Military, government, academic, and policy gurus are forever formulating new doctrine, concepts, terminology, and acronyms for the military. Years ago there were very few terms to consider (compared to now) in the special operations world – Unconventional Warfare (UW), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Internal Defense and Development (IDAD), Counterinsurgency (COIN), and a few others. It was easy for us in SOF to understand the overall doctrine and the role we played at the strategic, operational, and tactical level. Big Army (and the other services) worried about the large scale wars that might be fought with the Soviet Union, China and others; while the SOF guys dealt in the unconventional realm.

The Gray Zone SOF
SOF and the “Gray Zone”

Times have changed. The United States enjoys military superiority over all other nations in the world. The decisive campaigns of Desert Storm in 1991, quick toppling of the Taliban regime by Special Forces, CIA operatives, JTACs, and U.S. air power working in conjunction with the Northern Alliance and other Afghan resistance groups in 2001, and the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 were noticed by all. These military campaigns demonstrated that the U.S. military is a formidable force that cannot be defeated by conventional means. Our adversaries have turned to non-conventional methods of attaining their objectives.

The last few decades have seen an abundance of new terms to describe the area of conflict just short of a full conventional war. Some of these terms have stuck while others have disappeared from our field manuals and vocabulary. Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), Irregular Warfare (IW), Hybrid Warfare, Asymmetric Warfare, Small Wars, “Little Green Men”, and Political Warfare are a few examples.

In an effort to get senior military leaders, government officials, and others to come to grips with the newly emerging era of conflict (which some in the SOF world would say is not so new) the special operations community has coined a new term – the “Gray Zone”. It is hoped that the U.S. government can improve its ability to operate effectively in the gray area between war and peace by reorganizing its intellectual, institutional, and organizational world.

“Our success in this environment will be determined by our ability to adequately navigate conflicts that fall outside of the traditional peace-or-war construct. In this “gray zone”, we are confronted with ambiguity on the nature of conflict, the parties involved, and the validity of the legal and political claims at stake. These conflicts defy our traditional views of war and require us to invest in time and effort in ensuring we prepare ourselves with the proper capabilities, capacities, and authorities to safeguard U.S. interests.” – General Joseph Votel, Commander, USSOCOM, 18 March 2015.

How useful this term will be in describing the new era of conflict and how much acceptance it receives within the military, government, and academic community remains to be seen. However, for the time being, it will likely be used frequently by the SOF community.


Kapusta, CAPT Philip, “The Challenge of Operating in the Gray Zone”, Special Warfare Magazine, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C., October 2015, pages 18-25. The author works at the J51, USSOCOM.

USASOC, Project Gray, United States Army Special Operations Command, accessed on January 14, 2016. This website lists news reports, papers, and publications about the “Gray Zone”.