Small Wars and Non-Lethal Force at Sea: The Wave of the Future?

Small Wars and Non-Lethal Force at Sea: The Wave of the Future?

Alex Calvo

Classical naval power, including the long-range projection of force through naval aviation, is and remains relevant to the national security of any nation dependent on the sea, as clear from the recent naming ceremony of the first of two British full-sized carriers currently under construction. However, this should not blind us to the fact that, just like on land we must be prepared to face both conventional and asymmetric foes (and both acting in conjunction, as in the Second Indochina War), a similar challenge is arising at sea. Current events in the South China Sea make this clear, and serve as a reminder to defence planners and military professionals that a flexible approach is needed, involving the necessary training, equipment, doctrine, and Rules of Engagement (ROEs), to deal with the different kinds of conflict which may be thrust upon us. Otherwise we may simply be preparing to fight yesterday's war, as historians have often accused generals and admirals of doing, or choosing that best fitting our current capabilities, forgetting that the enemy can also choose whatever tactics best fit his.

The current clashes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea / East Sea are a good example of non-conventional conflict at sea. This is so at least on two counts. First, while some reports point out that Beijing has deployed some naval[i] and air[ii] assets as part of her forces, these mainly consist of a civilian asset (an oil rig,[iii] later joined by three more,[iv]) protected by a combination of other civilian assets (trawlers) and non-military state ships (belonging to coastguard and similar agencies). Vietnam has similarly refrained from employing her military. Second, neither side has opened fire on the other, resorting instead to non-lethal kinetic means ranging from water cannons to ramming.

We should be careful not to imagine that, simply because non-lethal tactics are being used, this is just a skirmish. First of all, the numbers involved are rather impressive. Some reports mention more than 100 vessels of different kinds just on the Chinese side. For example, on 24 June a Vietnamese report referred to “44 coast guard ships, 15 cargo ships, 19 tugboats, 35 fishing vessels and five battleships”[v] guarding the rig. Concerning fishing vessels, some crews are part of the country's maritime militia and have received weapons training, their intelligence gathering capabilities being particularly valuable.[vi] Second, we should notice that special equipment, in the form of either specially-built or upgraded civilian vessels, seems to have been deployed by Beijing. In particular we are talking about alleged trawlers equipped with what has been described as “reinforced prows” featuring a “large metal object”.[vii] This addition means that such boats are much better prepared to push others, and even damage them. It is not completely clear whether these are real trawlers devoted to fishing when not involved in battles for maritime territory, or whether they have been designed and built with such battles in mind, and are simply disguised as trawlers in order to give the impression that this is a clash between ordinary fishing boats.

In theory, it is possible to deal with non-conventional aggression by “drawing a line in the sand”, that is laying down and publicly announcing a set of conditions that will prompt a conventional naval response. This is also known as a “tripwire”. The problem is that governments will often be extremely reluctant to appear as being the first to resort to lethal, or potentially lethal, force, and even more so when inhabited areas have not been occupied or are the direct scene of the fighting. A historical analogy can be drawn with nuclear deterrence, which in theory may be used to prevent or repel a conventional attack but which in doctrine has often been restricted to a reprisal against the use of weapons of the same kind. The realization of the difficulties of launching a nuclear strike in the face of a conventional attack prompted the US to move from “massive retaliation” to a “flexible response”.[viii] While one of the motivations, namely the risk of widespread destruction from a nuclear exchange, is not present when we deal with conventional and sub-conventional deterrence, many of the same caveats apply. Just like some nuclear-weapons powers have announced a “no first use” doctrine, we may observe a similar, informal and unwritten rule, in the South China Sea concerning lethal force. Although the region has been witness to a gradual yet relentless Chinese maritime territorial expansion and, while countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have reacted, they have in general avoided using conventional means. In other words, while claiming that China was invading their waters, they have refrained from opening fire on Beijing's forces. Earlier some episodes had featured clashes of a more conventional nature, the 14 March 1988 Sino-Vietnamese clash in the Spratlys for example, but more recently the rule has rather been “white on white” clashes, involving ramming and water canons by both fishing vessels[ix] and state ships (belonging to coastguards and other maritime security agencies) and more recently oil rigs.

This reluctance to employ conventional naval force against non-lethal aggression can also be observed in other maritime areas under the shadow of revisionist powers. For example, in Gibraltar[x] it was proposed earlier this year to acquire or charter a number of powerful tugs, in order to push back hostile vessels without resorting to an escalation by naval units which would mean employing scarce resources and running the danger of losing the moral high ground.[xi]

Going back to the South China Sea, the extensive use of fishing boats by Beijing, in conjunction with state vessels, oil rigs, and to a lesser extent air and naval units, demands the development of new tactics and ROEs, and perhaps also equipment. We must stress that this in no way should distract the US and her allies from China's conventional buildup. It would be counterproductive for the military community to split along conventional and unconventional lines, and this should be avoided. The professional and historiographical debate on the Second Indochina War shows how tempting it is, when faced with a dual conflict, to stress the failure to prevail in one of its two facets.

