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PLAN Maintenance


Budding Sinologist at MeiZhongTai points us to this article about the maintenance record of the PLAN, or People’s Liberation Army Navy. Naval maintenance may not seem like an exciting topic, but it’s interesting in two ways.

First, the actual maintenance of naval equipment, like most other miltary equipment, is pretty critical to military effectiveness. I discuss the example of the Brazilian Navy here, but it’s worth revisiting. In 1910, Brazil purchased two of the most advanced and powerful battleships in the world and incorporated those ships into its Navy. By 1917, when Brazil entered the war on the side of the Allies, the two ships were nearly useless and had to undergo a two year refit before entering the Grand Fleet. Brazil had purchased the ships as symbols of national greatness; in practice, the Brazilians had no interest in making them operational vehicles of war. Apart from the question of training and doctrinal execution, simple maintenance procedures matter a lot for military organizations. I’m inclined to think they matter most for the Navy, the most capital intensive of all the services. Another example would be the Russian Navy after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Navy retains many of the powerful ships that the Soviet Navy possessed, but its maintenance procedures collapsed in 1991. Now, many Russian ships can’t safely leave port, and one of the Russian Navy’s top admirals described the flagship, a nuclear battlecruiser, as “likely to explode at any moment”.

A second, but related, question has to do with doctrine, training, and execution. Given the same material, some navies will be more effective than others because of more intense or useful training. We have come to expect that the United States Navy will out-execute any navy in the world, but it wasn’t always so. In World War II the USN excelled at damage control and carrier operations, but fell short in such skills as night-fighting and anti-submarine warfare, at least at the beginning of the war. In World War I, the German High Seas fleet could out-execute the Royal Navy in just about every aspect of fleet combat, although the German tactical advantage could not overcome the British material advantage.

This last example is particularly interesting in the context of the article on Chinese naval maintenance. The article makes a very plausible argument regarding the strength of China’s surface naval force, pointing out that the experience of the PLAN with major surface combatants is extremely thin, and that this probably means that the PLAN will be less effective than its surface assets suggest. The article is probably right, but I couldn’t help notice that it was long on circumstantial and short on direct evidence. Fact is, there HAVE been navies that have achieved a high degree of tactical execution in a short amount of time. The German Navy barely existed in 1871. By 1914, it could outfight the Royal Navy, a military organization with a MUCH longer history. Much of the success of the German Navy has to be laid at the feet of a political class committed to naval power. Similarly, the Soviet Navy went from being a joke in the 1940s and 1950s to being an extremely effective organization by 1970.

It could be objected that the complexity of warships in 2006 makes these comparisons inapt. I can’t agree. The destroyers of 2006 are far more technically advanced than the ships of 1914, but it does not follow that they are so much more difficult for a military organization to learn how to use. The skills needed to run HMS Victory, for example, are much different than the skills needed to operate an Arleigh Burke destroyer, but not necessarily far more complex. I would allow that aircraft carrier operation, which involves a whole set of complex skill systems, probably does take a lot more time to become proficient at, but I’m less certain of surface ships, even those with advanced equipment.

The upshot is that we can’t assume that the USN will maintain its “competence dominance”. It may actually be easier to close the training gap than it is to close the technological and numerical gaps.

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