Small Wars Journal

Managing the Gray Zone is a Gray Matter Challenge

Wed, 07/27/2016 - 8:47am

Managing the Gray Zone is a Gray Matter Challenge

Larry Kay

SWJ Editor’s Note: From 28 March to 03 June 2016, 15 students participated in a nine-week Command and General Staff College Red Team Leaders' elective Course.  In the course students were led through a curriculum based on self-awareness, cultural empathy, groupthink mitigation, and critical thinking.  They were trained in employing red teaming tools and concepts to issues and challenges from the operating environment to gain alternative perspectives and creative approaches that support command decision making.  In the final exercise the class spent seven days studying gray zone concepts and questions using red teaming methodologies to analyze the concept and offer their insights and recommendations.  The author was selected by his peers to write the final paper and remained after the end of class to finish the project. Based on a request from SOCOM to the Director of the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, the author and his instructor briefed this paper and its ideas to the J39 of SOCOM, who took favor to them.


Gray zone competitions vary in location and character and are currently the preferred alternative to challenging U.S. supremacy in the contemporary security environment. Through deliberate actions slightly less than the threshold of conventional military action, many competitors seek to expand their regional and global influence through currency manipulation, resource accumulation, territorial gains and other atypical means. In doing so, our competitors avoid the backlash of the international community. Due to the unclear or “gray” nature of the problems and subsequent solutions, the U.S. is uncertain how to respond. Much of our focus thus far has been to address these problems as we have in the past in other unconventional conflicts, however, our methodologies, our cultural paradigms, and institutional habits inhibit our ability to create solutions other than those that we have used to address past problems. This paper promotes an alternative approach, which is to adopt a generative or systemic solution to ways in which to develop strategies to manage gray zone competitions by adapting officer career and education tracks to create a more operationally and intellectually excellent officer corps.  The gray zone is a competition of ideas, and managing the gray zone requires intelligent management of our intellectual capital, our gray matter.

Central Idea

Strategies traditionally focus on achieving ends through means that causally affect the opponent:  How can we shape the enemy and the environment? How can we dominate the enemy? The central idea of this alternative approach is to take an internal look to ensure that the Army officer corps maintains a robust educational and institutional base focused on creating a force that can recognize, adapt, and successfully counter the kinds of challenges that gray zone activities present.  While changes in the operational environment may prompt a review of our policies, strategies and institutions, I believe that a systemic structural review and modification of our officer career track and professional military education is a necessary and vital step in producing the cognitive abilities and strategies to deal with gray zone challenges.  How the United States should respond to gray zone activities is an important question to answer, but it is an event-driven, reactive stance. What I recommend is an inward-looking, generative approach that addresses our own thinking and behavior as a key component in understanding and addressing gray zone challenges.  If the Army is committed to engaging in gray zone competitions, then we must focus on strengthening our organizations and institutions through smart growth (our variable) as opposed to solely affecting other competitors (their variable). This distinction is essential to our discussion:  Due to the wicked nature of gray zones, the best chance the Army has to manage gray zones now and in the future, is by focusing on the variables that it can control, namely the smart growth, cognitive ability and operational excellence of its officer corps.

Key Themes

  1. Change the culture of categorizing officers as “the best” and/or “the brightest” to “operationally excellent” and/or “creatively excellent”, deliberately distinguishing them for what they are best suited for in serving the Army, focused specifically on managing gray zones.
  2. Increase Broadening Opportunity Programs to develop officers who have the mental aptitude and multi-disciplinary education appropriately tailored for managing gray zone. Allow officers to tailor a career track based on talents and preferences.
  3. Modernize Joint Professional Military Education by exposing officers to it earlier in their career. Treat joint operations and task forces as the standard rather than the exception.


Gray zone conflicts have recently become the topic of much consternation and discussion within the national security community. The volatile, uncertain, complex and highly ambiguous conflicts and competitions in Russia and the Ukraine, China and Southeast Asia, Iran and ISIL and the Levant, and North Korea and the Korean peninsula have challenged our national security apparatus’ ability to effectively gain positional advantages in those regions. Historically, however, hybrid war, what’s now referred to as gray zone conflict, has been the norm, whereas conventional war – which basically emerged after the Second World War – has been something of a fiction. Many seem not to be aware of this fact, which explains in part why “hybrid” or “gray zone” wars appear to be new. This lack of historical awareness also contributes to our lack of conceptual preparedness.1.  As instances of state-on-state warfare become increasingly rare, this variation of warfare will become the prevailing method in the near future. While changes in the operational environment may prompt a review of our policies, strategies and institutions, I believe that a systemic structural review and modification of our officer career track and professional military education is a necessary and vital step in producing the cognitive abilities and strategies to deal with gray zone challenges.

