Ens. Ryan Simpson stands on the bridge wing of the guided-missile destroyer Russell while operating in the South China Sea last week.

Ens. Ryan Simpson stands on the bridge wing of the guided-missile destroyer Russell while operating in the South China Sea last week. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin

Four Ways US Naval Forces Should Be More Assertive

Non-aggressive assertiveness can achieve long-term advantages and have strategic effects.

Some national-security experts may be wary of America’s new maritime-forces strategy, which calls for more assertiveness in day-to-day operations that relate to competition with other powers. This concern is understandable. But when forward-deployed forces are assertive without being aggressive, interaction between rivals need not lead to escalation. And these actions can achieve long-term advantages and have strategic effects.

This case is made at greater length in "Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power," the tri-service strategy document recently released by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. While much of China’s malign behavior short of war includes weaponizing social media and infiltrating global supply chains, forward-deployed naval forces have their own part to play: they must deter and prevent escalation by presenting persistent and capable threats in regions where deviant actors do their bullying. To deter acts of further aggression, Naval forces must not only show they have the capability and capacity to act, they must also demonstrate a willingness to do so. That’s why it makes sense for forward deployed forces to be more assertive.

Being more assertive does not mean putting American service members in danger by taking unnecessary risks. One concrete example given by naval leadership is the U.S. Coast Guard using their law enforcement authorities to fight Chinese illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in places like the Galápagos Islands. There are in fact additional actions that naval leadership should consider taking to be more assertive without being aggressive or inadvertently sending the wrong message. 

First, Chinese maritime militia vessels should be treated as force protection threats whenever they interfere with military units operating in international waters and pose a clear and present danger to the crew. For example, maritime militia vessels — paramilitary units designed to look like fishing boats — that attempt to block passage of a ship conducting a freedom-of-navigation transit, similar to what happened to USS Lassen in its 2015 FON, would be subject to force protection measures. Offending maritime militia vessels would be subject to increasing levels of force, including verbal and visual warnings, non-lethal measures, warning shots, and disabling fire in extreme cases. While every U.S. commander has the inherent right and obligation of self-defense, declaring maritime militia interference of lawful military activity a force protection measure alerts the People’s Liberation Army Navy to the serious nature of their activities and place the risk of escalation squarely back in their corner. 

Second, U.S. and partner forces must get better at documenting and publicizing violations to maritime rules and international norms. Every U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ship now deploys with state-of-the-art audio/visual systems to record such activity. In addition, crewmembers are trained and evaluated on how to accurately document and timely distribute videos showing illicit and unprofessional activities at sea. Commanders should expand this training and if necessary, provide the same audio/visual equipment to the navy and coast guard units of allied and partner countries. In addition, the same training should be provided to local fishing and merchant vessels in regions where they are likely to be harassed. These “tech diplomacy” efforts are critical to winning the war of the narrative before rival countries can alter the facts and cast doubt on any diplomatic response. 

Third, U.S. naval vessels should turn the tables on their shadows. Warships entering the South China Sea are routinely met and shadowed by at least one PLAN ship. Like a security guard following a known shoplifter around a department store, the PLAN vessels remain three to five miles on the beam or astern of the U.S. ships for the duration of their presence on station. Unfortunately, some U.S. ships passively allow the PLAN ships to follow them around. Commanders on station could easily deny the PLAN ships from taking their preferred shadow position by simply maneuvering to keep the shadowing PLAN ship on the bow. This active maneuvering when operating on station would change the situation so that U.S. ships are doing the shadowing. Proactive maneuvering will no doubt frustrate the PLAN commanding officers when they are unable to maneuver behind the U.S. vessels, but it reinforces the message that U.S. vessels will sail anywhere that international law allows, including operating in the South China Sea. Having U.S. ships counter-shadow PLAN vessels would also be reassuring to allies and partners and message that the high seas are being policed by a trusted and capable deterrent force.

Finally, U.S. commanders should make more use of friendly fighter jets. Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft routinely conduct unsafe low level passes over U.S. Navy ships and dangerously close intercepts of U.S. patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. The tense interactions present the highest risk for misunderstanding because on-scene commanders may interpret an encounter as a hostile act that warrants defensive weapons employment. To mitigate the threat of escalation, dangerous interaction training events are now conducted during pre-deployment exercises for U.S. naval forces. Units are taught to have a plan for self-defense and to use all available sources of information to determine if a hostile act is in progress. Beyond pre-deployment training, unsafe interactions are almost non-existent in the presence of U.S. fighter aircraft. U.S. fighters present an additional layer of defense that a threat aircraft would need to neutralize prior to conducting a simulated attack or a close approach on a ship or patrol aircraft, so the pilot of the threat aircraft is less likely to take that risk as a result. Therefore, when U.S. fighter aircraft are available, U.S. commanders should assign them to defensive roles for U.S. forces performing routine operations as well as to high-value assets like aircraft carriers. This preemptive assignment of fighters decreases the likelihood of an unsafe interaction or an escalation to a hostile act.

Assertive action imposes costs for U.S. competitors’ malign behavior, sends a strong message to allies and partners of U.S. resolve, and takes advantage of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard’s abilities to influence events abroad. Some U.S. commanders are likely already employing these tactics with success and can share lessons learned. Adopting a more comprehensive and assertive posture in response to coercion and violation of established norms will allow forces to prevail in day-to-day competition while maintaining a free and open maritime environment.

Capt. Robert Francis, USN, specializes in surface ships and is and a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or view of CFR or the U.S. government.