Hybrid War: A Definition and Call for Action

If one were to divide violent conflict into two broad categories, on one side would lie traditional, so-called “conventional” warfare, and on the other, asymmetric or “unconventional” warfare. “Conventional” battles are fought between professional armies and subject in general to the dynamics of classical military theory; while “unconventional” warfare constitutes the peculiar world of guerrilla fighting and insurgencies where even the most powerful of conventional forces may flounder against a small, poorly armed and organized group of ideologically motivated fighters.1

This division necessarily smooths over important aspects of war and its myriad forms; however, it suffices to give a general overview of the dichotomy present in the mind of many a strategist and statesman. Considerable debate persists in the world of security studies over this dilemma, which can be encapsulated from the U.S. perspective as the question: “China or Iraq?” Defense officials, generals and politicians must decide for themselves whether to prepare the United States for war against a modern conventional opponent, usually presented as China or Russia, or to build up counterinsurgency expertise in expectation of an increasingly chaotic world of failed states and international terrorism.2 However the dichotomy is not so clean as it would first appear, and viewing the future of war as merely a coin flip between conventional and unconventional conflict risks ignoring the presence of a crucial third dimension, hybrid warfare.

Hybrid warfare occupies the uncomfortable middle ground between conventional and unconventional warfare, mixing elements of both in the process. Hybrid wars are, broadly defined, conflicts involving one or more nonstate actors that nevertheless possess the attributes of a state’s military. Frequently hybrid combatants have the backing of a foreign power which supplies them with money, equipment and in some cases training. This combination produces a fighting force that is capable of conducting combat operations on the modern battlefield while existing outside of the fetters of law and doctrine which constrain state militaries.

The term “Hybrid War” was popularized in the lexicon of military theory to describe the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Despite Israel’s highly professional and thoroughly modernized army, the Israeli Defense Forces failed by and large in their stated objective to disarm Hezbollah of its missile stockpiles and ultimately withdrew under a U.N. negotiated ceasefire that allowed Hezbollah to claim victory in its propaganda.

A crucial element in frustrating Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon was its unpreparedness to face a hybrid foe capable of challenging conventional military capabilities.3 Having been acclimatized to unconventional fighting during the Palestinian uprisings of the Second Intifada, IDF troops were in fact unprepared to conduct the kind of maneuver warfare needed to defeat a highly organized and well-equipped enemy force. Yet while Hezbollah engaged Israeli forces in conventional battle, the group simultaneously employed decidedly irregular strategies as well, including positioning forces in cities and major population centers to negate the Israeli firepower advantage. In this way, a non-state actor traditionally categorized as a terrorist organization demonstrated a startling blend of state-like military organization and non-state insurgency tactics.

Since 2006 a number of conflicts which may be categorized as hybrid wars have emerged. Arguably the most prominent sponsor of hybrid war has been Russia, which has practiced this concept first in Georgia in 2008 and later in Ukraine following the removal of its Russophile President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Russia has also played a key role in expanding the concept of hybrid war to include cyber and media assets as well. The so-called Gerasimov Doctrine, named for the Russian general Valery Gerasimov, identifies the ability to influence popular narratives within a state as a powerful new dimension of military power.4 This policy has been implemented heavily in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ of the Baltic states, Caucuses, Ukraine, and Poland, while its reach has extended to perhaps even the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Gerasimov Doctrine illustrates a central idea of hybrid warfare, that every available means of exercising coercive power is an area ripe for exploitation by the hybrid combatant. While conventional battlefield units prosecute war on the front lines, armies of internet trolls, hackers and sympathizers networked across international borders can conduct a savvy information campaign to sap popular will and disseminate destructive misinformation.

