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This speech was sent to us from Kuwait by Lieutenant Colonel Jess Mullen, USMC. While the video quality may be poor, the message is strong (but you have to turn your volume up!).

LtCol Mullen graduated from Vanderbilt University and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1998. A Logistics Officer, she served in a variety of active duty billets until she transitioned to the reserves in 2008. She is currently deployed as the Sustainment Liaison Officer for MCE-K (MARCENT Coordination Element – Kuwait).

“There is an obstacle placed in my path…I want to jump on it, I want to attack it, I want to make it my own, and I want to pound it into powder.”

“Honestly, as a female Marine, any time I’ve heard the words ‘female’ and ‘Marine’ next to the other, it’s either been a door slamming in my face, or some unwanted attention. It has very rarely been a good thing.”

“‘What is your mission? Why are you here? Where are you going?'”

“This is not cute – this is truth. This is the next generation, who may be sitting in these same seats 20 or 30 years from now.”

“We’re not just women of America; we’re women of the world.”

“Use your vote, and use it wisely. People have worked hard for that stuff – you should exercise it!”

“My husband and I are both United States Marines. When people tell us we can’t do something…we just go ahead and do it anyway!”

The Exit Interviews series provides an opportunity to capture and share the honest and thoughtful insights of those members of the naval service who have served their country well, and are either moving on to serve it in other ways outside of the service (the “exit interview”) or who have chosen to pursue higher rank and greater responsibility within it. It focuses on individuals who are transitioning out of the service or have recently gotten out, and those who have recently chosen to stay in past their initial commitment.

Much like an exit interview in the corporate world, we ask a series of standardized questions that are intended to be open-ended and solicit honest reflection. If you would like to participate, or you know somebody who would, please reach out to


LT Ashley O’Keefe is a Surface Warfare Officer, and the Flag Aide to the Superintendent of the US Naval Academy. She is a member of USNI. Her most recent article “Supporting Brothers-and Sisters-in Arms” was published in the April 2015 edition of Proceedings.

Why did you join the Navy?

I joined the Navy for a bunch of different reasons. First, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had gotten my private pilot’s license in high school, and thought that it would just be great to fly jets for the Navy. I liked the idea of learning how to lead people. I also thought that it would be challenging, and fun, and a good way to pay for college.

What is your favorite part of serving in the Navy?

My absolute favorite part of serving is that I get the opportunity every day to have a positive impact on the Sailors who work with and for me. I love the team aspect of our Service…that at its core, we are working together towards a common goal of getting out over the horizon to bring US naval presence to every corner of the globe. One of my best days as Weapons Officer was when the whole ordnance division came together to get a gun working again. We had finally been able to get a technical representative out to the ship while on deployment, and down to the youngest seaman, the team pulled together to figure out the problem with the help of that technician. They stayed up all night outside on a pitching deck, they read the manuals cover-to-cover, the electronics technicians from another department pitched in to help solder wires…and honestly, the gun never did get working again. But the ship came together as a team to solve a problem. It was so inspiring and a good example of teamwork at its best.

What do you find most frustrating?

I have been lucky to experience the very best of our personnel system, but I know that others have really grated against the “golden path”. Honestly, if I were to get out after my department head rides, that would be why…because I don’t believe there is enough flexibility for me to have a family and continue to serve. There seems to be little flexibility in how we build up our officers towards command at sea. I know that there have been lots of steps taken recently to attempt to fix this, and I’m really hoping that this will get better over the next few years.

Additionally, in my at-sea billets, I found that the amount of administrative burden placed on the ships in terms of reporting, powerpoints, stop-light charts, surveys, and instantaneous video reporting made officers almost ineffective as leaders because they were so tied to their computers fulfilling administrative requirements.

When and why did you decide to stay in the Navy?

I decided to sign on for my department head tours when I was trying to make sure that I could co-locate with my husband Chris before we were married. I knew that a single long tour would keep me geographically stable so that he could come to Mayport and know that I’d be there…but to get that single-long-tour configuration, I needed to sign up for my department head tours. I also just really loved being a SWO :-)

If you could change one thing about the Navy what would it be?

I would give more autonomy to our Commanding Officers. Even as a division officer, I frequently saw that my CO did not have very much decision-making power. Our capacity to connect even a three-star admiral down to the lowest tactical level makes it easy to do so, even when it might be better to…not. This phenomenon of feeling watched permeated down to the lowest levels. Even our junior petty officers knew that our interactions were being scrutinized. The days of going over the horizon and having true autonomy in command seem to be gone.

What single most important lesson or piece of advice would you give to Navy leaders?

To look at fixing the culture of our mid-grade leadership. How can we improve? Our JO’s don’t want to stay in. They are demoralized, and they don’t see their leadership having fun, enjoying their jobs, being fulfilled in their jobs. By a huge margin, JO’s don’t want their boss’s job, and they don’t want to be Commanding Officers. We need to fix this!

What’s next for you?

I’m on my shore tour for another year or so, then will head off to department head school in early 2017. My husband and I haven’t decided yet where we might want to be stationed, but we’re considering Norfolk and Rota.

Posted by admin in Navy | 1 Comment
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As part of Women in Writing Week, we recognize one of the first female role models in the Navy: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Here she is on The David Letterman Show, at age 80:

We’ve got a great week shaping up, with both new and old authors alike–add your voice as a contributor! Please send your articles or ideas in by Wednesday, or contact the week’s editor if you would like more time.

Beginning on Women’s Equality Day (26 August), the Naval Institute Blog will be running a “Women in Writing Week,” highlighting the writing of female commissioned officers and enlisted personnel in the sea services.

Women comprise more than half of the US population and 18% of naval officers between O-1 and O-4, yet they make up fewer than 1% of writers at the Naval Institute Blog.

We invite ALL females–active, reserve, retired, civilian–to write for the Naval Institute Blog on any topic of their choice. We also invite all writers of any gender to write about their favorite female writers in the military, and those role models who have paved the way for others to follow.

Blogging is not a gender-specific sport. We invite all men and all women to participate, to share in their equal voice and contribute to our great naval debate.

Interested authors may submit their writing (whether it is a final product or simply a draft with which you would like a little help) to or Thanks for writing!

The Exit Interviews series provides an opportunity to capture and share the honest and thoughtful insights of those members of the naval service who have served their country well, and are either moving on to serve it in other ways outside of the service (the “exit interview”) or who have chosen to pursue higher rank and greater responsibility within it. It focuses on individuals who are transitioning out of the service or have recently gotten out, and those who have recently chosen to stay in past their initial commitment.

Much like an exit interview in the corporate world, we ask a series of standardized questions that are intended to be open-ended and solicit honest reflection. If you would like to participate, or you know somebody who would, please reach out to


Kirby Jones graduated from the US Naval Academy in 2009 and served as an intelligence officer, deploying to Korea and Afghanistan. She recently completed her military service and now resides in California with her husband (also a Marine Corps veteran) and their one-year old daughter.

Why did you join the Marine Corps?

I grew up in an atmosphere of patriotism and service to country and felt compelled to follow this legacy in some way. I was by no means a “military brat” as my Dad served as a Police Officer in the same area for over thirty years and my Mother and Step-Father were out of the military long before I was born, but the values and purpose that they instilled in me were well aligned with the military culture and philosophy. I came out of high school hungry for a challenge and something beyond the normal college experience. I wanted to make a difference and to stretch my limits seeking to learn about more about myself than about academics. The Naval Academy fit all of these desires and to the shock of many of my family and friends, I accepted my admittance.

