The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

The Red Zone: Understanding an Escalatory Pathway that the Adversaries are Exploring—and We Are Not

  • Published
  • By Mr. Robert J. Peters


Over the last six years, there has been much discussion of “the Gray Zone.”  The Autumn 2015 issue of Special Warfare, the in-house magazine of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, defined the Gray Zone as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace.”1 Former SOCOM Commander Eric Olson wrote in Defense One that “it is hard to find a conflict that is not in the gray zone.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued activities in eastern Ukraine; the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s barbaric control of key parts of Iraq and Syria; Chinese construction on disputed reefs in the South China Sea; Boko Haram’s continued reign of terror in Nigeria; and the ongoing Houthi rebellion in Yemen are just some of the most recent examples.”2 By the mid-to late-2010s, it seemed that everything, everywhere, was a Gray Zone conflict.

While the Gray Zone construct is helpful up to a certain point, it does not capture a fundamental and perilous challenge facing the Department of Defense: That is, in a conventional conflict with the United States, China and Russia are incentivized to escalate the level of violence above the conventional threshold, but below a general nuclear exchange—and should that happen, those states are postured to defeat us.  And that defeat would be far more significant than a defeat that would take place in the traditional Gray Zone.

It is clear that there is a Red Zone that has emerged over the last three years – one that has not been examined and that is far more consequential. We in the Defense community should understand how the Red Zone impacts Defense Department plans, capabilities, policies, doctrines, and most of all, deterrence strategies. We must take it seriously, examine the challenges posed by it, and prepare to fight in that zone. Because that is the one in which our primary adversaries, China and Russia, are preparing to fight and win. 

Characterizing the Red Zone

The Red Zone is an area of conflict that exists above the purely conventional threshold and below the threshold of a general nuclear exchange. Conflict takes place in this zone when one side integrates and employs conventional systems with some combination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – such as theater range low-yield nuclear weapons, as well as with chemical and/or biological weapons – but does not use significant numbers of “strategic” nuclear forces (i.e. long-range delivery systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles mated with nuclear warheads that are not low-yield weapons). An adversary would escalate up to this level of conflict to attain operational and tactical effect and dominate the pace and scale of fighting—but also to achieve strategic effect on the United States and its allies.



While chemical and biological weapons can have wide-varying tactical and operational effects, the capabilities of greatest concern to the DoD in a Red Zone fight would be low-yield, theater range weapons. These low-yield weapons are not limited by any treaty, can have very discrete effects (perhaps even near-fallout-free effects), and can be mated to a wide variety of theater-range delivery systems, to include artillery, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, or even air defense systems and naval mines.3 They also could significantly – and even decisively – affect the conventional battle. That is, while being less escalatory than say a strategic nuclear strike on the U.S. homeland, they not only would signal high resolve by their employment, but also could seriously undermine U.S. conventional warfighting capabilities.

These theater range nuclear4, chemical5, and biological weapons6 are exactly the kind of capabilities that Russia and China are developing and fielding today—and are in line with their doctrine.7 Indeed, one reason why our adversaries are developing theater range delivery systems and low-yield nuclear warheads is to prepare to fight a potential Red Zone war.8 

Why Are Our Adversaries Doing This?

Should conventional conflict erupt, Russia and China are incentivized to escalate conflict with the United States to the Red Zone, where they have qualitative and quantitative overmatch.  This is the consequence of fearing that they cannot overcome U.S. conventional dominance in a prolonged conflict while also seeking to avoid a general nuclear exchange.  We are, in essence, driving our adversaries to respond to conflict in a way for which the United States is unprepared.

Paradoxically, our current dominance in the conventional level of conflict and the mutual desire to avoid a general nuclear exchange, coupled with the virtual elimination of our theater nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenals have created a “safe space” for our adversaries to operate—and a “blind spot” for us.

This is not to say that the decisions to get rid of (most of our) theater nuclear, biological, and chemical capabilities were wrong.  Certainly, eliminating our chemical and biological arsenals were the right things to do given that our adversaries were eliminating these types of weapons as well.  Nor is this to say that in light of developments in China and Russia, we should re-start our offensive biological and chemical weapons programs.  However, we must recognize our opponents’ development of high-precision, low-yield, theater-range ballistic and cruise missiles that can carry low-yield (five kiloton or below) nuclear weapons has created trade space that our opponents can exploit. 

Due to the United States’ conventional qualitative overmatch (and when leveraging allies and key partners, some degree of quantitative overmatch), any U.S.-led coalition, given time and space, will defeat Russia and China in a conventional fight.  China and Russia know that. They cannot therefore allow the United States and its allies and partners to mass conventional forces into theater and start fighting. 

They also know that employing several nuclear weapons against each other’s homelands could bring both sides to a general nuclear exchange—and neither China, Russia, nor the United States seek that.  Those countries’ respective inter-continental nuclear arsenals deter all parties from escalating to a general nuclear exchange.