The U.S. Special Operation Command’s definition of the gray zone is:  “Competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors falling between the traditional war and peace duality, characterized by ambiguity in the nature of the conflict, the parties involved, or the relevant policy and legal frameworks”.To further describe and understand the nature of the gray zone, it’s helpful to accept that it is a wicked problem in that it is difficult to clearly define; it has many interdependencies; it leads to unforeseen consequences; it is dynamic; and it is socially complex. More importantly, the solutions to gray zones problems rarely ever sit neatly or conveniently within the responsibility of one organization. Finally, gray zones generally demonstrate a continuous resistance to resolution.4, 5.  Unfortunately, cultural mindsets and habits (western and military) presume that these types of problems can be entirely fixed with a simply clear solution according to our timeline. However, this mindset and the paradigm that perpetuates it must evolve in order to appreciate the reality of gray zones:  That we cannot win them, but we can manage them. We must learn to accept them as a part of rapidly and universally changing strategic environment. With this in mind, we should focus less on the gray zones themselves and more on our institutions that will inevitably create the strategies and policies to counter them.

Gray zones are complex open systems, in which unpredictable external events are constantly disturbing and disrupting the system, including our engagement in them; control is illusory and the best we can do is to manage them through credible influence.6 Credible influence is the ability to shape and guide global trends in the direction that serves our values and interests within an interdependent strategic environment.6 Unfortunately, credible influence is a scarce and finite resource, which is not produced over-night. It takes time and significant investment, potentially diverting the resources of some to the detriment of other enterprises currently in use within gray zones.  Most importantly, credible influence does not evolve naturally without an understanding of the strategic environment. Managing gray zones requires smart as opposed to hard power, never forgetting the potential demand to transition from one to the other in an instant. However, we cannot fully employ smart power until we practice smart growth within the military.6 Smart growth is the tailoring of an officer’s training and education to prepare them to address emergent and future threats. The goal of managing gray zones, in the short term, is to prevent their escalation into kinetic and violent conflicts.

If we accept that gray zone competitions are inevitable, that they are the future of warfare and competition, and that we cannot completely control the actions within a gray zone, the question then becomes:  How can the Army best prepare itself to manage it? If we are committed to engaging in gray zone competitions, then we must focus on strengthening our organizations and institutions through smart growth (our variable) as opposed to solely affecting other competitors (their variable). This distinction is essential to our discussion:  Due to the wicked nature of gray zones, the best chance the DOD has to manage gray zones now and in the future, is by focusing on the variables that we can control, namely the smart growth, cognitive ability and intellectual strength of our officer corps. Potentially, by developing internal strength through smart growth in the officer corps and employing smart power abroad, applied with strategic agility, can we muster the credible influence necessary to manage gray zone competitions.6

How can we do this? Secretary Carter’s “Force of the Future” has faced resistance from senior military leaders, mainly because it challenges the relevance of the 1980 law known as the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), and because its explicit frame is that of improving the quality of life for the individual officer.7 What if “Force of the Future” is reframed specifically for the “Fight of the Future?” The “Force of the Future” proposal can enable the DOD to manage the gray zone competition by growing and maintaining the “best” and the “brightest” officers, and then selecting them for duties where their talents can best support our efforts in managing the gray zone. However, this retooling of our strategy requires a commitment and investment in the future of the officer corps3. Additionally, to accomplish this, we must take a hard look at our interagency structures, authorities and funding proportionalities3. However, those considerations are beyond the scope of this paper.

There are three specific changes to the DOD’s personnel and talent management system that I believe can significantly and favorably alter the course of events for gray zone competitions. 1) A reevaluation of the officer evaluation system with a specific emphasis on the recalibration and distinction of “the best” vs. “the brightest”; 2) A large increase in broadening opportunities available for officers across all grades and in scope and scale; and 3) The modernization of Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) to introduce officers to the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) environment earlier. The benefits of these systemic structural changes to officer talent management and education will strengthen the force and endure for generations to come. How the United States Army should respond to gray zone activities is an important question to answer, but it is an event-driven, reactive stance. What I recommend is an inward-looking, generative approach that addresses our own thinking and behavior as a key component in understanding and addressing gray zone challenges.8.  Investing in intellectual capital and talent residing within the officers, who will create and apply future strategies in the evolving strategic environment is the long game.

Operationally Excellent vs. Creatively Excellent

Military culture, like any culture, values certain traditions and qualities and reveres leaders who exude those specific qualities. In many cases, those leaders and their qualities have enabled us to fight and win.  Today we find ourselves engaging in competitions in which winning and losing are ill-defined and are not solely decided by physical strength and endurance and traditional combat power. Instead, success is achieved by mental strength and mental agility. Strategic thinking demands a far greater expenditure of mental energy and intellectual power is combat power in the gray zone competition.9. The officers who will be most adept at addressing gray zone competitions will do so because their minds are fit and they are made versatile through multi-disciplinary education. These are the “brightest” and they are essential to managing gray zone competitions and further evolutions of hybrid warfare. While physical strength and endurance are important leader attributes, they are insufficient. We require officers, whose mental acumen is unparalleled and whose technical expertise is beyond comparison.

