Type 001A aircraft carrier

Having reviewed more intangible aspects of Chinese maritime strategy such as geopolitics, historical precedent, and strategic thought, we now turn to more prosaic matters. How will China put its strategy into practice using the implements it has assembled through fleet building? China’s navy is maturing and developing the arsenal to carry out a forceful maritime strategy. In the interim, however, “sea denial” is still the best concept for managing the nation’s nautical surroundings. Such an approach will suffice until Beijing has rounded out a fleet on par with the finest rival fleets likely to appear in Asian seaways.

Sea denial aligns with long-standing Chinese traditions. A successful sea-denial navy is at once humble and enterprising: it frankly admits its inferiority to prospective antagonists while refusing to admit defeat. It neither flees vital waterways nor resigns itself to passive defense. That the weaker contender can win—or accomplish its goals by keeping its foe from winning—sometimes escapes China watchers. In the late 1990s, for instance, two prominent Sinologists declared that China’s innate feebleness at sea forced it to shelter passively within the first island chain, where it would wage a strategy of “protracted defensive resistance.” U.S. naval supremacy, they maintained, was too stifling to permit anything more ambitious.

We dissent. A sea-denial force works around its weaknesses while exploiting the advantages it does enjoy. It need not vanquish hostile forces outright. Its function is to clear foes from designated waters for a finite interval or, better yet, to deter them from entering in the first place. A sea-denial strategy succeeds if it wards off stronger foes long enough for the nation to fulfill its larger strategic objectives. Sea denial thus constitutes a strategically defensive strategy that inferior powers prosecute through offensive tactical and operational methods. Even if the PLA Navy remains weaker than its likely opponents, it will stay on the operational and tactical offensive. The U.S. Navy and its allies must anticipate that.

The hybrid offensive/defensive style of combat conforms philosophically to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictum that even lesser navies can impose local command on important waters—as indeed Mahan beseeched the U.S. Navy to do in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, even though it remained weaker on the whole than Great Britain’s Royal Navy. At the same time it conforms to Mao Zedong’s concept of “active defense,” which yokes offensive tactical means to defensive strategic ends. Today as in the age of Mao, the PLA portrays active defense as the core of Chinese military strategy. China’s first formal military strategy white paper, released in 2015, declares:

The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.… Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Central Military Commission established the military strategic guideline of active defense, and later, in line with the developments and changes in the national security situation, had made a number of major revisions of it.

Intriguingly, China’s Maoist approach likewise conforms to precepts set forth in Sir Julian Corbett’s writings about maritime strategy—writings Chinese strategists have investigated in recent years. “True defense,” proclaims Corbett—a contemporary of both Mao and Alfred Thayer Mahan—means balking a stronger opponent’s strategy while awaiting the chance to administer a counterpunch. The British theorist even hit on the same term—“active defense”—to show how a weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s maritime command until it makes itself stronger and wrests away command for itself. Active defense, clearly, is a concept with heft and longevity in China’s way of sea warfare.

And China has structured forces around that method of defense. The Chinese military possesses, is procuring, or plans to acquire systems designed to make the seas and skies adjoining the Asian mainland no-go territory for any opponent. Beijing has purchased arms from Russia lavishly since the early 1990s. At the same time it has bolstered its domestic defense industry, allowing the PLA to field a variety of indigenous weaponry. Infusing new platforms and systems into the force alongside a more professional, more battleworthy corps of mariners has produced a leap in offensive PLA combat power.

Over the past two decades, modern diesel submarines—difficult to detect, track, and target in shallow offshore waters—have slid down the ways at Chinese shipyards or been purchased in significant numbers from Russian suppliers. One aircraft carrier is in service, another is nearing operational status, and future carriers are reportedly under design or construction. Destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar suites (touted as equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Aegis combat system), antiship missiles, and air-defense missiles increasingly form the backbone of the Chinese surface fleet. PLA Navy surface groups’ chances of withstanding long-range missile or air bombardment are brightening commensurately. This is doubly true so long as the fleet operates within range of shore-based fire support that augments the fleet’s firepower with missiles and aircraft dispatched from Fortress China itself. Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.

Accordingly, surface forces typically cruise underneath that protective umbrella. And the range and accuracy of shore-based assets are growing. This allows the PLAN to extend its combat radius while still tapping that great equalizer. Indeed, China may stand at the brink of rendering a strategic concept condemned by Mahan—the “fortress-fleet” tethered to shore fire support—viable for the first time. Mahan was writing in the context of the Russian Navy’s dismal performance during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. He upbraided the Russian naval command for resorting to this “radically erroneous” way of combat, which fettered Russian commanders’ freedom of maneuver—ships had to remain within reach of the fort’s guns—while sapping their fighting spirit.

Mahan’s was a telling critique for an age of rudimentary naval technology, when the effective firing range for artillery was a few miles. It has lost cogency now that precision fire can reach scores if not hundreds of miles offshore. One imagines the Russian Navy would have fared far better against the IJN had shore gunfire boasted modern China’s range and precision to pummel Japanese fleets throughout the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait—the battlegrounds for climactic sea engagements in 1904–5. Russian gunnery could have cut the Japanese down to size from afar while affording Russian warships maneuver space aplenty.

In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have come. If so, footloose PLAN units will be able to roam waters Beijing deems important without leaving the protective cover of shore defenses. Defense will increasingly blur into offense under this aegis, even eastward of the first island chain. Advanced ground-based air-defense systems, capable naval fighter/attack aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and even ASBMs reputedly able to find and attack vessels on the high seas are pivotal to China’s military modernization effort. If the Chinese package these assets wisely while developing the tactical proficiency to use them, they will gain confidence in their ability to deter, delay, or defeat any foreign force bold enough to attempt hostile entry into nearby seas or airspace.

China’s continent-spanning geography is invaluable to the PLAN’s sea-denial strategy because it furnishes plentiful sites for coastal bases and mobile missile batteries. Indeed, emerging military capabilities are explicitly designed to assail targets in offshore expanses from bases on the mainland. Furthermore, as weapons range improves, shore defenses can be positioned farther inland. Technology will make China’s deep continental interior a safe haven from which to punish intruding forces along the coastline.

This sanctuary will serve the purely military purpose of buffering PLA assets against attack. A PLA that turns strategic depth to advantage can compel enemy forces to enter the combat range of its weaponry, accepting battle on China’s political, geographic, and military terms. Such a strategy would have found favor with Mao Zedong, who famously urged his followers to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory. The Red Army would enfeeble its antagonists in the process, setting conditions for a devastating counterblow, and the weaker Chinese Communist legions would score a conventional battlefield victory in the end.

Just as important, defending from deep inland dares an opponent to escalate the fighting. Suppose U.S. forces struck at Chinese antiship missile sites located well inland. They would risk inflicting collateral damage under such circumstances, especially if targets adjoined populated areas. Duly broadcast by Chinese media outlets, images of civilian death or suffering could swing political sentiment behind Beijing—not just in China but among influential audiences elsewhere in Asia and in the international community. A backlash against a hardhearted or feckless America could result, no matter how just the cause that prompted the United States to take up arms.

Moreover, the United States would risk escalating a limited naval conflict to full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner and a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a nuclear-armed power that brandishes mobile, increasingly effective, land-based and undersea strategic deterrent forces. The survivable retaliatory arsenal operated by the PLA Rocket Force would remain in reserve should conventional deterrence fail. No U.S. president would lightly make the decision to employ force under the nuclear shadow.

The historical record supports that contention. Americans showed restraint vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, declining to escalate “vertically” up the scale of violence. History also suggests that policy makers exercise caution before undertaking military actions likely to prompt “horizontal” escalation to new places on the map. In particular, the prospect of expanding the geographic scope of military operations deep into China’s interior would be daunting if not unthinkable to an American president. The repercussions from such a fight could well outweigh the presumably modest strategic goals at stake for Washington.

The odds of U.S. leaders climbing down from a dispute would improve under those circumstances, boosting the likelihood that China would prevail without an actual exchange of fire. Small wonder that Chinese fleet tactics fuse offense with defense; they come naturally to PLA Navy commanders while promising handsome dividends.

Massed, Dispersed, or Sequential Tactics?

The PLA’s increasing ability to integrate surface, subsurface, and aerial warfare into a defensive thicket against seaborne threats to China is remaking the strategic environment in maritime Asia, and the U.S. armed forces must keep pace. They must adapt their own methods and weaponry if they hope to preserve the maritime supremacy that has served U.S. interests—not to mention the interests of the region as a whole—so well since 1945.

Captain Wayne Hughes has supplied U.S. Navy mariners with a primer for sea combat in Asia. Hughes’ classic Fleet Tactics (1986) and its successors, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000) and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018), constitute a baseline for analyzing the challenges Chinese antiship tactics pose. However useful his treatises, though, they cannot stand alone. We mean no slight. Fleet Tactics aspires to school tacticians in a variety of settings and against a variety of potential antagonists. Indeed, Hughes describes his purpose as “to illustrate the processes—the dynamics—of naval combat” rather than to prophesy how particular contingencies might turn out. Thus, Fleet Tactics is largely silent on operational and strategic matters, and it is entirely devoid of political, cultural, and strategic context. As is the case with any good theory, its users can tailor it to varying circumstances.

This flexibility is a strength, but it could become a weakness if readers misuse Fleet Tactics. There is a decidedly technical feel to such accounts on naval tactics, which are de rigueur in U.S. Navy training institutions where warfighters learn their craft. The downside of the abstract approach to naval warfare is that, taken in isolation, Hughes’ works strongly imply that technology decides the outcomes of martial encounters. On the high seas, enemy fleets slug it out with volleys of precision-guided arms. When fighting close to enemy shores, defenders may fire antiship missiles at U.S. task forces, land-based aircraft may disgorge missiles from aloft, or diesel submarines may lurk below preparing to launch torpedoes or missiles. In both modes of fighting, the combatants hammer away with everything in their magazines, and the side that lands the first blow is the likely victor.

For Hughes, the arbiters of high-tech naval combat are (a) “scouting effectiveness,” meaning the proficient use of shipboard and offboard sensors, combat systems, and computer data links to find enemy units; (b) “weapon range,” the ability to inflict damage at a distance; and (c) tactics, which are determined by scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry. Hughes’ text conveys the dynamics of sea combat, but its scope is limited. Seeker effectiveness or detect-to-engage algorithms will do much to shape the results of any U.S.-China clash at sea, as will missile ranges. But people, not machines, compete for naval mastery. Not for nothing did U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd, one of the leading strategic minds of the Cold War, proclaim that people, ideas, and hardware—“in that order”—represent the prime determinants of competitive endeavors, warfare in particular. More to the point, Mao lambasted “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything,’ which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war.… [I]t is people, not things, that are decisive.”

Outdistancing an opponent’s sensors and weaponry is far from the only challenge any U.S. naval offensive will face. Fleet Tactics shares this deficit of vision with standard net assessments that tally up numbers of platforms and their technical characteristics, often scanting the human element of war and politics. A larger view is in order. Consider one data point from Asian maritime history: Imperial Japan, which has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a leading Chinese proponent of sea power, faults China’s Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894–95 tilt against Japan. China, Ni says, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.”

That distinguished analysts such as Ni now pay tribute to Japanese sea power despite the bitter history of Sino-Japanese relations during the twentieth century marks a striking turnabout in Chinese strategic thought. Beijing’s willingness to consider the Japanese paradigm bespeaks increasing openness to non-Chinese, noncommunist sources of wisdom on military and naval affairs. Yet looking beyond Chinese traditions is eminently Chinese. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written in the fourth century B.C., remains a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses. The Chinese sage counsels generals, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” This may be a truism, but it is one worth repeating, and it is important because it urges strategists to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each belligerent and reject analyses blinkered by culture or ideology.

American commanders should heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom as well. They need to understand U.S. forces’ material and human strengths; acknowledge their own shortcomings; and come to terms with the ends, ways, and means likely to guide China’s efforts in crisis or war. Only thus can they fashion strategy for overcoming Chinese forces. The Mahanian geopolitical logic that helps govern Chinese maritime strategy could also help goad Beijing into a trial of arms involving the United States. Our purpose here is to explain what such a prospect means in operational and tactical terms. A few propositions:

•  If Mahan supplies the grand logic of maritime war, Mao Zedong’s operational-level writings on land warfare will inform Chinese tactics and operational practices in any clash off Taiwan, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, or at hotspots elsewhere along the Asian periphery. This is China’s martial grammar.

•  The South China Sea represents the most likely maritime theater for Beijing to conduct combined-arms attacks designed to saturate and overpower U.S. task groups’ defenses in support of China’s geopolitical and strategic aims.

•  PLA forces will integrate weapons systems, new and old, into joint “orthodox” and “unorthodox” attacks, executing offensive actions to attain strategically defensive goals. They will not depend on any single method or system, or solely on aerial, surface, or subsurface warfare. Multiple axes of attack, multiple weapon types, and preparedness to shift nimbly between the main and secondary efforts will represent hallmarks of China’s way of naval war.

Among the three tactical scenarios Wayne Hughes posits (described below), PLA Navy planners and commanders will probably incline toward dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. Unless Beijing grows so confident in its quantitative and qualitative superiority that it can simply hammer away, saturating American defenses at a single blow, it will stay with tried-and-true Chinese methods.

As Sun Tzu’s theories suggest, more acute understanding of oneself and the adversary could provide the margin of victory in an armed conflict against China. Now fast-forward from China’s Warring States period, when Sun Tzu purportedly lived, to nineteenth-century Europe. Recall that Carl von Clausewitz depicts war as “only a branch of political activity … that is in no sense autonomous” (emphasis in original). “Is war not just another expression of [peoples’ and governments’] thoughts, another form of speech or writing?” he queries before answering his own question. “Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”

By this he means three things. First, war is the act of pursuing policy aims with the admixture of military means. The addition of violent means fires passions among the combatants—usually negative ones such as fear, rage, and spite—while bringing chance and uncertainty to the fore. Second, nonmilitary instruments such as diplomacy and economic coercion still have a part to play after the shooting starts. And third, warlike preparations and war itself are expressions of political and strategic thought. A violent clash of human wills is not easily reducible to rules, formulas, or statistics. Those schooled on Clausewitz cannot fully appreciate Chinese hardware and tactics without grasping the larger strategic, political, and cultural considerations that impart the logic—the purpose—to war.

