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Hybrid warfare is a military strategy which employs political warfare and blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy, lawfare and foreign electoral intervention. 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 threats, hybrid influencing 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 will be 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, diplomacy, politics, 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 U.S. Army Chief of Staff defined a hybrid threat in 2008 as an adversary that incorporates "diverse and dynamic combinations of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal capabilities". 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". NATO uses the term to describe "adversaries with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives". Former U.S. Army Chief Gen. George W. Casey talked of a new type of war that would become increasingly common in the future: "A hybrid of irregular warfare and conventional warfare." According to the 2017-inaugurated European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, "[h]ybrid threats are methods and activities that are targeted towards vulnerabilities of the opponent" where the "range of methods and activities is wide."
Traditional militaries find it hard to respond to hybrid warfare. Collective defense organizations such as NATO might find it hard to agree on the source of the conflict making response difficult. An article published in Global Security Review entitled "What is Hybrid Warfare?," compares the notion of hybrid warfare to the Russian concept of "non-linear" warfare. It defines non-linear warfare as the deployment of "conventional and irregular military forces in conjunction with psychological, economic, political, and cyber assaults." The article partially attributes this difficulty to the "rigid" or static military taxonomy used by NATO to define the very concept of warfare. 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. Some historians find the origins of the concept in the campaigns waged in ancient Hispania by the Lusitanian leader Viriathus or the renegade general Sertorius against the forces of the Roman Republic in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. respectively. Elements of hybrid warfare are also seen in the concept of la petite guerre, a sort of reconnaissance in force practiced by light troops in European armies during the 17th and 18th centuries. A few examples of this type of combat 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). One can also find examples of hybrid warfare in smaller conflicts during the nineteenth century. For instance, between 1837 and 1840 Rafael Carrera, a Conservative peasant rebel leader in Guatemala, waged a successful military campaign against the Liberals and the Federal government of Central America utilizing a strategy that combined classical guerrilla tactics with conventional operations. Carrera's hybrid approach to warfare gave him the edge over his numerically superior and better armed enemies.
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 anti-tank 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.
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 activities in the 2010s
The Russian government's wide use in conflicts such as in Syria and in Ukraine, of private military contractors such as those of the Wagner Group was in 2018 singled out by experts as a key part of Russia's strategy of hybrid warfare to advance her interests, while obfuscating her involvement and role.
In respect of Russia, Jānis Bērziņš, director of the Center for Security and Strategic Research, has widely published arguing that using the term Hybrid to characterize the Russian strategy is misleading, since the Russian have their own definitions and concepts. Accordingly, to him, "the word “hybrid” is catchy since it can represent a mix of anything. However, its basic framework differs from the one developed by the Russians due to the former being a military concept and the result of American military thought. Moreover, the concept of New Generation Warfare includes conventional operations. In other words, Hybrid Warfare might be part of New Generation Warfare but cannot define it." Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, noted in March 2018 that the West′s frequent references to hybrid warfare was in effect "an unintelligible Western reaction, after decades of wars of choice against paltry adversaries, to confrontation with another power that is capable across the full spectrum of conflict".
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?
United States on Russian activities
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.
- Active measures
- Nicaragua v. United States
- Sri Lankan Civil War
- Critical infrastructure protection
- Proactive cyber defence
- Unconventional warfare
- Corporate warfare
- Economic warfare
- Psychological warfare
- Political warfare
- Organized crime
- Cold War II § Novel risks and measures for preventing escalation
- Internet manipulation
- Accelerated pluralism
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[...] hybrid warfare: the blending of diplomacy, politics, media, cyberspace, and military force to destabilize and undermine an opponent’s government.
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