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Fighting in the Gray Zone: A Strategy to Close the Preemption Gap

Authored by CMDR Joanne M. Fish, LTC Samuel F. McCraw, COL Christopher J. Reddish. | September 2004

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The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) rightly identified the proliferation, privatization, and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by terrorist groups and rogue states as the critical nontraditional threat of the 21st century.1 However, the NSS argues that in the 21st century, technology has advanced and become so readily available that we ?must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today?s adversaries.?2 This reconceptualization of preemption defines the core question?What military strategy is appropriate for using force ?to act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed??3 We argue preemption is ill-suited for disrupting the converged threat of terrorists and rogue states pursuing WMD. Instead, we propose that a forcible counterproliferation (FCP) strategy is most effective for fighting in the ?gray zone.?

Using the 2002 NSS and the problems associated with justifying the preemptive use of force in Iraq as starting points, we examine three questions: 1) How has the threat environment changed since the end of the Cold War? 2) If there is a new threat environment, what is the appropriate military strategy for that threat? 3) How can the United States justify a new strategy to domestic critics and gain international support?

In this paper we define the convergent threat as the threshold where there is substantial evidence of a link between terrorists and rogue states pursuing WMD. Once the linkages have been made, the convergent threat becomes a converged threat. We posit the gray zone as the hazy area on the conceptual threat continuum between classically defined imminent threat and our convergent threat. Available military strategies do not address this zone very well.

To determine the most effective military strategy for using force in the gray zone, we evaluate four strategies: self-defense, preemption, prevention and forcible counterproliferation. We conclude that FCP, unlike prevention, potentially initiates action against a converged threat early enough to provide an acceptable likelihood of success, while allowing other instruments of power sufficient opportunity to defuse the situation. Further, FCP manages risk and uncertainty and is the most effective strategy for harmonizing operations in the current international framework.

In summary, success of FCP pivots on the administration?s ability to affect four critical requirements: 1) garner international and domestic support for the strategy, 2) change international norms to allow force against converged threats, 3) adopt three sets of trigger points to ascertain when a nation has abrogated its sovereignty, thereby broaching the possibility of applying force under an FCP strategy, and 4) achieve international consensus regarding the criteria for abrogated sovereignty which would then legitimize military intervention against uncooperative states.

We conclude by offering a comprehensive set of recommendations. First, the National Security Council must update the NSS by including the concept of converged threat and the strategy of FCP. Second, the Administration should build international and domestic receptivity to FCP. Finally, the Department of Defense should resource the strategy of forcible counterproliferation through a variety of programs, explained in detail in the paper, which both support and challenge the assumptions of Transformation.


Forcible counterprolif eration is the best strategy to close the preemption gap against a converged threat. A clear understanding of interests, threats, and political objectives informs a good military strategy.88 The NSS properly articulated the nexus of terrorists, WMD, and rogue states as the principal national security threat. Subsequently, the National Military Strategy, in response to the global war on terrorism, correctly determined a war aim to ?deny terrorists access and use of WMD.?89 However, the effort to stretch the classical strategy of preemption to deal with the converged threat drove the administration to develop the concept of ?adapted imminent threat.?90 The result is a military strategy inadequate to disrupt the ?crossroads of radicalism and technology? in order to stop WMD proliferation to rogue states and terrorists.91

To better understand the changing geostrategic environment, we postulated the gray zone, a new method for conceptualizing the threat. In doing so, we argued the anachronistic international use of force construct built on a standard of imminent threat must be updated. To simply ?adapt the concept of imminent threat? as the administration proposes is insufficient for contending with today?s adversary.

Similarly, existing conventional military strategic concepts are not suited for either the new threat or for using force in the gray zone. Hence, we have posited a new military strategy of forcible counterproliferation to complement both preemption and self-defense. Taken together, a theoretical analysis and hypothetical case study indicated that FCP is the most acceptable strategy, militarily and politically, for disrupting a converged threat. FCP also minimizes strategic risk the best. Likewise, FCP offers unprecedented strategic flexibility. Upon crossing the three trigger points, the President has the discretion to use a wide range of military options, or he can attempt to diffuse the situation with the soft elements of power. Once he chooses force, the President can elect either to use a strategic strike with special operations forces to destroy a WMD capability, or he can order a major mobilization to effect regime change. The flexible military options run along this continuum.