As First Lieutenant Robert Callahan Jr. noted, the phrase “best and the brightest” is frequently used but ambiguously defined.10. The strategic environment is ambiguous enough, and it is problematic that we subject ourselves further to ambiguity in our own terminology. Why, then, do we still categorize the potential of officers in these terms? To mitigate the ambiguity, therefore, we should evolve our description and distinction in categorizing officers’ potential from the “best” to “operationally excellent” and from the “brightest” to “creatively excellent”.

In our current system, “operationally excellent” officers are those who actively seek and are selected for command of battalions and brigades, while “creatively excellent” seek out educational opportunities at the expense of command opportunities. For the operationally excellent, staff work is the “on-deck” before their “at-bat”, and doing well in staff positions, while important, is merely a stepping stone for their career. This says nothing of the fact that in a twenty-year career culminating in battalion command, approximately fifteen years will be spent on staff at some level and variety, and five will be in command of an organization. Adhering strictly to the established career track is absolutely critical for command selection. To meet these gates, the operationally excellent-focused officers have little opportunity to improve or broaden their academic and institutional education, because they are competing for the necessary operational billets. An additional year at a duty station or in a position can cost an officer the opportunity to command. If placed in the context of winning in a gray zone competition regardless of timeline, a broadening program can result in an officer returning to the force better prepared to address the threats and competitions of the day. What we are arguing for is an increase in opportunities in the six to 15 year window of an officer’s career to participate in a broadening program of a tailorable length without jeopardizing advancement or command opportunity. This is the essence of converging the “operationally excellent” with the “creatively excellent”. This is a tailorable career track change that is well within our control. The recently updated Officer Evaluation Report differed mostly from previous versions by mandating a rater profile in addition to a senior rater profile. The desired effect was to facilitate the conduct of future promotion selection boards and elimination boards by reducing the populations eligible for either. It did little to distinguish the “operationally excellent” from the “creatively excellent”. Perhaps, we could optimize future promotion and duty selection by complementing the assessment categories of “operationally excellent” and “creatively excellent” with a “commanding path” and a “planning path”, with minor periodic exchanges between the two. A talented and brilliant officer, who cares little for command for the sake of commanding, could have more control of his career path if the system would allow for this self-eliminative distinction. We should encourage the commitment of an officer that is perfectly content remaining on staff and is perfectly suited for the position. We want officers to command who want to command and we want the majority of brigade and above staffs to be comprised of officers, who enjoy and want to remain on staff, both of which could undeniably benefit from broadening educational opportunities.   

The ultimate goal is to merge and expand the populations of the “operationally excellent” and the “creatively excellent,” (as shown in diagram above) and to select the “creatively excellent”, who have less interest in commanding, for jobs where their world-class, multi-disciplinary educations and talents are retained and maximized. This can be accomplished in many ways through creative programs. For instance, we can extend our respect (change our culture) for command to positions like the Brigade Planner, the Division G5, and the J5; elevating the importance of planning and staff without diminishing the value of command.

Broadening Opportunities Program

As our senior military leaders have repeatedly expressed, we do not need more tanks as much as we need a more agile and adaptive officer corps. Tanks, indeed, can affect the outcome of conflicts and competitions, but not more than the officers who staff and lead organizations. Broadening opportunity programs are limited both in quantity and professional eligibility based on timeline. Currently, the perception among many officers is that a captain must wait until after command to compete for a broadening opportunity, and there is typically one slot per cohort per year. The emphasis on selection for assignments, albeit important, is for an officer to get to a Key Developmental (KD) job as quickly as possible. In many cases, officers will avoid broadening assignments if there is a chance that it will hinder or delay their queue for KD assignments, because at the end of the day KD assignments are necessary for promotion. Additionally, there is a hesitation amongst commanders to release quality officers for broadening programs out of fear of losing the officer for a period of time, and thus negatively affecting their exercises and operations. Increasing the scope, scale, eligibility and availability of broadening opportunities for officers would greatly strengthen our force and help the DOD to better manage gray zone competitions. However, success in this direction requires commanders, at all levels, to assume organizational risk and recognize that improving one officer at a time eventually improves our Army over time.

