At last, after decades grappling with global terrorism, the United States has a new strategy. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) announced, “inter-state strategic competition . . . is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Renewed great power competition has arrived.
Orienting toward great power competition has helped the Department of Defense focus on the challenge posed by peer competitors. It also has created a strategic blind spot. Too often, great power competition is equated with the high-end fight. Insufficient thought goes toward competition below the level of armed conflict—preparation of the operational environment, low-intensity operations, hybrid warfare, or operations in the “gray zone.” The Sea Services need a revolution in thinking about “haze-gray zone” hybrid maritime operations. The newly released tri-service maritime strategy is an opportunity to kick-start this recalibration.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
To inform a low-end strategy, the Sea Services must acknowledge what today’s great power competition is and what it is not. Current discussions of great power competition often invoke the United States’ World War II struggle against the Empire of Japan. However, the Cold War is a better frame of reference. It is history’s sole example of great power navies competing in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Concepts such as second strike and mutually assured destruction discouraged direct conflict.
A similar situation exists with the two U.S. great power competitors today: Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Because both have nuclear stockpiles, conventional conflict is as dangerous as it would have been between the U.S. and Soviet navies. A war with either could escalate to a nuclear exchange. Even a conventional war limited to naval engagements could result in sudden collapse of the governments of Russia or China, as it did for Argentina’s faltering junta after the Falklands War. If that left a governance gap, the danger not just of nuclear escalation but also of proliferation would threaten international security. These possibilities are ignored in favor of assumptions about the inevitability of a fleet-on-fleet engagement with China or Russia.
The United States cannot disregard the possibility of conflict, and failing to plan for the high-end fight could make one more likely, but it must have a strategy to win great power competition short of militarily defeating its rivals. Naval strategists should recall the United States did not prevail in the Cold War through decisive sea battle. U.S. naval strategy played a role through deterrence, and defense innovation—including developments such as the Ohio-class submarine—contributed to an arms race the Soviet Union could not win. But U.S. grand strategy was rooted in supporting open societies.
The key Cold War takeaway is that the strategic center of gravity was not either side’s military forces. It was communist rule, whose critical vulnerability was the hearts and minds of citizens who suffered under it. Victory came from collapse of an Eastern Bloc hollowed out by internal contradictions. Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called this “the power of the powerless": grassroots movements demanding self-determination, liberal governance, an end to corruption, and armed forces loyal to the people, not the party. Similar public awakenings are how the United States truly wins today’s great power competition.
HYBRID GREAT POWER COMPETITION
The Sea Services need a more robust low-end strategy today because the United States’ rivals have learned the strategic lesson of the Cold War and adapted accordingly. The adversary’s system of government, not its military, is its center of gravity.
In the low-end arena, autocrats enjoy an advantage. What scares authoritarians most is not carrier strike groups but color revolutions. Fear of their own populations engenders in Russia, the PRC, and other illiberal states an intuitive sense for how to weaponize nonmilitary sources of power. For Russia and the PRC, hybrid warfare is not a precursor to “real” war. It is an evolution in the character of war.
The ability of modern states to impose their will correlates less with traditional measures of strength, such as the size of their navies, and more with their ability to influence networks and control information. This plays out in daily struggles to control the narrative, from China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic to Russia’s doping campaign spanning multiple Olympics. As competition slides across the continuum toward conflict, winning the fight over information has contributed to victories for Russia and the PRC in Crimea and Hong Kong, respectively, and should be expected to influence affairs in the Baltics and Taiwan.
Against the United States, hybrid warfare makes sense. Though the gap is narrowing, the United States retains, at great expense, a conventional military advantage. Moreover, as General George Patton told the Third Army on 5 June 1944, “Americans love to fight . . . the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” Despite their occasional saber rattling, U.S. adversaries know it is better to avoid conventional conflict and leverage disinformation.
To directly target the U.S. Sea Services, adversaries employ low-end tactics such as harassment to delegitimize U.S. authority and freedom of navigation. It is only a matter of time before they employ more odious hybrid measures in the maritime domain. To counter coercive interference, the United States must employ all elements of its national power. Much of the fight will fall to other government agencies, including the intelligence community, and even the private sector. But rather than cede the field in a game for which it is not traditionally well suited, the military must find a position to play in the low-end great power struggle.
AVOID AN “MRAP MOMENT”
If today’s great power competition were a rerun of the Cold War, the Sea Services could default to a playbook of large-scale exercises, theater security cooperation, freedom of navigation operations, and a naval arms race to pressure competitors until their autocratic political systems evolved into liberal governments. But in addition to their willingness to keep pace in the high-end arms race, great power competitors are likely to engage in covert and irregular warfare in the littorals, especially through proliferation of emerging technologies to non-state proxies. The Navy must anticipate use of kinetic and nonkinetic asymmetric measures.
The rise of the improvised explosive device (IED) as the signature weapon of the war against terrorism is instructive. Great power competitors have no doubt observed that non-state actors supplied with cheap munitions can impose outsized costs on conventional forces. With notable exceptions, such as the bombing of the USS Cole (DDG-67) in October 2000, terrorist tactics have not been widely used in the maritime domain—yet. Combined with diplomatic pressure and information operations designed to sap public support for operations far from home, insurgent and terrorist tactics provide a cheap alternative to ballistic missiles for competitors to achieve antiaccess/area denial.
