Hybrid confusion

Well I’m inclined to believe,
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave,
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying.
Can you see these tears we’re crying?
Is there some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.

(Mumford & Sons)

The British House of Commons Defence Committee has been holding meetings as part of the ‘UK Response to Hybrid Threats Inquiry’. On Tuesday, it invited along a trio of experts to advise it about the dangers Britain faces from the likes of Russia. As so often in these cases, the guests seemed to be chosen specifically in order to reinforce the existing prejudices of the committee, and the meeting was something of a love-in, with nary a word of disagreement and a lot of chummy use of first names. As the MPs commented on a couple of occasions, the guests were ‘preaching to the choir’. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the whole episode was characterized by an astonishing lack of intellectual coherence.

The first guest was Chris Donnelly, who has recently acquired fame due to his connection with the Integrity Initiative. As I’ve noted before, Donnelly takes a very extreme position vis-à-vis Russia. He’s also convinced that Britain is at war and needs to start acting like it. I have to say that he wouldn’t be my first choice of person to invite if I was looking for sober, balanced advice.

Guest number two was Robert Johnson, who runs a project titled ‘The Changing Character of War’ at the University of Oxford. I’ve always viewed this with some scepticism. I tend more to follow the line of the eminent strategist Colin Gray, who argues that despite changes in technology, the fundamental essence of war has never really changed at all. But that’s by the by. Johnson is a respectable scholar. He has also written numerous works as a consultant for NATO. I didn’t get the impression that he disagreed with Connelly in any substantial way.

The final invitee was Andrew Mumford of the University of Nottingham. When I looked him up, Google gave me lots of hits for a nice little song called ‘Not in Nottingham’ by Mumford & Sons, but I was eventually able to track him down. He’s written a lot about the British experience in counter-insurgency. His book The Counterinsurgency Myth: The British Experience in Irregular Warfare looks quite interesting.

So what did this trio have to say for themselves?

The first question they were asked was to define ‘hybrid warfare’. And here’s the rub. They couldn’t do it. After a while, they just gave up. Reading the transcript of the meeting, I can’t find anything which clarifies what it is that they’re talking about. As Mumford put it, ‘there is a lack of unified agreement as to the parameters of the concept in and of itself.’ He then continued that,

For my money, hybrid warfare at its very basic level would involve a mixture of regular and irregular war-fighting techniques that do not necessarily have to be kinetic. I think it is for the purpose of extending influence, interest, maybe even in some cases territory as well. However, at the very basic level hybrid warfare would involve trying to think about ways that we can address multiple sources of threat and threats that are addressed by multiple methods.

Maybe I’m just not very bright, but this strikes me as waffle – a lot of words which end up saying nothing. ‘Hybrid warfare is all sorts of undefined techniques used to extend influence’ is kind of what I get out of it. In other words, hybrid warfare is simply a scarier way of saying politics.

Chris Donnelly went further. ‘The first thing to say is that, in hybrid warfare, everything is a weapon’, he opined. At this point, we’re in nonsense territory. In the first place, in war people have always used just about every tool they can, meaning that every war is a hybrid war according to Donnelly’s definition. And second, if everything is a weapon, then everything is part of hybrid war. And if that’s the case, the term has no conceptual value whatsoever.

Johnson, meanwhile, offered what he termed an ‘alternative thesis’, namely:

This is the idea that the hybridity you see presented by, for example, Russia is really only to contain us for the time being. It’s so that Russian military modernisation can be completed and therefore they are in a stronger position; with a divided and weakened Europe and a divided and weakened Anglo-American relationship, for example, that modernised military is in a much better position to project its power in other ways – perhaps in a slightly more conventional fashion.

One might call this the ‘hybrid warfare as a preparatory tool for eventual invasion’ thesis. The committee’s guests seemed to struggling a bit at this point. On the one hand, they were portraying hybrid warfare as everything including the kitchen sink; on the other hand, they were also keen to portray it as something below the threshold of ‘kinetic’ military operations; and on the third hand (which is indicative of the intellectual confusion), they were also saying it was something which mixed kinetic and other types of military operations.

Further complications arose when they were asked whether Britain engages in hybrid warfare. Johnson basically avoided answering the question, but more or less said ‘yes’. Mumford and Donnelly, in a rare disagreement, said no, but Donnelly added that Britain ought to.

What would that mean? All the guests agreed that British hybrid warfare would have to be legal. ‘We do not want to get in a fight that draws us into the temptation to break the law, either international or nationally’, said Johnson (rather ignoring the obvious elephant in the room in the form of the UK’s repeated breaches of international law). But there are things Britain could do, he said.

One classic one would be the building of coalitions. … there are a huge amount of assets such as media power, civil society, and moral pressure that can be built up. And that has a voice—that has an effect on international opinion. We saw with the decision by the United Kingdom to expel Russian diplomats how well-supported that was internationally. Even countries that have long-standing grievances with the UK through our history supported that move, and I think that’s a perfectly hybrid method, if you like, but it’s perfectly within the law.

