#ThreatTuesday: South China Sea #wargame danger zone – Will the PLAN wield a trident with ASBMs and carriers?

I play wargames to learn. Wargames, or what some call “historical conflict simulations” have taught me alot of history. But I also believe wargames can provide insights into the future. While think tanks use wargames to inform or influence decision and policymakers, hobby wargamers can explore similar issues using commercial titles.

I recently read the article “Analysis of the Relations between Chinese Aircraft Carriers and the Maritime Order of the South China Sea” in The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis (Vol. 34, No. 3, September 2022, 433-452). What caught my attention in particular about this article was the authors; Xingxing Wang and Jiyong Zheng, are from the Shanghai International Studies University; Fudan University; People’s Republic of China. Articles about sea power and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are a dime-a-dozen these days, but to read an article written by “the opposition” is not as often encountered. Wang and Zheng’s article is intended more to inform than to propagandize, but it does fit into a series of studies around the maritime aspects of the U.S.-People’s Republic of China (PRC) competition that relates several articles and books together. Along the way, we also have an opportunity to look at what wargames can help us better explore these issues.

Aircraft Carriers

As Wang and Zheng explain:

“China has gradually shifted its geopolitical focus from land-based control to sea-based developments out of both security and economic considerations. Marked by the official launch of its aircraft carriers a decade ago, China has dedicated resources to building up its navy as a blue water force rather than the offshore defensive force that it had primarily been until that point. Meanwhile, by serving as the pillar of sea power, these aircraft carriers will play more important roles in China’s naval development, ultimately reshaping the global strategic picture of sea power. This article aims to explore the influence of Chinese aircraft carriers to maritime order of the South China Sea and strategic pattern of global sea power by analyzing the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet’s operational design and reconstruction of China’s naval strategy. The presence of Chinese aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and their inherent combat capabilities has inevitably cased a subversive light on the region and brought the attention of the United States’ and other regional actors’ own activities and strategies for the region. This research has great significance for understanding China’s grand strategic conception and practice on the South China Sea issue as well as construction of a new maritime order in the context of China-U.S. competition.” (Wang & Zheng, 433)

If you are a wargame player like me, then you might of gamed out a confrontation between a PLAN Carrier Task Force and a U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group (CSG) using a game like South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017) or Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020). Playing such scenarios may lead to the assumption that a PLAN Carrier Task Force is not a true match for a CSG. While that conclusion may have some basis, it ignores the impact of the PRC’s “carrier killer.”

Carrier Push Back

Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger are co-authors of the book Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century (Asia@War No. 29, Warwick: Helion & Company Ltd., 2022). Doyle and Herzinger frame the issue this way:

“The idea of an anti-ship ballistic missile has taken root in China’s military planning. The country is not only building more of its first version of such a weapon, the DF-21D, but has developed an anti-ship warhead for another such missile, the more-numerous DF-26, billed as having a 2,500-mile-range — more than enough to hit Guam from several hundred miles inland in China. In theory, that puts any naval adversary at risk long before it is in Chinese waters, let alone within striking distance of China’s coastline.

That puts US carrier strike groups — a linchpin of US power projection, able to hit any corner of the world at short notice with overwhelming force — in a situation they have never before faced. For years, US war planners took for granted that American naval power could operate unimpeded anywhere on Earth and deliver strikes with relative impunity. If a missile can sweep that option off the board, it changes the balance of power not just in Asia, but across the Pacific.”(Doyle & Herzinger, book back)

Photo by RMN

Again, wargames like Harpoon V or South China Sea can help game out the impact of these anti-ship ballistic missiles, at least at the tactical levels. While South China Sea provides some insight into the strategic impacts of the ASBM on operations in the South China Sea, the topic is actually underrepresented in wargames. Maybe, just maybe, the arguments advanced by Wang and Zheng regarding the capabilities of a PLAN Carrier Task Force are not that inconceivable if the PRC uses their “carrier killers” to keep the U.S. Navy out of the South China Sea…and beyond. That in turn creates opportunities for the PRC to “wield a trident.”

Trident Strategy

Kohji Kuhara of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force writes in the Spring 2022 edition of the Naval War College Review about China’s ‘Trident” Strategy (Kuhara, Kohji (2022) “Countering China’s “Trident Strategy—Frustrating China’s Aims in the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 75: No. 2, Article 4):

“China is trying to construct a naval strategy to deny U.S. forces freedom of action in the western Pacific Ocean. Looking back to the U.S. Navy’s last major strategic contest, against the Soviet navy during the Cold War, provides comparisons between Soviet and Chinese strategies that yield insights and analogies that can help develop more effective countermeasures against undesirable Chinese initiatives.”

