Controlling Contested Waters

By Captain Bernard D. Cole, U.S. Navy (Retired)

For both the United States and China—or any nation employing naval forces—a major purpose of establishing sea control is to have the ability to project power ashore. Forms of power projection include launching cruise missiles against shore targets, initiating full-scale amphibious invasions, offering logistical support to allies or forces fighting ashore, and undertaking humanitarian-relief operations.

In A Guide for Seapower in the Twenty-First Century , British naval historian Geoffrey Till offers a useful five-step breakdown of sea control, ranging from an absolutist command of the sea to enemy command of the sea.

• Absolute control, or command of the sea: Complete freedom to operate without interruption; enemy cannot operate at all.

• Working control: General ability to operate with high degree of freedom; enemy can only operate with high risk

• Control in dispute: Each side operates with considerable risk.

• Enemy working control

• Enemy absolute control, or command of the sea. 1

Working control, the general ability to operate with a high degree of freedom, and control in dispute, in which both opposing sides operate with considerable risk, are probably the most accurate for assessing possible maritime goals in Asian waters, especially in the Three Seas—the Yellow, East China, and South China seas, which are contiguous to the Chinese homeland.

U.S. Maritime Goals

National security continues to focus on achieving sea control, as evidenced by the United States’ 2007 Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century , which declares that “sea control requires capabilities in all aspects of the maritime domain, . . . [with no more significant] challenge to our ability to exercise sea control . . . as the growing number of nations operating submarines.” 2

The “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia announced by President Barack Obama in 2010 is well under way, especially in the diplomatic and naval spheres of action. Recent CNO-level documents have made the U.S. position clear regarding the waters of the Indo-Pacific, a region vital to the U.S. economy: In November 2012, Admiral Jonathan Greenert noted the importance of forward-deployed forces, which are particularly important in the Indo-Pacific given the vast distance separating the continental United States from its areas of interest throughout that oceanic expanse. 3

Sea control is vital for the United States to execute maritime missions in this region. To be viable in today’s environment, sea control—in addition to traditional naval missions such as deterrence, presence, and power projection—should be considered a temporal, geographically discrete objective.

U.S. sea control must be demonstrated to ensure the support of friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific. In September, the following stories appeared in the news: “China Negates Philippine’s Claim Over Disputed Shoal in S. China Sea”; “Common Threat From China Drawing US, India, Vietnam Closer Together”; “Philippine Official Says United States Seeks Extended Access To Military Bases”; “Vietnam To Buy 12 Russian Su-30MK2 Fighter Jets”; “PLA East Sea Fleet Distant Sea Training Flotilla”; “Iran Equips Warships with Drones”; and “LCS: A Deadly Threat to China’s Coastline.” Indo-Pacific diversity makes the emergence of a NATO-like multilateral alliance quite unlikely; its extensive geographical spread and oceanic character require merchant fleets to maintain its economy as well as wide-ranging naval forces to guarantee its security and lend strength to the “patchwork quilt of security relations” described by the current U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Navy Admiral Cecil Haney:

• First, the United States must maintain American regional hegemony through the application of comprehensive national power—military, political, economic, etc.

• Second, it must be able to defeat the challenges of denial that are currently manifested by countries like China in the Far East and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

• Third, the United States must maintain sufficiently robust military capabilities within the region to dampen any local security competition among regional states—and sometimes even among its own allies. 4

Peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific depend on achieving and ensuring these objectives. In turn, an enduring U.S. naval presence is required in the region, especially with strong subsurface forces that support and are supported by alliances and cooperative agreements with regional nations. U.S. naval strengths include undersea dominance, antiair warfare, and power projection ranging from carrier-borne attack aircraft to modern amphibious forces “armed” with Marine Corps units. Weaknesses remain, however, particularly in mine warfare and cruise- missile defense.

Chinese Maritime Goals

China is the most obvious threat to U.S. maritime efforts in East Asian waters. Its number one national security priority focuses on the “Near Seas” (Jin Hai), also known as the “Three Seas” (San Hai), which are the subject of significant sovereignty disputes. They are so important to the United States and its allies—and to China—that the Three Seas are the most likely scene of possible naval conflict between Washington and Beijing.

In addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) primary mission of focusing on the Three Seas, China also strives to deploy a maritime nuclear deterrent force. The first PLAN attempt was the JL-1 regional ballistic missile, fired from the one-ship Xia -class fleet ballistic-missile submarine (FBM) in the early 1960s. The missile was successfully launched at least once, but the submarine never conducted a patrol due to a series of engineering problems. Today, the PLAN has commissioned at least three Type-94 Jin -class FBMs, but its JL-2 missile is still struggling to reach operational status. The JL-2 finally will provide China with a credible nuclear-armed inter-continental ballistic missile as a maritime strategic deterrent.

