An update and revision to the U.S. Defense strategy must be based on the realization that defense strategies should recognize the current change in the material environment over the past few years.  Today’s strategic climate, driven by globalization, technology, and demographic shifts, creates an environment that empowers individuals and non-state actors with data, information and content in such a fashion that they now have the ability to affect and impact the national defense strategy.  The new defense strategy must be driven by our ability to deal with gray zone/hybrid conflicts; taking leadership and control over cyber attacks and national cybersecurity; reducing the bureaucracy within the Defense Department and reducing our financial impact on the federal deficit; increasing our global footprint with staged resources and increasing cooperation with allies worldwide.  

The Defense Department must rethink how it operates and strategizes.  We are facing a future with fewer inter-state conflicts, and even fewer conflicts with countries looking to engage directly with the United States. While we continue to have military and technological superiority, we must recognize that a paradigm shift has occurred.  As we have seen with China’s advocation of Unrestricted Warfare and Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the battlefield of the future is gray, unrestricted, opaque and asymmetrical. As a nation and as a department, we are wholly unprepared from a strategic and tactical response standpoint to deal with these potential battlefields.

Gray Zone/Hybrid Conflicts

Today, the probability of U.S. involvement in an inter-state war with a major power is low but growing.  Gray zone conflict challenges, unless war is declared, present significant complications to U.S. policy and interests; while war is easily defined, gray zone conflicts are not.

Engagement is no longer linear but asymmetrical, utilizing not only direct military means but social, religious, political, criminal and financial means in which to engage, distract and ultimately defeat the other party.  These engagements are created and used to nullify our military advantage. The U.S. already possesses the right mix of tools to prevail in the gray zone, but it must change its approach. We must integrate our efforts with the CIA and, in cases, State and Treasury.  Joint Special Operations alone cannot conduct a gray zone offensive. As stated earlier, gray zone challenges require a direct need for a decentralized, agency-integrated approach.

Diplomacy and the country’s status as a superpower have placed the United States in an international leadership role. However, the traditional model of state-on-state warfare is not suited to the new world order in which state and non-state actors proliferate. We struggle to respond effectively to gray zone conflicts, either due to bureaucratic restraints or the inability to properly address the engagement.

For example, the recent conflicts in Eastern Ukraine demonstrate how various state actors interpret conflict differently.  For the U.S., the situation is best handled using economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. For Russia, it more closely approaches war: The nature of their involvement is covert, gray zone activities with a willingness to act more aggressively when appropriate.  Its actions emphasize the intelligence and military lines of national power. Ukraine, however, views the conflict as a threat to its sovereignty, considers it war, and thus mobilized its nation.

This scenario illustrates how necessary it is to understand the viewpoint of all parties in gray zone conflicts.  In correctly perceiving the differing viewpoints of the involved parties, it is possible to understand their level of commitment and each party’s resolve.  Ukraine went to war with Russia. Russia denied all involvement, yet covertly supplied “separatists” with arms, munitions, equipment, and financial support.  The United States and Europe, unwilling to go to war over Ukraine, opted for sanctions and strong condemnation of Russia.

In the past, gray zone challenges originated from state actors adopting strategies to avoid escalation. Now, non-state organizations such as al Qaeda, ISIS, Hoko Boram, and separatists in Ukraine can amass resources and connect with like-minded individuals to constitute significant threats.  As a superpower and the “leader of the free world”, the United States is guaranteed to face constant gray zone challenges.

The certainty we faced with the Soviet Union during the Cold War was simpler than dealing with the gray zone adherents today.  There was a single target to engage that followed rules and remained open to negotiation. That’s less the case now. Technology and globalization have drastically changed the global landscape, making gray zone conflicts more challenging to deal with.

Cyber Attacks and National Cyber Security

Technology is impacting the United States’ ability to deter and manage conflicts.  We have suffered attacks on our communications with little to no warning, affecting our ability to assess, coordinate, communicate, and respond.  At present we’re behind in our abilities to deal with cyber attacks. We need to improve our cybersecurity and cyber defense measures through the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.  Cybersecurity cannot be fragmented amongst different agencies within the United States defense infrastructure. Most data systems in the United States remain vulnerable and continue to provide state and non-state actors with targets to cause disruption and damage to our security, financial and political interests.

Financial and Geo-economic impact

We must also recognize our budget and its impact on the nations federal deficit.  The impact of defense spending on the federal budget and concomitant deficit must be recognized as part of the overall defense strategy.  The defense strategy should take measures to deploy capital more effectively and efficiently. There are two significant implications to this potential change in strategy. It provides credibility to the Defense Department for its prudence and financial discipline.  In addition, a reduction in the nation’s deficit—without an adverse impact on mobility—has a direct impact on its worldwide credibility, strength, and ability to project national defense and protect economic interests.

Global Footprint with staged resources and increasing cooperation with allies worldwide

The Defense Department has to increase the number of active global alliances and security agreements to deal with future threats and conflicts.  Our relationship with NATO must be preserved in order to deal with current threats from Russia as well as counterterrorism efforts within the region. Cooperation with NATO will provide the resources and capabilities needed to deal with cyber and potential hybrid threats to the United States.

In addition, we must build alliances in Latin America and Africa. Building and establishing coalitions will provide for extensive burden-sharing and allow the defense department to allocate capital in other underfunded programs. Furthermore, alliances will also allow for the deployment of U.S. troops that act as force multipliers to the host country, further securing their country and ensuring the safety and security of the United States.


Cybersecurity – the protection of computer systems from theft of or damage to their hardware, software or electronic data, as well as from disruption or misdirection of the services they provide.

Global Footprint – a reference to the cumulative impact of a country and its policies on the rest of the world.

Gray Zone (Hybrid) Conflict – competitive interaction among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality. They are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks

Inter-state Conflict – conflict between two or more states (both members of the international system), who use their respective national forces in the conflict.

Joint Special Operations – a component command of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is charged to study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization; to plan and conduct special operations exercises and training; to develop joint special operations tactics; and to execute special operations missions worldwide.

Non-State Actor – individuals and groups that hold influence and which are wholly or partly independent of state governments.

State Actor  – a person who is acting on behalf of a governmental body, and is therefore subject to regulation under the United States Bill of Rights, including the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit the federal and state governments from violating certain rights and freedoms.

Unrestricted Warfare – War that is conducted on a massive scale and not limited by the traditional or conventional rules of war.