When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, its primary army was known as “little green men” because the Russian soldiers wore generic green uniforms lacking any official insignia. This complicated attribution, and allowed the Kremlin to distance itself from the effort, in turn stymieing retaliation and or intervention.

That conflict is an example of what’s called the “gray zone,” a term used to describe competitive actions that occur below the threshold of conflict. While it’s not a new phenomenon, experts say gray zone events have increased in recent years, raising the specter of conflict. In addition, the topic has been the subject of keynotes from senior Department of Defense leaders.

Why? The wide availability of commercial technologies to militaries and nonstate groups provides ample openings for actors to conduct actions below the threshold of war and in the process escalate the opportunities for a more traditional conflict.

Imagine the ubiquity of cyber and the seemingly endless vulnerabilities it portends. Or think of cheap off-the-shelf drones that allow insurgents and separatists to have their own mini-air forces capable of surveillance and strike capabilities. Or consider increased military fortifications within disputed territories or even the interference of strategic assets above the Earth’s atmosphere.

As Richard Andres, professor of national strategy at the National Defense University’s National War College, wrote in PRISM magazine, gray zone campaigns are designed for adversaries to achieve their goals without triggering a response.

He points to the invasion of Ukraine, as well as China’s control of the South China Sea by building and militarizing artificial islands.

Jacquelyn Schneider, assistant professor at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, calls this the “Price is Right” dilemma. She told C4ISRNET that low-cost technologies — both in dollar amounts and risk to human life — enable actors to bid $1 without overbidding.

“The whole point of being any state but the United States right now is to push as far as you can without overstepping the limits,” she said. “What these technologies allow a lot of states to do is to try and not overbid, not bust the limit.”

A changing environment

Cyber tools, unmanned systems and even space systems are more widely used today and often done so more aggressively.

Schneider points to China firing on unmanned systems near the Senkaku islands as an example.

While some countries believe they can legally fly unmanned systems over the islands, China considers the area sovereign airspace, she said. Schneider noted that while this approach might seem escalatory, there has not been much evidence that bringing down unmanned systems would lead to retaliation.

In the United States, retaliation would likely only come after a cyberattack on critical infrastructure that purposefully or inadvertently affects civilians, she said.

Avoiding direct conflict

Cyber tools have empowered gray zone actors, as they offer lower a barrier of entry, are not easily attributable and thus enable groups to achieve their goals at a low cost.

Most actors don’t want to engage the United States head-to-head, said Lance Cottrell, chief scientist at endpoint security company Ntrepid, so they try leveraging asymmetric tools on their own terms.

This could take the form of espionage. For example, think of the hack of the Office of Personnel Management — largely believed to be perpetrated by China and which resulted in the loss of millions of extremely sensitive personal records from both current and former U.S. employees. It could also take the form of China’s intellectual property theft program that has been executed mainly by hacking U.S. companies for the financial benefit of Chinese firms. This program costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars every year, Andres asserts.

Cottrell noted that cyberspace affords states and even nonstate organizations less risk of escalating major harm given that attribution in this space is difficult and, currently, it doesn’t seem as though nations are willing to respond to cyber incidents that don’t have physical ramifications with kinetic countermeasures.

At the moment, China has kept IP theft below the threshold of where the U.S. will respond forcefully, he said. Why? The U.S. has more to lose in a cyber conflict than others given how dependent the U.S. is on digital infrastructure.

This view has been shared by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper, in congressional testimony, said, “We’re always going to doubt our ability to withstand counter retaliation,” referring to potential U.S. cyber responses to adversarial aggression in cyberspace.

Similarly, Schneider said one of the results from recent experiments and war games was that cyber events must lead to extreme effects — consider the Stuxnet virus destroying centrifuges in Iran — before participants would consider retaliation.

The new challenges

What’s changed from previous gray zone challenges are the ways in which states are willing to defend their interests. Scott Harold, associate director of the think tank RAND’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy, told C4ISRNET that one new aspect of “gray zone coercion” is the threat of force to protect and extend sovereign borders.

Hundreds of years ago the notion of sovereignty and defined lines on a map to embody a set of internationally recognized norms didn’t really exist, he said. But now that’s an important concept, especially as countries look for ways to redraw their borders with maximum effect and minimum risk.

This is especially prevalent with China’s push over the last several years to define internationally what China is. This is done through information operations, influence ops — enabled through cyberspace — and establishing think tanks overseas, Harold said.

All of this lends itself to a diversified strategy of attempting to “control nativities and empower China’s rise peacefully so that it can achieve was what Sun Tzu called the acme of skill, which is to win without fighting,” Harold added.

Moreover, China has assertively laid claim to territory in the South China Sea, building and militarizing islands. While Harold notes these islands don’t necessarily fit into the traditional gray zone given they’re unambiguously China’s islands, there is a plausible pathway to conflict or gray zone coercion surrounding their militarization as China has indicated it is willing to use force to enforce what it perceives as its territory. This is despite internationally sanctioned freedom of navigation operations within the islands’ shores.

“China has long believed that one of the ways a weaker military defeats a stronger military is by having a greater willingness to absorb costs and a greater willingness to run risks,” Harold said.

He added that building artificial islands and hinting their enforcement with military capabilities fits very much with that.

China “can make efforts to try to do things below the threshold of warfare — fire warning shots or issue warnings that you’re now approaching a military alert zone, something that has no standing in international law … is part of a desire to stay under that threshold and win without fighting,” Harold said.

This is “very much consonant with that gray zone notion even if in this case you might say it’s got similarities with gray zone coercion and maybe what we really need to do is think about gray zone coercion about a spectrum and this is toward the closest end of the spectrum where the spectrum links up with … traditional military operations.”

Ultimately, for the United States, challenging gray zone conflicts comes down to perspectives and interests.

“In eastern Ukraine, the U.S., Russia and Ukraine interpret the conflict differently,” an article in the October/December 2015 issue of SOCOM’s Special Warfare magazine said.

“For the U.S., the contest falls closer to the white zone, and is best handled by economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. For Russia, it more closely approaches the black zone of war, suggesting that a willingness to act more aggressively is appropriate. Its actions emphasize the information and military lines of national power. Ukraine sees it as an existential threat to the sovereignty of its nation, justifying national mobilization — actions rooted deep in the black zone of potential war.”

Schneider indicated that there might not be much space when it comes to threats on the U.S. homeland as opposed to U.S. interests abroad. She explained that “domestic” sentiment might affect the desire for retaliation. “It depends on the emotional salience these attacks create and the incentives and pressure the domestic feelings place on decision-makers to use our military to combat that.”

Additionally, U.S. officials have been hesitant in the past to specifically articulate red lines — especially within cyberspace — given it provides adversaries a defined line they can walk right up to without fear of reprisal. Schneider said that while many point to Ukraine as a good example of Russians using operations beneath the threshold of conflict, “let’s be honest, the reality is not that it’s because the Russians were so sneaky to get away with this, it’s because the U.S. and its NATO allies didn’t care enough.”

“We all knew what was happening, the question is if it was something truly important to the United States — the subtleties of how you launch an attack might not matter as much if you’re launching an attack against the U.S. homeland. Whereas [if it’s] the islands in the South China Sea, maybe there’s wiggle room,” she added.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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