50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense


Many men, as they age, start to worry about gray hairs. America’s military men, however, worry about gray wars. Gray wars are, as the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command noted, wars in which groups or entities “seek to secure their objectives while minimizing the scope and scale of actual combat.” These wars and geopolitical conflicts, ranging from the Russian annexation of Crimea and its continued aggression in Ukraine to Boko Haram’s reign of terror in Nigeria, require allegedly new means of training, organization, and doctrine. There’s only one problem: The “gray wars” concept lacks even the most basic strategic sense. Like the book and movie 50 Shades of Grey, the gray wars concept grossly over-exaggerates its own transgressions from the norm. Beneath the hype is something rather ooh-la-lame rather than ooh-la-la.

First, it should be observed that this definition, which is applied to both wars with Vladimir Putin’s deniable “little green menand Middle Eastern wars in Iraq and Syria featuring mobile combined arms maneuver, is incoherent. Yes, Putin is keeping it low-key, but can the same really be said of any of the Syrian or Iraqi factions contesting major cities and tweeting beheading pictures at each other? If the latter form of combat is somehow lacking in scope and scale, it is certainly not lacking in ferocity due to the intentions of the combatants (who are all fighting for their survival). And one can also quibble with the idea that these conflicts also are somehow lacking in scope and scale to begin with. Every faction in Syria and Iraq is fighting a war of utmost ferocity, and the expansion of the Islamic State to battlegrounds beyond Iraq and Syria suggests that the conflict may not necessarily be limited to its primary theaters of operation.

Gray zone terminology has also been applied to characterize conflict in the South China Sea. Surely Putin’s various operations, Chinese territorial disputations, civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram’s terrorism in Nigeria are not equally gray? The idea that the term somehow meaningfully encompasses all of these conflicts is bizarre. But this is not the biggest flaw with the gray wars concept. It is yet another example of the recurring problem of military strategists and civilian analysts inventing new terminology to replace forgotten, yet perhaps more coherent concepts. Gray zone wars seem to be a composite of two very well known ideas in military strategy and political science: limited wars and compellence.

Gray wars are often defined as wars in which combatants minimize the scope and scale of combat. This is not an exotic new stratagem as much as the realization that, as Carl von Clausewitz noted, absolute war — war unconstrained by any kind of political limitation — is largely if not completely impossible in practice. The political context of war always involves some degree of minimizing the scope and scale of combat.

For example, the United States did not hit the Chinese mainland in the Korean War, and Britain mostly left the Argentine mainland unscathed in the Falklands War. During the height of the conflict in Afghanistan, we also did not invade Pakistan to get at enemy forces based there and instead targeted them from the air. Heck, in the 1991 Gulf War we limited the scope and scale of combat by design, to the regret of those that believed we could have destroyed the Iraqi army or should have overthrown Saddam Hussein right then and there.

Finally, in many early modern-century wars the decisiveness of battles was limited by political and logistical concerns. Surely all of these do not amount to gray wars, right? The vagueness of the construct, especially when it comes to distinguishing today’s gray wars from older, apparently not-gray wars, is problematic in the extreme. Second, many of the examples that gray wars theorizers cite as novel are in fact quite old. Russia, for example, is said to be engaging in gray zone warfare because it operates in a threshold between what we see as war and peace.

Of course, there is nothing eternal or fixed about this threshold. States have gone to war over other states’ drug prohibition laws, the safety of medical students studying abroad, and also at times to generate economic growth and a fresh stream of human captives to sacrifice to the gods. So the apparently novel practice of operating in a threshold between war and peace is actually just common sense. If you believe your opponent has a threshold for when they are willing to escalate, you can simply just keep your misdeeds below that threshold and get what you want.

During the Cold War, the Pakistanis directed insurgency and terrorism against the Soviet Union and its local allies in Afghanistan. Because Pakistani security was guaranteed by the United States, Pakistan felt free to foment rebellion against Moscow and its puppet regime as long as the operation did not push the Soviets into open combat with Islamabad. The Pakistanis also have always engaged in low-intensity conflict operations against India and sponsored insurgency and terrorism with the expectation that they could operate below New Delhi’s threshold for retaliation. The belief that the Indians will not fight back may not be a valid presumption because India has steadily grown more likely to retaliate for Pakistani support and toleration of terrorism. However, this assumption has motivated every Pakistani operation from its sponsorship of Kashmiri terrorists and insurgents to its own gambit during the 1999 Kargil War.

