Strategy for the Shades of Gray
Lawrence E. Cline
Recent (and ongoing) operations in areas such as Ukraine and several countries in the Middle East have reinforced the role of strategic approaches that do not fall neatly into conventional analysis of conflict. These operations are something that is not quite conventional warfare (or even traditional insurgency), but something much more than “polite influence.” They represent a mixture of both hard and soft – or at least softer – power that has proven to demonstrate success. These types of regional or global operations conducted by governments that do not fall neatly into the rubric of war may in fact be an ideal tool for those governments that choose to use them. Some more nuanced analyses of these operations have been proposed. There have been several analytical constructs proposed for these types of conflicts, including “compound warfare”, “amorphous warfare”, “non-obvious warfare”, and most commonly, “hybrid warfare.” These terms are becoming more commonly used – and well describe some of tactics and techniques used – but they do not fully capture the larger strategic issues.
This paper is not intended to add to the various categorizations. Instead, it argues that much of the strategic logic of these forms of operations is not fully examined and in many ways simply not well understood. One reflection of this was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s oft-cited statement in regards to the Russian intervention in Ukraine that "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” In many ways, this may in fact be at least one policy maker’s continued fixation on late 20th Century strategic thinking rather than understanding more complex 21st Century strategies. Unfortunately, this lack of grasping strategic complexity certainly is not unique. Overall, there are several key questions in analyzing these gray types of operations; these apply either actually conducting them or to efforts to counter their use by other countries. In many ways, a number of lessons learned from the ‘golden age’ of partisan warfare in World War II would seem to be useful to the analysis of these gray operations, because many current campaigns closely resemble earlier partisan strategies. The following questions – most dating from as early as partisan campaigns during World War II, but continuing to be germane – should be considered either by governments mooting gray operations or by those trying to develop strategies to counter these forms of warfare.
What are the Strategic Goals for Sponsoring Governments?
This is the basic and most critical question. In many cases, this of course is a relatively simple analytic issue: in total or near-total warfare, governments will use whatever tools they have available and feel that could succeed. Certainly, this was the case during World War II, when partisans represented a force multiplier for countries that had few options for near-term military responses. More recent gray operations have proven to be more complex, representing a strategy of limited involvement without the requirement for full-scale military intervention. At best, they are the equivalent of an economy of force strategy. At worst, as exemplified by the US support of partisans in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, there apparently has been little actual strategic rationale, but instead more of a desire to “do something” that might change the balance when things are not going well overall.
Clearly, there are different impacts on the global security structure based on the overall strategic importance of a particular country: Russian intervention in Ukraine has more individual immediate significance than Rwandan intervention in Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time, however, the cumulative influence of seemingly less important operations such as the latter can have considerable impact. At the very least, these types of activities can tremendously complicate dealings by the international community within areas in which the ‘grayer’ forms of operations are being conducted.
What Level of Intervention are Governments Willing to Take?
In many cases, the actual number of foreign forces involved can be small, even though important in coordination with local groups, and in fact can be strategically critical. Embedding small numbers can provide critical liaison and logistical support. This of course does not include the number of people involved in external support (which can be extensive), and the actual numbers required depend very much on the capabilities of the partisans themselves.
For countries considering engaging in these types of efforts, deriving an accurate cost-benefit analysis is crucial in deriving the amount and type of support they provide to armed operations. Any government looking for a successful outcome must clearly determine what its peripheral, important, and vital interests are. Clearly, for what are in fact vital interests, gray operations may not be the best tools. If such interests can in fact be attained through lesser military action that of course is to the good, but full-scale military operations certainly remain the ultimate tool. Even if very overt military intervention is ultimately required, earlier gray operations to prepare the area of operations – and to determine if a lesser intervention can succeed -- certainly can prove invaluable.
Supporting local armed groups -- whether ideological allies or true proxy forces -- can be a challenge. In some cases, support can be provided externally, with their members being trained and equipped in the intervening country. Iran’s strategy in Iraq under US occupation provided a good example of this system. With some exceptions, members of the anti-US Jaish al Mahdi received their training and much of their advanced weaponry in Iran. To a large degree, such cross border support is both safer and diplomatically somewhat more palatable to other countries, and of course can be somewhat more deniable. In general, it requires both contiguous and porous borders that will not always be available.
In the majority of cases, however, it is strategically useful to have at least some minimal number of personnel from the intervening country directly supporting the local groups. These personnel can serve as trainers, technical experts, and "stiffeners" for the local elements. Equally importantly, they can provide both monitoring and guidance to at least influence the locals to serve the overall objectives of the sponsoring country. In some cases, such as the "little green men" in Ukraine, they will conduct largely unilateral operations. Even if these supporting forces do not operate deeply within the country, their presence in the border regions (typically on both sides of the border) can prove essential. They also of course can create complications for other countries mulling intervention: willingness to respond militarily against even a relatively small number of regular forces operating within another country can convert the situation into an international conflict. Many countries simply will not have the stomach to take these types of risks.
