Electromagnetic Operations in ‘Grey Zone’ Conflicts

The Tool of Revisionist Countries to Confront the International Order

By Commander

By Cdr



, SP


Spanish Joint Command

 February 2021


The Future Security Environment will be dynamic and ambiguous, as well as increasingly complex and uncertain1 . Evidence of this assertion are the recent conflicts in Crimea and Donbass area in eastern Ukraine. Both depict a whole new challenge; an undeclared form of warfare. These actions, carried out by the Russian Federation, with a clear revisionist approach, have been labelled in some western scholars’ forums as a ‘grey zone’ conflict.

Great Powers2 seek to revise the order of alliances and also solidify new norms of conduct within the globe. In doing so, some of the Great Powers, specifically the revisionists, can exploit ‘grey zone’ tactics to achieve their political objectives. ‘Grey zone’ tactics avoid providing Western countries3 with sufficient rationale to carry out military intervention in support of their allies. Russia knows that the balance of power is favourable to the status quo since the United States (US) supremacy within conventional military conflict remains unsurpassed. This fact makes them move toward the ‘grey zone’ strategies while preparing for war. Eventually, the goal they are pursuing is changing the international distribution of power and influence.

Defining the ‘Grey Zone’

‘The grey zone is an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and non-military actions and the attribution for events.’4

In short, the actions taken by the adversary do not clearly cross the threshold of war. These processes are probably attributed to three main reasons; the first one is the ambiguity of international law, the second one is the lack of attribution; and finally, the impact of the activities does not justify an overt military response. These three leading causes will guide the choice for specific actions.

‘Grey zone’ conflicts have four characteristics5 ‘pursuing political objectives through cohesive and integrated campaigns, employ non-military tools, striving to remain under key escalatory thresholds to avoid outright conventional conflict and lastly moving gradually towards its objectives’.

One of the main points to be considered is that the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures in a ‘grey zone’ of conflict offer a showcase to others, in particular non-state actors or even nations that are not so militarily strong. They do not necessarily represent a risk for the international order. Still, they can use the ‘grey zone’ strategy or tactics to achieve their political goals since they are primarily based on low-cost Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology. Consequently, near-peer to NATO competitors such as Russia and China have the ability to conduct an uncoordinated war by proxy in support of fulfilling their goals against small NATO nations and partners.

International Order at Risk

The international order has been organized around economic freedom, multilateral institutions, security cooperation and democratic solidarity. The foundation of international security was and continues to be, based on a cooperation of nations (not restricted to military actions) under the leadership of the United States. Current transatlantic frictions may lead one to think that this order is in crisis due to the lack of strength of the past liberal internationalism.

Even though the backbone of Europe’s security system was based on the NATO organizational structure, today this structure is at risk, since there is an evident lack of leadership and commitment of the lead nation hegemon. Potential adversaries are aware of that and are likely to wield ‘grey zone’ tactics to undermine Europe’s security system. The potential for ‘grey zone’ progress relies on the degree to which the intended targets can respond in kind.

Actions taken by a ‘grey actor’ may convey an immediate impression of a non-winning scenario within the political sphere, contributing to the perception that they will never achieve a decisive objective in a relatively short period. Western nations are fearful of protracted conflicts, regardless of whether the conflict is violent or not. Moreover, in the ‘grey zone’ scenarios, the political level is fully aware of the severe constraints it has on actions when it comes to the use of force or the set of tools they need to employ to respond to any threat. It is not only restrictions to the use of military power in response to a threat, but having the political will to use it.

The inability of western nations to respond in kind to a ‘grey threat’ leads to this type of action becoming the norm and promotes a lack of international order. Any inaction by nations, whether due to embarrassment, lack of awareness, or lack of political will, is seen as a sign of weakness, which promotes and emboldens actors to continue with a ‘grey zone’ attrition strategy.

