Small Wars Journal

Are We Ready for Hybrid Wars?

The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has just released a new monograph that presents an alternative view of the character of warfare in the 21st Century. This new model argues that future conflicts will blur the distinction between war and peace, combatants and noncombatants.

Rather than distinct modes of war, we will face "Hybrid Wars" that are a combination of traditional warfare mixed with terrorism and insurgency.

Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, by Research Fellow Frank Hoffman, summarizes the background and analysis of the changing character of warfare in our time. Examining the debate over the past decade about the evolution of modern warfare in the post Cold-war world, several thinkers have claimed that we were in the midst of a "Revolution in Warfare." Hoffman takes this discussion to a new and much more mature level by recognizing that we are entering a time when multiple types of warfare will be used simultaneously by flexible and sophisticated adversaries. These adversaries understand that successful conflict takes on a variety of forms that are designed to fit one's goals at that particular time—identified as "Hybrid Wars" in Conflict in the 21st Century.

Hoffman notes that it is too simplistic to merely classify conflict as "Big and Conventional" versus "Small or Irregular." Today's enemies, and tomorrow's, will employ combinations of warfare types.

Non-state actors may mostly employ irregular forms of warfare, but will clearly support, encourage, and participate in conventional conflict if it serves their ends. Similarly, nation-states may well engage in irregular conflict in addition to conventional types of warfare to achieve their goals. The monograph lays out some of the implications of the concept. Clearly the United States must be prepared for the full spectrum of conflict from all fronts and realize that preparing our forces for only selected types of conflict will be a recipe for defeat.

This concept builds upon and is contrasted with alternatives including "New Wars," "Wars Amongst the People," Fourth Generation Warfare, and Unrestricted Warfare. It absorbs useful elements from many of these concepts, and incorporates the best of foreign analysts as well.

Potomac Institute Chairman and CEO, Michael S. Swetnam remarked that "Frank Hoffman's work on Hybrid Wars is a masterpiece of enlightened thinking on conflict in our time. It should be required reading for all students and practitioners of modern warfare."

Hoffman is an accomplished defense analyst who is highly sought after for his insights on historical analyses of the past and on the character of future conflict. He lectures frequently here and abroad on long-range security issues. His areas of expertise include military history, national strategy, homeland security, strategic planning, defense economics and civil-military relations.

The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies is an independent, not-for-profit public policy research center that identifies key science, technology and national security issues, and aggressively follows through with focused research and policy advice. From this research and subsequent public discussions, the Institute has a track record for developing meaningful policy options and assisting their implementation at the intersection of both business and government.


SWJ Editors Links

Warfare Now is Both Asymmetrical and Asynchronous - Thomas P.M. Barnett

Lazy Sunday Reading... - Abu Muqawama

Discuss at Small Wars Council


Alan Boyer (not verified)

Wed, 07/15/2009 - 3:55pm

Frank has done a nice job of framing the issues and laying out a useful construct.

The problem we have had is thinking of war and warfare as either traditional or irregular. In other words, we have seem war in a bipolar way. History shows us that it is usually not one or the other. At time it may be more one or the other, but is seldom just one. The consequences of this view of warfare has caused the US military to develop an incorrect view of warfare, which has colored its defense planning and force structure.

The reality is we have to be able to conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict, which means our doctine, training, and force structure must be designed accordingly.

The use of the hybid warfare construct will hopefiully get us out of bipolar trap we have been in for the last several decades.

BZ to Frank

Farhan Shahid (not verified)

Fri, 07/10/2009 - 4:46pm

The construct of hybrid war is good to explain what we professional soldiers are possibly facing today or going to face tomorrow. But to me using few sophisticated weapons does not justify the means to be termed as conventional. If i am right then this hybrid war is another type of unconventional or asymmetric war. So question is,"Have i not properly understood the monograph"?

From Spain. I wish to thank Frank Hoffman for his latest work.


