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By Ms. E Dill-Russell

The NZDF is currently a valued contributor to international coalitions, with a rich history of successful and professional deployments. However, to retain this valued contributor status it must adapt so that it continues to provide useful, niche capabilities to future coalitions. This is not easy given the NZDF’s comparative size, capacity, capabilities, and geographic location relative to its coalition partners. 

The landscape of global conflict is evolving. This essay will discuss the opportunity for the NZ Army to adapt and evolve toward Grey Zone conflict in the Southwest Pacific (SWP) as a potentially highly valued contribution to the global security environment. This presents unique opportunities for the NZ Army to develop specialised capabilities to operate independently or integrate into future coalition operations, whilst emphasising operational excellence within the SWP. 

The Grey Zone is defined as the range of coercive aggressions below the spectrum of major war[1]. Intensifying strategic competition between global superpowers such as China, Russia and the United States is forcing a move toward more operations in this spectrum[2]. Grey Zone conflict is characterised by the intentional obfuscation of coercive actions, in particular, the use of Information Operations (IO), proxies, and the blurring of diplomatic and military activities. The majority of this activity takes advantage of contemporary methods of communication over the internet, including social media, chat sites, and the use of trolls and bots, whilst leveraging the elements of national power to reinforce or achieve objectives. This type of conflict is not a new concept, however its active employment in NZ’s AO is resulting in power shifts in the region. Coercive action in the South China Sea, debt trap diplomacy in the Pacific Islands, interference in internal politics and violation of internationally accepted norms signify Grey Zone conflict is in use in the SWP[3][4].  

This exceptionally complex and rapidly evolving form of conflict simultaneously presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the NZ Army. It already has a base level of capability to meet its outputs, however requires dedicated refocusing to detect, understand and act on Grey Zone activities.  The NZ Army has the imperative and the opportunity to use this conflict to adapt and develop an existing skill set to enhance its capabilities for the coalition and New Zealand’s self-defence in this region. New Zealand’s geographic location, and in particular its relationships with countries in the SWP, afford it a unique position to detect and respond to activity in the region. The NZ Government has increased the priority placed on the NZDFs ability to operate in the SWP to the same level as NZ’s territory recognising the challenges facing the SWP and the importance the NZ Government places on its contributions to the security and wellbeing of its SWP partners[5]. The SWP is more reachable for New Zealand than ever before due to information technology and global travel. Therefore, coercive actions in the SWP present an opportunity for the NZ Army to, as a whole of government and coalition partner, understand, detect, inform, and respond to activities in this region.

So how does the NZ Army adapt to take advantage of this opportunity and respond to these challenges? The NZ Army should define and design its force to meet these emerging threats, and understand the role of this kind of capability as a force multiplier. This requires investment into capabilities that allow NZ to project into the SWP and protect its AO against such adversaries. Commensurate with a focus on the Grey Zone Conflict, the NZ Army must invest in capabilities that require deep understanding and deep levels of technical proficiency and expertise, such as those required for human and signals intelligence, cyber electro-magnetic spectrum and information operations. These capabilities will form the backbone of the NZ Army’s response. Such capabilities cannot simply be surged in times of need. 

The force multiplicative effects of such a capabilities negates the NZ Army’s size and capacity constraints relative to its coalition partners in the SWP and globally. NZ has the ability to be a giant in the SWP despite our comparatively small force. The relative expense of investment in these capabilities will be offset by the enduring nature of Grey Zone activities and the duality of these capabilities’ use in all types of NZDF operations from high intensity conflict to HADR. Importantly, the focus on these areas need not negate the Army’s ability to fulfil historical roles within coalitions, as the NZ Army retains very good baseline training pipelines that preserve our ability to respond to any government required output.  

In order for the NZ Army to understand, inform, advise and execute operations and other activities in the SWP, a dedicated and fused entity incorporating IO, intelligence/information and collection assets must be established. This entity must be enabled with permissions and authorities allowing its development and operation. Furthermore, to enhance effectiveness, it should have close links to other government agencies to ensure the synchronisation of national effects. This entity will provide three key effects. Firstly, it will illuminate activity in the SWP, increasing NZ knowledge and understanding in the area. Secondly, it will enable the precise application of effects securing NZ’s national interests. Finally, it will enable the development of experience in deep technical skillsets with applications across the spectrum of conflict.

Grey Zone tactics present a complex challenge to the coalition. Collectively, its capability in this type of conflict in the SWP is relatively nascent. The NZ Army has an opportunity to invest and provide value to the coalition disproportionate to its size. Limits on the NZ Army’s capacity and scale mean that it should define and design itself against its need for best possible ‘bang for buck’ in its requirements and contributions. The pivoting of the NZ Army to a preferred mission set of Grey Zone conflict in its AO presents this opportunity. New Zealand is already embroiled in Grey Zone conflict with or without acquiescence to its involvement. What remains is its response to the challenge. 


1. Morris, L., Mazarr, M., Hornung, J., Pezard, S., Binnendijk, A., & Kepe, M. (2019). Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

2. Connable, B., Campbell, J., & Madden, D. (2016). Stretching and Exploiting Thresholds for High Order War. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

3. Hoffman, F. (2018). Examining Complex Forms of Conflict – Gray Zone and Hybrid Challenges. Prism 7, No. 4, 30-48.

4. Fitton, O. (2016). Cyber Operations and Gray Zones: Challenges for NATO. Connections Vol. 15, No. 2, 109-119.

5. NZ Ministry of Defence. (2018). Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018. Wellington: NZ Ministry of Defence.