What is Grey Zone Warfare?

March 4, 2024

The phrase 'grey zone warfare' crops up in descriptions of Chinese actions around an island that it claims as its own.

About Grey Zone Warfare:

  • Grey zone warfare generally means a middle, unclear space that exists between direct conflict and peace in international relations.
  • It 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.
  • 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 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.
    • In cases where grey zone actions are open and attributable, they are justified using extensive legal and political arguments. In addition, aggressors also recruit other countries to their point of view.
    • Grey zone campaigns target specific vulnerabilities in the targeted countries.