Hybrid Warfare: What it is and why you should be freaked out

If you follow regional and global geopolitics and military events, you have almost certainly come across a “new” (and I use that term VERY loosely) form of warfare. Actually, put a pin in that. It’s not exactly, or least not entirely warfare in the traditional understanding. Forget about beach landings, tank battles, Saving Private Ryan and all that big, loud stuff. Expand your definition of warfare to include offensive cyber and other non-kinetic actions. Now add in healthy doses of ostensibly non-confrontational actions intended to influence a nation-state. Now throw in a dash of those same actions, but undertaken by non-nation state organizations and against others. Now smother it all in a melange of “what-is-going-on?!” and you have what is known by many names but commonly referred to by one:

Hybrid Warfare

It goes by a few other buzzwordy names; Gerasimov Doctrine, Next Generation Warfare, 4th Wave Warfare and so on. That’s largely a matter of its recent rise to prominence a few years ago and recognition of the practice as an actual methodical, repeatable and intentional thing.

So what is Hybrid Warfare? Let’s call it HW for short for one thing. Secondly, the Hybrid Center of Excellence, a group dedicated to studying and countering HW has crafted the this excellent definition:

“Hybrid threats are methods and activities that are targeted towards vulnerabilities of the opponent. Vulnerabilities can be created by many things, including historical memory, legislation, old practices, geostrategic factors, strong polarisation of society, technological disadvantages or ideological differences. If the interests and goals of the user of hybrid methods and activity are not achieved, the situation can escalate into hybrid warfare where the role of military and violence will increase significantly.

Accordingly, the Hybrid CoE characterises hybrid threat as

  • Coordinated and synchronised action, that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions systemic vulnerabilities, through a wide range of means.
  • The activities exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution as well as the different interfaces (war-peace, internal-external, local-state, national-international, friend-enemy).
  • The aim of the activity is to influence different forms of decision making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level to favour and/or gain the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.”[1]

Some nations have been subjected to Hybrid Warfare more than the United States (more on that later) and are unsurprisingly better at detecting it. Those are mainly western European countries like the Baltics, Scandinavia and generally speaking anyone near Russia and especially on their borders.

Given that HW campaign specific vulnerabilities, characterizing the doctrine can be difficult to codify in a relatively rigid framework like DoD Joint Publications. Rather, there are more often a series of likely actors employed against appealing targets.

Information Operations (a.k.a. good old disinformation) 

Figure 1 Russia definitively paid for this during the 2016 election.

Social media, fake news, propaganda. That’s a few new names for an old idea: disinformation.  The difference is that while disinformation in the classic, espionage sense is intended simply to deceive or distract (think rubber tanks before D-Day), the intent here is to achieve one overarching goal: to split public opinion in targeted ways to create specific, customized societal fault lines. This most often seen through the use of ideological pressure points like xenophobia, imminent (but largely false) crises and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Polarizing social issues are routinely exploited through social media to sow rivalry and discontent, the main goal being to splinter an otherwise more unified populace and by doing so to distract and put pressure on elected leaders to reduce focus and intellectual wherewithal.

Unconventional Warfare

Figure 2 “Little green men” referred to unmarked military forces operating in Ukraine from bases across the border with Russia

Although superficially similar to the term Hybrid Warfare, UW is actually a very specific term in NATO member states in the context of military doctrine. UW means supporting a foreign, internal group (e.g. insurgents, freedom fighters, etc.) to erode the foreign government and its power structure through indirect  support, supplies, guerilla warfare and advisory support. That last part, the advisors, is especially important as it often entails non-official cover personnel undertaking Direct Action against the target nation. This is a roundabout way of saying covert action.

Offensive Cyber Operations

Called OCO for brevity, Offensive Cyber Operations are a nearly ideal component of HW and influence campaigns writ large. The one key component of an effective OCO action or campaign is skilled, experienced personnel executing a well-crafted plan. Unlike conventional actions (e.g. armored warfare, naval engagements, etc.) the physical hardware component is relatively minimal and entirely commonplace. If you get the right people in place with laptops and non-attributable internet access you get started. This minimal set of resources scales up with scope and sophistication, but those are the basics. Cyber is a good analog of the classic Cold War arms race; the threats and tactics are increasingly complex, destructive and can be very coercive. A key difference is that cyber warfare is incredibly versatile and increasingly commonplace.

Conventional forces

Figure 3 Things can get pretty weird in Hybrid Warfare.

Unlike traditional armed conflict, the use of conventional forces is not a first order factor in HW. It’s worth reiterating that a key goal in HW is to erode and weaken an adversary indirectly; forcing them to expend resources and clarity by attacking where they are soft. Once the standoff, indirect HW campaign has reduced the adversary to a confused, divided state lacking the ability to mount a credible defense, conventional forces are typically used to consolidate territorial or other physical gains. When we’ve seen that happen, the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula being the best example, conventional forces will ideally simply move in and establish themselves without significant fighting. This is not to say that the actions in Crimea, and specifically were bloodless. A variety of Russian loyalist groups appeared almost overnight that were in at least a few instances established with men and materiel courtesy of Moscow. In one notable case, a Russian outlaw motorcycle club called the Night Wolves was used to help organized a self-defense militia in Sevastopol.[2]

Economic strikes

When a stock market sneezes, nations catch the flu. The power of economic actions in the context of offensive policy makes them a natural fit for HW doctrine. Currency manipulation, shorting equity in key companies and industries and simply withholding key materials can have a devastating effect on targeted nations and regions. A prime example of this is the Russian tendency to turn off natural gas pipelines to recalcitrant or simply uncooperative neighbors in the winter. Another current example is the use of drone strikes on key refineries in Saudi Arabia, largely attributed to Iranian-back proxy forces in those two nations’ ongoing surrogate fight in Yemen.

Figure 4: The examples under each broad category of Hybrid Warfare engagement arena are representative examples and by no means represent the full range of actions.

Now, let’s look at what Hybrid Warfare is not:

  • Simple
  • Easily attributable
  • Straightforward to counter

A key factor underpinning all of those attributes is the fact that, when properly planned and executed, HW operations are very precisely coordinated from a central mission management point. This is designed for and key to allowing an HW campaign to sustain offensive operations below traditional detection thresholds typically in place. This is further complicated by shortcomings inherent in most warfighting doctrines as they relate to HW:

  • Not keyed to multispectral actions
  • The wide and typically disconnected arenas of HW do not traditionally sync
  • Although typical detection levels, HW actions remain high enough to yield a complex impact beyond the individual level of action in any single arena

As a result, a professionally orchestrated Hybrid Warfare campaign is able to exert moderate to high levels of pressure against widely unrelated areas of national interest. This in turn leaves the target state’s focus fragmented among seemingly unrelated crises. More importantly, many of the resources vital to combating any one aspect of an HW offensive are common to other aspects; effectively limiting responses.

So what do we do about it? Well that’s not simple either, but the best, first step is actually pretty easy. You have to know Hybrid Warfare exists and be able to recognize it.

By Casey Raiford, PLEXWorx Lead at PLEX


[1] https://www.hybridcoe.fi/hybrid-threats/

[2] By www.volganet.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29526646