Small Wars Journal

Emerging Threats and Hybrid Warfare

Colonel David Gurney (USMC Ret.), Editor of Joint Force Quarterly and Director of National Defense University Press, when not closely following the debate between John Nagl and Gian Gentile, seeks out the best and brightest for their views on the potential threats we may face in the not so distant future -- and of course any such search leads to Frank Hoffman.

Colonel Gurney has, again, kindly -- and we, again, greatly appreciate this -- granted SWJ permission to post Frank's Hybrid Warfare and Challenges that will appear in the January 2009 issue of JFQ.

The U.S. military faces an era of enormous complexity. This complexity has been extended by globalization, the proliferation of advanced technology, violent transnational extremists, and resurgent powers. America's vaunted military might stand atop all others but is tested in many ways. Trying to understand the possible perturbations the future poses to our interests is a daunting challenge. But, as usual, a familiarity with history is our best aid to interpretation. In particular, that great and timeless illuminator of conflict, chance, and human nature Thucydides—is as relevant and revealing as ever.

In his classic history, Thucydides detailed the savage 27-year conflict between Sparta and Athens. Sparta was the overwhelming land power of its day, and its hoplites were drilled to perfection. The Athenians, led by Pericles, were the supreme maritime power, supported by a walled capital, a fleet of powerful triremes, and tributary allies. The Spartan leader, Archidamius, warned his kinsmen about Athens' relative power, but the Spartans and their supporters would not heed their king. In 431 BCE, the Spartans marched through Attica and ravaged the Athenian country estates and surrounding farms. They encamped and awaited the Athenian heralds and army for what they hoped would be a decisive battle and a short war.

The scarlet-clad Spartans learned the first lesson of military history—the enemy gets a vote. The Athenians elected to remain behind their walls and fight a protracted campaign that played to their strengths and worked against their enemies. Thucydides' ponderous tome on the carnage of the Peloponnesian War is an extended history of the operational adaptation of each side as they strove to gain a sustainable advantage over their enemy. These key lessons are, as he intended, a valuable "possession for all time."

In the midst of an ongoing inter-Service roles and missions review, and an upcoming defense review, these lessons need to be underlined. As we begin to debate the scale and shape of the Armed Forces, an acute appreciation of history's hard-earned lessons will remain useful. Tomorrow's enemies will still get a vote, and they will remain as cunning and elusive as today's foes. They may be more lethal and more implacable. We should plan accordingly.

One should normally eschew simplistic metanarratives, especially in dynamic and nonlinear times. However, the evolving character of conflict that we currently face is best characterized by convergence. This includes the convergence of the physical and psychological, the kinetic and nonkinetic, and combatants and noncombatants. So, too, we see the convergence of military force and the interagency community, of states and nonstate actors, and of the capabilities they are armed with. Of greatest relevance are the converging modes of war. What once might have been distinct operational types or categorizations among terrorism and conventional, criminal, and irregular warfare have less utility today.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantryman who serves as a research fellow in the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Phila, PA.


Ken White

Tue, 01/13/2009 - 10:43pm

Here's an example of one reason we've fought the way others wanted us to fight; check this <a href=; LINK</a>.

I despise the word 'proactive' but I have found out that it's best to have a single viable recommendation along with two absolutely inane and impossible alternatives in hand for your Boss -- or he's likely to make a decision you don't like...

Ken White

Tue, 01/13/2009 - 4:12pm


Forgot (I'm old...): Lest I sound too naive, I realize that a significant portion of whether we fight using our rules or the opponent's rules will be up to the civilian leadership and thus won't entirely be the call of the Armed Forces.

Such civilian leadership is unpredictable. Some administrations will be overly cautious and will try to avoid any commitment of forces even if such commitment is indicated. As an example, I'd cite the four Administrations prior to the current crew who steadfastly refused to react positively or adequately to provocations and probes from the Middle East from 1979 through 2000.

The flip side is some will emulate that current crew who did react, correctly and forcefully (if not necessarily with great strategic foresight). I believe the Armed Forces owe the Nation the capability to respond appropriately, possibly pre-emptively and certainly flexibly to all conceivable threats to the extent they are resourced and <u>allowed</u> to do so.

IOW, it is indeed a WOG deal -- however, my belief is that the Armed forces have been remiss in not providing all the capabilities of which they're capable to enable the politicians adequate flexibility to deal with specific problems until, in some cases, it was too late and thus our response was artificially constrained and we were forced (or chose...) to fight the opponents way.

This is not necessary and it is not smart. The political overseers can force that to again occur, however that can be precluded to a great extent by better trained, organized and equipped forces, active and reserve, who place their possible missions ahead of institutional goals, desires and parochiality and thereby provide all the requisite capabilities possible to the civilian leadership.

Ken White

Tue, 01/13/2009 - 2:45pm


With particular respect to hybrid warfare ala Hezbollah (who I've been saying for years are far more dangerous than AQ and most others...), you said:<blockquote>"Rather, the U.S. will most likely have to participate in Hybrid Wars as a part of protecting its (or its Allies) interests around the globe, so choice is involved...</blockquote>True and we may or may not choose to get involved. One would hope we do so only if it is in our national interest and then with no hesitation or foolish notions of being nice. If we choose to do so, you say:<blockquote>"...The U.S. doesn't have to fight, but if it chooses to do so, the opponent would rather clearly get to answer the question of what kind of war they will fight."</blockquote>That's where we disagree -- and that was my point initially.