However, Chinese and Russian posture, particularly the expansion of their theater-range nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenals over the last ten years, makes sense if they plan to fight in this Red Zone.  Similarly, the Russian choice to use chemical and radiological weapons openly as tools of assassination makes sense if one of their goals is to signal that they are willing to employ these types of weapons during conflict.

Because we are not well postured, lack the strategy and doctrine for, likely do not have the right weapons, and are not trained to fight and win or even deter conflict within this Red Zone, should any direct conflict erupt between the United States and China or Russia, the United States runs a significant risk of losing the war.

Some might argue that Russia and China do not seek war with the United States.  This is likely true, as the leaders in those countries recognize that the United States (and the coalition it would lead) would be a difficult, if not insurmountable, opponent.  But for China in particular, what if the assumption that China does not seek war, is NOT true? China clearly seeks to become the dominant power in the Western Pacific and East Asia on its way to becoming the global hegemon.  Can it do that without defeating the United States in open conflict? Perhaps… but perhaps not.  If not, then perhaps China, in fact, is seeking war with the United States—and is biding its time so that it can emerge from such a conflict victorious.  If that is the case—then the Red Zone offers China an intriguing path to defeat the United States in the near to medium term.

What might a Red Zone Conflict Look Like?

A Red Zone conflict could begin as a purely conventional conflict, but escalate quickly.  Once the United States demonstrates that it is willing to mass and employ conventional forces into theater to oppose a Chinese or Russian conventional force (likely being employed against a smaller, weaker regional power), the adversary would escalate using some combination of limited nuclear, chemical, or biological strikes within the theater on military targets.  These limited NBC strikes would be intended to wrong-foot the United States, thereby causing a “strategic pause” while the United States considered its response options.  For instance, a low-yield nuclear weapon, detonated at a near fallout free height of burst over Anderson AFB in Guam, would kill few civilians—but would disrupt the ability to generate combat power during a conflict in the western Pacific.

The adversary would use this “strategic pause” to gain lodgment, consolidate their gains, and seek to rattle the (strategic) nuclear saber to intimidate the United States and its allies into conceding the end of conflict on terms favorable to Russia or China – the fait accompli.  Their message (delivered after they achieve their operational objectives) would be along the lines of “please, let’s end the war before things get worse.  Who knows where a broader nuclear war might lead? We must deescalate now, to stave off Armageddon.”  The American leadership would be faced with three options: 

A) accept the adversary’s terms;

B) press the fight using conventional means; or

C) respond with one of its few, escalatory responses—many (but certainly not all) of which would rely upon strategic nuclear weapons in response to an adversary’s limited use of (low-yield) nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. 

All three options carry obvious problems, not the least of which include the credibility challenges of 1) using a very limited number of low-yield nuclear weapons or a not insignificant number of high-yield nuclear weapons in response to low-yield, fall-out free nuclear strikes on military targets; or 2) continuing to absorb adversary nuclear strikes while the United States fights a conventional conflict. 

While we might be tempted to assure ourselves that we can achieve the same effects with conventional weapons as we can with low-yield nuclear weapons, and thereby off-set our adversary’s low-yield theater nuclear systems, the fact is that even a single low-yield nuclear weapon can take out militarily significant targets that would otherwise require a great many conventional munitions (such as the cranes and berths at key ports of debarkation).  In this sense, low-yield nuclear weapons can serve as force multipliers that would overcome shortfalls in conventional munitions, which could become acute during a high-intensity conflict. 

Should the United States press the conventional fight, the adversary could:

A) increase or sustain the number of limited nuclear strikes as a means to

1) slow the movement of American conventional forces into theater;

2) disrupt the American-led coalition opposing their actions; and

3) stoke the fears of a general nuclear exchange (and thereby likely undercutting U.S. willingness to continue the fight);

B) sue for peace; and then

C) rinse and repeat as necessary. 

As of now, the only available U.S. responses to such an adversary approach would be to:

A) bring the world to the threshold of a general nuclear exchange, either through conventional counter-force operations on their nuclear arsenals or by employing the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal (or some other highly escalatory, non-nuclear strategic attack); or

B) fight through a nuclear/chemical/biological battlefield and hope for the best; or

C) accept defeat.

The political effect of responding either with conventional weapons or with high-yield nuclear weapons would create serious alliance cohesion issues within any U.S.-led coalition, irrespective of the strategic choice made by the United States in how to respond.  Some allies might demand a nuclear response (even one that was high-yield) to a low-yield nuclear attack within theater, while others would almost assuredly blanche at the prospect of a limited nuclear war and demand that a response be conventional in nature.  The political crisis would be severe, immediate, and perhaps devastating to coalition cohesion.  This is a prospect that our adversaries count on and is part of the reason why a low-yield nuclear strike would nevertheless have strategic political impacts, in addition to the operational and tactical impacts. 

