Can We Win in the ‘Grey Zone’?

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 10 April 2021. © Richard Kemp

In March, US President Joe Biden issued his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy to parliament. Both leaders expressed concern over the increasing challenges in the grey zone and promised measures to respond more effectively.

The grey zone is the space between peace and war involving coercive actions that fall outside normal geopolitical competition between states but do not reach the level of armed conflict. Actions in the grey zone are conducted by states often using proxies including terrorists, and also by terrorist organizations in their own right. Grey zone actions are aggressive and often ambiguous, deniable and opaque. They are intended to damage, coerce or influence, to destabilise target states or undermine the international status quo. They usually seek to avoid a significant military response, though are often designed to intimidate and deter a target state by threatening further escalation.

Grey zone actions are not new and have long been the prevalent form of conflict across the world. But as America and Britain both recognise, globalisation and technology are increasing the frequency and efficacy of such activities, and the speed at which they unfold. More actors are becoming involved, using increasingly powerful means of ‘grey warfare’, including cyber, space, internet, social media, digital propaganda and drones.

Grey zone techniques can include terrorist attacks, sabotage, assassination, blackmail, hostage-taking, espionage, subversion (such as funding and manipulation of political groups in a target country), cyber attacks, political warfare including lawfare, disinformation, propaganda, electoral influence and economic coercion. They sometimes involve military intimidation and conventional and unconventional military operations.

Examples include Russia’s 2018 nerve agent assassination attempt in the UK, annexation of the Crimea and efforts to influence European parliamentary elections; China’s encroachment tactics and actions around disputed features in the South and East China Seas as well as military aggression against India in the Ladakh region and extreme pressure on Hong Kong; Iran’s repeated proxy terrorist attacks in the Middle East, South America, the United States, Europe and elsewhere, seizure and attacks on international shipping and proxy missile attacks against US installations in Iraq; and Pakistan’s active sponsorship of the Taliban against the US-led coalition in Afghanistan and terrorist attacks in India.

Britain’s Integrated Review undertakes new capabilities to deal with grey zone challenges. Most notably it re-focuses the Special Air Service and other special forces against hostile state actors and creates the Ranger Regiment, a new special forces group akin to the US Green Berets and described by the Defence Secretary as ‘grey zone warriors’.

The UK Ministry of Defence says these measures, together with a more ‘persistent’ forward-deployed stance, will enable British forces to be ‘credible and capable to deter, and if necessary, defeat our adversaries in conflict as well as to allow us to compete below the threshold of armed conflict’. These enhancements may well provide the military capability to operate alongside allies in the grey zone, but do liberal democracies in the 21st Century have the political will to do the dirty work that is necessary to win?

I exclude Israel from this question, as it has long proved highly effective at defending itself using grey zone military actions. A recent example includes a carefully calibrated mine attack on the Iranian IRGC vessel Saviz in the Red Sea on April 6, which some have interpreted as the latest in a series of Iran-Israel tit-for-tat operations against shipping and others believe may be a message from Jerusalem to either (or both) Washington or Tehran on the opening of the Vienna talks on the Iran nuclear deal. The opacity of such actions to outside observers is a characteristic of the grey zone but its meaning is certainly clear to those at whom it is aimed. One thing is certain: perhaps alone among western nations, Israel is unafraid to confront its enemies in the grey zone.

Western nations have multiple pre-emptive and reactive options to respond to grey zone actions directed against them or their allies, most effectively involving multilateral coordination. The objective should be to frustrate or deter, avoiding escalation that might lead to all-out conflict. Broadly, options fall into four categories: diplomatic, informational, economic and military.

With the exception of some informational responses, perhaps involving disinformation, the first three categories carry little political risk for democracies and have been used frequently and to varying effect. For example, after the nerve agent attack on its soil, Britain applied limited economic sanctions and rallied an international diplomatic effort against Russia, expelling more than 100 intelligence operatives across North America and Europe; and the Trump administration imposed counter-terrorism sanctions on Iran following numerous acts of regional aggression.

Beyond symbolic demonstrations of force such as NATO deployments in Lithuania against Russian aggression and the forthcoming UK carrier strike group freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea, the military category of responses includes limited conventional combat, covert operations, cyber attacks and espionage. Each of these could be vitally important in confronting grey zone actions but are accompanied by significant political risk.

