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Deterrence and the gray zone

Deterrence and the gray zone

[Illustration of barbed wire, with article text: "Deterrence and the gray zone"

One cannot adequately study human history without studying war. The concept of deterrence is as old as the history of human conflict itself. The modern word “deter” originates from the Latin verb ”deterrere,” meaning to frighten away or discourage. Academic and philosophical advancement of the modern notions of deterrence and conflict can be traced back to several philosophers, but one of the most studied is Thomas Hobbes. In his work Leviathan, Hobbes explored the social contract entered into with the state so that it can protect its peoples from war, conflict, and crime. The role of the state is ultimately to enforce this social contract, even with the use of force. Hobbes argued that the punishment or crime must, by far, outweigh the benefit of committing the actual crime. As he expressed it, in 1651, “Hurt Inflicted, If Lesse Than The Benefit Of Transgressing, Is Not Punishment.” Thus, we arrive at the concept of deterrence as a means to prevent either individuals or states from engaging in crime or armed conflict for their personal gain.

At the turn of the 20th century, modern war and armed conflict in Europe had reached a level of unprecedented violence. With the modernization of weapons and advancement of strategies and tactics of war, great European powers were able to mobilize forces quickly, seeking a “cheap” victory through overwhelming force against an adversary in order to force capitulation. This rapid, low-cost strategy had two major side effects that ultimately led to the necessity of the modern deterrence theory. Despite the initial success for the victor, ultimately both sides experienced overwhelming destruction, including great loss of civilian lives. Additionally, it was nearly impossible to predict when war would begin: once signs of war were inevitable, it ultimately led to the initiation of armed action by one side to gain the advantage.

With the advent of the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, the nations of the world had seemingly committed to the pursuit of the elimination, and at minimum the prevention of, armed conflict and war as central components of statecraft. Despite this commitment, it was obvious to the international community that the assertion of the right of sovereignty and self-defence remained. Armed conflict was always possible as soon as a state prioritized personal gain over international commitment to peace. With these self-interested policies, combined with the development of modern destructive weaponry, such as the nuclear bomb, and the credible means to strike through long-range bombers, modern nuclear deterrence theory was born. Competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, the postwar superpowers, led to the four-decade-long Cold War, and a new era of study of the theory and practice of deterrence.

Capability, credibility, communication

Modern deterrence has two main expressions, both used to persuade an enemy state from using military force. These are deterrence by punishment (the threat of retaliation) and deterrence by denial (the thwarting of an adversary’s operational plans). However it is put into action, deterrence has three major principles: capability, credibility, and communication. The notion of capability resides mostly with modern military weaponry across strategic and tactical levels. From this principle emerged the nuclear and conventional deterrence strategies over the decades of the Cold War.

Credibility resides primarily in the declared intent, resolve, and commitment to take action to protect interests. But most importantly, the belief must exist, in the minds of the aggressor, that the deterrent actions will be carried out.

Finally, the principle of communication involves clearly relaying to a potential aggressor the capability and intent to carry out deterrent threats. Communication should spell out those adversary’s actions that are considered unacceptable and worthy of deterrent action. Specific adversarial actions are outlined and upheld in international law through the many conventions of the United Nations.

Cold War deterrence

At the height of the Cold War, deterrence as a policy approach, as indicated in the 1988 U.S. National Security Strategy, was a bipolar product of diplomatic and military competition with communist Soviet Union. This led to the military evolution of a massive and technologically advanced nuclear arsenal, combined with an equally robust conventional force arrayed on major fronts in Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as on the home front. The nuclear capability and delivery systems of assured destruction acted as the ultimate deterrence by punishment strategy. Additionally, large formations of conventional forces in Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China ultimately led to the development of conventional force components of deterrence, which postured large forward Army, Air Force, and Navy elements prepared to deter by denial.

With the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union as the single major bipolar threat, the U.S. had to reconsider how to approach its policy and strategy as well as how to best array its forces. Nuclear and conventional force deterrence itself as policy and grand strategy have gone through decades of evolution, from mutual assured destruction, first-strike and second-strike capabilities, ballistic missile defence, non-proliferation, arms control, and denuclearization.

