The Pentagon is studying gray zone conflict — otherwise known as hybrid warfare — beginning with a focus on Russia and later moving on to study Iran and China, the acting assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told members of Congress.
On the heels of a Johns Hopkins University study on the nature of Russian unconventional warfare, U.S. Special Operations — through the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office within ASD SO/LIC — is looking at "developing predictive analytic technologies that will help us identify when countries are utilizing unconventional warfare techniques at levels essentially below our normal observation thresholds," Theresa Whelan said during a May 2 House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee hearing.
The study will help identify early evidence of unconventional warfare, she added, noting that once her office completes the research on Russian unconventional warfare, it will move on to developing a strategy for Iran and China.
Russian aggression has been characterized by the insertion of "little green men," special forces that try to discreetly rile up ethnic Russians against the West in countries along its border. Russia's surprise annexation of Crimea in 2014 has sparked fear in surrounding countries that something similar could take place within their own borders.
And Russia's behavior in Ukraine and along the Baltic States continue to cause heartburn and worry among the U.S. and its European and NATO allies.
Recently, the top U.S. military commander in Europe said the U.S. has not done enough to reinforce its own and NATO's nascent efforts to fight Russia's prolific propaganda against European allies — considered to be classic "gray zone" activity.
By definition, special operations forces in the region would likely be among the first to notice such activity.
The fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with other U.S. government departments and agencies to develop a strategy to counter unconventional warfare threats posed by adversarial state and non-state actors. Unconventional warfare "means activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area," according to the legislation.
The strategy was due to Congress no later than 180 days following enactment.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked during the hearing, for an update, noting delivery of the unconventional warfare strategy to Congress was roughly two years late.
The Pentagon has "had to shift resources to focus on this and develop capabilities and knowledge bases that had, to a certain extent, atrophied over the years," Whelan said. "But also, the nature of UW has fundamentally changed because of 21st century technologies and techniques. We really in many ways have been starting from scratch."
In order to complete the strategy, Whelan added, the Pentagon is working with interagency partners — acknowledgement that UW poses multiple threats to the U.S. government "because of the ways that our adversaries are using it."
Studies already conducted by the Pentagon, as well as Georgetown University on UW has shown adversaries, "particularly the more sophisticated ones," are focusing on "seams between our organizational entities and trying to exploit those seams and decision-making cycles in order to gain advantage on us in the space that essentially is below conventional war," Whelan said.
She added the Pentagon does expect to have an interim "answer with our thoughts" delivered to Congress before the end of June.
The study focused on Russian UW, will feed into the greater strategy. Looking through a Russian lens also makes sense from a special operations perspective because countering the Russian threat is its number two priority. There are roughly 1,400 special operations forces deployed to protect against Russian aggression.
Gen. Raymond Thomas, U.S. Special Operations Command commander, echoed Whelan during the same hearing, stating, "We're working closely with the department for the overall strategy, but I think as importantly and more practically, we're focused on the resources and authorities that would underpin that strategy. So we actually are having some pretty substantive discussions specifically as it applies towards countering Russian aggression."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.