The unconventional and insidious threat U.S. adversaries pose is in the "gray zone," the space between U.S. traditional concepts of a peaceful state of affairs and full-scale war, a Defense Department official said.
Theresa Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, participated in a multidomain homeland defense panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting and exposition in Washington.
"The gray zone is a pretty busy place these days because our adversaries see it as the space where they can achieve their national objectives without triggering full-scale combat with us," Whelan said. "We've seen the Russians [use] the gray zone in Ukraine. Our adversaries really don't have any interest in confronting us on the battlefield. They know what that means for them. They want to defeat us by trying to make sure that we don't even get to the battlefield."
Quoting former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Whelan said the Defense Department knows its near-peer adversaries have the intent and the ability to hold critical U.S. infrastructure at risk without conventional warfare.
"This really makes the homeland a new front line, which is a huge change in mindset we have to make for ourselves," she noted.
While the United States must work with its partners to address defensive requirements, DOD also needs to think about how to change the way it does business, Whelan said.
"We know that China and Russia have the ability to cause disruptive effects on our critical infrastructure, and during a conflict or prior to an actual conflict, we really have to anticipate attacks against our critical government infrastructures," she said. At risk are defense and economic-related infrastructures, Whelan said. Limiting DOD's retaliatory options and challenging the will of the American people to fight and to win are also part of adversaries' objectives, she added.
Addressing the near-peer challenge is going to require work at home, and implementing the National Defense Strategy is essential to maintaining stability, she said.
"It's dangerous for us, but also for our adversaries to have the impression that they can deter us by disrupting us here in the homeland," Whelan said.
DOD has a responsibility and a need to work with other departments and with the whole of society to try to improve its defensive posture domestically, she noted.
"We also have an equal responsibility to be prepared to operate in a degraded [homeland] environment, and we need to prepare ourselves by rethinking how we do our planning, how we develop our capabilities domestically and also how we train," Whelan said. "We train as we fight."