Operating in the Gray Zone

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Wolves at the Doorstep

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress determined that armed conflict against the British Empire was the only way to preserve the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the founding fathers, who risked their lives for independence, could only see the United States now. From Antietam to the Amiens, Belleau Wood to Baghdad, the lone superpower has fought and bled in the name of freedom. Yet as the 21st Century begins, America’s ability to protect the global order is under threat. The wolves are at the doorstep, targeting its weakest link.

Today, the United States possesses a vibrant economy, stable political system, and the most powerful military force in the history of man. As a result, adversaries cannot successfully compete strategically using traditional tools. Understanding this disadvantage, they seek to challenge American strength by waging conflicts at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. Policymakers and national security experts have coined this type of hostility as, “gray zone conflict.” This short report seeks to better define gray zone conflict, explain how it effects the United States, and offer recommendations for increasing the success of the United States in the gray zone.

Defining Gray Zone Conflict

The most critical step in any problem solving process is accurately defining the obstacle. Gray zone conflict can be defined as the clandestine or unlawful activities of non-traditional statecraft that fall below the threshold of conventional warfare. These activities include the disruption of civil order, political subversion of government or non-government organizations, information and psychological operations, support of proxies, and geoeconomic coercion as part of a unified blueprint by adversaries to achieve strategic mastery. As a result of American dominance of the global order, the use of such instruments by competitors has become overwhelmingly common in today’s world.

In 2014, Russia unexpectedly annexed Crimea by utilizing soldiers in unmarked uniforms, then stirred up civil unrest and rebellion in eastern Ukraine through information and psychological warfare operations. Recently, they have attempted to interfere in elections both in Europe and the United States, and regularly carry out cyber attacks against NATO members and partners. In Asia, China continues to abuse its economic power, employ fishing vessels as proxies, and build up man-made islands in order to establish its superiority in the South China Sea. The communist state also seeks to bully its regional neighbors into submission, and establish its place as a global power. Finally, in South Asia and the Middle East, a multiplicity of regimes make use of proxy forces to advance their interests, be them economic, political, or religious.

Why It Matters

The examples above demonstrate the types of instruments available to actors in the gray zone. These actions, however, can have disastrous effects on both small, middle, and great powers. The United States is not immune from this fact, and the failure to address this issue can severely harm national interests and stifle strategic goals. As the following will show, gray zone conflict is antithetical to western values and American interests.

First and foremost, the employment of gray zone conflict as a means of territorial expansion stands in direct contradiction to international norms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, violated the most basic principle of the global order - respect for sovereignty. If sovereignty is disregarded, there is nothing stopping the collapse or deterioration of the international system the United States has nurtured since the end of the Second World War. Such a breakdown of the status quo would significantly increase the chance of disorder and conflict throughout the world, and put the United States at grave risk.

Second, gray zone strategies erode trust in relatively sound government institutions. As the Russian employment of information and psychological operations during the 2016 election showed, the loss of faith in the U.S. electoral system presents a significant security threat. Although such gray zone activities may not directly affect the outcomes of elections, such behavior can cause people to needlessly doubt the election results and their validity. The most important part of any democratic system is the citizenry’s trust in the electoral system, and if the United States allows a foreign power to shake that faith, its position both at home and abroad will be grievously weakened.

Finally, gray zone conflict allows foreign powers to compete for hegemony without the risk of conventional conflict. This can be clearly seen in Asia, as China seeks to flex its economic, political, and military might in order to gain supremacy in the South China Sea. Stretching from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast, the sea is one of the most important trade routes in the world, with more than $5.3 trillion worth of goods passing through it annually. Deep below the surface, newfound deposits of oil and natural gas offer an immense amount of power and leverage to the nation that controls it. China understands that command of the South China Sea would allow it to drastically improve its defensive positioning, grow its energy sector, leverage regional trade, and challenge the United States globally.

If China is successful, the United States will face a nightmare in the geopolitical realm. Southeast Asia will unavoidably be rendered subordinate and acquiescent to China’s wishes. Australia, a nation already struggling with Chinese subversion, will be secluded with an uncertain future. Regional allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will face a terrifying new reality where China is in control of the seaborne lifeline of both nations, and thus threaten their very autonomy. Lastly, European access to Asia will be through Beijing, not Washington. The dependability of U.S. security agreements with allies and partners across the globe will be tattered while the former superpower struggles to develop a new strategy to survive in a world where it is no longer God. In short, there will be no mistaking the fact that the era of American leadership of the global order is over and that a new authoritarian power has taken its seat at the table.

Responding to Gray Zone Conflict

China and Russia have proven adept at operating within the gray zone. Their use of approaches that lie between traditional statecraft and conventional warfare have confounded western defense experts and policymakers alike, resulting in an ineffective and futile counter-strategy. This failure, however, does not mean the United States is out of the fight. Successful American responses to gray zone conflict can take advantage of a wide variety of potent tools, including those in the economic and defense realms.

Since the Second World War, the United States has developed a strong and resilient economy. Any effective response to gray zone conflict should include geoeconomic tools in order to capitalize on America’s position as the financial center of the world. According to Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, Senior Fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, geoeconomics can be defined as, “the use of economic instruments to promote and defend national interests, and to produce beneficial geopolitical results; and the effects of other nations economic action on a country’s geopolitical goals.” In order to be successful in harnessing the economy for foreign policy objectives, the United States must take a wholistic approach, and form a unified strategy that makes use of trade policy, investment policy, economic and financial sanctions, aid, financial and monetary policy, and energy and commodities.

History provides plenty of precedent for the use of such instruments. During World War II, the United States created the Office of Economic Warfare, charging it to safeguard the dollar, secure imports on favorable terms, and limit Axis economic growth in neutral countries. After 9/11, the U.S. Government targeted the pocketbooks of terrorist organizations and their financiers, all while providing non-lethal and economic aid to allies in the War on Terror. The increased use of geoeconomics would help alienate and target gray zone abusers, while strengthening alliances and support the global order.

Sometimes, however, lethal solutions are needed where the dollar cannot succeed. For that, the United States military and intelligence community stand well equipped. Gray zone conflicts are purposely designed to circumvent traditional U.S. strengths, specifically the United States armed forces. That does not, however, mean that the military does not serve a purpose. Military capabilities, specifically special operation units, are an essential part of American responses to gray zone hostility. Working closely with intelligence agencies in Washington and their assets around the world, special operation forces can operate with allied and partner nations to increase the lethality of host nation forces, develop intelligence about adversaries, and provide headquarter elements to oversee highly fluid situations. Able to deploy at a moments notice, and equipped with a deep knowledge of languages, foreign cultures, and unconventional warfare, they stand ready for conflict in the gray zone. While traditional military formations remain indispensable for deterring and defeating threats at the higher end of the conflict spectrum, gray zone conflicts are a different ball game altogether. Special operation units, working side by side with efficient intelligence agencies and loyal allies, are necessary for the United States to succeed in the gray zone.


In 1780, George Washington wrote, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” His belief has been proven true conflict after conflict, war after war. Although the United States is powerful, there are nations that seek to vie for its position as superpower. They attempt to accomplish this by utilizing gray zone conflict, a deadly and dangerous form of non-traditional statecraft that threatens the global order and American interests. A nation is better prepared to fight when it has the tools and structure it requires to win. As this report has shown, defining what gray zone conflict is and developing effective strategies to respond to such hostility is essential so that the light of liberty may continue to shine as the 21st century begins.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


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