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Perception Is Reality: Special Operations Forces In the Gray Zone

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Technical Report

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Naval Postgraduate School Monterey United States

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As conflicts increasingly fall within the Gray Zonethat is, outside the traditional peace-or-war constructthe U.S. military must understand how to succeed in this ambiguous environment and counter its threats. A key challenge is understanding how to employ the tools available in the Gray Zonethe primary tool being Special Operation Forces SOF. This research finds that policymakers and others outside of SOF have often misapplied this tool, due to limited understanding of SOF roles and competencies. This limited understanding or misperception of SOF may have a detrimental effect on the ability of the Unites States to reach its foreign policy goals. This research analyzes U.S. SOF employment in the Gray Zone, breaking down constituent components and identifying those of greater importance. Characteristics of the Gray Zone and irregular warfare are considered, and a holistic approach to the use of irregular warfare in the Gray Zone is proposed. Graham Allison and Morton Halperins bureaucratic politics model is used to discern the factors that shape the perception of SOF. Two historical cases are viewed through the lens of the bureaucratic politics model to show how SOF capabilities must be well understood and properly employed to achieve desired U.S. policy goals.

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