WASHINGTON — Rivals of the United States are using a growing range of indirect and non-military tools to threaten U.S. interests, and Washington has been slow to address the threat, an analysis released Monday says.
“The United States is being confronted by the liabilities of its strength,” the report said. “The United States has yet to articulate a comprehensive approach to deterring competitors in the gray zone.”
“Competition in the gray zone is an underdeveloped area of U.S. strategy, planning and synchronization of action, despite its wealth of advantages,” the report said.
It urged the U.S. to employ “a suite of tools” that include military and covert direct action to diplomacy and economic statecraft “for both defense and offense.”
The “gray zone” is activity in the arenas between routine statecraft and open warfare including limited cyber warfare, social media manipulation, economic pressures and the use of proxies. All have a common characteristic of ambiguity and are not intense enough to trigger conventional warfare.
The report was complied by analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) a bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was released Monday.
“A concrete and actionable campaign plan is needed to deal with the gray zone challenge,” the report said. “In order to do so, the United States must identify and employ a broad spectrum of tools and concepts to deter, and if needed, to compete and win contestations in the gray zone.”
The analysts suggest that the Pentagon and State Department elevate gray zone operations by using a campaign planning framework specifically focused on that challenge. This evaluated focus would be in concert with both a well-crafted national security strategy and “discrete purpose-built strategies regarding U.S. policy toward China or Russia,” the report said.
A first step is to improve inter-departmental cooperation, the report said. Then the U.S. should further strengthen existing advantages, such as international alliances that have helped with sanctions programs in places like North Korea, the report said.
It also urged that the U.S. stop being almost entirely reactive in gray zone warfare and be more proactive. “In particular, the United States lags in necessary capabilities in indications and warning; decision making quality and speed; public-private collaboration; and transitioning to a campaign mindset for competing against gray zone challenges,” the report said.
Gray zone tactics are often transnational by their nature and rarely affect just one country, the report said. Since the warfare often targets norms and institutions used to regulate international life “maintaining the rule of law, and international institutions by association, must be a key element of a strategy to defend against and neutralize gray zone threats,” the report notes.
“This includes placing a foreign policy priority on establishing norms in largely ungoverned domains like disinformation, cyberspace, and space, and practicing and enforcing established laws and norms around well-settled questions of territorial sovereignty and air and maritime law,” the report said.
The report noted that, “This project will be challenged by the surge in authoritarianism around the world and the domestic challenges facing some of the staunchest democracies.”