August 24, 2020

Defining DoD’s Role in Gray Zone Competition

Note: This paper offers a counterpoint to another in this series, “A Strategy for Competition" (forthcoming), by Melanie Sisson.

The Bottom Line

  • The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) primary role in great power competition should be to deter war, not engage in daily competition. The consequence of losing a great power war is more serious than losing a gray zone dispute. Moreover, a credible conventional deterrent constrains gray zone actions by capping their escalation potential.
  • DoD’s role in daily competition should be narrowly circumscribed and subservient to diplomacy. DoD should have a set of criteria for when to engage in gray zone activities and take its cues from the White House and State Department on when those criteria are met. The risks of not doing so are a militarization of foreign policy, potential escalation of competition, and distraction from deterrence.


There is general consensus among most U.S. defense professionals, across both civilian-military and political party lines, that the nation is in a strategic competition with China and Russia. While there are debates on the margins, the consensus generally extends to defining the competition as one in which great powers vie to protect and advance their political, economic, and military interests in a perpetual competition without a defined end-state, although the extent to which the competition is ideological is under debate. Moreover, it is a truism to state that the U.S. government must employ all elements of national power—diplomacy, development, information, military, economics, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement—to effectively advance its interests in these competitions.

However, schools of thought vary regarding what the DoD’s primary role should be in great power competition: deterring great power war, or engaging in daily competition to counter China and Russia’s gray zone activities. Clarifying DoD’s role is critical for two reasons. First, the Department’s budget, while vast, is limited in relation to the challenges it faces and must account for resource trade-offs between the two roles. Second, regardless of the size of the DoD’s budget, it is still much larger than that of other federal departments and agencies, leading to calls for DoD to resource perceived gaps in the U.S. government’s approach to daily competition.

DoD Must Be Able to Fight and Win the Nation’s Wars

DoD’s primary role in great-power competition should be to deter aggression through a credible demonstration of the ability to defeat China or Russia in a high-intensity war. China has expressly stated territorial ambitions that conflict with the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of U.S. allies and partners. The Russia-NATO alliance relationship is marked by competing interests, geographic friction points, and mutual vulnerabilities (e.g., Kaliningrad and the Baltic States) that together could lead to miscalculation and conflict. If either China or Russia attempted to use force—or successfully coerced their neighbors with a threat to do so—they could undermine the integrity of U.S. security guarantees, upend the U.S. alliance network, militarily dominate their region, and reorder it to be more closed off from U.S. political and economic engagement.

This articulation of DoD’s primary role in great power competition is the traditional role for DoD—a classic manifestation of “hard power.” Nonetheless, successful execution is not preordained. U.S. military forces have not seriously planned for great power war since the end of the Cold War. They lack the capabilities, force structure, posture, and operational concepts necessary to successfully defend against Chinese or Russian aggression, especially in the most stressing scenarios. China or Russia could use force quickly in an effort to seize terrain and present the United States with a fait accompli, thereby making a U.S.-led counterattack so expensive or risky that the United States would struggle to maintain the coalition unity and domestic resolve necessary to see it through. The reality that great power war has the potential to escalate with attacks on U.S. civilians and use of nuclear weapons underscores the imperative to prioritize DoD’s ability to deter war as its primary role in great power competition.

U.S. military forces have not seriously planned for great power war since the end of the Cold War.

Despite the strategic significance of great power war and, until recently, lack of concentrated planning for it, a rising chorus calls for DoD to prioritize its role in daily competition (e.g., countering covert paramilitary operations, disinformation campaigns, and economic coercion) above conventional deterrence. For many U.S. military leaders, this call is borne from a belief that China and Russia are “eating our lunch” in the South China Sea and in Ukraine, where U.S. responses have not prominently featured military options and have also been largely ineffectual at persuading China or Russia to change course. Proponents of this school often discount that in these two cases the U.S. approach reflects the asymmetry of interests at stake more than a lack of U.S. military capabilities or response options. They often claim that China and Russia have no reason to ever challenge U.S. forces conventionally through war when they can achieve their political objectives through activities that purposefully stay below the threshold of triggering a conventional military response. Consequently, they often encourage U.S. forces to counter China and Russia everywhere and in every domain, rather than prepare to fight them where U.S. interests are most at stake.

