Gray zone warfare can take the form of something as uneventful as building infrastructure. Since 2015, China has built three new villages in an area it claims is in Tibet, but is actually in Bhutan. The Chinese government has also built roads, police outposts, and even military infrastructure in northern Bhutan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has claimed part of this territory since the 1980s, but has only recently started construction. China’s ultimate goal is to trade land stolen in northern Bhutan for a more strategically-located parcel that it wants to acquire along the northern border of India. The fact that part of the occupied area, Beyul Khenpajong, is one of the most sacred locations in Bhutan, only strengthens China’s gambit.
At first glance, the Bhutan episode seems to be a classic example of China illegally implementing facts on the ground to secure strategic gains. However, the development in Bhutan is also an example of how narrative plays a central role in gray zone warfare. Key to Beijing’s strategy in Bhutan is establishing a narrative that the territory is part of China—or at least that each side’s argument has merit. The stronger that narrative, the less likely international support for Bhutan will coalesce. Last year a local Chinese Communist Party official visited one of the villages to celebrate the settlement of the area—a mundane event. To the international community, this is not a vision of territorial seizure, but an obscure legal dispute that is best left to the two interested parties.
Narrative serves as both ends and means in gray zone warfare. Gray zone actions shape an overall narrative in support of strategic goals. At the same time, gray zone actions are reinforced by narrative and, if the narrative fails to gain traction, the actions have a lower chance of success. Gray zone warfare often relies on deniability, remaining below an adversary’s response threshold, and achieving a cumulative effect through seemingly minor actions. Successful narrative casts doubt on the adversary’s interpretation of events, emphasizes the everyday nature of gray zone activity, and ultimately becomes an accepted or contending explanation.
Four Elements of Gray
Gray zone activities are conducted in ambiguous ways so that the actor or intent are veiled, albeit thinly. For example, in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, it sent unidentified armed forces (i.e., little green men) to conduct the operation and denied that they were Russian soldiers. On the veiled intent side, during much of its island building in the South China Sea, the Chinese government claimed it was building bases for search and rescue and environmental research. By establishing a thin veneer of deniability, a revisionist state can impede the international community from establishing a shared narrative of malign activities. While the deniability is implausible to most observers, it gives some states, or elements within them, an excuse not to act. This raises the importance of combating an adversary’s narrative and not just its tactical actions. Without a shroud of deniability over tactical actions, strategic intent would be clearer (e.g., Russia is using its armed forces to annex part of Ukraine), giving the international community an opportunity or even a mandate to organize an effective response.
Gray zone activities are neither too hot nor too cold, falling short of conventional war but involving competition more intense than everyday international relations. Adversaries frame gray zone activities as normal behavior when in fact they are revisionist attempts to change the status quo. For example, in the South China Sea, China employs its maritime militia, with the backing of its muscular coast guard, to strong-arm the fishing fleets of neighboring countries to assert its widely disputed territorial claims. Chinese authorities portray these activities as mundane, but in fact, this narrative is a campaign to normalize China’s territorial ambitions. A central element of the campaign is framing bullying actions as simple enforcement of a well-established border. This is in contrast to the truth, which is that Beijing is using force to push other claimants out of their own territory.
Gray zone activities are conducted at a level of intensity or scope that is unlikely to trigger a conventional military response. Narrative helps establish the perception that actions are so limited in scale as to make a conventional response seem unreasonable. For example, Chinese forces have enlarged a number of features in the South China Sea on which they have built significant military facilities to include ten-thousand-foot runways, high-frequency radars, and buried bunkers. Taken after the fact, the actions are a clear threat to other regional actors, who might have considered an armed response: China built military bases on islands in dispute. However, during the course of construction, the limited scope of the work, staged development, and Chinese denials would have made a conventional response seem disproportionate.
Individual gray zone actions have small impact, but collectively they can have strategic effects. For example, China has been flying its military aircraft into Taiwan’s aircraft identification zone in what appears to be a bid to exhaust the much smaller Taiwanese military’s readiness and reinforce PRC claims that Taiwanese independence is disputable. Each time these aircraft approach the island, Taiwan scrambles its jets. From mid-September to mid-December 2020, Chinese military aircraft flew more than one hundred such missions. In April 2021, Chinese sorties reached an all-time monthly high. These activities are meant to signal to the United States that Taiwan has no legitimate—or realistic – claim to independence. Indeed, many of the largest sorties have come after US-Taiwanese senior leader engagements or statements on Taiwan by senior US leaders.
Implications for US Policy
The centrality of narrative in gray zone warfare points to how the US government can confront adversary efforts. At the national level, the United States should focus its efforts at undermining implausible deniability, illuminating the true nature of Goldilocks competition, and illustrating the potential strategic impact of cumulative adversary actions. If the United States can provide clear evidence before too many facts on the ground have accumulated, there might be an opportunity to coalesce the international community behind a response. However, counter-messaging is inherently challenging, so the centrality of narrative also points to the need for the US government to establish and advance its own narrative. This positive narrative, centered on upholding the rule of law and an international system that has resulted in decades of shared prosperity, serves its own purpose in strategic competition. It also provides a stark contrast to the malign activities embraced by revisionist states. Illuminating differences between the two narratives also provides less wiggle room for partners and allies that want to avoid tough decisions regarding China and Russia.
