Tag Archives: featured

Sea Control 238 – Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps with Joslyn Fleming & Dr. Jonathan Wong

By Jon Frerichs

Joslyn Fleming and Dr. Jonathan Wong join the podcast to discuss their report published by RAND entitled “Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps: Alternative Equipping Strategies for Task Organized Units.” The group discusses the problem they were tasked to solve and the alternative equipping strategies that emerged – an area that remains underexplored and critical to the success of the future naval force. 

Download Sea Control 238 – Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps with Joslyn Fleming & Dr. Jonathan Wong


1. “Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps: Alternative Equipping Strategies for Task Organized Units,” by Joslyn Fleming, Dr. Jonathan Wong, et al, RAND, 2021.

Jon Frerichs is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the podcast team at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Project Trident Call for Articles: The Law of Naval Warfare

By James Kraska

Submissions Due: May 17, 2021
Week Dates: June 7-11, 2021

Article Length: 1000-3000 words
Submit to: Content@cimsec.org

The Stockton Center for International Law (SCIL) at the U.S. Naval War College is partnering with CIMSEC to launch the latest Call for Articles of Project Trident to solicit writing on the law of naval warfare and its evolving impact on the future of international maritime security. SCIL is a leading research institute for the study of international law and military operations that produces original analysis for national decision-makers, senior military leaders, scholars, and legal practitioners throughout the world in order to better grasp the role international law plays in naval, joint, and combined operations. The Stockton Center also publishes International Law Studies, the oldest journal of international law in the United States.

The threat of armed conflict at sea is ever-present. Emerging naval technology, new operational, force employment, and warfighting concepts, and contending interests in the oceans risk undermining maritime security. In peacetime, the majority of seafaring States abide by the law of the sea most of the time, either as a matter of customary international law or as a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other agreements. During armed conflict, states apply the law of naval warfare. Yet much of the law in this regard was developed at the Hague Conference in 1907 and by state practice during the world wars. There has been no new codification of the law of naval warfare since Geneva Convention II in 1949. In the event of armed conflict at sea today, states must apply these legacy rules to new situations, making their application and legal outcome uncertain. Furthermore, current naval forces, maritime law enforcement organizations, and state-sponsored maritime militia promote different approaches to the principles and norms of customary law.

New technology continues to transform the maritime domain. The inherently interconnected nature of cybersecurity and the increased risk that comes with autonomous unmanned platforms could pose legal challenges in conflict. Gray-zone operations just below the threshold of declared armed conflict are deliberately taking advantage of legal ambiguities, and the definition of a combatant, or hostile act or intent, is becoming more and more blurred. Maritime militia, coast guard vessels, armed merchantmen, and civilian-crewed military logistics vessels can all present legal complications in a naval warfare context. With respect to tactics and operations, warships may feel compelled to blend with civilian traffic to decrease their detectability and take advantage of the element of surprise. On the strategic level, nations may choose to employ blockades, minefields, and other measures that present legal challenges.

In the future, will today’s definition of armed conflict at sea remain relevant? Who will be considered belligerents, and who (or what) will be considered valid targets? What activities will constitute an attack? International law and its application must evolve to reflect the changing realities of naval warfare with the emergence of new technologies and gray-zone activities.

Authors are invited to write on these topics and more as we look to understand the interplay between evolving laws surrounding naval warfare and the future of international maritime security. Submissions will be jointly reviewed and approved by CIMSEC and SCIL, and will be reviewed for quality of writing, analysis, and legal rigor.

Send all submissions to Content@cimsec.org.

James Kraska is Chair and Charles H. Stockton Professor of International Maritime Law in the Stockton Center for International Law at the Naval War College and Visiting Professor of Law and John Harvey Gregory Lecturer on World Organization at Harvard Law School. He has served as Visiting Professor of Law at the College of Law, University of the Philippines and Visiting Professor of Law at Gujarat National Law University. He previously was Mary Derrickson McCurdy Visiting Scholar at Duke University Marine Laboratory and Chief of Naval Research Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has published numerous books and scholarly articles and is Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies and the treatise, Benedict on Admiralty: International Maritime Law. He is also a Permanent Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Professor Kraska served as a U.S. Navy officer and lawyer, with multiple tours of duty in Japan and the Pentagon. 

