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Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare. By combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, the aggressor intends to avoid attribution or retribution. Hybrid warfare can be used to describe the flexible and complex dynamics of the battlespace requiring a highly adaptable and resilient response. There are a variety of terms used to refer to the hybrid war concept: hybrid war, hybrid warfare, hybrid threat, or hybrid adversary (as well as non-linear war, non-traditional war or special war). US military bodies tend to speak in terms of a hybrid threat, while academic literature speaks of a hybrid warfare. For the purposes of this article, these terms are used interchangeably.
There is no universally accepted definition of hybrid warfare which leads to some debate whether the term is useful at all. Some argue that the term is too abstract and only the latest term to refer to irregular methods to counter a conventionally superior force. The abstractness of the term means that it is often used as a catch all term for all non-linear threats.
Hybrid warfare is warfare with the following aspects:
- A non-standard, complex, and fluid adversary. A hybrid adversary can be state or non-state. For example, in the Israel–Hezbollah War and the Syrian Civil War the main adversaries are non-state entities within the state system. These non-state actors can act as proxies for countries but have independent agendas as well. For example, Iran is a sponsor of Hezbollah but it was Hezbollah’s, not Iran’s, agenda that resulted in the kidnapping of Israeli troops that led to the Israel–Hezbollah war. On the other hand, Russian involvement in Ukraine can be described as a traditional state actor waging a hybrid war (in addition to using a local hybrid proxy). Note that Russia denies involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
- A hybrid adversary uses a combination of conventional and irregular methods. Methods and tactics include conventional capabilities, irregular tactics, irregular formations, terrorist acts, indiscriminate violence, and criminal activity. A hybrid adversary also uses clandestine actions to avoid attribution or retribution. These methods are used simultaneously across the spectrum of conflict with a unified strategy. A current example is the Islamic State’s transnational aspirations, blended tactics, structured formations, and cruel use of terror as part of their arsenal.
- A hybrid adversary is flexible and adapts quickly. For example, the Islamic State’s response to the U.S. aerial bombing campaign was to quickly reduce the use of checkpoints, large convoys, and cell phones. IS militants also dispersed among the civilian population. Civilian collateral damage from airstrikes can be used as an effective recruiting tool.
- A hybrid adversary uses advanced weapons systems and other disruptive technologies. These weapons can be now bought at bargain prices. Moreover, other novel technologies are being adapted to the battlefield such as cellular networks. In 2006, Hezbollah was armed with high-tech weaponry, such as precision guided missiles, that nation-states typically use. Hezbollah forces shot down Israeli helicopters, severely damaged a patrol boat with a cruise missile and destroyed heavily armored tanks by firing guided missiles from hidden bunkers. The organization also used aerial drones to gather intelligence, communicated with encrypted cell phones and watched Israeli troop movements with thermal night-vision equipment.
- Use of mass communication for propaganda. The growth of mass communication networks offers powerful propaganda and recruiting tools. The use of fake news websites to spread false stories is an element of hybrid warfare.
- A hybrid war takes place on three distinct battlefields: the conventional battlefield, the indigenous population of the conflict zone, and the international community.
The United States Joint Forces Command defines a hybrid threat as, “any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a tailored mix of conventional, irregular, terrorism and criminal means or activities in the operational battle space. Rather than a single entity, a hybrid threat or challenger may be a combination of state and nonstate actors".
The U.S. Army defined a hybrid threat in 2011 as "the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, criminal elements, or a combination of these forces and elements all unified to achieve mutually benefiting effects".
Traditional militaries find it hard to respond to hybrid warfare. Collective defense such as NATO might find it hard to agree on the source of the conflict making response difficult. Also, to counter a hybrid threat, hard power is often insufficient. Often the conflict evolves under the radar and even a "rapid" response turns out to be too late. Overwhelming force is an insufficient deterrent. Many traditional militaries lack the flexibility to shift tactics, priorities, and objectives on a constant basis.
The combination of conventional and irregular methods is not new and has been used throughout history. A few examples are found in the American Revolution (a combination of Washington’s Continental Army with militia forces) and Napoleonic Wars (British regulars cooperated with Spanish guerrillas).