Jorge Aspizua

MPN (not verified)

Mon, 02/04/2008 - 3:20pm

Frank points out in FN 2 in the piece that Robert G. Walker's NPS thesis "Spec Fi: U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations" was the first usage he saw of the term "hybrid warfare." Technically, however, I think Thomas Mockaitis beat Walker to the punch when he termed the U.K. "Confrontation" with Indonesia as a "hybrid war." Still, none of that takes away from Erin's insightful paper.

I think the broader point is that, as Colonel Kilcullen points out, hybrid war or conflict is a useful construct.

Rob Thornton

Sun, 02/03/2008 - 11:55am

After tripping over something that your paper got me thinking about - I wanted to follow up my last post.

Reference how to find Waldo - there are some things worth considering. One of the things that make finding Waldo easier is when you eyes become accustomed to pattern analysis - this means going beyond focusing on what is a pattern - be it intentional or otherwise, but extending it to recognizing what is not a pattern. Within the Waldo puzzle there are things that look "more" like Waldo, and things that look "less" like Waldo. Part of this gets into the whole issue of intuition and non-linearity, but you could also call it thinking beyond cookie cutter analytic tools. At first glance we tend to see allot of red & white - then we start to distinguish those blobs and develop a kind of Waldo hierarchy - until eventually were left with only a few choices.

There may be something worth considering when determining what we expend our resources on - in this case, even though something may not be Waldo - if it looks enough like Waldo - it may be worth going after, either to make finding Waldo easier, or to prevent it from replacing Waldo down the road - there are probably allot of variations in between. Going after these "like Waldos" does not mean we have to destroy them, it might mean we co-opt them (lots of shade under that tree) temporarily or more permanently. Notice I did not speak in absolutes - this is not a fire and forget - either the "like Waldos" become more like us and less like Waldo so that our interests remain more congruent, or down the road the "like Waldos" must be dealt with again.

With regard to making Waldo, and the "like Waldo" more at risk in their own environment - we need to figure out better ways to help the partner Host Nation develop security forces that are at home in their environment and while looking an awful lot like Waldo serve to counter him. This is perhaps should be a good part of our strategy - and is one the enemy seems also to be engaged in. A final thought on that is ensuring that our tactical and operational solutions don't cut off our strategic knees - having just come back fromthe RoL conference JFCOM J-9 and PKSOI hosted - we must consider that any Waldo's we encourage without building the institutions, checks and balances, etc. could create conditions down the road harder to overcome then the ones we were trying to address. This is not easy stuff - so we need to take a long term view of our interests, and we need to approach it with all the tools in the tool box.

Again thanks - we can get allot of mileage out of your paper.
Best, Rob

Rob Thornton

Sun, 02/03/2008 - 10:03am

Very thought provoking piece, here are some thoughts I got out of my first read.

Regarding, force structures, capabilities and alliances developed and sustained in order to implement strategies specifically to counter U.S. policy interests -I think hes got a valid point - it comes with recognizing that no matter how you see yourself, other states and groups are going to have their own interests, and they will often run counter to yours - particularly if you espouse things they abhor. Even our closest allies dont fully agree with us in a number of areas due to their own cultures and domestic politics, so when we see states and organizations finding they have more in common and more to gain by forming alliances to oppose us.

This "band-waggoning" to pool resources is not new - what may be new is the influence that groups and individuals have, and the ability of geographically and culturally disparate groups to communicate with each other, as well identify how there short and long term interests are served by cooperating - this allows the formation of alliances and the synchronization of efforts in ways that were not possible or feasible 10-20 years ago - the liberalization of the western political and economic environment may have further enabled this allowing like minded enemies access to places, people and ideas that they did not have before. Im not saying the latter is all bad either, or even a problem - much good has come out of that liberalization - however it is a condition we have to acknowledge - along with the notion that even when something is intended for good, those with a will, will find away to subvert its intended purpose - their own innovation and adaptation.

