War in the “grey zone”

I said, about 18 months ago, that “Western leaders like Presidents Marcon and Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Ministers Abe, May, Rutte, Trudeau, Turnbull all see “war” as a binary choice ~ you’re either fighting or you’re not, while Putin and Xi see it as spectrum wherein actual armed conflict is only one of many, many choices. We, in the US-led West, are not “playing” the same strategic “game” as our competitors … that’s a mistake on our part.” War in the “grey zone” or a strategy of  “constructive ambiguity,” as The Economist explains it, is the most likely form of great power competition for the foreseeable future.

The Economist explained that “A key element of Chinese strategy is to “know your enemy”. The generals who worked at the Academy of Military Science in Beijing studied every aspect of America’s “revolution in military affairs” in the 1980s, driven by advances in microprocessors, sensors and communications. They concluded that although China was well placed to exploit the new technologies to create its own version of “informationised” warfare, it would not be in a position to challenge American military might directly until the middle of the 21st century. To do so sooner would be suicidal. H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s [former] national security adviser, once observed: “There are two ways to fight the United States: asymmetrically and stupid” … [and, being smart, well-read women and men] … the Chinese generals and their Russian counterparts, who had been equally impressed by the precision-strike capabilities that America demonstrated in the first Gulf war, sought ways to reap some of the political and territorial gains of military victory without crossing the threshold of overt warfare. They came up with the concept of a “grey zone” in which powers such as Russia, China and Iran can exercise aggression and coercion without exposing themselves to the risks of escalation and severe retribution. Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague describes this approach as “guerrilla geopolitics”.” We, the US-led West that includes Canada, are, I assert, fighting just that sort of “war” right now … and the “enemies” may not be only the Chinese, Iranians and Russians. We may have “enemies” within Canada and amongst our allies who have aims that include damaging Canada’s economy or, at least, weakening us as an economic competitor.

This brings me to an informative report from the RAND Corporation,  which, in summary, suggest that “The United States is entering a period of intensifying strategic competition with several rivals, most notably Russia and China. U.S. officials expect this competition to be played out primarily below the threshold of armed conflict, in what is sometimes termed the gray zone between peace and war. In this report, the authors examine how the United States might respond to Russian and Chinese efforts to seek strategic advantage through coercive actions in the gray zone, including military, diplomatic, informational, and economic tactics. [I grew up believing that “grey” is the correct term for that neutral colour used to convey the idea of gloom or ambiguity, but most Americans, which the RAND Corporation authors almost certainly are, prefer “gray.” I will use “grey” when I am writing and I will copy “gray” when quoting others who use that form.]  The United States is ill prepared and poorly organized to compete in this space, yet the authors’ findings suggest that the United States can begin to treat the ongoing gray zone competition as an opportunity more than a risk. Moreover, leaders in Europe and Asia view Russian and Chinese gray zone aggression as a meaningful threat and are receptive to U.S. assistance in mitigating it. In this report, the authors use insights from their extensive field research in affected countries, as well as general research into the literature on the gray zone phenomenon, to sketch out the elements of a strategic response to the gray zone challenge and develop a menu of response options for U.S. officials to consider.

The report suggests that:

  • The Russians are conducting grey zone campaigns in Europe right now, they are, mainly, propaganda (disinformation) campaigns meant to undermine liberal political institutions. They also employ tactics that include the use of economic tools to extract concessions or to coerce countries that are over-reliant on Russian energy. They also demonstrate military threats through exercises near the borders of NATO members, and, they say that in a few cases, especially in Ukraine, Russian security forces have even infiltrated foreign territory to exert de facto control over disputed territory; and
  • In Northeast Asia, Japan believes that it is engaged in a high-stakes competition with China regarding the sovereignty and administrative (legal) control of the Senkaku Islands and nearby areas, and Southeast Asian countries have grown increasingly wary of Chinese grey zone operations in the South China Sea, including China’s unprecedented expansion of artificial islands, and the use of law enforcement and maritime militia vessels in a manner that aims to deter or deny the use of the resources in the water. China appears to have supplemented these tactics with the use of economic coercion and political subversion.

There are, the report suggests, two overarching strategic concepts for responding to the grey zone threats:

  • The report’s proposed strategic concept rests on four (interrelated) notions ~
    • Shaping an allied strategy supportive of U.S. and partner objectives over the long term,
    • Actively, now, deterring a handful some of the more dangerous forms of grey zone aggression,
    • Preventing the day-to-day use of some of the more-elaborate grey zone techniques, and
    • Maintaining resilience in the lower-level, persistent competition areas; and
  • To implement the strategic concept, the report proposes a preliminary list of about three dozen response options for American and allied officials to consider, such as stationing permanent new military capabilities in key locations, anticipating political meddling and blunting the effects with information operations planned in advance, and denying the aggressor participation in key economic institutions.

That’s all well and good, but: how to implement such a strategy? What to do? How to do it? And who is to do it? The report recommends that:

  • America and its allies, partners, and friends ~ and this must include Canada ~  need to decide what actions are intolerable in the grey zone environment. But, the report says, it is hard to stop, much less prevent, gradual, sometimes unattributable actions involving secondary interests, so identifying the actions that the US-led West will seek to deter is the one reliable way to draw a boundary or a “red-line” around the possible effects of grey zone encroachment; and
  • The US and its allies should adopt a “multicomponent strategy” like the one outlined in the report, but we must all recognize that it will be of limited utility “if the U.S. government continues to lack a clear coordinating function with the responsibility for overseeing a renewed effort to gain strategic advantage in the gray zone.” The report concludes that an important part of any grey zone response strategy, therefore, is undertaking institutional reform, such as assembling purpose-built office in the U.S. government, and in allied nations and alliances, like NATO, with significant dedicated staff, to conduct real-time counter–grey zone campaigns.

