2 January 2016

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

by Dave Betz
Journal Article | December 28, 2015
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.
Dave Betz

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.

No comments: