01 April 2013

Learning the Ropes in Blue Water: The Chinese Navy’s Gulf of Aden Deployments Have Borne Worthwhile Lessons in Far-Seas Operations—Lessons that Go Beyond the Antipiracy Mission

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Learning the Ropes in Blue Water: The Chinese Navy’s Gulf of Aden Deployments Have Borne Worthwhile Lessons in Far-Seas Operations—Lessons that Go Beyond the Antipiracy Mission,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 139.4 (April 2013): 34-38.

December 2012 marked the fourth anniversary of China’s ongoing antipiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Over four-plus years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has deployed 34 warships with 28 helicopters in 14 task forces, safely shepherding more than 5,000 commercial vessels and rescuing or assisting more than 50 of them across 500 escort trips. Nearly 10,000 select personnel have sharpened their skills, improved coordination mechanisms, and tested new platforms and technologies.

Unmatched in Chinese history, these antipiracy task-force deployments, which typically last several months, offer the first major window into China’s far-seas operations and approach thereto. In fulfilling this new mission, PLAN leaders have faced unprecedented questions that can only be answered through action and experimentation:

• How best to ensure PLAN ships’ supply and replenishment?

• What coordination and communication demands attend far-seas deployments?

• What food and medicine should be stored aboard for a crew of nearly 1,000 at sea for several months, and what may be replenished in port?

• How can Chinese sailors increase their ability to improvise during unanticipated contingencies?

• How can the PLAN optimize escort protection with existing resources?

China’s navy continues to address these questions by strengthening the operational underpinnings of its far-seas antipiracy mission and—by extension—its capabilities overall. As Political Commissar Tang Gusheng of the amphibious vessel Kunlunshan remarked in 2011, “By sailing out of our coastal waters, the operation in the Indian Ocean serves as a live drill for us.” As the PLAN’s most intense operational experience in recent years, the mission’s most important contribution may be imposing experience with unscripted, unpredictable situations on what remains an operationally cumbersome and risk-averse service. Here, we examine the major operational and tactical lessons learned by the PLAN during its antipiracy mission, as conditions in the Gulf of Aden force complex coordination, improvisation, and real-time execution that goes far beyond the better-supported, lower-risk approach available to PLAN forces training in or near home waters. …