Military planning and doctrine has traditionally centered on what to do when a country is either at war or not at war. US military planning seems to continue to embrace this dichotomy, but the United States’ primary adversaries — Russia and China — have embraced a new military doctrine: Conflict in the “gray zone.”
The “gray zone” is hard to define, but generally consists of conflict that occurs somewhere between a state of peace and outright warfare. Examples of “gray zone” warfare include —
-Actions to influence the elections in certain countries
-Actions to increase instability by increasing hostility between races and classes
-Building artificial islands in what most consider to be international waters
-Stealing military and industrial secrets from adversaries
-Engaging in cyber warfare against critical infrastructure in other countries.
Morris et all Rand, 2019, Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk, Marta Kepe, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone, 2019, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2942.html
The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy and the publicly released summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy agree on one fundamental theme: The United States is entering a period of intensifying strategic competition with several rivals, most notably Russia and China. Numerous statements from senior U.S. defense officials make clear that they expect this competition to be played out primarily below the threshold of major war—in the spectrum of competition that has become known as the gray zone. Although such tactics as psychological warfare, subversion of political systems, and covert paramilitary and information operations are not new phenomena in international conflict and competition, our analysis shows that some of the tactics employed by Russia and China are comparatively new in form and effect. Moreover, the methods of gray zone coercion vary significantly between Russia and China and require differentiation of scope of threat posed to the United States, as well as types of potential responses. Both problems represent a strategic threat to U.S. and allied interests, especially as techniques and technologies evolve over time.
There are a number of reasons such gray zone activity presents a threat to the US and its allies
- US military strategy if focused on either being at war or at peace and the US has no strategy for managing grey zone conflict
- China gray zone activity threatens US allies in Asia and is leading to land and resource acquisition around the world that threatens US interests.
- Russian gray zone activity is dividing Europe and risking inter-European conflict
- Russian gray zone activity is undermining democracy
- Russian gray zone activity is putting European energy supplies at-risk
- Russian gray zone activity is weakening Europe and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to Russian aggression
At the same time, others fear that the US is overreacting —
- Gray zone activity does not constitute warfare
- Russia and China are both reacting against US imperialism
- Nuclear weapons deter any gray zone conflict escalation
- China and Russia are just protecting their economic interests
Those who consider gray zone activity to be a threat have suggested a number of solutions
- Hardening US protection against cyber threats and protecting electoral systems
- Establishing an office within the Department of Defense for responding to gray zone threats
- Establishing bright lines for what would constitute a military threat instead of just gray zone activity.
*Discussion and Review questions
What is the grey zone? How would you describe it if you were thinking about it?
Is China a gray zone threat?
Is Russia a gray zone threat?
What can be done to reduce aggression in the gray zone?
What are the risks of the US pushing back too hard in the gray zone?
See full Foreign Policy Vocavulary
Cyber warfare. Cyber warfare involves attacking the computer networks of other countries. For example, a company my try to shut-down another country’s electrical grid
Espionage. Espionage is spying
Gray zone. Conflicts which increase tension and aggression among countries without escalating to full-scale war
Imperialism A foreign policy approach which suggests that one’s own country should influence more of the world, either through direct rule or through other policies, especially economic or military
Confronting China over the Grey Zone crisis (2019). This argues that the US needs to challenge China in the grey zone — military aggression short of war. The article argues that if China were to undertake military aggression the East China Sea or the South China Sea that the US should respond with economic sanctions.
U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, Washington, D.C., 2018,
Campaigning in the Grey Zone (2019). This new CSIS report argues that with U.S. competitors increasingly operating in the gray zone between routine statecraft and open war, the United States must develop a campaign plan to deal with the gray zone challenge.
How the United States can compete in the Grey Zone (2019). The United States is entering a period of intensifying strategic competition with several rivals, most notably Russia and China. U.S. officials expect this competition to be played out primarily below the threshold of armed conflict, in what is sometimes termed the gray zone between peace and war. In this report, the authors examine how the United States might respond to Russian and Chinese efforts to seek strategic advantage through coercive actions in the gray zone, including military, diplomatic, informational, and economic tactics. The United States is ill prepared and poorly organized to compete in this space, yet the authors’ findings suggest that the United States can begin to treat the ongoing gray zone competition as an opportunity more than a risk. Moreover, leaders in Europe and Asia view Russian and Chinese gray zone aggression as a meaningful threat and are receptive to U.S. assistance in mitigating it. In this report, the authors use insights from their extensive field research in affected countries, as well as general research into the literature on the gray zone phenomenon, to sketch out the elements of a strategic response to the gray zone challenge and develop a menu of response options for U.S. officials to consider.
