Maritime hybrid warfare is upon us, so proclaimed James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral. “(I)t will sail out to sea and prove a formidable challenge,” he contended in a December 2016 Proceedings article. According to security analyst Frank Hoffman, a hybrid opponent is one that “simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battlespace to obtain desired political objectives.” Indeed, Beijing’s use of its maritime militia, or “little blue men”, in the South China Sea (SCS) and similar measures by Tehran in the Persian Gulf are worrisome signs of hybrid warfare taking on a nautical slant.
Several commentators have visualised scenarios of how maritime hybrid warfare, or MHW in short, might unfold. Stavridis spoke of unidentified men in small boats wreaking havoc with rocket and machine-gun fire on SCS shipping in his Proceedings piece. In the same vein, defense writer Colum Hawken conceived of “Q-ships” attacking merchantmen at busy waterways near Singapore and in the Baltic Sea.
These scenarios and most other works on the subject matter delve largely on the use of irregular forces such as militiamen and terrorists to conduct such operations at sea. As for waging MHW beneath the waves, the role played by unmanned underwater vehicles has been recognized as well. What is overlooked perhaps is the utility of “regular” naval special operations forces (SOFs), more specifically combat swimmers, for MHW in the sub-surface realm and this needs to be addressed. It is worth noting that a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) study on maritime domain awareness in northern Europe described frogmen as “arguably the most effective force for maritime hybrid operations.”