The minds of our officers are the most lethal weapon in gray zone competitions. Increasing the opportunities available for broadening opportunities will strengthen the force by building more versatile officers. However, most of these broadening opportunities depend entirely on an officer’s command of a company; that without a command or without a “block checked” among the “best” command evaluation they are eliminated from consideration for these opportunities. As mentioned previously, this limits the potential of the creatively excellent by implying they must become the operationally excellent before they even have the opportunity to become the creatively excellent. If there was no threat of elimination from these programs based on an imperfect command, more officers that would want to perform staff work, would remain for service. Finally, advanced civil schooling opportunities should be equally increased, so officers can independently pursue diverse advanced degrees. If we trust an officer to develop a training plan for hundreds of Soldiers, then we should feel comfortable about that same officer pursuing a degree of his choice, provided they return to the force with a new and useful perspective. The best case scenario is that officers with newly acquired advanced degrees three to five years from now will begin to manage “gray zones” and the worst case is that we have better educated military leaders; it is a win-win. The counter to this argument is that better educated equals less experienced. This need not be the case if broadening programs are tailored in duration and content to meet the needs of both the operationally and creatively excellent-inspired officer.

In a recent Joint Force Quarterly article entitled Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone, General Joseph Votel stated, “Special Operations Forces must continually work to upgrade their training regimen and education curriculum in areas such as:  social movement theory; regional history; cultural studies; language proficiency; creation and preparation of an underground; cyber UW tools and methods; influence operations; negotiation and mediation skills; popular mobilization dynamics; subversion and political warfare; and social network analysis and sociocultural analysis.”11 Leaving the growth of these specific skills to the self-development domain only may leave our force with a false sense of understanding of the security environment. There are already well-established Army programs that support these training objectives, which include the Strategic Broadening Seminars and Red Team Members’/Leaders’ Course offered by the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Both of these programs invite experts in the aforementioned topics and are short-term, temporary-duty programs in which the student and the unit that releases the student benefit tremendously from the program.

Modernize JPME

The Goldwater – Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 resulted from a report produced by the Packard Commission, the purpose of which was to study the issues surrounding defense management and organization based on dysfunction amongst the military services and repeated policy failures.12

Today’s gray zone competitions necessitate the same type of organizational introspection that resulted in the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The language of the act’s requirement for officers to serve in joint assignments is explicitly designed so that senior officers can be competitive for promotion to flag officer. Currently, officers do not ordinarily participate in the Joint Interagency Intergovernmental and Multinational (JIIM) environment until they become field grade officers. Like the “Force of the Future” being focused on improving the quality of life for officers, we see here the critical need to reframe organizational requirements (Goldwater-Nichols Act) with the specific aim of managing “gray zones”. Officers, from every service, should be introduced to the JIIM environment as company-grade officers; invest in officers’ education and experiences earlier and the force will be rewarded with multi-disciplinary insights earlier. Understandably, selection for these assignments should not be at random, but we can mitigate the uncertainty of assigning the wrong or inexperienced officers by recommending exemplary company grade officers for joint service on their evaluation report, and extending the scope of all PMEs to include JIIM earlier. This can be done creatively and as early as commissioning sources (USMA, ROTC, OCS), and in every basic course, career course, and intermediate level education.

Interagency fellowships, specifically with the Department of State, should be increased significantly and the threshold for eligibility should be modified to allow junior grade officers the opportunity to participate. Our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually required the application of ground-level diplomacy and policy as much as the execution of decisive action. The demand for these applications in gray zone competitions, if anything, is greater due to the limits of our hard power to credibly influence outcomes. The aim of the emphasis on interagency fellowship, specifically with the Department of State, is to promote the imaginative and innovative application of diplomacy, development and defense, and the employment of smart power through smart growth, in our management of gray zones.6

Other Considerations: Modernizing Government Institutions

What is war in the future? The institutions most appropriate for answering this critical question have the same structure now as they did in the 1950s. Yet so much about the world has changed since that time:  The end of the Cold War, the advent of the internet, contested space etc. While the people who staff the institutions can perceive the world as it is today, the antiquated bureaucracy of it ultimately distorts their worldview. NSA 47 and NSC 68 provided the architecture, authorities and necessary resources required for a specific time in our nation’s history.6 That time has long since passed and the organizations that deal with our national interests and security need to restructure to address gray zone competitions and the need to grow credible influence in the world through engagement, diplomacy, development and defense. Through both our technology and our military clout, the United States is unrivaled in its ability to project power into any part of the world with unrivalled speed.13 Rather than narrowly focus on near-term risk and solutions for today’s strategic environment, we must recognize the need to take a longer view, a generational view, for the sustainability of our nation’s security and prosperity.6

As Hal Brands noted, “Gray zone approaches are designed to exploit the weaknesses of a given target, and so redressing those weaknesses, whether military or otherwise, is essential to an effective defense”.14 It is in our interest to change and strengthen ourselves and our institutions, especially if we hope to manage gray zones. The potential gains:  integration of policy across agencies and departments of the federal government; increase the capacity of appropriate government departments and agencies; align Federal policies, research and development expenditures and regulations to coincide with the goals of sustainability; and converge our military and other agency means with our political objectives and foreign policy.6 The price:  changing institutional cultures will be messy and painful, but not nearly as much as the strategic surprises that may await in the gray zone.


