HYBRID WARFARE – A Conceptual Perspective.


By Major General Ehsan Mehmood Khan

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”

– Giulio Douhet

Human interaction, both on individual and collective plane, takes place at multiple levels along multiple lines and in a multiple ways. Security of interest remains at the centre stage of human affairs. This often creates conflict-conflict of interest-despite the general desire to maintain peace. Thus, conflict is not only part of the combative human nature, especially considering the realist political thought, but is also embedded in the structure of international system, construct of state and composition of human society. Conflict between various actors often leads to war. The nature of war remains constant and is often understood in terms of Thucydides’ paradigm built around fear, honour and interest. Nearly all paradigms of realism put this concept at the core of human nature and state motivation (Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations, 2000). Thomas Hobbes discusses the somewhat similar causes of war.

He notes: “In the nature of man we find three causes of quarrel: First, competition; Second, diffidence; Third, glory.” (Hobbes, Leviathan).

All these causes of war may be summarized into a single word: interest. Thus, the nature of war remains knit around human interest, however, character of war continues to transform from kinetic to non-kinetic, violent to non-violent, regular to irregular, conventional to sub-conventional or combination of many facets. A host of factors influence the transformation of character of war some of which are constant while the others, being dynamic, are variable. The 21st century warfare is not a pure military versus military contest. Direct application of military instrument encompassing a limited or all-out war is but the last resort: for nations around the globe and virtually a non-option for nuclear-weapon states (NWS).

The modern-day warfare involves application of all elements of national power (EoNP), something that morphs into a kind of hybrid contestation between the states and non-state actors. The concept is not new, nor is the idea novel in anyway. However, it is emerging as a preferred option because of the heavy cost of a direct all-out war.

Conceptualizing Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid warfare is emerging as a buzzword in global strategic community. Discussions on the hybrid threats and hybrid wars have begun to gain interest among the security communities around the world since 2000S, and exponentially increased after Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. Hybridity points to multiplicity, combination and complexity. Hybrid warfare denotes a kind of warfare involving a variety of means and ways applied simultaneously or in succession. Hybrid warfare is indeed a character of war that employs a range of methods and strategies. It is a victim-driven warfare wherein a victim often becomes an actor against itself.

Diverse Perspectives

Competing concepts, perspectives and terminologies are being used to explain the phenomenon of hybrid warfare. Various Western and Eastern scholars have looked at the case in their own ways in accordance with their own understanding or as it applies to different situations regionally. There are scholars who consider it as proxy warfare, irregular warfare, also known as sub-conventional or unconventional warfare. The others deem it to be non-kinetic warfare, wherein the struggle remains short of use of force. The strands of strategic coercion or coercive diplomacy, grey zone conflict and some constituents of non-traditional threats also seem applicable to this kind of warfare.

Hybrid warfare is complex and all encompassing. If we analyse the issue through the lens of generational concept of warfare, the 3rd, 4th and 5th generation warfare seem to be part of hybrid warfare in some part of the world where interstate conventional war is still not far from truth.

The U.S. Concept

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have differing views on whether or how hybrid warfare differs from other types of warfare. However, according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), hybrid warfare blends conventional and irregular warfare approaches across the full spectrum of conflict and explains it as illustrated in Figure-i (part of a DOD brief).

According to Cohn Gray “the categories of warfare are blurring and no longer fit into neat, tidy boxes. One can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction-from the sophisticated to the simple-being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare.” (cited in Robert M. Gates, A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age). Certainly, war is no more a pure military-bound phenomenon. The character of war is transforming rapidly. Everyone seems to be a warrior and a victim concomitantly. However, complexity, combination and simultaneity remain to be the hallmark of hybridity.

Frank Hoffman defines hybrid threats as simultaneous employment of “a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time arid battle space to obtain their political objectives.” (Frank Hoffman, On Not-so-new Warfare: Political Warfare vs. Hybrid Threats). General Raymond T. Odierno, 38th Chief of Staff of the Army of the U.S. wrote: “…one of the most costly lessons [army] has learned over the last decade: how to deal with the challenge of hybrid warfare. In the future, it will be increasingly common for the army to operate in environments with both regular military and irregular paramilitary or civilian adversaries, with the potential for terrorism, criminality, and other complications.” (Raymond T. Odierno, The U.S. Army in a Time of Transition).

