Hybrid Warfare Revisited

By: LTC Fabian Sandor, Hungarian Army

Do not fight the war that fits your organization and weapon, but choose your way of fighting, then build your system.1

Since the current Ukrainian crisis began in February 2014, "hybrid warfare" has become a hot topic once again.2 The term was coined and gained traction in military strategic thinking after Hezbollah's success against Israel in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In preparation for that conflict, Hezbollah constructed artfully concealed fortified positions, tunnel systems, underground medical centers, and large caches of pre-positioned weapons and ammunitions.3 Because the war had no direct effect on European nations or the United States, however, the hybrid warfare concept did not receive much attention at the time.

Now, with the reemergence of an expansionist Russia and its nontraditional approach to warfare at Europe's doorstep, the situation seems to have changed dramatically. Russia's leaders have adapted and simultaneously applied both conventional and unconventional methods, including traditional and irregular forces that are supported by new technologies and the state's political and economic power, while allowing Moscow to maintain some degree of plausible deniability. NATO members, along with several countries outside of the alliance, have been showing great interest in the Russian concept of hybrid warfare because of their increasing fear that the pattern of aggression used against Ukraine is the harbinger of a new mode of armed conflict, for which none of them is prepared.

As a result of the increasing prevalence of hybrid warfare, Western academics and think tanks have been trying very actively to define the term and identify its core principles. In 2006, the authors of the US Quadrennial Defense Review formally recognized the existence of a hybrid threat, but there still is no consensus on how to understand or define what that means.4 To establish a conceptual framework for the discussion in this article, it is useful to examine some of the existing definitions.

Back in 2007, strategist Nathan Freier proposed a "quad chart" of four threat types: traditional, irregular, catastrophic terrorist, and disruptive; a hybrid threat would be some combination of two or more of these.5 Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen envisions hybrid warfare as "the best description for today's modern conflict," but unlike Freier, "he emphasizes combinations of irregular modes of conflict, including civil wars, insurgency, and terrorism." 6 Retired Army Col. Jack McCuen's description of hybrid warfare focuses on the asymmetric battle, "fought on three decisive battlegrounds ‘within the conflict zone population, the home front population and the international community.'" This definition highlights the importance of the "battle of the narratives" and emphasizes modern information technology and mass mobilization.7 In their recent study on hybrid warfare for the Joint Special Operations University, Timothy McCulloh and Richard Johnson describe hybrid war theory as "a form of warfare in which one of the combatants bases its optimized force structure on the combination of all available resources—both conventional and unconventional—in a unique cultural context to produce specific, synergistic effects against a conventionally-based opponent." 8

Besides the theorists' ideas, there are numerous official definitions as well. British military doctrine describes hybrid warfare as a variation of irregular warfare.

Hybrid warfare is conducted by irregular forces that have access to the more sophisticated weapons and systems normally fielded by regular forces. Hybrid warfare may morph and adapt throughout an individual campaign, as circumstances and resources allow. It is anticipated that irregular groups will continue to acquire sophisticated weapons and technologies and that intervention forces will need to confront a variety of threats that have in the past been associated primarily with the regular Armed Forces of states.9

Israel defines hybrid warfare as a method of social warfare. According to the Israeli vision, "hybrid threats not only gain a physical advantage through the combination of conventional technology and organization with unconventional tactics and applications, but also gain a cognitive advantage by the very lack of social restrictions that conventional state forces must adhere to such as the Law of Land Warfare, Geneva Convention, and Rules of Engagement." 10

For its part, NATO draws on several of these ideas to define hybrid threats broadly as "those posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives." 11 This article proposes an alternative approach for Eastern European countries to counter the Russian hybrid threat and therefore draws on the NATO definition.

