‘Competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality,’ are defined as the “gray zone” by a recent U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) white paper. Others have proposed alternative definitions, or claimed no definition was necessary for the normal state of play between nation-states. Indeed, most combatant command planners would call this “phase zero,” and for much of our history—from the 19th century halls of Montezuma to the 21st century shores of Tripoli—the sea services simply knew it as “ops normal.” Despite that, SOCOM’s concept is a useful description of competition that falls short of open war, and can help chart the Navy’s course through the familiar yet uncertain waters of the gray zone.
SOCOM’s paper acknowledges that gray-zone challenges are not new. In illustrating the long history of gray zone conflicts, the paper makes the point that our unrivaled military dominance applies only to traditional state-on-state conflict, which is by far the exception. In the last 100 years, the paper mentions 5 traditional conflicts, 57 that fall into the gray zone (from Central America to East Africa and beyond), and the fact that it has been 70 years since the United States formally declared war on anyone.
The paper also identifies three key characteristics of gray-zone conflicts: aggressiveness, perspective dependence, and ambiguity. Ambiguity is most prevalent and can encompass the nature of the conflict, the parties involved, and even the policy and legal frameworks surrounding the situation. It is fed by perspective dependence, where the involved parties all view the conflict differently. SOCOM uses Ukraine as the principal example. Ukraine and Russia view the conflict as a genuine civil war, while the West approaches it as a diplomatic problem best addressed with sanctions. Finally, without aggression, conflicts would simply be peacetime competition.
SOCOM proposes to answer gray-zone challenges in a myriad of ways. The two most relevant to the Navy are reinvigorating comprehensive deterrence and a new approach to specialization. Comprehensive deterrence inevitably will include the Navy’s stock in trade, presence, but only as part of a wider strategy to make the costs of aggression or other gray-zone actions clear.
Specialization draws on the recognition—as articulated by the United Kingdom’s latest Strategic Defense and Security Review—that state-on-state warfare no longer is an “outlandishly remote eventuality,” and geostrategist Tom P.M. Barnett’s idea that two broad categories of military forces are required. Category One forces would mirror Barnett’s “Leviathan” force, and specialize in defeating hostile nation-states. Category Two, Barnett’s “System Administrator” forces, would focus on gray-zone operations with smaller, more agile and deployable units.
Fortunately, the Navy’s Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power broadly acknowledges the uncertainty of the gray zone, and the four essential functions it outlines (forward presence, maritime security, power projection, and deterrence) all have applicability in that environment. Even so, the main focus of the strategy is on conventional warfighting in an austere fiscal environment. While this will preserve a capable Category One force, it leaves little for the Category Two forces that will be needed by our Navy to face gray-zone challenges effectively.
While it is unquestionably good to preserve our Navy’s dominance in high-end warfare, more should be done to balance that investment with the tools necessary to succeed in the gray zone. The DOD Cyber Strategy, for instance, provides a clear way forward for high-end warfare, but we are still wrestling with concepts for information operations in more ambiguous environments. Where possible, the Navy should cast an eye to affordable multimission capabilities and leverage other service efforts. Littoral combat ship(LCS) mission packages as well as LCS support for Cyber Mission Force are good examples.
The U.S. Navy has a long history of operating in the gray zone. In today’s fiscally constrained environment, it will take wise investments to return to those historical roots while maintaining our unparalleled dominance in conventional warfighting.