The views presented do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stockton Center for International Law, the U.S. Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The 5-inch gun aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) fires during a live-fire gunnery exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeremy Graham)

Virtual Training: Preparing Future Naval Officers for 21st Century Warfare

By Joseph Bunyard


“[We must] embrace the urgency of the moment: our maritime supremacy is being challenged.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

The fundamental character of war is changing.1 Distributed networks, next generation threats, and artificial intelligence will change “the face of conflict” by compressing and accelerating the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop, streamlining the closure of kill chains.2 American security depends on the Navy’s ability to control the seas and project power ashore.3 Preparing future naval officers for 21st century warfare must begin at the US Naval Academy (USNA), where Virtual Training Environments (VTEs) could provide education and training opportunities once exclusive to the Fleet.4

21st century warfare requires data producers and smart data consumers. Although the Department of Defense recognizes the need for an “AI ready force,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that professional military education “has stagnated at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”5 To address this charge, the Navy’s 2020 Education for Seapower Strategy calls for the creation of a “continuum of learning” through the Naval University System.6 While the Naval Postgraduate School conducts innovative technical research—and the Naval War College endows senior leaders with a strategic outlook on the future of warfare—the US Naval Academy does not feature AI, unmanned systems, tactics, or strategy in its core curriculum.7

Figure 1 – Aviation Officer Career Progression. Above: aviation officers require 2.5 years of training before deployment. 8

New technology often means new qualification requirements for junior officers. Added training extends the length of time before an officer is ready to deploy, a worrying trend at which Type Commanders are taking aim (see Figure 1).9 VTEs could offer Midshipmen exposure to the naval applications of disruptive technologies, the chance to accomplish existing Fleet training prior to commissioning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ Machine Learning (ML) tools that they could take to the Fleet. To realize these objectives, the Naval Academy must leverage three types of VTEs—low-cost, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), and Fleet-integrated—to expand training opportunities and reinforce its core curriculum.

E-learning in the COVID-19 era provides the Naval Academy a chance to update its operating system (OS). Instead of using new media, such as Zoom, to present the same PowerPoints Midshipmen would receive in-person, USNA should update its curriculum to take advantage of VTEs with proven training and educational outcomes. Incorporating new media into existing curricula requires an OS update that expands USNA’s “leadership laboratory” into a 21st century warfare laboratory, where smart data producers and consumers are forged. 10

Integrating Low-Cost Virtual Training Environments (VTEs)

“To maintain naval power in an era of great power competition and technological change, the Navy and Marine Corps need to strengthen and expand their educational efforts.”—Education for Seapower Strategy 2020

The Navy and Marine Corps increasingly rely on VTEs to “expand watch team proficiency and combat readiness” across the Fleet.11 Unlike traditional simulators, virtual reality trainers are highly mobile and often rely on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The Chief of Naval Air Training’s Project Avenger simulator, for example, uses gaming computers and virtual reality headsets to qualify students for solo flights in half of the traditional number of flight hours.12 The Marine Corps’ tactical decision kits use similar technology to train infantry battalions on weapon systems and tactics.13 Mixed reality glasses, which overlay a user’s vision with digital information, help crews across the Fleet complete complex maintenance.14

Expanding access to existing virtual reality trainers at the Naval Academy could enable Midshipmen to complete portions of Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE), The Basic School (TBS), and Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) syllabi prior to commissioning. “Future multi-domain combat will be so complex and long-ranged that the military will rely heavily on simulations to train for it.”15 More access to VTE trainers means more familiarization with the technology and interfaces that junior officers are increasingly likely to encounter in the Fleet.

Figure 2 – A Project Avenger Simulator. U.S. Navy photo. 16

Accessing the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE)

“Winning in contested seas also means fielding and equipping teams that are masters of all-domain fleet operations.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

VTEs allow users to conceptualize next generation threats. While the Naval Academy provides Midshipmen the technical foundation to understand Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubbles and contested communications zones, it offers few means for Midshipmen to visualize these abstract threats in an operational context.17 NAVAIR’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and INDOPACCOM’s Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability simulate next generation threats for operations analysis and platform research design testing and evaluation (RDT&E).18 The Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE) enables cross-platform integration of these platforms, and many more, which allows warfighters around the world to take part in scalable multi-domain battle problems.19

Figure 3 – NAVAIR’s JSE 20

To meet the Fleet’s growing need for diversified data, the Navy should leverage the informed and available, yet inexperienced, potential of the Academy’s more than 4,000 Midshipmen. Providing the Naval Academy with NCTE access could generate data for the Fleet and the operational context of classroom lessons for Midshipmen. Data is the new oil; improving predictive AI/ML models, concepts of operation, and training interfaces requires mass amounts of quality data from a range of problem-solving approaches.21 Installing an NCTE node in Hopper Hall’s new Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) would not only allow Midshipmen to observe Fleet training events but also to perform their own operations analysis on platforms, capabilities, and strategies developed during their capstone research.22

Leveraging Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VTEs

“Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have increased the importance of achieving decision superiority in combat.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

