‘Hybrid Warfare’: One Term, Many Meanings
By Tarik Solmaz
Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine has brought renewed prominence to the debate around ‘hybrid warfare’ (see e.g., The Economist 2022; The Wall Street Journal 2022; The New York Times 2022). However, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ is still as contested as it is popular. When scholars or practitioners mention the ‘hybrid model of warfare’ they do not always imply the same thing. Moreover, the definitions regarding ‘hybrid warfare’ adopted by Western states and institutions show significant differences. So, ultimately, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ obscures more than it explains. This essay argues that the ideational ambiguity regarding ‘hybrid warfare’ arises from two main reasons: First, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ has been widely discussed, criticized, and reformulated comprising new elements that were lacking in the initial conception since it was first popularized by Frank Hoffman in his 2007 monograph Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars. Second, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has often been used to refer to inapplicable phenomena. That is, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has been used to describe new cases that lack essential features of the original concept. As such, the idea of ‘hybrid warfare’ has continuously been subjected to conceptual stretching, and thus, today, it seems rather a vague and ambiguous concept. Yet still, a close investigation reveals that there are five major interpretations of the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ that are related yet different:
- ‘Hybrid Warfare’ as the employment of synergistic fusion of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal activities in the same battlespace.
- ‘Hybrid Warfare’ as the combined use of regular and irregular forces under a unified direction.
- ‘Hybrid Warfare’ as the use of various military and non-military means to menace an enemy.
- ‘Hybrid Warfare’ as sub-threshold activities involving any mix of violent and non-violent means.
- ‘Hybrid Warfare’ as a way of achieving political goals by using non-violent subversive activities.
This essay has two purposes: to provide an overview of the different conceptual versions of ‘hybrid warfare’ within a historical context and to briefly discuss the possible implications of the lack of conceptual clarity surrounding ‘hybrid warfare’ for the West.
‘Hybrid Warfare’: An Ever-Stretching Concept
The use of the term ‘hybrid warfare’ dates to the 1990s. To our best knowledge, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ first appeared in Thomas Mockaitis’ book entitled British Counterinsurgency in the Post-imperial Era in 1995 (Mockaitis 1995, 14-39). In the years that followed, several authors used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ to refer to a diverse range of military campaigns (see e.g., Walker 1998, Nemeth 2002, Dupont 2003, Carayannis 2003, Simpson 2005). Indeed, the way these authors characterize ‘hybrid warfare’ was not that similar to each other. Nevertheless, in the final analyses, it seems right to argue that they have used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ to indicate a mode of warfare that can be simply classified as neither purely conventional nor irregular. Yet, in truth, on the subject of ‘hybrid warfare’, the theoretical and practical implications of the abovementioned authors were rather limited.
The first widely disseminated articulation of the term 'hybrid warfare' was a speech by General James Mattis at Defence Forum backed by the Naval Institute and Marine Corps Association in September 2005 (Hoffman 2007, 14). Right after the conference, Mattis and Hoffman published a brief paper on ‘hybrid warfare’ in November 2005. In that paper, the authors argued that the future threats will be a merger of different modes of warfare, and they call this synthesis ‘hybrid warfare’. The concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ was not fully developed in that article, and the writers described the key characteristics of the ‘hybrid model of warfare’, rather than defining it (Mattis and Hoffman 2005, 18-19).
Two years later, Hoffman published his seminal monograph and formulated his own ‘hybrid warfare’ concept based on ‘fourth-generation warfare’, ‘compound warfare’, ‘unrestricted warfare’, and the ‘2005 National Defence Strategy’. This time, Hoffman provided a well-organized and detailed definition of ‘hybrid warfare’. Also, it was Hoffman’s monograph that popularized the term ‘hybrid warfare’ in the US academic and military-practitioner circles. Moreover, Hoffman’s definition has shaped the US Army’s understanding of ‘hybrid warfare’ to a notable extent (see e.g., Casey 2008, 28; US Army 2010, 1-1; US Army 2011, 1-5). Therefore, I tend to see his 2007 monograph as ‘the point of origin’ of the great debate on ‘hybrid warfare’.
In his monograph, Hoffman (2007, 8) has stated that:
Hybrid Wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.
