The Changing Grammar of War: Countering Hybrid and Grey Zone Coercion at the Strategic Level

Dr Johnson examines the function of strategy against the phenomenon of hybrid confrontation and coercion, that is, situations where there is aggression and military threat but where hostilities have not been declared. Specifically, it analyses the execution of hybrid strategy and it counter-strategies. First, it evaluates the etymology of the term, the anxieties that it has caused in the West, and its failures or limitations. Second, it examines the value of hybrid strategy, and lays out the counter-strategy, mapping these against the utility of force. Third, it examines some approaches to the use of hybrid warfare strategy by states and non-state actors. It concludes with a balance sheet of the advantages, risks, and costs of hybrid strategy, and how states are likely to utilise the approach in the near future. The paper will appeal to those seeking clarity on how to manage the ‘grey zone’, understanding of coercive diplomacy, and the strategic options open to those facing confrontation.

Dr Rob Johnson is the Director of the Changing Character of War (CCW) Research Centre at the University of Oxford ( His primary research interests are in the history of strategy and war, and their contemporary applications, and he is prominent within professional military education across NATO. He is author True to Their Salt (2017) on partnering, The Great War and the Middle East (2016), and co-editor of At the End of Military Intervention (2015) and Before Military Intervention (2018), as well as several other works on strategy and armed conflicts in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. His leadership of CCW emphasizes the value of blending ideas, theory, and practice in current strategic and security policy. The new initiatives he leads this year include Artificial Intelligence in Forecasting, and Strategic Decision-Making, and Strategic Policy Simulation based on the traditions of Kriegspiel. He now leads the new CCW initiative on professional education in defence and security in London and in Washington DC.

A sandwich lunch will be served at 12.45