So, what does this mean for Canada?

A couple of months ago I said that the world is changing and Canada must change, too. I made a few recommendations: I said that we have to have an interest-based strategy … one focused on our vital interests in the world. I suggested that we must be less reliant on one or two cornerstones, the USA and NATO, and, instead, build a better foundation with more friends and groups. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what Justin Trudeau has accomplished in the past 3¾ years ~ instead, he has alienated traditional allies, even Australia, and major trading partners like China and rising great powers like India. His ineptitude is stunning … our foreign policy is a national disgrace. We need to rebuild our once-sterling reputation for fair dealing and for doing a fair share. Finally, I said, we need to rebuild our hard (military) power so that we can use our soft power to good effect.

In this new ‘war in the grey zone‘ Canada needs to partner with allies, with the USA,  of course, and with our traditional CANZUK allies, with Singapore and the Philippines and Malaysia and other ASEAN and TPP nations, with our NATO allies and with the EU, and with India, a rising great power, and with Israel, too, to share information and intelligence and techniques and best practices to:

  • Develop and implement a strategy that is supportive of allied objectives over the long term;
  • Actively, now, work with allies to deter a handful some of the more dangerous forms of grey zone aggression;
  • Prevent the day-to-day use of some of the more-elaborate grey zone techniques, and
  • Maintain our resilience in the lower-level, persistent competition areas like trade and information.

Specifically, some of the things Canadian leaders should consider doing might include, inter alia:

  • Reforming its military command and control (C²) superstructure to make it leaner and more efficient and better able to cope with grey zone conflicts;
  • Adding some specific staff teams and units to ‘fight’ the information and cyber battles ~ day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out;
  • Stationing large battle groups ~ a big battalion of infantry with tanks, artillery, attack helicopters, engineers and organic logistics and a support base ~ likely 2,500+ soldiers and civilian employees ~ and air support elements (perhaps another 500+ RCAF members and civilian staff) in both Europe, on NATO’s North-East flank, and in East Asia to help allies deter the Russians, especially, and to show the Chinese that we are there for our friends. This is part of the notion of deterring the most dangerous aspects of grey zone aggression which we see when the grey zone butts up against conventional military operations. Experience says that armed deterrence works. But, that may mean doubling the strength of the full-time, regular Canadian Army from 23,000 to something like 45,000 soldiers and adding several thousand more people to our air force, too;
  • Ensuring that we have a globally capable, blue-water navy that can help ensure the freedom of the seas … all the seas, as befits a trading nation;
  • Adding professional, civilian information operations specialists to our missions in most foreign capitals to ~
    • Keep tabs on competitors, and
    • Share information and best practices with friends;
  • Encouraging the creation of combined (multi-national) information operations study and action groups to help counter the most dangerous sorts of grey zone operations; and
  • Beefing up our national (not just military) cyber defences ~ that includes e.g. our banks and insurance companies, too.

I know, with 100% certainty, that at least a few senior Canadian officials and military officers understand the grey zone, understand that we are “at war” there, right now, and Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 07.37.48are, in some cases, uncomfortable with the nature of the combatants. Is John McCallum, for example, a dedicated Canadian, fighting in the grey zone or Canada or is he, perhaps inadvertently, fighting in the grey zone for corporate interests that, in fact, serve China’s interests, not Canada’s? Or, indeed, is he actively serving China’s agenda as he tries to advance the Liberal Party of Canada’s fortunes?

The point is that some grey zone operations are not “conventional,” and while some grey Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 07.47.52zone Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 07.34.51warriors are soldiers, many others are quite decidedly unmilitary … but, we’ve been there before, unconventional warfare is not new, nor are unconventional warriors, whichever side they might be serving. But, the grey zone is never the only area of operation. Just as soft power is only useful if one has enough hard, military power to make one’s voice heard, so grey zone operations are always part of a larger grand strategic plan that aims to secure quite conventional objectives. That’s why war in the grey zone must be fought by both conventional forces, as we fought the first Cold War, for example, and by unconventional forces which might be strange and even a little frightening to those used to seeing”“war” as a binary choice ~ you’re either fighting or you’re not.”

We, America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark and, and, and, are being attacked in the grey zone now, whether we like it or not and whether we understand it or not. We need to defend ourselves in both conventional and unconventional ways … and then counter-attack. In fact, the war in the grey zone is being fought, sometimes, even now, on Canadian soil, by Canadians and some political parties and leaders are sometimes complicit in activities that do real, serious harm to Canada’s relations with other great nations. But the war in the grey zone, is, as I said, just above, part of a bigger, grand strategic plan that needs to be countered by both conventional and unconventional means. As much as we need to do (and avoid doing) things that impact the grey zone we must, simultaneously, be prepared to do things that strengthen our position in the “binary,” black and white world of conventional power.

The “battle space,” as our American friends describe it stretches from meeting rooms in local church, temple and mosque basements in our cities, and on our streets where we practice too much diaspora politics, through to border towns in Eastern Europe and islands in East Asia. It involves overt threats and covert persuasions as well as covert threats and overt persuasions (propaganda). The weapons are many and varied, they include modern warships, tanks, howitzers and new fighter jets and computers and SIGINT agencies and psychologists and journalists, too. There is, really, not much new but the grey part of the spectrum between white (peace) and black (armed conflict) is now larger and in sharper focus, too.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

6 thoughts on “War in the “grey zone”

  1. Agree the only fault I have with this strategy is it should have been started 2 decades ago.

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