Despite our dour tone, we are not prophesying naval war in Asia. There is ample room for debate about China’s intentions and its vision of its maritime destiny. Chinese naval power might evolve in a benign direction, although that prospect appears dimmer than it did when the first edition of this book appeared. We believe U.S. political leaders and commanders should do their best to shape conditions in favor of a maritime entente with China, but hoping for an agreeable outcome is not a strategy.

Washington, that is, can no longer afford a strategy of neglect simply because it reckons that the probability of a clash with China is low and wants to keep it that way. Nor, can the United States assume that its traditional strengths in naval warfare, including air power and undersea forces, will be sufficient to fend off China’s striking power at sea. By investigating the logic and grammar impelling Chinese sea power, U.S. strategists can estimate how the PLA Navy would mount an integrated, offense-minded defense against U.S. Navy carrier, amphibious, and surface action groups in Asian waters. Foresight will help them prepare for this eventuality.



Chinese Type 039A (Yuan-class) SS

Tactical Scenarios: Near Shore and on the High Seas

Hughes considers two very broad categories of wartime contingencies: (1) U.S. forces might close in on the coast of an adversary that boasts considerable land-based defenses but lacks a fleet able to stand against the U.S. Navy in open waters; (2) a prospective opponent might possess a fleet able to meet the U.S. Navy in highseas combat, operating more or less independently of land support. The permutations between the two paradigms are endless, as Barry Posen suggests in his definition of “contested zones.”

As Posen observes, a skillful though weaker adversary enjoys certain advantages when operating on its home ground, including nearby shore-based assets and manpower, short lines of communication, and intimate acquaintance with the tactical environment. A savvy power can parley these advantages into distinct strategic and operational advantages over the United States, imposing costs Washington might find politically unacceptable. If the costs of fighting China prove steeper than the stakes merit, rational U.S. leaders may refuse to pay them. Even a lesser foe, then, could induce U.S. decision makers to hesitate or perhaps even to withdraw U.S. forces following a traumatic event—say, the crippling or sinking of a major surface combatant or aircraft carrier. This dynamic—and it is worth spotlighting its pronounced psychological, nontechnical component—will characterize any military encounter off Chinese coasts for the foreseeable future.

The prospects for variety in the operating environment—especially in littoral combat—should give wise fleet tacticians pause. Strategist Bernard Brodie points to a perverse facet of naval warfare: “There are too few naval wars and far too few major naval battles to enable us ever to prove the correctness of a tactical theory” (his emphasis). Even an epic battle—a Trafalgar or Tsushima—represents just a single data point for evaluating a theory. The U.S. Navy fought its last major engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944; China’s PLA Navy has never fought one. Fleet actions take place too seldom to allow for rigorous trend analysis or confident findings. It is a fallacy to extrapolate from one bit of information that may not even be accurate.

As Brodie notes, even a marginally different configuration of forces or tactics on the part of one combatant or the other could have produced a different outcome to a particular engagement. Analysts would then render a different—and possibly faulty, yet equally confident—verdict on the efficacy of the tactics deployed. Brodie might add that the times and technology change between the major battles that constitute the data points for analysis. It is hard to draw trend lines between disparate combatants, historical epochs, and geographic settings, and those who do should take care to leave generous margins for error.

With all of that in mind, Wayne Hughes posits three representative scenarios for naval engagements on the high seas: attack by massed forces on massed forces, dispersed attacks that arrive on top of targeted forces nearly simultaneously, and sequential attack. The latter refers essentially to attacks dispersed in time rather than space.

Two caveats are in order. First, we are not predicting specific Chinese tactics; we use these three possibilities only as crude indicators of how Chinese forces might respond to a U.S. naval offensive.

The attacking force—“Force B” in Hughes’ nomenclature—could represent a mix of Chinese shore- and sea-based missile shooters supplemented by platforms such as minelayers or torpedo-firing submarines. The important question is whether Chinese strategic and operational preferences incline Chinese commanders toward massed, dispersed, or sequential attack. A related question: would Chinese commanders prefer to keep the PLA Navy closer to home, in keeping with the fortress-fleet approach, or would they feel comfortable dispatching the fleet for independent operations beyond shore-based cover?

Tactics for Striking at an Approaching Naval Force

Second, in the formulae Hughes develops to gauge the probabilities of U.S. defenses’ being overwhelmed or penetrated by “leakers” (platforms or munitions that get past the battle group’s layered defense), he avoids using the characteristics—ranges, warhead sizes, and so forth—of specific weapons systems. We follow suit for the most part. Capabilities change, while tactical principles apply across many contingencies. It falls to those closer to tactical and technical questions than we are to put the analysis and findings presented here into actual practice.

In short, China’s contested zone in littoral sea areas will comprise some composite of land and sea defenses. As the Chinese military extends its reach seaward—especially if a post-Taiwan era ever comes to pass—the high-seas component will naturally come to predominate. In Clausewitzian terms, as the PLA extends the range of land-based weaponry and continues building its oceangoing fleet, China will thrust the “culminating point of the attack” for its foes outward from its coasts. Clausewitz observes that when one state invades another, the combat power of the invading army starts to dwindle while the defending army grows stronger and stronger as the lines of communication with its bases shorten and it takes advantage of familiar surroundings.

The culminating point represents the crossover point at which the defender’s strength starts to surpass that of the attacker. A fleet that stands into an enemy’s maritime contested zone faces the same dynamic. U.S. Pacific Fleet relief forces will exhaust themselves if they push too far in the face of Chinese resistance. This phenomenon will bolster China’s prospects for denying the U.S. military access to important waters and for exercising sea control in those waters. Extending the reach of the PLA’s anti-access armory farther out to sea means the PLA can strike at the Pacific Fleet farther away and hasten the onset of the American culminating point. In all likelihood the PLA will strike in dispersed fashion, concentrating combat power from many axes atop its U.S. Navy targets at the same time.

Applying Maoist Active-Defense Grammar to Offshore Operations

Wars are not—and should not be—fought for their own sake. Politics and grand strategy impart the logic or purpose to warfare, assigning statesmen, soldiers, and mariners the ends toward which they strive. War’s grammar, on the other hand, is the ways and means whereby warring combatants try to reach those ends. Alfred Thayer Mahan proffered both a Clausewitzian logic of sea power premised on commercial, political, and military access to important regions and a grammar of naval strategy, operations, and tactics.

Mahan’s sea-power logic remains persuasive in China, it seems. Beijing has resolved to gain or preserve commercial, political, and military access to theaters it deems important to China’s national interests. Mahan’s writings on operational and tactical matters, on the other hand, have a musty if not archaic feel about them. He affirmed that the “offensive element in warfare” was “the superstructure, the end and the aim for which the defensive exists, and apart from which it is to all purposes of war worse than useless. When war has been accepted as necessary, success means nothing short of victory; and victory must be sought by offensive measures, and by them only can be insured.”

This vision of offensive battle comports with Chinese strategic proclivities, as does Mahan’s advocacy of forward bases and a robust merchant marine. But Mahan’s doctrine of battle between big-gun battleships is obsolete in an age of high-tech combat. Nor do Chinese analysts draw detailed lessons from his works beyond his injunctions to mass combat power at the critical place to prosecute a fleet engagement and to size fleets accordingly.

That Mahan has fallen into disrepute in operational and tactical matters is not surprising. As he admitted to Theodore Roosevelt, he was an indifferent fleet officer—“I am the man of thought, not the man of action,” he confided—and more than once he came up on the short end of a technical debate. He feuded with W. S. Sims, for example, on the question of whether new U.S. battleships should be fitted with all-big-gun main batteries or with a composite battery of big guns and lesser-caliber naval rifles. Richard Hough notes that Sims administered an “annihilating” rejoinder to Mahan’s advocacy of mixed armament, upbraiding Mahan for ignoring the combat punch of Japanese 12-inch gunfire at Tsushima.

Mahan’s poor performance in tactical debates in his own day makes it scarcely surprising that American and foreign tacticians nowadays look elsewhere for insight. Chinese officials, mariners, and scholars consult other martial traditions as they draft a grammar of marine combat—including their own. Chinese traditions offer a rich stock of land-warfare concepts, including the writings of Sun Tzu and, in particular, Mao Zedong, who etched his strategic outlook on contemporary China through personal example and voluminous writings on political and military affairs.

Admiral Xiao Jinguang, for instance, drew inspiration from Mao’s writings to develop his naval doctrine of “sabotage warfare at sea,”. One component of China’s current maritime strategy, “offshore waters defense,” takes its guiding precepts from the Maoist doctrine of active defense, an approach to warfighting distilled from Mao’s experiences in land campaigns against Imperial Japanese occupiers and the Chinese Nationalist Army. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping explicitly paid homage to Mao’s formula when he articulated his vision for China’s maritime strategy in the reform and opening era.

Mao scorned passive defense. His military writings are wholly offensive in character, even the material written during the wilderness years when his Red Army was vastly inferior to its enemies and had little choice other than to remain on the strategic defensive. Passive defense represented “a spurious kind of defense” for him, while active defense meant “defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive.” Even strategically defensive aims, then, were best attained through offensive ways and means. Passive measures were necessitated by an unfavorable balance of forces. They were transient. They were not the core of China’s national strategy, let alone its strategic preference. This outlook lends China’s quest for sea power much of its grammar.

To Chinese eyes, U.S. mastery of East Asian seas resembles the Nationalist Army’s strategy of “encirclement and suppression” transposed to the East, Yellow, and South China Seas. The Red Army did not reply to Nationalist Army ground offensives through passive means. It unleashed tactical offensives opportunistically to elongate the war, tire out enemy forces, and shift the balance of forces in the Communists’ favor. Patient action represented a precursor to a counteroffensive and ultimately to decisive victory.

Prompted by Mao and Mahan, Chinese naval strategists today talk routinely of prying control of the waters westward of the first island chain from the U.S. Navy’s grasp. They intend to surround and control these waters by offensive means, even if the United States still commands Asian waters at large.

True, Mao did warn against risking engagements in which victory was not assured, but it represents a grave mistake to equate such prudence with acquiescence in military inferiority. The strategic defensive was an expedient for Chairman Mao, not a desirable or permanent state of affairs. If the PLA heeds his advice, its grammar of naval war should give the U.S. Navy pause. America’s control of Asian waters does not render all naval battles unwinnable for Beijing. Washington must take seriously the reality that Beijing has adopted an intensely offensive naval strategy in its littoral waters. The PLA Navy is making itself a force to be reckoned with.

In this context, dispersed attacks on exterior lines are becoming increasingly thinkable for the PLA, as they were for the Red Army in its struggles against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. (Operating along exterior lines is like operating around the circumference of a circle while the competitor on interior lines is located at the circle’s center and operates along its radii, with the advantages a central location confers.) The dispersed approach confers a variety of benefits. First, Maoist preferences predispose Chinese defenders to let U.S. forces close on Chinese shores, casting Americans in the part of Mao’s “foolish” boxer who “rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start.” Plunging deep into China’s offshore defensive zone attenuates the strength of the U.S. forces, weakening them before PLA defenders mount attacks from shore- and sea-based weaponry scattered around the battle zone.

Nor will the PLA confine its fleet tactics to any particular warfare domain. It will unleash missile barrages complemented by submarine attack, minefields, and the panoply of other tactics and systems on which China has lavished attention. As American forces come under the shadow of Chinese coastlines, the PLA will assume the exterior lines, rendering dispersed attacks possible along multiple threat axes. By deploying land-based implements of sea power, Beijing can bring the full force of its contested zone to bear, creating a 360-degree threat to U.S. expeditionary groups. In the ideal case, if those land-based forces are successful, the PLA may not even need to hazard the PLA Navy battle fleet in action.

Second, PLA commanders will concentrate their efforts on individual vessels or small detachments. Despite the tenor of Chinese commentary, U.S. commanders should not automatically assume that aircraft carriers will be the prime target for PLA action. Amphibious ships, for example, would make tempting targets in a Taiwan contingency, assuming U.S. Marines attempted to land to succor Taiwanese defense forces. Disabling or sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis warships would certainly give the United States pause, stirring memories of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole and thus magnifying the political impact of such a feat of arms on the American electorate.

The PLAN might even set its sights on U.S. combat-logistics vessels transiting to or from the conflict zone. Despite the lower political profile of tankers and stores ships, depriving carrier or amphibious task groups of “bullets, beans, and black oil” would bring the U.S. effort grinding to a halt. Even a nuclear-powered carrier demands refueling every few days. Otherwise its complement of aircraft cannot fly, and it may as well have been disarmed.

Third, and closely related, the PLA will incorporate orthodox and unorthodox methods and weaponry into its defensive scheme in keeping with Mao’s and Sun Tzu’s warfare precepts. Western naval analysts commonly invoke the concept of saturation attack, implying that cruise missiles will be China’s sole implements in such a confrontation, or at any rate its implements of choice. This may be true. More likely, though, PLA saturation attacks will involve the concerted use of cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles; aerial attack from manned or unmanned warplanes; mines; torpedo attack; electronic warfare; and cyber warfare. All of those weapons are ideal for a contested zone and complement more conventional means.

Antiship missiles might thus represent not the primary, orthodox element of an active-defense campaign but the secondary, unorthodox element. For example, missile attack would compel U.S. tacticians to look skyward while Kilo-class diesel boats loosed salvoes of wake-homing torpedoes (torpedoes that find their surface target by following the water turbulence churned up by the target ship’s propellers) against U.S. surface combatants from beneath. It also bears repeating that Maoist tactics emphasize fluidity. Astute commanders shift between axes as circumstances permit, making the unorthodox attack into the orthodox attack if it appears more promising, and switching back again if need be. Distinguishing orthodox from unorthodox tactics may prove next to impossible in the heat of battle—which is the point of this supple approach.