One strategic question for countries sponsoring these operations is the best mix for the advisors and supporting forces. In some cases, countries essentially have 'sub-contracted' for this mission. Past examples of this were seen in the US use of Pakistani governmental security channels in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets and Iran's use of Lebanese Hezbollah trainers in Iraq during the US occupation. The US's recent encouragement (and some would argue, pressure) on regional countries to increase their training and equipping of 'clean' Syrian opposition groups to fight the Assad regime would at least conceptually fall into the same category. One variant of this approach that has been mooted recently and seems to be under some consideration is the use of private military companies for these types of missions. One potential advantage for governments in using third party "cut outs" is that it provides a somewhat larger diplomatic fig leaf. It does, however, come with a number of disadvantages. The major disadvantage is that the government loses a significant degree of control over actual field operations because it must rely on intermediaries who may or may not have the exact same strategic goals. Also, of course, 'leakages' of money, equipment, and expertise have seemed to be almost inevitable.
As with any other types of ‘limited’ operations, the issue of mission creep can affect decision making. If the results are not quickly positive, it can be very easy to up the ante by increasing the overt support provided allied or proxy forces; eventually full-scale military operations can be the result. If this shift occurs, then the initial grayer efforts may still have been positive by their preparing the operational environment, but the campaign then can prove much more costly in terms of actual resources and diplomatic reaction than first envisioned. Essentially, the intervening country must determine in advance the pain it is willing to endure for these interventions.
What are the Commonalities and Differences Between Governments and Local Armed Groups?
In virtually all cases, using at least some local elements from within the target country will be viewed as necessary. Using these groups is important both for political cover and for gaining local expertise and population support. In theory, they can be dispensed with in some circumstances, particularly if there are unifying ethnic, sectarian, or ideological ties between the hosting government and populations in the target country. This almost certainly will complicate strategies and the chances for strategic success, however. The local forces used as either proxies or allies – and commonly it can be hard to necessarily differentiate between the two categories – certainly will impact on devising operational-level plans. Particularly in dealing with groups such as Hezbollah, it is easy for analysts to view its use in areas such as Iraq and Syria as simply a proxy force for Iran. However, it is critical for analysts (and Tehran for that matter) to recognize that the group’s leadership has an independent identity and its own strategic goals. This will be true of any local group that is used to support a government’s larger strategic interests. Ultimately, the recognition that almost always there will be overlapping interests rather than identical objectives between locals and external parties is critical.
How Good is the Interagency Process Within Supporting Governments?
Effective use of gray operations require a ‘whole of government’ approach. The multiple strands needed for success must be carefully calibrated. The historical record, however, has shown this to be one of the more difficult issues to do successfully. Coordination can be even further complicated by the bureaucratic antecedents of the organizations involved in supporting partisans. One of the key questions is who is in charge? In many cases, the groups have emerged out of intelligence communities. This at times has resulted in confusion among other national security policy makers as to the proper use of the deployed support elements. Conversely, intelligence agencies may assume the control of partisan-type operations without being organizationally structured or culturally prepared for such missions.
Using more traditional military tools can present a number of issues for many countries. Even the use of special operations forces (SOF) can be problematical. Although SOF is in theory ideal for gray operations, actual capabilities may be subject to some question. Certainly, within the US SOF Community, there have been an increasing number of questions as to whether what once was a core mission for Special Forces in particular -- unconventional warfare, i.e., training and advising foreign insurgent groups -- is being given adequate attention in an era in which most SOF missions are direct action (i.e., strike missions). Assuming the use of local proxy forces for gray operations, this could represent a significant weakness. Even if such capabilities remain relatively intact, a number of legal and diplomatic issues surround the use of military forces both in the US and in other Western countries. Almost inevitably, the public footprint of military forces will be more prominent that will that of intelligence services. As such, it is likely that a military-heavy approach is not optimal unless a country is willing to escalate significantly. For countries such as Russia, with its Spetznaz, and Iran, with the al Quds force, the interrelationship between intelligence services and highly capable operational units is very strong, providing an ideal tool.
What are Potential Strategic Differences Between Coalitions of Supporting Governments?
Similar interagency issues certainly have plagued full cooperation and coordination between two or more governments supporting the same partisan groups. Given the US government’s insistence that virtually all interventions be conducted as a member (albeit usually the leader) of a coalition, this certainly will remain a cogent issue. Even though countries may agree on shorter term operational approaches, longer-term diplomatic strategies and desired outcomes may be radically different. Although perhaps somewhat unusual, temporary alliances of convenience between countries conducting gray operations can shift into active opposition. These types of situations require a robust intelligence collection system both for understanding goals of allies as well as opponents. This is a case where it is essential ‘to read other gentlemen’s mail.’