Once at the Academy, I was still pursuing a challenge and the Marine Corps seemed like it would provide me the greatest challenge within my reach. The culture of bottom-up support centered around the rifleman on the ground appealed to me and the physicality of the endeavor intrigued me. It was another case of ‘how far can I push myself’. This branch seemed like the most pure and basic way to fulfill my duty to my country.

What was your favorite part of serving in the Marine Corps?

Without question, my favorite part of serving was the Marines. Some were good, some were bad, and most were a glorious blend of somewhere in between. Marines are a captivating assortment of young men and women with passion for their jobs, an unparalleled work ethic, and endless stories to tell. I am thankful to have encountered so many fascinating Marines and to have watched them and worked with them in all their glory.

The other highlight of my service was deployment. Actually being able perform the job that I was trained for day in and day out with minimal distractions and pure mission focus was extremely fulfilling. Each night I went to bed exhausted mentally and physically, but knowing that we did something that day that helped the guys out there in the line of fire. That feeling is powerful.

What did you find most frustrating?

I was continually frustrated by the prevailing hypocrisy and mixed messages coming from all sides and lower than expected levels of competency and character in leadership. Throughout The Basic School it was preached to me that I would be a leader and need to make quick, decisive, important decisions, but in the fleet it felt as if everything I did had to be run by several levels above me. Even as a Company Commander, I often felt powerless to make simple decisions for my Company knowing that they would just be overruled later. This impression filtered down to subordinates in being constantly told to trust your enlisted Marines, but yet scolded when you let them take charge and ceased to micromanage their efforts. I had exceptionally high expectations of leadership gleaned mainly from the awesome Marines that I encountered very early on in my career and the majority of leaders that I served under did not reach these high standards.

When and why did you decide to get out of the Marine Corps?

I went back and forth throughout my service of whether or not I would stay in, but about a year before I would be getting out is when I put my foot down and committed to the decision fully.

I have lots of answers when people ask me why I chose to leave the military because it is very hard to articulate an exact reason and easier to just throw out stock answers, but I will try to express my true feelings here. I am truly grateful to have served, but in the end it came down to the fact it was just not the place for me. The time away from my family was heart-breaking and not something I felt I could deal with in the long term. I was uncomfortable with the Marine Corps having the ability to make choices that would affect the lives of my husband and daughter. I had a lot of frustration with the leaders I was supposed to be mentored by and with my peers that I worked with, but I think this would probably occur anywhere to be honest. The final factor was that I looked at all the people above me and I realized I didn’t want any of their jobs. The further up I went, the less happy I was. It wasn’t fair to myself or other Marines for me to remain in an institution in which I had no desire to progress.

If you could change one thing about the Marine Corps, what would it be?

I don’t have all the grand answers, but I am going to cheat and list three simple things that came to me immediately.

  1. Let people fail more often, specifically officers. Give people a chance to try and fail and then be corrected. If they fail again, then take appropriate action. All the time I saw officers not have appropriate negative action taken against them because it may “ruin their career”. Here’s the thing- if they have done something that would warrant action which could ruin their career, then it’s likely that they shouldn’t have a career.
  2. Officer training/mentorship- TBS is great in theory and I honestly can’t say that I know all that much about how often the curriculum is changed or the process for deciding what gets taught, but I can say that TBS and MOS school taught me painfully little useful, applicable information for day to day life in the fleet. Obviously you are going to have to learn some lessons as you go along, that’s what makes you grow. However, for the extensive amount of time (more than a year) I spent in schooling I could have been given much more useful information and tools with which to go forward. I also firmly believe that as soon as you are promoted once it becomes part of your job description to mentor junior officers. I spent a large part of my service searching for mentors and finding distressingly few. Everyone is busy, but just a few minutes spent on mentorship makes a huge difference.
  3. Promotion system. The promotion system is flawed. Fitness Reports are in many cases NOT a true representation of a Marine’s actual competency and fortitude as a technician and a leader. I think they are better than they have been in the past from what I know of their history, but there is definite room for improvement in order to ensure the quality of those allowed to progress through the ranks.

What single most important lesson or piece of advice would you leave with Marine Corps leaders?

Find the areas where you can make a difference, big or small, and throw yourself into that action. Not the “bloom where you are planted” cliché, but more “find what will actually grow within your area of influence and plant that and nurture it and share it and accomplish as much as you can”. You will get so bogged down with what you can’t do that you cease to try anything creative or different and become a part of the status quo. Instead, look around and notice what you can do and do that. Do a lot of it and throw your passion into it. Even if it is as small as making Marines pass their PFT because you rock at leading PT or rewriting SOPs for your platoon so that at least you can internally function flawlessly. Relish those actions and the resulting successes. Quite often, someone will notice and your little change can spread throughout your unit or even beyond.

What’s next for you?

I am in a unique and fortunate position of not having to make a solid decision quite yet, but I am able to explore some of my other passions. I am currently staying at home with my young daughter and training for several races and triathlons. I may try for another degree in Nutrition and attempt to work somewhere in the field of nutrition in hopes of educating people in all walks of life about how important it is to fuel your body properly. I would love to work with the military again in some manner- I still feel a passionate call to serve those who continue to serve.


Posted by admin in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Cleared by comnvacent/5th fleet, CDR BRASWELLThe following essay was submitted to the 2015 Capstone Essay Contest by MIDN (now ENS) T. Holland McCabe and is published as submitted. This is the second of several essay contest submissions that will be published in the coming weeks.

In line with Vice Admiral Rowden’s model of distributed lethality for the surface navy, today’s changing maritime security environment will require a shift in the core focus of the composition of our fleet. Distributed lethality demands that “if it floats, it fights,” according to N96 Director Rear Admiral Peter Fanta.[1] To adequately meet modern challenges, the Navy must invest in a more robust fleet composed of a larger number of small surface combatants (SSCs), in addition to the traditional capital ships. Over 50 years ago, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt first made the same argument in respect to the role of destroyers in the 1960’s Navy. In a 1962 Proceedings article, then-Captain Zumwalt argued for a mix of “complex” and “simplified” mainstream surface combatant designs.[2] Later as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Zumwalt continued to implement his vision of what has since been called the “high-low” mix of a variety of platforms intended to keep the Navy equally capable in the high-intensity environment of full-scale war, and in the low-intensity peacetime operations of maritime security and partnership building. For a variety of reasons, today’s surface navy remains composed mainly of the “complex” mainstream Zumwalt described as, “the exotic upper spectrum destroyers, which make the heart of every true destroyermen skip a beat.”[3] In 2015, a variety of traditional and non-traditional threats faces the surface navy, and a more diverse surface fleet is needed to meet these challenges.

SSCs may not have the firepower or survivability of the fleet’s larger assets, but they provide a fiscally-responsible solution to a wide spectrum of modern threats and missions. Many day-to-day naval operations fall within the “simplified” spectrum of operations Zumwalt described, and increasingly the constant presence of forward-deployed naval forces is becoming more important to building and maintaining international partnerships. SSCs such as Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Patrol Coastal ships (PC), and inexpensive, low-tech platforms like Joint High Speed Vehicle (JHSV) and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) are perfect candidates to be the primary assets in the Navy’s “simplified” mainstream.[4] In times of peace they can provide a persistent, forward maritime presence without the large political footprint of traditional capital ships. In modern asymmetrical engagements they can operate in confined areas commanders may be unable to send larger platforms, or perform missions commanders may be reluctant to dedicate to a more expensive capital ship. Across the range of military operations, distributed lethality can only be administered by including SSCs in the high-low mix of distributed capability.

