Challenge Accepted: Why America Needs to Confront Its Adversaries in the Gray Zone

April 29, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: ChinaRussiaGray ZoneNational SecurityWar

Challenge Accepted: Why America Needs to Confront Its Adversaries in the Gray Zone

Only by standing firm against Chinese and Russian adventurism can the United States hope to resist the expansion of their corrupting power and destabilization of the international order.


The return of great-power competition has dominated the national-security discussion in the United States since the release of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. However, little of it has been spent focusing on the previous era of great-power competition during the Cold War. Even a cursory exploration of that time-period will turn up documents that demonstrate the benefits of a better understanding of Cold War history. One example is a lecture delivered by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Arleigh A. Burke, to the Naval War College in December of 1958.

The themes touched on by Admiral Burke’s address “The U.S. Navy’s Role in General War and Conflict Short of General War” still resonate today. The geopolitical situation it describes eerily resembles our present era. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that with a few minor revisions the CNO could deliver the same address today. And while his blunt statement that the Sino-Soviet Bloc is America’s enemy might not survive in today’s political environment, his arguments are the same as those listed in the National Defense Strategy for classifying China and Russia as the United States’ primary competitors.


The National Defense Strategy states China and Russia are working to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” It also highlights China’s “all-of-nation long-term strategy” of economic coercion and influence operations and Russia’s subversive practices as a campaign designed to undermine the international order and change the “rules of the road.” Those conclusions rhyme with Admiral Burke’s earlier description of the Communist bloc’s fight against the Free World across “the fields of politics, of economics, of psychology, and of culture” to “disintegrate the institutions of the Free World.” Consequently, the geopolitical situation today can be viewed as merely a resumption of Cold War dynamics after a brief interruption. In this light, a close reading of Admiral Burke’s address provides a host of useful insights.

First, the United States cannot focus exclusively on major war against China and/or Russia. We must be prepared for a high-end fight, but much as Admiral Burke cautioned against obsessing over a surprise nuclear attack, America needs to pay attention to the long war of attrition in the “gray” area between the “white” of peace and “black” of war. Just as the Soviets would not risk their gains with “hair-brained” adventures, China and Russia will likely avoid general military confrontations. Instead, they will mirror the cautious, step by step approach used during the Cold War to make “day-by-day victories irreversible.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s island building in the South China Sea serve as examples. It is in this gray area that most strategic victories and losses will occur. For America’s military, that means continued investments in Special Operations Forces and Security Force Assistance Brigades for “train, advise and assist” missions and the rebuilding of a sizable small surface combatant force for the execution of maritime presence operations.

This contest in the gray area is not solely a military problem. Both Admiral Burke’s address and the National Defense Strategy state the United States will only be able to achieve its strategic goals if it competes across the diplomacy, information, military, and economic spectrum. The military’s senior leadership understands this and the administration  and Congress have taken steps to address nonmilitary challenges. They have promulgated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to counter Chinese expansion in Asia, passed the Build Act as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and issued warnings of Russia and Chinese threats to democracy in Europe. Unfortunately, FOIP is still not well understood, the Build Act will be insufficient on its own, and there is no comprehensive strategy among America and its European allies for responding to the Chinese and Russian threats. The United States government must do more to develop the specifics in each area and then promote and implement them globally.

Finally, the United States must not allow China and Russia to decide where the contest will take place. Today, Russia meddles in the affairs of its neighbors and China hopes to dictate the fate of Taiwan and the South China Sea. While these areas may not be considered vital U.S. interest on their own, Admiral Burke would caution that collectively they could be decisive. Additionally, he stated that only by standing firm against Chinese and Russian adventurism could the United States hope to resist the expansion of China and Russia’s corrupting power and destabilization of the international order. Along those lines, America’s reassurance of its commitment to the Mutual Defense Agreement with the Philippines was a step in the right direction. It may be time to take similar positions on the Baltics, Senkaku Islands and Taiwan.

Using Cold War texts to justify prescriptions for today’s geopolitics may alarm some people. However, Admiral Burke’s lecture should provide more comfort than concern. It indicates that while the details of great-power competitions are different, the underlying fundamentals remain the same. It also highlights the fact that although the United States’ resolve has been questioned before, it has successfully dealt with similar challenges in the past. Further, it stresses the importance of internal will and stamina in international relations and emphasizes the generational nature of great-power competitions. Finally, it provides sensible recommendations the United States can apply in its current competition with China and Russia.

CDR Bob Jones is a career surface warfare officer currently assigned as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Most recently, he served as the executive officer and commanding officer of Naval Beach Unit Seven (NBU-7) in Sasebo, Japan.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Navy or Department of Defense.

Image: Reuters