Tag Archives: Taiwan

Civilian Shipping: Ferrying the People’s Liberation Army Ashore

By Michael Dahm and Conor M. Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Porcupine in No Man’s Sea: Arming Taiwan for Sea Denial

By Collin Fox

Precision munitions have been sinking warships for the better part of a century, but never before have they been so capable, so widely proliferated, or benefited so much from omniscient surveillance and precise targeting. These convergent factors have propelled modern sea combat in a violently stagnant direction that strongly favors the defensive. A transit through contested waters in the Western Pacific would draw effective fire like a casual stroll through no-man’s land on the Western Front, circa 1916. Now, as then, tactical forces must stay invisible or out of range to stay alive and combat effective, lurking to deploy their own withering fires against emergent targets.

After years of bemoaning the impact of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) on its own power projection paradigm, the United States military is belatedly adapting the same methods with its own forces, while overlooking the geopolitically unique contributions that certain allies and partners can bring to the fight. The factors that have made sea denial easier, sea control harder, and contested power projection a real challenge apply to virtually all potential belligerents – including China and Taiwan. The United States should not simply rely on its own conventional military forces to deter Chinese aggression in the Pacific, but should also start major military foreign assistance to Taiwan and so transform the island into a prickly fortress of sea denial.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Republic of China Marine Corps battalion in Kaohsiung in July 2020. (Photo via Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China)

Omnipresent Weapons, Omniscient Surveillance

A degrading security environment and the convergence of accessible technologies have democratized precision strike. The notable trends seen during 2020’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also apply at sea; even lesser powers like Australia, Iran, Pakistan, Serbia, Taiwan, and Turkey are now producing their own anti-ship missiles. The great powers are going a step further, with China deploying “carrier killer” ballistic missiles and the United States converting land attack cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and air defense weapons into long-range ship-killers.

The improvements in the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting cycle are even more impactful than these growing arsenals. Satellite constellations produce optical, infrared, and radar-generated imagery of every non-polar square meter on the planet several times per day. When combined with other sources and then distilled through increasingly capable artificial intelligence algorithms, this data can pinpoint most naval surface forces. The title of a recent USNI article encapsulated the change: “From Battleship to Chess.” Hiding is ever-harder, finding is ever-easier.

The reality of tactical omniscience applies to all major surface vessels, and catalyzes long-range precision weapons to create a massive maritime no-man’s land. To be seen is to be targeted, and, more than likely, killed.

Keeping Below the Trenchline

Prevailing in this future battle hinges on keeping forces alive, supplied, connected, and tactically relevant within a thousand-mile no-man’s land. Each service’s operational concept tackles this challenge through the same basic approach of survival through networked dispersion.

Both the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advance Base Operations and the Army’s Multi-Domain Transformation concepts would disperse missile-equipped forces on islands around China, creating unsinkable and hard-to-find fire bases that could persistently hold Chinese forces at risk. The Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept would likewise bounce platforms between airfields, “diluting the amount of firepower that [enemies] can put down on any one of those targets.” The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept would leverage the inherent mobility and firepower of naval vessels to similarly frustrate enemy targeting.

Each service’s distributed concept would still incur significant riskstationing offensive fires on foreign soil demands dangerously uncertain political assent from each host nation, while the Air Force would be hard-pressed to maintain enough persistent and timely fires within a distant and contested environment. The Navy’s existing surface platforms might bring the assured access, persistence, and mass that the other services lack, but would nevertheless remain more exposed to enemy targeting and fires. Aside from service-specific risks, each of these disaggregated concepts rests on the dangerously flawed assumption of assured communications. In sum, victory is hardly assured and defeat is possible.

The net uncertainty of American overmatch erodes conventional deterrence against China, which increases the risk of miscalculation, escalation, and conflict. The United States should zoom out to reframe the strategic problem, rather just fixating on tactical and operational solutions.

Building a Better Porcupine, or Subsidized Buck-Passing

The conventional problem framing for defending Taiwan casts the deterrent value of American forces as the essential guarantor of regional stability. As the balance of power continues to shift, this binary framingeither China can be deterred by American power, or it can’t has produced strongly divergent policy proposals. Richard Haass and David Sacks argued that an unambiguous security guarantee for Taiwan would restore deterrence and so keep the peace; Charles Glaser advocated “letting go of Taiwan” to mitigate the decreasingly justifiable risk of a major war with China. Like other proposals, both frame the problem too tightly – through the basic paradigm of American military power. 

The Lowy Institute’s insightful study takes a more nuanced and Australian perspective on the problem. It skips the false choice between doubling down and retrenchment, advocating instead that the “United States should act as armourer, but not guarantor.” The logic is sound:

“If Taiwan acquires, over roughly the next five years, large numbers of additional anti-ship missiles, more extensive ground-based air defence capabilities, smart mines, better trained and more effective reserve forces, a significantly bolstered capacity for offensive cyber warfare, a large suite of unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike systems, and counterstrike capabilities able to hit coastal targets on the mainland, it will continually increase the price China will have to pay to win a war.”

