The Rise of the Hybrid Warriors: From Ukraine to the Middle East

March 9, 2016

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The Iraqi Army defenders of Ramadi had held their dusty, stony ground for over a year and become familiar with the increasing adeptness of their opponents waving black flags. At first, these Iraqi Army units simply faced sprayed rifle fire, but then it was well-placed sniper rounds that forced these weary units to keep under cover whenever possible or risk a death that only their comrades — but never the victim — would hear. Tired, beleaguered, and cut off from reinforcements from Baghdad, they nonetheless continued to repulse attack after attack.

The last months witnessed a new weapon — car bombs. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had long been the masters of using car bombs, but almost always against isolated checkpoints or undefended civilians. But an old tactic found a new situation. Car bombs, now parked against outer walls and driven by suicide bombers, were thrown against the Iraqi Army’s defenses in Ramadi.

The defenders were professional soldiers, and the last decade of war had taught them a great deal about the use of concrete barriers to defend against explosives of all kinds. So while the car bombs created a great deal of sound and fury, they availed little.

Then one bright day in May 2015, the defenders awoke to a new sound. Crawling forward slowly toward the heavily barricaded road was a bulldozer followed by several large cargo and dump trucks. The soldiers began to fire as the bulldozer entered the range of their machine guns and rifles, but it was armored by overlapping welded steel plates. The bullets bounced off the advancing earthmover. The defenders lacked one key weapon system — an anti-tank missile that could penetrate the armor of the tracked vehicle.

So while the soldiers kept up a steady volume of fire, they were helpless as the dozer began to remove the concrete barriers that blocked the road between their positions and the row of large armored trucks. One layer of concrete was removed after another until the road was clear.

And so the trucks begin to pour through. While creating vehicle-borne bombs is an ISIL specialty, the technology is actually remarkably simple, as each truck carried in its five-ton bed the same basic formula used two decades ago by Timothy McVeigh at Oklahoma City — ammonium nitrate fertilizer soaked in gasoline. As each truck closed on the defenses, its suicide bomber detonated the payload, shocking beyond reason those who were not killed outright. As truck after truck delivered its lethal payload, black-clad fighters poured from behind the trucks to exploit the newly created hole in the defenses. The survivors fell back and tried to maintain some semblance of order, but it was far too late to have any hope of saving this day. Ramadi had fallen.

— — — — —

The explosion of ISIL onto the international scene in June 2014 informed the world that a new type of force had arrived. In some ways, this should have been less of a surprise. ISIL had seized Fallujah the previous January, and there were also several clear precursors of this type of force. The Israelis had experienced a near-defeat in their fight against the non-state actor Hezbollah years earlier. And only a month after the fall of Mosul, Russian-backed separatist forces in Ukraine would shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

None of these actors — ISIL, Hezbollah, or the Ukrainian separatists — can be classified as traditional insurgent groups, guerrillas, or terrorists. All three groups possess capabilities that take them beyond more familiar non-state actors without qualifying them as full-fledged armies. Whether the bulldozers and social media savvy of ISIL, the missiles and electronic warfare of Hezbollah, or the high-altitude air defense of the Ukrainian rebels, all these forces have deployed capabilities traditionally associated with nation-states. The hybrid warriors have merged these capabilities with traditional insurgent tactics in their fight against nation-state forces.

While the debate rages on about the utility of the concepts of “hybrid warfare” and “gray zone conflict,” this article is not about these debates. This article is agnostic as to whether these types of warfare are best called “hybrid wars” or “political warfare.” It is similarly agnostic as to whether the “gray zone” concept is “hopelessly muddled “or “real and identifiable.” These debates, while important, are not what this piece attempts to settle. Rather than discuss the strategies and operations conducted in these ambiguous physical and legal spaces, this paper is concerned with the new actors emerging in said spaces. This essay maintains that there is something interesting and new occurring, as it relates to the actors operating in this space. While calling them “hybrid warriors” when the larger concept of “hybrid warfare” is still deeply contested may be linguistically problematic, there is no necessary linkage between the terms. That these fighters are a “hybrid” of insurgent and state-sponsored strains seems very clear, and therefore appropriate, regardless of distinct and separate debates over the characteristics of the environment.

