CIMSEC Event Invite: 20 JUN DC Discussion: The USCG in the SCS

Join CIMSEC’s DC chapter for an evening happy hour discussion on the challenges and opportunities presented by the potential for an expanded role of the U.S. Coast Guard in Southeast Asia, and in particular a focus on the question of what role, if any, it should play in the South China Sea.  Discussants:

CDR (Ret) John D. Hooper is a Sr. Naval Analyst for Whitney, Bradley and Brown, and an Adjunct Professor for the U.S. Naval War College, and is supporting OPNAV on the CNO’s staff.*

Shawn Lansing (@cgrsqswmr) is an active duty Coast Guard officer currently assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.*

*Both will be speaking in a personal capacity and their views may not reflect the official policy of the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard.

Time: Wednesday, 20 June, 6:00-8:00pm

Place: Fuel Pizza Farragut Square, 1606 K St NW, Washington, DC 20006 (via Farragut North or West Metro Station).

RSVPs not necessary but appreciated: director@cimsec.org

What do the New National Security and Defense Strategies Mean for Maritime Security?

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By Jack McKechnie

The recently released U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) have major implications for maritime security. In December 2017, the Trump Administration released its first National Security Strategy and a month afterward, the Department of Defense released its nested National Defense Strategy. Per U.S. military doctrine, the NSS provides a broad strategic context for employing military capabilities in concert with other instruments of national power and addresses tasks that are necessary to provide enduring security for the American people and shape the global environment.1 The NDS outlines the Department of Defense’s approach to implementing the President’s NSS. Both signify a significant change of focus while also confirming the traditional American approach to security. During the implementation of these strategies, the maritime environment plays a prominent role in addressing security concerns for the foreseeable future.  

Great Power Strategic  Competition, not Terrorism

A few years ago, there was considerable ambiguity identifying the greatest security threat facing the United States. ISIS had emerged as a serious force in the middle east, and U.S. and allied forces faced setbacks in Afghanistan. The threat of violent extremist organizations, especially radical Islamic ones, appeared to most significantly affect future security interests of the United States. In 2015, a Gallop poll indicated that 84 percent of Americans considered both ISIS and international terrorism to be critical threats to vital U.S. interests, while only 49 percent considered the military power of Russia and only 40 percent considered the economic power of China to be critical threats.2 The maritime environment plays a relatively minor role in addressing the terrorist threat, and it appeared that the main focus of effort would be on terrorists rather than conventional, state actors.

Following a dramatic period witnessing the collapse of ISIS along with increasingly aggressive actions by China and Russia, the National Security Strategy (NSS) mentions the challenge of China and Russia first in its description of the present competitive world, and warns of the return of great power competition. Likewise, the National Defense Strategy declares upfront that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” There is a renewed emphasis to deter or defeat major powers which will greatly increase attention for maritime security.

Long-term strategic competition from China and Russia is profoundly more threatening to maritime security compared to the threat of non-state terrorists. The ability of either or both major powers to impede sea lines of communication in the event of an armed conflict is an alarming concern. One of the missions of the U.S. Navy – to maintain freedom of the seas – would be critically challenged in a great power conflict. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, the primary purpose of a Navy is to secure command of the seas so that another navy is unable to disrupt that nation’s sea commerce. Mahan argues that a navy should secure command of the seas by destroying the enemy navy.3 Mahan’s theories continue to influence U.S. Navy policy today, as apparent in the U.S. Navy’s Design for Maritime Superiority and Future Navy documents. Analytical studies, war games, and conferences will increasingly feature potential conflict in the maritime environment by addressing the potential of one navy to destroy another in a contest to secure or sever sea lines of communication.  

Military Primacy

The NSS calls for the military to remain pre-eminent and to retain over-match, the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success. This continues a longstanding tradition of U.S. foreign policy as recently summarized by Dr. Thomas Mahnken in his contribution to the journal by the Asian Bureau of National Research.4 Mahnken states that in practice, U.S. grand strategy and national military strategy have been remarkably consistent over the past 70 years, with a military strategy of power projection underpinning a grand strategy of global primacy. The NSS and NDS continue this strategy, notwithstanding the recommendations of some academic scholars to abandon this approach.

