Hybrid Warfare and its Implications


Hybrid Warfare and its Implications

By Robert A. Newson, CAPT USN, Council on Foreign Relations Military Fellow
Clausewitz said, “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting
conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Today we face conflict
that is hybrid in nature, incremental in execution and savagely violent. The
lethality and sophistication of non-state actors, added to their ability to
persist within and challenge the modern state is novel to our time. The rise
of non-state actors, information technology, and proliferation of advanced
weapons gives rise to modern hybrid war, which in the future may challenge
us at home. The United States requires, but does not have, a credible
strategic-level ability to (1) address incremental, persistent belligerence
and (2) interdict and roll back external sponsors of insurgent and
separatist movements.

The Growing Threat of Hybrid Warfare
Hybrid warfare has been defined as combining conventional, irregular, and
asymmetric means, including persistent manipulation of political and
ideological conflict, and can combine special operations and conventional
military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media
manipulation and information warfare; economic intimidation; cyber-attacks;
use of proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorist, and criminal
elements. Wars traditionally have regular and irregular components – this is
not new. However, these components previously applied in different areas of
operation, as distinct efforts. Modern hybrid warfare combines them
simultaneously within a single domain. This vastly increases the complexity
and disorder of the conflict and requires an adaptable and versatile whole
of society approach – military, whole of government, and non-governmental.
Hybrid warfare places a premium on unconventional warfare (UW)-defined as
activities conducted to enable a resistance movement to coerce, disrupt, or
overthrow a government. External sponsorship often provides motivation,
resources, and support to destabilize international and regional security.
Some examples of this strategy include the Russo-Georgian war of August
2008, Russia’s current activities in Ukraine and potential future moves in
the Baltics, as well as Iran’s use of surrogates like Hezbollah in Syria and
Shiite militias in Iraq. Accordingly, developing a United States capacity
for counter-UW is absolutely necessary.

What’s Different About Counter-Unconventional Warfare?
Counter-UW is distinct from counter terrorism (CT) and counter insurgency
(COIN). CT operations are short-term, time-sensitive and
intelligence-driven, with immediately visible results; i.e., has the kill or
capture been achieved or not? Counter-UW, by contrast, is protracted and
proactive. The results are expressed in negative terms: what areas do
insurgents not control? What opportunities have been denied to them, and
what objective has the enemy failed to achieve? Meanwhile, COIN operations
contain and defeat an insurgency while simultaneously addressing its root
cause. As a result, COIN tends to need a large footprint and high U.S.
signature. Future counter-UW, on the other hand, is executed by a smaller
force, more narrowly scoped. It has a small footprint, a low signature, and
specifically denies an adversary the ability to use surrogates for strategic
success. Building upon the lessons from more than a decade of CT and COIN,
U.S. special operations forces (SOF) can use this capability to deny
adversaries the capacity to employ unconventional warfare for their goals. A
combination of Special Operations capabilities is needed: military
information support operations (formerly psychological operations); civil
affairs; Special Forces (Green Berets), Marine Special Operators and SEALs;
robust and scalable command and control capacity; and a growing “reach-back”
capability in all areas to support operations from the U.S.

More Than Special Operations Forces
While SOF will have the primary counter-UW role within a whole of government
effort, hybrid warfare and counter-UW have implications beyond them. China’s
pursuit of unrestricted warfare has not yet included surrogates or
para-military forces-unless you count the intimidating use of the Chinese
Coast Guard -but their UW capabilities should not be discounted. The U.S.
should expect more than a conventional fight in any future conflict with
Russia, China, Korea, Iran, or Syria. Hybrid warfare, seen now in regional
conflicts, will be turned against the U.S. and our military forces.
Counter-UW should be in joint and service exercises, as well as operational
and contingency plans. Additionally, the military services should explore
how to integrate a SOF counter-UW campaign within their broader operations.

Responding to Gradualism. Global actors have found some success by
incrementally-over time-increasing influence over sovereign territory,
international waters, or creating prohibited capabilities. Such a strategy
achieves strategic goals bit-by-bit while stopping just short of drawing a
military response. Responding to gradualism requires presence and commitment
as a deterrent tripwire; non-lethal weapons to avoid escalation and
miscalculation inherent in lethal action; an aggressive and realistic
counter-narrative and information operations campaign, and an ability and
methods to de-escalate at every step. In future, this must be integrated

An Uncertain Path Ahead
Counter-UW requires a whole-of-government approach and a comprehensive,
integrated pursuit of political warfare, including economic sanctions,
diplomacy, use of surrogates, military and law enforcement support for
partner nations, and strategic communication and information operations. The
U.S. has not displayed a strategic whole-of-government capacity beyond CT,
counter- and counter-proliferation tactical operations run by joint
interagency task forces. A considerable effort and strong leadership will be
required to create this capacity for the future. This task is so great it
may take congressional action to create a national counter-UW capability.
Much depends upon national leaders committing to protracted counter-UW
operations in sensitive, hostile, and denied environments. Counter-UW
requires early and long-term investment. Timely decisions, before a crisis,
are needed, a real problem. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has
rarely invested in developing such long-lead options. To secure the future,
it should start now, preparing counter-UW capabilities in Eastern Europe and
the Baltics to counter any Russian use of hybrid warfare. It is all too easy
for institutional forces to argue counter-UW activities and their
preparations will be destabilizing, escalatory, or uncontrollable due to the
central role of surrogates. Regardless of the downsides of counter-UW, the
alternative-giving adversaries strategic advantage through unopposed use of
surrogates and proxies-will always be worse.

** = The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not
necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of
Defense or the United States government.


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