With help, Taiwan could deny China the sea and air control it requires to take the island, while also imposing significant costs on the mainland. Thousands of anti-ship missiles and sea mines would reinforce the stopping power of water, while dispersed air defense systems would help deter or attrite Chinese airpower. The United States should help Taiwan become a better porcupine by subsidizing and directing a new arsenal of democracy.

A delegation from the American Institute in Taiwan with Republic of China naval officers in Kaohsiung, August 20, 2019. (Photo via AIT)

This approach recalls the effective grand strategy that first Britain and then the United States executed as offshore balancers through the 19th and 20th centuries. Offshore balancing is not mere isolationism, retrenchment, or simple buck-passing. When a rising power threatens the regional balance, along with the offshore balancer’s interests, a savvy offshore balancer first puts money and arms on the scale to restore balance through allies, partners, and proxies. For insular great powers like the United States, this initial option of external balancing, or subsidized buck passing, represents a far better option than joining every war on the Eurasian Rimlands. Whenever this subsidized buck passing proves insufficient, though, the offshore balancer has the option, though not the obligation, to enter the conflict with military force against a weakened enemy and so restore the balance of power.

The key to both external balancing and buck-passing against a competitor is that the ally needs to stay in the fight, at least for a while. Britain’s buck-passing to France in the late 1930s did little to help Britain after France’s rapid and calamitous defeat. Offshore balancers should subsidize and strengthen their allies and partners so they can deter, defeat, or at least bleed their mutual foes, buying time and buying down the risk of rapid defeat.

Simply “letting go of Taiwan” would be an unforced error for the United States; any grand bargain that China might offer to encourage appeasement over Taiwan would have no more credibility or durability than the breached Sino-British Joint Declaration concerning Hong Kong. Letting go of Taiwan would unilaterally cede strategic terrain and advantage to China, allowing it to sidestep the potentially ruinous and deterrent costs that a subsidized defense would impose.

Gifts Come with Strings

Taiwan has not received significant military foreign assistance since the United States shifted recognition to Beijing in 1979, and so has a long history of buying American military hardware with its own funds. This cash-and-carry arrangement has allowed it to choose prestige platforms like M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters that better support anachronistic fantasies of retaking the mainland than a realistic defense of the island.

On the other hand, security assistance and security cooperation funds come with focused caveats that seek to build specific capabilities of mutual importance. These funds include Foreign Military Finance (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) grants under Department of State authorities, and Building Partner Capacity and other authorities under the Department of Defense.

Congress could include Taiwan in one or more of these appropriations while creating structured incentives aimed at both Taiwanese and Chinese policy choices. For Taiwan, FMF appropriations above a certain base level could be contingent on Taiwan’s defense reforms and funding levels, or come in the form of matching funds for specific capabilities, such as those ideal for sea denial. Provocative Chinese actions, such as air and sea incursions over the past year, could also trigger additional FMF funding. If each Chinese incursion essentially bought another anti-ship missile for Taiwan, Beijing might not be so casual about the practice.

Republic of China sailors walk by the corvette Tuo Chiang (Photo via AFP/Sam Yeh)

For context, the United States subsidizes Israel’s defense with $3.3 billion per year, which is a bit less than the annual operating costs for two Armored Brigade Combat Teams. Funding Taiwan’s security to a similar or greater level would create a fearsome A2/AD challenge for China, while also reducing plausible American costs and risks for a Taiwan contingency scenario. It would certainly provide better warfighting value than two armored brigades in a maritime theater. This level of assistance would buy greater access, influence, and amicable leverage to pursue American strategic interests in both defense and non-defense areas, such as chip supply chains.

China would certainly protest this security funding, just as it protests existing weapons sales, but these specific investments would constrain China’s escalation options. Arming Taiwan to the teeth with A2/AD weaponry could effectively and quickly deter China through denial without the escalation and entrapment risks that would come with aggressive proposals to base American forces in Taiwan.

The Limits of Power Projection

Notable critics have argued that Taiwan is simply indefensible, asserting that a “Chinese attack would be shock and awe with Chinese characteristics, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, rocket artillery, drones, and probably thousands of aircraft. There would be decapitation, disruption of Taiwan’s air force and navy in their bases, targeting of U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa.” To be sure, China could batter Taiwan from across the 100-mile strait, but would this “shock and awe with Chinese characteristics” compel Taiwan’s rapid capitulation or even prepare the battlespace for a successful amphibious assault?

Every comparison is fraught, but China would be hard-pressed to match the intensity of fires that American forces once directed at Okinawa – an island 1/30th the size of Taiwan and 400 miles distant, but sharing its mountainous geology. Despite a full week of hellish pre-invasion bombardment from battleships and attack aircraft, the island’s entrenched Japanese defenders not only survived this “the typhoon of steel and bombs,” but then emerged to fight another three months in the longest and bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater. “Shock and awe” only goes so far – particularly when it can be reciprocated.

