China has a long and effective history of using massed small craft to rebuff stronger rivals

Monday, July 18th, 2022

China’s gray-zone fleet is hard to handle:

China has a long and effective history of using massed small craft to rebuff stronger rivals. The Communist regime employed massed small craft to project sovereignty as early as 1966, when eleven steel-hulled Chinese trawlers joined together to chase USS Pueblo’s (AGER-2) sister ship, the surveillance-oriented USS Banner (AGER-1), out of the East China Sea. For China, swarming is a long-standing, deeply rooted military tactic.

Coast Guards and Navies throughout the Pacific have long-struggled with strategies to manage China’s preference for fielding numerous but low-tech maritime vessels. Up till now, only aircraft and surface presence, in the form of massed, highly capable gunboats, have been effective against China’s militarized gray zone fleet.

Over the past few years, minor successes in rebuffing China’s coercive fleets has sparked something of a low-tech arms race. As Pacific states slowly up-armed their defensive resources, increasing presence in both ship numbers and in individual ship tonnage, China has, in turn, quietly “super-sized” their low-tech armada, making their ships too big and fast for other countries to confront.

While low-key, the growth of China’s low-tech fleet has been dramatic. China’s Coast Guard cutter fleet is expanding in number and size, and now boasts over 130 ships of over 1,000 tons. Today, the largest Chinese cutters are able to shoulder aside anything short of an Arleigh Burke destroyer. And while still lightly-armed, China’s Coast Guard fleet has gotten better basic weapons as well. Rapid-fire guns and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles make approach by rotary wing aircraft increasingly perilous, complicating efforts to target ships with laser-guided munitions, weapons the U.S. has used to clear the seas of lightly-armed adversaries in the past.

But now, America’s QUICKSINK makes even the queens of the Chinese Coast Guard, the massive 12,000-ton Zhaotou Class Coast Guard cutters, vulnerable.

Quicksink provides a low-cost anti-ship capability by using a modified 2,000-pound class GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, with a new Weapon Open Systems Architecture, or WOSA, seeker.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    From the article: “… the anti-ship JDAM does have major limitations. The basic JDAM has a relatively very short-range even when launched at altitude — it has a range of about 15 miles, which is deep within most major naval anti-air threat rings — and is susceptible to naval close-in air defense systems.”

    As Stalin said — Quantity has a quality all of its own. How many very expensive F-35s would be lost trying to get within range of a fleet of Chinese vessels equipped to defend themselves and the other vessels in their group? And that is leaving out the effects of US Navy’s over-promotion of under-performing female pilots. DIE — Diversity, Inclusion, Equity.

    Reports like this always raise the obvious question — What do these guys think would happen next?

    My guess — after the US Navy successfully sinks a Chinese coastguard cutter, China would drop one of its ship-seeking missiles on top of the USN carrier from which the plane came. And before we know it, the US and China would be engaged in a full-on thermonuclear war.

  2. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that PT boats were the most valuable naval assets in the pacific theater during the second war of tranzi aggression.

    The island hopping campaigns would simply not have been possible without the ability to deploy large numbers of attack craft squadrons to interdict enemy sea lanes while securing your own, and in battle, could exert disproportionate effectiveness against materiel many times more capital intensive, thanks to the combination of small size and armament of torpedoes and automatic cannons.

  3. Kunning Drueger says:

    I wonder how quickly sub production could ramp up? Modern diesel electric fast attacks could probably fulfill the same role as the PTs did.

  4. Jim says:

    Gavin: “How many very expensive F-35s would be lost trying to get within range of a fleet of Chinese vessels equipped to defend themselves and the other vessels in their group? [...] And before we know it, the US and China would be engaged in a full-on thermonuclear war.”

    The F-35 is an exercise in money laundering. It has no real value in defense.

    The Navy doesn’t really matter either, at least not the part that we can see.

    With modern technology there are now many intermediate grades between “no hard conflict” and “MAD”.

    All this isn’t to say that there isn’t real competition between surface navies or suchlike, only that it’s low-stakes compartmentalized nonsense that doesn’t matter in the context of any true sovereign contest.

  5. Jim says:

    QUICKSINK is very cool. Expect more, much more.

  6. Altitude Zero says:

    As Pseudo says, PT boats were absolutely vital in WWII, and small craft such as missile boats are certainly cost-effective, but it’s worth pointing out that, so far in naval history, the strategy of using smaller, cheaper craft to counteract a blue-water fleet has so far not really panned out, although it came close for the Germans in both World Wars. Maybe this time it will be different, but so far that’s not the way to bet.

  7. Adar says:

    Strategic bombers were not a great success in their anti-ship role in WW2. QUICKSINK is trying to resurrect the concept of a high-altitude bomber warplane trying to take out a surface vessel. The jury is out on the JDAM solution?

  8. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    The problem of using high altitude bombers to attack ships in WW2 was one of fire control; the bombs would not hit the target.

    If you have a means of solving the fire-control issue, then that is another matter.

    The matter of fire control was also illustrated in the Battle off Samar, where the destroyer escorts of the American sailors ran rings around the big gun cruisers and battleships of the Japanese fleet, and sooner ran out of ammo before their counterparts managed to land any critical hits.

    The reason you never really saw many matchups like this in that period of history largely revolves around the fact that no side every really went in on such a strategy in the first place, including the Germans. Large capital ships had a spiritual gravity that went far beyond many more material concerns.

    BuNav statistics collated after the war showed that the number one killer of surface vessels was torpedoes (i assume including from all sources; eg, submarines, destroyers, and air-dropped), followed by dive bombing, with gunfire a distant third.

  9. McChuck says:

    Peru and Ecuador teamed up a few years ago when China’s enormous fishing fleet came calling. They issued three warnings, then started indiscriminately sinking Chinese fishing boats. They didn’t bother even trying to collect survivors, leaving that to the hundreds of other Chinese vessels.

    China’s great fishing fleet hasn’t returned to that part of the ocean since.

  10. Altitude Zero says:

    There’s no doubt that small craft like torpedo and missile boats are extremely useful, punch way above their weight, and can kill capital ships when the circumstances are right. All I am saying is that, as of yet, no lesser naval power has managed to defeat the blue-water navy of a greater naval power with swarms of smaller, cheaper craft. I’m not saying it won’t or can’t happen. China may very well be the first, and technology may be turning major capital ships of any kind into sitting ducks. I’d just like to point out that this has been predicted before, ever since the mid-19th century, and it hasn’t happened yet. A country with the money to invest should probably invest in both (as indeed the ChiComs are doing).

  11. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Well, China isn’t exactly investing in a navy, as much as they are investing in anti-shipping missiles to render other people’s navies irrelevant.

  12. Altitude Zero says:

    China has also acquired a couple aircraft carriers, and are building a third. They appear to be following a two-track strategy — probably a smart move.

  13. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Pseudo-Chrysostom: “Well, China isn’t exactly investing in a navy…”

    That navy that the Chinese are not exactly investing in is already equivalent in size to the US Navy — and is planned to keep on growing from here, while the US Navy is projected to keep shrinking, and European navies are already effectively irrelevant.

    The world is moving on, and the West is no longer the unchallenged Top Dog. Unfortunately, too many of us are stuck in the past.

  14. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Relatively speaking, of course. What I’m saying is, they’ve got a fair few number of pies cooking, and it isn’t their biggest one.

  15. Goober says:

    Jeune Ecole is back, baby!

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