sea wargames to develop its awareness and contingencies. Crown Copyright. Photographer: SAC Charlotte Hopkins, JIAG.


The wargaming and other studies reviewed here show a positive general trend over time for China. However, this is not a constant trend, and early findings from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicate China might encounter more problems than previously thought.

In most cases, wargaming studies still show that a China and Taiwan conflict, featuring a United States intervention, would be close run and incredibly bloody for all sides. There would also be severe effects on the global economy. If the People’s Liberation Army replicates these studies, they should have some deterrent effect on China.

The outcome of these studies is very sensitive to small changes, and the war in Ukraine demonstrated new developments and uncertainty. Further analysis is needed. However, those running wargames possess limited resources, so studies that last longer and cover the interactions of more types of capabilities in detail would be difficult to conduct.

Instead, a greater range of smaller studies, which each interrogate more of the areas of uncertainty identified above, is recommended. These should include wargames on what follows an initial failed Chinese invasion, different Chinese military options (especially blockades), and the use of drones and capabilities like Starlink or OneWeb. These studies could then inform assumptions used by the larger, more comprehensive wargames that happen periodically.

These smaller studies should include the potential benefits and risks of including more allies, like Australia and the United Kingdom. While the first weeks are crucial to the outcome, prior experience indicated that the United Kingdom will likely have capable maritime and other assets deployed in the western Pacific at the onset,48 and the planned Global Response Force49 will give the United Kingdom further options to reinforce regional allies within that pivotal timeframe.

Robert Kitchen is a First Sea Lord Fellow at the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre. He is also a U.K. Ministry of Defence Civil Servant with experience in U.K. Indo-Pacific policy and defense engagement. These views are his alone and do not represent those of the U.K. Ministry of Defence, Royal Navy Strategic Studies Center, or any other institution.


1. Jim Garamone, “Defense Official Says Indo-Pacific Is the Priority Theater; China Is DOD’s Pacing Challenge,” United States Department of Defense, March 9th, 2022. (Accessed August 23, 2023).

2. For example, see: Tso-Juei Hei, “Taiwan Conducts Han Kuang 2022 Large-Scale Exercise,” Naval News, July 29th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).; & Joseph Yeh, “DEFENSE/Taiwan’s Han Kuang exercises to begin Monday with tabletop wargames,” Focus Taiwan, May 14th, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023). & Elsa B Kania & Ian Burns McCaslin. “Learning Warfare from the Laboratory – China’s Progression in Wargaming and Opposing Force Training,” Institute for the Study of War, September, 2021. (Accessed, August 23rd, 2022). For a quick and easy breakdown of Taiwan’s Han Kuang exercises from 2000 – 2020, see Wikipedia entry:

3. “Defence Wargaming Centre,” UK Ministry of Defence, April 23th, 2023. (Accessed August 23, 2023).; Press Release: “Announcement of new Director appointed to the Secretary of State’s Office for Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC),” U.K. Ministry of Defence, May 6th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 202).

4. David C. Gompert, Astrid Stuth Cevallos, & Cristina L. Garafola. “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” RAND Corporation, 2016. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

5. Eric Heginbotham, et al. “The United States-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017,” RAND Corporation, 2015. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

6. Ian Easton. “The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia,” Project 2049 Institute, 2017.

7. James Lacey. “How does the next Great Power conflict play out? Lessons from a wargame,” War on the Rocks, April 22nd, 2019. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

8. Kyle Mizokami. “The United States Military ‘Failed Miserably’ in a Fake Battle Over Taiwan,” Popular Mechanics, August 2nd, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

9. David Vergun. “DOD Focuses on Aspirational Challenges in Future Warfighting,” United States Department of Defense, July 26th, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).; & Brett Tingley. “Joint Chiefs Seek A New Warfighting Paradigm After Devastating Losses In Classified Wargames,” The Drive, July 27th, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

10. “Defending Taiwan is growing costlier and deadlier,” The Economist, October 8th, 2020. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023.; & Richard Bernstein. “The Scary War Game Over Taiwan That the United States Loses Again and Again,” RealClear Investigations (August 17, 2020). Accessed August 23, 2023:

