Technology will play a significant role in this new realm of warfare, one senior researcher said.
US special operations is researching how to counteract a new breed of warfare that Russia, China and Iran have been using quite successfully in recent years, Defense News reported.
Known as gray-zone conflict or hybrid warfare, it encompasses "activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area," according to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
In response, US special ops is looking to develop “predictive analytic technologies that will help us identify when countries are utilizing unconventional warfare techniques at levels essentially below our normal observation thresholds,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Theresa Whelan told Congress on May 2.
That's because in hybrid warfare, aggressors will try to mask who they really are, such as Russia's use of "little green men" in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine where its own special operations forces helped support an insurgency.
"Without a credible smoking gun, NATO will find it difficult to agree on an intervention," according to NATO REVIEW Magazine.
The Pentagon study will help the US identify early evidence of unconventional warfare, Whelan said.
Many people in countries along Russia's border, especially in the eastern part of those countries, have close cultural ties, like language and history, to Russia. Therefore public opinion about identity and Russia in these regions is oftentimes sharply divided.
No one yet knows how the US will actually try to counteract such warfare, but "technology will play a significant role," Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Business Insider, specifically mentioning artificial intelligence, robotics and drones.
The presence and use of special ops will also increase, as they already have in places like Iraq and Syria. "More special ops died last year than conventional forces," Lemmon said. "I think that points to the future of warfare."
This new kind of warfare also brings up questions about the rules of engagement, and how the US can counteract it without triggering a full-scale conventional war.
"I genuinely think no one can answer that," Lemmon said. "It is taking the idea of warfare into a totally different realm."
While the results of the study are two years late, the Pentagon expects to have an "answer with our thoughts" before the end of June, Whalen told Congress.