A very thorough analysis of the present capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). This is perhaps the best single-source compilation of open source analysis on the PLA Navy presently available. Persuasively argues that the PLA Navy is a “blue-water” navy – today. Analytical breakdown offers many opportunities for wargaming.
Not your father’s PLAN
How often do we hear about “China rising?” If you subscribe to that school of thought then you are in for a surprise if you read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications by Michael A. McDevitt, RADM, US Navy (Ret.). In this very recent (late 2020) publication from Naval Institute Press, RADM McDevitt argues that fifteen years of anti-piracy patrols has already made the PLA Navy the second most-capable naval power in the world. He further argues that the PLA Navy is well on track to be a true “world class navy” but 2035, a deadline set by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Rear Admiral McDevitt starts out with a discussion of where China’s maritime power ambitions come from. The sources he uses are nothing special; everything is publicly available (although some needed to be translated). This is good grist for wargame designers; understanding what China wants to do on the high seas supports good scenario design.
The second chapter, “Getting Started: Learning How to Operate Abroad” contains the core argument in the book. McDevitt shows how fifteen years of overseas anti-piracy patrols has directly contributed to the development of a highly professional and capable blue-water navy. For wargame designers this is a challenge; so often wargames looking at the PLA Navy seem to dig into the whole “China rising” meme and don’t acknowledge (or refuse to acknowledge) that the Chinese Navy is not “coming soon” but “already here” and far removed from a second-rate coastal defense force that couldn’t even deal with Vietnam.
The next several chapters are probably the best for wargame and scenario design. RADM McDevitt addresses area denial, anti-access and a Taiwan campaign, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean in turn. In each section he discusses the what the PLA Navy is charged with accomplishing and the doctrine and equipment they developed to meet the challenge. His discussion of equipment is particularly helpful for wargame designers as each piece of kit is evaluated against what its mission is. This evaluation is far more helpful than just comparing it to the US Navy. The breakdown by area also can be useful for scenario design, and if one puts it all together a larger campaign view is possible.
Recommendation 3: The United States should consider the merits and risks of adopting a position on the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, persuade other countries to support this position, and develop diplomatic strategies as well as military contingency plans based on these positions (emphasis mine).
Recommendation 4: The United States should conduct a policy review of its responses to Chinese aggression against occupied or unoccupied features in the South China Sea. While the details of military actions should be classified, the United States should make it clear that treaty obligations would be invoked by aggression, and could under certain circumstances result in military intervention (again, emphasis mine).
Recommendation 6: Planning associated with US military options in support of the TRA [Taiwan Relations Act] recognize the requirement for a rapid expansion of consultative and cooperative mechanisms with Taipei.
Imperial overreach is not as farfetched as one might assume, despite China’s impressive wealth creation over past decades. As a classic land-sea power, which faces the seas and shares contiguous borders with its neighbors, Beijing must always stay alert to threats in the continental and maritime domains. This inescapable two-front challenge imposes perpetual opportunity costs: every yuan spent on one area is one fewer yuan available for the other flank and vice versa. The trade-offs between its landward and seaward commitments could impose built-in limits on China’s global plans.
Toshi Yoshihara, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited”
Up-to-date capability assessment mixed with analysis of doctrine and mission.
Read it now because the PLA Navy is growing so fast the data will be outdated sooner than later.
“Chapter Six – The PLA Navy and the South China Sea” is perfect update material for South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017). The same can be said for “Chapter Seven – The PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean” and the forthcoming release of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (Compass Games, 2021).
A 21st Century VitP?
As I read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, I appreciated how RADM McDevitt broke down the problem geographically. At the same time, it made me realize that many (all?) modern naval wargames take that same approach. We have wargames on the invasion of Taiwan and confrontation in the South China Sea or Indian Ocean. We also have wargames that can deliver a very fine tactical simulation of a modern conflict. What is lacking (in the commercial hobby wargame space, at least) is a wargame that shows the entire campaign. What I’m thinking about here is something like a Victory in the Pacific-type of overview. Although McDevitt breaks the PLA Navy problem down into discrete geographic areas they are all interrelated: the flow of shipping in the Indian Ocean must travel through the South China Sea to get to the mainland. I can think of no commercial wargame that looks at rolling back the PLA Navy across the globe, or even across the Pacific. Just what is the Plan ORANGE wargame for the 21st century?