According to Hoffman (2007, 36), Hezbollah’s method of warfare carried out in the face of the Israeli army during the 34-day war represents the most striking example of ‘hybrid warfare’. Hoffman (2007, 37) states that “Hezbollah’s use of C802 anti-ship cruise missiles and volley of rockets represents a sample of what ‘Hybrid Warfare’ might look like.” Arguably, he principally aims to raise awareness about the increasing state-like military capabilities of violent non-state actors in the post-Cold War era. Nevertheless, he has pointed out that ‘hybrid warfare’ can also be conducted by states (Hoffman 2007, 8). In this regard, Hoffman (2007, 28) has maintained that states can shift their regular forces to irregular units and employ non-traditional warfare tactics. So, in the final analysis, his notion of ‘hybrid warfare’, in substance, refers to non-state actors with high-tech weapons and states who adopt irregular tactics. Indeed, Hoffman’s idea of ‘hybrid warfare’ well describes what 21st century insurgents such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, ISIS, and PKK have done over the last two decades. Also, it captures state-based irregular fighters such as Russia’s masked troops known as ‘little green men’, China’s maritime militias, and Iran’s Quds Force. So, although non-state actors with sophisticated weapons and states who employ irregular tactics are not completely new, today they seem dominant in today’s armed conflicts, as Hoffman forecasted correctly in 2007.
Shortly after Hoffman published his monograph, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ gathered significant attention in the US military debates, and numerous military thinkers reviewed and reformulated it. Many scholars called into question the newness of ‘hybrid warfare’. However, an in-depth examination shows that unlike Hoffman, whose definition specifically focuses on the fusion of conventional and irregular forces in the same battlespace, some of them have characterized ‘hybrid warfare’ as the simultaneous use of regular and irregular forces in the same operation. For example, in a book entitled Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present, which is one the most cited works in the existing ‘hybrid warfare’ literature, a group of military historians have maintained that the history of war is full of examples of ‘hybrid warfare’ (Murray and Mansoor 2012). Nevertheless, the authors define ‘hybrid warfare’ “as conflict involving a combination of conventional military forces and irregulars (guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists), which could include both state and nonstate actors, aimed at achieving a common political purpose” (Mansoor 2012, 2). Namely, they primarily focus on the combined coordination of conventional and irregular forces without referring to Hoffman’s core idea that is, the merger of regular and irregular elements into a unified force. This line of argument has gained traction in the ‘hybrid warfare’ literature, and several authors have continued to characterize ‘hybrid warfare’ as the coordinated and combined use of regular and irregular forces under a unified strategic direction in the following years (see e.g., Deep 2015; Boot 2015; 15-18; Murray II 2017, 1).
On the other hand, another group of military thinkers such as McCuen (2008, 108), Jordan (2008, 20), Glenn (2009), Lasica (2009, 3), McWilliams (2009, 18-19), and Burbridge (2013, 11) has found the concept ‘hybrid warfare’ quite battlefield centric. According to these authors, ‘hybrid warfare’ is realized at all levels of war, and thus, the strategic use of ‘hybrid warfare’ is noteworthy as well. In that sense, they revised the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ by adding some non-kinetic elements to the scope of it.
For example, Glenn (2009) defines ‘hybrid threat’ as follows:
An adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs some combination of (1) political, military, economic, social, and information means, and (2) conventional, irregular, catastrophic, terrorism, and disruptive/criminal warfare methods.
What distinguishes this conceptual version of ‘hybrid warfare’ from those discussed earlier is the stress on non-kinetic means and techniques. As such, unlike the tactical-operational understanding of ‘hybrid warfare’, which is inherently military-oriented, the two constituent parts of this conceptual version of ‘hybrid warfare’ have become military and non-military instruments.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO preferred the term ‘hybrid warfare’ to refer to Russia’s so-called ‘new’ form of conflict in Ukraine. This choice, arguably, is the most crucial turning point in the evolution of the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’. First, the use and popularity of the term ‘hybrid warfare’ increased dramatically in the West’s military and strategic debates. Second, because Russia's activities in Ukraine did not fully fit the previous conceptualizations of ‘hybrid warfare’, the meaning of ‘hybrid warfare’ was subjected to conceptual stretching once again. Briefly speaking, Russia achieved its political goals in Ukraine by employing a mix of non-kinetic tools including cyber-attacks, propaganda, disinformation, economic coercion, and diplomatic pressure, and military methods such as conducting covert operations and empowering proxy warriors. In addition, Russia systemically denied its involvement in Ukraine. So, Russia’s so-called ‘hybrid warfare’ in Ukraine did not only consist of a combination of regular and irregular elements or the combination of military and non-military tools but also covert action and deception. So, the main defining characteristics of Russia’s subversive campaign in Ukraine were creating ambiguity and enabling plausible deniability. Therefore, in this context, the ‘hybrid model of warfare’ was largely associated with the so-called 'Gerasimov doctrine' that emphasizes the blurring distinctions between war and peace. As such, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ was generally characterized by sub-threshold activities including kinetic and non-kinetic methods in both scholarly papers, and policy/strategy documents of Western institutions (see e.g., NATO 2014; NATO n.d., The European Commission 2016; Hybrid CoE n.d; Military Balance 2015, 5; Popescu 2015, 1). In truth, this understanding of ‘hybrid warfare’ appears to be a cocktail of previous conceptual versions. Namely, it captures nearly all categories included in ‘hybrid warfare’ literature: conventional and irregular; military and non-military. Nevertheless, as noted above, this formulation gives particular emphasis to plausible deniability and the notion of remaining the threshold of the outright act of war, and thus, represents a departure from previous conceptualizations of ‘hybrid warfare.
