Tag Archives: Gray Zone

Why Unmanned Systems Are The Go-To Option for Gray Zone Ops in the Gulf

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Heiko Borchert

Introduction

Current incidents in the Arabian Sea should be seized as an opportunity to advance naval conceptual thinking about unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. Gray zone activities are an astute object for concept development, as they “creep up on their goals gradually,” rather than involving decisive moves, as Michael Mazarr has argued. In response, Mazarr contends, gray zone operations will “call for a greater emphasis on innovation” as these operations take different forms and intensities and thus require varied responses. This coincides with the general need to devote more attention to concepts development that drives the use of new naval technologies such as unmanned systems.

Applying Unmanned Systems to Gulf Security

Maritime stability in the Arabian Sea has deteriorated significantly over the past couple of weeks. In response to the Iranian seizure of the Stena Imperio, a Swedish oil tanker under British flag, London reached out to different European capitals in view of establishing a maritime protection mission escorting commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

This incident and prior events in the Arabian Sea such as harassing commercial vessels with speedboats and assaults on commercial vessels are a perfect illustration of so-called gray zone activities. Located between war and peace, gray zone activities involve “coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response,” as Lyle J. Morris and others have suggested.

These activities raise an obvious question: How best to respond? Staying out of the region for an interim period, as the British government has advised U.K. shipping, has been interpreted as a watershed moment “when the UK admits it can no longer protect its merchant vessels.” But even if political support for the maritime protection mission matured, the question would remain if there were enough adequate platforms to do the job.

Deploying big capital ships or surface combatants to escort merchant vessels might send a strong message of resolve to Iran, but doubts remain if this approach is adequate. Past experiences in the Arabian Sea have made it clear that naval vessels remain vulnerable to speedboats operating at a high tempo in distributed maneuver operations. While this is certainly only one method of attack, it is most important for strategic communication. Small boats successfully attacking or deterring prestigious naval ships delivers a message that all gray zone actors want to convey.

It is time to supply navies with an additional option using unmanned systems. Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) have been developed and used for quite some time, but right now, the majority of unmanned maritime systems are used for mine countermeasures. There is an obvious operational need to do the job, concepts of operations are in place, and technology is mature. This makes a perfect fit, but more can be done.

Unlike gray zone activities in the South China Sea that involve the building of artificial islands to underline sovereignty claims and the use of naval militia and the coast guard to intimidate neighbors, Iran’s actions are of a different quality. In the Arabian Sea, mosaic defense emphasizes mass, speed, and surprise. Unmanned maritime systems would be ideal to respond because they can be built to be lost. This levels out current asymmetries between speed boats and big capital ships and denies the adversary the offensive on strategic communications. This attrition-like role is only one mission UMS could play in future maritime protection missions. Overall, the mission envelope could be much broader.

First, assuming that a maritime protection mission depends on persistent situational awareness and understanding, unmanned systems can be used to collect intelligence and provide reconnaissance. For this mission the emphasis should be on closing the sensor chain from seabed activities through the undersea world to the sea surface into airspace and space. In all of these domains unmanned systems are already in use, but more needs to be done to fuse data to augment the existing Recognized Maritime Pictures (RMP), for example to detect anomalies stemming from adversarial behavior at sea.

Second, unmanned systems at sea can push the defense perimeter out. Forward deployed unmanned surface vehicles (USV) could be used to intimidate an adversary’s embarking speed boat fleet thus delaying the launch of operations and creating “noise” that would send alarms to the RMP. A more wicked though not yet technically mature option would focus on very small, mine-like unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). These assets could be deployed covertly by submarines or by air assets. These UUV could turn into a sort of adhesive explosives that stick to boats running over them, thus rendering them dysfunctional.

Third, unmanned maritime systems could be used for deception operations. A swarm of USV could enter a theater of operation disguised as a big capital ship on the adversary’s sensors. As the adversary prepares to counter the ship the USV swarm would disperse into many different smaller platforms thus out tricking the adversarial defense posture. A similar mission can be envisaged for the underwater domain where UUV are already used to imitate the signature of submarines.

Fourth, USVs could constitute the outer ring of maritime protection missions. Robust platforms could be equipped with remote-controlled weapon stations, like the Protector USV developed by Rafael Advanced Systems, to engage incoming speed boats or flying platforms. In addition, USV could be used to deploy electronic counter-measures, for example, to jam adversarial sensors and take out communications between unmanned aerial assets and the respective control units. 

