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Two Wrongs Making a Right? An An Unconventional Warfare Strategy to Address Illegal Chinese Fishing

The rich waters surrounding the Galapagos islands are home to one of today’s largest transnational organized crime operations. Massive fishing fleets from the People’s Republic of China are blatantly pillaging the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Ecuador and Peru, undermining their national economies and markets, destroying marine ecosystems, and decimating worldwide fish populations. Chinese fleets are also crewed by forced labor, often from the Chinese Uyghur regions. These illegal fishing activities violate not just international maritime laws and regulations, but human trafficking laws as well.

Addressing Chinese illegal fishing requires international cooperation, strengthened maritime enforcement, and diplomatic efforts to promote sustainable fishing practices and protect the rights of affected nations. In June 2022, the Biden Administration released the “Memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses,” which aimed to address the issue of illegal fishing and labor abuses in the fishing industry. It emphasizes the need for international cooperation, sustainable fishing practices, and the protection of workers' rights to combat these illicit activities and promote responsible fishing globally.

Unfortunately, in the nearly two years since the release of that policy, Chinese illegal fishing activities have only grown. It’s now time for a new strategy. 

US Special Operations Forces (SOF) can play a crucial role in addressing illegal Chinese fishing operations by implementing a comprehensive strategy that leverages its unique capabilities and partnerships, while simultaneously investing in our South American partner forces. The pillars of this proposed strategy should be:

1.     Enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness: US Special Operations can collaborate with Ecuadorian and Peruvian forces and other relevant stakeholders to improve maritime domain awareness in areas affected by illegal Chinese fishing operations. This includes sharing intelligence, conducting joint patrols, and utilizing advanced surveillance technologies to monitor and track the activities of Chinese fishing fleets.

2.     Capacity Building and Training: SOF can provide training and capacity-building support to partner nations to enhance their maritime security capabilities. This can involve training local forces in maritime interdiction techniques, intelligence gathering, and maritime law enforcement. By strengthening the capabilities of partner nations, they can better detect, deter, and respond to illegal fishing activities.

3.     Coordinated Operations: SOF can facilitate coordinated operations among partner nations to target and disrupt illegal Chinese fishing operations. This can involve joint patrols, information sharing, and coordinated interdictions. By working together, partner nations can pool their resources and expertise to effectively counter the activities of Chinese fishing fleets.

4.     Diplomatic Engagement: SOF can provide support to diplomatic efforts to address the issue of illegal Chinese fishing. This can involve providing intelligence and operational support to diplomatic initiatives aimed at raising awareness, fostering cooperation, and advocating for stronger international regulations and enforcement mechanisms against illegal fishing.

5.     Public Awareness and Outreach: SOF can collaborate with partner nations and non-governmental organizations to raise public awareness about the detrimental effects of illegal Chinese fishing. This can involve educational campaigns, community engagement, and media outreach to highlight the environmental, economic, and social impacts of illegal fishing activities.

The recent maritime operations carried out by Ukrainian forces against the Russian Black Sea Fleet make for an interesting prototype. The Ukrainians have found success in attacking the Russian fleet through the deployment of the Magura V5 sea drone, a 5.5m automated boat armed with explosives. Employing similar technology could effectively make Chinese illegal fishing activities significantly more costly while minimizing both the risk of casualties and providing plausible deniability.

The Magura V5 costs around $225,000, a cost that is relatively cheap when compared to equivalent manned naval capabilities, but far too expensive for this strategy. Instead, USSOCOM should take a page from the strategy employed by the Iranian Quds force against US forces in Iraq. USSOCOM should look to develop inexpensive, disposable kits containing a battery-powered motor, guidance system, sensors, and a warhead that can be fixed to existing small boats or an improvised plywood hull, converting them into remote-piloted explosive kamikaze drones.

USSOCOM could easily leverage its existing rapid prototyping and acquisition authorities and capabilities to produce these kits for an order of magnitude cheaper than the cost of a Magura drone. Then, in the execution of their Joint Combined Execution and Training mission, US SOF could train military (or paramilitary) forces in Ecuador and Peru on how to build and employ these systems.  It would then be up to Peru, Ecuador, or other partner forces to determine when and where to defend their EEZs.

China is engaging in a form of state-sponsored economic piracy, against not only Ecuador and Peru but our world’s delicate ecosystem. Just as Iraq surrendered its right to sovereignty after it invaded Kuwait to steal natural resources, Chinese actions have no right to safety in the execution of their crimes. Iraq invaded Kuwait overtly and met an overt international response. China using commercial means to invade covertly, but pillaging resources nonetheless. A covert response is warranted.

By implementing this strategy, US Special Operations Command can play a vital role in protecting marine resources, supporting affected partner nations, and promoting sustainable fishing practices. US SOF can not only significantly contribute to the global effort to address illegal Chinese fishing operations, but has an opportunity to do so cheaply and effectively, while simultaneously building an exportable capability to help other partners defend their interests against hostile maritime action.


What does StratBot say?

Using inexpensive, disposable kits to convert small boats into remote-piloted explosive kamikaze drones can be seen as a potential strategy to address illegal Chinese fishing operations. However, it is essential to consider the pros and cons of such an approach before drawing any conclusions. Here are some key points to consider:


1.     Cost-Effectiveness: Inexpensive, disposable kits can offer a cost-effective solution compared to developing and deploying more sophisticated unmanned systems. This affordability may allow for a larger number of drones to be deployed, potentially increasing the chances of success in disrupting illegal fishing activities.

2.     Stealth and Surprise: Small boats converted into remote-piloted explosive drones may have the advantage of surprise. They can be deployed covertly, potentially catching illegal fishing vessels off guard and increasing the likelihood of successful interdictions.

3.     Flexibility and Adaptability: The use of disposable kits allows for flexibility and adaptability in deploying these drones. They can be easily modified and deployed in different locations, adapting to changing circumstances and targeting specific areas where illegal fishing activities are prevalent.


1.     Legal and Ethical Concerns: The use of explosive kamikaze drones raises significant legal and ethical concerns. Under international law, the use of force is generally prohibited, and targeting civilian vessels, even if engaged in illegal activities, may be seen as a violation of these principles. (Human note: US SOF can and has been traditionally employed for addressing illegal civilian activities, e.g., counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and counterdrug operations.)

2.     Collateral Damage and Safety: The use of explosive drones carries the risk of collateral damage and unintended harm to innocent civilians or non-combatant vessels in the vicinity. Ensuring the safety of innocent parties and minimizing unintended consequences would be challenging in such operations. (Human note: Acknowledge this strategy does put the force-labor crew of these vessels at risk.)

3.     Escalation and Retaliation: The use of explosive drones against Chinese fishing vessels could potentially escalate tensions and lead to retaliatory actions. This could further exacerbate the already complex geopolitical dynamics in the region and potentially result in unintended consequences. (Human note: This is the most significant risk of this strategy, but as China is clearly in violation of the Principles of Sovereignty and Non-Intervention in international law, the ICC would most certainly not uphold a claim in defense of their illegal activities.)

It is crucial to approach the issue of illegal Chinese fishing operations with a comprehensive strategy that considers the legal, ethical, and practical implications of various approaches. While inexpensive, disposable kits for remote-piloted explosive kamikaze drones may offer certain advantages, the potential drawbacks and risks associated with such a strategy should be carefully evaluated before considering its implementation.


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