At its summit in Wales in 2014, NATO conducted in-depth discussions on the topic of hybrid warfare and came up with its own ideas to effectively counter this threat, such as the Readiness Action Plan, a policy document outlining measures primarily to shore up defenses in the member states that lie closest to Russia, and the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

The Readiness Action Plan agreed [to] by Heads of State and Government at the Wales Summit is a response to the changed and broader security environment in and near Europe. It responds to the challenges posed by Russia and their strategic implications. It also responds to the risks and threats emanating from our southern neighborhood, the Middle East and North Africa. Its implementation will significantly enhance NATO's readiness and responsiveness and will ... strengthen both NATO's collective defense and crisis management capability.12

The VJTF is envisioned as a "spearhead" force within the existing NATO Response Force, "able to deploy at very short notice, particularly at the periphery of NATO's territory. The VJTF should consist of a land component with appropriate air, maritime and SOF units available."13 These initiatives and countermeasures demonstrate a commendable level of adaptation, but they also share one common theme: they seek to counter Russia's hybrid warfare concept through existing defense structures, and they are based on our current understanding of warfare. General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, recently described the changes in the character of armed conflicts from a Russian perspective (see figure 1). In light of his points, it becomes clear that NATO's approach will not necessarily meet the challenges posed by this new form of threat.

Military Methods

New Military Methods

  • Military action starts after strategic deployment (declaration of war).
  • Frontal clashes between large units consisting mostly of ground units.
  • Defeat of manpower, firepower, taking control of regions and borders to gain territorial control.
  • Destruction of economic power and territorial annexation.
  • Combat operations on land, air, and sea.
  • Management of troops by rigid hierarchy and governance.
  • Military action starts by groups of troops during peactime (war is not declared at all).
  • Non-contact clashes between highly maneuverable interspecific fighting groups.
  • Annihilation of the enemy's military and economic power by short-time precise strikes in strategic military and civilian infrastructure.
  • Massive use of high-precision weapons and special operations, robotics, and weapons that use new physical principles (direct-energy weapons—lasers, shortwave radiation, etc.).
  • Use of armed civilians (4 civilians to 1 military).
  • Simultaneous strike on the enemy's units and facilities in all of the territory.
  • Simultaneous battle on land, air, and sea in the informational space.
  • Use of asymmetric and indirect methods.
  • Management of troops in a unified informational sphere.
Figure 1: Russia's New Generation Warfare14

Taking all of the characteristics described by Gerasimov into account, it is paramount for the Eastern European members of NATO to not only sustain their NATO membership, but also to review their national security strategies and develop a more self-reliant approach than the one they currently depend on. Most, if not all, of NATO's Eastern European allies have been simplifying their defense policies and reducing the size of their militaries in the expectation that NATO will "roll in" to guarantee their sovereignty in the event of invasion. The characteristics of Russia's future conflicts, as described by Gerasimov, however, might prevent such action. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO's founding document, states that "the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." 15 As Russian operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine since February 2014 have demonstrated, the emerging form of warfare may lack a definitive armed attack. If a NATO member were to find itself in a situation similar to Ukraine's, to what extent would NATO's legal framework and instruments be able to handle it? The North Atlantic Treaty could easily produce a situation whereby some of NATO's military forces were willing to fight for a member's sovereignty, but were unable to do so because they lacked the military capacity or political will to do so.16 Despite—or because of—these potential obstacles to coordinated action, those nations that border Russia must develop a strategy that ensures their sovereignty even without the alliance's help.

To do this, these nations' leaders must change their way of thinking about defense and reconsider the methods they use to fight wars. They should understand that "traditional military hardware—tanks, armored cars, high performance aircraft, and warships—would become largely peripheral and increasingly irrelevant. Conventional measures of military capability—manpower, firepower, etc.—also fall by the wayside." 17 There is no longer any distinction between what is and is not a battlefield. Physical spaces, including the ground, the sea, the air, and outer space, are all potential battlefields, but social spaces such as political, economic, and cultural spheres; cyberspace; and even the psyche are also at risk. Based on this new reality, Eastern European countries' conventionally organized, hierarchical, and doctrinally rigid militaries are not capable of facing the multi-faceted threats of this new form of warfare. They need to develop unfamiliar characteristics such as proactivity, flexibility, and adaptation.18

