Why the USA should fight against Russia and China in the “gray area”

WASHINGTON – China has a military build-up in South China Sea, stole billions of dollars American intellectual property and starts ongoing cyberattacks, while Russia interfered used in US elections, masked “little green men“In Ukraine and actively promotes misinformation and disinformation.

Now it is up to Washington to seriously deal with the “gray area”, especially when it comes to cyber and information warfare, says a new report from the Atlantic Council. The term is used to describe competitive acts that take place below the conflict threshold.

The think tank’s recommendations come when the Biden government finalizes its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which are expected to be released within weeks, and address gray area or hybrid warfare.

“The DoD must now compete and conduct offensive hybrid warfare operations. The United States must respond where there is competition with China and Russia today, primarily by increasing its role in competing in the gray area, ”the report read by Clementine Starling, Air Force Lt. Col. Tyson from the Atlantic Council, headed by Wetzel and Christian Trotti – with ex-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The report called for new strategic competition coordinators in the National Security Council with direct access to the president, as well as a new nationwide news strategy aimed at countering anti-American narratives and strengthening the rules-based international order. The Pentagon would play a supportive role by “conducting offensive and defensive hybrid warfare activities in line with US values”.

Nice, Colin Kahl, Secretary of State for Defense Policy, said last month that the Department of Defense’s overarching concept of “integrated deterrence” – an integral part of the upcoming National Defense Strategy – spans “the spectrum of conflicts from high-intensity warfare to the gray area.” These include other instruments of national power: intelligence, economics, finance, technology and alliances, Kahl said.

This mission is becoming increasingly important as US interests hostile nations increasingly act below the threshold of traditional conflict to challenge international rules and norms, particularly at trouble spots in the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine, the authors argued. The DoD has taken significant steps to compete in the gray area, but the authors called for a “paradigm shift in the departments” and the military to go on the offensive.

“The department has started to focus more on countering the hybrid warfare efforts of our strategic competitors, but what I also see is an inherent conflict between today’s competition and the sexier thing of buying new equipment and looking to the war of the future prepared.” ; and sometimes today’s competition loses a little under the weight of that effort, “Wetzel, who is also a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, told Defense News.

“Everyone agrees that we have to defend in the gray area, but we really wanted to focus on being able to take the attack,” he added.

For example, if Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops along the Ukrainian border and claims that Ukraine and the West are the aggressors, the U.S. government – as part of a more proactive approach to the war in the gray area – would communicate more consistently and more frequently that Putin the only opponent is.

“Only in the information area do we have to control the narrative, we have to counter false narratives much more clearly,” said Wetzel.

The Atlantic Council’s more comprehensive report, produced with expert input last year, included recommendations aimed at deterring or winning over conventional conflict as well as gray area activities. Regarding the other conclusions of the report:

  • The DoD needs guiding principles for hybrid warfare. The department should be part of a unified cross-agency effort to invest in skills and training “below the threshold”, to only get involved where it is strategically important, to go on the offensive to strengthen the international rules-based order, to use strategic messages and to act on American Hold on to ideals.
  • Washington needs hybrid warfare tools. This means establishing diplomatic norms and naming, shaming and sanctioning bad actors – while the DoD can show presence, launch distributed denial-of-service attacks and carry out kinetic or non-kinetic actions against deputy or mercenary forces.
  • Hybrid operations can improve conventional deterrence. Enemies will use hybrid warfare until they can achieve a compelling deterrent against the US and its allies. Limiting engagement with China and Russia to cooperation and competition for as long as possible is in the American interest – but the USA “must become better at intervening proactively in the gray area and shaping it”.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Global Engagement Center needs a boost in funding and agencies to “lead strategic messaging and offensive information campaigns across government, and it needs nationwide efforts to work with social media companies, as well as allies and partners, to create a coherent and effective campaign to combat misuse – and disinformation. “

Investing in competition in the gray area could mean acquiring more cyber tools and building an organization for “information operators” who would quickly identify and respond to misinformation or disinformation, said Trotti, associate director of Forward for the Atlantic Council Defense project.

“I don’t know what they would ask in terms of the skills needed, but we think there has to be a focus and one or more units that are really focused on that area,” said Trotti. “You would begin by developing the tactics, techniques, and procedures used in gray area operations or hybrid warfare operations.”

In order to compete with adversaries who already view conflict as part of a continuum (as opposed to binary war and peace), the DoD and its armed forces have sought to accept the principles of information warfare by competing below the threshold of armed conflict on a daily basis.

Waiting for an event after it has occurred is too late, officials and experts have claimed in recent years. Forces must be constantly deployed in the region and against malicious actors to deny their activities and obtain the necessary information and access in the event that circumstances escalate.

The DoD and the armed forces have also reorganized themselves in order to better coordinate and integrate these various disciplines; they are currently developing a new doctrine along these lines.

If the National Defense Strategy prioritizes gray zone conflicts, this would not be the first time. In 2019, the DoD drafted an amendment to the National Defense Strategy that focused on irregular warfare, with one of the five core themes in the appendix aimed at information environment operations.

In the latest defense policy bill, which went into effect December 27, Congress asked the DoD for a report on the implementation of the irregular warfare strategy. Some members of Congress also expressed skepticism about advances in information warfare, asking who is responsible for certain areas and how the department will oversee activities to ensure success.

“I am concerned that department management has been slow to adapt to the changing nature of warfare in this area,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, DR.I., Chair of the House Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems, during a hearing on April 30th.

“The information-related skills of the department all too often seem to be overwhelmed competence centers with different management and leadership structures, which makes critical coordination difficult. In addition, the Pentagon has made limited progress in executing its Information Environment Operations Strategy in 2016, raising questions about the governance structure of the Information Operations Department. ”

Although Congress ordered the creation of a chief information operations advisor in 2020, some in Congress fear this will not go ahead as intended.

“Unfortunately, contrary to the intentions of Congress, this position was ordered under the Secretary of Defense for Politics. This position was created not as another layer of bureaucracy, but as an agile, single role charged with directing the efforts of each service, “Rep Elise Stefanik, R-New York, said during the same hearing.

Other outside experts fear that the DoD is not doing enough to compete and win against demanding opponents on a daily basis.

“Our misconduct is the risk that China and Russia will conduct hybrid warfare-style operations against the United States itself,” Paul Stockton, former assistant secretary of defense for home defense, told Defense News. “I’m not talking about little green men pouring across our borders – that will never happen – but information and cyberattacks combined to disrupt US defense operations at home.”

Stockton, who recently published a paper entitled “Defeating forced information operations in future crises“Noted that the DoD has made progress in working with NATO allies and partners in Asia to prepare for threats out of the gray area.

He added, however, that the US needs to step up deterrence by developing information operation response options that would credibly threaten Russia and China if conducted such operations as part of a gray area or hybrid war approach.

Joe Gould is the Pentagon Senior Reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security, politics and the defense industry.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET specializing in information warfare and cyberspace.


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