Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 2: Integrated and ambiguous warfare)

Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 2: Integrated and ambiguous warfare)

Phuah Eng Chye (18 June 2022)

The nature of warfare is changing. First, the nuclear threat has prompted superpowers to exercise restraint and limit military conflict to “designated” theatres and activities. Second, technology disrupted military campaigns and intelligence[1] activities and altered the cost-benefits of physical and information warfare. It diminished the value of physical blockades and tanks and troop deployment and increased the value of “smart” AI-driven airborne weaponry such as missiles, drones and robotics and non-physical warfare. Third, information-driven globalisation has expanded conflict theatres and shifted the centre of warfare from the physical to the information realm.

This has led to major changes in warfare strategy. First, warfare is now approached on an integrated basis across different theatres – military, technology, information, economic, finance, corporate and legal. Second, warfare is increasingly ambiguous with fuzzy goals, rules and parameters. Warfare is thus refined and calibrated by fusing together non-military with military activities to increase its effectiveness. Many variants of integrated and ambiguous warfare have emerged.

Lindsey R. Sheppard, Alice Hunt Friend, Hijab Shah, Asya Akca, Kathleen H. Hicks and Joseph Federici notes there exists “a host of terms to describe all or parts of the challenge set that exist below the threshold of conventional military conflict…include irregular warfare, soft power and sharp power, hybrid warfare, active measures, political warfare, competition, strategic competition, and gray area or gray zone approaches”. Rivals are deliberately undermined through “the intentional use of one or more of the implements of power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) to affect the political composition or decision-making within a state”. This type of conflict “pursues political objectives through integrated campaigns; Employs mostly nonmilitary or nonkinetic tools; Strives to remain under key escalatory or red line thresholds to avoid outright conventional conflict, and; Moves gradually toward its objectives rather than seeking conclusive results in a relatively limited period of time…[U]nique combinations of influence, intimidation, coercion, and aggression to incrementally crowd our effective resistance, establish local or regional advantages, and manipulate risk perceptions in their favor…[A]n approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship or the use of manipulation to sap the integrity of independent institutions…allowing authoritarian regimes both to limit free expression and to distort political environments in democracies”. “Boundaries between the public and private domain are blurred in the gray zone. States frequently use state-owned or state-affiliated enterprises as covers for activities, leverage private entities to evade state authority, or target private companies to undermine political processes and hold citizens at direct risk”.

Advancing without attacking

The notable feature of integrated and ambiguous warfare strategy is its primary objectives of accumulating advantage while minimising the use of military force. Dan Altman explains “crises, like wars, are clashes of power and will. Each side leverages the prospect of war to attempt to intimidate their adversary into giving in to their coercive demands. Because the willingness to fight is not easily observed, states must find ways to signal their resolve in order to establish the credibility of their coercive threats. This is often done through brinkmanship, aggressive actions that incur a calculated risk of escalation. The established view of crisis strategy, in sum, has three pillars: coercion, signals of resolve, and brinkmanship. When explaining crisis behavior – troop deployments, public statements, limited attacks, etc. – the established view normally applies the concept of signaling. The classic signal of resolve is a show of force”. Coercive bargaining is thus the main strategic game where “states prevail by signaling resolve, establishing the credibility of their threats, and coercing their adversaries into backing down”.

Dan Altman notes “when lesser signals are insufficient, demonstrating the willingness to risk war (brinkmanship) signals resolve and puts pressure on the adversary to end the crisis.  For those who see brinkmanship as the cornerstone of crisis strategy, a common assumption for studies of the role of nuclear weapons in crises, crises are not just a clash of wills but also a war of nerves. The side to flinch first loses. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American blockade of Cuba, harassment of Soviet submarines, and intensive reconnaissance overflights risked armed confrontations with the potential to generate escalation. Brinkmanship can also involve limited uses of force to signal a willingness to go further if necessary. The established view understands all of this signaling as an aid to coercive bargaining, in the process supplying a clear answer to the question of how states revise the status quo in their favor during crises: use credible threats to coerce concessions from the adversary. This perspective on how states make gains has two cornerstones: sending signals of resolve to create perceptions of credibility and leveraging the credible threat of future escalation to coerce concessions”. “Instead of (or in addition to) traditional coercive bargaining…states frequently play out a different game with its own set of rules and tactics…outmaneuver their adversaries, working around their red lines, taking gains by fait accompli and applying pressure where it is possible to do so without quite crossing the line of unambiguously using force”.

Rather than convince the adversary of one’s willingness to use force, advancing without attacking “succeeds by taking advantage of both sides’ reluctance to use force. Rather than using credible threats of escalation to coerce concessions, it more often makes gains by fait accompli”. Dan Altman points to the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula “without starting a war”. Instead of issuing an ultimatum to Ukraine or to directly assault Ukrainian units in Crimea, “Russia adopted a third approach, invading Crimea while working around the need to assault Ukrainian soldiers. Where Ukrainian forces were absent, Russians took charge. Upon arriving at Ukrainian bases, Russian forces surrounded them without firing, often imposing what amounted to blockades, even contacting Ukrainian base commanders to reach agreements that neither side would open fire. When Russian units eventually took control of these bases, soldiers scaled walls and rammed gates to enter without firing more than warning shots, in the process exposing themselves to Ukrainian fire, wagering their lives on the assumption that the Ukrainians also would not fire first. To prevent resistance from aircraft at a Ukrainian airbase, Russian soldiers did not rely on threats to shoot the aircraft down. Instead, they drove military vehicles through an unguarded gate and parked them on the runway, blocking it by nonviolent means in a manner that the Ukrainians would need to use violence to reverse. To prevent the escape of Ukrainian warships in Crimea, Russian vessels took positions blocking the entrances to the ports, forcing the Ukrainian ships to either attack or remain stuck”. “Russia’s tactics left Western policymakers scrambling, sowing fears that Russia had pioneered a novel, 21st Century mode of limited aggression. However, there was nothing new or exceptional about them. They fit squarely within a long history of states prevailing in crises by maneuvering around red lines prohibiting the use of force, taking what they could without ever quite unmistakably attacking”. Hence, advancing without attacking provides a means “for understanding strategic interactions during crises, which aligns to a broader conceptualization of crises as strategic games played by one overarching rule: do not overtly attack the other side. Both sides compete intensely – unilaterally taking what they can and applying pressure where they can – without quite crossing this red line. It comes as no surprise that states are frequently reluctant to use force. It is also clear that there are innumerable exceptions to this reluctance; the use of force is far from rare. What has been under-appreciated, however, is just how much scope there is for maneuver that works around the edges of using force without overtly doing so and just how important these tactics have been in some of the major crises of the modern era”.