Dr. Barry Posen is one such scholar who has argued against prioritization of military power, instead advocating a grand strategy of Restraint which would pursue a cautious balance-of-power strategy and use military power sparingly.5 Initially encouraged by Donald Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail indicating that as president, he might withdraw from alliances and play a less prominent (and expensive) role in the world order, Posen was surprised and disappointed that Trump’s grand strategy turned into a continuation of what he considered an overly expensive, hegemonic security policy, although with more illiberal characteristics.6

Posen overstates the characterization of the Trump administration’s policies, which fundamentally still adhere to liberal international principles, especially compared to other, truly illiberal regimes. He underestimated the durability of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its effectiveness in convincing a new President to adopt an approach quite different from what was discussed during the campaign. The NSS and NDS firmly refute the suitability of Restraint in addressing contemporary security dilemmas. Despite the problems of military primacy and maintaining overmatch, these policies have been decided to be better than the alternatives with respect to reorienting toward great power competition. It is important to make this distinction and to understand how significant the rejection of Posen’s concepts is, for this will be the path of U.S. strategy for the foreseeable future.

The National Defense Strategy asserts that war between great powers is possible and increasingly likely unless the United States can maintain a favorable balance of power. Rivalry among maritime forces will be a crucial element in this balance of power as the United States strives to maintain military primacy. The rate of procurement and modernization among global naval forces, especially between the United States and China, will be scrutinized. Military future force planning goals such as a 355-ship navy are actively discussed – a number that would have seemed preposterous only a few years ago. Furthermore, should China and Russia surprise the United States by building more ships and submarines than anticipated during force structure planning, that number will change. In fact, another Force Structure Assessment may be accomplished soon, guided by the NDS.7    

Alliances and Forward Military Presence

From the rhetoric during campaign season some expected the Trump Administration to significantly change the U.S. security approach which favored a commitment to a system of alliances and maintenance of a forward military posture. Scholars such Dr. John T. Kuehn considered an active military and forward posture to result in indecisive and expensive military operations. Kuehn advocated for a “command of the commons approach” which uses naval and air forces to secure the North American continent from threats while avoiding expensive “boots on the ground” forward military presence.8 Instead, the Trump Administration has been convinced that U.S. security concerns continue to be best addressed by a powerful military, positioned and engaged forward with allied partners.

Military leadership in the Pacific theater has argued that reducing America’s overseas military deployments and alliance commitments places the United States at a distinct disadvantage. They point out that due to considerable distances, there is significant operational risk for the military to adequately reinforce units and fulfill treaty obligations during a full-scale contingency. They emphasize that restoring a forward-based deterrent once it has been dismantled is much more difficult than estimated.9

The National Security Strategy states that the U.S. will “maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary.” It also declares “we will reinforce our commitment to freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law.” The Trump Administration’s decision that continuing a policy that considers forward presence and close cooperation with allies as the best means to safeguard freedom of the seas  means that the U.S. Navy and its allies will seek to maintain or increase its presence in disputed areas. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) and exercises such as the three carrier strike group maneuver in the East China Sea last Fall will continue. Furthermore, the National Defense Strategy’s declaration to be less operationally predictable may result in unforeseen increases in forward posture and operations in key regions, especially the Indo Pacific region.

Conclusion

In A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21R), the sea services of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard state that the essential function of maritime security supports free and open seaborne commerce. CS21R was forward-leaning in that it addressed the increasing tension and instability caused by China’s naval expansion, lack of transparency in its military intentions, and behavior that suggests it is not on an inevitable path towards integrating fully with international norms, institutions, and standards of behavior. The NSS states the United States will encourage regional cooperation to maintain free and open seaways and identifies China as challenging American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. CS21R remains in alignment with this, but revision is required for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to implement the NDS. The NDS requires prioritization of threats, mission, geography and investment to address long term strategic competitions with China and Russia. In addition, the NDS concepts of Dynamic Force Employment and Global Operating Model require elaboration by the services for competition in the maritime environment, and the NDS direction to restore warfighting readiness and build a more lethal force must also be addressed.

A broader task is to convince the American public why the danger of inter-state strategic competition with China and Russia is more pressing than the danger of Islamic terrorists. Furthermore, they must approve of the means of military primacy to deter or defeat this threat, for they as taxpayers ultimately fund the military – and more funding will be required should China’s military expansion accelerate. Finally, U.S. citizens must endorse the forward deployment of military and American leadership abroad as an essential way to promote stability and security abroad which reduces threats to prosperity and safety at home. This is a difficult task, for most Americans are more mindful of the death and destruction caused by Al-Qaeda and ISIS than of the consequences of a future conflict with China. They are largely unaware of malign maritime activities across the world and the operations of U.S. forces postured to counter them. The NSS and NDS are a good start to shift public perceptions; follow through is essential.          

