Revisit our Cove Talk 'Grey Zone and Cyber Operations' from May 2022 for more on Grey Zone Warfare.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”
– Sun Tzu

In a 2019 speech, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds stated, “While we can make no assumptions about the character of warfare in the future, we must do everything in our power to anticipate and plan for what this will most likely entail. What is clear now, is that the character of warfare is changing, with more options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict – what some experts like to call grey zone tactics or hybrid warfare. It is vital that we be able to bring all of our sources of national power to bear on this problem, not just those of Defence. We need to better understand potential adversaries’ thresholds and risk appetites, alongside our own.”

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update describes the grey zone as, "activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict... paramilitary forces, militarisation of disputed features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers."

Grey zone tactics, confrontation, and conflict relates to the use of non-military means – below the threshold of armed conflict – to achieve political objectives. Grey zone confrontation is the dangerous ‘grey’ area between peace and war. Activities can include political and election meddling, cyber threats and attacks, economic coercion, use of proxies, and many other measures – including military action. According to Andrew Dowse and Sascha-Dominik Bachmann, it uses the ambiguity of international law, the ambiguity of actions and attribution, or because the impact of the activities does not justify a response by governments.

Left unchecked, grey zone activities can undermine governments. Grey zone activities are generally unseen and insidious. There are no rules and the front line is everywhere. Miscalculations in the grey zone can also inadvertently lead to armed conflict.

Having awareness of grey zone activities can assist us with countering it. One of the aims of grey zone activities is to harm an adversary without them feeling threatened or realising they are under attack. Grey zone flirts with the limits of detectability. The other important aspect is that there is plausible deniability of the activities carried out.

Thomas Dobbs et al. states, “ADF members, particularly commanders, need to understand what grey zone activities are as it affects the nation and as soldiers we need to be able to recognise it and counter it in conflict. The grey zone is a mainly non-military domain of human activity in which states use national resources to deliberately coerce other states. States achieve grey zone goals using multiple, apparently unrelated innocent/low attributable, mutually-supporting and synchronised statecraft techniques below the threshold of war. Grey zone campaigns seek to exploit adversaries’ weaknesses and suppress adversaries’ response options, all the while achieving tangible national strategic aims.”

Our potential adversaries have redefined our western thoughts of what warfare is. It is moving to a broader definition rather than the narrow ‘troops on the ground’ scenario that we know and understand, and what gives us advantage over our adversaries. We need to move out of our comfort zone of what warfare is, as our potential adversaries have no such barriers. Grey zone approaches are underpinned by the idea of ‘winning without fighting’. David Kilcullen argues that the West should consider that warfare be redefined to cover the hybrid landscape, such as the grey zone activities we are facing.

Some recent examples of grey zone activities directed at Australia and other democratic nations include:

  • Hostile diplomacy.
  • Trade coercion and sanctions on selected goods to harm economies.
  • Forced technology transfers.
  • Debt dependency.
  • Interference in the political realm.
  • Bribery of key people in government and industry.
  • Lobbying of key people in industry and other areas, who then lobby government.
  • Media manipulation, disinformation, deliberately crafted lies (fake news and videos).
  • Encouraging media self-censorship.
  • Discouraging discourse and discussion on local and international issues and events.
  • Subversion of democratic institutions and social cohesion.
  • Undermining the established rules based order.
  • Foreign intelligence activity, espionage and foreign interference.
  • Incursions across sovereign borders.
  • Industrial espionage, such as stealing intellectual property.
  • Cyber intrusions into government and industry computer networks.
  • Cyber theft and advantage, such as large scale data breaches.
  • Hacking infrastructure to target computers containing sensitive and classified information.

All of these activities seemly have nothing to do with the warfighting that we train for, yet they undermine democratic nations, governments, and institutions. Grey zone proponents manipulate the narrative to promote their preferred one. These activities also seek to send unmistakable signals to other countries to cooperate and watch what they say or do in relation to the adversary.

Grey zone activities can undermine democracy, values, belief systems, and laws – often without the knowledge that it is occurring. If grey zone activities erode democratic institutions, governments, and the media over a sustained period of time, a nation may not have the will to counter an adversary or use its military in a conflict.

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2019, the CDF, General Angus Campbell, stated that western democracies such as Australia, are ‘exposed’ to grey zone political warfare tactics. He continued by explaining that we are “In a world that’s becoming more connected, these activities range from information campaigns, cyber operations and theft of intellectual property, to coercion and propaganda. Grey-zone operations that subvert, erode and undermine, break international rules and norms, but ones that, in the eyes of the targeted state, fall short of requiring a war response, at which authoritarian countries excel.” He also stated that democracies, which champion openness and transparency, are poor at the "dark arts" of political warfare, which constitutes a form of masked aggression.

