Twilight Zone Conflicts: Employing Gray Tactics in Cyber Operations

Twilight Zone Conflicts: Employing Gray Tactics in Cyber Operations

Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith

In an opening that would perhaps make Rod Serling proud: There is a fifth dimension of warfare known to man as cyberspace – it is a dimension of infinite possibilities, representing an uncertain middle ground between peace and war. An amorphous realm, wherein actors are strategically employing gray tactics via cyber operations in ‘twilight zone conflicts.’ And while gray tactics like information operations, sabotage and economic coercion are not new to the pages of history, the medium for leveraging such tactics is.

Here, the impetus for applying a new terminology – twilight zone conflicts – is to recast how policy makers and the defense community might evaluate gray strategy cyber campaigns. A term which deftly captures the paradoxical appeal of gray tactics in cyberspace, as well as society’s hopes for cooperation in this domain and its fears of conflict. This article therefore explores the emergence of gray tactics in cyber operations, their utility as a political instrument, and reasons that twilight zone conflicts are no longer a mere science fiction fantasy.

What is the Appeal of Twilight Zone Conflicts?

From a revisionist actor’s standpoint, the appeal of twilight zone conflicts is perhaps best understood from examining John Perry Barlow’s manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Writing from Davos, Switzerland in 1996, Barlow praised cyberspace as “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” It is this same starry-eyed precept, however, that also makes cyber operations an attractive opportunity for revisionist actors wishing to challenge the geopolitical order.

As U.S. Army Special Operations Commander Joseph L. Votel has testified, actors that leverage gray tactics as part of their strategy campaign “seek to secure their objectives while minimizing the scope and scale of actual fighting.” Cyber operations are an attractive platform to such actors because the effects of gray tactics can be compounded to create “strategic disruptions,” whilst still providing the actor with a comfortable modicum of plausible deniability, and relatively low risk of physical danger. Moreover, by piling on the complexities of non-attribution, or even false attribution, it becomes increasingly difficult for a state to both lawfully and meaningfully, respond to ‘digital strawmen.’

But How Are Gray Tactics and Hybrid Warfare Tactics Different?

In contrast to gray tactics, hybrid warfare tactics, according to former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, constitute “a combination of military action, covert operations and an aggressive program of disinformation[.]” On the other hand, scholars like Darren E. Tromblay have acknowledged that the term “hybrid warfare” is also fraught with its own peculiar set of definitional challenges and “remains an ambiguous concept.” For the purposes of this article, however, Secretary-General Rasmussen’s description of hybrid warfare tactics shall apply to distinguish between these two tactical approaches to conflict. To that end, what sets apart gray tactics from hybrid tactics, is that the former eschews traditional forms of kinetic military action and is strategically calibrated to remain under key escalatory thresholds to effectuate the actor’s objective.

And while both hybrid and gray campaigns are inherently aggressive, U.S. Army Lieutenant General David W. Barno (ret.) maintains that it is the ambiguity about the actors’ true objectives, identities, as well as the applicable body of international law, that distinguishes gray strategy campaigns. Indeed, it is this pervasive ambiguity, comingled with offensive and defensive cyber operations, that has produced a new area of twilight zone conflict.

What are Cyber Operations?

Pursuant to the 2013 Department of Defense Joint Publication 3-12 on Cyberspace Operations, cyber operations are categorized into three major areas: (1) offensive cyber operations, (2) defensive cyber operations and (3) Department of Defense Information Network operations.

Taking each in turn, Offensive Cyber Operations (OCO) are tailored to project power to an adversary and undergo the same, careful legal authorization process as other domains of warfare.

For Defensive Cyber Operations (DCO) the emphasis is bifurcated to address internal defensive measures and appropriate response actions. In spirit, DCOs can be both passive and active and are tailored to “preserve the ability to utilize friendly cyberspace capabilities and protect data, networks, net-centric capabilities, and other designated systems.”

Lastly, Department of Defense Information Network (DoDIN) Operations are centered upon defending critical DoD communication systems, networks, and national infrastructure. In turn, a critical aspect of DoDIN operations rests in upholding the ‘holy trinity’ of cybersecurity,  confidentiality, integrity, and availability, to secure information assets. In sum, these three categories represent cyber operations.

How Can Cyber Operations Serve as a Political Instrument?

In essence, cyber operations are but one musical instrument in a grand symphony orchestra of power. The maestro (i.e. a state and/or non-state actor) cues the cyber section, sometimes in conjunction with other sections, in order to produce the right concert pitch (i.e. a desired socio-political, military, and/or economic objective).

The expansion of cyber operations as a political instrument and how it undermines U.S. strategic interests is a subject of great interest to the U.S. defense community. As noted in the 2015 Department of Defense Cyber Strategy Report, this relationship “reflects a dangerous trend in international relations” given that “[v]ulnerable data systems present state and non-state actors with an enticing opportunity to strike the United States and its interests.”

One example is North Korea’s intrusion into the networks of Sony Pictures Entertainment in November 2014. Here, the perpetrators deleted critical information to the extent that it irreparably damaged some of Sony’s infrastructure. Indeed, the 2015 Department of Defense Cyber Strategy Report also references the Sony hack as an example of the political utility of cyber operations. This case demonstrates how cyber operations can present revisionist actors with an attractive opportunity to undermine a state’s values (e.g. free speech) and interests on a mass-scale, and with a relatively low risk of retribution.

Another example from 2014, well-examined by Robert Morgus, involved the cyber enclave, CyberBerkut. Here, these threat actors attempted to undermine the integrity of the Ukrainian presidential election by leaking confidential information, targeting the commission’s website with a distributed denial of service attack, and publicly announcing that they had infiltrated the election commission’s servers. This case also illustrates how such efforts to sow discord in cyberspace can produce amplified effects in the physical realm. A more recent example of gray cyber operations pertains to the July 2016 email leaks from the U.S. Democratic National Committee. This incident has since elevated national discourse about Russia’s potential involvement in undermining the integrity of the U.S. presidential election and ignited a new dialogue on international security policy.

The Future of Twilight Zone Conflicts

Ultimately, actors that employ gray tactics in cyber operations need not be successful in actually infiltrating a system to further their revisionist ambitions. Rather, the sheer ramifications from the cyber action itself, has the power to disturb a nation’s psyche and challenge the geopolitical status quo.

Going forward, a significant challenge for states like the U.S. will be in determining how to develop tactics that can neutralize the aggressive “under the radar,” actions of revisionist actors in cyberspace. By first understanding the psychological appeal of twilight zone conflicts and its utility as a political instrument that carries a low-risk of harm, yet high pay-off potential, we can then augment our overall strategy. For the wisdom to this approach, as articulated by General Sun Tzu is that “he who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

Special thanks to Dr. Michael Sulmeyer of the Belfer Center's Cyber Security Project.

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