Jack McKechnie is a Commander in the U.S. Navy and a graduate student at American University, School of International Service. The views expressed in this article are his own.

References

[1] Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2017). Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (JP-1). II-3. Retrieved from http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp1_ch1.pdf

[2] Swift, A. & Dugan, A. (2015, February 13). ISIS, Terrorism Seen as Graver Threats Than Russia, Ukraine. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/181553/isis-terrorism-seen-graver-threats-russia-ukraine.aspx?utm_source=Politics&utm_medium=newsfeed&utm_campaign=tiles

[3] Mahan, A. T. (1890). The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

[4] Mahnken, T. (2017). U.S. Strategy: Confronting Challenges Abroad and at Home. In A. J. Tellis, A. Szalwinski, and M. Wills (Eds.) Strategic Asia 2017-2018 Power, Ideas, and Military Strategy in the Asia Pacific (204-229). The National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, WA.

[5] Posen, B. R. (2014). Restraint, A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[6] Posen, B. R. (2018)  The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony. Foreign Affairs. Mar/Apr 2018. 20-38.

[7] LaGrone, S. (2018 March 7). Navy Working New Fleet Size Study Following Latest Strategic Reviews. USNI News. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2018/03/07/navy-working-new-fleet-size-study-following-latest-strategic-reviews

[8] Kuehn, J.T. (2017 December 7). Reconsidering the American Way of Strategy. Center for International Maritime Security. Retrieved from http://cimsec.org/reconsidering-american-way-strategy/34726

[9] Harris, H. B., Brown, R.B., Swift, S.H., and Berry, R.D. (2018 March 2). The Integrated Joint Force: A Lethal Solution for Ensuring Military Preeminence. Strategy Bridge. Retrieved from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/3/2/the-integrated-joint-force-a-lethal-solution-for-ensuring-military-preeminence.

Featured Image: USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their attached strike groups transit the Western Pacific with ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. (US Navy Photo)

Russia-China Naval Cooperation in an Era of Great Power Competition

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By David Scott

Introduction

On 30 May 2018, Admiral Harry Harris, the retiring chief of the newly renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Pacific Command (IndoPacom), noted that “China remains our biggest long-term challenge” and “a resurgent and revanchist Russia, remains an existential threat to the U.S” – and that consequently “Great Power competition is back.” Such competition brings Russia and China together as political partners, and is echoed in their increasing naval cooperation. Such naval cooperation provides one another with tacit support in their respective areas of geopolitical interest.

Straight balancing imperatives against the U.S. bring Russia and China together. This was first evident in their 1997 “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” which was followed by a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed in 2001, and proclamation of a “strategic partnership.” Joint military exercises were initiated in 2005, with maritime exercises starting in 2012. Their military cooperation has clear “geopolitical signaling” to the U.S.-led order, reflecting their maritime strategies.

Russia’s Maritime Strategy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the Russian Federation suffered a decade of chaos under Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s and with it a sharp decline in maritime power from the preceding Soviet period. Vladimir Putin has sought to establish Russia as a major power again, and to push back the advancing influence of the U.S., NATO and the EU. Military power and military assertiveness has been a feature of Putin’s presidency.

This renewed Russian pushback was reflected in the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, released in 2015, which sought to restore Russia’s position “among the leading maritime powers,” and concluded in its final sentence that it aimed to make Russia “a great maritime power.” It stressed that as an “instrument of foreign policy […] naval activities are the highest state priorities.” The navy had a global remit:

“The Navy is intended to ensure protection of the national interests of the Russian Federation and its allies on the World Ocean by military means, maintaining military and political stability at the global and regional levels […] ensures the naval presence of the Russian Federation; shows the flag and demonstrates military capabilities on the World Ocean.”

Russia’s areas of strategic interest were recast on a wider scale again; “the Russian Federation identifies the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian, Indian Ocean and Antarctic areas as the main regional priority areas of the National Maritime Policy.” To reverse the Yeltsin-period of industrial collapse of the 1990s, a naval shipbuilding program was announced.

Chinese Military Strategy

The current rise of China is a process where economic modernization is now feeding into military modernization. This military modernization includes naval advancement, where China’s navy is moving from a local coastal activities to oceanic-going “far seas operations” (yuanhai zuozhan). China’s 2013 Defense White Paper announced its intent “to accelerate the modernization of its forces for comprehensive offshore operations, develop advanced submarines, destroyers and frigates […] blue-water capabilities.” Faced with U.S. naval strength in the West Pacific, China has adopted a naval strategy of penetrating the “first island chain” (dì yi dao lian) running from Japan down the Ryukyu chain to Taiwan, establishing naval presence in its “core interests” (hexin liyi) claims to most of the South China Sea, and in a “two-ocean strategy” (liang ge haiyang) of establishing ongoing naval presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like Russia, China is accelerating its naval shipbuilding program, including aircraft carrier capabilities.

