On a summer’s evening in the sweltering South China Sea, a coastal steamer of nearly 2,000 tons approaches a Vietnamese fishing fleet in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, some 150 miles off that nation’s coast. The steamer loiters in the area for an hour or two as night falls. Suddenly from the side of the ship three fast speedboats are deployed, each armed with .50 caliber guns and hand-held rocket launchers. For the next hour, the speedboats attack dozens of fishing craft, spraying them with .50 caliber fire, hitting them with grenades, and shooting at survivors in the water. The surviving fishing boats flee toward the coast, frantically radioing distress calls, which are jammed by small drones operating overhead.
By the time the Vietnamese Coast Guard arrives on scene the next morning, alerted by one of the boats that finally managed to limp into port, there is only blood in the water, mixed with oil and gasoline, and several smoldering hulls. One of the Coast Guard ships strikes a small, crude mine and sustains damage to its hull. On one of the still floating fishing craft, an improvised explosive device goes off when Vietnamese sailors board it searching for clues to the origin of the incident. Vietnamese social networks are flooded with warnings to fishermen that the waters of their traditional fishing grounds are full of terrorists. A series of cyber attacks cripples the Vietnamese offshore radar surveillance system.
China insists its armed forces were not involved and says it suspects gangsters running a protection racket, pirates, or domestic Vietnamese terrorists. Using both social networks and official channels, the Chinese immediately offer to provide protection against further attacks, pointing out that Vietnam appears unable to control its claimed waters and asserting the need to do so itself to safeguard Chinese vessels operating nearby. Similar social network campaigns occur throughout the nations around the western rim of the South China Sea. China uses the opportunity to reassert its claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. Over the next several months, similar attacks occur on a variety of offshore vessels, oil platforms, and natural gas terminals.
Despite protests from a variety of nations around the littoral of the South China Sea, a threat of investigation by the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization, and stern words from the United States, a sense of chaos and instability develops across the most congested shipping channels in the world.
Much has been written about the emergence of “hybrid warfare” in a variety of global scenarios, notably in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. To date, this largely has been confined to land warfare, in terms of both actual practice and theoretical discussion. That is about to change, and we will see the emergence of maritime hybrid warfare over the coming decades, perhaps sooner. Now is the time for the U.S. Navy to begin thinking about these scenarios and how to counter them, both for our own forces and on behalf of allies, partners, and friends in the global maritime coalition.