Hybrid warriors are new (or at least new to us). These non-state hybrid warriors have adopted significant capabilities of an industrial or post-industrial nation-state army that allow them to contest the security forces of nation-states with varying degrees of success. Retaining ties to the population and a devotion to the “propaganda of the deed” that characterizes their insurgent and terrorist cousins, these non-state hybrid warriors present a challenge unfamiliar to most modern security analysts (though those who fought against either America’s 19th-century native tribes or the medieval Knights Templar, might see similarities).

Hybrid warriors specialize in the ambiguity of the “gray zone,” a term this essay will continue to use despite its definitional issues. While they can both administer territory (at the low end of the spectrum) and fight conventional war (at the high end), it is in the spaces in between that they truly excel. Girded by their relative safety from police forces, immunity from international norms (characteristic of all places where the state and rule of law are weak), and the active or passive support of the population, these hybrid warriors enjoy a low degree of risk, at least when compared to open warfare against Western interests. Within their sanctuaries — so long as they survive the occasional airstrike or commando raid — hybrid warriors face few security concerns, save when local armies probe the boundaries of their loosely controlled terrain. And yet — as the United States clearly learned on 9/11 — non-state groups possess a new ability to launch attacks against the integrated state system. These hybrid warriors live among the insurgents and counter-insurgents, terrorists and counter-terrorists, spies, saboteurs, propagandists, organized criminals, and money launderers — but while they may participate in any number of these activities, they are not limited by them.

Hybrid warriors rise to a level of concern because they present a new and more serious challenge to the U.S.-led state-centric system. Making life difficult for hybrid warriors is therefore a U.S. interest, even if a particular group does not directly challenge U.S. interests in their region. Certain groups — ISIL most obviously —have chosen to confront the United States quite directly. But even a group that chooses to avoid confrontation is still problematic from a U.S. perspective. From their sanctuaries, hybrid warriors (to a much greater extent than their less capable insurgent/terrorist cousins) are able to generate threats that can reach members of the state system, if not the United States itself. Arguably, the Native American tribes of early American history meet the definition of hybrid warriors, but since the often violent expansion of the English-speaking settlers across the North American continent — clearing that primitive “gray zone” as they homesteaded and ranched — the United States has not had to deal with a substantive force that refuses to play by understood rules. In the 21st century, similar groups appear to be proliferating.

With these characteristics and definitions in mind, we can start to better flesh out the nature of hybrid warfare today and which groups qualify as hybrid forces under this definition.

Despite the “hybrid” term first emerging from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of the participants in these wars were truly hybrid forces by this article’s definition. In the Iraq case, neither al-Qaeda in Iraq nor the Islamic State in Iraq prior to the U.S. departure in 2011 had moved beyond the status of insurgent terrorist group, limited to bombings, beheadings, and assassinations. Nationalist insurgencies of both Sunni and Shi’a flavors — the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade and the Jaysh al-Mahdi, respectively and most prominently — similarly conducted targeted killings as each resisted the government and occupying forces. Finally, all these groups participated in a sectarian civil war against each other. The resulting wave of violence from terrorism, insurgency, and civil war — not to mention general lawlessness — was indeed chaotic and confusing. But it was “merely” a maelstrom of competing insurgents and terrorists.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda cells that had planned and executed the 9/11 attacks were simply garden-variety terrorists, if of an unusually competent flavor. The various branches of the Taliban and other Afghan groups — the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin did not display any new characteristics, largely behaving like traditional insurgents.

