From ‘Three Blocks’ to ‘Three Islands’

From ‘Three Blocks’ to ‘Three Islands’: The Thin Line Between Police and Military Operations in Contested Maritime Spaces

Alex Calvo

The current undeclared war in the Pacific has often featured not only conventional military assets, but also coastguards and equivalent state agencies[i], together with civilian actors, both fishermen[ii] and “activists”. The role of fishing boats are a reminder of the high economic stakes at play, whereas activists provide a way for Beijing to develop a wider pan-Chinese narrative, incorporating “compatriots” from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.[iii] The 50th anniversary of the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy, a president who stressed the need for the military to develop a wide range of capabilities enabling it to effectively fight all sort of wars and not just large conventional conflicts[iv], and the arrival to Tokyo as U.S. Ambassador of his daughter Caroline[v], together with the recent amphibious drills conducted by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)[vi], provide a good reason to examine the issue of police capabilities in contested maritime spaces.    

Since an invasion of the Senkaku Islands could take place at the hands not only of a conventional military force, but also of unarmed activists supported by naval and air assets, it is imperative to ask whether Tokyo has the capability to use non-lethal force to recover control of one or more contested islands. One of the most difficult challenges of contemporary war fighting is the need to be prepared for very different scenarios, to be trained and equipped for each, and to prevail in all of them at the same time. We are not just talking about preparing for different kinds of warfare, but to be able to conduct them simultaneously, and not just in different theaters or fronts, but a few yards apart. The traditional way of referring to this in the U.S. Marine Corps is the “Three Block War” concept, “the possibility of humanitarian missions, stability activities, and combat occurring simultaneously during a single operation and in a single city”. This is a scenario, where “units have three dramatically different types of actions ongoing over distances measured in a few hundred meters”, which “is virtually unrecognized in doctrine today”.[vii]

Some military planners and politicians have defended the notion that non-conventional operations should be avoided if at all possible, with retired U.S. Army colonel Douglas Macgregor suggesting in an Armed Forces Journal article that America should simply “refuse battle” in scenarios where her vital interests are not at stake. It is a “strategy” which “has long resonated with U.S. military culture and its preference for the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine”. However, other authors and officers, sometimes labelled the “Utility Infielder School” recognize “the need to deal with strictly conventional tasks and irregular threats” and the resulting imperative to “cover the entire spectrum of conflict and avoid the risk of being optimized at either extreme”. Retired USMC officer Frank G. Hoffman believes “the current bifurcation of the spectrum of conflict between irregular and conventional wars is a false choice and intellectually blinds us to a number of crucial issues”[viii]

This debate has traditionally concerned land operations, and the above quotes clearly have those in mind. However, at sea we are clearly observing how China employs a mixture of naval, coastguard / quasi-military, and civilian (fishermen and activists) assets in pushing forward her maritime claims. Thus, Japanese forces may find themselves having to deal with very different realities in islands a few miles apart. There is no reason why Beijing may not decide to land activists in one island and conventional forces in another.

Confronting an entrenched unit of the PLA, ready to open fire, is not the same as confronting a group of Chinese activists, with the usual addition of a few Hong Kong and Taiwan “compatriots”, with their placards and slogans. Are Japan's Self-Defense Forces ready to react to both scenarios, and even to both in different islands at the same time? Do they have the necessary training, equipment, and doctrine for this? Was the recovery of an island in the hands of unarmed activists backed up by naval and air assets included in the latest drills earlier this month? These are questions that need to be asked and explored.

The U.S. Marine Corps has recognized the need to acquire a police capability, a lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has set up two active-duty law enforcement battalions (LEB) and one Reserve battalion (the 4th LEB, headquartered in Minneapolis). Marine Major Roberty Lafferty, Co. D, 4th LEB commander, explained the reasons for the move, saying that "In this case, the Force Structure Review Group decided they needed more law enforcement because of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we built up the police capabilities of those host nations", adding that "They realized they needed more Marines to carry out that mission".[ix]

Of course, the situation in the Senkaku Islands is different, first of all because there is no native population. We are thus not talking about law enforcement in the traditional sense of the word, nor about mentoring and helping build local police forces as part of a wider nation-building exercise. However, the fact that Japan may be confronted by the need to eject a non-armed enemy contingent means that it does not suffice to only develop conventional amphibious capabilities. These must go hand in hand with police capabilities, with the kind of skills and equipment that we may find in riot police units, rather than in conventional infantry or Marine units. It is a need that has already been perceived in, for example, peace keeping operations where troops may have to deal with demonstrations and other non-armed (albeit sometimes violent) disturbances.

