The Danger of the Gray Zone: Flawed Responses to Emerging Unconventional Threats


In the South China Sea, islands able to sustain PLA military operations have been constructed from what previously had been strips of sand or small atolls while Chinese naval militias harass commercial fishing fleets. In Crimea and eastern Ukraine, soldiers lacking national attribution have assisted local forces demanding changes in political boundaries. Russian and Chinese actions have demonstrated a shift in their strategies to project power within their perceived spheres of influence. Less overt than conventional military forces, and more aggressive and assertive than ordinary diplomatic relations, these changed tactics represent a declared “gray zone” between war and peace. The actions of the Chinese and Russian governments convey comprehensive strategic thought, connecting the desired national goals to means able to accomplish these objectives while realizing the realities of the modern international system.

A reactive focus on countering these gray zone tactics fails to appreciate that to adversaries such as Russia and China, the gray zone does not occupy a unique battlefield space, but rather that these actions throughout the conflict spectrum are coordinated efforts to achieve national goals despite the current military and economic advantages of the United States. The United States must counter the gray zone by rejecting frameworks which distinguish between military and diplomatic responses, between conflict and peace, and instead counter these threats with a coherent, national, whole of government strategy that recognizes U.S. goals for the international system and the wide variety of means available towards preserving, maintaining, and expanding national interests. The United States should avoid over-militarizing its response and should embrace alternative means for exercising power and influence on battlefields that no longer distinguish between diplomatic and military victories.

The most important characteristics of the gray zone, as described by Michael Mazarr for the Army War College, are the tactics employed and the intent of the actor engaging in them. The gray zone incorporates the use of unconventional force, “from cyberattacks to information campaigns to energy diplomacy,” in order to gain leverage over other international actors.[i] These actions are carried out by “revisionist” states seeking to exercise control without escalating conflicts to a level which would merit American or international intervention despite the campaign’s objective being intolerable from the perspective of the international community. Importantly, the actions are “forceful and deliberate” efforts to achieve political and strategic goals that utilize gradual escalation rather than outright military conflict.[ii] These actions, as recognized by Antulio Echevarria II, purposefully remain below the threshold for a military response such Article 5 of the NATO treaty or by the UN Security Council and exploit “the West’s conception of, and long-standing aversion to, armed conflict” while accomplishing “’wartime-like’ objectives.”[iii]

Scholars have debated the usefulness of the gray zone conception described by Mazarr. Adam Elkus points to the vagueness of the definition of the “gray zone” itself while criticizing those who claim that this tactical shift by actors such as Russia and China represents a new method of warfare or statecraft.[iv] He questions the usefulness of a concept which embraces the tactics of both Putin’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine with China’s efforts to exert control over the South China Sea while also connecting them to wars being conducted by groups in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria against their governments as well as other rival factions.[v] Additionally, according to Elkus, the concept is flawed due to its inability to distinguish these “new” tactics from previous wars of limited ends and means, noting that political and strategic implications have long impacted the willingness to engage in what Clausewitz describes as “absolute war.”[vi] While Mazarr recognizes that Elkus is correct in identifying that the concept is vague and that the idea of limited war is nothing new, he maintains that the gray zone remains an identifiable effort by adversaries to work between the spaces occupied by traditional diplomatic and military methods of pursuing national interests.[vii]