war on the rocks

The Strange Debates of Strategy

January 14, 2016

The recent explosion of interest in gray zone tactics and techniques has spurred an interesting discussion of history and terminology. Writers such as Adam Elkus, writing here at War on the Rocks, have doubts about the novelty of the idea — Adam argues that the concept is “hopelessly muddled,” historically ignorant, and “internally underdetermined and weak in overall policy utility,” and that it suffers from “gaping conceptual holes,” and thus promises to “needlessly confuse” national security debates.

These critiques offer many insightful points, but I think they exaggerate the claims of gray zone analyses, and the ambitions of their authors. The issue is not whether the concept is new. In fact, it obviously is not: As I stress repeatedly in my own report on the topic and at War on the Rocks, history is full of states using things now ascribed to gray zone campaigns. Instead, these analyses — mine and dozens of others from official and unofficial sources alike — are merely trying to understand recent actions by U.S. rivals in coherent terms.

The issue of analytical aspirations is a bit obscure, but it is central to the critiques and demands a quick word. Elkus refers repeatedly to “Mazarr’s conception” of gray zone conflict, seeming to imply that my report aimed to produce an original theory of war. It did not. For one thing, the term gray zone has been used by dozens of governments and scholars for some years now. Some analyses (such as official NATO reports) prefer the term hybrid; others favor “measures short of war.” But nobody I know of working this issue is trying to overturn historical understanding, or thinks they have devised a brilliant new theory. They are merely trying to get a handle on what is going on, and believe that some encompassing category — gray, hybrid, or otherwise — can help us do it.

When B.J. Armstrong, also writing at War on the Rocks, quotes the historian of realpolitik John Bew to the effect that “effective foreign policy is better served by a more textured analysis — a sense of patterns, interactions, and connections — than by new theories,” I do not see how this diminishes the value of gray zone analyses, which are attempting to do precisely that. Their goal is to assess current patterns, interactions, and connections with an eye to informing U.S. and allied strategy.

Armstrong urges that the United States should not “disregard the ideas and concepts previous generations have built” — and I could not agree more. My own report goes into some depth on decades- and centuries-old concepts of unconventional and asymmetric approaches, noting for example that fifth-column-style political disruption has been a feature of rivalry for millennia. Such historical perspective, though, does not deny that Russia, China and others are using measures short of war today in coherent and effective ways.

In his second article on the topic, Elkus summarizes what seems to be his main objection:

[T]he gray zone concept merely puts a new spin on older and more well-understood ideas from political science, military history, and strategic theory about how actors pursue strategic objectives under constraint.

If such a thing helps decision-makers to understand current patterns of behavior, I frankly don’t see the problem. That’s precisely what these analyses are trying to do: Gather together well-known ideas into a coherent portrait of current events.

The question should not be about terminology or novelty. It should be whether there is an identifiable pattern of behavior that threatens U.S. and allied interests. Are Russia, China, probably Iran, and perhaps others using holistic campaigns fashioned from a wide range of military, political, informational, and economic tools to achieve revisionist goals while staying under the threshold of major war? Are the resulting campaigns more determined, coherent, and coordinated than run-of-the-mill diplomacy, enough so that they ought to be considered as a specific danger?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes — and I think there is a good case to be made for that — then the United States and its allies confront a specific form of statecraft; not new, in all its characteristics, but real and relevant. And most observers who have looked at the problem tend to agree that the United States is ill-prepared for such tactics, in part because it simply has not thought of them as a coherent approach worthy of a tailored response.

Notwithstanding theoretical determinacy or the deep history of Russian and Chinese grand strategy, U.S. civilian and military leaders seem convinced, based on the evidence of their daily interaction with Russian and Chinese activities, that these countries are using threshold-busting approaches to achieve revisionist effects short of war. If so, the United States needs to take them seriously and formulate meaningful responses.

To be clear, the case for gray zone campaigns is a provisional judgment. Recent actions by Russia and China could represent a much looser, more ad-hoc seizing of apparent opportunities. Leaders in both countries might have little conscious sense of conducting anything like a gray zone, threshold-straddling, measures-short-of-war campaign. An important recent analysis of the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine,” for example, suggests that the West should not read too much into its implications for Russian strategy. In my report, I look at various categories of evidence — including patterns of behavior and doctrinal statements — and conclude that there is reason to believe that recent hints do imply self-conscious strategies. But the case, I fully admit, remains inconclusive.

There is a certain truth to the fact that very little in world politics — or the assessment of it — is really new. Yet from time to time, patterns do emerge that — while their specific elements may be antique — reflect important and identifiable mixtures of interests, tactics, and intentions that become characteristic of a particular moment. Sometimes these patters pose a particular danger because they reflect unexpected and unplanned-for concepts: combined-arms blitzkrieg in 1939, insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s, hybrid war in 2006. At such times, terms and concepts can be helpful to understanding what is going on. They can point us to significant trends, make clear the need for analysis, and hint at the right responses — and do so by building on, rather than ignoring or replacing, the many important ideas that have gone before.


Michael J. Mazarr is the acting director of RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: Day Donaldson (adapted by WOTR)