Technological progress since the Battle of Okinawa has also not alleviated the fundamental difficulty of taking well-defended terrain or targeting elusive defenders. Indeed, the American military’s frustration in hunting for SCUD missiles in the Iraqi desert, for military vehicles in Kosovo, and for Taliban fighters in Afghan caves simply reflects the limits of airpower – even with functional or complete air supremacy. These limits also apply to China, which would have no less difficulty in finding, fixing, discriminating, tracking, targeting, and neutralizing the thousands of mobile anti-ship, anti-air, and strike missile launchers hiding amongst many more decoys, and all scattered through the jungles, mountains, caves, and cities of Taiwan.

Buying Time, Buying Options

Heavily reinforcing Taiwan through focused security subsidies while maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity would maintain conventional deterrence through denial against China. This approach would also greatly reduce the risk of a fait accompli, thereby giving American political leadership time to discover the best outcome for its strategic ambiguity: to rally support at home and abroad, to pressure China through a variety of means, and to enter combat at a time, place, and manner of its own choosing – or even to forego the conflict entirely.

These investments to harden Taiwan would buy time on the order of months and so enable slower, de-escalatory strategies like offshore control while also preserving more aggressive options. On the other hand, Taiwan might only be able to hold out for weeks under a plausible status quo scenario. In such a case, the United States would either risk major escalation by immediately executing a rapid but confrontational approach like JAM-GC, or watch Taiwan collapse from the sidelines.

The United States can make wise investments to pursue its own strategic interests, frustrate Chinese hegemony, and save a threatened democracy in the process. Taiwan needs focused U.S. support to substantially grow its sea denial capabilities quickly. Congress should update legislation and appropriate funds to that end.

Commander (select) Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as a military advisor with the Department of State. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College. The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense, the Department of State, or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: Taiwanese sailors at Kaohsiung’s Zuoying naval base in 2018. (Photo via Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Conventional Deterrence and the U.S. Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now, Pt. II

Read Part One here.

By Adam Taylor

The challenges posed by China’s offensive deterrence paradigm require a new and innovative future force design for the US Navy. China’s deterrence model prizes confrontation and escalation in order to stop its neighbors from pursuing an unwelcome course of action, and, ultimately, force the target of its deterrent behavior to favor Beijing’s interests. This operating environment requires the US Navy to move from a fleet better suited for conventional war to an architecture that can succeed in a traditional great power conflict and countering Chinese deterrent behavior in the grey zone. A closer exploration of the US Navy’s response and involvement in deterring general war and Chinese aggression short of war in a Taiwan scenario demonstrates both the challenges confronting the current fleet and a possible force design roadmap the service can follow moving forward.

Any assessment of this question requires understanding Beijing’s interests in Taiwan and the range of behavior China might pursue to achieve its desired outcomes. In turn, this clarifies both the range of Chinese military behavior American forces must be prepared to deter and defend against, and whether current US force posture in the region meets those demands. Beijing’s most recent defense white paper makes clear that its overwhelming interest in Taiwan remains the islands reunification and incorporation into the PRC polity. China maintains numerous other interests in the island, however, and could employ a variety of deterrent stratagems to prevent Taiwan from pursuing various political ends at odds with Beijing’s preferences. Examples of China’s other interests could include deterring or reversing a “declaration of independence;” preventing Taiwan from developing nuclear weapons; compelling the abandonment of a military access agreement to US forces; deterring Taiwan’s electorate from pursuing an “independence-minded” course or influencing its electorate not to support candidates favoring such a course; compelling Taiwan to abandon sovereignty claims in the East China Sea (ECS); and forcing Taiwan to accept reunification.

Past examples of Chinese military action provide context for when the PRC will employ deterrent measures in response to developments within Taiwan and the form of force it will use.

Notable Security Events in Cross-Strait Relationship

Historical Event Year(s) Circumstances US Response Notes
First Taiwan Strait Crisis 1954 PRC bombs Taiwan’s islands of Quemoy, Dachen, and Mazu. The US signs mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Taiwan maintains Quemoy and Mazu islands. China gains Dachen island.
Second Taiwan Strait Crisis 1958 PRC bombs Quemoy and Mazu and establishes blockade around Quemoy to compel Taiwan to abandon claim to Quemoy. US Navy escorts Taiwan’s resupply ships to Quemoy, breaking PRC blockade of island. US publicly commits to defense of Quemoy. Taiwan renounces use of force to retake Chinese mainland. China frames crisis as an “internal affair,” and uses the conflict to exacerbate relations between US and Taiwan.
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis 1995-1996 PRC conducts show of force exercises and missile tests near Taiwan in response to US policy toward Taiwan and public support in Taiwan for pro-independence regime. The US deploys two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait. The US publicly and explicitly states it does not support Taiwan’s independence. US’ conventional deterrent response assured throughout region.
ECS ADIZ Establishment 2013 China establishes ADIZ outside accepted international legal norms. ADIZ contests Japan and Taiwan’s sovereignty claims to same airspace and islands in ECS. America labels ADIZ establishment as “unilateral change to the status quo.” US continues flight operations through China’s ADIZ in ECS.
Island Encirclement Drills 2016 PRC begins regular PLAN and PLAAF exercises around Taiwan to “protect China’s sovereignty.” Exercises occur following election of pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen. US officials condemn exercises. American forces support Taiwan defense force freedom of navigation operations. Encirclement drills ongoing.