The message of distributed lethality – that the surface navy is once again on the offensive in a leading role – is a welcome message to a prospective division officer.[5] That being said, the Navy’s acquisition budget will be severely constrained in coming years by programs like the Ford-class carrier, the carrier-based F-35C strike fighter, Flight III of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the monumental Ohio-replacement. Debate and discussion has focused largely on how the Navy will overcome the budgetary challenges of these projects, all of which are high-end, high-cost assets. Relatively little discussion has focused on how the Navy will continue to meet the variety of low-end missions it faces day to day, the solution to which the author believes to be low-cost SSCs. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert recently acknowledged that the Navy is facing extreme budgetary constraints in the coming decades, and “repurposing and reusing existing capabilities” will be the way forward to keep the Navy capable of meeting operational demands.[6]

More than changing mentalities and repurposing existing assets, new platforms and force structures must be developed to keep capabilities distributed across the surface fleet to meet the full potential of the distributed lethality concept. SSCs must continue to have a prioritized place in the future ship building budget in order for the Navy to maintain its forward presence and alleviate the burden of low-intensity peacetime maritime security operations from high-end surface ships. LCS has fixed its importance with the recent re-designation of later hull numbers to an up-gunned Fast Frigate (FF) configuration, as well as its innovative mission modules. However innovation inevitably comes with the price of delays, cost overruns, and growing pains as design flaws are corrected. To this end, programs like JHSV, AFSB, and a renewed PC fleet using proven, current designs can produce excellent returns on the initial investment. SSCs represent the best intersection between capability and cost in the current maritime environment. In a quick comparison, the recent Proceedings article, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” highlighted that a fleet of PCs is roughly comparable in size to the crew of a current DDG, operates at a cheaper cost, and requires less port infrastructure to operate.[7] If current geopolitical trends are anything to go by, the littorals represent the most-likely location of any future maritime conflict. Large carrier and expeditionary strike groups are still vital to the core capabilities of the Navy, but too often assets from these high-value units are relegated to tasking that could more efficiently carried out by smaller craft at a significantly reduced cost.

Platforms like JHSV and AFSB have avoided most of the costs of innovation by simply not being terribly innovative in the individual systems they utilize. What they do present is a cheap platform that can mount a variety of weapon systems and equipment. Everything from electromagnetic railguns, to mine warfare drones and aircraft, to small Marine detachments can be embarked aboard JHSV or AFSB. Additionally, a variety of platforms exist that could be acquired to augment or replace the existing PC fleet. Corvette-type vessels are a favorite among many navies around the world, and an excellent candidate to augment the PC fleet has already been developed and produced in the U.S. under the Foreign Military Sales Program. The Egyptian Navy Ambassador IV-class patrol craft was developed and produced in Mississippi by VT Halter Marine, and uses existing sensors and weapon systems to produce a powerful small combatant. Indeed, this article is not the first to advocate for the acquisition of the Ambassador-IV, or some other corvette-equivalent to augment the U.S. Navy’s littoral operations, but it is worth mentioning again.[8] The Ambassador-IV possesses up to eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a large 76mm cannon, rolling airframe missiles, and a Phalanx close-in weapon system. While this vessel actually outguns the LCS while remaining smaller and cheaper, it is again not the perfect solution for the Navy’s low-intensity missions. Keeping distributed capability in mind, a mix of vessels can provide a wide, cheap baseline across a variety of missions that LCS’s modularity can augment depending on emerging threats. A future forward deployed task group composed of JHSVs carrying Marine raider units, AFSBs engaging in mine countermeasures, PCs conducting maritime security operations, and LCSs capable of supporting any one of these missions could be an incredibly capable force for a significantly reduced cost compared to a traditional carrier or expeditionary strike group.

Many senior Navy leaders recognize the importance of building partnerships and engaging regional powers to advance American interests. To this end, a number of current Navy operations are centered on conducting bilateral and multilateral training with foreign partners. The first rotational deployments of LCS to Singapore have already demonstrated the capability of SSCs to be highly effective tools of U.S. foreign policy, participating in a number of Combined Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises in 2013, with more planned in the coming year. Increasing the number of forward deployed LCS to four in Singapore and four in the Persian Gulf in the coming years will be a step in the right direction, but more platforms creates a more persistent presence. Despite modular mission packages, the planned flexibility of LCS seems like a much more remote reality. Each LCS hull remains limited to conducting a single mission at any given time, and must return to port to exchange modules. The nature of mission modules themselves makes them less than optimal as the sole solution to low-end operations, as each module requires dedicated manning and training that goes unused when the module is not deployed, and each crew must undergo work-up training to integrate a new mission module. 3-2-1 manning somewhat mitigates this drawback, but LCS’s flexibility is increasingly looking like a slower-adapting, strategic advantage capable of responding to theater-wide trends, rather than a fine-tuned tactical advantage. LCS can remain the premier, scalable asset for low-intensity operations, but other platforms like a new PC, JHSV, and AFSB have the potential to fill gaps in LCS’s mission coverage.

Forward-deployed minesweepers (MCM) and PCs have provided similar international engagement and maritime presence abroad in other parts of the world. For several years MCMs have been operating closely with foreign nations in the Persian Gulf and in the waters off East Asia. In the past months, several large mine countermeasures exercises concluded in Bahrain, Korea, and Japan. In Bahrain, the 2014 International Mine Countermeasures Exercise was the largest mine warfare exercise in the world and was hosted by U.S. Fifth Fleet. MCMs were in a leading role building partnerships for all of these exercises. In a recent Proceedings article, several officers who have served in the PC community highlighted the advantages of SSCs for building international trust and cooperation as “an unobtrusive and complementary member of the local civilian and maritime community.”[9] Capital ships carrying large caliber guns and dozens of missiles, or fleets of amphibious assault vehicles and hundreds of marines, can be an intimidating presence the U.S. may not always want to project. The same article points to the vital maritime security operations the PC fleet is currently conducting among the oil fields and merchant traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Southeast Asian archipelagoes and sea lanes present another environment ideal for SSC operations. Roughly 40% of world trade passes transits the Malacca Straits alone each year. Local navies are rapidly expanding, mainly with SSCs of their own, to police this lucrative trade and assert the bewildering number of competing maritime claims in the region. As China asserts greater power in the region, so too should the U.S. make its presence felt with more than four rotationally-deployed LCSs and several larger ships.

Lastly, and closer to the author’s concerns as one of the newest junior officers in the Navy, SSCs provide great leadership responsibilities on junior sailors who are pushed to step into roles generally above their pay-grades. Again, this point has been raised in Proceedings by other officers, but it is worth mentioning again.[10] From enlisted sailors pushed to take on the responsibilities of non-traditional positions, such as standing officer of the deck, to junior officers placed in command, SSCs provide invaluable experience to upcoming generations of Naval leadership. Early Command has been one of the hallmarks of the surface navy – no other designator provides so much responsibility so early in an officer’s career – and this opportunity should be given to more officers who seek it.

As the Navy moves forward into an increasingly complex political and fiscal environment, the service as a whole should do well to remember 50-year-old advice from a former service chief. Admiral Zumwalt’s high-low mix of distributed capabilities must be considered to bring the new doctrine of distributed lethality to its fullest potential. While this article advocates for the place of SSCs in budgetary and strategic discussions, do not mistake that the author seeks to discount the “complex” portion of distributed capability at all, simply that they not be the sole focus. Both sides must exist in a balance for the Navy to operate effectively against the wide range of modern challenges.