Again, I must be very stupid, because I just don’t see how ‘building coalitions’, ‘media power, civil society, and moral pressure’, and expelling diplomats  is ‘hybrid method’. That’s politics and diplomacy. As if aware of this problem, after a while the committee just dropped the pretence that hybrid warfare was something real, and started talking about conventional military matters instead, such as deploying anti-submarine drones in Scotland, which we were told would be ‘great for the Scottish economy’. At this point, I had real problems understanding what the connection with hybrid warfare was anymore. But the guests and the committee were firm: the response to hybrid warfare had to include enhanced conventional military forces.

Why this would be the right response wasn’t at all clear. Donnelly said it was because Britain had a nuclear deterrent but insufficient conventional deterrent. But deterrent against what, exactly? Conventional forces are useful for fighting other conventional forces. I have problems seeing what use they are for fighting, say, internet trolls, RT, or all the other things so often labelled as ‘hybrid warfare’. Neither Donnelly nor anyone else graced us with a solution to this conundrum.

We were, however, told that the committee wanted to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP. Everyone present believed that more money was needed. The problem, they agreed, was that the British people just didn’t understand the threat, and so didn’t want to hand over their hard earned pennies to the military industrial complex. Something had to be done. Chris Donnelly had the answer: the bureaucracy and the British people have to be ‘educated’ about the threat to overcome the opposition to greater investments in defence.

And here, I think, is where we suddenly come across an explanation of why these experts can’t, or won’t, come up with a coherent definition of hybrid warfare other than that it’s ‘everything’. If they were actually to pin it down to something very specific, it would have to be something not obviously military (otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘hybrid’). But at that point, the inevitable response would be that because it’s not a military threat, military capabilities aren’t the answer. And that would not be welcome. Instead, by keeping it conceptually vague, and allowing it to embrace anything, they turn everything into a threat, thereby generating fear and increasing pressure on the government to ‘do something’. More than anything else, I think, this explains why the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has become so popular.

Conservative MP Mark Francois pointed out a serious problem, however. ‘Isn’t it part of MoD’s [Ministry of Defence’s] problem that whenever it makes these arguments within Whitehall it is simply told, ad nauseam, “This is all just special pleading” and “You would say that, wouldn’t you”?’ he asked. How very true, and how right Whitehall is.

13 thoughts on “Hybrid confusion”

  1. “The problem, they agreed, was that the British people just didn’t understand the threat…”

    I suspect the British people do understand, and that’s the trouble. The elites are trying to externalize their internal problems, but I imagine few have been fooled, so far, into believing in Russia being the culprit.

    Much remains to be done to brainwash the rest, but hopefully the Corbyn’s wing of Labour will take over at some point and put an end to this whole project…

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  2. I remember some of these guys in the Integrity-Challeged Initiative from back in The Day. Then the story was that the USSR was withdrawing its forces from Europe so that it could better strike forwards. Coiled-spring I think they called it. Then there were the “they’ll be a coup and it will all stop”. They’ve been in the nonsense game for a long time and have piled up an enormous heap of dead predictions. Weird, actually to see them re-appearing with the same old same old.

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  3. “The first question they were asked was to define ‘hybrid warfare’. And here’s the rub. They couldn’t do it.”

    Easy-peasy.

    “Hybrid warfare: literally anything done by the Russians, Russian government and/or their useful idiots (see below) that Handshakable Western Public doesn’t like (even if does exactly the same things).”

    Olympics in Sochi? Hybrid Warfare and maskirovka, all to mask the invasion of Crimea, aggressively promote Kremlin’s narrative (c), and grant legitimacy in the eyes of the Handshakable Western Public (in order to manipulate it to create “useful idiots”). RT and Sputnik? Voices of the hybrid warfare. “Masha and Medved” cartoons? Ditto.

    “Useful idiot: your erstwhile political opponent, that you now have a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to brand as a traitor to the Liberal Democratic Regime in the eyes of the Handshakable Western Public in a way that’s more effective than sex scandals, charges of corruption and incompetence, because it does not require any proof. See also – Heretic”

    “One classic one would be the building of coalitions… We saw with the decision by the United Kingdom to expel Russian diplomats how well-supported that was internationally. Even countries that have long-standing grievances with the UK through our history supported that move, and I think that’s a perfectly hybrid method, if you like, but it’s perfectly within the law.”

    Sure they did! Jean Claude Juncker even agreed to Theresa May’s conditions of Brexit… Oh, wait – NO HE DIDN’T!

    “We were, however, told that the committee wanted to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP. Everyone present believed that more money was needed.”

    Here you! I have to ask – does anyone still believe by this point of post 2014 history that overhyped “Russian Hybrid Aggression” is anything but a cudgel to bash your subjects citizens senseless and grab their money for the military industrial interests?

    And now – a musical interlude.

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    1. Here you!=Here you go?