At the individual level - The speed to which the individual (or individual groups) can have an impact -from collecting more accurate information and disseminating it (could be a video sent through a cell phone network), to the time in which It can be analyzed and manipulated, then posted with new context to serve psychological purposes has increased. No argument there. However - what is the context? I think it means that non-aligned groups, opportunists have greater potential to reach out and participate in ways that while not directly serving the interests of our identified opponents, will cause up problems and drain our resources. They may work counter to both us and our opponents, but unless we can identify who they are, what their goals are, etc. we may confuse the issue and misjudge the conditions and environment - causing us to expend resources (time, money, people, etc.) toward things that are not part of the root problem, or that get us no closer to our objectives. To use an analogy, technology has raised the level of static or white noise we must see through to clearly identify who we should focus on - its kind of like global "Wheres Waldo". In order to get better at finding Waldo - were going to have to find better ways of separating the chaff - this could be either through better analytics that are culturally and environmentally attuned, or by co-opting the white noise where we either find ways to look like Waldo ourselves while we hunt our enemies, or we make the white noise Waldos problem instead of ours.

The use of "preferred opponents" vs. "thinking" ones in describing our problem of prioritizing may not fully capture the problem. There is value in the statement if the measure of success is solely how much of a structure can I destroy - meaning inanimate objects to justify acquisition strategies, but the employers of the force dont feel that way I think. Seems to me there are multiple conversations going on - there are conversations at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, as well as between them - then there seems to be the conversations between the regional COCOM CDRs and services and OSD, then there seems to be the ones between the latter and civilians. At different times context and the language which provides better answers gets reinterpreted for a number of reasons. The closer the inter-action with our enemies occurs, the more we consider our "thinking enemies". The further away those conversations occur, the more it focuses on hardware and less on people. This may be more a condition then a problem that can be solved. Id say it could be addressed by articulate, uniformed folks making rounds in the halls of Congress -but it may not always be in somebodys best interest to do so - I can yell as loud in my house as I want - but until I turn off Sponge Bob - my kids dont seem to listen. This problem has been around since people invented politics though, and probably will not go away anytime soon -we just have to get better about how we work in those conditions.

Im not sure that Marines are particularly more innovative then other services when the conditions in which they are working are roughly the same. SOF could arguably say they are the best innovators, etc. I think it might be better to consider the conditions which foster innovation (Terry Terriff and I talked about this over beers in DEC) - which are by and large ones where you either dont have enough of something, dont have access to something, or dont have the right stuff. Arguably over the last seven years, weve seen adaptation and innovation across our military services, but maybe more so in the ground forces - just due to the nature of ground warfare (although other services serving in ground roles have been pretty innovative too). When we are not at war, and when OPTEMPO is low, and conditions dont require us to make tough choices - Mr. Hoffman may have a point - the Marines did not have the largest service budget, but had to make some tough choices. Im not sure that is accurate anymore - fighting a war changes that, and if we expect to be fighting for some time to come, then all the services are going to have to make tough choices, and all are going to have to be adaptive and innovative to mitigate the risk that comes with making tough choices.

Mr. Hoffman, I appreciate the effort that went into the piece, unless someone is willing to start a conversation, then the rest of us remain to degrees unengaged.

Best, Rob

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sat, 02/02/2008 - 8:17pm

Frank, congratulations on this excellent and insightful paper. You really develop some key insights that I hope we can operationalize going forward. The way you have framed the construct of hybrid wars takes us another big step forward toward figuring out what new paradigm should replace our existing models.

I'd also like to acknowledge the person I believe first used the term "hybrid wars" -- Assistant Professor Erin Simpson of the Marine Corps Staff College, who delivered a paper to the Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago in April 2005, entitled "Thinking about modern conflict: hybrid wars, strategy, and war aims".

This is the earliest use of "hybrid wars" that I have come across, and as the apparent originator of this extremely valuable conceptual framework, Erin's paper is well worth reading in full -- it's at

congratulations again on a fantastic effort. I look forward to discussing this with you over a big Australian red one of these nights...


Dave Kilcullen