Bilateral Naval Exercises 2012-2018

A significant development in the China-Russia relationship has been their series of large-scale naval exercises held since 2012. At a time when both powers have been under growing criticism from the West, their overt readiness to publicly operate militarily side-by-side has been an act of political solidarity. They continue to claim that these drills are “not aimed at third parties,” but in reality pointed messages are being sent to third parties like the U.S. and others with whom Russia and China are in competition with.

The geographic scope of the Russia-China naval exercises has been wide ranging, with each country hosting in different waters.

Three of the exercises have taken place in Russia’s backyard – the Mediterranean (2015), Black Sea (2015), Baltic (2017), and Okhtosk Sea (2017). One has been in mutual areas of interest – the Sea of Japan (2013, 2015, 2017). Three have been in China’s backyard – the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014) and the South China Sea (2016). The 2018 exercises are scheduled to be held in the Yellow Sea, coming full circle back to the start of the cycle of exercises that commenced in 2012.

Russia’s Strategic Backyard

2015: Mediterranean

With this exercise, Russia was sending a very explicit message to the U.S. and NATO. This was at a time when Russia was reinserting itself back into the Mediterranean as a permanent maritime presence, through re-setting up in September 2013 the “5th Operational squadron” for operations in the Mediterranean, to be serviced and repaired at Tartus in Syria. This was again made up of ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Northern Fleet, which of course participated in the Russia-China naval exercises in 2015.

Tartus had operated under a Soviet-Syrian agreement concluded in 1971, with a view of supporting the Soviet Navy’s 5th Operational Squadron in the Mediterranean, in its rivalry with the U.S. 6th Fleet based in Italy. This Soviet squadron had been disbanded in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tartus was subsequently the focus, along with Hmeymim airbase, for the flow of Russian military supplies into Syria from 2012 onward. This growing Russian military role in Syria, on the side of Assad, attracts increasing criticism from European states, the U.S., and NATO, but China’s readiness to exercise with Russia in the Mediterranean in 2015 gave Russia extra support. Direct Russian military intervention quickly followed in September 2015. Russia’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean was further strengthened on 18 January 2017, when Russia and Syria signed an agreement, whereby Russia was allowed to expand and use the naval facility at Tartus for 49 years on a free-of-charge basis and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over the base, with full immunity from Syrian jurisdiction for Russia’s personnel and material at the facility. The treaty also allows Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels.

China’s implicit message in the 2015 exercise was to show its assertion of its blue water capabilities. A more subtle message was to accustom Europe to China’s presence and emerging maritime interests in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has come into the purview of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pursued by China since 2013. In particular, the main Greek port of Piraeus has increasing “geopolitical” importance to China, a “bridgehead” into Europe; the so called “dragon head” from the MSR route coming through the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Greece’s troubled relationship with the EU had seen China stepping in with financial aid, including the running of the Piraeus port by the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) since 2008. In July 2014 China and Greece agree to make the year 2015 the “China-Greece Maritime Cooperation Year.” Consequently, China strengthened its Mediterranean presence by COSCO’s acquisition of a majority stake (i.e. moving from administering to owning) in the Piraeus Port Authority in April 2016.

2015: Black Sea

Technically speaking the Black Sea was not the focus of the bilateral China-Russia naval exercise program. However, immediately following the bilateral 2015 Mediterranean exercise, the Chinese missile frigates, the Linyi and the Wei Fang, proceeded into the Black Sea, to take part in World War Two commemorations at Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast.

Russia’s context was simple, growing assertion in the Black Sea littoral. This had first been seen in its ongoing presence in Trans-Dniester since the 1990s, then followed with intervention in Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, and particularly manifested in  2014 with the occupation of the Crimea, and with it securing full control of the deep water facilities of Sevastopol. China’s deployment to Russia’s Black Sea coast in May 2015 in effect gave unofficial support to Russian actions in the Ukraine in February 2014, which caused outrage across the rest of Europe, and with it sanctions and cutting of various political, economic, and military links.