Kuhara reminds us that, unlike the claims of Doyle and Herzinger, the U.S. Navy has indeed faced before a situation in which access to the worlds oceans was contested. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union challenged the United States for supremacy on the high seas. Wargamers can play out this confrontation in many games, ranging from Victory Games’ Fleet series (Victory Games, 1985-1990) for operational campaigns to the strategic Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) or Seapower and the State (Simulation Canada, 1982). Alas, there are very few “modern” equivalent game showing the confrontation between the U.S. Navy and PLAN, and certainly none at the strategic level. Quite simply, there is no good wargame to help fully navigate “the danger zone.”

Danger Zone

Hal Brands and Michael Beckley write in Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2022) that:

“China is at a perilous moment: strong enough to violently challenge the existing order, yet losing confidence that time is on its side. Numerous examples from antiquity to the present show that rising powers become more aggressive when their fortunes fade, their difficulties multiply, and they realize they must achieve their ambitions now or miss the chance to do so forever. China has already started down this path. Witness its aggression toward Taiwan, its record-breaking military buildup, and its efforts to dominate the critical technologies that will shape the world’s future.” (Danger Zone dust jacket)

Photo by RMN

Finding a wargame, or in this case maybe more properly a strategy game that looks beyond kinetic military confrontation, of the U.S.-PRC competition is nearly impossible. I had some hope earlier this year with the release of Flashpoint: South China Sea from GMT Games which advertised itself as thus:

Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical contest currently taking place between the United States and China in a disputed region of the South China Sea. The game is driven by a card deck that captures developments ripped straight from today’s headlines, bolstered by cards with a context-setting reading of recent history, and a set of speculative cards capturing a diverse range of potential future events. 

The Chinese player works to influence other countries in the region, establish territorial claims and regional hegemony, and improve its world standing. The U.S. player works to maintain influence with allied countries in the region, secure freedom of navigation, and keep China in check. Success for both players hinges on the support and allegiance of non-player countries in the region. The game stops short of dealing with a potential full-scale military conflict. Rather, it requires the nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.”

Photo by RMN

Alas, for all the theme in the ad copy, Flashpoint: South China Sea is more “Euro” than “wargame;” it’s a mechanically well-executed game with the thinnest of themes layered over. Consequently, its ability to explore the “danger zone” is limited at best.

Building from the Brands & Beckley book, we can see how the “Trident Strategy” is but one part of the danger zone, and the PLA’s “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles are one of those technologies that change maritime strategy. Does our perceptions of what a PLAN aircraft carrier is intended to do change?

Wargaming the South China Sea

Wargames seem very popular in the think tanks of Washington, DC. A recent article from War on the Rocks by Robert Haddick titled “Defeat China’s Navy, Defeat China’s War Plan” talks about what wargames are “teaching” decision and policymakers:

“Washington has already lost the war for Taiwan — at least according to the most recent wargames organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank’s simulation of a conflict between the United States and China saw several U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups sunk, hundreds of U.S. combat aircraft destroyed, and thousands of U.S. military personnel lost in the war’s opening days.

These games, planned long before the most recent Taiwan crisis and set in 2026, add to decades of analyses of the Taiwan scenario conducted at war colleges and think tanks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Scheduled to be written up later this year, the games have reinforced at least one previously well-known conclusion: should the United States attempt to fight the battle for Taiwan relying mainly on military forces located west of Guam, U.S. losses will be severe. The United States and its allies might stalemate the People’s Liberation Army. But the cost could very well be too high for U.S. society to sustain. And if China’s leaders believe this, even wrongly, deterrence will collapse, and the risk of war will rise.”

Via YouTube

With an online moniker of “RockyMountainNavy” it should be obvious where my loyalties lie between navalists and (ch)air force advocates. This makes it a bit hard to accept Haddick’s advocacy of using U.S. Air Force bombers to defeat the PLAN:

“Destroying China’s maritime power would end China’s capacity for conquest in the western Pacific. Yet the Chinese navy is not an Air Force priority, despite its vulnerability to U.S. bombers. As Taiwan-focused wargames show, the shortage of U.S. anti-ship munitions represents a missed opportunity that will come with high costs. 

