The topic has been addressed before, but it seems that things are changing for U.S. Special Operations units. For 20 years, the Special Operations community and the U.S. military as a whole have been locked into a fight against terrorism. This kind of fight has required boots on the ground, kicking doors down, and getting rid of the bad guys. But, as one door closes, another opens. We’re on the precipice of a new age of warfighting, with new players at the top of the “bad guy” list.

Based on articles written by the Military Times, the U.S. is shifting its focus from counterterrorism operations to concentrating on information warfare and Gray Zone operations. Gray Zone indicates operations and events that take place before a major armed conflict breaks out. This can come in the form of small group, militia-like attacks, and cyber warfare.

This notable and official shift for U.S. Special Operations is a result of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy. The classified version of the Annex was released in January of 2019, and the unclassified version was released last week. The general purpose of this document is to outline a plan for how to effectively compete in the “great power competition” against China and Russia.

It took quite some time to declassify the Annex. But it was deemed appropriate to do so, in an effort to share the plan with allies, Congress, and the public.

During an interview, Defense News reported that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, Joe Francescon, explained that it’s important for people to understand the U.S.’s strategy for conducting irregular warfare. This will make clear what kind of steps and actions are taken before a break out of full-scale war.

Special Operations Units in the Gray Zone Space

Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base, March 5, 2014
Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base, March 5, 2014. (Photo by Vasily Fedosenko /Reuters)

Francescon went on to say, “I think it’s important for the United States to characterize, both for us and for our allies, the military, national security impacts of what our adversaries are doing to us in the Gray Zone space before armed conflict. It can’t just be an armed conflict solution, is what we’re looking at.”

Since the release of the classified version, Francescon’s challenge has been convincing members of Congress that the Pentagon needs to strategically shift away from concentrating on counterterrorism and move towards the world of irregular warfare.

Francescon said, “Naturally, as the way we’re looking at it right now, we probably expect more of a drawdown in our counterterrorism monies just because that’s where we are not doing these large-scale counterterrorism operations in some of these theaters. We’re transitioning more to training and education. So you’ll see, hopefully, those budgets ramp up (including) distinct information operations capabilities.”