The Shades of Cyberwarfare in the Era of Grey Zone Conflicts

 By Poornima B

The 21st century is witnessing states and non-state actors investing in warfare that causes lesser physical damage and are more non-lethal. The nature of conflicts has not changed as it remains to be a long-drawn phenomenon. The character, nevertheless, has mutated. Such warfare, though they undermine the security and sovereignty of states, are not considered to be an act of war that demands a war response.  These “grey zone conflicts” find their expression through tactics including cyber warfare, mainly due to its asymmetric nature. As the advances in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have enabled a close-knit internet infrastructure and communication systems, cyber warfare has become a preferred mode to launch high-impact attacks with minimum resources.

Cyber-warfare is considered to be a potential vector to disable or destroy Critical Information Infrastructure (CII) as well as to gain information dominance over an adversary. The destruction of the CII would destabilise the vital functions of the state and endanger its national security. Further, acquiring data about the target state can also enable the perpetrator to gain information superiority. The cyberspace has become a conducive battle-space for both the state and their non-state proxies, both private entities and violent actors, to carry on their objectives through means that fall short of being considered as an act of war.

A new dimension in geopolitics is being induced by the states through newer ways, that fall under the ambit of international norms, to fulfill their interests.[1] Conventional wars have been ruled out by states due to the complex interdependence lingering between them that may make wars costly. Rather, non-conventional ways are being adopted that are fought by waging political warfare, economic coercion, information warfare, cyber warfare, taking proxy support, among others. “The Grey Zone is characterized by intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.”[2] These are operations undertaken by states, sometimes with the help of non-state actors, in a manner that does not overtly tantamount to an act of war. They fall in the peace-conflict continuum, between “diplomacy and open warfare, where traditional statecraft is inadequate or ineffective and large-scale conventional military options are not suitable or are deemed inappropriate.”[3]

Countries have been using their economic might, political tactics that include meddling in another country’s elections and importantly, the cyberspace to wage attacks that cripple their adversaries or for disinformation campaigns to mobilise public opinion against them. Though these tactics can have an immense impact on the security of the state that is targeted, they aren’t considered as behaviour that provokes war. The lack of comprehensive provisions in the international law that governs these dimensions has given impetus to this modus-operandi to be used perversely by states to satisfy their vested interests.

The cyberspace has become a dual-use platform that can render both capability and vulnerability. Several nation-states have been heavily investing in the cyber domain as part of defending their national security and hence, their national interest. The cyberspace can be used for defending the critical infrastructure of the state as well as to destabilize the capability of the target entity by going on the offensive. With the internet becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the cyberspace has rendered an interconnected and interdependent global village. The fourth industrial revolution which will be driven largely by the convergence of digital, biological and physical innovations like robotics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and the internet of things have further opened new avenues to manoeuvre cyberspace, making it efficient enough to easily penetrate deep into the structures of the society.

The backbone of any state is its Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). It includes the railway system, power grid, nuclear installations, financial system, which drive the functioning of a state along with other important government and strategic enterprises.[4] As these systems depend heavily on networks and central command and control, they are touted to be susceptible to cyber-attacks. Any disruption in the working of these systems can cause a ripple effect and affect many other facets of the society, subjecting it to a chaotic breakdown. Several attempts to attack the CII of different states have been made by state and non-state adversaries in the past. Most of the times these attacks are realised only after it causes tangible damage. The Stuxnet attack in Iran in 2010 and the attack on the Ukrainian Power Grid in 2015 are certain perturbing instances.[5] Tracing the origin of these attacks has been a tricky task and the development of preventive measures is only in the nascent stage.

States have been at the receiving end of several cyberattacks that have been potentially threatening their security interests every day. Act of sabotage, espionage, data mining and theft are certain major objectives of these attacks. Yet, these kinds of attacks do not attract physical retaliation because of their asymmetric and covert nature. States like the US, China, Russia, Israel and Iran have been using the cyber domain against each other as part of their overall strategy to tackle their rivals.[6] It has become a regular nature of the ongoing conflict between Iran and Israel. This is only one such example where the cyberspace has been exploited to its best (or worst) against the potential enemy. It is conceived that Iran has been responding to the U.S and its allies in the neighbourhood with cyber warfare as part of its soft war military strategy after the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani.[7] Though the phenomenon surfaced in Iran way back in 2009, newer tactics for this alternative form of warfare have been included, cyberwarfare being conceived as one of them. Meanwhile, the Iranian narrative hold such soft war tactics has been a threat from foreign forces to its culture and security.[8]

While the power of the cyber domain to disrupt the critical infrastructure is a major concern for states, it has been efficient enough to propel information and that could influence the thoughts and opinions of people, in turn impacting the course of political and social outcomes of the states. Several fake news and propaganda as part of the post-truth era are being circulated in the social media platforms. This has been proved once again with respect to the on-going COVID-19 crisis. The erroneous generation of uncontrolled and unvetted news has affected the thought process of society and influenced public opinion in favour of those who start the campaign. These kinds of disinformation campaigns are indeed a threat to the interests of states as domestic and international opinion influences a state’s behaviour as well as its impression and perceived status in the international community. Yet, states have been unable to settle this issue because of the nature of cyber warfare-accelerated information warfare that needs to be tackled by robust public diplomacy that can raise awareness campaigns as well as shape perceptions. Such is the nature of the Grey Zone Conflicts.

