Uniformed bands with weapons but no insignia roam the streets. Unexplained explosions and failures in energy and communications networks might be accidents, or might be part of an attack. Amid the confusion, news reports and social media spew a mass of contradictory information about what is going on. One side asserts that the other has effectively declared war. The alleged aggressor consistently denies any responsibility.
Commonly described as “hybrid warfare”, this description of the current situation involving Russia and Ukraine could be a foretaste of future conflict around the world. But what makes “hybrid” warfare different, why does it matter, and what should we do about it?
What makes the hybrid model of conflict distinct is the way it seeks advantage by blurring the lines. Armed groups in uniform but without markings blur the line between civilian and military. The use of proxies blurs the line between national conflicts and regional or even global rivalries. Disinformation operations blur the lines between advocacy and propaganda. State-sponsored hacks into industrial “national champions” and economic sanctions blur the lines between economic competition, crime and geopolitical rivalry. In short, the hybrid approach blurs the lines between war and peace.
Blurred lines offer an advantage to those who are prepared to use force to gain a political objective, but are not prepared to handle the fallout (economic or otherwise) that would be triggered by a large-scale conventional or nuclear retaliation. In that sense, hybrid approaches are a logical choice for a globalized economy, overseen by an exclusive club of rival powers armed with weapons of mass destruction, and challenged by the proliferation of destructive technologies.
At first glance, none of the elements of hybrid warfare look particularly new – throughout history, conventional military campaigns have been augmented by other tactics from misinformation to economic coercion to manipulation of proxies. However, many new opportunities for waging war with the explicit purpose of blurring lines are now being created by the ongoing explosion of connectivity and technological innovation. The accelerating pace of technological change and modern life is evolving in ways that make it all the more dangerous for all of us.
An expanding battlefield
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in hybrid war, but hybrid war is interested in you. This becomes more obvious as the battlefield for hybrid warfare expands into areas like the internet and commercial jet travel, where ordinary people spend increasing proportion of their work and leisure time. Alongside cyberspace, frontiers of future hybrid wars may increasingly include space and the seabed, where satellites, fibre-optic cables and energy pipelines are vulnerable to attack.
When you put big actors’ preference for proxy conflict together with the fact that there are more “lone wolf” participants or small groups on the battlefield, we may see the lethality of inter-state conflict combine with the fanatical fervour of irregular warfare. Adversaries may be a shifting and confusing mix of states, state-sponsored groups and self-funded actors with overlapping strategic aims, between them using a mixture of modern conventional weapons and insurgent tactics such as ambushes, improvised explosive devices, assassinations, cyberattacks to steal data and destabilize infrastructure, and propaganda through social media. With the democratization of access to destructive power to more individuals and groups, doctrines of mutually assured destruction become useless.
The possibility of containing security activity in the public sector institutions, like the military and intelligence services, is diminishing. From finance to energy to transport to communications networks, much of the connectivity-dependent and critical infrastructure that now underpins modern economies is privately owned and controlled. More than half of all satellites orbiting Earth are already commercial. Private companies are at the forefront of developing and marketing technologies, which are intended for civilian use but also have uses in hybrid war – such as civilian-use drones, around 200,000 of which are being sold worldwide every month. Hybrid war is also blurring the normative delineation between public and private sectors.
At the same time, the advantages offered by blurring the lines are set to grow further still. For one thing, the spread of networked technology is lowering entry barriers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will give more people the ability to do more bad things, from manufacturing weapons locally using online instructions to remotely bringing down essential services or potentially even triggering ballistic missiles. Much of the networked infrastructure was designed in an era (the peaceful post-Cold War decade) when we were less concerned about security. Technological advances and greater connectivity has created more vulnerabilities and opportunities for sabotage. Attacks in cyberspace can be difficult to detect, defend against, or attribute responsibility for without controversy. As attribution becomes harder, deterrence is less effective. The networked nature of systems like infrastructure can be turned into a “force multiplier” for someone who understands how to coordinate attacks to create a cascading crisis effect.
If hybrid approaches have succeeded in blurring lines, maybe the response should be to redraw them, but not necessarily in the same places.
Redrawing the lines
As intelligence, situational awareness and early warnings grow in importance, we need to find new ways to increase trust among entities whose combined resources and expertise are needed to keep people safe and economies functioning.
What is beyond a doubt is that states cannot manage the growing level of hybrid threats on their own. Collaboration among states and with private enterprises is not only required – it’s essential.
Redrawing the lines on attribution, for example, require investment in intelligence and surveillance to achieve early warning. Doing so enables the preparation of a response that could either deter the attack or reduce its chances of success. One implication of this new reality is that the lines that separated the military, police and intelligence agencies – and increasingly private sector companies – will need to be redrawn.
Some areas are so new they need new lines where none existed before. For instance, cyberspace or the internet of things urgently requires clearer rules of engagement in the context of international security, analogous to the treaties and conventions that have long been sought to govern the use of conventional arms in physical frontiers of war. One example would be discussions among governments and leading private companies to define a common understanding and nomenclature of the circumstances in which it is considered acceptable and unacceptable for states to break encryption on private electronic communications.
Failure to respond to this blurring of lines will result in the current multilateral system and rules of war becoming gradually outdated. As geopolitical power shifts to emerging states and non-state actors, and strategic competition for regional spheres of influence returns, the aspirations which informed the UN Charter – of a world defined by universal values of democracy and rule of law – seem increasingly hollow. But what new principles and values should underlie the ways in which disputes are resolved? As the incentives for hybrid warfare grows inexorably wider and more complex, we either redraw the lines, or face a future of warfare where there is no distinct or real peace.