Both the Second and Third Taiwan Strait Crises demonstrate that Beijing would resort to abnormal levels of conventional hostility and force to compel Taiwan to abandon its ECS territorial claims or to express its displeasure with political developments that threaten the prospective reunification of Taiwan with China. Beijing’s ADIZ establishment and encirclement drills illustrate that it also relies on related, albeit less pronounced, compellent measures to further its sovereignty claims over Taiwan. These security developments demonstrate the expanding depth of China’s conventional deterrent policy tool kit and the range of scenarios US forces must be equipped to deter.

The PRC’s growing military capabilities also complicate any response to Chinese belligerence towards Taiwan. China now possesses the largest navy in the world, and, per the most recent Department of Defense report on Chinese military power, maintains the largest number of aviation forces in the Asia-Pacific as well as a growing inventory of conventional missiles. While force size alone does not determine the military balance, these developments suggest Beijing now has access to a broader range of tools to advance its goals in the cross-strait relationship.

Given available knowledge about China’s deterrence practices and its forces’ composition and disposition, it becomes possible to create a spectrum of behavior that the joint force must be able to effectively deter in a Taiwan scenario. The figure below highlights this spectrum. The top half of the spectrum illustrates a range of events in Taiwan that the Chinese would utilize varying levels of force to deter. These events are extrapolated from understanding China’s general interests in Taiwan. Each event ranges from least to most threatening Beijing’s interests in Taiwan. The bottom half highlights possible compellent behavior China can pursue to deter events on the top half of the spectrum. The compellent force arrow demonstrates that left to right movement across the spectrum will lead to increasing levels of Chinese deterrent force against Taiwan. While there remains a correlation between Taiwan’s escalatory behavior and increasing Chinese deterrent force as one moves across the spectrum, this does not mean Beijing would not utilize lower levels of compellent force in response to an escalatory event along the spectrum. More important, however, the spectrum illustrates those scenarios when the Navy’s contributions to the joint force’s conventional deterrence posture would be tested. A closer look at the Navy’s ability to support operations aimed at stopping China from deterring Taiwan from policies that lead to de facto independence demonstrate the challenges confronting the service now and in the future.

China’s Spectrum of Conventional Deterrence Measures (Click to Expand)

China Deters Taiwan from Policies that Lead to de-facto Independence

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis highlights Beijing’s use of military exercises and shows of force that target domestic developments within Taiwan or compel the US to change its policy towards the island. One can see similar circumstances unfold again should the people of Taiwan continue to elect pro-independence minded politicians or publicly support policies that Beijing might consider measures of de-facto independence, such as signing an access agreement for US forces or codifying policy that contradicts the “one China, two systems” policy. The spectrum of behavior suggests that China would resort to intense forms of hostility short of war. America would also likely pressure Taiwan’s leadership to stop such pronouncements for fear of conventional Chinese escalation. It may therefore seem misguided to only examine the utility of America’s current force composition and disposition to deter China’s use of military exercises, considering the seeming mismatch between the implications of outlined provocative domestic political behavior in Taiwan and the range of Chinese behavior. This question remains important, however, given the ability of China to use similar methods against other states in the region pursuing policies at odds with Beijing’s political goals.

In the last Taiwan Strait Crisis, America sailed two aircraft carriers through the strait to communicate America’s resolve to protect Taiwan. Would the threat of a similar response today meaningfully curtail Chinese military exercises or shows of force? Can the threat of sending US warships to signal resolve with Taiwan communicate to Beijing it should reconsider its course of action? Not anymore. Chinese forces today are both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to their forebears, and while they continue to be qualitatively inferior to their American counterparts, they now have the means to effectively engage US vessels. The declining capability gap found between American and Chinese platforms means the deterrent threat posed by current US forces has decreased. Furthermore, it remains a serious logistic, maintenance, and human endeavor to keep America’s highly capable ships at sea consistently and long enough. These conditions make America’s assortment of large platforms not always suited for the passive everyday presence necessary to reassure Taiwan and needed to communicate to the PRC the ability to impose costs should conflict arise.

This dilemma speaks to the issues confronting the composition of the current USN fleet. While aircraft carriers and other large surface combatants possess incredible capabilities and maintain deterrent utility, their size and relative paucity in number make them susceptible to a variety of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats and difficult to replace should conflict occur. In the words of one US naval professional, “our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big.” Beijing recognizes the operational problem this poses for US military leaders. In turn, this likely informs how China would view the presence of American aircraft carriers or other large platforms in the Taiwan Straits in response to a military show of force exercise. Chinese leaders may view the presence of such platforms as provocative and an important reminder of the force America can bring to bear in a general conflict, but not necessarily an incentive to stop its aggressive behavior. This represents an important consideration for leaders in Washington as they consider the many requests from allies and combatant commanders for the presence of carriers and America’s larger surface combatants in their respective territory or area of operations.  

