The Hybrid Warfare Concept
Before focusing on the concept of Hybrid Warfare (HW) and how state actors use it as a tool of foreign policy, it is necessary to understand the reasons why a state might resort to this method.
HW is characterized by effective political, economic and informational components. It can be used in all conditions, from normal international relations to open warfare, where conventional military options are inappropriate for the circumstances or deemed inadequate on their own.
For example, HW might be the only practical option allowing a state actor to achieve political objectives indirectly, avoiding political risk and the consequences of a direct military engagement. It is a political tool for destabilization, economic disruption and disinformation, where every non-military but weaponizable asset at a state’s disposal is used for strategic political reasons, overcoming any weakness of the state’s military forces.
In political warfare, HW is engagement with a population that seeks to influence and persuade. George Kennan described Political Warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives,” including propaganda and psychological warfare, all means which can be employed in HW.
HW is also a military operational approach, developed by former US Marine officer Frank Hoffman in 2007. In his view, HW can explain how weak opponents or non-state actors, such as jihadists and the Taliban, can challenge conventional forces with a mix of military force and non-military means, including propaganda, disorder, acts of sabotage, counter-information and irregular tactics. Combined, these components can achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of armed conflict.
HW theorizes changes in contemporary warfare and contains key assumptions about “4th Generation Warfare” (4GW). In 4GW, economic, political and social factors are used to break enemy leadership. The aim is to ensure that the state is seen as a tyrant and reduce civilian support in asymmetric warfare, where a weak actor challenges and defeats a stronger opponent. In this type of situation, military superiority alone is not helpful and knowledge of local culture and history are essential.
From a state actor’s point of view, HW is a mix of political, social and economic subversion designed to achieve division, demoralization and destabilization. It combines military and intelligence apparatuses to win conflicts, focusing on vulnerabilities and using conventional deterrence and insurgent tactics, without a direct engagement on the ground.
Importantly, HW gives a state actor “plausible deniability”. It can simply reject accusations of responsibility for propaganda, disorder, and cyber-attacks, deterring external intervention while still degrading the capabilities of its target.
HW, like Network Centric Warfare, is a means to an end. To quote the Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov: “The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Of course, wars have never been won using non-military means alone – HW is a tool for reaching a political goal, a concept, an operational approach, an instrument, and not a theory of foreign policy or a strategy in itself.
For example, nonlinear, indirect or non-conventional, warfare was crucial for Russian operations in Ukraine. The war in Crimea combined elements of a covert military operation, propaganda and electronic warfare, with the annexation completed by a military occupation of the peninsula.
The success of this military operation is difficult to reproduce. It was based on the conjunction of a Russian-speaking civilians, weak leadership in Ukraine, and the lack of a Western reaction to the rapid Russian move. Russia’s use of information, cyber warfare and propaganda as a part of psychological operation was decisive for the successful achievement of its political objectives in the area.
Western analysts have focused their attention on Moscow’s ability to project power in terms of asymmetric warfare during the war in Ukraine, but non-linear warfare is actually a Russian effort to conceptualize modern war, which the United States put in practice in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The HW concept, in fact, does not originate in Russian military academies. At the 2014 Moscow international security conference, General Gerasimov, known as author of the hybrid war approach, accused the West of initiating color revolutions and undermining countries through political warfare.
Gerasimov’s discussion of non-military tools did not refer, first of all, to Russian future approaches but described the primary threats to Russian sovereignty coming from social and political movements such as color revolutions, the Arab Spring, and so on.. He also described NATO operations against Libya as an example of modern warfare, a model for Russia to observe closely .
In General Gerasimov’s view, the increasing importance of non-military tools in conflicts, including political, economic and cultural actions, is an important element of change in the current operating environment.
Russian military doctrine was adapted in 2014 with regard to the participation of irregular armed elements and private military companies in military operations and the use of indirect and asymmetric methods such as HW. This is the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine .
Gerasimov’s strategy includes the military concepts of the Soviet era: denial of information that can be used by the enemy, deception, distraction, and disinformation.
New media have provided formidable tools for the revived political and military power, which not only acts to consolidate its own soft power, but also uses indirect methods of the past, transformed into political turmoil and a search for supporters to influence the West and the former Soviet Countries.
The various tools range from the use of traditional media, such as the creation of television channels abroad, to social networks. Offices are dedicated to disinformation, the manipulation of public opinion, trolling comments, and using false information in psychological warfare. For example, distraction can be achieved by spreading massive amounts of conflicting information, causing fractures in the opposing camp, say within NATO or the EU. This is a modern version of “divide and rule”.