11. Valerie Insinna. “A United States Air Force war game shows what the service needs to hold off — or win against — China in 2030,” DefenseNews, April 12th, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

12. Chris Dougherty, Susanna V. Blume, Becca Wasser, and Dr. ED McGrady. “Slaughter in the East China Sea’, Center for a New American Security, August 7th, 2020. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023). Original publication: Michael Peck. “Slauther in the East China Sea,” Foreign Policy,August 7th, 2020. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

13. Chris Dougherty, Jennie Matuschak and Ripley Hunter. “The Poison Frog Strategy,” Center for a New American Security, October 26th, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

14. Ian Sullivan. “337: ‘No Option is Excluded’ — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan,” Mad Scientist Laboratory, July 1st, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

15. Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser and Chris Dougherty. “Dangerous Straits: Wargaming a Future Conflict over Taiwan,” Center for a New American Security, June 15th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

16. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, & Eric Heginbotham.”‘The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 9th, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

17. See “Defending Taiwan is growing costlier and deadlier,” The Economist, October 8th, 2020; & Richard Bernstein, Op Cit.

18. Valerie Insinna, Op Cit.

19. Mercy A. Kuo & Mark Cancian. ”Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan: ‘Victory Is Not Enough,”, The Diplomat, January 31st, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

20. Developments Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). MOD Wargaming Handbook, UK Ministry of Defence, August, 2017. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023). For a view of the effectiveness of wargames during war, see Simon Parkin. “A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game that Won the War,” Sceptre: London, 2019. Parkin explores the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit; a small team of Royal Navy Reserve and Women’s Royal Navy Service personnel credited with devising the tactics, techniques, and procedures for anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic.

21. Elsa B. Kania & Ian Burns McCaslin, Op Cit.

22. Max Stewart. “Island Blitz: A campaign analysis of a Taiwan takeover by the People’s Liberation Army,” Center for International Maritime Security, June 13th, 2023.

23. See Chapter 2, MoD Wargaming Handbook, Op Cit.; & Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, & Eric Heginbotham, Op Cit.

24. Elizabeth Bartels. ”Getting the Most out of your Wargame: Practical Advice for Decision Makers,” War on the Rocks, November 19th, 2019. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

25. Raymond H. Milkman. “Operations Research in World War II,” Proceedings, Vol 94/5/783, United States Naval Institute, May 1968. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

26. David Hambling. “How Drones Are Making Ukrainian Artillery Lethally Accurate,” Forbes, May 12th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

27. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, & Eric Heginbotham. Op Cit. p102.

28. George E. P. Box. “Science and Statistics,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71 (356), 1976: 791-799. DOI:

29. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, & Eric Heginbotham. Op Cit: 36.

30. See Annex A, Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham. Op Cit.

31. Mercy A. Kuo & Mark Cancian. Op Cit.

32. Richard Bernstein. Op Cit.

33. Eric Heginbotham, et al. Op Cit: 21.

34. Chapters 4 and 5 in Ian Easton. Op Cit.

35. Hal Brands. “Putin Has Fallen Victim to the Dictator’s Disease,” American Enterprise Institute, April 7th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

36. James Lacey. Op Cit.

37. Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser & Chris Dougherty. Op Cit.

38. The Economist. Op Cit.

39. Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser and Chris Dougherty. Op Cit.

40. Cristina L. Garafola, Stephen Watts, Kristin J. Leuschner. “China’s Global Basing Ambitions: Defense Implications for United States,’ RAND Corporation, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

41. Charlie Vest and Agatha Kratz. “Sanctioning China in a Taiwan crisis: Scenarios and risks,” Atlantic Council, June 21st, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

42. E.g. see Executive Summary in Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser & Chris Dougherty. Op Cit.

43. Bonny Lin & Joel Wuthnow. “Pushing Back Against China’s New Normal in the Taiwan Strait,” War On The Rocks, August 16th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

44. Patrick Wintour. “Why are Germany and France at odds with the Anglosphere over how to handle Russia?” The Guardian, January 26th, 2022. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

