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Confessions of a Hybrid Warfare Skeptic: What Might Really Be Interesting but Hidden Within the Various Conceptions of Gray Zone Conflict, Ambiguous Warfare, Political Warfare, and Their Ilk
For nearly a decade I have been aware of the “hybrid warfare” concept. Having read numerous treatments and discussions of the idea, I have frequently been tantalized by the possibility that something genuinely special or different is being captured in the term, something that will change how I think about (or think about responding to) certain conflicts. To date, that possibility remains unrealized, and I join a host of critics in being skeptical of the utility of the notion of hybrid war or hybrid threat.
More recently, a number of other, similar terms haven begun fighting for attention and a place in the lexicon, some new, like “gray zone” and some recycled from the past, like “ambiguous warfare,” and “political warfare.” As I read these offerings I once again found certain aspects of the concepts to be insightful, but ultimately found them wanting, either because they are insufficiently distinct (they cover too many situations that are too different) or because the differences they highlight just don’t seem all that important.
In this short article I review these various concepts and what I view as their shortcomings, but I also try to tease out what I think they contribute that is important: That we are party to a host of conflicts and competitions that take place in the space between peace and war, that they are contested with capabilities all across the range of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of power, and that we are particularly ill-prepared for such conflicts or competitions when the two sides have mismatched perceptions of the type, nature, character, or intensity of competition. I conclude by recommending that we abandon our strict distinction between peace and war, move away from the conceptual constraints of the joint phasing model, and work to find more precise ways to distinguish between the different kinds of competitions and means of contesting them that will help us detect, recognize, and respond appropriately to different forms of aggression.
Hybrid Warfare: Neither New Nor Unusual
The vocabulary of hybrid warfare and hybrid threat has been adopted fairly widely, including formal use in NATO discussions and across the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command. The concept dates back to the mid-2000s, and has always hinted at something I found interesting, an assertion that we should expect to see more conflicts which blur and mix types of conflict, conflicts that “blur the distinction between war and peace, and combatants and non-combatants...”[i] This hint of novelty has always been swallowed up by something I found more pedestrian, the simultaneity of conventional and unconventional forces and operations. The concept has remained stuck on this blending of conventional and unconventional, with hybrid threat remaining: “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.”[ii]
While some discussions hint at an adversary actor’s use of a broad range of capabilities across the spectrum of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic means,[iii] most emphasize and focus on adversaries who simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional military means. The multitude of possibly interesting blurred boundaries give way to a focus on a single blurred boundary, the one between conventional and unconventional military action, a boundary that has been regularly crossed, blurred, or ignored throughout the course of military history.
This lack of novelty is the refrain of many of the critics of the hybrid warfare concept: the employment of both conventional and irregular forces may be challenging, but it is not a new challenge.[iv] Another common criticism attacks the excessive scope and abstraction of the concept; interpreted broadly, hybrid warfare become a catchall for entirely too many modes of conflict.[v] If too many threats are hybrid threats, then the term isn’t distinctive. “If everybody is a hybrid, then nobody is.”[vi]
While I agree with these criticisms, I’m most disappointed with the concept’s failure to deliver in a meaningful way on the promise of useful categories for thinking about conflict and blurred boundaries in other less military, less kinetic areas. Frank Hoffman, a long time proponent of the concept, candidly admits this deficiency:
The problem with the hybrid threats definition is that it focuses on combinations of tactics associated with violence and warfare (except for criminal acts) but completely fails to capture other non-violent actions. Thus, it does not address instruments including economic and financial acts, subversive political acts like creating or covertly exploiting trade unions and NGOs as fronts, or information operations using false websites and planted newspaper articles.[vii]
Ultimately, I don’t find the term hybrid warfare to be all that useful. Too many dissimilar instances all end up wearing the hybrid label, and while there are interesting and important things about some of those cases, that importance doesn’t stem from the unremarkable coincidence of conventional and unconventional forces within them. I remain, however, interested in the blurring and merging of different kinds of competition and conflict, and think that is a potentially useful insight.