[1] Sydney Freedberg, “’If It Floats, It Fights’: Navy Seeks ‘Distributed Lethality,’” Breaking Defense, 14 January 2015, accessed 13 April 2015,

[2] CAPT Zumwalt, “A Course for Destroyers,” Proceedings 88 (November 1962).

[3] Ibid.

[4] While not necessarily combatant vessels, for the purposes of brevity this article will generally combine all “low-end” assets like JHSV and AFSB with references to dedicated small combatants when referring to “SSCs.”

[5] VADM Rowden, RADM Gumataotao, RADM Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” Proceedings 141 (January 2015).

[6] ADM Greenert, “Service Chiefs’ Update Panel,” 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition, National Harbor, MD, 13 April 2015.

[7] LT Hipple, LCDR Follet, and LCDR Davenport, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” Proceedings 141 (April 2015).

[8] Luke Tarbi, “US Navy Needs Fast Missile Craft – And LCS – in Persian Gulf,” Breaking Defense, 14 April 2014, accessed 16 April 2015,

[9] LT Hipple, LCDR Follet, and LCDR Davenport, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” Proceedings 141 (April 2015).

[10] Ibid.

Posted by admin in Navy, Tactics | 3 Comments
President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China shake hands after their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing November 12, 2014.

President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China shake hands after their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing November 12, 2014.

As the Iran nuclear debate rages in the halls of Congress and the backrooms of Sepah’s leadership, skeptics point to this agreement as another piece of evidence that proves the United States (US) has lost its way in foreign policy. Meanwhile, they contend China has not only jockeyed into position as the clear cut number two world power in an increasingly multipolar system, but is arguably squaring off with the United States to ascend to pole position. Projections indicate that China stands to surpass the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) within a decade, a startling outlook as the US plunges deeper into debt. With this follows US trepidation in terms of economic and military power as China continues to expand its physical territory on islands in the Pacific and establish diplomatic agreements elsewhere in the world. The ongoing pivot, or rebalancing of resources, assets and military forces to Pacific Command (PACOM) places the focus of the world’s dominant military force squarely on Chinese motive and intention.

How the United States and China avoid outright conflict, or the dynamic Graham Allison has termed Thucydides Trap, merits a closer examination of historical lessons of statecraft in order to deal with challenges unprecedented in scale. There are two lessons of leadership that would prove useful in avoiding escalating conflict between the US and China. First, President Nelson Mandela and his vision for transforming South Africa and charting a new course for his people through and beyond the next generation. His consideration of progress not only drove him to develop policies that would have an immediate impact, but also provide increasing stability beyond the present issues. Second, we can look to the George H.W. Bush Administration’s tasking of capable public servants in critical positions of responsibility during the end of the Cold War and reunification of Germany. There were a variety of challenges to overcome in Europe, yet President Bush had the wisdom and foresight to trust his team as they considered inclusive policy recommendations that incorporated interests on both sides of the equation. Both lessons provide important perspectives for current and future leaders seeking to protect national interests, but also improve stability of the international system in the long-term.

Thucydides Trap and Avoiding Conflict

Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues that the US and China ought to seek a way out of what he has termed Thucydides Trap; or the increasing probability of conflict between a dominant power and an ascendant power. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jingping has embraced this as a goal of Beijing’s foreign policy: “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers … Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.” Both Allison and Xi have identified nationalism as an incendiary ingredient that could spark hostilities. This follows the historical lessons from Aristotle and Hobbes to Machiavelli, Niebuhr, and Morgenthau as putting reason and pragmatism above raw emotional drivers.
Similarly, Sino-US relations are disconnected and are growing antagonistic. The antagonism is sponsored in part by the US’s rebalance to PACOM. Dr. Ely Ratner, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security explains: “U.S. efforts to expand its military force posture in Asia, to strengthen security ties with allies and partners, and to enhance the role of regional institutions are viewed by many in Beijing as directly aimed at constraining China’s rise and as the principal cause of regional instability as well as the deterioration of China’s strategic environment.” Ratner goes on to note that China is plagued by an inferiority complex and that Chinese citizens routinely produce low US approval ratings, adding fuel to China’s acrimony. How these social, economic, political, and military factors shape ongoing relations between the two most influential countries in the world requires adept stewardship able to navigate the dangerous waters of national rhetoric and realpolitik competition.

Learning from Historical Precedent

Leaders should be mindful of historical parallels that can inform policies as new generations ascend to positions of influence. Avoiding predominantly raw emotionally driven policy should be of primary concern for leaders in Washington and Beijing as bad policies often emerge under the pressures of unexpected crisis. Existing mechanisms of internal cooperation, public debate, and information exchange should be strengthened to better understand partner motive and intent not only at the leadership level, but among political classes and citizens of both countries. A more thorough understanding of security concerns, education with respect for great power status, steeped in reasonable and rational national interests, are the best remedies to public paranoia, heightened rhetoric, and fear of the unknown.
If the US and China are inevitably moving toward a bi-polar world, lessons from the past can be invaluable in shaping an environment where cooperation and competition coexist. Studying leaders who have successfully managed the complexities of transformation can be useful now and in the future. In Nelson Mandela’s ending of apartheid in South Africa, and George H.W. Bush policy on German reunification, we see two positive examples where consensus, communication, and trust all played a role in shaping positive transformation. More importantly, these policies fostered long term stability in times that could have just as easily trended toward catastrophic upheaval.

South African President Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s legacy in South Africa transcends generations in the same way that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy transcends American lore. The transformation of the country is well known and will not be too detailed here. However, we will consider his critics as their most frequent criticism reflects the importance of time and generational change as it relates to the question of implementing new policies.
John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an article published in Foreign Policy: “Think Again: Nelson Mandela”. He makes many valid points articulating that South Africa is not the iconic multiracial state that Mandela had set out to create. He highlights the continued segregation:

An astonishing 43.5 percent of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race, according to one 2012 survey. Only about half reported interacting with people of a different race frequently on weekdays, and less than 20 percent regularly socialized with people of other races. As in the United States, racial interaction does increase as you climb the socioeconomic ladder. The black middle class interacts with other races, but largely because whites continue to control the economy. Many of those who rarely speak to people of differing races are rural or township dwellers with limited mobility — people whose social isolation simply mirrors the country’s starkly racial geography.

Apartheid has been abolished yet cultural barriers remain and hinder South Africa’s societal progress. Upbraiding Mandela is unreasonable because historically it takes generations to cure the wounds of violence and oppression. This was true following the US Civil War, and it is arguable that time represents a similar challenge in US-Sino relations. Societal change will not occur over night, over the term of a single PACOM Commander or even one presidency. Refining US-Sino relations will take generations, but action must be taken now to show future generations that partnerships can be built despite previous rivalries.
Nelson Mandela left South Africa with a legacy of peace, equality, economic growth and moral prosperity. Though here, he stands before Sino-US leadership as nothing more than a single model of how historical successes can effectively guide modern decisions. The decisions that we make, for better or for worse, we bequeath to our beneficiaries. Therefore, one of two fates awaits our bipolarizing world: one where we have left our fate to chance by continuing down the path of ignorance; or we learn from our mistakes and break from cyclical patterns of self-destruction.