China – Unrestricted warfare and war control

One book captured the imagination of the military community. David Barno and Nora Bensahel relates “in 1999, two Chinese colonels wrote a book called Unrestricted warfare[2], about warfare in the age of globalization. Their main argument: Warfare in the modern world will no longer be primarily a struggle defined by military means – or even involve the military at all…Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argued that war was no longer about using armed forces to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will in the classic Clausewitzian sense. Rather, they asserted that war had evolved to using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests. The barrier between soldiers and civilians would fundamentally be erased, because the battle would be everywhere. The number of new battlefields would be virtually infinite, and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare…Their argument refuted many of the Western lessons…that wars could be short, sharp, and dominated by high-technology weaponry used with stunning precision to shatter an enemy’s armed forces in hours or days. But Qiao and Wang argued that the battlefield had fundamentally changed. It was no longer a place where militaries met and fought; instead, society itself was now the battlefield. Future wars would inevitably encompass attacks on all elements of society without limits”.

Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui saw the Gulf War of January 1991 as a defining moment. “More than 300 warships from six carrier groups, 4,000 aircraft, 12,000 tanks and 12,000 armored vehicles, and nearly two million soldiers from more than 30 nations took part in the war. Of the 42-day war, 38 days were air strikes, while the ground war lasted only 100 hours. The U.S.-led multinational force crushed 42 Iraqi divisions, and the Iraqi forces suffered 30,000 casualties and 80,000 prisoners; 3,847 tanks, 1,450 armored vehicles, and 2,917 artillery pieces were destroyed, while the U.S. forces only lost 184 people, but incurred the enormous cost of $61 billion…when Desert Storm…concluded…with its many combatant countries, enormous scale, short duration, small number of casualties, and glorious results startling the whole world, who could say that a classic war heralding the arrival of warfare in the age of technical integration-globalization”. “The real-time coordination of numerous weapons over great distances created an unprecedented combat capability, and this was precisely something that was unimaginable prior to the emergence of information technology”.

In my reading, Unrestricted warfare has two main narratives. The first is a critique of the American approach to warfare. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui notes “in the aftermath of Desert Storm, Uncle Sam has not been able to again achieve a commendable victory…from this point on, war will no longer be what it was originally. Which is to say that, if in the days to come mankind has no choice but to engage in war, it can no longer be carried out in the ways with which we are familiar”. The problem is that “everything that the American military does is done in preparation of gaining victory in a major war…American military circles, which are digging deeper and deeper into the insoluble problem of either using force or not using any at all, seems, after stretching their own tentacles from war regions to the realm of non-combat military actions, to no longer be willing to extend themselves to a far distance, and are now in the realm of forming non-military warfare…Even though the United States bears the brunt of being faced with the threat of this type of nonmilitary war and has been the injured party time after time, yet what is surprising is that such a large nation unexpectedly does not have a unified strategy and command structure to deal with the threat”.

The second is to explain information disruption of warfare. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui explain while “the emergence of individual weapons prior to World War II was still able to trigger a military revolution, today no-one is capable of dominating the scene alone. War in the age of technological integration and globalization has eliminated the right of weapons to label war and, with regard to the new starting point, has realigned the relationship of weapons to war, while the appearance of weapons of new concepts, and particularly new concepts of weapons, has gradually blurred the face of war. Does a single hacker attack count as a hostile act or not? Can using financial instruments to destroy a country’s economy be seen as a battle? Did CNN’s broadcast of an exposed corpse of a U.S. soldier in the streets of Mogadishu shake the determination of the Americans to act as the world’s policeman, thereby altering the world’s strategic situation…all these non-war actions may be the new factors constituting future warfare…Warfare which transcends all boundaries and limits, in short: unrestricted warfare…this kind of war means that all means will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent, and the battlefield will be everywhere. It means that all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will, it means that all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed, and it also means that many of the current principles of combat will be modified, and even that the rules of war may need to be rewritten”. In this context, “on the battlefields of the future…The generation gap in weapons and military forces is perhaps an issue that requires exceptional attention. The closer the generation gap is, the more pronounced are the battle successes of the more senior generation, while the more the gap opens, the less each party is capable of dealing with the other, and it may reach the point where no one can wipe out the other. Looking at the specific examples of battles that we have, it is difficult for high-tech troops to deal with unconventional warfare and low-tech warfare”.

Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argue “a war which changed the world ultimately changed war itself…No, what we are referring to are not changes in the instruments of war, the technology of war, the modes of war, or the forms of war. What we are referring to is the function of warfare…Faced with political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, ethnic, and religious issues, etc., that are more complex…the limitations of the military means, which had heretofore always been successful, suddenly became apparent…if in the days to come mankind has no choice but to engage in war, it can no longer be carried out in the ways with which we are familiar. It is impossible for us to deny the impact on human society and its soul of the new motivations represented by economic freedom, the concept of human rights, and the awareness of environmental protection, but it is certain that the metamorphosis of warfare will have a more complex backdrop…When people begin to lean toward and rejoice in the reduced use of military force to resolve conflicts, war will be reborn in another form and in another arena, becoming an instrument of enormous power in the hands of all those who harbor intentions of controlling other countries or regions…This is because the reduction of the functions of warfare in a pure sense does not mean at all that war has ended. Even in the so-called post-modern, post-industrial age, warfare will not be totally dismantled. It has only re-invaded human society in a more complex, more extensive, more concealed, and more subtle manner…War which has undergone the changes of modern technology and the market system will be launched even more in atypical forms. In other words, while we are seeing a relative reduction in military violence, at the same time we definitely are seeing an increase in political, economic, and technological violence. However, regardless of the form the violence takes, war is war, and a change in the external appearance does not keep any war from abiding by the principles of war…If we acknowledge that the new principles of war are no longer using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will, but rather are using all means, including armed force or nonarmed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests. This represents change. A change in war and a change in the mode of war occasioned by this. So, just what has led to the change? What kind of changes are they? Where are the changes headed? How does one face these changes?”

Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui point out “the wars and major incidents which have occurred during the last ten years of the 20th century…proof that…military threats are already often no longer the major factors affecting national security. Even though they are the same ancient territorial disputes, nationality conflicts, religious clashes, and the delineation of spheres of power in human history, and are still the several major agents of people waging war from opposite directions, these traditional factors are increasingly becoming more intertwined with grabbing resources, contending for markets, controlling capital, trade sanctions, and other economic factors, to the extent that they are even becoming secondary to these factors. They comprise a new pattern which threatens the political, economic and military security of a nation or nations…all of the new warfare methods and strategic measures which can be provided by all of the new technology may be utilized by these fanatics to carry out all forms of financial attacks, network attacks, media attacks, or terrorist attacks. Most of these attacks are not military actions, and yet they can be completely viewed as or equal to warfare actions which force other nations to satisfy their own interests and demands. These have the same and even greater destructive force than military warfare, and they have already produced serious threats different from the past and in many directions for our comprehensible national security…all nations which worship the view of modern sovereignty that have already unconsciously expanded the borders of security to a multiplicity of domains, including politics, economics, material resources, nationalities, religion, culture, networks, geography, environment, and outer space, etc. This type of extended domain view is a premise for the survival and development of modern sovereign nations as well as for their striving to have influence in the world”.

Pepe Escobar adds “Unrestricted Warfare was essentially the PLA’s manual for asymmetric warfare: an updating of Sun Tzu’s Art of War”. While the publisher sensationalised the US 2004 publication title as Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, the book essentially lays out a defensive approach. In a recent interview, Qiao Liang elaborates his argument “concentrates on the shortcomings of US manufacturing: How can the US today want to wage war against the biggest manufacturing power in the world while its own industry is hollowed out?”. “To arrest movement toward Taiwan’s independence, apart from war, other options must be taken into consideration. We can think about the means to act in the immense gray zone between war and peace, and we can even think about more particular means, like launching military operations that will not lead to war, but may involve a moderate use of force. General Qiao thinks that “if we have to dance with the wolves, we should not dance to the rhythm of the US. We should have our own rhythm, and even try to break their rhythm, to minimize its influence. If American power is brandishing its stick, it’s because it has fallen into a trap.”  “China first of all must show proof of strategic determination to solve the Taiwan question, and then strategic patience. Of course, the premise is that we should develop and maintain our strategic force to solve the Taiwan question by force at any moment”. 

Anthony H. Cordesman adds “the Chinese use of unrestricted warfare has been further analyzed and sometimes referred to as quasi warfare, which is marked by the three non-warfares: non-contact (fei jierong), non-linear (fei xianshi), and non-symmetric (fei duicheng). Non-contact (fei jierong) is warfare conducted in which the more advanced side is outside the immediate geographical zone of the enemy’s weapons, and therefore impervious to strikes while also retaining the ability to conduct its own direct strikes on the enemy. Non-linear (fei xianshi) is warfare that has no distinguishable battlefield due to the advancement of technology and codependent nature of the relationship between the sides – and it is usually carried out over the information space. Non-symmetric (fei duicheng) is warfare that engages the adversary in every strategic aspect with the use of limited military resources”.

Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett note since 2008, the PLA emphasised on war control, crisis management, crisis control, war situation control, and war termination; representing various forms of escalation control consistent with its mission to control crisis and conflict to ensure China’s peace and stability. The thinking has evolved recently to reflect “growing focus on crisis management as an essential element of conflict control”; and “increasing awareness…conflict may occur as the result of accidental or inadvertent escalation”. Preventing and controlling conflict involves thinking about the stages within a “continuum of conflict” from crisis, military crisis, armed conflict, local war to total war. “PLA writings associate different objectives for control, and different military activities, with each stage on the continuum” and “do not specify the thresholds that divide pre-war states of conflict from a state of war. The most potentially dangerous state on the continuum of conflict is a middle state in which military activities are taking place and the objectives for control are nebulous. In the middle of the continuum of conflict are stages (sometimes called military crisis and/or armed conflict) in which militaries are involved but war has not yet broken out. Some PLA writings identify these stages as constituting a state of quasi-war, and state that they have characteristics of both peace and war. Military operations in the state of quasi-war appear to have dual objectives: (1) to resolve the crisis and prevent the onset of war; and (2) to prepare to win a war should one break out…military activities in this stage may resemble combat operations, even if the countries involved do not consider themselves to be at war…there is a high likelihood of misperception and misunderstanding in the state of quasi-war.”

Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett note the PLA’s emphasis on several key principles to guide military actions in a crisis or conflict. These include prioritising strategic and political objectives over military objectives in planning, prosecuting, and controlling a war; on “striving to seize the initiative in the early stages of a conflict. This appears to mean attacking quickly and decisively”; and tempering this with preserving “strategic and political stability and operational flexibility, in order to respond to an adversary’s actions without unnecessarily escalating the conflict”. “Many PLA texts write about the need to turn crisis into opportunity, i.e., to seek advantage while resolving a crisis. Some PLA writings advocate using kinetic strikes as a form of pre-war deterrence”. “Some PLA writings argue that cyber and space warfare represent less escalatory methods of warfare than traditional combat activities. In combination, the PLA notion that there can be a stage of armed conflict short of war, together with a doctrine that advocates going on the offensive early in a war, has serious escalatory implications. Several texts argue that in a state of pre-war armed conflict, countries may take limited military action in order to clarify the situation or persuade the other side to de-escalate. Because of the PLA’s well-known emphasis on seizing the initiative in war, one can envision a situation where the PLA takes what it intends to be a limited military action in a state of pre-war but an adversary assumes that it is the beginning of a large-scale attack. Many PLA writings on controlling conflict only address wars of choice. PLA writings consistently state that a country should delay the beginning of a war until it is prepared to seize the initiative and win the war. This admonition relies on an assumption that a country can choose whether to enter a war. These writings do not discuss how a country should fight a war that it was not prepared to enter”.

In my view, Chinese and US strategists view warfare differently. American military strategists[3] struggle with China’s philosophical approach to warfare and interpret their warfare theories from a pure conflict and a “win-lose” perspective. The US also tend to underestimate the paradigmic implications from information disruption of warfare.

Burgess Laird notes “Chinese strategists tend to view the disappearance of large-scale total war almost as if it were a historically determined inevitability…because massive destruction is incompatible with modern civilization. Thus the repeated imperative to ensure that crises and wars not threaten the nation’s development goals during the period of strategic opportunity also constitutes an acceptance of the assumption that the period is one of relative international peace and in which the possibility of great power conflict is low. And it is upon this assumption, it must be emphasized, that Chinese strategists have erected much of their understanding of the imperatives of crisis and war control. The Chinese preoccupation with preventing the harm that uncontrolled crises and conflicts could cause to development goals is fundamentally pragmatic, if not well-grounded, and stands in stark contrast to the ultimate Western motivation for managing crises involving nuclear powers: the concern that such crises or conflicts might escalate – inadvertently, accidentally, or (less likely) deliberately – to a point at which they pose a threat to the nation’s very existence…It is the straightforward recognition on the part of China’s leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, that the CCP’s legitimacy and authority are inextricably tied to its ability to deliver high economic growth…Chinese leaders harbor a deep concern – well-grounded in China’s long history – that a major contraction in the economy would spur widespread domestic instability and discontent that could threaten the legitimacy if not the ruling position of the CCP itself”.

Roderick Lee and Marcus Clay point out we should not overlook “Xi’s belief in using force to prevent war…Chinese people understand it fully that [China] must use the languages that invaders understand to communicate with them. It is to use war to stop war, to use force to prevent conflict/war, and to use [war] victory to win peace and earn respect.” General Liu Yuejun in his 2013 article in China Military Science argued “that confrontational military activities are critical when considering peacetime use of force, and that the People’s Liberation Army must use force resolutely and use it preemptively to defend the core interests of sovereignty and territorial integrity…Liu states that under the guise of peacetime confrontational military operations, activities can escalate into a state of military friction, military confrontation, armed conflict, and then local war. These forms of peacetime confrontational military operations are limited in scale and scope compared to large scale wars”.

In terms of military capabilities, China has made substantial strides. Victor Corpus relates that in the 1990s, “militarily, China was no match against the US” and followed the admonition of Deng Xiaoping to hide our capacities. Its two major concerns were the Talisman Saber and the Manila Trench. “The Talisman Saber, a biennial naval exercise conducted by the US and Australian navies that rehearsed the naval blockade of the Malacca Strait”, is aimed at practically forcing China’s economy to grind to a halt. Military strategists call this China’s Malacca Dilemma.” The Manila Trench “is the only deep portion in the whole of the South China Sea where US nuclear submarines can surreptitiously approach China’s east coast to launch a first nuclear strike”.

The Manila Trench passes right beside Scarborough Shoal which is claimed by Philippines and China. The Philippines won the claim “at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, but China has refused to honor the ruling, saying that the court had no jurisdiction on issues of sovereignty. Two US aircraft carrier strike groups were sent to enforce the PCA court ruling, but China refused, telling the US commander that China was prepared to go to war if the US enforced the ruling by force. For the first time in US naval history, the US was forced to withdraw without accomplishing its mission of enforcing the PCA ruling”. In 2016, China completed construction of seven artificial islands. These artificial islands can “accommodate enough anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth combat aircraft, and air defense systems that can neutralize any US attempt to hamper freedom of navigation in the Malacca Strait and beyond”. “China has now stationed a permanent presence guarding Scarborough Shoal, the gateway of nuclear subs to the Manila Trench”.

