Saturday, February 6, 2016

Paradoxes of the Gray Zone by Hal Brands

A very important addition to the discussion on the Gray Zone. Hal Brands has done an excellent job outline the 8 paradoxes excerpted below. I would add a couple of things. I am heartened to see the recognition of what is old is new again. Although he does not use unconventional warfare and counter unconventional warfare I think those concepts are implicit within his essay and these 8 paradoxes.
1.     “Gray zone” cannot mean everything if it is to mean anything
2.     Gray zone challenges are the wave of the future—and a blast from the past
3.     Gray zone conflict reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the international order
4.     Gray zone strategies are weapons of the weak against the strong—and of the strong against the weak
5.     Confronting gray zone challenges requires both embracing and dispelling ambiguity
6.     Gray zone conflict is aggression, but military tools are only part of the response
7.     America is not poorly equipped for the gray zone—but it may not be fully prepared
8.     Gray zone challenges can be productive and counterproductive at the same time

First in the gray zone we are going to see a continued struggle between unconventional warfare and counter-unconventional warfare ( We are have seen, are seeing, and will continue to see nation-states and non-state actors exploiting the conditions of revolution, resistance and insurgency ( to achieve their strategic objectives. This causes some conflict between the vital interests of the US and our fundamental values. It is in our national interest to ensure a stable international system based on the concept of sovereignty. Until a new international system can be devised (which may theoretically require nation states to give up sovereignty which I do not see happening as long as the US remains in existence) the US must support the Westphalian nation state system. Yet our fundamental values rely on self determination of government by the people. This interest and value are seemingly incommensurable. When the sovereign nation state system is being challenged we have a national interest to protect it and this of course rests on the foundation of respect for and protection of sovereignty. When countries and non-state actors (e.g., Russia, Iran, China, Al Qaeda, and ISIL/ISIS/IS) are exploiting the conditions of revolution, resistance, and insurgency to destabilize the nation-state system we have an interest in countering them. This requires more than the application of Foreign Internal Defense (FID), interagency support for Internal Defense and Development (IDAD) Programs or Security Force Assistance (SFA) to help our friends partners, and allies to defend themselves against lawless, subversion, insurgency and terrorism. It requires a strategy to counter the strategies of those who are exploiting the conditions through execution of unconventional warfare with their own unique characteristics. Thus we need a strategy to counter the adversaries' unconventional warfare strategy. This is an important distinction because we overly focus on the conditions within the contested nation or region and we end up wanting to get involved by leading with expeditionary counterinsurgency and thus we become a de facto occupying force. Resistance and insurgency are the internal domestic problems of the government and its population and the US military and civilian agencies cannot fix the problems that give rise to the conditions of revolution resistance, and insurgency. We can advise and assist and provide support but we need to realize that our adversaries who are exploiting these conditions often have as an objective seeing the US sucked into a domestic conflict because they know the US will go "all in" and focus on the internal problems and try to fix them for the host nation while the real adversaries benefit from the conditions that are created. We fail to see the bigger picture and how our adversaries are exploiting internal conflicts for their interests. The solution to this is perhaps conducting an economy of force mission to help our friends, partners, and allies to defend themselves against resistance and to solve the problems that give rise to the resistance while focusing our main effort of strategy on countering those conducting unconventional warfare for their objectives. This is the essence of countering unconventional warfare (

Of course there are times when the conditions that give rise to revolution, resistance, and insurgency may need to be exploited by the US. Oppressive and illegitimate regimes conducting crimes against humanity or posing threats internally to their people and externally against other nation-states may also need to be countered in order to protect the international nation state system. This situation may warrant US support to revolution, resistance, and insurgency and this of course is a national decision and not one of SOF, the IC, State or DOD. Unconventional warfare may be a part of this national strategy but it may require more than the application of SOF. We may want to do this in way such as perhaps the French did to support the American Revolution. Of course many will say that is an anachronism and no longer applicable in the 21st century. But in fact while the conditions and situation are much different in the 21st Century the concept remains sound. One of the things that we should admire about the French is that not only did they provide some key advice and assistance, they provided important logistics support and their Navy was instrumental in the outcome of the Revolution. We might want to keep this concept in mind when we decide to support a revolution, resistance, or insurgency which leads me to support another point to emphasize.

The other aspect of Dr. Brands important essay is that unconventional warfare and counter unconventional warfare in the gray zone are not SOF exclusive or SOF dominated operations. It requires a national decision, and a nationally led effort that exploits the capabilities of SOF integrating conventional forces where appropriate, and employing all the required elements of national power in support of a strategy. We can look to the French for an example but we can also look to the Russians in Crimea and Ukraine and how they are employing their full range of military and civilian capabilities in a holistic manner to exploit revolution, resistance, and insurgency for their strategic objectives. The Iranians are conducting similar operations and the Chinese do in their own way. I am not at all advocating that we copy any of these adversaries but we can study and understand what they are doing and we know that effect joint military operations and effective integration of multiple integration of elements of national power are superior to the piecemeal application that is often focused on the wrong the problem -(note the importance here of concept of design - and Frank Hoffman's proposed principle of war - Understanding).

And I fully concur that America is well equipped for the gray zone but is not well prepared. The foundation of being prepared is the ability to "do" strategy in the gray zone. We have tactics, techniques, and procedures, we have the units and organizations, we have the ability to campaign in the gray zone and we have the instruments of national power. The question is whether we are prepared to orchestrate all these tools, organizations, and elements as part of a holistic strategy with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means. And a fundamental question is who (a singular person and a specific organization) is responsible for developing and executing the strategy to address the conditions that exist in the gray zone. I would submit that it is not SOF and it is not in DOD. There has to be a national level organization that must be responsible. The question is do we have national security structure capable of operating in the gray zone?

Paradoxes of the Gray Zone

Hal Brands is an associate professor of public policy and history at Duke University, and a senior fellow at FPRI. He is the author of three books, including What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (2014). His next book, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order, will be released this summer.

February 2016

Gray, it seems, is the new black. The concept of “gray zone” conflict has generated significant attention and controversy recently, within both the U.S. government and the broader strategic studies community. Some analysts have identified gray zone conflict as a new phenomenon that will increasingly characterize, and challenge, the international system in the years to come. Others have argued that the concept is overhyped, ahistorical, and perhaps even meaningless. “The ‘gray wars’ concept lacks even the most basic strategic sense,” writes Adam Elkus. “Beneath the hype is something rather 
ooh-la-lame rather than ooh-la-la.
So what is gray zone conflict, to begin with? Gray zone conflict is best understood as activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war. 

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