Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has provided a stabilizing global presence, preserving freedom of navigation, ensuring the enforcement of international laws, and reassuring allies of our commitment to mutual defense. During this time the overwhelming conventional warfighting capability of the U.S. fleet has proved an effective deterrent for potential aggressors. The operational context, however, has changed. Shifts in the balance of power since the end of the Cold War, increasingly complex rules of engagement, and the American public’s war weariness have reduced the utility of conventional maritime military deterrence, especially when this power is threatened as a counter to nonexistential threats. Our adversaries have found a strategic opportunity at the low end of conflict. While the U.S. Navy continues to dominate high-end warfighting, its reluctance to develop the concepts and capabilities to dominate maritime gray zone conflicts risks the erosion of U.S. maritime influence and global security.
Low-End Perils to U.S. Security
Globalization, it can be argued, benefits all participants, and the symbiotic interdependence of wealthy nations has reduced the likelihood of dominant countries acting on grand territorial ambitions. In this context, a gray zone conflict’s low cost in blood and treasure may seem a positive move away from the tragedy of highly kinetic, large-scale warfighting as a way to reconcile territorial disputes. One might legitimately contend that squabbles over small territories have little effect on the overall balance of power and do not constitute an existential threat, perhaps not even any threat, to the United States. This conclusion, however, would be incorrect.
Gray zone conflicts represent an illegal and illegitimate way by which to transfer sovereignty. With primacy of the rule of law as a national cultural touchstone, the United States should oppose all extralegal, unilateral territorial claims, especially when those claims are acted on by strong powers against weaker ones. The authority to change the status quo of borders, adjust exclusive economic zones, or build military outposts on another country’s islands must not come through acts of intimidation or under threat from the barrel of a gun. The inability of our allies to resist encroachments on their sovereignty, such as is currently taking place at Scarborough Reef in the Philippines, erodes these nations’ economic resources and weakens their security, both conditions that are highly undesirable for the global community in general, and for the United States in particular.
Gray zone conflicts also pose a danger for the United States when the belligerents are near-peer competitors. While Japan and China, for instance, do not desire a war, the potential for a misunderstanding in the gray zone to become to a casus belli for one side or the other is very real. Without the capability to assist in a meaningful and force-appropriate way at the “thin end of the enforcement wedge,” the United States risks being obligated to do so at the “thick end.”1 While the U.S. Navy would be able to bring its considerable capability to bear should the dispute over the Senkakus escalate to the point where our Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan obliges the United States to act, a third Sino-Japanese War clearly would not be in our national interest.
The world is replete with frozen conflicts, disputed territorial claims, areas of tremendous potential economic benefit that sit just inside a neighbor’s border, and even previously unclaimed areas ripe for internal or external disagreement. Whether in the Pacific Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Guinea, or the Arctic, maritime disputes are becoming increasingly pressing and are unlikely to be resolved by either purely military action or a coercive threat of such. The United States, for more reasons than enlightened liberalism, must turn its attention to helping manage current and future gray zone conflicts.
Enhanced MDA and Competent Coast Guards
The principal challenge of the gray zone is understanding the constantly morphing operating environment and then quickly responding in a comprehensive and force-appropriate way.2 Incomplete intelligence and the time required to develop solutions to complex problems can force the United States to surrender the initiative either to disorder or to an opposing actor. When external powers meddle in gray zone conflicts either directly or by proxy, another complicating factor exists—the specter of a considerable conventional military force lurking just over the horizon. Defusing gray zone conflicts, therefore, demands a responsive, flexible, easily integrated, expeditionary force that quickly and intelligently can sense political and military challenges and apply appropriate corrective action. This force must be able to transition seemlessly from peacekeeping and policing to highly kinetic warfighting, as required. Competing across the spectrum of conflict promised in the gray zone will require the United States to improve the self-sufficiency and effectiveness of friendly foreign coast guards while also creating its own U.S. Navy “middleweight” force. Both efforts will be informed by improved joint maritime domain awareness (MDA).
One of the primary exacerbating factors in gray zone conflicts is insufficient or untimely situational awareness. An ambiguous operating environment easily can lead to over- or under-reaction and flawed decision making, including preventable escalation. To help resolve uncertainty, the international community should explore the establishment of joint MDA centers to provide a common operational picture across the maritime commons. Recent advances in satellite acquisition of Automated Identification System (AIS) signals now can provide near real-time tracking of commercial shipping, fishing fleets, and private vessels anywhere in the world.3 This picture—augmented through the voluntary sharing of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data by participating countries—would improve transparency to participating nations, reducing the possibility of disagreement based on poor situational awareness. A regional joint MDA center would go a long way toward understanding individual governments, navies, and coast guards operations in and around a disputed area. It also would track the actions of emotionally-driven activists, commercial fishermen, and others who either intentionally or inadvertently violate territorial integrity, often providing a catalyst for state-on-state confrontations.
