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A Hot War in Cold Places
Are we in a new cold war? No, we are in a hot war in cold places: Space, Cyberspace, Underwater, and high places, including the Arctic, and the Himalayas, and in proxy conflicts in places the media give a cold shoulder to like Africa. The Space Forces of the US, China, and Russia are now in outright combat, each deploying “hunter-killer” satellites and creating (missile destruction of the Kosmos -1408 satellite) or clearing (Shijian-21) space debris for their own advantage. Russia, China, and the US have all launched or are accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons as part of their space program. These are weapons for which there are no known defenses. General David Thompson, the former Vice Commander of the United States Space Force, said this week that Russia and China are attacking US satellites with lasers and jammers “every day”.
The Ukrainian border with Belarus and Russia is another cold place. The Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov warns that the "nightmare scenario of a military confrontation was returning" in Europe, which means they have begun. It’s just that both sides have increasingly used privatized militia and the West says Russia is deploying “weaponized immigrants” in this unfolding conflict. The NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, says, “We see a significant and unusual concentration of forces, which is unjustified and unexplained, and accompanied by heightened rhetoric and disinformation.”
The nuclear submarine fleets of the superpowers are also stalking each other and occasionally having inexplicable accidents and incidents. The Norwegians recently found that 2.5 miles of undersea cables had been mysteriously cut at the marvelously named LoVe Ocean Observatory, thus diminishing NATO’s ability to track Russian submarine movements. Chinese submarines are surfacing more frequently and ever closer in the Taiwan Straights. All that’s been happening just in the last month alone. The trend is towards more and more events in what militaries call “The Gray-Zone”, and where civilians are the target, rather than militaries.
Gray Zone events include the Litvenyenko murder by Polonium in a teapot in Picadilly, the Skirpal Novichok nerve agent poisoning via a Nina Ricci perfume bottle in Salisbury, and Havana Syndrome, which involves using sonic weapons to induce severe brain damage amongst “diplomats” (meaning spies). Meanwhile, the Chinese have effectively conscripted all fishing vessels into the People’s Liberation Army Navy, so events involving “fishing vessel fleets” around the South China Sea are increasingly seen as being in the Gray Zone. When they fire water cannons in an effort to claim control over tiny islands in the South China Sea, is it a private matter? Is it the state? One is looking at a Gray Zone. More recently, Israel and Iran have officially stepped back from direct warfare but accelerated activities in the Gray Zone. Both sides seem to be targeting ordinary citizens. Both use cyber capabilities to leak details of private sex lives, outing people with certain predilections. Cyberattacks brought the Iranian fuel distribution network to a halt. It took nearly two weeks to restore the fuel system, including gas stations, to normal service. Iran is said to have engaged in attacks on Israel’s water supply. In the Gray Zone, we see tears, not blood.
What is the Gray Zone?
The United States Special Operations Command says it’s "competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality." The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the Gray-Zone is "the contested arena somewhere between routine statecraft and open warfare."The British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called the Gray-Zone "that limbo land between peace and war." See the British Government’s Strategic Command backgrounder here.
Dr. David Kilcullen describes Russia’s preferred approach as “limited warfare” which involves ‘riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability’ so that others either do not perceive or cannot ascribe a cause to the hostile activity that is underway. He cites the famous 1999 book “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America” (by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui), which outlines China’s modern military strategy. That, he says, involves “controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbors all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments.” The Belt and Road policy and China’s new digital currency, the DCEP, are strategic military capabilities embedded in, or disguised to look like, commercial instruments and policies.
The Head of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov called it “non-linear warfare”. His definition sums up the new “anything goes” environment. He famously said, “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. The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures – applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.” Russian Major-General Vladimir Slipchenko called it “sixth generation warfare” and described it as “no contact warfare”. Military analysts like Arthur Waldren point out that China’s military strategy is always based on the fact that “the Chinese esteem most those victories achieved without fighting; they abhor long-term, attritional war.”
All this has led to important organizational changes and announcements. It seems Britain’s MI5, MI6 and their renowned GCHQ have “pooled their resources into a single, joint Russia mission”. They have also elevated China (similarly to the CIA’s recent announcement) and see that threat as on a par with Russia now. The Head of MI6, known as “C”, gave an unusual speech this week at IISS in London. He was extraordinarily blunt. He said:
“The Chinese Intelligence Services are highly capable and continue to conduct large-scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies. This includes targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.” Then he said, “we want other countries to be clear-eyed about the debt traps, data exposure, and vulnerability to political coercion that arise from dependency on relationships where there is no recourse to an independent judiciary or free press.” But, perhaps the most jarring statement was this: “The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real.” In other words, such heavy activity in the Gray Zone can spill over into conflict."
