Blurring The Lines of War and Peace: Gray Zone Conflicts in New Era of Great Power Competition

Abstract: The nature of warfare has evolved continuously and in contemporary era the role of irregular wars along the spectrum of warfare has enhanced rapidly amid great power competition. This research paper tries to highlight the new concept of gray zone tactics, its application tools and implications on international system. How this dimension would  manipulate the relations between state actors and impact the strategic lexicon. The research paper highlights that why is it necessary for statesmen to differentiate between the thin line of war and peace and assesses how is it impacting the relations among the competing powers. 


In the contemporary era the spectrum of conflict has evolved over the years. Lines  between war and peace have become the new arena of battlefield for various major actors in at the international level. This new irregular form of warfare has engaged states and non-states actors into a low intensity  conflict which  comprises using a mixture of elements including political, diplomatic, economic, military and non-conventional along with information and cyber warfare to pursue their objectives. The increasing turmoil caused by increasing ingression, physical intervention, economic and diplomatic coercion by major powers such as US, Russia with use of regular forces and proxies in Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Northern Africa along with the support of regional actors respectively .

In South East Asia the South China Sea region is becoming the focal point of power competition and friction between status quo and revisionist powers and has seen increase in political, economic and military tensions . The staging of coup attempts with support of rogue elements and use of economic sanctions and military in Latin American region for establishing spheres of influence . Thus, these emerging low intensity conflicts and hostilities using elements of national power ranging from political, economic, military and non-military elements is increasingly shifting the principles of warfare and diplomacy at international level among the major stakeholders contesting for power . This has brought the international system into a dilemma  as it struggles to counter the emerging threats due to lack of norms and doctrines  effecting their strategic calculations.

The change in modes of warfare is not new but as the methods  for conducting war has evolved over the time. Thus, these changes call upon formulation of new doctrines and strategies to be adopted for better understanding and countering the emerging challenges. The changing nature of warfare strategies are based on engaging the enemy with an indirect approach which is above the line of normal diplomatic practices and below the threshold of an all-out war . This scenario has been described by various scholars as a Gray Zone Conflict in the strategic studies lexicon which is  in broad manner means the activities which are conducted beyond the steady state deterrence in an attempt to obtain security objectives without resorting to direct use of sizeable force in conventional manner. Clausewitz has described this notion of change in warfare as a chameleon which in connotative manner reflects the constant flux and change in the warfare spectrum at strategic, doctrinal, operational and tactical levels.  Although this approach is not new and existing strategic terms such as indirect, low intensity, irregular guerrilla warfare, and hybrid warfare already exists.

The emergence of new terms call upon need for comprehending, understanding and formulating strategies and doctrines within the strategic community to counter the emerging threats ranging from change in spectrum of conflict. The blending of regular and irregular warfare during Napoleonic wars during from 1812’s when Russian militias embedded with regular Russian army to fight against French. In 1813 Prussian militia filled out Prussian regular units positions which were raised by Carl Von Clausewitz. In 1776 during US Civil War, George Washington raised and commanded regular troops and irregular militias from 13 British colonies and formed Continental Army to fight against the Great Britain.   

War is considered to be a political activity in international relations.  The legitimacy for any act of aggression and war is actually carried out according to the national interests of a state which are dictated by a political objectives. As level of analysis states that nations pursue their national interest (either offensive or defensive in nature) under the political objectives by using its elements of national power including diplomatic, economic, military and information devised under the grand strategy . The grand strategy is the outcome of the coherent strategic culture of a nation state which impacts the thought process of decision making bodies. Strategy which is often defined in terms of warfare but is not confided to spectrum of war alone and is equally valid and viable in peace time also.

Strategy in international relations is defined as the implementation of political objectives with the use of military power by state actors which may include forms of deterrence, coercion to use of physical force, military alliances and reassurance, protraction and attrition, cyber and information warfare campaign.  The use of military power in order to wage war calls upon carrying out campaigns which is the operational part for implementing strategy. Operational campaigns calls upon conducting various tactical actions in time and space inflicting damage to enemy’s decisions, will and material capabilities in order to wage war. Tactics at the tactical level impacts on how the military forces engage and directly fights with the enemy .

Another major factor which regulates and accounts the interaction between two or more actors in international relations during war and peace is the spectrum of conflict or warfare. The spectrum of conflict/warfare measures the scale and means which are adopted and used by various rational actors and concludes whether they are proportional or not in use of force during their interactions. The spectrum of conflict at higher end would undertake the aspects of conventional and regular use of military force, including the use of nuclear deterrence or the use of chemical or biological warfare in theater conventional level or all-out war . The non-conventional or irregular war in low intensity conflicts irregular warfare, hybrid and gray  zone conflicts using of proxies and terrorism, attacks carried out via in cyber and space domain, along with the manipulation through psychological operations and information warfare in the lower half of the spectrum. 

