How Hybrid Warfare Could Change Asia

Recent Features

Features | Security

How Hybrid Warfare Could Change Asia

What the future of warfare might look like in Asia.

How Hybrid Warfare Could Change Asia

Anti-Terrorist Units of the Philippine and Japanese Coast Guards (R) prepare to target a vessel and engage mock pirates during a combined maritime law enforcement exercise at a bay in Manila (May 6, 2015)

Credit: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

“Hybrid warfare”: Defense analysts have been increasingly vocal over the last few years in touting this as the next great phase of conflict. There is hardly a security studies journal or conference that passes by without a mention of the term. For all the jargon however, the concept is pretty simple – modern technology has made a new type of warfare possible, one where conventional tactics, irregular fighting, criminal racketeering, cyber attacks, propaganda, and even international law are tools to be readily exploited. While some find the term fancy and meaningless, it has gained more traction with recent conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, where actors like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Russia have employed a hybrid of hitherto distinct types of warfare under one strategic umbrella.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the terminology and concedes that this is a “new” type of warfare, one thing is certain. Elements of combat that were previously considered disparate have now been pulled into a broader definition of warfare, under which it is recognized that a hacker, propagandist, or arms smuggler can be just as much a part of the war effort as a soldier. It has drastically changed how we view war, since states can now fight like non-state actors and vice versa. ISIS, for example, can fight in ways similar to a state (as seen in the fall of Ramadi) and Russia can employ asymmetric tactics usually used by non-state actors.

While the discourse surrounding “hybrid warfare” has thus far emphasized – perhaps unfairly so – Western interests in global security, scholars and analysts have slowly but surely begun to shift their sights East. What they have found has not been pretty. Many of the conditions that breed hybrid threats are ripe for harvest in the Asian continent, with its ethnic conflicts, a vibrant tech industry, territorial disputes, and inconsistent rule of law. As security expert Douglas Ollivant pointed out recently “Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Pakistan, or Chechnya might be the cradles of such groups.” However, there has been almost no attempt to understand how security and foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific will be affected by the emergence of hybrid wars, barring the South China Sea dispute.

States Using Non-State Actors   

A major hallmark of hybrid warfare is the manner in which non-state actors with state patronage, like Russian-backed separatists or the Iran-backed Hezbollah, have begun to utilize military capabilities that were traditionally attributed only to States. Instead of relying solely on irregular tactics, as insurgent groups have done in the past, they have surprised their adversaries with conventional arsenals like ballistic missiles and artillery rockets as well.

One of Asia’s powder kegs — the India-Pakistan rivalry — is likely to be affected in several ways by this trend. India has long maintained that Pakistan arms and trains terror groups to stage attacks on Indian soil, as part of a “proxy war” strategy. These groups have not exhibited any conventional warfare capabilities yet, although it is inevitable that this will change once emerging technologies make it easier for small insurgent groups to wield State-like destructive power. If Russian or Iranian sponsored groups can do it, there is no reason to assume that Pakistan-backed ones will not follow suit soon. India will have to be ready for such an outcome.

In fact, it is not just from Pakistan that India might face a hybrid threat. There have been several accusations made that the Naxal insurgency in the northeast of India receives aid from China, whose formidable capacity in hybrid warfare has been documented before. Both robotics and cyber attacks will play a key role in shaping the future of conflict, spheres in which China is among the best in the world. As these technologies get cheaper and easier to make, it is easy to envision a scenario where they fall into the hands of sponsored non-state actors. Nightmare scenarios like a cheaply made drone carrying a biologically lethal payload will only get closer to reality as the cost to buy or modify such “toys” becomes lower.

None of this is as far-fetched as it sounds. South Asia has faced a hybrid threat before, even before the term was coined by Western theorists. The LTTE are in many ways an early example of a hybrid threat; it had state-like military capabilities by possessing an army, navy, and air force; it managed to use criminal enterprises to help sustain the insurgent movement; it even had a sophisticated propaganda network around the world. It took the Sri Lankan government decades to alter its own fighting style into a hybrid one as well, before the separatist group could be defeated. The very fact that conditions existed in South Asia for the emergence of such a group should alert observers that it could be duplicated in the future.

Teasing the Threshold

Asia is also likely to become more vulnerable from the emergence of hybrid warfare because of its territorial disputes. Russia’s use of hybrid war is a solid blueprint for the way in which a State can wage war without actually waging war. That is, it uses a spectrum of tactics to attack the adversary, but no single attack is severe or traceable enough for Russia to be considered a belligerent. International law offers a certain boundary that a State would have to cross for its actions to be deemed as an act of war. Hybrid warfare allows states to launch a multi-pronged strategy, where they can attack without quite crossing that threshold. By staying within this boundary, Russia has been able to wage war without any retaliation from NATO.

A similar strategy could be magnified in Asia, where there is even less of a cooperative security framework than in Europe. Since the traditional definition of war is so outdated, it would be relatively easy for China or India to utilize the Russian model in order to interfere in the affairs of their smaller neighbors, knowing that there can be no legal or military response.

Consider this example – there has been a lot of discussion recently on the rise of piracy in Southeast Asia. For how long will such actors remain apolitical? What would happen if a State like China decides to covertly arm and train pirate groups to harass the ships of its smaller neighbous, in order to legitimize an increased Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean? Such an act would be difficult to prove as crossing the threshold, but it would be an act of force nonetheless to pursue a military advantage. Given the staggering number of territorial disputes in the region, such tactics might proliferate to smaller disputes as well, complicating what is already a continent in diplomatic tatters.

Cyber Threats

Another key component of hybrid warfare that will transform conflict in Asia is the way in which cyberspace has become an electronic counterpart of the physical battlefield. Cyber warfare is now relatively common even among States that are not at war, with hackers trying to one-up each other. Earlier this year, China even opened a “Cyber Warfare” branch, highlighting what a significant role the Chinese army have in mind for it. Because of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia is now the most targeted region in the world by hackers.

Most Asian nations have made little progress in taking up the issue of cyber warfare on a diplomatic level. There is no consensus on the appropriate response to a cyber attack, the responsibility of the State to deal with hackers, or even a legal framework that would set up acceptable boundaries. This short-sightedness on the part of Asian policymakers might lead to a dangerous threat in the future, as computer networks empower non-state actors to fight on a higher level. Given how computerized modern societies are, where data storage and daily transactions are made at an electronic level, it should be considered a major threat.

The Future of Asia

This is merely a small sample of how the emergence of hybrid warfare tactics could challenge existing diplomatic thinking in Asia. With non-state actors wielding more power than they ever did before, states would have to drastically review their security paradigms. The foreign policy hurdles may not be very different from what they are today, but the solutions are. As new fields emerge and individuals become even more powerful than the State, analysts and policymakers have a serious challenge ahead of them.

Some may find the term “hybrid warfare” meaningless, but at the very least it demonstrates that Western thinkers have now understood how intertwined war is with a variety of other components. It demonstrates that they realize how the distinction between state and non-state threats, conventional war and unconventional war, will soon become redundant. Asia would do well to acknowledge this foresight.

Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst and writer currently involved with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. He is the co-editor of three books on counterinsurgency in South Asia.