‘Hybrid Warfare’ is a term that has been coined to describe modern conflicts that do not conform to the pattern of conventional wars fought by the armies of opposing states. There is no precise definition of ‘hybrid warfare’. The term is used to describe a conflict in which an opponent uses a combination of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal activities to achieve their aims.
The possibility of hybrid threats is nothing new. It has always been the case that, once two sides are "at war", they will use any and every opportunity to advance their cause. Examples include the combination of regular forces with irregular militias in the American Revolution and with Spanish Guerrillas in the Napoleonic Wars are considered to be early examples of Hybrid Warfare.
Today, one can discern three main elements in hybrid warfare. There is conventional fighting, with regular or irregular troops, there is terrorist and criminal activity, targeting the general population and there is propaganda targeting the reputation and the morale of the opponent. All these means are being deployed in our current hybrid conflicts.
One reason why wars are becoming more hybrid is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for states to achieve their goals through conventional means. Since the Cold war, the world’s great military powers (the USA, Russia and China) have been so strong that a war against them would be unwinnable, therefore, a war between them has become unthinkable.
That having been said, military forays have shown that while these powers have the military strength to defeat armies, this does not enable them to hold the territory they have conquered. More recent conventional warfare has been limited to local and regional conflicts with the great powers engaged solely for the sake of helping their allies, the most obvious example being Russia in the Ukraine.
In this reality, people who cannot hope to challenge the great powers through conventional means look to use unconventional ones to advance their cause. This dynamic can be observed during the colonial wars, when unconventional combatants called themselves ‘freedom fighters’, but many of their methods would today be called acts of terror.
Terrorism and crime
There is a fine, and perhaps unnecessary, distinction between sponsoring criminal activity in order to undermine a society and its economy and terrorism. Terrorist acts, e.g. the Paris Attacks and the Brussels Bombings are, first and foremost, crimes. Indiscriminate mass murder is against the Law. However, there is something particularly iniquitous about randomly killing people in order to spread fear.
Most criminal activity (e.g. mafia activities) pursue a recognisable, if deplorable, economic logic.
The random killing of innocent people has a different motivation. It is designed to create political instability and to sap political support to the point where the great powers are moved to disengage and to find an exit strategy. Precedents for this can be seen in the Vietnam War, and the Russian engagement in Afghanistan.
The final, and in some ways the newest dimension for hybrid war is the propaganda war that is fought out in the media, in particular, social media and the internet. With the emergence of on-line communications, it is no longer possible to control the flow of information or to weed out disinformation. It is, therefore, easier than ever to spread propaganda and to sow doubt and confusion in people’s minds.
We are only now beginning to realise just how actively some countries are using the internet to manipulate the popular perceptions of others. The recent case of the Russian trolls in St. Petersburg lifted the lid on a state run organisation whose purpose was to discredit critics of the Russian regime and to undermine confidence in Western and US institutions.
How do we respond?
By using unconventional tactics such as terrorism and internet propaganda, this kind of warfare “… intentionally blurs the distinction between times of peace and war making it hard for the targeted countries to devise policy responses in a proper and timely manner." So how can one effectively address these challenges?
We have to recognise that there is a threat. Despite our willing denial, these threats are nonetheless real and come, in different guises, from Putin’s Russia and from Islamic State.
The self-styled Islamic State is engaged in a conventional war in Syria and Iraq that is increasingly drawing in regional powers, like Iran, and global powers, like the US and Russia. ISIS has neither the resources nor the firepower to mount a direct challenge to the US. So, instead, they adopt unconventional tactics. They are waging a particularly vicious propaganda war on the internet, showing horrific pictures of decapitations and the destruction of historic artefacts so as to appear strong and ‘in power’. This impression of power appeals to disaffected young Muslims in Europe, who may become radicalised and recruited to commit acts of terrorism. These acts are random because they are meant to instil the fear that ‘it could have been me’ and to undermine belief and trust in the authorities’ ability to protect us.
How Europe responds to this threat will have a significant bearing on our ability to combat ISIS in the Middle East. Clearly, the security services must do everything, and more, to block acts of terror and society can and should do more to prevent the radicalisation of disaffected youths. But at the same time it will be equally important that people stand up to the terrorists, and that we do not allow them to rule us through fear.
The Russian threat is less overt, but no less real. It turns on an increasingly aggressive attempt to recover and to maintain its influence over its immediate neighbours, the former Soviet States. In Georgia and the Ukraine these attempts involved direct military action, and the use of irregular local fighters.
The EU believes that the independent states that came out of the former Soviet Union should have the right to decide their own fate by themselves. The increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin disagrees and sees it as a struggle for influence between the EU and Russia . It is a struggle that is not likely to lead to Russians committing terrorist acts in the EU. Indeed, they are careful to avoid anything that can be directly attributed to Russia, and have been very careful to remain below the limit of offence necessary for invoking NATO’s Article 5 collective defence strategy.
Yet the Russians are undoubtedly engaging in propaganda activities that are intended to undermine the EU’s credibility and resolve, and so our ability to oppose Russia in its aggressive policies. Thus, as previously discussed, a Russian State organisation is trolling the internet to suppress any criticism of the Putin regime and disseminating material that paints opposing countries in a poor light.
Equally, they are working with and through Russian speaking minorities in the Eastern Member States, seeking to radicalise opposition to the national Governments, weakening those countries and increasing the possibility of insurrection. The same rationale appears to be behind Russian support for Brexit. The Independent notes that, “From the tweets of the Russian Embassy to the programming of Russia Today, the Kremlin is pushing for Out.” If that is the official, public line it would be surprising if Russia were not actively trying to secure that outcome. One can only imagine what they might be up to behind the scenes.
The EU response
There is no common EU strategy for dealing with these threats, and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy has stated that “Smaller countries often lack the political agenda, the wide intelligence gathering apparatus to acquire a list of potential targets and the capability to flexibly utilise a wide array of hybrid warfare instruments for successful operations." If individual Member States cannot protect themselves from Hybrid Warfare, then the EU will find itself facing a very real threat.
On the 6th April 2016, the European Commission released a Communication to the European Parliament and the Council entitled ‘A Joint Framework on countering Hybrid Threats: a European Response’. Within the document, the Commission proposes to formulate a coordinated response to hybrid threats at EU level by using EU policies and instruments. This would include:
- The creation of an EU Hybrid Fusion Cell within the existing EU INTCEN (Intelligence and Situation Centre), to receive and analyse information on said threats. These will have national contact points within Member States to aid communication.
- Providing Member States with proposals on how to defend their infrastructures, public health and food security, transport networks, energy supply, cyberspace, industry, finance systems and radicalisation prevention techniques from hybrid threats.
- Increased communication and cooperation with third countries (non-EU countries) in order to remain alerted to terrorist movements.
- The implementation of a Hybrid Risk Survey, a Common Operational Protocol and Regular Exercises to prevent and defend against hybrid threats.
- Increased cooperation with NATO on the topic of hybrid threats and conflict in order to protect the Western values and way of life.
The implementation of the proposed Passenger Name Records regulation should provide another tool to this particular kit.
“Fortune Favours the Prepared”
No-one should be under any illusion but that the threat posed by hybrid warfare is real. Whether it is random acts of terror perpetrated in the name of Islam or the more insidious propaganda and political interference from the Kremlin, it poses a real danger to Europe’s security and stability. No-one should be under any illusion that the above measures will remove the threat. But they are an important step in recognising that it is there, and a positive statement to the effect that we are stronger tackling it together than we can ever be acting separately.