The U.S. Joint Forces Command defines hybrid threat as “An adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs some fused combination of (1) political, military, economic, social and information means and (2) conventional, irregular, terrorism and disruptive/criminal conflict methods. It may include a combination of state and non-state actors.” (Working definition by the U.S. Joint Forces Command).

The U.S. and its western allies believe that Russia is waging hybrid warfare using diverse methods for political purposes to exploit the fissures of the weak states. Inter alia, it is also known as Gerasimov Doctrine or Gerasimov Model, name after General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Chief of General Staff. The Gerasimov Doctrine of warfare is visualized to combine military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other means employed to attain a single set of political objectives. This kind of warfare is a preferred because of low cost.

The Russian Concept

Russian scholars point to the U.S. as a source of hybrid warfare. Andrew Korybko, a Russian author and political scientist upholds that the phrase “hybrid warfare” itself is part of “hybrid warfare” as an information narrative. It has been instrumentalized by the West to malign Russia.

According to Mr. Korybko, “Hybrid War can be described as manufactured or provoked identity conflict with the aim of disrupting, controlling, or influencing multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects through the methods of regime tweaking, regime change, and/or regime reboot in geostrategic transit states.” (Andrew Korybko. Iranian media: Trump is on course to break us. Oriental Review). Andrew Korybko’s context of hybrid war is essentially knit around the strategic end of regime transformation whether in the form of total change or tweaking or internal reboot for geostrategic transit states using their domestic vulnerabilities (NATO considers that the new threat confronting the Alliance flourishes in the seams between states, and in the soft areas of bad or weak governance).

This means implosion of states or their governments from within rather than explosion. He deems that the U.S. is instigating colour revolutions and unconventional wars as part of hybrid strategy. This way, the U.S. can avoid direct involvement of its military forces while relying on proxy involvement of the regional allies. (Andrew Korybko, Color Revolutions: A New Method of Warfare). He also views that Russia and China are being subjected to hybrid war. He notes: “Russia’s Eurasian integration objectives and China’s Silk Road projects are the targets of the U.S. global Hybrid War strategy.” (Andrew Korybko, Hybrid War 1: Law of Hybrid Warfare. Oriental Review). He also thinks that Pakistan, being the zipper of Pan-Eurasian economic integration is also likely to be a target of hybrid warfare.

The Israeli Concept

Israel regards the 2nd Lebanon War as hybrid war. The Israeli theorists and strategists consider hybrid threats and hybrid warfare as a method of social warfare, which is unbounded by social constraints. Therefore, hybrid threats not only gain physical advantage through the combination of conventional technology and organization of unconventional tactics and application but also gain a cognitive advantage by the very lack of social restrictions” (Douglas Lovelace, Hybrid Warfare and the Gray Zone Threat).

The Indian Concept

Indian perspective on hybrid warfare is significant because of its relevance to Pakistan. India considers Pakistan to be employing hybrid warfare strategy against it. According to retired Brigadier Anil Gupta of Indian Army, “Pakistan has been using hybrid threats against India since independence”. According to Anil Gupta, “A section of Indian elite is also a tool of Pakistan’s hybrid warfare against India. Through its intelligence agencies and Track 2 diplomacy, Pakistan has successfully cultivated a section among India’s political and social elite that is not only pro-Pakistan but also questions Indian Parliamentary resolution of 1994 claiming the entire state of JandK as an integral part of India.”

While defining the term, Anil Gupta notes: “Hybrid war can best be described as a combination of conventional and sub-conventional threats and can be unleashed both by the state and non-state actors. This type of warfare is characterized by undefined baffle space and extends to the flanks and rear as well.” He re-emphasizes: “The tools of hybrid war or the hybrid threats include conventional warfare, irregular warfare, economic warfare, cyber warfare, subversion, criminal acts, Special Ops, information warfare or propaganda and violence. In hybrid war conflicts are as much political as military.” (Brig Anil Gupta. Are we prepared against Hybrid Threats? Indian Defence Review).