Victor Corpus argues “these offensive and defensive systems that will allow China to survive a military confrontation with the US and its allies – and win – is what was known in military circles as the assassin’s mace”. “Even if China does not use a single warship in its PLA navy and only uses instead its anti-ship ballistic missiles…it can wipe out and sink every major surface combatant that the Western alliance sends to confront it in the South China Sea or East China Sea. In military parlance, this is called asymmetric warfare, part and parcel of unrestricted warfare…if NATO/Quad led by the US sends their aircraft carrier strike groups, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and nuclear submarines to wage war…China’s land and sea power…will result in the total annihilation of the NATO/Quad naval armada…The huge naval armada will have nowhere to hide, like sitting ducks being eliminated by simultaneous attacks of missile swarms. It will take only about 15 to 20 minutes, and it will be all over for the NATO/Quad armada”.

US – Grey zone and hybrid wars and integrated deterrence

Roderick Lee and Marcus Clay thinks there are gaps in the Western defense community’s understanding of China’s warfare strategies which they view through the lens of gray zone operations and their focus on how “China is forced to reconstitute its bottom line, through discourse on how to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. However, neither of these fields of study address the People’s Liberation Army’s peacetime employment of military force concept as a whole. Consequently, U.S. planners and policymakers are not only working on an incomplete theory on how China uses force, but are also failing to address a swath of potential military options[4] that China might undertake”.

Anthony H. Cordesman suggests “the U.S. needs to fundamentally reassess its approach to competing and cooperating with China and Russia. Its present path has tilted more and more towards a poorly structured approach to confrontation focused more on worst case wars than on the broader forms of military and civil competition the U.S. needs to address. It has failed to integrate civil and military competition, to address grey area operations, to look at the global nature of this competition, and to focus on the fact that most forms will either not involve direct combat or will do so at low levels of combat. It has not given the proper priority to address America’s strategic partnerships or to develop net assessments of the longer-term patterns in this competition. The U.S. has not properly addressed the fact that most U.S. military competition with China and Russia will take form in the gray area[5] and hybrid warfare[6] mix through Chinese and Russian low-level military operations in order to influence other nations, to maximize opportunities from conflicts, and to gain strategic leverage”.

Clementine G. Starling, Tyson Wetzel and Christian Trotti define the gray zone as “a portion of the competition continuum where covert, illegal, malign, or destabilizing actions fall above the level of cooperation and below the typical threshold of armed conflict”; Below-Threshold Activities as “covert, illegal, malign, or destabilizing actions in the gray zone that are intended to deliver effects that achieve a national objective without eliciting a response (or specifically a military response)”; and Hybrid Warfare as “statecraft using multiple levers of national power (including political, diplomatic, international, economic, and other nonmilitary means, often in conjunction with the use or threat of military force) across the entire competition continuum (including cooperation, competition, and conflict) for the purposes of achieving national security objectives…this strategy argues the United States should conduct hybrid warfare (the action) in the gray zone (the environment)”.

Benjamin Jensen, Bonny Lin and Carolina G. Ramos point out “when states like China seek to challenge the status quo, they opt for these subversive measures as a low-cost, low-risk alternative to the costly gamble of war. In other words, gray zones are a choice for revisionist states, and the alternative is war”. They note “in the gray zone, actors apply persistent actions to deter, dissuade, or mitigate a rival’s competitive advantage. As seen in Russian and Chinese campaigns, these actions range from salami slicing and cabbage strategies that incrementally increase pressure to long-term efforts to undermine an adversary from within through subversion campaigns built around misinformation, diplomatic isolation, and economic coercion. Gray zone campaigns are a method of containing the escalation risk that emerges in long-term competition. By using measures short of armed conflict, they allow states to signal, even if weak and ambiguous, key thresholds while shaping the environment”.

Clementine G. Starling, Tyson Wetzel and Christian Trotti propose a strategy of Seizing the Advantage which “encourages the US government to take a four-dimensional view of strategic competition with China (and Russia) – one defined by geography, time, different domains, and the competition continuum as its axes. The United States needs to redefine the geopolitical game in ways that better integrate and maximize its existing advantages, such as its robust web of alliances and partnerships, its strong economic fundamentals, its long history of military and defense-industrial prowess, and the benefits of its democratic model. Only a new game, crafted intentionally and strategically, has the potential to halt its perceived decline and take the offensive against its competitors with the goal of improving its relative security position and revitalizing the international rules-based order”.

Clementine G. Starling, Tyson Wetzel and Christian Trotti suggest the US can improve their relative security position through: “1) adapting to the new competition by confronting Chinese and Russian hybrid warfare efforts and taking the offensive in the gray zone; 2) preparing for the new battlefield by remaking the force to better deter and dominate future conflict; 3) leveraging new and established friends by building and revitalizing defense relationships globally; and 4) crafting the new enterprise by training, equipping, and securing the department for technological superiority…This strategy…will enhance the United States’ efforts to compete now, strengthen deterrence, integrate allies and partners into a latticed defense structure, and build a force that can dominate future armed conflict should the need arise. The purpose of this strategy is not to play Go better, but rather to build a new game and force China and Russia to play the United States’ game”.

Hence, Seizing the Advantage is based on the “Combined Warfighting Concept (CWC), an all-domain, joint, and combined warfighting concept that embraces the role, capabilities, and capacity of allies and partners from the start. The DoD must build the force to dominate armed conflict of the future. The future battlefield will be data-centric, networked, and fast-paced. Both the United States and its strategic competitors are heavily investing in revolutionary kinetic and nonkinetic weapons, including hypersonic delivery vehicles, autonomous combat systems, directed energy, and cyber tools. While these weapons will make it easier to neutralize or destroy targets, finding those targets will be the more pressing challenge. Therefore wars of the future are likely to be won by the side that can best harness available data across all domains and deny the adversary the ability to do the same…clear investment priorities to build that force – and divestment priorities to afford it”.