Boko Haram has also achieved recent notoriety for its operations as a Salafist Islamic terrorist group in Nigeria and surrounding African countries. However, while Boko Haram arguably does control territory, it remains an insurgent group of guerrilla fighters. While it is an incredibly capable guerrilla army (at least relative to its opponents in the area), it demonstrates no conventional or special military capabilities. Again, this is not to say that a traditional insurgent force cannot be a significant threat — but that still doesn’t make it a hybrid threat.

So which groups qualify as hybrid forces under this definition? We are left with three who appear at first glance to meet the criteria: Hezbollah, ISIL, and the eastern Ukrainian separatists. In the following sections, we will examine each of these groups and cover one aspect of the organization that demonstrates their nature as a hybrid force: the use of electronic signals intelligence for Hezbollah, the ability to perform complex breaching operations for ISIL, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by the Ukrainian separatists.

Guerrillas Transformed

Hezbollah, or the “Party of God,” remains the most widely acknowledged hybrid force in the world today. As such, it serves as the gold standard for assessing such forces, both as the original archetype and in terms of capability and competence.

Hezbollah’s ascendance would have been hard to predict. At its founding in the early 1980s, the then-nameless organization looked much like a number of local competitors — Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to name just a few. Yet while these other forces remained guerrilla insurgent groups, Hezbollah transformed.

Hezbollah has an utterly non-military origin. Founded in 1982 by a group of religious students of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr (an Iraqi Shia and father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, the founder of the Jaysh al-Mahdi), Hezbollah emerged in the crucible of resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The new group quickly made a reputation for itself through a series of suicide bombings in Lebanon against the U.S. Marine barracks and the headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces and French paratroopers.

But these attacks, while certainly foundational to the group’s early cohesion, were not what made it a hybrid organization. It was not until the early 1990s that the group began to morph and add conventional capabilities to its guerrilla and terrorist roots. Hezbollah was first known to have Katyusha rockets in February 1992, and its artillery units were formed in 1995. Over the coming decade, Hezbollah undertook an organizational transformation:

Hezbollah’s planners opted for a more unorthodox approach, one that combined elements of low-signature guerilla-style warfare with the technology and sophisticated armaments of a conventional army.

This statement is important. Hezbollah’s status as a hybrid force is not an accident, but rather a deliberate choice. Further, Hezbollah has continued to refine its capabilities over time. To the rocket and artillery capability above, Hezbollah has added high-quality combat footage and the ability to intercept the feeds from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or “drones” — an advanced electronic warfare capability. Additionally, Hezbollah has upgraded its missile capabilities to include much longer-range missiles, including some with precision guidance systems. It has refined the placement of its bunkers and rockets to a science, using camouflage, the reverse slope of hills, and even pneumatic platforms to raise and lower its rockets out of the ground. Further, Hezbollah has converted most of its communications to fiber-optic cable to frustrate Israeli monitoring and uses spectrum analysis to determine when and how its communications systems are being jammed. The group scans to intercept cellular phone communications and maintains a network of closed-circuit televisions on the southern border of Lebanon.

Hezbollah uses not just technology, but also tactics and techniques in unique ways. During its 2006 war against Israel, Hezbollah effectively used swarming tactics with anti-tank missiles fired in volleys of dozens so that the first few hits would strip the reactive armor from Israeli tanks, leaving bare metal for follow-on missiles.

Hezbollah’s movement into Syria in support of the Assad regime against the uprising has further developed the capabilities of the group. There were those, including this author, who thought that having Hezbollah fighting al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State would result in both sides suffering casualties and weakening. Instead, the conflict seems to have strengthened and battle-hardened both groups, further cementing Hezbollah’s capabilities.

