What is the 'grey zone'?

Forces News explores the area between war and peace, and what occupies it.

An expert has addressed an area of defence involving acts of aggression that fall short of military conflict.

Forces News has explored the 'grey zone', which lies between war and peace and hosts a range of threats.

In one country's efforts to destabilise another without combat, disinformation, cyber attacks and subversive economics present an alternative option.

Elisabeth Braw, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, said some states can "buy up" cutting-edge companies in another country to remove certain capabilities.

"It can also be things like interference in academia – either you take advantage of that research in an unfair way or you send your own researchers to essentially help themselves to universities’ research, whether or not you have funded them," she added.

The expert said such a move "doesn't look anything like aggression" but "weakens our societies" while offering an unfair advantage to competitors.

While conventional attacks often result in a "big price to pay", attacks from the 'grey zone' often leave the victim with "no idea how to respond, because it’s not even clear what’s taking place is geo-political aggression", she explained.

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Russia and China are deemed the largest aggressors in the 'grey zone', which can include cyber and disinformation campaigns (Picture: MOD).

Russia and China are the most aggressive operators in this space, with the latter using 'grey zone' techniques to seize territory in the South China Sea.

Ms Braw said: "China wanted to mark its spot in the South China Sea. It gradually built these islands, step-by-step, so that there was no point at which any of its neighbours, or the US, at no point could they say, 'Well, now a territorial acquisition has taking place, now we can step in'.

"At the end, China had these islands in contested waters and there was nothing these countries could do about it."

Ms Braw explained that Government "can't counter" 'grey zone' aggression alone and that universities should think twice before accepting Chinese funding, as part of a society-wide approach.

If the West fails to take action against this activity, it could risk the freedom to take decisions itself, she said.

Meanwhile, losing the ability to "articulate opinions" without facing economic punishment from China was described a "really dangerous state of affairs".