2017: Baltic Sea

The Chinese destroyer Hefei, the frigate Yuncheng , and the replenishment ship Luomahu sailed to the Baltic to carry out Maritime Interaction 2017 exercises with 18 other Russian ships from the Baltic Fleet from 21-28 July 2017. They first met in the waters off the Kaliningrad enclave, currently a “fault line of East-West tensions,” carried out exercises including live fire exercises, before the Chinese vessels sailed right up the Baltic to Russia’s St. Petersburg for a friendly port call. This represented a particularly far-reaching deployment of Chinese naval presence, but the context was very much Russian reassertion of military power in the Baltic, where Kaliningrad is not only the headquarters for the Russian Baltic Fleet, but is also a forward point for various missile deployments.

Rising confrontation has been a feature of the Baltic. Cyber-warfare attacks have been carried out by Russia against Estonia in 2016, and NATO exercises had immediately preceded the Russia-China naval exercise – the Suwalki Gap exercises in June 2017 and the Tobruq Legacy 2017 exercises in Lithuania in early July 2017. The Russia-China naval exercises in late-July were in turn followed and reinforced by the Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017 held in September in the vicinity of Kaliningrad, which was the largest Russian exercise since the end of the Cold War. For Russia, the Baltic Sea exercises with China were one of several shows of strength with the purpose of sending a signal not only to the Baltic States, but also NATO, which had increased its presence in Poland and the Baltic states. China in itself presented no particular military danger to the Baltic States, but its very visible presence alongside Russia sent a signal of tacit support to Moscow.

2017: Okhtosk Sea

The Okhotsk Sea lies between the Kurile chain of islands and the Kamchakta peninsular. It is very much Russian waters, facing the northern Pacific and the U.S. Aleutian islands, with naval facilities at Petropavlovsk. The 2017 Russia-China exercises in the Sea of Japan were extended northwards into the Okhtosk waters in September 2017. From Russia’s point of view such military exercises support its increasing grip on the Okhtosk Sea, demonstrated with how it closed down these waters to outside shipping and fishing in 2014, which some argued will “embolden” similar Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Common Backyards

2013, 2015, 2017: Sea of Japan

The Sea of Japan lies between the Japanese archipelago, the Russian island of Sakhalin and Far Eastern province, and the Korean peninsula. Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, currently recovering from the decay witnessed in the 1990s. Naval exercises between Russia and China were carried out in the Sea of Japan in July 2013, August 2015, and September 2017. The 2015 exercises included joint amphibious landing drills, of relevance for China and Russia in their respective island disputes with Japan.

The Kurile island chain is administered by Russia, but territorial disputes remain with Japan over the four southernmost islands which Japan calls the “Northern Territories.” Russia has continued to reassert its continuing grip on this chain, with increased naval strength a signal to Japan.

Disputed features of the Kuril Islands (DW.com)

China has no direct frontage onto the Sea of Japan, but it continues to seek access to the Pacific Ocean through the “first island chain” running down through the .U.S Aleutian islands down through the Japanese archipelago. Naval exercises in the Sea of Japan send a message from China to Japan, the more so following the 2013 exercise where five Chinese naval vessels conducted their first known passage of the Soya Strait located between Hokkaido in northern Japan and Russia’s Sakhalin Island. The 2013 exercises were preceded by live fire joint U.S.-Japanese naval exercises in the Eastern Pacific. Comments in China were pointed: “all military drills have imaginary enemies, otherwise it’s just a game. For the U.S. and Japan, their joint drills in San Diego targeted China. And the upcoming Sino-Russian exercises will obviously target Japan or even the U.S. in response.” The five Chinese vessels participating in the 2015 exercise sailed from the Sea of Japan into Aleutian island territorial waters, a message to the U.S.

China’s Backyard

Three venues for the China-Russia exercises have been in China’s backyard, namely the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014), and the South China Sea (2016).

 2012: Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea is bounded by China, running up from Shanghai on the one side and the Korean peninsula on the other side. It in turn runs into the Bohai Sea, the maritime gateway to Beijing. A degree of naval “competition” is apparent with the U.S., which continues to deploy into these waters and carry out naval exercises with South Korea. The immediate context for the China-Russia 2012 exercises in April were the U.S. joint naval exercises with South Korea in March, as well as those in November 2010 which had attracted much Chinese criticism. Another set of exercises with South Korea and Japan took place in the Yellow Sea in June 2012; complete with the USS George Washington nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; with the state media warning that “U.S. in position to strangle China’s maritime lifelines.”