While Hezbollah’s missile technologies provide the most famous hybrid capability, perhaps the most interesting example to deal with here is the group’s electronic warfare capabilities. In 2010, Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nusrallah revealed that as early as the mid-1990s, Hezbollah had learned how to tap into Israeli UAV feeds. By looking at these feeds, Hezbollah was able to determine the areas that the Israelis were most interested in and deploy their capabilities in response, as in the case of one famous 1997 ambush that resulted in the deaths of 12 Israeli commandos. Hezbollah has also learned how to use defensive electronic warfare measures, such as running fiber-optic cable between their positions in southern Lebanon. Similarly, Hezbollah deploys dedicated counterintelligence electronic technician units specifically dedicated to discovering and countering Israeli electronic surveillance, including disrupting Israeli UAVs through jamming and/or reprogramming. This is, of course, assisted by Iranian technologies, and one source describes Hezbollah’s front in Lebanon as a “testing ground” for Iranian electronic capabilities. But it is primarily Hezbollah operators who are the users of the equipment, giving them a fairly high-level skill not developed in insurgent or guerrilla organizations.

Guerrillas Meet Deep State

The Islamic State is an interesting hybrid of hybrids. The group dates to the founding of its precursor group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Jordan and Afghanistan in 1999–2000. However, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (or slightly before, in anticipation), Zarqawi would move his group to Iraq and finally affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to become al-Qaeda in Iraq in late 2003 or early 2004.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not a hybrid organization. AQI and ISI had the traditional core competencies of a terrorist or insurgent group — assassination, small ambushes, bomb emplacement, sniping. However, it developed no significant activities beyond this, save perhaps the very primitive media arm that captured the group’s signature beheadings, first of Nicholas Berg and later of others.

However, after the near-defeat of ISI by the combined forces of the United States (both conventional brigades and the Joint Special Operations Command), the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening groups, and the Shi’a militias, two trends would soon combine to transform this organization. The first, now well documented in the media, but at first only noted by several dedicated intelligence officers, was a significant influx of what the U.S. Army calls “Former Regime Elements” into the ranks of the ISI. These Ba’athists, a mix of military and intelligence officers, and in many cases military intelligence officers, brought a new level of professionalism and tradecraft into the ISI. This trend has not diminished in recent years, and it is now believed that a significant majority of ISIL leadership consists of former Ba’athists with significant military or intelligence training.

The second trend is obvious — the group moved to Syria and declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Moving to Syria accomplished a number of things for the group. First, it put ISIL at the forefront of what was seen in the Sunni Islamic world as the most legitimate war in the region. The Sunni Islamic world was also deeply opposed to the democratic regime in Baghdad, but could not directly oppose it since it enjoyed U.S. sponsorship. But once the rebellion began in Syria, any group that fought against the Assad regime could gain money, weapons, and personnel as the cooperation that the United States had gained from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) against Islamic terrorist groups broke down in the face of GCC desire to generate fighters to oppose the Assad regime. In this environment, ISIL was quickly able to regenerate capability, as its earlier reputation for brutality brought it a disproportionate share of the resources. These resources — and training/experience — allowed ISIL to conduct its lightning sweep into Iraq, through Mosul and Tikrit and towards Baghdad, in the summer of 2014.

ISIL now occupies a similar, though not identical, place in Iraq and Syria as does its hybrid cousin, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Both have de facto control of territory and at least local superiority to the official government security forces. But while Hezbollah has managed to establish a modus vivendi with the Lebanese Army and police forces, ISIL is in direct conflict with those of Iraq and Syria. This has several causes, but the primary one is the other difference between Hezbollah and ISIL: Hezbollah has no intention of joining the state system itself (though it does have representation with significant influence in the current government), while ISIL— as its very name indicates — does. So while Hezbollah appears perfectly happy to remain a hybrid force based out of Lebanon, ISIL aspires to carve a new state out of Iraq and Syria, eventually expanding it to absorb other Muslim lands ruled by what it views as illegitimate governments. Hezbollah is a hybrid force by choice, but ISIL is hybrid only because it has not yet fully realized its aspirations.