One of the potential legal controversies concerning non-lethal force against unarmed activists may be the employment of riot-control gases. While Article I(5) of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention states “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare”, this has not been universally interpreted as imposing a complete ban on the use of such substances by military units. For example, the U.S. Operational Law Handbook (1993) states “This prohibition does not preclude the use of herbicides or riot control agents by U.S. forces in wartime when authorized by the President of the US or his delegate”, and The U.S. Naval Handbook (1995) states that “The United States considers that use of riot control agents in armed conflict was not prohibited by the 1925 [Geneva] Gas Protocol. However, the United States formally renounced first use of riot control agents in armed conflict except in defensive military modes to save lives. Uses of riot control agents in time of armed conflict which the United States considers not to be violative of the 1925 [Geneva] Gas Protocol include:

1. Riot control situations in areas under effective U.S. military control, to include control of rioting prisoners of war.

2. Situations in which civilians are used to mask or screen attacks and civilian casualties can be reduced or avoided.

3. Rescue missions involving downed aircrews or escaping prisoners of war.

4. Protection of military supply depots, military convoys, and other military activities in rear echelon areas from civil disturbances, terrorist activities, or paramilitary operations.

Such employment of riot control agents by U.S. forces in armed conflict requires NCA approval.” (Bold type by author.)[x] This is just one example of some of the legal, operational, and doctrinal issues, that Japan should ideally address before finding herself having to react to such combined military-civilian attacks.

Developing the necessary doctrine, equipment, and training, to deal with civilian or mixed military-civilian landings is even more important in the age of the internet, mobile recording devices, and fast decentralized news generation. In other words, in an age where the shooting of an unarmed “activist” would soon be broadcast globally. We should not forget that Tokyo’s (well-meaning but potentially destabilizing in the light of Beijing’s growing aerial activities[xi]) decision not to permanently deploy land troops on the Senkaku Islands, choosing instead to quarantine them with her Coast Guard, means that in the event of a successful Chinese landing it may be up to Japan to conduct the first opposed landings. This could prompt difficulties at the legal, political domestic, and political international levels. Legally, because some voices may label the subsequent operations as offensive, rather than defensive, and thus contrary to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Domestically, for the same reason, a portion of the Japanese public may be reluctant to employ force, disregarding the fact that Tokyo was reacting to an attack, albeit to one whose guiding principle may be to avoid casualties, thus making it much more difficult for Japanese authorities to respond. Something similar may be said about Japan’s allies, and the U.S. in particular. Washington is committed to helping defend Japanese territory, and has explicitly said that this includes the Senkaku Islands, but at the same time the U.S. takes no sides on the ultimate sovereignty dispute.[xii] This means that there is a very real potential for miscalculation, since Beijing may be tempted to think that if she succeeds in bloodlessly inserting an occupation force on the Senkaku Islands and force Japan to negotiate, dragging her feet, the passage of time will make it politically difficult for Washington and Japanese domestic public opinion to support a counterstrike, which would then look as an offensive, rather than a defensive, action, and therefore contrary to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Furthermore, lawyers may even argue that since Tokyo had lost actual control over the Senkaku Islands, they no longer fell under the U.S.-Japan security treaty, once no longer under “the administration of Japan”.

A look to the South Atlantic in 1982 shows a similar miscalculation. As reflected in the Argentinian Navy’s orders[xiii] the Argentine Junta seemed careful to try not to inflict any casualties when invading South Georgia and the Falklands and sought to drag the U.S. into mediating talks. That was one of the reasons why then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher felt compelled to dispatch a task force at once, and why then Falklands Governor Sir Rex Hunt ensured the small British military contingent in the Falklands (two platoons of Royal Marines) did not surrender without first offering a reasonable measure of resistance. Troops in South Georgia also engaged the invaders before surrendering, damaging the ARA Guerrico with small arms and recoilless rifle fire. It is no coincidence that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has incorporated references to the Falklands in his public speeches, and that some British experts on the war have travelled to Japan to lecture on the subject in recent years, while Japanese officers attended conferences on the conflict in the UK.     

