Grey Zone Operations: The Permanent Contemporary Conflict

Authors Kanchana Ramanujam[1]& Rahul Bhonsle[2]

Preview - Why the Grey Zone Assumes Importance?

Cooperation, competition and conflict-the 3Cs-remain a perpetual human trait; the basis of evolution dictated by the Darwinian precept of, “survival of the fittest”.

In the modern [and post-modern] era, human interactions have been structured to facilitate resolution of conflicts through regulations, negotiations, arbitrations and formal litigation, restricting violence in non-fragile, State environments. The context of confrontation between individuals and groups of people normatively apply to States as well. The triad of 3Cs between Nation States assumes a large, sombre dynamic given the expansive power to cause violence.

Concomitantly, just as individuals continuously arbitrate to resolve differences and seek to prevent losses due to violent actions, negotiations and settlements have reduced violent wars, in general.

While “State-on-State,” wars have not gone away, their intensity and duration have come down. A case in point is the most recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which lasted 45 days spanning September to November 2020. This War took a heavy toll on both sides - numbering over 6000 by some estimates, including both soldiers and civilians. Intervention by Russia–a major stakeholder of stability in tandem with Turkey-brought an early closure. The War also highlighted that asymmetry in armed-capability can lead to States developing a propensity for exploiting advantages to achieve national objectives.

In the context of major powers-regional and global-however, the asymmetry either may not exist or use of force could lead to unforeseen consequences, particularly in the case of those armed with nuclear weapons. The apparent acute awareness apparently [1] and non-acceptance of large-scale loss of life and bloodshed between organised forces has led to limited propensity in States for mass casualties. Keeping the threshold of violence assumes importance particularly where public at large is unwilling to accept a high number of fatalities.

More over in the hyper geo-economic context of globalised supply chains, the impact of wars between large States could be much wider and consequential. At the same time, violence in fragile States is likely to continue.

Alternatives to Open Conflict

Given the constraint of inability to use maximum force, Nation States are looking at alternate options for resolution of differences - be it territorial, ideological or simply power-dynamics of times. This brings us to the crux of the issue - the alternatives for the 3 Cs. These need deliberate examination.

Where nations have common borders laced with differences, such as India and Pakistan or India and China, and resolution is seen as politically unviable for both sides, claims are sustained by transgressions, occupying stand-off positions, posturing, skirmishes and fire-assaults. These encounters extend over months and years with relatively low loss of lives but envelop the nations in a permanent cloak of enmity as territorial sovereignty remains irresolvable due to internal political dynamics and hardened positions of inviolability.

In the non-physical environment, multiple domains have emerged that transcend the traditional arena of the 3Cs, ie, land, sea and air, to include, inter alia,cyberspace, information and electronic media. Illicit elements such as terror, and multifarious tools,viz. discrete cartographic realignments, legalese etc. can also be seen to constitute National Power.


The reality of modern inter State-relations denotes that States prefer undeclared hostility with the competitor which is ambiguous while continuing to conduct normal forms of political, diplomatic and economic relations.There are numerous contemporary examples of the same, be it the United States and China, United States and Russia or, of late, China and India.

States engage in conflict in selective constructs, thereby giving a semblance of normalcy, adding to the layer of ambiguity as well as complexity.

Non -State Actors

The emergence of deviously “empowered”, non-state actors having reach in multiple domains from the physical to information and cyber has added another layer of complexity to the 3Cs. These actors operate outside the norms of international regulations while some have overt or covert links with States.

War as a Metaphor

The diachronic framework of “war” has undergone a shift in usage, frequently suffixed with non-violent conduct such as political warfare, ‘Three Warfare’ and so on in the external paradigm.

Another construct is Hybrid wars a combination of violent (conventional) and other (unconventional) means.

In the internal context, irregular war and unconventional warfare are increasingly used to denote sub-conventional conflict waged by non-state actors as an expression of dissent and rebellion against central authority.

Under normal context, this could be seen as sub-conventional conflict.

Wars defined in the classic sense entailed violent, bloody battles. Today, increasingly, ‘war’ is suffixed to demonstrate the intensity of emotions involved in the conflictual engagements, States versus States or Non-States, rather than bloodshed.

Most aptly, the foregoing construct has been referred to as grey-zone operations (GZO) which, as the name suggests, denotes ambiguity of identity of the initiator of the disruption in a terrain in which the confrontation is engaged in.[2]

The detailed contours of GZO are discussed subsequently. However, a nuanced understanding of the prevalent concepts of State-on-State/Non-State conflicts is provided here for effective contextualisation.