Eastern European countries are spending large amounts of money on defense budgets to maintain weapons systems that are obsolete even for a conventional war—such systems have become completely irrelevant in this new operational environment. Military hardware such as T-72 tanks, BTR-80 and BRDM-2 armored personnel carriers, MI-8 helicopters, and so on are more than 30 years old, and cannot support modern communications equipment and night vision capabilities or protect from chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack. The ever-growing difficulty of getting spare parts to keep these weapons serviceable further reduces their utility and exposes the countries that depend on them to possible Russian influence. At the same time, Eastern European countries are trying to mitigate the security risk posed by these older systems by acquiring newly developed high-tech weapons from wealthy allies such as the United States. The price tag of such systems, however, is extremely high. Some major items, such as fighter jets and transport aircraft, can cost US$100 million apiece or more, not counting maintenance, training, and operational deployment costs. Paying for such hardware is an obstacle even for the bigger, wealthier countries, while for small countries it is clearly impossible. Although these smaller countries may manage to buy some quality hardware now and again, they cannot afford a whole, cohesive, interoperable system.19 Even if they could afford it, they would be missing the point. It is obvious that these countries are still trapped in the idea of fighting the fight that fits their existing organization and weapons and are unable or unwilling to implement fundamental changes to catch up with the realities of the twenty-first century.

If there has ever been a time in history when military strategist Frank Hoffman's statement that "the incentives for states to exploit non-traditional modes of war are on the rise" 20 was true, then today is that time. As retired Lieutenant General David Barno, US Army, described the problem,

Our military today is in a sense operating without a concept of war and is searching desperately for the new "unified field theory" of conflict that will serve to organize and drive military doctrine and tactics, acquisition and research, training and organization, leader development and education, materiel and weaponry, and personnel and promotion policies in ways that could replace the legacy impact that Cold War structures still exert on all facets of the military. Today, no agreed-upon theory of conflict drives all of these critical vectors toward a commonly understood paradigm; the result is a profusion of disparate outlooks leading toward the risk of professional incoherence.21

Many contemporary researchers have concluded that unconventional tactics, techniques, procedures, and protracted ways of warfare belong to the "weak" side of conflicts, most frequently to non-state actors, that is, groups that do not have any other means to fight their adversaries. But we should not allow ourselves to be limited by such thinking. The Eastern European countries must ask whether they can develop a comprehensive, nontraditional security strategy that will enable them to face either a conventional or a hybrid threat, with or without the support of NATO. These nations must abandon the idea of fighting the fight that fits their weapons; they must first choose how they will fight and then build the weapons they need for that fight. To implement such a concept, it is imperative to reverse the process by which a revolution in weapons technology precedes a corresponding revolution in military affairs. Eastern European states should modify the fundamentals of their defense structure to be able to meet future challenges.

First, it is paramount that these countries redesign their approach to security decision making by subordinating all national security–related decision making to a single coordinating body. This does not necessarily mean the actual merging of individual organizations, but rather, as described by national security expert Janis Berzins, "the coordination of all national bodies of executive power to the Ministry of Defence and the National Armed Forces' General Staff in matters of defence and national security." 22 Second, these states should realign all of their conventional military units into irregular formations, according to John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt's "swarming" theory.23 This restructuring has to be supported by a new kind of conscript system: a combination of the Swiss and Israeli models that expects all capable citizens to help defend their country when needed as members of the irregular units. Third, unit commanders must have sufficient autonomy to decide when and how to respond to an attack without a formal presidential or parliamentary authorization. It is also imperative to require each citizen to resist the aggressor, including by military defense, guerrilla warfare, civil disobedience, noncollaboration, and other means. Fourth, the countries have to prepare their infrastructure to best support the new way of warfare, similar to the way Hezbollah prepared its positions prior to the Second Lebanon War.24

The fifth and most important step of this concept is to operationalize all other instruments of national power, including the "weaponization" of the media to support the proposed approach. Some people may find that several elements of this plan go against national traditions and democratic norms, and could imply putting the entire world on a total war footing. No doubt they are right. Those nations that are facing the new form of Russian aggression on their borders, however, might be quite willing to consider concepts that could ensure their national survival. For Eastern European countries, the time for "thinking outside of the box" should be over, and the time for "thinking without the box" must begin. Eastern European countries should exploit hybrid warfare for their own benefit, so that it can become the way of the smart and nimble instead of the instrument of the weak.

