Competing in the Gray Zone

Learn More about the Gray Zone

The United States faces an array of challenges from adversaries that blend all tools of statecraft while also operating below the threshold of conventional war. The United States lacks clearly defined strategies to address these challenges. This series of critical questions explains the “gray zone” and the United States’ current readiness to compete in this space.

Q1: What is Gray Zone Conflict?

A1: Gray zone actions challenge U.S. interests, influence, or power and do so in ways designed to avoid direct U.S. military responses. Examples include Russia’s disinformation campaigns against societies in the West, its use of cyber activities to threaten western businesses, and its use of proxy forces to annex territory and foment civil war in Ukraine. Iran also uses proxies like Hezbollah to promote Iranian government interests. China’s economic policies throughout Africa and Asia, its island building, and use of a range of maritime assets to harass foreign vessels and deny them access to international waters may also be considered gray zone actions. The United States developed decades of experience in countering these types of activities during the Cold War. However, it will have to remember, or re-learn and adapt, if it is to be as successful in the future.

Q2: If it usually isn’t direct military confrontation, why should the United States care?

A2: The United States should care because countries are using gray zone actions to undermine U.S. advantages, strengths, and interests. When China builds military outposts in international waters or when Russia uses non-uniformed soldiers to invade and attack a sovereign neighbor, it erodes confidence in a rules-based system. Rules—and the predictability they enable—are important for facilitating business deals, expanding trade, managing conflict and escalation, and conducting diplomatic negotiations. The system of political and economic predictability has benefited the United States, its allies, and its partners for decades.

Additionally, cyberattacks can cause real damage to U.S. infrastructure; economic coercion can hurt the bottom lines of U.S. businesses; proxy forces can threaten U.S. forces and civilians and while avoiding retaliation by the United States against the sponsoring state; and disinformation can impact the outcomes of crucial Western elections and referenda. In other words, gray zone activity by competitors like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea can have real, tangible costs for U.S. interests.

Q3: How does it work?

A3: Gray zone actions exist, and thrive, at the margins of “acceptable” state behavior with thresholds bound between day-to-day statecraft and acts of war, intended to delay or paralyze competitors’ decisionmaking. In executing a gray zone strategy, a state can draw on any tools of foreign policy—both military and non-military, and governmental and non-governmental. Such an approach creates difficulties not only for deciding whether to respond, but how and with which actors or tools. Additionally, gray zone actors may use ambiguity, deniability, or covert action in using gray zone tools, further complicating efforts to assess intent and attribution, as well as the ability to respond.

Q4: Is the United States ready to compete?

A4: No. The United States is beginning to recognize how gray zone competitors operate. It has the capability to be a formidable and effective gray zone actor but does not yet have a plan to employ or integrate its capabilities to achieve its objectives. The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy establish the administration’s intent to take seriously the challenges from state competitors, principally China and Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran and North Korea. More work is needed to move beyond a clear understanding of the problem into specific actions, operational frameworks, and strategic approaches that could be drawn upon to more consistently and effectively counter gray zone actions directed at the United States. The United States will need to be agile in its responses and proactive measures, both to quickly counter gray zone actions and to limit the predictability that its adversaries have exploited.

Michael Matlaga is a research assistant with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. John Schaus is a fellow with the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Michael Matlaga