The Gray Zone: Too Broad to Be More Than a Starting Place
“Gray zone” as a class of conflict and term of art has a much more recent genesis. One of the prominent pieces promoting and elaborating the concept is the September 2015 USSOCOM white paper titled “The Gray Zone.”[viii] This white paper defines the gray zone as conflicts or competitions that fall between the traditional war and peace duality. So, if black is war and white is peace, these challenges are in that gray zone between them. The white paper goes on to elaborate that these challenges “...feature ambiguity regarding the nature of the conflict, the parties involved or the relevant policy and legal frameworks.”[ix] There is certainly enough there to pique my curiosity and make me acknowledge this as potentially interesting space.
As with my engagement with the hybrid warfare concept, I feel like there is a kernel of something interesting here; surely there are distinctive features about these conflicts and competitions worth identifying and exploring! What the gray zone concept doesn’t appear to do is to further decompose the space between peace and war into smaller, similar units; it just leaves the entire space of conflict short of full-on war but outside of “normal state competition” (whatever that loaded phrase really means) in this underspecified “gray zone.” Whatever might be gained from the hints of insight in the elaboration of the concept are lost when so much of the range of possible state conflict is lumped together in this way. The USSOCOM white paper includes a figure showing 57 conflicts, noting that only seven were declared wars, leaving the balance in the gray zone.[x] Like hybrid threats, if everything is in the gray zone, then nothing is.
My colleague Michael Mazarr implicitly recognizes this problem and offers a much narrower and more thoroughly specified conception of the gray zone. In his gray zone, Mazarr includes only campaigns that serve revisionist intent, seek gradual or incremental gains, and seek to avoid escalation toward outright conventional conflict.[xi] Mazarr elaborates on this gradualism, incrementalism, steady cumulative pressure, seeking faits acompli, or tactics of erosion. He admits that such tactics are nothing new; Thomas Schelling describes basically the same thing as “salami slicing” in his 1967 Arms and Influence.[xii] The goal of such efforts is for the aggressor to gain what is desired in small chunks without ever provoking a substantial response, creating dilemmas for opponents about how and if to respond, and placing the burden of escalation on the recipient of aggression. Mazarr argues that in order to stay below the threshold of war, gray zone campaigns employ a variety of “unconventional tools” that sound remarkably similar to the range of capabilities hinted at in the broader discussions of hybrid warfare and might include, for example, use of proxy forces, fifth columns, information warfare, unconventional warfare, economic warfare, economic incentives, cyber harassment, covert operatives, energy diplomacy, etc.[xiii]
I respect Mazarr’s mobilization and elaboration of Schelling’s concept; he applies it to recent Russian and Chinese campaigns, and it effectively describes a key aspect of those challenges, as well as highlighting important similarities between them. However, Mazarr’s useful insights do not apply across the whole range of potential confrontations between war and peace (nor, in fairness, does he intend them to). Mazarr’s gray zone and the gray zone described in the USSOCOM white paper are not the same thing, and that’s a concern. Though I think Mazarr offers a reasonably narrow scope and captures something interesting, too many others are going to consistently use gray zone in a way that is inconsistent with that scope and to denote something bigger and less well-defined. Numerous other glib purveyors of the concept describe practically anything and everything as belonging to the gray zone.[xiv] On one hand, this is part of the insight: there is a great deal of competition and conflict short of major conventional war that takes place. On the other hand, the lack of a clear boundary to the zone and the ease with which the phrase can be applied diminishes the value of the term for anything more than reminder of that insight.
I am not alone in this criticism. Others have attacked the concept for lacking coherence, being ambiguous in scope, and for not containing any new ideas.[xv] Personally, I’m less concerned about novelty of ideas if an effective repackaging of old concepts helps contemporary strategists and policy makers understand and address contemporary threats and challenges. Ultimately, I find the gray zone concept lacking because it fails to be sufficiently distinct; too many different things fit between peace and war for that to be the only distinction. It is a good place to start, but no more.
Ambiguous Warfare, or Ambiguous Terminology?