And fourth, Beijing will merge nonmilitary instruments into its defensive efforts by using diplomacy to augment Maoist active defense. China constantly wages what strategists dub “three warfares,” deploying psychological, media, and legal measures to shape opinion in China’s favor. It carries on this shaping effort in wartime and peacetime alike, in the spirit of former premier Zhou Enlai’s dictum that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

For instance, Beijing could impress upon Washington the lasting diplomatic and economic repercussions of taking on China over Taiwan. It takes time to debate whether a military undertaking is worth its price and hazards. The United States could pause to reflect, and its hesitation could grant the PLA enough time to attain its goals before U.S. forces intervened. Additionally, Chinese diplomats could act as coalition breakers trying to weaken or pick off U.S. allies. Discouraging Japan from granting the use of bases on its soil or impressing on Australia that it will pay a price for supporting U.S. military action would impair America’s strategic position in Asia. Indeed, without access to allied bases America has no strategic position in Asia. Denying access to them incapacitates them, which is almost as good as destroying them from China’s standpoint.

Beijing would turn operational achievements of Chinese arms to propaganda advantage using its three-warfares strategy. Even small tactical triumphs would weary the American populace while giving America’s allies second thoughts about supporting the United States against Asia’s central political and economic power. Asians understand that win or lose in a sea war, they will have to live with a vindictive China that has a long memory. Asymmetries in commitment to the allied cause could open fissures that China could pry open further—degrading or dismantling the alliance system that lets U.S. forces operate on exterior lines far from North American shores.


The South China Sea on the “Day after Taiwan”

The South China Sea offers an ideal case study for future conflict off Chinese shores. Chinese and Western strategists once forecast that the Pacific Ocean constituted the most likely theater of twenty-first-century maritime competition between the United States and China. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the modern PLA Navy’s founding father, espoused an eastward-facing strategy, perhaps stemming from China’s preoccupation with a possible Taiwan contingency. Even Liu, however, included the South China Sea among the “near seas” where the Chinese navy must gird itself to prosecute active-defense operations. And indeed, the South China Sea is a more probable locus for contingencies pitting the PLA against the U.S. Navy. Beijing’s claim to “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty over most of that expanse, its construction and arming of artificial islands, and its heavy-handed conduct toward Southeast Asian neighbors have shifted the center of gravity for high-seas competition southward.

The South China Sea is China’s crucial gateway to the Indian Ocean. At least four strategic challenges beckon the attention of Chinese strategists southward. First and foremost, Taiwan, at the northern edge of the sea, continues to obsess China’s leadership. A formal declaration of independence or a Taiwanese breach of a Chinese redline such as constitutional reform remains the most likely casus belli for Beijing. But the cross-strait dispute is no longer the all-consuming issue it once was. If it has not already, China will soon gain the confidence to start looking past Taiwan to other pursuits in Southeast and South Asia.

Satisfactory settlement of affairs in the Taiwan Strait will free up Chinese resources and energies, advance the cause of national unification, and break through Dean Acheson’s island-chain perimeter. To borrow from General Douglas MacArthur, regaining the island would also give the PLA its own offshore—and unsinkable (if also immobile)—aircraft carrier and submarine tender. Moreover, if China occupies Taiwan, which Admiral Ernest King called “the cork in the bottle of the South China Sea,” Chinese shipping bound to or from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or the Mediterranean Sea can reach Chinese seaports unmolested.

The second strategic challenge perplexing Chinese scholars and top officials is the “Malacca dilemma” or “Malacca predicament.” Former president Hu Jintao first articulated this strategic problem, which entails an attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to close the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Strait to Chinese shipping as an indirect riposte during a Taiwan conflict or some other Pacific imbroglio.

Assuring free passage through the sea lines of communication linking the Persian Gulf region and Africa with Chinese seaports—in particular through the Strait of Malacca—has thus taken on surpassing importance to China’s communist regime. The uninterrupted flow of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials across the bodies of water south and southwest of the mainland—the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—will occupy an increasingly prominent place in China’s maritime calculus. This emerging energy security imperative suggests that tracking longer-term Chinese intentions and grand strategy in southern waters constitutes an urgent task for the United States.

Third, China has staked claim to the waters, air, and islands of most of the South China Sea at its neighbors’ expense. Indeed, the National People’s Congress in effect wrote China’s claims into domestic law in 1992. In 2009 the government submitted a map to the United Nations delineating its claims. A “nine-dashed line” enclosing an estimated 80–90 percent of the South China Sea bounds the area where China claims indisputable sovereignty. At its most basic, sovereignty means physical control of space within an area on a map. What the sovereign says there is the law, and others obey. Unsurprisingly, China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and attempts to enforce those claims have generated considerable tension.

Both national sentiment and the region’s value as a maritime thoroughfare animate Beijing’s policy, as do the undersea resources said to be found around the many islands to which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have lodged claims. The seas are also a growing source of nutrition as a Chinese citizenry that enjoys rising disposable incomes turns its appetite to seafood. Even cartographers have joined the fray. One laments that the landmass of China resembles a rooster, an image unworthy of China’s majesty; but including the sea areas China has claimed gives the nation an appealing shape on the map—a torch. “Chinese map,” proclaims the mapmaker, “you are the collected emotion and wisdom of the Chinese people, their coagulated blood and raging fire, symbolic of their power and personality, the embodiment of their worth and spirit.”

This conveys not only the region’s importance for Chinese national dignity but also the interdependence between the sea and Chinese economic development. Beijing has sought to give effect to domestic law as it amasses dominant sea power, relying on a maritime militia and a modern coast guard backed up by the PLA Navy. Southeast Asia’s coastal states have not yet determined how to uphold their rights and privileges under the law of the sea in the face of an increasingly bellicose China.

Fourth, it has become apparent that undersea warfare imparts momentum to China’s southward maritime turn. In April 2008 Jane’s Intelligence Review disclosed that the PLA had constructed an impressive naval base complete with underground pens for fleet SSBNs, at Sanya on Hainan Island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The news prompted a flurry of speculation among strategic thinkers in the West and Asia. “Must India be anxious?” asked one Indian commentator.

Many countries should be. To borrow a metaphor Chinese officials use, the Sanya base gives Beijing the first of China’s “two eyes” at sea—Taiwan being the other. Metaphors aside, basing SSBNs in the South China Sea would let the PLA Navy outflank U.S. and Japanese ASW efforts in northeast Asia while enabling the Chinese submarine force to operate on exterior lines. Sanya gives the navy a forward base not only for SSBNs but for attack submarines, aircraft, and surface units as well, projecting China’s combat reach outward in much the same way Taiwan would do in the Pacific Ocean. The artificial island redoubts to Hainan’s south have helped Beijing consolidate its control over this offshore preserve.

The South China Sea, in short, offers an ideal theater for the PLA to fight on tactically exterior lines while the United States operates along strategically exterior lines. The Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines, has taken on new prominence now that operational Chinese units are stationed at Sanya. Regaining Taiwan would expedite Chinese military access to the strait—its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. In a day-after-Taiwan scenario, having emplaced PLA air and sea forces on the island, China would extend its reach seaward while occupying a commanding position opposite Luzon.

This positioning would render China’s logic of dispersed attack even more compelling. PLA forces could vector in attacks on U.S. Navy task forces not only from PLAN units at sea but also from sites on the mainland and, just as important, from Hainan and Taiwan—its twin offshore aircraft carriers and submarine tenders, to borrow MacArthur’s metaphor. Once armed with antiship missiles, the artificial islands could lend additional firepower to the mix, further complicating the tactical picture for U.S. commanders. By forcing the United States into perimeter defense, the PLA could open up promising tactical vistas for itself. It could feint in the South China Sea, for instance, stretching American defenses and situational awareness to the south while staging a breakout to the north, through the narrow passages piercing the Ryukyu Islands or the Japanese archipelago itself.

Taken together, this strategy adds up to an effort similar to the one the United States mounted in Mahan’s day, when the U.S. Navy set out to establish local ascendancy over superior European navies in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These were expanses of overriding economic and military importance to a rising United States that had fixed its gaze on Asia and Pacific markets and bases. Consequently, for U.S. naval commanders, revisiting U.S. maritime history while monitoring how China manages its “Caribbean” could supply a harbinger of future Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Strategic Preference #1: Dispersed Sea Denial

To return to Wayne Hughes’ analytical template, what are China’s strategic preferences for naval warfare? How will China apply its panoply of new hardware to achieve the goal of sea denial? Following Hughes’ three determinants of tactical effectiveness, Chinese defenders will attempt to disrupt U.S. scouting, outrange U.S. weaponry, and exploit defects in U.S. fleet tactics, keeping American commanders off balance. Consonant with Mao’s injunction to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers rather than mash them all, PLA defenders will concentrate on individual U.S. units or small formations that find themselves remote from mutual support. They will operate along tactically exterior lines, concentrating firepower in space and time at the last minute to overpower American defenses. In short, they will fight according to the Maoist way of war, defeating a stronger antagonist piecemeal.

By playing up tactical victories in the world press, Beijing can hope to discourage the American people, peel off ambivalent U.S. allies such as Japan or Australia, and collapse the overall U.S. effort. Western analysts must monitor the PLA for inventive uses of China’s tactical and geostrategic advantages. Some representative weapon systems useful for dispersed but integrated attacks would include the following.

Antiship Cruise Missiles

The PLA has plowed major effort and resources into cruise missile procurement and development. Antiship missiles can be fired from ships, aircraft, and surface batteries, forcing U.S. Navy antiair defenders to cope with multiple threat axes. For instance, the fast, agile SS-N-22 Moskit (known in U.S. naval circles as the Sunburn) carried on board PLA Navy Sovremennyy-class DDGs has excellent prospects even against the U.S. Navy’s Aegis combat system, the latest in American technical wizardry and the system it was designed to penetrate. A decade ago a RAND report situated SS-N-22 and SS-N-27 antiship missiles at the heart of China’s strategy for a Taiwan contingency, strongly suggesting that the United States would find itself on the losing end of a cross-strait encounter in 2020. The YJ-18 missile now entering service boasts a range of 290 nautical miles—about four times that of the Harpoon, the standard antiship weapon in the U.S. Navy surface fleet for now. Ships carrying the YJ-18 could get in their licks long before U.S. warships could respond. Such weaponry, in short, makes an ideal candidate for orthodox or unorthodox antiship attack.

Antiship Ballistic Missiles

In 2010 Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, announced that the PLA’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) had attained “initial operational capability,” meaning the ASBM had made its operational debut while still undergoing testing and refinement. The DF-21D boasts a range of 1,500–2,000 kilometers and can reportedly strike at moving ships on the high seas. In a 2015 military parade in Beijing the PLA displayed the DF-26, a ballistic missile with the range to strike Guam. The DF-26 reportedly has an ASBM variant, projecting the reach of Chinese anti-access defenses 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers offshore. If they live up to their hype, the DF-21D and DF-26 will expand the operating grounds for China’s fortress fleet immensely.

A China able to strike effectively beyond the second island chain with sufficient numbers of ASBMs could hope to replicate Imperial Japan’s strategy, which aimed at reducing the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line far out in the Pacific as a precursor to a decisive engagement in Asian waters. Unlike Japanese forces, however, the PLA could mount such a strategy without bothering to seize and fortify Pacific islands. A working ASBM capability would signal that the PLA can act along exterior lines against U.S. naval forces across far greater distances than once thought possible. It could execute a Maoist strategy on a region-wide scale.

Stealth Aircraft

Stealth fighter/attack aircraft such as the PLA Air Force J-20 would make an ideal implement for unorthodox attack against U.S. airborne-early-warning and tanker aircraft. The J-20 sports a two-thousand-kilometer combat radius. Flights of elusive J-20s could strike at the U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance and logistics capability, blinding American aviators while denying warplanes the fuel they need to sustain flight operations over the western Pacific. In short, PLA stealth aviators could encumber U.S. air power without fighting a major air battle against cutting-edge U.S. F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. That is the very definition of an unorthodox attack.

And it would be well aimed. Showcased in Afghanistan, in two wars against Iraq, and in other conflicts of the past two decades, the modern American way of war is premised on winning the contest for information supremacy at the outbreak of war. U.S. forces have prevailed in large part because superior technology has given them a “common operating picture” of conditions in the battle space that no opponent can match. Airborne sensors detect and target enemy aircraft, ships, or ground vehicles from afar. Jammers and antiradiation missiles incapacitate enemy sensors attempting to gather data on and target U.S. assets. These tactics effectively paralyze U.S. adversaries during the opening phases of a military campaign, paving the way for an even more important battlefield condition: air supremacy.

J-20 or J-31 stealth jets could seriously degrade U.S. scouting effectiveness, one of Hughes’ chief determinants of tactical success. Weapons range means little without the ability to find and target enemy forces at long distances. Since the dawn of carrier warfare, U.S. maritime strategy has seen command of the air as a prerequisite for surface fleet operations. An operation near Chinese shores would be no different. If Chinese pilots struck down Airborne Warning and Control System or E-2D early-warning planes, they would wholly or partially nullify the U.S. edge in information warfare, slowing down and complicating U.S. aviators’ efforts to command the skies. In doing so they would blunt U.S. offensive action while exposing U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, to air and missile counterstrikes.

A robust Chinese stealth air fleet would oblige U.S. commanders to devote energy and air assets to securing the skies. For instance, commanders might find themselves forced to assign scarce fighters to escort early-warning or tanker planes, taking the escorts out of the major fight and thus diluting U.S. combat power. Even if PLA stealth aviation remains inferior to its American counterpart it could open the way for PLA offensive-defensive operations in Mao Zedong’s sense. Debilitating the foe would boost the PLA’s chances of denying maritime command.

Undersea Warfare

The PLAN submarine fleet has aroused growing concern in U.S. defense circles, judging from scholarly commentary and the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power. Lethal, stealthy diesel-electric submarines such as Russian-built Kilos and indigenous Yuans or Songs can prowl China’s offshore contested zone while nuclear boats range farther afield, cueing PLA commanders as U.S. forces approach or launching nuisance attacks on the high seas. Armed with wake-homing torpedoes, even diesel boats can compel American ships to take radical evasive maneuvers. The torpedoes can distract and hamper a ship’s combat team while the PLA bombards the fleet with antiship ballistic or cruise missiles. Subsurface combat, in short, compounds an already wicked tactical problem.64 It could help dishearten U.S. forces or impose such costs that U.S. officials abjure the effort to pierce China’s contested zone, brightening China’s prospects for successful sea denial.

