Who’s Afraid of Hybrid Warfare?

Threat Environment and Challenges of Hybrid Warfare

The picture of European security is grim. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and threats towards European nations have destabilised the whole European security environment. Russian behaviour has become unpredictable and there is no consensus on what Putin’s ultimate goal is. At the same time we are facing an irregular threat from the South where Middle East and North Africa are marked by instability, terrorism and insurgency. Both sets of threats are unlikely to disappear quickly.

Hybrid warfare has become a fashionable buzzword to describe the adversaries’ tactics and there is no shortage of its definitions. At the same time, there is widespread consensus that while some of its methods may be novel, hybrid warfare itself is nothing new. The mobilisation of all elements of national power to achieve political ends is as old as warfare itself. Its key elements like the exploitation of denial and ambiguity, subversion, information warfare have for example for a long time also been part of the standard Russian/Soviet practice. Still, most European states have not been ready for such tactics and there is a need to work on practical responses to counter it.

While there is a tendency to generalise, and there are some similarities in the tactics employed by different sets of adversaries, the challenges posed by Russia and by for example ISIS are fundamentally different and need different responses. Therefore, there is a need to further discuss the strategic goals and capabilities of actors who use hybrid methods against us. A first step is to understand the adversary, then build on our own capabilities.

In imposing its will on others, Russia is operating robustly by employing various covert and overt tactics, enacted using both military and non-military means. It aims to exploit ambiguity, divide the Alliance and complicate its decision-making. All this is supported by a massive disinformation and propaganda campaign designed to control the narrative. Russia’s actions are backed by the threat of its conventional and nuclear military power, reinforced by the practice of organising snap exercises. It also enjoys the advantage of a unitary decision-making system and the resulting ability to make quick decisions. The regime in Kremlin has shown a willingness to take risks and to escalate.

Historical experience shows that every conflict is different. As the adversary is flexible and able to adapt, the next challenge will be different from the last. Characteristic of hybrid strategies is their constantly changing nature; the threat will evolve and we have to monitor it closely. At the same time, the other methods used by Russia are complementary to, not replacements of, conventional military force. Excessive fixation on hybrid scenarios may mean the danger of focusing too much on low-end threats and thereby losing sight of Russia’s conventional military posture and the resulting need to reinvest in our own high-end war fighting capabilities.

Military Response to Hybrid Warfare – Strengthening Deterrence and Providing Assurance

At the same time as the Allies have been focused on fighting unconventional opponents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, and have allowed many high-end conventional capabilities to hollow, Russia has been busy improving its military deficiencies. It has substantially developed and modernised its conventional capabilities, which can be used to speedily intervene in neighbouring countries, including to seize NATO territory. Russia has also intensively built up its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which may limit the Alliance’s military freedom of action. As a result, in the case of Russia grabbing territory in the Baltic region, it would be very difficult to militarily dislodge the occupying forces. Moreover, Russia could leverage its nuclear capabilities to forestall an effective NATO response and keep the conflict within Moscow’s preferred boundaries by forcing NATO to back-off or restrain itself by issuing threats of nuclear escalation. In this way, Russia could set the rules for the conflict and make a NATO counter intervention very difficult, perhaps even prohibitively so. All this would entail catastrophic consequences for the Alliance.

The key in responding to this challenge is to restructure the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture in a ways which restore the credibility of the deterrence and negate Russia’s ability to achieve a meaningful escalation advantage. Deterrence requires an ability to present to a potential adversary that any gains from its military action would be outweighed by the costs and consequences, and therefore, such a course would be too risky and dangerous to be seriously contemplated. NATO was able to do this during the Cold War, and there should be no reason to believe that it cannot do it know. Current initiatives like NATO’s Readiness Action Plan and US operation Atlantic Resolve provide a good start to re-assure exposed allies, but effective deterrence requires more. Limited and tentative measures may instead send out an unintended message that other Allies are ambivalent in honouring their treaty commitments to defend the frontline states.