About the Author(s):
LTC Fabian Sandoris a Special Forces officer in the Hungarian Army.

Copyright 2015, Fabian Sandor. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999): http://www.cryptome.org/cuw.htm 
  2. The ideas and opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the Hungarian government, the Hungarian Armed Forces, or any other official entity. 
  3. Scott C. Farquhar, Back to Basics: A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead (Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009), 61–65. 
  4. Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 6 February 2006): http://www.defense.gov/qdr/report/Report20060203.pdf 
  5. Nathan Freier, Strategic Competition and Resistance in the 21st Century: Irregular, Catastrophic, Traditional, and Hybrid Challenges in Context (Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007); Frank G. Hoffman, "Hybrid vs. Compound War," Armed Forces Journal (1 October 2009): http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/hybrid-vs-compound-war/ 
  6. Hoffman, "Hybrid vs. Compound War." 
  7. Ibid. 
  8. Timothy McCulloh and Richard Johnson, Hybrid Warfare, JSOU Report 13-4 (MacDill AFB, Fla.: Joint Special Operations University [JSOU], August 2013): http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/JSOU%2013_McCulloh,Johnson_Hybrid%20Warfare_final.pdf 
  9. McCulloh and Johnson, Hybrid Warfare.  
  10. Ibid.  
  11. Michael Miklaucic, "NATO Countering the Hybrid Threat," NATO Allied Command Transformation, 23 September 2011: http://www.act.nato.int/nato-countering-the-hybrid-threat 
  12. NATO, "Statement of Foreign Ministers on the Readiness Action Plan," updated 2 December 2014: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_115551.htm 
  13. NATO, "NATO Response Force," updated 23 February 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49755.htm 
  14. Janis Berzins, Russia's New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy, Policy Paper No. 2 (Riga, Latvia: National Defence Academy of Latvia, Center for Security and Strategic Research, April 2014): http://www.naa.mil.lv/~/media/NAA/AZPC/Publikacijas/PP%2002-2014.ashx  
  15. NATO, "The North Atlantic Treaty: Washington, D.C.—4 April 1949": http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_17120.htm 
  16. For an example in which nonkinetic means of warfare were rejected for lack of political will, some countries proposed sanctions against Russia after it annexed Crimea, but there were multiple countries that opposed those sanctions for economic reasons. One news article cites a "document from the United Kingdom's government stating that there should not be trade and financial sanctions against Russia so as not to harm the City of London." Nicholas Watt, "UK Seeking to Ensure Russia Sanctions Do Not Harm City of London," Guardian, 3 March 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/03/uk-seeks-russia-harm-city-london-document 
  17. Andrew Scobell, "Introduction to Review Essays on ‘Unrestricted Warfare,'" Small Wars and Insurgencies 1, no. 1 (Spring 2000) (subscription required): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09592310008423264#.VRn5eUJYVkM  
  18. Liang and Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare. 
  19. Although NATO promotes such initiatives as "pooling and sharing" and "smart defense," which suggest that members will share capabilities at need, all member nations are required to be able to provide for their own defense in the event of attack. These two concepts of shared capability and individual responsibility are somewhat contradictory in practice and lead to the uncertainty described in the text. 
  20. Frank G. Hoffman, "Hybrid Warfare and Challenges," Small Wars Journal 52 (1st Quarter 2009): 38: http://www.smallwarsjournal.com/documents/jfqhoffman.pdf 
  21. David W. Barno, "Military Adaptation in Complex Operations," Prism 1, no. 1 (December 2009): 30: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a521838.pdf 
  22. Berzins, "Russia's New Generation Warfare." 
  23. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Swarming & the Future of Conflict (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2000): http://www.rand.org/pubs/documented_briefings/DB311.html  
  24. Farquhar, Back to Basics. 
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