WASHINGTON ― China has achieved a military buildup in the South China Sea, stole billions of dollars worth of American intellectual property and is launching ongoing cyberattacks, while Russia interfered in U.S. elections, used masked “little green men” in Ukraine, and actively promotes mis- and disinformation.
Now it’s Washington’s turn to get serious about the “gray zone,” especially when it comes to cyber and information warfare, says a new report from the Atlantic Council. The term is used to describe competitive actions that occur below the threshold of conflict.
The think tank’s recommendations come as the Biden administration finishes its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which are expected to be published within weeks and address gray-zone or hybrid warfare.
“The DoD needs to compete now and engage in offensive hybrid warfare actions. The United States must respond where competition with China and Russia is taking place today, primarily by playing an enhanced role in gray-zone competition,” read the report, which was led by the Atlantic Council’s Clementine Starling, Air Force Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel and Christian Trotti ― with former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The report called for new strategic competition coordinators on the National Security Council with direct access to the president, as well as a new whole-of-government messaging strategy aimed at countering anti-American narratives and reinforcing the rules-based international order. The Pentagon would play a supporting role, “executing offensive and defensive hybrid warfare activities that comport with U.S. values.”
Already, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said last month that the Defense Department’s overarching “integrated deterrence” concept ― a key part of the forthcoming National Defense Strategy ― expands “across the spectrum of conflict from high-intensity warfare to the gray zone.” That includes other instruments of national power: intelligence, economic, financial, technological and alliances, Kahl has said.
That mission is going to become more important as nations hostile to U.S. interests increasingly operate below the threshold of traditional conflict to challenge international rules and norms, particularly at flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine, the authors argued. The DoD has taken significant steps to compete in the gray zone, but the authors called for “a departmental paradigm shift” and for the military to go on the offense.
“The department has begun to focus more on countering our strategic competitors’ hybrid warfare efforts, but what I also see is an inherent conflict between competing now and the sexier thing, which is buying new equipment, getting ready to fight the war of the future; and sometimes, under the weight of that effort, competing today loses out a little bit,” Wetzel, who is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Defense News.
“Everybody agrees we need to defend in the gray zone, but we really wanted to focus on the fact that we can take the offense as well,” he added.
For instance, as Russian President Vladimir Putin masses troops along Ukraine’s border and claims Ukraine and the West are the aggressors, the U.S. government ― under a more proactive approach to gray zone warfare ― would communicate more consistently and more often that Putin is the sole antagonist.
“Just on the information domain, we need to control the narrative, we need to counter false narratives a lot clearer,” Wetzel said.
The broader Atlantic Council report, drafted with expert input over the last year, made recommendations aimed at deterring or winning a conventional conflict as well as gray zone activities. Among the report’s other conclusions:
- The DoD needs guiding principles for hybrid warfare. The department should be part of unified interagency efforts, invest in “below-threshold” capabilities and training, engage only where strategically important, go on the offense to reinforce the international rules-based order, use strategic messaging, and stick to American ideals.
- Washington needs a hybrid warfare toolkit. That means establishing diplomatic norms as well as naming, shaming and sanctioning bad actors ― all the while, the DoD can show presence, launch distributed denial-of-service attacks, and conduct kinetic or non-kinetic actions against proxy or mercenary forces.
- Hybrid operations can improve conventional deterrence. Adversaries will use hybrid warfare until they can acquire a coercive deterrent against the U.S. and its allies. Containing engagement with China and Russia to cooperation and competition for as long as possible is in America’s interest ― but the U.S. “must get better at proactively engaging in and shaping the gray zone.”
- The State Department’s Global Engagement Center needs a funding boost and authorities to “lead whole-of-government strategic messaging and offensive information operations campaigns, and it needs to lead whole-of-nation efforts to engage with social media companies, and with allies and partners to create a coherent and effective campaign for countering mis- and disinformation.”
Investing in gray zone competition could mean acquiring more cyber tools as well as building an organization for “information operators,” who would quickly attribute and respond to misinformation or disinformation, said Trotti, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense project.
“What they would ask for in terms of capabilities they need, I don’t know, but we do think there needs to be a focus, and a unit or units, that are really focused in that area,” Trotti said. “They would start to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures that will be used in gray zone operations or hybrid warfare operations.”
To compete with adversaries who already see conflict as part of a continuum (as opposed to binary war and peace), the DoD and its armed services have sought to embrace the tenets of information warfare by competing daily below the threshold of armed conflict.
Waiting to respond to an event after it occurs is too late, officials and experts have asserted over the last few years. Forces must be constantly engaged in the region and against malicious actors to contest their activity and collect the proper intelligence and access needed in case circumstances escalate.
The DoD and the armed services have also reorganized themselves to better align and integrate those various disciplines; they are currently developing new doctrine along this vein.
If the National Defense Strategy does prioritize gray zone conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2019, the DoD created an amendment to the National Defense Strategy focused on irregular warfare, with one of the five core themes of the annex aimed at operations in the information environment.
In the most recent defense policy bill, signed into law Dec. 27, Congress asked the DoD for a report on the implementation of the irregular warfare strategy. Some members of Congress have also expressed skepticism regarding progress in the information warfare sphere, questioning who is in charge of certain areas and how the department will oversee activities to ensure success.
“I am concerned the department leadership has been slow to adapt to the changing nature of warfare in this domain,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, said during an April 30 hearing.
“Too often, it appears the department’s information-related capabilities are stovepiped centers of excellence with varied management and leadership structures, which makes critical coordination more difficult. Further, the Pentagon has made limited progress implementing its 2016 Operations in the Information Environment Strategy, which raises questions about the department’s information operations leadership structure.”
Though Congress directed the creation of a principal information operations adviser in 2020, some in Congress are worried it isn’t materializing as intended.
“Unfortunately, this position was layered below the undersecretary of defense for policy, contrary to congressional intent. This position was not created as another bureaucratic layer, but as an agile, single role with the mandate to guide each service’s efforts,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, said during the same hearing.
Other outside experts worry the DoD is not doing enough to compete and win on a daily basis against sophisticated adversaries.
“Where we’ve fallen short is accounting for the risk that China and Russia will conduct hybrid warfare-style operations against the United States itself,” Paul Stockton, former assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told Defense News. “I’m not talking about little green men pouring across our borders — that’ll never happen — but the use of combined information and cyberattacks to disrupt U.S. defense operations at home.”
Stockton, who recently authored a paper titled “Defeating Coercive Information Operations in Future Crises,” did note that the DoD has made progress in collaborating with NATO allies and partners in Asia to be prepared to counter gray zone threats.
However, he added, the U.S. must strengthen its deterrence by developing information operations response options that would credibly threaten Russia and China if they conduct such operations as part of a gray-zone or hybrid warfare approach.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.