The Bush Administration and German Unification

At the end of the Cold War there was a high potential for instability over the question of German reunification. Many leaders within East and West Germany were uncertain about the wisdom of bringing together two different states that had coexisted with different economic models, political systems, and divergent trends in development. Much of the public in West Germany was concerned over the prospect of unifying with a less developed East German economic model that would weigh as an anchor on a prosperous and successful West.
Yet President George H.W. Bush threw America’s full support behind the idea of one Germany, and tasked his best and brightest advisors to manage that policy portfolio and complexities of a transformative moment. Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft were supported by a fluid and capable team fully committed to identifying, developing, and managing policy solutions to the concerns of leaders on both sides. Furthermore, behind the scenes reassurance to allies, adversaries, and defining this mutual interest for European powers provided important clarity for everyone involved. Open and honest communication on the big picture importance of a stable and prosperous Germany was not only an interest of the United States and Germany, but one that transcended the two parties to include both Europe and the wider international system.

As we look back through the lens of history, it becomes readily apparent the Bush Administration’s full commitment to the prospect of a stable Germany remains one of the most important case studies of wise statecraft in recent times. Despite surprisingly little fanfare and a careful framing of the debate, with mindful stewardship and inclusion of leaders from all sides, German unity became an interest for the world over. What can be even more appreciated is the lesson of trusting qualified, capable public servants to develop pragmatic, inclusive policies lasting a generation and beyond.

Remaining Stable and Balanced in the 21st Century

Fortunately, anxieties of an absolute American decline are quelled by the prospect that polarization will be jointly US-Sino in makeup. Yan Xuetong, Dean of Institute of Modern International Relations of Tsinghua University in China, substantiates this point that “in the next decade, no country other than China will be able to narrow its power gaps with the US. With the other major powers likely to be left behind farther than ever by both of China and the US, these two giants will probably serve as two poles in the coming world order.” While competition is inevitable in a bipolar world, history has shown that competition can be managed and balanced. Moreover, continued joint prosperity creates an environment where stability becomes a paramount goal for both sides. Stewards must be capable of managing lesser disputes before they spiral out of proportion and escalate into outright conflict. Provided the shift in global poles is an unstoppable force, the next generation of leadership in Washington and Beijing must make pragmatic application of historical lessons a top priority.

Posted by admin in History, Navy, Policy | 1 Comment

VLS At-sea Reloading

July 2015


picture 1

Figure 1: The Donghaidao is the PLAN’s new MLP-like vessel

Last month, the People’s Liberation Army Navy held its first drill simulating the resupply of missiles in a combat environment. Live-fire exercises featured the firing of missiles and torpedoes, followed by maritime missile combat resupply[1]. In addition to developing advanced new anti-ship missiles, the PLAN has also commissioned a new maritime logistics vessel[2]. The PLAN is equipping its forces, and now rehearsing, for complex logistical coordination for sustained combat operations. At-sea replenishment of stores and fuel is routine for the United States. However, for all of its power projection capability, the Navy does not practice ordnance resupply. Given the increasing capabilities of the PLAN, and the imperative of Sea Basing, the US Navy must replenish this skillset.

Distributed Lethality calls for the surface fleet to go on the offensive.[3] Ships and Surface Action Groups (SAG) should operate forward, seize the initiative, confuse the adversary through battlespace complexity, and strike targets both at sea and ashore. But to carry out this strategy, surface ships face a critical limitation: munitions capacity. The primary weapons of large surface combatants like the ARLEIGH BURKE Class DDG and the TICONDEROGA Class Cruiser include the STANDARD missile, Tomahawk, Vertically Launched Anti-Submarine Rocket (VLA), and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Those missiles are launched from the Vertical Launching System (VLS). Cruisers have 122 cells, Flight I and II DDGs have 90, and Flight IIA DDG have 96.

The specific quantities of each weapon loaded into VLS cells vary depending on mission and combat system configuration. Fully loaded, the large surface combatants pack quite a wallop, and are capable of destroying a broad array of aircraft, missiles, defended land targets and enemy warships. What they lack is magazine depth. 90 to 122 VLS cells is not enough. In the face of the sophisticated weapons that the PLAN has deployed to execute it anti-access strategy, one could easily conceive of scenarios where both the strike and defensive weapons’ cells on USN ships are quickly depleted. A day or two of combat operations may require several anti-aircraft weapons to be used against anti-ship cruise missiles and Tomahawks to be fired at targets ashore. After such operations, U.S. ships would have to travel hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of miles to a facility with weapons, equipment and people to re-arm. This takes our large surface combatants out of the fight for days, thus forcing the CSG and SAG to pull back, out of range of land-based opposing forces. That spells tactical victory for anti-access strategy.

Defeating the anti-access strategy may not require breaking into the defended bastion, destroying opposing forces, and commanding the seas right up to their shores. It could mean defending a regional status quo by preventing an anti-access actor from disrupting shipping, making claims on disputed territory, or invading another sovereign state. In many cases, the United States is the anti-access state. Today, credible military capability and capacity to impose localized sea control could make an aggressive violation of status quo undesirable[4]. Maintaining credible presence is a multi-faceted problem that touches everything: procurement, maintenance, manpower, and supply-chain. In order to counter these anti-access strategies, we must keep our major surface combatants on station with full combat capability through forward replenishment of weapons.

Unloading spent canisters, loading new weapons, and unloading weapons from damaged units will be critical to maintaining presence and keeping the pressure on adversaries in their anti-access bastions. Unfortunately, reloading VLS at-sea isn’t incorporated into the Navy’s logistical DNA in the same way refueling is. Reloading VLS cells in today’s status quo demands an industrially robust port facility with heavy equipment, trained rigging crews, and a large munitions storage facility. It is not uncommon to damage equipment, and people have been seriously injured during VLS loading and unloading evolutions. Experts at the Naval Weapons Stations and some Naval Support Facilities use cranes to unload spent canisters, move gas management system equipment, and place loaded canisters in cells. Can the Navy achieve similar results, sending ships back into action with fresh ammo, from more forward but less capable locations?

Figure 2USS FORD coming alongside USNS CARL BRASHEAR for RAS

Figure 2 USS FORD coming alongside USNS CARL BRASHEAR for RAS

To begin with, “at-sea reloading” is a misleading term. Swinging VLS canisters over the lifelines in comparable fashion to how it is accomplished at Seal Beach Weapons Station is not acceptable for Replenishment at Sea (RAS) at 13 knots. Since reloading during RAS is unachievable, I propose “forward” reloading, in a protected lagoon or calm harbor closer to the action. While out of the way locations may lack modern industrial equipment, many locations, with additional mobile support, could be used to reload magazines closer to the action.

A great deal of research and planning went into supporting supply chain management like this from 1897-1945, when Officers at Naval War College and OPNAV examined how to sail to victory against the Japanese Navy. Possible base locations were evaluated based on criteria such as ship capacity, number of entry passes, entry draft, and submarine protection to support operations in the Pacific Theater. Key requirements such as having a large lagoon and deep drafts were easily met.[5] The Navy may be able to use islands and atolls that failed to satisfy the early 20th Century requirements for forward operating for VLS reloading. Availability of numerous forward locations prevents bottlenecks, and reduces the vulnerability to enemy disruption. It is important to explore the feasibility of forward locations for VLS reloading. Crisis or time of war makes rapid munitions replenishment critical. A strategy that accepts greater risk will need to be employed. A pier that lacks every convenience except navigational draft, a calm anchorage, or even the lee of a volcanic formation far out at sea may be sufficient for VLS reloading. We should plan for using these feasible locations for VLS reloading before a crisis emerges.

