Cover: Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone

Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone

Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War

Published Jun 27, 2019

by Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk, Marta Kepe


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Research Questions

  1. What are the level and character of the strategic challenge posed by Russian and Chinese gray zone tactics?
  2. What responses are feasible and appropriate?

The United States is entering a period of intensifying strategic competition with several rivals, most notably Russia and China. U.S. officials expect this competition to be played out primarily below the threshold of armed conflict, in what is sometimes termed the gray zone between peace and war. In this report, the authors examine how the United States might respond to Russian and Chinese efforts to seek strategic advantage through coercive actions in the gray zone, including military, diplomatic, informational, and economic tactics. The United States is ill prepared and poorly organized to compete in this space, yet the authors' findings suggest that the United States can begin to treat the ongoing gray zone competition as an opportunity more than a risk. Moreover, leaders in Europe and Asia view Russian and Chinese gray zone aggression as a meaningful threat and are receptive to U.S. assistance in mitigating it. In this report, the authors use insights from their extensive field research in affected countries, as well as general research into the literature on the gray zone phenomenon, to sketch out the elements of a strategic response to the gray zone challenge and develop a menu of response options for U.S. officials to consider.

Key Findings

Intensifying Russian and Chinese gray zone activities

  • Russian gray zone campaigns in Europe consist primarily of disinformation campaigns meant to undermine political institutions. Other tactics include the use of economic tools to extract concessions or hold countries at risk of being coerced through an overreliance on Russian energy; the demonstration of military threats through exercises near the borders of certain states; and, in a few very extreme cases, the infiltration of Russian security forces to exert de facto control over disputed territory.
  • In Northeast Asia, Japan believes that it is engaged in an increasingly high-stakes competition with China over efforts to change the status quo of territorial sovereignty and administrative control of the Senkaku Islands and nearby areas. In Southeast Asia, countries in the region have grown increasingly wary of Chinese gray zone aggression in the South China Sea. These tactics include China's unprecedented expansion of artificial islands, as well as the use of law enforcement and maritime militia vessels in an unprofessional and escalatory manner to deter or deny the use of living and nonliving resources in the waters. Finally, China has supplemented these strategies with growing employment of economic coercion and political subversion.

Overarching strategic concept for responding to gray zone threats

  • The authors' proposed strategic concept is built around four complementary efforts: to shape a context supportive of U.S. and partner objectives over the long term; to deter a handful of very extreme forms of gray zone aggression; to dissuade the day-to-day use of more-elaborate gray zone techniques; and to sustain resilience in the lower-level, persistent competition areas.
  • To implement the strategic concept, the authors propose a preliminary list of about three dozen response options for U.S. officials to consider, such as stationing permanent new military capabilities in key locations, anticipating political meddling and blunting the effects with information operations planned in advance, and denying the aggressor participation in key economic institutions.


  • The United States and its allies, partners, and friends must decide what actions they will resolutely not tolerate in the gray zone environment. Because of the difficulty in stopping gradual, sometimes unattributable actions involving secondary interests, identifying the actions that the United States will seek to deter is the one reliable way to draw a boundary around the possible effects of gray zone encroachment.
  • A multicomponent strategy like the one outlined in this report will be of limited utility if the U.S. government continues to lack a clear coordinating function with the responsibility for overseeing a renewed effort to gain strategic advantage in the gray zone. An important part of any gray zone response strategy, therefore, is undertaking institutional reform, such as assembling a purpose-built office in the U.S. government, with a significant devoted staff, to run counter–gray zone campaigns.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development and Strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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