War on the Rocks
The United States possesses the most capable armed forces in the world. America leads the world in military expenditures, spending more than the next nine nations combined — seven of which are either U.S. friends or allies. In part because of this dominance, the world has been free of major power wars for decades.
But trends such as globalization, mass access to technology and communications, and asymmetric reactions to U.S. tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq are converging into an era where more and more conflicts are being fought at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. These form a “gray zone” between traditional notions of war and peace.
Gray zone conflicts are not formal wars, and little resemble traditional, “conventional” conflicts between states. If the spectrum of conflict is conceived as a line running from peaceful interstate competition on the far left to nuclear Armageddon on the far right, gray zone conflicts fall left of center. They involve some aggression or use of force, but in many ways their defining characteristic is ambiguity — about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.
For the United States, effectively addressing gray zone conflicts will require a coordinated interagency response. The Department of Defense (DOD) will rarely lead that response, because gray zone conflicts are designed, almost by definition, to circumvent traditional U.S. military power. Yet military capabilities will remain an essential part of U.S. responses — and none more so than special operations forces (SOF).
Picture: Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey (USAF) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons