The Problem with Hybrid Warfare

April 2, 2015

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Europe is now a petri dish for hybrid war. Events of the past decade, not to mention the last few years, have reaffirmed the value of a concept that sought to explain a range of diverse, coercive instruments across the operational spectrum of war. Hybrid warfare is a term that sought to capture the blurring and blending of previously separate categories of conflict. It uses a blend of military, economic, diplomatic, criminal, and informational means to achieve desired political goals. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has referred to these hybrid threats as an “inflection point” in modern war. Indeed, in the disordered post-Cold War world, hybrid warfare remains an excellent framework for understanding the changing character of war.

So why, at a recent off-the-record Washington gathering of Baltic and Central Europeans concerned about Russia (it was not hard to fill the room) did a high-ranking Estonian with substantial experience working on Russian issues express his frustration with the concept? Indeed, why do many Estonians, as well as their Baltic neighbors and even some Poles, Swedes and Finns, dislike the phrase? These concerns are worth considering, particularly since Estonia and its neighbors are the prime targets of this form of warfare. There are two apparent reasons for their concern. First, many in the Baltic region view the concept as merely another mechanism by which the West can avoid decisive action against Russia, particularly because NATO has not developed, really, an operational concept to address hybrid threats. The concept, according to this Estonian official, allows NATO to avoid action because a range of activities – from the aggressive use of disinformation by Moscow, to economic pressure, to bribery and threats, to use of “locals” to stir up protests – become conveniently categorized as being under the threshold of war. Indeed as one expert, James Sherr, has observed, in the hands of Russia hybrid warfare could “cripple a state before that state even realizes the conflict had begun,” and yet it manages to “slip under NATO’s threshold of perception and reaction.” Sherr is right.

Today, NATO members are the objects of this form of force – not perpetrators of it. NATO, established as a defensive alliance against a clear cut territorial threat, is not structured to operate in a “perpetual competition” mindset that today’s confrontation in Europe requires. In the past, NATO’s readiness centered on the readiness of its conventional forces: It made clear that military forays into allied territory would be met with military opposition. But in the post-Cold War period, the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels. In effect, NATO’s focus on Article V – the provision that dates from the birth of the alliance in 1949 and states that an attack against one is an attack against all – may today be its fatal flaw. The provision requires that members “agree [emphasis mine] that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

Hybrid threats provide the “perfect” conundrum: the injection of so much uncertainty that NATO collapses under its own principle of allied consensus. At what point does the alliance decide if the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, is correct when she remarked that Lithuania was “already under attack,” with the first stage of confrontation taking place – informational war, propaganda and cyberattack? Watching tanks roll through the Fulda Gap in the Cold War, or now across the Bug River, or into Narva would provide much clearer evidence of war, but Russia is unlikely to make it easy for NATO to reach consensus. Moscow appears to be deliberately staying under the Article V threshold, while still pursuing its aggressive aims and seeking to destabilize NATO members. For decades, NATO leaders argued about coordinating against “out of area threats” and whether attacks in places such as the Middle East and Africa merited a NATO response. It is ironic that conflict in the very heart of Europe could lead to the same divisions.

The hybrid warfare concept gives many in the West the luxury of picking and choosing from a range of actions – a media campaign here, a cyber-intrusion there (and even the occasional political assassination) – and interpreting them as one-off isolated events. There is no need to connect the dots. Indeed, it is often easier to look at the unfinished page, suggestive of possibilities that become clear only with a deliberate completion of the picture. Inadvertently, the flexibility of the instruments inherent in hybrid warfare tempts policy makers to detach the specific tactics from the overarching political goals that drive a war. A war fought with hybrid means becomes thus an incomprehensible sequence of improvisations, disparate actions along various geographic fronts – “humanitarian convoys” followed by conventional war with artillery and tanks in Eastern Ukraine, “peacekeeping operations” in Transnistria, cyber-attacks in Estonia, vast disinformation campaigns on mass media, seemingly random forays of heavy bombers in the North Sea, submarine games in the Baltic Sea, and so on – that appear vaguely connected. But they are a part of a whole.

Hybrid tactics are not a random sequence of improvisations but reflect an order behind the spectrum of tools used. That makes it incumbent upon political leaders and strategic thinkers (not always one and the same) to fit such activities squarely within the political objectives discussed by Carl von Clausewitz, who explained that war was an extension of politics by other means. In thinking through the ongoing competition with Russia, we must keep in mind that “hybrid” refers to the means, not to the principles, goals, or nature of war. There is nothing inherent about the concept that prevents this. Indeed, the Russians have it down. We do not.


Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation who occasionally writes on defense and foreign policy related issues.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

18 thoughts on “The Problem with Hybrid Warfare

  1. This piece is an excellent wake-up call. The multi-dimensional threat of hybrid warfare is a post-industrial, information-age challenge to governance structures and processes that continue to look at the world in terms of outmoded 20th century national security paradigms. The generic threat to nation-states today is what some have called system disruption. Hence, nation-states need to reconfigure their governance structures and processes toward national resilience paradigms. Consider the thoughts of Philip Auerswald and Debra van Opstal in their “Coping with Turbulence: The Resilience Imperative” Innovations Technology/Governance/Globalization: Special Edition for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, 2009 (Davos-Klosters MIT Press, 2009, pp. 203-18). They wrote, “Complex interdependencies in the post-industrial age have exposed a different set of vulnerabilities throughout the civil societies of today. . . . Risks are just as likely to emanate from disruptions in global networks—for energy, communication, information, transportation—that are interlocked, allowing failures to cascade across networks, borders, and societies.” NATO needs to rethink what this means for collective self-defense and what collective force structures are required for Alliance-wide operational resilience to protect against intentional disruptions aka hybrid warfare.

  2. Excellent. Found myself nodding all the way through. I also agree with Mr Morton that politicians/diplomats who currently chart policy are largely functioning under paradigms that can’t deal with purposeful destabilization. Combine this effect with the author’s (accurate) acknowledgment that strategic thinking and politics are not synonymous and our own internal handicap becomes clear.

    In order to counter a threat, one must first acknowledge that a threat exists. The destabilizing effects described are designed to be “stealthy”and deniable. The author describes very nicely how we are perfectly positioned to be paralyzed by the internal inability to recognize, and to really accept, that a threat exists. No strategy can be developed to counter a threat that isn’t perceived. The best hope is that these arguments make an impact on those who set policy.

  3. War changed? We can define total war, limited war, war as politics merely by other means but Hybrid war seems difficult to grasp, a conundrum, and not agreeable to alliances, such as NATO. Indeed, how does the recent observations of hybrid war differ from what Hitler’s Nazism and the Wehrmacht conducted around Europe up until Britain and France formerly declared war on Germany? Perhaps large complicated alliances are the conundrum to deciding when war is openly going on by whatever means versus small group dynamics and decision making. Granted in during the time of the Nazi’s, information didn’t flow like it does today. Information about the goings on in places like Georgia, Urkraine, Estonia, Lithuania, or Iraq for that different matter and the decisions to confront a bigger conflict creates overload for individual states in a region as well as alliances or coalitions. War is war regardless of the means, calling it such creates less confusion rather than a new concept and name. Therefore, information war, cyber war, or border incursions to protect an ethnic enclave of quasi-Russians or Ossetians requires a equal or greater response of force. I think Clausewitz had something to say about force and war that remains legitimate today.

  4. Hi;
    I was the curriculum developer at the NATO Counterinsurgency Training Center (CTC-A) in Kabul for about 2-yrs (2010-12). We were responsible for the development and presentation of five different irregular threats related courses. We taught NATO, coalition, U.S., and Host Nation military and civilian personnel. Before that I developed and taught COIN tactical level training on the Kuwait/Iraq border for almost 4-yrs (2005-09). I also wrote a book about asymmetric tactical training (2010). Previously, I was in the U.S. Army, deployed 27 times during my 7-yrs. in the 2nd Ranger BN, and visited numerous areas with hybrid threats. For example, I was in and out of Central and South America late 70s thru early and mid 80s; Middle East as early as 1983, Philippines, and so on). I joined the U.S. Army during the Vietnam timeframe and now I’m 60 yrs. old, so I have some experience.
    Hybrid threats, asymmetric adversaries, low-intensity conflicts, and irregular warfare are older than me. They are not new. However, quality well-developed training that takes in the wide range and scope and complexity of irregular threats and irregular warfare is new; in fact it is so new that it is non-existent. Let me say that in a more direct manner. Quality training for irregular threats does not exist.
    In fact, NATO and the U.S. have been seeking out such training for many years. The 2006 and 2007 U.S. Department of Defense, Combatting Terrorism Technological Support Office review books support this claim. If the most recent Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office Broad Agency Announcement (2015) is reviewed one can still see that quality, advanced, innovative training for hybrid or irregular threats is still being sought-out. The ramifications of this problem are far and wide.
    Please see the following document for more information about this tremendous gap;

    Take care.

    Joe C.

  5. A significant contribution to the problems being treated as hybrid warfare is that any regime in power can conflate an effort to unseat them as an attack upon the nation and just as probably, any outside nation can refuse to accept a regime as “legitimate”. It was difficult enough to follow the actors when dynastic linkages were clear, how much more so when there are enemies trapped within a set of borders enforced by the intenational community. The search for ways to better enforce winners and losers by better dispensation of violence just seem wrong-headed since the raison d’etre for the multinational organizations is to develop alternate means.

  6. @rik I don’t think so. Attaching a war label to something which had no application of force is disenguous. But I have a pretty good idea why you might think that.

  7. Excellent piece. However the reason why we might need different lexicon to describe changing characteristics of warfare is to better understand our adversary’s approach and to ensure we develop appropriate capabilities to counter them.
    Hybrid Adversary is one who simultaneously combines multiple methods to achieve political objectives:
    regular, irregular, disruptive (cyber, info) catastrophic (WMD, Chem/bio) AND criminal.
    Do we have a military organization with these organic capabilities whose leadership thinks about combinations of appropriate methods and capabilities?

  8. This same concept was formerly known as “total war” combining economic, propaganda, and all other elements into the war effort. It was perfected in WW1. Earlier, Britain and France attempted to use it against each other in Napoleon’s Continental System and Britain’s response.

    This isn’t new. It is just a new name.

  9. The most excellent conquests are the conquests of countries without firing a shot. Hitler’s conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia come to mind. Putin’s takeover of Crimea is alright, but it pales by comparison. If he’d taken over all of Ukraine without violence, then that would have put him on equal footing with Hitler. As it is, thousands of people died because Putin was inadequate and indecisive.

  10. The surest defense against Russia’s brand of hybrid warfare is a well-secured and well-defended border. If Russia’s troublemakers and “humanitarian convoys” can’t enter your country to begin with, then conducting this type of warfare against you becomes immeasurably more difficult if not impossible.

    The single highest priority for the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Belarus and, to the extent that its possible, Ukraine should be the fortification and militarization of their borders. Electrified fences, mines, and multiple rows of anti-tank ditches should all be used.

    Also, immediate and decisive action against this kind of warfare while it’s in its infancy is an absolute must. If the Ukrainian government had sent in its tanks and reduced the Donetsk administration building to firewood the day after the separatists took it over, it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now.

  11. Dear UN, NATO, and European Union;

    Please watch the following video; NATO Secretary General at the European Parliament, 30 MAR 2015:

    I think “Pivotal times” is a very good phrase. Peace is nice and a long sought after commodity. However in the current security environment the security in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are not built, nor maintained without state funds. That is one of the primary functions of an advanced, well-developed and secure government and/or nation; adequate security and a security apparatus with uninterrupted funds. The U.S. has been providing about 70% of the funds for NATO. Within the continental U.S. we have utilized very few, if any, NATO assets. Yes we have agendas in other parts of the world and have tried to improve security and build governments and relationships in the context of NATO missions. I am not a politician, so I will apologize for my bluntness in advance (you know how us Americans are, we talk to much). I am sorry, but I must be honest; due to fiscal realities in the U.S., the free ride is over my friend.

    When you and yours feel it is time for you to do something about your security environment please contact our Department of State and our Joint International Center for Security Force Assistance (JCISFA) and we will see hat we can do to help. Pivotal times indeed my friend, pivotal times.

    In the interim, please take care.

    Joe C.

  12. NATO can rarely agree on Article V issues now. The result is almost always, if anything, a U.S. led and funded military effort, U.K. participation, symbolic token participation by the other members, usually pulled years before the U.S./U.K. withdrawal, and the vast majority of NATO “allies” sitting in the background and criticizing.

    If NATO can’t agree on Article V, does the author really believe they have the political backbone to handle hybrid warfare?

  13. US hasn’t given a mandate to NATO to regard Russia as the enemy that it’s always been. Europe requires this kind of leadership. Unless Germany wants to take the reigns again.

  14. “First, many in the Baltic region view the concept as merely another mechanism by which the West can avoid decisive action against Russia…”

    Well put. You can slide all this nonsense about “Area Denial, A2/R2D2 blah blah blah, etc.,” under that heading as well. “Western” leaders are only interested in intervening in a conflict when they can bomb an technologically deemed “inferior force” from a far, and ideally one without any linkages to global capitalism. Any chance of losing one of those ‘exquisite’ systems or worse, hurting a state you depend on for cheap labor, and forgot about even acknowledging a conflict exists.

  15. I would like to make three points:

    First, @Rik’s comments about revolutions and what is occurring in the Ukraine are largely wrong. Clauswitzian war pits to nations against each other – not two elements that are strictly internal to a country against each other. The key question is, “but for the intervention of the external nation, would the events have unfolded as they did?” If the answer is no, then it is a revolution. If the answer is yes, then it is war.

    Second, assuming you accept the idea of Hybrid War, it is unfair to say that the U.S. is not engaged in conflict. It is currently sanctioning many members of the Russian elite. That would meet the definition of hybrid warfare. So these statements that NATO and its allies are not currently engaged in war are false as long as you accept the “total war” definition Hybrid War offers.

    Third, the tactics involved may be more complex than open war, but Hybrid War is the wrong way to define this conflict. This is a war of Identity, and it will only extend as far as required for Russia to protect what it feels are ethnic Russian. So Estonia and some of the other former Eastern Block countries could have real concerns as they have significant ethnic Russian populations, but to pretend that this is a Russian war with the West ala the Cold War, overstates what is happening. Yes, Russia will rattle the nuclear sabre to get what it wants, but I doubt they would be self destructive enough to actually use it against America or any other Western nation.

  16. Case in point.

    The 2015 US National Security Strategy published by the White House. The document does not mention “irregular”, “asymmetric”, or “hybrid”. Terrorist activities are now labeled “persistent threats”. The document is a fine example of the intellectual void that consumes Washington DC and the lack of effort that has not consumed The White House and Department of State to embrace a well established conceptualization.