Conclusion

While some of these ideas are closer to reality than others, what matters most is that concepts and operational requirements need to drive the use of unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. So far, the discussion about UMS mainly focuses on providing solutions to meet the needs that emerge in naval warfare areas such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, or anti-surface warfare. However, gray zone activities cut across all of these tasks. Adequate responses need to adopt a more horizontal approach, as well looking at the technological building blocks that can be used for all missions. Here, the most recent decision of Belgium and the Netherlands to develop a toolbox of unmanned systems for mine-countermeasures shows the way to the future. This approach could be turned into a holistic concept to deal with UMS for maritime gray zone activities.

Putting extra emphasis on innovation and concepts development also opens up avenues for fruitful cooperation with the Gulf states that step up efforts to expand their own naval capabilities while at the same time ramping up efforts to establish a local naval industrial base. Involving them from the start would make sure that specific regional requirements could be adequately addressed while at the same time contributing toward building up local technology expertise in important  areas and incentivizing the establishment of local capabilities and concepts. In the long run this joint approach could help shoulder the burden to provide maritime stability in one of the world’s most pivotal regions.

Dr. Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Bladerunner craft fitted with the MAST system. (Wikimedia Commons)

From the Azov Sea to the Black Sea: Russia’s Maritime Campaign

By Jonathan Hall

Almost five years following the Minsk Agreements, the war in Ukraine has claimed the lives of over 13,000 individuals. While much of the attention has been on the annexation of Crimea and continuous fighting throughout the Donbas region, Russia has more recently added a maritime component to its campaign with aggressions in the Sea of Azov. The Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, sees the possibility of the region being used as a “springboard for further expansion,” a land invasion of Mariupol being his greatest concern. While many may fear expansion into the land environment, the far more likely scenario is westward progress by Russian naval forces, furthering their disruptive campaign off Ukraine’s coastline.

Linking the Seas

Western defense planners and analysts often refer to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov as independent entities. Distinct in their own rights, the latter largely unknown until recent events, what is important to note is the Russian government views them as inextricably linked. In 2003, President Putin reiterated this in stating, “the Azov-Black Sea basin as a whole…the zone of our strategic interests.”

Within this context, a useful analytical framework of inspection would be Russia’s “Boa Constrictor Strategy” (Тактика Удава). Attempting to economically strangle the Ukrainian government, the blockade of the Kerch Strait serves as the first example to do so in the maritime environment. Hamstringing shipment to and from the port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk, located in the Sea of Azov, Russia is likely to continue these economically disruptive and militarily aggressive activities in the greater Black Sea region. The object of such operations would invariably be the littoral waters near Ukraine’s western port city – Odessa. While maintaining the status quo – relative restraint in deploying land forces – the Kremlin could similarly hamper maritime commerce, endanger sea lines of communication (SLOC), and therefore dissuade future investment in the region. Loss of industry and access to the sea via de facto Russian control of the remaining Ukrainian coastline could both financially cripple Kyiv’s economy and, in effect, landlock the country.

Fighting in the Gray Zone: From Land to Sea

Discussions of Russia’s operations often refer to its “gray zone” approach to warfare. Defined as, “Those covert or illegal activities of non-traditional statecraft that are below the threshold of armed organized violence; including disruption of order, political subversion of government or non-governmental organizations, psychological operations, abuse of legal processes, and financial corruption as part of an integrated design to achieve strategic advantage.”

In the Sea of Azov, there are already observed Russian gray zone methods in the maritime domain. Therefore, while the threat of a Russian land invasion should be considered, the threats facing Odessa – and the Ukrainian coastline writ large – likely will remain in the Sea. For several reasons, these incrementally disruptive hostilities, akin to ongoing naval tactics being employed by the Chinese in the South and East China Seas, should be Kyiv’s greatest worry.

First, an overt incursion on Odessa would necessarily involve Russia telegraphing the movement of its Black Sea Fleet – serving as host to a sizeable contingent of sea and land forces. Due to the augmented defensive capabilities installed by the Ukrainian military – its newly developed anti-ship “Neptune” cruise missile and modernized S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile system – Kremlin strategists would likely advise against such a move. Although Ukraine’s personnel and equipment in the region would not ensure victory over a would-be invading Russian force, they provide the conventional deterrence required to allay concerns that Moscow believes it can quietly seize the region.

Route of Ukranian vessels seized by Russian vessels in late 2018 near the Sea of Azov (BBC)

Second, despite doubts regarding open invasion, concerns abound that Russia may attempt similarly subversive activities in Odessa to what occurred in Crimea and throughout Donbas. The tactics used in the early years of the conflict – in annexing the Crimean Peninsula and creating the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – were both geographically and demographically dependent and unlikely to be as successful if applied in western Ukraine.