Examination of Contemporary Conflict Concepts

Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid Warfare is the most commonly-used term to describe modern conflicts. It has a close co-relation with GZO and is frequently used interchangeably, which is inappropriate. Thus, there is a necessity for a deliberate understanding of the term. Amongst various explanations of Hybrid Wars, the one by Lt Col Frank G. Hoffman–a retired US Armed Forces officer-is most often quoted by Indian scholars. As per Hoffman, “hybrid warfare incorporates a full range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder”.[3]

Explaining the term in an article titled ‘Hybrid vs Compound War’, he states that it is the tactics used throughout the modes of warfare to achieve gains through the use of “simultaneously and adaptively employ(ing) a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior,” in a single space and time.[4]

The United States Army, in turn, defines hybridity in terms of threat rather than war. In 2011, the US Army defined a hybrid threat as “the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, criminal elements, or a combination of these forces and elements all unified to achieve mutually benefiting effects.”[5]

There can be two types of hybrid threats: grey-zone hybrid threats and open-warfare hybrid threats; distinguishable on the basis of visible use of conventional weapons and tactics, and presence/absence of ambiguity[3] .[6] Clearly, there is a heavy component of violence which is not entailed conceptually in GZO and thus remains a key point of difference.

Political Warfare

Another term ‘political warfare’ has also been used frequently. This was first defined way back in 1948 by U.S. diplomat and historian George Kennan - an advocate of the policy of containment. Kennan defined Political Warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”[7]

Expanding on this and clarifying the same to some extent, the US Defence Technical Information Centre states that ‘political warfare consists of the intentional use of one or more of the implements of power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) to affect the political composition or decision-making within a state.’[8]

In addition, the United States Army Special Operations Command’s March 2015 White Paper asserts that ‘Political Warfare encompasses a spectrum of activities associated with diplomatic and economic engagement, Security Sector Assistance (SSA), novel forms of Unconventional Warfare (UW), and Information and Influence Activities (IIA).’[9]

While the metaphor of ‘war’ is used in Political “warfare”,the intention is not direct violence, and the same is restricted in application to the achievement of political objectives. GZOs, on the other hand, have a much wider spectrum including “political warfare”.

A recent debate has emerged over the Chinese concept of “Three Warfare”.The contours of the Three Warfare Strategy are not new and were approved by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission in 2003.

This is a non-military tool of the People’s Liberation Army r aimed at acquiring political advantage and shaping the public opinion.

The Three Warfare (s) include - (a) Psychological Warfare: the objective is to undermine military capability of the enemy by, “deterring, shocking, and demoralizing the enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations”.[10] (b)Public Opinion/Media Warfare: The objective is to influence, “domestic and international public opinion to build support for China’s military actions and dissuade theadversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests”. (c) Legal Warfare: It attempts to achieve international and domestic law to claim the “legal high ground” in promoting Chinese interests. The aim is to build international public opinion promoting legal claims to Chinese interests.[11]

Evidently, the Three Warfare Strategy is much less than GZOs and though some tools are similar in nature, the political and security objective of the Chinese strategy is limited to creating favourable conditions for[4] war.

The use of the Three Warfare Strategy in conjunction with China’s current campaign of aggressive assertion of territorial sovereignty, whether on the Sino Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) or the South China Sea, is also evident.

Intra-State Conflicts

While Hybrid Warfare, Political Warfare and Three Warfare Strategy have been used with reference to inter-State wars, there are a number of frameworks pertaining to the same, such as, Irregular Warfare and Unconventional Warfare, which require deliberation with reference to GZO.

Irregular Warfare, according to the US Secretary of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). IW favours indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”[12]

As per the US Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, the definition of Unconventional Warfare (UW) is “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[13]

GZOs are far more expansive, are inter-State in nature and have a much larger objective with multiple tools and media at play.

Literature on Definitions of Grey Zone Operations

Having seen parallel concepts related to GZOs, relevant definitions or explanations that are available in the current literature can now be examined.

The US Armed Forces has attempted to develop a larger understanding of the concept of Grey-Zone Operations.

As per a paper on the subject, in January 2016, General Joseph Votel of the US Army requested Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) team to conduct a study of the “grey zone,” and arrive at its contours. The SMA team, in conjunction with the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), developed the definitions for the grey zone, grey-zone activity, and grey-zone threats.

The grey zone is defined as “a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political-security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws.”[14]

Further elaborating on the grey zone, Phillip Kapusta, in a Paper for USSOCOM, states that, “challenges of gray-zone warfare are competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality. They are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks”.[15]

Grey-zone threats in turn, have been defined by SMA and USSOCOM team as the “actions of a state or non-state actor that challenge or violate international customs, norms, and laws for the purpose of pursuing one or more broadly defined national security interests without provoking direct military response”.[16] Maren Leed provides another perspective of grey zone as the “conceptual space between peace and war, where activities are typically ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet intentionally fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict.[17]

General Joseph Votel of the United States Army characterised the grey zone as demonstrating “intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war”.[18]

Does grey zone involve violence? David Barno and Nora Bensahel writing in ‘War on the Rocks’ state, “Gray zone conflicts involve some aggression or use of force, but in many aspects their defining characteristic is ambiguity—about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response”.[19]

How is strategic advantage gained in the grey zone? Michael Mazarr indicates that actors in the grey zone employ “sequences of gradual steps to secure strategic leverage. The efforts remain below thresholds that would generate a powerful US or international response, but nonetheless are forceful and deliberate, calculated to gain measurable traction over time”.[20]

Common facets in the definitions of GZO are summarised as follows:

(a) Conducted in the continuum between peace and war or operations which are above competitive strategies but below major military conflict.

(b) Entails deliberate use of multiple elements and tools of national power in varied domains.

