Seeing Gray in the Next World War


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our new special series, “Next War.”

Next to a strong country sits a weaker neighbor internally divided by a long-running political struggle.  Many yearn for unification with the stronger country, with whom they share cultural ties.  But many others are determined to maintain their country’s independence.  By overt and clandestine means, the stronger country skillfully shapes political events across the border.  As the pro-independence party clings to power in this weaker country, their strong neighbor uses a variety of means — from coercive diplomacy to influence operations and bribery — to undermine democratic institutions.  As the situation in the weaker country slips into violence, the stronger neighbor fabricates an official request for military assistance and announces it will send forces to “restore order” with the full consent of its weaker neighbor. Confusion reigns as a misinformation campaign, causing some to believe their head of government has resigned.  Recognizing defeat is imminent, the head of the weaker country’s government relinquishes power to a pro-unification politician.  The country’s military does not resist when forces enter from across the border.  Soon thereafter, news outlets report that a popular referendum shows 99.7 percent favor unification, ratifying the fait acompli.  No shots were fired.

At about the same time, far away, a nation of over 20 million people on the Mediterranean Sea is locked in a brutal civil war.  Ideologically motivated volunteers travel from afar to join the fight.  Major Western powers refuse to provide any direct military aid, but this only benefits the better-armed of the two factions, whose leader appeals to the larger country for support just as it is digesting its smaller neighbor. This leader receives aid in the form of weapons, military advice, and close air support.  A long-time adversary of the larger country answers the pleas of the opposing faction, lending similar but less effective assistance.  Fissures widen in the armed opposition and once allied groups begin to fight one another.  They lose.

Along the larger country’s shared border with a different weaker neighbor lives a sizeable population that shares the larger country’s ethnicity.  Members of this group genuinely live as second-class citizens.  But the larger country’s ministry of information raises tensions by spreading fake news about the minority group’s mistreatment.  This group then pushes for political autonomy and organizes pro-autonomy groups with mysterious external support.  The leaders of this small country refuse to bow to minority demands, so the larger country threatens military intervention.  However, when the smaller country mobilizes its military in anticipation, nothing happens. Recognizing the risk of a war into which they could be drawn, Western powers put pressure on the smaller country to allow their larger neighbor to simply annex those border regions where their ethnic group lives.  Later, a different ethnic group on the opposite side of the country also demands autonomy and appeals to the larger country for support.  Now under pressure from all sides, the smaller country agrees to come under the “protection” of its larger, demanding neighbor and is effectively annexed.

Most readers will have no difficulty imagining these scenarios as gray zones in the near future, or even the present.  The first scenario seems inspired by the current war in Ukraine.  The second could sketch the broad outlines of the war in Syria.  The third might anticipate a future conflict between Russia and a Baltic country.  They are not even particularly imaginative and, as many readers will have recognized, they are not imagined.

The first scenario reflects the struggle that led to Germany’s annexation of Austria, in 1938.  The second scenario recounts the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.  The third scenario represents Germany’s 1938 occupation of the Sudetenland and, subsequently, all of Czechoslovakia.  This is not to suggest that contemporary events are a prelude to world war.  While 2017 is not 1938, gray zone methods have rich historical precedent and are found in and among conventional wars, not necessarily in place of them.

Old Wine in a New Bottle

As Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of Central Command, and his co-authors noted in a Joint Forces Quarterly article, gray zone conflicts are “hardly new.” People have always engaged in protracted struggles using all available means. What is often overlooked in the contemporary rush to highlight gray zones is that these intense competitions often lead to conventional war.  There is an inherent escalation potential in gray zones.

Consider the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BCE).  Thucydides noted that the rise of Athens troubled the Spartans and “made war inevitable.” Seen from today, this ancient affair reads like a modern civil war rife with great power intervention and proxy war.  It all started when Epidamnus, a wealthy ancient city, fell “prey to factions” after a failed war against neighboring barbarians. The conflict left the city divided, with one faction siding with Corcya and the other siding with Corinth (a Spartan ally).  In an effort to gain a position of advantage, Corcya aligned with Athens.  As seen in this seminal case, gray zones become conventional war zones as great powers, seeking positions of competitive advantage, challenge one another in the periphery.

Conventional war zones also become gray zones.  Consider the aftermath of the American Revolution in North America.  While the 1783 Treaty of Paris formally ended the conflict, Britain maintained troops in forts in the Northwest frontier and sold weapons to local tribes.  British agents encouraged these tribes to launch raids against American settlers.  Effectively, the British waged a gray zone campaign to suppress the newly independent American state.

This gray zone struggle continued on the high seas and took advantage of a growing divide in the new Republic.  The Royal Navy press ganged American sailors and coerced American vessels on the high seas leading to economic warfare of the day through the Embargo Act of 1807.   Furthermore, the competition with Great Britain exacerbated American political tensions, pitting the Federalists, who favored strong economic ties with Britain, against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party opposed to closer ties.

Why Gray Zones Become War Zones

International relations scholarship offers insights into escalation potential.  First, bargaining theory shows us rational actors can and do fight irrational wars.  Each side is trying to get the best possible deal short of fighting wars fraught with risks, costs, and ex post inefficiencies. There are important information asymmetries, including disagreements over relative power and underestimating an opponent’s resolve.  These information asymmetries can trigger interstate wars and even complicate civil wars.