In Crimea, the Kremlin’s “little green men” were able to assume control without widespread violence due to favorable conditions which do not exist in Odessa. The political environment on the peninsula, conducive for a Russian takeover, hosted a citizenry which was, for the most part, either emboldened by Russia’s sudden presence, indifferent, or silenced by fear.

Throughout Donbas, the disinformation campaign and political saboteurs were able to stoke the flames of discord required to launch the creation of the so-called autonomous republics. With Russian-backed separatists, private military contractors, and Russian regulars all taking part, control was effectively fractured from Ukraine’s federal government.

Geographically proximate to the Russian border, the Kremlin was able to either leverage the political environment preexisting in Crimea or, in the case of Donbas, fabricate one through its disinformation campaign, funding of separatist fighters, and covert transportation of Russian regulars across the border. According to a 2015 study by the International Republican Institute, roughly 25 percent of Odessa’s citizenry are ethnic Russians, with 78 percent citing Russian as the primary language spoken at home. The presence of ethnic Russians, often referred to as a fifth column – or minority group which can be leveraged – in Odessa has sparked concerns that a similar situation which unfolded in the east could be incited. However, the geographic conditions and element of surprise required are missing. Additionally important to note, the general political situation in the country was diametrically different to what it is today. When Crimea was annexed, and subsequent fighting in Donbas began, Ukraine’s federal government was dysfunctional and divided. Following the Euromaidan protests and deposition of then-president Yanukovych, several top officials abandoned their posts. Among them were the Ministers of Defense and Internal Affairs, the commander of the Internal Troops of Ukraine, and the commander of the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea (who convinced over 5,000 Ukrainian sailors to defect with him).

Finally, one possible reason for escalations in the Sea of Azov – Russia’s first major foray into the maritime environment against Ukraine – would be the Kremlin’s decision that further subversion on land would be either impossible due to increased Ukrainian resilience, or inadvisable due to international backlash. Regardless, the fact Moscow has chosen to add this maritime component to continue its incrementally aggressive gray zone approach supports the argument that any activities to Ukraine’s west – a “harder target” in military parlance – would similarly remain offshore.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, after suffering two decades of decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has undergone more than a decade of serious reform, doubling its offensive capabilities since 2014. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia had a basing agreement with the Ukrainian government. However, this agreement stipulated categorical limitations on personnel and equipment. Along with access to the port of Sevastopol, Moscow was allowed to garrison 25,000 troops, in addition to 132 armored combat vehicles, 22 military aircraft, and 24 pieces of artillery. In 2013, Russia was stationing 12,000 troops, zero tanks, 24 pieces of artillery, and 22 military aircraft. By 2018, those numbers rose to 32,000 troops, 40 tanks, 174 pieces of artillery, and 113 military aircraft – in addition to S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, Bastion and Bal coastal defense missile systems, and Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems.

The Fleet, also host to several new advanced surface combatants and submarines – along with many warships transferred from the Caspian Sea Flotilla – is fulfilling the guiding principles highlighted in Russia’s 2015 maritime doctrine: “In the Black and Azov Sea, the foundation of the National Maritime Policy is the accelerated modernization and comprehensive reinforcement of the strategic position of the Russian Federation.”

These tenets were further discussed in the 2017 Naval Fundamentals document, emphasizing improvement of combat capabilities and joint operability with other branches of the military in Crimea. Moscow’s recent development of its Special Operations Forces (SSO) command is the most likely suspect to be used in a combined arms operation in the Black Sea. An example can be seen with the oil derricks near Odessa, which were illegally seized by special operations forces and are subsequently being guarded by several small warships – preventing any attempt by the Ukrainian military to retake them. While a less severe example, this low-risk operation represents one of many lessons for the Kremlin that this sort of incremental approach pays dividends. These “stealth seizures,” i.e. annexation of Crimea, naval blockade of the Sea of Azov, and the capture of the oil derricks are the hallmark of Russia’s approach in the region but by their nature are limited in scope.

Area of Operations: The Black Sea

Unlike the proximate waters of the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea is busy with international activity and with all parties involved interested in keeping the sea lines open for trade and joint military cooperation. In addition to the western littoral states (Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey), the navies of the United Kingdom and United States have operated in the Black Sea in recent months. The Royal Navy’s HMS Echo entered the Black Sea and arrived at Odessa on 19 December, 2017. The UK’s Defense Minister, Gavin Williamson, later announced joint exercises would take place with the Ukrainian Navy in early 2019. In early January, the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) made a regularly scheduled sail through the Black Sea. The Fort McHenry, an amphibious ship, equipped with defensively oriented weapons, was followed more recently by a visit to Georgia by the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer – sending a much more clear message to the Kremlin. Backing up this show of resolve, the U.S. announced it would send additional lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.