The civilian population is a key target. Through social media, information can be disseminated regarding the morality and the values of the enemy, such as western liberalism, or discrediting governments and politicians with conspiracy theories. Objectives can include weakening political stability in western Europe and regaining influence in the “near abroad” (the former Soviet Countries).
Understanding which factors contribute to making HW effective and practicable in a given country is crucial.
First, the aggressor must be able to have “escalation dominance”. The term was coined during the cold war. It is a concept based on the balance of power, when the attacker can engage its target at different stages of escalation. For example, since the USA and the EU possess escalation dominance in the economic sphere, their economic sanctions can inflict pain on Russia’s economy. So Moscow continues to escalate the crisis, challenging in the military sphere.
In the case of particular region, such as Eurasia, Moscow has local escalation dominance based on specific weaknesses.
There are four scenarios where a state might use HW:
- The belligerent has local escalation dominance but not necessarily global escalation dominance;
- The belligerent wishes to expand its sphere of influence by influencing the political regimes of neighboring states;
- The target state is weak specifically because it lacks a strong civil society that manages ethnic and linguistic divisions;
- Finally, there are ethnic or linguistic groups in the target state that have some ties with the belligerent.
Indeed, HW is applicable in the former Soviet regions, where Russia can leverage its escalation dominance thanks to its superior local knowledge.
Is Guerrilla war the extension of politics by means of armed conflict?
As noted above, state actors can employ HW capabilities against opponents that may be superior technologically. They may be used either to avoid escalation directly to war with the opponent or to prevent the allies of the targeted state from coming to its assistance.
Non-state actors can use hybrid capabilities for similar reasons, resorting to terrorism, guerrilla tactics, and all other capabilities at the same time, using the full spectrum of conflict and adapting quickly to the environment and to the capabilities of the enemy.
Frank Hoffman argues that the characteristics of hybrid warfare are as follows:
- Mixed modalities, using a wide set of conventional and nonconventional tactics. Hybrid threats include a mix of professional soldiers, terrorists, guerrilla fighters, and deliberate criminal activities for the purpose of conflict.
- Hybrid adversaries can employ different modes of conflict concurrently and in a coherent way.
The Pentagon defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”
By contrast, the Pentagon defines insurgency as “an organized resistance movement that uses subversion, sabotage, and armed conflict to achieve its aims. Insurgencies normally seek to overthrow the existing social order and reallocate power within the country”.
Hybrid warfare combines insurgent tactics and conventional military deterrence. The main difference is that insurgencies tend to avoid a military confrontation outside opportune moments, while deterrence works by using the ongoing direct threat of military power.
Frequently, guerrilla warfare and insurgencies are likened to terrorism. It is not like that, though both have the same goals. An insurgency represents a political movement, with a specific purpose, while guerrilla warfare and terrorism are methodologies, tactics included in a well-defined strategy, including of a political nature.
The calculated choice of using terrorist tactics derives from its effectiveness and attractiveness, facilitating proselytism, inspiring supporters and landing institutions and local government in trouble.
The ultimate goal of an insurgency is to deal directly with the institutions for the control of the territory and to gain political concessions thanks to the support of the population. At some point, the political objective may be reached more easily by a direct confrontation with the military forces that replaces the established power and secures control of its territory.
Terrorist warfare is different. It rarely has the support of the population, it tends to avoid engaging military and government forces directly, and often enough a group holds no important territory outright. Instead, terrorists target a government for purely ideological reasons.
Terrorism may not need territorial control. The ultimate goal is to establish a new model of government. Radical Islamists reject parliamentary democracy as a method of popular participation because it is a model imported from the West, it is unfamiliar in Islamic culture, and it ignores the divine foundation of power. Instead, the aim is to build an Islamic state, an ideological entity where only those who adhere to its doctrinal principles can be considered full citizens. According to al-Qaeda ideology, spectacular violence and jihad serve the cause of political mobilization for this purpose.
The reasoning and motivations behind the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, where religious fundamentalism plays an important role, must be sought in specific areas.
In terrorist fundamentalism, the call is to return to the essence of the Qur’an and its literal interpretation, while proclaiming jihad, represented as a religious duty to be undertaken in the name of God against the corrupt and the infidels who threaten Dar al-Islam, the abode of the Muslims.
For example, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has addressed the “ummah” (community of believers) with these words: “it is a duty of every Muslim take up arms or, alternatively, serve to support those who have them takes up by obeying the advanced requests and not the justifications aimed at avoiding direct confrontation. Today every Muslim has a direct responsibility to defend Islam, its lands and its ummah”.
Islamism revisited by the 20th Century Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) will become “a new utopia capable of mobilizing the masses”, arriving at the conflictual, oppositional and pugnacious character of fundamentalism. Infidels should convert and if this is doubtful they should be fought and forced to convert”.