Other writers have tried to apply different terms to describe some aspects of certain recent security challenges, notably the recent activities of Russia and China. Two of the more prominent are brought forward from the past: ambiguous warfare (dating back to the 1980s, at least), and cold-war era political warfare.[xvi] Ambiguous warfare has no formal definition (somewhat fitting, I suppose) but is generally accepted to describe situations in which an aggressor seeks to achieve political or military effects without direct attribution to them, so either through proxy forces, maintaining plausible deniability, or through covert or clandestine activity. Once the effects have been achieved, continued ambiguity about the sponsor, actor, or action may or may not be required or desired. This term has been quite effectively leveraged to describe Russian aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine more broadly, and might also be apt to describe the burgeoning proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. It does not appear to apply to Chinese “island reclamation” in the South China Sea (it is pretty obvious who is doing that and what kinds of territorial and legal claims they intend to make based on such activity), though some of the related activities, including the use of civilian industry and civilian fishing fleets in defense of these marginal territorial claims may cross into the realm of ambiguous warfare. This means that ambiguous warfare, though only minimally defined, purports to cover less of the spectrum of conflict than either Mazarr’s reasonably narrow version of the gray zone or the virtually unconstrained broader version of the gray zone, though ambiguous warfare appears to be a subset of both.
In 1948, Kennan defined political warfare as “the employment all of means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”[xvii] If, as Clausewitz asserts, war is politics by other means, then political warfare is politics by all means short of war. This is a broad concept. It is the means of competing (or fighting?) across the whole range of the broadest conception of the gray zone, and it encompasses all of the capabilities even hinted at in the hybrid warfare concept across the spectrum of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power... just, short of actual no-kidding war.
Critics have described political warfare as being oxymoronic, asserting that it can’t be “warfare” because it is by definition limited to contexts short of war.[xviii] Of course, by that same logic, the Cold War wasn’t really a war, either. I am sympathetic to the desire to restrict warfare to instances of conflict that involve fighting, violence, and, well, war. I think, however, that by conceiving of warfare as something grand and separate, and by privileging it and distinguishing it from all other forms of conflict and competition, we get ourselves into trouble. In fact, I think that one of the central insights driving the concepts of hybrid warfare, the gray zone, ambiguous warfare, and political warfare is that there is a fundamental flaw in how we think about the spectrum of conflict.
The Missing Insight: Mismatched Perception of Character of Competition or Conflict
So, to quickly summarize what I view as the key insights from hybrid warfare, gray zone conflict, ambiguous war, and political warfare:
First, there is a range of conflict and competition short of war, and even when we cross into “war” there is still a spectrum of variation in intensity, capabilities used, and attribution. Competition and conflict across these ranges can involve both conventional and unconventional military forces, as well as capabilities from across the elements of power, including (but not limited to) the diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and legal.
Second, adversaries can pursue these competitions in a gradual or incremental way, creeping or nibbling their way to success, and they can be conducted in a delayed or difficult to attribute manner or seek to remain below thresholds for escalation, creating challenges and dilemmas for the other competitor.
The insight that is missed, or only hinted at, in these various concepts is the role of mismatched perception of the fact and character of competition or conflict taking place. Put simply, I think there is one set of challenges associated with gradual aggression short of (or right up to) open warfare involving multiple forms of power, and I think there is a whole second set of challenges when the former is taking place but we mistake it for something more benign.
For example, during the Cold War, the United States and its allies faced a wide range of aggressions from the Soviet Union and its allies in conflicts and competitions all across the spectrum of conflict between peace and war and employing capabilities across the widest range of the elements of power. However, strategists and planners recognized that there was a conflict underway, a very serious, high-stakes competition that necessitated constant vigilance, robust investment, and engagement across a range of domains and spheres. In the Cold War, we knew we were in a war!
Contrast that with the post-Cold War world, especially after the turn of the century. Following gradualist strategies, many of our potential state competitors (the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians) have been engaged in fairly aggressive and ambitious campaigns to achieve political objectives to our detriment (or the detriment of other nations) predominantly without us recognizing that there was anything going on that was outside of the realm of routine fair and friendly peacetime competition between countries.
It is these one-sided or mismatched competitions that I find particularly interesting (and troubling). Perhaps the words “conflict” or “competition” are misleading in this context, as both imply two or more players engaged in contesting something. Do you still call it conflict when a country engages in aggressive or instrumental behavior, but does so unopposed? If it were actually a conflict or a competition in which both sides understood what was at stake and the intensity of the contest, then I think it would matter less if that conflict involved a broad range of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic capabilities, or if goals are being pursued in a gradualist fashion.