The Indian perspective is inversely shared by Pakistan. India is waging hybrid warfare against Pakistan since independence in 1947. India has the capability, intent and history of waging hybrid war against Pakistan and other South Asian neighbours using all instruments of policy along the entire continuum of contestation and across all spectrums of conflict. India’s hybrid warfare policy includes the state-sponsored terrorism within Indian union and in the immediate neighbourhood, the war of narratives using propaganda tools, cultural war, war coercion, economic and trade coercion, diplomatic manoeuvre, lawfare, conventional war and nuclear intimidation.

Indian national security policy is based on fear and frustration. India is heavily fortified all around. It has either the strategic barriers of Himalayas with China in the north and has fenced its borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myammar. The 2017 Joint Doctrine of Indian Armed Forces discusses “an overarching role of information warfare (including cyberspace), space and special operations in support of modern day military operations at strategic, operational and tactical levels.” This indeed is an expression of hybrid warfare. As against the traditional triad of Land, Sea and Air for conventional warfare, the Indian military doctrine brings to discussion a new triad-Space, Cyber and Special Operation.

These are three important and effective domains for hybrid war. However, it remains to be a matter of intellectual inquiry as to how to answer the question of nuclear overhang for application of new triad or template of warfare. Can it unknot the strategic deadlock facing war in the form of credible minimum nuclear deterrence, which has practically closed all conventional spectrums of war?

Nevertheless, India goes on. It is already on the way to explore the three domains of new triad by establishing Defence Cyber Agency, Defence Space Agency and Special Operations Division. It is of note that all three are being raised as part of defence establishment albeit having external interface with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and internal interface in the form of similar entities in Army, Navy and Air Force.

Hybrid Warfare

Various terms are being used with the prefix hybrid such as hybrid warfare, hybrid war, hybrid conflict, hybrid threat, hybrid approaches, hybrid techniques and hybrid efforts. If studied in the realm of polemology i.e., the study of human conflict and war, hybrid warfare emerges as the common expression that covers all other terms in a number of ways. It is a catchall expression to denote an all-embracing character of war, which encompasses use of all available means of power, both kinetic and non-kinetic, with an actor to subdue another actor. In some cases, several actors are involved in a complex hybrid war against each other. Collaboration and confrontation between various actors is part of complex hybridity. Numerous methods that can be used by the belligerents can be categorized as hard, soft and smart, and attributable and non-attributable.

In other words, hybrid warfare a generic term to denote a range of activities by the belligerent actors, along the entire continuum of their interaction that leads to a war encompass means and approaches, and goes even beyond (Figure-2).

War studies involve the political and military thought, concepts, doctrines, strategies, technology, the part played by the society, interplay between various elements of national power and the role of various components of military force across all levels of war to include strategic, operational and tactical. The hybrid character of war is not new. The term “hybrid” was originally used in biology, with a Latin etymology, to mean “the offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera, especially as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics” and it later covered humans, business, technological products and other objects indicating a produce from more than one otherwise dissimilar elements.

It is new to the lexicon of conflict and war. Nevertheless, actually every war is a hybrid war for it involves all means available with an actor to subdue the opposing actor. However, it is the predominant element, which principally determines the character of war e.g., conventional, sub-conventional, non-kinetic and others. In this case, the blend of means is becoming predominant as a tool of major powers’ strategy and this brings the term hybrid in recurrent use by strategic fraternity of in the world. Here, it is pertinent to have a look at all related terms.

Hybrid Warfare Triads

War has usually been understood in terms of a conventional triad over physical space i.e., Land, Sea and Air. It is considered that hybrid warfare is fought in various temporal, physical and cognitive battlefields concurrently or in succession. It can be understood in terms of four interlocking triads i.e., the Statecraft Triad, the Technological Triad, the Coercive Military Triad and the Conventional Military Triad as illustrated in Figure-3 (conceptualized by the writer).

Hybrid Threat

Hybrid threat may be understood as inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness of various threats, challenges, enablers and vulnerabilities into one whole. For instance, if a state is facing a mix of conventional and sub-conventional threat alongside diplomatic coercion and economic sanctions, it is confronted with a hybrid threat. Hybrid threat encompasses many other strands and facets consistent the environment in addition to the capabilities and strategic ends of the contending actors.

