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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How the Quad Can Take on China in the ‘Gray-Zone’

Aircraft Carrier
(Jan. 25, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean Jan. 25, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alexander Williams)

Last week the heads of state of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, convened in Tokyo. Afterward, the White House released a communique announcing that the partners—Japan, Australia, India, and the United States—intend to work together to bolster “maritime domain awareness” throughout the vast geographic expanse that is the combined Indian and Pacific oceans. According to the White House, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness will “transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Maritime domain awareness is a clunky phrase connoting reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence relating to the sea. Back in 2005, the George W. Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security defined it as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States.” It’s “a key component of an active, layered maritime defense in depth,” fortified by “improving our ability to collect, fuse, analyze, display, and disseminate actionable information and intelligence to operational commanders.”

The Quad initiative is a saltwater, multinational version of the “intelligence cycle,” whereby intelligence services plan what information they need to collect to attack issues at hand; gather raw data from technical and human sources; process and analyze the data to distill useful insights from it, and disseminate their findings to the right customers to help them devise and execute strategy and operations. And then customers provide feedback on the planning process, shaping future rounds of the cycle. The intelligence cycle goes on without end. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Harnessing foreign partners for the intelligence cycle makes sense for a multitude of reasons. This is a time of tense peace, when malefactors such as China and Russia try to make geopolitical gains without actual resort to arms. China in particular excels at “gray-zone” operations, using its weight of resources vis-à-vis outmatched neighbors to bully them into accepting unlawful behavior. The South China Sea is the most prominent example of China’s gray-zone strategy, which aims at making most of that body of water, including exclusive economic zones apportioned to coastal states, part of metropolitan Chinese territory—“blue national soil,” as Chinese Communist Party magnates style it. But it also deploys the same approach on land, often at the expense of Quad partner India. In recent months, for instance, it has built military and civil infrastructure on the contested ground along the frontier with India and dared the Indian leadership to evict Chinese soldiers from that ground at the risk of war. It creates facts on the ground and defies others to undo them. If China’s rivals blanch from the prospect of armed conflict, China wins.

This is a hard strategy to beat. Maritime domain awareness is no cure-all for gray-zone aggression, but Quad intelligence operations might help deter aggressors from unlawful behavior. Detecting and exposing such actions to international opprobrium could amplify their repercussions beyond anything Beijing, Moscow, or other offenders stand to gain. And maritime domain awareness would help the Quad respond to misconduct at sea in more forceful ways. After all, it’s tough to vector assets to the scene if you have no idea where the scene is or what’s transpiring there. Small wonder the late Captain Wayne Hughes, the dean of naval tactics, designated “scouting”—reconnaissance and surveillance, in effect—as one of three fundamental determinants of tactical efficacy, alongside command and control and weapons range. The ability to detect, track, and the target is crucial.

Captain Hughes was writing about open naval warfare, but the same logic applies in peacetime strategic competition. Muscular nautical diplomacy depends on the ability to stage superior combat power at points of impact, reminding everyone that you possess a latent military option should peaceful diplomacy fail to resolve a situation. Grafting the intelligence cycle onto Hughes’s scouting and command-and-control functions adds detail and texture—showing how the Quad partners could swing the big stick of naval and military force to deter or coerce in Indo-Pacific waters and skies, and to hearten Indo-Pacific nations that aren’t part of the Quad to stand up for their own rights. And, of course, the logic of maritime domain awareness maps to wartime operations. It is the foundation of everything maritime services do throughout the continuum from peace to war.

But pooling resources and effort will take work. The chief challenge to Quad information operations at sea is interoperability, meaning the ability of unlike armed forces and intelligence services to work together in harmony. Hardware will doubtless capture most of the attention among decisionmakers in Tokyo, Canberra, Delhi, and Washington. And there’s no gainsaying the importance of compatible sensor and command-and-control technologies. The United States, Japan, and Australia are allies of long-standing, accustomed to working together and working around any equipment dissimilarities. Working with India could prove more troublesome, if only because the Indian intelligence, military, and law-enforcement services have a habit of procuring hardware from disparate domestic and foreign suppliers. Interoperability is taxing even within the Indian national-security apparatus, to say nothing of collaborating with foreign services. Overcoming such disparities will pay dividends, but the Quad is sure to encounter problems along the way.

Combined efforts at maritime domain awareness also demand that the partners coordinate their institutional practices in the common interest. So there’s a human dimension to the initiative alongside the obvious technical dimension. Not only are the Quad partners different societies, with different heritage and cultural traits; their intelligence and military services have their own distinct bureaucratic cultures and worldviews. That adds another layer of complexity. Aligning unlike entities toward the common goal of maritime domain awareness and, ultimately, a common policy and strategy toward aggression will cause headaches for those engaged in the initiative. In short, there’s more to maritime domain awareness than widgets. It’s about building the daily habit of working together. That’s the best palliative for bureaucratic headaches.