Tomahawks, SM-3 and SM-6 missile canisters are over 20 feet long, weigh thousands of pounds, and are filled with fuel and explosives. They’re hard to pick up, and you certainly can’t risk dropping them. What will ships need to do to execute a transfer away from the robust facilities that normally conduct these operations?

Cruisers and Flight I and II Destroyers previously used a VLS strike-down crane that occupied space for 3 VLS cells. These had been certified to reload SM-2 missiles and Vertically Launched Anti-Submarine Rockets (VLA). Maintenance burden and crew training requirements, combined with the inability to reload some of the larger weapons in the inventory, led to the strike-down crane’s exclusion from Flight IIA Destroyers. The cranes have since been permanently laid up or completely removed from VLS systems.[i] Simply replacing those cranes is not a solution since they would require extensive redesign and engineering to load Tomahawk, SM-3, and SM-6 missiles. Rather than adding equipment to the CG and DDGs, the Navy could explore options to deliver the necessary equipment to the ship in conjunction with the missile transfer.

The size of the missiles and the distances replenishing units must cover preclude airborne delivery. The existing fleet of replenishment ships is a natural options for VLS rearming. For instance, The Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) has an open deck with ample room for containers and handling gear. Combined with low freeboard, and excellent low-speed maneuvering characteristics, it appears to be a useful platform for skin-to-skin mooring and weapons transfer. The MLP lacks dedicated magazine space and ordnance handling equipment, so development of ordnance storage containers and associated safety equipment would be necessary.

The T-AKE dry cargo and ammunition ship has ample ordnance storage capacity, however a high freeboard and large midship superstructure increases the risk of damaging mast electronics on the receiving ship during transfer operations. Moreover, though the T-AKE does have a crane, neither it nor the receiving ship has a crane capable of safely swinging VLS canisters across to set into VLS cells.

VLS reloading in sea states 1-2 is a critical requirement. During a routine RAS evolution, relative motion can exceed several feet, but during VLS reloading, the relative motion between delivery and receiving ships cannot exceed 6 inches. It will be necessary to maintain complete control of the missiles during transfer, not simply gauge the motion and use judgment to set it into place safely. Current research indicates that a specialized crane with a stabilizing system would be the best way to not only transfer missiles from one ship to the other, but to prepare the cells for ordnance. A crane with a stabilization system is the only way to ensure gas management equipment can be safely and securely placed, and that damage to cell openings and door mechanisms can be avoided while inserting loaded missile canisters into VLS cells.

While the stabilized crane helps, the best way to ensure the weapons are safely lowered into place is with a positive-control system, secured to the ship. Navies that operate the MK 41 system have experimented with developmental systems to perform this task. Prior to lifting canisters, the delivering ship would hoist a loading device and set it atop the launcher. This device would be used to pull canisters up from the cells, then lay them flat, parallel to the deck. The missiles would be secured to the crane and released from the loading device for transfer to the replenishment ship. Then, replacement missiles would be craned back to the CG or DDG, secured in place on the loading mechanism, then raised vertically for loading into the VLS.

The use of a stabilized crane and secure loading system would ensure the careful control and transfer of missiles between ships, and is essential for VLS reloading in forward areas.

A final key consideration for VLS reloading that could consume another paper by itself is ensuring enough ordnance is on hand to support ongoing operations. Requirements emerge from data models, and missiles are procured and maintained based on assumptions of potential combat regions and the threats that could be encountered there. As a conflict evolves, ships will request the missiles they need based on their combat usage, or the missions to which they’ll next be assigned. Careful tracking of what is being fired and what is being reloaded will be necessary to ensure Combatant Commanders know their inventories so that they may transfer ordnance or ships from one region to another to support combat requirements.

The speed that ordnance information must travel will increase dramatically relative to the current peacetime information deliver rate. Exercises and war gaming of these scenarios will undoubtedly prepare for the people and ordnance tracking systems for wartime speed and complexity. Weapons stations will be issuing weapons to replenishment ships, DDGs and CGs will be demanding reload, damaged vessels will need to transfer weapons to combat ready ships, and the entire system must be tuned to put the right missiles on the right ships and in the correct cells. In total, it will be a fast-paced, hectic process likely involving significant improvisation. Keeping count, maintaining order, and reloading VLS cells must be practiced, and there is more to the weapons supply chain than just cranes and rigging gear. The difference between the right munitions at the right time and a miscalculation or misplacement could be a crew watching the screen helplessly for a couple of terrifying minutes until an anti-ship missile reaches CIWS range because STANDARD missiles were not available for reload.

Forward VLS reloading: It can be done

Technologies to facilitate forward reloading of VLS are mature, but the Navy has no stated requirement for integration, testing, and certification of specific equipment needed to support it. Funding for further development of the at-sea (or forward) reloading capability will be a hard sell in the current budget environment, and because the current peacetime status quo is satisfactory.

The proliferation of guided anti-ship weapons, and the rise of PLAN anti-access strategy have driven the US Surface Navy to adopt a Distributed Lethality mindset. To keep more warships on station for as long as possible, losing a DDG in the midst of combat to conduct a multi-day transit just for rearming is not acceptable. To paraphrase Eisenhower: plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Funding for final implementation of forward reloading systems may not seem worth the expense today, but it is critical to supporting Distributed Lethality warfighting. Forward reloading of VLS cells is a technical, operational, and supply chain challenge, and it must remain a priority for research & development, war gaming, and strategic planning processes for it to ever be employed successfully in wartime.

[1] Ben Blanchard, “China Navy Holds First Missile Combat Resupply Drill,” Reuters, July 2, 2015,

[2] Mike Yeo, “China Commissions First MLP-Like Logistics Ship, Headed for South Sea Fleet” USNI News, July 14, 2015,

[3] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings (1/2015),

[4] Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta.

[5] Miller, Edward S. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Naval Institute Press, 1991.

[i] Before decrying the removal of the knuckle crane for criminal shortsightedness, consider the implications of keeping those cranes in place. Cranes, like pallet conveyers and elevators, require considerable effort for upkeep. They also require manning consideration to include operation and maintenance classroom training for sailors, not to mention repetition of use to ensure that crews keep perishable skills sharp. It’s also ordnance handling equipment, which involves another level of inspections and certification. These are matters of personnel safety, where errors can cost lives. We can’t simply ditch the inspections and certifications of gear and the training and qualification of people because they sound like extra red tape. Rules that govern the operation and upkeep of these systems are written in blood. Occasionally, we are reminded that life at sea is dangerous, and we do not like to be reminded in peace time. Pile that onto manpower reductions, in-rate and professional training, and watch standing, and you may notice that sailors on afloat units are busy. In an era of fiscal austerity and manpower reduction, maintaining expensive gear and skills fell off the table. Something had to lose. This lost.


Posted by admin in Innovation, Navy, Tactics | 4 Comments

The following essay was submitted to the 2015 Capstone Essay Contest by MIDN (now ENS) Steven Hallgren and is published as submitted. This is the first of several essay contest submissions that will be published in the coming weeks.

carrierOn September 25th, 2011 in the Northeastern port city of Dalian, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) brought the newly-refurbished aircraft carrier Liaoning into service.[1] The commissioning came as the result of a decades-long endeavor to acquire such a ship, and perhaps more importantly represented China’s ambitions to establish blue-water naval capabilities. Though the Liaoning itself will only serve as a test bed for Chinese carrier aviation and ostensibly will never see operational service, it nevertheless shows progress towards China’s ultimate goal of bolstering its fleet with home-built carriers.[2] A PLAN fleet with power-projecting aircraft carriers would profoundly expand China’s naval capabilities in the hotly-contested waters of Southeast Asia. As the initial sea trials of Liaoning usher in the age of the Chinese carrier fleet, it is worth examining how the PLAN would employ such assets within its greater maritime strategy.