For the cost of a video game, the Naval Academy could use the same software as defense industry leaders to improve the decision-making ability of Midshipmen, reinforce classroom concepts, and introduce next generation threats and platforms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses popular videogames like Command: Modern Operations ($79.99 on Steam) to search for “asymmetrical conditions” within “hyper-realistic theater-wide combat simulators” that could be exploited in real-world scenarios.23 Many titles offer open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow users to change the decision-making logic of AI opponents and load custom platforms and capabilities into the game, such as squadrons of future unmanned systems.24 Modern concepts of operation—like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Joint All-Domain Command Control—often undergo “virtual sea trials” in such simulations.25

Figure 4 – Simulated Theater-Level Conflict in the South China Sea

The user-friendly, scalable, and unclassified nature of wargame simulators like Command: Modern Operations make them suitable for inter-academy use. Allies such as the United Kingdom already use commercial titles to host “Fight Clubs” among military and civilian personnel across all roles and ranks of their armed forces.26 By leveraging its cadre of foreign exchange officers and multilateral relationships, the Naval Academy could form an international “fight club” in the style of the growing “e-sports” industry. Competing with and against international Midshipmen and officers would allow Naval Academy Midshipmen to forge relationships with allies and learn from their approaches to tactics, strategies, and decision-making across a variety of simulated scenarios.

COTS Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML) VTEs

“Adopting AI capabilities at speed and scale is essential to maintain military advantage.”—2020 Department of Defense AI Education Strategy

Virtual machines provide users with access to advanced AI and ML tools, as well as the computing power necessary to use them at scale, anywhere there is an internet connection.27 Maintaining the Navy’s military advantage requires an “AI ready force” of smart data producers and consumers.28 Applying AI to operations and processes across the Fleet will likely make open-source ML software the Excel of the future, requiring both smart data producers and consumers. Not every officer is an Excel “wizard,” but most understand how it works, the problems it can solve, and the type of data it needs to function. In order to build an “AI ready force” across all roles and ranks, the Naval Academy should join the growing field of leading research universities incorporating introductory AI and ML courses in their core curricula.29

Just as seamanship and navigation are the cornerstone of maritime competence, AI-literacy will be the core of digital competence. Incorporating AI and ML into the Naval Academy’s core curriculum would create smart data producers and consumers, accelerating the Fleet’s exposure to AI through the bottom up approach envisioned in the Department of Defense AI Education Strategy.30 According to a 2019 study by IBM, “model interoperability,” understanding how a model arrives at a given decision is the single factor that most influences users’ trust in AI.31 Naval Academy graduates literate in AI and ML could better lead enlisted sailors as increasingly complex systems join the Fleet.

Towards a 21st Century Warfare Laboratory

“Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments.” —2020 Triservice Maritime Strategy 32

The Naval Academy must return to the warfighting mentality of its past.33 In 2007, the Naval Academy not only removed its only tactics and strategy course from the Midshipmen core curriculum, it stopped offering it altogether.34 Until recently, this decision signaled the end of a rich history of wargaming at USNA, which included Academy-wide games held at varying levels of classification.35 VTEs offer the Naval Academy an opportunity to reprioritize warfighting by providing the “ready, relevant learning” future naval officers will need to conduct 21st century warfare.36

New concepts of operation require learning and experimentation that 21st century warfare-literate junior officers could accelerate. The Navy and Marine Corps continue to outline ambitious plans that leverage AI, unmanned platforms, and next generation networks in new concepts of operation. Consequently, the Navy aims to equip sailors with “a high degree of confidence and skill operating alongside” unmanned platforms and AI by “the end of this decade.”37 Creating a true “learning continuum” to prepare the Fleet for the future of warfare must start at the US Naval Academy, where the COVID-19 distance-learning environment offers an opportunity for the Naval Academy to update its operating system using VTEs.

Ensign Bunyard is a 2020 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon completing his Master’s in Information Technology Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, he will report to Pensacola for training as a student naval aviator.


