Panel: U.S. Needs Non-Military Options to Handle ‘Gray Zone’ Warfare from Russia, China, Iran

May 15, 2018 3:44 PM

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) sails close behind, on May 11, 2015. US Navy photo.
The United States is nowhere close to deterring Russia from spreading fake news, disinformation, and propaganda through social media, or even convincing the American public that such a Kremlin campaign to drive wedges through society exists, a panel of “gray zone” warfare experts said Tuesday.

Jamie Fly, former foreign and national security adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said that, through social media, “for very little cost [Russia] can reach out to individual Americans” to sow distrust in the electoral process, create confusion in the political arena, possibly tamper with voting itself, and attack both sides on issues from National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem to Sen. John McCain’s “no vote” on repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Like France and Germany did to actively deter and respond to Moscow’s attempts to undermine their elections, Fly said “warnings (to the Kremlin) need to be specific” and “need to be repeated to the highest level” of Russian leadership, he said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Fly, who is now the director of the Future of Geopolitics and Asian Programs at the German Mashall Fund, added that the Russians’ goal is “to decay truth” through a host of means and media. To effectively counter the Kremlin, the United States should not be “responding to disinformation with disinformation,” he said, but “responding to disinformation with information” in an integrated whole-of-government way.

As the panelists noted, “gray zone” activities run the gamut – from social media moves in the political sphere to influence elections and sow civil distrust, to arming separatists for proxy wars, to using cyber to attack a neighbor’s communications networks, to pursuing global investment strategies to achieve economic dominance. It is a hybrid, asymmetrical – or, as the Russians term it, “generational” – form of warfare.

And Moscow isn’t the only nation or actor behaving that way. Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon official specializing in Asian and Pacific security affairs, said Washington has been on “a very slow learning curve … to understand China” and its “gray zone” operations.

She added Beijing “has been playing the gray zone across all domains” to assert its influence in the East and South China seas and now well beyond the Indo-Pacific.

Magsamen, now a vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, said in dealing with Chinese President Xi Jinping the United States needs to be “clear, specific and persistent” in rejecting his territorial claims on reclaimed coral reefs in the South China Sea and on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Allies, such as Australia and Japan, “don’t think we did enough” with freedom of navigation operations (FoNOps) in disputed territories to reject Chinese claims, especially in the South China Sea, and that the Trump Administration has not repeated the warnings to China over the Senkakus.

As in all gray zone activities, the Chinese stop just below the level of armed conflict that could draw in the United States. They usually rely on exerting economic pressure in the Indo-Pacific to get their way. Magsamen suggested that one answer to China’s economic muscle-flexing could be an American response of “you mess here, we’re going to mess in Taiwan,” which China sees as its own.

Iran too is an active participant in gray zone warfare. Employing cyber and spreading lies such as the “United States created ISIS” to rally Shiia support, it also uses proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to expand its influence across the Middle East, said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. These proxies have been engaged in armed conflict in backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with Russians and in Iraq against the Islamic State.

Tehran – in taking advantage of the breakdown of national institutions in the Arab Spring; employing Facebook, Twitter and other social media; and using proxies liken Hezbollah in Lebanon – is consistently “showing a disregard for the sovereignty” of other nations. Iran, like Russia and China, is part of “the resurgence of revisionists, imperialist states” and regards itself as a power center.

Like Moscow and Beijing, Tehran operates in ways that “gives them plausible deniability” in most situations where there is armed conflict, as it did following recent missile attacks on Israel.

“They said the Syrians did it,” Singh said, and used as proof the notion that if Iran had fired the missiles the strikes would have been more effective.

This plausible deniability “gives us [the United States] room not to retaliate.” In these cases, Russia, China and Iran are playing “our own fear of escalation,” Singh said.

To deal with this kind of situation, Singh suggested a coordinated response led by the State Department but involving Treasury, Defense Department, counterterrorism and law enforcement officials.

For example, transparency and facts provided by the United States are vital to counter Beijing’s just-below-the-radar gray zone activities in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and Europe, Magsamen said, so “Country X knows what the Chinese are doing in Country Y.”

Linda Robinson, senior policy researcher at RAND and co-author of a recent study of gray zone warfare, said that all too often the United States believes the only options are a military response or do nothing.

“We should be wary of using the hammer when we have other tools in the kit,” she said.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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