Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff. 

The hack of the Democratic National Committee and subsequent leak of emails between senior leaders of Hillary Clinton's campaign was attributed to Russia. The hack itself was not particularly abnormal, as countries across the globe engage in similar activities for espionage purposes. But the weaponization of such information by releasing it to WikiLeaks offers a hint at the hybrid-style warfare Russia has sought to perfect. 

This kind of cross-domain warfare is fought on multiple fronts, from cyber attacks to psychological and information operations. Even the insertion of Russia's now infamous " Little Green Men" into Ukraine demonstrated the depths to which that nation will go to fight us unconventionally — and arguably outside the bounds of international law.

Capt. John Chambers

Photo Credit: Courtesy photo

We spent a good chunk of the Cold War seeking to deter the scenario of Russian divisions of tanks and troops crossing the Fulda Gap in Germany. As today’s threats drift from the land warfare nightmares, the U.S. finds itself at a disadvantage.

Even though Russia is no longer a peer adversary in any conventional sense, Moscow and other near-peer adversaries can still do us harm. Our military, much less our larger foreign policymaking apparatus, arguably is not prepared for these kinds of threats. The wars of the future will stay below the threshold of major war — what analysts generally classify as conflicts incurring over 1,000 annual fatalities on both sides — which makes our ability to deter, retaliate in kind, or rally public support that much harder.

The military needs to position itself to fight in what some analysts term the "gray zone": the space between peace and war where state competition morphs into conflict while staying below the threshold of conventional warfare.

Gray zone operations are characterized by ambiguity, exploitation of weaknesses using all elements of national power, attacks in multiple domains, use of criminal organizations and networks, and using laws and cultural norms to achieve an advantage. Enemies exploit the inherent advantages in these characteristics to achieve their strategic objectives while staying below the threshold of full-scale conflict.

In particular, gray zone hybrid threats take advantage of the U.S. government’s complex decision-making processes by exploiting the fact that the Defense Department often is not the lead agency in the gray zone. Specifically, Russia’s " New Generation Warfare" focuses on taking action and achieving strategic objectives where U.S. military action is most constrained by bureaucracy, international norms and domestic politics. One example: Russian’s use of gray zone hybrid threats to achieve strategic objectives in in Eastern Ukraine without drawing Ukraine’s allies into the fight.

The U.S. Army must improve its capacity to counter such threats by better understanding them and mitigating risk. That means rebuilding unconventional warfare capacity within special operations forces. This capacity has atrophied over the past 15 years as SOF focused on other types of operations. While the special operations community has taken steps to rebuild this capacity and executed a UW campaign against ISIS, it will take time to reconstitute institutional knowledge.

Secondly, the Army should increase educational opportunities for junior officers and noncommissioned officers serving or preparing to serve on teams/detachments operating in the gray zone. The Army sends only 412 officers to advanced civil schooling each year, and there are extremely limited opportunities for NCOs. Expanding these opportunities to target personnel serving in SOF will improve the critical thinking skills of personnel operating in the gray zone and allow them to better accomplish their mission of understanding and communicating the enemy threat.

To reduce risk, the U.S. Army can take three concrete actions:

  • Move to pre-position forces in at-risk countries and develop unconventional warfare campaign plans. Pre-positioned forces not only bolster the militaries of their host nations, but act as a deterrent to gray zone aggressors. Developing unconventional warfare campaign plans staffed and approved through all relevant agencies enables the Army to pull plans "off the shelf" and decreases the negative impact of a slow-moving bureaucracy.
  • Work with the State Department and host nations to better integrate at-risk ethnic populations into the host country. These populations are at-risk for subversion and coercion by gray zone aggressors.
  • Work with the State Department and host nations to introduce and expand nonviolent civil resistance programs in at-risk countries. By building nonviolent civil resistance networks, the U.S. would create a mechanism for resisting aggressors in the gray zone. This buys time for policymakers and international institutions to determine an appropriate response to the aggressor.

While gray zone hybrid threats are not the only threats facing the Army in the future, they are the most likely and the most complex. The ability to identify enemy actions and appropriately determine when state competition has transitioned into conflict is key to countering gray zone hybrid threats. Additionally, having the requisite plans, program, budget, and equipment in place to react to and counter adversary actions in the gray zone is vital to combating our internal bureaucracy and moving fast enough to counter hybrid threats in the gray zone.


Capt. John Chambers is an Army officer, an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy and a scholar with the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Defense Department or any other government agency. Read his MWI report, "Countering Gray-Zone Hybrid Threats," here.