1. Grady, John, and Sam Sam Lagrone. “CJCS Milley: Character of War in Midst of Fundamental Change.” USNI News, December 4, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/12/04/cjcs-milley-character-of-war-in-midst-of-fundamental-change.
2. Kitchener, Roy, Brad Cooper, Paul Schlise, Thibaut Delloue, and Kyle Cregge. “What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There.” U.S. Naval Institute, January 9, 2021. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/january/what-got-us-here-wont-get-us-there.
3. Gilday, Mike M. CNO NAVPLAN 2021. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://media.defense.gov/2021/Jan/11/2002562551/-1/-1/1/CNO%20NAVPLAN%202021%20-%20FINAL.PDF., 4.
4. Wilson, Clay. Network Centric Warfare: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress § (2005).
5. Mattis, Jim. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.” Department of Defense Media. Office of the Secretary of Defense, n.d. Accessed February 2, 2021., 8.
6. Gilday, 4.
7. “USNA Core Curriculum.” The U.S. Naval Academy. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.usna.edu/Academics/Majors-and-Courses/Course-Requirements-Core.php.
8. Morris, Terry. “Promotion Boards Brief.” Navy Personnel Command. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://slideplayer.com/slide/11144308/.
9. Shelbourne, Mallory. “Navy Harnessing New Technology to Restructure Aviation Training.” USNI News, September 14, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/09/14/navy-harnessing-new-technology-to-restructure-aviation-training.
10. Miller, Christopher A. “The Influence of Midshipmen on Leadership of Morale at the United States Naval Academy.” Naval Post Graduate School Thesis. Naval Post Graduate School. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a462636.pdf.
11. Kitchener, Roy.
12. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Project Avenger: VR, Big Data Sharpen Navy Pilot Training.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 4, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/12/project-avenger-vr-big-data-sharpen-navy-pilot-training/
13. Berger, David. “Tactical Decision Kit Distribution and Implementation.” MARADMIN. US Marine Corps. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.marines.mil/News/Messages/Messages-Display/Article/1176937/tactical-decision-kit-distribution-and-implementation/.
14. Fretty, Peter. “Augmented Reality Helps US Navy See Clearer.” Industry Week. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.industryweek.com/technology-and-iiot/article/21142049/us-navy-sees-augmented-reality.
15. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Navy, Marines Plan Big Wargames For Big Wars: Virtual Is Vital.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 3, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/12/navy-marines-plan-big-wargames-for-big-wars-virtual-is-vital/.
16. Shelbourne, Mallory.
17. Gonzales, Matt. “Marine Corps to Build Innovative Wargaming Center.” United States Marine Corps Flagship, August 25, 2020. https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2323771/marine-corps-to-build-innovative-wargaming-center/.
18. Davidson, Philip S. “Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, US Navy Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on US Info-Pacific Command Posture 12 February 2019.” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 12, 2019. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Davidson_02-12-19.pdf.
19. “Joint Simulation Environment.” NAVAIR. Naval Air Warfare Center. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.navair.navy.mil/nawctsd/sites/g/files/jejdrs596/files/2018-11/2018-jse.pdf. Also, Squire, Peter. “Augmented Reality Efforts.” Office of Naval Research. Accessed February 2, 2021., 13.
20. “Joint Simulation Environment.”
21. Graham, Karen. “AI Systems Are ‘Only as Good as the Data We Put into Them’.” Digital Journal: A Global Digital Media Network, September 5, 2018. http://www.digitaljournal.com/tech-and-science/technology/a-i-systems-are-only-as-good-as-the-data-we-put-into-them/article/531246. Also, Nilekani, Nandan. “Data to the People.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, July 29, 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2018-08-13/data-people.
22. Tortora, Paul. “Center for Cyber Security Studies – 2018-2019 Stewardship Report.” Cyber Studies, March 14, 2020. http://1970.usnaclasses.com/Classprojects/Center%20for%20Cyber%20Studies.html.
23. Atherton, Kelsey. “DARPA Wants Wargame AI To Never Fight Fair.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, August 18, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/08/darpa-wants-wargame-ai-to-never-fight-fair/. Also, “Command: Modern Operations.” Steam Info. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://steamdb.info/app/1076160/.
24. Atherton, Kelsey.
25. Atherton, Kelsey.
26. Brynen, Rex. “UK Fight Club.” PAX Sims, June 11, 2020. https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/uk-fight-club/.
27. “Data Science Virtual Machines.” Microsoft Azure. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/virtual-machines/data-science-virtual-machines/.
28. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.” The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, September 2020. https://www.ai.mil/docs/2020_DoD_AI_Training_and_Education_Strategy_and_Infographic_10_27_20.pdf.
29. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
30. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
31. Ashoori, Maryam, Weisz, Justin.” “In AI We Trust? Factors that Influence Trustworthiness of AI-Infused Decision-Making Processes.” IBM. December 5, 2019. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1912.02675.pdf., 2.
32. “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with All-Domain Naval Power.” Office of the Secretary of the Navy. December 2020. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/16/2002553074/-1/-1/0/TRISERVICESTRATEGY.PDF., 22.
33. McKinney, Michael. “Warfighting First? Not so Much.” U.S. Naval Institute. May 2019. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2019/may/warfighting-first-not-so-much
34. “Initial Report of the Dean’s Cyber Warfare Ad Hoc Committee.” The US Naval Academy. August 21, 2009. https://www.usna.edu/Users/cs/needham/CyberSecurityInitiative/USNACyberInitiativeInitialReport_USNA-CS-TR-2011-02.pdf#search=ns310., 76.
“Core Curriculum Review.” USNA Division of Seamanship and Navigation. March 2, 2005. https://www.usna.edu/Academics/_files/documents/sapr/ProDev_Core.pdf., slide 13.
35. “Wargaming at the Naval Academy.” Shipmate. The United States Naval Academy Alumni Foundation. February 2021., 25-26.
36. “Ready, Relevant Learning.” Naval Education and Training Command. Accessed March 19, https://www.netc.navy.mil/RRL/.