The PLAN aspires to exercise sea control in the Three Seas to deter—or, if necessary, defeat—U.S. naval intervention in a Taiwan scenario, possibly through a tactical paradigm called “anti-access” and/or “area-denial” (A2/AD). The British Ministry of Defence defines A2/AD as when “an opponent is prevented from using an area of sea for his purposes,” while then-president of the Naval War College Admiral Stansfield Turner thought of it as “guerrilla warfare at sea,” meaning that the naval commander “does not have to stand toe to toe with the enemy but instead hits and runs away.” Turner noted that A2/AD enables “a markedly inferior force [to] successfully thwart a superior force.” 5

China apparently aims to accomplish this essentially defensive strategy with submarines as its primary platform. In the past decade, the PLAN has concentrated its shipbuilding program on increasing its conventionally powered submarine force, although it has recently attempted to modernize its obsolete force of three or four Han -class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) with the Type-093 Shang -class and follow-on Type-095 class boats.

Beijing’s view of “active offshore defense” includes the more strategic label of “active strategic counterattacks on exterior lines.” The important factor in any Chinese formulation is that “defense” does not mean “defense” in U.S. terms. Rather, “active defense” is best understood as “we will attack when we see an advantage in doing so.” In other words, China’s defensive reliance on submarine warfare means that the U.S. ability to achieve sea control in the Three Seas will require effective ASW.

China aims to deploy a navy that by 2020 or so will be capable of regional defensive and offensive actions to deny its opponents the ability to operate freely over the Three Seas. This will require major improvements in various naval mission areas, some of which the PLAN currently displays limited capabilities in. ASW remains the Chinese navy’s most glaring weakness. Perhaps it underestimates the strength of modern SSNs, or perhaps it has written off the ASW mission against U.S. boats as too difficult to justify significant resources. However, the relatively recent deployment of the Luzhou - and Luyang -class guided- missile destroyers indicates that the PLAN is improving its capability in this vital mission area, which enables navies to deploy task groups in a hostile environment.

The PLAN’s Evolving Capabilities

In order to ensure the degree of sea control necessary to carry out commitments in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. Navy must be aware of the PLAN’s evolving capabilities in areas beyond hardware. These include readiness, maintenance, and supply practices; accession, training, and performance of NCOs and enlisted officers; and command-and-control practices.

Publicly available exercise reports indicate impressive PLAN progress in single-ship and formation operations over the past several years. 6 This trend represents the naval “wake-up call” Beijing received after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and the 2003 disaster that befell one of its newest Ming -class submarines. The latter incident resulted in the firing of the navy commander and several others in the chain of command. Most importantly the loss of the submarine crew—due apparently to poor training and maintenance—spurred the PLAN to institute a centralized supply system and a planned maintenance system. 7

Replenishment at sea (RAS) is another area that is slowly improving. The PLAN only recently increased the number of replenishment ships capable of supporting more than periodic, small-scale deployments. The counter-piracy deployments to the Gulf of Aden and beyond have now been occurring for four years, which has provided the PLAN with its first long-range operating experience and logistical expertise.

The PLAN’s personnel training has become more flexible and systematic recently, while increased readiness and personnel proficiencies have also been evident in the operations of the PLAN task groups that have been fighting pirates since December 2008. The PLAN has also established a routine task group turnover at sea, as well as a “lessons learned” paradigm that includes a course of instruction at the Nanjing Naval Command Academy.

The curricula at Nanjing and the National Defense University in Beijing draw significantly on Western strategic literature, including Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, German-Prussian soldier and military theorist, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Additionally, one Chinese military analyst recently described “new strategic concepts” such as defeating the enemy by controlling the battlefield environment or defeating the enemy by bringing superior forces to bear, and preference for joint operations, which would seem to suggest that the Chinese approach has more in common with the West’s than not.

The Future of the Three Seas and the Indo-Pacific

China’s concern for its claimed sovereignty in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas is subsumed within a focus on A2/AD capabilities to prevent opposing naval and air forces from attaining sea control. This clearly is aimed at U.S. policies built on an extensive alliance structure and global interests.

The rebalance to Asia is a national security policy shift that while whole-of-government is most visible in its naval aspects. These will need to be bolstered by development of air-sea battle capabilities. Although dedicating 60 percent of U.S. naval strength to the Indo-Pacific is the projected goal, the decreasing size of the Fleet is a concern, especially in the submarine force. Also needed is continued development of littoral combat ships’ combat capabilities and state-of-the-art cruise-missile systems—both defensive and offensive. 8

U.S. determination to maintain the freedom of the seas throughout the Indo-Pacific must be bolstered by the joint operational capability, platforms, and systems necessary to assure fulfillment of that goal.

