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The Gray Zone: The war that isn’t

“We used to talk about the VUCA world (Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous), now we are living it every day.” Peter Hawkins

 In the future, Anything that cannot be digitized or automated will become extremely valuable.” Futurist Gerd Leonhard

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

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without (ever) fighting.” Sun Tzu

 I want to write this week and perhaps next, on a subject that appears to be rarely rationally discussed in this day and age. Normal people are generally revulsed by the whole nature of war, but it seems like the human condition prevents mankind from avoiding it. We as modern humans are so determined to avoid war that we would rather choose to ignore its existence and pretend that we are at peace than to ultimately face the reality that we are deeply enmeshed in struggles of a global scale on a daily basis, the outcomes which are too abstract for us to give them serious consideration.

The reason I believe that this may be one of the most significant editions that I write is because there is a narrative being propagated in the world today which proposes that because we are not involved in a direct combat kinetic conflict, then we are living in a season of peace. I know that sounds odd, but it is true. Here is an article found in the Huffington Post, not so long ago…  The truth is that the 21st century is one of the most peaceful periods in human history. The problem with Anurag Harsh‘s argument is based on what feels like a pretty narrow understanding of peace. His definition of peace appears to be limited to only large scale hostilities.

What I want to discuss over the next two weeks is that there exists what is historically known as a gray zone. This zone in so many ways defies our definition of war, but as consistently it defies any reasonable definition of peace. One thing is for certain. The activities carried out by potential adversaries are not friendly and are perpetrated to gain an upper hand in any potential conflict, whether that conflict is kinetic, economic, political or religious.

In part one of this series, I want to discuss exactly what the gray zone is, and what it is not. Then I want to define the activities of gray zone actions a little more granularly. Next week, I will take a look at current global gray zone actions, how they are being carried out, by whom and what the ramifications of those actions will or could possibly be.


According to Hal Brands, a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on National Security, the goal of gray zone approaches “is 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.”

The United States has long fielded the world’s most capable armed forces. It spends more on its military than the next nine nations combined, of which five are U.S. treaty allies. It fields more active-duty military personnel than any country other than China, and its weaponry and technological capabilities are peerless. So where does that leave potential adversaries in relation to the United States?

Gray zone challenges, in other words, are ambiguous and usually incremental aggression. They represent that coercion that is, to varying degrees, disguised; they eat away at the status quo one nibble at a time.

“There are two ways to fight the U.S. military – asymmetrically and stupid,” said Army Lieutenant General and Former National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, Fighting asymmetrically can mean fighting at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, through terrorism and insurgency. But it also can mean fighting in what has become known as the “gray zone,” which may not involve military forces at all. Though it may involve no military forces per se, it does involve activities that do could lead to an escalation of violence between two opponents.

Gray zone conflicts are simply neither war nor peace, but instead lie somewhere in between. “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.” Such ambiguities enable adversaries to pursue their interests while staying below the threshold that would trigger a military response – and, if they remain ambiguous enough, they might avoid any response. These kinds of hostile actions are carried out daily, right under everyone’s noses.

The Gray Zone is that place between war and peace where actors use a range of elements at their disposal to effect outcome.  We see it in everyday operations like disinformation and election interference or in using economic means to coerce an outcome.  China and Russia have been big fans of the practice and have employed it all over the world.

The gray zone phenomenon is also referred to as hybrid threats, sharp power, political warfare, malign influence, irregular warfare, and modern deterrence. Although it reflects an age-old approach, it is newly broad in its application.

If there is a strategic end-state to these gray zone operations, the likely focus is to rebalance the global stage from American dominance to a multipolar world. Rather than risk direct kinetic conflict to reach the desired end-state, the weapon of choice in this battlespace is subversion.

The gray zone phenomenon is a very present reality in the world today. Next week we will explore some of the best gray zone players on the planet. We will look at Russia, China, Iran and North Korea and examine some well documented gray zone plays that they have pulled off quite effectively.

We will also look at how open democracies are prime victims of these gray zone actions and specifically, how most of the free nations, including the United States really do not have a strategy or an infrastructure for dealing with rogue gray zone attacks.


Gray zone challenges are inherently deceptive and ambiguous in nature. The best term to describe gray zone activities is “subversion.” Everything about the gray zone struggle is steeped in deception and lies. Gray zone approaches to struggle are never honorable and are never true.

If we are to stand firm against this form of subtle struggle, we must embrace the truth. We must resist the temptation to succumb to deception in all its forms. Conspiracy theorists are as deceptive as gray zone activists. We must stand for truth and pursue it with all our might. Passing along misinformation as fact is a form of deception, even if you don’t know its veracity. So many people are duped into believing conspiracies without ever proving the postulations that are being posited.


I am going to beat this drum one more time. Study to show yourself approved. Discover for yourself what is truth and check the veracity of all that is being reported. I cannot overstate the importance of knowing the origins of your information. Has it been verified? He as it stood up to scrutiny? I am not implying that I never get duped. I have and will again in the future. My goal is to strive for the truth by verifying everything through a rigorous fact-checking process.

Let me give you some tips for checking for the truth in what you read and hear.

  1. Check the source. Did he/she really say what you heard was being said. You might find it misattributed. If it is misattributed, then the factuality of a statement is probably questionable.
  2. Consider seeing what other fact-checkers have already said. Often I will look at sites such as org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Snopes and other fact-checking sites.
  3. Search Google, but there are other search engines to do searches as well. Sites such as Duck Duck Go, Yahoo, and Brave are good options.
  4. Consider using paid search databases. Databases such as Lexis Nexis and CQ to search for congressional votes, public comments or news reports that can be decades old. You can use the database Critical Mention to search TV shows and their closed captions. Also you can checkout the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (it’s free) to find older information that people have pulled down from the Web.
  5. Check with experts on particular matters. Don’t just look for experts which you know share your position. look to understand why others who do not share your position believe what they do.
  6. Read books on the subjects that you are investigating. Often Amazon has good reviews which might shed light on what you are looking at.

Mostly, don’t just settle for whatever you hear. Look harder. Look deeper. You might be surprised at what you find.

The follow-up.

Iran Wants To Resolve Issues With Saudi, UAE Quickly – Iranian Ambassador…—iranian-ambassador/30416820.html

Babies and children tear gassed during refugee protest on Greek island of Lesbos …

The feed-back.

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


I have included this week can rather robust resource list. My reasoning is this. It will be easy to discount what I am writing about as conspiracy theory. It is not discussed by mainstream for what it is, gray zone warfare. If you read below you will find a pretty good list of articles written about the gray zone phenomenon.


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