Special Operations Forces in the Gray Zone: An Operational Framework for Employing Special Operations Forces in the Space Between War and Peace
What do we mean by “gray zone”? To some, it is the zone between the identification of an imminent threat and the enemy’s attack,1 while others remove the requirement for an imminent threat and treat the term more broadly as “the area existing short of a formal state of war.”2 Still others question the value of the term and argue that so-called gray zone activities are identical to what we once called “international competition,” a timeless paradigm for understanding the nature of international relations.3 Recent attempts to define the gray zone have indeed lacked precision, which has hindered the US government’s attempts to develop appropriate responses. Problematic though the term may be, however, rejecting it entirely belies the changing nature and rapidity of international competition and undermines current momentum to address America’s strategic incoherence outside of the orthodox peace/war duality. The real terminological problem may in fact be the quest for a prescriptive definition of “gray zone” rather than a descriptive one, as gray zone challenges differ from actor to actor and from theater to theater.4 Attempting to create a taxonomy for something that, by definition, defies categorization reflects the strategist’s instinct to define an unambiguous and static end goal; it does not, however, adequately address the opaque nature of the problems presented by gray conflict.
Special operations forces (SOF), along with elements of the intelligence community, are uniquely adapted to operating in this ambiguous zone. Tradecraft and operational approaches tied to irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, information warfare, and building partner capacity are both indigenous to SOF and important tools to addressing gray zone challenges, and they should certainly be enhanced.
Enhancing capabilities alone, however, will not be sufficient to address gray zone challenges. America’s enemies already know that they cannot compete with its conventional military power; they have no other choice but to observe and react to their stronger adversary. Rather than trying to level the conventional playing field, a winning strategy for them is to leverage asymmetric strengths that minimize the relevance of America’s superior military. The outdated, rigid frameworks that form the basis of the American military’s approach to conflict and friction points within the military itself are two areas that, if not addressed, will reduce the relevance of America’s overwhelming might.
The special operations community is not invulnerable to these weaknesses. The frameworks that drive SOF operations often account for ambiguity, but they are inevitably embedded within a larger formulaic approach to conflict that can undermine SOF effectiveness. Friction points outside of the SOF community similarly affect it, as do friction points between SOF and their partners. Further, as the SOF community is asked to take on an increasing share of the nation’s security responsibilities, its ability to operate in innovative ways and with agility, precision, subtlety, and speed—the very qualities needed to address gray zone challenges—may diminish if it is not used carefully and adroitly.