Shaping national strategy

Source: NATO Flickr

Forward Defense‘s “Adding color to the gray zone” project provides in-depth analysis of the competition taking place today below the threshold of conflict. The United States and its allies and partners are increasingly under attack in the “gray zone” of conflict which is often diffuse and hard to attribute, complicating a robust US defense and response. China, Russia, and other actors have developed sophisticated tools and methods of “hybrid warfare” which enable them to achieve destabilizing effects without resulting to armed conflict. Competition in the gray zone is much discussed but not well understood as a comprehensive and holistic issue set, yet long-term security and prosperity arguably hinges on an effective defense against hybrid conflict.

Through thoughtful convenings and thought-provoking content, this Forward Defense project aims to develop an integrated strategic framework for US and allied government and industry to effectively approach hybrid conflict, reaffirming global leadership and mitigating circumstances that could escalate into active armed conflict, until a viable and credible deterrent is reestablished.

Building upon the blueprint for engaging in the gray zone laid out in Seizing the advantage: A vision for the next US National Defense Strategy, this project will set forth recommendations for integrating below-threshold activities into US national strategy.

Defining key terms

Defining and differentiating between key terms like “hybrid conflict” or “hybrid warfare” and the “gray zone” is a critical first step in addressing US and allied challenges and opportunities below the threshold of conflict. While acknowledging the difficulties in reaching consensus on terminology, the project’s Task Force adopts the following working definitions to guide its strategic approach:

What is the gray zone?

The gray zone encompasses defensive and offensive activities that are above the level of cooperation and below the threshold of armed conflict. Gray zone operations are often but not always clandestine, covert, unofficial, or outside accepted norms of behavior. Gray zone operations are aimed at undermining the security of the target state but without triggering active armed conflict.

What is hybrid conflict?

Hybrid conflict (also referred to as hybrid warfare) is a subset of statecraft using the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) levers of national power across the entire competition continuum including cooperation, competition (including gray zone operations), deterrence, and armed conflict for the purposes of achieving national security objective(s) against a state or non-state actor(s).

Hybrid Conflict Project

Feb 23, 2022

Today’s wars are fought in the ‘gray zone.’ Here’s everything you need to know about it.

By Forward Defense experts

Our experts help illuminate this shadowy zone of strategic competition—and offer ways for Washington and its allies to begin seizing the advantage. 

China Conflict

Commentary and analysis

Engage with our experts as they anticipate trends in hybrid conflict, react to real-time developments, and advance recommendations for US interagency actors and allied governments on topics ranging from cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to economic coercion and beyond.

Hybrid Conflict Project

Sep 30, 2022

How the US can focus its fight against foreign influence operations

By Jennifer A. Counter

Understanding exactly what US adversaries plan to do in the information space is vital to building domestic defenses.

Conflict Cybersecurity

Hybrid Conflict Project

Aug 5, 2022

China’s opioid challenge: All is fair in law and war

By Tom Ferguson

A former senior official in the US intelligence community maps how the United States should unleash a legal defense against China’s malicious activities—starting with its role in the opioid crisis.

China Intelligence

Hybrid Conflict Project

Jun 10, 2022

The future of US security depends on owning the ‘gray zone.’ Biden must get it right.

By Clementine G. Starling, Julia Siegel

The United States’ ability to prevail in the gray zone will hinge on coordinating and executing a whole-of-nation response.

Conflict National Security

Hybrid Conflict Project

Apr 25, 2022

I helped defend against China’s economic hybrid war. Here’s how the US can respond.

By David L. Fogel

Washington must regain its strategic momentum relative to China and stem Beijing’s global economic influence.

China Economy & Business

Hybrid Conflict Project

Mar 10, 2022

As Russia pounds Ukraine, Putin’s ‘hybrid orchestra’ will keep playing its tune: Respect us

By Jennifer A. Counter

The world has been shaken by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale military assault on Ukraine—a flurry of air strikes, tank advances, naval maneuvers, and even the threatened use of nuclear weapons. But in reality, a “hybrid war” has been going on for years, blending political, military, economic, cyber, and even socially driven activities that have […]

Conflict Non-Traditional Threats

Hybrid Conflict Project

Feb 23, 2022

Today’s wars are fought in the ‘gray zone.’ Here’s everything you need to know about it.

