Top 5 Things China’s Navy Needs...To Be a Blue-water Navy
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Top 5 Things China’s Navy Needs...To Be a Blue-water Navy


For decades China disavowed any desire for a blue-water navy. Mao Zedong derided missions beyond coastal defense. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the intellectual father of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, envisioned a globe-straddling force. But Liu was in no hurry. He was content to postpone fulfillment of his design until around 2050, reasoning that Beijing must settle matters close to home before venturing far away. So where does the PLA Navy stand? What are the top five things it must accomplish or procure to call itself a true blue-water navy? Here’s my draft list:

5.     Develop MIW (Mine Warfare). The PLA Navy has preserved its legacy as a coastal defense force even while eyeing the blue water. Offensive mine warfare remains one of its core competencies to this day. Its capacity to clear sea mines deployed by enemies is another question entirely. Chinese mariners will encounter a kind of role reversal as they start operating near others’ shores. Local defense forces may seed offshore waters with mines to inhibit China’s freedom of action. Unless Beijing is willing to write off certain expanses, it needs to develop hardware and skills for counter-mine warfare. MIW measures cannot be improvised on the fly. This is slow, painstaking, highly technical work.

4.     Develop ASW. Ditto for antisubmarine warfare—except more so. Mines are inert if cleverly engineered pieces of gear. ASW forces confront human ingenuity and perseverance. Undersea warfare is an intensely interactive game of cat-and-mouse; just watch The Hunt for Red October, Run Silent, Run Deep, or my favorite, TheEnemyBelow. The PLA Navy should grasp this intuitively, since China has premised its access-denial strategy in large part on diesel submarines’ acting as pickets in the China seas or Western Pacific. It should expect others to turn the tables. Yet building the capacity to hunt subs appears to remain a low priority for the navy. Naval officials need to rethink their priorities or stick close to home.

3.     Build unsexy ships. Before he met his, er, untimely demise after World War II, Allied interrogators asked General Hideki Tōjō what he considered the decisive factors in the Pacific War. The US submarine campaign was one (see #4). Tōjō also credited the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s capacity to wage war continuously across transcontinental distances, surmounting the tyranny of distance. Task forces could hammer away without surcease because they were amply supplied with fuel and stores ships and had learned techniques for UNREP, or replenishing vital stores while still at sea. Combatants pull up alongside stores ships at heart-palpitating range, rig up hoses and transfer wires, and take in bullets, beans, and black oil (as US Navy oldtimers say). The PLA Navy has put little effort into its combat logistics fleet, but it will need such a force to range across the world’s oceans and seas. Just-in-time logistics seldom works for navies.

I would add that a fleet of destroyer and submarine tenders—floating maintenance facilities outfitted with machine shops, welding shops, and the like—would give Beijing an option the US Navy has sadly allowed to atrophy. Namely, the PLA Navy could forward-deploy temporary maintenance facilities to support forward operations. Tenders would grant China the capacity to create a mobile, politically uncontroversial—relatively speaking—stringofpearls. The PLA Navy could dispatch these workhorse vessels to commercial ports bankrolled by Beijing, erecting instant “lilypad” naval bases in lieu of permanent—and possibly objectionable—infrastructure. (And yes, I do have some history with and affection for tenders, having spent a few months in the good ship USSPugetSoundas a youngster.)

2.     Go to sea—a lot. I would assign this the top spot except that it applies to all navies, coastal, regional, or global. Chinese mariners need to go to sea as a matter of routine, regardless of whether Chinese fleets stand out into faraway seas or confine their endeavors to home waters. Napoleon wisely observed that warriors have to eat soup together for a long time to fight effectively together. Seamen do not hone their craft or build esprit de corps by sitting pierside. They need to ply the raging seas. Lord Nelson scoffed at the idea that enforcing a close blockade on Napoleonic France had enfeebled the Royal Navy. He pointed out that British sailors constantly honed their skills while their French foes sat in port gambling, swilling wine, and chasing courtesans. Remaining on station for long spaces of time may be wearisome for crews, but it confers enormous benefits. The PLA Navy needs to cast off all lines and get out there more than episodically, or else cede the all-important human edge to prospective opponents.

1.     Think like a blue-water fleet. You’ll notice my top two priorities for China’s navy are about the human factor in seafaring and maritime combat. As Herodotus observed, culture is king. That’s true of organizations as well as societies. The PLA Navy must transcend its Maoist heritage as a coastal defense fleet to take its station alongside the U.S. Navy as a blue-water navy. Access denial is an impressive thing. It lets China’s navy roam the China seas, much of the Western Pacific, and parts of the Indian Ocean while staying under protective cover from antiship ballistic missiles (yes, I understand questions linger about the ASBM) and other short-range armaments. But Chinese seafarers must ultimately shuck off their defensive “fortress-fleet mentality. Shore-based fire support doesn’t extend across the globe, while local powers can mount “contestedzones” against a PLA Navy fighting far from home. The PLA Navy will be on the offensive—and thus must fundamentally reinvent its culture to think like an offensive force.

Soooo…these are the basics as I see them. My list neglects items with sex appeal, like aircraft carriers, nuclear-driven submarines, and land-attack cruise missiles. And deliberately so. There are many varieties of blue-water navy. A lot depends on what Beijing wants its navy to accomplish. But the PLA Navy will need the skills, cultural traits, and hardware I prescribe here, regardless of whether it ends up accentuating carrier aviation, undersea warfare, or surface operations. That’s why these are my Top 5.