      Here you! I have to ask – does anyone still believe by this point of post 2014 history that overhyped “Russian Hybrid Aggression” is anything but

      Yes, me too, since it didn’t surface in 2014 but, from my unexcited and as always semi-informed perspective, around the time of the run up to the Iraq War or before. It became more prominent post Mission Accomplished. At around that time it entered my mental horizon. State actors vs non-state actors? What was the precise logic for attacking Afghanistan? Apparently its then masters, the Taliban, didn’t attack the US? Or did they?

      It had linguistic precursors something like non-state actors and/or their irregular forces vs a regular army for instance. … No doubt the cyber-war as one in the tools in the set was studied more urgently under security aspect s–it felt on the surface only–too. White, Gray, Black Hats?

      LIC? Low intensity Conflicts? Does that ring a bell?

      We once had a short chat about the current master of Chechnya, remember? The son not the late father.

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  4. My definition of ‘Hybrid’ warfare would be eighties style Low Intensity Conflict plus ‘cyber-attacks’, the hacking of essential services and military computer-systems in peacetime. Not too pithy but covers my understanding of the term.

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    1. “My definition of ‘Hybrid’ warfare would be eighties style Low Intensity Conflict plus ‘cyber-attacks’, the hacking of essential services and military computer-systems in peacetime. “

      1) Why “eighties style”? What was so special about that decade compared to 70s, 60s, 50s etc?

      2) Why even include so-called “Low Intensity Conflict” in the definition of the “hybrid warfare”? What’s “hybrid” in it?

      3) “Hacking” done by whom? Or are you claiming that ALL hackers of certain nationality work for their government? Care to prove?

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      1. Dear Lyttenburgh to answer your points I chose LIC as it covers a range of violent activities that fall below the threshold of an outright attack, so subversion, backing terrorist groups, encouraging and supporting separatist groups. The term ‘eighties’ style as it was in that decade that LIC was used to describe a range of aggressive activities aimed at undermining the West’s interests, of course it can equally be argued that it was also used by the West, for example Gladio in Italy or support of of anti-Soviet and government forces in Afghanistan. ‘Hackers’ was a clumsy term, of course all are not state sponsored, but certainly targeted attacks on computer systems of the target states infrastructure, health, economic, financial and security services can be seen aggression or warfare by other means. Added to this is the interference in elections via social media, although I am sceptical as to how significant such activities are, although this may be me showing my age. Of course interference in democratic process pre-date social media, Italy 1948. I included LIC within my attempt to define ‘hybrid warfare’ as it covers some activities which fall below the threshold that would provoke a direct response which, as far as I understand, is a key element of hybrid warfare. Out of interest how would you define ‘hybrid warfare’?

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  5. “I chose LIC as it covers a range of violent activities that fall below the threshold of an outright attack, so subversion, backing terrorist groups, encouraging and supporting separatist groups. The term ‘eighties’ style as it was in that decade that LIC was used to describe a range of aggressive activities aimed at undermining the West’s interests”

    A) Just because it’s been used in the 80s doesn’t make the term either valid or automatically classifies every “LIC” in existence as some kind of default “eighties style Low Intensity Conflict”

    B) Term is still incredibly vague to the point of uselessness. How’s that different from, say, supporting Netherlands revolt against the legitimate authority of His Most Catholic Majesty Philipp II by the French, English and German Protestant princes?

    “…but certainly targeted attacks on computer systems of the target states infrastructure, health, economic, financial and security services can be seen aggression or warfare by other means.”

    A) Does there exist legislative basis that equates (not “sees”) “targeted attacks on computer systems” as an act of warfare and aggression?

    B) Does there exist internationally applicable protocols to verify such claims?

    “Added to this is the interference in elections via social media”

    Define “interference in elections via social media”. Better yet – cite the appropriate piece of legislation that covers this.

    “Out of interest how would you define ‘hybrid warfare’?”

    I already did. See my comment above:

    “Hybrid warfare: literally anything done by the Russians, Russian government and/or their useful idiots (see below) that Handshakable Western Public doesn’t like (even if does exactly the same things).”

    The West, this Paragon of Civilization, cannot do wrong. So, for all intends and purposes, “hybrid warfare” is what only the baddies (read – Russia) do. It is as true, as this:

    So I don’t think that attempting to define already loaded term “hybrid warfare” amounts to anything other than an act of intellectual onanism.

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  6. “Hybrid warfare: literally anything done by the Russians, Russian government and/or their useful idiots (see below) that Handshakable Western Public doesn’t like (even if does exactly the same things)”

    It could also be China, I suppose. Or Cuba, with its hybrid army of crickets.

    Also, it really is everything they do, like this devious hybrid attack on western freedom and democracy: How Putin’s Russia turned humour into a weapon

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  7. I rather suspect that the biggest security threat to Europe for the next few years is the return of all those EU nationals that went to fight for an Islamic Caliphate in Syria that have not been caught (i.e. the intelligence services looked the other way because they were useful tools at the time). That, I believe is the clear and present danger. Now how to sell ‘Hybrid threat’ when your country wo/men and blowing up numbers of random citizens on the streets.

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