To sum up, if the PLA manages to force U.S. forces to fixate on any single domain—surface, subsurface, or aerial—it can then pose new challenges from the other domains. Nuclear and diesel attack submarines, missile-armed fast patrol craft such as the PLAN’s Type 022 Houbei, or “assassin’s mace” systems like minefields make good adjuncts to more traditional systems like ASBMs and shore-based aircraft. PLA commanders could combine and recombine these systems to dizzy American defenders. In a sense, then, we are witnessing a merger of time-honored strategic concepts: jeune école–style combatants wage war aggressively against high-end intruders, shore artillery lends fire support on a grand scale, and an ultramodern fortress fleet prowls the sea within reach of these supporting arms. Strategies of the weak are coming into their own.

A well-designed Chinese force package would impose a three-dimensional threat on U.S. forces, launching unorthodox and orthodox attacks along multiple vectors. The more stresses the Chinese can impose, the less likely U.S. forces will be to venture landward of the island chains or into the South China Sea. If China can even partially cancel out U.S. technologies that manage the fog of war, it can severely curtail U.S. forces’ freedom of maneuver along Asian coastlines—access the U.S. Navy has long taken for granted. In short, the combined effect of multiaxis assaults could induce U.S. forces to operate farther from Chinese shores, helping China achieve its goal of sea denial in the China seas.

One caveat is worth appending. Despite the bleak tenor of our commentary, we are not maintaining that these capabilities, alone or combined, will give China a decisive edge in littoral warfare, let alone outright military superiority over the United States. The PLA Navy is not some superhuman force. It remains a relative newcomer to naval warfare. While Beijing divulges few details about budgets or weapons acquisitions, the PLAN is not exempt from the cost constraints familiar to military services worldwide. It must surmount technological hurdles after starting from behind. Officers and sailors must take their ships to sea for sustained intervals to refine their seamanship and tactical acumen. When the PLA Navy will equal the U.S. Navy in material and human terms—if ever—remains an open question.

Moreover, the PLAN would have to coordinate closely with the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to prosecute the joint campaign we are describing, so as to amplify the tactical effects of multidimensional attacks against opponent forces. Interoperability and interservice cooperation—skills that take years of practice to hone—would be at a premium. Whether PLA combat arms are up to these and kindred challenges remains an open question.

Certainly the PLA will press the operational and tactical advantages it possesses while striving to overcome its lingering shortcomings. Beijing can hope to drive up the costs of entry into waters and skies it cares about, deterring or hindering U.S. involvement in Asian conflicts. If successful, it will have fulfilled its defensive strategic aims. If the PLA can deny U.S. forces the ability to dictate events, it will have attained the most important goal of sea denial: seizing local control of sea and sky long enough to realize operational and strategic goals. The approach we have posited here comports with the experiences of the past forty-plus years of naval war. From Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles in 1967, to Argentina’s sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982, to Iraq’s Exocet attack on USS Stark in 1987, to Hezbollah’s crippling of the Israeli corvette Spear with a C-802 surface-to-surface missile in 2006, experience demonstrates that an inferior yet determined navy can hurt a superior one.

The Chinese have afforded these historical case studies close scrutiny. They have learned that the weak can force the strong to change their behavior even without winning outright. In each incident, a single missile hit brought about major tactical effects. In the cases of Eilat and Sheffield, a missile sank a ship altogether. Or missile strikes can score a “mission kill,” putting a ship’s combat-systems suite out of action while preventing its crew from accomplishing its mission. They can disable the stricken vessel. Sometimes, though, a missile is not required. USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli suffered far-reaching damage from crude, cheap Iraqi sea mines during the late 1980s and early 1990s, furnishing an even more striking example of how sea denial works. Thus, tactics involving dispersed, multifaceted attacks promise the PLA a handsome return on a modest investment. Such tactics make sense according to sound principles of naval warfare as elaborated by Wayne Hughes. And they fit with Chinese strategic and operational traditions. If what comes natural works, it only makes sense for China to do it.

Strategic Preference #2: Cut Off the U.S. Navy’s “Fingers” One by One

PLA naval planners cannot count on defeating the United States by crippling or sinking a small, though politically significant, portion of the U.S. fleet. The strategy might work. It might elevate the costs of fighting China above the value Washington assigns the object at stake. Or it might not. America could prove less morally flabby than expected. Chinese strategists may draw a lesson from the Pacific war, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the 9/11 terror attacks: do not discount America’s will to fight. Hideki Tojo’s Japan, Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Mao Zedong’s China, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda all calculated that the surprise, speed, and shock of initial successful campaigns would stun America into submission. All were wrong.

Prudence thus demands that Beijing consider the what-ifs. What should the PLA do if its sea-denial strategy fails to drive U.S. naval forces from important sea areas? Its most obvious fallback would be to keep doing what works. Picking off U.S. warships and formations piecemeal might eventually create a favorable environment for sea denial—so long as U.S. commanders kept playing into Chinese hands and presenting a “cooperative adversary.”

Successive minor victories at sea would resemble the battles Mao’s Red Army fought on strategically interior but tactically exterior lines against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. Sequential-attack tactics would let the PLA whittle the U.S. Navy down to size over time, perhaps fulfilling its tactical and operational aims on the logic sketched previously. At a minimum, the tactics would gradually tilt the military balance toward China, enhancing the PLA’s prospects for a decisive counteroffensive—as Mao foretold. To be sure, this presupposes that Beijing has great confidence in its ability to manage escalation in nautical warfare. It behooves U.S. naval planners to keep tabs on Chinese strategic discourses, gauging whether PLA strategists entertain such confidence.

In short, Wayne Hughes’ second tactical scenario—sequential attack—would likely rank second in China’s hierarchy of naval tactics. The PLA may disperse offensive tactical strikes in time as well as space.


Strategic Preference #3: Mao Zedong, Meet Alfred Thayer Mahan

The strategic preferences we are discussing are not fixed; they are leanings. As the PLA Navy approaches parity with the U.S. Navy, Mao’s grammar of active defense will come to resemble the Mahanian scheme for concentrated fleet-on-fleet engagements. Recall that the third and final phase of Mao’s strategy of the weak is the conventional counteroffensive that brings about final victory. What comes before—the strategic defensive, the strategic equilibrium—are transitory expedients, not desirable states. If Beijing believes the PLA is now the stronger contender, it can skip the phases that presuppose China is outmatched and proceed straight to a conventional offensive.

Mao’s endgame was a conventional battlefield victory. Mahan hoped to open with a fleet-on-fleet engagement that likewise yielded victory. Both strategists agreed on the imperative to vanquish the foe’s main force in decisive combat at some stage. The only difference was how to sequence operations and engagements to bring about a fleet action.

Hughes’ third scenario, massed attack, thus may now be part of the PLA commanders’ portfolio of options. As noted before, some Chinese strategists look directly to Mahan for strategic insight. The well-known pundit Zhang Wenmu cites Mahan’s maxim that economic prosperity hinges on deploying stronger naval forces at strategic locations. From this Zhang concludes that China must “build up our navy as quickly as possible” in preparation for the “sea battle” that constitutes the “ultimate way for major powers” to resolve economic disputes. Zhang, it seems, foresees decisive fleet actions.

How might such an engagement come about? One plausible scenario: a sequential PLA strategy could unfold by increments, climaxing in a Mahanian test of arms. Small-scale engagements would progress stepwise toward the ultimate reckoning. Or, if the PLA felt the balance of forces favored it from the outset, Beijing might seek a decisive battle with the U.S. military right away rather than progress through Mao Zedong’s phases of war. The strong have little need for the strategies of the weak.

Venturing everything to gain everything is not so dramatic a break with Mao as it seems. Mao enjoined weaker powers, not stronger ones, to give ground and concentrate against isolated enemy units. Once Chinese forces build up to parity or relative superiority over their foes, they will enjoy far more operational and tactical options, including the option of inaugurating the conventional counteroffensive Mao believed they must eventually prosecute to achieve victory. If the strategic setting favors offensive action, then, there is no reason for the PLA not to get right to it.

Indeed, Mao departed from his own pattern when circumstances warranted. Despite grave reservations among his comrades, Mao prevailed on them to intervene decisively in the Korean War, convinced that a massive initial blow would push UN forces off the peninsula. His gamble failed miserably. Still, such logic—perhaps compounded by wishful thinking—could again grip Chinese commanders. Below we discuss some factors that might impel them to risk a fleet action early.

Maoist Operational Grammar Isn’t So Different from Mahan’s After All

As we noted above, offensive Mahanian battle is compatible with Maoist traditions when conditions suit. Having ensnared U.S. forces deep inside China’s contested zone, the PLA can assume the exterior lines, applying Mao’s operational logic far more broadly than he anticipated. Mao himself contemplated globe-spanning exterior lines, albeit in a diplomatic rather than an operational sense. His contemporary followers might apply his theory in ambitious ways, pursuing a counteroffensive promising outright naval victory. Maoist theory would converge with Mahanian theory, urging them on.

Death Ground

The CCP regime could find its survival at stake in some Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. Self-preservation is the top priority for the CCP, as it is for the rulers of any state. A cross-strait war, to name the most obvious contingency, would call Chinese national unity into question—and the legitimacy of the regime along with it. U.S. intervention thus might summon forth an all-out PLA assault. If the communist regime’s longevity hinged on victory, self-restraint would recede in importance. Or a similar calculus could take hold should the United States mount a blockade of Chinese resource shipments, endangering China’s economic vibrancy and thus standards of living for the populace. All bets are off should some U.S. action place China’s leadership on what Sun Tzu dubs “death ground”—where it is imperative to fight to the utmost or perish.

Now or Never

China often deprecates America’s political staying power, but it may fear a repetition of December 1941, when an Asian sea power last underrated America’s will and capacity to fight across the Pacific and paid the price for it. Chinese commanders resigned to armed strife against U.S. forces might aim a knockout blow at U.S. naval task forces that venture into the China seas. If Chinese forces did not achieve a solid victory, however, Beijing might provoke the kind of massive U.S. counterstroke that followed Imperial Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. But there is a major difference: today’s counterpart to “Pearl Harbor” sits within reach of strike forces based on the Chinese mainland. The PLA need not replicate the long, tortuous voyage the IJN undertook to assail Oahu in 1941. It can rain missiles on U.S. Seventh Fleet bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo from nearby. And unlike IJN carrier aviators operating at the end of their logistical tether, PLA rocketeers can sustain their bombardment until the job is done thoroughly. A killing stroke would foreclose the prospect of massive American retaliation, and such a stroke is increasingly thinkable for Beijing.

Dare All to Gain All

Should the PLA offer decisive battle and win, its triumph would hasten China’s rise to regional and world eminence, reordering the Asian and perhaps global systems. America would not quickly rebuild its navy—or regain its superpower status, which turns on supremacy in the maritime commons—following a catastrophic defeat. We doubt that Beijing would initiate war solely to knock out the U.S. Navy. Chinese thinkers grasp the political, economic, and military costs of great-power war and evince little appetite for it. Still, the allure of a final reckoning might prod Chinese commanders to risk the fleet if they were already leaning that way for the reasons discussed above.

That Chinese decision makers could hazard a climactic fleet action does not mean they are fated to do so. Much will depend on how they estimate the military balance in Asia. Thus, monitoring how Beijing appraises its comprehensive national power relative to that of the United States and other rival powers will supply important clues to Chinese maritime strategy and tactics.

Can the United States Preserve Its Naval Mastery?

U.S. officials, commanders, and shipwrights must exercise foresight, refine training and doctrine for Asian sea combat, and pay constant attention to upgrading the material dimension of strategy. Military professionals like to point out that they traffic in capabilities rather than intentions. How should U.S. naval commanders prepare for Chinese integrated attacks at sea?

By embracing Wayne Hughes’ advice, for one thing. Hughes urges ship designers to extend the range of U.S. missiles while bolstering U.S. Navy expeditionary forces’ detection and targeting ability. Constant work on ships, planes, and armaments is crucial. So is constant work on the human factor. Hughes enjoins commanders to refine their tactics so as to preserve or restore their advantage over prospective adversaries such as China. In particular, American seafarers need to regain the Navy’s proficiency at electromagnetic emissions control (EMCON), which manages electromagnetic emissions such as radar and radio to keep enemy forces from detecting U.S. task forces. It means muffling the force’s electronic signature or silencing it altogether. Properly done, EMCON hobbles enemy scouting and targeting. Aggressive electronic warfare is likewise central to U.S. information superiority.

Who holds the edge in weapons range and scouting effectiveness at present? To date, China has won the contest for greater range. Every one of its antiship missiles outranges the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon, granting PLA Navy captains multiple engagement opportunities before American ships can close the range enough to fire back. The PLA’s YJ-18 boasts four times the Harpoon’s range. The U.S. Navy and defense firms are now competing in the range war, however. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has repurposed the SM-6 interceptor for surface-warfare engagements, a new long-range antiship missile is under development, and engineers have fitted the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile with sensors and software to conduct surface engagements. If pursued, the latter in particular will boost vessels’ striking reach into the hundreds of miles. Naval commanders will sleep more soundly once such weaponry reaches the fleet. Faster is better when fielding these armaments.

Nevertheless, when and if the PLA perfects its ASBMs, U.S. forces will be forced to operate within the DF-26 or DF-21D threat envelopes, especially if developments bear out the upper estimates of those missiles’ reach. These figures exceed the maximum range advertised for any U.S. land-attack cruise missile or for any ship-launched aircraft armed with antiship or land-attack missiles. Depending on the variant, the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles boast ranges officially reported at 1,600–2,500 kilometers. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, the mainstay of today’s carrier air wings, has a combat radius of 723 kilometers with a standard bomb load and external fuel tanks. Add another 321-plus kilometers for the Super Hornet’s joint air-to-surface standoff missiles (JASSMs) and 804-plus kilometers for the extended-range variant (JASSM-ER).