1. Geoffrey Till, A Guide for Seapower in the Twenty-First Century (2nd.), (London: Routledge, 2010).

2. The 2007 strategy is available at .

3. Admiral Greenert’s statement is available at .

4. Greg Chaffin, “China’s Military Challenge: An Interview with Ashley Tellis,” NBR Policy Q & A (6 November 2012), .

5. Stansfield Turner, “Missions of the U.S. Navy,” Naval War College Review , Vol. XXVI, no. 5. (1974), 7.

6. In addition to numerous Chinese press releases, see author’s book, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 147—148, 157—158, 196.

7. Author’s conversations with PLAN officers in May 2004 and June 2011.

8. Karen Parrish, “U.S. Following Through on Pacific Rebalance, Hagel Says,” June 2013, .

Captain Cole (USN, Ret.) is a professor of maritime strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C. He served 30 years as a surface warfare officer, commanding USS Rathburne (FF-1057) and Destroyer Squadron 35. He also served as a naval gunfire liaison officer with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. His seventh book, Asian Maritime Strategies, was published by the Naval Institute in October 2013. He earned a Ph.D. in History from Auburn University.

Global Perspectives on Sea Control

Economic linkages around the world have become interdependent. U.S. economic health depends on global prosperity, and regions such as the Persian Gulf, Europe, Latin America, and especially East Asia are vital to it. All of these regions depend on sea lines of communication (SLOCs) for their economic well-being and military security in times of crisis.

Nonetheless, vital national-security interests continue to outweigh economic considerations. Globalization, history, common security concerns, and cultural interests all remain factors in the strategic thinking of NATO members. The ability to maintain sea control in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, at a minimum, also remains a factor. Similarly, the interdependencies and long U.S. relationships with Latin American nations mean a continued maritime relationship, with a concomitant reliance on maintaining sea control in the Caribbean and littoral waters of the Western Hemisphere.


Tokyo’s multi-mission Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) includes a modern, well-trained submarine force. Tokyo’s strategic focus has shifted formally as well as operationally from the Cold War-era northern threat axis to the southwest against China. It has recently expressed concern with the modernization of the PLAN because it perceives China as increasingly aggressive. 1

Tokyo’s primary security concerns remain maritime, led by ballistic missile defense, especially against the North Korean threat; territorial defense, currently heightened by the conflicting claims with China over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands; and defense of the SLOCs. Most significant is Tokyo’s shift in strategic focus formally as well as operationally from the Cold War northern threat axis to the southwest, based clearly on concern with the modernizing PLAN as an instrument of a perceived increasingly aggressive China.

South Korea

Seoul is engaged in significant naval modernization, focusing on submarines and surface combatants armed with Aegis AAW systems. Although North Korea is South Korea’s most immediate opponent, Japan remains very much a concern. (This perception is based to a degree on the dispute over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, but more importantly on the troubled history between Japan and Korea.) China will always be a security concern in South Korea, but Beijing may also be viewed by Seoul as a power able to balance both North Korean and perceived Japanese threats.


The Indian Navy (IN) has a clear force structure vision, built around three aircraft carrier battle groups and a fleet of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines. However, the IN struggles bureaucratically in a defense force dominated by the army. Pakistan dominates India’s army and air force security concerns. Meanwhile, the IN is focused on China as the leading threat to its primary mission of controlling the Indian Ocean SLOCs. Achieving control of the SLOCs has been difficult, due to domestic budget priorities and continued dependence on Russian arms.

The IN has adopted both “Look West” and “Look East” policies. The former aims to establish some degree of coordinated naval efforts by the navies of the western Indian Ocean island nations as well as those of the African continent. More important to U.S. concerns in Asian waters is the IN’s drive to strengthen its capabilities in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea. This has included expanding established facilities and building new ones in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—not just to expand its capabilities to control those waters, but also to extend Indian influence east of Malacca. 2

The JMSDF, PLAN, and IN all aspire to sea control in the Indo-Pacific, albeit in more limited areas than those at the center of U.S. economic and security concerns throughout that vast maritime region. The JMSDF is focused on China’s modernizing PLAN and Beijing’s insistent and even more aggressive sovereignty campaign; the IN is similarly concerned, although with an understandable focus on the Indian Ocean, especially its eastern waters.

—Captain Bernard D. Cole, U.S. Navy (Retired)

1. See NIDS China Security Report 2011 (Tokyo: National Institute for Defense Studies), 1, as well as Chico Harlan, “New Japanese Defense Plan Emphasizes Threat of China,” Washington Post, 12 December 2010, .

2. Author’s conversations with senior Indian Navy officers (March, June 2012).


Capt. Bernard D. Cole, USN (Ret.), teaches at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Cole’s previous books include The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century, which was selected for the Navy Reading Program. He earned a PhD in history from Auburn University and lives in Alexandria, VA.

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