Earlier this week, the Institute of International and Security Studies, a leading British think tank, released the 2015 version of The Military Balance – an annual assessment of global military trends and capabilities. The report has long served as a useful weather vane for those who follow defense and security trends closely.
The concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ – broadly, situations where the adversary uses a combination of conventional and irregular warfare – features prominently in the editor’s introduction. That is no surprise, as the term has gained renewed prominence following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of instability in Eastern Ukraine. Just last July, the then NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen publicly accused Russia of waging hybrid warfare. And in a key indication of how the term has caught on among the chattering classes of late, this year’s Munich Security Conference – an annual gathering of bigwigs which just wrapped up a few days ago – specifically included the concept in one of its panel discussions.
What’s so new about ‘hybrid warfare’? Those who read widely on the evolution of warfare will know that the concept is hardly novel. The term itself at least a decade old and is often traced back to the U.S. Marine Corps, although one can easily find references to similar conceptions in other countries including Russia and China. But the general practice of blending conventional state-on-state conflict with irregular warfare has been around for centuries. Even if one were to avoid the rather quotidian reference to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, it has arguably played out recently in the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Hezbollah’s attack on Israel in 2006 to cite just a few examples.
Of course, this is hardly the first time that old concepts on warfare have gained new significance due to current developments. In this case, that development is clearly the nature of the Russian threat which is playing out most clearly in Ukraine, and the discussion is centered on whether the world – particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – is ready to counter such a threat. As The Military Balance notes, it is pretty clear that Russian involvement in Crimea last year showed the integrated use of capabilities including rapid deployment, electronic warfare, information operations, special-forces capabilities and cyberspace communications, targeted at both domestic and foreign audiences.
But the conversation that is occurring is not just about what tactics to use, but how to think about the concept strategically as well. To cite just one example, Frank Hoffman has written previously over at War on the Rocks about how we ought to pay attention not only to the mix of conventional weapons as well as irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior, but also non-violent actions. These include not just information operations, but also economic, financial and subversive political acts. As Hoffman correctly notes, this is not just merely a definitional debate. Choosing how broadly we define something has effects on the extent to which various government agencies are involved and integrated in responding to hybrid warfare and, more broadly, how we prepare for contingencies. The Military Balance adopts a similar expansive conception and argues that adapting to the threat of ‘hybrid warfare’ will require governments to invest in a wider array of capabilities and facilitate coordination between them.
In that respect, the recent Munich Security Conference panel held on February 6 – rather directly titled “Who is Ready for Hybrid Warfare?” offered an interesting window into the ongoing conversation at both the strategic and tactical levels. During the panel, NATO’s military commander General Philip Breedlove honestly admitted that the organization can only be “a part” of the solution, and there was discussion about focusing a response on other non-military dimensions as well such as information. “We need to put the truth out there,” Breedlove said with respect to that dimension, which would involve the use of broadcasting in order to reconfigure the narrative.
But as The Military Balance correctly points out, ‘hybrid warfare’ has implications for other regions as well. This includes not just the ISIS threat in the Middle East, but Asia as well, where it says defense budgets have been rising by an estimated 27 percent between 2010 and 2014 amid growing awareness that the West’s military-technological edge could be increasingly eroded. With respect to hybrid warfare concerns in the region itself, the report makes specific reference to Japanese concerns about ‘grey-zone’ contingencies – ones just shy of actual conflict and not involving militaries – with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as one concern.
Another clear example of this in Asia which I have expanded on here is of course the South China Sea, where similar worries about hybrid contingencies also exist given China’s growing assertiveness there as well as the mix of responses from other claimants as well. With China’s share of total Asian defense spending rising from 28 percent to 38 percent in just the last five years, and other countries investing largely in maritime and aerial capabilities, it is little wonder that strategists and governments alike have begun thinking seriously about how this might play out amidst the region’s “growing militarization,” as the head of IISS John Chipman said in a press statement.