Admittedly, there is no panacea for gray zone conflicts. Just as no two games of chess are ever identical, such is the same with gray zone competitions. While the DOD must continue to invest in modern technologies to compete, it should elevate the importance of intellectual power as the most fundamental element of power, because it will turn the tide for all conflicts and competitions. Our own organizations and institutions are the variable that will most affect the outcome of gray zone competitions. Therefore, we should modernize them and populate them with officers who can understand the zone more fully, exercising strength with restraint, power with patience, deterrence with détente, and can manage more effectively gray zone competitions.6, 14

End Notes

  1. Operating in the Gray ZoneAn Alternative Paradigm for U.S. Military Strategy. Antulio J. Echevarria II. United States Army War College Press. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. April, 2016.
  2. Military Policy and Defense of the “Grey Areas”. Henry A. Kissinger. Foreign Affairs, Volume 33, Number 3. Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. April, 1955.
  3. US Special Operations Command, The Gray Zone. White Paper, Tampa:  United States Special Operations Command, 2015, p. 1, Hereafter, Gray Zone White Paper.
  4. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Horst W. J, Rittel and Melvin M Webber. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam. 1973.
  5. Wicked ProblemsDo they exist and does it matter? Australian Catholic University’s Public Policy Institute. Issue #2 – 23 March 2011.
  6. A National Strategic Narrative. Captain Wayne Porter, USN and Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, USMC. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 2011.
  7. The Pentagon’s up-or-out promotion reforms stall amid internal divide. Andrew Tilghman. Military Times. March, 2016.
  8. The Fifth Discipline:  The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Peter Senge. Doubleday Books, New York. 1990. Senge characterizes structural explanations as “generative,” in that they explain patterns of behavior.  “Structure produces behavior, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behavior.  In this sense, structural explanations are inherently generative…Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization where event thinking predominates.  It requires a conceptual framework of “structural” or systemic thinking, the ability to discover structural causes of behavior.”
  9. The Logic of Failure. Dietrich Dorner. Metropolitan Books. 1996.
  10. The Problem with Personnel ReformWho are the Army’s Best and Brightest? First Lieutenant Robert P. Callahan, Jr. Small Wars Journal. May, 2016.
  11. Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone. General Joseph L. Votel, Colonel Charles T. Connett, Will Irwin. Joint Force Quarterly 80, 1st Quarter, 2016.
  12. A Quest for Excellence. David Packard et al. Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management. 1986.
  13. International Relations:  A Very Short Introduction. Paul Wilkinson. Oxford University Press. 2007.
  14. Paradoxes of the Gray Zone. Hal Brands. Foreign Policy Research Institute. February, 2016.

About the Author(s)

Major Larry Kay is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army currently assigned to the 1st Infantry Division. He is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies and a Strategic Studies Fellow with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Institute of Defense and Business.


First, the paradigm -- the grand political objective and thus the mission. Then, officer management -- as relates thereto:

I: The Paradigm:

I have suggested this paradigm before, to wit: that of a New/Reverse Cold War, one in which it is:

a. The U.S./the West, this time, who is the one seeking to expand our -- unusual and unique -- political, economic and social models throughout the Rest of the World. And it is:

b. The Rest of the World, this time, that is seeking to prevent the U.S./the West from, thus, removing and replacing (with a uniform Western model) the Rest of the World's presently -- numerous and very different -- ways of life, ways of governance, etc.

This being the case, then I suggest that we must see the challenges facing the U.S./the West today -- re: our grand political objective (outlined at "a" above) -- as much the same as those that faced the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday and re: their -- very similar -- grand political objective back then (to wit: expanding, throughout the world, the unusual and unique political, economic and social models of, in their case, communism.)

Thus, another way of looking at this New/Reverse Cold War paradigm is to suggest that:

a. The U.S./the West is (much like the Soviets/the communists of old) in an "expansionist mode" today. While

b. Our great nation -- and other state and non-state actor opponents -- are (like the Rest of the World in the Old Cold War of yesterday) in a "prevention/thwarting/undermining/containment/roll back mode."

II: Officer Management:

With this framework before us, and now properly directing our thinking, might we say what we are looking for in our officers of today is thinking and skill-sets which, ultimately, prove useful in:

a. Overcoming the "prevention/thwarting/undermining/containment/roll back" designs and efforts of our great nation -- and other state and non-state actor -- opponents and

b. Facilitating, in spite of these, the advance of our unusual and unique way of life, way of governance, etc.?

In the "gray zone" conflicts of the Old Cold War of yesterday, what might get an officer's paper -- and/or his/her performance -- recognized might have been his ability, thereby, to be shown to have contributed meaningfully, in one way or another, to our then-cause/grand political objective of "containing communism."

