Features Australia

Fleas thrive in the grey zone

We are already at war, but we just don’t realise it

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

The cheaper alternative to conventional conflict for opponents of the US (and Australia) is to engineer endless ‘wars of the flea’. It took twenty years in Afghanistan, but didn’t we just get schooled on that one! The theory was outlined by US scholar Robert Taber: in the war against the flea, the state suffers the dog’s disadvantages – too much to defend against a small, agile, ubiquitous enemy. Now, our whole system has become a target in a form of geo-political guerrilla or ‘grey-zone’ warfare. No frontline and no separation between military and civilian, where the fleas thrive.

Even better for our state opponents, if the fleas are non-state actors such as drug cartels, Islamist extremists, human traffickers and cyber-terrorists. By observing our self-inflicted Covid paralysis, the disastrous exit from Afghanistan and the collapse of the US southern border, why would China initiate a conventional war? A conventional war would smack us out of our politically induced coma and bring allies together. It is the sum of our expectations. Political leaders would find conventional war easier to explain to the public. That’s the last thing China wants. Like a smoke-grenade on our minds, grey-zone warfare is ambiguous, disorientating and cannot be shot.

While we forget history our opponents remain its students. Grey-zone warfare has been the dominant form of conflict throughout human history. Sure, hundreds of years ago, they did not have cyber capabilities. Yet the target was the same. The moral and mental centre of gravity of the population and the ruling class. Irrespective of battleships, tanks and nuclear weapons, this will continue. President John F. Kennedy recognised this when he launched the Green Berets in 1961 – a form of warfare new in its intensity and ancient in its origin. It is how much of the last Cold War was fought. For example, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) adopted by the US and the Soviets saw fifty proxy wars playing out from the savannahs of Africa, the jungles of Vietnam and mountains of Afghanistan. At the same time political, information, psychological and economic warfare was prolific.

It doesn’t mean reducing investment in hardware like battleships, submarines and missile defence systems. Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton is correct in seeking autonomous vehicles, remotely piloted drones and hypersonic weapons systems. These are capabilities we need. As that investment increases warfare is pushed into the grey-zone. It’s not either/or. It’s about two things. One, the intellectual agility to adapt beyond the evolutionary cycle of our enemies across all domains; and second, the quiet, rapid delivery of a lethal force to make it an unfair fight for strategic effect. This is the part today’s population, media and politicians find hard. It is not a diversity contest. Free people who are not prepared to defend themselves politically, economically, culturally or militarily, will not be free for long.


Our geopolitical opponents (all non-Western) and non-state actors tend to adopt robust and flexible governance models that support seemingly incongruent relationships and actions. For example, the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels, terrorists and people-smugglers in North Africa; or the bizarre meeting of the minds between left-wing social activists and Islamist extremism. For these actors, there is no frontline and many are clients of our strategic opponents. Better to flood our country with drugs to degrade our society. At a 2018 counter-terrorism conference in Tehran (you read that correctly), the then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that US sanctions would result in a ‘deluge of drugs, refugees and terrorism in the West’. There were no threats using conventional capabilities. Three years before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, two senior officers from the Chinese military, Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xangsui, wrote Unrestricted Warfare, advocating the use of non-military methods of war. This included disrupting the West’s dependence on trade networks, telecommunications, transportation, electricity grids, information technology (such as incessant hacking), as well as mass media and financial and economic manipulation. Feel familiar? These are all examples of grey-zone warfare.

China has the largest armed fishing fleet in the world. It is the poisoned tip of their maritime spear. This fishing militia has been at the forefront of China’s grand strategic objective across the South China Sea. The fleet based on Hainan Island receives everything from military training to fuel subsidies. These fishermen have become part of China’s power projection and form a key adjunct to the Chinese navy and coastguard. If you were going to attack Australia, why be so obvious and use battleships? Better to send increasing numbers of fishing boats into our waters. Australia would be seriously conflicted. Outrage would be expressed by internal appeasers and supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. We might even receive angry letters from the UN. Even, better send these fishing fleets into our northern waters around Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Despite the extent of Russia’s military hardware, it didn’t invade the Ukraine or annex Crimea or begin carving out ports and resource assets in Africa using fighter jets or conventional ground forces. Instead, they turned to the world’s second oldest profession. Using the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, deployed across Africa, the Middle East, Latin American and Eastern Europe, these Russian mercenaries give President Vladimir Putin a foothold in resource-rich nations. The same funder of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin (known as Putin’s chef) also funds the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a cyber version of Wagner focused on hacking and disinformation. In 2015, they successfully ran a test – offering free hot dogs online at a specific time and place – to see whether seemingly spontaneous events could be organised remotely. Let that sink in.

Future preparation and planning by Australia and its allies needs to consider the least-expected ways both state and non-state actors might target our interests. Every time Julius Caesar took the conventional route he lost. The risk of future wars will be increasingly dominated by the synthesis of technology, extremism and human trafficking to a create humanitarian crisis, and terrorism employed to advance the strategic interests our opponents. All unconventional. What better way to kick-off internal fighting about climate change than bushfires?

Since the end of the second world war there has been a relentless series of conflicts, none with nuclear weapons. Instead, war by guerrillas, insurgents, subversion and insurrection. War by ambush and infiltration rather than conventional combat.  Seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy.  Dividing and isolating our smaller neighbours from those who inherently share our values. As in the past, this is the future we must be prepared to face.

The 9/11 Commission Report’s famoulsy concluded that the failure to disrupt al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was one of imagination. When it comes to the future of Australia’s national security, that line remains as relevant today as it was then.

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