The Alliance needs to establish a credible military posture in vulnerable states what could make it difficult, or ideally eliminate, Russia’s ability to mount a conventional attack to quickly seize territory. This is best achieved by substantial and persistent Allied forward military presence in NATO’s most exposed eastern countries, especially in the Baltic region. Such a presence would not only close off easy conventional military opportunities for Russia, but also negate a whole range of other hybrid options for exercising coercion and pressure, which rely on Russia having no robust military response from a target nation or from NATO.

The A2/AD challenge is real and has to be addressed. The Alliance needs critical high-end capabilities in sufficient numbers. This requires serious investment in Allied nations into capability areas where the balance has become unfavourable. The regeneration of such capabilities will need time and money; therefore, all nations working towards meeting the 2% GDP defence expenditures pledge of the Wales Summit would be necessary. The problem is compounded by a heavily fragmented defence scene in Europe today. While the implementation of Wales Summit decisions on VJTF and NRF is on track, at least as important is the issue of follow-on-forces. The NATO Defence Planning Process needs to address the development of forces required for large scale conventional military contingencies.

The current NATO response posture is built on the ability to move troops at short notice. This places particular importance on making a key decision to deploy sufficient force in time to achieve deterrence by denial, and requires enhancing the Alliance’s ability for speedy decision-making. The Alliance also needs to emphasise tough, integrated joint-force exercises, which train real scenarios. Such exercises have also a deterrent value by sending a clear message and showing unity and solidarity among the Allies.

In the nuclear field, faced with Russia’s nuclear coercion and blackmail, the Alliance needs to revive its nuclear culture, to talk again about nuclear deterrence and how we conduct it. NATO needs to demonstrate a readiness to answer threats in kind, and thereby, negate or cancel Russia’s potential ability to achieve leverage through escalation dominance.

Countering the Full Spectrum of Challenges Embodied in Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid strategies seek to undermine the Alliance’s decision-making. Therefore, in the case of all possible scenarios, political will and political unity are key. Unquestionable solidarity and remaining united remains crucial both against traditional challenges and in adapting to new threats.

NATO needs better intelligence and information sharing between nations to know what is happening on the ground and about the intentions of our opponents. It is necessary to avoid a gap between intelligence assessments and policy making. This requires an ability and willingness to identify, to attribute and act on that collectively. It is necessary for policy makers to read the unpleasant news, the inconvenient truth, and take decisions to avoid being surprised again.

As hybrid tactics aim to exploit weaknesses and seek vulnerabilities in our societies, European nations should minimize opportunities that can be exploited by skilful opponents. All nations must individually or collectively reduce their vulnerabilities and build overall societal resilience. The response requires a strong link between internal and external security strategies. Areas may include economic or energy dependencies, border security, cyber infrastructure, but also the enhancement of democratic institutions and civil societies and the treatment of minorities. Faced with an integrated approach, one needs to develop an integrated collective response, which involves besides military also other different governmental agencies alongside NGO-s and the private sector. There is also a need to take a fresh look at the EU and NATO relationship and to work pragmatically to align their responses to hybrid threats.

For NATO, Russia’s actions have highlighted the central importance of strategic communications and the information domain. Our strategic communications need to be proactive and assertive, not just reactive. Telling the truth and providing reliable information is a powerful weapon against hybrid threats. In addition, increased focus on Special Operations Forces is necessary against many types of hybrid threats. These forces can both work ahead of a crisis to support the resilience and resistance potential of threatened countries, but also must be prepared to respond to scenarios below the traditional conventional threshold. Therefore, the SOF toolbox has many options, which can make the calculus of aggression change and thereby enhance deterrence.

In the end while serious challenges exist we should not be unduly afraid of Russia’s practices and shy about our abilities and capabilities to respond. Facing a complicated, multi-faceted problem, our defence and deterrence posture needs to include various components that are necessary elements in NATO’s long-term adaptation. The West needs to regain the initiative, not just react to problems we are facing. The upcoming 2016 Warsaw Summit can serve as an important step along this road.

Summary compiled by Henrik Praks, ICDS Research Fellow