2014: East China Sea

These exercises were launched by both Presidents Xi and Putin at Shanghai in May 2014. Russia’s motives were secondary, i.e. tacitly supportive of China’s increasing naval presence in the East China Sea where “core interests” are at stake for Beijing. These revolve around the Senkaku islands controlled by Japan but which China claims as the Diaoyu islands, disputed exclusive economic zones between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and disputed airspace above these waters. Chinese actions in 2012 and 2013 provide the immediate context for Beijing’s decision to operate with Russia in the East China Sea. Firstly, increasing deployments of Chinese naval units in the waters immediately around the Senkaku/Diaoyu have been rising since 2012. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) proclaimed in November 2013 was a further sign of China’s push to establish jurisdiction over the East China Sea. Moreover, from the East China Sea, China seeks to penetrate Japan’s Ryukyu island chain into the Pacific, with naval deployments becoming a regular pattern through the Miyako and Ishigaki straits since 2008. The 2012 deployment through the Miyako Strait was particularly significant as China told Japan that “with the expansion of China’s maritime transport lines and interests, the Chinese navy will inevitably extend its combat forces to the Pacific.

2016: South China Sea

The two sides conducted their annual naval exercise, Joint Sea-2016, in the South China Sea with a focus on “island-seizing.” This is a key arena for China, a so-called “core interest” (hexin liyi) in which China’s “9-dash line” encloses most of the South China Sea, including the Paracels (occupied by China since 1974 but disputed with Vietnam) and the Spratlys (some land holdings occupied by China but disputed with Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, as well as waters disputed with Brunei and Indonesia). The China-Russia naval exercise in September 2016 was preceded in July 2016 by the ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which had seriously undermined China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, since it held that China’s so-called historical rights gave no validity for claims for Exclusive Economic Zones, and that none of the land features were proper “islands” under the UNCLOS categorization which could generate exclusive Economic Zones, and criticized Chinese creation of artificial concrete land features. It was significant that immediately before the start of the exercise Putin affirmed “we stand in solidarity and support of China’s position – not to recognize the decision of this court.” Given that China’s militarization of these artificial holdings had attracted widespread regional and international criticism, Russia’s readiness to then conduct military exercises with China, particularly involving South China Sea amphibious “island-seizing” operations, in effect provided tacit support for China’s maritime reinforcement of its position. 

Looking Forward

The 2018 exercises to be held in the Yellow Sea returns their cooperation to Northeast Asia, at a time when both China and Russia are moving to strengthen involvement in the Korean peninsula, and shape developments in their favor. These naval exercises have become a well-established feature in China-Russia military cooperation, which are in turn part of their wider strategic cooperation.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defense College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tartu since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Rear Adm. Du Xiping, front right, deputy commander of China’s Beihai Fleet, shakes hands with Captain First Rank Sergei Yuriyevich Zhuga of Russia’s Pacific Fleet during a welcome ceremony at a naval base in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, Saturday, April 21, 2012. A China-Russia joint maritime drill is scheduled from April 22 to 27 on the Yellow Sea, Xinhua said. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming) 

Countering Hybrid Threats in the Maritime Environment

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Introduction: Hybrid Threats

Today, there are state and non-state actors challenging nations, institutions, and private companies through a wide range of overt and covert activities targeted at their vulnerabilities. Both NATO and the European Union refer to these as “hybrid threats” and the maritime domain has proven to be especially vulnerable.1 As we’ve seen recently, in both Crimea and the South China Sea, a hybrid approach lowers the political price for aggression, making regime change and territorial annexation possible “on the cheap.”2

Many refer to this phenomenon as “hybrid warfare” and in the process militarize a phenomenon that is actually much broader and more complex. This phenomenon requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to access the necessary means and authorities to address them. Thus, hybrid threats are best understood when framed as an attack on governance, specifically democratic governance.

Hybrid uses subtle, far-reaching, and opportunistic methods – and seldom with a return address. In other cases, they can be more brazen, but operate in a gray zone in which the impacted state has few good response options without escalating the situation into armed conflict.

In general, governments and institutions with weak governance are more susceptible to hybrid and transnational threats. Corruption, low levels of public trust, weak public and private accountability, ineffective law enforcement, poor border and port security, weak security protocols for critical infrastructure, and a lack of cooperation between ministries, institutions, and the private sector leave them more vulnerable to these attacks on governance.

Of course, these threats have always existed, but what makes hybrid threats different are the new vulnerabilities presented by a globalized world interconnected by instant global communications, systems of finance, and commerce. Hybrid threats represent the weaponization of globalization.

