The Hybrid Face of Warfare in the 21st Century

The assumption that in hybrid warfare the risk of military escalation and political damage could be kept within limits may at the same time increase the likelihood of its offensive use. For this reason, it is more than likely that hybrid warfare in various manifestations will shape the “face of war” in the 21st century.

Hybrid Warfare – a challenge for EU, NATO and member states

Hybrid warfare of a type e.g. demonstrated on the Ukrainian battlefield, if carried out against European countries, would pose a particular challenge for Europe and the crisis management of both NATO and the EU. Although it may seem unlikely from today’s perspective, in an extreme case, NATO’s military defence could be bypassed by subversive means in a ‘downward escalation mode’. This may include possible military threats from within, for example as a result of long-term subversion, infiltration, propaganda or destabilization. With their security and defence policy primarily oriented towards external threats, neither NATO nor the EU would be prepared, able or ostensibly entitled to protect their member states, as well as themselves as organizations, against such challenges at the blurred interfaces of internal and external security.
Awareness is the first precondition for addressing this challenge.
The Donetsk Regional State Administration Building inthe Ukraine was occupied on April 6, 2014 by a group of separatists who declared the creation of the Donetsk People's Republic. Picture taken on April 15 shows the barricade and anti-Western banners outside the RSA building. Picture by: Andrew Butko, Wikimedia Commons
The Donetsk Regional State Administration Building inthe Ukraine was occupied on April 6, 2014 by a group of separatists who declared the creation of the Donetsk People's Republic. Picture taken on April 15 shows the barricade and anti-Western banners outside the RSA building.
Picture by: Andrew Butko, Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Europe’s borders, particularly in the south, are wide open, and dividing lines within European societies are growing and deepening. This exposes numerous vulnerabilities that can be exploited by all kinds of hybrid actors from various directions, not only or primarily from Russia. However, military strength provides additional opportunities to exploit hybrid methods, even without the active use of force. Military escalation potential or dominance by its mere existence would support any kind of subversive hybrid activities. However, success in hybrid warfare depends on certain preconditions that don’t automatically apply to any situation. For example, the Crimea scenario could not be implemented elsewhere in offhand manner. The war in Donbas already demonstrated the limitations of such an approach.

The Ukraine case, however, illustrates another important relationship. The more closely connected and interwoven a country’s relations with its adversary, and the more pronounced their mutual dependencies, the more potential starting points there are for hybrid methods of warfare, which will also tend to be more successful as a consequence. For this reason, globalization, close international interaction and interconnected societies – as positive and desirable as these developments may be – have the potential to open up additional starting points for hybrid methods of warfare. This could make hybrid warfare a particularly favoured means among former (alleged) friends (like Ukraine and Russia had been) within the framework of intrastate conflicts, and especially in civil wars. Open, democratic societies that lack strategic vigilance are particularly vulnerable to hybrid methods of warfare.

This situation needs to be changed.



Graph on the dimension of hybrid warfare and the concept of interfaces

Offensive vs. defensive

With its ability to create ambiguity by silently operating in the grey areas of interfaces, while concealing or plausibly denying an actor’s intent and role as a party to the conflict, combined with a limited use of force only as a last step, hybrid warfare offers huge potential for surprise and offensive action, even against militarily superior opponents (underdog strategy). By following a long-term, indirect or masked ‘salami tactics’ approach or, conversely, by conducting rapid, unexpected offensive operations (fait accompli), hybrid actors can create new sets of circumstances that are almost impossible to be changed afterwards without undue effort. Hence, the offensive power of hybrid warfare presents the defender with a particular challenge: being taken by surprise without even recognising that one is under hybrid attack until it is too late. Such a surprise could also be carried out indirectly and in slow motion. Hybrid warfare generally favours the offensive. Hence, countering hybrid warfare successfully in the long run requires far more forces, resources and efforts than offensive hybrid operations do.

