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How the US Navy can compete with China in the “gray-zone”

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The latest entry in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Maritime Counterinsurgency Project, titled Winning without Gunsmoke in the South China Sea, comes from Wendell Leimbach and Eric Duckworth of the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office, a directorate overseen by the U.S. Marine Corps commandant. The office is doing crucial work. Gaming and analysis have revealed that the United States and its allies and partners have no palatable way to defeat China’s “gray-zone” strategy in the China seas.

The U.S. and its allies can either stand idle and let China make good its claim to state ownership of the South China Sea in defiance of the law of the sea, or they can open fire, and bear the blame for aggression. Friends of maritime law need some recourse short of blazing away with guns or missiles. Hence the search for “intermediate force capabilities” between passive acquiescence and hot war.

Leimbach and Duckworth report on a seemingly minor yet essential shift in the lingo U.S. military folk apply to gray-zone operations. Until fairly recently, efforts to find ways to operate effectively in this murky realm went under the guise of “nonlethal weapons.” But a weapon is an implement — not a capability. The Pentagon defines a capability as “the ability to complete a task or execute a course of action under specified conditions and level of performance.” In other words, it’s the ability to do something or another.

Shifting the focus from widgets to tactics, operations, and strategy was a wise move.

In this case, the necessary capability is the ability to meet and deflate China’s abuses of Southeast Asian fishermen, coast guards, and navies without resorting to violent force. China’s fishing fleet, maritime militia, and coast guard routinely prevent Southeast Asian neighbors from harvesting natural resources from their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). An exclusive economic zone is an offshore preserve, generally reaching 200 nautical miles out to sea, that’s guaranteed to a coastal state for its sole use.

Related: China’s military buildup in the Spratly Islands sparks fears of military confrontation

US Coast Guard counter-piracy exercise with Chinese sailors
Coast Guard members participate in a counter-piracy exercise with Chinese sailors from Chinese navy multirole frigate Hengshui (572) aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton (WMSL 752), during Rim of the Pacific exercise 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Loumania Stewart/Released)

China deploys ships to neighbors’ EEZs to deprive fellow Asians of their rights under international law. And yet it gets away with lawlessness by using nonmilitary sea services to anchor its claims. That doesn’t mean China refrains from using force in regional quarrels. Chinese mariners use force all the time, but they refrain from the overt use of armed force. From gunfire, in other words. Fishing craft flood the zone in large numbers, for instance, defying efforts to police regional waters. The China Coast Guard outnumbers and outmuscles Southeast Asian coast guards and even navies — opening up sweeping operational vistas before Beijing.

Once deployed, intermediate force capabilities will give the United States and its regional parties the ability to escalate a confrontation while remaining beneath the threshold of open warfare. They can match China’s gray-zone capabilities with their own. In effect, they can dare China to pull the trigger first — and expose itself for the predator it is — or they can induce Xi Jinping Co. to de-escalate to noncoercive nautical diplomacy.

Related: Are momentous geopolitical changes about to happen in the world?

British F-35 takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth in South China Sea
US Marine with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, observe an F-35B Lightning II from the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron land on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea on October 06, 2021. VMFA-211 is currently deployed with the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group 21. (Photo by 1st Lt. Zachary Bodner/3rd Marine Aircraft Wing)

Weapons and sensors remain indispensable tools-of-the-trade despite the shift in parlance from weaponry to capability. The coauthors list such novel and sometimes madcap technologies as “synthetic slime” that clings to small-boat propellers and expands to hinder propulsion; microwave directed-energy systems that impede electronics or shut down a vessel’s engines; and dazzling lasers that cast a glare that obscures eyesight or interferes with optics.

Such innovations are all to the good, but someone does have to be on the scene of gray-zone competition to wield them. The finest capability in the world makes no difference unless you use it. U.S. political and military magnates must make the conscious strategic choice to compete with China in the gray zone. That means mounting a standing presence in the South China Sea in the form of U.S. Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard seafarers, ships, and planes. In other words, it means setting aside the past practice of showing up once in a while and then steaming away because that cedes the contested ground to China, which is always there.

You have to compete to win, and you have to be there to compete. Let’s go — and stay.

This article by James Holmes was originally published by

Feature Image: An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Fighting Checkmates” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 211 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Aug. 24, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jack Hoppe).

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