The Rise of Grey Zone Operations in Global Maritime Regions

Sub Title : Grey zone operations have now seeped into the maritime domain s well- time to take notice

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2023

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 65

Category : Military Affairs

: September 22, 2023

The Indo-Pacific region emerges as a pivotal arena for power struggles between major global forces. Yet, it’s not just the overt military manoeuvres that define this battleground; beneath the surface, there’s a subtle, ongoing tussle labelled as ‘Grey Zone’ operations. This piece delves into these covert operations that blur the lines between diplomacy and warfare, highlighting their manifestations in critical maritime regions – from the western Pacific involving China and ASEAN claimants, to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and finally the tensions in the Persian Gulf centred around Iran.

National security and defence strategy documents of several countries identify Indo-Pacific region as a potential battleground for great power competition involving the United States and China. Also, some sub regions in the Indo-Pacific have been labelled as ‘hotspots or flashpoints’ where ‘short of combat’ operations-manoeuvers by militaries and quasi-military forces are frequent and can potentially trigger confrontations. So far, the contending protagonists have shied away from direct confrontation, however recurring incidents in recent past have created conditions wherein these could quickly turn into a near-combat situation. In fact the actors have chosen to operate just below the “threshold” of exchanging fire with the aim that the strategic objectives be achieved without military reaction-response from the challenged entity.

It merits mention that similar condition had prevailed during the Cold War and were resolved through established politico-military-diplomatic channels and platforms, and should hopefully continue in the future. Be that as it may, the contemporary strategic literature has labelled such “situations and responses thereof” as Grey Zone operations.

The use of Grey Zone in strategic literature is more recent but several variants have emerged. The commonly used terms are “Hybrid Warfare,” “Gray Zone Warfare,” “Unrestricted Warfare,” “Irregular warfare” and “Ambiguous Warfare”.

An expanded understanding of Grey Zone (a bipartisan Gray Zone Defense Assessment Act being introduced in the US Congress) notes that it is “fluid” and can be described as “geopolitical, economic, military actions and cyber and information operations that go beyond regular diplomatic and economic activities but fall below the use of kinetic military force…Tactics utilized in the gray zone include but are not limited to : Information warfare; Encouraging internal strife within targeted countries; Subversive economic practices; Support for domestic and international proxies; Coercive investment and bribery for political aims; Industrial policy designed to monopolize a strategic industry or to destroy such an industry in other nations; Military and paramilitary provocations and operations short of war; Hostage diplomacy; and Changes in internationally recognized borders.”

However, there is no “universally agreed-upon definition” of Grey Zone which “only adds to the conceptual confusion and ambiguity surrounding gray zone warfare; it also obfuscates identifying gray zone threats in practice and the already difficult task of countering them”.

Select geography of maritime Grey Zone operations

There is strong evidence of maritime Grey Zone operations in three sub-regions. First in the western Pacific: (a) the great power competition involves the United States and China in waters around Taiwan; confrontation between North Korea and South Korea as well as Japan looms large in East Asia; and (c) strong evidence of Grey Zone operations in the South China Sea involving China and the other ASEAN claimants’ i.e. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam; and Taiwan over conflicting maritime claims. These are conducted by the Chinese “coast guard-maritime militia combine” who engage in intimidation and are known to use water cannons, and in recent times the Chinese coast guard is accused of flashing laser gun.

China is aggressive and it conducts military manoeuvers, combat naval drills, dispatches ships, submarines and aircraft across the Taiwan Strait and Chinese fighter jets frequently enter into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, a self-declared buffer zone beyond its territorial airspace.

Russia Ukraine war

Second, the ongoing Russia Ukraine war, in which both sides continue to announce on regular basis, territory lost or gained by their respective militaries as well as naval operations involving missiles, drones and unmanned surface platforms. The Russian decision in July 2023 to pull out of the year-long Black Sea Grain Initiative (BGI) (brokered in July 2022 by the United Nations (UN) and Turkey between the warring countries) under which it was agreed to allow safe passage for ships carrying Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea for one year in the hope that some solution would have been reached to stop the war, is another category of Grey Zone operations. Soon after the expiry of the BGI in July 2023, Russia bombed the Odessa port destroying grain loading infrastructure and about 60,000 tonnes of stocks stored at the port. The Russian Ministry of Defense also declared (20 July 2023) that “all ships proceeding in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be considered as potential carriers of military cargoes,” and “countries of the flag of such ships will be considered to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of Kyiv regime.”