Leading terrorist groups do use HW, starting with al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda has changed its organizational structure, once based on a clear hierarchy and well-defined command and control mechanisms, due to the war on terrorism. The war has destroyed al-Qaeda’s structural and leadership coherence through the capture and elimination of the senior leaders of the terrorist group. As a result, al-Qaeda has turned into a jihadist network based on disaggregated entities, ideologically and operationally, characterized by a hybrid nature.
This makes it more dangerous, since challenges and prevention are more complicated. Today’s target is a transnational jihadist network, liquid and without a hierarchical structure. The al-Qaeda brand is a common factor among the cells and there is a common ideology, but its manifestations at the local level are not homogeneous at all. Instead there is a mix of different tactics and approaches of heterogeneous local groups acting in total freedom from the top, with affiliations to al-Qaeda based on opportunity or propaganda.
The case of so-called Islamic State (IS) shows similarities and differences. IS does trace its roots to the al-Qaeda network of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq, but it developed differently, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the rise to command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the civil war in Syria. It infiltrated mujahideen from all over the world, consolidated itself among the population, and established a sort of Islamic government in the geographical areas under its control.
From June 2014, when the Islamic State was declared, the group began to adapt to its new position of defending the territory it had conquered, while retaining further territorial expansion as a long-term goal.
In this case, one can see how ISIS adopted HW strategy:
- Mixed modalities – using a combination of conventional and nonconventional tactics. Islamic State took on the responsibilities of a conventional state by instituting a martial law governance structure with departments delegated to finance, armaments, policy, operations and recruitment, including absorbing Baathist officers from Saddam Hussein’s armed forces in the IS army. Conventional military capabilities were linked with paramilitary units and terrorist tactics of massive and extreme use of force to neutralize any challenge to territorial control and expansion. IS then targeted cultural icons and religious centers to eradicate entire societies and cultures – conventional battlefields were but one part of its long march.
- Hybrid adversaries can employ different modes of conflict concurrently and in a coherent way. Terror was used widely against the local population – decapitations and indiscriminate killings, the destruction of cultural symbols, attacks on government buildings – right alongside propaganda and information warfare techniques. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter were used professionally, intelligently and effectively to spread messages of violence for the purposes of recruitment, self-radicalization, marketing and fundraising,
- Hybrid threats use criminal activity as a deliberate mode of conflict. IS chose criminal methods to implement its goals. It developed a shadow economy based on kidnapping, extortion, selling historical artefacts, and drug and oil trafficking to finance itself. This also helped to recruit foreign fighters attracted by IS strength and power.
Today, the terrorism threat is ever more concrete yet ambiguous in its outlines and manifestations. Nonetheless, the strategy is always the same: generating fear with violence, making people feel unprotected and vulnerable, and showing that governments are not able to adopt a penetrating and authoritative response.
The specificity of hybrid threats requires a multifunctional strategy: military conflict if necessary, law enforcement, and legal and social interventions. Plans and policies for integration are the best answer to radicalization, but by themselves they are not enough if they are not complemented by intelligence and both active and passive prevention measures.
The hybrid threat coming from a state actor is even more insidious. To recap, this indirect approach seeks to erode and destabilize the political and social environment and demoralize the enemy’s population by hitting their weaknesses while avoiding a direct military confrontation. HW exploits conventional deterrence, insurgent tactics, political warfare and subversion, allowing the state to win conflicts without a direct engagement on the ground. HW also gives a state actor plausible deniability – it can simply deny its responsibility for propaganda, information warfare, cyber-attacks and organized riots. This asymmetric approach is cheap and effective and all the advantages are on the side of the attacker.
Information warfare can also aim to influence minorities present in the territory, destabilizing the country and spreading discord. The debate on the referendum of the independence of Catalonia, for example, was apparently influenced by disinformation and fake news activities that exploited divisive opinions to affect the final vote.
According to a NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence’s report, Russian-language bots created roughly 70% of all Russian messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland.
Troll farms use algorithms to make polarizing hot-button topics trend across a country’s internet space. The topics include racial discrimination, fear of immigrants, gay rights, and so on.
A good cyber defense, with active and passive measures, makes those threats manageable to the point that, as with conventional threats, the residual risks become almost acceptable. However, the evanescence of the cyber threat and psychological warfare, when aimed at destabilizing and creating unrest, makes a military retaliation very challenging. Even political measures or economic sanctions can be difficult, for it can be hard or indeed almost impossible to find the smoking gun, clear and tangible evidence that leads to the responsibility of a state.
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