Hybrid Conflict

Hybrid conflict is a situation in which parties refrain from the overt use of armed forces against each other, relying instead on a combination of military intimidation (falling short of an attack), exploitation of economic and political vulnerabilities, and diplomatic or technological means to pursue their objectives. (Patryk Pawlak. At a glance: Understanding hybrid threats. European Parliamentary Research Service). Whereas other elements of national power e.g., diplomacy or economy may take lead during hybrid conflict stage, military element remains in support. However, limited but controlled and credible application of force may be made when necessary or unavoidable. Strategic coercion employing various tools such as diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, embargoes, propaganda, law-fare, cyber operations, and use of proxies and lobbies are part of hybrid conflict. It is also of note that various means may be used either simultaneously or in succession.

Hybrid War

Hybrid war is a situation in which a country resorts to overt use of armed forces against another country or a non-state actor, in addition to a mix of other means [i.e., economic, political, and diplomatic]. (Patryk Pawlak). As is evident from the term, the military element takes lead during hybrid war while all other elements remain in support. The role of information and diplomacy remains crucial both during hybrid war and in the aftermath.

Relationship between Hybrid Conflict and Hybrid War

Hybrid conflict and hybrid war are likely to take place in graduated succession. The aggressor starts the hard power dialectic with hybrid conflict aimed at meeting the strategic ends short of war so as not only to save on time and avoid heavy cost of war. However, in case the aggressor does not succeed in attaining its objective, hybrid conflict stage would shape environment for direct application of the military instrument in hybrid war. Figure-4 illustrates the relationship between hybrid conflict and hybrid war (the writer’s illustration).

The Hybrid Battlefield

An all-inclusive character of war employing all available means and methods across the entire continuum of conflict is borderless for it observes no elemental bounds of conventional warfare including the contending force structures. It targets the contending actor across the entire fabric of its structure starting from an individual and household to tribes and communities, civil society, public institutions, corporate entities, industrial hubs, cognitive domain, cyberspace, means of communication, law enforcement agencies and armed forces both in the barracks and in the defined battlefield. Thus, the hybrid battlefield has amorphous frontiers and complex forms. All contenders contest in the same complexity wherein they may or may not come face to face with each other and may strike each other using distant tools.

However, physical combat is resorted to after having changed the ground conditions and shaping the strategic environment thereby making it conducive to direct application of military instrument, something that is far from probability in case of nuclear weapons states.

Contemporary Instances of Hybrid Warfare

Even though, in one way or the other, every war is hybrid in character. Even the two great wars of 20th century between the contending alliances have been hybrid in that they involved use of diverse means and approaches but are considered to be conventional because of application of conventional military capabilities in the main. However, a few of the recent instances known as hybrid wars in different parts of the world are as follows: the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia-2000, the Rose Revolution in Georgia-2003, the First Orange Revolution in Ukraine-2004, Cedar Revolution in Lebanon-2005, Saffron Revolution Myanmar-2007, Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia 2010-2011, the Arab Awakening in Egypt, 2011, the Second Orange Revolution, Ukraine, November 2013 to February 2014 (Almos Peter Kisspro, “Asymmetric Warfare…,” Dialog Campus, Budapest).

The ongoing wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other countries in the world contain hybrid character as a host of state and sub-state actors are involved therein and diverse ways and means are being employed by them.

Hybrid warfare is a reality of 21st century and is a powerful approach used to subdue the target countries or their regimes. A number of them have already succumbed to it and the others are struggling for existence. Only strategically competent states with internal cohesion would be able to respond to hybrid threats of the coming decades. Security is primarily the responsibility of the state. However, hybrid threat merits hybrid response. This calls for integration of society in state’s efforts to maintain peace and ensure security in face of multiplicity, complexity and simultaneity of threat posed by the prevailing environment. Finally, no single agency, organization or institution can combat the hybrid threat. Synergetic application of the entire national potential and all elements of national power is the only way to be victorious in a hybrid war.

COPYRIGHT 2018 Asianet-Pakistan

No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder. Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning.

All rights reserved.

(Many thanks for Asiannet-Pakistan and Major General (Dr) Ehsan Mehmood Khan
 Commander, Force Command Northern Areas Pakistan, for letting me use this article for my blog in its entirety)

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