Gray Zone Conflicts

The evolving nature of warfare makes it difficult for the strategists to understand and differentiate the challenges at hand and formulate policies accordingly. For this purpose defining the emerging concepts is necessary and crucial. Defining the Gray Zone Conflict as the state which lies in between the murky borderline of war and peace is not sufficient and would call for further explanation. The Gray Zone Conflict is defined as an alternative approaches adopted by states to obtain their interest by using and exploiting tactics which lie in between the state craft and open warfare with potential to substantially escalate hostilities and violence. Various statesmen, national security practitioners, military leaders and diplomats including academicians have used a variety of terms to define the threats that have emerged from military conflicts which are below the threshold of conventional warfare. The Gray Zone Conflicts partially are defined as, “Use of irregular warfare techniques with a mix of soft and sharp power tactics, hybrid warfare, political warfare, strategic competition and active measures including intelligence assessments and geospatial awareness.”

The concept also includes unique combinations of intimidation, coercion, influence and aggression to create effective resistance and manipulating risk perceptions in one’s own favor for obtaining regional advantages. The definition furthers highlights the major aspect that an actor indulging in Gray Zone Conflict is to avoid crossing the threshold of outright conflict while moving gradually towards acquiring objectives described under national interest instead of seeking conclusive outcome as in limited time. Another definition for the Gray Zone approach includes the tools used for information warfare, manipulation of the integrity of the institutions and distortion of political environments of the targeted states. Thus, the concept of evolving new warfare dynamics includes the subversive activities in the realm of politics, economics, diplomacy and sub-conventional warfare gradually without crossing the threshold of total war.

The Gray Zone Conflicts could also be defined by identifying following elements.

Bounded Thresholds

The Gray Zone Conflict consists of set of observable activities that are threatening the state craft but is short of direct military engagement between major actors. While, it is difficult to define accurate, precise and universal parameters we can say none the less that the gray zone techniques primarily seek to avoid direct conflict, any war engagement and escalatory tripwires. The actors that engage in using Gray Zone tactics seek to acquire the stated objectives gradually and slowly. The actors try to potentially accrue those objectives which were previously acquired through regular military expeditions. In this Gray Zone Conflicts the actors might also engage in violence by adopting the use of non-state actors, proxies and other means of distortion and obfuscation while remaining below the threshold of rivals escalatory limits.

Intentionally Veiled Security Interests

The actors in international affairs use the Gray Zone Tactics in pursuit of their security objectives which might be obscured and vague. The link between he tactics employed and the security aims and objectives may be veiled by the actors. These security objectives may include the economic, diplomatic military and information objectives. Information and economic tactics could be used to manipulate the will and economic standing of the enemy.

Multi-Dimensional Toolkit for Gray Zone Tactics

The means adopted by the actors engaged in Gray Zone Tactics to curtail enemy’s capabilities while engaging below the threshold of the regular war not by traditional legal and functional categories. The use of concealed security intentions without implementing full spectrum state power. The role of non-state and quasi-state entities use is crucial in Gray Zone conflicts while exhibiting hybrid capabilities including coercive force and economic strategies with ambiguous legal connections of the state.

Disinformation Operations

The use and inclusion of disinformation and information operations for bolstering the narratives of state using them simultaneously and in synch for fomenting social and political instability in the adversary states.

Public and Private Sector Domains

The boundaries between public and private sector domains are blurred in the Gray Zone conflicts as the actors actively use state and private enterprises as cover up activities. The private entities are used for the reason that they can evade the legal, bureaucratic and governmental checks and balances and state authorities. Private companies could also be used to undermine political processes and hold citizens at direct risks.

The Gray Zone Techniques could also be defined as the series of efforts that are used to advance an actors security objectives at the expense of the rivals using means that are associated beyond those within the arsenal of routine statecraft and below the means of direct military conflict. Thus, by engaging in the gray zone conflict the actors avoid crossing a threshold that results in direct engagement of war.

The use of these tactics could also be accessed by the analyzing the following toolkits:

Information and Disinformation Information Operations

Use of print, electronic and cyber media domains to manipulate and distort the information or spread disinformation to create confusion and perish the enemy’s will to resist by spreading propaganda and sowing doubt.

Political Coercion

The use of coercive instruments which can illicit or licit tools to affect and manipulate the decision making and political composition process within a state to reach for a desired outcome.

Economic Coercion

The use of coercive economic and financial tools, use of sanctions, illicit financing, effect the exchange rate, balance of trade of an adversary to achieve desired objective.

Cyber Operations

Use of cyber domain to wage attacks in cyber domain by hacking, using viruses, trojan attacks, attack critical infrastructure, carry out disruption in communication, distortion of information and manipulation of political processes using malicious malware in cyber domain.

Space Operation

Outer Space has become a competing zone for major power actors and they are in constant friction to maintain their dominance and hegemony by disrupting the competitors position of advantage  by interfering in space-enabled services, equipment, communication and satellites data uplink procedures.

Proxy Support

Use of non-state, quasi state elements to wage or obtain military objective or control a certain territory to influence or achieve specific political outcomes.  

Provocation by State Controlled Proxies

The use of paramilitary elements in conjunction with private entities while aiding and financing them to achieve certain interests through informal use of force. This also includes sabotage activities, clandestine intelligence operations and use of private military contractors which operate outside the realm of normal state control and authority.