This scenario raises important questions about the utility of the Navy’s current fleet architecture and the service’s future force design goals. These issues led Department of Defense (DoD) leaders to commission a series of force design studies from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), the Hudson Institute, and within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to inform their future force design proposal. Together, these studies influenced the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 future force design proposal. While details surrounding the CAPE study remain unavailable to the public, both the Hudson Institute and Battle Force 2045 proposals highlight the direction DoD will take the future fleet.

Unfortunately, Battle Force 2045 falls short of the service’s actual needs because it makes a series of unrealistic assumptions about DoD’s future financial resources and Congress. While this proposal has received much time and attention elsewhere, its shortcomings deserve brief consideration. Two notable issues include the costs associated with a 500-ship fleet and the politics associated with platform divestment decisions. Despite a historically high budget in fiscal year (FY)20, the navy’s current fleet of 300 ships accounts for roughly half its size in FY85. This suggests that maintaining the current force is increasingly expensive relative to previous years and will limit any increase in fleet size. Many legislators will also resist stopping procurement of existing platforms built in their districts and naval leadership would also need to engage in a parochial struggle over which platforms to cut. These and many other issues will limit the ability of the Navy, Congress, and defense enterprise from quickly achieving the consensus needed to build the future fleet the Navy needs.

A Better Fleet

 Navy and DoD leaders can take important steps now, however,  to ensure the service will succeed as a conventional deterrent in both the near and long term. Some of these steps include:

Reduce the advantage of China’s local balance of forces. China’s quantitative force advantage in the region means it will likely maintain and increase its ability to field a larger force in any future contingency within the first island chain. This balance of forces allows it to quickly mass its forces and complicate any US or combined response to conventional Chinese aggression. States who remain possible objects of Beijing’s aggression like Taiwan, the Philippines, or Vietnam will likely need to confront Chinese forces in response to malign conventional behavior short of war or in the initial stages of any deterrent action with limited US support. These states can mitigate the Beijing’s balance of forces advantage by increasing the deterrent utility of their security forces. America can support this goal by both increasing its arms sales to these nations and facilitating greater training opportunities designed to qualitatively improve partners’ capabilities. Although the China will likely view such a strategy as antagonistic, it provides a cost-effective way for the US to increase the deterrent capability of its partners.

Incorporate cheaper and more expendable platforms. America’s high end warfighting platforms do not always provide the best deterrent response options because they remain expensive to employ, costly to replace, and potentially vulnerable to the threats posed by China’s well developed A2/AD capabilities. Beijing can use these considerations to pursue courses of action that advance its interests while reducing the passive threat posed by US forces in the Asia-Pacific. America could respond to this dilemma by trying to increase the number of high-end ships in its fleet, but this approach remains unsustainable. Both the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service recently concluded that the cost of maintaining a 355-ship fleet (let alone 500 ships) over 30 years would exceed the cost of purchasing new ships. This crowding out effect could prove disastrous for future US defense planners who want to field new generations of technology across the feet or build newer ships. While the Biden administration’s recently released “skinny budget” and comments from the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggest a future naval shipbuilding boon, it remains difficult to assess if this thinking maintains long-term political support if it leads to cuts from the other services’ toplines.

The Navy can mitigate this issue by divesting from legacy platforms today and reinvesting those savings into research and development projects that increase the capability of platforms currently in service and into cheaper and more expendable platforms. Although this modernization window may provide Beijing an opportunity to act, it would provide the service with the investment needed to ensure long-term success.

While these cheaper ships would likely not have the individual capability of other platforms found throughout the fleet, they could provide the means to place a limited suite of capabilities on highly survivable platforms. These platforms, in turn, would be able to operate in A2/AD environments within zones of contention for longer periods of time and would be more easily replaced. Such ships would provide a credible denial deterrence capability by reducing China’s quantitative balance of forces advantage and increasing the qualitative ability of the deterrent response from the US and its partners.

Reconsider offset strategies to bridge the gap between the present and future. The Third Offset Strategy first introduced under the Obama administration provides a possible near term solution that can meet this goal. This initiative prioritized investments in projects like laser weapons that could shoot down enemy missiles at a fraction of the cost of current missile defense systems; modifying traditional cannon to fire guided hyper velocity projectiles; and investment in increasing the range of the navy’s Tomahawk missiles or the payloads of its submarines by decreasing procurement of more ships. While this would sacrifice procurement and acquisition of some platforms in the near term, it could lead to savings the Department of Defense needs to invest in cutting-edge technologies. These investments would also mitigate vulnerabilities associated with any modernization window. Many of these technologies would increase the operational reach and efficacy of existing platforms, which, in turn, may increase the deterrent utility of the fleet in the near-term and better posture the service to field more deterrent and defense credible ships in the future.

Beijing’s competitive deterrence model has led it to fashion a force that targets the vulnerabilities found within the Navy’s existing fleet, which is why the Navy cannot afford to double down on a losing force design like Battle Force 2045. Instead, service leadership must be willing to make difficult decisions today that prioritize divestment from legacy platforms and investment into future platforms and technologies that ensure America can field qualitatively superior platforms at scale that are able to deter China across the spectrum of competition.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, leaves after wrapping up a five-day visit to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), south China, July 11, 2017. A departure ceremony was held at the Ngong Shuen Chau Barracks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison by the HKSAR government. (Photo via Xinhua/Zeng Tao)

Don’t Give Up the Ship

Fiction Contest Week

By Major Brian Kerg, USMC

July 10th, 203X. Expeditionary Advanced Base (EAB) Itbayat, Philippines. 156 km from Taiwan.

