Wirtz – Life in the “Gray Zone”: observations for contemporary strategists

This month, we have moved on from considering The City and urban warfare. We are now looking at the changing character of war. A number of people have been talking about this recently, and how the 21st century has brought a sea-change along with it. It isn’t clear whether this is a resurgence of behaviours we have not seen for a long time, or a whole new change. This month, we hope to find out!


Our first article is “Life in the “Gray Zone”: observations for contemporary strategists” by James J. Wirtz in Defense & Security Analysis, 33:2, 106-114. Available here.

The article covers a number different strategies short-of-war which have been termed ‘Gray Zone’ conflicts (or Grey Zone, if you speak UK English). It is a great overview of different types of irregular warfare displayed below the thresholds of armed conflict, and some options to counter these types of non-conflicts.


Here’s what we thought:


This articles investigates the concept of the ‘Gray Zone’ (GZ) – a zone of indeterminacy between peace and war. The author asks whether the GZ is new, and what it really is, before taking the discussion back to the more fundamental question of why these GZ operations are taking place in the first place.

The author suggests that one factor is that there are an increasing number of actors who believe the world can handle a ‘little conflict’ (113). This comes in part (it is implied) by the fact that major actors are increasingly reticent about committing to full-scale military action. Clearly, this is cause for major concern, as while the general public may not be willing to accept military action, it does leave the world in a position where GZ actions are going to become more and more likely. The question from my perspective then is: why are the likes of NATO not doing more? How much longer can we continue to be permissive of so-called ‘minor’ incidents on the global stage?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I, like a lot of people became really interested in grey-zone conflicts, and ‘hybrid warfare’ after the Russia intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. But, then, as with a lot of other people, I realised it is just another form of irregular conflict. On one level, all of these grey-zone tactics are just recycled from previous conflicts. But, there does seem to be something different about them. As Wirtz notes, the world is now multi-polar with China, Russia, and Iran being prepared to act on the world stage with less fear of a formerly hegemonic US response. However, as Wirtz alludes to, there are vast numbers of individuals and small groups with high-levels of technological power and know-how who have the ability to create change on their adversaries, whether they be other individuals they dislike, or corporations who they believe to be unethical. However, when it comes to these sorts of attacks of states, it does create the question, of whether states will suffer defeat from ‘a thousand cuts’?

It would seem that it is easier to survive a war of attrition if you know that your adversary is also suffering. But, when there are many adversaries, with an unknown and potentially minimal level of suffering happening to them, it becomes more difficult. Wirtz does suggest counter-strategies for these types of conflicts. They all seem to require states to do more, and work harder. I wonder whether the defence cuts engulfing UK armed forces will stop the Ministry of Defence being able to cover these areas?

Overall, Wirtz gives a really good overview of the grey-zone. I just wish I could have read it 5 years ago!

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


This article was very useful to learn more about strategy. It was very well structured and easy to read, which is a great accomplishment due to the dense material. I do not know a lot about strategy but have recently started delving more into strategic theory, so this was an excellent addition. However, for someone not versed in strategic theory, not everything was easy to follow. The intended audience of the article is strategists, so the reader is assumed to know more than I do myself. What I still struggle with is why the actions described are placed into a separate category of “short-of-war” strategies, as all these manoeuvres also seem to be found in full-blown war. Proxy warfare might not lead to superpowers taking direct military action, but can very well lead to an extremely violent war in the country in which this takes place. The author claims that multipolarity has led to decreased international management, and therefore control on allies. However, was proxy warfare not a key feature of the bipolar Cold World? Fait accompli seems to be a tactic that can be found in full-blown war as well – take action so quick before the opponent can respond (like the 1998 India-Pakistan Kargil War). I struggle with understanding this logic due to my limited knowledge of strategic theory. Nonetheless it was very informative.

What I found less satisfying were the recommendations to counter Gray Zone strategies. The author recommends accelerating bureaucratic processes, strengthening alliances, and developing tactics to strengthen deterrence against short-of-war tactics. It is not that I disagree, but the whole problem is what to develop and how to execute this. There are few people who do not want to streamline bureaucratic processes (besides perhaps paper salesmen), but how should this be done exactly, and what should be cut and altered? How this process is changed dramatically affects the outcome. Of course it is great to develop initiatives to strengthen deterrence, but what should be developed exactly and how? The recommendations lack substance, and are therefore not very useful practically.

