Hybrid war is an emerging notion in international war and conflict studies and refers to the use of non-conventional methods such as cyber warfare as part of a multi-domain warfighting approach, in order to disrupt and disable an opponent’s actions without engaging in open hostilities. While the concept is fairly new and only recognised since 2007 in military literature, its effects and outcomes are often in the headlines. Russia’s actions in both Ukraine and Crimea, election interference in the UK and USA and effects on social media news services are all examples for such new form of warfare.
Dr Sascha-Dominik Bachmann, an extraordinary Reader in War Studies at the Swedish Defence University, is working with military experts to explore the concept further and advise government officials, political and academic think tanks as well as NATO as Subject Matter expert (SME) about how to deal with this new and emerging threat.
The notion of hybrid war emerged after the end of the Cold War. It describes the idea that conflicts consist of strategies that blend conventional warfare tactics with cyber warfare and cyber based information activities, use mass communication channels to distribute propaganda, and often involve a fluid, non-state adversary. This is a considerable change - hybrid wars are no longer necessarily conducted by countries, but by non state actors alike such as groups of activists and terrorist organisations amongst others. They are harder to find, and harder to stop when operating in this legal greyzone.
One of the most striking examples of hybrid warfare in action has been Russia’s activities in Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described Russia’s actions as: “[using] proxy soldiers, unmarked Special Forces, intimidation and propaganda, all to lay a thick fog of confusion; to obscure its true purpose in Ukraine; and to attempt deniability.”
Dr Bachmann talks in 2016 about his research into hybrid war and international conflicts
How to respond
The strategy has proved successful, believes Dr Bachmann. Russia has successfully annexed Crimea from Ukraine – and, moreover, it has divided Western countries on how to respond and exposed their inability to find a common policy to counter Russia’s present military strategy of weakening the West. The problem lies in securing universal agreement as to whether any form of hybrid attack, alone or cumulatively, amounts to a use of force and, if so, reaches the threshold of an armed attack to justify military intervention – and what form that response would take.
“In instances such as we have seen in Ukraine, where a threat is made which may affect us, we must be able to respond – but respond in kind,” says Dr Bachmann.
Hybrid war is a new concept and one that is evolving quickly. It’s something that governments and policy makers need to know how to respond to, as conventional military strategies don’t work. We need a different legal framework to tackle it.
Hybrid warfare is an open concept with different elements. Lawfare, for example, is a new aspect. The UK has seen legal challenges to its military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan – demonstrating how the law can be used as part of a hybrid war strategy in ongoing conflict. Russia adopted lawfare by using the law in a questionable way to justify its claim over Crimea. In written evidence submitted to NATO in 2017, Dr Bachmann highlighted similar tactics that are being adopted by Russia over sovereignty of the Arctic region.
“We have to look at the threat through a different lens and use different methods to deal with it. Ultimately, this is an area of research where we – as academics – can make a big difference. It’s an area that is moving very fast and requires a quick response from international bodies,” says Dr Bachmann.
As a recognised subject matter expert, Dr Bachmann has worked with numerous organizations, including NATO, the Swedish Defence University and the Australian Defence College on countering the threat of hybrid war. Currently scientific contributor and invited to become a research fellow (designate) at NATO, he has co-authored articles and chapters on the subject and helped on the development of lawfare as a new discipline.
“NATO needs pre-emptive tools that can be used in a proactive way when it comes to an adversary using lawfare. Russia’s questionable use of the law to justify annexation of Crimea brought lawfare centre stage for NATO. The aim is to create an instant response toolbox or set, which would provide a legal response to any malicious or fraudulent lawfare claim,” he says.
Combating hybrid warfare requires a united response and Dr Bachmann’s work has led to co-operation between organisations and government bodies on a national and international level. His focus has been on both creating new networks and educating military personnel, having worked with the Austrian, Danish, Qatari, Swedish, US and South African defence ministries. Following successful establishment of a Nordic countries network, he has organised the first-ever dual academic and professional conference to be held on the subject in Australia. “Hybrid threats and the Asia – Pacific region: Hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks within the Australian – Pacific context” took place in March 2019 and brought together academics and military professionals from in and around the region as well as from the globe. He is a regular contributor to the UK’s Defence Committee with his written evidence being used to inform UK policy making.
Hybrid warfare is here to stay. “No one wants to go to war, of course,” concludes Dr Bachmann, “but the West has to prepare and strengthen its own capabilities to counter such threats, whether by adopting lawfare activities aimed at upholding the international rule of law, or other response.”