To frame this issue of Capstones, let’s consider a handful of news items from recent years: Russian troops scrubbed of insignia flood eastern Ukraine. Iran sends weaponry to proxies in Iraq. News reports claim that U.S. soldiers are stealing cars in Lithuania. Russia jams the GPS signals of NATO units. China converts atolls in international waters into armed redoubts. Text messages inform young Americans that they’ve been drafted. Russian hackers penetrate the DNC’s computer networks and then leak embarrassing information. Chinese fishing trawlers and coast guard vessels swarm the East and South China Seas. Instagram messages warn deployed U.S. troops that their families are in danger. A virus destroys 30,000 computers at Saudi oil giant Aramco. Hamas militants set fire to Israeli croplands. Russia deploys anti-aircraft missiles in Kaliningrad. China deploys anti-ship missiles in the Spratly Islands.
These are examples of what’s known as “gray zone conflict”—a form of asymmetric warfare that has left America and its allies scrambling for ways to respond.
“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’ decision-making,” explains John Schaus of CSIS. Adds Nora Bensahel of the Atlantic Council: “Their defining characteristic is ambiguity—about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.”
Our enemies choose this form of warfare because they realize that trying to compete with the U.S. on the battlefield is a losing proposition. As CSIS concludes, “Because U.S. supremacy at the conventional and strategic levels of military conflict remains unsurpassed…competitors are using alternative approaches to achieve their aims.”
Michael Vlahos of Johns Hopkins offered a more succinct explanation a few years back: “We have destroyed the war we do best…No one can hope to win fighting our kind of war, so they will make war they can win.”
Even if some of the tools of gray zone warfare are new, this form of warfare is not. A Special Operations Command report argues that, over the past hundred years, gray zone conflict has been the norm and conventional combat the exception. Schaus adds, “The United States developed decades of experience in countering these types of activities during the Cold War…it will have to remember, or re-learn and adapt, if it is to be as successful in the future.”
Indeed, an effective response to today’s gray zone actions enfolds perspective, messaging, resolve, patience and nerve—all qualities that the U.S. political system brought to bear during the Cold War.
In today’s fake-news and misinformation campaigns, we hear echoes of yesterday’s wartime propaganda peddlers: Nazi Germany dropped leaflets claiming King George had fled, warning that the U.S. economy was collapsing, arguing that the war was a lost cause, and suggesting that women on the home front were no longer waiting for their husbands and sweethearts to return. Imperial Japan put Tokyo Rose on the airwaves to demoralize American servicemen, whom she mockingly asked, “How will you get home now that your ships are sunk?” During Vietnam, Hanoi Hannah urged American personnel to “defect…It is a very good idea to leave a sinking ship…You know you cannot win this war.” Throughout the Cold War, Moscow fed and funded a global propaganda machine that waged political warfare against the U.S. and its allies, attempted to sow confusion and division, and aimed to sap the will of the West.
The American people and their military saw through the lies, half-truths and propaganda—and rightly believed that their system of government and vision for the future were superior to what the fascists and communists offered. Nothing has changed since the end of the Cold War in this regard. Liberal democracy—enfolding the rule of law, majority rule and minority rights, free markets, free enterprise, religious liberty—is still superior to what Beijing, Moscow and their partners have to offer. But we must answer their lies with truth.
That brings us to one of America’s greatest weapons in these gray zone battles: the black-and-white difference between freedom and tyranny. As FDR did during World War II, as Truman and Kennedy and Reagan did during the Cold War, America’s political leaders should highlight the differences between free government and its enemies.
In relation to Russia, that means drawing a bright line between Europe’s thriving democracies and Czar Vladimir’s ailing kleptocracy; publicly pointing out that 44 percent of Russia’s young adults—and 20 percent of the entire country—want to leave their homeland; and offering a platform to the victims of Putinism—NGOs and civil society groups, independent media, human rights activists and evangelical Christians, political dissidents and free-speech advocates. As Reagan counseled, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
In relation to China, that means shining a spotlight on Beijing’s contempt for human rights by offering a platform to the regime’s enemies—the underground Church, Tibetan independence advocates, Uighur Muslims, laogai survivors, Charter 08 signatories, political dissidents, coronavirus heroes, families victimized by the one-child policy, Taiwan’s freely elected president. An invitation to President Tsai Ing-wen to speak before a joint session of Congress or even as America’s guest at an international forum would highlight Taiwan’s sovereign independence. Beijing is acutely sensitive to these issues and has no answer to them—except systemic political reform, which would be in America’s interest.
In relation to Iran, using the bully pulpit translates into calling for an opening of Iran’s political prisons, an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs, and the beginning of an Iran that is free and self-governing.
To his credit, President Trump took this very tack vis-à-vis North Korea during his 2018 State of the Union address, and he has expressed support for the Iranian people. It’s time to use the bully pulpit in the same way against Putin and Xi. If this president or the next is unwilling to do so, other leaders must fill the vacuum, as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former DNI Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Senator John Cornyn, Senator Mark Warner and Congressman Chris Smith have done.
