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Into the Grey Zone. British Airborne Forces in Ukraine

16 Air Assault Brigade made headline news in September 2020 by parachuting into Ukraine to partner with the 80thSeparate Airborne Assault Brigade on Exercise Joint Endeavour (Ex JE).  Ex JE provided 16X an opportunity to Partner with an Ally, to conduct a Wide Wet Gap Crossing of 558m (significantly further than the combined WWGC capability of the UK and Germany combined), and to ‘live’ a very different style of command to that found in a NATO force. Media coverage of the exercise focused on the Airborne element of the deployment with 240 British Airborne Forces delivered by Para Drop. This was supported by follow on Air-Landing, delivering stores, equipment and personnel. Airborne Forces were also used in the Air Assault mode, ‘Landing on’ with Fast Rope insertion and Landing Offset using Host Nation Support Helicopters. Through this exercise, Britain demonstrated the full range of its air manoeuvre forces and stepped into the grey zone.

What is The Grey Zone?

The Idea of ‘Grey Zone’ 1 is ill-defined, and many definitions are so broad (including conflicting alignment with irregular or unconventional warfare, economic activity, cyber-attacks and misinformation) that it seems all interstate activity could be considered grey zone activity.  For some, grey zone activity is a new phenomenon rooted in Russian Chief of Staff General Gerasimov’s theory of ‘non-contact warfare’. For others, sub threshold conflict is as old as war itself, and was effectively exploited throughout the Cold War.

It is increasingly clear that there is a strategic move toward ‘great power’ competition. This is marked by competing world views clashing below the threshold of interstate warfare. These clashes are happening across domains and involve the use of both state and non-state actors. Understanding exactly where these clashes will happen is difficult especially considered against competing definitions of the ‘grey zone’. The grey zone is not a physical place although it has physical manifestations. And it is broad. Ukrainian soldiers sat in trenches in Donbas will very much feel more like they are in a conventional war than at the sharp end of the grey zone. Equally, computer programmers making bots to troll social media platforms and spread disinformation probably don’t feel like they are part of a ‘new normal’ of constant competition. But they can be. The key lies somewhere between the intent and the outcome.  Especially as actors can be manipulated to their intent leads to a very different outcome.

The UK has had a conventional military presence on the periphery of the grey zone for several years. Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia demonstrates that the UK and NATO are willing to forward deploy deterrence forces to occupy space in order to prevent it being contested. In the Air and Maritime domain, it is common for the RAF and Royal Navy to be present in international waters which achieve effect in the Grey Zone by reinforcing the Rules Based Intl Order (RBIO). Against UK strategic doctrine, these actions are part of a broader strategy to contain adversary behaviour and protect allies.

The Russian Federation Armed Forces and the Russian Government have shown their intent to operate in this zone Whether through leading separatist forces in the east of Ukraine, or through submarine activity near in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK),2 or air activity in the North Sea, physically annexing large areas of land like the Crimean Peninsula, or through state backed Poisoning on the UK mainland.

Why was Exercise Joint Endeavour different?

If the logic is taken that the UK and NATO have been engaging in the grey zone for some time, what makes 16 Brigades deployment on Ex JE different from before?

First, the deployment is a significant action for British Airborne forces demonstrating an ability to operate at reach. Although in relative terms, it was small (240 Paratroopers, plus quadbikes, rations ammunition, water, etc. all delivered by parachute), this was the largest independent drop of British Airborne forces in decades. It was also at reach and required strategic protection and sustainment over 1700 miles. The composition of the force was important. The Lead Assault force (LAF) consists of the Lead Company Group and Battle Group HQ from the Air Manoeuvre Battle Group as well as Brigade HQ elements. This grouping was optimised to organise follow on forces. The AMBG HQ set the conditions for the remainder of the Very High Readiness force to deploy and Brigade HQ can deploy the rest of the brigade and other forces, as required. The Lead Company Group offers a range of capabilities beyond that of a normal infantry sub-unit that can deliver immediate effect if required by the partner force. This Company Group can be tailored to the threat it will meet; for example, the group could deploy with enough anti-tank capability to destroy a much larger motor rifle formation. This deployment proved Britain’s capability to project force at reach.