What Complications are Presented by Multiple Armed Groups in a Country?
It has been typical that various partisan groups have spent as much time fighting each other as they have their ostensible enemy. This certainly was true during World War II in countries such as China, Yugoslavia, and Greece, and more recently in Syria and Libya in a somewhat different form. Virtually all such internal civil wars have continued to create greater or lesser internal struggles once occupying powers have withdrawn. In many circumstances, governments ultimately are likely to have to pick and choose among multiple guerilla groups. It is critical for a country’s government to base its decisions for support based both on both the prospects for a group’s operational prospects and ultimately on the strategic impact of its ultimate success. In the past, this has been a horribly complicated calculus, and it certainly is no easier in today’s environment.
What Level of Control do Supporting Governments Have?
Clearly, governments supporting armed groups intend to retain some level of control. In practice, however, the partisan group’s leadership itself has created strategic facts on the ground. This particularly has been the case when a government has attempted to keep its support covert. At the same time, however, emergent partisan groups and their operations – largely out of the strategic control of external support -- can have major impact. Governments and their militaries must be able to show sufficient adaptability to adapt to these new realities. Strategic flexibility is even more important in these types of operations than in other military missions.
What is the Role of Information Operations (IO)?
Two separate, but coordinated, threads are required. The first involves efforts directed toward external powers that may be impacted directly or indirectly by the operations, and more generally the international community. Ideally, of course, the IO campaign will actually change the perceptions of the targeted governments, but this is not necessarily required. In many ways, simply obfuscating ongoing facts on the ground or providing face-saving rationales for why other governments or regional/international groups need not get involved may well be enough. In a sense, the main requirement is to provide sufficient argumentation to justify an excuse for inaction, and then subsequently enable a "reset" once a fait accompli is established.
The second thread is of course directed against the country or region that is being directly targeted. This is more likely to involve the more traditional tools and goals of traditional IO efforts. The key strategic goals for this IO campaign are to gain and maintain at least minimal public support within the target area; recruitment of active supporters for the overall campaign; and reinforcement of the benign intentions of the intervening state. Also, of course, the IO campaign will be focused directly against the targeted government. This can take the form of regular propaganda through relatively conventional means, but also can use other tools such as buying off governmental officials and extortion. Newer forms of information warfare also of course are invaluable in limiting or crippling the communications and hence the response of the target. Although the term “subversion” continues to have a vaguely 1950’s-era Cold War aura, many of the same tools still apply.
Clearly, actually successfully conducting these complex gray operations addressed thus far may be very difficult for the US and other Western governments. Domestic political constraints, self-images as being the "good guys", and a (historically somewhat chequered) tradition of usually playing by the international rules -- many of which of course have been self-imposed -- make conducting amorphous warfare or other gray operations particularly difficult. Nevertheless, a more thorough analysis of these types of multi-pronged strategies remains critical for two reasons. The first is that they should remain in the realm of potential strategies for contingency planning; given what seems to be an increasingly complex international security environment, the underlying calculus of how to conduct complex responses if required should be well understood. The second reason, certainly of more immediate salience, is that understanding the strategic logic underpinning the use of gray operations by other countries is critical in trying to develop responses.
Where does this discussion leave the US and other Western counties? First, it suggests that a more nuanced approach to complex security threats and national interests is essential for national and coalition interests that fall between vital and important. There should be tools and strategies available for complex environments. A somewhat Manichean division between "boots on the ground" and bombing from 10,000 feet is unlikely to serve strategic interests. In most cases, there in fact are tools and methods available, but the strategic understanding on the best ways to use them is lacking. In large measure, this derives from a lack of sophistication in putting together disparate elements of national power into a coherent whole.
There is the opposite side of the coin to be considered: how do major powers deal with gray operations that impact their national interests? Thus far, responses have centered largely on diplomatic tools such as sanctions and sternly-worded condemnations by secretaries of state and foreign ministries. Although these may be satisfying in the short term and may create some longer term economic pain, their actual efficacy seems to be at best questionable. Most countries willing to conduct these sorts of efforts seem equally willing to accept some pain to achieve more immediate goals. A willingness to use similar tools in strategic defense – most critically, as part of a well-crafted strategy unified across multiple departments and agencies – in an effort to deter or blunt the impact of these interventions should be incorporated into the repertoire of national strategies.
 Will Dunham, “Kerry condemns Russia's 'incredible act of aggression' in Ukraine”, Reuters, 2 March 2014.