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

July 28, 2014

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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

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16 thoughts on “On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats

  1. A further question, which I would argue is just as critical as those mentioned above, is how you define combatants in unconventional conflict/hybrid warfare. Clearer lines between war and not-war allow for clearer lines between combatants and non-combatants. The criteria for lawful combatant status under the Geneva Conventions are clear-cut and made sense in a world of conventional, state-on-state conflict. We knew who and what we could employ violence against, what rights captured individuals were to be accorded, and what the end of hostilities would mean for participating individuals. But if our conception of war evolves to encompass all activities aimed at the subversion, impairment, isolation or destruction of a state/entity, we are going to need new criteria. The uncertainty we continue to grapple with in trying to sort out who we can lawfully target and how we handle detained “unlawful enemy combatants” in the GWOT is proof enough of this fact. If we expand our definition of war, do we also become more liberal with our definition of a combatant? Is anyone who acts in a manner deemed hostile to us, even if such action is purely non-violent (economic sabotage, inflammatory rhetoric, cyber espionage), liable to be targeted or captured? Where is the line between tolerable and intolerable levels of antagonism? Furthermore, should the means of retaliation match the means of aggression (ie. violence with violence, economic sabotage with economic sabotage, cyber attacks with cyber attacks)? Which government agencies are authorized to utilize which tactics? What defines proportionate response?

    A whole-of-society (not just government) approach to warfare, the new normal as it would seem, is legal and political quagmire. There is no clear-cut answer, no good solution. But we have no choice but to trudge through it, or else be pulled under by it.

    1. Sarah – It’s even more complicated than that. How do you characterize an individual or group supporting an unconventional warfare campaign with money, lethal, or non-lethal assistance who might be sitting thousands of miles away from the battle zone? Do hold some responsibility for the war crimes of their proxies? The Geneva convention and similar attempts to civilize warfare are an anomaly in the history of conflict.

    2. Sarah –

      There is an interesting article – a bit old by now but still relevant – by Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy that discusses many of the questions you raise here:


      Issues such as the legal framework of what constitutes warfare, what is combat/who is a combatant, and what is an appropriate response to these measures are discussed very poignantly in this article, which is I think is good if we are seeking to redefine warfare beyond the notion Clausewitz first devised about war being REQUIRED to ONLY encompass physically violent activities for political ends (which would of course leave out economic coercion, cyber attacks, subversive activities, etc. which many of our adversaries seem to see as war, but we in the West resist calling such).

  2. Multiple factors by multiple parties usually lead up to crises or critical events.

    The terminology is less important that in cataloguing the multiple factors. A weakness of the American or American-led Western system is in studying the “other” and refusing to catalogue all factors including one’s own that lead toward conflict.

    In Afghanistan, we have:

    1. Global competition for resources, power politics, etc.
    2.Regional power competition including proxy wars and unconventional war.
    3. Transnational groups.
    4. Transnational and local criminal elements.
    5. Local governance including an insurgency.

    The same cataloguing can be done for any other conflict area and the US system either divorces its own behavior from the multiple factors, or tries to be everything for everyone instead of prioritizing and deciding which conflicts are worth involving ourselves and how, we will continue to flail.

    Only the American people through their elected representatives can change or alter the large and lumbering national security complex into something actually effective.

    The situation in Ukraine is many things:

    1. Global power competition between Russia and the US/EU/NATO.
    2. Trading bloc competition with the EU and Russia fighting in a stupidly zero sum manner and piggy backing–as some have put it–on NATO and US hard power.
    3. Local regional competitions and compulsions of various Eastern European nations as they jockey for prominence and money within the EU and NATO.
    4. A local insurgency or civil war.
    5. A divided polity based on language, etc.
    5. Claims of outside sponsored”coups” on the one hand versus innocent democracy promotion via another.

    If you only discuss one half of these factors, nothing we do to “shape” the environment will do anything but backfire on many, many peoples.

    And the first question to ask is whether it is in the interest to shape, and whether that can actually be done. That requires delving into literature of a different sort than a certain military literature which remains pristine, pure, and inaccurate.

    I apologize to the owners of the blog if I’ve gone overboard as I tend to do, but the system cannot change to meet the needs of the American people if there isn’t significant improvement in the national security complex or the basic understanding of the American people.

  3. The US/NATO/EU are viewed as conducting zero-sum economic warfare, and not just by the Russians. I just can’t understand why this is cannot be discussed, even if to dismiss it. And there are those in the US system the have long called for this, particularly Atlanticist communities that insist on using American power to forever box in Russia.

    Meirsheimer said immigrant groups often bring in their sensibility into an immigrant nation such as the US and for some Israel and Iran are a focus, for some Pakistan is a focus, for some India is a focus, for some Russia is a focus, and so on, because that is what diasporas tend to do within democratic societies.

    The literature of this phenomenon and its effect on DC, its think tanks, its universities, etc., seems quite interesting.

  4. The National Interest has an interesting article on the complex nature of Ukraine and one of the multiple factors beyond a military centric view:

    Germany played a leading role in pushing the EU’s Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine. It saw in it a means for promoting democracy, the rule of law and economic freedom in Europe, as part of the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighbourhood Policy. Indeed, Berlin insisted on tying the deal to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s agreement to release his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison.

    Berlin did not do anything to caution Brussels and neighbouring capitals in Warsaw, Riga and Tallinn on the risks associated with such a policy—though for years, Moscow had made clear its opposition to the eastward expansion of both NATO and the EU. (Indeed, the Kremlin has always viewed NATO’s foreswearing eastward expansion as the quid pro quo for its consenting to Germany’s reunification.)


  5. Strategy is supposed to be the weak spot of the American military community and its intellectual counterparts yet it remains curiously interested in only the tactical and rigid American military doctrines.

  6. I think that it’s important that in its historical usage one connotation of ‘political warfare’ was the employment of political means to achieve the overthrow of the opponent. Although violence might be used it was not the primary instrument. In this sense there is an inversion of Clausewitz: politics is the continuation of war. Political actions are not part of ‘normal’ diplomacy relations but steps towards destabilization of the other side.
    For Kennan and the early Cold Warriors political warfare mean defeating Communist subversion in the west while seeking to prevent the consolidation of Communist rule in the east while avoiding major war. The key element was the process of organizing our friends and disorganizing our enemies. This required coordination of all instruments of statecraft but the importance of the military was in their political effect. The primary operators were diplomatic, covert action and informational. As I’ve argued in commenting on Boot and Doran the contemporary challenge is more about sustaining strategy and coordination than tactics and means (https://pdnetworks.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/do-we-need-american-political-warfare-in-the-middle-east/)

    On the whole context of the Kennan memo Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin: America’s Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 (Ithaca: Cornell 2000) is really helpful.

  7. The “Special Forces-ification” of American military thought combined with the fetish for regime change in any nation thought to stand in the way of the Washington Consensus (in Syria, in Iraq, in Iran, etc.) is not entirely healthy, is it?

    Regime change via democracy promotion and covert activities. And a nuclear armed Russia. When we couldn’t even handle the Pakistani Generals.

    This is the run up to Iraq, the exact game book. Somehow the conversation has turned from whether or not the expansion of NATO is a good idea to Putin Putin Putin. Much easier to fool and rile up publics.

    Mike Few and Gian Gentile and Carl Prine and Peter J Munson are really right about all of this, from SWJ onward.

    Walk away from the Borg, just walk away…

    It’s not a bad place to hang out, though, and figure out how the DC consensus plans to shape American opinion.

  8. I line Hoffman’s hybrid construct for 3 reasons. First it is grounded in serious study of small wars, American transition to a post-Cold War doctrine and approach to force employment. Second it accurately describes both the deliberate intentions of adversaries and belligerents to design around the strictures of international norms and crisis response AND the policy challenges this poses at the seams of US strategy, doctrine, and operations. Finally it does not (yet, thankfully) groan under the weight of the other terms that have been misappropriated for various reasons in rhetoric and theory.

    Hoffman is doing something more subtle than his usual style. Perhaps because of his current position. I applaud his continued push for is to consider how current conflicts are both shaped by US dominance of the conventional spectrum and by the US and Western inability to further the process of liberal institutionalism and democratization.

    The hybrid warfare construct remains one of our best tools to think about conflict in the 21st Century.

  9. I recommend the recent article by Dr. Nadia Schadlow on Competitive Engagement in Orbis. She caputures with tremendous clarity the nature of the problem and what we must do to respond to it.

  10. What a great written article.
    The battlefield of the 21st century is no longer defined by geography. This is the era where a Predator drone and bank transaction are battlefield tools that require specific targets and goals and a unified plan and can be equally effective against an enemy on any battlefield. The difficulty is without a specific in-state in mind, quantifiable metrics and unified action across the military-industrial complex, political infrastructure and economic infrastructure the effects of both of these tools are short-lived. They can also backfire. Conducting warfare on a reactionary plan like that of a wire diagram is impossible. It shows a lack of foresight and conviction.
    The constant reference to a United States – NATO – European Union plan is somewhat of a farce. The economic stability of each of those entities requires a different outcome. As much as the United States has compromised itself in the Middle East due to its reliance on oil from that region, the Europeans are in the same predicament when it comes to Russian. Germany, through companies like Siemens, conducts trade with Russia in billions of dollars in technology and services. Other countries in Europe have economies that are suffering and the loss of a trading partner such as Russia would destroy their authority fragile economies. The final outcome in Ukraine has a larger effect on the European community, than it does on the United States. Therefore it is up to the Europeans to decide how far they’re willing to go against Russia.
    The US sanctions impose thus far against Russia have had more of an impact on US businesses than it has on Russian businesses. The European Union has stated that they will impose greater sanctions against Russia. Although I believe this is stated on good intentions it will be interesting to see if they have the mechanisms in place to enforce the sanctions.
    During the Napoleonic wars as well as the wars of the 20th century it was common for Russia to burn and pull back and wait for the Russian winter to freeze its enemies and shut down the supply lines. If the United States or European Union to go too far, it is possible for them to use this tactic once again. I also believe that President Putin has a larger endgame in mind than a small piece of the Ukraine.

  11. I think this is a great piece and a great set of issues to raise, as it gets to the heart of the West’s current confusion about to think about war and statecraft. It seems to me that “hybrid” is a more useful way to characterize these new types of conflicts, as it is both more descriptive (to both experts and the general public) and less fraught with unconventional warfare’s historical baggage.

  12. My favorite Applebaum article on “the new warfare” is the following:

    “That was it: My first, last, and only meeting with the sort of person who spends his days dressing celebrities. By the time it took place, it was already clear that my husband would not, in fact, be his party’s candidate for the presidency of Poland. (He’s called Radoslaw Sikorski, he’s still the Polish foreign minister, and he conceded on Saturday.) This meant that I would not, in fact, be the candidate for the first lady of Poland. Which was just as well, really: I didn’t like the pink jacket the stylist picked out for me, and I never wore it.” – I almost became the first lady of Poland


    Well, what can you say. Punching above one’s weight–of whatever national flavor–sometimes requires groundwork and cultivation.

    Another poster on another thread asked why certain facts weren’t being mentioned. I wouldn’t sweat it. Gathering good quality information requires assessing multiple publications.

  13. I think the term “asymmetric warfare” should not be overlooked in the study of today’s wars. By definition it is “the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities, and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses,” which in my opinion is the term to be used when describing the Hezbollah-Israeli war of July 2006. More often than not, a war labeled as asymmetric is a conflict between a conventional actor and a non-state actor, where the latter uses “unconventional” methods to counterbalance the super military and technological powers of a much powerful enemy. In 2006, Hezbollah, who can indeed be identified as a hybrid actor, very efficiently fused guerrilla and conventional tactics and was able to win the war by not losing it (as Henry Kissinger said, the weak actor “wins if he does not lose”). I think the term of asymmetric warfare is more fitting than “unconventional warfare,” which tends to be more or less restricted to any war that does not fit within the scope of classical warfare, or as you said does not fit Western categories of “war.”
    The concept of hybrid threats is a component in a broader term, and not a category itself.

  14. I am curious.

    With all the hoopla, controversy, and debate surrounding hybrid, low-intensity, and asymmetric threats, what do you the author of this story want to know, preciously? Can you explain your interest in as few sentences as possible?

    And you the reader of this article saw the title, were interested in the topic, and proceeded to read it or review it. What do you want to know more about? Exactly?

    Please let me know: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/irregular-threats-mitigation-techniques-where-do-we-begin-campbell?trk=prof-post

    Joe C.