Intensifying Russian and Chinese Gray Zone Activities
- Russian gray zone campaigns in Europe consist primarily of disinformation campaigns meant to undermine political institutions. Other tactics include the use of economic tools to extract concessions or hold countries at risk of being coerced through an overreliance on Russian energy; the demonstration of military threats through exercises near the borders of certain states; and, in a few very extreme cases, the infiltration of Russian security forces to exert de facto control over disputed territory.
- In Northeast Asia, Japan believes that it is engaged in an increasingly high-stakes competition with China over efforts to change the status quo of territorial sovereignty and administrative control of the Senkaku Islands and nearby areas. In Southeast Asia, countries in the region have grown increasingly wary of Chinese gray zone aggression in the South China Sea. These tactics include China’s unprecedented expansion of artificial islands, as well as the use of law enforcement and maritime militia vessels in an unprofessional and escalatory manner to deter or deny the use of living and nonliving resources in the waters. Finally, China has supplemented these strategies with growing employment of economic coercion and political subversion.
Overarching strategic concept for responding to gray zone threats
- The authors’ proposed strategic concept is built around four complementary efforts: to shape a context supportive of U.S. and partner objectives over the long term; to deter a handful of very extreme forms of gray zone aggression; to dissuade the day-to-day use of more-elaborate gray zone techniques; and to sustain resilience in the lower-level, persistent competition areas.
- To implement the strategic concept, the authors propose a preliminary list of about three dozen response options for U.S. officials to consider, such as stationing permanent new military capabilities in key locations, anticipating political meddling and blunting the effects with information operations planned in advance, and denying the aggressor participation in key economic institutions.
- The United States and its allies, partners, and friends must decide what actions they will resolutely no
- t tolerate in the gray zone environment. Because of the difficulty in stopping gradual, sometimes unattributable actions involving secondary interests, identifying the actions that the United States will seek to deter is the one reliable way to draw a boundary around the possible effects of gray zone encroachment.
- A multicomponent strategy like the one outlined in this report will be of limited utility if the U.S. government continues to lack a clear coordinating function with the responsibility for overseeing a renewed effort to gain strategic advantage in the gray zone. An important part of any gray zone response strategy, therefore, is undertaking institutional reform, such as assembling a purpose-built office in the U.S. government, with a significant devoted staff, to run counter–gray zone campaigns.
Russia in the Grey Zone (2019). In its ongoing efforts to influence world affairs, Russia is waging campaigns both bloodless and bloody. A significant number of its tactics fall in the space between routine statecraft and direct and open warfare, a space sometimes referred to as the gray zone. Americans are familiar with Russia’s disinformation efforts in the United States and its use of “little green men” in Ukraine, but they may be less attuned to stepped-up Russian political and economic coercion abroad, its gray zone cyber and space operations, and its use of proxy forces in Syria. Its aim with these approaches is to achieve Russian objectives at low-cost, notably by side-stepping military escalation with the United States or its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Although Russia’s exploitation of the gray zone is not new, the prevalence of these tactics is more significant today than any time since the end of the Cold War.
Disinformation, political influence, and economic and energy coercion are the core of the Gerasimov Doctrine’s emphasis on the non-military means to achieve security goals. Russia continues to remain undeterred and committed to interfering and influencing foreign elections.
Van Jackson, “Tactics of Strategic Competition: Gray Zones, Redlines, and Conflicts Before War,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer 2017. 11
William G. Pierce, Douglas G. Douds, and Michael A. Marra, “Countering Gray Zone Wars: Understanding Coercive Gradualism,” Parameters, Vol. 45, No. 3, Autumn 2015.
Nadia Schadlow, “Peace and War: The Space Between,” War on the Rocks, August 18, 2014;
Mazarr, 2015; David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Fighting and Winning in the ‘Gray Zone,’” War on the Rocks, May 18, 2015;
Frank Hoffman, “The Contemporary Spectrum of Conflict: Protracted, Gray Zone, Ambiguous, and Hybrid Modes of War,” in Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2015;
Antulio J. Echevarria, “How Should We Think About ‘Gray-Zone’ Wars?” Infinity Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall 2015; U.S. Special Operations Command, The Gray Zone, white paper, September 9, 2015;
Hal Brands, “Paradoxes of the Gray Zone,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 5, 2016; Nora Bensahel, “Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Become More Frequent and Complex,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 13, 2017;
Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence, Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 9, 2017.
