U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa train with Spanish and Portuguese troops in Pinheiro da Cruz, Portugal, Nov. 3, 2015.

U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa train with Spanish and Portuguese troops in Pinheiro da Cruz, Portugal, Nov. 3, 2015. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Vitaliy Rusavskiy

America’s Not Ready for Today’s Gray Wars

To defeat terrorists, we need to overhaul our military and other levers of government to tackle complex and shifting threats.

As Washington struggles to respond to brutal acts of violence from Syria to San Bernardino, much of the conversation is about the size and scope of our response to defeat our enemies. 

Although Americans by now understand that we are not in a traditional war against an armed state, we still fail to comprehend the true complexities and profound challenges of conducting a broad range of military and law enforcement actions in smaller, less straightforward operations against terrorists and their organizations.

We are trying to oversimplify the pandemonium of war. Violence, frequent and savage, is brought upon us by non-state entities and their ideological subscribers who do not hold to the traditional justifications or methods of armed conflict. Barbaric behavior has become the norm. Our enemies’ use of technology will continue as cyber attacks become commonplace, digital media are used to frighten and incite, and remote detonation of bombs is exported from the roadside improvised explosive devices of Iraq and Afghanistan to the streets of Middle America.

Our national security is of course dependent on the entire U.S. government—including the CIA, State Department and others—but I want to focus here on the armed forces. We need to rebalance our military forces to develop capabilities that are very different from the wars of earlier generations.

Our military units must remain, without doubt, masters of death and destruction. The need to kill our most violent and unrepentant enemies is real and urgent. Deploying special operations and other combat forces for this mission is necessary, and we should be unhesitant and unapologetic about doing so. But it is not always the first or best answer and it is never enough on its own. We must be ready to kill, but we cannot kill our way to victory.

Increasingly, violent conflict is taking place in what experts call the “gray zone.” That is, as the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Joe Votel, said, where entities or groups “seek to secure their objectives while minimizing the scope and scale of actual combat.” It is in this murky middle that, Votel explained, “we are confronted with ambiguity on the nature of the conflict, the parties involved, and the validity of the legal and political claims at stake. These conflicts defy our ‘traditional’ views of war.”

Look around the world: it is hard to find a conflict that is not in the gray zone. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued activities in eastern Ukraine; the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s barbaric control of key parts of Iraq and Syria; Chinese construction on disputed reefs in the South China Sea; Boko Haram’s continued reign of terror in Nigeria; and the ongoing Houthi rebellion in Yemen are just some of the most recent examples. 

It is not only the outbreak of new violence that should be forcing us to rethink conflict—it is also the underlying environmental, economic and social trends. These include resource competition; radical demographic shifts; the rise of coastal mega-cities in developing countries; increasingly visible corruption and patronage; the changing climate; and explosive technological advancement and information connectivity.

So amidst all this disorder, how do we organize and prepare America to excel against non-traditional threats? What is the role of our military in addressing this emerging range of non-traditional national security issues?

Adversaries the world over are developing new approaches to conflict in ways that are designed to mitigate the advantages of more powerful military opponents. But we in the U.S. have neither changed our military enough, nor developed non-military alternatives that are trained, equipped and expeditionary enough to respond robustly to crises that are not primarily military in nature. 

There is an element of the U.S. military that arguably specializes in these kind of ‘submilitary’ conflicts: special operations forces, or SOF. But only about 3 percent of U.S. troops are SOF. What SOF—whose operators are older, speak more languages and operate in smaller teams—do well is leverage larger organizations and networks, especially in working ‘by, with’ and through’ local partners. They are pioneers in adapting emerging technologies (such as man-hunting drones), restructuring organizations, flattening communications and developing new tactics and equipment. 

Our special operations forces are already sufficient in quantity. We shouldn’t ask them to take on every military mission. But the SOF example is a good one. It should inspire us to recruit into the armed forces more mature, more globally oriented and experienced people who can be further trained and educated to manage complexity and deal with ambiguous threat environments and diverse populations. 

I am not just a former SOF officer arguing that SOF answers all, but the new era does require much more SOF-like thinking. It is worth reviving the approach of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. We need experts not just in warfare, but also in languages, foreign cultures, religions, global micro-regions and more. 

We need institutional fixes for a U.S. military that has not yet fully accepted the value of non-traditional career paths in which coveted command positions may not be the best use of individual talent. We need to renew or reinvent our forces for the new normal. Our initiatives should include temporary appointments of civilians to officer and non-commissioned officer ranks in order to answer unique and precise needs, focused recruiting of foreign-born personnel, sabbaticals for travel and research, and repetitive assignments of individuals to specific countries and localities around the world.

We need to reject old doctrine in favor of relevant knowledge, reject quantity in favor of quality, and reject our traditional notion of military victory in favor of local acceptance of enduring success. The budget, not just the conversation, must also reflect this.