The Vietnam War also illustrates the importance of imposing one's narrative of a conflict as a key requirement to preserve the necessary political will at home and abroad to ultimately prevail. When looking not just at recent incidents in the South China Sea but at wider moves such as the declaration late last year of an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) in the East China Sea,[xii] it becomes clear that China at all times tries to avoid the label of aggressor. Thus the name of the ADIZ itself is connected to the idea of defence, while the deployment of a rig in contested waters means that Vietnam is forced to choose between inaction (and thus setting a precedent and whetting the appetite for further similar actions) and reaction (and the consequent risk to appear as the aggressor). A counter-narrative must be an integral aspect of any tactics developed by the maritime democracies, not an afterthought.

This is one of the characteristics of non-conventional war at sea: it is much easier for an expansionist power to insert an asset in disputed waters than it is for the defenders to remove it. This is the key issue here: how to remove a hostile asset without escalating the dispute using lethal force. How could such assets be removed? One possibility may be boarding the intruding ship or asset, but if protected by coastguard or other state vessels, this may not be possible. Another possibility could be to ram or push her away (although different, the line between the two actions may be thinner than it seems on paper). In the case of oil rigs, however, their sheer size and mass make this very difficult. In the case of vessels it may be a function of their number and characteristics, including displacement and engine power. Given the numbers involved in the South China Sea, and the above described presence of specially-equipped ships, pushing away hostile vessels may also appear as a very difficult proposition.

When confronted by a large number of hostile vessels, acting in a coordinated fashion, non-lethal kinetic means (blocking, ramming, or pushing away) can be very difficult, unless one can deploy a similarly large number of ships. If the intruders include coastguard or other state vessels, equipped with light weapons and claiming to be in their own waters or EEZs, the scope for action may be further restricted, since boarding a hostile ship and arresting the crew may lead to an armed confrontation and an exchange of fire. In that scenario, with restrictive ROEs designed to minimize the risk of such exchange of fire, it may be very complex to prevent the entry of a hostile contingent or to expel it unless the ratio of defending vessels to intruding ships was high and accurate real-time intelligence was available.

It seems that there are no easy answers, but this in no way means that maritime democracies cannot react to the tactics seen in the South China Sea. The time has come to use imagination and flexibility, and recover the lost initiative. As explained, China seems to have deployed specially-equipped “trawlers” donning a metallic object in their prow together with iron-clad fisheries vessels, but there is no reason why other powers cannot deploy similarly designed or adapted vessels. The same applies to the training of fishermen. However, on both counts democracies may find themselves with less leeway when it comes to using privately-owned vessels. Furthermore, many actors whose national security requires an open South China Sea do not have any fishing fleet in the area approaching the numbers required to effectively intervene. Their role, however, may be to support the regional partners that have. This would require, though, more realistic joint training scenarios. While keeping in place existing naval drills, it would be necessary to start training to confront non-conventional, or mixed tactics. It is here that in addition to navies, coastguards and other security agencies may have a role to play. Finally, we must stress that conventional and non-conventional naval tactics can be employed in conjunction, and thus training to react to such dual attacks must emphasize the need to react in different ways in nearby sea areas, in what could be the maritime equivalent of the USMC's “three-block” doctrine, which we may perhaps call.[xiii]

Conclusions. The developments summarized above mean that, in order to guarantee peace and stability in maritime Asia, it does not suffice to help regional allies improve their naval capabilities. This is of course necessary, and developments such as Japanese assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines, talks on joint submarine development and construction between Tokyo and Canberra, and US cooperation with the Philippines, must be welcomed. However, as the saying goes, “the enemy has a vote”, and there is no guarantee that revisionist powers will seek to expand employing conventional means only. Recent evidence rather points to asymmetric naval warfare, or to be more precise, to a combination of classical force projection with what we could perhaps call “maritime guerrillas”, with fishing boats playing a key role just like farmers do on land. Maritime democracies may of course seek to “draw a line in the sand” and threaten to resort to conventional means in order to deter further expansion, but this is a political decision and furthermore, one that history shows may not be that likely or credible. Therefore, it is the task of defence planners and naval strategists to design the necessary tactics and training and procure the necessary equipment to be able to respond in this grey area between war and peace which we have long seen on land and which now seems to be extending its long tentacles offshore. While naval conflicts along classical lines remain a clear possibility, we may be entering an era of “small wars at sea” or of dual conflicts involving both.

