In the 21st century, many scholars of international relations have claimed the world has learned lessons of the past and that direct, open conflict between major world powers is no longer worth it. Economic interdependence, nuclear weapons, and the lack of will for war from the general public means that the world hasn’t seen the kind of great power conflicts that defined the first half of the 20th century. But this doesn’t mean that world power’s aren’t still competing in the great game. Tensions between the United States, Russia and China are arguably at an all time high, and a number of smaller regional confrontations are simmering away still. What is clear to see is that world powers, while they may not wish to go directly to war, are competing with and undermining each other daily.
The famous Chinese strategist and General Sun Tzu provides insight into the great game that world powers find themselves in today. He wrote in The Art of War that “[T]he supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Cyber attacks, sanctions, assassinations, espionage and political games have become more common in recent years. Take for example the U.S. assassination of Qassim Solemani, recent cyber attacks on its critical infrastructure, covert Israeli operations against Iranian nuclear facilities, and foreign interference in elections.
So What is Hybrid War?
While hybrid war is often described in many ways, an article by The Conversation sums it up well by describing it as the use of unconventional methods, as part of a multi-domain war-fighting approach. They also state that these methods aim to disrupt and disable an opponent’s actions without engaging in open hostilities. Immediately, it is clear why Sun Tzu’s definition is relevant to this topic. Similarly, NATO describes hybrid threats as combining “military and non-military, as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, and deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces.” So now that we know what the term means, why are states increasingly turning to this grey area of international relations to push their goals?
Examples of Hybrid War
One of the recent examples of hybrid war that received a lot of media attention is the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. election. Russian tactics involved using social media accounts to spread misinformation about the candidates and electoral process, as well as conspiracy theories and more. Although the world largely knows Russia was behind this, they were able to hide their activities behind a thin veil of “plausible deniability.” Russia did this by using proxies to do the dirty work. Layers of social media accounts, cyber espionage and more allowed the Kremlin to keep their hands directly clean of these actions, while causing chaos and undermining their enemy – the U.S. Election interference through new technologies like social media has since garnered much attention around the world. This is hybrid warfare in action.
Another example of hybrid war lies in Iranian tactics in the Middle East. It is widely known that Iran and specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) has been supporting Shia militia’s across Iraq and Syria for their political aims. Again, by supporting these groups, Iran has less political accountability than if they were to send their own forces in to undertake these actions.
In recent years, Israel has also been a proponent of hybrid warfare throughout the Middle East, including cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear and infrastructure targets, to targeted killings of Iranian leaders and scientists. One of the most notable being the assasination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist. The attack was carried out by an AI enabled satellite controlled machine gun that was mounted on a truck. The attack was most likely carried out by Israel, but again, as there was no Israeli personnel directly implicated, there remains that thin layer of plausible deniability.
So is hybrid war a new strategy?
Hybrid war is not a new concept. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and U.S. engaged in a number of deniable tactics including assassinations, regime change and the funding of armed groups to do each others’ dirty work. However what is visibly new about hybrid war in the 21st century, is the involvement of emerging technology in these tactics. Digital technologies now provide an effective way to mask state responsibility and enable states to disrupt industries like food and energy in ways that they could have never carried out in secret before.
As technology becomes more integrated into warfare and state craft, we will likely continue to see more hybrid warfare tactics as well. While traditional armed conflict between global powers may be less likely, the powers that be will always be seeking ways to subdue the enemy without fighting.