Maintaining NATO Cohesion in the Gray Zone

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This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, NATO will begin to confront strategic challenges that will create new risks to alliance cohesion and unity brought on by the rise of multi-domain operations (MDOs). The alliance is unprepared for the dilemmas that actions below the threshold of armed conflict will pose. As the annual NATO summit arrives, the alliance should consider developing strategies that include partner nations in novel operations.

Warfare of the present and future skirts just below the boundary threshold of armed conflict. The full spectrum of MDOs dominates teaching doctrine and shall create new dilemmas that states have yet to confront.

When and how shall NATO allies utilize offensive operations in nontraditional domains with novel means and what will the implications be for alliance cohesion?

What happens when an alliance member’s space assets are attacked with cyber operations that blind command and control infrastructure? Can persistent information operations trigger a need for allied support? What happens when an alliance member confronts a threat alone and harms the critical infrastructure of the opposition with an undeclared cyber operation, leading to a severe crisis? 

Integration of the information, space, and cyber domains in coalition operations is increasingly relevant to emerging concepts for MDOs. Traditional international security literature provides little insight into allies’ motivations behind decisions regarding offensive operations in nontraditional domains. Presently, research primarily explores how states might individually utilize destructive offensive cyber operations for strategic purposes. The need for insights into these questions is exacerbated by the increasing role of offensive cyber operations in what the NATO alliance terms “hybrid tactics” in gray zone conflicts.

Small states—that is, minor powers—depend on the alliance’s dominating power for security guarantees, and major players in alliance systems depend on alliance cohesion and coordinated actions to ensure that the regime maintains an advantage in coercive bargaining situations. Alliances must balance the unity of effort with the burdens and fears of entrapment and abandonment as actions below the threshold of armed conflict come to dominate.

Decisionmaking surrounding the deployment of novel coercive methods like cyber operations is traditionally difficult to study. Several factors contribute to complicating the process as the alliance confronts action in nontraditional domains. Firstly, while NATO had begun grappling with increasingly manifest hybrid threats, most acutely emanating from Russia, Russia’s reasons to utilize these means and methods are that these are not the threats NATO was designed to counter. Exacerbating this, NATO allies’ national strategies for offensive cyber and information operations are not aligned. Doctrines and strategic plans tend to emphasize the role of deterrence in actions below the threshold of armed conflict, while making no or only vague references to the potential role of allies.

Contrary to this, most small NATO allies emphasize cyber resilience, with some reserving cyber operations against state actors for the realm of armed conflict. The covert nature of modern cyber and information operations fosters secrecy and prevents the sharing of information on capabilities and means. Not only are strategic decisions often challenging to unpack, but the close ties between cyber operations and the intelligence community make political motivations even more difficult to untangle. Utilizing novel war gaming approaches to data collection on strategic decisions for allies can provide a pathway to understand how future MDOs can be conducted while maintaining alliance cohesion.

Over the next year, the Royal Danish Defence College will deploy a decision war game to explore these very questions. Small and medium states must plan out how they will confront the new and novel challenges that these gray zone and hybrid operations will pose to alliance unity and domestic foreign policy priorities. The objective is to come through a crisis without being abandoned by a core alliance member while also avoiding full-scale kinetic war and deterring the opposition.

Decisions made in an alliance under an anarchic international system need to maximize support from allies while minimizing involuntary involvement in unpredictable escalation scenarios. In Glenn Snyder’s terms, allies balance actions to minimize risks of being abandoned against risks of becoming entrapped.

Specifically, NATO’s alliance community must investigate how strategic decisionmakers in a state that depend on a military alliance for its national security weigh the possibilities of gaining prestige while minimizing the risks that come from involving themselves in the hybrid activities. States must also investigate the impact of undeclared cyber and information operations on the security of small states, as they might become collateral damage in resurgent great power competition.

The challenge of strategically preparing for low-threshold actions in the gray zone is currently underestimated by the entire security community. Into the future, NATO members should begin to align strategic processes among member states to maintain unity and avoid unintended escalation pressures. The stability of deterrence depends on alliance cohesion, which is under threat from novel domains more than divergent national priorities or belligerent nation states.

Brandon Valeriano is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University and a visiting fellow at the Royal Danish Defence College. Mikkel Storm Jensen is a major attached to the Institute for Strategy and War Studies at the Royal Danish Defence College, Forsvaret. Jose M. Macias III is a research associate in the Futures Lab within the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Brandon Valeriano

Assistant Professor, Seton Hall University and Visiting Fellow, Royal Danish Defence College

Mikkel Storm Jensen

Major attached to the Institute for Strategy and War Studies, Royal Danish Defence College