Maneuvering in the Gray Zone: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Battlespace

Over the last few years, cyberwarfare has taken center stage as a potent, legitimate threat impacting Americans and allies overseas. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder that the U.S. cannot overlook the traditional kinetic threats posed by near peers, it is also the first state-level conflict to draw in dozens of non-state cyber actors and thousands of unaffiliated cyber volunteers. These new hybrid events have created an ongoing strategic shift that will expand the scope of national security.

Historical discussions of national defense have focused on military size and capacity, measured by hardware and platforms. But, in the modern era of strategic competition, adversaries seek to exploit software and networks, often in advance of formal hostilities erupting on the ground. This proverbial gray zone occurs primarily within the cyber domain.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is a “live” example of how adversaries couple traditional, kinetic tactics with advanced effects delivered through cyberspace and electronic warfare. They use these means to deny, degrade, deceive, destroy, or usurp anyone who threatens their position or ability to carry out operations.

“Today’s threats no longer fit comfortably into the traditional definition of previous defense strategies. We must be nimble, agile, and open-minded to respond to the challenges at hand,” said Chris Valentino, chief strategy officer at Peraton. “The Department of Defense (DoD) must be as capable in hybrid warfare as it is in traditional warfare, especially around cyber, satellite, cloud. It must also be prepared to collaborate with other federal agencies to effectively utilize the full range of national power instruments and combat these new hazards.”

Threats to network systems and IT infrastructure create insidious vulnerabilities within societal architecture that can lead to higher gas prices; prevent daily operations within companies, utilities, and other critical organizations; expose Americans to misinformation and disinformation; and disrupt supply chains.

“Our nation’s security is not just about deterring or defeating adversaries, it’s about protecting our very way of life, as well as the infrastructure and systems that underpin our functioning society,” Valentino said. “From a national security perspective, we must have a strong core not only in our ability to defend the country with military force, but also to provide services that protect citizens and ensure a functioning society.”

Strengthening Cybersecurity Capabilities

Since the last National Defense Strategy was released, warfare has continued to evolve, and the country’s adversaries have embraced new technologies. According to Valentino, China and Russia have risen to become the United States’ equals when it comes to the cyberspace domain. While Russia is the immediate threat, China’s increasing power and influence over the Indo-Pacific region means the country will influence U.S. strategic planning for decades to come.

To address this evolution, the DoD must hone its cybersecurity infrastructure, adopt new technology to communicate across agencies, accelerate the decision cycle, and possess the ability to act quickly and decisively to protect the nation.

“2022 marks the first year the United States is truly transitioning to deal with pure competition,” Valentino said. “Our adversaries are working within the ‘gray zone’ using hybrid warfare, predominantly in the cyber domain, to position themselves to project power.”

The traditional hard power approach to national defense is shifting to a more complex tactic focused on the cyber-physical convergence of hybrid warfare. This military evolution is a critical aim of the new offensive defense strategy, Valentino noted, and will influence the United States’ ability to function at the same level as its’ adversaries within a less clearly defined landscape.

A key element of this strategy goes beyond advancing capabilities and includes modernizing threat response to protect across the competition continuum, Valentino explained. In other words, the U.S. must minimize any inconsistencies that create gaps or vulnerabilities within DoD’s cyber infrastructure while also enhancing its ability to quickly identify threat actors.

“In addition to pinpointing weaknesses, it’s imperative to attribute threats to a particular actor,” he said. “This would enable us to use technology in conjunction with other elements of government, such as diplomacy, to go after threat actors with our justice system and move forward with prosecution rooted around attribution.”

Connecting the Force

Another critical element of a strong national defense is ensuring that the U.S. can inform military decisions by getting the right data to the right place at the right time. One of the DoD’s top priorities is the development of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) framework, an effort to connect the joint force by linking defense platforms and systems across services to deter peer adversaries.

The number of sensors is sometimes overwhelming, and connecting all those sensors — as well as making sense of all the collected data and information — is one of the primary challenges. But now, these capabilities are within reach using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Advanced networks, like 5G and spectrum management, are critical to the execution of defense priorities to provide real-time situational awareness and support secure tactical communication.

“JADC2 will create ripple effects by integrating new and existing platforms,” Valentino said. “Eventually, it will be more than just a framework or construct; it will be platforms and sensors connected, sharing relevant information, and ultimately realizing more combat capability in the battlespace.”

Although there is still much ground to cover before JADC2 is cohesively fielded and can function to the fullest, Valentino noted there has been a great deal of progress with its priority in the evolving defense strategy. This evolution represents another important, incremental step forward.

Valentino and his team at Peraton are using their expertise to help integrate software across the joint force and make JADC2 a reality. Their work includes supporting the three service initiatives — Project Convergence, Project Overmatch, and Advanced Battle Management System — and working on more than 40 JADC2-related projects. Equipping warfighters with these solutions will further the momentum of America’s new offensive defense strategy, Valentino said.

“I think the success so far demonstrates what you can do when you make modern, highly adaptable technologies available to the warfighter,” he said. “That work will drive new applications, new capabilities, new sensor systems, and usher in a new realm of applications for the end users. In the end, this effort will be revolutionary.”