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?
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.
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.