45. Chris Dougherty, Jennie Matuschak & Ripley Hunter. Op Cit.

46. The Economist. Op Cit; & David Lague & Maryanne Murray. “T-Day:The Battle for Taiwan,” Reuters Investigates, November 5th, 2021. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

47. Valerie Insinna. Op Cit.

48. Prime Minister’s Office. “Fact sheet: Trilateral Australia-UK-United States Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” U.K. Government, March 13th, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).; & Press Release: “H.M.S. Daring deployment to boost UK response to Philippines typhoon,” U.K. Ministry of Defense, November 12th, 2013. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

49. U.K. Ministry of Defense. “Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world,” HH Associates, 2023. (Accessed August 23rd, 2023).

Featured Image: Fighter jets attached to a brigade of the PLA Air Force Xi’an Flying College taxi on the runway in an Elephant Walk formation before taking off for a flight training exercise in early February 2024. ( by Cui Baoliang)

Quality from Quantity: The PLAN’s Road to Achieve American Skill via Size

By Matthew Hipple

The United States Navy holds up quality as the firebreak against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) dominant fleet size and overwhelming industrial capacity. But the development and maintenance of professional skills to fight wars, build ships, and maintain fleets requires material, time, and people – in a word, quantity, for which the PLAN holds the undeniable advantage. The cliché that “quantity has a quality all its own” improperly frames the advantages conferred upon America’s PLAN adversary by the size of its navy and its various supporting enterprises. Quantity is not merely an attribute with which to bury one’s opponent; quantity pragmatically applied provides individuals and entire professional classes the opportunity to cultivate and cement quality. Without the opportunity afforded by scale, the U.S. Navy will fall behind an adversary with a world of opportunity to explore new skills, new systems, and grow its force-wide professionalism. The potential qualitative impact of quantity shows at every level – from the shipyards to fleet training for individual sailors.

The Maritime Industry and a Nation’s Maritime Character

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) recently assessed that the China’s shipbuilding industry fields 232 times the shipbuilding capacity of the United States, representing almost 50% of total global shipbuilding capacity. To stark quantitative differences like these, the U.S. Navy responds, “in many ways our shipbuilders are better shipbuilders, that’s why we have a more modern, more capable, more lethal Navy.”

An unclassified slide from the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) highlighting differences between U.S. Navy and PLA Navy shipbuilding capacity, ship count, and overall tonnage. (U.S. Navy graphic)

Unfortunately, these snapshots of quantitative position fail to account for the rate of qualitative improvement required for China to achieve this feat of material and professional development – from backwater to backbone. China’s modern shipbuilding behemoth is only 20 years old, the result of a deliberate Chinese Communist Party (CCP) campaign of maritime expansion begun in response to the US Navy’s Summer Pulse 2004 exercise when China represented only around 10% of global ship production. In the time between LCS program initiation in 2004 and the final mission package reaching initial operating capability in 2023, the CCP revolutionized an entire industry and supporting professional class. Meanwhile, 20 years of mismanaged shipbuilding plans – have left American shipbuilders without the demand needed to sustain itself, its professional community, or meet naval demand. John Konrad of GCaptain estimates that making “an American shipyard professional takes about 3-5 years.” Although the communal professional improvement of China’s shipyard workers will take longer due to their extreme individual specialization compared to more broadly skilled Western shipyard workers – the China’s shipbuilding cadre have that opportunity to improve with the scale of their enterprise. And ultimately, specialized workers who exist are superior to theoretically higher quality generalists who do not.

But shipbuilding is just a piece of that qualitative puzzle solved by the scale of China’s maritime industry. There is a maritime quality to China’s population that America has left behind. As Mahan notes, “in point of population, it is not only the grand total, but the number following the sea, or at least readily available for employment on ship-board and for the creation of naval material, that must be counted.” Mahan goes on to say that this is a quality of,

staying power… which is even greater than appears on the surface; for a great shipping afloat necessarily employs, besides the crews, a large number of people engaged in the various handicrafts which facilitate the making and repairing of naval material, or following other callings more or less closely connected with the water and with craft of all kinds.”

