#ThreatTuesday – War in the South China Sea?

Amongst the many issues facing the new US administration is the contentious issue of the South China Sea. Not only is this battle being fought on the high seas, but also on the gaming table.

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Courtesy BGG

John Gorkowski previously designed Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. BTC is a very near-future, operational-level simulation of conflict in the South China Sea. In late 2016, John announced:

One of the War Colleges asked me for a streamlined version of the game for classroom use. They may or may not actually use it, but I plan to make such a “lite” version and share it with the community. ConSimWorld Forum, Aug 26, 2016

The work-in-progress is called South China Sea (SCS). John explained the changes between BtC and SCS:

The South China Sea (SCS) system is BtC pruned for play-ability. How did we do that? We took the scale down from 70 nautical miles per hex to 45. We standardized unit sizes at two-steps each with exceptions for aircraft carriers and certain large cruisers. That meant going with land battalions rather than regiments. And, we created a rule that allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single “go”, but included a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” that move to create a more variable and volatile environment.

This last adjustment is most important and was most difficult. Because modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) have such long reach, 290 nmi in some cases, you can’t just let phasing ships “jump” more than one hex at a time without giving the non-phasing player a chance to react. Otherwise, the phasing player could move through his enemy’s field of fire, or beaten zone if you prefer, without drawing fire. So the new “intervention” mechanism allows the non-phasing player to “react” by stopping a multi-hex move by the phasing player, but not with certainty. So stealthy ships can dart two or three hexes at a time while larger less stealthy ships will not progress that far before the enemy can react.

What did not change? The core strike mechanism that applies across all forms of combat and the air naval movement/combat sequence all remain the same. ConSimWorld Forum, Nov 9, 2016

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Sample South China Sea Playtest Counters (courtesy ConSimWorld)

I have been participating in the playtest of SCS. My early verdict is I like the revised combat system, but question the political system. In an email exchange, John shared the following comment:

I know what you mean about political turns….The good news is that in several scenarios players can chose to just skip POL [Political] turns and go right to the action.  Email from John Gorkowski, Jan 14, 2017

John is caught between two customers here – the immediate paying customer (important for income NOW) and the future gaming consumer (potential future income). I think SCS will be a useful addition to the library of modern naval combat. I sincerely hope SCS makes it to the public so we too can explore potential South China Sea conflicts.

 

Threat Tuesday – Liaoning

AFP/Getty Images

China is now officially an aircraft carrier-operating navy with the commissioning of Liaoning on 25 Sept 2012. Though much has been written, I direct you to Andrew Erickson’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means.”

Courtesy Killer Apps/Foreign Policy

Andrew (and many others) point out that the Chinese have yet to meet a major milestone; landing aircraft on the deck. Just one day after being commissioned, photos appeared on the ‘net that may indicate that landings have already happened (see “Who left skidmarks on the flight deck of China’s new aircraft carrier?“)

But does China really need an aircraft carrier? Yet elsewhere in Foreign Policy is an argument entitled “Shipping Out: Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming Obsolete? I will be the first to say that the arguments put forth are very simple and the author shows little real understanding of naval matters; not to mention apparent ignorance of anti-ship ballistic missiles. For a far better analysis of the Chinese naval threat I recommend the latest edition of  Ronald O’Rourke’s Congressional Research Service report China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. On the issues of China’s aircraft carriers, the report points out:

Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical for Chinese operations in such scenarios, because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft. Consequently, most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations that are more distant from China’s shores, and to symbolize China’s status as a major world power. DOD states that “Given the fact that Taiwan can be reached by land-based aviation, China’s aircraft carrier program would offer very limited value in a Taiwan scenario and would require additional naval resources for protection. However, it would enable China to extend its naval air capabilities elsewhere.” (p. 20-21)

Regardless of the threat, it will be fun to play out a wargame scenario using Liaoning. Indeed, the Oct 2011 issue of The Naval SITREP from Clash of Arms featured a Harpoon scenario “The Wisdom of Shi Lang” (Shi Lang being what the west originally thought the carrier would be named).

Threat Tuesday – Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012

PLA Navy aircraft carrier Shi Lang underway

Take a peek at this article over at the Foreign Policy website. Time to get Harpoon 4.1 out and start generating some scenarios! Hmm, Sea of Dragons was published in 1997. So much has changed an update is urgently needed.

If the author is right, and the key factor is the human equation of combat, then no wargame is going to accurately simulate the battles. Without very detailed (and despised) rules for when to break off combat most wargames are “fought to the death” or past the point where a rational commander would stop fighting.

Threat Tuesday – Confrontation at Sea

The official Chinese military website Jiefangjun Bao Online on 24 August published this picture of the Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack missile boat. The text that accompanies the picture – besides being written in poor English – does provide fodder for a wargame scenario.

“The confrontation drill organized by a guided-missile speedboat detachment of the PLA Navy under complicated electro-magnetic conditions was in full swing on August 22, 2011. Hardly did the mine-sweeping ships of the Red Side intrude into the mine matrix set up by the Blue Side when they suffered electronic disturbance caused by the latter. Then the four new-type guided-missile speedboats of the Red Side rapidly conducted electronic counter-attack by way of roundabout communication, camouflaged intelligence and radio deception which led to the failure of the Blue Side’s audio-visual equipment before launching fierce fire attack.”

