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Hybrid warfare: something old, not something new.

The boundaries between ... "regular" and "irregular" warfare are blurring. Even nonstate groups are increasingly gaining access to the kinds of weapons ... that were once the exclusive preserve of states. And even states will increasingly turn to unconventional strategies to blunt the impact of American power.--Max Boot, War Made New, 2006

The possibility of continuous, sporadic, armed conflict, its engagements blurred together in time and space, waged on several levels by a large array of national and subnational forces, means that ... war ... is likely to transcend a neat division into distinct categories.

--Michael Evans, "From Kadesh to Kandahar" Naval War College Review, Summer 2003


In the 1980s, Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld forecast that conventional military conflict between the regular armed forces of nation-states would decline in frequency while low intensity conflicts conducted by militias, warlords, criminal gangs, and paramilitary forces would increase exponentially in the developing world. (1) His predictions have been borne out in the last decade, resulting in a direct and audacious assault on the Clausewitzian orthodoxy of Western military establishments, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The latest manifestation of van Creveld's original thesis is hybrid warfare--a new variation on the older themes of conventional, irregular, and compound warfare that is beginning to take hold in the United Kingdom, Australia, Scandinavia, and, more recently, within the US Marine Corps and Joint Forces Command. During his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used the term hybrid for the first time in public when he said that "we're going to have to ... take a look at the other elements of [the Future Combat System and] ... see ... what is useful in this spectrum of conflict from what I would call hybrid complex wars to those of counterinsurgency [COIN]." (2) Since assuming office in late 2006, Secretary Gates has consistently warned against repeating the post-Vietnam experience of forgetting how to wage successful COIN, which he considers a likely, recurring phenomenon throughout the "long war" against violent extremist movements. According to the National Defense Strategy, "Improving the U.S. Armed Forces' proficiency in irregular warfare is the Defense Department's top priority." (3) In an article in Foreign Affairs, the secretary declared emphatically that the time is long overdue for some "unconventional thinking" in the Pentagon. (4)

What, then, is a hybrid war? It is conflict in which states or nonstate actors exploit all modes of war simultaneously by using advanced conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and disruptive technologies or criminality to destabilize an existing order.

According to Frank Hoffman, chief American proponent of the theory,
   Hybrid threats incorporate a full range of different
   modes of warfare including conventional
   capabilities, irregular tactics and formations,
   terrorist acts including indiscriminate
   violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.
   Hybrid Wars can be conducted by both states
   and a variety of non-state actors [with or without
   state sponsorship]. These multi-modal
   activities can be conducted by separate units,
   or even by the same unit, but are generally
   operationally and tactically directed and coordinated
   within the main battlespace to
   achieve synergistic effects in the physical and
   psychological dimensions of conflict. (5)

However, even Hoffman admits that "hybrid warfare does not represent the defeat or the replacement of 'the old-style warfare' or conventional warfare by the new. But it does present a complicating factor for defense planning in the 21st Century" (emphasis in original). He also notes that "the future places a premium on forces that are versatile, agile, adaptable and expeditionary minded." (6) War still means applying kinetic force, no matter what moniker you put on it.

In the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence has incorporated hybrid doctrine into its latest white paper on irregular warfare. In "Countering Irregular Activity within a Comprehensive Approach," Rear Adm Chris Parry, Royal Navy, notes that
   hybrid warfare is conducted by irregular
   forces that have access to the more sophisticated
   weapons and systems normally fielded
   by regular forces. Hybrid warfare may morph
   and adapt throughout an individual campaign,
   as circumstances and resources allow.
   It is anticipated that irregular groups will continue
   to acquire sophisticated weapons and
   technologies and that intervention forces will
   need to confront a variety of threats that have
   in the past been associated primarily with the
   regular Armed Forces of states. (7)

Furthermore, the most recent US national maritime strategy reflects the view of the future articulated by Gen James Conway, Marine Corps commandant; Adm Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations; and Adm Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard: "Conflicts are increasingly characterized by a hybrid blend of traditional and irregular tactics, decentralized planning and execution, and non-state actors using both simple and sophisticated technologies in innovative ways" (emphasis added). (8)

Hybrid war seems to be a modern variation of what has been called compound warfare, which begins with a regular force augmenting its operations with irregular capabilities. In the Peninsula War, the Duke of Wellington drove the French out of Spain by waging a conventional fight against Napoleon's marshals while unleashing Spanish guerillas in the French rear. Field Marshal Edmund Allenby did the same in Palestine against the Turks, launching a broad frontal infantry assault under cover of the massed guns of the Royal Artillery at the same time that T. E. Lawrence's Bedouin irregulars sliced into and cut the Ottoman supply lines. Mao and Ho Chi Minh used similar tactics against the nationalists and French / South Vietnamese, respectively.

