Small Wars Journal

‘Gray Zone’ Conflicts Far More Complex to Combat, Says Socom Chief Votel

‘Gray Zone’ Conflicts Far More Complex to Combat, Says Socom Chief Votel by Howard Altman, Tampa Tribune

Between peace and all-out war exists the Gray Zone.

To Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, the Gray Zone is a familiar place of ambiguity. It’s a place where the Islamic State operates. A place where Russia has taken on Ukraine.

And it’s home to many other spots, hot, lukewarm or otherwise, around the globe.

“The Gray Zone,” said Votel, “really defines this area between ... for the most part healthy economic, political competition between states, and open warfare.”

It’s a place, he said, where “actors, sometimes state actors and sometimes non-state actors, act in a manner just below what would normally take us into normal open warfare.”

In September, Socom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, issued a paper on Gray Zone challenges. The paper says that while traditional war might have been the dominant means of deadly conflict, Gray Zone challenges have now become the norm, and that countering foes like the former Soviet Union in many ways proved far less complex than taking on current adversaries...

Read on.



Sun, 12/06/2015 - 10:04pm

I suspect that the issue with these conflicts is less their inherent complexity than the uncertain, ephemeral, and conflicting US goals and policies around them. Everything looks complex when you aren't sure what you are trying to accomplish or why. Clarity of purpose reduces complexity greatly, and if we don't have clear and realistically achievable goals we are probably best off staying out of any given "grey zone" conflict... or any conflict at all.

Upon further reflection, perhaps I should have expounded upon/modified my last paragraph below (re: complexity) as follows:

a. It was/is much easier to successfully counter (think containment/roll back) another great nation's expansionist designs if one concentrates/somewhat limits one's such efforts to one's own backyard/one's own sphere of influence. Thus, re: containment/roll back, to see Russia today concentrating on its borderlands and Syria, China today concentrating on the areas surrounding the South China and Iran today concentrating on the greater Middle East, etc.

b. Than it is to (1) do expansion oneself, (2) in areas far-removed from one's own backyard and, in fact, in (3) one's opponents' backyard/sphere of influence (think the U.S/the West's expansionists effort in the areas important to Russia, China and Iran). This, in the face of: ...

Added/additional notes for today:

In the Old Cold War and re: Russian/communists expansionist designs back then, Reagan drew a "containment/roll back" line-in-the-sand re: our backyard/our sphere of influence in Central America.

In our New/Reverse Cold War of today -- with the U.S./the West now in the expansionist mode -- to see Putin (et. al?), likewise, (a) draw a line-in-the-sand re: the areas surrounding their backyard/their sphere of interest (b) use our very own containment/roll back example, precedent and strategy against us and (c) employ the exact same techniques we used (think hybrid warfare, etc.)?

This, I suggest, is the problem that the U.S./the West -- and GEN Votel, et. al -- must overcome; this, as we continue to pursue, IN THE BACKYARD/SPHERE OF INFLUENCE OF OTHERS, our much more-complex task of transforming other states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

Re: Via our such expansionist designs today, and re: our opponents' common "countering" containment/roll back "line-in-the-sand" determinations, strategy and associated techniques, to also understand such things as:

a. Certain of our opponents' focus on anti-access/anti-denial (consistent with a containment/roll back mindset and strategy?) and

b. Our determination to overcome same (consistent with a mindset and strategy of "expansion?").

My suggestion has been -- and continues to be -- that our "gray zone" challenges of today must be seen in the context of our New/Reverse Cold War.

Thus, a world in which an expansionist U.S./West today (much as re: the expansionist Soviet Union in the Old Cold War) encounters various state and non-state actors who, in unison and/or separately, seek to prevent the expansionist power from achieving its political objective; which is, the transformation of outlying states and societies more along the expansionist power's own political, economic and social lines.

So let's see if my suggestion here -- specifically re: the U.S./the West's New/Reverse Cold War political objective of today -- holds up/holds water re: this GEN Votel interview about the Gray Zone.

In this regard, consider the following from GEN Votel:

“They’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s certainly not perfect. It is Somalia and they’ve had a lot of challenges for a lot of years. But, today, they’ve got an elected president. They’ve got a parliament. They’ve got a constitution. They are now establishing a national army. And those are all good and positive things."

