Getting Behind Hybrid Warfare

When ISIS stampeded its way across western Iraq, some observers described it as a new kind of “hybrid war.” Ditto when Ukrainian rebels, aided by stealthy Russian forces on the ground nicknamed “little green men, seized control of Crimea and various cities throughout southeastern Ukraine, a few analysts, including the Naval War College’s John Schindler, described a new kind of “special war” unfolding.

The term refers to an “amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.” Increasingly termed “hybrid warfare” by media and academia, this covert, non-conventional manner of fighting is quickly becoming the new normal. Hybrid war presents a unique blend of traditional warfare with an array of strategies including cyber warfare, surveillance, indirect foreign intervention, insurgency, chemical weaponry, strategic financing, civil unrest, and terrorism. While traditional combat still remains a possibility, it will no longer be the primary means to victory on the battlefield of the 21st century. What John Nagl, in a forthcoming book, calls “knife fights,” is the new norm, military analysts say.

Hybrid warfare is largely a byproduct of military innovation. When nuclear weapons became more widely accessible in the 1950s, the theory of self-deterrence quickly took center stage. The existence of nuclear weapons meant that the weapons themselves would likely never be used. Today, we are witnessing a similar effect with the advanced weapon systems and impossibly large magnitude of our modern militaries. For small insurgencies and militant organizations, conventional means of aggression are nearly impossible. Terrorism, cyber attacks, and intelligence-based assaults, rather, have become choice weapons in combating developed militaries.

For today’s superpowers, strength in the art of hybrid warfare is found not on the front lines but rather on the fringe of international law and the grey regions of international policy.

Already, 2014 has shifted away from traditionalist warfare on display. In May, the Ukrainian National Security Chief accused the Kremlin of playing a strategic role in facilitating unrest in Crimea by deploying Chechen mercenary units to support pro-Russian contingencies. Indirect intervention meant Russia could satiate the demands of the West and still force Kiev’s hand towards assimilation. In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad furtively conducted Sarin-gas attacks on rebel groups in Ghouta as part of a carefully orchestrated move to quell rebel and insurgent factions in the Syrian civil war. Even as insurgencies grow in North Africa and ISIS makes unprecedented territorial gains in Iraq, conventional warfare has taken a backseat in the modern problem-solving toolbox.

The United States has come under recent scrutiny for foreign and domestic spying conducted by the CIA and NSA. Intricate intelligence programs have been uncovered as concerns grow about transnational surveillance and its legality. Regulatory committees, investigators, and a privacy-concerned public will be the impetus for change in the large-scale adoption of hybrid warfare. For today’s superpowers, strength in the art of hybrid warfare, then, is found not on the front lines but rather on the fringe of international law and the grey regions of international policy. Until the next major global conflict, non-traditional forms of warfare will continue to drive defense and security-related action as modern militaries scramble to combat the threat of terrorism at home and abroad.

Super-carriers, Zumwalt-class destroyers, joint strike fighters, and the latest upgrades to our littoral Navy are nothing short of impressive. There is no doubt that when it comes to firepower superiority, the United States military reigns king. Even for the most-developed nations, going toe-to-toe with the U.S. arsenal is a daunting prospect, at best. Developed nations, however, are not the primary enemy of the 21st century. Conventional warfare—on land or at sea—is a dying concept.


Jordan Bravin is an undergraduate at Yale University, an NROTC Midshipman, and an editorial intern with Cicero Magazine. His opinions and comments are the author’s own, and not endorsed, supported, or verified by the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other association.


[Photo of Russian soldiers in Crimea is courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.]


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