Home Opinion What is Hybrid Warfare: A detailed analysis

What is Hybrid Warfare: A detailed analysis

Zeeshan Muneer |

This excerpt has been taken from the thesis of the writer titled “Challenges posed by Hybrid Warfare to International Humanitarian Law”.

Our contemporary world has been undergoing momentous transition since the 9/11 attacks. Various nation-states had faltered, economies gone bankrupt, social system became the dysfunctional and social fabric of societies has been torn apart by multitude of challenges. This phase of transition has been termed by some as a consequence of ‘Great Power Competition’ while others term this state of affairs of various states as ‘their own bringing’. But this pattern of analysis do not accommodate a holistic approach into understanding why societies all across the globe are in such disarray whose source of instability might be internal yet its importance possess an international, and by extension, a war dimension.

Like human societies, warfare has its own process of evolution in which it evolves with changing times. The nature of armed conflicts has changed drastically in the 21st century. From trench warfare in WWI to lightening war in WWII, belligerents are increasingly resorting to military strategy that blends conventional war, irregular war and cyber warfare. This phenomenon is commonly known as hybrid war. The wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine are prime examples of such type of conflicts. In contemporary era, even non-state actors such as Islamic State or ISIS are also employing hybrid war tactics to wreak havoc across the landscape of fragile Middle Eastern countries.

Various nation-states had faltered, economies gone bankrupt, social system became dysfunctional and social fabric of societies has been torn apart by multitude of challenges.

This ‘new’ kind of war has created many legal complications which are exploited by warring parties for their benefit. Since this new kind of war is an amalgamation of almost every kind of armed conflict and even circumstances not amounting to armed conflict, the situation or the conflict becomes undefined. This ambiguous situation creates confusion as to source or paradigm of applicable law and any eventual action to identify and assign legal responsibilities and demand accountability.

This situation was observed in the Russian involvement in Ukraine. The former provided military and financial assistance to rebels in eastern Ukraine. These rebel forces also shot down a Malaysian Airline Jet MH17 but Russia refused to acknowledge its involvement in Ukrainian conflict and hence denied being an active agent in the conflict and evaded any liability for loss of lives. Similarly, in the conflicts in Gaza and Raqqa

which were hybrid in nature, it was observed that Hamas and ISIS used civilians as human shields and ignored or simply dismissed the laws of war. Hence, we can say that ‘modern’ Hybrid warfare does not only present challenges to international peace and security but also undermines international humanitarian law.

Read more: Hybrid warfare against corruption

The Concept of Hybrid War

Following the years-long debate, the term ‘hybrid’ – an approach to warfare, first formally appeared in 2010 in Quadrennial Defense Review authored by the U.S.A’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. He presented a detailed explanation of hybrid warfare and used the terminology to define the complex methods and means that every type of actor would employ to reduce a conventional military handicap with the USA.[1]

Secretary Robert Gates in the section of “Shifting Operational Landscape” mentioned and explained the general components of hybrid warfare that possibly includes, “protracted forms of warfare, use of proxy forces for coercion and intimidation, terrorism and criminality to manipulate the information environment, target energy resources, attack economic vulnerabilities and exploit diplomatic leverage.” The Review elaborated the spectrum of diversified means the aggressor would employ, as well as the various methodologies and targets, but it lacked an explanation about the nature of the actor and also what course of strategic actions will produce the desired targets.

In contemporary era, even non-state actors such as Islamic State or ISIS are also employing hybrid war tactics to wreak havoc across the landscape of fragile Middle Eastern countries.

