‘Grey-Zone’ activities have exploded within recent years; many coercive Statecraft actions short of war are now daily news. The implicit flexibility of these actions easily allows a State to shape the behaviour of other States without imposing direct military action. In terms of national power in the past, the majority of modern grey-zone activities centred on clear diplomatic, information, non-lethal military and economic actions. What is concerning are the blurred lines developing between these instruments, where often State actions do not meet perceived intent creating confusion in the rules-based global order. Further, reach of influence is effortless with global connectivity developed by the internet. Combining these opportunities has developed a new paradigm of elusive and dynamic grey-zone tactics.
How does this impact Australia’s Interests in the geopolitical and information domains? How has our approach to grey-zone tactics evolved? How can we as junior leaders help combat these tactics and support our national interests?
The 2016 Defence White Paper clearly articulated the significance that a secure and stable Indo-Pacific region would have in strengthening Australia’s national power. Although it notes coercive and economic activities, this edition interestingly makes no specific mention of grey-zone activities. This was rectified with grey-zone activities being a prominent strategic challenge referred to in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, centred on the Indo-Pacific region. Since then, we have continued to see more coercive Statecraft activities employed in the Indo-Pacific region creeping closer to home and so it is reasonable to expect that the grey-zone will only further influence Australia’s future strategic environment, objectives and policy.
Some well-publicised, clear examples of adversarial non-lethal military actions in the Indo-Pacific region involve our P-8A Poseidon. ABC News reported that in February of 2022 a Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy ship directed a military-grade laser at a P-8A aircraft in the Arafura Sea.1 More recently in May 2022, a Chinese J-16 fighter jet intercepted a P-8A operating in the vicinity of the Philippines and proceeded to release chaff in front of the P-8A's flightpath, resulting in some aluminium fragments being ingested into the engine.2 These actions leverage the blurred lines between a grey-zone activity and an act of military aggression. Although both instances were a non-lethal act of ‘perceived defence,’ they certainly endangered the safety of Australian personnel and aircraft operating in a disputed but technically open airspace. They certainly indicate ‘escalation of force’ in non-lethal military action. The Australian response was in-line with ‘shape’ and ‘deter’ strategic objectives; public statements from the Australian Government openly condemned these actions. However, the effectiveness of this response is yet to be judged and raises an important question–if an ‘escalation of force’ continues in adversarial grey-zone activities, is Australia’s national power willing and prepared to ‘respond’ to counter these activities and support a stable Indo-Pacific region?
It has been highlighted by higher Command that Australia’s greatest tool is our relationships with other nations backed by transparency in selfless actions to support both our smaller and larger partners. Great examples of this come from regular trips by the 35SQN C-27J Spartan to support our Pacific partners in surveillance of illegal fishing,3 through to delivery of aid and medical assistance highlighted by USNS Mercy.4 Most importantly is building trust to ensure if things do escalate, we have a strong network of partners. Exercise Pitch Black 2022 really highlighted the respect our allies have working with Australia, with a record number of nations making the journey to be involved and build friendships, integrate and inter-operate smoothly.5
RAAF Dental Helping Pacific Locals (Source: Defence News)
As the online world continues to expand and integrate into everyday life, the opportunity for grey-zone activities seems unlimited. Cyberspace is dynamic, often involved in the spread of misinformation, fake news and social media campaigns used to distract and distort views and opinions of the global audience. A high-profile example is the popular social media site TikTok, which has come under scrutiny for utilising its algorithms to suppress and increase topics of videos being watched by its user-base on appearance, ethnicity and political opinion.6,7
Higher leadership now refers to misinformation as ‘the 7th domain of warfighting.’ These days, it's very easy to supress or alter information fed to an audience. The Russia/Ukraine conflict is a great example with how this information is gathered and disseminated in this highly fluid environment. Alongside the kinetic effects and cyberattacks, Russia launched a massive disinformation campaign to globally shape the narrative. Most notably is the use of social media owned by US company Meta (previously Facebook) to spread propaganda, as well as targeted destruction of internet infrastructure within Ukraine. Meta has responded countless times to block the spread of misinformation, already amending its content policy six times since the conflict began.8 Other companies have been in the limelight with public pressure to stop trade with Russian-backed companies. Even Millionaires such as Elon Musk have utilised new technology to provide internet to this population.9
While feeds continue to fill with a stream of videos ‘for you,’ most user agreements allow for personal ‘big data’ collection. An article on ABC News from July 2022 states more than 7 million Australian users data gathered by TikTok is stored in databases in the US and Singapore, accessed by China-based employees.10 The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) lists TikTok amongst many other social media platforms (Facebook, Snapchat, and WhatsApp), known for collecting extensive data as part of their business model. Apps may also be allowed to access and collect additional data from your device. An August 2022 Forbes article reported a Researcher found TikTok’s in-app browser included code that can monitor the user’s keystrokes.11
US Military “Security Threat” (Source: Military Times)
The ACSC warns that data stored outside of Australia may not be protected by current Australian legislation and privacy and consumer laws, thus making it subject to lawful access and even covert collection by other countries.12 Specifically, for TikTok, China’s National Intelligence Law requires organisations and citizens to ‘support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work.’ Given most of the Australian public, including ADF and Government personnel, carry a device likely using these social media applications, is this impacting the information security of Australia’s national interests?
