Whether American strategists recognize it or not, global defense competition and conflict are changing. Three core assumptions define the new era: First, the United States and the U.S.-led status quo will encounter persistent and deliberate resistance for the foreseeable future. Second, that resistance will commonly manifest as “gray zone” threats and challenges. Finally, these gray zone challenges will confound U.S. defense strategists and institutions that fail to adapt.
The gray zone is the awkward and uncomfortable space between traditional conceptions of war and peace. It is here that the United States faces fundamental challenges to American and partner security. Adversaries working to revise or reject the status quo are employing hybrid methods and capabilities — unique combinations of influence, intimidation, coercion, and aggression — to crowd out resistance, establish local or regional advantage, and manipulate perceptions of risk.
To date, the United States, its allies, and their collective defense institutions have not come up with effective ways to offset accumulating warlike losses in the gray zone. This is because there is no common perception of the nature, character, or hazard associated with the gray zone or its individual threats and challenges; because the U.S. and its partners perceive risks differently than their principal gray zone adversaries and competitors; and because there is neither an animating grand strategy nor a “campaign-like” charter guiding U.S. and allied efforts against specific gray zone challenges.
We must change that. Last summer, the U.S. Army War College launched a nine-month study on gray zone competition and conflict. The effort — chartered by the Army Chief of Staff, sponsored by the Army Capabilities Integration Center and the Joint Staff J-39/Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment Branch — recently culminated in a major report: “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone.”
Among its findings: describing the common features of gray zone threats is far more reasonable and informative than defining them specifically in more doctrinaire terms. This is because such threats lie between “classic” war and peace; legitimate and illegitimate motives and methods; universal and conditional norms; order and anarchy; and traditional, irregular and unconventional means. Like the molecular structure of a deadly virus, they are no sooner mapped than they morph into new, more complex strains.
Gray zone threats share three characteristics. The first is hybridity: they combine methods and strategic effects. Second, they menace U.S. defense and military convention because they do not conform neatly to a linear spectrum of conflict or equally linear military campaign models. Finally, they disrupt strategic risk calculations by presenting a paralyzing choice between high-risk action and equally high-risk inaction.
Today, U.S. leaders face four archetypal gray zone challenges, which manifest in different ways and do not lend themselves to a single templated national security or defense response. China is a revisionist actor with an artful ability to aggressively expand its sphere of influence, encroach on U.S. interests, and limit American freedom of action. Revisionist Russia returned to influence from its late 20th- and early 21st-century nadir by combining traditional and non-traditional methods and capabilities in ways that have confounded allied leaders. Iran, a hybrid revisionist that at times flirts with outright rejectionism, seeks to expand its influence by injecting strategic acumen and resources into a fragile Middle East. Finally, the disordered and devolving Middle East itself is “gray” by implication, as various malevolent forces of rejection coalesce into knotted and networked “wars of all against all” that invariably threaten American and allied security.
The U.S. defense enterprise vitally needs to change how it sees contemporary gray zone challenges, how it charters strategic action against them, and how it designs, prioritizes, and undertakes that action over time. This is a big change — so big it should be chartered under a common U.S. government vision emanating first from the White House. However, there are clear enterprise-level actions defense leaders can take now.
First, DoD should develop a common, compelling, and adaptive strategic picture of the range of gray zone threats and their associated hazards. This new perspective should adequately assess the contested landscape, the future trajectory of its constituent threats, and, finally, the prospects for sharp deviations from current trends. Second, DoD should “lead up” by developing actionable strategic approaches to discrete gray zone challenges and challengers. Naturally, DoD cannot act alone on either of these points. However, with presidential approval, it can use its substantial strategy development and strategic planning capacity to design strategic responses to revisionist and rejectionist gray zone competition.
Forces of revision and rejection are operating effectively against U.S. interests by both design and happenstance. Currently, DoD is not well-positioned conceptually to counter it. U.S. risk in this regard cuts two ways. Action brings with it prospects of escalation and deeper engagement. Similarly, inaction harbors the potential for gradual but nonetheless disastrous loss. There are upsides to both as well. The former benefits from retention of initiative and the latter from husbanding resources and latitude. We suggest initiative wins.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.