The end of the Cold War created a unipolar system (with a preponderant American military power) and though this has tempered traditional conflicts, regional conflicts and threats that leverage the weaknesses of conventional military structure are becoming more frequent.
What is also new is the sophistication and lethality of non-state actors. These actors are well armed with technologically advanced weapons that are now available at low prices. Similarly, commercial technologies such as cell phones and digital networks are adapted to the battlefield. Another new element is the ability of non-state actors to persist within the modern system.
2006 Israel–Hezbollah War
One of the most often quoted examples of a hybrid war is the 2006 conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah. The Hezbollah is a sophisticated non-state actor sponsored by Iran. While the group often acts as a proxy for Iran, it has its own agenda. It was Hezbollah policy, rather than Iran’s, that led to the kidnapping of Israeli troops that was the impetus for the war. The war featured about 3,000 Hezbollah fighters embedded in the local population attacked by about 30,000 Israeli regular troops.
The group used decentralized cells composed of guerrillas and regular troops armed with weaponry that nation states use such as precision missiles, rockets, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, and advanced improvised explosive devices. Hezbollah cells downed Israeli helicopters, damaged Merkava IV tanks, communicated with encrypted cell phones, and monitored Israeli troops movements with night vision and thermal imaging devices. Iranian Quds Force operatives acted as mentors and suppliers of advanced systems.
Hezbollah leveraged mass communication immediately distributing battlefield photos and videos dominating the perception battle throughout the conflict. Israel did not lose the war on the battlefield but lost the information battle as the overwhelming perception at the time was of Israeli defeat.
However, despite the perceived successes on the tactical level and propaganda, Hezbollah casualties were heavy (at least 600 killed and an unknown number wounded) and in retrospect, Israel achieved its political goal of deterring Hezbollah attacks - from summer 2000 to summer 2006 Hezbollah conducted approximately 200 attacks on Israel, but during the following six years Hezbollah refrained completely from attacking Israel and distanced itself vociferously from attacks on Israel by other parties based in Lebanon.
2014 ISIL advance into Iraq
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a non-state actor utilizing hybrid tactics against the conventional Iraqi military. ISIL has transitional aspirations, and uses irregular and regular tactics and terrorism. In response, the state of Iraq itself turned to hybrid tactics utilizing non-state and international actors to counter the ISIL advance. The United States likewise is a hybrid participant through a combination of traditional air power, advisers to Iraqi government troops, Kurdish peshmerga, and sectarian militias, and training opposition forces within Syria. The Iraq–Syria hybrid war is a conflict with an interconnected group of state and non-state actors pursuing overlapping goals and a weak local state.
Russian involvement with Middle-Eastern refugees
General Philip Breedlove, in a US Senate hearing February 2016, claimed that Russia is using refugees to weaken Europe, directing the influx of refugees in the continent to destabilize areas and regions in terms of economy and to create social unrest. On 10 February 2016, Finnish Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö told a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers that Finland expects Russia to open a second front, where as many as 1 million migrants may arrive over the Finnish/Russian border. A similar statement was made by Ilkka Kanerva, Finland's former foreign minister and now chairman of the country's parliamentary Defense Committee.
2014-present Russian activities
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Russia on US activities
Moscow has accused Washington of conducting hybrid warfare against Russia during the colour revolutions. Its perception of being at war or in a 'permanent state of conflict' with the US and its allies were furthered by the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine. Russia's activities in former Soviet states have been described as Hobbesian and redolent of Cold War thinking.
It is an interesting term, but I would apply it above all to the United States and its war strategy – it is truly a hybrid war aimed not so much at defeating the enemy militarily as at changing the regimes in the states that pursue a policy Washington does not like. It is using financial and economic pressure, information attacks, using others on the perimeter of a corresponding state as proxies and of course information and ideological pressure through externally financed non-governmental organisations. Is it not a hybrid process and not what we call war?
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- Nicaragua v. United States
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- Critical infrastructure protection
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- Cold War II § Novel risks and measures for preventing escalation
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