This argument fails for two reasons. First, DoD must guard against high-consequence threats to national security, even if they are low probability. The consequence of losing a war are far more damaging to U.S. interests than the fallout from the loss of a gray zone dispute. Beyond the stakes of the specific contest, exposing the U.S. military as vulnerable undercuts confidence in America’s role as a security partner globally, fraying the U.S. alliance network while increasing the coercive leverage of U.S. rivals. Moreover, even if America wins the war, the fighting will wreak havoc on the global economy as supply chains, trade routes, and financial linkages rupture and markets potentially collapse.

The consequences of losing a war are far more damaging to U.S. interests than the fallout from the loss of a gray zone dispute.

Second, the probability that China or Russia pursue gray zone approaches rather than initiating war depends in part on the existence of a credible conventional deterrent. China and Russia are more likely to avoid war if they judge they would lose it or suffer intolerable human or economic consequences. Importantly, their actions in daily competition will be constrained because they will fear accidentally tripping U.S. thresholds. If the United States lacks a credible deterrent, China and Russia will perceive a freer hand in the sub-conventional realm. They will be less wary of walking up to where they think U.S. thresholds are because they will know that, if they miscalculate and accidentally trip them, they can always escalate their way out of it.

DoD’s Supporting Role in Daily Competition Should Be Narrowly Defined

Whether asymmetrical or equal, as long as the United States has an interest at stake, DoD should have a role in addressing gray zone challenges. But such a role must be in support of diplomatic—not military—solutions. Military-led gray zone operations on their own may lack the appropriate strategic and political context necessary to avoid tripping China’s or Russia’s red line. Without this context, military-led gray zone operations could unintentionally cross such a line and elicit a more significant retaliation than intended, thereby perversely increasing the chance of war. Ensuring that DoD’s daily competition activities are in support of diplomacy will not always be easy given the enormity of defense resources available relative to those for other elements of U.S. power. Therefore, they must also be narrowly circumscribed.

Military-led gray zone operations on their own may lack the appropriate strategic and political context necessary to avoid tripping China’s or Russia’s red line.

In addition to bounding the role it plays in daily competition, DoD should determine when to play it. This matters because of the resource trade-offs involved; the armed forces should not overextend themselves in daily competition at the expense of their ability to conduct warfighting. History suggests that it will be challenging for the U.S. government to adhere to this prioritization. U.S. political leadership often has expansive views on how often DoD assets should be employed. DoD should, therefore, have a set of criteria, principles to inform political deliberations on when to employ the military for daily competition.


DoD should perform the following supporting roles in daily competition:

  • Intelligence: Identify and contextualize malign activities in the gray zone. DoD already has expertise and specialized resources devoted to gathering intelligence that can be applied to cut through rival disinformation campaigns or clandestine operations to provide policymakers insight into what is occurring, under whose direction, and why.
  • Information operations: Expose or counter malign activities to disrupt China’s or Russia’s plans. For example, publicly attributing clandestine initiatives to an opponent or using cyber to obstruct foreign meddling in U.S. elections. This should be done with allies and partners informed along the way and only with approval from the White House or State Department to limit overly broad interpretations of the role.
  • Security cooperation: Strengthen the resilience of states susceptible to Chinese or Russian malign influence. This includes, for example, building up key institutions (e.g., border security) and training military leaders in anti-corruption values and processes.
  • Force development cooperation: Protect and cultivate critical nodes in the defense industrial base and broader National Security Innovation Base to maintain an enduring military advantage relative to China and Russia. This calls for DoD to work with industry both to safeguard from foreign influence the integrity of military systems and supply chains and to foster, along with academia, sources of technological innovation.
  • Deterrence: Demonstrate a credible ability to defeat a great power in war to disincentivize the opponent from trying it in the first place. A credible deterrent limits the escalation potential of daily competition so that it remains below the level of armed conflict. This includes enhancing interoperability with key allies and partners to maintain a credible coalition warfighting force.

