Fighting and Winning in the “Gray Zone”

Operation Enduring Freedom

The United States possesses the most capable armed forces in the world. America leads the world in military expenditures, spending more than the next nine nations combined — seven of which are either U.S. friends or allies. In part because of this dominance, the world has been free of major power wars for decades.

But trends such as globalization, mass access to technology and communications, and asymmetric reactions to U.S. tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq are converging into an era where more and more conflicts are being fought at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. These form a “gray zone” between traditional notions of war and peace.

Gray zone conflicts are not formal wars, and little resemble traditional, “conventional” conflicts between states. If the spectrum of conflict is conceived as a line running from peaceful interstate competition on the far left to nuclear Armageddon on the far right, gray zone conflicts fall left of center. They involve some aggression or use of force, but in many ways 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.

Gray zone conflicts abound in today’s world. Within the past 18 months alone, Russia annexed Crimea and is fomenting civil conflict and separatism in eastern Ukraine; the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burst into international headlines by beheading civilians and grabbing land in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram has been conducting a brutal insurgency in Nigeria; and the Houthi rebellion in Yemen has accelerated and driven the country’s president out of the capital. Each of these confrontations is characterized by “hybrid” threats that may combine subversion, destabilizing social media influence, disruptive cyber attacks, and anonymous “little green men” instead of recognizable armed forces making overt violations of international borders.

These shadow wars may not trigger conventional military responses, but many nonetheless pose great strategic risks for the United States. They can threaten critical U.S. interests through “strategic disruption” — the danger that instability in key regions can upend the international political or economic order. Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, for example, directly challenge international norms against territorial annexation and put NATO solidarity at risk. ISIL controlling parts of Iraq and Syria threatens global energy markets, decreases regional stability, and increases the chance of conflict between Sunni and Shia communities. The Houthi insurgency increases the risk of a regional clash between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which could also spark a broader Sunni-Shia conflict.

For the United States, effectively addressing gray zone conflicts will require a coordinated interagency response. The Department of Defense (DOD) will rarely lead that response, because gray zone conflicts are designed, almost by definition, to circumvent traditional U.S. military power. Yet military capabilities will remain an essential part of U.S. responses — and none more so than special operations forces (SOF).

SOF are deliberately designed, trained, and equipped to address the part of the conflict spectrum where gray zone conflicts occur. They bring in-depth cultural knowledge to regional skirmishes around the world, often including language skills and years of building personal relationships. SOF leaders routinely work closely with interagency partners, both in Washington and at embassies in conflict zones around the world. When deployed, their teams routinely work under chief of mission authority, supporting the U.S. ambassador. They can operate with low visibility and moderate risk, calling little attention to their actions. SOF exemplify the light footprint approach, yet deliver disproportionately high value in small numbers due to their key trademarks — individual and team maturity, operational experience and unique training. They can also provide highly capable headquarters elements to help oversee these complex challenges — organizations and leaders steeped in interagency and regional expertise, with deep cultural and unconventional warfare knowledge and experience.

SOF are clearly purpose-built for conflict in the gray zone — but they may not be enough. Special operations forces have played a key role in the major conflicts of the last 15 years — riding on horseback in the early days of the Afghan conflict to direct airstrikes, advising Iraqi and Afghan security forces and their local auxiliaries in combat operations, even conducting the raid which killed Osama bin Laden. Yet they remain a tiny fraction of the U.S. armed forces. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the preponderance of deployed forces — and all the directing headquarters — came from conventional troop formations, totaling over 170,000 in Iraq and nearly 101,000 in Afghanistan at their respective peaks. Those numbers each exceed all of the SOF in the U.S. armed forces. There are currently about 69,000 active and reserve SOF personnel, out of a total uniformed force of nearly 2.2 million troops. This relatively small investment in SOF may need to be revisited in an era of gray zone conflicts, where demand for their capabilities will only grow.

Yet the United States will not be able to rely only on SOF to address these types of conflicts. Even if SOF does grow, their distinct nature and highly selective screening process means that they will always remain much smaller than conventional forces. In a world of burgeoning gray zone conflicts, some conventional military units must be both re-trained and re-organized to conduct military operations at the lower end of the conflict spectrum.

For example, current doctrine identifies security force assistance (SFA) as one of the 12 core activities for SOF. Yet U.S. conventional forces have been providing SFA in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond for many years, because the scale of the requirements far exceeded what SOF could provide. That demand will remain high during an era of gray zone conflicts, as the United States seeks to strengthen the capabilities of its allies and partners to address their own security challenges.

Yet despite high demand and over a decade of experience, neither the Army nor the Marines has dedicated any force structure to the SFA mission. Today, the Army is still organizing and training ad hoc organizations for 9-month deployments to train and advise Iraqi forces. Neither the Army nor Marines has institutionalized these temporary capabilities by specializing more of their conventional units for just these types of conflicts — and this may prove a serious mistake. Temporary ad hoc solutions that simply thrust an ever-changing mix of conventional formations into these unfamiliar roles may prove both inadequate and ineffective for critical gray zone missions.

Gray zone conflicts are here to stay. The United States must increase its abilities to understand, adapt, and prevail in these conflicts so that they do not grow to a level of strategic disruption that threatens vital U.S. interests. SOF are ideally suited for the military component of interagency responses to gray zone conflicts, but SOF alone will not be enough. The United States must also ensure that some of its conventional capabilities are organized, trained, and equipped for these ever-expanding conflicts. Traditional military capabilities remain essential for deterring and defeating threats at the higher end of the conflict spectrum, but effectively dealing with an era dominated by gray zone conflicts requires more. The best special operations forces in the world and more specialized conventional capabilities will both be necessary to fight and win in the gray zone.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army