By Forward Defense experts

Our experts help illuminate this shadowy zone of strategic competition—and offer ways for Washington and its allies to begin seizing the advantage. 

China Conflict

Hybrid Conflict Project

Feb 22, 2022

Meet the Gray Zone Task Force

By Atlantic Council

The Atlantic Council’s Gray Zone Task Force will bring extensive knowledge and experience of gray zone operations and will provide recommendations for a strategic framework for the United States to respond to hybrid conflict.

Hybrid Conflict Project

Feb 8, 2022

US adversaries have been mastering hybrid warfare. It’s time to catch up.

By Marc Polymeropoulos, Arun Iyer

Bad actors are embracing hybrid warfare. Time is of the essence for Washington to seize the advantage.

Defense Policy Russia

Sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.



  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Meet the Task Force

The Atlantic Council’s Gray Zone Task Force consists of technical and policy experts, former government officials, and private sector executives. These individuals leverage their deep knowledge and extensive experience in impacted and impactful industries to examine adversarial acts in the gray zone and determine how the United States and its allies and partners can leverage hybrid tactics to meet their own strategic ends.

Arun Iyer

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Clementine G. Starling

Deputy Director, Forward Defense and Resident Fellow, Transatlantic Security Initiative, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Robert J. Giesler

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Timothy J. “TJ” White

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Jennifer A. Counter

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; Vice President, Orbis Operations

Marc Polymeropoulos

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

David L. Fogel

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University

Evanna Hu

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; Chief Executive Officer and Partner, Omelas

Thomas Ferguson

Senior Policy Adviser, National Security and Defense, Ott, Bielitzki & O’Neill, PLLC

Senior Advisors

The Gray Zone Task Force is advised by a distinguished group of individuals who contribute their experience and unique perspectives to our work.

  • MAJ Kyle Atwell, USA, Co-Founder and Director, Irregular Warfare Initiative
  • August Cole, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council
  • Dr. Sandor Fabian, Non-resident fellow, Modern War Institute; Former Officer, Hungarian Special Operations Forces
  • Annie Froehlich, Nonresident Senior Fellow, GeoEconomics Center, Atlantic Council
  • John Ghose, Principal Corporate Counsel, Investigations, Microsoft
  • Heather Jo Richman, Founder, Defense Investor Network
  • Alex Plitsas, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council
  • Karen Schaefer Burnham, Former Chief of Operations, Directorate of Science and Technology, Central Intelligence Agency
  • John Sipher, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
  • Brig Gen Robert S. Spalding III, USAF (Ret.), Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
  • ADM Scott Swift, USN (Ret.), Former Commander, Pacific Fleet, United States Navy
  • MaryJo Thomas, Former Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Thomas S. Warrick, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council
Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Report

Dec 22, 2021

Seizing the advantage: A vision for the next US national defense strategy

By Clementine G. Starling, Tyson Wetzel, Christian Trotti

In this latest installment of the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series, Forward Defense’s Clementine Starling, Lt Col Tyson Wetzel, and Christian Trotti articulate their vision and recommendations for the next US National Defense Strategy, including clearer prioritization, investments and divestments, reposturing of US forces, a new warfighting concept, and a focus on transnational threats like hybrid warfare and climate change.

China Defense Industry

Article

Sep 7, 2021

Preparing for future concepts in terrorism: Non-kinetic acts and decentralization

By Arun Iyer

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, the world saw a coordinated attack on the United States that struck us as “unimaginable” at the time.

National Security Security & Defense

In-Depth Research & Reports

Jun 11, 2021

The case for a Comprehensive Approach 2.0: How NATO can combat Chinese and Russian political warfare

By Kathleen J. McInnis, Clementine G. Starling

Kathleen J. McInnis and Clementine G. Starling outline how NATO’s Comprehensive Approach program can serve as a model to counter political warfare at the strategic level.

Cybersecurity Disinformation