Pentagon’s New Plan to Fight China and Russia in the Gray Zone
Pentagon’s New Plan to Fight China and Russia in the Gray Zone
When it comes to relations among the great powers, conflict and competition are not the same thing. Conflict is what happens when states use violence to achieve political goals — in other words, war. Competition is the jostling and coercion that occur short of armed conflict — the art of maneuvering for geopolitical advantage amid a tense peace.
Not since the end of the Cold War has that distinction been as salient for the US Department of Defense.
The Pentagon has no more important task than preparing to win a sharp, intense conflict with Russia or China. Yet it has also been seeking to make itself relevant to subtler, long-term competitions for influence. That necessitates a delicate balancing act, given that the requirements of preparing for war and those of competing in peace can pull America’s military in different directions.
The most recent example of this tension was a short document released this month called the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy. The National Defense Strategy itself, published in 2018, focused heavily on reorienting the Pentagon toward threats from China and Russia after a long period when counterterrorism dominated US policy.
Since then, the department has emphasized building the capabilities and warfighting concepts necessary to deter and, if need be, defeat Russian or Chinese aggression in danger zones such as the Baltic region or the Taiwan Strait.
Yet the rivalries with Russia and China involve far more than the possibility of large-scale war. They also involve struggling in the shadows — shifting the status quo without resorting to open violence, or seeking to undermine rivals through subtle, ambiguous strategies.
Thus the importance of irregular warfare. That concept, the Pentagon writes, “favors indirect and asymmetric approaches,” such as attacking the legitimacy of a hostile government, strengthening allies and partners against coercion, or otherwise resisting assertive authoritarian powers without crossing the line into outright conflict.
Russia is deploying mercenaries and other proxies to strengthen its hand from Ukraine to Africa; it is using disinformation and political meddling to weaken Western political systems. China’s incremental expansion in the South China Sea relies on provocations that never quite amount to a flagrant casus belli. The US must use its own irregular approaches, the department contends, to stymie these advances and turn the tables on America’s competitors.
In one sense, the Irregular Warfare Annex is simply an effort to prevent the US from squandering experience it purchased during the Global War on Terrorism. After Vietnam, the US Army discarded much of what it had learned about counterinsurgency, a lapse of institutional memory that exacted a high cost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, the Pentagon understands that the experience of working with irregular proxy forces, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, may come in handy in competing for influence with the Russians in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa.
More broadly, the Pentagon is wrestling with the central paradox of great-power rivalry.
Preparing for a high-end fight against Russia or China is essential to maintaining deterrence, and thus peace. Yet because great-power war would be so devastating, US rivals have strong incentives to test Washington and its allies through information warfare, economic coercion, paramilitary actions and other “measures short of war.” So the Pentagon is seeking to bring its capabilities to bear in these less-violent, more protracted struggles.
The National Defense Strategy introduced the concept of “expanding the competitive space” — the idea that most geopolitical action occurs between the extremes of war and peace. The support office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff has pushed military personnel to think in terms of “campaigning” rather than “campaigns” — to consider rivalries as ongoing affairs rather than discrete clashes with a clear beginning and end. To be relevant in a great-power rivalry, Pentagon officials argue, the department cannot merely focus on a high-end war that may never occur.
So what does this mean in the real world?
There are certainly areas where the Pentagon can play a useful role in day-to-day competition. Presence missions — the deployment of military assets, whether a few special operators or a vast carrier strike group, as symbols of American commitment — can reinforce perceptions of US power in contested areas such as East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Training missions and efforts to strengthen vulnerable allies and partners, such as the Philippines or Ukraine, can reduce the impact of authoritarian coercion. The Pentagon’s world-class intelligence and cyber capabilities are well-suited to identifying, and punishing, malign behavior in the “gray zone” where competition occurs.
Yet this is where things get tricky. For starters, the Pentagon will not typically be the lead department when it comes to peacetime competition. The era of great-power rivalry will not be like the Global War on Terrorism, where military action was the leading edge of American strategy.
Rather, those rivalries will occur principally in the realms of economic statecraft, diplomatic influence and intelligence activity. American military might loom imposingly in the background of any situation in which the use of force is possible. But other entities — the State Department, the intelligence community, the Treasury Department — should generally take the lead.
A second problem is that focusing too heavily on competition can be damaging if it weakens the Pentagon’s ability to prepare for conflict. Presence missions are useful in showing the flag, but they also disrupt training and degrade readiness.
“The consequences of losing a great power war is more serious than losing a gray zone dispute,” write defense analysts Jim Mitre and Andre Gellerman. The Pentagon, they contend, can best shape day-to-day diplomatic interactions by showing that it can win when the shooting starts.
Succeeding in great-power rivalry, then, will require the Pentagon to contribute to long, indecisive struggles for position. Yet it will also require preparing for the intense, climactic fights that could occur if competition gives way to conflict. The task for Pentagon strategists, and for America’s civilian leadership, will be to determine how much of the former the department can do without eroding its ability for the latter.