37. Gilday, 11.

Feature photo: A U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman conducts a simulated T-6B Texan II flight on a newly installed virtual reality trainer device at the U.S. Naval Academy during Aviation Selection Night at Dahlgren Hall. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Rick Healey/Released)

China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets: A Primer for Operational Staffs and Tactical Leaders, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in the Military Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished in two parts. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One here.

By Shuxian Luo and Jonathan G. Panter

The surge of propaganda notwithstanding, several issues confront Beijing before the maritime militia can effectively function as the third arm in collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. First, the wide dispersion of the maritime militia at sea makes it harder to control than land-based forces.39 Second, it is unclear through what institutionalized cross-system integrator(s) maritime militia forces coordinate with the CCG or with the PLA’s theater command system that operates active-duty forces.40 PLA commanders and officers have openly discussed the problems of who commands the militia forces, under what circumstances, and with what authorization; who is authorized to review and approve the maritime militia’s participation in what types of maritime rights protection operations; and who is responsible for militia expenditures. Due to these uncertainties, some PLA commanders have urged further standardizing the maritime militia’s command, control, and collaboration structure.41

Budgetary shortfalls complicate the training, administration, deployment, and control of the maritime militia. As of 2010, only about 2 to 3 percent of China’s national defense budget was used to fund militia training and equipment, with additional funding coming from local governments.42 Local funding has proven inadequate to compensate for gaps in central government outlays. A guideline issued by Hainan in 2014 stated that the provincial and county/city/prefecture governments each would be responsible for 50 percent of the province’s maritime militia expenditure. For that year, the provincial government earmarked 28 million renminbi (RMB, or Chinese yuan) for the maritime militia, a minuscule quantity given the huge costs of recruitment, administration, training, and deployment (1 RMB is equal to about 0.15 USD).43 According to a 2014 estimate, one week of training for a fifty-ton fishing boat costs over 100,000 RMB for crew lodging and compensation for lost income.44 To spread out the financial burden, common practice now holds that “whoever uses the militia pays the bill.”45

Even so, funding remains a key hurdle. In 2017, the commander of the Ningbo Military Subdistrict (MSD) under the Zhejiang Province Military Subdistrict complained in the PLA’s professional magazine National Defense about a lack of formal channels to guarantee funds. When the maritime militia was assigned to a task, he pointed out, funding took the form of “the county paying a bit, the city compensating a bit, and the province subsidizing a bit.” This meant that “the more tasks you perform, the more you pay.”46 Given the fiscal strains, local authorities have forcefully lobbied Beijing for more money. The localities also see the outpouring of central government resources as an opportunity to benefit their local fishing economies. Hainan, for example, used Beijing’s subsidies to upgrade local fishing boats and increase modernized steel-hulled trawlers under the banner of “sovereignty rights via fishing.”47 In fiscal year 2017, the province received 18.01 billion RMB in transfer payments from Beijing to account for “the province’s expenditure on maritime administration.”48

Figure 2. Maritime Militia in the Core Newspapers and People’s Liberation Army Journals since 2000 (CNKI Search by Theme) (Figure by Shuxian Luo) [Click to Expand]
The marketization of China’s fishery sector in the reform era has compounded the organizational problems arising from this unstandardized funding model. Since Chinese fishermen are now profit driven rather than de facto employees of the state, the government has both less formal authority and less economic leverage over them.49 In the 2000s, coastal provincial military districts widely reported problems in tracking and controlling registered militia fishing ships.50 According to a 2015 article by the director of the political department of the Sansha MSD under the Hainan Provincial Military District, surveys conducted in Hainan localities showed that 42 percent of fishermen prioritized material benefits over their participation in the maritime militia. Some fishermen admitted that they would quit militia activity without adequate compensation or justified their absence from maritime rights protection operations because fishing was more important.51

In a 2018 interview with one of this article’s authors, sources with firsthand knowledge of Hainan’s fishing community noted that each fishing ship participating in maritime rights protection activity received a daily compensation of 500 RMB, a sum “too petty compared to the profits that could be made from a day just fishing at sea, and even more so when compared to the huge profits from giant clam poaching.”52 These financial pressures reportedly created substantial difficulty for China in mobilizing the militia during the 2014 HD-981 clash.53 Some fishermen even manipulated maritime militia policies to evade regulations and conceal illegal attempts to fish for endangered or protected marine species in contested waters.54 Notably, such activities were completely at odds with Chinese government strategy; Beijing had explicitly prohibited illegal fishing to avoid “causing trouble for China’s diplomacy and damaging China’s international image.”55