DoD should not perform the following roles in daily competition:

  • Direct economic competition: Countering Chinese or Russian economic investments is not a DoD function. America’s geopolitical rivals, especially China with its Belt and Road Initiative, use state-directed resources to establish economic inroads across the world. These economic investments can sway political leadership to turn against the United States and put at risk infrastructure critical to U.S. power projection. Some argue that DoD should maintain its military presence in foreign nations to counter such Chinese or Russian influence. Such logic would bankrupt the nation, as it would try to match investments that do not earn revenue against those that do. A more prudent approach is to expose Chinese and Russian predatory economic policies as part of a State Department–directed information operation.
  • Presence operations: Deploying U.S. forces overseas to demonstrate the reach of American military power is inappropriate. This consumes valuable resources and weakens the readiness of the armed forces. Although presence operations can have military and geopolitical benefits, particularly in contested regions of the world, they must be balanced against one another, as well as against the overriding objective of maintaining a credible deterrent. Exercises and training that enhance high-intensity warfare readiness should continue. Presence operations should cease if they aim simply to “counter” Chinese or Russian activities where these do not pose a discrete military threat. Examples of these are Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic and Chinese infrastructure development in Africa, even though both could lead to military bases.
  • Non-military roles: Functions and activities that other federal agencies have express authority to conduct do not fall in DoD’s area of responsibility. Calls for DoD to step in to fill gaps in interagency resources are misguided; they should be channeled to Congress to encourage more resources for the relevant federal agency. However, this recommendation should not be overinterpreted to prohibit DoD’s support for natural disaster relief. When a humanitarian crisis arises, DoD should support response efforts independently of what it means for America’s standing relative to its rivals. To do this, DoD should temporarily repurpose the forces and capabilities it has developed for warfighting, but not build them to provide humanitarian aid.

DoD should engage in daily competition when the following criteria are met:

  • A compelling national security interest is at stake.
  • Great power rivals are conducting gray zone activities that threaten the interest.
  • U.S. military capability is among the appropriate instruments of power to apply in this context.
  • U.S. military involvement is likely to improve the probability that U.S. interests will be protected or advanced at an acceptable risk of conflict escalation.
  • Either the resources expended on the activity have an acceptable impact on the U.S. military’s ability to conduct warfighting, or a gray zone provocation could be a precursor to further aggressive action and embolden China or Russia in the absence of a U.S. military response.


China and Russia are advancing their interests—and undermining those of United States—with extensive use of gray zone tactics. It is understandable that DoD leaders seek to play an active role in countering them. Calling for DoD to prioritize great power war above daily competition and then to narrowly circumscribe DoD’s role in that competition is not to downplay this fact. It is precisely because daily geopolitical competition is an important and complicated challenge for the U.S. government to navigate that DoD’s role should be clearly defined. The nation cannot afford ambiguity on how to apply its more than $700 billion investment in defense to effectively compete with China and Russia. Drafters of the next National Defense Strategy will get the most value from these investments if they clearly define their expectations for what the armed forces should—and should not do—in great power competition.

About the Authors

Jim Mitre is the Chief Strategy Officer at Govini and served as Executive Director for the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Andre Gellerman is a student focusing on U.S.-Russia relations in the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

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  1. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, National Defense Strategy Commission, “Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessments and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission,” United States Institute of Peace, November 13, 2018,
  2. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, Hal Brands, “The Lost Art of Long-Term Competition,” The Washington Quarterly, 41, no. 4 (2018),
  3. Congressional Research Service, Ronald O'Rourke, Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense: Issues for Congress, CRS Report No. R43838 (July 31, 2020), https://crsreports.congress.go....
  4. Chris Dougherty, “Why America Needs a New Way of War” (Center for a New American Security, June 12, 2019),
  5. David Ochmanek et al., “U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World: Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Force Planning” (RAND Corporation, November 28, 2018),
  6. Nathan Freier, “The Darker Shade of Gray: A New War Unlike Any Other” (Center for Strategic & International Studies, July 27, 2018), Max Boot, “The United States Is Preparing for the Wrong War,” The Washington Post, March 29, 2018, “
  7. Elbridge Colby, Great Power: American Defense Strategy for a New Era (Yale University Press, forthcoming).
  8. Melissa Dalton, Kathleen H. Hicks, et al, “By Other Means Part II: Adapting to Compete in the Gray Zone” (Center for Strategic & International Studies, August 13, 2019),
  9. General Stephen Townsend, Commander, U.S. Africa Command, “2020 Posture Statement to Congress,” testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, January 30, 2020; and the House Armed Services Committee, March 10, 2020,
  10. Admiral Craig S. Faller, U.S. Southern Command, “2019 Posture Statement to Congress,” testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 7, 2019,
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