So, what can we do as Junior Leaders?
In this time of building relationships and trust, real influence comes from interactions between Australia and its partner nations. Developing relationships at all levels, including military, political and security organisations, is often best achieved in face-to-face interactions between nations. Senior leadership highlighted the importance and value placed on these activities, giving the example of 35SQN. We can provide as much aid and financial support to our Pacific partners as needed. But integrating and interacting through a game of soccer between the crew of that aircraft and the local population is so much more powerful. In the end, trust is built through transparency and empathy between people.
Aviators Celebrate with Locals while Deployed (Source: Defence News)
As for combatting misinformation, junior leaders can start these conversations with peers and spread knowledge within their respective Units. More importantly, keeping an eye on our personal use of social media and the information that is being published online. Mistakes can happen, but with a positive reporting culture as well as a proactive security approach from the top down, we can help protect our cyber footprint much like we protect other valuable items.
- A. Greene, “Chinese military releases video it says shows Australian Defence Force plane flying in a 'nuisance' manner during laser encounter”, 15 Mar 2022. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-03-16/chinese-military-releases-video-of-surve….
- A. Greene, “RAAF sent second jet into South China Sea hours after Chinese air force's 'dangerous' interception”, 23 Jun 2022. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-23/defence-raaf-chinese-jet-interception-se….
- Defence News, “ADF unites against illegal fishing in the Pacific”, 5 Nov 2021. [ONLINE]. Available: https://news.defence.gov.au/media/media-releases/adf-unites-against-illegal-fishing-pacific.
- S. Kelly, “All smiles on Pacific Partnership 2022”, 17 Aug 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://news.defence.gov.au/international/all-smiles-pacific-partnership-2022.
- Defence News, “Exercise Pitch Black 2022 concludes”, 8 Sep 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://news.defence.gov.au/media/media-releases/exercise-pitch-black-2022-concludes.
- R. Nieva, “TikTok’s In-App Browser Includes Code That Can Monitor Your Keystrokes, Researcher Says”, 18 Aug 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardnieva/2022/08/18/tiktok-in-app-browser-research/?sh=319c280f7c55.
- S. Biddle, P. V. Ribeiro, T. Dias, “Invisible Censorship”, 16 Mar 2020. [ONLINE]. Available: https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/tiktok-app-moderators-users-discrimination/.
- J. Gavin, “Analysis - Information and Misinformation in the Russia Ukraine War”, Accessed: 03OCT22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.visionofhumanity.org/information-and-misinformation-in-the-russia-ukraine-war/.
- C. Miller, M. Scott, B. Bender, “UkraineX: How Elon Musk’s space satellites changed the war on the ground”, 8 Jun 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.politico.eu/article/elon-musk-ukraine-starlink/.
- ABC/Reuters, “Australian user data security in doubt after TikTok admits US data accessible by China”, 4 Jul 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-07-04/australian-user-data-security-in-doubt-after-tiktok-admission/101206630.
- R. Nieva, “TikTok’s In-App Browser Includes Code That Can Monitor Your Keystrokes, Researcher Says”, 18 Aug 22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardnieva/2022/08/18/tiktok-in-app-browser-research/?sh=7298d4107c55.
- Australian Cyber Security Centre, “Security Tips for Social Media and Messaging Apps”, Accessed: 03OCT22. [ONLINE]. Available: https://www.cyber.gov.au/acsc/view-all-content/publications/security-tips-social-media-and-messaging-apps.