American Strategy and the Six Phases of Grief


Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a new series in which thinkers from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will explore the U.S. military’s phasing construct and the line between war and peace.


From Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, to Russian aggression in the Ukraine, to Iranian activities across the Middle East, many of the U.S. military’s toughest challenges today are not “war” as we traditionally define it. They aren’t peace either. They lie in a “gray zone,” as many have called these situations, somewhere in between.

The United States struggles to meet these challenges. They fall below the threshold for triggering a violent response, which of course is no coincidence. U.S. adversaries intend to operate in this gray space, where they can advance their objectives through coercion and intimidation, changing facts on the ground while exploiting the ambiguity of their actions to avoid triggering an overt U.S. military response.

One of the challenges of competing in gray zones is that the U.S. military is sub-optimized – conceptually and organizationally – to do so short of conflict. The Pentagon’s dominant paradigm for allocating resources and granting authorities centers around operation plans (OPLANS), which generally address major conflict. To counter gray-zone tactics, combatant commanders need the right authorities, resources, and plans. But the fact that these may not lead to major combat operations actually throws a wrench in the way that Pentagon plans. If counter-gray zone approaches work, they would secure U.S. objectives without resorting to major war. Yet even the term the U.S. military uses to refer to steady-state military “shaping” operations, “phase 0,” implies that they are the starting point for a larger multi-phase campaign.

The U.S. military’s dominant paradigm for operations is a six-phase planning construct, consisting of phase 0 (shape), phase I (deter), phase II (seize initiative), phase III (dominate), phase IV (stabilize), and finally, phase V (enable civil authority). This implies a linear progression of conflict through a culminating phase (phase III) of major combat operations, and then a “post-conflict” period of stabilization and transition. Within this paradigm, the central decisive point is assumed to be phase III, and the bulk of the U.S. military’s attention for resourcing, modernizing, training, and allocating risk is found there. While the United States is getting ready for the big fight, however, its adversaries are working to accomplish their objectives short of open conflict.

Phasing construct (JP 5-0, Joint Operational Planning).

This paradigm is not particularly useful for the problems the United States faces today. In a recent talk, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford elaborated at length about the awkward fit between this model and what our adversaries are doing:

[W]e need to develop more effective methods to deal with what we’ve seen of Russian behavior in Georgia, the Crimea, and the Ukraine, or Iranian malign influence across the Middle East or Chinese behavior in the South and East China Sea.

Our traditional approach is either we’re at peace or at conflict.  And I think that’s insufficient to deal with the actors that actually seek to advance their interests while avoiding our strengths.  And as an aside, you know, I don’t find the current phasing construct for operational plans particularly useful right now.  If you think about it, we bend authorities and capabilities according to where we think we are in a phase.  And our adversaries, or potential adversaries, or our competitors, they don’t actually – they don’t actually find themselves limited by that same – by that same framework.

And just as an example … we gathered all the combatant commanders together last fall.  We said:  Hey, in your area of responsibility, what phase is your adversary in? …  and consistently the combatant commanders said:  Well, I think our adversary is in phase 2, or our adversary is in phase 2 ½.

And what that means is the actions that they are taking on a day-to-day basis, whether it be in what’s been described as the “gray space” – I call it competition with a military dimension short of a phase 3 or traditional conflict, but the activities that they’re taking with regard to employment of cyber, unconventional capabilities, space capabilities, information operations are absolutely not associated with what we would call phase zero shaping.

This is a problem. The phasing construct is a tool the U.S. military created to help understand conflict, but now it’s muddying the waters. At best, it is not particularly useful for today’s challenges. At worst, it hampers U.S. effectiveness in responding if Defense Department leaders need to “bend authorities and capabilities according to where we think we are in a phase.” A tool for thinking about conflict should help facilitate understanding the conflict and crafting solutions – not be an overly restrictive box that planners must shoehorn their approaches into.

Gray-zone approaches cannot be dismissed as “military operations other than war” that should be disregarded or given a lesser priority. Even if no shots are fired, gray-zone tactics still include the use (or threat) of military force to achieve political objectives. Russian moves in Crimea and the Ukraine and Chinese moves in the South China Sea should be seen for what they are – they naked use of military power to seize territory by force. Gray-zone tactics are part and parcel of great power competition, and if the United States is going to contend with Russian and Chinese aggression, it will need to be able to counter these approaches.

There is no “right” way to think about war. This series will explore the seams between war and peace and new paradigms for thinking about conflict. The aim of this series is to generate fresh thinking, new tools, and alternative approaches to help U.S. planners grapple with the challenges the U.S. military faces today.


Paul Scharre is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Jada Owens