(c) The aim is to achieve political and security objectives.

(d) Execution ensures ambiguity,that is,it is prosecuted without any attribution to originator.

(e) Violates the rule of international law and regulations.

(e) Poses a direct or indirect threat to national interests.

Working Definition of Grey Zone Operations

GZOs are undeclared actions undertaken by State and Non-State Actors with deniable attributability of outcomes to pursue politico-security objectives, employing multiple elements and tools of national power while remaining below the threshold of intense violent conflict.

GZOs effectively exploit political, economic, societal and security fault-lines of the adversary and intentionally violate and/or undermine international regulations and laws. GZOs undertaken by adversaries undermine national interests.



The dynamics of GZO is seen to be at variance with the other forms of so called, “wars” as commonly perceived in contemporary terms. "Operations", and not "war", is suffixed with Grey Zone as "war," implicitly entails large-scale violence. Grey zone retains a threshold in terms of intensity and period of violence[5] - both of which are short. The threshold may be difficult to determine and at times, may trigger violent conflict, which signals a transition from ambiguity to certitude of the identity of the adversary. Similarly, a long campaign of terrorism cannot be classified as a GZO, but is a determinate action by a State or Non-State Actor where the adversary is well identified. GZO can unfold in a medium to long term time frame and states continue to develop myriad capabilities for this purpose.

Military can be employed for grey-zone operations as a tool for coercion and deterrence, short of high intensity conflict. Increasingly, the military will have to develop tactics and techniques to operate in the grey zone without the use of kinetic power. Based on the stratagems used by an adversary, a State will have to develop counters to GZO.

Clearly states may increasingly opt for GZO as a preferred form of contestation with rivals as it allows maintaining normalcy of exchange in uncontested spheres such as economy, trade, supply chain management or health crises while continuing to target a selected medium say cyber or media.

[1] Kanchana Ramanujam is an Assistant Professor School of Military Affairs, Strategy and Logistics. Rashtriya Raksha University, Gandhi Nagar.

[2] Rahul Bhonsle is a military veteran and Director of Security Risks Asia based in Delhi.

[3]Hoffman, F. (2009). Hybrid Warfare and Challenges. Small Wars Journal, [online] (52). Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct 2020].

[4]Hoffman, F. (2009). Hybrid vs. Compound War. [online] Armed Forces Journal. Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct 2020].

[5]Anderson, G., 2018. Counter-Hybrid Warfare: Winning in the Gray Zone. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 October 2020]

[6]Chambers, J., 2016. Countering Gray-Zone Hybrid Threats: An Analysis of Russia's 'New Generation Warfare' and Implications for the US Army. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 October 2020].

[7] 1948. Wilson Center Digital Archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 October 2020]. [8]Robinson, L., Helmus, T., Cohen, R., Nader, A., Radin, A., Magnuson, M. and Migacheva, K., 2018. Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses. [ebook] RAND Corporation, p.7. Available at: [Accessed 26 October 2020].

[9]Robinson, L., Helmus, T., Cohen, R., Nader, A., Radin, A., Magnuson, M. and Migacheva, K., 2018. Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses. [ebook] RAND Corporation, p.5. Available at: [Accessed 26 October 2020].

[10] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011,” Office of the Secretary of Defense Annual Report to Congress, 2011: 26, available at: Quoted in Iasiello, Emilio. "China’s Three Warfares Strategy Mitigates Fallout From Cyber Espionage Activities." Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 2 (2016) : 45-69. DOI: Available at:

[11] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011,” Office of the Secretary of Defense Annual Report to Congress, 2011: 26, available at: Quoted in Iasiello, Emilio. "China’s Three Warfares Strategy Mitigates Fallout From Cyber Espionage Activities." Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 2 (2016) : 45-69. DOI: Available at: [Accessed 24 October 2020]

[12]Coons, K. and Harned, G. (2009). Irregular Warfare is Warfare. [online] National Defense University. Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct 2020]

[13]DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. (2019). [ebook] p.227. Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct 2020].

[14] SMA and USSOCOM definitions cited in George Popp and Sarah Canna, The Characterization and Conditions of the Gray Zone, Boston, Mass.: NSI Inc., Winter 2016, p. 2. Available at [Accessed 24 October 2020 and 21 January 2021]

[15] Philip Kapusta, 2015. “The Gray Zone” U.S. Special Operations Command, White Paper (MacDill Air Force Base, FL: USSOCOM). [ebook] p.20. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct 2020].

[16]Jehle, B., 2018. Gray Zone Challenges: Optimizing Organizational Structures and Improving Cognition for DoD and the Interagency. [online] p.10. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 October 2020].

[17] Maren Leed, “Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Gray Zone Conflicts: Time to Step Back,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 16, no. 2 (2015): 133–43.

[18] Votel, J., Cleveland, C., Connett, C. and Irwin, W., 2016. Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 October 2020].

[19]Barno, D. and Bensahel, N., 2015. Fighting and Winning in the “Gray Zone”. [online] War on the Rocks. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 October 2020].

[20]Mazarr, M., 2015. Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict. [ebook] Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press, pp.1-2. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 October 2020].