The Lost Battle of the South China Sea, Refought
One fascinating way to determine the suitability of weapons and tactics is through wargaming. And modern, computer wargames can offer previously unseen levels of fidelity and accuracy over tabletop versions. One game in particular demonstrates how U.S. Navy ships could fare in action against their People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) counterparts.
Command: Modern Operations (CMO) is a descendant of 2013’s Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. CMO attempts high-fidelity simulation of air, sea, and (limited) ground operations, from the early Cold War era to today. It models the gamut of modern warfare, from submarines to ballistic-missile defense, using open-source information on capabilities, realistic physics, and accurate rules of engagement. The publisher, Matrix Games, also sells professional versions to the armed forces of several NATO countries.
The game includes many ready-made scenarios, including some that examine “What if?” scenarios from the past, present, or future. One of these plays out a clash between the Philippine Navy and the PLAN near Scarborough Shoal, which quickly draws in the U.S. Navy.
In 2013, shortly after the game’s release, I played this scenario (set in 2015), and wrote about it for War Is Boring. It ended in a defeat for the U.S. Navy, with two inadequately armed littoral combat ships (LCSs) sunk. But with the Navy beginning to upgun both LCS classes with the Raytheon-Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (the USS Gabrielle Giffords [LCS-10] was the first to receive them, in 2019), it seemed worth refighting the scenario to see how the results might change.
The scenario description begins:
China . . . has begun to press longstanding maritime claims with the hopes of rolling back potential adversaries. . . . [Its] strategy [is] borne of the notion that the PLAN vastly outclasses most nations in the region and that the United States will never risk war or economic disaster over a small maritime claim. . . . Sparsely populated and of marginal value to the fishing industry, [Scarborough Shoal] is contested by the Philippines and [China, which] has begun . . . sending Coast Guard vessels along with its fishing fleet to protect its interests. With the U.S. forces on the not-so-distant horizon, the Philippine Navy may feel empowered to act.
The scenario was designed for a human player to control U.S. Navy forces against a computer-simulated China.
While Philippine and PLAN vessels face each other down, the U.S. Navy stations the Independence-class USS Manchester (LCS-14) and Charleston (LCS-18), each armed with eight Naval Strike Missiles (NSMs), some 30 miles south of the Philippine ships. (The 2013 version used the USS Freedom [LCS-1] and Fort Worth [LCS-3], because it predated the Navy’s decision to station the odd-numbered Freedom-class ships on the U.S. East Coast, and the even-numbered Independence class on the West Coast.) Each LCS also is equipped with two MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Forty miles south is the USS McCampbell (DDG-85), a Flight IIA Arleigh Burke–class destroyer with two MH-60R Seahawks embarked. Halfway between the LCSs and Subic Bay is an MQ-4A Triton UAV, with two more 2,000 miles away at Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. The U.S. commander’s subsurface asset is the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN-776). Manned fixed-wing assets exist in theater but did not participate as the scenario unfolded.
The Chinese forces consist of an older Type 053H Jianghu-class guided-missile frigate, now serving in the China Coast Guard as CG1002. A Chinese Navy task force, comprising one Type 052C guided-missile destroyer, two Type 054A Jiangkai II frigates, and a Type 056 corvette, is lurking somewhere to the north. Chinese submarines are known to be operating in the area. Flying from an air base on Woody Island in the South China Sea are J-10AH Vigorous Dragon multirole fighters, JH-7A Flounder strike aircraft, Ka-28 Helix A antisubmarine warfare helicopters, Y-8X Cub turboprop patrol aircraft, and Z-9C (Dauphin 2) helicopters. PLA theater ground assets consist of a signals intelligence station and YLC-2 radar.