Home » Budget Industry » Panel: Navy and Coast Guard Operating More in a Maritime ‘Grey Zone’

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

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?”

  • kye154

    “The Navy and Coast Guard are tasked with protecting the trade and sovereign interests of both the U.S. friends and allies”. That is an erroneous statement. Te role of the Navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country’s shores and counter other navies. It says nothing about trade or serving as a surrogate force for friends and allies. That is only done by a bonafide international agreement.

    The Coast Guard, on the other hand, roles keep changing. It originally started out as a maritime revenue collection, as a branch of the U.S. Treasury.,. Now, its under the Dept. of Homeland Security. It primary roles are port and waterways security, aids to navigation, marine safety and search and rescue, drug and migrant interdiction, law enforcement, and marine protection, all within the U.S. territorial boundries. The coast guard really has no authority to operate beyond America’s 200 mile Economic Exclusion Zone, and certainly not for the benefit of friends and allies in their waterways..

    • revcutter

      Kye154 – The U S Coast Guard can conduct military operations under the U S Dept. of Defense or directly for the President in accordance with Title 14 USC 1–3. USCG cutters are all over the world and perform specialized work for US Navy as well as training coast guards of friendly nations.

    • Curtis Conway

      The United States has many Treaties and Mutual Defense Agreements with Allies around the globe. That is the issue to which these words speak w/r/t the United States Navy.

      The United States Coast Guard are our primary law enforcement arm on the water out o 200 NM (Exclusive Economic Zone) off of every coast and territory. On top of that we have Treaties and Mutual Defense Agreements with Allies around the globe that the US Coast Guard are involved in by invitation, or via tasking by DHS.

      A Coast Guard vessel at sea can do things that a US Navy Surface Combatant cannot, unless there is a Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) aboard. Keep that apples-to-apples comparison in mind.

      • Stephen

        On target! One suggestion, a USCG liaison, providing the LEDET, would benefit a USN boarding party. (Legitimize?)

      • Marcd30319

        I might add that Coast Guard LEDET units were involved in our maritime interdiction operation against Iraq after the First Gulf War.

        Also, allow me to point out that US and allied naval operations off the Horn of Africa were conducted to counter the piracy activities in the area that were driving up the cost if insurance for merchant marine shipping around the world.

        So asserting that the US Navy doesn’t have a role in helping other maritime nations or protecting trade is total nonsense.

        • Curtis Conway

          Love the LEDETs. Need more of them. Just having a LEDET on board sharpens the Bridge Watch because the sailors know the experts are on board and they must watch their ‘Ps’ & ‘Qs’.

          The Horn of Africa is not the only place. The East Coast of Africa has had patrols in the past and that should probably continue.

  • tiger

    This is what we pay JAG to do. They should have a guy on call.

  • David Geaslin

    Someone once said that the only difference between commerce and war is that in commerce we have the rule of law to regulate the use of violence.

    The Coast Guard enforces our rule of law. The Coast Guard, if used properly, will offer the first glimmer of a pending war upon our immediate shores by observing the desire of criminals and foreign powers to take our wealth, treasure, prosperity, and freedom upon the seas by means outside the law.

    The Navy, if strong enough and used properly, will assure any criminals or foreign powers cannot take our wealth, treasure, prosperity, and freedom by force upon the seas.

    It is the ability of our Coast Guard and Navy to talk, cooperate, and act across the “gray area” between commerce and war that defends our Constitution and keeps our country safe. The power to protect our shores will always be a balance between these two and although they are not equal in manpower and ships, both are equally important to our future.


    It’s a private vote. You don’t know who I voted for. I’ll go back to my original comment, you truly are ignorant.


    It must be miserable to be so unhappy.