A growing topic entering defense and military circles is a new concept on modern warfare, much of the doctrine surrounding which is still being formed. While technically not a total militarization and engagement in hot conflict, it is becoming a far more palatable form of statecraft, particularly by larger nations. This new sphere of global security strategy is being labeled curiously as “Grey Zone Conflict”, or simply GZC.
Since the end of the Second World War, the earth has been free of major-power wars. This length of global peace is something virtually never seen in history, despite several “smaller” conflicts since then. With the exception of these smaller operations in Africa, the Middle East, and the South Pacific, the concept of Total War has all but fallen from the picture. Taking its place has become a range of small conflicts, counterterrorism operations, and peacekeeping missions, all of which fall within the scope of GZC. GZC has nestled itself between the previous binary view of war and peace with the advancement of globalization and rapid development of technology.
While the definition is still fluid, GZC take their position in the center, encompassing a wide range of violent and nonviolent forms of conflict. They use military and non-military actors, and can even include private sector actors such as private security companies and defense technology firms. However, due to the nature of GZC, the use of military forces is highly restrictive.
As seen with the American and other coalition forces in Iraq, soldiers saw their typical role being shifted. From individual soldiers to the leaders on the ground, they were forced to move from being a warfighter to policing with a focus on humanitarian aid, connection with key community leaders, and training local military and police units. Compounded by the use of information operations and private military contractors, Iraq became an example of the more kinetic form of GZC.
Russian activities in Georgia and Ukraine are another example of both high and low tempo GZC. On one end, the aftermath of the invasion of the Donbas region is an example of the high tempo of GZC. Almost every day there are small raids, employment of snipers, and artillery duels, but not to a level of war. Reports come out periodically about Ukrianian service members being killed in action.
Russian continual occupation of Georgian territory is a much more low tempo part of GZC by comparison. Russia maintains a continual military presence masked as “peacekeeping,” information operations aimed at converting the populace, and the occasional raid into Tbilisi controlled territory. While not as volatile as Donbas, it still remains on the GZC spectrum of operations.
Entering into the realm of GZC does not inherently mean the entity is operating with nefarious means or intentions. It is a healthy alternative to open war indeed, but can also open the way for further de-escalation and future peace. This is ultimately up to the powers at hand, and these are usually large entities such as the United States, Russia, NATO, and China. However, it’s not uncommon for smaller players to get involved. For a smaller nation to engage in GZC, such as Georgia, it gains the ability to further mask their activity in the shadow of those larger entities.
For Georgia to enter this field, it is first important to develop their GZC force components. Through internal training, new departments and units being raised, and partnering with the large friendly entities already engaged, Georgia can become an effective force in the new way of conducting asymmetric conflict operations. However, this means changing the fundamental way that conflict is viewed, how the elements involved are deployed, and how the politicians at home manage public expectations.
This last part is interesting, as much of the general population is stuck with a Cold War view of warfare: a massive number of infantry, armor, and artillery clashing in open warfare to some climactic end and a clear victor being declared ceremoniously. For better or worse, this is simply not a reality anymore. The fundamental change to GZC should be also shared and portrayed with the public, and expectations managed.
The foundation to Georgia’s effectiveness in this is inter-agency communication and operability. While the Ministry of Defense (MoD) will play a part in GZC, they will not be the tip of the spear. Further, they must understand that it is imperative, as other organizations such as the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG), Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), and potentially private security companies and defense consultancy firms will be leading GZC operations.
However, this is not to say that the MoD will be uninvolved. While special intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets will be key to success, so will the Army’s special operations forces (SOF). Even select parts of the conventional army will be called upon to fulfill roles they didn’t previously have. SOF and their assistant forces will focus on training and supporting their partner forces in the GZC operations. Not dissimilar to what Georgian and their American SOF partners did in Afghanistan, training and ultimately fighting with the Afghan SOF.
The American Army has gone so far as to introduce an entirely new unit, unique in its role. The Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, was built to be a component of the GZC. They work with, train, advise, and eventually fight alongside foreign forces, usually in small conflicts and other sectors of GZC. Georgia, while they may not have the financial and personnel luxuries of the United States DoD, could benefit from implementing similar training to a sector of its light infantry or other reasonably capable and applicable military units.
This training would be designed around increasing both independence and interoperability with other Georgian and foreign forces. Language skills, cultural training, and purpose-built close relationships with foreign assets, even South Ossetian and Abkhazian forces sympathetic to Tbilisi would reap dividends for Georgia’s GZC campaign. Ultimately, this tactic can start to eat away at the glue Russia has placed over those regions and pull the proverbial wool away from the eyes of the populace to see that they are being used and abused by the Kremlin.
GZC is a sector of pseudo-warfare that is here to stay. With large powers such as NATO, the United States, the United Kingdom, and more becoming heavily invested, it is regional powers like Georgia that need to become a part of the composite GZC force. The key is combining both private and public ISR assets and Georgia’s SOF and capable units, and tie it together with the political commitment of Tbilisi to GZC’s modus operandi. This cocktail of interagency excellence puts Georgia back in control of not just the eastern Black Sea, the South Caucasus, but also the future of its national defense and international security and military image.
By Michael Godwin