Moving down to the military level, there are a number of implications that DoD leaders should consider when planning military activities. First, the military can support the overall US government effort to undermine the implausible deniability of adversary gray zone activity. A picture (or video) is worth a thousand words and can help drive international opinion more effectively than press releases alone. The military is well-positioned to collect evidence of adversary actions—and it can share it with partner nations and news agencies. The military is already spending some resources in this space. For example, DoD has flown reporters on military reconnaissance aircraft to highlight the military nature of Chinese island building in the South China Sea. Given the strategic nature of adversary gray zone campaigns, DoD leaders should further prioritize these efforts.
Second, the US military spends a lot of time forward, engaging with partners and allies, and signaling adversaries. Activities include theater security cooperation, exercises, freedom-of-navigation activities, and key-leader engagements. When selecting which of these activities to fund, plans should be viewed through lens of reinforcing the US narrative—upholding the rule of law, countering illegal activity, supporting partners and allies—and degrading adversary narratives. A key part of this effort is to work with partners that reinforce the positive US narrative centered on rule of law, so increased vigilance surrounding compliance with Leahy Law standards is needed.
Third, any action that undermines US narratives must be seen as a risk. When a proposed operation undermines a US narrative, such as upholding the rule of law, military leaders must see that action as a risk to a strategic-level goal. In some cases, such as the bin Laden raid, such risk is merited. In other cases, such as drone strikes against low-level fighters in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, it may not be.
Revisionist states use narrative as both ends and means in gray zone competition. It is not enough to prepare operational contingencies to address gray zone activities; the battlefield starts and ends at the narrative level. Modern Russian and Chinese strategy increasingly gives primacy to information warfare, while the US government has been slow to adapt. These competitors have employed gray zone warfare to great effect in places like the South China Sea, the Sea of Azov, and now Bhutan. To reverse this trend, the United States should seek to undermine competitor deniability, working closely with partners to reinforce messaging, and thoroughly understanding narrative vulnerabilities and risks.
Dr. David Knoll is a senior research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia. His work focuses on irregular warfare and competition. He tweets @DLKnoll.
Image credit: OneNews
The narrative and related activities of the post-Cold War — with regard to both the U.S./the West and those who would later become our great power opponents/competitors (to wit: Russia and China) — in the post-Cold War, these respective narratives, etc., looked something like this:
a. First, the narrative and related activities of the U.S./the West in the post-Cold War. Herein, to note the "revolutionary"/the "transformative"/the "expansionist" nature of this such narrative, etc.:
"Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the globe. … the United States' posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond." …
"But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation." …
"The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world." …
"In each of these regions (Europe, the Middle East, East Asia), U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo. (Item in parenthesis here are mine.) …
(See Dr. Jennifer Lind's Foreign Affairs [Mar/Apr 2017 edition] article "Asia's Other Revisionist Power: Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China.")
b. Next, the narrative and related activities of those who would ultimately become our great power opponents/competitors in the post-Cold War (to wit: Russia and China). Herein, to note the "conservative"/the "resistance"/the "containment" nature of this such narrative, etc.:
" … Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. These can come as much from misinformation campaigns as traditional basing in former Soviet countries, what U.S. Army senior analyst Timothy Thomas describes as a flexible “initial period of war”. Most critical throughout these considerations, remains the reassurance of sovereignty from foreign challenges to the Kremlin’s control over its vast historic empire, to include the Caucasus and parts of Ukraine.
China’s “unrestricted warfare” follows suit with striking similarities, even if the configuration of national power tilts more towards economic influence. Yet economic power serves the same goals as do manmade atolls that visibly violate international maritime laws."
(See MG James Linder, et. al's "The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain;" therein, see the major section entitled: "How We Fight: Shape, Deter, and Defeat.")
In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the narratives, etc., above were reversed — and, thus, when the U.S./the West was in "containment," etc., mode back then — we could count on the more-conservative/the more-traditional regimes and population groups of the world (to include these population groups even in the Soviet/the communist states themselves?): these, as our "natural allies" back then.
In the New Reverse Cold War of today, however, when the narratives, etc. of the parties concerned look more like my items "a" and "b" immediately above, now, accordingly, it is our great power opponents/competitors today (Russia and China) who, in certain cases, appear to be able to count on the more-conservative/the more-traditional regimes and populations groups of the world (to include these such "traditional"/"conservative" population groups even in the U.S./the West itself?); these, now as THEIR "natural allies" As to this such latter contention, consider the following three items:
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the “National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
For those nations seeking to achieve "revolutionary," "transformative" and/or "expansionist" political, economic, social and/or value "change" goals both at home and abroad (the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday; the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today) —
As to these such nations, pursuing a narrative suggesting that they were, instead, acting in some kind of "containment," "resistance" and/or "conservative" manner, this such narrative would seem to be unrealistic; this, because it could so easily be debunked.
Thus, the "fix," it would seem, becomes to re-embrace and to better stand behind one's "revolutionary, "transformative," etc., narrative (?) — for example — as the following individuals suggest:
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)
"The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must be ready to capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, and our undying belief in freedom."
(See the "Conclusion" of the Rand paper "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir" by Charles T. Cleveland and Daniel Egel.)
The narrative could find itself imperiled by preexisting credibility issues that are superficially dealt with in the third implication to US/Western military strategy. This are the doubts (or outright cynicism) that world publics and elites, especially in the global south, have towards US/Western narratives and discourses (and thus policies) in what concerns international rule of law and democracy when these powers have been notable transgressors. We’re now seeing that in the refusal by many of those “southern” nations to join the sanctions regime against Russia and their reluctance, if not refusal, to help arm Ukraine. This is due to the typical Kosovo/Iraq/Libya line wielded against condemning Russia’s actions.