In response to claims of an emerging era of hybrid war, a number of respected theorists have responded with skepticism. For all of history, they say, militaries have targeted the weakest link of an enemy force. Hybrid war, with its focus on information disruption and multi-spectra fighting is merely a continuation of this principle repackaged to sell books and make headlines. Furthermore, if hybrid war can be defined as any conflict which combines conventional and unconventional elements, it may be applied to practically any conflict.5 While this is a legitimate concern, it ignores the question of actors which truly defines hybrid war. Conventional wars tend to be fought by state armies, unconventional wars by nonstate actors, hybrid wars merge these two in the form of nonstate actors with state-like capabilities.

More than mere insurgencies, hybrid foes have the organizational structure and resources to challenge large state militaries in battle, yet they are unconstrained by the traditional considerations of state strategy. The loss of a city or the seizure of territory, even defeat in battle is not decisive in bringing down a hybrid enemy, which can seek refuge among the population, pursuing the more durable tactics of unconventional combat. From a human rights perspective, hybrid wars open the door to a number of potential abuses in wartime. When Russian troops strip their identification symbols from their uniforms before marching into Crimea, they dispense with the regulations imposed on state military forces both by international law and internal codes of conduct. Such forces ostensibly have equal remit to operate as a frontline combat force as they do a terrorist group, all the while with a layer of opacity between their actions and the state which sponsors them.6

Hybrid wars increasingly dominate today’s security landscape both in terms of their frequency and the threat they pose. Modern technologies from drones to social media and the internet offer hybrid combatants a plethora of new weapons in their arsenal. Furthermore, as hybrid combatants demonstrate their effectiveness at frustrating conventional military power, other nations may begin to adapt similar techniques for their own forces. Other kinds of conflict therefore, may become more and more hybridized, complicating the question of China or Iraq as the distinction between the two begins to blur. In Iraq, Islamic State fighters and the Kurdish Peshmerga clash using U.S.-manufactured weapons and vehicles; at times their maneuvers bear a striking resemblance to conventional battles.7 Simultaneously China has seized upon the disruptive power of cyber weapons, building its capacity in this realm at a rapid pace.8 Fitting either case into a strictly conventional/unconventional dichotomy risks overlooking crucial strategic and tactical nuances which may prove costly oversights.

For all its divergence, hybrid war does not change the nature of warfare itself. War remains, at its core, a use of violence employed for political ends, with a good measure of chance thrown in as well.9 Hybridization does however alter the conduct of modern war in profound ways, it requires that states take heed of the need for both conventional as well as unconventional tools and tactics. This synthesis will not be easy, even the greatest commanders struggle to wage just one kind of war let alone two types simultaneously. Yet a more thorough investigation into how hybrid wars are fought may yield valuable insights for better understanding conventional as well as unconventional combat.


1 Lindsay, Franklin A. “Unconventional Warfare.” Foreign Affairs. January 28, 2009. Accessed March 01, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/1962-01-01/unconventional-warfare.

2 Matisek, Jahara, and Ian Bertram. “The Death of American Conventional Warfare.” RealClearDefense. Accessed March 02, 2018. https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/11/06/the_death_of_american_conventional_warfare_112586.html.

3 Eilam, Ehud. Israel at war – a strategic and operational analysis, 1948-2014. Mcfarland & Co Inc, 2015.

4 V. Gerasimov, “Tsennost Nauki v Predvidenniye,” Voenno-promyshlenni Kurier, February 27, 2013, http://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/14632.

5 Review, NATO. “Hybrid war – does it even exist?” NATO Review. Accessed March 01, 2018. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/Also-in-2015/hybrid-modern-future-warfare-russia-ukraine/EN/.

6 “Amnesty International.” Ukraine: Mounting evidence of war crimes and Russian involvement. Accessed March 04, 2018. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/09/ukraine-mounting-evidence-war-crimes-and-russian-involvement/.

7 Moreland, Scott Jasper and Scott. “ISIS: An Adaptive Hybrid Threat in Transition.” Small Wars Journal. Accessed March 02, 2018. http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/isis-an-adaptive-hybrid-threat-in-transition.

8 Kello, Lucas. Virtual Weapon and International Order. S.l.: Yale University Press, 2018.

9 Clausewitz, Carl Von, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret. On war. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1989.