How Should the US Respond to Provocations in the Grey Zone?

A cyber warfare operations officer watches service members analyze log files at Warfield Air National Guard Base.
A cyber warfare operations officer watches members of the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group analyze log files and provide a cyber threat update utilizing a Kibana visualization on the large data wall in the Hunter's Den at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Maryland, June 3, 2017. ( J.M. Eddins Jr./U.S. Air Force)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The views expressed are the interviewee's alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.

"Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." -- Sun Tzu

In 1993, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, James Woolsey, the newly appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency, observed during his confirmation hearing that "we have slain the dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes."

The stunning, at least initial, success of American military campaigns in the First and Second Gulf Wars and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan reinforced the belief that not only was the U.S. the only superpower but that it had no peer rival when it came to waging the "American way of war."

That success proved short-lived, however, as initial military victories gave way to never-ending insurgencies that the American way of war proved to be largely inadequate to overcome.

Nor were the lessons of the success and failures of the American military lost on Washington's adversaries. Realizing that it would be difficult to defeat the U.S. military in an "American-style" confrontation, they shifted to alternative forms of warfare to achieve their objectives.

With the benefit of almost three decades of introspection and the experience of fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it's clear that the U.S. has perfected and dominates one particular style of warfare, but that many other forms are still available to America's enemies.

Increasingly, these alternative styles of warfare have revolved around the use of non-state actors, often of unknown or ambiguous nationality, acting "unofficially" under the direction of a national government and drawing on the resources and capabilities of the state and its armed forces to shape the military landscape and influence an opponent's decision making.

These forms of alternative conflict have been described as hybrid warfare, cold war, hot peace, or the grey zone, among others. They identify an arena and a form of conflict in "the space below the threshold of major war," the operational zone "between peace and war."

The topic has garnered considerable attention and has been extensively discussed among military strategists.

Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the current chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and first deputy defense minister, has written extensively on the utility of combining military, technological, informational, diplomatic, economic, cultural and other tactics for the purpose of achieving strategic goals. His comments were termed "The Gerasimov Doctrine," although whether this is actually an operational strategy of the Russian government remains hotly debated.

The Chinese version of hybrid warfare was outlined in a seminal book, published in 1999, by Cols. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui called "Unrestricted Warfare: Two Air Force Senior Colonels on Scenarios for War and the Operational Art in an Era of Globalization." The book examines how China can overcome a technologically superior adversary by avoiding direct military confrontation and relying instead on a combination of legal means, termed "lawfare," as well as using economic, political, diplomatic and mass media tools to obtain leverage over an opponent and eliminate the need for direct military confrontation.

Closer to home, military theorist David Kilcullen, in his book "Dragons and Snakes: How The Rest learned to Fight the West," points out that Western dominance over a very particular, narrowly defined form of warfare forces adversaries to adapt in ways that present serious new challenges to America and its allies.

Kilcullen notes that state and non-state threats have increasingly come to resemble each other, with states adopting non-state techniques and non-state actors now able to access levels of precision and lethal weapon systems once available only to governments.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matt Petersen, in a recent article in Strategy Bridge, points out that conventional military responses to provocations in the grey zone take too long to implement and are typically inadequate or counterproductive. Recently, we sat down with Matt to discuss the challenges posed to the U.S. by threats in the grey zone and how the U.S. should respond both institutionally and operationally.

Petersen is a naval aviator who has completed multiple patrols in the Indo-Pacific, flying with air detachments on several guided-missile destroyers and cruisers. Ashore, he has served as a helicopter test pilot and project officer. He is currently assigned as a department head in the Forward Deployed Naval Forces. He earned a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a graduate of the United States Naval Test Pilot School.

Joseph Micallef: You define the grey zone as "the space below the threshold of major war," the operational space "between peace and war." You note that in the grey zone, conflict takes the form of "hybrid warfare" -- i.e., use of nonofficial forces, like the role of Russia's "little green men" in the takeover of Crimea; China's use of maritime militia boats or ostensibly civilian fishing craft operating under orders of the People's Liberation Army Navy to harass U.S. Navy ships; the use of mercenary forces like Blackwater or the Wagner Group; cyber warfare; and disinformation campaigns, among other things.

