Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict

Article excerpt

Key Points

America's ongoing battles in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted limitations in our understanding of the complexity of modern warfare. Furthermore, our cultural prism has retarded the institutionalization of capabilities needed to prevail in stabilization and counter-insurgency missions.

An ongoing debate about future threats is often framed as a dichotomous choice between counterinsurgency and conventional war. This oversimplifies defense planning and resource allocation decisions. Instead of fundamentally different approaches, we should expect competitors who will employ all forms of war, perhaps simultaneously. Such multimodal threats are often called hybrid threats. Hybrid adversaries employ combinations of capabilities to gain an asymmetric advantage.

Thus, the choice is not simply one of preparing for long-term stability operations or high-intensity conflict. We must be able to do both simultaneously against enemies far more ruthless than today's.

This essay widens the aperture of the current debate to account for this threat. It compares and contrasts four competing perspectives and evaluates them for readiness and risk implications. This risk assessment argues that the hybrid threat presents the most operational risk in the near-to midterm. Accordingly, it concludes that hybrid threats are a better focal point for considering alternative joint force postures.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates directly challenged the Pentagon's strategists and military chiefs in an important speech at the National Defense University in September 2008. The speech was a critical assessment of the prevailing U.S. military culture and the prism through which our Armed Forces see themselves. This prism clarifies what is important about the future and how we posture our forces for the future. Secretary Gates questioned that mindset and its hold on the Services and the Department of Defense's capitalization practices.

Secretary Gates also declared that "the defining principle of the Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy is balance," (1) a principle that will also be key in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This principle will force the critical examination of assumptions about the future, our understanding of threats, and their relative priorities. Gates emphasizes achieving a balance between our current conflicts and the Pentagon's penchant to plan toward more canonical, conventional scenarios. The Secretary believes that the Pentagon is devoted to postulated longer term challenges that have little to do with current conflicts and more likely threats. He used the term Next-War-itis to describe a prism that distorts the Services' ability to see military affairs clearly and objectively. (2)

The concept of balance is central to today's security debate, but it is a complex problem rather than a simple equation. To what degree should investment resources be allocated to conducting current operations, and what needs to be invested in the future? How much should be devoted to so-called nontraditional or irregular missions such as counterinsurgency versus traditional military capabilities? How should we invest scarce funding to reflect this balance? How do we balance not only missions, but also force capabilities, risks, and resources?

In the defense community, this "fight over the next war" has been going on for some time. (3) The debate has been poorly framed as a choice between idealized dichotomous options (see figure 1). This distorted conception grossly oversimplifies critical defense planning and resource allocation decisions. Secretary Gates implied that this was not how he perceived balance in any event. This essay aims to widen the debate over post--Operation Iraqi Freedom defense budgets and the posture of the joint warfighting community.

This reconceptualization will have significant implications for military force design and posture. …

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