Could the Syrian civil war become Epidamus?  U.S.-backed groups struggle against Assad, who is aligned with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.  Such multiparty conflicts face increased information asymmetries and could conceivably cause a breakdown in coercive bargaining.  Especially in the wake of the American election, each side may test the resolve of the other.  Or maybe we already experienced our Epidamus with Ukraine and we just do not know it yet.

Second, there are implicit commitment issues in bargaining – “situations in which mutually preferable bargains are unattainable because one or more states would have an incentive to renege on the terms.”  Power imbalances can create perverse incentives to strike first.  According to James Fearon, “if geography or military technology happened to create large first-strike or offensive advantages, then states might face the same problem as gunslingers.”  He who shoots first, wins.  Commitment issues lie at the center of both the prisoners’ dilemma and the security dilemma.  Actions one takes to secure one’s interests can destabilize the crisis.  Furthermore, when actors perceive relative power changing in the future, they have incentives to launch otherwise irrational wars in the present.  According to James Fearon, a “declining state attacks not because it fears being attacked …. [but] because it fears the peace it will have to accept after the rival has grown strong.”

These commitment issues loom over the NATO-Russian relations.  Russia is currently undermining NATO through a combination of strategic force posture and information warfare campaigns targeting democratic institutions and public attitudes.  Yet there is now and will continue to be a significant power gap between the alliance and the declining Russian state.  At what point might Russian leaders, fearing a further deterioration in the power balance, risk war in the near-term to avoid greater losses in the long-term?

Gray Zones in War Zones

Adversaries in war seek every opportunity to gain a position of advantage.  They adapt their ends, ways, and means to what Chinese strategic theorists call Shih, the unique configuration of power inherent in the environment.  In large-scale wars fought amongst civilian populations, there is a latent power in, to use General Gerasimov’s words, “the protest potential of the population.”  Gray zone-type activity – from political and information warfare to sabotage – is an important competitive space within a conventional war zone.

Consider World War II.  Lost in the stories of tank, amphibious and strategic bombing campaigns are the important roles played by irregular campaigns.  The British set up the Special Operations Executive, in the words of founder Hugh Dalton, to create a “democratic international” employing “industrial and military sabotage, labour agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts against traitors and leaders, boycotts, and riots” to undermine the Axis from within.  They used “irregular diplomats” to establish contacts with opposition groups across the European continent and built an infrastructure for establishing partisan campaigns behind enemy lines.  These irregular diplomats also played a critical role in deception campaigns, keeping the Axis powers guessing where a second front might open up.

Also little-known is the role of Philippine resistance to Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and particularly the role of regular U.S. Army officers in that irregular campaign.  For example, at the time of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Russell W. Volkmann was a U.S. Army officer serving with the Philippine Army.  After the defeat of U.S. conventional forces, Volkmann and others remained behind enemy lines for three years, leading mostly Filipino guerillas against the Japanese.  Eventually making contact with and receiving outside support from U.S. forces, Volkmann’s guerillas made their most significant contributions by coordinating their actions with the conventional forces that invaded Luzon in 1945.

Gray Zones in the Next World War?

The circumstances that mitigated escalatory risk of gray zones for the last 70 years are fading.  In 1945, because of a confluence of global events, the United States found itself in a historically unique position.  The experience of two world wars and the threat of Soviet expansionism created a bipolar international system was stable enough to keep most competition inside the gray zone while generating a stability-instability paradox.  The risk of nuclear confrontation pushed great power confrontation into the periphery, often in the form of proxy struggles and covert action.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, a unipolar moment emerged.  Washington enjoyed a “command of commons,” a significant military advantage that sustained American hegemony and decreased the probability of conventional war.

The future is multipolar and much messier.  The recently released National Intelligence Council Global Trends report is candid: “the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II.”  The report predicts a heightened risk of conflict, including inter-state, in the next 20 years as the world transitions to multipolarity.  According to the authors, “the last 20 years’ trend of decreasing numbers and intensities of conflicts appears to be reversing: current conflict levels are increasing and battle-related deaths and other human costs of conflict are up sharply.”  The report also predicts increasingly fervent gray zone struggle.  This combination of increasingly intense gray zone competition in a multipolar international system is likely to increase information asymmetries while generating commitment issues.   There will be an increased risk that coercive bargaining gives way to conventional war.

The juxtaposition of conventional or “high-end” and gray zone war obscures more than it clarifies. The examples above highlight that gray zones can become conventional war zones.  Similarly, conventional war zones tend to have concurrent gray zone campaigns. Rather than adding adjectives to describe war, we would be better off starting from the premise that competition is continuous, with intensity that ebbs and flows.  What we see as gray zones and conventional war zones are just different escalation levels in protracted political struggle.


Neil Hollenbeck is a major in the US Army currently serving in the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group.  He is an infantry officer with previous assignments in the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions and on the faculty at West Point.

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual appointment at Marine Corps University and American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army, 1975-2010.

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of their organizations or any entity of the U.S. government. 

Image: U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Markus Rauchenberger