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Punching at Air: The military and the Grey Zone

25 June 2020

The West, typified by the ‘Five eyes’ members of NATO and their respective security communities, has rediscovered statecraft. Of course statecraft, and its utility over millennia of civilisation, never actually went anywhere. We were merely blinded by hubris in the post-cold war unipolar moment of the last three decades. Others, informed by a different context, somehow missed the ‘end of history’ and carried on as before. In response our militaries appear like old boxers in Jimmy Sharman’s tent, lurching out of the corner on the bell and swinging wildly at a new challenger. Perhaps to account for our dual failing of recognition and imagination we have invented a supposed discontinuity and a new label—Grey Zone activities—for a practice as ancient and as well understood as firing clay mud to make pottery. Grey Zone simply represents the latest iteration of an alternative label for statecraft. Other sufficiently synonymous labels include political warfare, coercive statecraft, strategic competition and hybrid war(fare).

The Grey Zone has captured the imagination of governments, defence forces and commentators. New lexicons and typographies are being created to serve this paradigm. Official papers, journals, blogs and staff college papers are bursting with earnest insights about what it all means, and how to best respond to it—‘grey’ is indeed the new ‘black’. On trend, Australia’s defence enterprise has also discovered the Grey Zone and is attempting an intellectual re-colonisation.

So what exactly is behind the Grey Zone label?  The Army’s Futures Statement: Accelerated Warfare states ‘…state and non-state actors are using coercive means below the threshold of war to gain advantage and disrupt other actors’. It elaborates: ‘These ‘grey zone’ actions, combined with information operations and cyber-attacks are increasing the intensity of competitive actions across diplomatic, information, military and economic elements of national power’. In doing so, Accelerated Warfare emphasises the adage history doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme. The CDF highlighted this last year, noting US Diplomat George Kennan offered a definition back in 1948: [Political warfare] uses every means at a nation’s command—short of war—to achieve national objectives. A decade later, the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, outlined the method being used by the Soviet Union to conduct what we label Grey Zone activities today:

He has a clear objective. He disposes all of his resources in all of his territory in one integrated campaign to gain that objective. He fights in the fields of politics, of economics, of psychology, and of culture. He fights hard all of the time on all fronts and in every area. He aids and abets troublemakers throughout the Free World. He can increase or reduce pressure. He can talk gently, or he can bellow. Across the entire spectrum of this type of warfare he uses his resources to weaken the Free World, to confuse it, to frighten it, and, finally, to make it feel helpless.

The methods described by Admiral Burke in 1958 are immediately relatable to those seen over the last decade from Putin’s Russia conducting Grey Zone activities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, or Xi’s China in the South China Sea and littoral. While most of the situational contexts are new, the ideas are old. Yet one context endures—and it is an important one to remember.

Statecraft, the use of all a nation’s resources in an integrated campaign to achieve an objective, became increasingly difficult after the Second World War with the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The tensions which can exist between nation-states remained, but the threat of the destruction inherent in a nuclear exchange dramatically changed the dialectic—hence the advent of the Cold War. As states could no longer risk escalation to total war, the nature of strategic competition changed because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. André Beaufre coined the term indirect strategy to explain the phenomenon, writing:

The game of strategy can, like music, be played in two keys. The major key is direct strategy, in which force is the essential factor. The minor key is indirect strategy, in which force recedes into the background and its place is taken by psychology and planning.

Beaufre went on to state in An Introduction to Strategy: … [that] the military resources which can be employed for the purpose must in general remain strictly limited. This is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War. It is time to bell the cat with respect to both the contemporary fascination with the ‘novelty’ of Grey Zone activity and the utility of conventional military responses to such activity.

Open source literature makes it abundantly clear Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are the chief protagonists of Grey Zone activity concerning the West today.  Both are nuclear powers and both would be acutely aware of the West’s overall collective superiority in conventional and nuclear forces, despite some relative decline. The strategic logic underpinning their adoption of such an approach varies little from that of the Cold War era: it is an asymmetric approach suited to the authoritarian command driven nature of their governance system, and it conceivably reduces the risk of any nuclear miscalculations arising from direct military confrontation. In short, it is highly logical for both nations to pursue Grey Zone activities. Today’s challenge for Defence is to recognise where the utility of military responses to such threats begin and end. There are several things to consider.

The first is to acknowledge we have been here before. The past may be a foreign country where they did things differently, but it still exists as a place in our collective subconscious. While the Cold War is mythical past for most in today’s military and defence organisation, traces of it still linger in doctrine, institutional memory and the distant, younger careers of some senior officers and public servants. Like extracting DNA from a long dead pest preserved in amber, Defence should reanimate dormant things that worked to preserve security and order in the past. Indicative ideas could include re-invigoration (and possibly, expansion) of alliance arrangements; new basing agreements (both in Australia and the region); in-region training with indigenous security forces; accelerating development of unconventional warfare doctrine and training, and assistance with development of institutional resilience amongst partner and friendly forces. Some of this work has begun—there is more to re-discover.

Notwithstanding the prescriptions of the previous paragraph, it is essential that Defence not lose sight of Beaufre’s exhortation ‘… the military resources which can be employed for the purpose must in general remain strictly limited’. The clear inference is that other functions and agents of the modern nation-state have a competitive role to play in response to Grey Zone activities. While emphasising the ‘always on’ and ‘first responder’ part of the ‘M’ in DIME, we must highlight the vital importance and impact of diplomatic, informational and economic actions. Perhaps the most useful role Defence can play in this is advocacy for the engagement of other aspects of national power in countering Grey Zone activities. As Huba Wass de Czege recently wrote on the US Army’s Multi-Domain Operations doctrine: Although some very essential lines of effort….may not be in the Army’s power to initiate, they are vitally important to strategic success, and they are within the Army leadership’s power to advocate. The Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) is a significant voice in the Australian National Security policy space. Consistent and considered advocacy from the ADO for engagement by wider aspects of the Australian national endeavour in countering Grey Zone activities will be important.

US General Omar Bradley’s statement ‘we need to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship’ helps contextualise an appropriate response to the demands being generated by the supposed novelty of Grey Zone activity. Statecraft remains a ‘whole of nation endeavour’ and Defence has an important role to play in circumstances short of actual war, albeit in the ‘minor key’. Mis-calibration of the military response in competition short of conflict risks us becoming like a punch-drunk prize fighter: swinging at shadows, wasting energy, resources and reputation. We must not lose sight of the fact the passing ship of Grey Zone activities is from the past, present today as prologue to the conflicts which may come.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.