In the absence of a coherent description, it is difficult to comprehend and differentiate the framework of hybrid warfare from its conventional, irregular and visible, asymmetric components. The unexpected rise of the concept of hybrid warfare led to re-adjustment of concurrent definitions, and review of its application in the milieu of 2010, and even to question its efficacy entirely.[2] Among this latter group, strategists like Colin Gray say, “we should forget qualifying adjectives: irregular war; guerrilla war; nuclear war; naval strategy; counterinsurgent strategy. The many modes of warfare and tools of strategy are of no significance for the nature of war and strategy.[3]

A general theory of war and strategy, such as that offered by Clausewitz and in different ways also by Sun Tzu and Thucydides, is a theory with universal applicability.[4] In the same publication, Gray stated that “without a coherent set of theoretical framework, the military of United States struggles to understand irregular threats; threats that are complex to comprehend and can be understood only with the help of “qualifying adjectives.”[5]

Read more: India’s hybrid warfare: Options for Pakistan

The conceptualization of hybrid warfare becomes complex when the adjectives add to the confusion. The phenomenon of Hybrid warfare requires the amalgamation of at least two components to produce a unique result; however, the nerve-wracking question is what to combine. There exist two schools of thought that merit the concept of hybrid warfare; however, these schools of thoughts have their own limitations as well. The first group believes the concept is useful and new. According to them, hybrid warfare can be defined as an amalgamation of regular and irregular forces employed to achieve desirable results.

The irregular forces, in this case, refer to informal armed groups such as paramilitaries, insurgents, revolutionaries, and extremists.[6] The U.S Army manuals have expanded the list to incorporate “two or more of the following: military forces, nation-state paramilitary forces (such as internal security forces, police, or border guards), insurgent organizations (movements that primarily rely on subversion and violence to change the status quo), guerrilla units (irregular ingenious forces operating in occupied territory), and criminal organizations (such as gangs, drug cartels, or hackers)”.

It also highlights the significance of cyber operations.[7] This perspective that highly relies on the mere combination of conventional and irregular forces offers an insight into the previous battles and campaigns, however, does not suffice in explaining the achievement of goals through the amalgamation of armed and non-military instruments of power; that were once only achievable through military coercion[8]. It also provides inadequate understanding, about the nature of an actor, and the pre-condition of hostile circumstance that will provide the fertile ground for the impactful partnership of criminal groups or cyber operations.

The Review elaborated the spectrum of diversified means the aggressor would employ, as well as the various methodologies and targets, but it lacked an explanation about the nature of the actor and also what course of strategic actions.

The second school of thought offers multiple definitions with rich explanation on various aspects of Hybrid Warfare. It recognizes the significance of conventional and irregular forces, and places special emphasis on the outreach of functional terrorism in reaching desired goals. It also discusses an array of innovative approaches in implementing technological resources to dislodge the enemy’s military stronghold; a weaker-attacking-stronger dynamic-an important characteristic of asymmetric warfare.[9]

Other believes ‘hybrid warfare’ is the fusion of several battlegrounds in the information warfare domain through the coordinated efforts to influence the “populations in the conflict zone, on the home front, and in the international community”.[10] The most aggressive scholars avoid using the term “hybrid”. “Unrestricted warfare,” as proposed by People’s Liberation Army Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui claim [Clausewitz’] “principles of warfare are no longer ‘using armed force to compel an enemy to submit to one’s will’, but rather are using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel an enemy to accept one’s interests.”[11]

Read more: India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan

Therefore, the above statement again reiterates that the long-term and multi-dimensional strategies have replaced the conventional military combat in the present age to achieve strategic objectives. Hence, as per the universal claim associated with hybrid warfare, the effectiveness of the heavy artillery and weapons must not be judged by its potential of destruction.[12] Mutual aspects of passive civilization such as economics, politics, immigration, and culture “will cause ordinary people and military alike to be greatly astonished at the fact that commonplace things that are close to them can also become weapons with which to engage in war.”[13]

Liang and Xiangsui would argue that warfare on such a wide scale would require gauging the incremental accomplishment of a strategic objective to decide the most effective weapons in a particular arsenal. Nathan Freier has reasonably talked about the scope of hybrid warfare in an abridged version of Liang and Xiangsui’s theory and has also mentioned the selective use of violence besides “political agitation, social mobilization and political or economic assault at the international, national and subnational levels.”[14]

Frier, has restricted his analysis to the emerging aggression against U.S. and its allies from its rising opponents at global level, also views it an essential feature in upsetting U.S. agendas.[15] Frier believes under the umbrella of Hybrid warfare the opponents of U.S can reap military-like effect through economic and political disruption, however, his analysis lacked the description over how this use of power can be employed to attack smaller and underdeveloped states.[16]

In the light of 2006’s Israel-Hezbollah War and the Soviet Partisan efforts on the Eastern front in between 1941-1945, McCulloh and Johnson have stressed to study the imperativeness of hybrid warfare.[17] They have presented seven principles that are built from the viewpoint of a comparatively weaker country employing hybrid formula to confront a more powerful opponent. These principles are built on the assumption of asymmetric disadvantage prerequisite for the implementation of hybrid force. Hence do not tackle a scenario when hybrid conflict is pursued by a strong aggressor.

