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Hybrid Warfare: The Evolution of Traditional War

Due to the unhindered, or rather inexorable advance of ISIL and their standard operating procedures the term Hybrid warfare is back in fashion among the esoteric circle of military and diplomats.

Wise heads point at ongoing events in the Ukraine accused to be fueled by the Russians and the seemingly indomitable  force of the ISIL in the Middle East, nod sagely and say ‘It’s Hybrid warfare buddy, don’t you know about it?”. Hybrid Warfare is still an evolving concept, but worth looking at because it is shaping how we think about war and conflict and this in turn is shaping government policies and the doctrine and design of Armed Forces around the world.

Hybrid warfare first rose to prominence as a concept in 2007 with the publication of Frank Hoffman’s paper “Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”. Hoffman defines hybrid threats as “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior in the same time and battle space to obtain their political objectives.” The Munich Security Conference, held in early 2015, in its report has broadened the concept of Hybrid Warfare to include most the elements of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement) used in concert with irregular/unconventional strategy and tactics, ultimately redefining the reach and scope of warfare altogether.

Before shifting to the depths of Hybrid Warfare it would be wise to explore the origins of this prophetic concept, for which we must pass through the realms of Fourth Generation Warfare first. Examining the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), proposed and forwarded in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War, the theory poses significant historical shifts in warfare since 1648. Even though it was initially dismissed as nothing more than an “elegant irrelevance,” but it is now difficult to dismiss the reality of 4GW. The proponents of this theory correctly identified and predicted the blurring nature of future conflict, especially the blurring states of war and peace, as well as that between combatants and noncombatants.  At the heart of the concept lies the idea that the weakening of the state as an organizing and governing mechanism results in the rise of non-state actors willing and able to challenge the legitimacy of the state.  The role of political will and internal social disintegration among the populace in the state is central to this construct.  A non-state 4GW actor would employ a wide range of conventional and unconventional means, including terrorism and information, to undermine the will of the existing state, to de-legitimize it, and to stimulate an internal social breakdown. The theory, as gleaming as it sounds, is sophisticated but also elusive.  Its advocates have been accused of ignoring the history of irregular warfare, a practice that is about as long as military history itself. The theory has numerous advocates, who place emphasis on political will, legitimacy, and culture, the combined effects of which plays a decisive role in choosing the winner among the 4GW actor(s).  Their 4GW adversary exploits societies, adopts an amorphous structure, and utilizes mass mobilization techniques to bolster its ranks and power. 

Military experts and historians have noted that many if not most wars are characterized by both regular and irregular operations.  When a significant degree of strategic coordination between distinct and dispersed regular and irregular forces in conflicts occurs they can be considered “compound wars.”  Compound wars are those major wars that had significant regular and irregular components fighting simultaneously under unified command. The complementary effects of compound warfare are its ability to exploit the advantages of each kind of force, and by its ability to increase the nature of the threat posed by each kind of force.  The irregular force attacks weak areas, and forces a conventional opponent to disperse his security forces.  The conventional force generally induces the adversary to concentrate for defense or to achieve critical mass for decisive offensive operations.

Vietnamis a classic case of the combined strategic effect created by compound wars, juxtaposing the irregular tactics of the Viet Cong with the more conventional capabilities of the North Vietnamese Army. The doubt of deduction pointing right between conventional and unconventional approaches vexed military planners for years.  Even several years afterwards, Americans debated what kind of war they actually fought and lost.