Traditionally we might talk about this as “death by a thousand cuts,” or “boiling frog.” To try out some new metaphors, I’m interested in (and worried about) situations where the other guy is wounding us, and we either don’t perceive the injuries, or feel the hurt but don’t know where it is coming from.[xix] I’m worried about competitions where our opponent is lining up to give us an MMA-style beat down, but we’re setting up for a friendly card game. I’m worried about when we sit down to a game of cards, and the other guy is picking our pocket while we play. I’m worried about when we sit down to a game of cards, and the other guy is stealing our car in the parking lot! In all of these metaphorical situations we lose because we aren’t playing the right game. The more intense (and underhanded) form of competition takes precedence, and our perceptions and expectations don’t match what is actually going on. Worse, when we lose this type of competition, it validates a template for success for the adversary, who then tries to create a similar situation in another competition later on.
This kind of mismatch can only happen if one side fails to perceive the instrumental objectives of the other side, fails to recognize that the other side is aggressively pursuing those objectives, fails to recognize that attaining those objectives will have a cost for the first side, and fails to compete. And it happens to us far too frequently.
Consequences of a Binary Distinction Between Peace and War
Part of the problem is how we think about conflict and competition. Although we talk and write about a spectrum of conflict, in practice we predominantly treat that spectrum as divided into two segments, and make a binary distinction between peace and war. This is undoubtedly the problem that inspired the conversations about the “gray zone” in the first place! And, this isn’t a new problem. In his 1948 memo (the same one that provided a definition of political warfare), Kennan wrote that “we have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war...”[xx] This binary distinction means (and has meant for a long time) that we understand the rules and norms governing our behavior (and our posture, and our resourcing, and our authorities) as being fundamentally different under conditions of peace instead of conditions of war. There is the way we compete during peacetime (within the confines of free markets, preserving the global commons, and adhering to the principles of fair play), and the way we compete during wartime (heavily kinetic, in keeping with principles of overwhelming force, and adhering to international laws and norms regarding the conduct of armed forces). There is not very much that we do in between.
This thinking is deeply embedded in how we plan military operations. Consider the joint phasing model (formally the six phase joint operation construct): shape, deter, seize initiative, dominate, stabilize, enable civil authority.[xxi] While purportedly applicable to non-combat situations, the implied model is all about anticipating or trying to avoid a departure from peace, making preparations for an advantageous transition to war, winning the war, then quickly transitioning back to peace.
However, our adversaries and potential adversaries do not make this crisp black and white distinction between war and peace. Most of them imagine international relations as a continual struggle, a state of constant competition, with the aspect that varies on a spectrum being the intensity of conflict. Further, not only do our adversaries and potential adversaries not make a binary distinction between war and peace in international competition, they recognize that we do make that false distinction, and they seek to use that to their advantage. Adversaries seek to conduct aggression that is quite advanced on the spectrum of intensity while leaving us stuck on the “not war” side of our peace/war duality (Mazarr’s version of the gray zone). Adversaries attempt to create ambiguity about the level and intensity of the aggression they are engaged in so that our perceptions of the character of the competition and theirs don’t match. Adversaries intentionally avoid presenting us with unambiguous opportunities to escalate, knowing that many of our authorities and capabilities are tied to being able to cross the threshold into “war.”
When we get caught in one of these mismatches, we’re stuck with our fairly anemic phase 0 “shape” or phase I “deter” activities, while our adversary is using a much wider range of capabilities to compete, and compete aggressively. In many instances, we’re stuck “shaping” or “deterring” while they are fighting and winning.
What Should We Do About It?
Since I’ve already made a Clausewitz reference, I might as well make a full quotation: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”[xxii] If we substitute competition or conflict for war in the previous sentence, it points toward where we need to be. We need to recognize that peace and war are separated by a very wide range of potential forms and intensities of competition (a “gray zone” but not a particularly homogenous one), and need to plan to match and meet our adversaries in those competitions. Doing so requires us to understand what an adversary wants, observe what an adversary is doing in pursuit of that goal, recognize those actions as a threat, and respond appropriately. We are deficient in all four of those areas unless the type of competition is “war.”
To get better at meeting this kind of challenge, we need to get better at detection, recognition/understanding, and need a better suite of responses. I think our detection capabilities are probably mostly adequate but are hamstrung by the limiting frameworks available for thinking about aggressive peacetime competition and a tendency to view aggressive actions as isolated incidents rather than a part of a long-term campaign. With a shift in perspective and perhaps some improvements in our ability to successfully attribute ambiguous actions to the correct aggressor, we’ll be adequate at detection.
