When is a war not a war? When it’s Hybrid.

The blurred face of warfare?

At the Munich Security Conference last week Angela Merkel was talking Hybrid Warfare. Hybrid warfare is most definitely back in vogue, wise heads point at ongoing events in the Ukraine, nod sagely and say ‘Hybrid warfare, don’t you know”. Hybrid Warfare is an as yet evolving concept, but worth looking at because it is shaping how we think about war and conflict and this in turn is shaping UK Government policy and the doctrine and design of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Hybrid warfare first rose to prominence as a concept in 2007 with the publication of Frank Hoffman’s paper “Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”. Hoffman defines hybrid threats as “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.” This is very similar to the extant UK definition (JDP 3-40) “…where states or non-state actors choose to exploit all modes of war simultaneously using advanced conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and disruptive criminality to destabilise an existing order.” The Munich Security Conference in its report has broadened the concept of Hybrid Warfare to include most the elements of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement) used in concert.

At this point is it worth recapping on the difference between the nature and character of war. The nature of war is generally agreed to be unchanging and is defined in the UK (Army Doctrine Primer) as “War, which is the most intense form of conflict, is an inherently confrontational, volatile, dangerous and chaotic violent contest.” The defining characteristic of war as we understand it, is that of violent contest (for political advantage). The character of conflict evolves continually and is an expression of how war is fought. The character of conflict reflects the technology, politics and sociology of the societies in conflict and can therefore be multi-faceted within any one conflict, as well as evolve rapidly during the conflict. Hybrid warfare as the MOD defines it is simply a concept to describe the current character of conflict in some places.

Western military thinkers generally use the term “war” to describe the deliberate use of violence to meet political ends and the term “warfare” to the (physical) conduct (means) of fighting wars. Both Hoffman and the UK focus in their definitions of hybrid threats, on the tactics involved (conventional, irregular, terrorism and disruptive criminality). Is Ukraine engaged in a hybrid war with Russia? Arguably the use of conventional, irregular and criminal elements would indicate that most of the criteria are being met. But would Ukraine be involved in a hybrid war if no conventional elements were involved or would this be a straight-forward insurgency? Even in such a case the ability of Russia to bring significant hostile economic, information and diplomatic power to bear and the rapidity of its effect would indicate that this might not be war as we traditionally understand it, but it certainly is bigger than a domestic insurgency. One should always be aware of what the Russians are thinking.

Russian military thinking from the 20th century to the present day has often been in advance of Western military thinking, even if their technology has not. In terms of military theory arguably the Russians first grasped the true potential of mass mechanisation and Precision Guided Munitions. In this instance the words of General Valery Gerasimov the current Russian Chief of the General Staff are worth careful attention:

The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, such new-type conflicts are comparable with the consequences of any real war.

The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of of the broad use of political, economic. Informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures – applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.

What the Russians appear to be saying, much like the Chinese in their theory of “War Beyond Rules” and doctrine of “Three Warfares” is that in terms of decisive effect the power of military force has declined relative to other levers of national power. To put it bluntly in the operational architecture of “Shape, Clear and Hold” conventional military force is being applied only in the hold phase. It is entirely possible that the Russians are engaged in what they recognise as a war and we do not.

For democracies and coalitions with devolved and/or consensual decision making systems, this form of conflict is highly problematic as it provides multiple dilemmas, many not in the military sphere. Conversely states and bodies with a highly centralised decision making system, such as autocracies, can gain a significant advantage in tempo and initiative. Even more worrying from the West’s perspective if our view of war is different from that held elsewhere the strategic calculus becomes very difficult (as can be seen in the Ukraine); when is a war a war? At what point is NATO’s Article V invoked?  It is very telling that the definition for Hybrid Warfare used by the UK is much narrower in scope than that of the Munich Security Conference and presumably referenced by the German Chancellor. Confused thinking hampers clear communication and hinders effect response, especially in a coalition or alliance context. If NATO and the EU cannot agree on what hybrid warfare is than it is unlikely to agree on how to respond.

Not yet an Article V event.
Not yet an Article V event.

From a UK perspective this puts a new emphasis on addressing national security architecture for SDSR15. While the formation of 77 Brigade and the increased focus on cyber activities indicates an acceptance of the evolving character of warfare it remains to be seen if the UK and NATO will address their institutions to meet the threat posed by the blurring of the borders between peace and war, conflict and competition (eg: could or should the activities of DFID, the MOD, Attorney General and the BBC be coordinated; At what point do Treasury contingency funds get accessed?).

What is clear from both the current conflict in Ukraine and much of the thinking going on is that the traditional Western concept of war and warfare is under challenge and that this will challenge Western security assumptions, policies and structures.


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