Hybrid warfare's operative stratagem starts with irregular warfare--with irregular forces augmenting their capabilities with conventional weapons. The term itself captures the essence of the problem as it defines their organization and their means. As we have seen in this century, this situation creates a new level of ferocity by blending the fanaticism of irregular warfare with conventional military capabilities. A case in point is the Israeli fight against Hezbollah, which deployed regular cadres with irregular fighters capable of adapting and sustaining punishment while operating independently without reliance on centralized command and control. Hybrid warfare can also occur when a nation-state turns its regular formations into irregular fighters, as Saddam did with his fedayeen in 2003.

We face enemies who will come at us from multiple fronts--terror, cyber, information, psychological, conventional, and criminal. John Arquilla, a close adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, remarked in 2007 that "networks have even shown a capacity to wage war toe-to-toe against nation states--with some success.... The range of choices available to networks thus covers an entire spectrum of conflict, posing the prospect of a significant blurring of the lines between insurgency, terror and war." (9)

Ron Tira of the Jaffa Center in Israel observes that hybrid actors are often immune to the conventional application of force applied by Israel and the United States: "The attempt to apply the Shock and Awe concept and the [effects-based operations] approach against a guerilla organization like Hezbollah is ... similar to trying to break an amoeba's bones--using force irrelevant to the circumstances, to the facts, and to the nature of the war." (10) Secretary Gates often notes that "the enemy gets a vote" (11) and that he is unlikely to vote to replay the classics like Midway, the Bulge, or the Meuse-Argonne; rather, Mogadishu, Fallujah, and Lebanon are the new paradigms. However, American military history is replete with examples of the armed forces engaging in and winning what Boot calls "The Savage Wars of Peace," the small fights in American history that are more prevalent than linear fights such as World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Operation Desert Storm. (12)

What does this mean for the future fight and for the Air Force? COIN remains a solid foundation with which to address the matter. This is not new ground for the Air Force, which historically has been able to open the aperture of the spectrum of conflict beyond fighters and bombers. From the Flying Tigers, through support for the Chindits, to Air Force commandos in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the Air Force built successful partnerships, under fire, with developing nations and their air forces (what Col George Monroe, USAF, retired, calls "the Outback Air Force"). (13)

If we take hybrid theorists at face value, then the major roles for airpower don't change. Counterair missions are standard in national security operations, including events like the Super Bowl and presidential inauguration. Air mobility is the sine qua non for providing special forces the ability to respond to or attack the enemy quickly. Airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) provides time-critical and persistent capability to find, fix, and fight hostile forces. The huge demand placed on airborne ISR in Iraq and Afghanistan--the repeated calls to enhance ISR capabilities to detect improvised explosive devices and their operators--indicates that this airpower mission will only grow. Further, the ability of airpower to strike an enemy with precision, speed, and discrimination has become the preferred mode of attack in special operations. Importantly, all of these missions are vital to combined operations--in other words, there is nothing new under the sun. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who sketched out the devastating Allied combined-arms offensive at Amiens in 1918, employing photoreconnaissance, artillery, armor, sappers (World War I special forces), and 1,900 aircraft, would recognize the bare essentials of current operations. Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, and George Kenney would understand that airpower's basics are as relevant in this era as they were in theirs.

As does its irregular antecedent, hybrid warfare requires a vision that exploits the United States' technical advantage. This calls for more unmanned sensors, small aircraft, directed-energy weapons, and cyber warfare. It is essential to utilize directed energy and network attack, as well as assemble an electronic order of battle as rapidly as possible, and the Air Force can take the lead. Lt Gen David Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for ISR, is already talking about developing "electronic fires" (jamming, directed energy, and network attack) quickly and taking them off the shelf. Because the nature of the electronic battlefield is so fluid, traditional hierarchies may not be able to move as quickly as needed to produce effects on the battlefield. New and decentralized organizations must emerge, melding space, ISR, and the ground to produce results.