It also provides inadequate understanding, about the nature of an actor, and the pre-condition of hostile circumstance that will provide the fertile ground for the impactful partnership of criminal groups or cyber operations.

An avid supporter of Hybrid warfare, Frank Hoffman believes the feeder school of thought must be appreciated for studies on credits “new wars,” “open source warfare,” “modern wars,” “polymorphic conflict,” combinational wars,” and “4th Generation Warfare” but believes that such studies have impeded as well offered information that paved the way for the introduction of the term hybrid warfare at the same time.[18] “Hybrid warfare is different because it addresses the difference in “how” the adversary plans to fight.”[19]

Hoffman has explained hybridity as the combination of two or more things in its definition. He considers hybridity as the combination of conventional and unconventional forces that includes terrorists and criminals as well. Hence Hoffman has theorized the use of non-state actors as state instruments that are uniquely employed to plot an objective in a relatively peaceful time. On the contrary, it has extraordinarily limited its scope of hybridity that narrow’s the concept of state’s apparatuses of power.

“[There is an] increased merging … of conflict and war forms. The

Potential for types of conflict that blur the distinction between war and

Peace, and combatants and non-combatants, appear to be on the rise”.[20]

 Hoffman mentioned that the elements of hybrid warfare are usually controlled at the center of state. Hence, the implementation of well-planned actions across the spectrum of hybrid warfare at the same time is a prerequisite for successful hybrid warfare.

Hybrid wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.” Therefore, such multi-dimensional efforts can be initiated by distinct units or even by the same unit, but are usually directed and coordinated from a single platform to achieve coherent result. [21]

Hoffman, then, later on stretched the domain of his definition and included the factor of physical and psychological aspects of the war, or in other words a country’s strength and resolves to fight back the transgressors, in other words it corresponded to the Clausewitz’s definition of war.

Read more: What is hybrid warfare? – Ikram Sehgal

“Hybrid adversaries simultaneously and adaptively employ a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives….directed and coordinated within the battle space to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict.”[22]

Hoffman believes, the hybrid warfare is particularly initiated in a peaceful environment that is wholly unique from the traditional war-type settings, but yields the same results for the aggressor in an apparently ‘peaceful situation’. He asserts that the aggressive state can achieve its objectives, as he identified above through unconventional force i.e. criminals and terrorists organization by disturbing the law and order situation in the country in a relatively peaceful time.

The analysis of hybrid warfare indicates that it can be differentiated from two recognized categories of armed conflicts i.e International Armed Conflict (IAC) and Non-international Armed Conflicts (NIAC). IHL unfortunately does not recognize the type of armed conflict which sheds light on the need upgrading the laws of war to accommodate this type of armed conflict.

    [1] Robert M Gates, “Quadrennial Defense Review Report-Department of Defense Washington DC.” February 2010. doi:10.21236/ada513713. https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/QDR/QDR_as_of_29JAN10_1600.pdf

   [2] D’Agostino Davi M, Hybrid Warfare: GAO Report to Congress (Washington, DC: U.S.

Government Accountability Office, 2010). https://www.gao.gov/assets/100/97053.pdf

    [3] Ibid

    [4] Colin S. Gray, Recognizing and Understanding Revolutionary Change in Warfare: The Sovereignty

of Context (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2006), 4. http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/pub640.pdf

    [5] Colin S.  Gray, Recognizing and understanding revolutionary change in warfare: The sovereignty of context. DIANE Publishing, 2006. https://books.google.com.pk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=JURtlk3jOQ8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Recognizing+and+understanding+revolutionary+change+in+warfare:+The+sovereignty+of+context&ots=Kzotqm4ipo&sig=u9ubbD81PJxd3wgq7MLsQqwMnzs

    [6] Colin S. Gray, “Recognizing and Understanding Revolutionary Change in Warfare: The Sovereignty of Context.” Strategic Studies Institute, February 2006. http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/pub640.pdf.

