Academic journal article Parameters

Identifying Emerging Hybrid Adversaries

Academic journal article Parameters

Identifying Emerging Hybrid Adversaries

Article excerpt

Hybrid threats represent a very real security challenge for the United States military in the coming decades. They combine the strengths of an irregular fighting force with various capabilities of an advanced state military, and will play an increasingly prominent role in international security issues. What are the attributes of a true hybrid threat, how do they function, and how can they be countered before they even emerge? Much of the existing literature dealing with hybrid threats focuses on "what" and "who" they are, both in the present day and in the past. What is needed is a methodological attempt to identify where, and in what capacity, these organizations will emerge over the coming decades.

This article describes a methodology to more readily identify an emerging hybrid adversary. The methodology examines the current understanding of hybrid threats and their capabilities, and the identification of three necessary core variables of a hybrid threat organization: maturity, capability, and complex terrain. The "sweet spot" where these variables overlap is the point of maximum tactical, operational, and strategic effectiveness for a hybrid threat. By superimposing these three variables on a possible threat, we can gauge that organization's potential to develop into a true, mature hybrid adversary. We also see the exact circumstances that would enable this development, and can consider how to assist or impede that development.

Understanding Hybrid Threats

There is no consensus definition of hybrid threats--in the open press or military lexicon. They are defined in the US Army's Training Circular 7-100 as "the diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, and/or criminal elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects." (1) Authors Frank Hoffman, Nathan Freier, John McCuen, and Helmut Habermayer proposed similar definitions for this type of organization. Their definitions of a hybrid threat include the ability to engage effectively in multiple forms of war, simultaneously. (2) William Nemeth also compellingly discusses hybrid adversaries and hybrid warfare, demonstrating how armed groups from less-developed societies tend to incorporate more advanced adversaries' technologies and tactics in new ways that are more effective than originally intended. (3)

The pitfall for numerous studies related to hybrid threats and hybrid warfare is that they set the aperture too wide in identifying who and what a hybrid threat is. It is only natural that every armed force will use any and every means available to it. In many instances, the armed force may employ a variety of capabilities while achieving little actual effect from any number of them. For example, an insurgent group may launch cyberattacks, engage in acts of terrorism, or take part in organized criminal activities. This only means they are similar to virtually every other modern insurgent group. Everyone engaged in armed conflict will attempt to conduct cyberattacks, irregular warfare, information warfare, innovative use of off-the-shelf technology, and other spectacular attacks to the maximum extent possible. One needs to be cautious in simply defining a hybrid adversary as any that engages in multiple forms of warfare, because this can include just about every type of organization from criminal gangs like MS-13 to the German Wehrmacht. If everybody is a hybrid, then nobody is.

The true hybrid mix of advanced military capabilities and organizational maturity is normally not commonplace among armed groups around the world, nor is it easily attained. Consequently, it is important to understand if we can predict how and when an armed group becomes a fully developed hybrid adversary.

A fully developed hybrid adversary will be able to transition between irregular or guerilla war, and highly conventional warfare in company- or larger-sized formations at will. Specifically, as RAND researcher David Johnson writes, a true hybrid adversary will be able to engage opposing military forces effectively at a distance, and force them to fight through an extended engagement area to get into the close fight. …

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