End Notes

[i] “China deploys fast attack missile craft, minesweeper to Vietnam’s waters”, VietNamNet Bridge, 27 May 2014, available at

[ii]  “China sends fighter planes to protect its illegal oil rig in Vietnam’s waters”, VietNamNet Bridge, 13 May 2014, available at

[iii] For a deeper look at the different possible motivations behind the rig deployment, see “Business and Politics in the South China Sea: Explaining HYSY 981’s Foray into Disputed Waters”, China Brief , Volume: 14 Issue: 12, Jamestown Foundation, 19 June 2014, available at[tt_news]=42519&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=1b53c60653e8048c2a7452b2b176425e#.U7rO5O-WcdU

[iv] “China sends four oil rigs to South China Sea amid regional tensions over territorial claims”, ABC, 21 June, available at

 [v] U. Balenia “China seriously damaged Vietnamese ship, keeps five warships in Vietnam”,, 24 June 2014, available at

[vi] “China's Fishermen Set down Their Nets and Pick up Arms”, LinkAsia, 21 March 2014, available at

[vii] “China sends ‘fishing’ boats with reinforced prows to Vietnam’s waters”, Tuoi Tre News, 7 June 2014, available at

[viii] "The main debate over BNSP concerned the problem of conventional forces to fight limited wars. While these discussions foreshadowed the Kennedy administration's subsequent adoption of the strategy of "flexible response" to potential Soviet provocations, they did not get that far under Eisenhower. The discussions initially developed in reaction to the traditional Eisenhower administration doctrine of "massive retaliation," which could result in either a massive nuclear strike or retreat in the face of Soviet aggression, and the desire for greater flexibility in U.S. military capabilities. In this view, the need for a revised BNSP seemed more urgent as the Soviet Union moved closer to "virtual nuclear parity" with the United States. In 1957 the NSC had adopted a policy statement on "limited war" that called for "the development of a flexible and selective capability, including nuclear capability" to resist "local aggression" in developing countries where U.S. interests were involved. " , National Security Policy; Arms Control and Disarmament. Foreign Relations of the United States 1958-1960, Volume III, Federation of American Scientists, undated, available at

[ix] For a wider look at the role of fishing vessels in Chinese naval power, see “Strategic Implications of Chinese Fisheries Development ”, China Brief, Volume 9 Issue 16, 5 August 2009, available at[tt_news]=35372&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=090511d03c

[x]  “Aside from the fishing dispute, Spanish state vessels (ie. Guardia Civil or even naval or research vessels) also conduct incursions into BGTW in order to demonstrate a form of control and non-recognition of British sovereignty over BGTW. The refusal of these vessels to recognise the authority of the Royal Gibraltar Police (RGP) and Royal Navy in BGTW has led to a number of dangerous incidents”, chapter 25 in “3  2012-14 escalation and current situation”, part of “Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence”, report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, 24 June 2014, available at

[xi] “There have been calls for a greater Royal Navy presence as well as Tomahawk strikes and 5 rounds rapid fire but as soon as we escalate in military terms it could get ugly very quickly which would serve no one. We might draw some parallels with the Cod Wars in the 1970’s. Controlled aggression combined with constraint, seamanship and moral authority. The difference between the seventies and today is that the Royal Navy simply cannot afford to be putting scarce frigates and destroyers into a barging match and because of the size difference it would easily be portrayed as Royal Navy bullying. We have to tread very carefully, restraint and maintenance of the moral high ground, are essential. Instead of sending a Type 45 Destroyer or Type 23 Frigate on an intermittent basis or when passing, how about buying or leasing two or three modern harbour tugs? They are powerful, have amazing manoeuvrability and can be equipped with remote control high pressure water monitors. Top speed would be lower than the existing small craft but these would not go away, instead, the tugs would join in the struggle. It would simply be a case of expanding the Serco Marine Services contract, they already have the tugs in fact, but I guess they are busy (including at Gibraltar) This is not an idea about sinking the Spanish Armada, simply providing a bit of extra muscle and an imposing physical presence. A bit like a bouncer in a nightclub.”, “Pushin and Shovin in Gibraltar”, Think Defence Blog, 20 February 2014, available at

[xii]  For a look at its implications and likely motivations, see A. Calvo, "China's Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact", Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College,  23 December 2013, available at

[xiii] Meaning defending forces must be able to respond in different ways in close proximity. A. Calvo, "From ‘Three Blocks’ to ‘Three Islands’", Small Wars Journal,  18 November 2013, available at


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