Skip to main content

The Gray Zone: Part 2 The War that is.

By February 11, 2020June 30th, 2020China, fake news, Gray Zone, Iran, North Korea, Russia, The Weekly

“War never takes a wicked man by chance, the good man always.” Sophocles

“War is fought for political purposes—it is not a game, like chess or football, where there is no goal beyond winning as defined by the game’s rules. The political purpose is the higher purpose.” Carl von Clausewitz

What a cruel thing war is… to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors. Robert E. Lee

This week, I want to return to Hal Brands’ definition of the gray zone. “To reap gains, whether territorial or otherwise, that are normally associated with victory in war. Yet gray zone approaches are meant to achieve those gains without escalating to overt warfare, without crossing established red-lines, and thus without exposing the practitioner to the penalties and risks that such escalation might bring.”  In a nutshell, gray zone approaches are to reap benefits of war (territory, subjugation, wealth) without actually going to what is commonly known as “war.”

This goes back to last week’s quote by legendary military strategist, Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without (ever) fighting.”  What I propose is that the entire earth currently remains in a posture of war. There are activities happening daily in the world that are shaping political, social and military conditions. We are not living in peace. We are living in a state of perpetual manipulation, waiting for our adversaries to blink first.

In this edition of “More than Meets the Eye,” I want to talk about specific, documented events happening around the globe to demonstrate that the gray zone is not simply a conspiracy theory. It is a reality that has the potential to jade our understanding of truth. As I stated last week, it is important to understand that the nature of gray zone warfare is deception and misinformation. The more adversaries can cause truth to be in question, the greater possibility of victory they hold. We live in precarious times. Never before has the necessity for truth been so abundantly clear.

This short-of-conflict-war is shaping our society in many ways. Our adversaries are exploiting problems that exist and amplifying their impact in ways beyond our imagination. It is impacting our politics, economics, race issues, gender struggles and social conditions. The lack of trust in those not-like-us has become endemic.


China and Russia have been avid users of gray zone activities and have employed them all over the world. In a recent fascinating report published by Cipher Brief, four Global Security specialists from a variety of backgrounds report their conclusions from a special study.  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 to develop a menu of response options for U.S. officials to consider.

Their key conclusions included:

  1. Competition below armed conflict can be accurately characterized as subversion including a wide range of actors, not merely between nation states. This is perpetrating subversion operations in the gray zone between peace and war.
  1. Adversary operations in this phase of the competition continuum deliberately attack the target nation’s instruments of national power – the DIMEFIL. Further, the authors were able to:
    • map tactics to the operations they support
    • map operations to their DIMEFIL targets (What is DIMEFIL?)
    • characterize the desired effects of these operations against their targets
  1. Although no single operation discussed below is especially effective or alarming in isolation, the organized and synchronized campaign approach employed by adversaries and competitors is a serious threat to national security.

It is important to remember that the supremacy of the U.S. global military machine is universally recognized. Even regional powers such as Russia and China recognize the futility of taking on American military might and the military-industrial complex. This is especially true in the air and on the sea. It is this singular reality which causes state and non-state actors to seek to accomplish their national priorities by means of gray zone conflict. This is why some pundits have concluded that we live in an age of peaceful coexistence. The same way simply not dying is not reason enough to believe you are alive, the deceptive realities of gray zone warfare are no less violent, even though they do not always involve the dropping of bombs and the selling of blood. We will look further at this concept in the “Why,” discussion below.

Let me highlight a few examples of modern gray zone operations globally. These noted operations are being currently carried out by countries such as Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The primary goal is not simply to target the United States, but to disrupt world order. Since World War II, the United States has been a dominant military, economic and political juggernaut. It has become so in alliance with other regional alliances, such as NATO countries, namely Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and France. It also has powerful alliances with Australia, Israel, South Korea and Japan. All of these in their own right are regional powers. Global gray zone actions are designed to strain these alliances and fracture friendships between nations.


Countries like Iran often operate in the gray zone, between war and peace in order to challenge the status quo while managing risk. They create ambiguity regarding objectives (through incremental action) and attribution (through deniable covert, or proxy activities), thereby creating uncertainty about how to respond. The proliferation of gray zone conflicts worldwide is partly due to America’s adherence to a binary conception of war and peace. Grounded in Western cultural and legal traditions, this dualism enables actors like Iran to operate with relative impunity “in between.”

Tehran’s gray zone strategy is partly rooted in the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War in the 80’s. Iran is a high intensity conflict averse. It has seen the destruction of war on its lands and does not wish for it again. This is why Iran probes and tests limits, then backs down if it encounters a firm response—though only temporarily. It uses indirect means (e.g., damaging ships with mines) and foreign proxies (e.g. Hezbollah) to create standoff while avoiding decisive engagement.


Russian gray zone campaigns in Europe consist primarily of disinformation campaigns meant to undermine political institutions. Other tactics include the use of economic tools to extract concessions or hold countries at risk of being coerced through an over reliance on Russian energy, the demonstration of military threats through exercises near the borders of certain states, and, in a few very extreme cases, the infiltration of Russian security forces to exert de facto control over disputed territory.