In the years that followed, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ has continued to evolve and gain new meaning in the West’s strategic discourse. This is because Western politicians, scholars, think-tank experts, and media have often been used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ just to refer to non-violent subversive actions such as cyber-attacks, economic coercion, disinformation campaign, election meddling, and recently weaponization of migrants (See e.g., Der Spiegel 2016; Sahin 2017; Deni 2017; Kuczyński 2019; Shedd and Stradner 2020; Aslund 2021; EURACTIV 2017; BBC 2021). Obviously, this conceptual version of ‘hybrid warfare’ represents an extreme departure from the original approach to ‘hybrid warfare’ which has originally been included in the West’s military lexicon as a battlefield-centric concept.
As a result, clearly, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has been used to describe a wide range of aggressive activities with different characteristics, and this makes it a highly ambiguous concept after all. Let us continue by asking the ‘so what’ question: Why does that matter?
Without a doubt, defining ‘hybrid warfare’ is not just a matter of intellectual debate. As discussed earlier, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has already deeply been embedded in and part of the West’s military and strategic lexicon. Western governments and institutions have often used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ (or ‘hybrid threats’) to refer to contemporary security challenges. However, as already mentioned, this usage is not based on a mutual understanding of what ‘hybrid warfare’ entails.
In much of its doctrinal documents, the US Army has adopted Hoffman’s definition of ‘hybrid warfare’ or the slightly modified versions of it. For example, the US Army’s Training Circular (TC) 7-100 codifies ‘hybrid threats’ “as the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, and/or criminal elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects” (The US Department of Army 2010, v). More recently, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, defined a ‘hybrid threat’ as “the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, terrorists, or criminal elements acting in concert to achieve mutually benefitting effects” (The US Department of Army 2019, 1-3). These definitions reflect the battlefield-oriented understanding of ‘hybrid warfare’. However, one may encounter notably different definitions regarding ‘hybrid warfare’ in the US military documents. For example, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) G-2, defines ‘hybrid warfare’ as “the use of political, social, criminal, and other non-kinetic means employed to overcome military limitations.” Obviously, non-kinetic means have come to the fore in this definition of ‘hybrid warfare’ (TRADOC 2015, 94).
On the other hand, currently, NATO and the EU, characterize ‘hybrid warfare’ as a way of achieving political objectives by employing a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic means while remaining below the threshold of traditional war in their official documents. For example, according to the NATO (n.d) website:
Hybrid threats combine military and non-military as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber-attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces. Hybrid methods are used to blur the lines between war and peace and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations. They aim to destabilise and undermine societies.
Likewise, the EU's 'Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats declares that:
The concept of hybrid threats aims to capture the mixture of conventional and unconventional, military and non-military, overt and covert actions that can be used in a coordinated manner by state or non-state actors to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare (The European Commission 2016).
However, Western policymakers and practitioners have mostly associated the term ‘hybrid warfare’ with non-violent destabilization operations. In this regard, for example, alleged Russian interference in the 2016 United States election, Russia’s cyber-attacks against Western institutions, and Belarus’ weaponization of Middle Eastern refugees have been labeled an act of ‘hybrid warfare’ (France24 2018; EURACTIV 2017; BBC 2021). This indicates that Western decision-makers use this term in a way that is inconsistent even with their own definitions, and this exacerbates the lack of conceptual clarity regarding ‘hybrid warfare’.
Today, Western states and organizations strongly emphasize that the West ought to be prepared to counter ‘hybrid threats’. Then, the question that should be asked is: How is that possible given that key actors/players in the West’s security architecture do not agree on the core meaning of the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’?
The term ‘hybrid warfare’ has drawn remarkable attention in the West’s strategic debates over the last fifteen years, and apparently, it will continue to draw attention. Nevertheless, it is still an extremely contested concept. The definitions concerning ‘hybrid warfare’ significantly differ from each other. Moreover, it has been used to describe a wide range of different phenomena that necessitate different countermeasures. The concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ has been so stretched that today hybrid warfare, which has originally been included in the West’s military lexicon as a battlefield-centric concept, has even been used to refer to just non-kinetic destabilization operations. Hence, alongside a poor understanding of such a concept, the ideational confusion weakens the capabilities of Western states and organizations to effectively deal with what they deem ‘hybrid threats’. As such, the concept of hybrid warfare seems to be suffering the same fate as ‘terrorism’ which is another contested term in the strategic lexicon. Hence, eliminating such a conceptual haziness should be prioritized by Western policymakers and defense intellectuals.
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