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Gray Zone Conflicts May Be the New Normal, But Will Have the Same Marginal Success

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Gray Zone Conflicts May Be the New Normal, But Will Have the Same Marginal Success

Dave Betz

Gray Zone conflicts or Shadow Wars will require a new approach to military operational art. Gray Zone conflicts or Shadow Wars are not a formal type war.  They are not traditional conflicts or full scale wars between nations or states.  Gray Zone conflicts are not new, the El Salvador conflict in the 1980s and the Somalia Wars in the 1990s are examples of past Gray Zone or Shadow Wars supported by minimum US SOF Forces.  Gray Zone conflicts are prevalent as ever and are now becoming the new normal with the recent examples as the Russia Shadow War in the Crimea, the growth of ISIL in the Levant, and the Boko-Harim incursion into West Africa.

 The Military Approach to Gray Zone Conflicts

The current US SOF military approach to a Gray Zone conflict is through two approaches. The indirect approach and the direct approach or often called surgical strike operations.  The indirect approach entails SOF forces conducting foreign assistance training and advisory operations to the indigenous forces of the conflict.  The main effort for the indirect approach is to build partnership capacity of indigenous force that can provide security and stability of the human domain of the Gray Zone.  SOF forces are keenly trained in building partnership capacity or advise and assist operations. SOF forces are an economy of force that can provide a surgical strike capability, to protect the indigenous populace from both internal and external enemy threats. The surgical strike effort or direct approach can offset the enemy, until sufficient indigenous forces are available to deny an adversary a decisive advantage on the Gray Zone populace.  

The Lack of Operational Art Education

A small foot print on the ground of SOF teams working by, with and through indigenous proxies in Gray Zone is a viable option to respond and deter Shadow Wars.    SOF ground force commanders often face the reality that Gray Zone conflicts have plethora of restrictions, constraints and challenges.  Military Service Professional Military Education (PME) institutions currently lack development in military operational design and art of Gray Zone military campaign development. Only SOCOM provides an enlisted PME to its senior NCOs for this type of warfare. The Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Career Education Program Three (CEP 3) PME addresses operational art, design and campaigning in Gray Zone type conflicts.

“Operational art is the thoughtful sequencing of tactical actions to defeat a component of the armed forces of the enemy” (Kelly & Brennen).  In Gray Zone conflicts, defeat of the enemy may not be attainable nor is the word “defeat” applicable to the conflict.  SOF Forces must think in terms of negate, controvert or disaffirm the enemy from the human terrain. 

The Tactics and Operational Art to Apply to Gray Zone Conflicts Are:

  • Doing with less; extremely limited resources
  • “Boots on the Ground” restrictions
  • Department of Defense NOT in the lead
  • Whole of Government nested Military Indirect/Surgical Strike approach
  • The ability to advise and assist indigenous proxies/forces
  • Regional expertise and language capability
  • Extreme  or "in extremis" negotiations
  • Extended periods of time in the Gray Zone
  • The supply vs. demand of SOF and GPF Mobile Training Teams
  • Intelligence based operations for precision Targeting/Force Protection
  • Accepting there will be no defined US military victory

Doing with Less

Gray Zone conflicts will require SOF forces to operate on the “cheap”, it is dirty finger- nail training, with limited resources.  Phase Zero (Shaping) or Phase One (Deter) operations have been historically a low priority, under-funded and conducted with limited resources.  There is no reason why history will not repeat itself in future Gray Zone conflicts or “Shadow Wars”.  Future Gray Zone conflicts will have the same limited resources and the same sparse political support.

Boots on the Ground Restrictions

The common recent doctrine to apply to conflicts is the Powell Doctrine; the doctrine is applying the maximum available force to a conflict and taking ownership of the conflict.  The Powell Doctrine should not be applied to Gray Zone conflicts.  The strategy of minimum force or restricted “boots on the ground” is the new normal.  Minimum forces will not take ownership of the conflict.  The indigenous or coalition forces are the principled owners of the conflict with US SOF forces supporting their effort.

