This week’s blog set me a dilemma. On one hand, encouraged by a generous personal recommendation in the excellent Australian website Grounded Curiosity, I thought I might write about professional military education, particularly given recent Twitter debates exposing some rather antiquated attitudes towards the education of Other Ranks in the British military. On the other, last week’s Blog has generated considerable debate about both the proposed Army Operating Concept and operations in the ‘Gray Space‘, I thought I might explore some of the lacunae that discussion with colleagues at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and Army Headquarters has highlighted. On balance, the latter would seem to offer greater room for debate and the greater chance of a fruitful outcome. In this blog I intend to look what exactly is the ‘Gray Space’, how we got here, how and why we intend to contest it, and, most importantly, whether such competition is actually necessary.
In April 2019, I was given the task of promoting the Chief of the General Staff’s (CGS) Innovation Prize 2019, the theme of which was competing in the ‘Gray Space’. It was clear from some of the submissions that there was limited understanding of the meaning of the term and even less of how to operate within it. Quite simply, it is the state of international relations between war and peace; if one considers this to be a spectrum of activity, with absolute peace and total war at either extremity, then one is well on the way to understanding the bit in the middle – the ‘Gray Space’. Despite the protestations of neophiles, the World was not invented last week; it is not seeing unprecedented technological development, international relations are no more complex or dangerous than they have been at any other time in modern history, and ‘constant competition’ has been a constant characteristic of human affairs for millennia. Their fallacy of presentism – the belief that our present is unique – is itself not unique, it is a ‘vampire paradox’ – however often you kill it, it keeps regenerating. The simple truth is that there has always been a ‘Gray Space’ between War and Peace; typically, traditional actions short of war have been acts of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda, in fact all the good stuff Bond villains get up to in their big screen capers. Like Bond villains, the addition of the computer chip has merely expanded the reach of these effects into the virtual world. Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 for those of a biblical persuasion.
That the ‘Gray Space’ has come to dominate Western military thinking in the last ten years is simply the somewhat contradictory nexus of successful conventional deterrence, political timidity, denuded homeland resilience, and economic liberalism. On many occasions in the last three hundred years casus belli have been entirely spurious; in the eighteenth century, Britain went to war over the removal of a merchant seaman’s ear, in the nineteenth because of the looting of a shopkeeper’s house, and yet the murder of a British subject on British soil by chemical poisoning was considered insufficient cause for war in 2017. Some might argue that the exclusion of military action was a sensible assessment of the military balance of power, but it is hardly the first time that Britain has baulked in the face of Russian aggression. Rather political timidity is the underlying factor, something which the Kremlin, and others farther afield, are keen to exploit. Paradoxically, our opponents’ activities in the ‘Gray Space’, either virtual of physical are a reaction to Western conventional superiority. It is fear of the West’s military capabilities which causes adversaries, be they state or non-state actors, to seek asymmetric answers – to exploit the West’s weaknesses, whilst at the same time taking advantage of their own relative strengths. In this way, by carefully navigating Western indecision and avoiding a conventional military reaction, the West’s opponents have out-manoeuvred them and forced the West to fight on ground of their enemy’s choosing.
The gap between war and peace – ‘the Gray Space’ – has thus been created by a combination of overwhelming Western military strength and a failure of its political will. The lack of will has been exacerbated by reduced Western resilience, both societal and military, and economic austerity following the financial collapse of 2008. Societies largely divorced from hardship and increasingly dependent on ‘Just in Time’ logistics, vulnerable information networks, and satellite-enabled precision for everything from food and water to entertainment cannot be easily taken to war against an adversary well-versed in cyber techniques whose populace is far more robust and less dependent on technology. Furthermore, budgetary limitations since 2008 have disproportionately impacted on government departments like the British Ministry of Defence, renowned for profligacy and poor investment decisions, whose previous default was to throw money at a project until it worked. In the austerity era, the paradigm on which Western military superiority is based, lethal and exquisite platforms able to deliver precision effects, has become so expensive that duplicates and redundancy have become virtually impossible. Indeed, the loss of even a small number of those platforms could be catastrophic, Jellicoe may have been able to lose the First World War in a morning, but a junior RAF pilot could lose a war today with a moment’s inattention.
Taking all these factors into account, it is unlikely that the ‘Gray Space’ will evaporate in the short-term. Western militaries will continue to invest in systems which provide conventional superiority, Western societies will continue to operate in a dangerously unsustainable way, and Western governments will remain extremely risk averse. In light of this, Western militaries are developing concepts for contesting the ‘Gray Space’, notably the United States’ Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and the British Army Operating Concept (AOC). These programmes aim to take a whole of government approach, the British call it ‘Fusion Doctrine‘, to use virtual and physical effects to create multiple dilemmas for the enemy, throwing him off balance, and effectively defeating his will by pre-emption, dislocation, and disruption. In other words, by adapting the manoeuvrist approach to the twenty-first century. Logically, these approaches make sense, continuing investment and training in the conventional warfare paradigm ensures the West’s opponents must operate in the ‘Gray Space’, given political distaste for kinetic action the military’s only course of action is to learn to defend the national interests in that ‘Space’, but this is more problematic than might be apparent. First, if the military’s role is to fight in the Clausewitzian sense, should it be operating in a ‘space’ more properly in the realm of diplomacy, espionage, and political manoeuvre? Secondly, and this is much more controversial, if the character of warfare has changed should Western militaries invest less in the wholly unlikely paradigm of conventional war and instead use the money to contest the ‘Gray Space’? It is my belief that the solution lies in maintaining military superiority whilst closing down the ‘Gray Space’ rather than competing in it, but this can only be achieved by being prepared to take military action earlier and more aggressively, and what is more, being prepared to message that offensive intent persistently. What do you think? Let me know.
In conclusion, I hope this brief piece has explained the ‘Gray Space’ and debunked some of the complicated language which seems to accompany any military debate. I am far from an authority on the matter, but I do understand it and it is my earnest hope that if more of us do understand the concepts at the strategic level we will be better informed for the future.
Have a great weekend,