Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Become More Frequent and Complex

Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Become More Frequent and Complex by Nora Bensahel, Foreign Policy Research Institute

The United States has long fielded the world’s most capable armed forces. It spends more on its military than the next nine nations combined, of which five are U.S. treaty allies. It fields more active-duty military personnel than any country other than China, and its weaponry and technological capabilities are peerless. U.S military superiority has helped deter major power wars, secure the global commons, and maintain the global order for many decades, and it continues to do so today.

Yet, every strength has a corresponding weakness, every advantage a corresponding vulnerability. Perhaps paradoxically, this conventional military dominance means that few adversaries are likely to directly challenge the United States with the use of force, since doing so risks complete military defeat. As Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster has often quipped, “there are two ways to fight the U.S. military – asymmetrically and stupid.” Fighting asymmetrically can mean fighting at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, through terrorism and insurgency. But it also can mean fighting in what has become known as the “gray zone,” which may not involve military forces at all.

Gray zone conflicts are neither war nor peace, but instead lie somewhere in between. As I’ve written elsewhere, “their defining characteristic is ambiguity – about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.” Such ambiguities enable adversaries to pursue their interests while staying below the threshold that would trigger a military response – and, if they remain ambiguous enough, they might avoid any response. They are therefore a smart approach for revisionist powers, who wish to change the current U.S.-led international order to better serve their own interests. According to Hal Brands, the goal of gray zone approaches “is to reap gains, whether territorial or otherwise, that are normally associated with victory in war. Yet gray zone approaches are meant to achieve those gains without escalating to overt warfare, without crossing established red-lines, and thus without exposing the practitioner to the penalties and risks that such escalation might bring.” ...

Read on.

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Here I will attempt to answer my own challenge at my comment of yesterday below. Here goes:

Given the fact that the U.S./the West WAS NOT significantly military inferior to the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- but in spite of this did, in fact, operate within the "gray zone between war and peace" back then -- and did, in fact, utilize such things as "hybrid warfare" within this such conflict environment --

Given this apparent contradiction, then this would seem to dispel our author's contention above (see his first paragraph) that the "significant military superiority" of one's opponent is what drives (a) "gray zone" conflicts/competitions and (b) the use of such things "hybrid warfare" therein.

This being the case, then I have suggested that we look elsewhere for an explanation as to these such matters -- yesterday and today.

Herein, to consider that in both the Old Cold War of yesterday (communism on the march back then), and in our similar (albeit reversed) conflict environment of today (market-democracy on the march today), the party most threatened by the advance of these such political, economic, social and value phenomenon -- and by the great nations which act as these such phenomenon's proponents -- these such "threatened" entities -- yesterday and today --

a. Chose to operate in the "gray zone between war and peace,"

b. Chose to utilize such things as "hybrid warfare" in these such conflict environments; this, so as to hopefully,

c. "Contain" and/or "roll back" (a) these such threatening phenomenon (again, communism back then, market-democracy today) and (b) their respective "proponent nations" (the Soviets/the communist back then; the U.S./the West recently).

Bottom Line Thought:

With the Brexit, and with the election of President Trump, our opponent nations may believe that their successful "containment" and "roll back" efforts (and their successful "gray zone"/"hybrid warfare" operations undertaken therein) -- much as was the case with our successful such strategies and efforts in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- are about to bear great fruit.

This, given that the U.S./the West now (much as was the case with the Soviets/the communists before us?) appears poised to retreat from both (a) much of the world at-large and (b) our post-WWII obligations and responsibilities undertaken therein.

Thus:

a. Cir. 1991, the "expansionist" dream of the Soviets/the communists comes to an end. This, due largely to U.S./Western strategies of "containment" and "roll back?" And due largely to our "gray zone" operations -- and "hybrid warfare" activities undertaken in these strategies' name? And, likewise,

b. Cir 2017, the "expansionist" dream of the U.S./the West likewise comes to an end. Again, this can largely be attributed to, in this case, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, etc., "containment" and "roll back" strategies? And can largely be attributed to these nations' "gray zone" operations -- and "hybrid warfare" activities undertaken in these strategies name?

(Question: If the U.S./the West is indeed on its back foot now -- and is indeed about to go into both internal and external "disintegration" mode -- this, at the clear behest of significant elements of its population -- then should we not expect that the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, etc., will take full advantage of this amazingly favorable [to them] moment? This, much as the U.S./the West did when the Soviet Union, and international communism, began to implode/imploded?)

Edited and added to just a bit:

Here is the introductory paragraph to our article above:

BEGIN QUOTE

The United States has long fielded the world’s most capable armed forces. It spends more on its military than the next nine nations combined, of which five are U.S. treaty allies. It fields more active-duty military personnel than any country other than China, and its weaponry and technological capabilities are peerless. U.S military superiority has helped deter major power wars, secure the global commons, and maintain the global order for many decades, and it continues to do so today.

END QUOTE

Thought:

We know that the above criteria (one's opponent is so much more militarily capable than you are); we know that this does not explain why the U.S./the West, in the Old Cold War of yesterday, often operated in the "gray zone between war and peace."

Likewise, we know that the above criteria (one's opponent is so much more militarily capable than you are) does not explain why the U.S./the West -- when operating in the "gray zone between war and peace" during the Old Cold War -- often utilized such things as "hybrid warfare" in the pursuit of its goals.

https://warontherocks.com/2015/04/america-did-hybrid-warfare-too/

Question:

As the above example appears to illustrate, the noted criteria of significant military superiority of one's opponent; this appears to explain neither (a) why a nation might pursue its goals within "the gray zone between war and peace" nor (b) why a nation might use such things as "hybrid warfare" within this such conflict environment.

This being the case, what then might we suggest as a more-accurate and more-correct explanation for these phenomenon?

(Hint: In the Old Cold War of yesterday, look more to what the U.S./the West -- in the face of what exact threat back then -- sought to achieve. Likewise in our present day, look more to what such entities as Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, AQ, etc. -- in the face of what exact threat today -- seek to achieve currently.)

Bottom Line Thought:

If President Trump, et al., reverse course -- and move the U.S./the West more in an isolationist direction -- then to expect that such entities as Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, AQ, etc., will, to the best of their ability, work hard to take fullest advantage of this unique moment in modern history/this, shall we say from their perspective, amazing "gift from God?"

"Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Become More Frequent and Complex" to be understood in this exact such context?