Department of Defense Not in the Lead

SOF Forces do not, nor should not have a military controlled battlespace in a Gray Zone.  The Ambassador and country team will set the agenda and the SOF Force must understand that they are really working for an appointed Department of State civilian with a degree from Harvard Business School, not a Two-Star General that graduated from West Point sitting in Tampa.  All SOF personnel must have the ability or charm school credentials to engage all Inter-Agency, NGOs, and other stakeholders in the Gray Zone.

Advise and Assist Indigenous Proxies/Forces Operations

The indirect approach will continue to move to the forefront on how to influence indigenous forces to meet US political goals and acceptable outcomes.  The whole of government approach must be incorporated into the strategy of the conflict.  The military focuses on security of the populace, but often other areas are neglected because of the lack of inter-agency assets.  This lack of assets gives the opportunity for adversaries and non-state actors to move into the social, political and economic sectors of the society.  As example, Hezbollah’s whole of government control of southern Lebanon or the Iranian-Shia approach in Southern Iraq. 

SOF Regional Expertise and Language Capability

SOF Forces are the best solution to fight Grey Zone conflicts.  They are trained to advise and assist indigenous forces in all phases of war.  SOF Forces are highly skilled in training indigenous forces from the individual to collective level of military training.  The training culminates into building partner forces military capacity.  SOF Forces are skilled in indigenous foreign languages.  They know the culture and are regionally astute to their operational environment.  Their ability to speak an indigenous soldier’s language, build rapport and trust train and fight with him, cannot be overstated. 

Extreme or "In Extremis" Negotiations

SOF Forces have excellent skills in extreme or “in extremis" negotiations. Jeff Weiss, adjunct professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point calls extreme negations "dangerous negotiations, in which the traps are many and good advice is scarce” (2010).  Often the SOF ground force commander will need to negotiate instead of shooting or getting shot. Extreme negotiations in the Gray Zone make every Green Beret, SEAL, and MARSOC Raider a “strategic corporal” whose actions or words can result into both positive and negative strategic results. 

The Supply vs. Demand of SOF

Gray Zone conflicts may take years to gain an acceptable political positive result, but there are not enough SOF units that can deploy and engage in every Gray Zone conflict.  The demand for the force is high, but the supply is low and fixed by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) SOF zero growth statues.  The high demand of SOF units will continue, they are already over-worked and frayed due to their Operational Tempo. DOD must transform and institutionalize the development of General Purpose Force Advisor Units.  SOF cannot nor needs to conduct every advisor position in a Grey Zone conflict; combat service support and other military specialty positions can be off-set by General Purpose Force Advisor Units.

Surgical Strike, Precision Targeting and Information Operations

Intelligence fused with operations utilizing the F3EAD SOF targeting process must be nested with all forces operating in a Gray Zone conflict.  Force protection must also be provided for the vulnerable advisory teams that are small in nature and located in austere locations.

The last step in the F3EAD process is the disseminate phase. One of the keys to success of the SOF F3EAD targeting process is sharing and disseminating of the targeting information to our allies, partners and indigenous forces in Gray Zone conflicts.  Continued expansion of information sharing (dissemination) will enable our partner nations to exercise precision-strike capability.

The surgical strike effort must always be used with precision, used sparingly and used diligently.  Substantial amounts of collateral damage (CIVCAS) can quickly nullify desired outcomes.  Kinetic operations should not be conducted unilaterally and be nested with Information Operations (IO).  The IO theme must always answer, why did we kill those people?  The response to the why must be fast, justified, indigenous themed and most important comprehensible to the local populace.

According to Cleveland, Pick, and Farris (2015) “Our success will be largely defined by our indigenous allies and coalition partners realizing their own acceptable political outcomes. Success may be defined in terms of retaining decision space or simply denying an adversary a decisive positional advantage”. 

No Defined US Military Victory and Influencing US Policy Makers

The new normal will be that there may not be a defined US military victory outcome in Gray Zone Conflicts.  Success is also dependent on the limited resources that are currently available, the frayed SOF military personnel are already conducting long arduous military operations and the US political will to support another Gray Zone conflict. 