On China’s strategy in this regard, see Amy Chang, Ben FitzGerald, and Van Jackson, Shades of Gray: Technology, Strategic Competition, and Stability in Maritime Asia, Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, March 2015; and Christopher Yung and Patrick McNulty, China’s Tailored Coercion and Its Rivals’ Actions and Responses: What the Numbers Tell Us, Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, January 2015. 17
Russian actions in Ukraine have stretched this definitional aspect to its breaking point, essentially crossing the threshold into conventional war. See, for example, András Rácz, Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine: Breaking the Enemy’s Ability to Resist, Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Report 43, June 16, 2015.
On the specific aspect of such faits accomplis, see Ahmer Tarar, “A Strategic Logic of the Military Fait Accompli,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, December 2016; (requires academic access)
Daniel Altman, “By Fait Accompli, Not Coercion: How States Wrest Territory from Their Adversaries,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4, December 1, 2017; and (requires academic access)
Daniel Altman, Red Lines and Faits Accomplis in Interstate Coercion and Crisis, dissertation, Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015. and exploit them for strategic advantage.
Guerilla-Style Warfare in Asia’s Littorals,” The Diplomat, February 16, 2017. 49
Lyle J. Morris, “The Era of Coast Guards in the Asia Pacific Is upon Us,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 8, 2017b;
Morris et all Rand, 2019, Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk, Marta Kepe, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone, 2019, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2942.html
One helpful definition was developed as part of the Department of Defense’s joint staff effort to assess the issue in a forum called the Strategic Multilayer Assessment. This project defines the gray zone as a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve politicalsecurity objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws.13 Based on that and other work, we developed a somewhat revised and compressed definition for the purposes of this study.14 It holds that The gray zone is an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and nonmilitary actions and the attribution for events.
In both cases, and in all leading definitions of the gray zone, there are several characteristics that are most important to the nature of this challenge, as well as typical aspects that tend to be present in most gray zone activities. The first is that gray zone elements remain below the threshold that would justify a military response.
Gray zone aggressors aim to scale their actions to fall just short, or in some cases well short, of established triggers for military action, by either the United States or the target of the gray zone coercion. The goal is to avoid major clashes, unambiguous or attributable violations of international law or norms, or outright conflict.16 This characteristic can guide the choice of specific actions—such as unattributable cyber harassment or creating a de facto presence in a maritime area—but it can also help shape the character of a gray zone campaign over time. Often, an aggressor will follow a series of more belligerent actions with a period of calm, designed to ease regional concerns about its activities. Both in their specific actions and in their overall structure, therefore, gray zone campaigns are designed to deny a defender precisely the sort of clarity in violation of rules that is typically important in effectuating a deterrent threat.
The second common characteristic of gray zone activities is that they unfold gradually over time rather than involving bold, allencompassing actions to achieve objectives in one step. By stretching aggressive moves over years or even decades, such “salami tactics” provide less basis for decisive responses—and thus less ability to make unambiguous deterrent threats in advance.17
A third characteristic of the gray zone, which applies to some but not all the activities in this sphere, is a lack of attributability. Most gray zone campaigns involve actions in which the aggressor aims to disguise its role at least to some degree. Whether using cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, or proxy forces, these actions allow a gray zone aggressor to deflect responses—and obstruct the potential for successful deterrence—by simply denying that it is responsible. Some actions in the gray zone are open and attributable.
In those cases, they tend to be characterized by a fourth common aspect: the use of extensive legal and political justifications, often grounded in historical claims supported with documentation. Nations undertaking gray zone campaigns make strong efforts to justify their actions under international law. In some cases, as with a handful of specific Chinese legal claims in the South China Sea (SCS), they recruit other countries to their point of view, even if the legal standing of their claims in the international community is tenuous. These tactics complicate the task of generating a local response, as well as enforcing punishments.