The author finishes off the article by mentioning the possibility of increasing the likelihood of conflict (by redrawing red lines or actually executing deterrent threats sooner) when international decorum is insulted. The idea is that the risk of actual war is lowered, if the threshold of war is lowered too. This is a very thought-provoking suggestion, but as the author already clearly states, a very dangerous one. It is a gamble that the likelihood of war will actually decrease if you employ this doctrine, and escalation risks increase substantially. Furthermore, it also means that opponents might respond harsher to YOUR short-of-war tactics too. The article is written from a US perspective and mostly describes actions taken by China and Russia, but the USA fully embraces this type of warfare too with drone strikes, black OPS missions , cyber operations, etc. That should also be included when calculating the bigger risk picture. Still, if WW II clearly showed how horrible war is and that it must be avoided at all costs, which led to peace, increased cooperation and prosperity in Europe, did that make it worth it? The fact that WW II followed WW I shows that this is no guarantee, and statistically, prior conflict is one of the key factors in predicting future conflict. Nonetheless it is interesting to think about.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

Life in the Gray Zone” presents a clear account of the “short of war” strategies characteristic of Grey Zone conflicts and provides the reader with an understanding of why such strategies may be on the rise. Something that stood out for me throughout this article was the author’s recurring reference to “enablers” or facilitating factors that are seemingly incentivising short of war strategies.

Wirtz notes that the very fabric of deterrence strategies has an enabling effect on short of war strategies by providing adversaries with an opportunity to exploit the “victim’s desire” to avoid hostilities (p. 107). In addition, it is highlighted that globalisation, the information revolution and the pace of technological change also act as enablers for those seeking to alter the status quo. It is, however, a point made towards the end of the article, as Wirtz considers counter measures to Grey Zone strategies, that stands out the most for me in this regard. The author pertinently highlights that the problem of enabling factors incentivising short of war strategies runs much deeper than those factors previously mentioned – to the bureaucratic processes, slow procurement cycles and drawn-out strategic planning timelines within military establishments – and the fact that these are simply not keeping pace with the rapidity of today’s political, technological and social change (p. 112). This asymmetry of pace creates an exploitable gap; a gateway for short of war strategies to be used effectively.

Although it is clear that policies and strategies must be reimagined to align with today’s short of war reality, I wonder how feasible it might be to implement “continuous reform and reinvention” of deterrence strategies, force structures and doctrines, as Wirtz implies (p. 112). This would entail a very reactive approach that is likely to be in constant flux and therefore potentially unsustainable in the long-run. It seems almost counterproductive given the uncertainty inherent to how short of war strategies will evolve as technological, political and social changes continue to accelerate. The more useful way forward seems to be in defining red lines and identifying coherent ways to respond to short of war strategies, as Wirtz later suggests. Defining red lines is surely the logical first step and the one requiring the highest priority in order to effectively begin to counter Grey Zone activities. Until this happens, thresholds of tolerance will remain just as ambiguous as the short of war methods being used to erode them; further incentivising these approaches to be embraced.


Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

As a novice to the topic, I found the article interesting, clear and informative. The author was able to succinctly define “Gray-Zone” conflicts and elaborate on the three strategies used by those that wish to alter the status quo (fait accompli, proxy warfare, and the exploitation of ambiguous deterrence situations).  I also found that the examples used to present the short-of-war strategies supplemented the theoretical discussion well.

As can be seen clearly in Crimea, “Gray-Zone” conflicts are a serious threat to international peace and security. Therefore, countering “Gray-Zones” is an important consideration for military strategists. Wirtz refers to some courses of action that can deal with the daunting challenges of “Gray-Zones” but only very briefly and without great substance. I would have enjoyed reading more detailed discussion on what can be done to mitigate the challenges posed by “Gray-Zone” conflicts.  Additionally, it would have been beneficial for Wirtz to acknowledge how realistic it is for his suggestions to be adopted by those seeking to counter short-of-war strategies.  If the suggestions are unlikely to be utilised then why is this the case? Why are the relevant actors not already implementing actions to counter short-of-war strategies? Perhaps, actions have been taken or are in the process of being implemented. Considering the seriousness of “Gray-Zone” conflicts, I would have assumed the article would have provided more focus on countering “Gray-Zone” conflicts. Perhaps this will be the focus of future research.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool John Moores University

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