Civilian policymakers should make China’s maritime forces a top targeting priority for the U.S. bomber force. First, they should require Air Force officials to explain how their munitions strategy supports deterrence by denial against Chinese forces. Following that, they could demand the Air Force fund the rapid development of Mark Gunzinger’s affordable mid-range munition and acquire, say, 2,000 long-range anti-ship missiles, even if this means acquiring fewer joint air-to-surface standoff missiles. Policymakers could also demand the Air Force repair and return to service some of the 17 B-1B bombers that were recently sent to the boneyard despite each being able to carry 24 long-range anti-ship missiles. These relatively minor expenses would quickly add substantial striking power against the Chinese Navy.

More broadly, policymakers should recognize that the sensor-missile military-technical revolution has transformed the Indo-Pacific into a military theater where long-range aerospace power dominates. America’s aerospace power is an enduring competitive advantage that matches up well against several Chinese vulnerabilities, starting with its navy. Exploiting this competitive advantage is the most direct way to strengthen U.S. deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Regardless of my service biases, even I recognize that Haddick’s proposal is probably worthy of exploration with a wargame. This seems like a good scenario to explore at the tactical level using Harpoon V or at the operational level using South China Sea.

What does the wargame tell you?

Which brings us back to our original inquiry: Wang and Zheng talk almost exclusively about the “defensive” power of a PLAN aircraft carrier. What if the PLAN wants to operate those carriers out to the limit of, or beyond, the coverage of their ASBMs? Will the pointy end of the trident be sharp or dull? Does that change the nature of the danger zone? What are the alternative strategies that armchair commanders can wargame at home? More broadly, how can we use hobby wargames to explore this strategic situation?


Feature Photo: Simon Yang, CC-BY SA 2.0

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – The sky is falling…with SKYFALL via @CovertShores

HI Sutton over at Covert Shores has a “look” at possible preparations by the Russians to test their nuclear-powered cruise missile, codenamed SKYFALL. At least one previous missile test ended in a failure. Talk about a hot topic…

Wargamers may be interested in gaming out an intercept of this weapon. Not only do you have to find it, intercept it, and shoot it down but you need to do it in a manner that 1) Doesn’t irradiate yourself and 2) Brings it down away from a populated place and 3) Helps you file the Environmental Impact Statement for the debris field.

See “SKYFALL Imminent: Signs Of Russia’s Next Nuclear-Powered Missile Test” via Covert Shores.


Feature image courtesy HI Sutton.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – Sub-optimal NorKs and Ukraine Air-to-Air Survey (mentions @19_forty_five admiraltytrilogy.com @WessexGames @gmtgames)

North Korean Submarines

In a past #ThreatTuesday on North Korean military reference sources, I mentioned that there was no good single-source on the the North Korean Navy (aka the Korean People’s Navy). A recent article posted to 19fortyfive.com may help explain why. See “North Korea’s Submarine Fleet: Underwater Coffins Or Threat To The U.S. Navy?” by Christian Orr (posted 30 Aug 2022). Given the current state of the KPA, it is not surprising that even years ago Larry Bond gave them a Kilo-class SS in his Second Korean War book Red Phoenix (1989) just to make it interesting.

Ukraine Dogfights

Another interesting 19fortyfive.com article is “The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming” published 02 Sep 2022. Author Sebastian Roblin presents a survey of aircraft losses in the war, with a particular focus on trying to identify those that fell in air-to-air combat. He concludes:

It’s essential not to over-extrapolate from an incomplete dataset drawing on deeply selection-biased sources. However, it does suggest the technical advantages of Russian fighters (especially long-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles) are working in their favor.

Nonetheless, both sides’ aviation operations are geographically constrained by the robust ground-based air defenses of the other. On the balance, that means Russia’s air force can’t press its advantage into Ukrainian-defended airspace to claim air superiority. That allows Ukraine’s air force to continue flying and impose costs on a foe with a larger number of more advanced warplanes.

“The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming”

While the title of the article seems to focus on the air-to-air aspects of the Ukraine War and would therefore seemingly make good scenario fodder for a modern dogfight wargame like Air Superiority (GDW, 1987) or AirWar: C21 Max (Wessex, last updated 2008) the truth is that you probably need to use a more operationally-focused wargame. Titles like Harpoon 5 from Admiralty Trilogy Group (using a variant inspired by Persian Incursion) or a modern Red Storm (GMT Games, 2021) would be more useful.