We do not need any new and exotic terminology for this kind of activity. Things such as proxy warfare, salami-slicing, coercive strategies, escalation dominance, and above all else compellence come to mind. To compel a foe is to forcibly make them do as you wish by hurting them — and raising the threat of future harms — until they cry uncle. Economist and military strategist Thomas Schelling famously wrote about how to do it in Arms and Influence — written at the height of the Cold War. This compellence may occur via a bombing campaign or a few isolated clashes, feints, threats, or maneuvers. The mechanism is not as important as the use and/or threat of armed violence and other relevant means to get someone to do as we please. We seem to have forgotten about these venerable ideas in our headlong jump into the gray zone.

Unfortunately, the alleged novelty of gray zone operations exposes far more than just historical illiteracy and a yen for terminological fads. It also suggests a failure to learn from history. American soldiers, civilians, and analysts painfully endured decades of frustration during the Cold War thinking about how to cope with the components of what we regard as gray zone conflicts today. They produced enough theoretical, personal, and scientific publications on the subject to fill an entire research library. And along the way they experienced plenty of mistakes or made dodgy choices that — out of sheer luck — did not end in nuclear catastrophe. Not all of these ideas and experiences are useful for present-day problems, but they at least deserve a modicum of consideration.

The fact that we have to invent new theory, terminology, and modes of practice for dealing with allegedly novel gray wars is an indictment of a refusal to exploit massive amounts of existing knowledge and experience. Your parents and grandparents’ tax dollars paid for a massive research establishment that churned out enormous amounts of material on irregular operations and underground operatives, the confounding of massive retaliation by incremental power-grabbing, and strategy for limited wars involving complex adversaries frequently willing to utilize propaganda and deception operations. This money has also paid for a large amount of research and analysis on how to counter such threats, much of which rots away unread in research libraries.

Unfortunately, while we seem perfectly content to throw away knowledge and experiences that cost substantial amounts of money and countless dead soldiers to obtain, our adversaries’ library cards are not exactly going unused. As Timothy L. Thomas has observed, the Russians benefit from the cumulative impact of decades of research and analysis on various kinds of psychological and information operations beginning in the early 1960s. One can trace a very clear line to the Soviet origins of current Russian “gray” practice. Indeed, perhaps, as one analyst noted, the fact that we see Russian practice as novel could very well be a function of the success of Russian trickery:

[C]ontemporary Russia’s information warfare mixes previous Soviet military disinformation tactics and analysis of the “American” information strategies with some constituent elements of the contemporary information environment. In fact, one could argue that the very perception of this information warfare as “novel” constitutes Russia’s success with its disinformation campaign and public relations strategy, which over-exaggerates Russia’s actual capacities. … [B]asic analysis reveals that all of the main principles and approaches the Russian government utilizes today were taken from Soviet toolkits.

The real problem is not really that our adversaries have changed. It is that we have refused to change. We continue to be shocked and surprised when our adversaries do the same things they always have: creatively apply force and other coercive means to realize their political objectives. Certainly they often do not do this by marching up to a foe and declaring “surrender or I will destroy everything you have,” but then again the United States — aside from the cheap talk of politicians — does not wage truly unlimited wars either. Many of our wars have been highly constrained in objective and conduct. And the United States also utilizes plenty of non-lethal coercive means — from financially ruining adversaries to deftly exploiting “lawfare” to carry out strikes of often-ambiguous legal justification — to achieve its own aims.

Instead of trying to dress up mundane adversary practices as exotic and kinky, we should dump the 50 Shades of Gray and try to truly bring sexy back by doing something very simple — analyze what the enemy is trying to do, how he will do it, what we are willing to do to thwart him, and how we think we can thwart him. If we cannot at least do this, perhaps we — like the heroine of the 50 Shades novel and movie — are allowing ourselves to be whipped and chained by a seemingly imposing if nonetheless fragile adversary.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: DVIDSHUB (adapted by WOTR)