Can we keep our ‘grey zone’ edge over our enemies?

Chinese fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait’s “mid-line,” the unofficial boundary between Taipei and Beijing, on Feb. 10. Since then, Chinese military exercises have become increasingly bellicose. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed a carrier strike group off Taiwan’s southern coast; in August, the PLA will conduct an amphibious assault war game in explicit preparation for an attack on Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands. State-run media outlets, most notably the Global Times, have said the PLA could transform any major military exercise into an actual invasion, if a Taiwanese independence declaration seems likely. 

Pre-conflict posturing, limited provocations, legal harassment and cyberattacks fall under the blanket term of “grey zone activities.” Like Chinese and Russian news media manipulation, or Iranian electronic harassment, these recent Chinese actions remain below the threshold of open conflict but, nevertheless, have clear strategic implications.

China is simultaneously testing American and Taiwanese resolve, garroting Hong Kong, flaunting its military capabilities to smaller regional rivals like Japan and Vietnam, and signaling its political commitment to monopolizing Asia’s maritime lanes to a global audience. Moreover, by normalizing major irregular military exercises, China can lull the U.S. and its allies into a false sense of security by repeatedly mobilizing and threatening to strike Taiwan but refraining from action until the right moment.

It’s an ancient military tactic.

Grey zone operations extend beyond the Indo-Pacific. Russia has executed two hybrid operations in the past 15 years — against Georgia in 2008, and against Ukraine beginning in 2014. Iran’s use of proxies throughout the Near East is a standard grey zone tactic to increase deniability and bolster tactical flexibility.

However, China’s force structure and likely strategy make them particularly dangerous in a Pacific context.

China’s army fields thousands of cruise and ballistic missiles, which it would use to saturate U.S. and allied bases and naval units during the opening phase of a Pacific war. U.S. Carrier Strike Groups are particularly high-value targets, since the majority of the Navy’s offensive capabilities exist within the Carrier Air Wing. Individual surface combatants or smaller Surface Action Groups are ideal for presence and deterrence but, ultimately, vulnerable to Chinese missiles. But dispatching a strike group in response to a Chinese grey zone action — like its violation of the Taiwan Strait’s mid-line — could be deemed unduly escalatory.

Even worse, it could expose American carriers to the brunt of China’s opening salvos: China can target a strike group operating closer to its coastline with a larger proportion of its missile arsenal than it can a carrier on Second Island Chain’s outer rim. Moreover, the U.S. has a limited number of Carrier Strike Groups; at any given moment, a maximum of four carriers are fully operational, with the rest of the fleet undergoing maintenance, refueling or training for their next deployment. Thus, the U.S. must choose between deploying its highest-value assets in response to moderate Chinese provocations or allowing its allies to fend for themselves until war seems imminent. 

The U.S. and its allies have identified Chinese (and Russian and Iranian) grey zone activities for several years. Iran employs a fleet of “dark ships” — oil tankers that turn off their transponders to avoid detection — to circumvent oil-export sanctions. North Korea uses similar means for similar ends: A North Korean ship was pictured transferring coal to a smaller vessel within Chinese waters in October. Russia and China have escalated their unsafe intercepts of U.S. and allied vessels over the past five years. 

From the perspective of the “Iron Triangle” — the loose entente of anti-Western authoritarian regimes that hopes to challenge the U.S. globally — all that matters is operational effectiveness. Russia has employed electronic jamming technology in Syria and Ukraine to disrupt adversary communications, coordination and command-and-control; China has distributed its electronic warfare systems across multiple domains, a sign that the PLA looks to integrate information operations into all levels of combat. The likelihood is that China will increase its spoofing and jamming activities over the next year, particularly during Asian military exercises.

The U.S. military has recognized the unique threat that China poses; the Navy, in particular, appears to understand the importance of a distributed fighting force that can survive a Chinese first strike and remain largely combat-capable. However, this force of small surface combatants, unmanned aerial, surface and underwater vehicles, and manned modern and legacy platforms, will not come to fruition for several years, if not a decade. In the interim, the United States must develop alternative capabilities that can be integrated with today’s fleet while keeping strategically critical, vulnerable capital ships out of harm’s way.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are ideal for these missions. Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) and High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs are designed to remain on station for much longer, at much lower cost, than their manned counterparts. The MQ-9 Reaper, the Air Force’s premier reconnaissance and strike “hunter-killer” UAV, can operate for 14 hours with its full 3,800-pound payload, flying at 25,000 to 50,000 feet for 1,000 nautical miles. By contrast, the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets — the contemporary Carrier Air Wing’s backbone — can match the MQ-9’s range without refueling if it carries only two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and replaces the rest of its weapons load with fuel tanks; the F-35C has a 670 nautical mile combat radius on internal fuel, with a 1,200 nautical mile maximum range. Of course, aerial refueling can extend any manned aircraft’s range — but the MQ-9 and similar MALE and HALE UAVs remain a cheaper, eminently viable option that can provide greater coverage, especially for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting (ISRT).

Moreover, a grey zone-optimized MALE UAV need not be as survivable or flexible as manned aircraft. A naval version of the MQ-9, perhaps launched from a catapult on a surface combatant, need not carry the various missiles and bombs of a fighter aircraft. Its relatively slow speed and small payload are much less relevant in a grey zone situation, since the UAV will not conduct combat missions. Rather, a fleet of MQ-9s with improved maritime surveillance technology, alongside several aircraft with Electronic Warfare systems, could be used to disrupt Chinese grey zone operations in the Indo-Pacific while keeping the Carrier Strike Group in reserve for major contingencies.

Since learning the danger of allowing powerful U.S. and allied forces to gather and strike from nearby waters and land in the two Gulf Wars, our potential foes continue to adapt using cyber, space, grey zone tactics, lawfare and compromised 5G technology, a widening spectrum that leads to an unlimited expansion of the battlefield. To assure its dominance, the U.S. must lead in all. The technological means to do so in grey zone tactics, particularly in ISRT, is one category where our advantage is established. We should use it to the hilt.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on U.S. leadership in global affairs, and is director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as an officer in the Navy and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Tags aircraft carriers Carrier battle group Carrier strike group Carrier Strike Groups China General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper naval strategy Unmanned aerial vehicle Unmanned combat aerial vehicle

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