Evolution ran its own course in case of war as it does with the ones who wage it and presented us with the gift of unrestricted warfare, also popularly known as Hybrid Warfare. This most genius of schemes seems to have descended upon a pair of Chinese Colonels as a revelation to advance and develop the art and science of warfare to the next stage, who literally changed the board for the game of war by their inception of the concept of Unrestricted Warfare—or “war beyond limits.” These Chinese officers caused quite a stir in the community by suggesting an immoral and potentially violent metamorphosis of waging war, one that was beyond the contemplation of most Western military scholars and strategists.  A closer examination of their idea reveals a lot of useful and even obvious conclusions.  Well ahead of their time, these Colonels recognized the potential implications of globalization.  Their concept of unrestricted warfare is really best explained as war “beyond limits,” and this interpretation serves to explain and expand not just the forms that warfare takes, but the boundaries of the domains or dimensions of warfare that most Western military officers might perceive and restrict themselves to. The Colonels did not propose that war was without moral restraints or beyond any limits at all.  They sought to expand the definition and understanding of war beyond just its traditional military domain of operations. Like their Western counterparts in security analysis, Colonels Qiao and Wang also perceived and acknowledged the strains that the conventional nation-state was under due to globalization.  Their basic thought is that the great fusion of technologies is impelling the domains of politics, economics, the military, culture, diplomacy, and religion to overlap each other.  The connection points are ready, and the drift towards the integration of the various domains is more than obvious.  All of these are gradually waning the conventional notion of confining warfare to the military domain and of using the number of casualties as a measure for the intensity of a war that is waged. Their concept, which is maverick in comparison to the established notions or ideas, which they exaggerated as “a completely new method of warfare” was titled “modified combined war that goes beyond limits” [“pian zheng shi chao xian zuhe zhan”].  This concept employs and commands the benefits of “combinations” in types of organizations and among the various domains of national power of a state actor.  While in the past, the Leaders and Winners were masters of combinations, these were all achieved within the military domain.  In Unrestricted Warfare, future Leaders and Winners must master the ability to “combine” all of the resources at their disposal for the purpose of war and use them as means to pursue the path of war with success.  These resources include, but not limited to, information warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, and other entirely new forms of war that the future unleashes.  The idea that “warfare is no longer an activity confined only to the military sphere,” is still an elusive and shadowy concept to the Western security analysts.

The following are a list of new principles fitting to “beyond-limits combined war.”  These include Omni-directionality, Synchrony, and Asymmetry. These concepts are defined below:


– It is imperative that the commander observe a potential battlefield in an unbiased manner without any mental precondition or prejudice.  The designing of plans, employment measures, and combinations must make use of all war resources that can be mustered and mobilized.  The commander must not define and differentiate between what is or is not the battlefield.  All the traditional domains of operations, (sea, land and air, along with space) along with other potential fields of engagement such as politics, economics, culture, and moral factors are to be considered battlefields.


– It is of paramount importance that the commander identifies and associates the nature of multiple battlefields in different domains in regards with time which when simply expressed could be put as, “conducting actions in different spaces in the same period of time” to achieve desired results or effects.  Challenging the usual sequential approach to measure strategic results by summing up the results of multiple battles, it can now be achieved swiftly by simultaneous actions at designated times.


– It is well recognized that asymmetry demonstrates itself to some degree in every aspect of warfare.  However in this case asymmetry has been established in operational terms within traditional military definitions of it.  “War beyond limits” allows us the freedom to overlook the normal rules in a much wider spectrum.

In wars of the past where state entities were engaged or challenged by non-state actors such as the Irish Insurgency, the Afghan Mujahedeens in the 1980’s, the Chechen rebels and the Balkan Wars in the post Yugoslav era, we see the lack of the multi-dimensionality, operational integration or the exploitation of the information domain to the degree we see today or expect tomorrow.  These examples are at best the first generation of Hybrid Warriors or the earliest prototypes.

The first advent of Hybrid War tactics employed by a non-state entity can be traced to the summer of 2006 in the Lebanon-Israel War. Hezbollah is a clear example of a modern Hybrid challenger.  Led by Hassan Nassrallah, it demonstrated a number of state-like military capabilities, including thousands of short and intermediate-range rockets and missiles.  This case demonstrates the ability of non-state actors to study and deconstruct the vulnerabilities of conventional militaries.  Hezbollah, supported by the adoption of erroneous strategic concepts and some intelligence filters by Israeli officials, devised and implemented appropriate operational and tactical measures for its security objectives.  These tactics and the technologies surprised many, which compounded the shock effect and tilted the battle of perceptions towards Hezbollah.

Mixing an organized political movement with distributed autonomous cells employing adaptive tactics in ungoverned zones, Hezbollah showed that it could inflict as well as endure from its conventional counterpart.  Its highly disciplined, well trained, distributed cells contested ground and wills against a modern well trained and well equipped conventional force using an ad hoc mixture of guerrilla tactics and technology in densely packed urban centers. Hezbollah, like the jihadist defenders in the battles in Fallujah in Iraq during April and November of 2004, skillfully exploited the urban terrain to create ambushes and evade detection, and to build strong defensive fortifications in close proximity to noncombatants.

Israeli troops grudgingly admitted that the Hezbollah defenders were tenacious and skilled. They were “maddeningly elusive” and deliberately blended into the civilian population and infrastructure.  The organized resistance was several orders of magnitude more difficult than their counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank and the Gazastrip.  The degree of training, fire discipline and technological advancement were much higher than what they perceived about them earlier.

The implications were not relevant only to the ground forces only. Hezbollah’s use of C-802 Harponski anti-ship cruise missiles and volleys of rockets represents a sample of what “Hybrid Warfare” might look like, which is certainly relevant to naval and air power as well.