Gray Zone-type conflicts conducted at the tactical to operational level are through in-country indigenous-centric operations.  Conversely, Gray Zone conflicts at the strategic level are often US politically based Beltway-centric operations.  SOF ground force commanders are trained to develop lethal and non-lethal priorities and apply their priorities through indigenous proxies at the tactical and operational level.  They are not educated nor trained to execute a strategic engagement plan, to keep US policy makers informed and gain their continued support.  Strategic engagements are conducted at the COCOM or Joint Force level to US policy makers; rarely does the actual SOF ground force commander given the opportunity to influence US policy-makers in the Beltway.   The four-star level General or Admiral often briefs policy-makers with only prepared talking points that lack specificity or detail to influence the policy-makers.  Therefore, opportunity and transparency is lost and so does the level influence in the civilian sector of the government by junior officers and NCOs. 

Support for multiple Gray Zone conflicts at the national level are often is lost in the other priorities of the National Defense Strategy.  Some policy makers prefer to support the priorities of domestic spending and their programs over defense spending programs that support small or Shadow Wars. Gray Zone conflicts or Shadow Wars are often lengthy. They take time.  Policy makers often do not demonstrate patience in Gray Zone conflicts.  There has been an historical record of the lack of political will and fortitude of US policy makers for long detracted conflicts.  The US populace also has had a lack of concern or patience for long costly conflicts. 

Gray Zone Conflicts Will Continue to Have Marginal Success

The cost, lack of concern and patience may be the Achilles Heel for US military success in future Gray Zone conflicts.  SOF forces will not be in any New York ticker tape victory parades or seen by the populace as glorious heroes returning home from an obscure Gray Zone conflict.  Welcome home or support the troops signs to the SOF participants of Gray Zone conflicts or Shadow Wars will nowhere in sight; except for the immediate military families welcoming their loved ones back home from another long arduous deployment. 

Gray Zone conflicts will continue to have marginal success, due to the length of time, commitment and lack of patience for a defined victory.  Militarily, a paradigm shift will also need to take place in the designing and executing Gray Zone campaigns.  Regardless of the level of success, the mission will continued to be carried out on the backs of SOF forces that are already frayed, have an extremely high operational tempo and are minimally supported by the policy makers and the populace.


Cleveland, C.T., Pick, S.S., & Farris, S.L., (August 17, 2015).  Shedding Light on the Gray Zone: A New Approach to Human-Centric Warfare.  Army.  Association of the United States Army.  Page 1.

Kelly, J., & Brennan M. (September 2009).  Alien:  How Operational Art Devoured Strategy. Strategic Studies Institute Journal, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. Carlisle, PA.  ISBN 1-58487-402-3, Page.98.

Weiss, J., Donigian, A., & Hughes, J. (November 2010). Extreme Negotiations.  Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing.  Page 2.

About the Author(s)

Dave Betz was assigned to 5th SFG (A) and served as the Senior Weapons Sergeant, Intelligence Sergeant, Operations Sergeant, First Sergeant, S-3 SGM and Company SGM.  He was the Senior Enlisted Advisor for USSOCOM Spe­­cial Operations Knowledge and Futures, CSM for 1/5 SFG (A), SOTF-North Iraq and the SOCCENT Cultural Engagement Group (CEG).  CSM David Betz retired from the Army as the Joint Special Operations University Command Senior Enlisted Leader.  He currently is a contractor in the private sector.  Dave Betz’s education includes:  Ranger School Class 12-84, the Special Forces Qualification Course, and the Keystone Course.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College and a Masters of Arts degree in Business Management and Leadership from Liberty University.  He has served in numerous campaigns and deployments to include:  Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, Haiti, Operations Iris Gold, Desert Spring, Desert Fox in Kuwait, Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom I, II, III and V.


The arguments in this article seem to be a thinly veiled attempt to further justify employing Special Forces as a lead element to protect U.S. interests in the Gray Zone. SF doesn't need further justification, they have proven their utility since their inception. The argument presented was basically about SF operational approaches, but little to do with the gray zone.

