Although it has been around for a few years, the expression ‘hybrid warfare’ really caught on in 2014. All and sundry are now repeating it to show that they are ‘in the know’ and understand that warfare is changing in important and mysterious ways.
The theory is that war has undergone a profound transformation. Whereas once it was just a matter of armies fighting armies, now it is a hybrid of military power and other forms of power. According to Captain Robert A. Newson of the US Navy, hybrid warfare can be defined as:
A combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media representatives; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.
And according to NATO:
A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.
The NATO definition reveals an immediate problem with the idea of hybrid warfare: it is so vague as to be meaningless. But there are other problems with it too.
The theory that it represents something new is profoundly ahistorical. With the exception of the mention of cyber attacks, Newson’s definition above could apply to pretty much any war ever fought. War has rarely if ever been solely a matter of military force. ‘Political and ideological conflict’, ‘intelligence agents, ‘proxies and surrogates’, and ‘economic intimidation’ have accompanied war for centuries.
Even the claim that the non-conventional elements of war are becoming more important than traditional combat is hardly a new one. Martin van Creveld made this claim in his book The Transformation of War 25 years ago. William S. Lind has been making similar claims with his theory of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ for just as long. Before that, Cold War theories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency similarly stressed that combat was just one facet of a wider socio-economic-political struggle. And even before that, Clausewitz spoke of war as consisting not just of armies, but also of governments and the people, while Sun Tzu spoke at length about secret agents and the importance of maintaining popular support.
The main example currently used by hybrid warfare theorists to illustrate their case – the war in Eastern Ukraine – in fact proves the opposite. The weapons of choice are rifles, machine-guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems. The war in Ukraine is not hybrid warfare – it is war, as traditionally understood.