McDevitt, Michael A., China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020.
Feature image: 200818-N-KF697-3150 PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2020) Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulehsan (OPV 07), Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Winnipeg (FFH 338), Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73) and Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Manawanui (A09) maneuver during a division tactics (DIVTACS) exercise during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). Ten nations, 22 ships, one submarine, and more than 5,300 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from August 17 to 31 at sea around the Hawaiian Islands. RIMPAC is a biennial exercise designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships, critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The exercise is a unique training platform designed to enhance interoperability and strategic maritime partnerships. RIMPAC 2020 is the 27th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Isaak Martinez)
Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)
Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’
A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9
South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific, Compass Games, 2017
BLUF – South China Sea may be the best representation of modern missile combat at sea but suffers from a questionable political game and needs to be updated to keep pace with rapidly changing political, technological, and military developments.
The scenarios in South China Sea do not particularly focus on a reason for the conflict or what role naval forces really have, but instead seemingly make the assumption that that conflict between the USA and PRC is coming. Play in South China Sea consists of a series of 1-6 Political Turns (3-7 weeks of time) during which Armed Conflict may break out. If Armed Conflict occurs, the game transitions to Military Turns (defined as ‘several hours’ each).
It is possible that the Political Turns end without triggering Armed Conflict (see 4.47). The most important outcome of the Political Turns is the alignment (via Military Cooperation) of Regional Powers (The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam).
[The alignment system immediately shows the fragility of designing a modern game. In almost every scenario, the rules have Malaysia aligning with the PRC, Vietnam aligning with the US, and the Philippines rolling a die to cast their fate. The usual spread on the die is 1-3 aligns with US, 4-5 stays neutral, and on a 6 aligns with the PRC. I have to wonder what the spread should be given current issues with the Duterte administration….]
Victory in South China Sea is a combination of the outcome of the Political Turns and the battles fought in the Military Turns. VP moves during Political Turns, and once battles start the standard Victory Points for Military Events focuses on destruction of enemy units or, in the case of the US, control of the Spratly Islands:
-1 For each ‘at-start’ PRC Spratly Islet hex controlled by US forces
-1 If the PRC fires the first strike
-1 For each PRC air, non-CV naval, or ground unit destroyed
-3 For each PRC CV destroyed
+5 For each US CVN destroyed
+1 If the US fires the first strike
+1 For each US air, non-CVN naval, or ground unit destroyed
[The final VP score is translated to a Regional Power Victory or Global Power Victory. Again, the design shows some fragility given the ever-changing geopolitical situation in the South China Sea and ASEAN.]
Few scenarios have modified VP but in general the standard numbers are used. For a game that starts with a very strategic, political view of the conflict the final victory determination (and the bulk of the scoring?) is very much focused on destruction of the enemy. There is little strategic insight to be gained from a play of South China Sea but if you are more operational or tactically-focused the interplay of the various units may yield more insights.
“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177
“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179
“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.
Maneuver in South China Sea is abstract in the Political Turns (some units may be placed on the map but generally the map is unused) and very simple in the Military Turns. There are few considerations. For instance, in the Air Movement Phase, aircraft can move up to double their Combat Radius but units that do so are marked Spent and cannot make another strike in the turn. As always there is an exception; in this case rule 5.551 Mid-Air Refueling which can be used once per game by each side. In the Sea Movement Phase it is very straight-forward with the only exception being submarines which can spend extra movement at the risk of Cavitation or chose to not move at all and increase their Stealth score (see Scouting/Anti-Scouting below).
Like most of sea movement, there is a strong interaction with the Scouting/Anti-Scouting elements of the design. The most important element of movement is actually 6.25 Intervention. Basically, ships that enter the Illumination Radius of a unit can be stopped. The Design Note on p. 15 under 6.25 is the best explanation:
The intervention mechanism does not represent actually stopping the other guy’s ships, rather it accounts for the stationary (non-phasing) side’s ability to respond to enemy movement. Without it, the simple I-go-You-go turn sequence would enable the currently moving player to literally ride circles around the enemy. With it, each side suffers a very realistic uncertainty about how far they can push before provoking a response. This rule allows for full moves (to speed play) when opposing units are far apart, but it curtails movement as units close range and more interaction becomes necessary.
