TAMPA — Between peace and all-out war exists the Gray Zone.
To Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, the Gray Zone is a familiar place of ambiguity. It’s a place where the Islamic State operates. A place where Russia has taken on Ukraine.
And it’s home to many other spots, hot, lukewarm or otherwise, around the globe.
“The Gray Zone,” said Votel, “really defines this area between ... for the most part healthy economic, political competition between states, and open warfare.”
It’s a place, he said, where “actors, sometimes state actors and sometimes non-state actors, act in a manner just below what would normally take us into normal open warfare.”
In September, Socom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, issued a paper on Gray Zone challenges. The paper says that while traditional war might have been the dominant means of deadly conflict, Gray Zone challenges have now become the norm, and that countering foes like the former Soviet Union in many ways proved far less complex than taking on current adversaries.
Last week, Votel sat down to talk to The Tampa Tribune about his vision for Gray Zone conflicts, how the command he leads fits into that paradigm, and how commandos are ideally suited for a mental and physical space that challenges much of what we have come to know about the nature of conflict.
“It is certainly the most challenging environment that I have experienced in 35 years of military service,” Votel said.
It is an especially important topic, given that the Gray Zone is a space that Army Green Berets, Rangers, Delta Force and aviators, Navy SEALs and special warfare boat crews, Marine Raiders and Air Force special operators will be operating in for many years to come.
They don’t own it, and they act at the behest not of Socom but of U.S. diplomats, the military’s regional commanders and host nation officials. Still, with some 7,000 commandos stationed in 85 to 90 countries at any given time, the nation’s special operations forces are a key projection of power and influence in the Gray Zone.
It is not a new concept, said Votel.
During the past 100 years, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm stand out as major conflicts involving U.S. forces. But during that time, U.S. troops were involved in combat nearly 60 times, from the current operations like Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel to lesser known ones like the 15-month invasion of the Dominican Republic, launched in 1965 to keep that nation from “going Communist,” according to the Socom white paper.
So examining what happens in the Gray Zone, said Votel, offers a good jumping-off point to think about the challenges ahead.
Votel said that when he took command of Socom in August 2014, one of his priorities was something he calls “Preparing for the Future.”
Socom, he said, “is an organization that looks to the future and tries to prepare itself, so that when we do see changing security environments and changing situations out there that we give ourselves an advantage. So it’s really under this priority of preparing for the future where we got into this notion of the gray zone.”
The clearest example of current Gray Zone activity, Votel said, is the situation with the Russians in Crimea and Ukraine. “They are operating at a level below open warfare with us, but they’re certainly operating in hybrid approaches where they’re making use of information operations, of surrogates, of ethnic Russians that are in those areas, of their own military forces, of their own special operations capabilities,” he said.
The Islamic State, which unlike Russia is on the receiving end of a great deal of U.S. and allied bombardment, has also been operating in the Gray Zone, Votel said.
The Sunni jihadi group, said Votel, is “a non-state actor attempting to operate like a state, attempting to insert themselves into some kind of situation where they are not only subjecting people to oppression but they are attempting to govern, they are attempting to rule, attempting to establish an economy, trying to manage resources, so they are directly affecting the population out there.”
Votel acknowledges that not everyone shares his opinion about the group also known as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL.
“Talk to different people and they will kind of agree or disagree on whether something like ISIL really fits into the Gray Zone,” he said. “I personally think that it does. It’s the operating environment in which we are going to deal here with this. It involves both state actors and non-state actors and so I think we need to be prepared to deal with all of that.”
A key part of success in the Gray Zone, Votel said, is understanding how and why societies work, knowing the key players and cultures and motivations. It’s all part of what the military and academics like to call the “human domain.”
And commandos, Votel said, are specially trained to understand the human domain.
“Socom and SOF forces are unique,” said Votel, “in that ... we do have forces that really focus in on the understanding of cultures, on the understanding of languages, on understanding the different actors, whether they are state actors or whether they’re non-state actors —local, regional influencers out there in the space, and they are going to be out there doing things.”
Commandos “are out there operating in that particular area,” said Votel. “We are out there in small teams, working with organizations. We’re in small villages. We’re linked in with our interagency partners, particularly our Department of State partners, and understanding what’s happening in areas.”
Special Operations Forces, said Votel, provide a “very deep appreciation and understanding for the human aspects of this.”
“It’s a battle for the willingness of the people, the populations that are affected by it, the actors that are orchestrating it, the neutrals that are on the sidelines on this and it really is a struggle for influence with those different audiences. And I think SOF brings the capability, along with our conventional forces, they certainly do as well, to really operate in that area,”
So given all that, what can special operators do in the Gray Zone?
“We are most valued-added when we can engage early ... and can get out and understand what’s happening in the areas and help identify options for our political leadership and other military leaders out there to help them address, prevent, deter actions from taking place out there,” Votel said. “What I think the Gray Zone offers to us, is the ability to get out there to shape, or detour, or influence things before they become catastrophes. That’s kind of the big idea, we want to get left of problems, and not just show up and try to deal with a bad situation.”
Though they don’t get the kind of headlines spurred by direct action missions like the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, one of Special Operations Forces’ main efforts is to observe, train and equip host nation forces in those Gray Zones.
Those kinds of training missions are taking place in Iraq, with the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurds, and have been set in motion for Kurds and Arabs in Syria.
But they also take place around the globe, Votel stressed.
He pointed to Somalia as a successful albeit imperfect example of what happens when commandos take the initiative in the Gray Zone. In this case, training and bolstering the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia created to help take on insurgent groups and shore up civilian government control.
“We recognized that with a little bit of assistance from Special Operations Forces from the United States, a relatively small footprint, that we could really enable and help them and move forward,” said Votel. “And we were able to do that. And we were able to start that early and we were able to get our political leadership behind it. We were able to explain to them what the opportunity was. They saw it and they allowed us to get in there and do that and it’s allowed the African Union forces in Somalia to be much more effective.”
Votel acknowledges that it is no panacea.
“They’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s certainly not perfect. It is Somalia and they’ve had a lot of challenges for a lot of years. But, today, they’ve got an elected president. They’ve got a parliament. They’ve got a constitution. They are now establishing a national army. And those are all good and positive things.
“Again, it’s not perfect, it’s far from perfect, but it is about identifying those types of opportunities and getting them teed up and then trying to move forward on them.”