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A Chinese flag is seen in front of the Friendship bridge over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China

A Chinese flag is seen in front of the Friendship bridge over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning Province on April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

China Has Militarized Seafarers Says US Navy Report

John Konrad
Total Views: 11899
May 21, 2022

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Over the many years of reporting maritime news, the idea that China could militarize its commercial maritime fleet has been dismissed by most of the shipping community, but a new report published by the US Naval War College shows that this is not only a possibility but has already been accomplished. This report comes weeks after a CSIS report detailed how China militarized its commercial shipyards.

The report – Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion – by Lonnie Henley, a former Rhodes Scholar and senior Army intelligence officer, looks at the integration of commercial shipping and China’s seafarers with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), along with the use of Chinese seafarers – aboard both China flagged ships and Non-Chinese flagged ships – during a planned invasion of Taiwan.

In 2019 we spelled out the importance of training and integration between the US Navy and US Merchant Marine and how broken the current United States commercial shipping system is. Despite receiving high-level attention, little was done to remedy the problem. China however, has taken these lessons to heart.

Read: Editorial: Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War

“Civilian shipping is the central feature of the PLAN approach to an invasion of Taiwan,” says Henley. “The PLA has spent over two decades developing the bureaucratic apparatus, laws, and regulations to organize, train, and manage this force (of civilian seafarers). This seems to be how Chinese leaders, civilian and military, think the PLA should function, leveraging the enormous resources of China’s civilian economy to support military operations.”

The report does mention some weaknesses of the Chinese system to leverage commercial shipping but overall paints a picture in stark contrast to how American and Western merchant mariners are integrated with Naval command.

China’s Merchant Marine Training

The report states that unlike the U.S. Merchant Marine model, where government officers and crews take control of leased ships, regular crews of civilian ships are inducted as militiamen and required to attend military training under the direction of the China’s National Transportation War Preparedness Office. Training includes the following topics:

  • marshaling, assembly, and sailing in formation;
  • use of military communications equipment and procedures;
  • self-defense and mutual defense; rescue and first aid;
  • military loading and unloading techniques;
  • basic knowledge of the operating environment from a military perspective;
  • operation of equipment particular to their assigned support tasks;
  • knowledge about their supported unit and their role in that unit’s mission;
  • knowledge about enemy threats they will face; and topics such as “dockless unloading”

This is the type of training that has not been provided to US Merchant Mariners since the US Maritime Administration closed down the Global Maritime and Transportation School in 2012.

China’s War Preparedness Office also provides guidance and training in more specialized topics, including “Modifying Civilian Ships for Military Transportation.” This guidance instructs seafarers on how to mount and interface specialized military equipment, including reconnaissance and surveillance gear, medical treatment facilities, firefighting gear, and emergency repair facilities.

5,500 Javelin Missiles

Javelin Anti-Ship Missile
Marine Pfc. Matthew Bell aims an FGM-147 Javelin as part of a simulated small boat attack on amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24) (U.S. Navy photo by Brandon Parker/RELEASED)

gCaptain reported last week that the dangers of militarized commercial ships have grown considerably in scope in the wake of the Ukraine war, which has proved the effectiveness of man-operated weapons and reconnaissance equipment. If those PLAN-trained seafarers are armed with drones, javelins, and other small missile systems weapons, they will be a formidable force. If those weapon systems are centrally coordinated and share data, as this report suggests, a weaponized merchant marine could be a force multiplier for China.

Read: Could New Quicksink Weapon Stop 5,500 Armed Merchant Ships?

“The US has less than 80 commercial ships in international service, while China has over 5,500 merchant ships sailing today,” one senior US Navy officer told gCaptain. “What happens if China issues Javelin type missiles to each commercial ship? What would happen if China issued a portable missle to the 122,034 Chinese seafarers serving on all types of ships? Or the potentially hundreds of thousands are displacing Filipino seafarers.”

Some think it would be difficult for China to weaponize its commercial fleet, but recent testing by the US Marine Corps suggests it’s possible. Last year teams of Marines armed with Javelin anti-tank guided missiles riding in small inflatable boats trained to engage enemy naval forces for the first time as part of a major exercise on and around the Japanese island of Okinawa. The test was successful against some targets, but it remains unclear how much damage a Javelin missile would do to a large commercial ship. 

And it’s not just ships and shipbuilding but commercial ports too:

It’s not just commercial ships and seafarers China controls but commercial ports too

Disable Or Destroy?

