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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

How the U.S. Navy Can Compete with China in the Gray-Zone

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 24, 2022) An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Fighting Checkmates” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 211 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Aug. 24, 2022. The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, employed by U.S. 6th Fleet to defend U.S., allied and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jack Hoppe).

The latest entry in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Maritime Counterinsurgency Project, titled “Winning without Gunsmoke in the South China Sea,” comes from Wendell Leimbach and Eric Duckworth of the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office, a directorate overseen by the U.S. Marine Corps commandant. The office is doing crucial work. Gaming and analysis have revealed that the United States and its allies and partners have no palatable way to defeat China’s “gray-zone” strategy in the China seas.

They can either stand idle, and let China make good its claim to state ownership of the South China Sea in defiance of the law of the sea. Or they can open fire, and bear the blame for aggression. Friends of maritime law need some recourse short of blazing away with guns or missiles. Hence the search for “intermediate force capabilities” between passive acquiescence and hot war.

Leimbach and Duckworth report on a seemingly minor yet essential shift in the lingo U.S. military folk apply to gray-zone operations. Until fairly recently, efforts to find ways to operate effectively in this murky realm went under the guise of “nonlethal weapons.” But a weapon is an implement—not a capability. The Pentagon defines a capability as “the ability to complete a task or execute a course of action under specified conditions and level of performance.” In other words, it’s the ability to do something or another.

Shifting the focus from widgets to tactics, operations, and strategy was a wise move.

In this case, the necessary capability is the ability to meet and deflate China’s abuses of Southeast Asian fishermen, coast guards, and navies without resort to violent force. China’s fishing fleet, maritime militia, and coast guard routinely prevent Southeast Asian neighbors from harvesting natural resources from their “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs). An exclusive economic zone is an offshore preserve, generally reaching 200 nautical miles out to sea, that’s guaranteed to a coastal state for its sole use.

China deploys ships to neighbors’ EEZs to deprive fellow Asians of their rights under international law. And yet it gets away with lawlessness by using nonmilitary sea services to anchor its claims. That doesn’t mean China refrains from using force in regional quarrels. Chinese mariners use force all the time, but they refrain from the overt use of armed force. From gunfire, in other words. Fishing craft flood the zone in large numbers, for instance, defying efforts to police regional waters. The China Coast Guard outnumbers and outmuscles Southeast Asian coast guards and even navies—opening up sweeping operational vistas before Beijing.

Once deployed, intermediate force capabilities will give the United States and its regional parties the ability to escalate a confrontation while remaining beneath the threshold of open warfare. They can match China’s gray-zone capabilities with their own. In effect, they can dare China to pull the trigger first—and expose itself for the predator it is—or they can induce Xi & Co. to deescalate to noncoercive nautical diplomacy.

Now, weapons and sensors remain indispensable tools of the trade despite the shift in parlance from weaponry to capability. The coauthors list such novel and sometimes madcap technologies as “synthetic slime” that clings to small-boat propellers and expands to hinder propulsion; microwave directed-energy systems that impede electronics or shut down a vessel’s engines; and dazzling lasers that cast a glare that obscures eyesight or interferes with optics.

Such innovations are all to the good, but someone does have to be on the scene of gray-zone competition to wield them. The finest capability in the world makes no difference unless you use it. U.S. political and military magnates must make the conscious strategic choice to compete with China in the gray zone. That means mounting a standing presence in the South China Sea in the form of U.S. Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard seafarers, ships, and planes. In other words, it means setting aside the past practice of showing up once in a while and then steaming away. That practice cedes the contested ground to China, which is always there.

You have to compete to win, and you have to be there to compete. Let’s go—and stay.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

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.”



  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 6, 2022 at 5:12 pm

    A major effort preparing a Strategic Blockade of China, by arming the 1st island chain around the China Sea with large numbers of anti-ship smart weapons, is the action that speaks loudest. A blockade of China’s ports would end 98% of China’s foreign trade, which accounts for 40% of China’s GDP. If the economic dislocation caused by this is factored in, 50% of China’s GDP would end within days.

    Nothing China sells the world, can’t be made elsewhere in higher quality, and with less risk. And a blockade would cause an instant decoupling, permanently ending most of China’s foreign market shares, which would be grabbed by competitors instantly.

    Threats to implement the blockade then would have traction on Chinese belligerence, which it now ignores.

    • Cheburator

      November 6, 2022 at 5:56 pm

      Do you even understand that Chinese non-nuclear weapons reach Guam, and all US bases and naval groups at a distance of up to 4000 miles from the Chinese coast are under the gunpoint of Chinese missile systems, and the US fleet, in the event of a war, will be destroyed in the first hours of the war – moreover non-nuclear weapons.
      The only way to overcome China’s coastal defenses is a nuclear strike, but the strike will be mutual.
      China is certainly not Russia, it has an order of magnitude fewer nuclear warheads, but this is enough for the descendants of the US population to play Fallout with full immersion.

