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September 28, 2020

QinetiQ warns Western force supremacy does not extend to grey zone

QinetiQ group CTO Mike Sewart has warned that the ‘traditional supremacy’ of western forces ‘currently doesn’t extend to grey zone tactics’.

By Harry Lye

Sewart’s comments came as the company released its ‘Confidence in Chaos’ report looking at the threat of operations below the threshold of armed conflict or traditional warfare.

The report comes as the UK inches closer to publishing its Integrated Reviews into defence, security and foreign policy which is set to bolster investment in cyber, space and subsea capabilities.

The report details ten technology areas important for meeting grey zone threats, including artificial intelligence (AI), analytics and advanced computing, cyber and electromagnetic activities, robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) and power sources, energy storage and distribution. Embracing these technologies, QinetiQ added, would help counter grey zone threats.

QinetiQ argues in its report that western militaries need to accelerate the deployment of emerging technology to mitigate grey zone threats.

Sewart said: “Grey zone tactics are today’s reality and the West and its allies have no option but to adapt. Simply doing what we’ve always done is neither recommended nor possible, given broader budget challenges facing nations impacted by Covid and economic hardship.

“Policymakers need to drive an integrated approach, reassess defence budgets, and ensure allocated resource to new information and emerging technologies that can prepare them to manage in this new context.”

The report details five ‘modes’ of grey zone operations: deniable attacks, information operations, the use of proxy forces, economic coercion and territorial encroachment.

The report also notes that while ‘multimillion-dollar defence remains important as a deterrent’ it must be combined with new tactics to keep pace with grey zone challenges. The report added: “This asymmetry is laid bare by the case in 2017 when a $3m Patriot missile was used to shoot down a $200 consumer quadcopter drone.”

On emerging technologies, Confidence in Chaos notes that commercial investment in emerging technologies is continuing to outpace investment by the aerospace and defence sector. In 2019, Amazon invested $22bn in research and development, which according to QinetiQ is almost 20 times more than the ‘nearest defence company’.

Sewart added: “With defence spending around the world coming under increasing public and government scrutiny, we are at cross-roads in how we evolve our defence and security infrastructure to be fit for purpose.

“The traditional supremacy of allied forces in conventional military conflicts currently doesn’t extend to grey zone tactics, so a new approach needs to be readily considered and deployed”.

QinetiQ also set out common challenges for defence and security to overcome in countering grey zone tactics adding that western forces need to create an information advantage, improve cyber resilience, improve threat detection, expand covert capabilities, adapt at pace and introduce new skills to the armed forces.

The report also lists potential attacks that could occur in the grey zone from a cyber-attack on critical national infrastructure to using drones to shut down an airport similarly to the Gatwick airport incident in 2018.

Other potential threats are an assassination by poisoning, citing the 2018 incident where Russian double agent Sergei Skipal and his daughter were targeted with the Novichok nerve agent. More recently, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was attacked with a nerve agent from the Novichok family according to German laboratories.

Proxy forces and their use by governments to achieve ‘military aims abroad without committing their own troops’ is also listed as a threat scenario in the report.

Image: Qinetiq.

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