But even in front-facing maritime industries, America falls behind, as evidenced by the Maritime Administration (MARAD) finally sounding the alarm on mariners available for the ready reserve fleet in a war against a thoroughly maritime nation with a maritime militia and weaponized commercial fleet.

These maritime qualities expand beyond mariners and their supporting maritime industry. From commercial electronics to drone manufacturing, China fields vast and ever-improving professional communities in pursuits related to the development, sustainment, and operation of a modern Navy. Mahan recognized that “such kindred callings give an undoubted aptitude for the sea from the outset.” Even industries unassociated with naval warfare provide those with the character and skill needed to support the fleet. Mahan notes a particularly canny English mariner, Sir Edward Pellew, who, “when the war broke out in 1793… Eager to get to sea and unable to fill his complement otherwise than with landsmen, he instructed his officers to seek for Cornish miners; reasoning from the conditions and dangers of their calling… would quickly fit into the demands of sea life. The result showed his sagacity… he was fortunate enough to capture the first frigate taken in the war in single combat.” China’s multitude industries provides such individuals experienced in the conditions and wielding the skills sufficient to make useful mariners.

The U.S. Navy highlighting contemporary quality recalls Mahan’s unnamed French officer, who after “extolling the high state of efficiency of the French fleet… goes on to say: ‘Behind the squadron of 21 ships-of-the-line which we could then assemble, there was no reserve.’” China certainly displays Mahan’s qualities for a maritime nation’s industrial character and its relation to the sea. The CCP’s groundwork of capacity is now well laid to improve the qualitative muscles at sea, opportunities well in excess of the U.S. Navy’s.

Practice Makes Perfect – But How, When, and With What?

When faced with the ever-growing size of the PLAN, a common U.S. Navy response is that, “they script their people to fight, we actually train our people to think.” While valid, the United States Navy has had its own past struggles with training quality  and scripting. Meanwhile, the PLAN pursues improvements in the quality and accurate assessment of its combat exercises.

Only nine years ago the surface fleet founded the Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center (SMWDC) to repair decades of atrophy in tactical and operational training and expertise. Still, scripts and constraints continued to erode junior officers’ desire to command while early command opportunities decrease. From my own experience, experienced, post-command mentors wondered aloud if seeking command at sea was and is worth the ever-shrinking margin of actual command exercised against a sea of requirements.

Ship for ship, the U.S. Navy is still better than America’s PLAN adversaries. U.S. Navy waterfront leadership’s resentment of administrative leashes indicates they still strive for independence and know what right looks like. However, institutionally the U.S. Navy fails to detect the diminishing opportunities for excellence that its size and those leashes provide, and how the opposite opportunity is now offered to America’s principal adversary. The diminished size of the U.S. fleet against growing operational requirements requires leadership to impose ever greater oversight and ever smaller margins of independence, while the PLAN’s mere size allows broad new opportunities for autonomy and professional growth if they want to pursue it.

To demonstrate these narrow margins, during the roll-out of the 36-month Optimized Fleet Response Plan, my officemates and I at the Surface Forces Atlantic Commander’s Action Group did a loose internal analysis projecting the cycle over time. We determined that scenarios existed in which the margins imposed by the historically low fleet size in 2014-2015 were such that major exercises would suffer. Our limited quantity imposed clear potential limitations on our ability to generate quality – highlighting how a lack of capacity can force greater invasive or disruptive acts to ensure the fleet-level schedule meets basic requirements.

Those invasive acts further limit a commanding officer’s ability to exercise their own judgment and build trust with their crew, as exercised during “CO’s time” – the time underway free of outside direction where a ship’s captain independently sets the agenda and priorities for training or testing. There is no data I know of tracking the availability and use of “CO’s time,” but over the past decade I have heard its absence lamented in greater volume every year. As an operations officer (OPS), my CO tasked me with clawing back what little time I could for us to set our own destiny. Even after triple-stacking requirements just to meet our timetable, I cannot recall ever having succeeded. I have yet to meet a CO or a fellow OPS with a success story on this front. The fleet’s limited numbers often force condensation and scripting of training by necessity, precluding greater independent opportunities for teams to develop and exercise their tactical creativity.

