Gray zone security challenges…that fall between the traditional war and peace duality, are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks….
The U.S. already possesses the right mix of tools to prevail in the gray zone, but it must think, organize and act differently. Gray zone challenges are not new. Monikers such as irregular warfare, low-intensity conflict, asymmetric warfare, military operations other than war and small wars were employed to describe this phenomenon in the past. …
America spends roughly $600 billion every year on defense, and it is the dominant global power by every objective measure. Yet state and non-state actors (e.g., Russia and Daesh) are increasingly undeterred from acting in ways inimical to the global common good.
State actors like Russia and China reasonably believe we will not use nuclear or conventional military force to thwart their ambitions if they craft their aggressive actions to avoid clear-cut military triggers. Despite their inherent ambiguity, the United States should not be
frustrated by gray zone challenges. Rather, we should aim to achieve favorable outcomes by taking some practical steps to improve our ability to address them.
Our responses to gray zone challenges display several clear deficiencies. As separate U.S. government agencies strive to achieve their individual organizational goals, they seldom act in integrated ways to support wider government objectives….
We also need to grow our non-military capabilities. Our gray zone actions are often overly militarized because the Department of Defense has the most capability and resources, and thus is often the default U.S. government answer…. Our counter-Daesh campaign is a perfect example. Thousands of airstrikes helped to check their rapid expansion, but the decisive effort against them will require discrediting their narrative and connecting the people to legitimate governing structures — areas where DoD should not have primacy.
Root Causes: Prudent strategies recognize root causes and address them. Daesh, for example, is merely symptomatic of the much larger problems of massive populations of disaffected Sunnis estranged from legitimate governance and a breakdown in the social order across much
of Africa and the Middle East, which will worsen in coming years by economic and demographic trends. Daesh is also a prime example of gray zone challenges, since the legal and policy framework of how to attack a proto-state is highly ambiguous. Coalition aircraft started bombing Daesh in August of 2014, although the authorization for use of military force is still under debate a year later, highlighting the confusion on how to proceed.
Comprehensive Deterrence: Paradoxically, each deliberate gray zone challenge represents both a success and failure of deterrence — success in averting full-scale war, but a deterrent failure given the belligerent’s decision to take action in the gray zone.
[Develop and Nurture Surrogates to Fight China]
For example, China is both antagonistically asserting its questionable claims to specific islands
and atolls in the South China Sea while simultaneously expanding its import of raw materials from Africa. Instead of confronting China in the South China Sea directly, surrogates could, theoretically, be used to hold China’s African interests at risk in order to compel a more
favorable outcome of South China Sea disputes. Thus, the point of action (e.g., Africa) might be far removed from the point of effect (e.g., Asia), but the intent would be to alter the decision-making calculus regardless of geography. To be credible, such an approach requires
prep work every bit as important as the infrastructure behind our nuclear and conventional capabilities. Capable and trustworthy surrogates are the result of years of purposeful relationship nurturing, and the vast majority of the work should take place pre-crisis….
Changing our vocabulary could help yield better decisions in the gray zone. Adopting a business vocabulary and a “SWOT” model (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) would open other opportunities not available in military decision-making models. Similar to the way businesses decide how to allocate capital, we would necessarily distinguish between opportunities and threats and have at least an estimate of our expected return on investment. Talking and thinking differently about national security in the gray zone would help us measure the oft-ignored opportunity costs and come up with some metric, however imperfect initially, to measure our expected return on investment for defense dollars.
Cost should be a significant up front consideration. For example, we famously refused to provide a cost estimate for Operation Iraqi Freedom, other than to know that $200 billion was ar too high. Assuming we established $200 billion as the top end to “invest” in
Iraq, it would at least force us to review our actions and evaluate our return on investment as we blew through initial estimates on our way to spending in excess of $2 trillion.