Inaction can and does lead to risk when it comes to the
ever-increasing challenge posed by "gray zone" competition and
conflict, according to Prof. Nate Freier, a professor at the Army
War College's Strategic Studies Institute.
U.S. Army Soldiers participating in Saber Strike 15 conduct a
combined arms live-fire exercise June 19, 2015 at the Drawsko
Pomorskie Training Area in Poland. The U.S. military in Europe is
prepared to defend its NATO allies against Russian aggression. Thus
far, however, Russian aggression against Ukraine and other non-NATO
border nations has been in the form of asymmetric warfare, aka "gray
zone" warfare. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Marcus Floyd)
Freier was the project director and lead investigator on
a nine-month study effort, culminating in the War College
report "Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the
Gray Zone." Freier and a team of three additional War
College faculty members and 10 students published their
findings last month.
GRAY ZONE DEFINED
zone is the new term of art for asymmetric competition and
conflict of the type employed by Russia and it's proxies in
Ukraine and the Russian near abroad; China in the South
China Sea; Iran and its sectarian proxies throughout the
Middle East; and, rejectionist actors like terrorist groups
throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
noted that gray zone competition and conflict is obviously
less than full-scale war, but nonetheless has warlike
implications and consequences for the United States and its
partners. Skilled gray-zone actors employ clever innovative
combinations of influence, intimidation, coercion, and
aggression to exploit opportunities and prey on an
opponent's obvious vulnerabilities.
The U.S. has options in the face of
concerted gray zone competition and conflict. For starters,
according to Freier, U.S. Defense leadership could employ
military force more actively and creatively against thorny
challenges like Russian proxies in Ukraine or the Chinese in
the South China Sea. Unfortunately, according to Freier, an
asymmetry in risk perceptions between the U.S. and its
opponents tends to make the United States too cautious,
leaving a great deal of latitude for those willing to
exploit it. Because of its deferred hazard, inaction or
marginal action therefore often becomes the default
strategic choice for U.S. decision makers.
action or deferred action "you can easily wish away adverse
consequences," he said. Yet, "it's your absolute worst
choice. What happens is if you don't act to blunt the
challenges up front, then facts change on the ground to such
an extent that it becomes eventually unthinkable to reverse
them through more assertive action.
"If you wait
things out, your opponent will nibble and nibble and nibble
away until all of a sudden they just gobble up something
that's very important to you," he continued.
collectively is taken by surprise "by the degree to which
it's possible for adversaries to outmaneuver us by
unconventional methods. We are playing by a conventional
playbook and they are not. We're being outmaneuvered," he
The solution: "Adaptation and Activism,"
according to Freier. That doesn't mean resort to all-out
war, according to Freier. Instead, it should be a measured
and quite deliberate set of responses intended to
effectively shape or modify opposition intentions and
methods. Over-reaction after all is as dangerous as
U.S. ONCE GRAY ZONE ACTOR
College research team looked back through history and found
that the U.S. itself once acted effectively in the gray
zone, influencing changes in governments and flexing its own
military and economic might for perceived national security
and national interest gains.
For instance during the
Cold War, the U.S. had its own proxies and participated in
anti-Soviet political subversion to further its national
strategy, Freier said.
Over time, however, the U.S.,
believing it was in an unassailable position versus all
competitors, relinquished its gray zone advantages. And, in
doing so, Freier pointed out, the United States unwittingly
ceded substantial maneuver room to much less risk-averse
adversaries who were well postured to advance their
interests using a host of unconventional means.
Freiers's team arrived at a
targeted set of findings and recommendations in two key
areas: strategy and policy and military operations, plans,
and capabilities. They are sharing their work widely across
defense and defense-interested communities of interest and
practice, including at very high levels within the
Department of Defense and the National Security Staff.
In the end, Freier said his team gathered the widest
possible set of perspectives on gray-zone challenges,
hearing from service staffs and combatant commands, U.S.
allies and NATO, think tanks, and academia. While they heard
a variety of opinions, Freier suggested their conclusions
represented "the collective wisdom of the whole universe of
experts we consulted with."
By U.S. Army David Vergun, DMA
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