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist, famously declared that "war was the mere continuation of policy by other means." Is hybrid warfare simply the continuation of warfare by other means?

Matt Petersen: Clausewitz also stated that "each period has had its own peculiar forms of war … its own theory of war." Hybrid warfare may be employed by state or non-state actors. When used by states, it is a continuation of policy by other means and a form of great power competition. Hybrid warfare is noted for its mix of conventional and unconventional forces, its integration of the tactical and strategic levels of war.

I'd add targeting decision-making processes -- similar to what John Boyd described as "moral warfare" -- to that list of characteristics, as well as exploitation of our concepts of space and time. Hybrid actors attempt to execute more quickly than our decision cycles, but also so slowly and over so wide a conceptual space that we may not act against them until the decisive shaping is complete.

JM: You have noted that the "ultimate target of hybrid warfare is not territory or military forces but the political decision-making process. But hasn't that been true of conventional warfare also? Prussia didn't fight the Franco-Prussian War because it wanted Alsace and Lorraine but to achieve political objectives. The same was true of the U.S.-Japanese conflict in World War II. Japan ultimately wanted the U.S. to recognize its sphere of influence in the Western Pacific. That was a political decision, which Tokyo hoped that a U.S. military defeat would precipitate.

Likewise, the U.S. didn't fight the Vietnam War because it wanted to conquer North Vietnam but to get Hanoi to change its behavior. Wouldn't you say that the tools/arenas have changed but the objectives of warfare have remained the same?

MP: The goal of compelling others to one's will has not changed. The distinction is between acting to compel a decision and acting specifically against the capability to decide. The methods of forcing decisions have shifted from destroying the means to resist through the attrition of military forces or industrial capacity, to obviating the means of resistance via maneuver warfare, to paralyzing the choice to resist.

This is not to say that there is no place for combat power, mass or kinetic strike; these tools will never be obsolete. However, as parity grows between great powers, the primacy of these tools may be supplanted by other means -- irregular forces, cyber effects and so forth.

JM: Conflict that occurs outside a battlefield setting is often described as an event that occurs below the threshold of war. Terms like cold war, hot peace, grey zone and hybrid warfare are used to describe a battle space that you call "neither declared war nor uncontested peace."

Why is this type of warfare any different fundamentally than conventional warfare? Sanctioning an entire industry can have the same economic repercussions as bombing its factories. A cyberattack that shuts down a hospital has the same consequences as destroying it, albeit the former could be reversible while the latter is not. Does the distinction between a hot war and a cold war make sense any longer?

MP: There is extensive debate about the proper level of response to a less-than-lethal action, such as a cyberattack, although the potential for lethality is certainly there. Another example is shooting down a drone, as we saw in 2019 from Iran. Threats are appearing in greater variety, and options for response will likewise grow more diverse.

The evolutionary reality is that the more we exercise our power in a given realm, the greater an incentive exists for actors to find ways to achieve their goals outside of it.

Financial sanctions make for an interesting case study. Our expertise in the "American way of war" has led in some ways to its obviation. Our dominance of the international financial system as it presently exists may incentivize similar effects.

JM: The speedy concentration and execution of military force, you note, is the core doctrine of U.S. military strategy, but you argue that in the grey zone, success is achieved by dispersion of forces and proceeding in an incremental, what you call "liminal action." You also note that responding with a conventional military response to such actions is ultimately self-defeating.

How should the U.S. respond to these kinds of provocations? Should it have a tit-for-tat response? If China builds islands in the South China Sea, should we, along with our allies, build our own? If Moscow encourages secession by Russian nationals in the Baltic states or Eastern Ukraine, should we respond by assisting secessionist elements in the Russian Far East?

MP: David Kilcullen examines hybrid techniques in his ideas of liminal maneuver and conceptual envelopment in his book "The Dragons and the Snakes." We should develop our own doctrine of hybrid war to optimally compete in this space. Like hybrid war, this doctrine would be a conceptual mix. At the tactical level, emphasize speed of decision through mission command.