Additionally, the U.S. Navy’s often minimalist approach to procurement shows how limited quantity limits development of quality in arenas like tactical and technical development. As an example, the 10-years-behind-schedule LCS Mine Counter-Measures (MCM) Mission Package (MP) has still yet to certify Full Operating Capability. When I was OPS with LCS Crew 206 in 2020, when the package was only seven years behind schedule, we could only field a single unmanned surface vessel (USV) for limited periods to conduct basic testing – let alone tactical development. This was after the disastrous attempt to base the MCM mission package off the Remote Multi Mission Vehicle (RMMV) – a corner-cutting approach that tried to repurpose a program from 1999 for DDGs into an LCS minehunting system into the 2020’s.

Among numerous other programmatic issues, the paucity of resources always limited the speed of development. The U.S. Navy is making strides learning from that failure on the unmanned front with CTF 59 in Bahrain, USV DIV One in San Diego, and a new approach for 4th Fleet. Nonetheless, the US Navy remains well short of needed manned surface vessels. As the qualitative lag in the MCM MP caused by a paucity of USV assets demonstrates, the same applies to manned surface vessels. But unlike the U.S. Navy, the PLAN has nothing if not extra ships, ordnance, and unmanned systems to train and experiment with.

July 24, 2020 – The crew of USS MANCHESTER (LCS 14) conducts USV training. (Author photo)

Our Advantage Is Our People – If We Can Get Them To School

Finally, the ultimate advantage of the U.S. Navy against the PLAN is that its sailors are better on their feet. But to be better improvisers, they need training they can stand by – a lesson learned during the lost decade replacing in-person schools with CD-based SWOS-in-a-box and online GMTs. While the U.S. Navy has greatly improve the availability and quality of training today, getting to this training demands adequate capacity: enough ships to fulfill fleet requirements while giving COs and crews the space to learn and enough sailors to cover the watch while shipmates are at school. The lack of the former is discussed above, and the 22,000 gapped at-sea billets underscore the continuing lack the latter.

With overtasked, undermanned ships – a force cut to the bone against ever-increasing global demand for conventional maritime forces – ships are caught in a Catch-22: they need to send their sailors to school, but the persistent demands of security, engineering, maintenance, administration, domestic fleet tasking, and the like means there are very few sailors to spare. Here, LCS shows a world that could have been, had the fleet not hamstrung its future manning with the ill-conceived Perform-to-Serve cuts. For a time, the Blue-Gold model showed what a properly manned command could do- with time for sailors to attend school, watchteams available for a month to fight entire virtual wars in the simulator, opportunity to focus on personal and family health, and opportunities to assist other crews as necessary while training along the way. In our case, LCS Crew 206 sent 12 sailors to train on and test the USV with the prime contractor and Naval Sea Systems Command’s LCS Mission Modules program office (PMS-420) in Panama City. Properly resourced, these well-trained and well-practiced sailors achieve feats like USS Charleston’s 26-month deployment.

SAN DIEGO (March 5, 2020) – Sailors stand a simulated watch on the bridge of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT)-2B at the Littoral Training Facility on Naval Base San Diego, March 5, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin C. Leitner)

Unfortunately, contemporary manning gaps have made proper resourcing of any manning model a challenge. Geography also exacts an asymmetric toll: While a San Diego-based warship takes a month to cross to the Western Pacific and another month to return, a PLAN vessel can steam around Taiwan to conduct a Restriction of Navigation Operation (RONOP) on a whim. Across the roughly 425 combatants of the PLAN, that home field advantage grants years of extra operating time, which then provides the PLAN greater opportunity for professional development at every level. Whether that opportunity is properly utilized is another question – but its potential must be recognized.

Quality is Molded From Quantity

Quantity may be a quality all its own but quantity is, in jargon terms, a “force multiplier.” Quantity is opportunity – exposure to new skills, repetition and practice of old skills, and chance to develop both. Quantity is bandwidth – the capacity to cover requirements while still supporting schools, training, technical and tactical development, and innovation. The U.S. Navy may field a relative advantage in quality today but the main adversary fields capacity that enables an opportunity to overtake.