First Lieutenant Stephanie ‘John Paul’ Jones stood in the company command post with her platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Billy Wickem. They were both trying to ignore the stifling humidity that wrapped around their woodland cammies like a hot blanket. The company command post (CP) consisted only of cammie netting tied to trees, a map hanging from five-fifty cord, MRE boxes, and a High Frequency (HF) Low Probability of Detection (LPD) radio connected to a laptop.1 Still, it was a welcome reprieve that caught a fair amount of wind coming in off the coast despite being hidden in the tree-line.

She and her Marines had been persisting at their EAB with the rest of Charlie Company, waiting to be employed in support of the Littoral Combat Battalion for a month. Her hair, rolled in a moto-bun, was starting to get crusty. She wondered how the company commander might react if she asked if she could shave her head or cut it to male high-and-tight grooming standards, both to better cool off and break the monotony for her platoon.

But more than that, the sheer boredom of waiting for their shot was eating the morale of her Marines. Alpha Company was slinging enhanced naval strike missiles at People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships across the area of operations, and Bravo Company was cruising around in Mark VI patrol boats, boarding and disabling or sinking People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAF-MM) craft. Alpha and Bravo were racking up notches on their belts. Meanwhile, ‘Check-in-the-Box’ Charlie Company, which covered down on all the other mission essential tasks for their battalion, was still kicking rocks in this godforsaken jungle. Her platoon, which owned the expeditionary mine warfare mission set, didn’t seem to have much of a place in the defense of Taiwan.

A rustle in the brush caught Stephanie’s ear, snapping her from her reverie. Captain Phan stepped out of the jungle and into the CP, followed by his operations chief, Gunny Malone. The skipper, it seemed, was omnipresent, constantly cutting through the network of covered trails, checking in on every platoon day after day, night after night, reminding the Marines that above all else they were there to “persist forward indefinitely!,” a hallmark of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).2

“Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant,” Pham said, smiling and nodding at each of them. “Glad you came so quickly. How’s your platoon holding up?”

“Oh, sir, you know,” Stephanie said, trying to match Pham’s alacrity. “Persisting forward.”

“Indefinitely…” Wickem added, a blunt, tired punctuation.

“Sounds like they’re getting comfortable in the routine,” Malone said, grinning. “Maybe we’ll have to kick ‘em off the island.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, glancing from Malone to Pham. “Sir?”

“It’s your platoon’s lucky day, Jones,” Pham said. He tapped on the radio. “You’ve got a mission.”

Stephanie’s heart beat rapidly in her chest, and she fought back a smile, maintaining her bearing. “The platoon’s ready for anything, sir.”

Malone stood in front of the map, and everyone closed in around him. As he briefed them, he tapped at each point on the map. “Here’s us, at our EAB in Itbayat,” he said. “About 150 clicks north of us is Taiwan. When China launched their operation to ‘reclaim’ the island, Taiwan fought back hard. Flooding the Taiwan Strait with mines and surrounding the island with mobile maritime minefields has been the lynchpin of their defense. They can remotely open the minefields to allow shipping to reach the island, then close the fields to keep China out. The PRC didn’t anticipate how long it would take to clear these fields, or that mining would sink more of their ships than any other weapon system in the fight.3 This is what bought our task force time to deploy to the AO.”

“Washington, of course,” Pham said, “isn’t looking to escalate this into a full-blown war with China. If that happens, we all lose. We’re just here to support Taiwan.”

“Right,” Morales said. “And supporting Taiwan means keeping them in the fight. China can’t break through to Taiwan, so they’re looking to blockade Taiwan instead.” He traced a line connecting Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.4 “Taiwan’s holding their own within their territorial waters, but they can’t cover the international waters. Chinese ships can hook around and cast a wide net. So, the Coalition has declared an exclusion zone, here.” He traced another line between Indonesia and Taiwan, crossing the Bashi Channel. “Any Chinese ships that try to break through it are fair game, so they can’t effect a blockade. ‘Fair game’ so far has been blasting them with rocket artillery from our EABs.”5

“Sea denial 101,” Stephanie said.6

“But there’s just too many targets,” Pham said. “They have more pawns on the board than we do, and they don’t care how many get killed. We’re starting to run dry on missiles and it’s going to be a minute before our battalion gets resupplied. Hell, at this rate, the entire regiment could go Winchester before we know it.”7

“And we come in where, exactly?” Stephanie asked.  Malone tapped the map between Taiwan and Itbayat. “The Bashi Channel. You’re going to mine it.”

Wickem cleared his throat. “I thought it was already mined. The Navy’s had an Upward Falling Payload at the sea floor there since before things kicked off.”8

“They did, until the PRC detected and cleared the field,” Pham said. “Which is good, because they won’t expect another minefield, and won’t be looking for one inserted like this.”