As mentioned above, COIN remains the foundation of the hybrid environment. By denying the enemy the ability to attack friendly forces and by disrupting and interdicting his supply lines, airpower is critical to the success of a COIN campaign. Victory is not possible without persistent ISR and combat air patrol. The Air Force puts a premium on surveillance, intelligence, and the discriminate use of kinetic power when dealing with low-frequency enemies like al-Qaeda. Airpower provides surprise, flexibility, and the ability to take the initiative away from insurgents. Look at the roll of enemy casualties coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan--the vast majority are the result of airpower writ large. So, with hybrid warfare as the theory du jour (when the gloss is stripped away, it is not much different from what we have experienced for over a century), we will still need conventional airpower, coupled with the Air Force's electronic punch, to carry the day. It is virtually impossible to engage in unconventional operations without holding the big stick of deterrence and without controlling the thin air. American engagement in small wars and COIN occurs under the umbrella of airpower and the nuclear shield. Without that power, small wars will escalate into large wars.

The big Air Force should argue that conventional and nuclear capabilities can and should complement each other in this climate. Rogue regimes that threaten their neighbors and our allies, potentially with nuclear weapons, are a problem today and will remain so in the future. In part, our goal is to reduce their ability to hold other nations hostage and to deny them the ability to project power. A new triad with a conventional strike force and ballistic missile defense moves us in that direction. A conventional strike force means that more targets are vulnerable without our having to resort to nuclear weapons. And missile defenses reinforce deterrence and minimize the benefits of rogue nations investing heavily in ballistic missiles: Iran and North Korea won't know if their missiles will be effective, thus making the United States and its allies feel less vulnerable.

What does seem lost in this and many debates is that in the constant drive to reinvent the principles and theories of war, ultimately, both have remained constant. As the Australian Air Force would say, there is no business cycle in defense that creates a "new panacea" every five to 10 years from which to create something new and profound. Old Nathan Bedford Forrest was right: "War means fighting and fighting means killing." No matter how much the think tanks pay for them, so-called revolutionary paradigms can't change that.


(1.) See Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991).

(2.) Senate, Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Challenges Facing the Department of Defense, US Senate Committee on Armed Services, 111th Cong., 1st sess., 27 January 2009, 18,

(3.) Department of Defense, National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, June 2008), 13,

(4.) Robert M. Gates, "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age," Foreign Affairs 88, no. 1 (January-February 2009), -971d-c4191b964831%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db =aph&AN=35634218.

(5.) Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, December 2007), 8,

(6.) Ibid., 43; and Frank G. Hoffman, "Information Paper on Hybrid Warfare," Center for Defense Information / Strategic Vision Group, 12 March 2008, 8.

(7.) Joint Doctrine Note 2/07, "Countering Irregular Activity within a Comprehensive Approach," March 2007.

(8.) A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: US Marine Corps, US Navy, US Coast Guard, 2007), [6],

(9.) John Arquilla, "The End of War As We Knew It? Insurgency, Counterinsurgency and Lessons from the Forgotten History of Early Terror Networks," Third World Quarterly 28, no. 2 (March 2007): 369, content=a771175280&fulltext=713240928.

(10.) Ron Tira, "Breaking the Amoeba's Bones," Strategic Assessment 9, no. 3 (November 2006),

(11.) See, for example, Julian E. Barnes et al., "A Battle over 'The Next War,' " Los Angeles Times, 21 July 2008,

(12.) Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

(13.) George M. Monroe, "The Rebirth of the Outback Air Force," Armed Forces Journal, February 2008,

Hon. Robert Wilkie

The Honorable Robert Wilkie

Mr. Wilkie (BA, Wake Forest University; JD, Loyola University of the South [New Orleans]; LLM, Georgetown University Law Center; MSS, US Army War College) was the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, serving as legislative adviser to the secretary of defense and promoting the Department of Defense's strategy, legislative priorities, policies, and budget to the United States Congress. He has served as counsel to Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); counsel and adviser on international security affairs to the Senate Majority Leader, the Honorable Trent Lott (R-Miss.); special assistant to the president for national security affairs; and senior director of the National Security Council. He is an intelligence officer in the US Air Force Reserve, assigned to the Air Staff. He previously served in the US Navy Reserve with Naval Special Warfare Group Two and the Office of Naval Intelligence. A graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, Air Command and Staff College, the Army War College, and the Joint Forces Staff College, Mr. Wilkie has published articles in the Naval War College Review, Parameters, Armed Forces Journal, and Proceedings. He contributed a chapter on European defense to the book Strategy for Empire: U.S. Regional Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (SR Books, 2004). He is a recipient of the Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian award of the Department of Defense.
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Author:Wilkie, Robert
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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