    [7] Jean Côté, Gravel Sylvie, André Méthot, Alain Patoine, Michel Roch, and Andrew Staniforth. “The operational CMC–MRB global environmental multiscale (GEM) model. Part I: Design considerations and formulation.” Monthly Weather Review 126, no. 6 (1998): 1373-1395. http://www.arcic.army.mil/app_Documents/TRADOC_Paper_Operational-Environments-to-2028-Strategic-Environment-for-Unified-Land-Operations_AUG2012.pdf

    [8] Clausewitz, On War. Clausewitz describes the exclusivity of military force to the conduct of

warfare due to the inability of any other implement of power during his time to either attrite enemy forces,

or seize and hold desired territory.

    [9] Timothy McCulloh, and Richard Johnson, Hybrid warfare. No. JSOU-13-4. JOINT SPECIAL OPERATIONS UNIV MACDILL AFB FL, 2013. https://www.socom.mil/JSOU/JSOUPublications/JSOU%2013-4_McCulloh,Johnson_Hybrid%20Warfare_final.pdf

    [10] Jack McCuen, “Strategy of Hybrid War.” Hybrid Warfare and Transnational Threats: Perspectives for an Era of Persistent Conflict (2011): 70-82. http://cco.ndu.edu/Portals/96/Documents/prism/prism_3-3/prism145-146_arquilla.pdf

    [11] Qiao Liang, and Xiangsui Wang. Unrestricted warfare. PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House Arts,  1999. http://www.c4i.org/unrestricted.pdf

    [12] David Kilcullen. “The accidental guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one.” (2009).


    [13] Sam C Sarkesian, Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare: Theories, Doctrines, and Contexts. Routledge, 2017. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781351492973

    [14] Nathan Freier, Strategic Competition and Resistance in the 21st Century: Irregular, Catastrophic, Traditional, and Hybrid Challenges in Context. ARMY WAR COLL STRATEGIC STUDIES INST CARLISLE BARRACKS PA, 2007 http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/pub782.pdf

    [15] Nathan Freier, Known unknowns: unconventional” strategic shocks” in defense strategy development. ARMY WAR COLL STRATEGIC STUDIES INST CARLISLE BARRACKS PA, 2008.


    [16] Walter Laquerur, Guerrilla warfare: A historical and critical study. Routledge, 2017. https://books.google.com/books/about/Guerrilla_Warfare.html?id=iQS-1jqgeScC

    [17] Neil Chuka, and Jean F. Born. “Hybrid warfare: Implications for CAF force development.” Defence Research and Development Canada, August 2014. http://cradpdf.drdc-rddc.gc.ca/PDFS/unc196/p800375_A1b.pdf.

    [18] Frank Hoffman, “The Hybrid Character of Modern Conflict.” Hybrid Warfare and Transnational Threats: Perspectives for an Era of Persistent Conflict (2011): 36-59. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/98862/SF240.pdf

    [19] Andrew Ilachinski, Land warfare and complexity, Part I: mathematical background and technical sourcebook. No. CNA-CIM-461.10. CENTER FOR NAVAL ANALYSES ALEXANDRIA VA, 1996. http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA362620

    [20] Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st century: The rise of hybrid wars. Arlington: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007. . http://www.potomacinstitute.org/images/stories/publications/potomac_hybridwar_0108.pdf

    [21] Jeremy Black, “Understanding Naval Warfare.” (2014): 496-497. https://books.google.com/books/about/Understanding_Naval_Warfare.html?id=O2tFMAEACAAJ

    [22] Jr Scales and Robert H, Yellow Smoke: The future of land warfare for America’s military. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.1538-165X.2003.tb01233.x

Zeeshan Munir is Assistant Editor at Global Village Space. He specializes in International Humanitarian Law. He tweets @zishanmuneer. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.