Advanced Warfare

Tactical combinations and novel applications of technology by the defenders were noteworthy. The constant action-reaction cycle of technological advances is age old, but it appears it needs to be relearned the hard way. In particular, the anti-armor missile systems employed by Hezbollah, against IDF armor and defensive positions, coupled with decentralized tactics were a surprise.  At the battle of Wadi Salouqi a column of Israeli tanks were stopped in their tracks by Hezbollah employing Russian anti-armor missiles with impressive precision. Hezbollah’s anti-tank weapons include the Russian made RPG-29, a powerful variation of the standard rocket-propelled grenade RPG-7, the Russian AT-13 Metis, which has a range of one mile; and the Russian-built AT-14 Kornet, which has a range of three miles and thermal sights for tracking the heat signatures of tanks.  The IDF found the AT-13 and AT-14 to be formidable against their first line Merkava Mark IV tank.  A total of 18 Merkavas were damaged, and it is estimated that ATGMs accounted for 40 percent of the IDFs fatalities. Hezbollah even managed to launch a few armed UAVs that required the IDF to adapt in order to detect them.  These included either the Iranian Mirsad-1 or Ababil-3 Swallow. One source reports that more than two dozen of these systems may remain in Hezbollah’s possession. These concern Israeli strategists given their GPS-based navigational system, 450-kilometer range, and 50 kg explosive carrying capacity. There is evidence that Hezbollah invested in signals intelligence and monitored IDF cell phone calls for some time, as well as unconfirmed reports that they managed to decrypt IDF radio frequency hopping radio traffic based on an algorithm-based system similar to SINCGARS.

Hezbollah’s real advantage lay not in technology but in having the luxury of being able to prepare the terrain and their tactics for a single recognized enemy. They operated as decentralized cells and their training and tenacity paid off. They proved willing to engage the IDF in prepared close encounters, and were willing to absorb great punishment to inflict a cost. Their Katushyas and Kornet missiles extracted a price for Israel’s intervention. Hezbollah managed to fire over 4,100 rockets into Israel between 12 July and 13 August, culminating with 250 rockets on the final day, the highest total of the war. Most of these were short range and inaccurate, but they achieved strategic effects in both the physical domain and in the media by forcing the evacuation of many towns in the northern sector of Israel. Retired Army officer and former Military Intelligence analyst Ralph Peters, who visited Lebanon during the fighting, expressed what he observed about Hezbollah in the following manner: “...displayed impressive flexibility, relying on the ability of cellular units to combine rapidly for specific operations, or when cut off to operate independently after falling in on pre-positioned stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. Hezbollah’s combat cells were a hybrid of guerrillas and regular troops—a form of opponent that U.S. forces are apt to encounter with increasing frequency.”

The Israeli Institute for Counter Terrorism translated these observations about Hezbollah’s operations, summing it up: “Hizbullah’s uniqueness compared to other military organizations using guerrilla tactics is that they are the first resistance movement with traditional army capabilities, within the framework of guerrilla war, and it is the first armed unorganized splinter movement which has strategic weapons.”

The full brunt of Hybrid Warfare was suffered by two armies recently, namely the Army of The Syrian Arab Republic and The Iraqi Army, by the new generation of users of these deadly strategies, wielding conventional weapons and employing them with unconventional tactics, namely ISIL or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, enabling them to establish and control a vast expanse of land expanding in two countries breaking down the conventional border designated by the Sykes-Picot line between the states of Iraq and Syria.

The origins of the group which we now know as ISIL was a rebranding of Al Qaeda in Iraq, originally known as Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (JTWJ) or the “Party of Monotheism and Jihad,” which was founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an aspiring Jordanian “mujahedeen” with a criminal past. Although they had camps and training facilities in Herat, Afghanistan before the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, which forced Zarqawi and his operatives to flee to Iraq and operate from there.

The US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent suicide bombings in Shi’ite neighborhoods and beheadings of captured US soldiers. Regardless of the past ideological clash with Al Qaeda and its spiritual leader Osama Bin Laden, Zarqawi and his group pledged their allegiance to Al Qaeda and formed the group Al Qaeda inIraq in October 2004. By January 2006, it joined other Sunni insurgent groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council. In June 2006 Zarqawi was killed in anUS airstrike. In October of 2006, Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, issued a statement that AQI was now the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the present Emir/self-proclaimed Caliph, ascended to the position after Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in 2010. In the summer of 2011, al-Baghdadi dispatched operatives toSyriato establish a branch in that war-ravaged country. In a telling sign of his growing ambitions, al-Baghdadi rebranded ISI as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shâm (ISIS or ISIL), an Arabic term which includes Syria, Israel, Lebanon, parts of Turkey, and Jordan—the birthplace of their founder, and soon found itself in a dispute with Al Qaeda’s official surrogate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN).