A prominent recent example is the 2020 US missile strike against Iranian IRGC Quds Force chief Qasim Soleimani, himself a master of the grey zone, who had been involved — among other nefarious activities — for many years in orchestrating attacks against the US and its allies. The killing of Soleimani was an outlier in US operations in the grey zone and was condemned at the time by now-President Biden who likened it to ‘tossing a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox’, and predicted a ‘major conflict across the Middle East’.

Democracies’ fear of escalation is a significant constraint against the use of violent military options in the grey zone, and that is exactly the fear that authoritarian states such as Iran wish to instil. As long as responses are carefully calibrated, however, escalation into the sort of conflagration President Biden warned of is unlikely. In fact the point of grey zone operations is to avoid escalation to all-out conflict with the US and its allies.

Provided that the limited purposes of our opponents’ grey zone actions are properly understood, however, fear of escalation is not the greatest obstacle to the use of a military option — transparency is. In most countries the work of intelligence services and special forces are classified and do not normally have to be specifically reported or authorised in legislatures. Weighing a decision on even the most limited military intervention, however, political leaders will reasonably be concerned about the possibility of leaks and forced accountability, increasingly so in the era of social media. This is compounded by the reality that our opponents in the grey zone will often leave no stone unturned to reveal and publicise the actions of our forces. The all-pervasive Western media would inevitably seize on any leak or exposure and very often distort it to increase political damage — a problem more rarely encountered by authoritarian states.

All military operations by Western forces must be conducted in accordance with domestic and international law, including in the grey zone, with clear determination by governments on whether conduct of hostilities or law enforcement paradigms apply in specific operations. Adherence to the law, nevertheless, is no guarantee that action that is exposed won’t be politically damaging, especially if it goes wrong, which is always a strong risk. This is complicated by the need in some circumstances to adopt an indirect approach — conducting grey zone military action against an opponent in a different country and against a different issue to the one that prompted it.

Churchill famously said: ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’ This applies equally in the grey zone where opacity and deniability surrounding military action are likely to be essential for its success, both before and after the event, and might also be a critical factor in avoiding further escalation. That puts democracies at a distinct disadvantage compared to authoritarian regimes, which suppress information about their operations, whether legal or illegal.

The Ranger concept envisages UK forces accompanying partners on operations when necessary. In some instances that might expose British troops to legal hazard and is a further factor that is likely to deter political authorisation of grey zone operations. No matter how extensively schooled in the laws of war, there is no guarantee that the type of foreign forces that need British assistance in battle will adhere to them. I knew of a highly trained coalition-accompanied Iraqi unit that whenever attacked on the streets of Baghdad always responded with the ‘death bloom’ — face outwards and empty your magazine at everything that moves. Potentially, accompanying British troops would be considered partially culpable in any such actions.

That aside, opaque and undeclared grey zone military operations that are considered lawful and legitimate today might be seen through a different prism tomorrow. Thousands of British troops have been investigated over spurious allegations of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though operations were conducted more openly, and there have been threats to drag British troops into the dock at the International Criminal Court. Today, retired soldiers are facing prosecution for events that took place half a century ago in Northern Ireland, despite having been investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing at the time. New protective legislation currently going through parliament might limit such legal concerns for the soldiers and commanders involved, but is unlikely to allay the fears of political leaders.

If the political risk is so high, is it necessary to respond in kind to military action in the grey zone? The UK Integrated Review says: ‘We will seek to deter states from aggressive acts: through the prospect of punishment — by detecting, attributing and responding accordingly.’ Deterrence is not down to the military option alone. Where possible, diplomatic, informational and economic actions are preferable in providing punishments. But sometimes it is necessary to fight fire with fire, and grey zone opponents who are willing to use military action must also be confronted with a credible military jeopardy to them, and not just a paper capability which will quickly be seen for what it is. The threat or actual use of violent and sometimes escalatory grey zone operations, despite inherent risks, can not only mitigate or prevent potentially serious damage caused by our opponents but also reduce the prospects of the immeasurably worse option of all-out war.

How confident can we be that liberal democracies mean business in the grey zone? When British (as well as American) troops were being killed and maimed in large numbers in Iraq by Iranian proxies using Iranian munitions more than a decade ago, the UK government would not even consider any form of grey zone military action, even non-lethal, against Iran, despite a clear capability to do so. Instead they relied on diplomatic démarches – and the killings continued. The consequences of such weakness are still being played out in Iran’s widespread grey zone aggression. If back then — in the face of the slaughter of their own troops — political leaders’ fear of escalation and political fallout caused such paralysis, how likely is it that they will seriously contemplate violent grey zone operations today, especially if the stakes are not as high?