This SemText discusses how the latest buzzword in military discourse – “hybrid warfare” – changes the way we do war.

I was planning on doing this bit right after the second panel of APPSMO, but I had to prepare some presentations and do some readings. Along the way, I strayed from the path and started playing Overwatch.

Anyway, the second panel of APPSMO discussed hybrid warfare, the newest in the line of buzzwords in military discourse. But what actually is “hybrid warfare”? What is it good for? More importantly, how has and will it change the way we do war?

Three experts were on the panel: Assoc. Prof. Ahmed Hashim, LTG (ret.) Syed Ata Hasnain, and Stephen de Spiegleire.

Often touted as the masters of hybrid warfare, the Russian “sneaky way of war” [HTML] is often the go-to example for the beginner to understand hybrid warfare. It often refers to the mixture of direct and indirect tactics employed by the military of a state to achieve their political objectives. In the Russian case, specifically the annexation of Crimea, it is widely believed that aside from Russian troops on the ground, the Russians also had a hand in influencing public opinion, separatist groups, and many others. To use Hoffman’s definition [HTML], hybrid warfare would be:

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. – Hoffman

I would be inclined to agree with Hoffman’s definition of hybrid warfare as it captures the “hybrid” element quite well. However, when you think about it, how is hybrid warfare any different than what the US has been doing over the last two decades in the Middle East? So, does it mean that hybrid warfare is an entirely new, revolutionary concept in warfare? Or is it just another buzzword so security analysts can still keep their jobs?

For Ahmed Hashim, hybrid warfare is still facing a problem of definitions. He highlights the “dog pissing on the hydrant” problem of hybrid warfare, a metaphor that satirizes the behaviour of analysts and academics to mark their own territory in the landscape by coming up with these new buzzwords that are sometimes obscure. Hashim shares my views on hybrid warfare, which is a mixture or smoothie of all kinds of operational and tactical war terms such as limited war, asymmetric war, cyber war, guerilla war, etc. It can be used by both states and non-state actors. It can be used for many types of conflicts and sometimes used in lieu of all-out confrontation.

Adding to Hashim’s definition was Hasnain’s elaboration on how hybrid warfare is.For Syed Ata Hasnain, hybrid warfare is basically a mix-and-match of tactical and operational tactics deployed across the chosen domain of war to achieve a political objective. Notice the “mix-and-match” in Hasnain’s conception of hybrid warfare. It resonates with Hoffman. In Hasnain’s mind, hybrid warfare departs from the notion of conventional, linear wars of attrition. Nonetheless, the term “hybrid” implies that there would be an innate mixture of elements from conventional warfare, such as conventional military tactics and weapons, with “irregular warfare” – like what guerrillas do.

Hasnain asserts that hybrid warfare aims to keep wars below a certain threshold. This threshold, which I would now call the “brink value”, is when violence goes up to a certain degree, what used to be a small-scale, controlled exchange of violence becomes an all-out war. To achieve this, Hasnain believes that hybrid warfare should be confined to “domains” which would not increase the “brink value”. He provides an example of the Kashmir conflict. He identified the end goal of the campaign was to bleed the Indians physically and economically, and to prevent Kashmirian integration.

( I might have got some of the finer details wrong due to lack of notes. If someone would correct me on that, I’d appreciate it.)

They identified the centre of gravity [HMTL] as the idea of a free Kashmir, which the people held on to. Having identified the centre of gravity, the party would then focus their efforts in that particular domain. Soldiers were taught the “psychological approach”. Instead of only shooting and blowing up stuff, they were taught to win the hearts of the people. It kinda makes sense: you can’t kill an idea, but you can win over the people who believe in that idea by proposing a better idea. That’s how they won a strategic victory, by focusing less on the kill/death ratio and more on the (sorry for the use of Overwatch reference) “pushing the payload to its destination” aspect of the war.

Still on hybrid warfare, Spiegleire started asking the harder questions. His presentation was titled “Hybrid warfare: a prelude to post-industrial warfare?”

Going back to semantics, he argues that the root word of “armed forces” is “ar“, which basically refers to an appendage. Hence, armed forces would be the many components that we used to inflict violence. In our hunter-gatherer days, we would defend ourselves with our bare fists and the occasional tools. The main referent objects of defence were our bodies and settlements. In the industrial age, our arms became more sophisticated and with the nation-state being our referent object of defence. Now, we live in an era where we’re all connected; a “post-industrial” world, if you may. So what would be our “arms” be like in a networked world? By integrating many methods of warfare, from conventional to digital, our arms would need to go beyond the industrial paradigm of warfare and embrace the new post-industrial world.

My thoughts… before heading to the buffet

From these talks, I can conclude that the term “hybrid warfare” is still a nebulous concept, a Frankenstein of some sorts, as we still are trying to wrap our heads around it. However, given the increased complexity of the wars that we fight and in a more inter-connected world where actions have rippling consequences, it would be essential for soldiers of the future to be able to not only apply violence to solve their problems. In the future, the soldier would not only be able to lock and load, but also achieve political objectives abroad constructively.

Furthermore, I have found that there is a shift in the COG paradigm from the old Clausewitzian way of thinking, especially when confronted with non-traditional problems such as insurgency. The COG is the idea holding the people together. An idea cannot be killed; but the people could be. However, that would net you more enemies. Or better yet, as what Sun Tzu would have advised if he were still alive, is to win the hearts of the insurgents to avoid fighting altogether. Of course, I might a dreamy-eyed idealist, but that’s what we’re facing now in the world.


Seminar: 18th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers

Date of seminar: 7 August 2016

Featured picture credit: Screenshot


SemText is where I write about the seminars (hence the “Sem” prefix) that I attend. Mostly summaries of speakers’ points, sometimes added with my personal judgment/opinion.

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