The U.S. Navy’s historically diminished size combined with the constraints necessary to maximize that diminished force’s availability paves a path to relative diminished quality against a PLAN which is growing and improving every day. If the U.S. Navy is truly serious about honing a cognitive combat edge against its numerically superior opponent, then it must recognize, advocate for, and invest in the quantity necessary to cultivate quality. There are no silver bullets for the Navy’s most likely adversary; they are communists, not werewolves. The U.S. Navy is going to need, in laymen’s terms, “more” – not merely to fight the next war, but enough to keep cultivating in ourselves the skills and mindset to win it.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty naval officer and former President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.

Featured Image: October 2023 – Chinese Navy warships attached to a destroyer flotilla under the PLA Eastern Theater Command sail in formation en route to a multi-subject training exercise in East China Sea. ( by Wei Chenping)

Advocating by Doctrine: The Pakistan Navy’s Experience

This article is adapted from from a research paper published in Comparative Strategy, Volume 42 – Issue 4. 

By Dr. Khuram Iqbal and Muneeb Salman

Written military doctrines should inform the most basic principles on “how to fight.” But what happens when a doctrine does not primarily concern itself with this question and instead resorts to advocacy? Take, for example, Indian Maritime Doctrine, to which Indian naval expert Iskander Rehman ascribed an advocatory function. In a recently published paper, we argue that the strategic culture of the Pakistan military, characterized by an aversion to documented instructions and the perception of advantage in maintaining strategic ambiguity, led to a similar expression of advocacy in the Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan. The strategic cultural imprint is so strong that it has allowed only limited change in response to external factors, such as the intensifying major power competition and changing strategic stability in the adjoining maritime region. Developments like these can have implications on how military-strategic doctrines are seen, especially in developing countries with smaller navies.

Military Doctrine in Pakistan

The strategic culture of Pakistan is rooted in a quest for security that is influenced primarily by three factors: perceived hostility with India due to contentions following partition, including the war in Kashmir; the threat of a two-front war due to tensions with Afghanistan; and the perception of lack of strategic depth due to the concentration of Pakistan’s population and infrastructure along the Indus River. These factors prompted Pakistan to adopt a policy of opposition to India, prioritizing defense by procuring foreign (mostly Western) weapon systems and seeking diplomatic and military alliances. These policy choices became a part of the country’s overarching strategic culture.

The military-strategic doctrine of the country also evolved in the same strategic cultural context. Due to the perception of lack of strategic depth, the overall strategic doctrine was based on deterrence by denial and, in the event of war, starting a limited conflict that would terminate early due to high costs and third-party intervention. The same concept was extended to the use of nuclear weapons after nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998, when Pakistan rejected a mutual ‘no first use’ offer by India. Despite these developments, the military doctrine of the country remains informal and ambiguous. This is due primarily to two reasons: the military forces of Pakistan inherited the British aversion to written doctrines, and the intentional strategic ambiguity that Pakistan maintains to have leverage over a disparately advantaged adversary.

The British military has a long history of avoiding written doctrine and relying instead — like many allied countries in the years during and after the Second World War — on joint doctrinal documents, such as the NATO Allied Tactical Publication series. The first British Naval War Manual came out in 1960, yet there was a 35-year gap between the Manualissued in 1960 and British Maritime Doctrine adopted in 1995 for the Royal Navy. In Pakistan, all the manuals and guiding documents of doctrinal nature used in the armed services have been either classified or restricted. Even the latest military doctrines of the Pakistan Army (2010) and Pakistan Air Force (2007) are restricted to authorized service personnel only.

There is also a tendency of adopting ambiguity at a doctrinal level due to Pakistan’s conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis the traditionally perceived adversary India. Decision-makers in Islamabad believe that maintaining an ambiguous doctrine and posture will leave India without any firm estimates about the cost of war with Pakistan, thereby deterring war. This view has been accepted by scholarship both at home and abroad.

