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Adversaries Pose Unconventional Threats in 'Gray Zone,' DOD Official Says

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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."

A mix of military and civilian personnel sit at a table and operate computers.  One female service member is standing and looking over the shoulder of the only civilian computer operator.
Cyber Training
U.S. service members and civilians, as well as partner nation military personnel, participated in the Cyber Flag 19-1 exercise, June 21-28, in Suffolk, Virginia. The tactical-level exercise focused on the continued building of a community of defensive cyber operators and the improvement of the overall capability of the U.S. and partner nations.
Photo By: U.S. Cyber Command Public Affairs
VIRIN: 190625-N-JP302-3411

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. 

Indonesian officer and U.S. Navy chief petty officer participate in a cyber exercise.
Lab Exercise
Lt. Col. Made Dwipayana Atmaja of Indonesia’s air force works on a cybersecurity lab exercise during the 2019 Information System and Technology Exchange in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 23, 2019. Part of the Hawaii National Guard’s State Partnership Program, the exchange aims to share best practices, assist in cybersecurity doctrine development, and enhance cybersecurity capabilities to effectively defend and protect critical cyber information infrastructure from malicious virus and cyber intrusion.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Katie Gray
VIRIN: 190723-A-ZO853-900

"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.

Service members looking at laptops sit around a conference table.
Cyber Mission
The Ohio National Guard cyber mission assurance team assesses the network during Exercise Cyber Shield 19 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 16, 2019. The National Guard is standing up cyber mission assurance teams to help in securing the critical infrastructure that services Defense Department installations.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. George B. Davis
VIRIN: 190415-Z-XR817-107C

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."

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