Panel: Navy and Coast Guard Operating More in a Maritime ‘Grey Zone’

February 9, 2018 8:45 AM
A US Navy visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team, approached a suspected pirate after the Motor Vessel Nordic Apollo reported being under attack and fired upon by pirates in 2011. US Navy Photo

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Between war and peace is the grey zone – a legal status where the rules of engagement aren’t always clear for the Navy and Coast Guard forces increasingly operating there, according to top commanders from the services.

The Navy and Coast Guard are tasked with protecting the trade and sovereign interests of both the U.S. friends and allies. But, without a clearly identified mission and clearly articulated and supporting rules of engagement, it’s difficult for ship commanders to determine threat levels and follow an acceptable course of action, said Vice Adm. John Alexander, the commander of U.S. 3rd Fleet. Alexander was part of a panel of admirals and a former ambassador at the WEST 2018 conference discussing grey zone operations.

“It’s an asymmetric warfare and the Navy is no stranger to this,” Alexander said.

The problem for Navy and Coast Guard ship commanders is separating peaceful fishing fleet or commercial marine traffic from ships operated by an adversary. Ship commanders have a short window of time to determine intent when suddenly facing such questions as who are they facing and what is an appropriate use of the military might at their disposal.

Ships from most navies generally follow the same operational norms as those used by the U.S. Navy. The panel agreed commanders on both sides generally know where the grey zone ends and conflict begins. Some countries are just more apt to operate right up to the edge dividing grey from conflict.

But defining the grey zone itself can be tricky. Not every country has the same idea of where conflict begins, said panelist Nina Hachigian, former U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Alexander said, “What is the grey zone? I kind of view it as non-state actors executing state security objectives and utilizing the ambiguity that they have to make it hard to respond.”

China, for example, often operates right at the grey zone’s edge, panelist Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Commander. The nation is building-up the size of its coast guard fleet and claiming territory at sea. The reason is to project its force and impose its national will on international arenas.

Illegal fishing off Gabon in 2011. NOAA Photo

Countering China’s influence in the region is very complicated. China’s cooperation is a central part of U.S. efforts to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program and the nation is a major trade partner for neighboring countries and the U.S., Hachigian said.

Yet China also on occasion acts in a way that doesn’t respect international norms, Alexander said. He pointed to China’s attempt to spread its international waters, and fisheries, by building islands. Pouring sand on a low-tide elevation doesn’t necessarily create a habitable location, he said.

Diplomatically, though, when trying to counter such actions, the U.S. is hampered by not having signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Hachigian said. The U.S. follows the convention, but by not being a signatory, loses some moral standing when confronting other nations who have signed the treaty. The result is different countries will look at the same scenario differently.

“So, we didn’t ratify it; we follow the rules. China signed the damned thing; they don’t follow the rules,” Alexander said.
“So who’s more right in this argument?”

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox