On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine challenges our traditional Western concepts of warfare. The current crisis, pitting the national government against separatists, Russian ultra-nationalists, proxy fighters and possibly Russian GRU personnel, does not fit neat Western categories of “war.” In one sense it’s a civil war, or perhaps a proxy war that pits Ukraine against Russia. Current doctrine tries to separate conflict into two boxes, irregular and conventional. General Barno, in this journal, recently referred to this crisis as an example of a shadow war, worthy of greater study. He correctly notes that war is morphing beyond our current conceptions. The evolving character of contemporary conflict has presented an intellectual challenge that has perplexed security analysts and forward thinking scholars for some time.

Lately, the term “political warfare” has been raised to describe ambiguous and nebulous conflicts that fall outside the neat intellectual box we have ascribed to “war.” Max Boot approvingly cited usage of the term political warfare from a State Department memo written by George Kennan at the dawn of the Cold War in 1948. Boot seeks to gain the “hearts and minds” of populations in the Middle East, and integrated covert actions targeting key foreign institutions. Other scholars including Dr. Michael Noonan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute have suggested that the concept of political warfare is worth exploring as a means of reducing our exposure and maximizing U.S. influence. In his words,

While the publics’ mood for involvement in further overseas adventures is less than sanguine, it still remains important for the United States to at least try to be able to shape events on the ground overseas with as little force as possible or else live with the consequences of outcomes that may call for the use of more force down the road.

Words have meaning (or should), and I find the term imprecise—if not redundant—in one important sense: if all wars are political in their purpose (as the famous Prussian soldier-scholar Carl von Clausewitz insisted), what is different about this phenomenon referred to by thinkers like Kennan, Boot, and Noonan? Second, “warfare” has been used by military scholars to address the physical conduct of war or the fighting and violent aspects of war. But there is no violence or lethal force in the kinds of political activity Kennan listed. His definition included “political alliances, economic measures (such as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.” There is no warfare as we know it in these political and economic activities, which is why the term is an oxymoron.

The provenance and formal definition of “political warfare” are also suspect. Kennan was hardly an expert in military theory, nor did he possess a sound foundation for theoretical matters in warfare (he did cite Clausewitz in his memo , but there is a poor correlation between citing the Prussian and understanding him). Still, it is no surprise that a serious student of Russian affairs found comfort in the term. Before the Cold War, during it, and well after, the Russians were facile with the admixture of political, economic and criminal activities. “Mr. X” knew their history and their tool kit.

However, the definition Kennan used, and which Boot and others seem to favor, is also problematic. Kennan defined political warfare, in his broadest definition, as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Here again, words should matter. The employment of “all means” extends the definition beyond the political or diplomatic component. Secondly, this mode of warfare is limited to contexts “short of war.” If it short of war, then it’s not warfare. Additionally, it is not clear to me that the activities Kennan listed are things one does only short of war. Moreover, many of the activities cited by Kennan (propaganda, sanctions, subversion, etc.) do not stop when a war officially begins. So both sides of this term are resistant to common understanding and the definition defies logic.

The immediate goal of Kennan’s memo was approval for a Directorate for Political Warfare inside the State Department. As such, the memo raised the issue of where to situate the government’s capacity in the U.S. security framework. We face the same question today. If political warfare warrants an American counter, where should it be located within our national security architecture? Where are the experts in this field, and how are they organized and structured? Boot, like Kennan, favors centering the effort inside the State Department, which I fear dooms the entire enterprise to memo writing.

Another term is for adversaries employing complex and violent combinations is hybrid threats, a construct developed by the Marine Corps a decade ago. The concept was derived from historical analyses and references in foreign literature regarding a deliberate blending and blurring of modes of warfare. The term was adopted in Service and DOD documents including the 2006 and 2010 Quadrennial Defense Reviews. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and leading military intellectuals like Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster used this term to describe the complex and evolving character of conflict. The term has been used in Marine planning documents, Navy strategies, Army doctrine, and British assessments of contemporary conflict. It also appears in the National Intelligence Council’s assessment of global trends. Senior military leaders have used the term, including the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, who observed that his Service needs to come to grips with:

…one of the most costly lessons it has learned over the last decade: how to deal with the challenge of hybrid warfare. It will be increasingly common for the army to operate in environments with both regular military and irregular paramilitary or civilian adversaries, with the potential for terrorism, criminality and other complications.

My own definition of hybrid threats is very close to how General Odierno defined it. Hybrid threats are “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.”

This captures both states and non-state actors, who employ four different modes of conflict within a theater or battlespace. However, other definitions exist that focus more on composite scenarios where multiple actors are operating.

This definition adequately represents what the Russians (and their Chechen mercenaries and Ossetian militias) did in Georgia in 2008, and it dovetails quite well with how the Russians are fighting in Ukraine. For this reason, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Russia of conducting “hybrid warfare” in an interview recently. The criminal aspects of the Ukrainian situation are not as evident so far, but the catastrophic terrorism posed by the shooting down of MH17 is obvious (even if the incident is a gross accident). Anne Applebaum, a student of Russian affairs, recognized Putin’s purportedly new form of warfare as “masked warfare,” part of the KGB or GRU’s traditional bag of KGB “dirty tricks” demonstrated in Ukraine. Clearly, however, the Russians, like the Iranians and Hezbollah, are evolving and incorporating more violent and lethal conventional capabilities, blended with tactics we have associated with terrorists or irregular conflict. The categorization of these operations as Putin’s “new warfare” is partially correct, but perhaps better captured by hybrid rather than political or “new.”

The problem with the hybrid threats definition is that it focuses on combinations of tactics associated with violence and warfare (except for criminal acts) but completely fails to capture other non-violent actions. Thus, it does not address instruments including economic and financial acts, subversive political acts like creating or covertly exploiting trade unions and NGOs as fronts, or information operations using false websites and planted newspaper articles. It also fails to address what a pair of Chinese Army Colonels discussed in their book titled Unrestricted Warfare (really War without Borders) that was explicitly critical of Western and American conceptions of war. That concept included diplomatic and financial and information tools as part of a larger conception of warfare. More recently, Chinese explorations of three warfares build off the earlier Chinese military analysts. Where do “lawfare” and some forms of cyber espionage or warfare fit in?

What is provocatively refreshing about the term “political warfare” is that it makes one think. In this journal, David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces Colonel, has studied this issue, and cited Kennan’s memo. When such strategically-minded students of war find utility in this construct, it’s worth reconsidering. While I prefer “hybrid threats” to describe the opponent, I think that Maxwell’s “unconventional warfare,” with an updated definition that incorporates aspects of contemporary conflict, might be adapted to capture today’s evolution. Activities traditionally included within subversion and counter-subversion can be added to the definition to make it sufficiently robust. Perhaps “unconventional conflict” is a compromise that expands the concept beyond a narrow military vision of warfare.

This discussion leads to a set of crucial questions:

  • Who is studying this challenge today with any rigor and how well resourced is the effort?
  • Exactly which activities should be incorporated in the definition, and exactly which left out?
  • Is the term “unconventional conflict” or “operations” better than “warfare”?
  • Where should the loci of U.S. capability and conceptual/doctrinal development exist: Defense, State, Intelligence, or something uniquely joint/interagency?
  • Is the United States organized and prepared for these contingencies and tactics, and how important are they?

Surprisingly, despite hybrid examples like Hezbollah in 2006 and Georgia in 2008 (and 30 years against evolving Middle East terrorists), unconventional warfare or hybrid threats are not mentioned in key defense planning documents, including the Quadrennial Defense Review. I doubt the National Defense Panel will pick up the challenge either. We have retreated from gray area conflicts and Shadow Wars to chase the next big shiny thing, whether it’s the rise of robotic warfare or some imaginary, long shot disruptive threat. Unconventional warfare challenges should certainly be addressed in the next iteration of the National Security Strategy, but I would not hold my breath. General Barno and David Maxwell have identified a critical shortfall in our approach to this challenge. These threats are not new, but our vulnerability to them is more acute than we realize.

The shortfall is not just within the U.S. military’s conception of conflict: our entire national security community is chasing its tail on vague transnational challenges and climate change. We are too narrowly focused on more traditional but increasingly rare modes of warfare, and overlooking the unconventional approaches used by our Russian and Chinese competitors. They do not delude themselves with neat orthodoxies about categories and Clausewitzian models about how “real wars” are fought and won. Neither should we.


Frank Hoffman is a retired Reserve Marine officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University. These comments are his own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: dasjo