There was nothing gray about the civil war / insurgency in El Salvador. It was an insurgency that received some degree of state support. Arguably it was part of a larger USSR strategy to spread communism. The point is that not all insurgencies, rebellions, or unconventional conflicts are gray zone activities. There is certainly nothing gray about the Islamic State, the FARC, MILF, etc.

The phrase gray zone by itself means little, but it does mean something when we say an adversary is using a "gray zone strategy" to promote its interests, especially when their interests challenge ours. Gray zone strategies generally combine a number of tools (diplomatic, economic, informational, covert, paramilitary, cyber, etc.) in way that are intended to gradually achieve strategic ends over time without triggering a conventional and high risk armed conflict.

Not all gray zone strategies are gradual though. For example, the Russians set conditions to rapidly seize Crimea using little green men, criminal organizations, and disaffected locals. Once this feat was completed, the West faced a dilemma, do they risk war to liberate Crimea from Russia, let Russia keep it, or execute their own gray zone strategy to impose costs on Russia for their transgression of international norms? I think it is clear we're gray zone players also. In fact, it can be argued the Russian actions were hybrid warfare, not really a gray zone strategy, while our response is a gray zone strategy designed to achieve objectives over time without risking conventional or nuclear war with Russia.

China uses a gray zone approach in the South China Sea that not only uses a wide range of tools short of war, they also employ their conventional forces (much like Russia) as a not so veiled threat to anyone that challenges the illegal behavior of their paramilitary fishing fleets and other activities. This is a case where a gray zone strategy should not be conflated with special operations. It is a non-conventional use of their conventional and paramilitary forces, but SOF plays a small role if any at all.

U.S. and partner SOF certainly have a role in countering an adversary's use of gray zone strategies, and in select cases they may have the lead role. SOF may also support implement U.S. gray zone strategies by employing their core skills sets. Gray zone strategies and irregular warfare are not interchangeable terms. Not all irregular warfare is part of a larger gray zone strategy, but sometimes it is. Our challenge is recognizing when they areis and developing an appropriate counter strategy to protect our interests.

We increasingly act like moths drawn to lit light bulb at night. That light bulb is the latest buzz word / phrase circulating in the media, whether it asymmetric, irregular, hybrid, or gray zone. These terms have value in describing a condition we're challenged with in some locations, but we quickly distort the original idea and attempt to make the new phrase conform to our existing and highly biased view on warfare and security operations to justify resources for whatever our pet peeve may be. Biased thinking based on service or functional command self-interests puts our national security at risk, but probably a risk we can't escape due to human nature.


Tue, 12/29/2015 - 10:55am

"Department of Defense Not in the Lead

SOF Forces do not, nor should not have a military controlled battlespace in a Gray Zone. The Ambassador and country team will set the agenda and the SOF Force must understand that they are really working for an appointed Department of State civilian with a degree from Harvard Business School, not a Two-Star General that graduated from West Point sitting in Tampa. All SOF personnel must have the ability or charm school credentials to engage all Inter-Agency, NGOs, and other stakeholders in the Gray Zone."

True, if only things were going to be that simple.

The US Ambassador, who is appointed by the President as his representative and may or may not be a State Department civilian, doesn't work in a microcosm either. He/she is taking direction and executing policy from the National Command Authority just like we are (as a former Chief of Station told me, "remember we work for the same government you do, for good and ill.". The Ambassador is assisted by a uniformed member of their country team (generally a senior field grade officer with 20+ years of service) who has delegated authorities and responsibilities from the SECDEF/CJCS/COCOM Commander for all DOD activities that occur in their country.

SF (sorry, but I don't automatically consider the other members of the SOF community has having the same skill set that Army Special Forces brings to the table) works as a sub-contractor in carrying out those DOD missions that support the wider policy goals that have been established for the country/region. While SF (and even the larger SOF community) are my preferred tool, they aren't the only one, and there are many tasks where use of conventional forces is more appropriate, freeing more specialized capabilities for more specialized tasks.

Success = winning in Phase 0 with little to no direct US military involvement.

"Gray zone conflicts may be the new normal, but will have the same marginal success."