At extreme range, then, the F/A-18 can hit targets roughly 1,500 kilometers away. That is almost precisely the low-end estimate for DF-21D range and deep within DF-26 range. The F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter will improve on the Super Hornet’s range, clocking in with a combat radius estimated at 1,111 kilometers. For the F-35, that makes the extreme striking range 1,915 kilometers—beyond the minimum estimate for the DF-21D’s range but well within the maximum. If the DF-26 proves out, carriers would have to venture deep within the ASBM envelope to do their work. Beijing’s buildup of its fleet, and of its shore-based sea-power arsenal, is pushing the culminating point of the attack farther offshore for U.S. task forces, raising the costs of entry for the U.S. military into Asian waters.

With regard to manned aircraft, the PLA Navy’s J-11 fighter/attack aircraft, a derivative of the Russian Su-27 and Su-30, boasts a tactical radius of 2,000 kilometers if refueled in flight. In theory, it could hold U.S. vessels at risk up to 2,400 kilometers distant from its base if armed with YJ-12 ASCMs which boast a range estimated at 250 to 400 kilometers. This pushes the engagement zone well beyond the inner island chain, supporting China’s goal of sea denial in and around Taiwan and the approaches to the South China Sea. And this discussion leaves aside the contributions China’s J-15 might make. The J-15, under development for use on board PLAN carriers, has a combat radius of around 1,500 kilometers, and a family of stealth aircraft is under development that appears able to operate out to the second island chain.

The favorable balance of aircraft and missile ranges now allows Chinese strategists to look beyond the Taiwan impasse. They appear comfortable that they can deny the United States access to the waters shoreward of the first island chain. Now look at the American side. For close-in encounters like one off Taiwan, which could involve landing U.S. Marines or interdicting Chinese landing forces, U.S. forces must venture within the cruise missile envelope and well within range of missile-armed aircraft flying from airfields on the mainland. Layered defenses for carrier and amphibious groups will be thinner and more permeable in these cramped quarters. Response times for U.S. defenders will plummet as a result. This is what it means to operate within range of Fortress China and its fortress fleet.

Shipboard defenses will take on new importance under these circumstances. The U.S. Navy’s premier self-defense system, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), is a semiactive radarguided missile fired from vertical launch systems or deck-mounted launchers. Its range is reported to be only forty-five kilometers, however, compressing reaction times for U.S. task forces against Chinese antiship weaponry like the Sunburn, with its sea-skimming cruise altitude, maximum velocity of Mach 3, and capacity for radical evasive maneuvers in the terminal phase. The YJ-18 cruises at subsonic speeds but accelerates to Mach 3 when approaching its target.

One study estimates the probability of a hit for a Mach 2.5 missile at 40 percent against a carrier group screened by Aegis combatants. The window for multiple ESSM engagements, then, will shut quickly under battle conditions. The Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), U.S. Navy warships’ point defense against aerial attack, is a radar-guided Gatling gun able to fire up to 4,500 penetrating rounds per minute. The range of CIWS mounts is so short, though, that their rate of fire provides cold comfort for shipboard defenders against airborne threats. The Navy is upgrading point defenses with “SeaRAM,” a defense system that marries CIWS radar and fire control with rolling airframe missiles to engage incoming missiles farther off board. The system’s range is classified but appears to be around eight kilometers. This represents an improvement over gunfire, but again, it amounts to short range when coping with supersonic missiles trying to evade shipboard defenses.

A significant disclaimer is in order. The technical specifications of China’s armaments appear imposing, but missile ranges are contingent on the PLA’s ability to detect, identify, and track U.S. warships at extreme distances. The Pacific Ocean is big, and the biggest fleet is vanishingly small by comparison. This factor imposes a deterrent to long-range surface engagements. U.S. Navy doctrine frowns on very long-range antiship strikes for fear of hitting noncombatants. There is little reason to think the PLA Navy, which has never been tested in high-seas combat, has leapfrogged this intricate technical and doctrinal challenge. Nor is there reason to think PLA commanders would cut loose indiscriminately, heedless of the danger to civilian shipping or the waste of expending scarce munitions against non-combatants—except as a desperation measure should the CCP regime find itself treading on death ground.

For now, our diagnosis is this: China holds the advantage in long-range antiship weaponry, but the United States is beginning to field systems that will cut into that advantage. U.S. naval commanders should no longer expect to strike with impunity at Chinese military assets, ashore or at sea, while keeping their own high-value platforms—carriers, amphibious landing ships, and Aegis cruisers and destroyers—out of harm’s way. Commanders should also realize that the fleet relies to an unhealthy degree on the carrier air wing for its offensive punch against sea and shore targets. These facts add up to a compelling brief not just for new shipboard armaments but also for initiatives such as “distributed lethality,” which will disperse firepower throughout the surface force. Once every ship is a fighting ship, the fleet’s dependency on a few squadrons of fighter/attack aircraft should ease.

How far offshore the PLA Navy will operate is a function of how confident Chinese commanders are in their anti-access defenses, how much risk Chinese commanders and party leaders are willing to assume, how much seamanship and tactical prowess Chinese mariners and airmen exhibit, and the technical feasibility of such systems as the ASBM. Together these factors will govern the point at which U.S. task forces will come under threat when approaching the Asian seas.

If our diagnosis is correct, the United States and its allies are in a danger zone. If American engineering stands at the verge of evening the range imbalance, and if Chinese commanders know that, the Chinese may be tempted to act before their advantage disappears. This may be why Beijing has shown signs of urgency in the South China Sea by dredging up seafloor to create military installations. Beijing has taken the risk of uniting a hostile coalition—but perhaps the CCP leadership rates that risk as less than the risk of taking a leisurely approach that soothes animosities but lets the United States recover its maritime supremacy in Asia. The region could be in for a bumpy ride in the coming decade or so.

Looking ahead, it is safe to say that the PLA’s tactical reach already extends beyond the first island chain. It is also safe to say that Beijing will soon be able to dispute U.S. command of the waters and skies between the two island chains, if indeed it cannot already. How far offshore China’s navy conducts exercises and what Chinese officers and pundits say about their doctrine will provide the best indicators available.

For planning purposes, the soundest assumption is that U.S. forces will face surface, subsurface, and aerial threats along more than one threat axis, especially as they close on Chinese shores. Within China’s contested zone, the PLA will fight on tactically exterior lines, mounting dispersed attacks to overpower U.S. antiair, antiship, and antisubmarine defenses. Accordingly, U.S. commanders must think about how American units can lend one another mutual support and make the expeditionary force a single, cohesive force. This will help balk Maoist strategies predicated on defeating an oncoming force bit by bit, picking off isolated units and annihilating them. Hughes terms this mutual-support strategy “massing for defense.”

The martial balance may continue shifting toward the PLA in the coming years as Chinese forces expand, improve their arsenal, and refine their tactics to make the best use of the contested zone. It will certainly continue shifting if the United States declines to make the conscious political choice to remain the world’s predominant sea power and guarantor of freedom of the sea. Primacy requires resources. Admiral J. C. Wylie points out that Congress makes strategic decisions all the time through the budgetary process. Indeed. No amount of seamanship or tactical wizardry will carry the U.S. Navy to victory in the Far East if U.S. mariners have too few implements for the fight.

The Battle of Corfu (November 1084)

By the late summer of 1084 Robert Guiscard must have felt finally ready to resume his Balkan campaign after a three-year hiatus. He had crushed the latest revolt of his Apulian nobles at Cannae, sent the German emperor Henry IV scampering back north of the Alps and rescued his liege lord Pope Gregory VII from Rome, albeit after a savage sacking of the city. The appearance of his son Bohemond in Salerno must, however, have dampened any ephemeral euphoria and disabused him of the notion of an easy expedition. Thanks in large measure to the Greco-Venetian fleet, much of what had been gained before his untimely return to Italy had been lost.

Guiscard’s naval capability had never recovered from the defeat it had suffered at the hands of the Venetians off Pallia Point north of Durazzo in July 1081. As a result, his forces had lost freedom of movement on the sea. Anna Comnena explained: `The Roman and Venetian fleets, tirelessly patrolling the straits [the Strait of Otranto between Apulia and modern Albania], prevented reinforcements crossing from Lombardy [Italy] and delivery of necessary supplies to him [Guiscard] from that area was impeded.’ This meant that Bohemond’s efforts to continue the Balkan campaign in his father’s absence were doomed from the start. He soldiered on nonetheless, defeating Alexios at Ioannina and again near Ochrid. Bohemond then marched into Thessaly where he took Trikkala and laid siege to Larissa. It was there that the young Hauteville, short on supplies and lacking funds to pay his exhausted troops, bogged down. Alexios, at last seeing the futility of head-on encounters with the Norman heavy cavalry, shifted tactics. He suborned many of Bohemond’s knights with the compensation Guiscard’s son could no longer provide without help from across the Adriatic. The campaign soon crumbled, leaving Bohemond no option but to make his way back to Italy for reinforcement and replenishment.

Meanwhile, the Venetians, urged on by Alexios and supported by the Greek fleet under Michael Maurex, prosecuted the war at sea unchallenged. They recaptured Durazzo in the summer of 1083, then reclaimed all of Corfu, excluding the Norman-held citadel of Kassiopi on the northeastern promontory of the island. By the autumn Alexios had recaptured Kastoria. Aside from Avlona and Kassiopi, almost nothing of Greece remained in Norman hands. And those few Norman forces still loyal to Guiscard had been rendered perilously isolated and susceptible to seaborne attack. Robert must have suffered no illusions: if his Byzantine aspirations were to be realized, he would have to wrench mastery of the lower Adriatic from the Venetians. Preparations for his second Balkan expedition were informed by that knowledge.

Accordingly, Robert amassed at Taranto in the fall of 1084 what Lupus Protospatarius called `a huge gathering of ships and an innumerable army of men’. There is some controversy about the exact numbers involved. Modern scholars such as Ferdinand Chalandon have estimated that Guiscard’s fleet consisted of around 150 ships, but the only contemporary source to offer a precise figure was William of Apulia, who claimed that the armada comprised 120 armed ships (`armatis centum viginti navibus’) along with an unspecified number of `transport vessels filled with horses, provisions and arms’. The great Italian maritime historian Camillo Manfroni regards even this estimate as an exaggeration, because the number of galleys alone would have required 12,000 men just to crew them. Nonetheless, given Robert’s prior experience with Venetian naval power, the duke probably assembled a fleet of warships much larger than the one he had employed on the initial Balkan expedition three years before.

It was late in the sailing season – perhaps early September – before Robert was ready, so, instead of crossing from Otranto, the port which offered the shortest passage to Corfu, both Lupus Protospatarius and William of Apulia reported that Robert repositioned the fleet to Brindisi because it provided better shelter from autumn storms. He obviously had no wish to repeat the horrendous experience of Glossa Point in 1081, when his fleet was very nearly demolished in its entirety by a terrible tempest. The duke dispatched an advance squadron under his sons Roger Borsa and Guy to secure Avlona once again. Guiscard himself proceeded with sons Bohemond and Robert to Butrinto on the Balkan mainland, just opposite the northeastern coast of Corfu, with the intention of relieving his garrison at Kassiopi. Roger and Guy rendezvoused with him there, but fierce autumn weather forced the entire expedition to hunker down for nearly two months. In the meantime Alexios, having learned of Guiscard’s movements, directed the Greco-Venetian fleet to counter the anticipated assault on Corfu. Anna Comnena reported that these ships anchored at the harbour of Passaron, believed to be on the coast of Epirus somewhere to the south of Butrinto. Thus Robert was probably aware of their presence in the vicinity.

Sometime in November, when the weather finally cleared, Guiscard seized the initiative by crossing the Strait of Corfu to Kassiopi with his entire fleet. Soon thereafter the Venetians moved to engage. The two fleets apparently clashed in the harbour of Kassiopi because Anna Comnena says the battle `took place at close quarters’. In such a battle of limited manoeuvring, the advantage must have been with the taller Venetian vessels, which were able to rain missiles down at will upon Guiscard’s galleys with their low freeboard. William of Apulia called them `triremes’, but this was clearly a classicized reference to what were probably bireme galeas. `They [the Venetians] showered arrows from on high on their enemies and threatened them with heavy iron weights,’ he recounted. The effect must have been devastating. `In the ship carrying Roger during this battle scarcely a man could be found unwounded,’ added William. The Normans took a terrible beating but survived the encounter only to be attacked again three days later with much the same result.

After this second triumph the Venetians returned to the harbour at Passaron, convinced that Guiscard had been so thoroughly vanquished that he no longer posed a threat. They even went so far as to send their light galleys home for the winter, while relocating their larger vessels to the port of Kerkyra midway down the east coast of Corfu. Such overconfidence was to prove catastrophic. The Venetians had woefully misjudged their adversary. Anna Comnena explained: `Robert was a determined champion of his own designs and prejudices, absolutely resolved never to give up a decision once taken: in a word indomitable.’ Guiscard learned from a defector named Pietro Contarini that the Venetians were, in effect, standing down for the winter, so he hastily prepared his fleet for a surprise attack. He divided the twenty galeas that apparently remained to him into four squadrons of five ships each: one each under his sons Roger, Bohemond and Robert, keeping the last one for himself.

When Robert’s squadrons suddenly came upon the Venetians in the port of Kerkyra, Anna Comnena said, `The latter were astounded by the unexpectedness of it, but lost no time in linking their bigger vessels with iron chains in the port of Corfu [Kerkyra], with the smaller ships inside this compact circle [the so-called `sea harbour’].’ While the smaller Venetian galleys had been sent home, the Greek galleys of Maurex apparently remained in support, so Guiscard ordered Roger to separate them from the Venetian flotilla. William of Apulia identified the Greek vessels as chelandia. Since Roger’s ships were probably galeas, which theoretically would have been larger and faster, his squadron would have had the advantage despite the superior number of Greek ships. In any event, the young Hauteville succeeded in chasing them off, leaving the Venetian `sea harbour’, composed of nine large vessels, to face the assault of the other Norman galeas on its own.