Doctrinal Culture in the Pakistan Navy

Doctrinal ambiguity also persists in the Pakistan Navy, and it is most pronounced in the area of nuclear deterrence. The development of the service’s sea-based nuclear capability started as a response to the perceived threat of India’s rapidly developing naval nuclear program. Senior naval officials in Pakistan claimed to have the capability to deploy strategic weapons at sea as early as 2008. While the Naval Strategic Forces Command was established at the Naval Headquarters in Islamabad in 2012, Pakistan did not test fire the Babur-3 submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) until 2017. However, ambiguity around second-strike capability persists because the Babur-3 SLCM is not capable of long-range strategic (counter value) targeting. Contributing to this ambiguity, the Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan (2018) states that “Attainment of sea-based second strike capability in the neighborhood demands a robust sea based strategic deterrence. Completion of nuclear triad would enable Pakistan Navy to reinforce strategic deterrence in the region.”

Another reason for the lack of written doctrinal documents in the Pakistan Navy is that a culture of reading is absent in the ranks and ratings, and most instructions and orders are learned and communicated through customary practice and oral communication. One of the few doctrinal documents in the Pakistan Navy is the restricted Compendium of Fleet Orders that describes the role, functions, tasks, code of conduct, etc. for all officers and ratings in four volumes; however, it has little readership even among the officer cadre, which relies largely on customary conduct and anecdotes. Importance of the latter is reflected in the fact that anecdotes from the Navy were collected by a retired officer Rear Admiral Mian Zahir Shah and published in two volumes by the Pakistan Navy Book Club in years 2001 and 2016.

Ripples of Major Power Competition in the Indian Ocean

Across the border, the Indian Navy has also strived for increasing its influence among the armed services. Rehman’s assessment of the Indian Maritime Doctrine as an advocatory document was rooted in the oft quoted status of the Indian Navy as a “Cinderella service” — in reference to the neglected sister in the Disney story — and its limited involvement in Indian strategic decision-making. Yet, the Indian Navy supplemented its advocatory doctrine by an Indian Maritime Strategy published in 2007, and consequent updates of both the Indian Maritime Doctrine (2009) and the Strategy (2015). The Indian Navy also built a case for itself and succeeded in initiating major plans for modernization thanks to the increasing volume of India’s economy and the country’s strategic leaning towards its status as a “net security provider” in the region.

The strategic environment in the Indian Ocean region has transformed rapidly in the past decade. The Quad that formed in 2007 as a coalition for disaster relief and non-traditional security concerns has now consolidated into a regular platform for military exercises between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan. The India-U.S. partnership has cemented with the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) and its associated agreements, as well as the increasing procurement of military platforms, including the P8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. India and France have also been expanding their military cooperation with permanent deployments at Reunion.

At the same time, the United States deployed a nuclear ballistic missile submarine at Diego Garcia last year, a rare move for the U.S. Navy at its remote base in the Indian Ocean. Lately, the AUKUS deal has also sparked debate on increasing nuclearization of the Indian Ocean region with the Indian strategic community particularly divided on the matter. These webs of alliances in the region are all concerned with one security risk as their referent: China.

China’s interests in the Indian Ocean have increased significantly over the past decades. Even though they are primarily commercial, the basing of Chinese Navy ships at Djibouti and the commercial acquisition of Gwadar and Hambontota ports have raised eyebrows in India and the West. The presence of Chinese survey vessels have also increased in the region, which India frequently protests and even resists. China has its own reservations in the broader Indo-Pacific region against the formation of an “Asian NATO” that includes India in its web of Western alliances.

Amidst these changes in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian Navy successfully put in pipeline plans to modernize and grow its fleet to 170 ships, including eighteen conventional submarines, six nuclear submarines, and at least two aircraft carriers by 2030. However, given the present resource allocation and fleet size of 130 ships, the Indian Navy may fall short of its target. Regardless, the present fleet with an aircraft carrier and a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and another one of each platform under construction, has enough potential to create ripples and disturb any perceptions of strategic stability in the Indian Ocean region.