“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175
“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206
“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207
“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.
Every unit is South China Sea is rated for combat in four warfare areas. Where applicable, each area is rated in terms of a Weapon System Score and if necessary a Weapon System Range (in hexes). All Naval, Aircraft, and Ground units are rated for:
G – Gun Strikes (Note – see Ground unit below)
U – Anti-Submarine
A/S – Anti-Surface
A/G – Anti-Ground
Naval units also can have a T- Torpedo rating. Aircraft units can add an Air-to-Air rating. Ground units have Combined Arms (CA) in place of the G-factor of Naval and Aircraft units.
Strikes in SCS are executed in a strict Air/Sea Engagement Sequence. The order of Strikes is predetermined with attacks executed in descending order of the attackers Stealth factor or by order of the particular Weapon System Factor:
Anti-Air Strikes (Air-to-Air vs Aircraft) / Stealth Order
Torpedo Strikes by Submarines (Submarine T vs ships or subs) / Stealth Order
Anti-Ship Strikes (AS vs ships) / Stealth Order
Anti-Submarine Strikes (U vs subs) / In U order
Gun Strikes (G vs ships, Air or Naval Bases) / In G order
Torpedo Strikes by Surface Units (Ship T vs ships or subs) / In T order
Anti-Ground Strikes (AG vs Ground Units, Air Bases, or Fort) / In AG order
Combined Arms Strikes (CA vs Ground Units or Fort) / By CA order within Artillery then Defender then Attacker.
The obvious advantage goes units with higher Stealth or Weapon System Score get to strike first, with the results of that strike immediately implemented, regardless of being the attacker or defender. This is very different from many naval wargames where the attacker often gets to strike first or where combat results are applied simultaneously.
“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175
“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.
“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186
Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192
Counterforce in South China Sea takes three forms, Stealth, Steps and the Defense Score.
Stealth in effect represent the ‘Information Warfare’ elements of cyber and EW as many Strikes are resolved in Stealth order conferring an advantage to units with a greater score. Stealth not only effects the chances of successfully evading a Strike, but also where in the Strike order the unit acts – a better Stealth score is highly advantageous.
Steps represent both hits and a breakdown of units. A player can use Consolidation or Breakdown on two-step (only) units to combine, or break up, those units.
The Defense Score comes in two flavors; Missile Defense and ‘intrinsic.’ Some units have an Area Missile Defense (AMD) value that can protect other friendly units:
AMD scores represent area defense systems built around phased array radar such as those carried by US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers and the People’s Liberation Army Navy Lu Yang III destroyers. AMD provides very accurate, supersonic interceptor missiles (and maybe one day lasers or rail gun projectiles) to shoot down incoming missiles tens of miles away. The very simplified anti-aircraft fire of AMD accounts for its ability to down enemy planes without having to get lost in details about which stand-off weapon was fired from where by each aircraft. Design Note, p. 13
[Again, this relatively recent design is already showing its age. What about attacks using hypersonic weapons? Should the MD or AMD score be reduced, and if so, by how much?]
“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175
“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193
“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212
In South China Sea, Scouting is accounted for in rule 5.4 Situational Awareness: Illumination, Evasion, and Hiding, rule 6.25 Intervention, rule 6.41 Focus, and rule 6.42 Evasion. SCS starts with a major assumption about detection as found in the Design Note for rule 5.4:
The modern air-sea-land battle space is awash in electromagnetic radiation that has enhanced detection capabilities and made stealth paramount to survival. Drones with modern detection technology ensure that units will have situational awareness well beyond the limits of old fashioned ship based radar even after satellites are knocked out. These rules account for this new dynamic.
[Ah…but don’t those drones also rely on satellites for control and communications? What if those satellites are gone?]