Let’s break this down into some scenario-specific items:

  • “The confrontation drill organized by a guided-missile speedboat detachment of the PLA Navy….” – other photos show a large formation of at least 10 boats so a detachment of that size is reasonable
  • “Hardly did the mine-sweeping ships of the Red Side intrude into the mine matrix set up by the Blue Side when they suffered electronic disturbance caused by the latter.” – this is an anti-access scenario where the Blue Side is trying to sweep a minefield while the Red Side is trying disrupt that mission
  • “Then the four new-type guided-missile speedboats of the Red Side rapidly conducted electronic counter-attack by way of roundabout communication, camouflaged intelligence and radio deception” – so even though the larger group of 10 boats was shown they operate in smaller units of possibly four boats; the reference to “roundabout communications” may indicate a use of other targeting data (shore-based?) and the “camouflaged intelligence and radio deception” may reference an ECM/ECCM or EMCON environment
  • “[W]hich led to the failure of the Blue Side’s audio-visual equipment before launching fierce fire attack.” – the reference to AV equipment seemingly implies only a concern with the visual or near-visual (IR?) spectrum but the overall tone of the article definitely leaves one concerned about operations in a heavy ECM/ECCM environment.

So what we have is a scenario where the Blue Side is attempting to sweep a Red minefield which is being defended by 10 missile boats operating two to three smaller detachments supported by shore-based targeting in a heavy ECM/ECCM environment. Who will win? Sounds like a good Harpoon scenario in the making!

Wargame Wednesday – Operation Long March

Speculative fiction is great cannon fodder for wargame scenarios.  So is the emergence of new technology.  Indeed, an entire genre of fiction, the “techno-thriller” was spawned out of the desire to play with neat toys.  Thanks to Airpower Australia, we now have a scenario straight out of tomorrows headlines that showcases the new J-20 ‘Black Eagle’ stealth fighter/bomber.

“The events depicted in this NOTAM are “what-if” speculative fiction no different from Clancy’s 1986 novel, “Red Storm Rising”, but the weapons, tactics, operational techniques, targets, and geography depicted are all based on hard facts and as real as it gets.

Operation Long March speculates on a Chinese attack in the western Pacific in 2020.  It is a fairly comprehensive scenario with targets and strike package assignments for not only the J-20 but the DF-21D Ant-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) and PLA Navy submarines.  As the author notes, the total time taken to develop the target list was five hours of open source research.  In his summary, Wing Commander Mills points out:

This NOTAM makes one deadly and incisive point.

Every nation investing in a major military capability does so with the expectation that some day, it could be used. Weapons systems are classified as ‘Defensive’ or ‘Offensive’; some are both.

The large J-20 stealth fighter is, on balance, a modern example of an offensive sledgehammer conceptually similar to America’s now long retired 1960s-developed F/FB-111 fighter-bombers, with considerable capability as demonstrated by this NOTAM.

A Nation that takes a longer view of world events and invests wisely in its military capabilities will have the power to control events in its own interest – be that defensively or offensively.

Be alarmed and be prepared!

I would also add, “Game on!”

J-20 Video

Hattip to Steven Trimble and his wonderful DEW LINE Blog for collecting videos of the J-20 on what look to be taxi tests.

Also interesting, and maybe not quite a coincidence, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (which in the real world was formerly called the N2) spoke with defense writers on Wednesday.  Intel guys usually are loathsome to go on record with press types so this was unusual.  Of course, the topic of China came up.  Highlights from the DoD version include:

Vice Adm. David J. “Jack” Dorsett, director of naval intelligence and deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, spoke to defense writers about China’s emerging military capabilities.

“They’ve entered operational capability quicker than we frequently project,” Dorsett said.

“We’ve been on the mark on an awful lot of our assessments,” he added, “but there have been a handful of things we’ve underestimated.”

During his meeting with reporters, Dorsett said Chinese advances should be viewed in perspective. Their stealth fighter, he said, will not be fully operationally capable for years, and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system has been test-fired over land, but is not believed to have been tested over water against maneuvering targets.But recent developments in ballistic-missile technology have increased the probability that China could hit a maneuvering target — such as an aircraft carrier — with a missile salvo, Dorsett said.

“How proficient they are, or what that level of probability is, we don’t know,” he said. “And frankly, I’m guessing that they don’t know.”

China’s stealth aircraft, he said, likely is in early development. Based on pictures he has seen of the Chinese so-called J-20 stealth aircraft, Dorsett said, it’s not clear when it will be fully tested and operational.

“For example, while they’re developing technology and capabilities, it has just been [during] the last year and a half, two years, that we’ve seen the Chinese navy deploy out of area for any period of time,” he said.“In … late 2008, when they deployed a three-ship task group to the Gulf of Aden to conduct counterpiracy operations, that was a big step for them,” Dorsett added. “Three ships to the Gulf of Aden, compared to what the U.S. Navy does on a daily basis, … you can’t contrast the two, because the difference is so great.”

“They’ve got a used, very old Russian carrier that they’re going to probably start conducting sea trials with later this year,” he said. “They are planning on building indigenous aircraft carriers that will come into their order of battle later on, over the next decade.”But by 2020, Chinese aircraft carrier proficiency and capability will still be very limited, Dorsett said, because integrating flying aircraft into not just flight deck operations but battle group operations “takes a fair amount of time.”

“The U.S. Navy has had … 100 years of flight activity. So it’s going to take time for them to build that capability,” he said. “They’re pragmatic; they’ve got a game plan that deals in decades.”

Dorsett said in his view, China is trying to build a navy that becomes a near-term regional power, with long-term significant global implications in support of their nation.

“They want a naval force that can be deployed to protect their resource flow or their vital national interests, such as the anti-piracy operations,” he said.

The Chinese are maturing in their use of capabilities, Dorsett said. “But have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces?” he added. “No. Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No. Do they have any combat proficiency? No. That’s what I’m saying –- they are at the front end of developing that military capability.”