In the "gray zone" conflicts of the New/Reverse Cold War of today, should we not be looking for officers who -- via their publications and/or their performance -- can be seen to be making a meaningful contribution to our present-day cause/grand political objective, to wit: that of advancing, throughout the world, our way of life, our way of governance, etc.? (This, for example, by this officer's efforts being shown -- in one way or another -- to have helped us overcome, and/or workaround, the obstacles to our such desired expansion that have placed before us by our current great nation -- and other state and non-state actor -- enemies?)

Is managing the Gray Zone about implementing proactive responses to low intensity threats to American interests abroad?
Or: Is the Gray Zone about "peaceful" resolutions of violent occurrences in areas of American interests, essentially turning the US Army into an armed peace corps?
Can we eliminate Gray Zones simply by retreating from regions and abandoning interests like Obama Biden did in Iraq because of policy differences with Maliki, a Shiite Iraqi Nationalists as opposed to the probability that Iraq will soon be governed by an Iranian leaning PM? The question of the Gray zone aka twilight zone, isn't whether the USA has been an actor in it but can we ever achieve the initiative in the Gray Zone?
Senator Obama claimed Iraq was just another Vietnam are such false comparisons the base line for projecting the expansive wave of Gray Zoning? Does political initiative that seeks to make comparative what should be contrasted determine that a Gray Zone should exist where wars might better be fought?
I recoiled to the idea Russia and China were "revisionist" I doubt if they need to "pace themselves" with the American example which is stated in terms of responding and reacting.
Must we eliminate the possibility of a "first strike" just so we can achieve karma in the Gray Zone?
And why all this focus on strategic and tactical defense "initiatives"?
Tim Kaine who receives cash contributions from agents of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is in favor of supporting more funding for Israel's defensive package, even as Netanyahu is suggesting Israel is going to change its approach. Possibly as a result of a failure to take out a HezbAllah drone over North Israel some are saying guided two patriot launched missiles into collision with each other and evaded a pilot launched air to air missile. The Israelis seem convinced the drone technology came from the USA. What good is the Israeli defense system when it is compromised by careless use of US technologies and an inability to guarantee secrets?

America is a Gray Zone. What's an ISIL? or ISIS? Some sort of pharaoh worshipping cult? A feminist fertility Goddess for the 21st Century?
It is the Islamic State and it is not deterred or incapable of inspiring lone wolf attacks in the USA. In fact after the offices of Johnson's directed HD scrubbed Mateen's phone to prevent direct knowledge of his relationship to a radical terrorist Muslim Brotherhood cell in the USA and removing even the word Allah to be replaced in manuscripts as God, we do not have a government today that seems to act with certitude that there is even such a thing as radical Islam let alone an entity that refers to itself as "The Islamic State". And are Air Conditioners more of a threat to American lives than the Islamic State?
I would post at least 4 separate youtube sites one where homosexuals are being tossed from a 10 story building, one where a captured Syrian soldier is run under the tread of an "ISIS" tank, one where four Christians have their throats slit and their heads piked, and one where a boy is similarly treated by a courageous fighter of the Islamic State. Reminiscent of old Turkish Ottoman photographs of Turkish soldiers rejoicing in the background to a collection of Armenian head on a table. I simply can not remember the last time an Air Conditioning unit killed someone....anybody?
The problem is further amplified by the fact Americans have attention deficit disorders for long wars defined by Gray Zones.
Carlisle recently took down numerous paintings of Confederate war heroes. At first I thought it was just to appease the President's sense of PC. But there is a practical side to it too.
No matter how many battles the South won they lost the war. After Lincoln's re-election over the Democratic Parties peace candidate it was a lock. Even Lee had expressed as much continuing the fighting at that point presents the CSA as merely running up the butcher bill. 7 months after the election Lincoln and Grant fought the war to a successful conclusion, ending slavery, ending slavery's expansion into the territories and perhaps even the conquest of Mexico by the CSA.
In Gray Zone terms Lincoln and Grant were prepared and gained the initiative to fight a long war, he South and the Northern democrats could only hope if the south was to continue to have the right to turn people into property that they had to win an epic battle. Even Chancellorsville did not get them that close.
However one might argue that the failure to provide a means to integrate former slaves and people of color into the fabric of American society as voting equals has provided the opportunity for foreign and domestic supremacists to continue to see America as an exploitable Gray Zone; Because today more than ever it truly is.
The problem I see it is that without a realpolitik in the analysis all you can ever hope to accomplish is an obfuscated approach to the battle area.