  2. The Al U Know

    November 6, 2022 at 5:51 pm

    Slime, microwaves and lasers, oh my!
    Sounds like inspiration from some Western youth.
    Opportunity Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil. Your time has come.
    Get your superglue and tomato soup cans ready. This is your chance to stop the fossil fuel glutton that is China.

    And all those Chinese coast guardsmen and fishers will just take it. Yes. And the military, navy will have a good laugh at their comrades!!

    I’m sure China is thinking ahead for the long game. That, or they will attack Taiwan before Xi reaches the Commisariat for Geriatrics, that place they hustled Hu Jintao to. 2027. Who was it that said it: Danger Zone.

  3. 403Forbidden

    November 6, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    U.S. Navy can compete with ANYBODY. nothing illegal ’bout it.

    But U.S. Navy mustn’t dictate U.S. foreign policy.

    Already, U.S. admiral charles Richard inadvertently let the cat out of the bag when he said very recently that the war in Ukraine was just a ‘warm up’. Or a little exercise or some minor flexing of the muscle. In other words, a prelude.

    Was the proxy war in Europe something planned by the military/deep state all along. Just like the Nov 2020 election outcome.

    The military, especially the Navy, must not be architect or driver of foreign policy.

    It’s time for the swamp to be drained completely and allow a bipartisan Congressional committee to be set up that oversees U.S. foreign policy on a weekly basis.

  4. pagar

    November 6, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    The America navy can compete with china in any zone, and in any district, whether red light district, green light district or black district.

    But America navy must not follow in the footsteps of japanese navy in the 1930s & 1940s. It must not plan something like pearl harbor.

    The America navy must always obey or follow the will of the civilian govt in Washington DC. No ifs or buts.

    But right now, the Washington civilian govt is failing the American people. Galloping inflation, rising fuel costs, rising utilities costs and billions of bucks shoveled abroad. All to the detriment of the American people.

    Biden the 80-yr-old drossified president of America has failed to do justice to the >one million covid deaths in America, a death rate higher than any other nation.

    Biden ought to issue arrest warrant for xin jinping, who’s responsible for failing to curtail spread of covid and failing to stop covid getting out of china, and also who’s responsible for exporting huge amounts of opioids to America.

    But Biden has done no such thing. He’s instead hard at work pouring fuel into the fire in Ukraine hoping to go off or sign off with a bang.

    The America navy ought to get it’s DoD lawyers to kick Biden out of office. Hurl a ton of subpoenas at Biden until he runs out of the white house.

  5. Peace-keeping nukes of US arsenal

    November 6, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    US navy competing with china, hmm, this period ain’t pre-1941.

    Today, the real action lies with US Space Force, not the US navy or u. s. air force.

    US Space Force already lining up allies a/k/a minions or vassals as well as private commercial companies to set up its fledgling space domain awareness system. Space is now regarded as a war domain. Today. In view of the very rapid progress in space achieved by rival nations.

    Space is where the action is. Space is where man-made objects move at 20,000 kph or faster. Sub-orbital ones may travel bit slower, but still one large order of magnitude faster than naval vessels.

    Today is the 21st century, and whoever grabs the high ground in space stands to be Lord of the realm. And Space Force’s obviously not losing one second to seize the crown.

  6. John

    November 7, 2022 at 6:32 am

    We need missiles of all sorts, ASM,AAMs, anti-missile missiles, IRBMs, thousands, not 20 here and there.
    Drones, loitering munitions, including loitering surface drones a la Ukraine and underwater drones.
    Supercarriers should partially be converted to drone launch stations.
    Our forward bases are too vulnerable.
    Removing F-15 from Japan may be smart. Station ground launched tomahawks and JAssm-Xr there instead.
    Build SRBMs a la South Korea,
    Surface ships too vulnerable.
    Need nuclear Dark Eagle, ARRW, prompt global strike

  7. Neil Ross Hutchings

    November 7, 2022 at 6:45 am

    A case of the pot calling the kettle black. Can someone tell me why a U.S. Coast Guard vessel is harassing Chinese fishing vessels (which likely are illegally or over fishing) off the coast of the Galapagos Islands in international waters?

  8. mawendt

    November 7, 2022 at 11:30 am

    Navies are hard to maintain and expensive. Land based Anti-ship missiles and maritime strike aircraft are not.

    Create a deterrent that guarantees China loses it’s navy in any conflict, and ignore their silliness, making sure you are prepared for tit-for-tat retaliation. Arm Chinese competition: Japan, S. Korea, Vietnam, India. Let them be the thorn in a Chinese backside.

