Hybrid Warfare: A Catch-all Concept

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Mosaic Blog

For a buzzword, hybrid warfare has been remarkably durable.  And the same happens with 'hybrid threat', mentioned in official statements of the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. But is it a sound concept? Quite frankly, I have my doubts. At least as the term hybrid warfare it is understood today.

In 2005 Mattis and Hoffman called hybrid warfare to a way of fighting that combines the regular –or conventional– with the irregular. That contribution made sense and a year later Hezbollah showed that it could use synergically the irregular tactics of an insurgency with the military capabilities and advanced technologies typical of an army: ATGM Kornet, MANPADS, anti-ship missiles, SIGINT systems, drones, etc.

The combination of regular and irregular war in the same conflict is as old as the history of war. There are numerous examples from Antiquity to the 20th century. But the contribution of Mattis and Hoffman was interesting. That concept of 'hybrid war' had strategic and military consequences. In the years previous to the 2006 Lebanon war the Israel Defense Forces had neglected their conventional war capabilities. The realities of hybrid warfare did impulse adaptation for future contingencies.

This also affects to the Spanish Armed Forces and, especially, to the Spanish Army. It would not be the same to participate in a stabilization mission within the context of an irregular low intensity war, to another of hybrid war. For the first, light infantry forces equipped with the veterans BMR or RG-31 vehicles could be sufficient. But for hybrid warfare scenario the AFV Pizarro and even the MBT Leopard 2 would be required. And logically there would be many other political and military derivations.

However, since Mattis and Hoffman coined the term in 2005 to the present, the concept of hybrid warfare has been extended, covering multiple aspects of the international security landscape: Russian interference in foreign elections, China’s artificial islands, North Korea’s cyber-attacks, Mexican drug cartels, jihadist radicalization and terrorism, etc.

In fact, much of what today is called hybrid warfare would fit better as activities in the 'gray zone’ of the conflict. The gray zone refers to the intermediate space between peaceful bona fide politics (white) and armed conflict (black). A strategy in the gray zone tries to achieve political objectives surreptitiously, without crossing the threshold of direct military confrontation. Classical gray zone activities are subversion, misinformation, economic coercion, coercive deterrence. Gray zone is not new. The ‘Cold War’ was largely a conflict fought in the gray zone.

It is conceptually misleading to denominate nonviolent gray zone activities as ‘hybrid warfare’ because they are not yet ‘war’. And it is not a good idea to coin a concept using other concepts metaphorically.

Javier Jordan is Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the International Security Studies Group in the University of Granada, Spain.