While ISIL has definitely retained its insurgent roots traced back to Zarqawi’s camps in Iran and Kurdistan, it has also generated new capabilities, brought about in no small part by the influx of formally trained Ba’athists. This is a unique feature of ISIL as a hybrid force — the mixture of the Zarqawi wing of pure insurgents and the Ba’athist strain of formally trained former state security forces has created a maelstrom of unique capability.

ISIL has a myriad of hybrid capabilities (its ability to use captured armored vehicles and artillery pieces, for example), but one of the best examples is the breaching capability it displayed in the battle to capture Ramadi, as described in the opening vignette.

As ISIL was kind enough to photo-document for us (a selection are included below), we can see a fairly sophisticated multi-step process. First, they armored and fortified a civilian bulldozer so that it would be immune to small arms fire. They then used this bulldozer to remove a section of the concrete wall protecting the Iraqi units defending Ramadi. Then a series of likewise armored truck bombs, similar in both size and composition to those used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, were sent through the gap in the wall created by the bulldozer. ISIL then used the car bombs to gain superiority over the defenders.

This synchronization — preparing a piece of equipment so it is immune to enemy defenses, using that equipment to breach enemy defenses, and then driving similarly prepared truck bombs through the gap created — is beyond the capability of most insurgent groups. Past car bombs have either simply navigated through the entrance or have used successive car bombs to create improvised holes in the walls. But developing a specialized piece of equipment for a specialized purpose is something different — something that an industrial-age state army does. While this breaching tactic is far from ISIL’s only hybrid capability, it is perhaps the most obviously illustrative.

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Remnants of Military Joined by Militias

The fighting in Ukraine has raged for two years. While battle lines seem to have more or less stabilized, the eastern Ukrainian separatist forces remain in legal limbo, not clearly affiliated with any state, though opposing one (Ukraine) and supported by another (Russia — to which some elements may wish to be annexed).

Following the fall of the Yanukovych government in February 2014 and the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March of that year, the two eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk began to see the emergence of militia groups, at first local and eventually knitted together into a coalition. The initial mix of locals — many with military training — was soon transformed by the infusion of former Ukrainian defense officials (for example, Sergey Kusyuk of the Berkut Special Forces took part on fighting in Donetsk) and almost certainly with the assistance of Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) and military intelligence (GRU) officers. So while the separatists in these two provinces are technically an insurgency against the central government in Kiev, they also behave more and more like a conventional army without quite crossing that bar. As one CNN reporter put it, “The people we’ve met, the militia, they’re ragtag, a lot of them have old military experience, and that’s mostly ground, street-to-street fighting.”

These forces sound remarkably like the other hybrid forces described earlier, though these rebels — not unlike ISIL —intend to become a state force someday, rather than remaining a hybrid force like Hezbollah.

Recent press reports indicate that the Ukrainian separatists have sophisticated weaponry courtesy of their Russian sponsors, including encrypted radios and unmanned aerial vehicles. However, the capability that best illustrates their status as a hybrid force is that force’s most spectacular error — the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

The airliner was shot down by a sophisticated Russian-manufactured missile, the SA-17, commonly known as the Buk 2. This radar-guided missile is capable of engaging aircraft flying at a height of up to 75,000 feet and is generally manned by highly trained technicians.

Now, of course, civilian aircraft know that they will often move into the path of military radar systems as they traverse international airspace, and so they are constantly emitting an IFF (identify friend or foe) transponder code that declares their status as civilian aircraft. The SA-17 — like all such missile systems — is equipped to immediately identify such a code, and identifying this code is among the first tasks that a newly assigned missileer in any national military would be trained in. After all, all states within the international system have an interest in freedom of the skies, as U.S., Russian, and Chinese aircraft all enter each other’s airspace for legitimate civilian purposes on a routine basis, with the permission of each other’s air traffic control systems and all while emitting their IFF codes.