But such are the intricacies of marine diplomacy. Let’s get on with it.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Error404

    May 28, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    QUAD same as Tripartite pact. No difference. Aim is to kickstart ruinous war.But this time against a nuclear power. Shows humans never learn.

    Xi jinping has been conducting himself as though he’s USA president of china, following exactly in the footsteps of US presidents with his actions or policies and imitating their globalist dreams.

    Xi’s terrifyingly stupid approach or mistake is compounded by QUAD now being led and exorted by a man who’s affected by mental illnesses, family scandals and a proven pattern of inveterate lying and cheating.

    Worse, the man has baited a nuclear power into a destructive conflict in europe and now wants to repeat it in east asia.

    Humans never learn learn from the past. Genghis with his almighty horde ran amuck from the east to the west but the only legacy he left is the current massive size of moslem influence in east europe and central asia.

    QUAD will do the same as massively numerous minions and vassals climb aboard the bed of the grand seductress.

    What QUAD should do is avoid travelling downn the road taken by genghis. Instead QUAD should expel all diplomats, shut down all embassies and stop all imports from xi until he steps down and faces trial im a court of justice.

    But will QUAD do that. NO, QUAD led by cheating and lying 80-year-old man ailed by dementia won’t do that. QUAD will elect to choose the way of confrontation and war. With nuclear powers.

    • Him

      May 28, 2022 at 9:13 pm

      When anyone speaks, you need to drill deep to ask: what is that person’s main life paradigm?

      The above person, Error404 – his life paradigm is: don’t anger a bully. When the bully is bashing you, if you even try to resist, the bully will bash you harder.

      Every person has a life paradigm, where everything they say flows from that.

      And if you try to argue with that person, they cannot grasp what you are saying, because everything they hear is filtered through their life paradigm.

      e.g. the Quad is only forming now, not before, because China is starting to act like a greater bully.

      But people, like Error404, think from the bully paradigm – so he speaks from the don’t-resist-the-bully paradigm.

      This is the reason why it’s impossible to convince Russian trolls – because they operate from the “don’t-resist-the-bully” paradigm.

      • Joe Comment

        May 29, 2022 at 9:55 am

        Him: If you have followed Error404’s writings here, you would see he does believe in resisting the bully but he projects the bullying motives on the US. It turns out that mind-reading is not a great basis for argumentation.

    • Joe Comment

      May 29, 2022 at 12:03 am

      Error404: There are potentially some valid criticisms of the Quad, but you managed to miss every one of them and instead posted a bizarre screed that sounds like the ravings of a drunk. Are you also going to blame Biden for baiting you to do that? (laughs)

  2. GhostTomahawk

    May 30, 2022 at 1:13 am

    If you’re not prepared to go all in then get out. The Chinese are paper tigers no different than the USSR during the Cold War. Their stolen tech is junk and seriously exaggerated. Their “million men army” is a bloated sitting duck. China can’t feed move or arm them all. They have 1 aircraft carrier. Why are we afraid? PEACE TIME LEADERSHIP and feckless politicians who are afraid of not getting re-elected.

    So if it’s important do it. If it’s not shove off and let weak regional powers sort their own laundry.

  3. David Chang

    May 31, 2022 at 6:55 am

    God bless people in the world.

    But people in India believe socialism and do not obey Ten Commandments,
    so the QUAD is the same wrong as NATO.

    God bless America.

    • Joe Comment

      May 31, 2022 at 9:20 am

      The main problem I see with the Quad is the lack of a clear shared purpose. “Counter Mainland China at sea” is too vague. Which specific potential activities are to be countered, and how? Examples: if Mainland China tries to annex the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Japan and the US are already committed to prevent that, but I doubt Australia and India are interested. If Mainland China tries to annex Taiwan, the US is committed, Japan and Australia are interested, but India’s position is not clear. Or if Mainland China keeps doing what it has been doing by building up its disputed Spratly islands and making aggressive statements about its claimed rights, what’s the response? More freedom of navigation operations? I don’t see a realistic strategy there to influence Mainland China’s behavior.

  4. cobo

    June 2, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Dear Professor Holmes,

    I’ve commented to you before, several years ago, perhaps as ‘coboarts,” although I’m now commenting under just cobo. I want to address this persistent fear mongering as mentioned in comments above. The US does not need to fear “other” nuclear powers. They need to fear the US. Warfare is reality on planet Earth. We need to dominate that reality. No more drive-bys of Chinese encroachments in the territorial waters of allies. As the wise philosopher Tuco once said, “When it’s time to shoot, shoot.” Lock, target and load our strategic arsenal on their … and say military force vs military force, mano a mano at sea, on the land and heavens above.

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