WASHINGTON — The U.S. needs a campaign plan to address state and state-backed actions that fall between the bounds of “routine statecraft" and direct military conflict, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The July 2019 report examined the challenge in responding to “gray zone” activity, or operations beyond traditional state actions but below the threshold of escalation, allowing the actor to advance its interests outside of the accepted methods of diplomacy while avoiding military conflict with an enemy.

Such action includes disinformation campaigns, political or economic coercion, cyber operations, activity in space, and proxy support and provocation by state-controlled forces.

As real-world examples, the report specifically cited China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea, Russian campaigns to influence elections, North Korean cyberattacks on businesses such as Sony, and Iranian support of militant groups that provoke enemy forces while Tehran maintains plausible deniability.

Gray zone activity is today making its greatest impact since the end of the Cold War, the report said.

“As power and resources are redistributed among global and regional actors, and as rules and norms are absent, contested, or unenforced, actors find opportunities to take advantage of the contemporary ambiguity in the international system,” the report explained.

As a response, it calls for the U.S. to create policies and strategies, which, despite high-level recognition of gray zone activity as a national security threat, remain nebulous and lead to ad hoc coordination. Such an effort would focus on three areas:

1. Protecting US constitutional tenets

This includes protecting the security of elections, enlisting citizens in the fight against disinformation and political coercion, and protecting the free and fair press, according to the report.

“Most of the competitive U.S. strengths lie outside the confines of the U.S. government. U.S. cultural suasion, economic reach, and information tools come largely from the private sector and civil society,” it said.

2. Promoting economic vitality

This includes maintaining the dollar as the global reserve currency, which enhances the power of U.S. economic sanctions; increasing U.S. market access through free trade and foreign aid, which grows the U.S. economy and provides alternatives to economic gray zone activity by rivals; and supporting the private sector through grants and other investments, the report said. Immigration was also cited in the report as something that contributes to U.S. economic power.

“The United States must also have an immigration strategy that supports its competitiveness in critical innovation fields. Immigration has been a major element of U.S. technological dominance: between 1995 and 2005, more than half of Silicon Valley’s new companies were founded by immigrants,” it said.

3. Advancing U.S. influence

This includes maintaining international rule of law — which constricts opportunities for gray zone activity — building on existing alliances to expand information sharing and cooperation, and using the full breadth of American diplomatic, informational, defensive and economic power, the report recommended.

“A campaign mindset is needed to continually reassess the plan’s assumptions and approaches, searching for shifts within and among them that would argue for an altered course,” the report said.

Cal Pringle is a general assignment editorial fellow supporting Defense News, C4ISRNET and Fifth Domain. He is attending the University of Richmond.

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