Global Britain in the grey zone

In a recent article, Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan analyze the new UK Integrated Review to understand how the United Kingdom attempts to grapple with its hybrid policy. They argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, not just for the UK but for all Western allies.

Over the past decade, trans-Atlantic and European security and defense policy have tried to make sense of the grey zone challenge. It framed this debate using a range of monikers: hybrid warfare/threats/interference, sub-threshold/hostile/malign activity, subversion and political warfare. What started with a discussion on combined modes of operations by supposedly weaker non-state armed actors such as Hezbollah took a life of its own in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia.

On the one hand, with it came supposed Russian doctrines and repetitive claims that war and peace have merged into some strategic blur. On the other hand, it raised serious questions on security and defense policy, capability, and directions of military transformation and adaptation.

One such recent example is the United Kingdom’s (UK) review of national security, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (Integrated Review), published alongside a new Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC25) and the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) own contribution to the review, Defence in a Competitive Age. The review and its accompanying documents are part of a multi-level, multi-stakeholder conversation about how the UK should view and deal with the present and future security landscape, which for the Ministry of Defence will determine the shape of military capabilities and how they are employed in the years to come.

In our new article, we argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, especially as the UK has not the only nation to take a “hybrid-turn” in its security and defense policy in recent years. In fact, both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have a strategy for countering hybrid threats—not to mention a dedicated institution in the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (NATO, 2017). Similarly, recent strategy documents published in the United States, Australia, France and Germany, all cite forms of hybrid or grey zone conflict as a primary challenge in the coming years.

Our argument invites scholars and policymakers alike to find utility in a simplified conceptual discussion based on distinguishing between threats and warfare. For better or worse, they are established policy terms which not only cement the idea that hybridity is a pervasive and constant feature of statecraft and warfare, but can help spark professional debates and public dialogue about evolving security threats in which both parties might play a part: Whether directly (e.g., cyber-security, disinformation, democratic interference, business resilience) or indirectly (e.g., in supporting government investment and the role of the Armed Forces in new security interventions, from NATO deployments to homeland resilience). Examples of the threat-warfare distinction currently in play include NATO’s policy and Counter Hybrid Threat Strategy, the EU’s “playbook” for countering hybrid threats, and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

Against this background, we use the example of the UK’s attempts to grapple with its own hybrid policy as a national case study in closing the gap between rhetoric and practice which we call the stagecraft versus statecraft problem. There are two issues worth noting here. The first is the inconsistent and opaque language used by the UK government to describe a wide array of threats. The second problem is the need for concrete action to—in the words of Boris Johnson— “tackle hybrid warfare.”

The UK’s previous commitment to adapt to new hybrid realities also looked anemic when compared to the efforts of its allies and partners during the same period. Central European, Nordic, and Baltic nations revitalized Cold War “total defence” style strategies—complemented by highly visible strategic communications campaigns—while the United States Marine Corps spent a year experimenting to develop their new role in countering gray zone strategies and the Australian 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan offer significant detail on the changes to strategy, force structure, and capability.

In contrast to previous efforts, the Integrated Review sets out a clear strategic approach towards hybrid threats through “a force structure that principally deters through ‘persistent engagement’ below the threshold of war”. It also backs this up with a wide array of measures to deliver and enhance the capability required to deliver this vision. In doing so it builds on the UK’s conventional prowess as one of only two NATO allies capable of wielding nuclear, offensive cyber, precision strike weapons and fifth-generation strike aircraft—plus a carrier strike group and “Tier 1” Special Forces. These forces underpin existing contributions to NATO operations in the Baltics, high readiness forces and major multinational exercises—including framework nation leadership through the Joint Expeditionary Force, a multinational force comprising the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, which “offers these countries flexible options for managing sub-threshold competition”.

These are much-welcomed developments on which we draw to outline some avenues—informally, through a series of questions, puzzles and lessons—designed to help international policy and research communities align their efforts to address their own stagecraft-statecraft dichotomies. In doing so, we hope to support international efforts to discover just what the fundamental transformation advocated by the UK establishment really means in practice. For hybrid threats, we highlight three key questions or puzzles that are raised through the UK’s review, but not quite answered: Tolerance, going beyond deterrence, and the role of defense. Taken together they are useful for those wishing to further develop policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats.

For hybrid warfare, we argue the policy agenda has to be reset and reconfigured in three ways. First and foremost, around conventional war/warfare, understood primarily through the lens of inter-state war. Second, to conceptualize and engage with the “combination” problem: That future adversaries are likely to mix and match forms and modes of warfare to offset conventional battlefield strength. Third, to avoid “Next-War-itis” and instead seek to be prepared for a range of contingencies across conflict and actor spectra.

As such, our article has focused on two related—but distinct—challenges that emanate from this environment: hybrid threats and hybrid warfare. It used the UK’s review to reveal lessons and insights for international policymakers and scholars also grappling with these challenges, forming these into policy and research guidance for both. Yet a closer look reveals a series of lessons, questions, and puzzles on tackling hybrid challenges to which the UK does not provide such convincing answers. These were used to draw a tentative way forward for international scholars and policymakers, using our threats-warfare distinction to provide some structure.

Taken together, this series of questions left hanging by the UK’s review form a loose research agenda for those in the international community developing policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats and dealing with hybrid warfare—and in so doing, take further steps on their own journeys from stagecraft to statecraft.

Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan are the authors of the article “Global Britain in the grey zone: Between stagecraft and statecraft”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here

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