The governance which is threatened by hybrid threats is not just public, but private as well. The majority of the world’s supply chain, communications providers, financial systems, and media outlets are found in the private sector. For example, 80–90 percent of many Western countries’ critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector. This infrastructure is widely recognized as the first target of a hybrid campaign.3 Given NATO’s heavy reliance on the private sector to provide logistics and communications capabilities during a crisis, these vulnerabilities can have far-reaching effects. 

Vulnerabilities to Maritime Hybrid Threats

Commercial. Commercial vessels and ports are vulnerable to hybrid threats in the form of sabotage, navigational spoofing, and cyber-attacks on supply chain information systems, resulting in lost or disrupted cargo, denial of access to critical port facilities, and environmental damage. At the same time, foreign ownership and control of commercial port facilities can lead to the disruption of their use when these same facilities are required in times of crisis. 

Cyber. Commercial and military maritime activities are more reliant on cyber-enabling capabilities than ever, with everything from navigation systems to port information systems all being vulnerable to cyber-attack by hybrid actors and criminal organizations.4 The Maersk incident of 2017 illustrates the challenge well. A cyber-attack on the government of Ukraine inadvertently impacted Danish global shipping giant Maersk when they went to pay their Ukrainian taxes online. 

As a result, Maersk’s global operations came to a halt as they temporarily lost the ability to govern their fleet. Numerous other industries were also impacted as the global supply chain was disrupted.5 If this attack was actually aimed at commercial ports and logistics companies, the damage and disruption could have been much worse. 

Under this same category, some commercial shipping companies are currently testing technologies to enable the use of cyber-controlled unmanned container ships to move commodities across the world’s seaways.  Obviously, the risks associated with this potential development are self-evident when looked at through the lens of maritime hybrid threats, with a potential scenario of a cyber-hacked unmanned vessel being turned into a weapon.

Energy. Diversification of energy supplies has led to an increase in the importance of liquefied natural gas (LNG), to include the transport vessels and onshore offloading facilities. In addition, gas and oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and the trans-shipment of petroleum and LNG at sea makes the energy supply chain more vulnerable to hybrid threats against the commercial entities which explore, extract, and ship these commodities.6

Communications.  Today’s economies are very reliant on the global information technology infrastructure with 97 percent of intercontinental communications moving through undersea cables, most of which lack even basic defenses. Approximately $10 trillion in financial transactions is carried over these 213 cable systems every day, illustrating the global economy’s reliance on them.7 These cables are not owned by states, but rather by private entities which cannot afford to harden them and still make a profit.  

The potential impacts are apparent when considering that in December 2008, accidental cable cuts in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf resulted in widespread internet outages in the Middle East and India. For example, during that accident, Egypt lost 70 percent of internet connectivity, while India lost 50 percent.8

Territorial Vulnerabilities. The borders and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of coastal nations can be disrupted and contested by hybrid actors acting on behalf of a state in order to contest the governance of their sovereign territory. In the South China Sea, China seeks to expand its claims, often interfering with the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, using methods such as armed fisherman to challenge the authorities of these nations and their commercial entities operating in their own EEZ.

Since the ability to control, maintain, and protect sovereign territory is a key aspect of governance, these are among the central tasks of coast guards and naval forces. In some cases, governments find it necessary to modify the rules of engagement for coast guards to be authorized to use deadly force, as Finland did in 2017.

Threats to Maritime Security Forces. Clandestine hybrid actors using armed frogmen or unmarked vessels disguised as commercial or fishing craft can surprise and swarm military vessels, disabling or disrupting them to keep them from being able to respond to other elements of a hybrid attack. The ability to detect, attribute, and respond to these threats is among the greatest challenges presented to security forces. In addition, the availability of increasingly sophisticated commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS) to hybrid actors means that maritime security forces must constantly adapt in order to mitigate these emerging risks.

Disinformation. Alongside the previously mentioned maritime hybrid threats is the vulnerability to adversary disinformation campaigns aimed at eroding internal and regional trust by creating a false counter narrative. These disinformation campaigns across the media spectrum can bring into question the intentions and activities of friendly maritime security forces and their governments, not just in other countries but at home among their own people.

Strengthening Maritime Governance to Counter Hybrid and Transnational Threats 

The answer to these assaults on governance is resilient, credible, and capable governance; with deeper cooperation among public, private, and international organizational entities. High-trust societies are much more difficult for hybrid actors to target with disinformation campaigns.

Strong public and private governance presents a credible deterrence to both hybrid and transnational threats and well governed entities are more resilient when faced with them. 