U.S. Navy sailors and U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Law Enforcement Detachment Team personnel approach a Chinese fishing vessel on a rigid-hull inflatable boat 29 November 2016 during an Oceania Maritime Security Initiative mission with Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102) in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Jackson, U.S. Navy)

Given the unclear command and coordination arrangements, funding problems, and weak control exerted on Chinese fishermen, it is difficult to assess the extent to which Chinese authorities control fishermen operating in the South China Sea. Some fishermen have collaborated with the CCG and/or the PLA in gray-zone operations, indicating that the maritime militia does exploit the plausible deniability afforded by their dual identity as military personnel and civilian mariners. However, given the evidence in authoritative Chinese-language sources, it is unrealistic to portray the maritime militia as a coherent body with adequate professional training or as one that has systemically conducted deceptive missions in close collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. Rather, the coordination seems to be, as various sources in China, the United States, Japan, and Singapore similarly characterize it, “loose and diffuse” at best. Achieving high levels of coordination and interoperability will likely “take a long time.”56

PLA officers and strategists worry that the maritime militia’s status as “both civilians and soldiers” could carry more risks than advantages during encounters with foreign vessels. A scholar at the PLA’s National Defense University asks, “If the militia uses force in maritime rights protection operation, should this be considered as law enforcement behavior or military behavior, or behavior other than war?”57 The director of the political department of the Sansha MSD cautions that the militia’s inadequate “political awareness” and professionalism make its members “unfit for the complex situation surrounding the South China Sea rights and interests struggle.”58 This makes it imperative, he argues, to “make the militia consciously comply with political and organizational disciplines, regulate their rights protection behavior, and avoid causing conflict, escalation, or diplomatic spats.”59

Beyond the South China Sea, the U.S. Department of Defense believes that the maritime militia played a role in a large intrusion in 2016 in waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea whose sovereignty is contested among China, Japan, and Taiwan.60 However, some members of the Japanese defense and foreign policy community, while voicing the concern that China might use fishing vessels in a future Senkaku contingency, noted that the maritime militia has been far less visible in the East China Sea than in the South China Sea.61 For instance, in one prominent international crisis between Beijing and Tokyo—a 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japan Coast Guard vessels—the evidence later showed that a drunk Chinese fishing captain bore responsibility for the accident, rather than China’s maritime militia.62

China’s deep suspicion of U.S. involvement in its home waters and China’s use of a wide set of coercive instruments to assert its claims there stand in contrast to its activities in distant waters. China’s policy agenda in Latin America and Africa, which fall within what Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell call “the Fourth Ring” of Chinese security, entails six strategic goals: energy; commodities, markets, and investments; arms sales; China’s economic access abroad; diplomatic support for China’s position on Taiwan and Tibet; and support for China on multilateral diplomatic issues such as human rights. Regions subsumed under this ring are “too large, too far away, too politically complex, and still too much dominated by the traditional colonial and neocolonial powers to come easily under the sway of a remote Asian power.”63

In these far-flung regions, China has emerged as a major distant-water fishing nation. Its fishing fleet is the world’s largest, operating a total of over 4,600 DWF vessels, according to a recent CSIS account.64 China’s tenth Five-Year Plan (2001–2005) introduced DWF as a component of the “going out” strategy, which encourages Chinese enterprises to search for new markets, resource accesses, and investments around the world.65 After China articulated in 2012 its aspiration to become a “maritime great power” and introduced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the DWF industry became a vital component of this strategy. The Chinese government sees DWF as a means to enhance China’s food security at home and connections abroad with key economies along the Belt and Road Initiative corridors.66

Most recently, the Chinese fleet’s engagement in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in regions such as West Africa and Latin America has posed a challenge to global and regional fisheries governance.67 The fleet’s unsustainable fishing practices have caused tensions with Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.68 Nevertheless, interpreting Chinese DWF activities and associated conflicts through a military lens risks securitizing what is largely a conflict of economic interests.69 As China increasingly pays attention to international reactions to the illegal fishing activities of its DWF fleet and has recently acknowledged this problem, tackling illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in these distant waters represents a potential area that China sees as cooperation rather than confrontation, with coastal states and the United States better serving its global interests and repairing its international image as a “responsible fishing country.”70

Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Operations and Tactics

The strength of the maritime militia is its deniability, which allows its vessels to harass and intimidate foreign civilian craft and warships while leaving the PRC room to deescalate by denying its affiliation with these activities.71 Meanwhile, when Chinese fishing vessels—even operating solely as civilian economic actors—operate unchallenged, their presence in contested areas helps solidify PRC maritime claims. Challenging these vessels is dangerous. Weaker states, aware of Chinese fishing vessels’ possible government affiliation, might hesitate to engage with them in a way that could provoke a PRC response. Even stronger states, like the United States or Japan, might hesitate before confronting fishing boats because of the challenge of positively identifying these vessels as government affiliated.