Second, the deployment demonstrates the UKs willingness to deploy VHR forces quickly and unpredictably to reinforce and partner with Allies anywhere on the globe. Deploying by paradrop to an area within range of S400 ground based air defence in a contentious frozen conflict zone, and then moving with the host nation to within artillery range of an illegally occupied territory, demonstrates Britain’s willingness to change the calculus of decision makers in the region. The timing of the exercise is also significant. The Armed Forces of Ukraine most likely chose to demonstrate their WWGC crossing capability just as the Russian Federation Armed Forces Southern Military District completed KAVKAZ 20, their own mobilisation exercise. The partnering of a NATO force at this time, and in this way will, have changed the risk profile for anyone considering further expansion in the region. Simply put, the UK has shown it is willing and capable of putting boots on the ground, where-ever it wants, whenever it wants.

Why Airborne Forces?

If the UK is to choose to compete in the grey zone, this deployment demonstrates that airborne forces are the tool required for several reasons. Initially, they are held at much higher readiness than other forces. Indeed, a significant amount of time and money is invested in training airborne forces to enable this higher readiness. There is a risk in this, however, that high readiness forces are deployed without mission or threat specific training. Airborne forces are light in their nature. A staff officer would point out that they have high strategic mobility, but low operational and tactical mobility. The tactical mobility depends on the environment, but this should not detract from the advantage of adaptability. In complex environments such as urban, jungle or mountainous terrain, they are more mobile than armoured or mechanised counterparts.

The light nature of airborne forces means that they are highly adaptable. For Ex JE, the Lead Coy Group was able to quickly familiarise with and then move in host nation combat vehicles (Kosak armoured Vehicles and BTR 80s). This adaptability enables operational mobility. Because of this, the LAF was able to complete a 120 km march, followed by a WWGC, all in under 10 hours. Not bad for a light force with limited mobility! Finally, light can still mean potent; Indirect fire from 81mm mortars, direct fire from Medium Machine Guns and javelin missiles, and an FST with a JTAC means the LCG can call access significant firepower, if required. Finally, Airborne Forces are a useful step on the escalation ladder. Their strategic mobility means that moving them within reach of a particular theatre demonstrates the UKs will to deploy force if required. Their presence changes an opponent’s risk calculus and demonstrates intent.

Although holding forces at very high readiness comes with increased costs, the rapid deploy ability makes Airborne Forces an unpredictable step on the escalation of force ladder. Moving them quickly and unpredictably to a theatre, or in range of a theatre effects decision making. This should be deliberate, with intelligence at the centre of planning, but force is fungible, and must be applied to meet UK political objectives3.

What else was gained from this deployment?

16 Brigade exploited this exercise to learn.  Deploying high readiness forces, while complying with COVID guidelines created a coordination problem.  As with any deployment, there were last minute training, vaccinations and paperwork to be completed. All personnel were regularly tested for COVID-19 and separated into small cohorts to minimise risk of contamination.  Maintaining Operational Security and Personal Security was achieved through hard work from all of those deploying. Old fashioned adherence to security classification meant that most did not know where there were deploying to, until they received their orders. Personal electronic devices were handed in prior to orders being delivered, this enhanced Operational Security, but the primary reason was to protect our people from Foreign Intelligence Services.

Much was gained from partnering with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Although they are taking active steps to modernise, their Armed Forces are grounded in Soviet tactics. This is by no means a bad thing. Every military needs to fight in the way that best suits its people. From a UK military perspective, The Ukrainian Airborne Forces partnered seemed intensely hierarchical and centralised. The command culture of a military must fit the culture of its population, the resources it has available to train and educate its personnel, and education levels of those personnel recruited. Mission command in most NATO militaries can only occur due to significant resource investment (both before and after enlistment). This enables the decentralised approach that typifies UK forces.  The centralised approach manifests in Battle Groups which have impressive capabilities, but authority to employ them is held at a much higher level than a NATO counterpart, and adherence to timetables planned to the minute, is strictly enforced.

Finally, understanding how a force like this would conduct an enabling operation of this scale, was extremely useful. Much of this can be read in academic studies of former soviet bloc countries doctrine and structures. However, it is not possible to truly understand the capability, and limitations of these tactics and this style of command until you have lived it. The chance to be part of this chain of command and experience the frustrations and opportunity it generates was fascinating and has been input directly to Defence Intelligence for the benefit of the Single Intelligence Environment.

James Athow-Frost

James is an Officer in the Parachute Regiment and Co-Founder of the Wavell Room.


  1. You can find competing definitions for the Grey zone in this Podcast, this report from Rand (p7), this paper from RUSI
  2. This area of water has seen an increase in submarine deployments
  3. If war is ‘The continuation of politics by other means, military practitioners must consider its wider utility

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