Anna Comnena describes this `sea harbour’ as a `compact circle’, but in point of fact it was probably what Camillo Manfroni more accurately characterized as a semicircle, i. e., the classic crescent fighting formation prescribed by the Byzantine emperor Leo VI in Constitution XIX of his Taktika on naval warfare. Hence, it is likely that Robert would have employed something similar to the tactic Leo VI recommended for combating such a crescent defensive posture: attacking the flanks with two five-ship squadrons while striking the centre with the third. As fortune would have it, the Venetian floating fortress was especially vulnerable to this sort of assault. According to Anna Comnena, the Venetians had evidently consumed most of the supplies carried by these ships so that the vessels were riding high in the water, making them dangerously top- heavy. Consequently, when the Norman squadrons engaged the ends of the Venetian formation, calamity befell these vessels. Anna described what happened in lurid detail: `The latter, because they had no cargo, floated on the surface as if buoyed by the waves (the water did not even reach the second line), so that when the men rushed to one side to oppose the enemy, the boats immediately sank.’

Informed conjecture has it then that the ships on the horns of the crescent capsized, quite conceivably dragging down the vessels chained to them, one after the other. Of the nine vessels in the Venetian floating fortress, William of Apulia reported that seven were sunk and the remaining two were effortlessly captured. Most of the Venetian combatants who had the misfortune of tumbling into the sea probably did not survive – it was late November and the water temperature would have made hypothermia a killer. This sort of scenario would account for the appalling loss of life suffered by the Venetians. Anna Comnena lamented that as many as 13,000 were drowned. Lupus Protospatarius claimed a more modest 5,000 mortalities among the Venetians. William of Apulia did not give an estimate of enemy losses, but reported that the Normans took 2,500 captives, whom Anna Comnena insisted fared poorly in Robert’s care. `Many of the prisoners were treated with hideous savagery: some were blinded, others had their noses cut off, others lost hands or feet or both.’

Fireships at Basque Roads

The largest of the fireships sent in against the French fleet at Basque Roads was the Mediator, a ship with a chequered career. Built as an East Indiaman in 1781, she was purchased by the Navy in 1804 and employed as a frigate, but was soon converted to a storeship. At nearly 700 tons, she was very big for a fireship, but something particularly threatening may have been required in the circumstances. She is shown here just after ignition, with the crew escaping in the boat astern; but the proximity of the French fleet is artistic licence.

Map illustrating the position of the anchored French fleet shortly before the British attack on the night of 11 April.

After the battle of Trafalgar Napoleon did not give up on his navy, but tried to rebuild it gradually, which meant that many French ports contained well-found operational warships. Beyond the harbour, there was inevitably a British blockading squadron, but every so often small flotillas of French ships managed to break out and make a specific foray against British interests. One major breakout occurred in February 1809, but for the French it did not go as planned.

The Brest blockading squadron, under the command of Admiral Lord Gambier (1756–1833), was forced from its station for a few days by heavy weather. This was long enough to allow eight French ships of the line, under the command of Rear Admiral Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez (1763–1845), to slip out of the harbour of Brest at the break of dawn. His orders were to drive off the English squadron blockading Lorient, allowing the ships there to make their escape. They would then sail for the island of Oléron in the Bay of Biscay and pick up troops, supplies and any other ships at Rochefort before heading for the West Indies for a campaign of commerce-raiding. Once they had disappeared into the open seas of the Atlantic, they would pose a real problem for the British.

They got no further than the Pointe du Raz before the line of French ships was spotted by a British warship, and quickly all the squadrons of the Navy in the region were brought together. Visual contact was maintained with the French until the next day, and in the evening twilight they saw Willaumez and his ships sail into the Pertuis d’Antioche, the waters between the island of Oléron and the mainland, where they dropped anchor under the protection of the coastal batteries. The British referred to these shallow waters as the Basque Roads or the Aix Roads.

The British fleet anchored further offshore, in the narrows just off the city of La Rochelle, and the positions of both fleets reawakened old ideas of what a fireship could do in this situation. Admiral Gambier took all possible precautions against a surprise fireship attack, ordering his ships to buoy their anchors and thus be ready to slip their cables at a moment’s notice. Boats were kept in the water with poles, chains and grapnels to fend off approaching fireships. The apprehension of fire-ships was mutual. Gambier and his advisers vigorously discussed the best method of dealing with the enemy. One camp suggested a quick forceful Nelson-style assault, bearing down on the enemy with guns blazing. Against this, the navigation was known to be tricky, and the French ships were practically unreachable at the mouth of the Charente under the shelter of shore-batteries, so the losses in ships and men would be heavy. The other school of thought, which included Gambier himself, advocated a fireship attack, despite all the risks and imponderables this entailed. But one way or another, something had to be done to neutralise the threat posed by the French force.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, had already outlined his position on 11 March, pointing out that the situation looked promising for a fireship and recommending this method. Gambier, however, was one of those naval officers of the time who were really uneasy about fireships, red-hot shot and explosive devices with time-delay fuzes, looking on these unorthodox methods as somehow unfair, unmanly and worthy of assassins rather than Christians. His profoundly religious, rather pedantic character was summed up by his nickname ‘Dismal Jimmy’; ‘It is a horrible mode of warfare’, he wrote, ‘and the attempt very hazardous, if not desperate.’ He wanted reassurance from the Admiralty, but in London the authorities had no qualms whatsoever and had already prepared for the enterprise. Twelve fireships and five explosion-vessels had already been dispatched to the Basque Roads.

Gambier learned also that William Congreve, an artillerist and engineer, was on his way, bringing a special invention and an operating crew. His apparatus, which had already proved successful on land and at sea, made use of black-powder rockets to set enemy ships on fire from a distance. It weighed about nineteen kilograms and had a range of 270 metres. Unlike a mortar, it had no recoil, so it could be fired from small boats, but on the other hand it was not particularly accurate.

Then the British had a stroke of luck. On 19 March the frigate Impérieuse sailed into Plymouth. She had come from the Mediterranean and was under the command of Lord Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775–1860). Scarcely had Cochrane landed than he was summoned by telegraph to the Admiralty, where Lord Mulgrave asked the daredevil captain what he thought about the potential of a fireship attack at Basque Roads. The Admiralty knew that in Cochrane they had the right man – he was not only a brilliant and inventive warship commander, but also an unruly individualist, and as an independent member of Parliament he had been a vocal critic of Admiralty policy; better, therefore, to involve him in any controversial operation from the outset, so if things went awry he would be poorly placed to make trouble. Furthermore, as a frigate captain he had enjoyed a successful career as a raider up and down the French coast, so he was familiar with the region. His specialised knowledge and expertise would be essential.

Cochrane, unlike Mulgrave, did not favour a classic fireship attack. He thought it would almost certainly miscarry if the normal defensive measures were used to counter it, so he proposed that explosion-vessels be deployed as well. The Admiralty accepted the plan, and after some hesitation, Cochrane was persuaded to lead the attack, although he knew that this would lead to problems with some of the more senior officers under Gambier’s command. Many were jealous of his reputation and some felt that the appointment of a mere post captain was a poor reflection on the competence of the fleet. But time was of the essence, and each day that passed increased the chance of a French breakout, so Cochrane’s energy and enterprising spirit were invaluable. What the British did not know was that the French fleet had been divided by a power-struggle among the French senior officers, which was eventually resolved when Vice Admiral Zacharie Jacques Théodore Allemand prevailed over Rear Admiral Willaumez and took command of the fleet.

By 3 April Cochrane was with Gambier’s ships and was finally was able to get a good look at the tactical situation east of the island of Oléron. For the moment there was not much more to do, since the explosion-vessels and rockets had not yet arrived. He started by converting a few available transports; using the materials found on board the ships of the line, the shipwrights were able to outfit a dozen conventional fireships, and the relatively large Mediator (a purchased merchantman serving as a Fifth Rate) was selected to smash through the floating boom, behind which lay the French fleet. Three of the merchant ships were converted to explosion-vessels. Their sides were strengthened to increase the violence of the explosion, and in each hold were packed 1,500 powder-kegs in big casks, with bomb shells secured on the covers and 3,000 hand-grenades packed around them. The whole thing would function like a gigantic mortar. A fuze was laid from the explosive to the stern so that the crew would have about twelve minutes to make their escape. Meanwhile, volunteers were called for throughout the fleet to serve as captains and crews of these vessels.

For these crews there was not just the risk of premature explosion, but also the danger that if captured they would be brutally handled, if not shot out of hand. So they all had to have a prepared cover-story – for example, that they had fallen overboard or belonged to a merchant ship which had previously sunk.

On 10 April more fireships from England reached the Basque Roads, giving Cochrane a total of twenty. His force was now complete. Time was pressing, so the following evening, with a strong wind and high sea, the volunteer captains assembled aboard Lord Gambier’s flagship. Cochrane gave them their final instructions, explaining that he himself would lead the attack in the first explosion-vessel. To this end, the Impérieuse had already sailed in the direction of the boom, with two explosion-vessels in tow. Cochrane would attempt to break the boom with one of them, and if that did not work the second one would follow. Once the way was clear, the fireship captains were to take advantage immediately of the flood tide, this second wave attacking the French ships themselves. Three other frigates would take up predetermined positions in order to pick up the escaping fireship crews.

It was dark as pitch when Cochrane, with a lieutenant and a crew of four men in one of the explosion-vessels, reached the area where they believed the boom to be. They could not see the French ships, and could only guess how far they were from the boom. Cochrane ordered the men into the boat and waited for the moment when he would light his portfire and set the fuze alight. Then he would spring into the boat and the men would pull for their lives against wind, waves and tide to ensure that they were as distant as possible when the explosion occurred. There is something resembling an eyewitness account of this phase of the action; although, strictly, it is fiction, its representation of the explosion-vessel’s approach to the boom and the following detonation is supported by factual reports. The author was Captain Frederick Marryat (1792–1848), who was to call on his experience of service with the Royal Navy for a series of authentic stories of the maritime world, producing heroes who were forerunners of C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. At this time he was a midshipman aboard the Imperieuse and a volunteer in one of the explosion-vessels. In his first book, Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer, he describes the attack:

The night was very dark, and it blew a strong breeze directly in upon the Isle d’Aix, and the enemy’s fleet. Two of our frigates had been previously so placed as to serve as beacons to direct the course of the fire-ships. They each displayed a clear and brilliant light; the fire-ships were directed to pass between these; after which, their course up to the boom which guarded the anchorage was clear, and not easily to be mistaken.

Marryat, in the persona of his hero Midshipman Frank Mildmay, recalls exactly what it was like to serve aboard an explosion-ship. ‘They were filled with layers of shells and powder, heaped one upon another: the quantity on board of each vessel was enormous. We had a four-oared gig, a small, narrow thing (nicknamed by the sailors a ‘coffin’), to make our escape in.’

Marryat describes how the strong wind drove the ship against the boom, and how the frigates remained in the darkness. Into Mildmay’s head came a line from Dante: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!’ The ship crashed hard broadside into the boom, and the crew just managed to spring into their boat, while Mildmay seized his torch. Only later was he able to express the sentiments that came to him at that moment:

If ever I felt the sensation of fear, it was after I had lighted this port-fire, which was connected with the train. Until I was fairly in the boat, and out of the reach of the explosion – which was inevitable and might be instantaneous – the sensation was horrid. I was standing on a mine; any fault in the port-fire, which sometimes will happen; any trifling quantity of gunpowder lying in the interstices of the deck, would have exploded the whole in a moment. Only one minute and a half of port-fire was allowed. I had therefore no time to lose.

Finally, he lit the fuze and leaped into the boat, at which the men began to row as hard as they could to get as far away as possible … ‘we were not two hundred yards from her when she exploded’.

Some distance away, the crews of the English ships perched in the rigging and stared tensely into the night, wondering when they would see the flashes of the explosion-vessels among the French ships. Many of them thought it ‘a cruel substitute for a manly engagement’.

The French had been forewarned of a fireship attack and so had taken appropriate countermeasures. They imagined the boom to be unbreachable, constructed as it was out of hundreds of metres of stout spars, lashed together with chains and anchored to the sea-floor with large iron blocks. Behind this, they felt secure, but as an additional precaution their boats were gathered along the boom.

The attack succeeded more quickly than Cochrane had expected, the first explosion ripping apart the quiet of the night. Shells, grenades and wreckage from the ships flew in all directions, at the same time setting off the Congreve rockets, which disappeared into the distance with a fearsome hissing like glowing snakes. An observer on the British side wrote later: ‘Here was exhibited a grand display of fire-works at the expense of John Bull; no gala night at Ranelagh or Vauxhall could be compared to it.’ The boom was torn from its moorings, and the energy of 1,500 powder-kegs swept a violent wall of water before it. The boat with Cochrane’s fleeing crew had not got far before the wreckage of their former vessel and the rest of its explosive cargo came down around them. The ‘coffin’ bobbed like a cork on the waves and then was swamped, and they were rescued by the skin of their teeth. Ten minutes later the second vessel blew sky-high.

Now the second phase of the attack got under way. First Cochrane sailed his frigate through the breach in the boom, followed by about twenty unlighted silhouettes. But the fireship flotilla quickly fell into disorder, with only four of them coming within striking distance of the French warships (their principal target was the flagship of Admiral Allemand, the Océan). In panic cables were slipped, guns and ammunition were thrown overboard, and the ships drifted uncontrollably towards shoals, ran aground or collided with each other. But none of the fireships caused direct damage, with most burning out in the darkness, far from any target. It was the centuries-old problem of fire-ship captains losing their nerve, setting their vessels on fire too early and abandoning them. Also demonstrated was the huge psychological effect these weapons could have. The disorder in the French fleet arose because the men saw the fire-ships but could not be sure they were not more explosion-vessels, which would be more difficult to counter, and all discipline vanished. Later during his exile on St Helena, Napoleon, discussing this phenomenon with one of his English warders, concluded: ‘They ought not to have been alarmed by your brûlots, but fear deprived them of their senses, and they no longer knew how to act in their own defence.’

