Leaving the “Gray Zone”: The U.S. Need to Fight Aggression Below Conventional War
The Commander-in-Chief Forum featuring Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s thoughts on national security missed an opportunity to engage the candidates on the gray zone tactics China and Russia are using to advance their agendas. Gray zone tactics represent asymmetric actions of many forms that do not trigger a robust adversarial response while still generating strategic gains. These states have acquired territory and expanded their influence, both politically and the physical range of their advanced weaponry, using “salami slicing” in recent years. Deterring these tactics requires comprehensive strategies. Gray zone tactics will be one of the most daunting policy challenges facing the next President of the United States. The next President, regardless of party, must have a plan.
Increasingly, Russia and China are making major strategic shifts using incremental gains without triggering conflict. Russia’s annexation of Crimea demonstrates their effective use of gray zone tactics, to include incremental paramilitary advances and political messaging. Chinese land fortifications in the South China Sea also followed a pattern of incremental advance, and responses after the arbitration ruling will be critical in setting precedents. The fielding last month of Russia’s modern S-300 air defense system (sold to Iran in 2007 but initially cancelled in 2010) to Iran’s Fordow nuclear site and in Syria demonstrates similar piecemeal advances that could become a headache for the United States in the future. Both states have increased their military aggression, recently conducting dangerous air and sea maneuvers close to, and at times directly over, U.S. planes and ships.
If the next President lacks a clear vision of how to deter these types of gray zone tactics, there is risk for policy failure. Determining future policy options requires assessing the increasing use of these tactics by China and Russia, who have both demonstrated a propensity to make incremental gains that stay beneath the threshold for a U.S. military response. Successes of this type are not new to military history but the recent and increasing trend in frequency requires a framework for response.
Gray zone tactics are intended to operate below the threshold for retaliation, utilizing incremental advances to gradually degrade an opponent’s ability to respond. The tactics’ intentionally ambiguous nature are exacerbated by a U.S. military culture that operates best in decisive conventional warfare, known in military circles as “Phase III operations,” and struggles to operate in an ambiguous game of competition at a level below outright conflict. Gray zone tactics also encompass a range of activities including economic, political, and information operations reflecting a whole-of-government effort to create a narrative. Organized Russian propaganda campaigns demonstrate the complexity of this challenge.
Staying below the threshold for response can be done by either taking small actions that do not necessitate responses or creating justifications for behavior out of alignment with international norms, including through nonmilitary means such as political messaging. By ignoring their behavior, the user of these tactics can make advances at no cost.
These tactics embody Thomas Schelling’s “game of chicken” that is tempting to ignore but ultimately unavoidable. The United States cannot guarantee we will determine the timing of escalating tensions or dictate the terms under which other states operate. Potential adversaries will always take actions that are in their interests, and the strength of the U.S. military nearly ensures other actors will seek to challenge asymmetrically instead of running into the buzz saw of American conventional power.
In international relations, appearance is a big part of reality. Tepid responses indicate acceptance of the other’s actions. The Obama administration has failed to clearly respond to salami slicing by opponents. A weak U.S. response to the Russian land grab in Crimea benefits Russian narratives and expansionist aims while degrading a long-held international norm of sovereignty. Similarly, conducting “innocent passage” instead of Freedom of Navigation exercises can de facto authenticate Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. It is not surprising the Assad regime in Syria is using chemical weapons again after providing a get-out-of-jail-free-card in response to the violated “red line” in 2013. Policy decisions matter to potential adversaries and have significant effects on constraining future choices.
Today’s most powerful adherents to a gray zone strategy, China and Russia, are also those most likely to pose a possible high-end fight. Maintaining a strong conventional military will remain important in the event deterrence fails or miscalculation occurs and conflict breaks out. This does not mean, however, that each undesired action is met with the whole force of the U.S. military. U.S. responses can take many forms, all of which should focus on enforcing international norms and maintaining U.S. credibility. This complexity increases the need for well-considered policy from our Presidential candidates.
Gray zone tactics only work as long as we are willing to look the other way. Sweeping a potential adversary’s actions under the rug is the exact opposite of the desired response. The new President will need to have a plan to address these tactics without unnecessarily escalating tensions – a tightrope, to be sure, but a necessary one to avoid conflict.