While international presence in the region is a possible deterrent, many factors complicate the helpfulness of foreign vessels in the region. First and foremost, there is a perennial question mark in regard to what form(s) of Russian aggression will incite a Western response. And even then, showing diplomatic support of the situation is of little good to an embattled Ukrainian military. Second, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, an agreement signed in 1936, presents a logistical impossibility to an ever-present U.S. Navy in the Black Sea. The agreement stipulates that an aggregate tonnage of all non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea cannot exceed 30,000 tons (or 45,000 tons under special conditions), and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than twenty-one days. Russia, undoubtedly monitoring the U.S. Navy’s days at sea, could conceivably coordinate an operation during a lull of U.S. activity.

Defending Ukraine

The onus of defense, therefore, falls on the Ukrainian military. Prior to the aggressions in the Sea of Azov, for all intents and purposes the Ukrainian Navy lacked a coherent maritime doctrine within the overall military strategy. Suggested to have a “continental mindset,” the greatest cause for concern is always from the next impending land invasion. The most recent example was the build-up of Russian forces in its Western Military District, from which came no invading force. Rather than an abnormal development, prior to the annexation of Crimea, roughly 40,000 troops were amassed on Ukraine’s eastern border – used for purposes of intimidation and to mask subsequent asymmetric operations, rather than to be conventionally deployed.

Despite these issues of threat assessment, the Ukrainian Navy has maintained steady success in developing itself into a competent fighting force, notwithstanding losing the majority of its assets during the annexation of Crimea. The guiding principle toward renewed maritime capacity building in the Ukrainian Navy can be seen in the “mosquito fleet” concept first proposed by Captain Andriy Ryzhenko, the Navy’s deputy chief of staff for Euro-Atlantic integration. His idea is that despite budgetary pressures the navy should plan for “near-term procurement of small, fast, low-signature, well-armed boats and craft for various purposes.” The highly mobile proposed flotilla would serve well in the face of uncertainty presented by Russia’s subversive maritime activities.

Toward this goal, the Ukrainian Navy plans to commission two Gyurza-class armored boats and two Centaur-class fast assault craft sometime in 2019, and to assume command of two U.S.-built Island-class patrol cutters this summer. These efforts toward naval capacity building are the key component of the “New Strategy of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to 2035,” introduced by the Commander of the Naval Forces of Ukraine, Admiral Ihor Voronchenko in November 2018.

Moving Forward

As this gray zone approach continues to permeate the maritime environment, these aggressive asymmetric operations must remain an integral component of Ukraine’s military calculus. They are incremental in their approach, and below the threshold of war in their character. For these reasons they will be difficult to predict, deter, and defend against. However, the Ukrainian military has been and will continue to undergo reform with these very tenets in mind. Analyzing the tactics used in the Sea of Azov by Russia, similar operations in the South and East China Seas by China, and how they may be adapted to fit the Black Sea is the most advantageous starting point toward an effective plan of defense. As the Ukrainian military remains resilient, and its allies supportive, the defense of Western ideals and international rule of law will come through the sober realization that these low-scale acts of force and subversive maneuvers are here to stay both within Ukraine’s borders and off its coast.

Jonathan Hall is a security and political risk analyst focused on Eurasian geopolitics, military affairs, and emerging technologies. He can be found on Twitter @_JonathanPHall.

Featured Image: Military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Blurring Definitions of Naval Power

By Marjorie Greene

My colleague, Joshua Tallis, wrote a recent article on CIMSEC on the current controversy regarding the nature of a navy. The controversy revolves around a recent conversation between CIMSEC members regarding the understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. It was brought about by concerns raised about the rise of a global non-state fleet of vessels called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) conducting missions “other than war” such as fisheries enforcement and interdiction of whaling vessels. Of significant concern is the increasing problem of piracy, which is currently introducing a wider maritime security challenge that must be addressed. 

How should states deal with piracy, which is engaged in by non-state actors and prohibited under international law? There is concern that as organizations such as Sea Shepherd continue to expand, the likelihood that they will engage with traditional nation-state navies will increase. Does this suggest there should be a change in Navy lexicon on piracy? Or does it suggest, as Joshua Tallis argues, that we need an updated definition of piracy, which is currently not legitimate because in our system, only the state has the right to exercise violence?

Fundamental to the challenge is the way a military is differentiated from non-state groups either by the scale of the force it can exert or because it is made up of ships that are designed for war. N.A.M. Rodger is cited as an example of a naval historian who defines a navy as a permanent fighting service. In other words, a navy fights.