Feature image courtesy Creative Commons

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – Essential background sources for modern-era #NorthKorea #wargame design and play

If you want to play a wargame involving conflict on the Korean Peninsula, you can play titles like Mitchel Land’s Next War: Korea (GMT Games, 2019). It is also helpful if you have some background to better understand the situation and threat. Here are three titles that I consider essential reading for players (and aspiring designers) of modern conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea Military Power: A Growing Regional and Global Threat, Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2021. Press Announcement – “This volume in DIA’s series of military power reports provides details on North Korea’s defensive and military goals, strategy, plans and intentions. It examines the organization, structure and capability of the military supporting those goals, as well as the enabling infrastructure and industrial base.”

The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun, Stjin Mitzer & Joost Oliemans, Warwick: Helion & Company, 2020. From the Publisher – “North Korea’s Armed Forces maps the most important events from the inconclusive ceasefire struck at the end of the Korean War, throughout the Cold War until modern day. An especially heavy emphasis is placed on the current status of the Korean People’s Army by examining their wealth of indigenously designed weaponry. In the course of the book not only will many of the Korean People’s Army’s most secret projects and tactics will be covered, and its conflict history with the South and the world at large is put into new context. Moreover, an up-to-date, comprehensive assessment of the equipment holdings of several branches of the Korean People’s Army is included, offering a numerical estimate of its naval and aerial capabilities. From the recently introduced stealth missile boats, ballistic missile submarines and main battle tank families to their often-ignored indigenous aircraft industry, virtually all indigenous weapons systems are discussed extensively.”

Helion & Company, 2020

ATP 7-100.2 North Korean Tactics, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, July 2020. From the Introduction – “ATP 7-100.2 addresses the tactics, organization, and activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s ground forces. Part one of this document focuses on the strategic and operational levels, and includes North Korea’s military structure, organizational philosophy, and an introduction to functional tactics. Part two focuses on the tactical level, and describes Korean People’s Army Ground Forces (KPAGF) offensive and defensive tactics in detail. Several appendixes provide additional information on specific military functions and their use in tactical situations.”

Alas, there is no single-source tactics guide for the Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF)…

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sits in an airplane as he guides a flight drill for the inspection of airmen of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Air and Anti-Air Force in this undated photo. (KCNA/Reuters)

…nor for the tactics of the Korean People’s Navy (KPN).

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front, stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167 in this undated photo. (KCNA/Reuters)

A Note of Caution: While these sources certainly create a solid baseline of understanding, they are not “living documents” and therefore some of the data is possibly outdated or has been supplemented by newer understanding. But it’s a start…


Feature image – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force’s performance of duty for firepower strike at the Supreme Command in Pyongyang, March 29, 2013. The sign on the left reads, “Strategic force’s plan to hit the mainland of the U.S.” (KCNA/Reuters)

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – ROK Navy’s 1st 3000 tons KSS-III Submarine ‘Dosan Ahn Chang-ho’ Started Sea Trials — John’s Navy and other Maritime or Military News

ROK Navy KSS III submarine ‘Dosan Ahn Chang-ho’ starting its seat trials. Picture by: https://ift.tt/qF1r5Io ROK Navy’s 1st 3000 Tons KSS-III Submarine ‘Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho’ Started Sea Trials Xavier Vavasseur  23 Jun 2019 The DSME-built submarine ‘Dosan Ahn Chang-ho’ started its seat trials from Opko shipyard on June 10, 2019. It is the first vessel of […]

ROK Navy’s 1st 3000 tons KSS-III Submarine ‘Dosan Ahn Chang-ho’ Started Sea Trials — John’s Navy and other Maritime or Military News

#ThreatTuesday – Russian Black Sea Fleet #Wargame Order of Battle for Harpoon 5 (admiraltytrilogy.com)

There seems to be plenty of talk about U.S. or NATO military involvement in breaking the de facto Russian naval blockade of Ukraine in the Black Sea. Now we have luminaries like RADM James Stavridis (U.S. Navy, Ret.) stating, “The democratic allies should explore an Operation Earnest Will-style approach. Simply allowing Putin to have his way on the high seas cannot continue.”

Bloomberg, May 29, 2022

As a wargamer, an essential element for a designing a wargame is the order of battle. So just what is the OOB for the Russian Black Sea Fleet? Enter @Torger78 on Twitter:

OSINT for the Naval Wargamer

An updated full size graphic is found below. Ship characteristics can be found in The Russian Navy from Admiralty Trilogy Group for use in Harpoon 5.