The invasion of Iraq had many of the former soldiers and military officers jobless and angry due to betrayal of their superior officers and their subsequent surrender as an army which was disbanded. Saddam’s army consisted mainly of Sunnis and some of them were highly adept and well trained, while some were veterans of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Islamic State's top brass has been hugely dominated by former officers from Saddam Hussein's military, spy agencies and senior intelligence officials, including the chief of a key counter terrorism intelligence unit. It is also to be noted that during the early years of the Iraq Invasion in order to undermine the US efforts in curbing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in Iraq,Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps allowed ISI and other Sunni terrorist groups to establish their bases inIran to train and operate from there. If you follow the timeline you would notice that the predecessors of ISIL had ample time to adopt, test and improvise their strategy and tactics from the Lebanon-Israel war 2006 and also the Russo-Georgian war 2008. It can also be assumed that during their stay in Iran the IRGC also trained them with the similar tactics that it blessed the Hezbollah with to counter the Israeli threat. Another point to note is that two of the top military commanders of the ISIL, Tamaz and Tarkhan Batirashvili, who are also commonly known as the Shishani Brothers, were insurgents who operated in Chechnya before the Russo-Georgian war. The Georgian army which lacked manpower and was also in shortage of experienced personnel implemented desperate measures of deploying rebels from Chechnya as Special Forces against the relentless onslaught of Russian armor and infantry along with the dreaded Spetsnaz units. It is also known that most of the ISIL militants are sourced from Georgia and Chechnya and most of them cut their teeth in the Russo-Georgian War as freelance operators.

Preying on the extreme weakness of the state in both Syria and Iraq made his moves and the group along with its leader came into prominence as they captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Their tactics rest on using conventional weapons with unconventional tactics, e.g. using captured Humvees to carry out suicide bombings or using tanks to carry out similar suicide bombings. Their use of terror tactics along with exceptional intelligence ground work, especially HUMINT, in creating sleeper cells among the population in huge numbers in a very controllable manner in hostile territories is an advantage to their invasions wherever they went as they use them to carry out suicide attacks and use them as a means to fade into the crowd to hide in plain sight of any counter-terrorism effort.

Their extensive use of social media, namely facebook and twitter, to attract new recruits throughout the world was something that none has seen or anticipated before. This enabled them to expand their scope in terms of operational area and means and also provided them to tap into a nearly endless supply recruits throughout the world.

The ISIL advance literally went unchecked and unhindered even with the US led coalition’s sorties dropping tons of munitions over them every day. The whole scenario was drastically changed with the Russian intervention in Syria as the Su-34 Fullbacks started raining bombs on the rebel targets with ruthless precision. The reason why Russia, acting alone on its own, succeeded whereas the US led coalition failed is that of a state actor adopting Hybrid Warfare tactics. ISIL which employed Hybrid War concepts was naught but stranger to the Western military strategists who could only slow the group down with relentless effort but couldn’t put a reign neither on its expansion nor its oil smuggling operations which provided it with desperate supplies to buy the required hardware and logistics for its war effort to continue its expansion.

ALatvian Defense Academy graduate, Janis Berzins, in his term paper prepared in April 2014 put up the following chart to compare the recent evolution of the Russian war fighting technique in comparison to the traditional technique:

The conclusion of a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) states that Russia’s military reforms have been misinterpreted and its capabilities taken too lightly by the United States and Europe. The result of these reforms was that Russia was capable of maintaining a force of 40,000 and 150,000 men in full combat-ready formations along the Russian-Ukrainian border for months, while conducting military drills involving around 80,000 troops in other parts of the country. Western military analysts underestimating Russian military capabilities and the reforms, neglected new operational concepts such as Russia’s unique approach of merging conventional with unconventional war fighting methods, among other things. The Western analysts counting on the slow development and integration of latest weapons and equipment into the Russian military forces underestimated the capability which was unbridled by the recent reforms by misunderstanding of the nature of the reforms. The initial stages were not designed to create a new army in terms of equipment, but to ensure that existing equipment was ready to use, and to make the organization that uses it more effective and professional. In those measures the Russians have succeeded superbly to catch the Westerners by surprise in Syria, ensuring a the expansion of their grip over the overall expanse of the Middle East gradually and to bog USA and her NATO allies down to inaction in Ukraine.