Clementine G. Starling, Tyson Wetzel and Christian Trotti also argue that Seizing the Advantage “is premised on the idea that conflict with China and/ or Russia is not inevitable. The most desirable outcome of strategic competition is for both China and Russia to move back toward participation in and respecting the boundaries of the international rules-based order. Therefore, the United States should look for areas of common interest to cooperate with China and Russia, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and addressing climate change. Cooperation could help ease tension between the United States and its strategic competitors and improve security. At the same time, both China and Russia argue that they reject the current rules-based order as a Western construct, and China has purported a vision of global authoritarian order. It is important to call out this vision as incompatible with the existing order and for the United States and the international community to meet authoritarianism and anti-competitive and anti-liberal strategies globally with resolve. While there are compelling reasons for the United States to pursue this competitive strategy, and the United States has no desire for war, it is nonetheless important to recognize that this competitive strategy could result in undesirable escalatory pressures. To manage these pressures, the United States should build viable off-ramps from conflict based on incentives, disincentives, and deterrents…That said, the United States must compete where it is strategically important to its vital interests and those of its allies and partners. Finally, the United States must prepare a force that can win an armed conflict with one or both of the strategic competitors simultaneously and manage this balancing challenge by relying on and helping enhance the military capabilities of allies”. Anthony H. Cordesman adds the recent US National Defense Strategy “emphasized the same themes: With our allies and partners, we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions”.

Generally, grey zone tactics are escalatory. Benjamin Jensen, Bonny Lin and Carolina G. Ramos note “first, escalation is a bargaining process. Modern discussions about competition, much like their Cold War predecessors, see gray zone campaigns and the crises they generate as bargaining processes. States seek to alter adversary behavior short of war and use escalation – from shows of force to cyber operations – as a means of determining their rival’s level of resolve. This interactive process is subject to larger social, psychological, and institutional effects that can create self-reinforcing feedback loops and, in the right combination, a runaway train to war. As a result, most scholarly treatments on escalation focus on the conditions likely to produce dangerous threat spirals, inadvertent escalation, or chain reactions that change the character of a foreign policy crisis and lead states down a dangerous path to war”.  

“Second, escalation involves threats that help states forecast the costs and risks at stake in a crisis. In early game theory work, escalation was often treated as variants of a threat game. Players, whether individuals or great powers, select between a set of finite choices given imperfect information about what the adversary will do and calibrate their actions accordingly. These moves can stabilize interactions putting a cap on escalation. That is, rational actors seek an equilibrium balancing threats with the risk of initiating costly conflicts. Actors tend to base their decision on estimates of the other parties’ cost tolerance, how much pain they will endure, or advantages they will lose to achieve a demand…cost tolerance is what determines escalation dynamics. High escalation cost tolerant states will assume risk and absorb pain to force an adversary to back down during crisis bargaining. The challenge is that cost tolerance is private information, making it difficult to gauge the optimal response during a crisis. States may be bluffing, or they may be willing to assume high costs associated with retaliation”.

“Third, escalation is driven more by perception than the balance of military power. In studying escalation as part of crisis bargaining, scholars tend to differentiate between structural and decision-theoretic factors that shape how actors respond to perceived threats as well as between accounts that focus on current crisis decisionmaking or prevailing reputations. The decision to escalate is either a question of underlying structural conditions like the balance of power or related to iterated decisionmaking under imperfect information linked to reputations and what states assume the other side will do. Most literature sees decision-centric processes – how state leaders and their advisers perceive the situation and make decisions – as the dominant attribute shaping how a crisis unfolds and its overall escalation potential. In particular, there are also unique cognitive dynamics that can skew how foreign policy decisionmakers calculate escalation risks. First, deferring decisions is common when confronted with multiple response options. Second, high-stakes decisions, such as whether or not to confront a nuclear-armed state, are prone to deferral. These decision deferral dynamics imply that leaders may respond to gray zone campaigns with options that help them push escalation risks into the future. This deferral can cause unchecked adversaries to become more hostile and amplify inadvertent and accidental escalation risks”.

Benjamin Jensen, Bonny Lin and Carolina G. Ramos note that “applied to future standoffs with China over Taiwan, this dynamic indicates inadvertent escalation risks associated with the psychology of decisionmaking under uncertainty. Deferring risk in the present could lead to more risk in the future. What may appear prudent in the present may prove dangerous in the future…there is a need to stress test the Biden administration’s concept of integrated deterrence against Chinese gray zone operations. New defense thinking is emerging around an old idea: deterrence. The secretary of defense recently called for integrated deterrence that is the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities – all woven together and networked in a way that is so credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause…[and] create[s] advantages for us and dilemmas for them.” Since 2018, the Joint Staff has published new doctrine on the competition continuum. This posture calls for integrated campaigning: the skillful combination of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and, when appropriate, armed conflict in conjunction with diplomatic, informational, military, and economic efforts to achieve and sustain strategic objectives. All of these concepts, and integrated deterrence in particular, need further studies and wargames evaluating the feasibility of deterring Chinese gray zone activities as well as the series of events likely to trip a firebreak and trigger a large-scale conventional use of force”.

Benjamin Jensen, Bonny Lin and Carolina G. Ramos note “simulations show a need to rethink the architecture of crisis management…gray zone scenarios tend to fall within the seams of national security equities and bureaucratic focus. Yet in the gray zone, U.S. responses are likely to involve authorities, assets, and capabilities beyond just those of any single agency or department”. They suggest the US “look at different interagency models” to develop a “crisis management framework” “to address gray zone moves” with Taiwan and allies to understand reactions, the complex international and domestic political environment, and to assess options and strengthen coordination. Since “great power competition as a series of iterated bargaining crises where each side signals the other puts a premium on communication”, there is a “need to revisit crisis communication channels and the larger diplomatic architecture associated with real-time crisis management”. This includes expanding the number of channels, including “informal, multilateral diplomatic tracks, which are open and exercised to ensure they can communicate clearly during a crisis…to identify red lines and the risk of inadvertent escalation”. There is also “a broader need to rethink the types of intelligence collection and analytical capabilities required to guide decision-makers through a gray zone crisis”.