None of these are good, or possibly even acceptable, options for a U.S.-led coalition.  And they are not problems which would confront China or Russia, non-democracies who do not have to worry about offending allies in a global alliance network.  This is a key reason why the Russians and Chinese are exploring Red Zone capabilities and doctrines.

American Red Zone Warfighting Challenges

There are a number of operational challenges that the Red Zone presents to us.  We do not have the right kinds or sufficient amounts of theater nuclear systems or precision conventional munitions to respond to adversary nuclear employment.  With a limited number of exceptions, we do not exercise or plan for Red Zone conflict.  We do not have sufficient training for operating in and/or moving forces towards/through a CBRN environment (although the Services have been making real and significant strides in this area, more needs to be done).  And a Red Zone conflict likely would take place in/near Russia or China, where their interests/stakes may outstrip our own. 

As noted earlier, our nuclear force posture is not credible to deter a limited, low-yield, nuclear strike– especially a series of strikes that affect the ongoing battle.  Our force posture is one that generally relies on relatively high-yield weapons (with the exception of a very small number of low-yield options) to deter nuclear conflict short of a general nuclear exchange.  This posture may or may not be a credible deterrent to Russia or China, particularly if we draw down our strategic nuclear arsenal (either through unilateral arms reductions) while theirs remain static (or increase) while also retaining theater-range nuclear arsenals.  If pushed far enough, such a one-sided reduction in the U.S. strategic arsenal could erode intra-conflict stability, which would carry with it a whole slew of secondary challenges.

Implications for the United States

We must recognize that any conventional conflict with Russia or China runs a significant risk of that conflict escalating to the Red Zone.  And because we are not postured to win that type of conflict, and our adversaries are, we are at high risk of losing any high-intensity conflict with Russia or China in the near to medium term—even those conflicts that begin at the purely conventional level.

What must we do? We must further examine the problem set.  We must develop a spanning set of solutions—and then develop and field offensive and defensive capabilities that credibly and effectively deter this type of conflict.  We must train and exercise for Red Zone conflict.  We must develop policies, plans, and doctrines for such a conflict.  We must game what a Red Zone conflict will look like, to include allowing “Red Team” participants to “employ” their WMD without halting the game.  We must examine the strategic and operational and tactical warfighting challenges.  And we must re-examine our force posture as well as our declaratory policies. 

In short:  we must develop and field a force and a strategy that can deter our adversaries from escalating to the Red Zone. 

If we do not, we will lose the war.

Mr. Robert J. Peters

Mr. Robert J. Peters is the Chief within the Strategic Integration Directorate of the Strategic Trends and Effects Department (STED) at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Prior to joining DTRA, Mr. Peters served as a Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University's Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Prior to joining National Defense University, Mr. Peters worked as a Technical Analyst for the Northrop Grumman Corp., and as a Research Associate for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Mr. Peters received an MA from Georgetown University in National Security Studies and a BA in Political Science and History from Miami University.

1. Philip Kapusta, “The Gray Zone,” Small Wars Journal, October-December 2015, pg. 20

2. Eric Olson, “America’s Not Ready for Today’s Gray Wars,” Defenseone, 12 December 2015,

3. Paul Bernstein and Harrison Menke, “Russia’s Hypersonic Weapons,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 12 December 2019,

4. “Soviet/Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons”, Global Security, accessed 1 April 2022,; Patty Jane-Geller and Peter Brookes, “The Increasing Russian Nuclear Threat,” The Heritage Foundation, 6 April 2021,; Caitlin Talmadge, “China and Nuclear Weapons,” Global China, Domains of Strategic Competition, September 2019,; “China,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, accessed 1 April 2021,

5. “Chemical and Biological Weapons,” Global Security, accessed 1 April 2022, ; Office of the Spokesperson, “US Sanctions and Other Measures Imposed on Russia in Response To Russia’s Use of Chemical Weapons,” Department of State, 2 March 2021,

6. Corey Pfluke, “Biohazard, a Look at China’s Biological Capabilities and the Recent Coronavirus Outbreak,” Wild Blue Yonder, 2 March 2020,; Lukas Trakimavicius, “Is Russia Violating the Biological Weapons Convention,” New Atlanticist, 23 May 2018,; Javin Aryan, “A Look at China’s Biowarfare Ambitions,” Observer Research Foundation, 2 June 2021,; “Russia’s Biological Warfare Capabilities are World Threatening,” UKR Inform, 3 November, 2021,

7. “Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: China,Arms Control , July 2017; Kris Osborn, “Is China Preparing to Abandon its ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Policy?The National Interest, 4 January 2022,

8. Congressional Research Service, “Russia’s Nuclear Forces:  Doctrine, Organization, and Modernization,” 21 March 2022,; Akshai Vikram, “Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons:  Understanding Avankard, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon,CSIS Next Generation Nuclear Network, 2 August 2021,;  William Courtney and Peter A. Wilson, “Russia May Underestimate Ukraine and NATO,” RAND, 27 December 2021,

Wild Blue Yonder Home