The U.S. Navy not only possesses the expertise needed to assist in the building of joint MDA centers, but it also would directly benefit from these organizations. Ninety percent of global trade travels over the ocean, much of it either bound for or coming from the United States. Strengthening MDA will not only build the information sharing needed to head off potential crises in the maritime gray zone, it also will improve oversight of $16 trillion in annual trade while driving cooperation on other international imperatives such as counter-piracy, search and rescue, weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation, illegal immigration control, and disaster relief.
Regardless of where a maritime gray zone conflict ends, it almost always begins at the law enforcement end of the peace-war continuum. Countries that are unable to adequately police their territorial claims create a heightened sense of lawlessness and vulnerability within their waters that attracts encroachment. Conversely, quick and decisive action by a competent and capable coast guard may resolve gray zone issues well before they have the opportunity to escalate. Coast guards also carry the legitimacy and calming effect of law enforcement, preferable to the often provocative threat of military force.
While there is no expectation that the U.S. Coast Guard will respond to maritime gray zone crises around the world, the service does possess considerable expertise in training maritime law enforcement units. Our Coast Guard’s relationships with foreign services and the U.S. Navy give it a unique perspective on interoperability requirements that nations need to meet as part of a joint response to a gray zone conflict. Building foreign coast guard capacity should be a geographic combatant commander’s priority. Likewise, U.S. embassy Offices of Defense Cooperation should advertise and support maritime law enforcement exercises and training with our partners and allies while pursuing aggressive Coast Guard–centric foreign military sales and foreign military funding. Small investments in law enforcement “prevention” may make better sense for some countries than a larger investment in a military “cure.”
Coast guards can provide first responder capability and law enforcement legitimacy without the negative aspects of coercion. Nationally sponsored gray zone conflicts, however, disarm this authority by threatening force beyond a coast guard’s capabilities. For a defending nation, success in preserving territorial integrity while averting foreign intervention or needless violence as a conflict escalates will depend on the judicious application of force. As actors blur the lines between law enforcement and combat, a gray zone conflict can reach its tipping point. The potential for close interaction among warships and civilian vessels, the political consequences of every action, and the ambiguity surrounding all of these issues make for difficult work. Many, if not most, countries lack an ability to escalate because of equipment, training, or capacity shortfalls. For others, high-end maritime policing and low-end warfighting are tasks that highly sophisticated navies would simply prefer not to tackle. This is why our nation’s adversaries foster gray zone conflicts and why we must field a “middleweight” naval force up to the challenge.
Fight and Win in the Gray Zone
Contesting the gray zone will require the U.S. Navy to make changes in both concepts and capabilities. The goal of these efforts should be to create an expeditionary force that can seamlessly augment and integrate with U.S. Coast Guard, host-nation coast guard, and host-nation navy operations. Together these forces can escalate and deescalate on demand, comfortably moving back and forth among peace, emergency, and war. As first steps the U.S. Navy should:
• Acquire significant numbers of vessels—similar to the Cyclone-class patrol craft—that are small enough to conduct one-on-one encounters with small boats, large enough to conduct sustained operations at sea, numerous enough to provide presence in all corners of the contested area, and cheap enough to risk losing.
• Develop, test, and field a wide range of nonlethal weapons such as directed-energy weapons that are being tested to disable ships. These types of technologies will provide crews escalation of force options beyond the current “shout” or “shoot” methodology.
• Build a cadre of sailors who are specifically trained to balance restraint, confrontation, and the use of deadly force during gray zone operations.
• Partner with the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct regular cooperative exercises with partners and allies to ensure rapid, coordinated, and consistent actions, especially during time-sensitive, ambiguous emergencies.
• Develop, in concert with other governments and international governmental organizations, appropriate rules of engagement for gray zone incidents building on the current effort for broader compliance with the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
One of the most serious difficulties of gray zone conflicts is the coercive effect of an encroaching country’s proximate conventional capability. This, fortunately, is a threat that the U.S. Navy already is organized, trained, and equipped to counter. The conventional, high-end warfighting capability of the Navy will be required during some gray zone conflicts as a credible escalation of force option. The teeth of a large naval task force, ready to support and defend a sister unit working inside the gray zone to uphold an ally’s territorial claim, will provide a clear deterrent to outside actors contemplating interference.
Ambiguity regarding territorial waters, historical claims, ownership, and legitimacy provide ample opportunity for competitors to gain advantage by subtle, often nonattributable, actions at the low end of conflict. The U.S. Navy, with no clear strategy for dealing with these encroachments beyond the threat of overwhelming military force (which it will likely not use), currently does little to reassure its allies as they attempt to preserve their territorial integrity, protect their national resources, and ensure the security of their citizens. With each demonstration of its inability or unwillingness to involve itself in these political-military contests, the U.S. Navy will find it increasingly difficult to perform its fundamental task of preserving the freedom of the seas.