    Missiles are a great way to make your neighbor remain polite and respectful.

    There. Done. At least in my lifetime.

  9. GhostTomahawk

    November 7, 2022 at 11:30 am

    Why isn’t the international community doing nothing?


    Elected leaders are bankrolled by major corporations and those same corporations are in need with China.


    Solution: EMBARGO CHINA

  10. John Kenneth Donovan, Sr

    November 7, 2022 at 4:17 pm

    Set up a forward operating base (FOB) in the middle of China’s man-made islands which can support various civilian sea control operations involving hundreds of personnel, rotary wing aircraft & drones, but can defend itself and serve as a military threat at the same time. Sell an Iowa class battleship to Vietnam with a stipulation that a civilian US crew operates the FOB Battleship. Just tow the Iowa-class ship to the South China Sea. Anchor the FOB Battleship within the 3-milw limit of Vietnam’s little island in the middle of the South China Sea. For China to mess with the FOB they have to violate Vietnam’s waters – they won’t. House a battery of USMC Himars and vehicle mounted Stingers with USMC crews on a rotating basis. The civilian US crew operates one power plant and supports civilian law enforcement efforts of Vietnam and the other nations who border the South China Sea.
    Let the Vietnamese military man and operate a couple of 5-inch guns for point defense. And, to really mess with the PRC, let the Vietnamese experiment with shooting sabot rounds with 100-mile range from a 16-inch gun once a year!

    The PRC spent 10-20 billion building their man-made islands. We can sell an Iowa class to Vietnam for $150 million a year ($5 million a year to whatever Museum Foundation volunteers their Battleship for every year the Vietnamese use her), and when the contract ends we get the old girl back.

  11. Ishmale

    November 7, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    All the suggested strategies are nonsense. They all require time and we are out of time. I say china takes Taiwan in a massive all-out invasion with several divisions and heavy bombardment of all naval vessels, aircraft, power and transport infrastructure. There will be total naval and air blockade cutting off all aid and all oil food and raw materials and spare parts. With their land based hypersonic rockets they can and will sink any US carrier that comes within 2000 miles of their coast (which includes all of Taiwan and Korea, Japan and Guam etc). They will also be able to blockade S. Korea and Japan, cutting off their oil and other raw materials if they try to protect Taiwan. They may even encourage N. Korea to make diversionary attacks on US and S. Korean forces. Simultaneously Russia will launch full winter counteroffensive in Ukraine destroying all of the so-called “victories” of Zalenski and his “heroic” puppet army. So what is our response? Think fast you only have a month or two. Meanwhile its time to poop in our collective panties. Our leaders are hubristic fools on a quest to slay the great white whale of Chinese and Russian power. It won’t work. It time to get out of the militaristic protection racket we currently run, and learn to mind your own business for a while. Otherwise we will go down like Ahab and take the whole world with us. Remember the fate of the “Pequod”. Our foreign policy is total mad aggression and warmongering. We need to rethink who we are and what is our objective and goal .

  12. David Chang

    November 10, 2022 at 9:30 am

    God bless people in the world.

    We should agree not make America to be socialism America, we are not Russia, Ukraine, E.U., and one-China.

    People in Ukraine demanded that U.S. federal government enforce the expropriation of U.S. private satellite company, but military talked about the Space policy many years ago, and military should protect private space commercial activities and will not expropriate private properties.

    God bless America.

  13. will

    November 24, 2022 at 3:17 am

    China is a peace-loving country, and the Taiwan issue is a historical legacy of China’s civil war, and China wants peaceful reunification with Taiwan. China will not take the initiative to provoke the United States, but China is not a country that is easy to bully either.

    China has strong industrial and military capabilities. China has a space station, the Beidou satellite navigation system, hypersonic radar, hundreds of satellites, thousands of nuclear bombs, and tens of thousands of missiles of all types. China’s advanced weaponry in the army, navy, and air force is now close to that of the U.S. military, and in some areas exceeds it. China does not engage in a zero-sum game; its philosophy is one of win-win cooperation.

    But if the United States interferes in China’s reunification by force, or even breaks out into full-scale war with China, please do not forget: China’s nuclear submarines, launched in China’s offshore JL-41 ballistic missiles, can hit the U.S. mainland and obliterate hundreds of U.S. cities, and China’s H-20 bombers, can also fly to the U.S. mainland to carry out large-scale bombing, while all U.S. military bases in the Asia-Pacific region will be PLA’s missile wiped out.

    China is not Iraq, China is not an Indian that can let you do whatever you want, China is a country of world power. China does not want to be an enemy of the United States. If the United States does not want to live a good life anymore and the United States insists on being an enemy of China, then please be prepared for the Americans to go back to the Stone Age.

    Is this what you want?

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