Small Wars Journal

Defining the Gray Zone Challenge

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 1:43pm

Defining the Gray Zone Challenge

Dave Maxwell

“Defining the Gray Zone” is a U.S. Special Operations Command White Paper dated 9 September 2015 and can be downloaded here.

Here is an excerpt:

Defining the Gray Zone Challenge 

Gray zone security challenges, existing short of a formal state of war, present novel complications for U.S. policy and interests in the 21st Century. We have well-developed vocabularies, doctrines, and mental models to describe war and peace, but the numerous  gray zone challenges in between defy easy categorization.  For purposes of this paper, gray zone challenges are defined as competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.  They are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of conflict, opacity of the parties involved or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks.

Gray zone challenges can be understood as a pooling of diverse conflicts exhibiting common characteristics. Notably, combining these challenges does not imply a single solution, since each situation contains unique actors and aspects.  Overall, gray zone challenges rise above normal. everyday peacetime geo-political competition and are aggressive, perspective-dependent, and ambiguous.

I would make a few comments / recommendations.

The gray zone is where revolutions, resistance, and insurgency take place.   We need expertise in RRI from the tactical to the strategic level and learn how to campaign in the gray zone to achieve strategic objectives.

1. First is to study the Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategies Project at this link.  The 46 case studies as well as the human factors and legal research provide a foundation for study of the phenomena that take place in the gray zone. Below are the selected or representative cases of the 5 types of revolutions categorized from 1962-2009.

•Modify the Type of Government

–NPA, FARC, Shining Path, Iranian Revolution, FMLN, Karen National Liberation Army

•Identity or Ethnic Issues

–LTTE, PLO, Hutu-Tutsi Genocides, Kosovo Liberation Army, PIRA

•Drive out Foreign Power

–Afghan Mujahidin, Vietcong, Chechen Revolution, Hizbollah, Hizbol Mujahedeen

•Religious Fundamentalism

–Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Taliban, Al Qaeda

•Modernization or Reform

–Niger Delta (MEND), Revolution United Front (RUF), Orange Revolution, Solidarity

2.  Second, I would look at George Kennan and his 1948 concept of political warfare.

3.  Third, I would recall the work of Sam Sarkesian (Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam) on unconventional conflicts:

Asymmetric conflicts: For the US these conflicts will be limited and not considered a threat to its survival or a matter of vital national interests; however, for the indigenous adversaries they are a matter of survival.

Protracted Conflicts: Require a long term commitment by the US, thus testing the national will, political resolve, and staying power of the US.

Ambiguous and Ambivalent Conflicts:  Difficult to identify the adversary, or assess the progress of the conflict; i.e., it is rarely obvious who is winning and losing.

Conflicts with Political-Social Milieu Center of Gravity: The center of gravity will not be the armed forces of adversaries as Clausewitz would argue but more in the political and social realms as Sun Tzu espouses.

​4.  Lastly I would read the USASOC White Paper on SOF Support to Political Warfare that can be downloaded at this link.


Geoffrey Demarest

Tue, 10/13/2015 - 8:27am

OK, Dave, I’m gearing up. Here you suggest a four-part study: read the SOF case studies; read George Kennan’s definition of political warfare; review Sarkesian; read the white paper. OK, I will. Here’s the thing, though. I read slowly and I have to do my projects in little bites because my attention span is short and there are only a couple of hours during a given day when I can put two sentences together. I’m building my own web site, though, planning to launch around New Year. It’s not fancy or going to be something I update every day, and it might be a total disaster, but I’m trying to put it together carefully. Because you have poll position on these SOF matters, I want to take you up on your study plan. I’m thinking that a conversation about the theoretical underpinnings for the rational and constitutionally appropriate use of SOF should be one of the site’s feature areas and identities. I’m so far not completely sold on the school solution set of case studies, George Kennan, Sam’s vocabulary or the notion of political warfare. Hope you will indulge me.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 10/02/2015 - 11:39am

We need not get too mystical (or simplistic) about what a gray zone conflict is. In simple terms, when a party's power rises, but their privilege (sovereign rights and duties) lags, they tend to work to bring privilege into line with power. They will telegraph their intent with their legal and diplomatic efforts to that end, and if those fall short, if undeterred, will to blend "illegal" (in quotes because the challenger may not recognize the culture of the legitimacy of the laws that constrain their sovereign privilege), and if necessary, violent approaches to that end.

This is happening today between states with the relative rise of states such as China, Russia, Iran, India, Brazil, South Korea, etc. This rise in power creates a form of energy. In some of these actors that energy is kinetic (active, not necessarily violent) to the end of increasing sovereign privilege. In others, it is latent, but there all the same. In our current reactive, threat-centric thinking we overly fixate on the kinetic energy. Equally important is to understand the character of the potential energy and how it is likely to manifest when it becomes kinetic.

This has always been true, but in the current strategic environment, where sovereign privilege has been held artificially static in the current global order; and where post-cold war globalization is driving rapid shifts of power, it has become a significant point of friction and concern.

If power does not rebalance, or if privilege is not re-allocated in more appropriate ways, then one must either increase their deterrence of these rising powers, or one must prepare for messy "gray zone" activities and possibly war that will naturally follow.

I suggest that the term "gray zone" -- in the context offered by COL Maxwell above -- is synonymous with the term "cold war" and, thus, is not needed.

In this regard, consider the similarity of challenges/challengers that the former Soviet Union/the communists faced, during the Old Cold War, when they, like the United States/the West in today's New Cold War, sought to transform other states and societies along radically different political, economic and social lines. These being:

a. The challenges and problems presented by certain rulers and regimes -- who resisted such radical political, economic and social changes as the Soviets/the communists required of them.

b. The challenges and problems presented by certain population groups (for example: conservative groups) who, likewise, sought to resist these such comprehensive (and, in their eyes, "profane" and societally destructive) changes.

c. The challenges and problems presented by populations who simply could not make such radical and rapid transitions as the Soviets/the communists required that they make. And, last, but not least,

d. The challenges and problems presented by rival great nations -- such as, then, the United States/the West -- who worked hard to prevent our communist opponents from gaining greater power, influence and control via the transformation of other states and societies more along their political, economic and social lines.

Yesterday, when communism was on the march, and with the former USSR, then, seeking to promote same (herein, encountering the problems and challenges noted immediately above), such things as "revolutions," "resistance," "insurgency," "political warfare," etc., were understood in the context of a "cold war."

Why can't this be the case today; a time when we find (1) market-democracy being on the march, (2) the U.S./the West seeking to promote same and (3) the U.S./the West encountering the same types of challenges/problems that the Soviets faced during the Old Cold War (see my "a" - "d" above)?

Grey zone? I do not think we need the term. "Cold War"-- as described above -- would seem to suffice.