America's Future Conflicts: The Gray Zone

The "Gray Zone" - the place between peace and all-out war - is an area that is becoming more and more common in conflicts today. With conflicts like Russia and Ukraine/Crimea and ISIS all happening in this Gray Zone, it's not something that can be ignored by the military. This Gray Zone is the subject of a white paper released in September by the US Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base.

Not that the US military has been ignoring this area. According to the paper, since 1915 the US has been involved in over 60 Gray Zone conflicts during the same time as the five traditional conflicts - World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. Some the Gray Zone conflicts are well known, such as the Berlin Airlift, Operation Gothic Serpent (which included the famous Battle of Mogadishu depicted in Black Hawk Down), and the current Operation Inherent Resolve, but some are less well known. The white paper gives the example of the "fourteen month invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic to prevent it from 'going Communist' in 1965-66", which involved more than 40,000 troops, and is still little-known today.

One of the key differences between the Gray Zone and the better-known White Zone (peace) or the Black Zone (conventional war) is ambiguity. One of the most obvious examples of this ambiguity is in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Although the assistance in manpower and material that Russia has provided to separatists in Ukraine is fairly well documented, the official denials from the Russian government add just enough ambiguity that traditional Western responses to the (alleged) Russian actions could appear heavy-handed or excessive.

Perspective is another key challenge in Gray Zone conflicts. During conventional conflicts, such as World War II, the extent of the conflict was obvious to all nations as well as their citizens. Using the example of the Russia/Ukraine conflict again, however, we can see how different countries view the same situation differently. Ukraine, for example, sees the annexation of Crimea as a threat to its sovereignty as a nation - justifying actions up to and including conventional war. Russia, on the other hand, has demonstrated a willingness to provide material and munitions, but only involve subtle use of military forces. This can be thought of as a darker shade of gray, but still in the Gray Zone.. The US, partially because of the ambiguity mentioned above, treats this conflict as a much lighter shade of gray, best handling the situation with economic and diplomatic pressures and no involvement of military personnel or equipment.

The increasing amount of conflict with non-states such as al Qaeda and ISIS also presents new Gray Zone challenges for the United States and other classic nation-states. Nation-states, even when they are engaged in Gray Zone conflicts (such as Russia), still have a centralized entity to negotiate with as well as specific geographic territory and borders that they occupy. This is in contrast to the non-state groups, which have no such centralized leadership authority or defined borders. According to the paper "It was far simpler for the State Department spokesman to respond to the tightly controlled messages from the Soviet-era TASS than to have a ready reply for the thousands of Twitter accounts linked to Daesh (ISIS) and its supporters."

All these challenges are not insurmountable, however. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the last conventional conflict - Operation Desert Storm - the US has shown that it has no peer in the conventional military realm. This means that intelligent adversaries of America will seek to engage in conflicts in the Gray Zone instead of playing to America's strengths. With the current US SOCOM forces, the US has most of the military tools needed to win in these Gray Zone conflicts. In the future, however, the white paper concludes, the US must improve its interagency coordination and combating the root causes of these conflicts (ISIS, for example, feeds on disaffected Sunnis and a breakdown of social order) in order to improve its ability to win Gray Zone conflicts.

You can read the entire white paper by clicking on the link below.

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Gray Zones - USSOCOM White Paper 9 Sep 2015.pdf3.15 MB
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