The United States has entered into a new age of warfare, a “grey zone” that exists between war and peace, where adversaries commit acts not recognized as “war” by western democracies. Whether it’s Russia’s influence in political elections, or China‘s claims in the South China Sea and defying international courts by constructing military islands, the U.S. faces a complex array of new threats designed to erode democratic institutions.
That’s the consensus of a new Government Accountability Office report on long-range emerging threats. The GAO administered a questionnaire to 45 organizations across the Department of Defense, State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and compiled information on 210 threats detailed by 26 of the respondents.
“The nature of conflict is changing,” the report states. “The risk of conflict will increase due to diverging interests among major powers, an expanding terror threat, continued instability in weak states and the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies. Disrupting societies will become more common, with long-range precision weapons, cyber and robotic systems to target infrastructure from afar, and with more accessible technology to create weapons of mass destruction.”
The GAO conducted the audit from July 2017 to September 2018.
Incidents that fall under the grey zone include:
- Russian and Chinese near-unrestricted thefts of U.S. intellectual property
- Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory, namely Crimea
- China using bilateral economic deals to marginalize U.S. multilateral frameworks in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific
- Russia attempting to resurrect former Soviet client-state relationships with Syria, Egypt and Libya, and potentially with additional countries in the Middle East and North Africa
- Iran realigning the Middle East by using proxy forces to create friendly governments including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen at the expense of U.S. leadership in the region
- “Strongmen” in countries such as Venezuela, Egypt and Turkey using democratic institutions to promote new paradigms independent of Western liberal norms
- The continued attraction of extremist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as a preferable means to achieve Sunni Arab autonomy as a viable alternative to minority governance in countries with majorities that outnumber them (as in Syria and Iraq)
But making long-term predictions on emerging threats can result in inaccuracies.
“It is not possible to predict every potential long-range emerging threat,” the report notes. “For example, adversaries may use emerging technologies together in novel and unpredicted ways to amplify their harm. Several DoD officials also noted that there will always be completely unpredictable events with no prior warning.”