By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
FEBRUARY 2020—News reports that U.S. soldiers are stealing cars in Lithuania. Unmarked Russian troops flooding into Ukraine. Iran sending aid and weaponry to proxies in Iraq. Russia jamming GPS signals of NATO units in the field. China turning atolls in international waters into armed redoubts. Russian hackers penetrating U.S. political parties to steal and leak compromising information. Chinese fishing trawlers and coast guard vessels swarming the East and South China Seas. Instagram messages warning deployed U.S. troops that their families are in danger. Hamas setting fire to Israeli croplands. Russia deploying anti-aircraft missiles in Kaliningrad. China deploying anti-ship missiles in the Spratly Islands. These are examples of what’s known as “gray zone conflict”—a form of asymmetric warfare that has left America and its allies scrambling for ways to respond.
“Gray zone actions exist, and thrive, at the margins of ‘acceptable’ state behavior with thresholds bound between day-to-day statecraft and acts of war, intended to delay or paralyze competitors’ decision-making,” explains John Schaus of CSIS. Our enemies operate in the gray because they know that trying to compete with the U.S. on the battlefield is a losing proposition.
Some of the tools of gray zone warfare are new, but this form of warfare is not. Schaus notes, “The United States developed decades of experience in countering these types of activities during the Cold War.” Indeed, to address today’s gray zone actions the American people need to apply what worked yesterday.
In today’s fake-news and misinformation campaigns, we hear echoes of yesterday’s wartime propaganda peddlers: Nazi Germany dropped leaflets claiming King George had fled, warning that the U.S. economy was collapsing, and arguing that the war was a lost cause. Imperial Japan put Tokyo Rose on the airwaves to demoralize American servicemen, whom she labeled “orphans of the Pacific” and mockingly asked, “How will you get home now that your ships are sunk?” Throughout the Cold War, Moscow fed and funded a global propaganda machine that waged political warfare against the U.S. and its allies, attempted to sow confusion and division, and aimed to sap the will of the West. Hanoi Hannah, for instance, urged American personnel to “defect…You know you cannot win this war.”
Americans saw through the lies, half-truths and propaganda—and knew their system of government and vision for the future were superior to what the fascists and communists offered. Nothing has changed since the end of the Cold War in this regard. Liberal democracy—enfolding the rule of law, majority rule and minority rights, free markets and free enterprise, religious liberty—is still superior to what Beijing, Moscow and their partners have to offer. But we have to answer their lies with truth.
That brings us to one of America’s greatest weapons in these gray zone battles. As FDR did during World War II, as Truman and Kennedy and Reagan did during the Cold War, America’s political leaders must highlight the difference between free government and its enemies.
In relation to Russia, that means drawing a bright line between Europe’s thriving democracies and Czar Vladimir’s kleptocracy; pointing out that 44 percent of Russia’s young adults want to flee; and offering a platform to the victims of Putinism—civil society groups, human-rights activists, evangelical Christians, political dissidents, free-speech advocates. As Reagan counseled, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
In relation to China, that means offering a platform to the regime’s enemies—the underground Church, Tibetan independence advocates, Uighur Muslims, laogai survivors, Charter 08 signatories, political dissidents, families victimized by the one-child policy. Beijing is acutely sensitive to these issues and has no answer to them—except systemic political reform, which would be in America’s interest.
In relation to Iran, that means calling for an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs and the beginning of an Iran that is free and self-governing.
To make sure the message is heard, Congress should reopen the U.S. Information Agency, which was shut down in 1999.
Of course, this is more than a battle of ideas. We also have to summon the resolve and resources to thwart gray zone attacks. The U.S. doing this in cyberspace. The Pentagon is committed to “persistent engagement” in cyberspace to “impose costs, neutralize adversary efforts and change their decision calculus.” Recent examples include the Olympic Games/Stuxnet operations that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program and the 2018 cyber-strike that crippled the Internet Research Agency—a front organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that has conducted operations against the U.S.
Israel has transferred the “persistent engagement” doctrine beyond cyberspace. To answer the gray zone actions of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, the IDF has embraced what it calls the “campaign between the wars”—ongoing low-level military actions aimed at shaping the battlespace in a way that favors Israel; exposing and degrading Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas asymmetric assets; and preventing Israel’s enemies from gaining momentum or getting comfortable.
U.S. policymakers must also have the nerve to make China, Russia and Iran pay for their lawlessness—and to remind these regimes that two can play the proxy game.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Obama administration increased funding earmarked for NATO’s defense. The Trump administration expanded on that and sent antitank missiles to Ukraine. NATO units are training Ukraine’s army. And NATO has deployed combat units in the Baltics and Poland. These policies are raising the costs for Putin. Doubtless, Putin privately realizes he triggered a response that made NATO more engaged, more alert, and more prepared to detect and reverse another gray zone operation.
Xi’s actions have triggered a similar response. Beijing’s illegal island-building project has awakened China’s neighbors to the threat posed by China. Thus, Japan, Australia, Britain and France have joined the U.S. in promoting freedom of navigation in the region. Japan has increased defense spending eight years in a row. Tokyo is constructing military runways on Mageshima Island. The Japanese are converting their “helicopters carriers” into flattops capable of deploying F-35Bs. South Korea is increasing defense spending by 7.1 percent annually between 2020 and 2024. Australia’s defense budget will climb 81 percent by 2025.
Washington has other cards to play in the Indo-Pacific: Defensive assets could be positioned at key points around the South China Sea to counter China’s island-building project and checkmate its anti-access/area-denial efforts (A2AD). RAND proposes “using ground-based anti-ship missiles as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy,” in partnership with Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In addition, the trickle of defensive weaponry flowing to Taiwan could become a torrent. Even more dramatic, the U.S. Navy could begin making routine port visits to Taiwan, and U.S. air assets could start landing in Taiwan due to “mechanical issues.” If that fails to persuade Beijing to adjust its behavior, Washington could publicly explore with Japan and South Korea deployment of U.S. deterrent-nuclear assets (officials in all three countries have raised the idea). Washington could even suggest that it may be time for Japan and South Korea to deploy their own nuclear deterrent (again, officials in South Korea and Japan have raised the idea).
These responses to the gray zone threats posed by our adversaries serve as a reminder that America and its allies are not limited to operating in the gray zone.