Rule 5.41 directly addresses the Gods-Eye issue:
Although players can see all their pieces on the map, those pieces have varying degrees of awareness of each other. Illumination is the key to awareness. Evasion describes how pieces escape detection. Hiding is avoiding illumination altogether.
Rule 5.44 allows for ‘hidden’ units. Basically, a hidden unit is not on the map and, “…do not assert control, do not illuminate, cannot intervene, cannot strike, cannot provide their AMD to friendly units, etc. Nor can they be targeted for strikes.”
As noted under Maneuver above, the non-phasing player can use rule 6.25 Intervention to ‘stop’ the phasing player’s movement. This in turn allows a player to Focus (rule 6.41) on a hex in order to strike it. Using a F2T2EA (Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess) construct, the default map condition is ‘Find-Fix’ and Focus is ‘Track-Target.’ If the targeted units fail to evade (rule 6.42 Evasion) they are attacked.
“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175
“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197
“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197
In South China Sea a unit can avoid Intervention and Focus by evading. Both uses of evasion utilize the same mechanic; roll 2d6 adding the evading units Stealth score and an amount equal to one-half the range to the nearest enemy unit. If the roll is greater than 11 the unit has successfully evaded. Note that units that evade remain in the targeted hex but do not participate in Strikes. They also cannot illuminate targets, cannot be targeted by Strikes, cannot be hit, and cannot use their AMD score to defend other friendly units.
“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176
“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176
“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.
For the most part, C2 in South China Sea is abstracted out of the game. All units are always commanded; there is no Information Warfare ‘strike’ in the game. 5.34 Stacking, 5.35 Air Basing, and 5.36 Naval Ports impose some restrictions on how combat units are organized.
That said, commanders will have to decide when a unit needs to evade (given the restrictions that come with that condition) and when a unit Strikes. Once a unit Strikes it is Spent and cannot participate in a later Strike in the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence (with AMD-capable defenders being a notable exception).
The Stealth score of a unit is used when sequencing strikes. Most Strikes are executed in the descending order of the Stealth score. The higher the Stealth score the earlier in the Strike Sequence one can operate.
C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)
“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176
Like C2, C2CM in South China Sea is heavily abstracted. The closest thing to a C2CM factor is the Stealth score which is used to avoid Intervention and Focus.
I really like how Stealth and Missile Defense are represented in South China Sea. I feel like this game (as presaged in Breaking the Chains) is the first ‘modern’ naval warfare game to get missile combat ‘right.’ That said, the game is not without its problems.
I also question the ‘rosy’ view of detection used in the game. With the recent creation of SPAAAACCCE FORRRRRCCE (!!!) the assumption that the space domain is automatically available is, well, a questionable assumption at best.
As with any modern game, it is hard to keep up with the times. One glaring omission I see in South China Sea is Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM). Even Breaking the Chains had a rule on the Chinese ASBM so I was very surprised to NOT see it here.
SUMMER IS NOT THE BEST TIME for boardgames or wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. There are so many outdoor activities to be had and family events on the weekend that games get pushed to the back burner. So it was for August in the RockyMountainNavy home. I recorded a measly 13 plays of 9 different games…my worst month in almost two years of recording plays.
The best family night game was a long overdue session of 1812: Invasion of Canada (Academy Games, 2012). With the beginning of the school year and a return to a somewhat normal cycle of weekend family games I am sure that the many Birth of America / Birth of Europe-series titles will land on the table regularly.
On a recommendation at CONNECTIONS 2019 I picked up Cowboy Bebop: Boardgame Boogie (Jasco Games, 2019). I haven’t written up my thought yet but (spoiler alert…again) this tune is a bit flat to me.
I attended CONNECTIONS 2019, the professional wargaming conference in mid-August. I have yet to compose all my thoughts but I did get to see a bit of wargame history with Upton’s US Infantry Tactical Apparatus.
Looking ahead, designer John Gorkowski was kind enough to send me an e-kit to playtest with for the next game in South China Sea-series from Compass Games. Indian Ocean Region is already available for preorder and this is my chance to try and influence the game and make it better for everyone.
As mentioned before, the return to school means a return to a more regular schedule of gaming. I also still have several games in my 2019 CSR, Origins, and GameGeek Challenges to complete before the end of the year.