“Lay the mines, then hold tight at Mavulis Island and control your minefields from there,” Malone said. “Signature management is key. Communicate by exception only. Turn radios on only to receive at our designated comms windows.”9

“And remember,” Pham said.

“Persist forward,” Stephanie said, indulging in a half-smile.

“Indefinitely…” Wickem muttered.

The Bashi Channel

Stephanie sat in the pilothouse of the modified Mark VI patrol boat, staring out at the waters of the Bashi Channel. While usually acting as a maritime, mobile command post for her platoon, their task required most of the boat’s capabilities be avoided. With GPS and other electronic means of navigation disabled to avoid detection, her navigator, Corporal Schwab, was plotting their location on a map using a compass, ruler, and manual calculations. The current plot showed them about halfway between Itbayat, far to the south, and Taiwan’s Orchid Island to the northwest.

“It’s about that time,” Wickem said, looking from the chart to his watch. Stephanie nodded, and stepped out of the pilothouse to watch the payload get delivered.

Sergeant Ortega was at the boat’s stern, watching his team finish preparations of the mine racks. Twenty smooth black orbs were in each of the ten racks, glistening in the noon-day sun.

“Wouldn’t it be awful if Supply screwed up the order and these were bowling balls instead of mines?” Ortega asked, eyeing the racks.

“Bowling balls or mobile mines, all I care is that they can give us a strike,” Stephanie said. “Launch ‘em.”

“Launch!” Ortega ordered.

“Launching!” his Marines replied. They opened the rack gate and flipped a switch. As the boat sailed forward, the mines rolled one after the other into the water with a heavy splash.10 They immediately vanished into the water, following their algorithms to spread out, submerse to the correct depths, and stand by. If any targets met the strike criteria, the mines would close with the craft and detonate. Beyond that, they would sit idly by, in receive-only mode, waiting for an operator to give them the command to move to another location.11

Their mines released, Stephanie eyeballed her watch, giving her other squads operating just in sight to her north and south ample time to deliver their payloads in turn. Satisfied, she nodded at her radio operator, Lance Corporal Kim.

“Confirm delivery for me, would you, Kim?” Stephanie asked.

“You know, Ma’am,” Kim said, pulling a pair of flags out of her pack, “my recruiter told me going into Comm was going to let me work with cutting edge technology. You know, set me up for success in the outside world.” She stood, raised the flags, and sent a semaphore message to the two other patrol boats. She lowered her arms, glanced at Stephanie, and held the flags up helplessly. “This is BS.”

Stephanie couldn’t help a smile. “I guess if it doesn’t get us killed, it’s cutting edge. ‘Everything that’s old is new again,’ right?”

 Kim grinned, and looked back to the horizon. “You’re starting to sound like my dad,” Ortega snorted. “If the lieutenant is our dad, does that mean Staff Sergeant is our mom?” Kim shook her head. “I always imagined Staff Sergeant as more of a drunk uncle.” Stephanie crossed her arms and forced a smile, reflecting on their banter while they set about emplacing their killing field. Was this gallows humor? Anxiety? Or were they too relaxed, taking their eye off the ball?

Kim squinted, reading the flags sending her a message back. “Payloads delivered.” Stephanie nodded. “Let’s go home.”

Kim waved her flags again, signaling all to return to base, then tucked the flags back in her pack. As her patrol boat turned around, three missiles shot across the sky.12

“Theirs or ours?” Ortega asked.

“Ours,” Stephanie said, recognizing their signature from live-fire EABO exercises at Marine Corps Littoral Combat Center-Hawaii. “Looks like Alpha Company is staying busy.”

“Hope that’s three good kills,” Ortega said.

Stephanie shook her head. “We need a three-to-one saturation ratio to make sure we beat most Chinese ship defenses. It’s probably just one target. And its why our magazines are running dry so fast.”

Wickem stepped up behind her, watching the missiles fly. “And bad timing for us. That’s going to bring a whole lot of sensors looking in our direction. Alpha’s shooters are going to scoot to a new island while we head back to Mavulis.”

Stephanie nodded, seeing the missiles now as a bad omen. “We’ll have to go full dark when we get back. Let’s just focus on the next step.”

EAB Mavulis Island. 98 km from Taiwan.

With their boats hidden under signature dampening blankets and the Marines out of sight in the small structure abandoned by the Philippine military at the start of hostilities, Stephanie knew she should have felt confident in their concealment.13 Out of sight, out of mind, she told herself. But a lingering doubt nagged at her gut.

Sitting in an old fishing hut, she was passing the time by playing a game of Go on a small, portable nine-by-nine square board against Wickem. She looked at the black and white stones, mulled her strategy of laying the pieces to keep her black stones connected while simultaneously encircling Wickem’s white stones.

This is how it all fits together, she thought. EAB-hosted precision fires and mine warfare. Sea denial is a game of Go.

The crackling of her HF-LPD radio snapped her back into focus. Then the implications of being contacted crashed against her like a wave.14

Scrambling to the radio, she snagged the handset. Wickem ran to the window, shouted at the Marines to stand-to, then hurried back to his lieutenant.