In the morning light of 12 April the extent of the disaster suffered by the French fleet became visible. The tide had turned at midnight, and as it ebbed eleven of the great ships of the line had been left high and dry, keeled over at perilous angles, with their guns unable to bear. As long as the tide was out, they remained an easy target for a second attack, so Cochrane signalled Gambier to inform him of this unrivalled and very promising opportunity. Gambier, however, hesitated to launch an all-out attack.

Naval historians still disagree about the reason: was it timidity, or did he just resent the attempt by a junior captain to browbeat his admiral? However, faced with the commander’s inaction, Cochrane decided on his own initiative to move on the enemy without delay, believing that a lot more destruction could be inflicted on the stranded ships. With the support of a small detachment from the main fleet, he did succeed in irreparably damaging one or two more before Gambier ordered him to break off the attack. Cochrane was furious, and eventually Gambier ordered him to return to England. Although this was not a case of total annihilation, the French had been forced to abandon their planned Caribbean expedition, and Napoleon later used the word ‘imbécile’ to describe the French admiral who had allowed his ships to get into this sad situation. However, things did not go well for the British admiral either.

At home, Cochrane was hailed as the hero and was made a Knight Commander of the Bath, an honour awarded only for outstanding achievement. This event marks the point at which honours and social accolades replaced the financial rewards and prospects of promotion that successful fireship captains of an earlier era had enjoyed. However, Gambier himself demanded credit, as commander-in-chief, for the success of the action, and this roused the enmity of Cochrane. As a Member of Parliament, Cochrane objected to a plan to offer a vote of thanks to the man who, in his view, had merely observed the battle from afar. Stung by the criticism, Gambier demanded a court-martial and, not surprisingly, he was found not guilty by his colleagues. For Cochrane, things went downhill from then onwards, in part because his outspoken attitude made him many enemies in the Navy and the government. The senior naval authorities deemed him ‘uncontrollable’, and his career stalled. Later Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud, and was stripped of his honours, lost his seat in Parliament, and was thrown out of the Service. He remained a popular hero in Britain, with many admirers and supporters, but decided that if his native country did not appreciate his talents sufficiently he would take them abroad.

Throughout the rest of his long adventurous life, Cochrane continued to develop unconventional weapons for use against ships or coastal installations. He went on trying to improve explosion-vessels, one of his innovations being the addition of small metal particles – like the terrorist’s nail-bomb – designed to maximise casualties. These were thought by his superiors to be ‘effective but inhumane’ and were not pursued. As the Duke of Wellington said in his inimitably succinct style, ‘Two can play at that game.’ Some of Cochrane’s schemes even presaged the use of poison gas in war; these were kept secret until 1908. For attacking coastal fortresses he dreamed up a new version of the well-known ‘smoke-ship’ of Sir Francis Drake, known as the ‘sulphur-vessel’ and inspired by a visit to sulphur mines in Sicily in 1811. On the upper deck of a small vessel he planned to spread a layer of charcoal and lumps of sulphur. The burning charcoal would cause the sulphur to melt, emitting smoke which would cause coughing by irritating the airways. He envisaged these vessels being deployed with favourable wind and tide, emitting ‘noxious effluvia’ as they drifted towards shore installations and causing their garrisons to take to their heels to escape the stink. He also came up with idea of the ‘temporary mortar’ – a small vessel in which the decks were stripped out, and a bed of clay laid in its bottom planking. This was covered with scrap metal and gunpowder, and finally with a layer of animal carcasses and rows of shells. By appropriate ballasting, the whole vessel was heeled to one side to ‘aim’ it at its target, and it would then explode like a gigantic mortar.

Cochrane would get the opportunity to put some of these notions in to practice during the Greek War of Independence.

The Battle of Heligoland Bight 1914

German destroyer V187 sinking during the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War.

British light cruiser HMS Arethusa, Commodore Tyrwhitt’s flagship in the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War.

During the first hour of 26 August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg ran aground in fog 500 yards off the Odensholm lighthouse in the Baltic. All efforts to refloat the vessel failed and her forecastle was blown off to prevent her falling into enemy hands. Some of the crew were taken off by an accompanying destroyer, but the captain and 56 of his men were taken prisoner when two Russian cruisers arrived on the scene and opened fire, causing the destroyer to beat a hasty retreat. To the Russians’ astonishment and delight, the Magdeburg’s signal code book, cipher tables and a marked grid chart of the North Sea were recovered from the body of a drowned signalman. They were promptly passed to the British Admiralty which set up a radio intercept intelligence branch known as Room 40. By mid-December the code breakers were able to listen to the Imperial Navy’s radio traffic to their hearts’ content.

As if this was not bad enough, on 28 August a strong raiding force commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes penetrated the Heligoland Bight. The raiders were not merely on Germany’s doorstep – they were halfway through her front door. In the lead were two destroyer flotillas commanded by Commodore R.Y. Tyrwhitt, followed by the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under Commodore W.R. Goodenough and Rear Admiral A.H. Christian’s 7th Cruiser Squadron. Standing off and ready to intervene or administer the decisive coup de grace was Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron, consisting of the battle cruisers Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, New Zealand and Invincible with their escorting destroyers. A flotilla of submarines was also attached to the force with the task of alarming the enemy and confusing his response.

The subsequent engagement took place in a flat calm but was a confused affair in which visibility was limited to two or three miles, effectively denying the German coastal defence batteries on Heligoland Island the chance to join in. The British destroyers fought a fast-moving action, sinking one of their opposite numbers, V-187. However, at about 08:00, Tyrwhitt’s flagship, the light cruiser Arethusa, was engaged with a German cruiser, the Stettin. Unfortunately, the Arethusa had only been commissioned two days previously, so her crew had neither the benefits of a shakedown cruise nor gunnery practice – and, like the ship herself, her guns were also brand new and still prone to jamming. A second enemy cruiser, the Frauenlob, joined in the fight and Arethusa began to take a battering. Before long all her guns except for the forecastle 6-inch were out of action for various reasons, an ammunition fire had broken out and casualties were rising. Luckily, at this point the light cruiser Fearless, the leader of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla, arrived and drew off Stettin’s fire. At 08:25 one of Arethusa’s shells exploded on Frauenlob’s forebridge, killing everyone in the bridge party, including her captain. She sheered away out of the battle in the direction of Heligoland, covered by Stettin. The first phase of the battle was over.

The High Seas Fleet command, believing that the only enemy ships in the area were Arethusa, Fearless and the destroyers, now began directing more of its own cruisers into the Bight. Fighting was renewed at about 10:00, by which time Arethusa had recovered the use of all but two of her guns although her maximum speed had been reduced to ten knots. Having seen Frauenlob safely out of the action, Stettin returned to the fray, followed by Stralsund, which immediately became involved in a duel with Arethusa. Four more German cruisers, Koln, Kolberg, Strassburg and Ariadne, entered the fight shortly after so that by 11:00 Tyrwhitt found himself in the midst of a thoroughly disturbed hornet’s nest. He sent a radio signal to Beatty, still some distance away to the north-west, requesting urgent assistance. Beatty despatched Commodore Goodenough’s light cruiser squadron immediately and followed with his battle cruisers at about 11:30.

For those British cruisers and destroyers already engaged with the enemy, there was the constant fear that the German battle cruisers would emerge from their anchorage in the Jade River and send them to the bottom before help could arrive. They need not have worried, for in the present state of the tide the enemy’s heavy warships drew too much water for them to be able to cross the sandbar at the river’s mouth, a situation that would not change until the afternoon. In the meantime, senior German commanders could only fume with rage and frustration while the battle took its course.

Goodenough’s light cruisers arrived at about noon. When, at 12:15, the battle cruisers, led by Beatty in Lion, burst out of the northern mist, there could no longer be any doubt as to the battle’s outcome.

Three of the enemy’s light cruisers, Mainz, Koln and Ariadne, were sunk after fighting to the bitter end, and the rest escaped in a damaged condition. In addition, the battle cost Germany 1,200 officers and men killed or captured. Among those killed aboard the Koln was Rear Admiral Leberecht Maas, commander of the German light forces in the Bight. The British destroyer Lurcher rescued many survivors from the Mainz, including Lieutenant von Tirpitz, son of the German Minister of Marine. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, chivalrously arranged for the International Red Cross to advise the Admiral that the young officer had survived the battle. British casualties amounted to 35 killed and some 40 wounded. Most of the damage sustained was repaired in a week.

The outcome of the battle created a tremendous sense of shock throughout Germany. The Kaiser sent for his Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Hugo von Pohl. He was horrified by the loss that had been incurred during a comparatively minor engagement and impressed upon Pohl that the fleet should refrain from fighting ‘actions that can lead to greater losses.’ Pohl promptly telegraphed Ingenohl to the effect that ‘In his anxiety to preserve the fleet His Majesty requires you to wire for his consent before entering a decisive action.’ In other words, before involving the High Seas Fleet in any sort of large scale action, Ingenohl, a professional naval officer of many years standing, should seek the advice of that old sea dog, Wilhelm Hohenzollern.

The battle and its aftermath marked the beginning of the end of Tirpitz’s career. The admiral had produced a fleet of fine ships that were in some respects better than those of the Royal Navy. They were, for example, compartmentalised to a greater extent, enabling them to withstand considerable punishment, and they were equipped with fine optical gun-sights. Understandably, he did not wish to see his creation destroyed in a fleet action, but neither did he want to see it tied up at its moorings for the duration of the war. In his memoirs, written in 1919, he expressed outrage at Wilhelm’s diktat:

Order issued by the Emperor following an audience with Pohl – to which I was not summoned – restricted the initiative of the Commander-in-Chief North Sea Fleet. The loss of ships was to be avoided, while fleet sallies and any greater undertakings must be approved by His Majesty in advance. I took the first opportunity to explain to the Emperor the fundamental error of such a muzzling policy.

This argument met with no success; on the contrary, there sprang up from that day forth an estrangement between the Emperor and myself which steadily increased.

Today, Pohl’s name means nothing to most people, even in Germany, yet there were two remarkable things about him. First, in 1913 he had been honoured in Great Britain by an appointment as a Companion of the Order of the Bath, a surprising adornment for one of the most senior officers in a rival navy. Secondly, he was quick to realise that the Imperial Navy’s U-boat arm was capable of inflicting far greater damage on the enemy than the surface fleet. Although the German light cruiser Hela was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine E-9 (commanded by the then Lieutenant Max Horton, who became Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches during World War Two) the months of September and October 1914 belonged to the U-boats, which fully justified Pohl’s opinion of their potential. On 5 September the light cruiser Pathfinder was torpedoed off the Scottish coast and sank with heavy loss of life. On 22 September Lieutenant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 sank, in turn, the elderly cruiser Aboukir, then her sister ship Hogue as she was picking up survivors, then a third sister, Cressey, which opened an ineffective fire against the submarine’s periscope. Of the 1,459 officers and men manning the three cruisers, many of them elderly reservists, only 779 were rescued by nearby trawlers. Weddigen’s remarkable feat earned him Imperial Germany’s most coveted award, the Pour le Merite. On 15 October U-9 claimed a further victim in the North Sea, the ancient protected cruiser Hawke which, having been launched in 1893, had really reached the end of her useful life. The same month saw the seaplane carrier Hermes torpedoed and sunk by U-27. In addition, U-boats had sunk a modest tonnage of Allied merchant shipping, although this would rise to horrific levels as the war progressed. To end a very depressing month, the dreadnought battleship Audacious struck a mine laid by the armed merchant cruiser Berlin off the north coast of Ireland and sank as the result of an internal explosion.


Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was born in 1838. He served in the Royal Wurttemberg Army, in which he fought during the Franco-German War of 1870. In 1890 he left the Army feeling, as did many South German noblemen, that Prussia had far too much influence in the recently created German Empire. He then devoted himself to the development of the rigid dirigible airship which has born his name ever since. In fact, his organisation, the Luftshiffbau Zeppelin was not alone in manufacturing this type of airship, the Luftshiffbau Schutte-Lanz being a competitor during the early years, although by custom ever since every rigid airship has become known as a Zeppelin, just as vacuum cleaners are known as Hoovers and raincoats as Macintoshes.

Zeppelin chose hydrogen as the lifting agent for his airships, despite the terrible danger of fire, the outbreak of which was almost always fatal to the ships. The hydrogen was contained within huge gasbags along the interior of the hull, with provision for venting and water ballast tanks used to maintain stability while ascending or descending. These were contained in a long, sausage-shaped hull based on a complex internal girder construction surrounded by a flexible skin. Control and communications gondolas were suspended below, as were the ship’s engines, the number of which varied according to type.

At first, Zeppelin’s organisation was not a financial success and it was not until 1911 that his airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG began to show that large numbers of passengers could be carried at a profit. This aroused the interest of the Imperial German Army and Navy. The obvious advantages were that the Zeppelin had a very long in-flight endurance which made it capable of longrange reconnaissance and, of course, it could also be armed with bombs for dropping on specific targets. Of the disadvantages, fire has already been mentioned. In addition, the girder construction was so flimsy that clumsy handling in a shed or high winds on take-off or landing could wreck a ship. Even more serious was the fact that Zeppelins were extremely difficult to navigate. Even modest winds were capable of pushing the huge, lighter-than-air hulls many miles off course, while cloud cover could make it impossible to obtain a fix on the ground below. Later, a small car containing one or two observers and a telephone could be lowered by electric winch through the cloud and provide a view of the ground below, but the idea was not a success.

During World War One, Zeppelins served in every German theatre of war save East Africa, and even there one tried to get through, albeit unsuccessfully, by overflying Egypt and the Sudan. The Army preferred to use them for deep reconnaissance but would occasionally mount a bombing mission. The Navy used them as scouts for the operations of the High Seas Fleet but also carried out raids well inland into England, proving that nowhere was safe from the attentions of the Imperial Navy. Naval Zeppelin bases were established near Cuxhaven, at Ahlhorn near Oldenburg, Wittmundshaven (East Friesland), Tondern (Schlewig-Holstein, now Denmark) and, for a while, Hage, south of Nordeny. From these their route took them on a south-westerly course from which they would cross the North Sea to the East Anglian coast, from which the glow of London’s lights provided a distant beacon to steer by. Having carried out their mission, they would leave England by crossing the Kent coast and then head north-east to home.