A case study – Russia’s takeover of Crimea

From February to March 2014 the Russian state carried out a successful grey zone campaign in Crimea, which led to the illegal annexation of the region. The grey zone activities used were severe economic manipulation, disinformation, manipulation of social and mass media, the use of proxies, diplomatic manipulation, and then military action.

In early 2014, the Russian government sent in undercover Special Forces and agents of influence to Crimea for several months to shape the environment and foment regime change, working with pro-separatist forces.

In late February 2014, Russian forces entered the country and seized key government and media installations. These forces looked like soldiers, but they did not have any insignia on their uniforms. They were labelled ‘little green men’ by Ukrainians. They used Russian equipment, weapons and uniforms. The Russian Government initially denied they were Russian soldiers (until April 2014). They then told the international community that they were only there to assist the local Russian speaking population and would withdraw as soon as they weren’t required. When information counter to Russian interests appeared, Russian leaders dismissed it. They put out false and misleading media claims to muddy the situation, aimed at delaying an international outcry and response.

In March 2014 they instigated a referendum. According to Steven Pifer the referendum was illegal, with poor turnout and no option on the ballot paper for Crimea to stay within Ukraine. Russian officials sought to justify the referendum as an ‘act of self-determination’ and stated 97% of the population voted to join Russia, with a turnout of 83%. Two days later, Russian and Crimean officials signed a “Treaty of Accession”. Russia’s Federation Assembly and Council then ratified the Treaty. So by March 2014 the takeover of Crimea by the Russian Federation was complete.

How it was carried out

So what grey zone tactics did the Russians use to carry out the operation and make it successful?

According to Ben Nimmo, Russia’s grey zone tactics in Crimea were what he terms ‘the 4D model’, which was to:

Dismiss – undermining and denigrating opponents and defying facts. Ignoring and insulting critics.

Distort – twisting facts and making up evidence, putting out a false version of reality.

Distract – turning peoples’ attention away from their activities to other countries’ activities, the ‘What about what you are doing’ tactic.

Dismay – Using lurid and terrifying hypothesises, frightening the target audience.

In his analysis of the Crimea operation, Kilcullen states that the Russians effectively used ‘Reaction time’ parameters to carry out the operation, which were:

Detection time – how long it takes international intelligence surveillance & reconnaissance systems to work out what was going on.

Attribution time – how long it takes for analysts to determine who was responsible for the takeover.

Decision time – Decision makers working out what to do about it. Countries working out how to react.

Mounting and launching time – how long it takes to take action against the aggressor.

Kilcullen states that in Crimea, the Russians could not negate western nations’ superior ‘detection’ or ‘attribution’ times, so they concentrated on the area of ‘decision’ time to obfuscate and delay international politicians and governments taking action, which was very effective. The Russians were also very good at shaping the environment, decisively minimising their signature on the ground, moving quickly to seize key objectives, and then again moving quickly to a political warfare strategy to hold their objectives.

What signal does this send to potential adversaries?

The effect of campaigns such as Crimea is that adversarial countries now see grey zone tactics that can be used by them to influence or take over disputed areas without resorting to costly conventional armed conflict. Some nations have increasingly found they can advance their interests in the grey zone without paying a high price. This activity exploits weaknesses in the rules-based order promoted by Western democracies. Grey zone campaigns are difficult to counter or garner international support to take action against the belligerents.

A way forward

Ben Scott contends that to counter operations in the grey zone, “Australia needs to enter that space. That will require mobilising the full spectrum of Australia’s national power – from cyber operations through to intelligence and development aid – to proactively shape our regional environment. At the same [time] Australia also needs to preserve the rules-based order. Australian activity in the grey zone still needs to accord with Australian values, legislation and broader interests in the rules-based order.”

At the strategic level, according to the Defence Strategic Update, Australia seeks to counter the grey zone threat by focusing on strengthening the rules-based order and improving regional co-operation. But what about at an organisational or individual level in the ADF. Dobbs et al. state that the “ADF should maintain its focus on preparing for conventional state-on-state conflict, but develop an awareness of grey zone activities and the potential for facing hybrid warfare. An example of how this could be achieved is by specifically including grey zone activities in the scenario for exercises… and in the training of officers."

As individual soldiers in the conventional force structure that we belong to, understanding and countering grey zone tactics is difficult; however, this does not mean it will go away if we ignore it. On the contrary, it will likely only get worse for the foreseeable future. We need to adapt to this new reality and collectively determine how we as soldiers (and citizens) can assist in countering the threat. Part of the solution should be to increase awareness of grey zone confrontation and conflict, develop and refine tactics and doctrine in the area, receive ongoing training on it, and incorporate grey zone adversary tactics in our field exercises at every opportunity. In short: we should seek to identify, understand, and counter grey zone threats.