China’s taunts to sink U.S. aircraft carriers assume that, threatened with high casualties, the U.S. Navy will withdraw rather than fight. While this has not proven true after attacks on U.S. soil, competitors may look to events farther from U.S. shores, such as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut or the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. Considering their preference to avoid conventional conflict, great power competitors could use these tactics via proxy in the maritime domain and avoid attribution. The proliferation of small, cheap, more accurate and mobile missiles, mines, and munitions may embolden competitors to try.
In Iraq, the rising toll from IED attacks resulted in the crash development of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. If the Navy does not acknowledge its vulnerability to hybrid measures and adapt, it could face its own “MRAP moment,” where platforms it sends to patrol areas of confrontation prove vulnerable to cheap asymmetric countermeasures. Unlike when the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a mine in 1987 and it was quickly apparent that Iran was to blame, advances in technology, disinformation, and a proliferation of non-state groups may allow a determined adversary to obscure its involvement in a crowded region such as the Arabian Gulf or South China Sea.
Sacrificing mobility for armor protection and churning out a replacement platform, as land-forces did with the MRAP, will not be a solution for the Navy. Waterborne IEDs are not the only threat. Proxies could employ various cheap nonkinetic means to jam communications networks, impede freedom of navigation, disturb flight operations, and interfere with logistics. The Navy must anticipate asymmetric tactics and strategize to counter them. This does not require new hull designs or big-ticket procurements. Strategy requires putting concepts before capabilities. The most important factor in any U.S. response will be identifying and mapping the responsible network, then degrading or disrupting its kill chain. Failing to plan accordingly represents more than a deficiency in current U.S. naval equipment; it is a failure of strategic imagination. In Iraq, the solution to IED attacks was not just the MRAP. It was building a network to counter a network.
START PLAYING OFFENSE
While many hybrid measures are antithetical to the U.S. way of war, some are not and may prove integral to an offensive strategy. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fields sophisticated naval platforms in the South China Sea, where it enjoys relative numerical superiority, the Navy must consider how it can employ asymmetric measures to its advantage.
The Sea Services do not have a concept for how, short of war, their forces can achieve “persistent engagement.” Persistent engagement is the basis for U.S. Cyber Command’s “defend forward” concept. It requires “continuously engaging and contesting adversaries and causing them uncertainty wherever they maneuver,” including by penetrating adversary networks. More often than not, as displayed by the significant increase in harassment of U.S. vessels and aircraft in recent years, it is the Navy that finds itself continually engaged. In Clausewitzian terms, competitors use low-end measures to create friction, making the simplest tasks more difficult. To flip the script, the Sea Services need a strategy to defeat competitors, which is to say a playbook of actions that can disrupt adversary low-end networks but are short of, and will not lead to, conventional conflict.
The Sea Services have made progress in recent years by acknowledging the growing importance of information warfare (IW). The Navy stood up Navy Information Forces as an IW type commander, established an IW development center, and increased the flow of resources and support to cyber warfare. The Marine Corps made similar strides in establishing the Deputy Commandant for Information. But treating low-end maritime operations as synonymous with IW, and IW as just another warfighting community, misses the big challenge of integrated operations. Each service cannot simply designate a “Gray Boss” for IW, akin to the “Air Boss” and “SWO Boss” for the Navy’s respective aviation and surface communities and hope to prevail. All of the Navy’s warfare communities—and those of its fellow Sea Services—must play a role in a unified haze-gray zone strategy.
In December 2020, the Sea Services released Advantage at Sea, a tri-service maritime strategy. It brings together the ingredients needed for successful haze-gray zone operations, including Navy gray hulls, Coast Guard white hulls, black (covert) and white (overt) special operations forces, white-hat cyber operators, and Marine Corps green expeditionary forces. The challenge will be to craft these assets, along with allied and partner forces, into a network that can respond to a wide range of low-intensity efforts that cut across geographic combatant commands and warfighting communities. They will need to leverage IW both before and after effects on target, particularly to tackle the problem of attribution and counter opposing narratives, but should not neglect non-IW assets needed to dismantle proxy networks and other kinetic aspects of haze-gray zone activity.
Advantage at Sea acknowledges the importance of what it terms “integrated all-domain naval power” in day-to-day competition. However, it falls short of articulating an operational concept on par with distributed maritime operations, expeditionary advanced base operations, and littoral operations in a contested environment. These signature concepts that implement the Sea Services’ great power competition strategy are decidedly fleet-centric. Their usefulness is predicated on the outbreak of hostilities. As Advantage at Sea spurs collaboration to integrate naval power, it should serve as a springboard for the announcement of a fourth major operational concept, this one to counter haze-gray zone challenges.
Finally, to the extent a “Gray-Zone Boss” is needed, it is at the Assistant Secretary of the Navy level. A designated official above the individual services could set policy, articulate haze-gray zone threats to the public, secure appropriations, ensure appropriate research and development, iron out any service conflicts, and be a champion for weaving low-intensity maritime operations into the national great power competition strategy. When it comes to haze gray zone threats, it is time the Sea Services get their heads in the game.