Blurred Distinction

In her book, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks argues that the collapsing barriers between war and peace threaten both America and the world. In her first chapter, Pirates!, she relates the incident on April 8, 2009, in which four young Somali pirates boarded the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, making it the first U.S – flagged ship to be seized by pirates in nearly two hundred years. Four days later, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates, rescuing the Maersk Alabama captain and capturing the fourth pirate.

090409-N-0000X-926 INDIAN OCEAN (April 9, 2009) In a still frame from video released by the U.S. Navy taken by the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, a 28-foot lifeboat from the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama is seen Thursday, April 9, 2009 in the Indian Ocean. (U.S. Navy Photo)
INDIAN OCEAN (April 9, 2009) In a still frame from video released by the U.S. Navy taken by the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, a 28-foot lifeboat from the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama is seen Thursday, April 9, 2009 in the Indian Ocean. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Ms. Brooks argues that the Navy assault on the Maersk Alabama was in many ways a typical twenty-first century military engagement. “The nature of piracy has changed”, she asserts. Although modern piracy is largely engaged by non-state actors, states are becoming more challenged in counterpiracy operations, which are probably here to stay. “What is the military for in a world in which future threats are as likely to come from non-state actors as they are from the navies of foreign states?” she asks. The boundaries around war, military power, and legitimacy are getting even more blurry and she makes a case that America may pay a price.

A Larger Issue

Several members of the academic community have begun to raise much broader issues about the nature of contemporary warfare and the changes in the roles of the military vis-à-vis the different civilian actors with whom it works. For example, in her book, Borderless Wars: Civil-Military Disorder and Legal Uncertainty, Antonia Chayes speaks of how civil-military relations have become blurred in the attempt to adapt to festering gray area conflict situations. Rosa Brooks book looks not only at the impact of war’s blurriness on the Navy’s patrol of the seas for pirates. Rather, it points out that there are many other problems today’s military personnel are being asked to perform, such as training Afghan judges, building Ebola isolation wards, and eavesdropping on electronic communications. The need for deeper civil-military integration, especially for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief, is another emerging mission that has also been discussed on CIMSEC and elsewhere.

In general, Rosa Brooks argues that we are tackling problems that are too narrow and that states should find new ways to redefine the military, which, in her view, has become a one-stop-shopping solution to global problems. In this sense, we do need updated definitions of not only piracy, but of the increasing interaction of the roles of military and civilian organizations in maintaining maritime security in the world. This interaction has been largely caused by the ambiguity in current international conflicts between states that occupy the space between war and peace – sometimes called the “Gray Zone.”

The Gray Zone

 In the last few years, there has been increasing interest in what has been called a “Gray Zone” between traditional notions of war and peace. Again, this concept is introduced by Rosa Brooks, where she cites the May 19, 2015 article by David Barno and Nora Bensahel in War on the Rocks that describes Gray Zone challenges, including cyber and globalization, that is characterized by intense political, economic, international, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.

CNA’s Special Operations Program has been monitoring Gray Zone developments in which the traditional mode of competing is political warfare. The Gray Zone requires intensive interagency cooperation and may need a new national security structure that make current military campaign models obsolete. Do we need two militaries – one for military  combat operations and one for Gray Zone conflicts? Do we need to determine what Gray Zone success looks like and establish meaningful criteria for measuring the effectiveness of such operations? These are areas of analysis that will lead to new laws, politics, and institutions premised on the assumptions  – according to Rosa Brooks – that the U.S. will forever remain unable to draw sharp boundaries between war and peace and will frequently find itself in the space between, a space that Sea Shepherd occupies.

Conclusion

The current CIMSEC discussion on the nature of piracy and non-state navies is part of a larger dialogue on a range of DoD responses to piracy that are already underway. In her recent book, Rosa Brooks introduces many underlying questions that go beyond the definition of a Navy. One question is how deeper civil-military integration will occur as more “soft power” missions are undertaken in the future. Should the military continue to expand its activities into traditional civilian spheres, or should it re-define the laws of war to accommodate the Gray Zone between war and peace and change the way it defines the military’s role in this zone? I recommend the book as a thoughtful look at the increasingly blurred boundaries between “war” and “not-war” and the call for creative new ways to reinvent our military, to protect human dignity, and to prevent abuses of power.

Marjorie Greene is a Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses. She has more than 25 years’ management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U. S. Marine Corps. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Creighton University, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and completed her Ph.D. course work in Operations Research from The Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are her own.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd vessels the Atlas Cove (left) and the Bob Barker patrolling the Southern Ocean. (Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)