The Pakistan Navy’s Course in the Indian Ocean

Situated within intertwining alliances and the interactions of great powers, Pakistan finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The country has been a traditional Western ally, assisting the West and the United States intimately during the Cold War, from the U2 crisis to the Soviet-Afghan war, and later after the Cold War in the War on Terror. Pakistan has also been an important maritime partner in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) coalition that started in 2004 to ensure maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean. Subsequently, the Pakistan Navy commanded CMF’s Combined Maritime Task Forces 150 (Maritime Security) and 151 (Counter-Piracy) on 12 and 10 occasions respectively, the most among all participating countries. However, Pakistan’s close diplomatic and security ties to China and its participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) led to a debate both within and outside on whether the country did, or needs to, change sides. Given this backdrop, Pakistan now situates itself for navigating the rough waters of increasing major power competition in the Indian Ocean region.

Returning to the doctrinal aspect, if the Pakistan Navy falls in line with the culture of maintaining ambiguity and is inclined to operate in the absence of widely documented doctrines, why did the service release a formal service doctrine in 2018? The official press release announcing the doctrine stated that the “MDP [Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan] will act as a stimulus in sensitizing the public at large, shape opinions and become instrumental in providing a sense of direction to the national maritime sector of Pakistan.” This is an affirmation of the advocatory purpose of the document, resulting from the fact that the Pakistan Navy has been the most under-resourced of the country’s military services despite dealing with the gap in nuclear deterrent capability and embarking on an ambitious fleet modernization program in the mid-2010s to offset conventional asymmetry. The outgoing Naval Chief Admiral Zafar Mehmood Abbasi in 2020 announced the target for a 50 ship fleet by the next decade. However, for this to materialize, the Navy needs more resources.

Vying for a Greater Slice of the Pie

Resource allocation has always been a problem for the Pakistan Navy. During the first budgetary year (1947-48), the government of Pakistan spent around 70 percent of the budget on defense, amounting to Rs. 43.2 million per month. The Navy only received Rs. 18.1 million for the whole budgetary year, while the rest was allocated to the Army fighting India in Kashmir. The budgetary issues continued for years, leading to the resignation of the naval chief HMS Choudri in 1959. After suffering losses during the 1971 war with India, the Navy adopted a strategy of sea control within a “defensive zone” to avoid a blockade of the country’s ports. The war experience and threat perceived from India continue to drive the Navy’s strategic considerations to date, very much in line with the overall strategic culture. Therefore, the increasing fleet size as well as augmentation of nuclear deterrent of the Indian Navy necessitates sharply the qualitative expansion of the Pakistan Navy to maintain strategic stability vis-à-vis India.

In addition to seeking greater resource allocation, the Navy also enjoys considerable influence in providing direction and expertise to the maritime sector. The Navy dominates key positions in several maritime institutions, including the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works, Karachi Port Trust, and the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation. The government tasked the Pakistan Navy with formulating a National Maritime Policy and National Maritime Strategy in 2010. Both documents, prepared in 2011, are still awaiting cabinet approval. Lack of government interest in maritime issues also incentivized the Navy to advocate for the overall development of the maritime sector of Pakistan. The present emphasis by the Navy is on a greater share of the budget for itself and for development of the maritime sector to uplift the national economy and support the defense budget.

The Pakistan Navy’s doctrinal experience shows that written military doctrines may carry other objectives than improving warfighting, such as advocating for greater relevance of a particular service or increasing government policy attention. Regardless of the objectives, such advocatory doctrines still reflect military-strategic cultural considerations even if they deviate from established norms, which in Pakistan’s case are the norms of doctrinal ambiguity and the absence of documented doctrine. The strategic-cultural considerations mediated the influence of major power competition upon the development of the Pakistan Navy’s doctrine. However, the service’s immediate priority still appears to be balancing parity with India rather than picking sides in the regional competition.

Dr. Khuram Iqbal is an Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University, Australia. He previously served as the Head of Department at the Department of International Relations, National Defence University Pakistan, where he also lectured for the National Security and War Course.

Muneeb Salman is an Assistant Research Associate at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think tank affiliated with the National Security Division of Pakistan. He previously worked for more than two years at the Maritime Study Forum, an Islamabad based think tank focused on maritime studies.

Featured image: KARACHI, Pakistan (Feb. 13, 2023) The Pakistan Navy ship Taimur fires rounds during the multinational naval exercise Aman near the country’s port city of Karachi. (Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images)