Overall, assessments of China’s military capabilities[7] suggest the US needs to reconceptualise its military-technology priorities[8]. Anthony H. Cordesman notes a US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) document took a broader and more realistic view of four interrelated trends shaping competition and conflict. These are: “adversaries are contesting all domains, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), and the information environment and U.S. dominance is not assured; Smaller armies fight on an expanded battlefield that is increasingly lethal and hyperactive; Nation-states have more difficulty in imposing their will within a politically, culturally, technologically, and strategically complex environment; and Near-peer states more readily compete below armed conflict making deterrence more challenging. Dramatically increasing rates of urbanization and the strategic importance of cities also ensure that operations will take place within dense urban terrain. Adversaries, such as China and Russia, have leveraged these trends to expand the battlefield in time (a blurred distinction between peace and war), in domains (space and cyberspace), and in geography (now extended into the Strategic Support Area, including the homeland) to create tactical, operational, and strategic stand-offs”. “In a state of continuous competition, China and Russia exploit the conditions of the operational environment to achieve their objectives without resorting to armed conflict by fracturing the U.S.’s alliances, partnerships, and resolve. They attempt to create stand-off through the integration of diplomatic and economic actions, unconventional and information warfare (social media, false narratives, cyberattacks), and the actual or threatened employment of conventional forces. By creating instability within countries and alliances, China and Russia create political separation that results in strategic ambiguity reducing the speed of friendly recognition, decision, and reaction. Through these competitive actions, China and Russia believe they can achieve objectives below the threshold of armed conflict”.

Having studied China’s warfare preparations, the US is cognisant of its own shortcomings. Tara Copp reported “a brutal loss in a wargaming exercise last October convinced the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Hyten to scrap the joint warfighting concept that had guided U.S. military operations for decades” on Taiwan. Key lessons include that “gathering ships, aircraft, and other forces to concentrate and reinforce each other’s combat power also made them sitting ducks…with hypersonic missiles, with significant long-range fires coming at us from all domains…Even more critically…lost access to its networks almost immediately”. The U.S. military has adopted the concept of Expanded Maneuver with directives on (1) Contested logistics to create new ways to deliver fuel and supplies to front lines; (2) Joint fires that emphasises on “virtual aggregation for multiple domains; acting at the same time under a single command structure allows the fires to come in on anybody. It allows you to disaggregate to survive”; and (3) JADC2 to be “fully connected to a combat cloud that has all information that you can access at any time, anyplace” on hackerproof networks; with the goal of achieving an information advantage over rivals. “The new operating concept comes as the U.S. military reshapes its footprint in the Middle East to better prepare for a fight with China”.

Testing of the new concepts has begun. According to China’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI)[9], the US held more than 100 large-scale military exercises near China last year, practicing and validating several new war concepts like multi-domain operations, expeditionary advanced base operations, distributed maritime operations and littoral operations and developing new technologies including standoff hypersonic weapons, antiballistic missile technologies, precision strike and missile defense systems, new maritime combat systems, directed energy weapons, next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarines and destroyers.

A Rand Corporation report points out “an emerging transition to new ways of warfare…toward more information-based, unmanned, semiautonomous, and AI-driven platforms…One implication of these trends is to raise the possibility of truly boundaryless warfare with tactical, operational, strategic, and homeland targets, military as well as civilian, all engaged at the same time from the first moments of warfare. The combined effect of these technologies is to reduce significance of range, blur boundaries between levels of war and the battlefield and homeland, and fundamentally expand the attack surface”. “These trends demand new thinking about concepts of operations…recognizing the emerging all-domain reality…grounded in information-network destruction and manipulation and point toward a future characterized in part by unmanned, semiautonomous, dispersed, and swarming systems. The major powers that master this new approach will have a decisive advantage in war and possess predominant power and influence”.


The shift from traditional warfare towards integrated and ambiguous warfare is progressing quickly. The superpowers have adopted integrated and ambiguous strategies to maximise asymmetric advantages in a manner that is unlikely to trigger direct military confrontation. However, as a Rand Corporation report warns, “as new technologies are fielded on both sides, uncertainty over how adversaries may perceive and employ these technologies increases, complicating decision-making. This could, in turn, threaten the stability of the status quo and increase the risk of escalation (whether accidental or intentional). Ambiguity surrounding a new technology and how it might be used generates additional instability. Uncertainty heightens tensions and generates incentives for first strikes. New technologies exacerbate this dynamic when there is uncertainty about readiness level, adversary intent, multidomain interactions, and the identity of adversaries”. “In addition, we found that the situational context may matter more than the specific weapon system or technology on its own; it is entirely dependent on whether a state views the holder of the technology or weapon system as being likely to use it, and ambiguity here could thus be destabilizing…Additionally, some new technologies that generate effects primarily in the gray zone may have less clear escalatory dynamics associated with their use and may be a more appealing option for adversaries looking to destabilize targets while not provoking escalation into armed conflict. The theater of hostile actions is increasingly shifting to the gray zone – the space below the threshold of armed conflict. Use of such technologies as information – and perception/manipulation technologies that primarily have effects in the gray zone can create strategic instability yet may not upend conventional deterrence (an ideal outcome for adversaries seeking to inflict damage while not triggering all-out war). Some of the technologies also make attribution difficult, which could further incentivize states to take aggressive action in situations in which they would otherwise be deterred. Increasing accessibility of technology to additional actors adds further complexity and uncertainty to existing deterrent relationships.