The ability of these weapons to sink a commercial ship may not matter. As gCaptain reported early this month, the US Navy has a serious shortage of working ships, including salvage ships, ocean tugs, and fireboats. Worse still, top navy leaders, including the Secretary of the Navy, continues to deny the importance of these essential ships. Further, the Bonham Richard fire proved it’s not just fireboats and salvage ships the United States is lacking but damage control training and equipment that have been outsourced to foreign-controlled companies. What this means is China doesn’t need to sink American ships, they just need to disable them.

Disabling an American warship may sound difficult, but when the USS Fitzgerald collided with an unarmed cargo ship in 2017 damage control crews were able to prevent her from sinking but could not call for help. “A sailor had to call Destroyer Squadron 15 on a personal cell phone,” said the official NTSB report but that was after the ship hobbled into cell phone range.

Can US Ships Even Get To China In A Fight?

And that’s if the US Navy can even get to the fight. In March US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin issued an order to close the massive Red Hill ship bunker fuel tanks in Hawaii after they leaked, poisoning the local water supply. In doing these sources tell us he did not discuss the problem or develop working solutions, with the help of US Maritime Administration or US Merchant Marine Captains. Had he done that US Merchant Marine experts say refueling US Navy ships in a conflict is nearly impossible. Impossible considering the age and status of the United State’s Military Sealift Command tanker fleet, which are the ships responsible for at-sea refueling of both ships and aircraft. Shipbuilding experts find it very unlikely that Austin will be able to find the funding or the shipyards need to build a fleet of merchant tankers with “equally advanced and resilient fueling capability.”

Ukraine Lessons In Logistics

Logistics and Supply chain are the new hot topics. Today you can’t turn on a news program without them being mentioned at least once. Few Americans recognize, however, that 90% of the supply chain is aboard ships. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff does not seem to understand this either.

Yesterday, in a Council of Foreign Relations interview with six pentagon service chiefs, the heads of America’s military echoed the maximum “Soldiers Win Battles, logistics wins wars” several times but none said that 90% of transport happens on ships. Not one uttered the words “US Merchant Marine.” Worse still was the fact that our nation’s 7th service chief – Commandant Ann Phillips, of the US Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Maritime Service – was not invited to speak.

This is not surprising. The last three MARAD chiefs have all been US Navy officers. The United States government distrusts the US Merchant Marine so much that it’s the only service (and one of the few government agencies) that’s not run but a member of its own ranks but a flag officer from another service. It would be unthinkable for the US Surgeon general not to be a doctor or the Army Chief of Staff never to have served in the Army but the US Maritime Administration has not seen a US Merchant Marine officer in charge of the service since Captain William Schuber retired in 2005.

The US Maritime Administration is under the tight control of Naval Officers. Naval Officers that come from an organization that has clearly and repeatedly porven it does not respect the importance of working ships. Officers from a US Navy that does “it’s own thing”, remains stubbornly insular, and does not play well with other maritime organizations.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy trains merchant mariners, the US Navy – apart from very specific programs like the Strategic Sealift Officer program – does not offer any free training to mariners, does not invite merchant ship captains into strategy meetings, and does not invite them to the US Naval War College. Some merchant ship captains work overseas for Naval Coordination and Protection of Shipping or Fifth Fleet, but these are usually Military Sealift Command “CIVMARS” – who work for a US Navy Admiral (currently a naval aviator without shipping experience), not merchant ship captains familiar with foreign-flag shipping. gCaptain is unaware of a single US Merchant Marine captain working in the Pentagon or for a major Think Tank or strategic defense agency.

Note on the term CIVMAR: The US Navy currently treats Merchant Mariners poorly, denies them thanks or basic veteran status, locks them down aboard their own ships, and calls them by the ostracizing and derogative acronym CIVMAR, which outrightly denies the fact they – people who are correctly called US Merchant Mariners not CIVMARS – are not members of the team are equals. It is a derogatory term CIVMAR because, while the Navy claims it’s because these mariners are civil servants, most assume it means they are civilians. Civilians in military culture do not take risks and are not part of the team. Civilians are not subject ot the UCMJ during war, CIVMARS are.

Even this report, one of the few that does mention the US Merchant Marine, does not mention the failures of MARAD or the fact the United States simply does not have a comprehensive and combined Naval AND Merchant Marine Mahanian maritime strategy.

Note: Rear Admiral Buzby did author a new Maritime Strategy of the US Merchant Marine in 2020 but was not allowed to release it. Instead, he was forced to release a crippled version of an old failed strategy. A strategy was also developed by Maritime planners in the White House, but that was lost when President Biden closed the maritime desk in the White House.