In a broader sense, there are three levels of cooperation and collaboration which better enable governments and societies to deter and be more resilient to both hybrid and transnational threats:

  • A whole-of-government approach in which all agencies and ministries from national to local level cooperate and share information to reduce any gaps, seams, and vulnerabilities which can be exploited by hybrid and transnational threats.
  • A whole-of-society approach, which is similar to the whole-of-government approach, but also includes engagement with private sector, academia, and civil society stakeholders. Finland’s Comprehensive Security concept is a good example of a best practice for a whole-of-society approach.
  • A comprehensive approach in which the whole society of like-minded nations works together with international organizations and entities such as NATO, EU, UN, World Bank, the private sector, and civil society, collaborating and coordinating to face these challenges together.9

Seeking to focus on governance, instead of looking at hybrid and transnational threats primarily through a military lens, does not exclude a role for military capabilities. Rather, it puts these threats into a perspective which more closely matches each nation’s own legal authorities and frameworks. Given the nature of these threats, the first to detect and respond are most likely to be civilian entities (both public and private), which may require varying degrees of military capabilities to provide support. This is especially important since no government can afford to pay for the same capabilities twice.

In the event of a situation possibly escalating, close civil-military cooperation and interoperability is necessary to ensure a measured and appropriate response with all instruments of national and international influence available. For this reason, comprehensive and whole-of-society tabletop exercises (TTX) and scenario-based discussions on hybrid and transnational threats are vital to building trust and interoperability, while also identifying and closing any gaps and vulnerabilities in our legal and procedural frameworks. 

At the same time, the ability to counter maritime hybrid threats can be assisted by optimizing the use of existing systems and arrangements such as EUROSUR and Frontex’s European Patrols Network (EPN). In addition, new ways should be explored to leverage the expertise and capacity building efforts of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center (NMIOTC), and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid COE).

Emerging Requirements to Counter Maritime Hybrid Threats

As recent history has shown us, these vulnerabilities point to a new list of emerging requirements in order to deter and counter maritime hybrid threats:

  • A review of national legal frameworks and the rules of engagement for maritime security forces to ensure they are sufficient and appropriate to the task of deterring and countering maritime hybrid threats.
  • A national and EU-wide foreign investment screening process for critical infrastructure and sensitive technologies.
  • The ability to operate in and regain control of contested commercial spaces.
  • The ability to differentiate clandestine hybrid threat vessels from other commercial and privately owned vessels.
  • The ability to operate in and regain control of contested cyberspace.
  • The ability to detect and attribute hybrid threats on shore and at sea.
  • The ability to operate quickly and decisively in a contested public information environment.
  • The need for whole-of-government, whole-of society, and comprehensive approach tabletop exercises and scenario-based discussions to develop deeper cooperation and information sharing between public and private entities.

Through meeting these new requirements, strengthening public and private governance, and seeking deeper and broader cooperation among institutions, nations, and civil society, we can turn globalization and our greater interconnectedness from a vulnerability into an advantage.

Chris Kremidas-Courtney currently serves as the Multilateral Cooperative Engagement Coordinator for U.S. European Command (EUCOM). His next assignment will be as Director of Training and Exercises at the Hybrid Center of Excellence in Helsinki. He regularly publishes articles in European journals on countering hybrid and transnational threats and is a facilitator and course designer for NATO Comprehensive Approach seminars throughout Europe. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of the U.S. Government or EUCOM. Chris can be contacted through his LinkedIn page.

Endnotes

1. Joint Declaration of the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, December 5, 2017

2. Kremidas-Courtney, Christopher, Russia and China take the lead in hybrid warfare while West struggles to respond, Europe’s World, September 2017.

3. Shea, Jamie, Resilience: a Core Element of Collective Defence, NATO Review, 2016

4. Jones, Kevin D, Maritime Cyber Threats, Presentation at NMIOTC Annual Conference, June 2015.

5. Milne, Richard, Maersk CEO Soren Skou on Surviving a Cyber Attack, Financial Times, August 13, 2017

6.  Incertis, David, Risks and Interdependencies in the LNG supply chain, Presentation at NMIOTC Annual Conference, June 2015.

7.  Sunak, Rishi, Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure, Policy Exchange, 2017

8. Khurana, Gurpreet S., Maritime Dimension of Hybrid Warfare – The Indian Context, National Maritime Foundation, Dec 28 2017

9. NATO Defense College (2011), NATO Comprehensive Approach Awareness Seminar, Course Guide

Featured Image: A container ship leaving Hamburg port (DPA)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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