To be successful in gray zone conflicts, the most important step for the U.S. Navy is to acknowledge and acccept the vital and difficult work that must be done to master the low end of warfighting. The U.S. Army and Marines Corps have spent the past 13 years reactively “learning to eat soup with a knife”fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.4 It has proven a painful and frustrating process that cost American lives, shook the services’ confidence, tarnished our country’s reputation, and likely resulted in an overall reduction in global security. Maritime gray zone conflicts promise to be just as critical for U.S. security and equally as perplexing for our naval forces. The U.S. Navy can spare the nation and itself the suffering of experiential learning by preparing today to fight and win in the maritime gray zone.
2. Paul K. Davis, Toward Theory for Dissuasion (or Deterrence) by Denial: Using Simple Cognitive Models of the Adversary to Inform Strategy, RAND Corporation, January 2014, www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR1027.html
3. Daniel Cooper, “Google and Conservationists are Tracking Boats to Stop Illegal Fishing,” Engadget, 14 November 2014, www.engadget.com/2014/11/14/google-oceana-globalfishingwatch-overfishing/.
4. John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
5. Olara A. Otunnu, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping for the New Century (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 306.
6. Jeff Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine, 23 January 15, www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/.
7. Staff Writer, “Taiwan, Japan in high-seas standoff,” Taipei Times, Central News Agency, 26 September 2012, www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2012/09/26/2003543677.
8. Mari Yamaguchi, “Japan Accuses China of Using Weapons Radar on Ship,” Associated Press, 5 February 2013.
9. Ken Dilanian, “U.S. Defies China, Sends Bombers into Disputed East China Sea Zone,” Los Angeles Times, 26 November 2013.
Lieutenant Colonel Pugh is Marine intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently is chief of the Intel Plans and Policy Division, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps.
U.S. Adversaries Prefer the Gray Zones
Gray zone conflicts exist at a level of violence somewhere between law enforcement and conventional conflict on the peace–war continuum. A gray zone is “in effect, the thin end of the enforcement wedge. It is the space between traditional peacekeeping—including an appropriate application of force for self-defense—and all-out war fighting.”5 These politically charged and often violent conflicts sometimes arise through domestic instability, but many times they are deliberately created by an outside state actor. Regardless of their source, political and military ambiguities in the gray zone cause significant problems for a legitimate nation attempting to restore order and preserve national sovereignty. Decision makers find themselves navigating a perilous path between under-aggressiveness with its the risk of losing without fighting, and over-aggressiveness which raises the possibility of abusing one’s own citizens or expanding the situation into a wider, even more violent conflict.
Russia’s 2013 intervention in Crimea brought state-sponsored gray zone conflicts to the forefront, yet similar actions are taking place at sea with similar complexities and stakes. An obvious example of maritime gray zone conflicts is in the South China Sea, where China recently unilaterally asserted sovereignty over all territories within the “Nine Dash Line.” To subvert other countries’ control over these islands without provoking a military response, the Chinese have resorted to tactics they call “the cabbage strategy,” surrounding a contested area with so many boats—fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships—that it becomes “wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.” 6 This mix of vessels creates tremendous problems of ambiguity both for attribution (Is this ship carrying out orders from the Chinese government or is it simply an individual acting independently?) and intent (Is this ship conducting right of innocent passage operations, illegally fishing, or conducting an armed blockade?). This complex tactical picture, including Chinese naval combatants just over the horizon, virtually ensures either a weak response or no response at all from the country being encroached upon.
The current dispute over the Senkaku Islands is illustrative. Japan has claimed control of the islands since China lost the archipelago following the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. The islands are uninhabited, but a survey in 1968 revealed the seabed nearby has the potential for significant gas and oil deposits, and Taiwan and China have since renewed ownership claims. All three countries now wrestle for control by military and nonmilitary means in an atmosphere of increasing nationalism and militarism. In 2010, a Japanese Coast Guard cutter collided with a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel escorting boatloads of Taiwanese activists to the islands.7
In 2011, the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard began patrolling near the islands and in 2012 locked targeting radars on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer and helicopter.8 Since that time, Japan and China have attempted to match each other ship for ship in the waters surrounding the island. In 2013 China announced the imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone that included the airspace over the Senkakus, which Japan, Taiwan, and the United States have subsequently challenged by unannounced overflights of the islands.9 The dispute over the Senkakus remains unresolved in international court as Japan contends there is no confusion on ownership and China resists mediation efforts. Similar confrontations continue elsewhere in the South China Sea, including in the Paracel Islands (Vietnam, China), Scarborough Reef (China, the Philippines), the Spratley Islands (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines), and elsewhere.