Looks like "progress" to me -- re: the U.S./the West's political objective outlined in my second paragraph above.

Next, let's look at the following quote from GEN Votel:

"The clearest example of current Gray Zone activity, Votel said, is the situation with the Russians in Crimea and Ukraine. “They are operating at a level below open warfare with us, but they’re certainly operating in hybrid approaches where they’re making use of information operations, of surrogates, of ethnic Russians that are in those areas, of their own military forces, of their own special operations capabilities,” he said."

Thus, to see Putin, in today's New/Reverse Cold War, employ much the same strategy (containment/roll back) and many of the same techniques (associated with, for example, hybrid warfare) as Reagan did, in our backyard (Central America), during the Old Cold War, and re: his (Reagan's)/our strategy of containment/roll back?

In sum then, and specifically re: the contemporary assertion of greater "complexity," might we say that what the general is suggesting in this regard is that:

a. It was/is much easier to successfully counter another great nations' expansionist designs.

b. Than it is to do expansion oneself-- this, in the face of:

1. Containment/roll back measures (ex: hybrid warfare -- employed by various resisting/opposed state and non-state actors)? And

2. An environment of international chaos, which typically ensues when an expansionist nation attempts, aggressively and quickly, to alter the international status quo to its advantage? (Fits the image of the USSR/the communist back in the Old Cold War; and fits the image of the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?)

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 1:03pm

Along the lines of "observe" I would say that one of the key contributions SOF can make is through area assessments, civil information management, and target audience analysis all of which contribute to the most important aspect of the human domain: situational understanding - we have to move past situational awareness which can be provided by drones, and technical intelligence to situational understanding which allows us to understand the conditions and strategies which will allow us to devise policies and strategies and campaign plans to protect our interests. And in some cases situational understanding may lead to an appropriate decision to not act.


QUOTE So given all that, what can special operators do in the Gray Zone?

“We are most valued-added when we can engage early ... and can get out and understand what’s happening in the areas and help identify options for our political leadership and other military leaders out there to help them address, prevent, deter actions from taking place out there,” Votel said. “What I think the Gray Zone offers to us, is the ability to get out there to shape, or detour, or influence things before they become catastrophes. That’s kind of the big idea, we want to get left of problems, and not just show up and try to deal with a bad situation.”

Though they don’t get the kind of headlines spurred by direct action missions like the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, one of Special Operations Forces’ main efforts is to observe, train and equip host nation forces in those Gray Zones.

Those kinds of training missions are taking place in Iraq, with the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurds, and have been set in motion for Kurds and Arabs in Syria.

But they also take place around the globe, Votel stressed. END QUOTE

​My thesis:

The future is characterized (not exclusively of course) by states and non-state actors conducting UW (revolution, resistance and insurgency (RRI)) and thus there is a requirement to conduct Counter-UW by those exploiting RRI. SOF is organized, educated, trained, equipped and optimized for both​​ ​(but does not conduct them unilaterally or in a vacuum but as one element of the means in support of a joint campaign and national strategy)

​Special Warfare (including unconventional warfare, counter-unconventional warfare and support to political warfare​) can provide a strategic capability to operate in this gap​ (the gray zone between peace and war)​. To be effective, elements of the US military and Intelligence Community must continuously assess potential, nascent, and existing resistance organizations around the world on a day-to-day basis. Assessments will contribute to understanding when USG interests and resistance objectives can be aligned and provide the intellectual foundation to determine if a UW campaign is warranted or if opponents’ UW campaigns should be countered​.

​​And a standing "PIR" for resistance (​basic ​information that should be sought on every deployment):

•Who is the resistance?
–Leaders, groups, former military, in or out of government, etc.
•What are the objectives of the resistance?
–Do they align with US and friends, partners, and allies?
•Where is it operating?
–From where is it getting support?
•When did it begin?
–When will it/did it commence operations?
•Why is there a resistance or the potential for resistance?
–What are the underlying causes/drivers?
•How will it turn out?
–E.g., what is the assessment of success or failure of the resistance?
•Most important - An expert recommendation: Should the US support or counter the resistance and if so how?