Understanding hybrid warfare

Understanding hybrid warfare

Ikram Sehgal,
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Hybrid warfare became prominent in the 21st century, the ‘Age of Globalisation’, that has opened up many new technical and communication options and shrunk distances. According to Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” While fighting conventional wars, Russian General Gerasimov holds that “In the 21st century we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template”.

This new form of warfare, avoiding a clear differentiation between war and peace, soldiers and civilians, is practiced by all sides of the different divides. The US definition characterises hybrid warfare as “Synchronized use of multiple instruments of power tailored to specific vulnerabilities across the full spectrum of societal functions to achieve synergistic effects.” Russian scholar Korybko, on the other hand, says “Hybrid Wars can be defined as “externally provoked identity conflicts, which exploit historical, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and geographic differences within geostrategic transit states through the phased transition from Color Revolutions to Unconventional Wars in order to disrupt, control, or influence multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects by means of Regime Tweaking, Regime Change, and/or Regime Reboot.”

While clear differences may be visible between the two definitions, they envisage common military strategy that employs political warfare and blend conventional, irregular and cyber warfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy and foreign electoral intervention. By combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, the aggressor intends to avoid attribution or retribution. Hybrid warfare can be used to describe the flexible and complex dynamics of the battle space requiring highly adaptable and resilient responses.

A variety of terms are used to refer to the hybrid war concept: hybrid war, hybrid threats, hybrid influencing or hybrid adversary (as well as non-linear, non-traditional or special wars). Hybrid warfare employs means other than conventional military troops, tactics and strategies, to include the employment of irregular military and paramilitary forces like guerrillas, paramilitaries, etc. The Islamic State, Hamas and Hizbullah use terrorist acts as a means. The use of non-violent means by civilian institutions include psychological assaults using ethnic, religious or national vulnerabilities, provocateurs operating behind enemy lines, economic assaults through sanctions, boycotts and punitive tariffs so as to weaken the enemy economy, cyber assaults at elections and referendums, use of big data for manipulation of referendums like Brexit and the US elections and a vast array of propaganda warfare via electronic and social media, TV channels and publications. Diplomacy is as much involved in this new type of warfare as is fake news.

The relative novelty of hybrid warfare today lies in the ability of an actor to synchronise multiple instruments of power simultaneously and intentionally exploit creativity, ambiguity, non-linearity and the cognitive elements of warfare. Conducted by both state and non-state actors, hybrid warfare is typically tailored to remain below obvious detection and response thresholds, and often relies on the speed, volume and ubiquity of digital technology that characterises the present information age. Already prevalent and widespread in the world, in Pakistan, hybrid warfare is likely to grow as a challenge. For us it is important to understand its character, its underlying ideology and forms to be able to devise appropriate responses to it.

The combination of conventional and irregular methods has been in use throughout history. A recent book titled ‘Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present’, contains articles that acquaint us with different historical examples of hybrid warfare, including the British ‘Great Game’ and others. States and militaries use a variety of means to ensure that conventional warfare is successful. These include using agents behind enemy lines to collect intelligence on enemy strength or to influence the enemy by spreading rumours and fake news.

Sun Tzu’s book ‘Art of War’, written probably in the 5th century BC, describes methods of intelligence gathering behind enemy lines and guerrilla warfare. The work has influenced many war-farers in East Asia, from Mao Zedong to Ho Chi Minh. The Indian ‘Arthashastra’ (2nd century BC) is a treatise on statecraft and political economy that provides a detailed account of intelligence collection, processing, consumption, and covert operations as indispensable means for maintaining and expanding the security and power of the state.

Closer to our time is the British ‘Great Game’ that aimed to stop the Russian advance in Central Asia and defend British colonial holdings on the subcontinent. As described by Rudyard Kipling in ‘Kim’, the British used their intelligence network. They exploited conflicts and jealousies between Afghan tribes to make them proxies for their plans. Both British and Russians used traders, explorers and others to further their respective imperial interest.

One major ‘false flag operation’ by the British secret service was Lieutenant (late Colonel) Thomas Edward Lawrence’s initiative, under the guise of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to successfully incite the Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and helped to Balkanise the Arab world into many small states that could be played against each other, and of special interest are the Chindits, long range penetration units named after a mythical Burmese beast. Special operations units of the British-Indian army founded in 1942 in Jhansi, the Chindits saw action in 1943–1944, during the Burma campaign of World War II, raiding the imperial Japanese army, especially long-range penetration: attacking Japanese troops, facilities and lines of communication, deep behind enemy lines. Not too long ago, a special unit was created in the British armed forces by Gen Nicholas Carter to carry out hybrid warfare, and not surprisingly, it is called the 77th Brigade, same as the Chindits.