Huge though the Zeppelins were, they generated very little awe in the professional flying community. In 1914 Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps squadrons had been posted to the French and Belgian coast as a defence against German air operations in the Channel. On 8 October, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, Lieutenant R.G.L. Marix located a Zeppelin shed at Dusseldorf and dropped four 20-lb bombs onto it from a height of 600 feet. The resulting explosions were quickly followed by a roaring inferno, the flames of which reached as high as 500 feet, signifying the end of an Army Zeppelin, Z-9. Although the Tabloid received some damage from enemy fire, Marix managed to nurse it back to within 20 miles of Antwerp, completing the journey home on a borrowed bicycle. The following day the Allies withdrew from the city.

On 21 November an even more ambitious RNAS raid with three Avro 504bs was mounted from Belfort in Alsace against the birthplace of the Zeppelin, Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. One airship was wrecked and considerable damage was done to the hangars and other facilities of this airship holy-of-holies. One aircraft was shot down, its pilot being seriously injured when he was attacked by a civilian mob. In contrast, the German military treated him with respect and great kindness while he was recovering in hospital.

On Christmas Day 1914 further incidents demonstrated how the naval air war was likely to develop. A squadron of light cruisers under the command of Commodore R.Y. Tyrwhitt escorted three specially converted Channel ferries, Engadine, Riviera and Empress, across the North Sea to a position close to the mouth of the Elbe, from which an attack could be made on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. Nine Short floatplanes were lowered into the sea, of which only seven managed to lift off. The remainder flew to Cuxhaven where, although they were unable to identify the sheds, their appearance caused uproar. As the High Seas Fleet relied on Zeppelins for much of its reconnaissance, the risk of future raids was only too real. Furthermore, the German high command was seriously unsettled by the fact that so much valuable information on the fleet’s disposition had been gathered by the British pilots that a number of warships were moved immediately. Amid the hullabaloo, the battle cruiser Von der Tann was involved in a collision and so seriously damaged that she had to be docked. Three of the floatplanes returned safely to their carriers. The pilots of three more were picked up by the submarine E11, and the last became a passenger aboard a Dutch fishing boat.

Meanwhile, a counter-attack had been launched on Tyrwhitt’s cruisers by two Zeppelins, L5 and L6, plus a number of seaplanes. None were hit, although some were near-missed and finally the German aircraft droned off. L6, with her crew frantically slapping patches on 600 bullet holes hissing hydrogen out of her gasbags, was very lucky to get home.

It is, of course, impossible to describe all the raids that took place over four years in a single chapter. Naturally, the Kaiser insisted in regulating what was going on and insisted that London was not to be attacked west of the Tower. This ruled out most of the best targets, including the City. The Imperial Chancellor, Theobald Bethmann-Holweg gave permission for the City to be attacked at weekends, when it was empty. It was then pointed out that it emptied every night, so that restriction was removed.

Finally, the Kaiser permitted attacks throughout the capital, with the exception of historic buildings and royal palaces. Nature imposed her own limitations when Zeppelin operations were restricted to the moonless half of the month. The first attack on the United Kingdom took place on 19/20 January 1915 and caused very little damage. In all, 42 raids were launched during the year with a variable number of airships, the first strategic air offensive aimed at the United Kingdom, with very mixed results, including the needless destruction of a large number of glasshouses at Cheshunt.

London was not attacked until 31 May, when seven people were killed and 38 wounded. On 6 June L13, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Mathy, a brilliant navigator and the nearest thing to a Zeppelin ace, attacked Hull, causing £45,000 of damage. A riot ensued in which property believed to be in German ownership was wrecked. It was not just that fear was getting the better of people; they were angry, too, that the powers that be were apparently failing to provide them with adequate protection and several Royal Flying Corps personnel were roughed-up because of it. This was not justified, because the threat was being taken very seriously and a great deal was already being done, although it would be some time before a fully integrated defence system became operational.

On 8 September, Mathy was back in L13, carrying a two-ton bomb-load, including one of the new 660-lb bombs specially designed for use against England. This time his target was the City, in which he started extensive fires and destroyed buildings in the area north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Anti-aircraft fire forced him to climb hurriedly to 11,200 feet, but his last bombs was used to damage the railway track leaving Broad Street Station and to destroy two motor buses. On this occasion he had caused over £500,000 worth of damage, killed 22 people and injured 87 more. Such was public anger that on 12 September the Admiralty appointed Admiral Sir Percy Scott, a gunnery expert of note, to command London’s anti-aircraft defences.

One of the most remarkable raids of all took place on the night of 13/14 October, involving L15 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Jaochim Breihaupt, another excellent navigator. Breihaupt penetrated central London and, flying steadily from west to east to the north of The Strand, dropped his bombs on Exeter Street, Wellington Street, Catherine Street, Aldwych, the Royal Courts of Justice, Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn, Hatton Garden and Farringdon Road before heading for home. Behind lay a trail of death and destruction, including 28 killed and 60 injured. The number of casualties could have been higher as Breihaupt’s course took him close by the capital’s theatre land, where places of entertainment were packed to the doors. While leaving the target area, Breihaupt was also forced to climb sharply to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and noted with alarm that several aircraft were searching for him at a lower level, proof that the defence was stiffening.

Breihaupt’s attack may have unsettled some Londoners, but in certain circles it was simply not done to acknowledge the fact. At the height of the attack, about 22:30, Mrs Patrick Campbell, the doyenne of the London stage and leading member of British society, was being fitted with a dress. She was leaning out of her window, trying to discover the cause of all the fuss, with two seamstresses hanging onto her bottom for dear life. ‘They’re bombing Derry and Thoms!’ she announced in total disbelief. Obviously, the attempted destruction of one’s favourite fashion house was taking things beyond acceptable limits.

During this period, unless luck was on their side, aircraft were at a disadvantage when engaging Zeppelins, for not only were they unable to match the airships’ ability to gain altitude rapidly, their machine gun ammunition was unable to do more than puncture the gasbags inside the hull, damage which could be repaired quickly by a trained crew. An alternative was to drop bombs on the airship from above, but that was a very hit and miss affair, even if the necessary height could be gained. However, on the night on 6/7 June 1915 Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, piloting a tiny Morane, was on his way to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Berchem Ste Agathe when he spotted LZ-37 over Ostend. He closed in to attack but was not only driven off by machine gun fire, but also chased by the monster for a while. Without losing sight of the airship, he put his machine into a slow, steady climb until he reached the height of 11,000 feet. Turning off his engine, he glided noiselessly down on LZ-37, 4,000 feet below, and, flying along the back of his opponent, dropped six 20-lb bombs onto it. Some must have detonated on the airship’s hard internal skeleton, for there was a huge explosion that blew the little Morane upside down and caused some internal damage to the engine. Having recovered control of his machine, Warneford could see the flaming mass hurtling earthwards. It smashed into a convent, the only survivor being a quartermaster named Alfred Muhler who was thrown out of the control gondola when it crashed through a roof, landing on a bed bruised and singed but alive. For his part, Warneford managed to land his aircraft in enemy territory, where he was able to repair the damage and return home. His exploit won him the Victoria Cross but his story had a sad ending for, ten days later, he was killed in a flying accident.

In 1916 the number of Zeppelin raids mounted against ‘the island,’ as the crews termed the United Kingdom, increased three-fold, although the results achieved were far from commensurate with the additional effort involved. The principal reason for this was that the anti-aircraft defences of London and the Home Counties had improved beyond recognition. New and improved anti-aircraft guns were deployed throughout the capital and suburbs and in a secondary ring in the outlying hinterland, leaving a corridor in which British fighter aircraft could operate against the raiders without the risk of being hit by the anti-aircraft batteries. These were supplemented by searchlights and barrage balloons between which cable aprons were stretched, forcing the attackers to climb and therefore lose accuracy. These defences were duplicated to a lesser degree around the Thames estuary, the Kent and Essex coasts and further north along the east coast. In addition, the Royal Navy stationed guard ships along the Zeppelins’ most likely avenues of approach, armed with anti-aircraft weapons. Special machine gun ammunition was also added to the fighters’ armament, including Brock incendiary rounds, developed by the firework company of the same name, and Pomeroy explosive rounds. These were mixed together in the drum magazines of the Lewis guns that armed the antiairship fighters.

In August 1916 Admiral Reinhard Scheer received a letter from Captain Peter Strasser, the energetic operational commander of the Imperial Navy’s airship arm, promising him that his Zeppelins would inflict such serious damage on British civilian morale and economic life that their recovery was unlikely. It was indeed true that much larger, improved airships with the capacity to climb higher were being introduced, and that raids were now being carried out by groups of Zeppelins rather than by individual ships. However, the old problem of faulty navigation persisted, with commanders returning home convinced that their bombs had hit their target when they had actually landed many miles away. Again, the standard airship engine was a veritable minefield of trouble, causing numerous sorties to be aborted and contributing to the loss of ships. In the circumstances, it was an unwise prediction, especially as the British defence was beginning to take a steady toll.

On the night of 2/3 September no fewer than twelve naval airships, joined by four army craft flying from the Rhineland, set out for London. Among the latter was a new Schutte-Lanz craft, SL-11, commanded by a Captain Schramm. Approaching London from the north, SL-11 was brilliantly illuminated by searchlights and surrounded by bursting anti-aircraft shells. Schramm decided to turn away, but three night fighters were already converging on him. Closest was Second Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, who laced the huge hull with two drums of incendiary and explosive ammunition, without result. He then concentrated the fire of a third drum against one point near the tail. A glow appeared inside the envelope, grew in intensity and suddenly burst through in a roaring tongue of flame that briefly lit up another airship, L-16, over a mile distant. Then, stern first, SL-11 crashed to earth near Cuffley in Essex, her wooden Schutte-Lanz skeleton continuing to burn long after the impact. There were no survivors. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Simultaneously, after a good run in which serious ground fires had been started, L-33, one of the new ‘super-Zeppelins,’ sustained heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire and was crippled by a night fighter flown by Second Lieutenant Albert de Bathe Brandon. Her crew managed to land her near Little Wigborough, then set her on fire before marching towards the coast in the vain hope of finding a boat.

Mathy, now commanding L-31, took part in an eleven-strong raid on London during the night of 1 October. Having dropped his bombs, Mathy found himself under attack by four night fighters, one of which, piloted by Second Lieutenant Wulstan J. Tempest, came in from above and set the ship ablaze. The wreckage hit the ground at Potters Bar. Somehow, Mathy managed to jump clear but died from his injuries almost immediately. His loss was keenly felt throughout the airship service.

It was two months before naval Zeppelins appeared again in British skies. They avoided London because of its heavy defences, and attacked the North and Midlands instead. The raids were not a success and cost two Zeppelins shot down in flames; L-34 over West Hartlepool and L-21 off Lowestoft, having raided as far west as Newcastle-under Lyme.

For Count Zeppelin the airship was not the war-winning weapon he had hoped it would be. Zeppelin raids against the United Kingdom tailed away to 30 in 1917 and ten in 1918. Scheer’s memoirs record the final days of the airship service.

A painful set-back occurred in January 1918 when, owing to the spontaneous combustion of one of the airships in Ahlhorn, the fire spread by the explosion spread to the remaining sheds, so that four Zeppelins and one Schutte-Lanz machine were destroyed. All the sheds, too, were rendered useless. After this, the fleet had, for the time being, only nine airships at its disposal.

That was not quite the end of the of the Zeppelin story. The Royal Navy had been developing the concept of the aircraft carrier for some time and had finally produced a workable design by converting the light battle cruiser Furious and fitting her with a flight deck. On 19 July 1918 she flew off six Sopwith Camels which mounted a successful attack on the airship base at Tondern, destroying Zeppelins L-54 and L-60.

On 5 August five Zeppelins, led by Captain Strasser himself in the recently delivered L-70, mounted a final attack. L-70 was attacked by de Havilland DH-4 fighters. Explosive ammunition blew a hole in the outer skin of the ship’s stern. Within seconds flames spread rapidly along her length and the blazing wreckage tumbled seawards from a height of some 15,000 feet. The British pilots were horrified to watch the entire airship consume itself in less than a minute. There were no survivors. Strasser was a well-liked commander who had often accompanied his crews on their missions and had never lost faith in the airship concept.

Six days later Zeppelin L-53 was carrying out a reconnaissance patrol over the North Sea. No doubt the crew noticed, far below, a destroyer travelling at speed. It did not attract a great deal of interest as the airship was well beyond the range of its guns. For some unexplained reason it seemed to be towing a lighter, although the details were unclear. Had L-53 been flying lower she would have seen one of the strangest anti-aircraft systems ever devised, for on the lighter was a Sopwith Camel. The wind created by the speed of the destroyer’s passage created just enough lift for the biplane to become airborne. It took an hour before the Camel could reach a height at which the airship could be engaged. At a range of 100 yards, drum after drum was emptied into the Zeppelin’s belly, sending it into a fiery death-dive. This was the last enemy airship to be destroyed by British fighters during the war.

The huge size of the Zeppelins, caught in searchlight beams or sliding across a gap in the clouds, coupled with their ability to hover, produced widespread fear among the civilian population of Great Britain, generated by the knowledge that their island was no longer a safe haven from enemy activity, but it did not break their will to fight, as had been intended. Zeppelins killed 528 people and wounded 1,156 more. They also caused enormous damage, but it was spread across a very wide area. In addition, they tied down 17,340 men, hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons, plus numerous RNAS and RFC squadrons, all of which could have been usefully employed in other theatres of war.

To crew a Zeppelin was to risk a particularly horrible death. About 1,100 Zeppelin crewmen lost their lives, the second highest proportion of those serving in any branch of the German armed services, the highest being U-boat crews. John Terraine provides some idea of the scale of Zeppelin losses in his book White Heat – The New Warfare 1914–18. He points out that of the 130 airships employed by the German Army and Navy during the war, only 15 existed when the Armistice was signed. Of the remainder, 31 were scrapped, seven were wrecked by bad weather, 38 were accidently damaged beyond economic repair, 39 were destroyed by enemy warships or land forces, while a further 17 fell victim to the RFC or RNAS, either in the air or as a result of bombing.