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
Gray 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.
Freier 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.
TYPICAL U.S. BEHAVIOR
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.
With no 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.
The U.S. 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 said.
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 inaction.
U.S. ONCE GRAY ZONE ACTOR
The War 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.
HOW FINDINGS ACHIEVED
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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