Winning the Gray Zone: The Importance of Intermediate Force Capabilities in Implementing the National Defense Strategy

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Source: Lance Cpl. Patrick King,
Source: Lance Cpl. Patrick King,

November 10, 2020 | Originally published by National Institute for Public Policy on October 23, 2020

“War is both timeless and ever-changing.” This edict is among the first sentences in Warfighting, the doctrinal publication every U.S. Marine Corps second lieutenant receives at The Basic School as a cargo pocket-sized combat Bible [1]. Beyond basic training, this imperative to adapt to change in combat environments is recognized at the Pentagon’s highest levels. “The Nation must field sufficient, capable forces to defeat enemies and achieve sustainable outcomes that protect the American people and our vital interests,” states the 2018 National Defense Strategy. “Our aim is a Joint Force that possesses decisive advantages for any likely conflict while remaining proficient across the entire spectrum of conflict” [2]. To maintain that decisive advantage, in addition to the lethal force that is the hallmark of the U.S. military, the Joint Force needs a toolset of “Intermediate Force Capabilities” (IFCs) that include non-lethal weapons as well as other non-lethal tools. IFCs will bridge the gap that exists between a mission of mere presence and the use of lethal effects, allowing active measures when presence alone is insufficient to deter malign activities or when the use of lethal or destructive force is neither desired nor appropriate.

The changing elements of war’s essence in the 21st century highlight the urgent need for policymakers to commit to developing IFCs to support current and future warfighting requirements. This also challenges us to consider a counterintuitive thought: that the overall lethality and effectiveness of the Joint Force can be enhanced by the integration of capabilities that are designed NOT to kill or cause gross physical destruction.


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