By “defending” China’s maritime claims from foreign interference, the PRC leverages its maritime militia in support of policies that form the core of a grand strategy of “rejuvenation” and also comprise the basis for the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. At the same time, as previously suggested, the maritime militia is among the least-funded, least-organized, and often least-professional of the forces that could be employed for these purposes. The same factors that make the maritime militia a deniable force (its civilian crews and dual-use technology) also raise the risk of accidents and escalations. This is a toxic mix: due to the maritime militia’s deniability and the core interests at stake, the PRC has a high incentive to employ it, but the more frequent its operations, the greater the likelihood of interactions with U.S. vessels that could spin out of control.

The remainder of this section draws on the aforementioned findings of this article to offer the authors’ own assessments of the maritime militia’s current strengths and limitations as a military instrument, as well as future projections.

Funding. Funding is inconsistent across units and vessels, and across provinces, which rely on different budgetary channels and have different incentives to secure subsidies. Even where funding has been secured in some localities, budget constraints in others suggest that equipment standardization is a long way off. Strained budgets also restrict training opportunities, leading to inconsistency in professionalism across the force. This raises the risk of accidents and escalations.

Command and control. Strategic, operational, and tactical command and control is inconsistent across provinces and individual vessels. The command problem is structural, arising from bureaucratic competition and multiple lines of authority. The control problem is financial, as marketization has eroded individual units’ incentives to participate in militia activities that draw away from their fishing opportunities. Command and control shortcomings inhibit combat power but contribute to the militia’s core strength: its deniability.

Combat power. Fishing boats are inherently weak forces for traditional military operations. Due to their size, they are limited by sea state and lack the propulsion plants required for high-speed maneuver. Topside gear and nets, when deployed, also limit their maneuverability. Finally, fishing vessels are soft targets for naval firepower. Fishing vessels’ “weaknesses,” however, do provide some asymmetric advantages.

First, because they are cheap, fishing vessels will always outnumber warships. Deployed in high numbers using swarm tactics, small craft can pose an asymmetric threat to warships, as U.S. Navy experience with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) forces has shown.72 But the Chinese maritime militia consists of fishing boats, not high-speed assault and pleasure craft like the IRGCN employs. Slow speeds reduce the ability to maneuver and increase the duration of exposure to layered defense (although the vessels’ deniability could reduce the risk that they will be fired upon). Instead of a kinetic threat, Chinese fishing vessels present more of a disruptive one. Deployed in even limited numbers, fishing boats can inhibit, if not prohibit altogether, a warship’s ability to conduct towed array and flight operations (both essential for antisubmarine warfare, a critical capability given China’s growing anti-access/area denial forces in the South China Sea).

Second, fishing vessels pose a huge identification problem. As small craft, they generate minimal radar return even in clear weather and mild sea states. In addition, Chinese fishing vessels frequently do not broadcast their position in Automatic Identification System and use only commercial radar and communications technology, making them hard to identify by their electronic emissions. The identification problem is compounded in congested environments like the South China Sea, which is cluttered with commercial traffic.

For these reasons, in combat operations, the maritime militia’s primary role would likely be reconnaissance support, although some vessels have also received training in minelaying.73 One of the PLA’s major force modernization objectives has been development of an “informatized reconnaissance-strike capability” modeled on the U.S. military, although command and control problems continue to impede joint force operations.74 When providing support to the PLAN in this way, it is important to note that maritime militia vessels would qualify as combatants under international law, despite their lack of military technology.75

Figure 3. Force Capabilities, Deniability, and Risk of Escalation (Figure by Jonathan G. Panter) [Click to Expand]
The basic capabilities required for militia vessels to provide reconnaissance support have been widely fielded. Before joining the militia, fishing vessels are required to install equipment permitting communication with the People’s Armed Forces Department, whose purpose is to assist with the reconnaissance function.76 This includes satellite communication terminals and shortwave radio, which enable beyond line-of-sight communications.77 But without advanced sensors and the training required to use them, militia vessels will be restricted to visually identifying opposing forces. The addition of electronic-intelligence equipment would be a game changer. In that case, the appropriate gray-zone analog for China’s maritime militia vessels might be IRGCN intelligence dhows, not swarming assault craft.

Projections. Given the PRC’s continued economic growth (and increasing government revenue) and the priority placed on military modernization, a successful resolution of militia funding problems would contribute most to recurring costs like training rather than one-time costs such as equipment, much of which has already been subsidized and acquired (see figure 3). However, new technology purchases beyond civilian dual-use equipment would also be possible. Additional training would foster professionalism in ship handling, equipment use, and coordination. Technology and professionalism would enhance the combat power of individual units and those operating jointly, but at the cost of deniability, the militia’s core capability as a gray-zone force. Sophisticated maneuvers, visible advanced gear, or electromagnetic emissions can help U.S. and partner forces identify a “fishing vessel” as Chinese government sponsored.