We maintain the administration cannot reverse course at this point and remove preemption from center stage of the NSS.92 Doing so will lead to a huge loss of American credibility. Rather, the administration?s best option is to adopt a strategy specifically crafted for disrupting converged threats as distinct from imminent threats. As stated above, we assert forcible counterproliferation is the best option.

While FCP is conceived to deal specifically with the converged threat, it does not replace the national strategy for the Global War on Terrorism. Instead, FCP is a way or a concept that supports this strategy. FCP is an alternative military strategy to preemption designed for a specific threat within the Global War on Terrorism.

Since publication of the 2002 NSS, there has been an upsurge in various supporting nationalstrategies. A review of these documents indicates a lack of vertical and horizontal military strategic alignment. Vertically, the threat is not consistently described and preemption is not a central strategic concept discussed in each. Moreover, the documents lack horizontal continuity, that is to say, they do not incorporate important related elements of each other?s strategies. We maintain a coherent, clear, and consistent statement of military strategy is an essential first step to effective deterrence. FCP is just such a coherent statement of military strategy for the converged threat, in particular by effectively integrating joint, combined, and law enforcement forces while shaping the strategic context with the soft instruments of power.

Developing and promoting clearly defined trigger points and announcing the status of nations approaching those trigger point thresholds puts a state on notice and reintroduces deterrence against converged threats. Use of deterrence intentionally focuses on stopping rogue states from acquiring WMD, a fundamental departure from the Cold War use of deterrence to stop a WMD attack. Those rogue states that acquire WMD and abrogate their sovereignty must weigh carefully the cost-benefit analysis of continued unacceptable actions against possible international military intervention. Therefore, FCP properly implemented can leverage international consensus and condemnation to signal would-be-threats effectively with the risk of overwhelming force in response to a converged threat.

Closely related to the problem of strategy alignment is the very evident lack of appropriate joint terms for thinking about today?s threat and the geostrategic environment. Phrases such as adapted imminent threat, and Global War on Terrorism tend to obfuscate many strategic challenges. Some have suggested, for instance, that DoD should resurrect military operations other than war as a more useful term for describing strikes on the converged threat.93 Our research effort has been hindered by the lack of common, relevant, and precisely defined joint terms suitable for developing a military strategy.

Finally, as stated earlier, we acknowledge FCP will not preclude the United States from using its power when needed to defend national interests regardless of whether or not the United States has international legitimacy. However, our national power prerogatives should not stand in the way of advancing new concepts internationally that actually provide strategic clarity, build legitimacy, and are morally defensible. Doing so builds two important bedrocks for U.S. policy. First, by pursuing new international norms, the United States stands to gain considerable credibility and the associated cooperative benefits when seeking legitimacy for FCP. These benefits include, for example, intelligence sharing, contributions of unique force capability, law enforcement cooperation, and regional access. Second, American efforts to lead the international community in reconsidering legacy use of force statutes, and the required strategy needed to defeat converged threats should enhance international support for the Global War on Terrorism. It is with this aim that we propose the following recommendations.


1. There are many definitions of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). For this paper, we use the NSS characterization of WMD as including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: The White House, September 17, 2002, p. 15, April 4, 2004, http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html.

2. NSS 15. 3. NSS Introduction.

88 James A. Mowbray, ?A Primer on Strategy Analysis,? Air War College Gateway, accessed January 22, 2004, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/readings/mowbray/ mowbmodl.htm.

89 Brooks.

90 NSS, p. 15.

91 Bush, West Point Graduation Speech.

92 Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says the U.S. has always reserved the right to use preemptive force and that it was a mistake for the Bush Administration to move the strategy to center stage of U.S. national security. See Madeleine K. Albright, ?United Nations,? Foreign Policy, September 1, 2003, Factiva, Harvard Library, accessed December 16, 2003, https://www.factiva.comsee Madeleine K. Albright, ?Bridges, Bombs, or Bluster??

93 Record, Bounding the War on Global Terrorism, p. 3.