From a broad perspective, China’s quest for a carrier fleet is a manifestation of its need to defend its territorial claims from foreign threats in much the same way that it had to defend its tremendous landmass from continental threats throughout history. More concrete ideology launched a fervent pursuit of an aircraft carrier dating back to the 1980’s when Soviet-trained Admiral Liu Huaqing began shaping China’s maritime direction.[3] Increasing strain across the Taiwan Strait primarily fueled what he described as the “extremely necessary” urge to manifest China’s maritime—and, ergo, national—power in the form of a carrier.[4] Since the 2000s, waning tensions with Taiwan have shifted China’s maritime focus towards new areas—though the pursuit of a carrier has remained constant.

Liaoning began her peculiar life as Varyag, intended to be an aircraft carrier of the Soviet Navy. Her construction halted with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and Varyag was left incomplete to rust in a Ukrainian shipyard until the Chinese purchased the empty hull in 2000. After an elaborate trek out of the Mediterranean and around the world to Dalian, Varyag entered a decade-long refit period, culminating in her renaming and commissioning as Liaoning.[5]

As with many aspects of its military, the PLAN is far from forthcoming with the features and capabilities of its infant carrier. However, its expected specifications can be approximated based on the small amount of information China has released and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetzov class to which Varyag belonged. The carrier will host a modestly-sized air wing totaling around 50 aircraft, divided between J-10 and J-15 fighters and an assortment of helicopters used for anti-electronic warfare (AEW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).[6] Additionally, Liaoning’s ship-board weapons include a CIWS defense system, air-defense missiles, and ASW offensive missiles.[7]

In analyzing the impact of carrier developments on the PLAN fleet, care must be taken to avoid falling into the trap of directly comparing Chinese capabilities to those of the American Navy. As a result of this practice, many analysts tend to be overly dismissive of the carrier. [8] While by any measure the Nimitz class aircraft carriers objectively outperform Liaoning, such comparisons are only illuminating insofar as the two ships would be expected to meet each other in combat. Direct naval combat with the American Navy is not only substantially unlikely, but also entirely beyond the strategic maritime scope of the PLAN.[9]

Further, even assuming the current state of Liaoning to be the effective extent of the Chinese carrier program is rather short-sighted. As mentioned previously, the PLAN does not even intend for Liaoning to become an operational ship. That being said, it serves as a useful proxy for future carrier development as it not only will become a “modestly capable” ship in its own right, but will also serve to train the PLAN in the tactics and employment of such an asset.[10] As such, although direct contrast with the more familiar and transparent capabilities of Western navies is simple, a more useful analysis is achieved through a localized assessment of the impact of a PLAN-operated carrier strike group in the Western Pacific. After all, Asian waters currently host a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the first Asian nation with a fully-operational carrier.[11]

Having broadly established the current state of China’s carrier program, the question then becomes how a fleet with operational aircraft carriers would change China’s ability to achieve its strategic maritime objectives. Naturally, the strategy of the Chinese military is every bit as wide-sweeping and nuanced as that of any other major power. Even still, it is possible to observe recurring themes within those plans, isolate the capabilities needed to achieve them, and analyze the extent to which a carrier navy would bolster those capabilities. From a regional security perspective, perhaps two of the most important strategic objectives are China’s desires to establish a broad territorial claim over the South China Sea and to define itself as a major power of the Western Pacific.[12]

China continues to assert ambiguous and expansive territorial authority over the islands and waters of the South China Sea. Its claims have engendered considerable regional maritime disputes over the status of small islands, reefs, and even rocks that now define foreign relations in the Western Pacific. China’s maritime neighbors and several members of the international community continually contest China’s state position to prevent it from becoming legitimized.[13] One of the primary means by which China strengthens its position in such disputes is through its own maritime patrols conducted by the PLAN.[14] Such patrols aim to simultaneously use military force to assert control over the region while also effectively deterring its Pacific neighbors from doing the same. Analysts typically categorize such operations as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which describes the general maritime strategy of restricting competitive access to a region.

Ultimately, A2AD campaigns and the defense of territorial claims fundamentally cannot be supported entirely from shore. As a case study, consider the Johnson South Reef Skirmish fought between China and Vietnam in 1988. The Spratly Islands are just one of the numerous contested territories that China lays claim to. These islands, located over 1,000 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland, are also claimed by Vietnam, among other parties in the region.[15] When a skirmish broke out between the two nations, the Chinese faced unexpected difficulties countering attacks on their fleet by Vietnamese aircraft.

During the conflict, Chinese aircraft had to operate from a distant Chinese-controlled airfield. The transit time from the base to the area of operation was so long that the aircraft were left with only four to five minutes of time on station, dramatically limiting their effectiveness against their Vietnamese adversaries. Admiral Chen Weiwen, a commander during the battle, noted later that “if…we had our own [air] cover from a nearby aircraft carrier, we would simply not have had to fear Vietnam’s air force.”[16] Land-based assets play a critical role in their own time and place, but that place is frankly not in rapidly changing, forward operating areas.

Aircraft carriers are occasionally caricatured as being “several thousand tons of diplomacy,” but the aphorism does hold weight. In the Spratly scenario as with the rest of China’s maritime claims, no act of diplomacy or demonstration of force can compare to moving an aircraft carrier on station. For one, even the mere presence of a carrier would be a deterrent against further escalation, as the resource allocation would demonstrate China’s commitment to the claim. Moreover, the capabilities the carrier brings would be better able to respond to emergent threats than perhaps any other tool in the Chinese arsenal. This combination makes the aircraft carrier virtually indispensable for the preservation of maritime claims. In fact, the United States routinely employs its carriers for this exact purpose, as demonstrated by the stationing of the USS Nimitz and USS Independence off the coast of Taiwan during the height of cross-strait tensions in the mid-90s.[17]

Simultaneously, China has shown interest in becoming the leading nation in the region beyond merely maintaining territorial control. The PLAN has noticeably shifted its development efforts towards acquiring naval capabilities beyond mere defense and offense, to include the mission sets of counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR).[18] Such military operations other than war (MOOTW) on behalf of the international community require the foundational capabilities of forward presence and power projection coupled with the platforms and equipment necessary to carry out such tasking.

Accordingly, the utility of aircraft carriers extends far beyond strictly military endeavors. For the same reasons that they are vital to power projecting operations, carriers can also play an instrumental role in virtually any military staging operation far from home. China will almost certainly employ carriers to expand its gradually growing peacekeeping and HADR mission set. Recently, the PLAN has only just begun to dip its toes into these waters. Since 2008, the PLAN has continuously participated in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, marking its first foray into conducting open-water MOOTWs.[19]

Such operations ultimately are diplomatic tools used to not only strengthen China’s reputation in the international community, but also to establish China as a major regional power. While counter-piracy operations can be effectively conducted with a frigate- and destroyer-based fleet such as China currently has, the addition of aircraft carriers into its arsenal opens up substantially more potential MOOTWs.

Consider again an example from the United States. In 2011 after Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, the United States started Operation Tomodachi to provide HADR support to the region. USS Ronald Reagan served as the centerpiece of naval resources and manpower during this operation and coordinated rescue efforts for nearly one month off the coast of Japan.[20] Arguably only an aircraft carrier could offer the combination of endurance, flexibility, and capability required for such a long-term coordinated effort. A PLAN equipped with an aircraft carrier and a healthy complement of rotary wing assets would be capable of conducting similar HADR operations in the South China Sea. The regular completion of such operations would indisputably mark China as a dominant power in the region, and may even fundamentally alter the perceptions Southeast Asian nations have towards China.