“What’s the scoop, Ma’am?”

“We’ve been compromised,” she said. “Maritime militia are closing in on Mavulis.”

“How many boats?”

Stephanie’s face was grim. “A lot.”15

“Do we have time to bounce?” Wickem asked.

Stephanie shook her head. “There’s too many and they’re too close.”

Wickem grabbed his rifle from its spot against the wall. “Guess we’re fighting until the cavalry arrives or until the bitter end, then. I’ll get the platoon to their fighting positions.”

“Wickem,” Stephanie said, her mouth widening into a macabre smile.

Wickem sighed. “You’re going to say it, aren’t you, ‘John Paul’?”

Stephanie grinned. “’Don’t give up the ship!’”

“We won’t, but we might just sink with it,” Wickem said, shaking his head, then stepped toward the door. Stephanie held up a hand, her eyes wide, illuminated with a sudden thought.

“Wait. Get me Ortega first.”

Moments later, most of the platoon was covered and concealed in fighting positions with weapons oriented out to sea toward the incoming ships. But Stephanie was on one knee, next to Ortega, over a rugged laptop connected to a receiver-transmitter. The laptop showed a map of their position at Mavulis Island and the surrounding waters. She pointed to a spot about a kilometer out from the beachhead. “There,” she said. “Right there.”

Ortega looked from the laptop to Stephanie. “Are you sure? Sending the signal will blow our cover.”

“It’s already blown,” Stephanie said. “We don’t keep using hand and arm signals after we’ve started shooting. We’re in a firefight already, it just looks different.” Ortega nodded and entered the command. Then, they waited.

Soon, a collection of PAF-MM ships were visible on the horizon, a motley crew of trawlers that Stephanie knew didn’t spend any time trawling. Through her binoculars, she could see medium machine guns on gun mounts, and crews wielding small arms. Stephanie stopped counting at twenty boats, estimating there were at least a hundred.16

“That… is a lot of boats,” Ortega said. “How can they mass so many? So fast? For such a small objective?”

“’Quantity has a quality all its own,’” Stephanie quoted.

“Is this going to work?” Ortega asked.

Stephanie slapped her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It worked in our war games,” she lied. “It’ll work here.”

Ortega glanced at Stephanie and smirked. “We never wargamed this, Ma’am. But thanks for trying to keep things positive.” He winked. “We won’t give up the ship.” Stephanie slapped his shoulder again and laughed, and Ortega laughed with her.

They turned their heads to watch the approaching boats, and their laughter died on the wind. Their smiles slid from their faces, which became stone masks, mere witnesses to the next moves of the game.

They saw the explosion before they heard it. The lead boat was consumed in a fiery blast, contrasted by the arcing splash of seawater that burst into the air. Then a second boat, a third, and a fourth were struck. Boat fragments and sailors were sent in all directions. Five, six, seven explosions, then too many together to count. The rest of the trawlers turned, broke, and fled from Mavulis Island.

“Should we pursue?” Ortega asked. “These aren’t just mines, they’re munitions. We can chase those boats down and strike them as easily as return the mines to their original position.”

Stephanie shook her head. “We need to give the Chinese an off-ramp. We can’t escalate. Let them run, make them reconsider.”

Some of the sailors in the water were still moving, thrashing to stay afloat. “Aren’t their guys coming back to scoop them out of the water?” Ortega asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Stephanie said, her voice a near whisper.

Ortega watched, confused. “Why won’t they?”

“They don’t need to,” Stephanie said, bile rising in her throat.17

Ortega was breathing, hard, confused. “Then will we?”

Stephanie wondered the same thing, afraid to listen too closely to her conscience. Wickem stepped up behind them. “Only if we want to die. They only sent the militia to try and get some of us alive. Now they’ll just rain missiles down on us. Those aren’t POWs. They’re a trap.” The surviving sailors started disappearing beneath the waves, one by one, toward Davy Jones’ locker.

Stephanie felt a hollowness opening up within her, watching the drowning men. Then she glanced at Ortega, imagined him in the water instead, face down and surrounded by the burning remnants of their patrol boat.

“Staff Sergeant’s right,” she said, clearing her throat and steeling herself. “Let’s get off this rock and bed down at our alternate position.”

Soon, the platoon was sailing away from Mavulis Island. Stephanie watched Ortega issue another command to the mobile minefield, moving the remaining mines back to their original blocking position in the Bashi Channel.

As they departed, she forced herself to watch the burning boats and the drowned men, and imagined that the black, oily smoke rising to the sky was a burnt offering to King Neptune, one mariner’s prayer that the war might end before it got any worse.

Brian Kerg is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, and a Military Fellow with the College of William and Mary’s Project for International Peace and Stability. He is currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Follow or contact him at @BrianKerg.

References

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16. Gonzalo Solano and Christopher Torchia, “260 Chinese boats fish near Galapagos, Ecuador on alert,” The Washington Post,  (accessed 04 August 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/260-chinese-boats-fish-near-galapagos-ecuador-on-alert/2020/07/30/01b0d98e-d29f-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html).

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Featured Image: “The Jungle Base” by Tom Lee (via Artstation)