Strategically, a whole-of-government approach is needed. The most challenging aspect will be building harmony and defining an efficient interface between the tactical and strategic levels. Layers of intervening "operational" commands and networks make only for delays and attack surfaces in this paradigm.

The competency of mission command -- an independent, innovative and risk-seeking mindset -- may be our best offset, and we should foster it to the greatest extent possible. We can nurture this mindset through leadership training emphasizing self-reliance, independent decision and grounded in contextualizing professional education.

JM: You note that there is no unified military-civilian office or structure to coordinate hybrid warfare. The U.S. clearly has the means to conduct hybrid warfare:" cyber warfare; engaging in disinformation campaigns (remember Iraq's WMDs?); restricting travel or access to U.S. schools; or conducting economic warfare by imposing sanctions, raising tariffs on imports, suspending exports, or imposing administrative rules that disrupt a foreign country's trade/exports to the U.S. All these capabilities are largely vested in the executive branch. Do we need even more capabilities? What would a "military-civilian office or structure" do that the president can't currently do?

MP: There is a vast potential space for capabilities that generate optionality and ambiguity. These include well-known platforms such as unmanned aerial systems, as well as emerging technologies like optionally piloted systems, which can function as either drones or traditionally crewed aircraft. Similar trade space exists organizationally.

But we cannot replace strategic thought with technology or bureaucracy. Every system or organization eventually reaches a culminating point where it provides diminishing returns of capability. This can occur as adversaries imitate, duplicate or adapt to a technological offset; or when an institutional structure ossifies and loses the innovative edge it once held. We must be willing to implement "creative destruction" among our own systems and institutions.

JM: Is there a risk that creating a "military-civilian office" would end up militarizing all aspects of U.S. relations with a foreign adversary? Should we be prepared to suspend U.S. farm exports, access to social media platforms or enrollment in U.S. universities in response to hybrid warfare, to actions in the grey zone, that Washington considers to be provocative?

For example, should we unilaterally reduce enrollment of Chinese students in U.S. universities by, say, 10,000 every time Chinese ships harass a U.S. ship in the South China Sea? Wouldn't this be the equivalent of putting the U.S. on a war footing? Could we do this without declaring a foreign adversary to be an implacable enemy? Couldn't such an action make the situation worse or is it the inevitable outcome regardless?

MP: It would be difficult to remain in the grey zone between war and peace while taking overtly belligerent action, implying that there are boundaries to the grey zone, and escalating one's way out is a possibility. The Russian model in particular has displayed this pattern: synchronizing instruments of national power between conventional military force and unconventional, cyber and information operations to shape a strategic landscape; acting overtly; and then deescalating quickly to return to ambiguity.

The grey zone exists in this construct like a sort of Schrödinger's War. The true state is undefined until one opens the box. We've discussed escalation here as the catalyst toward that end, but I imagine there could be others.

JM: You draw a distinction between "great power competition" and "preparing for a great power war," but isn't conflict in the grey zone simply a great power war fought with different means and tactics?

MP: The grey zone of conflict is one of many venues for great power competition. In a naval vocabulary, preparing for great power war often carries the specific meaning of preparation for a force-on-force, Mahanian battle for command of the sea. Such a contest would be deeply costly for all involved.

The grey zone offers a potentially less risky avenue to attain the same goals. Likewise, the techniques of hybrid warfare offer means to achieve effects while avoiding contention with the U.S. military's strengths in the high-end fight. If the high-end fight is the only form of great power competition that we prepare for, we risk vulnerability in the grey zone.

JM: Many aspects of hybrid warfare occur below the state level -- i.e., directly targeted at private institutions or the civilian population by non-official actors. Is hybrid warfare fundamentally a repudiation of Westphalian principles?

MP: Academics debate how "new" hybrid war really is, whether a grey zone between war and peace actually exists, and how much historical precedent it may or may not have. Some of these debates are missing the point. There's no question that we can learn from history, but theory must accommodate reality to remain relevant.

It's been almost four hundred years since Westphalia, and this is not the first appearance of non-state actors. It is also important to note that when we discuss hybrid warfare in the context of great power competition, non-state elements may be employed, but state actors call the shots. It's safe to say the Westphalian regime remains alive and well.

JM: Thank you.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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