How Will Non-Traditional Forces Impact Maritime Conflict?
As demonstrated by many contemporary cases - science fiction can become reality. In the Canadian television series Dark Matter, both governments and corporations own warships. They also employ mercenaries in a never-ending quest for strategic resources and advantages over their competitors. During the first season, corporate-funded gangs and other proxy combatants battle one another, while state-on-state conflict is simply non-existent or omitted. This concept is not confined to the imagination of science fiction writers; for the past decade, maritime non-governmental organizations, private maritime security companies and fishing corporations have engaged one another on the high seas. The South China Sea is ripe for a clash not of civilizations, but of fishing fleets and other state-sponsored surrogates.
The South China Sea is not only important as a critical shipping juncture amongst several countries, it also represents a vital source of ocean-based protein for its border nations. Unlike rare earth minerals, which are required for a nation’s industrial base, fish constitute a far more fundamental commodity and human need for protein. The region has grown increasingly contentious of late with China’s construction of militarized make-shift islands. The builders of this artificial land expect to birth sovereignty and maritime territorial rights as easily as these sand spits were dredged from the sea bottom. Threats to shipping lanes by the increasing militarization of these new landforms are a concern but an unlikely spark for future conflict in the region. A more probable clash in the twenty-first century could be between fishing vessels as they vie for increasingly stressed marine resources. Conflicts between nations over fishing rights are not without historical precedent, but in the past they have largely included official state platforms (navy or coast guard ships.) Warships and coast guard vessels were involved in the twentieth century Cod Wars between England and Iceland, and the Lobster War between France and Brazil. More recently, Crab Wars have precipitated naval dust-ups between the Koreas across the Northern Limit Line.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the value of the global fish trade in 2015 amounted to nearly $130 billion. The South China Sea produces at least 12 percent of the global catch each year; however, the real figure is probably higher since much of the fishing in the region is illegal or unregulated. This massive haul is enabled by 200,000 Chinese coastal fishing vessels, while another 2,460 longer range vessels venture beyond China’s exclusive economic zone. Overfishing, exacerbated by pollution from industrialization, has rapidly depleted the marine resources in China’s home waters, causing fishing fleets to venture further abroad to feed the largest population in the world.
The first phase of a resource-based conflict in the South China Sea might not look like the blue-water battles of Jutland or Midway; it could start with skirmishes between fishing vessels from different countries and companies. Over the past several years, fishing fleets and maritime law enforcement have employed tactics ranging from ramming and blockades, to small arms fire, and even communications jamming.
The national security infrastructure and planning in the maritime environment is still largely structured around large platforms (Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, and aircraft) that are expected to engage other peer or near-peer nation maritime platforms. Tomorrow’s maritime conflicts, however, are more likely to escalate through hired guns or environmental non-government organizations acting as surrogates either for fishing fleets or their state sponsors. An important question asked recently by one Twitter user to The Strategy Bridge is worth further exploration: “What happens if nations… hire [a private maritime security company] to patrol fisheries in the South China Sea?” In parallel to the increasing competition for marine resources, globally oriented, sophisticated private military and security companies and maritime non-governmental organizations have emerged and become involved in wildlife protection.
Private maritime security companies have made several unsuccessful attempts in fisheries enforcement as well as anti-piracy during the height of the Somali piracy crisis. In 1999, Hart-Nimrod’s M/V CELTIC HORIZON was hired for fisheries protection by Somalia’s Transitional National Government but had significant failures in understanding the operational environment, logistics, and platform requirements. Several other companies (UK-based Hart, UAE-based Somcan, Saudi-based Al-Habibi, US-based Topcat, French-based Secopex, and others) also sought to make gains off Somalia as an alternative to a state coast guard, but none succeeded. The employment of private military and security companies can be problematic as negative perceptions of these groups linger in the wake of firms like Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone, and Blackwater in Iraq. Furthermore, as Blackwater’s M/V MCARTHUR learned in Djibouti in 2009, basing rights are easily promised by nations, but just as easily denied or made so cumbersome the company must find other logistics arrangements. Additionally, firms involved in counter-piracy have been prosecuted for their involvement in illegal arms movements. Increasingly however, some nations have begun to embrace a different type of maritime force experienced with fisheries policing, without the negative associations created by some private military security companies.
Environmental non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Global, and Earthrace Conservation are growing blue water fleets and have experienced crews; in some cases they are constructing ships from the keel up. They have operated in nearly every ocean and worked with local governments to deny access to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing trawlers and marine-life poachers. Continued financial support for these non-governmental organizations suggests a globally, broad-based endorsement of their activities. They are often crowd-funded or facilitated by wealthy benefactors, but in some cases, they have been supported by nation states themselves.