No single scenario is similar to that of another, every environment is markedly unique, ensuing that both strategy and response demand a tailored approach. The strategy to implement a response must be a living document that keeps pace with new adversaries’ approaches following on the principle that the reality goes beyond any single prediction.

Electromagnetic Operations

It could be argued that Russia’s strategy shifted from traditional military capabilities towards non-military means of fighting, which is not true. Russia’s strategy consists of having the military in a supporting, not supported role at first. It is a matter of gaining influence with one means and at the same time, improving military capabilities.

The NATO agreed Term for Electromagnetic Operations (EMO) is ‘All operations that shape or exploit the Electromagnetic Environment (EME) or use it for attack or defence including the use of the EME to support operations in all other operational environments.’ In this vein, NATO countries have agreed to define EME as ‘All of the electromagnetic phenomena occurring in a given place. In summary, the use of the electromagnetic energy to achieve offensive and defensive effects.’6

Strategies that fall under the umbrella of EMO are normally outside the purview of international laws and norms. These strategies are usually non-attributable and best suit the ‘grey zone’ concept since they remain below the threshold of western countries’ armed reactions. NATO’s increased reliance on wireless Command and Control and connectivity has created a vulnerability that is also being exploited within the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS), which is what makes these strategies so dangerous.

‘Grey zone’ strategies use both the coercion itself and the risk of escalation as a source of leverage. An EMO toolbox can shape the decision-making leadership to convince them not only to de-escalate, but also not to intervene at all. The challenge of responding to EMO aggression is further complicated by the lack of will from NATO countries to respond, which may expose their own EME for security purposes.

EMO tactics are part of the coercive threat. For instance, Russia’s deterrence strategy aims to persuade Westerners not to act against them.

The EMO in Support of ‘Grey Zone’ Strategies

Without any doubt, one country annexing another country might have seemed highly unlikely some years ago. However, the Ukraine crisis was an eye-watering showcase of ‘grey zone’ activity and has paved the way for another entirely different approach in one’s arsenal to achieve political goals. Once Crimea was invaded, Russian forces built up, along with a different array of military or non-military measures, and a complete strategy aim to achieve not only a contested, but also disrupted and denied EME. The Russian annexation of Crimea was a major surprise for the entire western world7 .

Russia seeks to master Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) denial techniques and dominate Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) environments. It is a matter of the utmost importance in terms of international relations and for national security. The potential loss of money due to GNSS disruption has been laid out by the United Kingdom in a recent report of the London Economic.8 Likewise, deliberate GNSS disruption has pan-global impacts that could affect all economies. Both the European Union (EU) and NATO are unlikely to be able to compel Russia to stop jamming the GNSS signals. Furthermore, international law will not support any aggressive line of action, taking into account the lack of attribution of this setback. This must be considered by any nation when it comes to a conventional response. The EMO effects could involve political and economic coercion, and will be in the foreground of any decision-making at the political level.

Military forces in this environment will commonly have their communications disabled due to jamming techniques and also have their frequencies intercepted. The smartphones are tapped, and families may receive threatening messages through social networks. Allied soldiers have also received messaging inviting them to surrender.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the US Army Europe, remarked in 2016 ‘the capabilities we’ve seen the Russians display in Crimea – EW capability at a tactical level [is something] that we absolutely don’t have.’9 More recently, the head of US Special Operations Command, General Raymond Thomas declared Syria ‘the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries. They are testing us every day …’10

When military experts are called to advise the political sphere about a single military response option, the political appetite vanishes into the haze. Based on their assessment and advice, military experts keep the Salamanca School11 core principles in their minds. Notably, when they consider whether there are conditions enough for victory in this scenario, it is difficult to assess and balance the chance of a military success against the potential costs and losses, which may not be favourable.

Hence, the EMO provides in some sense a shield from any military intervention. This environment prevents NATO countries from taking any military action since the result is not easy to predict. Western countries have a low tolerance for risk, which proves the efficiency of EMO in ‘grey zone’ strategies.