Fri, 07/29/2016 - 1:02pm

In popular parlance the term ‘Best and Brightest’ is a derogatory term when referring to military intellectualism. Initially I thought this to be an ironic essay vis-a-vis the military but it is obviously not. If you’ve never read either Halberstam’s or Sheehan’s books you might find this observation a somewhat pedantic splitting of hairs, but I dare to suggest my jaundiced POV isn’t just because I’m old. The author puts considerable weight on the utility to replace ‘best’ with ‘operationally excellent’ and ‘brightest’ with ‘creatively excellent’ which IMHO are substitutes equally laden with ironic baggage when referring to military leadership in the context of the outcomes of the wars we have fought since 1945.

G Martin wrote,

‘Why does the organization seem to vehemently reject these changes?’

I believe it is important for those entering the Gray Zone to identify the difference between force and power. Killing a hundred insurgents with a JDAM is a sign of spectacular kinetic force. Unfortunately, for a pittance, the hundred EKIA can be easily replaced from a pool comprising of literally millions of unspectacular individuals who are more than willing to replace those recently departed souls. The power of this display of kinetic force to effect lasting change is therefore non-existent and as such the capacity of our JDAM to shape anything beyond the tactical battle eco-system is as limited and fleeting as the smoke and dust the detonation-wave kicked up.

On the other hand, convincing a hundred insurgents to change sides or ‘stop being revolting’ opens up avenues for possible lasting change (even if just the 100 former insurgents). The promise of an intellectual/philosophical realignment offers much more powerful opportunities to shape lasting change. Needless to say such an approach requires more jaw-jaw and less war-war, or as the author puts it, ‘creative excellence’ (at least that’s what I think he means?).

If we are guided by the universal mantra that money talks and bullshit walks - and we are attempting to overcome ‘vehement rejection’ by an entity that turns over 600 billion dollars a year - our first, foremost and supreme task is to understand the nature of those opposing the changes we propose and subsequently acquire a thorough understanding of the Ways, Means and Ends they employ when they execute their rejection of our efforts.

Needless to say the vast rewards on offer ensures any upstart who advocates radical change is faced by an opponent backed by enormous political, economic and cultural firepower. If you are advocating Gray Zone war with more tank, ship and aircraft MIC-inspired force, you will encounter very little vehement rejection from those with their snouts firmly planted into a barrel containing $600 billion of pork.

If on the other hand you adopt a stance that advocates less kinetic force (less tank, ship and plane) and more intellectual power, you will be challenged by an adversary backed by unprecedented political, economic and military power. When I say power I don’t mean impotent force like a JDAM – no sir these folks are extremely powerful and their effectiveness holds sway over a wide spectrum of our society. Furthermore, they possess a formidable track-record that boasts long and successful outcomes that reflect lasting changes that have ensured their strategic ambitions are as spectacularly successful as they are profitable.

So what the hell’s this rant got to do with Red Teaming FFS?

IMHO if you want to create a force that can execute effective power in the Gary Zone in regions we are currently deployed, the first and foremost task a Red Team commander needs to shape is the Ways, Means and Ends to defeat the threat posed by our MIC and their sponsors in the Pentagon and Congress. It is my experience this unholy trinity consider it an article of faith that the intellectual tools necessary to effect strategic success in the Gray Zone to be an existential threat to their strategic bottom line.

Essentially, to gain effective power in a foreign Gray Zone we need to Red Team an intellectual insurgency that equates the OE occupied by our domestic political, industrial and military supporters of the MIC as a Gray Zone.

Suggestions advocating the merits of best and bright, operational and creative excellence, hard and abstract degrees, self-awareness sabbaticals and other ‘soft’ options I have no doubt will all prove very beneficial to our future military prowess in a foreign Gray Zone. However, they will amount to zip if we ignore the $600 billion gorilla dominating our own home-bound Gray Zone who is vehemently convinced these proposed changes pose an existential threat.

IMHO if in the first instance we don’t deal with our own MIC guerrilla, we are doomed to suffer the defeats that we have suffered in the Gray Zone since 1945 and no amount of blood and treasure will make our future any different to our past.

Home sweet home,


Ultimately I agree with the author's 3 recommendations, but I'll challenge many of his points in this response before I return to the areas of agreement.

- It is incorrect to conflate the concepts of hybrid warfare and gray zone competition. They are not interchangeable concepts. Hybrid warfare is simply waging war via multiple ways such as conventional and unconventional warfare simultaneously. Competing in the gray zone may involve hybrid wars, such as the Vietnam War, which was very much a hybrid war, but it was conducted within the larger strategic scope of a gray zone competition with the USSR. The Army War College description of the gray zone is the best I have seen, as they carefully and correctly avoided a concise definition. My concern with the SOCOM definition is that it is a little too inclusive. For example, ISIL's war against much of the world is not a gray zone competition. Their intent is black and white, and it instead of attempting to stay below our red line that would provoke a military response, they actually welcome a military response.

- The gray zone competition is a whole of government, and often a whole of society competition short of conventional warfare directly between the competitors. Our competitors in this space, principally China, Russia, and Iran have authoritarian governments and structures intended to promote their power through unity of command. This is their asymmetric advantage in a whole of government competition compared to the U.S. and other countries who have liberal, progressive governments intentionally designed to constrain their power. At best the U.S. can achieve unity of effort among the various elements within that government. To effectively compete in the gray zone, we must overcome our challenge of disunity by design by gaining a common understanding across the various agencies of the challenge, and then develop a realistic strategy that all buy into and implement to effectively compete. All buying into shouldn't equate to group think, but it does require a general agreement on the character of the challenge and how we should approach it. Tactics can and should be debated.

- MAJ Kay claims our response to the gray zone is reactive, which is partly, but not entirely true. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we have been effective gray zone actors for sometime. In fact, the world was going our way until recently. Now we're facing competent competitors who are effectively challenging the international order we strive to protect. This should indicate that environment has changed, and that we need to change with it. More of the same won't produce different results. The type of change required demands creative thinkers throughout our entire government, not just in the Army, but by all means grooming our officers for the current and future security environment is a must.

Back to areas of agreement.

MAJ Kay confronts the major issue that hinders deep military transformation, which is our legacy personnel system. I agree with him that we need more nuanced criteria for evaluating our officers. The best and the brightest is a bit of myth. Many bright officers have been destroyed by senior raters because they didn't believe a certain officer fit their mold of what an officer should be. Remember our system is intended to promote conformity, not creative thinkers. A good rater and senior rater will focus on the future and recognize the potential these young bright and creative officers have to offer the force, but that requires that these officers are fortunate enough to work for a more reflective rater and senior rater who grasp that we live in revolutionary times and need creative thinkers.

As for more education, I'm all for it, but to be brutally honest, I have seen many officers with multiple graduate degrees and some even with Doctorates. A few have been extremely impressive, while the majority of them have been average at best. Degrees should not be the focus, rather knowledge, and the ability to apply that knowledge should be the goal. There was a time, when education was largely done through self-study, and we produced many intellectual officers in those days. In addition to access to higher education opportunities, we need to focus on creating an intellectual climate within the ranks. This means reading, reflection, and discussion are encouraged. Some commanders do this better than others at creating these type of perpetual learning organizations. The goal is to get to the point where more of our officers and NCOs develop a passion for their profession and always strive to improve their knowledge. Evaluations should emphasize the officer's ability to solve complex problems, generate effective teams across JIIM teams, etc., and not overly rely on the education level achieved.

There are things we can do now to improve ourselves, while waiting on the Department of the Army and Congress to mandate needed changes. I think we need to identify those and act upon them without hesitation. We can improve ourselves despite the bureaucracy.


Wed, 07/27/2016 - 2:30pm

How does the organization consistently measure that Officer A "commanded and led superbly", and do that within the confines of a forced profile evaluation system? The #1 company commander in 1st Brigade may not have been rank as highly in 2nd Brigade due to a variety of factors (BDE CDR priorities, competition, relation to the ARFORGEN cycle). Likewise, that #1 commander may have had to suck up a 90 day OER at the start of command, more than likely resulting in a COM, which counter balances his overall service and end of tour ACOM. The brigade's #3 officer, by contrast, received only one OER during command and is at a distinct career advantage over the officer who out performed him or her.

Without a fixing this underlying issue, no amount of tweaking the pyramid will fix the problem of boards selecting the correct officer for the correct job.

G Martin

Wed, 07/27/2016 - 11:47am

It is too bad their paradigm questioning didn't include the "gray zone" construct itself nor the knee-jerk decision to rely on a systemic approach (systems) uncritically. The language- at least to me- implies that systems are real and objective:

"Gray zones are complex open systems, in which unpredictable external events are constantly disturbing and disrupting the system..."

I would have thought a red-teaming approach would have first attempted to understand why we as an institution had to come up with the "Gray Zone" moniker in the first place and then would have spent a little bit of time critically questioning the systems metaphor--- where it came from and its pros and cons.

I would submit that the Gray Zone concept is a third order effect of our JCIDS system- which requires old conceptualizations to be repackaged with new names and sometimes even new ways of thinking about things in order to sell our requirements need within DoD and to the politicians. I would further submit that the systems metaphor has a lot of problems- not the least of which is that all of our tools are, by necessity, closed systems tools and thus an "open systems" metaphorical concept has lots of philosophical issues...

All of these things emerge as requirements from our own - internally constructed- system of politics. And they tend (from my experience) to not be separated from the "making sense of things" side of our thinking- and instead wholly encapsulate and influence us to the point of befuddlement. In doing so we make things harder (more complex?) than they need to be. Is the real "Gray Zone" simply our own national security system???

One other thing: what is the reason DoD won't change the personnel system? Did the Red Teamers look into that? Many of these same recommendations were rejected by the leadership recently. Why does the organization seem to vehemently reject these changes?