30 November 2018

Examining Complex Forms of Conflict: Gray Zone and Hybrid Challenges

by Frank G. Hoffman – National Defense University’s Prism

The Joint Force, and the national security community as a whole, must be ready and able to respond to numerous challenges across the full spectrum of conflict including complex operations during peacetime and war. However, this presupposes a general acceptance of a well-understood taxonomy describing the elements that constitute the “continuum of conflict.” The U.S. security community lacks this taxonomy, despite its engagement in a spate of diverse conflicts around the globe from the South China Sea, to Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and beyond. Partially as a result of this conceptual challenge, we are falling behind in our readiness for the future. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford has admitted “We’re already behind in adapting to the changed character of war today in so many ways.” The U.S. national security establishment must devote greater attention to the range of challenges and adversaries it faces. The first step is recognizing the diversity of potential conflicts and understanding the relative risks of each.

American strategic culture is sometimes criticized for its emphasis on conventional, interstate war. This was acknowledged in a major 2012 lessons learned project produced by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that observed how a “big war” paradigm clouded our understanding and delayed the adaptation required for U.S. forces to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tendency to ignore certain types of threats or forms of conflict has impeded U.S. strategic performance in the past, and will continue to do so until we grasp the full range of conflict types. Without explicit recognition of diverse conflict types in U.S. strategy and doctrine, the armed services are likely to remain in a perpetual state of costly and reactive adaptation when called upon to address various threats.

As should be expected in any attempt to describe something as complex as war, there is much debate over characterizations and definitions. The lexicon of national security and defense analysis has been strained lately, struggling to describe the emerging and ambiguous complex threats we face, most of which fall well short of conventional war. Indeed, some threats do not meet the current threshold of what we think of as war at all.

Embracing a narrow conventional conception of conflict does not prepare future leaders for the range of emerging threats we face, nor is it conducive to developing doctrine and training. A myopic focus on conventional threats obscures the complexity of the phenomena and oversimplifies the challenges. It may also be a way of overemphasizing a preferred mission set or a conventional, big war paradigm, which narrows our cognitive understanding of conflict. That is a risk we have been bearing and for which we have paid a dear price for far too long…

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