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Evergreen Pinecone 2024: Gray Zone

The Evergreen Pinecone workshop following the formal conclusion of the 2024 Maritime Risk Symposium is examining a persistent dilemma for strategists across the Sea Services: Gray Zone competition. 

 

The following is a description of the problem set from the facilitators of this year’s Evergreen pinecone, the RAND Corporation's Homeland Security Operations Analysis Center (HSOAC).

Current interactions among nations are often assumed to fall into two categories: either they are at peace, or they are engaged in full-scale war. However, nations often pursue activities that span a spectrum — a “gray zone” — between peaceful interaction and full-scale conflict.

 Even as nations engage in peaceful trade and cooperate in some areas, they are jockeying for power and position in ways that impinge upon other nations’ sovereignty, security, or ability to prepare for future conflicts. As the Coast Guard increases its presence in East Asia and possibly Europe and Africa, it is likely to be called upon to address gray-zone activity. The U.S. Coast Guard will likely be asked to counter the substantial and potentially growing use of gray-zone tactics by rival nations. When other nations’ civilian, coast guard, or other naval vessels are threatened with ramming or mock targeting, U.S. Coast Guard assets may play a role in helping to address the threat. Their value stems not only from their capabilities, but also that another nation’s forces may be hesitant to risk an altercation or collision with a U.S. Coast Guard asset.

 Conversely, the perception that the U.S. Coast Guard primarily performs lifesaving missions can make the presence of its cutters, boats, and aircraft less escalatory than their U.S. Navy counterparts. U.S. Coast Guard cutters, boats, and aircraft may be directly targeted by gray-zone tactics, similar to tactics already employed against other nation’s Coast Guards. U.S. Coast Guard assets will need explicit plans for how to respond and when to back away in the face of aggressive, risky behaviors, including in gray zone tactics against U.S. flagged commercial or fishing vessels or other vessels being targeted in their vicinity. As other competing nation-states perceive a weakness in U.S. response and doctrine, they may increasingly turn to gray-zone tactics. Allies, partners, and U.S. forces will need to respond by refining their doctrine, policy, techniques, tactics, and procedures to counter the gray-zone threat.

 The USCG, due to its broad authorities and capabilities, as well as a large suite of pre-existing bilateral and multilateral agreements, place the service in a unique role to counter gray-zone threats globally, including through its presence and influence at international regulatory bodies. Deliberately leveraging existing technology like non-lethal weapons, unmanned vehicles, prior experience, and establishing training will likely assist in closing any gaps and potentially place U.S. forces at an advantage eventually.

For more information on this Evergreen Pinecone, or Project Evergreen more generally, please contact Zach Schulman at zachary.n.schulman2@uscg.mil.

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