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Aboli Dhawade asked: What is Grey Zone Warfare?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: The term ‘Grey Zone Warfare’ has often been used in the strategic discourse in the context of explaining the antagonistic behaviour of feuding states, which may incorporate conventional and non-conventional tools and techniques or may rely entirely on non-conventional tactics, blurring the line between military and non-military actions and the attribution for events. 

    Grey zone warfare can be broadly defined as the exploitation of operational space between peace and war to change the status quo through the use of coercive actions which remain below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response. It is characterised by sub-threshold activities including kinetic and non-kinetic methods and military and non-military means by conventional military force and irregular proxies. 

    While lexicons such as ‘grey zone warfare’ had emerged as a battlefield-centric concept, progressively these terms have been reformulated comprising new elements. With ambiguous postures and covert aggression becoming a more common reflection of state behaviour, activities characterised as grey zone warfare methods range from the use of proxies for kinetic action or change of territorial status quo through coercion to non-kinetic subversive actions such as cyberattacks, economic coercion, disinformation campaign, election meddling, and more recently, weaponisation of migrants.

    There are typical aspects that tend to be present in most grey zone warfare activities. The first is that grey zone elements remain below the threshold that would justify a military response, often through the use of non-military tools. The second common characteristic of grey zone activities is that they unfold gradually over time rather than involving bold, all-encompassing actions to achieve objectives in one step. The progressive unfolding of aggressive moves over the years, or even decades, reduces opportunities for decisive responses as a counter. Further, while grey zone aggression seeks to remain below the key thresholds for a response, it uses the risk of escalation as a source of coercive leverage. The third characteristic, which applies to some but not all the activities in this sphere, is a lack of attributability. Most grey zone campaigns involve actions, whereby the aggressor aims for plausible deniability of its action. Whether it is cyberattacks or disinformation campaigns or the use of proxy forces, these actions allow a grey zone aggressor to deflect responses—and obstruct the potential for successful deterrence—by simply denying that it is responsible. In cases where grey zone actions are open and attributable, such as China’s approach in the South China Sea, they are justified using extensive legal and political arguments. In addition, aggressors also recruit other countries to their point of view, even if the legal standing of their claims in the international community is tenuous. Fifth, grey zone campaigns target specific vulnerabilities in the targeted countries. Grey zone aggressors also typically aim to put the defenders in situations where strong responses appear ruled out or counterproductive for strategic and domestic political reasons. In other words, grey zone warfare takes advantage of strategic ambiguity to achieve gradual gains.

    Posted on 4 March 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.