Hybrid War: Why the Hype?

The subject of “hybrid” wars and threats have has generated much discussion over the past few years.  Yet, despite what the writing suggests, hybrid warfare is ill-defined, and hardly a new phenomenon.

As Adam Elkus notes, doctrine must be viewed in its specific political and strategic context. In this case, hybrid warfare results from the continuing debate over the ever-evolving roles of the US military and civil authorities in implementing foreign policy; as well as strategic drift and lack of a unifying enemy threat.  It is not necessarily the nature of warfare which is changing, but rather, our perception.

Hybrid Wars and Threats:  What are they?

Definitions of hybrid war or threats have varied from author to author.   Some are so vague as to be useless.  For example:

Hybrid threat: An adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs some combination of (1) political, military, economic, social, and information means, and (2) conventional, irregular, catastrophic, terrorism, and disruptive/criminal warfare methods. It may include a combination of state and non-state actors.

By combining so many elements, such a definition might apply to nearly competition between great powers.  For instance, both the US and the Soviet Union levied political, military, and economic pressure against one another for decades, combined with “proxy” conflicts in nations such as Vietnam and Afghanistan.  Would we classify the Cold War as a hybrid war?  Or how about the Vietnam War?  In that conflict, US forces found themselves battling both the Viet Cong–a guerrilla force–and the regular North Vietnamese Army.  Yet,  few would claim that the future of warfare resembles either the Cold War or the Vietnam War.

Other definitions of “hybrid war” and “hybrid threat” include:

Hybrid threat (1): Any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a tailored mix of conventional, irregular, terrorism and criminal means or activities in the operational battlespace.  Rather than a single entity, a hybrid threat or challenger may be comprised of a combination of state and non-state actors.

The US Army’s Combined Arms Doctrine Department (CADD)–home of the legendary Doctrine Man–has synthesized the many definitions of “hybrid threat”, coming up with:

A hybrid threat is the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, criminal elements, or a combination of these forces and elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects.

–Change 1 to FM 3-0: Operations (Draft)

Among the varied definitions are two common threads.  The first is that hybrid warfare combines traditional military forces with so-called “irregular” forces.  The second is that hybrid warfare blurs the common distinctions between the traditional “military” and “political” spheres of influence.  This complexity is not entirely novel, yet thinking about warfare in these terms has been largely absent from American doctrine in the last few decades.

Many military campaigns have featured simultaneous action by both conventional and guerrilla forces, often with very disparate goals, as the draft of FM 3-0 suggests.  During the latter stages of the British campaign against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, General Allenby combined conventional forces–artillery, armored cars, and airplanes–with the efforts of the Arab Revolt, supervised by T.E. Lawrence and Prince Feisal.  A subset of hybrid war theorists imply that hybrid war merely falls between a spectrum of conflict, which includes conventional war on one end, and irregular war on the other end.  Such theorists point to Hezbollah’s actions during the 2006 Lebanon War, where a guerrilla force used anti-tank missiles, long-range rockets, and fortified positions and weapons caches.  Yet, as Stephen Biddle notes, few military actions are purely conventional (such as the Maginot Line) or irregular (the Viet Cong).  According to Biddle, most military actions fall between these two extremes, such as the combination of regular and irregular forces during the Tet Offensive, and the fluid defense plan during the initial phases of Operation Desert Shield.  If anything, preparation for both regular and irregular threats might be an attempt to placate both the “COINdinistas” and “COINtras”.

The second element of hybrid war is the convergence of traditional political and military spheres of influence.  Throughout history, military and political power were often one and the same, as was the case with Napoleon.  Yet, the US, with its tradition of civilian control over the military, has been largely shielded from such phenomena; military and civilian affairs are distinctly separate.

Nowhere was this distinction more stark than during the early atomic age, when modern warfare became so destructive that military matters could not, in the words of Georges Clemenceau, be left to the generals.  Indeed, US President Harry S Truman denied repeated requests by General Douglas MacArthur to use nuclear weapons against Chinese forces during the Korean War.  Strict civilian control over military affairs would serve the world well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Much as in the case of Truman and MacArthur, the Kennedy administration reigned in aggressive posturing on the part of American generals so as not to provoke a Soviet response.  The result was a peaceful resolution to what was arguably the most dangerous moment in world history.

Nevertheless, the tradition of strict military control over civil affairs would come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Many in the American military felt that the war was “micromanaged” by McNamara and his Washington-based “whiz kids”.  Furthermore, many blamed America’s political leadership for either a.) ending the war too soon, in the face of heavy political pressure or b.) leading the United States into a messy, prolonged insurgency in the first place.

Thus, American doctrine writers, during the Army’s renaissance of the late 1970s and early 1980s, created a new doctrine which all but removed the political process from the actual business of warfighting.  The US military would be employed–with few restrictions or or meddling on the part of the civilian leadership–only when the political process failed, and would return control to political leadership only after reaching clearly-defined objectives.  The new doctrine, AirLand Battle, would reach its pinnacle during the First Gulf War.

Yet, AirLand Battle was not without its shortcomings.  While overwhelmingly successful in evicting the Iraqi Army from Iraq, it could not address the decade of instability which followed in Iraq.  Nor did AirLand Battle serve the US well during the period of strategic and political drift in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.  Instead, a new “bottom-up” doctrine-writing effort slowly emerged:  counterinsurgency.

FM 3-24 emphasized “unity of effort” between military and civilian agencies.  And while killing and capturing the enemy was always a laudable goal, the new military doctrine stressed the importance of developing governance and host nation legitimacy.  Thus, American doctrine had come full circle–military officers now embodied both military and political power.

The updated FM 3-0 envisions an era of increasing military complexity.  However, to better understand a more complex future, perhaps we might better look to the past.  Our very own Revolutionary War might fit the modern definition of modern “hybrid” conflict to a “T”.

Britain, already stretched thin to protect her interests throughout the world, suddenly found itself trying to quell an insurrection among the American colonies.  The American rebellion, of course, was waged by a mixture of both a regular Continental Army as well as a well-organized militia, the Minutemen.

Of course, Britain could hardly commit itself fully to the war; her efforts were complicated by the fact that she scarsely had naval parity in her home waters with the combined fleets of France and Spain.  Much like the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American Revolution was initially supported–albeit covertly–by the efforts of Britain’s rivals:  Spain, France, and even the Dutch.  Only after the Battle of Saratoga, where the Colonists captured a British army, did regular French forces formally join the war.  The French Navy’s efforts in the Chesapeake, combined with a regular Continental Army, helped the American insurgency finally defeat the British Army at Yorktown.

 Moreover, British leaders found themselves responsible for both military and political action, especially given the autonomy with which British commanders were forced to operate several thousand miles from home.  The information realm was just as important in the 18th Century as it is now.  Though the era lacked the instantaneous coverage of Twitter and Wikileaks, British military officers still managed to attack one another with such seething vitriol in the press, they would have made Michael Hastings blush.

Conflict has always been a complex affair.  Let’s not be fooled by those peddling a shiny, “newer” way of war.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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One Response to Hybrid War: Why the Hype?

  1. M.L. says:

    Starbuck,

    I am a little confused. Is your thesis that “hybrid war” is not useful in a taxonomic sense? Or, simply that it is not new?

    I’ll grant you that “hybrid wars” are not new, but so what? Napoleon introduced the operational level of war. The words for that concept didn’t make its way into US doctrine until the early 80’s.

    I think people are observing a threat which defies existing taxonomies and are using new taxonomies to better understand it. Simply because the words are new doesn’t necessarily imply the concept is new. Rather, it may simply imply a reframing of the issue.

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