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What is “Hybrid warfare”?, Pt I

March 21, 2016

Summary:  If, indeed, it is anything at all.   Much has been made of Russian’s swift annexation of the Crimea in 2014, which employed anonymous elite troops, local militias, intelligence and propaganda operations.  Other tools for political and military gain are also emerging – cyber warfare, lawfare, social media.  Some herald these “hybrid” combinations as a new era of warfare pioneered by Russia that will rarely actually resemble warfare and one that stands to leave western countries floundering.  Others are deeply sceptical of the notion that this is anything other than old (even ancient) tactics of deception reinvented for a new century.


Very possibly not a representative example of “hybrid” war…

Complex place.  The World…

The world order is becoming increasingly multi-polar, with more diverse, faster-moving, adaptable and vociferous actors.  Militaries are being asked to undertake a wider range of tasks than ever before but “conventional” forms of military intervention are having increasingly diminishing returns.  The sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, from Vietnam through Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State in Syria.

Beyond this, many actors seek deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace.  In Crimea, Russia used social media, special forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grabChina is building artificial islands in the South China Sea.  The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood.  US military and political figures have recently been accusing Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause fragmentation in Western European unity.

 “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War


“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”

— Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege

Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict, with intensive use of information.  Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations.  Russian state-controlled media created multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigation into the cause.  Modern information and media technologies seem to lend themselves well to confusing and complicating: deepening and spreading roots of conflict, undermining conflict resolution.

Hybrid or ambiguous?

In late February of 2014, well-equipped, highly disciplined and extremely polite soldiers of no easily identifiable origin (but wearing or carrying the most modern of Russian military uniforms, weapons and equipment) quickly and calmly took over key buildings in the capital of Crimea, Simferopol, including government facilities and the airport. This was the beginning of an almost entirely bloodless seizure of the Crimea and its de facto return to Russian control.

From a myriad of terms, and amidst much intense and ongoing debate, the expression “hybrid warfare” seems to have gained a certain amount of traction for describing the orchestrated fall of Crimea, the implosion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and new Russian military practice in the 21st century. A multi-dimensional range of political, military, economic, social, informational and technological activities are employed to political and military goals.  Much of the activity was covert and designed to be deniable or to deliberately subvert and confuse. The conventional military component became, in effect, the “tip of the iceberg” and was designed, where possible, to avoid overt combat.

In many low intensity conflicts, the causes, combatants and objectives involved are difficult to define.  Some modern techniques of political and military activity deliberately set out to make the situation more confusing. Accurate information can be hard to come by and can be distorted to serve particular agendas. In the particular case of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, fascist taunts and nationalist flag-waving are routine, if highly inflammatory, tactics. The aggressive use of social and mainstream media in all its forms by local, national and international actors and protagonists has been striking and has served—generally by intent—to confuse the situation further.

False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones. Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political ambitions, fanning dormant but dangerous forms of intense nationalism in the process. The concealment and manipulation of facts and the distortion and discrediting of information have been one of the significant features of the circumstances surrounding the conflict that has arisen in Ukraine, where the battlefields are as much on the internet as they are in the physical domain.

Terms such as “hybrid”, “indirect”, “new generation” and “ambiguous” are being employed to describe the concepts behind the varieties of political and military tactics being employed. Article V of the NATO North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus far, the 21st century does not seem inclined to allow NATO the luxury of such simple and precise divisions. Defining an attack and the source of the attack is becoming harder as potential adversaries adopt increasingly creative approaches to achieving political and military objectives. But the wide spectrum of phraseology on offer at present is perhaps more indicative of the problems being encountered in analysing and understanding what is going on than they are a helpful categorisation of strategy and tactics. Are we seeing a further blurring and stretching of formal conflict definitions, the emergence of an entirely new form of warfare or simply a repackaging of old techniques of deception realpolitik for the 21st century?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, there was a surge of interest hailing this new form of “hybrid” warfare.   After a few months, some of the more critical observers started to reflect that there perhaps was nothing really new here – deception and speed are lauded by pretty much any military commander.  The Russia term “Maskirovka” covers much of this.  The definitional debate s still raging.  But something is going on – new techniques, aided by technology – are going to complicate the battle: wherever the battle may or may not be.

I shall return to this theme in due course.

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