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SR131 Grey zone operations - banner

Grey zone operations and the maritime domain

By James Goldrick

The ‘grey zone’ has received much publicity in recent years as certain nation-states have employed indirect methods to achieve advantage over their opponents without recourse to open kinetic warfare.

The maritime domain has had its share of grey zone campaigns, which almost always relate to claims to sovereignty or sovereign rights over areas of sea. All maritime nations, including Australia, can be vulnerable to grey zone aggression at sea, since disruptions to offshore resource exploitation, fisheries or even merchant shipping can quickly create significant economic costs. Grey zone operations can have legitimate motives, but they are often a cloak for the coercion of a weaker power by a stronger. As China’s activities in the East and South China Seas show, they can also involve ulterior motives and be symptomatic of much wider strategic conflicts.

Responding to a grey zone campaign in the maritime domain will never be easy. Nevertheless, nations like Australia need to work out how they can deal with such a threat on a national basis and in partnership with other countries. A properly coordinated and resolute response can bring the situation under control, while a demonstration of readiness to maintain such a response can force the aggressor to rethink its plans.

Effective management of information flows and domination of the local and global narrative will be key to ensuring a successful outcome, but even more important will be a nation’s demonstration of its willingness to stay the course in the event of an extended confrontation, and the support of international partners in such circumstances.