Against this backdrop and in light of the dynamic, multifaceted nature of hybrid warfare, the crux of meeting this challenge will be to identify and understand in due time its ever-changing, multiple and often disguised appearances, as well as the pattern and strategic rationale behind it. It is impossible to respond appropriately unless the strategies and methods of a certain hybrid warfare actor are identified and understood comprehensively and early enough. Accordingly, in addition to long-term measures to build resilience, the ability to constantly perform in-depth analyses of specific war/conflict situations, related actors and strategies will become a key capability in countering and responding to hybrid methods of warfare. A comprehensive understanding of hybrid warfare and a related education of judgment, not least to prevent overinterpretation and overreaction, are decisive. For this reason, scholarship and the building of the respective analytical capabilities will play a vital role in meeting this challenge. The conceptual understanding of hybrid warfare briefly outlined below could serve as an analytical framework for considering and assessing this breed of warfare and related strategies in current and future situations.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft made a very low altitude pass by an US destroyer USS Donald Cook April 12, 2016 in the Baltic Sea. Picture by: US Navy Photo
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft made a very low altitude pass by an US destroyer USS Donald Cook April 12, 2016 in the Baltic Sea.
Picture by: US Navy Photo

Conceptual understanding of hybrid warfare

All war is hybrid, but there is also a specific hybrid way of conducting war. In contrast to military- centric warfare, its centre of gravity is not primarily located in the military domain. While far from novel in its essence, the empirical manifestation of hybrid warfare can be surprisingly new and differ from case to case. This hybrid warfare in the narrower sense is of a strategic nature and can be identified by three key characteristics and their hybrid orchestration:
1. Focusing the decision of war/conflict as such primarily on a broad spectrum of non-military centres of gravity. These can include political will, the economy, culture, psychology, legitimacy or morale, for example. Hence, success in hybrid warfare does not necessarily require a military victory.
2. Operating in the shadow of various interfaces, such as between war and peace, friend and foe, internal and external security, civil and military domains, state and non-state actors. This blurs traditional lines of order and responsibilities, hereby creating ambiguity and avoiding attribution in order to paralyse the opponent’s decision-making processes. This, in turn, limits the adversaries options to respond and attacks his most critical vulnerabilities at such interfaces in a non-linear way, while avoiding being confronted by his strengths.
3. Utilizing a creative combination, hybrid orchestration and the parallel use of different civil and military, regular and irregular, open as well as covert means, methods, tactics, strategies and concepts of warfare, thereby creating ‘ever-new’ mixed hybrid forms. In short: combining the tailored use of hard power with a broad spectrum of soft power elements by the creative use of smart power.
While hybrid warfare actors generally resort to creative and indirect strategies of limited warfare and a limited use of military force, it must be emphasized that hybrid warfare potentially includes all levels of escalation. Friction and uncertainty are always part of the game and the perceived manageable use of force may get out of control. Due to its focus on a broad spectrum of non-military centres of gravity, a military decision as such is not necessarily required for hybrid warfare actors to achieve their political goals. As happened in Donbas or during the Second Indochina War, militarily it may be sufficient for the hybrid warfare actor to prevent his opponent from deciding the war on the military battlefield, while seeking a decision on a non-military centre of gravity. Morale and legitimacy can become strong weapons in this context.

Conclusions for Europe

Hybrid warfare is a strategic concept which, if used offensively, could become a game changer for Europe’s (EU, NATO, member states) security and defence. It particularly challenges the interfaces between war and peace, friend and foe, internal and external security, state and non-state actors, as well as between civil and military, and regular and irregular means and methods.
As hybrid warfare may include conventional combat at all stages of escalation against a militarily symmetric or even superior opponent, the EU, NATO and the member states must re-evaluate their conventional warfare capabilities to provide national and collective defence, while at the same time protecting themselves against downward escalation in the form of subversion, infiltration and disintegration. It is paradoxical that the threat of hybrid warfare highlights, among other things, the necessity to re-establish conventional warfare capabilities.
Countering hybrid warfare requires the ability to protect vulnerable interfaces and to operate in their grey areas by adopting a truly comprehensive approach. This includes a whole-of- government approach, a whole-of-society approach, as well as international cooperation and coordination. The interfaces between internal and external security are of particular relevance. It is high time for the EU, NATO and the member states to improve their common and comprehensive awareness and understanding of hybrid warfare and related strategies as a precondition for common and comprehensive action in defence and response. Building the respective analytical capabilities, and educating the judgement of political leaders and decision-makers accordingly, would naturally be the first step in countering hybrid warfare.
‘Sleepwalking’ is not an option for Europe.
Writer Johann Schmid

Dr. Johann Schmid is a Director COI Strategy and Defence at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, Finland.

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