Hybrid Warfare

Before we move forward with realizing the ground realities and implementation of gray zone tactics by discussing the geospatial events we have to define and differentiate another over-rated terminology used in contemporary era to define the emerging nature of irregular warfare, i.e. Hybrid Warfare. The Hybrid warfare is the neologism which was described by Frank Hoffman as a, “Nature of warfare that infuses and incorporates a range of various different modes of warfare including a mix of conventional warfare tactics with irregular warfare and indiscriminate use of violence and coercion, terrorist acts and criminal disorder.” Hoffman basically defined his findings in his article Conflict in 21st Century after studying and analyzing the ongoing US War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11and also the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006, in which he compared the battlefield challenges faced by western forces while fighting against non-state actors.

Another reference for defining the terminology of Hybrid Warfare is credited to Russian Chief of General Staff of  Russian Army Valery Gerasimov who in his article wrote that the rules of warfare have changed highlighting the role of non-military means as essential for achieving political and strategic goals and non-military means have surpassed and exceeded in effectiveness over the power of force of weapons. He propagated the use of political, economic, diplomatic and.  Valery summarized his findings from analyzing the civil wars ensued after the Arab Spring and highlighted following major factors essential for waging a hybrid warfare.

Nature of Military Operations

The nature of military operations is based upon groupings of line-units.


The nature of warfare is highly maneuverable and non-contact combat operations are carried out by line-units based upon inter-branch groupings.

Engaging Critical Infrastructure of the Enemy

Weaken the military-economic base of a state by engaging its critical infrastructure in a short period of time rendering the enemy in a compromised position.

Use of Precision Munitions

The use of high-precision weaponry  at large scale with the use of special operations forces aided with autonomous weapon systems and inclusion of civil and military component in combat operations.

Simultaneous use of all spheres of warfare

The simultaneous use of all kinetic and non-kinetic assets including line units autonomous weapon systems, in physical environment and information spheres in asymmetric and indirect operations.

Command and Control

The command and control of all the assets must be in a unified manner controlled by information domain.

Contours of Grey Zone Conflicts and Great Power Competition

The new modes of unconventional warfare using irregular tactics to obtain strategic goals while remaining below the threshold of war is also evident from the 2015 US National Military Strategy which highlighted that due to emerging great power competition implies that the security and defence strategies of US are heavily relying upon unconventional and irregular warfare strategies based upon counter insurgency and terror operations, foreign internal defence and stability operations with consideration of containing the influence of major states in the American area of interest which indicate shift from the global war on terror strategy post 9/11. US indicated emerging rival powers Russian and China, while rogue state elements such as Iran and North Korea as major threats apart from other groups of non-state actors. This point was further highlighted in the 2017 National Security Strategy which indicated that US considered political, economic and military competition from major threat powers as a major to its security.

The US had over the years tried to engage and contain the potential adversaries without directly engaging them into direct conflict. Thus, these new areas of conflicts are identified as Gray Zone Conflicts which require use of unconventional and irregular warfare strategies, information space and cyber domain for accomplishing the strategic goals. These strategic priorities amid the great power competition are recognized by the changing character of war. The change is driven by the change in technological advancements in computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, big data analysis, autonomous systems, biotechnology and directed energy weapon systems. Thus, these tectonic shifts in technology has impacted the ways and means of conduct of warfare and by declaring certain issues as Gray Zone Conflict has enhanced the role of US to intervene, manipulate and exploit a certain conflict according to its own interests without directly engaging into any conflict.  


Gray Zone Conflicts although a new term in the strategic lexicon has now been gaining ground in the international relations domain with pace. State actors in the international system have realized the role and importance of manipulating the thin line between war and peace and how to tread on this line while maintaining diplomatic courtesy and remaining under the threshold of a conventional war. As Clausewitz has rightly mentioned that the nature of war is like a chameleon, following the new trends in the warfare spectrum in light of gray zone tactics toolkit help us observe these shifts in the nature of warfare and new emerging trends much more vividly. The major powers have been exercising these policy options using various tools for gray zone tactics especially using cyber and space domain along with state controlled proxies and conducting such acts with impunity and relaxation. The major reason for this is that there are no international norms and frameworks that control the actions of state actors and private entities in this domain of irregular warfare spectrum as states tend to exploit the bounded thresholds between state craft and total war.

Moreover, as the trends for direct conflict engagements and conventional wars have decreased the major powers have increasingly adopted the irregular warfare norms and gray zone conflicts in particular to further their veiled interests while, tip toeing over the escalatory tripwires and treading the thin line between war and peace. As major powers are adopting to this new architecture of threat spectrum the role of international institutions and platforms have increased than ever before to maintain a viable lifeline providing communication channels and help erode mistrust and uncertainty among major competing powers. Unfortunately, there is a likelihood of an event when a state actor accidently might not be able to maintain the brinkmanship by misreading the actions of the opponent and result into a devastating and utter chaos.

Hamzah Taoqeer
Hamzah Taoqeer
I am a keen reader of international relations and political studies with specific interest in low intensity conflicts.