One of our most serious problems today is defining what war is. Historically, war and warfare have rigid definitions, and national security and military doctrines, the capabilities and structures are designed to respond to those definitions. Wars were deemed to be purposeful, having ‘deep’ causes and definite objectives. The Clausewitzian relationship of politics and warfare stood, and war was taken in those formulations of an organized and often prolonged conflict that is carried out by states (countries) or non-state actors, characterized by extreme violence, social disruption and economic destruction.

By Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.)

In this manner war generally involves the use of weapons, military organisations and soldiers, in a situation in which a nation enforces its rights by using force. The UN states that war is a crime against international peace and that aggression is the use of armed forces by a state against the sovereignty territorial integrity or political independence of another state.

Currently, there are wars of myriad kinds – diplomatic war (like that fought by wolf-warriors of China), economic war (like sanctions), political war, propaganda war, trade war, information war, cognitive war, war on pandemic (Covid), war on poverty, ecological and environmental war, next cold war (between the US and China) and so on! Most of these will not include warfighting as the term implies, there will be no physical violence, may not even be a worthwhile opponent, and it may be difficult to pronounce a victor or vanquished.

In this complex, confused paradigm, added is grey (or gray depending on the side of Atlantic) zone war! The lexicon ‘grey zone’ warfare was pushed in by Western writings, and is being increasingly used in an overarching manner to exemplify the chasm between war and peace, without any great discipline in defining it. In fact the definitions cause increasing confusion and add to the vagueness! The ‘grey-zone war’ is being taken as state of being between war and peace, where adversaries aim to achieve geopolitical or territorial ends without overt military aggression and crossing the threshold of open warfare. Indeed the Chinese doctrines of Unrestricted Warfare and the Russian theory propounded by General Valery Gerasimov (currently the overall commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine and also the CGS) follow similar broad lines.

General Valery Gerasimov stated that “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. … All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.” In the US, the International Security Advisory Board stated that grey zone warfare “…denotes the use of techniques to achieve a nation’s goals and frustrate those of its rivals by employing instruments of power –often asymmetric and ambiguous in character –that are not direct use of acknowledged regular military forces.”

It is therefore apparent that ambiguity, irregularity and unconventionality have become the capstone of prosecuting operations under the larger ambit of grey zone, while the threat of use of force would manifest itself to a conventional war. Contextually, the toolkit for coercion below the level of direct warfare includes information operations, political coercion, economic coercion, cyber operations, proxy support, and provocation by state-controlled Forces, implying that these will not clearly cross the threshold of conventional war. It obviously entails putting opponent at such massive disadvantage that war-fighting is unnecessary, and the national objectives can be met without bloodshed. This develops alternative definitions of war and surely of victory! The response to such largely covert operations would normally not be conventional war, largely due to the ambiguity of international law, ambiguity of actions and attribution, or because the impact of these activities does not justify military action.

In India too, the Western formulation of ‘grey zone warfare’ has been absorbed hook, line and sinker! The vagueness and the extraordinarily wide compass of the term demand clarity in application and management. The issue is examined in three parts. First is the ongoing tense situation on the Northern Borders being term grey zone warfare. China’s playbook included demonstrating subterfuge initially in May 2020, attempts at nibbling territory, escalating situation by mobilisation of overwhelming force, followed by massive infrastructural development and civilian villages at LAC in Tibet/ Xinjiang, and informational warfare. Largely this has been bracketed under the overall garb of grey zone warfare, taken as below conventional war.

It is contended that the situation on the Northern Borders is no ‘grey zone warfare.’ It was and is overt and apparent expansionism. The situation has all the ingredients of escalation to conventional war, in the era of total distrust of the PLA. Similar would be the situation on the Line of Control, where in yester-years’ artillery duels would take place regularly, and where Pak Army occupied Kargil heights surreptitiously in 1999 that led to a war. The nation is contesting the brinkmanship, coercion and intimidation firmly by immense national resilience and will and military capabilities. Contextually, Sun Tzu’s maxim of ‘Winning without fighting’ has to be proven as just a cliché! Measuring the response and the continual tensions, we must not understate the threat by calling it ‘grey zone’ warfare! It is military operation all the way!

Similarly, terrorism and insurgencies are bracketed in this concept of ‘grey zone warfare.’ Analytically, the area affected by left-wing extremism (LWE), Jammu and Kashmir or North East necessitates deployment of security forces with intensive operations. India has been facing insurgencies nearly since Independence, with logistical, political, and financial support for the insurgent and terrorist movements from adversarial neighbours. Like in the case of surgical strikes or the Balakot Air Strike, response has been strong and military. In general, these are full-fledged long drawn military and police operations and cannot be bracketed under the terminology of operations in the grey zone.

Second, actions below the threshold of conventional war have a very wide ambit like smuggling of drugs, counterfeit currency, actions of international crime syndicates, and the like. There is also political warfare that commonly refers to political power being employed to achieve national objectives, not involving any physical conflict. The impulse to call all these forms as war and warfare is strong, though it unnecessarily gives it a military hue. Rightly, these are more like criminal activities well below conventional war, or ones that require use of violent military power. Curbing these matters immensely for national growth, though calling them grey zone warfare is not essential. These should largely fall under the ambit of law and order or issues of governance.

Third, in ‘grey-zone’ warfare adversaries aim to achieve to geopolitical ends without overt military aggression and crossing the threshold of open warfare, and retain ambiguity and non-attributability. These can be covert operations by the adversarial state like espionage, infiltration, and subversion. Also in the ambit would be cyber-attacks, offensive use of drones from across the borders, electronic warfare undermining assets in proximity to the borders. There is steady information warfare against the nation that targets national cohesion. There is indeed inherent hostility built in, that could seriously undermine Indian state and national cohesion. Contextually these can be grey zone campaigns, though they may or may not have military structure or involvement.

In sum, this battle-space created by the Western lexicon ‘grey zone warfare’ needs decluttering between military (or para-military force) operations and inimical actions that are unregulated and are governance or law and order issues. India, like most nations in the world has its share of anxieties and worries that need to be addressed by being constantly on top of it! Instead of amalgamating all in grey zone warfare, disentangling would help in determining response options. The nation appreciably faces many, many threats nearly on daily basis from inimical states and non-state actors. Use of phraseology must distinguish for the peoples of India between war-like operations, ‘grey zone’ operations and governance issues!

Lexicons like Grey Zone Warfare (or the recent one – integrated deterrence) are theoretical constructs in strategic discourse relevant specifically to the West; these must not be absorbed verbatim as gospel!

This article first appeared in and it belongs to them.