China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

By Robbin Laird

The book edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson on Chinese maritime operations which they label as operating in the “gray zone” is a first rate piece of work.

The books identifies and discusses in detail “gray zone” operations, namely, operations short of the use of lethal force but empowered by a well worked out chain of maritime power elements up to and including the presence of combat forces.

The goal is to reshape the external environment in ways favorable without the need to engage in kinetic operations. In the hybrid war concept, lethal operations are the supporting not the tip of the spear element to achieve what the state actor is hoping to achieve tactically or strategically.

The book argues that this is a phase short of what the Russians have done which has been labelled hybrid warfare.

But from my point of view both gray zone ops and hybrid war ops are part of a broader strategic reality, namely, the nature of crisis management facing the liberal democracies competing with the authoritarian states in a peer-to-peer competition.

The challenge can be put bluntly — deterrence has been designed on the Western side with large scale engagement of enemy forces in mind.

What if deterrence in this sense is the necessary but not sufficient capability to constrain the actions of the authoritarians?

What if you can deter from full scale war, but by so doing not be able to control what your adversary is doing in terms of expanding his global reach and reshaping the strategic environment to his benefit?

What if you have organized yourself for deterrence but not effective crisis management?

The gray zone concept in my view is subsumed in this broader strategic shift and challenge.

There is also a key question whether gray zone operations is the strategic focus or really a phase on the way to engaging in kinetic operations as part of the way ahead.

What if the US and its key allies are not willing or able to respond and the Chinese expand their appraoch over time?

We can not assume that as Chinese look at the world or read RAND studies that they will not believe that actually striking a US or allied warship might not be a useful part of their evolving appraoch to crisis management.

From this point of view the discussions of the book could be seen as a historic look at a phase of Chinese maritime power and the evolving approach to strategic engagement in the region and beyond.

I would note that the focus in the book is on the US Navy and its responses.

Having worked with the USCG for years, I found the resource neglect of the service and the strategic decision to stick them into the Department of Homeland security as significant strategic failures on the part of the US.

First, the engagement in the Middle East has stolen resources from many security and non-security accounts, among them the USCG.

And then the focus on the return of Great Power politics, although admirable must focus on the nature of who these competitors actually are and how they operate.

How do we constrain Chine, and not just deter it?

Many years ago when I started a series on Pacific defense for the then AOL Defense, now Breaking Defense, I actually started with the significance of the USCG and why they were a foundational element for the kind of “constrainment” as well as deterrent strategy we needed to shape.

That series led eventually to our co-authored book on Pacific strategy which again started with the “constrainment” challenge not just the deterrence one.

What I had not realized was that it is the broader challenge which the authoritarian states were generating for crisis management against the liberal democracies  which was in play.

And that this was the core strategic shift from the land wars.

This book simply validates how important the missing USCG National Security and Offshore Patrol vessel hulls and trained personnel are.

Instead, the US focused on Littoral Combat Ships which made no sense.

The white hulls are crucial to a “constrainment strategy”, and the expansion of the Chinese Coast Guard in the region has been central to the gray zone operations discussed in the book.

I would highly recommend reading this important book and thinking through what it teaches us, or challenges us to think about in terms of the much broader spectrum of crisis management we are facing.

And please rebuild the USCG and get it the hell out of the Department of Homeland Security so that it can focus on its global role.

This is what I wrote in my piece on AOL Defense in the second piece in my Pacific series and published on August 14, 2012:

As Vice Admiral Manson Brown, the recently departed Coat Guard Pacific commander, underscored in an interview last year:

“Many people believe that we need to be a coastal coast guard, focused on the ports, waterways, and coastal environment.

“But the reality is that because our national interests extend well beyond our shore, whether it’s our vessels, or our mariners, or our possessions and our territories, we need to have presence well beyond our shores to influence good outcomes.

“As the Pacific Area Commander, I’m also the USCG Pacific Fleet Commander. That’s a powerful synergy. I’m responsible for the close-in game, and I’m responsible for the away game. Now the away game has some tangible authorities and capabilities, such as fisheries enforcement and search and rescue presence,” he said.

At the heart of a strategic rethink in building a U.S. Pacific maritime security strategy is coming to terms with the differences between these two domains, the security and military. The security domain is based on multiple-sum actions; military activity is by its very nature rooted in unilateral action. If one starts with the military side of the equation and then defines the characteristics of a maritime security equation the formula is skewed towards unilateral action against multiple-sum activity.

But there is another aspect of change as well. Increasingly, the United States is rethinking its overall defense policy. A shift is underway toward preparing its forces for global operations for conventional engagement in flexible conditions.

Conventional engagement is built on a sliding scale from insertion of forces to achieve political effect to the use of high intensity sledgehammer capabilities. Policymakers and specialists alike increasingly question the utility of high-tech, high-intensity warfare capabilities for most conventional engagement missions.

In parallel to the relationship between those two domains is the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Navy, rooted in a sliding scale on levels of violence. This needs to be replaced by a new look, which emphasizes the intersection between security operations and conventional engagement, with high-intensity capabilities as an escalatory tool.

To protect the littorals of the United States is a foundational element for Pacific defense, and allows the U.S. to focus on multiple sum outcomes to enhance defense and security, but at the same time it lays a solid foundation for moving deeper into the Pacific for military or extended security operations when needed.

A reflection of such an approach is the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum. Again one must remember the central place the Great Circle Route plays in trans-Pacific shipping and the immensity of the Pacific. Given these conditions, the Coast Guard has participated in a collaborative security effort in the North Pacific designed to enhance littoral protection of the United States.

Among the key participants are the Canadians, Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese.

Admiral Day, an active participant in the forum during his tenure, notes that members have participated in numerous exercises and several joint operations.

But for the United States to play a more effective role in defending its own littorals and to be more effective in the kind of multi-national collaboration which building Pacific security and providing a solid foundation for littoral defense, a key element are presence assets.

“And it’s presence, in a competitive sense, because if we are not there, someone else will be there, whether it’s the illegal fishers or whether it’s Chinese influence in the region,” said Vice Adm. Manson Brown. “We need to be very concerned about the balance of power in the neighborhood.

If you look at some of the other players that are operating in the neighborhood there is clearly an active power game going on. To keep the US presence relevant, the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters are a core asset.

The inability to fund these and the putting in limbo of the smaller cutters, the so-called OPCs, or Offshore Patrol Cutters, underscores a central question: without effective littoral presence (for U.S. shores) how does one do security and defense in the Pacific?

The size and immensity of the Pacific means you operate with what you have; you do not have shore infrastructure easily at hand to support a ship. Ships need to be big enough to have onboard provisions and fuel, as well as aviation assets to operate over time and distance.

In short, providing for littoral defense and security on the shores of the United States requires a reaffirmation of the Coast Guard’s Title X role and ending the logjam of funding support for the cutter fleet and the service’s aviation assets which enable that fleet to have range and reach.

Or let me be blunt: What the Chinese have done should not be a strategic surprise or a black swan.

It is simply something for which we did not prepare nor resource.