Thus, in order to avoid a stand-off, with the Japanese unable or ortherwise reluctant to eject unarmed occupants from one or more of the islands in dispute, and Beijing gaining time to consolidate her hold and make it increasingly difficult for Tokyo to garner the necessary domestic and international support to counterstrike, it may be advisable to develop, within Japan’s amphibious forces, the necessary police units. The resulting capabilities may also be useful in other scenarios, such as humanitarian assistance in natural disaster-struck areas, with the resulting necessity to deal with crime and a breakdown of law and order. This wider need could also facilitate securing the necessary political support to take the step. It is illustrated by the trouble experienced by the JSDF’s medical units currently deployed in the Philippines due to the breakdown in law and order in the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda.[xiv]

Past experience in the South and East China Seas shows China employing a complex mixture of military, quasi-military, and civilian (fishermen and activists) assets, in her gradual yet relentless expansion campaign. This means that one of the ways in which Beijing may try to conquer the Senkaku Islands would be by employing civilians, in conjunction with its military. In order to minimize the scope for a prolonged stand-off, which may make it difficult for Tokyo to secure the necessary domestic and international support to counterstrike, it may be advisable for the JSDF to develop specialized police units. This would reflect the fact that expelling unarmed personnel required different training and equipment than that of conventional marine units. The presence of these specialized police units within larger marine-like formations, rather than reliance on civilian police, is necessary since a combined attack can only be met effectively by an integrated defense, in what amounts to a translation to island and amphibious environments of the Three-Block Doctrine. From Three-Block to Three-Island.

End Notes

[i] Which China consolidated earlier this year. “Taming the Five Dragons? China Consolidates its Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies”, China Brief, Volume 13, Issue 7, The Jamestown Foundation, 13 March 2013, available at

[ii] For an in-depth examination of the role of fishing fleets in China’s strategy see “Strategic Implications of Chinese Fisheries Development”, China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation, Volume 9, Issue 16, 5 August 2009, available at[tt_news]=35372&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=090511d03c

[iii] For a comparison between Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, see Alex Calvo "Island Democracies Under Threat: Taiwan, The Senkaku, And The Falklands", Papers for the Ninth Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS),  1 June 2012, presented on 20 June, European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), available at

[iv] For John F. Kennedy’s views on counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare Andrew James Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1942-1976, (Washington: US Army Center of Military History, 2012), pp. 223-231, available at, and “Chapter 6: The Kennedy Crusade. A Dynamic National Strategy To Defeat the Communists” at Michael McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990, (:Pantheon Books, 1992), pp. , available at   

[v] “Japan pins hopes on Kennedy”, The Japan Times, 16 November 2013, available at

[vi] Alex Calvo "We shall fight them on the beaches: Japan looks at UK for inspiration as she readies for amphibious drills", Bulletin of the Center for Strategic Studies of Catalonia,  5 November 2013, available at

[vii] “Chapter 2: Doctrine”, Denying the Widow-Maker: The RAND-DBBL Conference on Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, RAND Corporation, 24-25 February 1998, available at

[viii] Frank G. Hoffman “Striking a balance: Posturing the future force for COIN and conventional warfare”, Armed Forces Journal, July 2009, available at

[ix] David Bedard “Marine infantrymen switch to law-enforcement mission”, Joint Base Elmenodrf-Richardson Public Affairs, 15 February 2013, available at

[x] “Practice Relating to Rule 75. Riot Control Agents”, website of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2013, available at

[xi] Alex Calvo "The third dimension of warfare and tactical stability in the Senkaku Islands", Birmingham ‘on War’: The blog of the postgraduate students at the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham,  09 January 2013, Birmingham University, available at

[xii] Last year, the US Senate unanimously passed an amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act which reads “While the United States takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the United States acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The unilateral actions of a third party will not affect United States acknowledgement of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands” Section 1286, “National Defense Authorization

Act for Fiscal Year 2013”, website of the US Senate, 2 January 2013, available at For a wider look at the US position on the territorial dispute, see Mark E. Manyin, Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations, Congressional Research Service, 22 January 2013, available at

[xiii] The orders are referenced in a monography by an Argentinian officer, where he also offers a summary of the standard view of the conflict by his country’s military: Leonardo Arcadio Zarza, Malvinas: The Argentine Perspective of the Falklands Conflict, (Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2010), available at

[xiv] Etsushi Tsuru “Japanese medical workers, SDF frustrated in typhoon-hit Philippines”, The Asahi Shimbun, 15 November 2013, available at


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