Increasingly, hostile states and non-state actors are conducting attacks designed to destabilise Western nations.

This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Jack Austin. Jack is a recent graduate from the University of Washington, with a double major in International Studies: Europe and is currently based in London.

By using ‘hybrid’ attacks in the poorly defined domain of the ‘grey zone’, belligerents avoid direct military confrontation and established modes of deterrence. In a sense, the territory of globalisation that was once heralded to bring an end to conflict has been weaponised.

This has poised the targets of hybrid attacks in a position where hostile actions cannot be punished with military, ‘hard power’. Most efforts to deter grey zone warfare simply alter a hostile party’s cost-benefit calculation. Indeed, there are very few ways to deter such attacks. Nevertheless, Western governments are relying on the concept of deterrence that has for so long been the linchpin of modern defence, as the solution to this growing problem. Though it is a young, largely obscure and undefined concept, ‘Grey zone deterrence’ may hold the key to a more secure global economic and political future.

Navigating the grey zone

National defence will always require rigid definitions. Therefore, we must endeavour to understand the elastic term ‘grey zone’ and disseminate hybrid attacks from simple economic competition. In a broad sense, the ‘grey zone’ is a domain in which hostile actors aim to weaponise information, credit and capital, while harnessing the integration of a globalised world to invest in the consolidation of their power and the diminishment their opponents’.

Threats to national security can be seen everywhere from the takeover of aviation company Impcross by a Chinese owned firm to the spreading of misinformation that threatens our elections, with more egregious examples seen in the Skripal affair at Salisbury. Hybrid attacks such as these must be deflected. But more ideally, they must be deterred.

Nevertheless, we must be cautious in our definitions. As John Raine (senior advisor at the IISS) puts it, ‘broadening the range of activities that are classified as belligerent, effectively lowers the threshold for escalation’. How will the goal of global security and peace be achieved if all activities threatening the West’s hegemony on the world stage are characterised as warlike?

Societal resilience

To combat threats from the grey zone and alter the cost-benefit calculation, Western governments are beginning to explore and invest in ‘societal resilience’. Forms of societal resilience vary from increasing regulation on the information sector to education in schools and are designed to reinforce the nation and private enterprise against hybrid attacks.

The British Government in their document ‘National Cyber Security Strategy 2016-21’ explains in some of their key goals the importance of ‘reducing the benefits and raising the costs to an adversary’. Similarly, the Royal United Services Institute, a London based, defence think tank is exploring the concept of modern deterrence. Though, new methods of societal resilience must be developed to combat emerging threats in this new domain.

Sustainable defence

There could also be a role for the Defence Industry itself to play in mitigating the threats of the grey zone. As direct confrontations become a thing of the past, defence companies with their considerable resources, knowledge and integration are ideally positioned to pivot (although not entirely divert from hard power) towards soft power and conflict de-escalation.

This would involve methods of production that limit escalation between competitors, investment in mitigating potential conflicts and bolstering private companies to defend against cyber-attacks. This concept is known as ‘sustainable defence’.
A number of private military companies (PMCs) already actively train businesses to fend off cyber-attacks and increase their resilience.

Indeed, the more private companies know about the grey zone through interactions with PMCs, government and defence, the more likely they will react to hostile attacks and in turn strengthen their own deterrence.

By investing in conflict de-escalation, defence companies will foster a new image of sustainable and ethical business, broadening their appeal, and bolstering global security. As more people will come to understand the grey zone, the cost-benefit calculation of hybrid attacks will no longer favour the attacker and we will be on the road towards effective deterrence.

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Geoffrey Hicking
Geoffrey Hicking (@guest_493532)
1 year ago

What use would carriers be in grey zone warfare I wonder? Launching deniable flights of drones to physically hack into Chinese systems? Warning off Chinese aircraft that attempt to do the same?

ChariotRider (@guest_493556)
1 year ago

The Grey Zone is likely to be the pre-emptive strike method of choice at least against nations with no ‘soft’ deterrence capability. A good example of this is the position Fiji Islands find themselves in today. They took on huge loans from China which they are now finding difficult to pay off. They are now under pressure from an expansionist China. (Not sure of the details but there was a news article I read last year with a photegraph of the Fijian PM looking very uncomfortable with the Chinese leadship!) This is an example of economic warfare waged by a… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli (@guest_493579)
1 year ago
Reply to  ChariotRider


See –

Very much an area for SF, intelligence agencies, cyber, and unconventional stuff.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli (@guest_493581)
1 year ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

“The equivelant to the Grey Zone back then could be seen as the political activism in the Sudetenland demanding unification with Germany from Czechoslovakia…”

Talking of WW2, the Gleiwitz incident could be another example.

ChariotRider (@guest_493623)
1 year ago

Hi Daniele,

I was aware of the German false flag operations on the eve of WW2, but not of particular operations. As far as I am aware the false flag operations were actual pressed home with complete conviction i.e. the SS killed some of their own people and soldiers!

As for special forces ops I would say that what is proposed is well within their capabilities I should think…

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli (@guest_493634)
1 year ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

Ah, yes. Gleiwitz was the fake “polish” raid on the radio station that the Germans used as a pretext to invade.

I have not heard of the SS killing their own, but they did use bodies from Dachau.

SoleSurvivor (@guest_493654)
1 year ago

I did some research into Gleiwitz and I don’t think it was a German false flag Hitler never mentioned it in his invasion speech, there were no newsreels and it never had German National media coverage The entire evidence of the Gleiwitz incident is from the uncorroborated signed confession of just one SS officer, there is no other evidence at all, it is not mentioned in Churchill’s memoirs or the French yellow book, and not in any German records What’s more interesting is the SS officer from Nuremberg’s account is not the one we all know today, most of details… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli (@guest_493669)
1 year ago
Reply to  SoleSurvivor

Evening Sole.

That’s new to me, thank you.

ChariotRider (@guest_493675)
1 year ago

Hi Daniele,

Yeh, one attack was miss timed and was mounted against a boarder post. In the ensuing confusion a number of Germans were apparently killed.

JG (@guest_493630)
1 year ago

I’d say the capability to use carriers and position them near to other countries shore lines is their “grey zone effect”. I also believe that the other countries beliefs that this could be done is also the effect. Generally though, carriers are an a bit of an unsubtle hammer diplomatically and that has been how the Americans have used them. In the context of this article, I believe they are mainly driving at state based non military actions against others, so in this context the carriers aren’t too relevent. Although, I would imagine their use as an offshore staging post… Read more »

Gareth (@guest_493538)
1 year ago

I think we need to be careful not to set up more ‘traditional’ forms of conflict against cyber-type conflict as an either or. Geopolitical adversaries are still quite willing to use tanks and jet fighters (e.g. Syria/Yemen to a name a few) to push their agendas just as much as grey zone activity. In other words, one must develop competences in both.

JohnHartley (@guest_493603)
1 year ago

Well there are many themes here. Would Chinese/Russian/Iranian fake news gain traction if British/western populations trusted their governments/banks/officials to work for the good of all, rather than just the top 1%? Does the UK political establishment need to wake up to the “reshore” movement of getting industrial jobs back to Britain? The row over Chinese 5G, would be different if the UK still had GEC-Marconi making the kit for BT. How can 5G be secure if all your PCs & laptops are made in China? If we still had Apricot & ICL, we would not be in this mess. T.… Read more »