The opponent does certainly get to determine the kind of war <u>they</u> want to fight -- I don't think that's the same thing as determining the war they will fight...

We have been accused for years and distressingly accurately of fighting not the kind of war we wish to fight but the kind of war our opponents chose to fight. To use the vernacular, that's a lick on us.

Why do we have to do that?

My point is that we are too often reactive and allow our opponents to set the tempo and and form of combat and entirely too often have -- due IMO, to inadequate training -- allowed them to initiate contact and combat actions.

I was fortunate to serve in Korea with 1MarDiv who generally did not allow that and to serve in Viet Nam with two Army Airborne Brigades who almost never allowed it. For 45 years of military and civilian service, I've watched us around the world routinely allow others to determine what we will do. I do not believe that is in our best interest nor do I believe that it's necessary we do that.

We have the capability to train better and to form and equip small highly capable penetration units; we lack only the uniformed political will to do so. We have the capability to provide units and equipment that can negate everything from Kornets to IEDs to a great extent and we can fight the so-called hybrid warrior best by not fighting his kind of war but by outdoing him at his own game and denying him his agility by being more flexible than he.

We have the capability, we have the people in a professional force that is foolishly still trying to operate on many WW II Draftee force rules that can adapt to today and do outfight most potential enemies with adequate training and we have leaders and commanders that are capable of doing so if unleashed.

All we have to do is remove the leashes...

Hoffman does make a number of very strong points, since Ken White brings it up, I was confused by why Hybrid War would "invalidate our emphasis on whole-of-government approaches". WOG or CA (Comprehensive Approach, either on a national level or as NATO & EU understand it, multinational level) would seem to be a potentially very useful approach.

Ken White, you bring up excellent points, but I'm rather confused by the last paragraph and the question that follows: "Why does the opponent get to determine the answer to that question?"

I suspect I've misunderstood the point you are making, mainly because it seems to me the short answer is "No, the U.S. doesn't have to fight Hybrid Wars."

Why? I would think that very few of the future wars that the U.S. would HAVE to fight (in terms of national physical security or way of life) would be Hybrid. Rather, the U.S. will most likely have to participate in Hybrid Wars as a part of protecting its (or its Allies) interests around the globe, so choice is involved. The U.S. doesn't have to fight, but if it chooses to do so, the opponent would rather clearly get to answer the question of what kind of war they will fight.

Ken, did I completely misunderstand your point?

-Charly Salonius-Pasternak

Ken White

Fri, 11/14/2008 - 11:58pm

Some embarrassing but accurate points are made in the article. Specifically:<blockquote>British and Australian officers have moved ahead and begun the hard work...</blockquote> While many here still argue whether future war will be type A or Type B. Hoffman, the British and Australians, I and many others seem to think it will be Type D -- All of the above.

He also says:<blockquote>...Instead of weakness, future opponents may exploit such means ( IW and allied efforts ) because of their effectiveness, and they may come to be seen as tactics of the smart and nimble. The future may find further evidence that hybrid threats are truly effective against large, ponderous, and hierarchical organizations that are mentally or doctrinally rigid.</blockquote>They obviously are tactics of the smart and nimble and they obviously work. As for Elephantine...<blockquote>We are just beginning this thinking. Any force prepared to address hybrid threats would have to be built upon a solid professional military foundation, but it would also place a premium on the cognitive skills needed to recognize or quickly adapt to the unknown.</blockquote>This entails instilling the basics thoroughly through outcome based training. We are starting to do this, we simply need to be more aggressive and bold in implementation. Think call for fire: "Make bold corrections."

Hoffman continues:<blockquote>What is the center of gravity in such conflicts...</blockquote>Not a terribly relevant question, I think. If the opponent is indeed smart and nimble, it is unlikely to be helpful in hybrid wars as said COG will likely shift and vary by the minute.<blockquote>...and does it invalidate our emphasis on whole-of-government approaches and lines of operations?</blockquote>I think my previous comment applies here as well...<blockquote>Success in hybrid wars also requires small unit leaders with decisionmaking skills and tactical cunning to respond to the unknown--and the equipment sets to react or adapt faster than.</blockquote>We have achieved minor success in both realms -- we need to and can build on that success.

Then a very valid if troubling question is asked:<blockquote>What institutional mechanisms do we need to be more adaptive, and what impediments does our centralized--if not sclerotic--Defense Department generate that must be jettisoned?</blockquote>It seems to me that the answer to the first question is the leadership of the force; all else will follow.

The second question is on a far more complex issue and Congress is involved, as is the White House -- and their often ill informed and fickle attitudes toward war, the armed forces and commitment (all types). A start, in my opinion, would be for DoD to realize simply that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

Lastly he says:<blockquote>The greatest implications will involve force protection, as the proliferation of IEDs suggests.</blockquote>In turn, I'd suggest that avoidance of IEDs and the removal of the wherewithal to employ them are vastly preferable to 'force protection.'

Seems to me the first step is to assess the best way to PRECLUDE hybrid wars or rapidly and forcefully defuse rather them as opposed to how to fight them -- each will vary tremendously and defy categorization -- as a part of the National Defense Strategy. We can fight them if we must but -- must we?

Why does the opponent get to determine the answer to that question?