Courtesy @Torger78 on Twitter

Feature image courtesy @Naval_Graphics on Twitter

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – New missile kit for Philippines with BrahMos SSM in #wargame SOUTH CHINA SEA (@compassgamesllc, 2017)

News this past week was the sale of the BrahMos supersonic weapon system from India to the Philippines. Some reports claim the land-based variant will be fielded by the Philippines Marine Corps. This missile would be a very useful addition to the Philippines in a game of South China Sea from Compass Games (2017).

The BrahMos PJ-10 is credited with a speed of Mach 2.0-2.8 depending on cruise height. While the full-up domestic version has a range of 500 km (6 hexes in the wargame South China Sea), the version sold to the Philippines may be limited to 290 km (4 hexes in South China Sea) like a version designed for Vietnam in order to stay below the 300 km threshold of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

You can find the technical specifications of the BrahMos PJ-1 here courtesy CSIS.

A BrahMos missile launched from a truck (courtesy missilethreat.csis.org)

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Threat Tuesday / #Wargame Wednesday / #RPG Thursday (a few days early) – Underground Missile Base to Weaponeer and Perfect Villains Lair

This week Iran unveiled on YouTube their ‘underground barrage missile base:”

As if one video isn’t enough inspiration here is a second (minus the vertical missiles). Obviously filmed pre-COVID. I really like the ones wearing sunglasses deep inside a tunnel!

One missile wonk on Twitter even made a helpful graphic:

For Threat Tuesday this is an interesting way way to deploy missiles. The US certainly learned the danger of storing a liquid-fuel missile in an underground silo forty years ago when a Titan-II ICBM blew up in Arkansas.

For Wargame Wednesday (a day early) this is an interesting target to weaponeer. In the wargame Persian Incursion from Clash of Arms/Admiralty Trilogy Group players can use the rules from Harpoon 4.X to strike underground bunkers. These look much deeper and more difficult. Shades of Star Wars here – deliver that torpedo into the shaft!

For you roleplaying game players looking for RPG Thursday (2 days early) this looks to be a perfect villain’s lair for use in your James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game (Victory Games, 1982) or any modern espionage RPG setting.


Feature image courtesy popularmechanics.com

Threat Tuesday – Projecting a future US Navy for #wargames

BATTLE FORCE 2045. It sounds like a new science-fiction wargame but it’s actually the name of the the latest future force plan for the US Navy. Secretary of Defense Esper unveiled the plan in early October.

Esper’s Battle Force 2045, which he rolled out during an online event today at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, lays out plans for achieving a fleet of 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, and a fleet of 355 traditional battle force ships by 2035 – all in a resource-constrained budget environment.

Throughout the rest of October the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) ran a series of articles assembled under the Fleet Force Structure Series. This series of nine article looked at the future force structure in depth.

In particular, I call your attention to “A Decisive Flotilla: Assessing the Hudson Fleet Design” by Robert C. Rubel which in turn links to the Hudson Institute analysis “American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage.” This analysis includes several nice tables for a future order of battle that can form the basis of wargame studies.

It would be interesting to see Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group) data annexes or counters in South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) for Battle Force 2045.


Feature image courtesy moto1.com

#Wargame #ThreatTuesday – The Russian Way of War (Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016)

One of the oldest challenges to wargame designers is understanding the threat. Many times the challenge comes from security classification – “If I tell you I have to kill you.” Finding a good, comprehensive study in the unclassified world is all to rare. All of which makes Dr. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles’ The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces a very valuable publication.

As Grau and Bartles tell us in the Introduction:

Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, activity in eastern Ukraine, saber rattling regarding the Baltics, deployment to Syria, and more assertive behavior along its border have piqued interest in the Russian Armed Forces. This increased interest has caused much speculation about their structure, capabilities, and future development. Interestingly, this speculation has created many different, and often contradictory, narratives about these issues. At any given time, assessments of the Russian Armed Forces vary between the idea of an incompetent and corrupt conscript army manning decrepit Soviet equipment and relying solely on brute force, to the idea of an elite military filled with Special Operations Forces (SOF) who were the “polite people” or “little green army men” seen on the streets in Crimea. This book will attempt to split the difference between these radically different ideas by shedding some light on what exactly the Russian Ground Forces consist of, how they are structured, how they fight, and how they are modernizing.

As an added bonus for wargame graphic designers, check out the last part of the book on Russian Military Symbology. What better way to make your Russian forces, uh, Russian?


Feature image courtesy Dan Kitwood/Getty Images