Americans are familiar with Russia’s disinformation efforts in the United States and its use of “little green men” in Ukraine. However, they may be less attuned to the Russian political and economic coercion abroad, its gray zone cyber and space operations, and its use of proxy forces in Syria. Its aim with these approaches is to achieve Russian objectives at low-cost, notably by side-stepping military escalation with the United States or its NATO allies. Although Russia’s exploitation of the gray zone is not new, the prevalence of these tactics is more significant today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s gray zone efforts are also very visible in the para-military sphere, below the level of direct warfare with the United States. Russia recently sold Turkey a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, the S-400, over strenuous US objections. Aside from further testing Turkey’s place in the NATO alliance, there is fear that Russian engineers will gain access to American-made equipment in Turkey’s existing or future arsenal.

In space, Russia regularly conducts operations against US commercial and allied military satellites. In cyberspace, Russia’s Main Intelligence Administration, or GRU, has been active not only in election interference but in probing the US power grid. Russian cyber infiltration of US naval assets and systems are also well documented.

Presenting perhaps the greatest risk for military escalation beyond the gray zone is Russian use of disguised forces. In Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic, for instance, Russia has deployed a paramilitary mercenary organization, the Wagner Group. Last year, the Wagner Group in conjunction with Syrian forces attempted to overtake a US Special Forces base in Eastern Syria. US military forces successfully defeated the Wagner Group. It was a serious defeat as over 300 Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and Syrian soldiers lost their lives. The Russians, in gray zone fashion, denied it ever happened. There are families of Russian contractors still wondering when their son will come home.


In Northeast Asia, Japan believes it is engaged in an increasingly high-stakes competition with China over efforts to change the status quo of territorial sovereignty and administrative control of the Senkaku Islands and nearby areas. In Southeast Asia, countries in the region have grown increasingly wary of Chinese gray zone aggression in the South China Sea. These tactics include China’s unprecedented expansion of artificial islands, as well as the use of law enforcement and maritime militia vessels in an unprofessional and escalatory manner to deter or deny the use of living and nonliving resources in the waters. Finally, China has supplemented these strategies with growing employment of economic coercion and political subversion. It is likely that we will continue to see this kind of gray zone activity by the Chinese, especially as their economy is strained by the Novel Coronavirus pandemic.

North Korea:

North Korea’s firing of short-range ballistic missiles on May 4th and 9th, 2019 and the testing of a new “tactical guided weapon” on April 17th, are stark reminders that the Kim Jong Un regime knows how to deftly exploit the gray zone between war and peace.

Since assuming power in 2011, Kim has fine-tuned his risk calculus, launching provocations against the United States and its Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. These fall below the threshold of retaliation but successfully achieve Pyongyang’s goals.

Amongst all the pseudo-saber rattling from Kim Jong Un, there is an on-going disinformation campaign that reveals a level of gray zone sophistication that few countries display. In 2019, virtually every major Western corporate media outlet and the upper crust of pundits circulated a blatantly false report that North Korean nuclear negotiators were killed and imprisoned. In virtual unison they reported that a senior North Korean official named Kim Yong-chol was supposedly forced into a “labor camp”, as part of a larger deadly “purge.” Two days later, that same official turned up, alive at a public art performance, seated next to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Media’s thirst for a disruptive story causes them to disregard the facts and in a speedy haste to report news, even untrue news, ultimately leading to falsehoods in reporting.

This obvious lack of evidence did not stop credulous reporters from jumping on the sensationalist propaganda. The false story was circulated by The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, The Daily Beast, Fox News, CNBC, TIME, ABC News, The Financial TimesThe Telegraph, VICE, Rolling Stone, The Independent, The Washington Times, The New York Post, HuffPost, France 24, The Japan Times, Haaretz, The Times of Israel, Democracy Now, the US government’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, and many more.


The Kim Yong-chol example provides us with a very clear picture of the effects of misinformation and deception of the gray zone. In many of these news outlets, the focus was more on disparaging a sitting US president’s attempt to negotiate with the North Korean government, than to report the truth.

There are second and third order effects that surround the gray zone. Truth is on the chopping block. It seems to many that truth no longer matters. What happens to a society when it abandons its commitment to truth? Also, decisions are being made and conclusions are being formed based off of misinformed events. If knowledge is power, what happens when that knowledge is distorted? Conclusions become distorted. Distorted decisions quickly follow.


Become much more discerning when reading news or reports. Look to the left and the right for a clearer picture. I wish I could point to one source to steer you in the right direction, but that simply is not possible anymore. So much of the mainstream media, whether left or right, is heavily agenda driven. They seem to be escalating social agendas rather than reporting the news.

“More than Meets the Eye” is not a news service. I make no pretension about that. I am an experienced former US Army Cavalry and Intelligence officer. I have spent over 30 years of my life living abroad in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I am a Christian and I hold a Judeo-Christian worldview. Let there be no doubts about where I am coming from. Each week I list where I get many of my sources. If there is an error, please write to me and I will gladly correct it. I can promise just one thing, I will try to give my best analysis each week.

The follow-up.

State of the Coronavirus Outbreak: “Almost Certainly is Going to be a Pandemic”…

Post-Brexit Guide: Where are we now – and how did we get here?…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88-89.

© 2019 • More Than Meets