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, The Enemy Below. 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—string of pearls. 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 USS Puget Sound as 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 “contested zones” 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?