Meanwhile the UN has repeatedly urged Moscow to reconsider its decision to walk out of the BGI and allow Ukrainian wheat to flow to the global market. The repercussion of Russia shelving the BGI are not surprising and Wheat, corn and soybean prices increased across markets.

Persian Gulf

Third, in the Persian Gulf, there is history of face-offs between the United States and Iran challenging each other. Significantly, Iran’s actions-responses fall in the category of Grey Zone attracting statements which impact on the safety and security of the mercantile traffic transiting through the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian Grey Zone operations became aggressive after the US under President Trump administration decided to re-impose sanctions against Tehran in 2019. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has conducted aggressive manoeuvers in Gulf waters against the US and other European naval vessels, harassed neutral shipping, and demonstrated Grey Zone operations including sabotage through naval mines.   For instance, on 13 June 2019, Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were struck by limpet mines. A press release had noted that “the limpet mine that was used does bear a striking resemblance to that which has been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades…There are distinguishing features.”  However, Iran denied any involvement and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami said allegations that Tehran was behind the tanker attacks was “totally a lie” and meant to tarnish Iran’s image.

Major-General Mohammad Baqeri of the Iranian Armed Forces reiterated Iranian warning that “We are not after closing the Strait of Hormuz but if the hostility of the enemies’ increases, we will be able to do so”. Furthermore “if our oil does not pass, the oil of others shall not pass the Strait of Hormuz either”. It is pertinent to state that a sea mine is a lawful weapon, but its employment is “restricted and regulated by treaty law and customary international”.

Interception of merchant ships by Iran

As noted above, Iran has been under UN sanctions resulting in blocking its arms imports/exports, freezing assets, and banning the trade marked by oil and gas export embargoes. In June 2022, the Greek Government ordered detention of a ship—apparently at the behest of the US—to enforce sanctions against Iran’s oil export efforts. In a tit for tat move, Iran’s Supreme Leader ordered the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to apprehend two Greek oil tankers operating in the Persian Gulf, as retaliation for the capture of the tanker bearing Iranian oil off Greece. “The Greek court finally ordered the return of the detained tanker and its cargo to the owner and the Greek government carried out the order. Greece’s climb down is likely to complicate the international effort to reach agreement with Iran on the scaling back of its nuclear programme.

Though not related directly to the Strait of Hormuz, that there has been a sharp rise in the “dark” ship-to-ship transfers of Russian oil. Ships laden with oil are suspected to be leaving Russia and heading for the Atlantic and then offloading their cargo onto other vessels. The modus operandi for such ship-to-ship transfer involves that at least one vessel has turned off the tracking signal that lets authorities see where it is. Apparently, transfers peaked 182,000 barrels a day in the first 18 days of July, up dramatically from 44,000 barrels a day in June. The vast majority of the oil is suspected to be heading to China.

Emerging technologies

Another important challenge-opportunity offered by 4IR technologies that will drive unmanned ships, autonomous underwater platforms and aerial drone which have already begun to feature in the tool kit for Grey Zone operations.  Swarm drone warfare in Grey Zone operations has gained popularity and acceptance, and its use will grow rapidly to perform numerous missions and supporting operations such as reconnaissance, surveillance, strike against enemy targets, electronic warfare through jamming, and other such missions which navies, coast guards and other law enforcement agencies may choose to pursue.

Concluding Thoughts

The above narrative clearly shows that the contending parties have been carefully engaging in a variety on actions/reactions/responses that fall in at least three categories i.e. military vs military ; military vs non-military ; and non-military vs non-military military.

In the western Pacific, Chinese maritime militia will continue to lead Grey Zone operations and support the Coast Guard.  North Korea will rely on its large inventory of missiles which potentially impacts on the security of South Korea, Japan and the US as well as safety of civil aviation and maritime traffic in the region. North Korea has categorically announced that it will respond and “deter dangerous military moves of hostile forces (US) and safeguard the security” of the country.

As far as Iran is concerned, threat of attacks on neutral shipping, naval harassment of warships and other provocations will continue. Threat of the use of sea mines would continue to be the preferred choice by Iran to pursue Grey Zone operations. Iran can also be expected to pursue a policy of tit-for-tat whenever its tankers or its cargo is intercepted.  Similarly, Russia could be encouraged by the Iranian approach to beat the sanctions.

Finally, it remains to be seen how far international law will prevail or diplomacy (CBMs) would be a preferred tool to respond to Grey Zone operations.