PLAN’s naval strategy puts Commercial shipping first in its Naval strategy, while the United States ignores it altogether.

Communications And Supply Chains

The Ukraine war has proved the importance of Mission Command – the empowerment of small units that are well equipped and coordinated with military assets. This Naval War College report shows how PLAN has embraced joint communication and has trained its seafarers “in the use of military communications equipment and procedures.”

Communication between the US Navy, United States Maritime Administration, and the US Merchant Marine, however, is so broken that updates on the dangers to commercial shipping in the Black Sea have not been updated in 73 days. 73! NATO’s shipping reports are not much better.

This is especially frustrating considering that MARAD, who is supposed to publish these maritime intelligence reports in coordination with the US Navy, is represented in the US Cabinet by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who is a former US Naval Intelligence officer.

World Famine

The situation is so bad in the Black Sea that the latest cover of the Economist contains 43 skulls strung up on stalks of wheat, warning that War is tipping a fragile world towards mass hunger. 

gCaptain first warned of this problem on in a Sal Mercogliano article on January 31st and we posted an urgent call for help on April 11th.

“If the bulk of Ukraine’s grain is to get out, it must be by sea. But how?” writes the economist. “Some people are now exploring the idea of naval convoys to escort merchant vessels in and out of Odessa and nearby ports. Stavnitser, owner of Ukraine’s largest private shipping terminal, hopes for a UN convoy led by Turkey. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander, has suggested taking a leaf out of the operation by America and some allies to protect oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.”

Admiral Stravidis is a friend of gCaptain, and so is Admiral Foggo, who runs the newly formed Maritime Strategy center of the US Navy League, which has been working with gCaptain and other Merchant Mariners to include better Merchant Marine policy. Still, the Economist did not interview any ship captain or MARAD or NATO’s shipping coordination center.

“Unblocking Odessa is as important as providing weapons to Ukraine,” says Stavnitser. If the US Pentagon can give billions of dollars of weapons, then why can’t it update the shipping community on risks in the Black Sea daily instead of once 73 days ago? How can ship owners plan if MARAD and the US Navy does not provide the information they need to plan?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Monday they are doing everything they can to move Ukrainian grain shipments. But are they? The fact is they are not even providing ship captains like me with credible and timely naval intelligence reports… reports that captains, ship owners, and marine insurers need before even considering entering a dangerous location like the Black Sea.


Note: gCaptain first reported on the potential disruption to grain on January 31st, we were the first organization, with the help of our friends at Reuters, to report on the US Navy leaving the black sea undefended, the first organization in the world to notice the Russian Blockade, and the first to warn that millions may soon starve. But even the best journalist, like the economist, assume that the Navy and US Merchant shipping work well together, so they interview Navy Admirals instead of Merchant Marine captains. This is a mistake. It was gCaptain that drove to Washington last month to alert Admiral Foggo, the Secretary of the Navy, US Navy CNO, and US Maritime Administrator of the potential for famine. We did that in person and nothing was done. On April 26th, we made a formal request to MARAD about the lack of merchant shipping advisories. Nothing was done.

The information for these articles about dangers in the Black Sea did not come from us. The information came by doing something the US Navy simply is not: asking commercial ship captains pointed questions, providing a modicum of empathy, and listening to their concerns.

Authors note: Not only did we travel to Washington to address the CNO, SECNAV, and USCG Commandant, but I literally cried in several of the meetings because of these issues.

Without the gallant efforts of Admiral Foggo and Stravidis (both retired) – who we owe a debt of gratitude after bugging them insistently on Black Sea security for months – and the world might not even be aware we are facing famine conditions.

None of this is written to give ourselves credit for the early warning. We are writing this to say – in as clear terms as possible – the system that connects the Navy with Commercial Shipping is broken. We are writing this to show the clear difference between how China and the United States each treat their Merchant Mariners. If the US Navy won’t listen to the tears of US Merchant Marine ship captain in frustration over famine in the Black Sea and the state of our US Merchant Marine, how can we expect to keep the 90% of our military supplies that are transported by US Merchant Mariners aboard ships safe against Chinese aggression?

Things are so out of control, in fact, that US Merchant Marine leaders today seemingly operate almost completely disconnected from Pentagon policy and free from accountability.

How will the Navy, or the world, keep shipping safe if The People’s Liberation Army Navy has done the exact opposite and integrated and trained their much larger contingent of Merchant Mariners?

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