However, the person or persons crewing the SA-17 on July 17, 2014 presumably did not know how to recognize this code or used the SA-17 even though it was unable to detect the code — perhaps the feature was disabled or inoperative (see technical discussion of how this feature might have been disabled here). We can safely assume that no one in Ukraine or Russia had an interest in downing a Malaysian airliner originating in a European city, and the downing was a result of human error. But — and this is the central point — no nation-state would fire that missile without checking the IFF code or otherwise verifying the identity of the aircraft. And no mere insurgent group would be able to operate this complex system. But the hybrid force of Ukrainian separatists has sufficient sophistication to fire the missile and direct it to its target, but insufficient sophistication to realize that they are shooting down a civilian airliner and not a military transport plane.

Future of these Forces

Hybrid forces provide a challenge to the United States for several reasons. First, they exist outside the post-World War II state system of which the United States is both the primary architect and pre-eminent beneficiary. Armed forces that do not belong to a member of the state system are deeply disturbing to this system. While insurgents and guerrillas have been a persistent annoyance to the state system since its inception (and to other political orders before that), the emergence of these super-empowered armed groups metastasizes the problem.

Second, since these groups operate outside the state system, they are not restrained by it. Hezbollah has prominently deployed small formations to Iraq and large forces to Syria. ISIL fights against a wide variety of guerrilla and regular formations throughout Iraq and Syria while under air bombardment from an even wider variety of states.

Third, these forces living in the “gray zone” of conflict serve as the most effective laboratory for further resistance against the forces of the state system. As these hybrid forces continue to operate in the gray zone and interact with the other denizens thereof — terrorists, insurgents, guerrillas, criminal mobs, cyber hackers, traffickers of all kinds — they will no doubt find new and creative ways to challenge the interests of the state system, and particularly the interests of the United States.

Of course, none of these groups perfectly match the archetype or “ideal type” of the hybrid warrior. The Ukrainian rebels have a great deal of state support from Russia, far more than the comparatively limited support Iran gives to Hezbollah. Similarly, ISIL exists as the cutting edge of a constellation of violent Islamist groups facilitated by Saudi ideology and Gulf State “startup” funding. None of these groups are truly independent and are subject to varying degrees of state influence, though they are far from completely controlled by their patrons.

More than one early reader of earlier drafts of this essay pointed out that these hybrid warriors sound like groups that are in between the second and third stages of Mao’s “protracted people’s war.” Thus, what appears to be something new and novel is in fact just a snapshot in time as these groups move toward the third stage of establishing a conventional revolutionary army in the field.

In the case of ISIL and especially the Ukrainian separatists, there may be some truth to this, but the example of Hezbollah points out why this may not be the case. Hezbollah has made a deliberate, strategic decision not to move to the logical next stage, but to instead remain a sub-state hybrid force. Likewise, ISIL and the Ukrainian separatists may also come to see the wisdom of learning to live within the gray zone, a place in which it is difficult for the full powers of a state to be brought against them, and in which they may enjoy a host of informal allies. Other groups are doubtless watching.

As the United States thinks about its interests in the world, it needs to consider both these hybrid threats and those that have yet to emerge. So far our cases are either Arab or Eastern European. In general, sub-Saharan Africa lacks the industrial militaries for insurgent groups to steal, adopt, or borrow from, so this is a region unlikely to generate one of these groups. But one might envision a group in South, Central, or East Asia deciding that it needs to move into this space. East and South Asian armies have the capabilities that a hybrid force might want to adopt as well as an active technology sector that could provide the opportunity to graft on a post-modern capability. Burma, Thailand, Pakistan, or Chechnya might be the cradles of such groups. In all these cases, a restive ethnic or ideological minority might be sufficiently capable of adopting any capabilities that exist locally.

U.S. Response

The United States must deal with these hybrid threats that work inside the gray zone. However, we are immediately confronted with a limitation: These threats emerged inside the gray zone precisely because there is limited state control. The United States can operate in these spaces, should it choose, but the costs quickly become exponentially high — in terms of assets, money, political capital, and casualties. It is difficult to see a U.S. military response absent an explicit causus belli.