Possessing an aircraft carrier is a tremendously potent tool of diplomacy in a way comparable perhaps only to developing nuclear weapons. Though the PLAN’s carrier program is by all accounts still in its infancy, it is maturing rapidly. As initial carrier training is conducted on board Liaoning, reports indicate that work has already begun on China’s first home-built carrier.[21] The reality of a Chinese carrier fleet is no longer a question of “if” so much as “when.” Whether that fleet would pose a legitimate threat to a US carrier strike group is immaterial. A PLAN with carriers will irreparably alter the nature of Southeast Asian relations and indeed the face that China presents to the world.


[1]. Ananth Krishnan, “China Commissions First Aircraft Carrier Liaoning,” The Hindu, 26 September 2012,


[2]. Stew Magnuson, “China’s Navy Takes Great Leap Forward,” National Defense Industrial Association, April 2014,


[3]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “Drawing Lines at Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 137, no. 11 (November 2011), 48-51

[4]. Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Winter 2004), 76-93.

[5]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “China’s Carrier: The Basics,” U.S. Naval Institute News, 27 November 2012,

[6]. “Liaoning (Varyag) Aircraft Carrier, China,” Naval Technology,

[7]. Ibid.

[8] See, for instance, James R. Holmes, “Top 5 Reasons Not to Ballyhoo China’s Carrier,” The Diplomat, 2 October 2012,

[9]. Bryan McGrath and Seth Cropsey, “The Real Reason China Wants Aircraft Carriers,” Real Clear Defense, 16 April 2014,


[10]. Andrew S. Erickson et al., “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps,” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 1 (Winter 2012), 15-54.

[11]. Donald Kirk, “Asian Aircraft Carrier Race—China Vs. India Vs. Japan,” Forbes Magazine, 13 August 2013,

[12]. Vice Admiral R.N. Ganesh, Indian Navy, “Maritime Ambitions of China”, Indian Defense Review, 19 February 2013,


[13]. Kevin Baumert and Brian Melchior, “Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,” Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 5 December 2014,


[14]. Peter Dutton, “Three Disputes and Three Objectives: China and the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2011), 42-67.

[15]. “China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests,” United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 4 February 2010,

[16]. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the Liaoning: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012,


[17]. Chun W. Chiang, “Crisis Management in the Taiwan Strait,” U.S. Army War College, 7 April 2003,

[18]. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Naval Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 23 December 2014,

[19]. Zhou Bo, “Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden: Implications for PLA Navy,” China-United States Exchange Foundation, 30 December 2013,


[20]. Ryan Zielonka et al., “Chronology of Operation Tomodachi,” The National Bureau of Asian Research,

[21]. Charles Clover, “China Media Confirm Second Aircraft Carrier,” Financial Times, 10 March 2015,

Mary Witkowski originally wrote this column for Motherly, a new digital community for Millennial mothers. It is cross-posted here with her permission.

emadeleineAAs an active duty military mother, I jumped for joy when I read the Navy’s new maternity leave policy giving women up to 18 weeks of paid leave after having a baby. I believe that this is a huge step in the right direction for the Navy in its quest for becoming a more competitive employer, and to retain top talent. But I don’t believe it will attract more women to stay because women aren’t leaving the military due to short maternity leave. It’s the pre-ordained military schedule that can make Navy life and motherhood so hard to balance.

My husband and I both graduated from the Naval Academy and both currently serve in the fleet. After several years working alongside many talented and ambitious female sailors who also hope to become mothers, I believe it’s crucial for the military to find new and creative ways to retain the women it has trained and developed.

As it stands today, mixing Navy life with motherhood is daunting. Take for example, the career path of a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) (read: ship driver).

In Navy life, sailors go through multi-year periods where they deploy frequently and are away for six-month to year-long blocks at a time. Then, there are other periods when you are stationed stateside during a “shore tour.” These schedules are set in stone by the military, and make women and men go through complex calculations to decide if and when the timing will be right to have a baby.

The first shore tour is a really a female sailor’s first opportunity to start a family. This gives her three years to get pregnant, take her maternity leave, and enjoy quality time with her family. As someone currently in this position, I can say it’s pretty great! But, not all couples are ready or able to have a baby early in this window, and as your naval career progresses, it’s harder and harder to decide when to make time for baby.

The breaking point for me was when I began to realize what lies ahead for our family if things don’t change. The Navy requires you to fill out a Family Care Plan upon having a child, which assigns someone to look after your child when you and your spouse both have to go out to sea at the same time. It’s this factor, not the Navy’s maternity leave policy that forced the question “is my desire to serve the country worth spending these large chunks of time away from my daughter?”

For me, the cost outweighed the benefit. I still plan to work full time when I leave the military, but while my Mom may help out with my daughter on some work trips, she won’t be raising my child for six months while my husband and I are at sea. And, as I shop for a job in the public sector, it isn’t the maternity policy at Google that’s attracting me, or the free lunches, but instead, the feasibility of raising a family throughout a career. I’m looking for a future employer that can accommodate the reality that women have children, and that Millennials, in our increasingly digital age, want greater flexibility over where and when they do their jobs.

It’s a hard problem that the Navy faces, because the mission always has to come first, and sea and shore time should be equally shared across the force. I still think there are significant ways that the Navy can improve female retention:

1. Create a More Balanced Deployment Cycle. The submarine force has been able to maintain a six-month deployment timeline, whereas ships such as Aircraft Carriers and Ballistic Missile Defense Ships have lengthened their average time at sea to over nine months. This problem has reverberated deeper than female retention and is a major fleet problem. Reducing the amount of sea time will allow Navy families to increase their resilience.

2. Make the Career Path Tailorable. The way the Surface Warfare career path is right now, sea and shore time is grouped into three-four year blocks. Allowing more flexibility within this construct would allow individuals to create a career that works for them.

3. Expand the Navy’s Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP). Naval personnel can currently apply to take up to three years off in order to pursue civilian opportunities or start a family. Through this program you retain full health benefits as well as a monthly stipend and in return owe the Navy two months for every one month you take off. This program fits some situations and I believe it’s a step in the right direction, but the Navy should explore other options as well, such as the ability to transfer in and out of the reserves (maybe allowing personnel to take a longer hiatus), or the option to leave without pay and return without an added obligation.

4. Continue to Improve as a Family-Friendly Culture. Increased maternity leave and TRICARE adding coverage of breast pumps are positive steps in creating a more family-friendly culture within the Navy, but there’s more to be done. Personally, I had to voice my right to have a pumping space multiple times before I was finally presented the solution of an equipment storage closet; which I gladly accepted over the women’s restroom. In healthcare, many fertility treatment programs are only available to TRICARE beneficiaries and not the sponsor, which can be a problem if women wait until completing their sea time before starting a family.

5. Explore More Flexible Work Options. While stationed on a ship or submarine or dealing with classified material, sailors clearly need to be on a military installation, but there are many positions where a physical presence isn’t required. Increased opportunities for telework and flexible scheduling would allow families to create a routine that allows them to be successful in both their work and personal lives.

To stop the flow of talented women out of the Navy, we must stay focused on why these women are leaving. Only then will the military be able to retain the intelligent, motivated, and experienced women that are helping it to thrive.

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