Benjamin Jensen and Adrian Bogart suggest “decisionmakers will need new competition and escalation models to evaluate flexible response and deterrent options…Current defense planning and academic analytical frameworks are the legacy of Cold War dynamics that may not match a new era of competition. Unlike the Cold War, nuclear-armed states in a multipolar world will likely use nonnuclear weapons (e.g., cruise missiles, space capabilities, and cyber operations) to produce strategic effects…Alongside efforts to think about coercion and cross-domain aspects of deterrence, the national security community needs more policy-relevant research that brings individual decisionmaking and attitudes toward risk back into how it thinks about great power competition. In particular, strategic analysis needs more crisis simulations and wargames designed as survey experiments to capture how both individuals and groups respond in different scenarios prone to competitive pressure, fog, and friction. These survey experiments enable researchers to bridge the insights of Carl Von Clausewitz’s on war, Thomas Schelling on deterrence, and Daniel Kahnmann on decision-making. These studies should put competition front and center and integrate new data and analytic techniques to understand competitive dynamics in a connected world. For integrated deterrence to be more than a bumper sticker, the Department of Defense will need to initiate a new wave of research that evaluates if and how alternating capabilities – to include the emergence of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) – and partner networks affect crisis decision-making. These studies will need to create alternative scenarios that reflect whether promised technological capabilities and advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning materialize, as well as the degree of partner political interests and interoperability…In other words, the national security community needs to revitalize strategic studies for the twenty-first century and integrate best practices from social science, as opposed to relying on thin case studies and broader – and often untestable – generalizations about war…decisionmakers are likely to find that the optimal bargaining position will decline over time relative to their menu of flexible response options. Since the crisis simulation involved a series of iterated vignettes, a degree of escalation is built into the game. And yet, the findings suggest that how individuals and groups approach crisis response creates more risk-acceptant behavior and a pull toward horizonal escalation. Applied to Ukraine, this means ensuring open, direct engagement, even with the worst regimes; refining signals during a crisis; and preparing now for a much longer war”.

As Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui concludes, “the great fusion of technologies is impelling the domains of politics, economics, the military, culture, diplomacy, and religion to overlap each other. The connection points are ready, and the trend towards the merging of the various domains is very clear. Add to this the influence of the high tide of human rights consciousness on the morality of warfare. All of these things are rendering more and more obsolete the idea of confining warfare to the military domain and of using the number of casualties as a means of the intensity of a war. Warfare is now escaping from the boundaries of bloody massacre, and exhibiting a trend towards low casualties, or even none at all, and yet high intensity. This is information warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, and other entirely new forms of war, new areas opened up in the domain of warfare. In this sense, there is now no domain which warfare cannot use, and there is almost no domain which does not have warfare’s offensive pattern”.

While the initial phase of integrated and ambiguous warfare did not trigger a major confrontation, the forbearance period of or tolerance for integrated and ambiguous warfare looks to have expired. We are now in an escalatory phase. Integrated warfare – reflecting the information effects of convergence and modularisation – makes it impossible to contain conflicts to selected theatres, to establish guardrails or to calibrate the level of conflict. Ambiguous warfare blurs the boundaries between deterrence and provocation and provokes hardening of the terrain as adversaries wise up and become intolerant to overly-aggressive testing of red lines, being presented with fait accompli and cumulative loss of space. Hardening describes drastic actions being taken to eliminate ambiguous space. Hong Kong’s national security law and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be considered examples of hardening aimed at negating vulnerabilities perceived to be exploited by the West.

Apart from expanding conflict theatres and hardening the terrain, integrated and ambiguous warfare doesn’t provide much room for bargaining, deterrence, restraint and off-ramps for diplomacy and de-escalation. This means that we are approaching a period of stand-offs. Under these circumstances, no concessions will be forthcoming and only irrational behaviour can demonstrate resolve to stomach losses can signal to adversaries, allies and the public alike the seriousness of a potential response. In this context, it is usually the disadvantaged player that strikes hard because they either think they cannot afford to lose any more ground or that they are running out of time. This increases the odds of conflicts in the information realm escalating into a military conflict. In other words, exploiting asymmetric advantage should be tempered by war control strategies to prevent the risks of a dangerous conflict.

The shift of battlefields from the physical to the information realm thus changes the nature of geopolitical conflict. But strategists do not seem fully comprehend and prepare for conflict in the information realm. Instead, they are currently preoccupied with identifying opportunities to exploit asymmetric advantage and not sufficiently mindful of the risks from hardening, counter-sanctions, and global spillover and contagion effects. Hence, it is imperative to grasp the fact that conflict in the information realm will be very different from the physical realm.


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[1] See “Information and organisation: Cross border data flows and spying”.

[2] See Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui.

[3] See Stefan Halper for American perspectives on Chinese warfare strategies.

[4] Such as imposing a coercive quarantine on Taiwan. See Bradley Martin, Kristen Gunness, Paul DeLuca and Melissa Shostak.

[5] See Clementine G. Starling and Julia Siegel.

[6] See Valery Gerasimov; Mathieu Boulègue and Alina Polyakova.

[7] Anthony H. Cordesman and Grace Hwang analyses the civil-military dimensions of China’s capabilities and explain how it integrates civil and military strategy and development plans. They also provide a broad overview of China’s military strategy; defense policy; military organization and leadership; military spending; and impact on the military balance between U.S., Chinese, and Russian military forces as well as addresses China’s rapidly evolving military capabilities by military element.

[8] Todd Harrison explores the future of battle networks in the U.S. military.

[9] See Liu Xuanzun.