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DON Innovation Hybrid Warfare and its Implications
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Hybrid Warfare and its Implications


By Robert A. Newson, CAPT USN, Council on Foreign Relations Military Fellow **
Published: 12 May 2015


Clausewitz said, “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Today we face conflict that is hybrid in nature, incremental in execution and savagely violent. The lethality and sophistication of non-state actors, added to their ability to persist within and challenge the modern state is novel to our time. The rise of non-state actors, information technology, and proliferation of advanced weapons gives rise to modern hybrid war, which in the future may challenge us at home. The United States requires, but does not have, a credible strategic-level ability to (1) address incremental, persistent belligerence and (2) interdict and roll back external sponsors of insurgent and separatist movements.

The Growing Threat of Hybrid Warfare
Hybrid warfare has been defined as combining conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can combine special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media manipulation and information warfare; economic intimidation; cyber-attacks; use of proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorist, and criminal elements. Wars traditionally have regular and irregular components – this is not new. However, these components previously applied in different areas of operation, as distinct efforts. Modern hybrid warfare combines them simultaneously within a single domain. This vastly increases the complexity and disorder of the conflict and requires an adaptable and versatile whole of society approach – military, whole of government, and non-governmental.

Hybrid warfare places a premium on unconventional warfare (UW)—defined as activities conducted to enable a resistance movement to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government. External sponsorship often provides motivation, resources, and support to destabilize international and regional security. Some examples of this strategy include the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, Russia’s current activities in Ukraine and potential future moves in the Baltics, as well as Iran’s use of surrogates like Hezbollah in Syria and Shiite militias in Iraq. Accordingly, developing a United States capacity for counter-UW is absolutely necessary.

What’s Different About Counter-Unconventional Warfare?
Counter-UW is distinct from counter terrorism (CT) and counter insurgency (COIN). CT operations are short-term, time-sensitive and intelligence-driven, with immediately visible results; i.e., has the kill or capture been achieved or not? Counter-UW, by contrast, is protracted and proactive. The results are expressed in negative terms: what areas do insurgents not control? What opportunities have been denied to them, and what objective has the enemy failed to achieve? Meanwhile, COIN operations contain and defeat an insurgency while simultaneously addressing its root cause. As a result, COIN tends to need a large footprint and high U.S. signature. Future counter-UW, on the other hand, is executed by a smaller force, more narrowly scoped. It has a small footprint, a low signature, and specifically denies an adversary the ability to use surrogates for strategic success. Building upon the lessons from more than a decade of CT and COIN, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) can use this capability to deny adversaries the capacity to employ unconventional warfare for their goals. A combination of Special Operations capabilities is needed: military information support operations (formerly psychological operations); civil affairs; Special Forces (Green Berets), Marine Special Operators and SEALs; robust and scalable command and control capacity; and a growing “reach-back” capability in all areas to support operations from the U.S.

More Than Special Operations Forces
While SOF will have the primary counter-UW role within a whole of government effort, hybrid warfare and counter-UW have implications beyond them. China’s pursuit of unrestricted warfare has not yet included surrogates or para-military forces—unless you count the intimidating use of the Chinese Coast Guard —but their UW capabilities should not be discounted. The U.S. should expect more than a conventional fight in any future conflict with Russia, China, Korea, Iran, or Syria. Hybrid warfare, seen now in regional conflicts, will be turned against the U.S. and our military forces. Counter-UW should be in joint and service exercises, as well as operational and contingency plans. Additionally, the military services should explore how to integrate a SOF counter-UW campaign within their broader operations.

Responding to Gradualism.
Global actors have found some success by incrementally—over time—increasing influence over sovereign territory, international waters, or creating prohibited capabilities. Such a strategy achieves strategic goals bit-by-bit while stopping just short of drawing a military response. Responding to gradualism requires presence and commitment as a deterrent tripwire; non-lethal weapons to avoid escalation and miscalculation inherent in lethal action; an aggressive and realistic counter-narrative and information operations campaign, and an ability and methods to de-escalate at every step. In future, this must be integrated holistically.

An Uncertain Path Ahead
Counter-UW requires a whole-of-government approach and a comprehensive, integrated pursuit of political warfare, including economic sanctions, diplomacy, use of surrogates, military and law enforcement support for partner nations, and strategic communication and information operations. The U.S. has not displayed a strategic whole-of-government capacity beyond CT, counter- and counter-proliferation tactical operations run by joint interagency task forces. A considerable effort and strong leadership will be required to create this capacity for the future. This task is so great it may take congressional action to create a national counter-UW capability. Much depends upon national leaders committing to protracted counter-UW operations in sensitive, hostile, and denied environments. Counter-UW requires early and long-term investment. Timely decisions, before a crisis, are needed, a real problem. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has rarely invested in developing such long-lead options. To secure the future, it should start now, preparing counter-UW capabilities in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to counter any Russian use of hybrid warfare. It is all too easy for institutional forces to argue counter-UW activities and their preparations will be destabilizing, escalatory, or uncontrollable due to the central role of surrogates. Regardless of the downsides of counter-UW, the alternative—giving adversaries strategic advantage through unopposed use of surrogates and proxies—will always be worse.

** = The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.


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