"Success" in today's New/Reverse Cold War -- much as was the case of the Old Cold War of yesterday -- is defined differently by the opposed parties.

In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when communism was on the march, the Soviets defined "success" in terms of "expansion" -- of their way of life, their way of governance and their values, attitudes and beliefs.

The U.S./the West, for their part in the Old Cold War, defined "success" more in terms of "containment" and/or "roll back" -- this, re: the Soviets/the communists' such expansionist endeavors.

In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, with market-democracy now being on the march, it is the U.S./the West that now defines "success" in terms of "expansion" -- in this case, of our way of life, our way of governance and our foundational values, attitudes and beliefs.

Thus, it is the Rest, in today's New/Reverse Cold War, who now define "success" more in terms of "containment"/"roll back," etc.

In both cases above (the Old Cold War of yesterday and/or the New/Reverse Cold War of today), it was/is believed that the use of large numbers of conventional forces (should these be available) could/would lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Thus, this means of pursuing one's interests (of expansion or containment/roll back respectively) was often considered madness.

This being the similar case today, then we must expect that the opposed parties of today will, likewise, pursue their opposed interests via other ways and other means.

Significant among these "other ways and other means" -- today as in the past -- will be (a) the use of special operations forces in (b) the "grey zone" between war and peace.

This, whether or not absolute and complete "success" (see my definitions above) is likely to, thereby, be realized by either party.

Thus, and re: all these such "what's old is new again" matters (political warfare, unconventional warfare, etc.) it is, indeed, "de ja vu all over again."

With the distinct caveat/difference being that, in today's New/Reverse Cold War, "we" are more the expansionist party (and, thus, have the more difficult task?) and "they" are more the containment/roll back parties (and, thus, have the easier task?).

And it is this amazingly important fact/matter that we can not -- and must not -- forget to factor in.

This, if we are to understand anything.


Mon, 12/28/2015 - 6:06pm

On my first reading I wondered can such 'gray zones' exist in megacities, e.g. Lagos, Nigeria? Size and much more aside can such activity be successful when there are so many watchers and most likely with a camera phone?

With a few exceptions. notably Iraq, but not Afghanistan, we seem to think and act as if 'the problem' or threat will be found in the countryside.

Where would these suggestions fit if and returning to Nigeria again, if Boko Haram was in fact based in Lagos, not the mainly rural north-east?

We really do seem too ready to apply "Band Aid" with SOF. Have we really learnt from our experiences since 2011? Yemen comes to mind as an example, one which for political reasons few will acknowledge.

More a series of questions than statements:

1)With the global rise in urban mega ghettos as per Kilcullen's "Out of the Mountains" combined with the global rise in Non State Actor illicit networks and the need to focus on additional non-kinetic options, is there a growing need for an overt but discrete "Grey Diplomatic Corps"?

By that I mean a thin layer additional between Department of State FSOs and covert OGA/ overt ODA activity in host nations that possess significant Non State Actor activity and semi/non-permissive NSA governed spaces.

2)Can the US better leverage it's human capital for foreign policy mission execution by funnelling a slice of long service Army SF personnel who are reaching "end of service life" on kinetic operations but highly experienced in linguistic, cultural, and unconventional diplomatic skills for a full 2nd career as "grey diplomats"?

Civilian retired long service SF personnel overtly but discretely injected long-term into the local NSA grey diplomacy equation.

Would this not compliment DOS and ODA(Volkmann) activity focused on sovereign networks and governance?

Admittedly, the challenges to defuse resistance from sovereign governments fearful of legitimising NSAs that possess effective governance of semi-non permissive spaces within their sovereign territory would be a huge challenge.

3)Should there be a formal strategic framework for NSAs that pass a "litmus test" to compel some form of grey diplomatic engagement?

4)Would direct and discrete engagement with NSAs similar to the SOF Truths?

Humans more important than hardware

Quality is better than quantity

Discrete NSA engagement capability cannot be mass produced

Discrete NSA engagement cannot be produced after emergencies occur

Discrete NSA engagement would require conventional support.