What do you think?

February 13, 2013 at 08:32

Typical redneck thinking, We have to say USA is the ONLY super power in this current world, but America is only several hundreds years old, it hasn't experenced a major loss yet. No one knows what is gonna like, when America lose a war.  As what you said about China has no contributions to the world, I suggest you go back to read some books.

September 27, 2012 at 12:21

@John Chan,
You must be a product of PLA, communist china, where your history is all about communism and not the truth. pla is the paper tiger. Haven't you read WWII? Japanese turned your country into a practice shooting gallery. Without the blood of Americans you won't be here today. Your china is weak and all it does is suck up resources from its neighboring country. I haven't known a china that have contributed on anyhting except to make iphone and cheap clothings to which I don't buy.
There is war looming in the Pacific and the Pacific Alliance will be against china.

September 12, 2012 at 17:54

Do you think China can pass through Japanese Navy? Before they can hegemonize the Asia-Pacific region, they must challenge the US Navy first. How can they challenge the United States if they have hard time to dismantle Japan. Think about it folks.

September 3, 2012 at 06:58

The currrent bunch of China's leaders are useless. A bunch of dengist apologists or Gorby clones. They think other people are prepared to tolerate China and work with it. This stance is truly preposterous. On 1 Sept 2012 at 12:30 PM our TV news (again) reported about  'China's suppression of religious rights in Tibet'  and Tibetans in India were mourning those who perished in self-immolations to protest Chinese transgressions.  Today Monday Sept 3 2012, our TV mid-day news carried a news item that had racial overtones.  Some people were unhappy with the Penang city council over demolishment work and one person was allowed to voice anti-Chinese words. This in a land where there are strict laws to prosecute people for any  'seditiousd remarks'. It is clear virtually foreign leaders are  crooks who are always prepared to stoop as low as possible if it serves some good purpose. Thus China's leaders are Gorby clones and they are worthless.

September 3, 2012 at 06:39

Suppose a very nasty minion of  'you-know-who'  decides to play a little bit of mischief  with  China,  what should be done.  China could send some ships to confront or counter the mischief maker but that could very easily play into the hands of the evil one.  It would be better for China or Chinese military experts to employ laser and EMP weaponry (ramped up to just below lethal thresholds) to scatter the mischef maker.  But China is not fully prepared to use these methods due to the fact the current leaders are useless. They rather take in the fart let off by people like Hillary Clinton instead of seriously preparing the Chinese nation for a struggle with the evil one. It is clear the current leaders have betrayed the people. They have TOTALLY forgotten the immense suffering endured by the Chinese peoples during WW2.

September 3, 2012 at 06:28

Ya snuck bunch of nerds  (including the all-seeing & all-knowing  'experts'  at  the-Diplomat) are all dead wrong. For now and  also into the forseeable future China needs a blue water navy like a farmer needs an expensive  coat-and-tie wardrobe.  The most important PLA assets for warding off  that very mighty evil force (no need to mention names) besides its ground forces are PLAAF airpower and satellite capability. There's no need to build and maintain an expensive navy even if it's merely a coastal one (for now).  Enormous perhaps even unlimited airpower reserves and cutting-edge satellite capablity are two vital components to support ground forces in the event that foreign aggressor (massacrer) decides to harm China which by the way is not an island nation.

August 25, 2012 at 17:44

@ John Chan & Vic
The US navy is where it is today because of one tradition….. training….. we train constantly the way we will fight if we or our friends are attacked with the full power of every weapon at our disposal.  Right now China is not at that level of training and as long as the CCP has a bunker mentality, your navy will continue te pale in comparison to the capabilities of the US Navy.  We are far from being a paper tiger.  If we were to ever see China as a real enemy our navy would stop at nothing to completely destroy yours.  You confuse weakness with quiet resolve. we don't attack China navy because we are affrain of it, we don't because we don't see it as a threat to our national inteests
Now on the Monroe Doctrine…. It was just a few lines James Monroe issued in 1823 in his seventh annual address to congress in response to a British offer for an alliance to keep the French out of the Americas.  Monroe refused to join and issued his statement.  The British decided, as the greatest naval power tacitly approved it and enforced it as part of their PAX BRITANNICA.  The rest of the world ignored it.  It wasn't even called the Monroe Doctrine till 1862 when the French conquered Mexio and installed Emperor Maximillian, but we were alreay involved in our own civil war to do anything about it.  

August 25, 2012 at 10:14

except for Cambodia, the Chinese lapdog at ASEAN…

August 10, 2012 at 11:21

Therefore, we have nothing to fear from the PLA.  We should welcome them with open arms, specially in battlefields as they have never won.  Isn't it nice to have the PLA as incompetent opposing warriors.  Victory is assured; so, relax.

August 10, 2012 at 02:59

Let see if this site would allow links this time
Tens of thousands chinese soldiers lay dead or captured at the border –,29307,1879849_1846233,00.html
Only chinese posters could spin a humiliation defeat as victory. Next they would tell you that china won the Nanking battle vs. Japan, Opium Wars vs. Britain, and so on….LOL.

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