Project name: Escalation Management in the Gray Zone
Funded by the Minerva Research Initiative, U.S. Department of Defense, 2018-2021
Core deterrence theories were born in the context of big power politics and nuclear brinksmanship. However, today U.S. national security interests are increasingly challenged by actions that disrupt the norms of interstate behavior while remaining below the normal threshold for armed conflict. Interference in media or elections, use of non-state proxies for political violence, strategic flouting of international law — these persistent provocations threaten the existing geopolitical order to a greater or lesser extent, and indicate that general deterrence is failing. Therefore, to shape adversary behavior without resorting to full-scale war, decision-makers are left with the toolkit of immediate deterrence, more precisely — that of escalation management. To be effective in this arena, decision makers need a more nuanced understanding (including theoretical underpinnings) of effective ways to manage conflict that threatens to unravel traditional crisis resolution mechanisms.
This project investigates and compares the effectiveness of analytic and operational planning tools available to U.S. decision makers to shape adversary behavior in managing escalation in gray zone crises involving other great powers and/or their proxies.
The research methodology is based on the need to use the right analytic tools to answer different kinds of questions.
- Deductive modeling is an important theory-building launch platform for revisiting the classic concepts of deterrence and escalation management and integrating them with literature from other relevant fields (political psychology, mediation, etc.).
- Empirical analysis provides robustness to theory, where historical, observational data is either available or can be collected. Since some of the key questions in deterrence are hypothetical, however, empirical analysis alone leaves a lacuna in our understanding of the problem.
- Surveys complement the empirical analysis described above, engaging with the key conceptual notions and scenarios not covered by data. Cross national surveys of American and European security experts and domestic audiences allow us to compare different thresholds for action across different key groups, and learn more about the role of perceptions in conflict escalation.
- Computer modeling and simulation helps to increase the robustness of the findings through iterations repeatable thousands of times, and to provide explanatory power to issues of particular relevance to decision-makers, varying scenarios to explore outcome sensitivity to inputs.
The innovation in this multi-pronged methodological approach is not only in employing techniques previously rarely used for the study of deterrence questions, but also in combining these techniques to reinforce the validity of the findings.
What is Gray Zone Conflict?
For purposes of this research, we consider gray zone conflict to encompass rivalry and competition short of war using any means, military and non-military — economic, military, diplomatic, social, political, etc. In most cases, gray zone conflict ends once either side uses overt military force, and certainly state mil-mil interaction constitutes a clear upper boundary of gray activity. This project explores escalation and de-escalation in the context of gray zone conflict with particular emphasis on identifying tools the U.S. might use to shape interactions short of war with China and Russia. For quantitative analysis, we focus on state-level crises short of war. Simulation, modeling, and survey efforts look at factors influencing individual decision-makers' choices of overt and unambiguous actions versus use of gray tactics.
For the empirical analyses, we define gray zone conflict and crisis as follows:
- The actor perceives that normal conflict/competition passes over the threshold from acceptable to unacceptable. "Acceptable" implies competition that may not be appreciated but can be abided. "Unacceptable" implies activities that are perceived as threatening to one's security.
- An actor employing gray zone tactics has an ultimate national-security focus.
- An actor employing gray zone tactics is not using conventional violence itself directly (though it may be doing so via a proxy).
- Gray zone tactics are intentionally chosen by the actor to lower the risks or costs (e.g., in resources, international condemnation, retaliation) that would be incurred if direct action were taken.
- Military actions conducted by an actor employing gray zone tactics, even if nonviolent, are done covertly.
- The intent of an actor employing gray zone tactics is ambiguous.
Principal Investigator Jonathan Wilkenfeld is Emeritus Professor of Government and Research Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Maryland. He is a renowned expert on inter- and intra-state crisis behavior, and experimental and simulation approaches to political science.
Devin H. Ellis is Director of the ICONS Project at UMCP. He is an expert in the application of experimental approaches to studying policy questions, and has done extensive work on integrating experiments and formal modeling.
