15 June 2016

Perception is Reality: SOF in the Gray Zone

Some excellent work by Special Forces students at the Naval Postgraduate School. EXSUM is below.

This paper can be downloaded at this link. https://db.tt/JmTMWQye (Unfortunately it is a drop box link as this paper has not been published on line yet so you will have to access it from a non-government computer). The authors have given me permission to forward / post it.

This thesis examines two case studies of special operations forces (SOF) use in the Gray Zone—in Somalia in 1992–1993 and the Philippines in 2000–2015. Using the bureaucratic politics model as a framework and evaluating players, decision games, and outcomes, the choice to employ SOF is replayed and outcomes are evaluated in an empirical light.


By expanding on the current Gray Zone literature, our research added depth to the ongoing debate of what lies between war and peace and the Gray Zone’s utility. The Gray Zone is a system of environments between war and peace, relative to the actor (whether state or non-state), in which lethal actions and peaceful exchanges ebb and flow pushing the limits of internationally accepted norms. As an environmental condition, the Gray Zone is distinguished by four factors which detail its complexity and helps to frame the challenges any form of intervention will face. These factors are: multiple systems create this environment; actor relativity; the interconnectivity of lethality and diplomacy; and the friction this environment causes on the international system. Whether or not the Gray Zone term remains in vogue, we must understand the demands placed upon U.S. institutions tasked to accomplish foreign policy in the space between peace and war.

This research suggests that if SOF is given clear and concise policy objectives and the time to assess, plan, and execute a thorough irregular warfare campaign, it is likely to achieve policy objectives in the ambiguous environment between war and peace. If, conversely, SOF receives unclear guidance that must be followed rapidly, using a fraction of its competency, the likelihood of failure is high. The two case reviewed in this thesis illustrate the extremes of SOF application and results. Although every environment is different, the lessons from these cases can be applied to any proposed involvement of SOF in the Gray Zone, given proper logistical support and permission to execute a complete irregular warfare campaign.

This research suggests that in the evolving global threat environment, conventional thinking and outdated bureaucratic structures in which the interests of the organization are paramount and top echelons are isolated from direct communication with the field are unlikely to succeed in the Gray Zone. The habituated thinking of senior decision makers and the interests of formidable bureaucracies will not accommodate reform quickly or without growing pains—yet cognitive and organizational change must occur. President Obama’s selection of General Votel to command U.S. Central Command may indicate that change is underway,[1] as, for the first time, a career SOF officer will command a U.S. geographic combatant command. An unflagging effort to ensure that Gray Zone and irregular warfare concepts are well understood by senior decision makers, together with promotion of the spectrum of SOF capabilities, remains vital, if the United States is to meet foreign-policy goals.

SOF originated with the military’s need to operate effectively in the space between war and peace and differs from traditionally organized forces in that it is not designed around a weapon system or platform, but rather, relies on the operator as key. The individual SOF team member is the weapon—not because of high-tech gadgetry or the latest shooting techniques they employ, but because of their ability to nimbly and rapidly use unorthodox concepts and unconventional approaches to accomplishing missions. Deployed in small formations near the apex of a conflict, SOF is the most effective means to wage irregular warfare and the optimal choice for directly or indirectly achieving policy objectives where controlling a population by lethal or nonlethal means is the goal. 

Using Allison and Halperin’s bureaucratic-politics model, this research finds that interests, shared images, desired outcomes, and perceptions all influence a decision maker’s choice of action and method by which to act. This thesis focuses on policymaker perceptions of SOF and how they affect SOF utilization. Whether notions of SOF capability are adopted formally or informally, perception plays a powerful role in the decision game, and, as pertains to SOF, may have grave policy implications.

Lessons from Somalia and the Philippines

The case studies presented in this thesis illuminate two critical elements in the decision game, which is the aspect of the bureaucratic politics model that most affects the outcome of the action channel. 

Establish Long-Term Objectives

Senior players in the decision game must establish clear and concise long-term objectives. Conflicts within the Gray Zone are complex and often fluid in their connection to global events—but without definitive and realistic goals, players in the action channel cannot move past the operation’s immediate demands. The United States intervention in Somalia demonstrates that lack of clarity concerning long-term goals may have devastating effects on the action channel’s success. The concrete long-term objectives at work in the Philippines allowed an approach that, over time, attacked the problem from multiple angles and ultimately supported a more workable irregular warfare strategy than was pursued in Somalia. 

Know Your Limits

Senior players within the decision game must have a clear understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the chosen methods in the action channel. In Somalia, a decision was made to use SOF in a very narrow manner to solve a problem that was in reality but a symptom of greater problems. This narrow focus crippled any long-term positive effects of U.S. involvement. The decision to limit SOF activity in Somalia was due partly to an incomplete perception of SOF capabilities by senior and junior players and inadequate input from the action channel before and during the operation. By contrast, senior players in the Philippines had a good grasp of SOF capabilities through a better-informed perception of capabilities and a functional feedback loop between the decision and action channels. In themselves, these elements are not enough to ensure successful Gray Zone action; but without them, the application of military force will start at a grave disadvantage in complex situations.


This graphical representation of this research’s output places its findings in the context of the bureaucratic politics model. The action game is expanded to include the methods used to achieve policy objectives commonly identified within the field of international studies. 

In this figure, policy establishes the long-term objectives that help focus the intention of the decision game and direction of the action channel. The decision game’s output is the method of intervention within the action channel that will accomplish desired objectives. The intervention options available to senior players within the decision game are categorized as diplomatic activity, military operations, and covert action.[2] Each option has a congressionally mandated institution that manages its execution. The authors submit that military operations within the Gray Zone should favor irregular warfare methods over traditional warfare as regards the action channel. This does not minimize the utility of traditional warfare; it simply means that irregular warfare must take precedence during campaigns in the Gray Zone. Irregular warfare allows the multifaceted application of military force that focuses on relevant populations, uses SOF as the primary maneuvering element, and represents these operations as enacted by some entity other than U.S. forces. Currently, these concepts remain obscure to many senior players in the decision games and a clear narrative is needed to complete their perception. 

Senior players will not be prepared to establish successful policies for military force within the Gray Zone so long as their perceptions of SOF are limited or incomplete. If irregular warfare is to emerge strongly as a viable method within U.S. policy, a clear and concise narrative of SOF capabilities must be promulgated. ARSOF 2022 establishes the distinction between special warfare and surgical-strike operations within Army SOF, but fails to lay out for policymakers how actions taken with the range of available options can mutually support each other in irregular warfare campaigns.[3] To correct policymaker perceptions, the SOF narrative must move beyond counterterrorism to incorporate all aspects of irregular warfare. The global threat environment suggests that conflicts within the Gray Zone will not subside in the near future. If the United States is to prevail within this environment, decision-maker perceptions of SOF and irregular warfare must be accurate and complete.

[1] Associated Press, “Votel, Choice to Lead CENTCOM, Testifies Before Senate Armed Services Committee,” Tampa Tribune, March 9, 2016, http://www.tbo.com/list/military-news/votel-choice-to-lead-centcom-testifies-before-senate-armed-services-committee-20160309/.

[2] Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy (Washington, DC: Sage Publications, 2014), 181.

[3] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, “ARSOF 2022.” Special Warfare Special Edition, 2013.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies inthe School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.

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