How Fishing Boats Have Become Warships

America’s naval forces are strategically adapting to new threats.

Deep-sea fishing charters are a staple of most American coastal marinas—from Miami to the San Francisco Bay. Boats loaded with fuel and fun rock their way out on gentle waves to open waters and ocean sunsets. Summer freedom at its finest.

Now, imagine if the million registered floating funhouses in Florida and the million plus in California were suddenly impressed into the U.S. Navy to run offensive operations ramming ships or sent on snooping day-sails. If you can picture this, then you have a sense of other countries’ new hybrid navies. Around the world, fishing boats have become the new warships.

Fighting on the high seas and in ports of call is always treacherous, but the dangers just got worse. Battling against navy ships and subs trying to sink fleets, stake out seas, or show force now also means that every trawler, research vessel, fishing boat, and dinghy is also a potential combatant.

A 21st-century maritime adversary no longer looks like a uniformed sailor or Marine. It’s just as likely to be a guy hauling up a fishing net or trawling in offshore waters. Paranavies, maritime militias, and pirates are rapidly evolving low forms of high-sea crimes and warfare. From the South China Sea to the far reaches of the Arctic, these developments are giving the West’s high-tech militaries a new sinking feeling.

Masters and commanders recognize this in part as a back-to-the-future military moment, a reminder of the days when state-sponsored pirates and independent privateers ruled the seas. Sovereign navies were put in place to pursue and punish them. Naval battles in the past regularly involved pirates and other non-state actors.

In fact, pirates are the reason we even have Marines. The Corps was re-established after the Revolutionary War and in 1805 were sent to defend American merchant ships against Barbary pirate attacks at “the shores of Tripoli.” The deposed Libyan ruler presented a Mameluke sword to the successful squad’s American leader. A sabre remains part of the USMC formal dress tradition. Hoorah.

Two centuries later, in October 2000, non-state actors attacked the USS Cole in Yemen with terrorist irregulars sidling up to the ship in a small speedboat laden with explosives. The USS Cole crew tragically failed to attack the C-4 stocked speedboat because it was not identifiable as either a traditional combatant or threat. It blew a hole in the Navy destroyer, killing 17 American sailors and crippling the ship. That case was pursued and indictments eventually unsealed by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Of course, Western adversaries are not limiting their new-old tactics to the water. In this latest manifestation of modern gray-zone warfare, Russia, China, and other adversaries creatively deploy hybrid forces. Whether unmarked seafaring vessels or innumerable “little green men” troops lacking flag insignias on their uniforms, the goal is the same—to hide or deny this stealth military’s relationship to a state in efforts to avoid retaliatory consequences or escalations.

We have long recognized that soldiers and armies no longer need to wear identifiable uniforms to be enemy combatants. On the ground, these irregulars are known as guerrilla fighters—“freedom fighters” or “partisans” if they are on your side and fighting for your cause. They were effective against America in Vietnam and continue to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has embedded them in Ukraine’s Donbass region and occupied Crimea.

Changing military tactics usually alters responses, and the questionable fishing fleet force is getting an answer. Recognizing that a combatant ship no longer needs to be painted gray or bear hull numbers, America’s Indo-Pacific fleet recently adapted its rules of engagement. The U.S. Navy now looks at nearly any vessel with flagged by the People’s Republic of China as a potential combatant—from fishing boats to Coast Guard vessels. The message? Harass or threaten the U.S. Navy, and be prepared to suffer the consequences.

America’s naval forces are also strategically adapting to the growing threats toward their freedom of navigation operations and deployments by revisiting U.S. fleet strength and size. No, the U.S. Navy is not insisting that civilian pleasure craft give up their booze cruises to patrol and secure America’s shores. Instead, naval forces will use more robotics, drones, electronics, and smaller ships. Unmanned ships, drone subs, and killer robots are already patrolling and pursuing those who challenge American interests, whether with conventional or unconventional means, regular or irregular forces.

Globally, what required sending Marines to distant shores is still an active concern for global trade, fishing, and free naval navigation. The right of unimpeded seafaring, however, remains more of a centuries-old aspiration than an easily enforceable international law or defensible reality. Given all these challenges, the last thing the world needs on its 140 million square miles of water is new threats from old boats.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.