David Quinn has directed collection and coding for major databases in international relations (including the extension of the ICB dataset to cover cross-domain-deterrence). He also has extensive experience connecting empirical and experimental approaches in political science.
Egle E. Murauskaite is a senior researcher and simulations designer for the ICONS Project with Maryland University. Presently based in Lithuania, she is responsible for high-level political-military crises simulations in Europe, alongside academic research and government consulting projects. Egle has been working with unconventional security threats for the past 10 years — from gray zone warfare to proliferation of nuclear weapons. Egle is also a senior non-resident fellow with the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, where she is currently exploring the issue of foreign fighters in Ukraine. She is a co-author of a monthly podcast "NYLA Update," where she explores the long-term geopolitical trends and challenges, and also a regular commentator on security issues in national and international media.
Allison Astorino-Courtois served as co-chair of a National Academy of Science's study on Strategic Deterrence and as the deterrence lead on the National Research Council's Space Deterrence and Protection study. Astorino-Courtois will be participating in the project on a real-cost basis with no profit to her employer in order to help lead the theory team and bring her deep expertise to bear throughout the project. She has also had a long career producing rigorous social science studies of complex challenges to international security and translating the relevant findings into actionable resources for the U.S. government community. Astorino-Courtois helps lead the theory team.
Lt General Robert Elder (USAF, retired) joined the George Mason University faculty as a research professor following his retirement from military service as the Commander of 8th Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command's global strike operations component. He now conducts research for the Department of Defense and other government agencies in the areas of strategic stability and deterrence, global competition-cooperation management, international actor decision-making, and military command and control.
Alexander H. Levis is University Professor of Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering at George Mason University. His research as focused on defense systems with focus on command and control architectures, modeling and simulation of socio-technical systems, and multi-formalism modeling to address strategic issues such as deterrence.
Catarina P. Thomson has a background in both psychology and political science, and is an expert in connecting experimental and empirical techniques to explain actor behavior. She is a Senior Lecturer in Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK. Thomson has developed surveys of defence and security matters in the UK and across Europe, and leads our survey team.
Papers and reports
J. Wilkenfeld, "Challenges to Crisis Management in the Current International System," Inaugural Address, The Hellenic National Defence General Staff, "Athena 18" Security and Crisis Management International Conference, under the auspices of the Hellenic Ministry of National Defence. November 13-15, 2018, Athens, Greece. PDF file
E.E. Murauskaite, University of Maryland; D. H. Ellis, University of Maryland; D. Quinn, University of Maryland; C. P. Thomson, University of Exeter; J. Wilkenfeld, University of Maryland, E. Gartzke, UCSD, "Extended Deterrence in the Grayzone: Transatlantic Insights on Baltic Security," Journal of Baltic Security Studies, 2019; 5(2): 1-12. PDF file
E. E. Murauskaite, University of Maryland; D. Quinn, University of Maryland; J. Wilkenfeld, University of Maryland, "Regime, Power, and the Use of Violence in Gray Zone International Crises," Central and Eastern European International Studies Association CEEISA), June 18, 2019. PDF file
J. Wilkenfeld and D. Quinn, "From Crisis Management to Conflict Resolution in Mediated International Crises", and Roundtable "Negotiating complex conflict environments," FBA Research-Policy Dialogue: Research on Mediation in Protracted and Complex Conflicts, 1 May, 2019, Jerusalem. PDF file
Michael Brecher, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Kyle Beardsley, and Partick James "The International Crisis Behavior Project: History and Evolution," Cross Domain Deterrence Initiative Conference, October 17-18, 2019, Washington DC. PDF file
Research Performance Progress Report, July 2019 PDF file
Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Egle E. Murauskaite, David Quinn, Devin Ellis, Allison Astorino-Courtois, and Corinne DeFrancisci, "Responding to Proxy Violence in International Crises" — paper accepted to the International Studies Association Annual Conference, March 24-29, Honolulu, Hawaii (Paper prepared but conference cancelled due to COVID-19). PDF file