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A More Assertive US ‘Gray Zone’ Strategy

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A More Assertive US ‘Gray Zone’ Strategy

Leaders want Russia and China to respond to U.S. initiative, not the other way around.

A More Assertive US ‘Gray Zone’ Strategy
Credit: Adm. John Richardson via Twitter

The U.S. Navy wants to act more assertively in low-levels of competition with China and Russia, forcing them to respond to U.S. activity rather than the other way around.

Speaking to the New America Foundation, Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. chief of naval operations, said that in the lower spectrum of competition with major powers like China and Russia, “in the ideal world we would want our competitors to respond to our moves instead of us responding to them… We would want to make many of the first moves on our own.”

The United States has been challenged by Chinese and Russian activities that attempt to change the status quo but remain below the threshold of traditional armed conflict by using harassment and coercion tactics — the so-called “gray zone” of competition.

Some of China’s principal tools of gray zone coercion are its coast guard and especially its paramilitary maritime militia fleets. Because these vessels are lightly armed, if at all, foreign warships can appear to be aggressive or escalatory themselves if they attempt to intercede against their tactics, but the United States will apparently no longer be deterred by that asymmetry. Recent reporting by the Financial Times reveals that at a meeting in January Richardson told his Chinese counterpart, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, that the United States would treat China’s coast guard and militia vessels the same as People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships. It is not clear how that pledge has played out in practice yet.

Richardson told the forum that Sunday night’s Taiwan Strait transit by two U.S. Navy destroyers on the heel of Chinese protests against a French warship’s passage through the strait last week is an example of this new way of thinking.

“The idea that our competitors are responding to [us] rather than always being in response mode ourselves,” he said.

Richardson has floated this more assertive operational mindset before.

In remarks to the Atlantic Council in February, he made similar comments, speaking specifically about Russian gray zone coercion in the Mediterranean and Black Seas: “I think it would be great if we could get folks, Russians, some of these competitors to respond to our first move. There’s an advantage every now and then to playing the white side of the board.”

At the same event, he echoed how he made clear to his Chinese counterparts that rules for preventing crises and avoiding unintended escalation when the two navies meet should also apply to China’s coast guard and paramilitary militia vessels.

On the one hand, Richardson prioritizes mitigating escalation risk and reducing the potential for miscalculation in the U.S. Navy’s interactions with PLAN ships and aircraft. He said part of that is to design operational arrangements like the CUES communications protocol to keep interactions safe, because he believes that “the most tactical miscalculation will go strategic very, very fast.” Having close ties with China’s military leadership enables him to get on the phone to prevent a situation from escalating beyond a point where it is helpful to either country.

But Richardson was also clear that mitigating low-level disputes did not mean ignoring the potential for a higher-level clash and that it was crucial for the U.S. Navy to “control the high end of the spectrum [of conflict] so we can de-escalate on our terms.”

It’s not clear whether these ideas have matured into strategic guidance or formal operating concepts for commanders to implement more broadly, but the Department of Defense will be releasing a new regional strategy later this month that may reflect this more assertive direction.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, Randall Schriver, told media last week that the United States will unveil an updated Indo-Pacific strategy at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, a major Asia defense summit, at the end of May.

Shriver told reporters that the new strategy does not expect China will rollback their artificial island bases in the South China sea but hopes that they will not militarize them further. “Our National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy identify the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater, and I think [Acting Defense] Secretary Shanahan will talk about that at Shangri-La and what it means to be a priority theater. And over time you will see that show up in resources and presence…” he said.