Here’s a problem, then. The superpowers are nose-to-nose in space and under the high seas. We saw Russia and China launch virtually concurrent satellite attacks, which at one point prompted preparations for the astronauts on the International Space Station to evacuate (listen to their conversation with NASA here). But the US and China currently have no hotline. Technically, an attack in space is now covered by Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. An attack can provoke a NATO response. But Washington and Beijing can barely manage to organize a video call in the zoom era, let alone deal with events that might involve Taiwan and or hypersonic weapons, which leave almost no time to respond, let alone respond sensibly. China and Russia’s new Mach 5+ fractional orbital hypersonic weapons have completely changed the decision-making environment. Also note the NATO Secretary General’s plea, “Unfortunately, Russia has recently decided to cut diplomatic ties with NATO.
We call on Russia to reverse this decision. And to re-engage in the NATO-Russia Council. For the benefit of peace and security. “
Are we on the brink of slippage? Could there be a moment when we break out of the Gray-Zone, and the hot war in cold places might suddenly become visible and apparent to the world? Yes.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, the “accidental” bombing of their embassy in Belgrade in 1999 was a deliberate Gray Zone act of war. Similarly, the US efforts to shut out China’s very first truly global and truly successful brand, Huawei, was not a commercial dispute but a Gray Zone event. It targeted a private citizen, Meng Wanshou, the daughter of the founder and the Deputy Chair and the CFO of Huawei. But, it effectively dashed China’s hopes of building a global commercial market for its most sophisticated exports. Perhaps it is not surprising to see that Didi has announced their intention to delist from the NYSE only months after a massive $4.4b IPO and relist in Hong Kong given these circumstances. This week, the US banned eight of China’s most advanced quantum computing companies, which further diminishes their ability to generate cash from their expertise. The US has now formally banned 27 Chinese firms that are “at the bleeding edge” of technology. From China’s perspective, this is, without a doubt, a hostile act. From America’s perspective, the data gathering and processing capabilities represent the capacity for ongoing hostile acts.
Perhaps we should be paying attention to the fact that China has just implemented a new data protection regime called PIPL (The Personal Information Protection Law in conjunction with the Data Security Law). It makes GDPR look relaxed in comparison. It effectively blocks access to all aggregate information about movements inside China. It is no longer legal for China’s AIS terrestrial providers to show or take data about the movements of China’s ships. The Interim Provisions on Automotive Data Security Management (Auto Data Regulation), now prohibit the transfer of this kind of data about auto use. There is also a blackout on data from power plants. These are all ways that the market had traditionally assessed the true state of China’s economy. Most see these measures as a means of fending off America’s tech giants (the FAANGS). But maybe this data blackout is a Gray-Zone precursor to something more serious and perhaps more ominous. Glitching signals are important signals.
Keep in mind that there is a Gray-Zone in places like Africa. It’s not a cold place like space, but it is a place that the media give a cold shoulder to. The Institute for Security Studies speaks of “Africa’s thin grey line”. They write about the “resurgence of private military and security companies (PMSCs) on the continent.” "Militaries have moved many troops and operations off-balance sheet and outside of public view by retaining private mercenary armies to do their bidding. It’s been happening in Africa since the 60s. But it’s accelerating now. We used to speak of proxy wars during the Cold War and the Korean War. The US and Russia, and China faced off through proxies in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Today the private mercenary armies of the superpowers are facing off in places like Mozambique, The DRC, Mali, and East Africa. The ISS writes, “security privatization has blurred the lines between these companies as ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ providers and mercenaries, which carry out subversive and lucrative activities.” We have mercenaries persistently operating in the Gray Zone. Could we see a fight between, say The Wagner Group which seems to be primarily Russian and sometimes EU-trained soldiers and say, America’s equivalent organizations? Note that this faceoff is also occurring in places like Belarus and Ukraine. In theory, mercenaries are not legal. In practice, they are well-funded, easily deniable, and everywhere nowadays.
The problem now is that we find ourselves amid an information and knowledge gap. Militaries see everything in the Gray-Zone with tremendous clarity. The public doesn’t know what or where the Gray-Zone is. It used to be that we thought wars would start in physical “gaps” like the Fulda Gap. In the Second World War and throughout the Cold War, that’s where we thought Russia would try to roll into the West. Now the conflict has begun, we find ourselves in a “Grip Gap”. The military’s grip on the situation differs greatly from what the public knows. The public has almost no grip on the hot war in cold places.
When superpowers begin arresting and expelling each other’s diplomats, it’s a sign that something is up. Historians may look back on this period in history and say “how did we miss the start of conflict…again?” Looking at all this, it becomes easier to understand how we missed the onset of both WWI and WWII. The pattern and cadence of events are only clear in retrospect. But, I think we can avert a terrible outcome if the public gets a grip on the true situation today. We must close the “grip gap”. The public would not tolerate all this invisible activity in the Gray-Zone if they really understood it. When this much is at stake, military posturing cannot remain a secretive affair that hides behind the word “classified”. Policymakers agree. That’s why they are giving us so many warnings. We can still sort this out.
My thanks to the whitespace team in creating and facilitating the Technology & Innovation Executive Roundtable (TIER) with high-level experts that so generously both listened to my perspectives and shared their insights as well.
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