Fifth, to avoid decisive responses, gray zone campaigns typically stop short of threatening the defender’s vital or existential interests. This aspect naturally follows from an approach that remains below thresholds for response, but it deserves special emphasis. By declining to challenge vital interests on the part of the defender—especially a defender practicing extended deterrence, as in the case of the United States today—gray zone aggressors significantly complicate the challenge of effective deterrence and response.
An important quality of gray zone campaigns, therefore, is that they reflect a long series of limited faits accomplis.18 They represent physical areas or issues with some vacuum of power that Russia or China can fill, daring the United States, its allies, and its partners to respond. This can be true in territorial terms, as when China sends fishing vessels to international waters of the SCS to claim “historical fishing rights,” or in normative terms, as when Russia exploits loopholes in the definition of aggression to harass Western democracies through cyberattacks or disinformation. Gray zone aggressors find places where defenders cannot respond quickly or aggressively and stake out positions from which they must be removed, transferring the risk calculus to the defender. Gray zone activities, in other words, involve an ongoing effort to discover weaknesses in existing U.S. and allied policies and capabilities
Any response strategy must come to grips with this essentially opportunistic, gap-seeking character of the gray zone. It points to the need for both continuous dissuasion in areas and issues of high priority and the ability to move quickly once challenges appear. Waiting a week or more to respond to an adversary’s actions may allow the gray zone aggressor to achieve an initial advantage that becomes very difficult to dislodge.
A sixth characteristic of gray zone aggression is that, even as it seeks to remain below key thresholds for response, it uses the risk of escalation as a source of coercive leverage. Gray zone campaigns are designed to remain below the threshold for large-scale military response—but they also, and somewhat paradoxically, often explicitly hint at the risk of more-violent military actions that provide escalation leverage and complicate deterrent threats. Targets of the gray zone aggression know that if they respond powerfully to a relatively modest gray zone move, the gray zone aggressor can double-down with more-significant capabilities, including military force. China uses such escalatory risks, in part, by deploying maritime militia and coast guard vessels at the point of dispute, with its “gray hull” People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) assets just over the horizon.19 Such actions provide a form of intimidation that is central to effective gray zone campaigns.
Seventh, gray zone campaigns are typically built around nonmilitary tools, as part of the general approach of remaining below key thresholds for response. They employ diplomatic, informational, cyber, quasi-military forces, militias, and other tools and techniques to avoid the impression of outright military aggression. To respond adequately, defenders must develop parallel tools of statecraft to threaten or carry out deterrent threats. Eighth and finally, gray zone campaigns target specific vulnerabilities in the targeted countries. These can include political polarization; social cleavages, including the existence of ethnic populations sympathetic to the gray zone aggressor; economic stagnation and resulting needs and grievances; and lack of military or paramilitary capabilities.
Gray zone aggressors also typically aim to put the defenders in situations where strong responses appear ruled out, or counterproductive, for strategic and domestic political reasons. The aggressors can do this, in part, by establishing economic dependencies that create implicit leverage or by threatening escalation.
Perhaps the cardinal overarching characteristic of the gray zone, therefore, is that it takes advantage of strategic ambiguity to achieve gradual gains. In theory, simply removing this ambiguity—declaring a U.S. and allied intent to respond strongly to a full range of activities—can be part of the solution. And indeed, a major theme of the strategic concept defined in this report is to do exactly this: The first step in responding to gray zone aggression is to draw clearer lines where aggression will cross thresholds, thus bounding the problem. But this is likely to be possible with only a small subset of gray zone tactics. The essential insight of gray zone strategies is that an aggressive state can take many actions below the threshold at which a defender will feel able to make such unambiguous promises of response.
The challenge of responding to such gradual aggression is complicated by the fact that allies and partners tend to have different risk appetites and preferences. In Europe, many countries believe that it is important to sustain workable relations with Russia; in Asia, many countries feel caught in between Chinese economic predominance and their concerns about Beijing’s coercive moves, so they hesitate to take a clear stand. Even if the United States can recruit one or more regional partners in a more aggressive gray zone response, Moscow and Beijing will try to peel off other countries more worried about a tougher stance. Finally, in developing a response strategy, we also kept firmly in mind the fact that gray zone campaigns are part of an unfolding global competition, as defined by current U.S. national security strategy documents—and those of the United States’ adversaries. The purpose and effect of responses must be viewed in that context. Actions taken in one gray zone context may set expectations for other issues or regions or may contribute to an emerging sense of the trajectory of the overall competition