To date, dust-ups over territorial fishing rights in the South China Sea have largely been limited to trawlers ramming one another. But these skirmishes could evolve as environmental non-governmental organizations begin to operate in the region. Environmental NGOs with ships might be initially unwilling to challenge Chinese-flagged fishing vessels due to fears of a stern reaction. Though Japanese-flagged whaling ships were rammed and harassed in the Southern Ocean, the Japanese government to date has not sent navy or coast guard vessels to escort the whalers. Conversely, a heavy-handed state response occurred when the Russian government seized Greenpeace’s ship ARCTIC SUNRISE and imprisoned the crew. Surprisingly, earlier this year, Sea Shepherd’s M/Y STEVE IRWIN chased illegal fishing vessels and provided documentation to the Chinese government in the hope that its courts would take action. Though China may not officially endorse Sea Shepherd’s activities, they do share a common strategic adversary with Japan. China may have also learned lessons from other nations’ embarrassing incidents with similar organizations—such as the Portuguese navy’s run-in with Women on Waves or Israel’s first Gaza Flotilla incident—and now seeks to take the high road of de-escalation. Or China may simply have found an alternative to using its own fishing fleet to fend off the claims of other nations and may in the future partner with environmental organizations for their own purposes or simply create their own NGO.
In the future, might private military and security companies or environmental non-governmental organizations strike a balance between greater powers, such as Dark Matter’s ships and crew shifting allegiances between corporations? In the series’ second episode of the first season, the crew of the mercenary ship Raza is hired by the Ferrous Corporation to attack a mining colony. With a change of heart, the Raza decides to help the miners by negotiating with a Ferrous competitor—Mikkei Combine—to provide them exclusive mining privileges in return for the company’s protection.
Though the U.S. increasingly finds itself in a strategic power competition with China, nuclear and, to some extent, conventional deterrence may prevent direct clashes between naval forces. The Cold War-paradigm for naval force structure and operational responses still prevalent today are challenged by the potential for conflict over marine resources in the region. Are fishing fleets engaged globally in illegal fishing and dual-purposed as maritime militias best countered by gray-hull cruisers and destroyers? By white-hulls (Coast Guards)? Or by government contracted or commercially-subsidized maritime activists? Will conventional deterrence work against an unconventional force, such as para-naval fishing fleets? Does a freedom of navigation operation matter to a maritime militia? Moreover, can unconventional maritime tactics put the global aims of strategic competitors at risk? Additionally, ingrained institutional reluctance to identify, plan and respond to maritime irregular conflict can jeopardize future warfighting success, just as initial tactical victories in Iraq and Afghanistan gave way to protracted and costly insurgencies. An example of this reluctance was demonstrated when the Navy eliminated the Navy Irregular Warfare Office and severely contracted the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command.
Finally, because the ocean and its resources are exploited by innumerable actors around the globe, we should not expect maritime conflicts employing irregular forces or tactics (such as lawfare) to be limited to the South China Sea. Like oil, ocean-based protein is a commodity that is extracted locally, but has global strategic implications. The fisheries of South American and African countries and especially Pacific island nations are threatened by poachers from around the world. In March, Argentina’s Coast Guard sank a Chinese-flagged vessel fishing illegally within that country's exclusive economic zone. Other nations bordering these continents cannot afford the luxury of navies or even coast guards. Non-governmental organizations or other private entities will be called upon to patrol their fisheries.
The second season of Dark Matter begins on July 1. The first season of a series introduces the characters, the inherent challenges they will encounter, and the options ahead of them. But none know the future that will actually occur in the second, third, or other seasons. So too, the past twenty years have been the prologue and first season of maritime irregular warfare with private military contractors and maritime activists. Like the characters in an ensemble cast, some will leave the series and some will endure. What we know from season one of the maritime environment’s own Dark Matter is that the stage is set. We can either assess it and prepare for what may come or simply accept ignorance when we stop watching.
Claude Berube teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, worked for two U.S. Senators, has deployed to the Persian Gulf, and writes novels (Naval Institute Press) and non-fiction about maritime irregular warfare.
Chris Rawley is a naval officer, entrepreneur, and has written extensively on irregular and unconventional warfare. He has deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Western Pacific.
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Header image: Icelandic patrol ships nears an English trawler during the Cod Wars | The Arctic Portal