The biggest deficiency is in understanding, in recognition of an adversary’s goals and the way in which they are competing to reach those goals. To succeed, we need to discard, change, or at least change the way we use and think about the joint phasing model. Understanding will also necessitate an end to a binary conception of war and peace, with a move to a much more cynical view about how other nations compete with us. This new framework will need to acknowledge that actions employing diplomatic, informational, military, or economic power can be part of threatening competition.
As much as we must recognize non-military actions as potentially part of threatening competition, we must also be prepared to respond using capabilities selected from across the range of available state powers, not just military capabilities. This will likely require the kind of whole of government coordination and integration that we like to talk about often, but seldom make much progress toward.
To accomplish all of this, we’ll need to continue to work to refine our terminology and our concepts. As noted, hybrid, gray zone, ambiguous warfare, political warfare... these all have their faults, but they contain some important insights. Rather than dismissing these terms, we need to continue to refine them, revise them, elaborate on them, subdivide them. Though I’ve impugned “gray zone” for being too broad because it encompasses too much, I think it is a good place to start. It really is all gray zone, because it is all competition, all the time; just some is more obvious, aggressive, or violent. Now, accepting that there is this huge space of potential competition between peace and war, what are the sub-types, the categories, the different forms of gray zone competition that will help us recognize, understand, and deal with these challenges? Let’s refine these concepts and identify the different shades within the gray and the new categories that are formed when traditional element of power and conflict boundaries get blurred.
[i] Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Arlington, Va.: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, December 2007, p.7.
[ii] The quote is from Frank Hoffman, “On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare Vs Hybrid Threats,” War On The Rocks, July 28, 2014. Very similar definitions appear in NATO IMSM-0292-2010, Hybrid threats description and context, May 31, 2010, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) G-2, Operational Environments to 2028: The Strategic Environment for Unified Land Operations, August 2012, 39, and David E. Johnson, Preparing for “Hybrid” Opponents: Israeli Experiences in Lebanon and Gaza, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RB-9620-A, 2011, among others.
[iii] See, for example page 3 in United States Army Special Operations Command, Counter-Unconventional Warfare, Fort Bragg, N.C., White Paper, September 26, 2014.
[iv] For examples of critics who point out the lack of novelty of hybrid threats, see Frank J.Cilluffo and Joseph R. Clark, “Thinking About Strategic Hybrid Threats—In Theory and in Practice,” Prism, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2012, pp. 46-63 or Lukas Milevski, “Asymmetry is Strategy, Strategy is Asymmetry,” Joint Force Quarterly, No. 75, 4th Quarter, 2015, pp. 77-83.
[v] David Sadowski and Jeff Becker. “Beyond the ‘Hybrid’ Threat: Asserting the Essential Unity of Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 2010.
[vi] Christopher O. Bowers, “Identifying Emerging Hybrid Adversaries,” Parameters, 2012: 40.
[vii] Hoffman, 2014, p.4.
[viii] General Joseph L. Votel, The Gray Zone, United States Special Operations Command, White Paper, September 9, 2015.
[ix] Votel, p. 4.
[x] Votel, p. 9.
[xi] Michael Mazarr, Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict, Carlisle Barracks, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2015.
[xii] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.
[xiii] Mazarr, p.43-44.
[xiv] See, for example, Eric Olson, “America’s Not Ready for Today’s Gray Wars,” Defense One, December 10, 2015.
[xv] Adam Elkus, “50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense,” War on the Rocks, December 15, 2015.
[xvi] Mary Ellen Connell and Ryan Evans, Russia’s “AmbiguousWarfare” and Implications for the U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C.: Center for Naval Analyses, date the use of ambiguous warfare to the 1980s. Numerous scholars trace political warfare back to the thinking of George Kennan and his Cold War strategy. See George Kennan, “The inauguration of organized political warfare,” Policy Planning Memorandum, May 4, 1948, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 273, Records of the National Security Council, NSC 10/2,
[xvii] Kennan, op. cit.
[xviii] Hoffman, 2014.
[xix] Before you dismiss the possibility of unattributable harm, consider the consequences of various forms of cyber attacks, informational aggression, or subtle economic aggression.
[xx] Kennan, op. cit.
[xxi] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operations Planning, Joint Publication 5-0, August 11, 2011.
[xxii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard, Peter Paret (trans), Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 86.