To make sure the message is heard, Congress should reopen the U.S. Information Agency, which was shut down in 1999, after decades of countering Moscow’s Cold War propaganda. Former DNI James Clapper proposes “a USIA on steroids to fight this information war.”
Of course, this is more than a battle of ideas. We must also summon the resolve to thwart and, when necessary, answer gray zone attacks.
The U.S. is doing this in cyberspace. The Pentagon is committed to “persistent engagement” in cyberspace to “impose costs, neutralize adversary efforts and change their decision calculus.” Recent examples include the Olympic Games/Stuxnet operations that set back Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the preemptive cyber-strike conducted against Russia before the 2018 midterm elections. That strike knocked out the Internet Research Agency—a front organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that has conducted operations against U.S targets. Cyber Command is continuing such operations ahead of the 2020 elections.
Israel, in a very real sense, has transferred the “persistent engagement” doctrine beyond cyberspace. To answer the gray zone actions of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, Israel has embraced what it calls the “campaign between wars.” This approach entails ongoing low-level military actions aimed at preparing and shaping the battlespace in a way that favors Israel; exposing and degrading Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas asymmetric assets; and preventing Israel’s enemies from gaining momentum or getting comfortable. It is most visible in the IDF’s often-unattributed airstrikes against Iranian-Hezbollah targets in Syria.
The U.S. has taken a similar posture in the post-9/11 war against jihadist groups. Washington has used military, financial and intelligence assets to preempt, target and disrupt the enemy’s efforts. As a result, the enemy has been forced to expend its finite resources on surviving rather than plotting another 9/11.
Americans are famously impatient, but patience is essential in dealing with gray zone threats. The main reason is related to attribution.
Gray zone actions are, by design, difficult trace back to their source. Consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was conducted by unmarked commando units; or China’s use of “civilian” fishing vessels to seize the South China Sea piecemeal; or the constant cyberattacks against industry, critical infrastructure and government. Because it takes time for intelligence agencies to assemble all the puzzle pieces littering the gray zone, the American people and their leaders need to be patient before they respond.
Once the puzzle is pieced together, however, U.S. policymakers must have the nerve to make hostile regimes pay for their lawlessness—and to remind them that two can play the proxy game.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Obama administration, to its credit, quadrupled funding for the defense of NATO’s East European members. The Trump administration tripled its predecessor’s funding levels and sent antitank missiles to Ukraine. U.S. and other NATO militaries are in Ukraine rebuilding the Ukrainian army. NATO has deployed combat units in the Baltics and Poland. These policies are raising the costs of Putin’s gray zone war. Doubtless, Putin privately realizes he triggered a response that has made the U.S. and NATO more engaged, more alert to his malign actions, and more prepared to detect and reverse any attempt to repeat his Ukraine gambit elsewhere. In addition, Putin surely recalls how the Trump administration responded when Russian mercenaries pushed too far in Syria: a pummeling that left 200 Russians dead and sent an unmistakable signal to Moscow. The Soleimani strike targeting Iran’s top terrorist should be seen in a similar light—a tactical operation with strategic meaning.
Xi’s illegal island-building project and baseless territorial claims have awakened the West to the threat posed by China. Thus, Japan, Australia, Britain and France have joined the U.S. in promoting freedom of navigation in and above the South China Sea. Japan has increased defense spending eight years in a row. Tokyo is constructing military runways on Mageshima Island, with plans for U.S. and Japanese warplanes to operate from the island base. Japan is converting its “helicopters carriers” into flattops capable of deploying fixed-wing F-35Bs. South Korea is increasing defense spending 7.1 percent annually between 2020 and 2024. Australia’s defense budget will climb 81 percent by 2025. Vietnam and the Philippines have opened their ports to U.S. aircraft carriers.
Washington has other cards to play in the Indo-Pacific: At little expense, defensive assets could be positioned at key points around the South and East China Seas to counter China’s illegal island-building project and checkmate its anti-access/area-denial efforts (A2AD). RAND has proposed linking together U.S. anti-ship assets and those of partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—“as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy.” U.S. civilian and military leaders seem open to putting RAND’s theories into practice: Army units and Marine units are testing elements of the concept, and the Navy ordered 850 anti-ship missiles for 2021—up from the 88 it requested for the entire 2016-20 budget period.
In addition, the trickle of defensive weaponry flowing to Taiwan could become a torrent. Even more dramatic, the U.S. Navy could begin making routine port visits to Taiwan, and U.S. air assets could begin routine stopovers in Taiwan due to “mechanical issues.”
If that fails to persuade Beijing to adjust its behavior, Washington could publicly explore with Japan and South Korea deployment of U.S. deterrent-nuclear assets (officials in all three countries have raised the idea). Washington could even suggest that it may be time for Japan and South Korea to deploy their own nuclear deterrent (again, officials in South Korea and Japan have raised the idea).
These responses to the gray zone threats posed by our adversaries serve as a reminder that the United States and its allies are not limited to operating in the gray zone. The sooner the strongmen in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran grasp this, the better. What Churchill said of the enemies of freedom 75 years ago remains true today: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay was published by the American Security Council Foundation.