India, among many other states, has been a victim of cyber-warfare for a while now. The attempt to attack the computer systems of the Kudankulam power plant[9] and the Pegasus spyware that targeted about 121 Indians[10], mostly journalists and activists to spy on their device activities are some recent examples, among many others. India also saw a spike in cyberattacks after Article 370 was abrogated.[11] The number of disinformation campaigns and fake news also spread like wildfire after this incident. The intelligence agencies also fished out about 5000 fake social media handles that spread fake news about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).[12] These accounts have been found out to be foreign-based. Being situated in a dicey geopolitical environment coupled with constantly changing characteristics of warfare, tackling cyber threats has been an important agenda for India. Through the years, India has built its defence against cyber warfare through various laws, organisations and regulations. Despite these measures, cyberattacks have been a daily phenomenon.[13] The ramifications of such assaults are irreversible or at the least, very hard to recover from as they target high-value national assets including the CII as well as information and data, the new-age oil. Cyber-warfare and Information warfare portend an era, in India’s national security and equally so to the national security of every other state, where the “deniability” of such attacks can be used by adversaries to fulfil their objectives while laying the conflict in the grey zone.

The absence of international norms and laws that adequately govern the manifestations of Grey Zone conflicts, especially, cyber-warfare, will soon prove to be extremely dangerous and detrimental. With the kind of complications that the tactics in the Grey Zone exhibit coupled with the complexity and irresistibility of ICT, cyber-warfare will be a preferred mode to weaponize information as well as to hold the CII hostage, in turn radically threaten the national security of States. Irrespective of the cyber defensive capabilities that a state possesses, the uncertainty produced by cyber warfare in the Grey Zone will be a hard challenge to handle in the future. The threat has already started to loom at large and rising powers like India need to be aware of the intricacies of conflicts of such kind. States need to come together in an attempt to be aware of the nature of such threats as well as cooperate and converge to bring up institutions and regimes that bring clarity and build confidence among the states. In this age of Grey zone conflicts and its various manifestations, collective action can bear fruit in keeping the threat under control, apart from securing one’s national security.


 [1] Aurel Sari, “Legal Resilience in the Era of Grey Zone Conflicts and Hybrid Threats”, Exter Centre for International Law Working Paper, 1 (2019), online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.

[2] Joseph L. Votel et, “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone”, Joint Force Quarterly, 80, 1 (2016), online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Saikat Datta, “The NCIIPC and its Evolving Framework”, Observers Research Foundation, November 03, 2016, online at, accessed on 02 April 2020.

[5] Andy Greenberg, “New Clues Show How Russia’s Grid Hackers Aimed For Physical Destruction”, Wired, December 12, 2019, online at, accessed on 02 April, 2020.

[6] Abhijit Ahaskar, “How Cyber Attacks are Used by States Against Each Other”, Live Mint, June 21, 2019.

[7] Annie Fixler, “The Cyber Threat From Iran After the Death of Soleimani”, CTC Sentinel, 13, 2(2020), online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.

[8] Kosar Nawzad, “Iran;s Internal Threats Great Concern Than War With US: Commander”, Kurdistan 24, July 27, 2018, onine at, accessed on April 04, 2020.

[9] Binayak Das Gupta and Sudhi Ranjan Sen, “Cyber Attack at Kudankulam; Critical System Safe”, Hindustan Times, October 30, 2019, online at,  accessed on April 02, 2020.

[10] Sanket Vijayasarathy, “Whatsapp Says Indian Journalists, Activists Were Spied on Using Israeli Spyware”, India Today, November 01, 2019, online at, accessed on 02 April, 2020.

[11] “India Sees Dramatic Rise in Cyber Attacks post- Kashmir Decision”, Live Mint, August 19, 2019, online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.

[12] “Around 5000 Pak Social Media Handles Spread Fake News on CAA”, Outlook, December 16, 2019, online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.

[13] Syed Mohammed, “India Most Cyber-Attacked Country”, The Hindu, January 29, 2020, online at, accessed on April 02, 2020.