The U.S. and the international community began pursuing efforts to denuclearize, led by the efforts of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1991. The next two decades saw the reduction in importance of deterrence as a grand strategy. In fact, with the rise of non-state actors and terrorism, deterrence policy language practically disappeared from U.S. national security strategy.

The gray zone between war and peace

With the rise of powerful states such as the People’s Republic of China and the re-emergence of Russia, along with the emergence of non-state actors, a new adversarial approach termed “gray zone” conflict emerged. A gray zone conflict is one that is strategically coercive or aggressive but that is deliberately less than warlike, in the traditional sense. It is not a new phenomenon: Russia, China, and North Korea have all used the tactic to challenge the U.S. and its NATO allies. In recent years, the frequency of efforts of both non-state and state actors has become the “new normal” in international politics. The strategic assumptions underpinning how the U.S. and its allies view the status quo are continually challenged and outplayed on a regional level.

Hybridity, menace to convention, and risk-confusion

A 2016 report published by the Strategic Studies Institue and U.S. Army War College Press delved further into the nature of gray zone challenges. It said, “All gray zone challenges are distinct or unique, yet nonetheless share three common characteristics: hybridity, menace to defense/military convention, and risk-confusion.”1 By hybridity, we can see challenges that combine both adverse methods and strategic effects. For instance, in Northeast Asia, China and North Korea have continued to initiate actions that are small incursions designed to be provocative against the U.S. and its allies, but that are also below nuclear and conventional response thresholds. China and North Korea will often push the boundaries of U.N. Security Council resolutions by promoting cooperation and adherence, only then to test the limits of this liberal order through a combination of limited civilian and military actions designed to advance their interests. This accumulation of actions erodes the very credibility that is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region.

A second characteristic of gray zone challenges is the direct, universal menace to defence and military convention. In Northeast Asia and throughout the Asia-Pacific, China has consistently challenged the military norms in the maritime, air, cyber, and space domains. North Korea has challenged the commitment and mutual defence of the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan through numerous actions, from the sinking of the Cheonan submarine to the shelling of Yeongpeong Island. China as used civilian maritime craft to challenge Japanese sovereignty in the contested Senkaku Islands; it has also made assertive moves with the establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in sovereign airspace. These incursions are just a few of the examples that challenge diplomatic and defence response mechanisms.

The third characteristic in gray zone challenges is “profound risk-confusion.” Many of the challenges do not fit neatly into the traditional linear views of peace and security shared by the U.S. and its allies. Additionally, gray zone challenges do not trigger specific red-lines in nuclear or conventional defence response. These challenges are designed to operate below the threshold that would provoke retaliation or escalation. However, taking little or no action in the face of this competition erodes the credibility of U.S. assurances to allies and partners in the region.

The question that now remains in the future of international security is whether gray zone aggression can be effectively and credibly deterred. It is fairly clear that traditional nuclear and conventional deterrence strategies will fall short, but at the heart of modern deterrence theory are still the three core principles – capability, credibility, and communication. The challenge will fall on the shoulders of the academic and political communities to examine deterrence theory in this new emerging gray zone competition to seek new strategies for deterrence in order to maintain the pact the United Nations came together to uphold – the prevention of war and armed conflict at all cost.

1 “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone.” A Report Sponsored by the Army Capabilities Integration Center in coordination with Joint Staff J-39‚/Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment Branch. Nathan Freier et.al. June 2016.Published by the Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press

Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Allison is a visiting defence fellow at the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP) and an officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


The Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP) is one of the most active research centres in Canada on foreign and defence policy issues. The core mission of the CIDP is to inform public debates related to international engagement, security cooperation, and the military. The CIDP leverages its location in Kingston to build strategic partnerships with the armed forces. The centre hosts three visiting defence fellows from Canada, the United States, and Germany, who are active-duty military officers contributing to research and teaching activities.

This June, the CIDP hosts the 13th annual Kingston conference on international security. The theme this year is “The return of deterrence: credibility and capabilities in a new era.” The Review will report on the conference in a future issue.

[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally