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 is the space in which defensive and offensive activity occurs above the level of cooperation and below the threshold of armed conflict. Gray zone operations, activities, and actions (OAA) are often, but not always, clandestine, covert, unofficial, or outside accepted norms of behavior. Gray zone OAA are aimed at undermining the security of the target entity or projecting the national or organizational interest of the initiator but without triggering active armed conflict. While the gray zone can be thought of chronologically (i.e., after peace, before active hostilities), it is referred to spatially to reflect that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, gray zone activity can occur during active armed conflict between actors.

What is hybrid conflict?

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

U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.

Hybrid Conflict Project

Dec 22, 2022

Scoping the gray zone: Defining terms and policy priorities for engaging competitors below the threshold of conflict

By Atlantic Council’s Gray Zone Task Force

This Strategic Insights Memo, produced by Forward Defense’s Gray Zone Task Force, considers the scope of modern gray zone activity and the implications for US and allies strategy.

China Defense Policy

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

Jan 25, 2024

International law doesn’t adequately protect undersea cables. That must change.

By Amy Paik and Jennifer Counter

What’s missing: A global effort to protect undersea cables in international waters.

China Cybersecurity

Hybrid Conflict Project

May 19, 2023

Starling joins Irregular Warfare Initiative podcast to discuss gray zone conflict

By Atlantic Council

Clementine Starling explains how the gray zone fits into US policy making and doctrine.

Australia China

Hybrid Conflict Project

Apr 21, 2023

What Russia’s war in Ukraine shows the US about hybrid conflict with China

By Gray Zone Task Force experts

As China weighs whether to adjust its tactics to avoid Russia’s failures, the US can look to Ukraine’s and the West’s successes for lessons on how to counter Chinese aggression.

China Russia
U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.

Hybrid Conflict Project

Dec 22, 2022

Scoping the gray zone: Defining terms and policy priorities for engaging competitors below the threshold of conflict

By Atlantic Council’s Gray Zone Task Force

This Strategic Insights Memo, produced by Forward Defense’s Gray Zone Task Force, considers the scope of modern gray zone activity and the implications for US and allies strategy.

China Defense Policy

Hybrid Conflict Project

Dec 13, 2022

The National Defense Strategy shows the Pentagon’s increased focus on the gray zone. Here’s what that means.

By Gray Zone Task Force experts

The DOD is officially recognizing that competitors’ coercive and malign activities in the gray zone present a challenge to US security. What does this mean for US strategy in the years ahead?

China Defense Industry

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

New Atlanticist

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

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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

Director, Forward Defense and Fellow, 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

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, Nonresident 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
  • Evanna Hu, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; CEO and Partner, Omelas
  • 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, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

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