Last fall, Hunter Stires, who won the 2018 General Prize Essay Contest with “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss,” approached us with a project in mind. He was lining up a group of experts to expand on the idea of maritime counterinsurgency in the South China Sea. Not only had Hunter enlisted the help of all-star authors, but he also had garnered financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The Maritime COIN Project begins with Hunter’s introduction, followed by: Jim Holmes’s “You Have to Be There,” Geoffrey Till’s “At War with the Lights Off,” Bryan Clark’s “Build a Fleet that Contests Every Inch,” Gary Lehmann and Greg Lewis’s “The Role of Stand-In Forces in Maritime COIN,” Brent Sadler’s “Win the Contest for a Maritime Rules-Based Order,” and part of Brian Kerg’s fictional vignette “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which continues online. More articles will appear in upcoming issues and online-only. We invite Comment and Discussion submissions as a critical part of the dialogue.
I must note that not all our readers and authors agree with the term “maritime counterinsurgency.” In fact, Brian Hayes took second prize in the 2021 General Prize Essay Contest with “The Myth of Maritime Counterinsurgency,” and Ensign Nick Danby’s “Think Small to Win Big in the South China Sea” also takes issue with the term. Their argument is about the terminology—not about what China is doing in the South China Sea.
At times described as “hybrid” or “gray-zone” warfare or as an insurgency, China’s fishing fleet, coast guard, maritime militia, and navy are harassing, bullying, threatening, and elbowing their way to hegemony across the South China Sea, in places well outside China’s exclusive economic zone and territorial seas. These actions are in violation of international law and contrary to free seas and the rules-based international order. I, personally, am somewhat agnostic about the term (“A rose by any other name,” and all that). But I am in violent agreement that the U.S. Sea Services, with allies and partners, must deliberately, methodically, and consistently push back against China’s actions.
In 2009, I worked at the U.S. Pacific Command when Chinese ships harassed the USNS Impeccable in a dangerous confrontation using these very same tactics. The senior China advisor to the Commander, a brilliant civil servant named Dr. Dave Dorman, explained that the United States was going to have to get comfortable with a higher level of friction in the U.S.–China relationship than we wanted, and we were going to have to learn how to push back below the level of open conflict. This is an uncomfortable concept for the U.S. government, but the Maritime COIN Project makes Dr. Dorman’s point well.
On another important topic, cyber warfare gets a lot of “ink” these days, but it can be challenging to discern what is real and what is not if you are not a subject-matter expert. Military planners often joke that they have to “sprinkle some cyber” on plans—and in some cases that phrase is used like “sprinkle some pixie dust” or “push the ‘I believe’ button.” Fortunately, we have Navy Lieutenant Commander Eric Seligman to explain cyber to the lay audience. His “There Is No Cyber Bullet” is the best article on the topic I have ever read!
Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Life Member since 1993