It would be a truism to say that the United States should therefore seek to expand state control of these non-state spaces. Yet first, it has thus far demonstrated limited capability to do so; increasing the capability of a weak state to govern its uncontrolled spaces is a Herculean undertaking. Second, even if these weak states could establish control over these spaces, it is far from clear that this would be in the interests of the population of these areas. In general, these ungoverned spaces exist because the government is seen — often accurately — as illiberal, authoritarian, repressive, and illegitimate. Therefore, the indigenous peoples resist the intrusion of the state into these spaces, presenting the United States with a dilemma. It can ignore the non-state space and risk the emergence of a hybrid force there, or it can assist the flawed local government to project control into that space, thereby incentivizing the population to create a resistance force that may well then become hybrid. In short, good answers are scarce.

The hybrid force then presents a very real danger. The examples in this essay have focused on currently existing groups that use almost entirely industrial-era technologies to achieve their hybrid status. However, it is possible to imagine a future hybrid force that uses emerging technology to transform its insurgency into a hybrid force. Capabilities such as nanotechnology, robotics, or autonomous swarming machines could comprise the additional capability of the next generation.

These hybrid warriors are new, capable, and — most critically — dangerous enough to threaten conventional armies in the right situations, as the Israelis so painfully learned in 2006 and the Iraqis have experienced since late 2013. While it is difficult to craft a uniform policy to counter the rise of these hybrid threats, the first step is awareness and monitoring. At the very least, the United States should be watching very closely for the emergence of the next hybrid threat, even if it will find itself with relatively few policy options once that threat is identified. But by being prepared to use the tools that do exist — whether drones, special forces raids, or working through local partners — the United States can better retard the growth of hybrid threats, a very real and present danger to the world order in which the United States has invested so much.

 

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner of Mantid International, as well as a Senior Fellow at New America and a contributor at Al Jazeera America. He worked for the “War Czar” at NSC-Iraq in 2008–9. Mantid International has business interests in southern Iraq as well as U.S. Aerospace and Defense industry clients.

 

Photo credit: yeowatzup

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3 thoughts on “The Rise of the Hybrid Warriors: From Ukraine to the Middle East

  1. Good article. How to thwart these guys? This is long war stuff, of course. But for starters we should reintroduce Trinquier into our war colleges. (My guess is Guerre Moderne is read in private, maybe even in secret by our officers). Re-reading our FMs on IW, I note the Frenchman is not even mentioned. Legal issue? PC issue? Stomach issue? I’m not sure. PRU successes were not mentioned either–brutally effective program. As for me, these topics would start at the academies, but that is just me.

  2. So ISIS demonstrates they have people who can weld steel plate and operate construction equipment to move T-walls, and all of the sudden they’re the future of warfare. Bollocks. Nor is it new for revolutionary or insurgent groups to establish shadow governments within territory they control, whether to undermine the official government, gather resources, or simply maintain order. ISIS — and Hezbollah — are following a path the Viet Cong, the PLO, the IRA, and the FARC, and others have trod before them.

    Nor does the rise of any particular group automatically present a threat to the U.S. This article basically presents a knee-jerk strategy that makes it America’s responsibility to stabilize the world. At last glance, the only “non-state” patch of earth on the globe is Antarctica, and that by international agreement. Everything else of consequence is claimed by some recognized state. Some of those spaces are contested by non-state groups, and in most cases, U.S. intervention in those conflicts does not advance U.S., or even local interests.

    On a technical note, while civilian airliners carry transponders that broadcast their identity to civilian air traffic control, these are not the same as IFF systems, and the implication that an air defense system can automatically interpret these signals to withhold fire is incorrect.

  3. How are hybrid warriors new to the US?

    Bay of pigs? “US volunteers” assisting in the Texan war of independence? The less open parts of Frances assistance to the colonials in the US independence war?

    All war is political, nothing about hybrid war is even remotely new.