NATO is turning the tide and developing actions to ensure EMS superiority across the entire range of military operations. The recent NATO EMS strategy bridges the near, medium and long-term strategic approach and aligns ends, ways and means of the Alliance toward paving the way for fighting in the ‘grey zone’ scenarios.12


EMO might be the key element for any future conflict, in particular among near-peer competitors, whereas our adversaries place a growing emphasis on developing these capabilities, and they recognize this to be a terrific cost-effective solution. NATO military leaders and planners must understand all threats in a conflict environment to be able to effectively operate with a significant electronic warfare threat.

EMO has become an integral part of Russia’s modern warfare doctrine. This question is of great importance since other countries, with forces less capable than Russia’s forces, are ‘learning by watching’ and can apply the same strategies in our neighbourhood. Russia has implemented a new strategy by challenging the sovereign EMS of neighbouring states, including NATO nations. Russia’s political acceptance for military actions against sovereign territories (EMS included) to create leverage makes future manoeuvres, warnings and indicators harder to identify and understand.

Western scholars should focus on ways to combat the individual elements of hybrid warfare, and foster debate about what actions Russia is likely to take next in the ‘grey zone’ in their quest to once again become a Great Power. They also need to acknowledge that EMO have a vital role to play in the Russian revisionist approach. NATO has already stepped forward and regained the initiative in this regard with a variety of tools and instruments, including a new EMS strategy that will make the Alliance capable of conducting an appropriate fight in the ‘grey zone’ to keep the international order alive.

NATO Allied Command Transformation, Framework for Future Alliance Operations 2018, https://www.act.nato.int/images/stories/media/doclibrary/180514_ffao18-txt.pdf.
For the purpose of this article, Great Power is a sovereign state that is recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale.
Western countries were somehow the sponsors and protector ‘security community’ built up around the liberal order and under the leadership of the United States.
Morris, L., Mazarr, M., Hornung, J., Pezard, S., Kepe, M. (2019). Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone. RAND Corporation.
Mazarr, Michael J. (2015). Mastering the Gray Zone: understanding a changing era of conflict. US Army War College.
NATO Term is the official NATO Terminology Database, https://nso.nato.int/natoterm/content/nato/pages/home.html?lg=en.
Sandor, Fabian (2019). The Russian hybrid warfare strategy – neither Russian nor strategy. Defense & Security Analysis.
Sadler, G., Flytkjær, R., Sabri, F., Herr, D., ‘the economic impact on the UK of a disruption of the GNSS’. In LE London Economic. Available from UK Gov., https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/619544/17.3254_Economic_impact_to_UK_of_a_disruption_to_GNSS_-_Full_Report.pdf.
Pomerleau, Mark (2018). Threat from Russian UAV jamming real, officials say, https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/uas/2016/12/20/threat-from-russian-uav-jamming-real-officials-say/.
Clark, Collin (2018). Russia Widens EW War, ‘Disabling’ EC-130s OR AC-130s In Syria. Breaking Defence, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/04/russia-widens-ew-war-disabling-ec-130s-in-syria/.
The School of Salamanca is the Renaissance of thought in diverse intellectual areas by Spanish theologians, rooted in the intellectual and pedagogical work of Francisco de Vitoria. They laid the foundations of the just war.
Recently, the lines of actions to be taken once the strategy is up and running were discussed during the 107 plenary meeting of the NATO EW Advisory Committee (NEWAC).
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Spanish Joint Command

Commander Ignacio Nieto joined the Navy in 1989 and trained to become an Electronic Warfare specialist. After having served years in several EW postings he joined the Spanish SIGINT community posted either on board a SIGINT vessel or as an expert within the Naval Headquarters. In 2016 he joined the NATO SCHOOL, Oberammergau as the EW/SIGINT Subject Matter Expert (SME) both acting as such and as the course director of several courses, such as the Electromagnetic Operations Course, Joint EW Course or Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) Course. Nowadays he is the head of the Electromagnetic Battlestaff Center in the Joint Operations Command in Spain.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

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