The Darker Shade of Gray: A New War Unlike Any Other

Learn More about the Gray Zone

In its September 1999 Phase I report New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century, the United States Commission on National Security in the 21st Century (better known as the Hart-Rudman Commission) darkly concluded that “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Two years later, the United States suffered catastrophic terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens. Ultimately, Hart-Rudman was about challenging what was then contemporary U.S. national security bias and convention, forcing U.S. decisionmakers to fundamentally reconsider how core U.S. interests would be threatened in the coming decade. Unfortunately, key aspects of their message fell on deaf ears or failed to penetrate institutional predispositions about consequential threats. The United States and its leadership were simply lulled by post-Cold War primacy into profound vulnerability.

The next wave of unconventional warlike aggression against the United States and its allies is well-underway. Elite U.S. leadership has been warned about the strategic hazards of effective counter-U.S. gray zone resistance—especially that originating in Beijing and Moscow. Among many others, CSIS has undertaken meaningful work on gray zone challenges. All of this ongoing work recognizes that the United States is clearly suffering setbacks and losses in the face of Russian and Chinese gray zone campaigning. However, as in the case of Hart-Rudman’s counsel and the subsequent 9/11 attacks, the United States appears to be as flat-footed and perhaps more fundamentally threatened by gray zone challenges than it was pre-9/11 from terrorists.

Q1: What are gray zone threats?

A1: In the 2016 work “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone”, U.S. Army War College colleagues and I joined the U.S. Special Operations CommandRAND’s Michael Mazarr, and David Barno and Nora Bensahel among many others in separately issuing somewhat unwelcome Hart-Rudman-like warnings to the U.S. national security establishment about the hazards of counter-U.S. gray zone resistance. Our War College work specifically suggested that the most consequential U.S. rivals—paced by Russia and China—were employing to great effect “unique combinations of influence, intimidation, coercion, and aggression to incrementally crowd out effective (U.S.) resistance, establish local or regional advantages, and manipulate risk perceptions in their favor.”

We opted to describe these so-called gray zone challenges instead of defining them. At the time, we believed that the creative “weaponization of everything” would rapidly outpace, defy, and fundamentally undermine precise definition. In short, we worried that a defense and national security community so enamored with precision of language would ‘miss the one that got us’ by effectively defining away transformational warlike behavior by U.S. rivals. Our concern was that U.S. defense and national security bias and convention—still invested in the rapidly dwindling advantages of post-Cold War primacy—would discount as nuisance rival methods that were in fact potentially fatal to U.S. interests.

In place of a definition, we opted at the time for a simple parsimonious set of descriptors to guide senior leader identification of hostile gray zone approaches. We suggested all gray zone challenges manifested in some combination of three distinct characteristics—hybridity, menace to defense and national security convention, and risk confusion.

Hybridity suggests that all gray zone strategies include unique combinations of hostile methods within and across instruments of power, traditional domains (air, land, sea, space, cyber), and heavily contested competitive spaces (e.g., electro-magnetic spectrum and strategic influence). We found that gray zone adversaries present a menace to convention in that the character of their competitive methods promises warlike outcomes yet fall short of military provocation. We concluded that rival gray zone strategies and approaches “lie between ‘classic’ war and peace, legitimate and illegitimate motives and methods, universal conditions and norms, order and anarchy; and traditional, irregular, or unconventional means.”

Finally, risk confusion captures the gray zone’s fundamental security dilemma. Risk confusion sees gray zone hybridity and menace to convention combine in strategic decisionmaking to paralyze effective counter-gray zone approaches. In short, risk confusion emerges when the hazards associated with action and inaction against gray zone rivals appear equally unpleasant.

Hyper risk conscious U.S. decisionmakers—convinced that the long arc of history favors continued U.S. dominance—can see aggressive action against capable gray zone rivals like Russia and China as risky flirtation with uncontrolled and costly escalation. And, in inaction, they clearly see the hazard associated with real or perceived appeasement of the same capable rivals. The highest cost of appeasement, of course, is tacit acknowledgement of rival gains and surrender to the same rival’s attendant ability to solidify those gains against reversal. In the end, the deferred hazard of inaction presents attractive incentives for U.S. decisionmakers to wait out the opposition. Unfortunately, irreversible strategic loss is a natural outcome.

Q2: Why are gray zone threats so challenging for U.S. national security leaders?

A2: Risk confusion lies at the heart of ineffective U.S. competition with Beijing and Moscow. Risk confusion is weaponized by both to great effect and employed to stall either offensive or defensive U.S. responses to obvious gray zone provocation. Our Russian and Chinese gray zone adversaries successfully manipulate risk calculus, transferring the preponderance of risk onto U.S. and allied decisionmakers. Each successful Russian or Chinese gray zone maneuver creates new opportunities for their exploitation. And, each successful rival exploitation further undermines U.S. credibility and expands U.S. and allied vulnerability to continued gray zone assault.

To date in U.S. risk calculus, it appears that an outsized fear of future hybrid escalation across the political, information, military and paramilitary, and economic instruments trumps very real near-term losses of U.S. influence, reach, freedom of action, position, and credibility associated with any one incremental hostile gray zone act. One can only assume that the latter are perceived by U.S. and allied leaders as recoverable at some future date. In reality, however, we now know that tangible rival regional gains—Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South China Sea, etc.—are more likely than not new inalterable facts on the ground. In short, while rivals campaign and win, the United States cries foul but fails to effectively campaign back.

Going forward, a more troubling and decidedly more strategic evolution in great power gray zone competition appears in the offing. Its potential for harm far surpasses anything thus far anticipated by scholars and analysts. The U.S. response to this darker shade of gray is likely to determine the future of U.S. great power.

Q3: What is the darker or darkest shade of gray?

A3: Those of us assessing the character of gray zone challenges over the recent past likely underestimated their potential hazard and impact. For the most part, we focused on their regional—at range—implications. And, in so doing, we failed to recognize the effective “lethality” of strategic gray zone maneuvers against the stable functioning of the United States itself. We played “small ball” while U.S. rivals were in reality building their team to “hit for power” in what we at the Army War College call the pivotal “strategic influence” space. As a consequence, U.S. leadership is facing yet another potentially catastrophic “failure of imagination.” However, this failure is potentially much more far-reaching and crippling than that of 9/11.

In recent Army War College work on hypercompetition in the Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility, my colleagues and I opted to examine vulnerability and the pursuit of advantage across “contested spaces” versus traditional military domains. In doing so, we identified “strategic influence” as preeminent among the various heavily contested arenas within which the United States competed for advantage with its most capable rivals. In very simple terms, the “strategic influence” space demarks conceptual territory where elite and popular perceptions are formed, consequential choices are made, and, ultimately, great decisions are taken on the pursuit and defense of various core national interests.

Winning in the strategic influence space—dominating or disrupting perceptions, choices, and decisions or dividing a rival’s consequential constituencies over the same—took on new meaning in light of recent detailed reports on Russian attempts disrupt the U.S. election. Russian gray zone maneuvers directly against U.S. political institutions, as well as their demonstrated abilities to manipulate popular perceptions, mobilize political activism, and, potentially, affect political outcomes and decisionmaking, are game-changing escalations in gray zone campaigning. Further still, the Russian approach appears to employ a combination of capabilities and methods that are uniquely—even exclusively—suited to illiberal U.S. rivals.

This darker shade of gray—the prospect that rival powers may reach directly into the United States virtually and physically to exploit U.S. political fissures and influence strategic outcomes in their favor—fundamentally changes the character of contemporary great power competition and conflict. Serious U.S. and allied pursuit of institutional resilience and powerful offensive remedies are the only possible defenses against this new darker gray zone hazard. It marks an important adverse shift in the existing balance of power between the United States and its allies on the one hand and increasingly assertive rival gray zone actors on the other. Paralyzing risk confusion on our part will ultimately be lethal to continued U.S. influence. Creating rival risk confusion on the other hand —transferring the preponderance of risk back to them—will free-up decision and maneuver space for the United States to regain the initiative. However, as of now, time and will are not on our side.

Nathan Freier is an associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a non-resident senior associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this work are the views of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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.

Nathan Freier
Senior Associate (Non-resident), International Security Program