Enhancing combat power would also raise the risk of escalatory incidents. For U.S. commanders making force protection decisions, the chances of misperception could increase when weapons or sophisticated technology are present on units of unknown intentions. On the other hand, these units’ increased professionalism could dampen the risk of escalation, as they might be less prone to ship-handling errors or suspicious maneuvering. Finally, while improved command and control would reduce vessels’ deniability, its effect on escalation risks is indeterminate. Individual Chinese captains might be more restricted in their decision-making, leaving less room for error. However, they might also have less latitude to deescalate depending on the priorities of higher command.


In the past decade, American perspectives on China have shifted. Optimism has given way to suspicion, the desire for cooperation to rivalry. This shift appears in political science articles, partisan politics, and public opinion polls.78 Hardly an issue of a military professional journal can avoid the phrase “the return of great power competition.” In a related shift, these publications now dedicate substantial attention to China’s instruments of national power that fall on the periphery of traditional military capabilities.

This is a welcome turn. As E. H. Carr pointed out, the security realm has never been neatly separable from other state activities.79 But this new, broadened focus can also fuel alarmism and facilitate escalation. Defense and military professionals must walk a fine line between prudent skepticism of China and uninformed suspicions. This article has sought to assist those efforts with a primer on one PRC policy instrument that bridges the divide between the economic, informational, and military realms. Based on our findings, we close with two broad implications for U.S. policy.

First, in the South China Sea, pending resolution of the maritime militia’s funding and organizational problems, the greatest threat to U.S. forces remains that of accidents and escalations.80 Accurately identifying maritime militia vessels, ideally beyond line-of-sight, is an important way to reduce this risk by providing commanders and staffs with increased decision-space. The sheer number of militia-affiliated vessels, their minimal electronic emissions and radar cross-sections, and the congestion of the South China Sea means that identification efforts to undermine the maritime militia’s deniability at scale require a bold approach. Solving the problem will be nearly impossible without the assistance of regional allies and partners.

Second, in regions outside of East Asia, U.S. policy makers must resist interpreting China’s DWF fleet as a traditional security instrument. These vessels are legally noncombatants, and in practical terms, their military utility is nonexistent. The more important question is whether DWF vessels, even those engaged in civilian activities, represent an effort to acclimate U.S. and partner forces to the presence of Chinese vessels (government-affiliated or not) in the Americas. The goal might be to make Chinese overfishing an accepted (if bothersome) part of the pattern of life, an activity that resource-constrained coastal nations in Latin America ignore. Ultimately, the damage wrought to local economies by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities can undermine regional prosperity. Without a wholescale effort to build local nations’ maritime law enforcement capacity, this trend will pose a far greater threat to nontraditional security realms—primarily ecological and economic—in the region, and to U.S. interests there, than any military role the Chinese DWF vessels could fill.

Shuxian Luo is a PhD candidate in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Her research examines China’s crisis behavior and decision-making processes, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and U.S. relations with Asia. She holds a BA in English from Peking University, an MA in China studies from SAIS, and an MA in political science from Columbia University.

Jonathan G. Panter is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. His research examines the origin of naval command-and-control practices. He previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, deploying twice in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He holds a BA in government from Cornell University and an MPhil and MA in political science from Columbia University.

The authors thank Ian Sundstrom and Anand Jantzen for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


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45. Xu, “Adapt to the New Situation, Comprehensively Standardize Maritime Militia Construction”; Kou Zhenyun and Feng Shi, “Jiaiang haishang minbing jianshe siyao ‘Siyao’” [“Four musts” in strengthening maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 5 (2016): 42; Erickson and Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” 12.

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53. Ibid.

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56. Author’s interview, Haikou, July 2017; author’s interview, Washington, DC, June 2018; author’s interview, Tokyo, August 2018; author’s interview, Singapore, August 2018.

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58. Yang, “Closely base on the reality in South China Sea rights and interests struggle.”

59. Ibid.

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79. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, ed. Michael Cox (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 105–10.

80. S. Department of Defense, “U.S. Department of Defense Hosts First Crisis Communications Working Group With the People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army,” press release, 29 October 2020, accessed 17 November 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2398907/us-department-of-defense-hosts-first-crisis-communications-working-group-with-t/. In a welcome turn, U.S. and Chinese defense professionals established a “Crisis Communications Working Group” in October 2020.

Featured Image: Chinese fishing boats heading out to sea from Zhoushan in Zhejiang province. (Photo via China Foto Press)