There is no uniform understanding of the term hybrid warfare and its implications. The US Department of Defence (DoD), NATO and EU see hybrid warfare mainly as a means to undermine democratic states and democracy as such. Col Frank Hoffman’s approach is to see it as a combination of regular and irregular warfare that includes the use of terrorist acts and extreme violence. The US army chief of staff defined a hybrid threat in 2008 as an adversary that incorporates “diverse and dynamic combinations of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal capabilities” and the United States Joint Forces Command defined a hybrid threat as “any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a tailored mix of conventional, irregular, terrorism and criminal means or activities in the operational battle space. Rather than a single entity, a hybrid threat or challenger may be a combination of state and non-state actors”. In 2011, the US army defined a hybrid threat as “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 benefiting effects”.

The other understanding of this new type of warfare is held by the Russian military. They understand it as a Western ploy against the new Russia-China axis and use hybrid warfare to prevent implementation of the Eurasian concept and Russia‘s return as a global power. A prominent example is the article by Russian General Valeri Vasilyevitch Gerasimov, the current chief of general staff of the armed forces of Russia, and first deputy defence minister appointed by President Vladimir Putin in 2012.

In February 2013, he published a widely-noticed article titled ‘The Value of Science is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations’. Gen. Gerasimov did not use the term ‘hybrid war’ but called it “indirect and asymmetric methods”: he did not attempt to develop a doctrine that was later practiced in Ukraine, but he considers ‘indirect and asymmetric methods’ as tools borrowed from the West.

Because the article was published approximately a year before the Maidan revolt in Ukraine that set in motion a chain of events ending with the Russian occupation of Crimea and the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, the views expressed in the article were understood in the West as an expression of Russia’s understanding of hybrid warfare. Mark Galeotti, senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations, translated the article into English and posted it on his blog. To make it catchy he called it the “Gerasimov doctrine” though he admitted that it was not a doctrine. The term “Gerasimov doctrine” was picked up and started a ‘destructive life’ of its own. Today Galeotti is sorry to have created the term, admitting “it doesn’t exist, “the longer we pretend it does (exist), the longer we misunderstand the — real, but different — challenge Russia poses.

Charles K Bartels, a Russian linguist and analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said that Gerasimov doesn’t use the term ‘hybrid war’ which was actually “indirect and asymmetric methods” that was interpreted by the West as hybrid war. From the Russian point of view, ‘indirect and asymmetric methods’ are from the West’s toolbox. For the Russians, hybrid warfare is a Western attack on Russia to encroach on what they consider their comfort zone or their territory of influence, when Yugoslavia was divided after an unannounced and unsanctioned UN war on Serbia in the 1990s, foreign interference in Transnistria in the 1990ies, in Georgia in 2008 and in the Ferghana valley in 2010. He writes: “The Russian military has been adamant that they do not practice a hybrid-war strategy.

Western and Russian ideas about and definitions of hybrid warfare are different and much wider that those in the West. Gerasimov rather means irregular warfare or asymmetric tools in an otherwise modern but conventional warfare. One figure used by him also shows that he sees war in today’s world conducted by non-military means in a 4:1 ratio. That includes false flag operations such as use of chemical weapons by rebels, economic sanctions and rupturing diplomatic ties and even regime change.

A political analyst and a regular contributor to several online journals, Andrew Korybko is a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. In his recent (2015) book ‘Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach to Regime Change’, written three years after General Gerasimov’s article, one can detect the change that has taken place – while Gerasimov did not even use the term hybrid warfare, Korybko has written a book on it.

The basic understanding between the two seems to be the same. In the Russian understanding, hybrid warfare’s main aim is regime change – a tool of the West used to encroach upon the Russian sphere of influence. Korybko writes: “The book focuses on the new strategy of indirect warfare that the US has demonstrated during the Syrian and Ukrainian Crises.” Korybko treats hybrid warfare not only as an attack against Russia but against the Eurasian concept and the initiatives to implement it, i.e. OBOR and China. He mentions Mackinder, the British geographer who predicted the Eurasian concept to be the ‘pivot of history’. As a motto he uses the Chinese Sun Tzu “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” What may be easily deduced is that the Russian understanding of hybrid warfare is based on its experience with Western encroachments on what they consider their comfort zone.

(This is Part I of an extract from a talk delivered at the National Defence University NDU recently by author)

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