Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Thinking about Strategic Hybrid Threats - in Theory and in Practice

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Thinking about Strategic Hybrid Threats - in Theory and in Practice

Article excerpt

As the United States resets in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the face of growing uncertainty in the South China Sea, a good and important debate is occurring about how best to provide for our national security. Reasonable arguments can be made about the threats posed by potential peer competitors such as China, rogue nations such as North Korea, and prospective revisionist powers such as Russia. Arguments can be made about threats arising from political instability or intrastate conflicts, such as in Pakistan, Uganda, and Syria. Arguments can also be made about the threats posed by jihadi terror groups, organized crime syndicates, and drug trafficking organizations. The dangers highlighted by any one of these arguments are real and perhaps grave. They are not, however, novel.

For each of these dangers, we have established procedures, tools, and resources for deterring, mitigating, and perhaps even resolving their associated risks. Yet there are threats for which we lack well-established security mechanisms. Chief among them are the hybrid threats woven from the hazards above to directly endanger the safety and security of our society and citizens at home - as well as our national interests abroad.

What follows is an argument for casting greater focus on the dangers posed by hybrid threats at the strategic level.1 We use Iran and the availability of proxy capabilities to illustrate the mechanics of, and risk posed by, strategic hybrid threats. We also offer a general model for what is needed to detect and respond to hybrid threats. Still, increased attention is not enough. It is our intent that this argument serve as fuel for a richer discussion about the doctrine, strategies, material resources, and organizational behaviors the United States ought to develop to respond to strategic hybrid threats in both theory and practice.

Hybrid Threats

Hybrid threats have been part of the security vernacular since the late 1990s. Despite a surge of recent attention, the concept remains ill-defined. Various authors, proponents and opponents of the idea, have added or removed defining traits. This has often confused rather than clarified the issue. As a result, discussions tend to devolve into debates about whether hybrid threats represent a novel class of security challenges. The two central issues - the degree to which such threats currently pose a danger and how the United States ought to deal with them - risk being lost in the rhetoric.2 To correct this and return to the crux of the matter, this argument begins with a proposal of how hybrid threats might be better defined and differentiated from other threats.

As a means of clearing away the conceptual confusion produced by past debates, let us begin by explaining what we would remove from past treatments of the term. We are not talking about multimodal wars or the threats they pose. The ability of adversaries to move up or down the spectrum of warfare, or engage in multiple phases of warfare simultaneously, may be intensifying - but it is not new.3 Such was the case during many of the insurgencies and civil wars of the 20th century, including those in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. We are not talking about asymmetric threats. That idea has itself devolved to a level of questionable utility. The principle of attempting to match one's strength against an enemy's weakness is a well-established military dictum. All combatants seek to maximize asymmetric threats or engage in asymmetrical warfare, for the successful asymmetrical alignment of capabilities maximizes one's leverage and increases the probability of success. Nor are we talking about irregular tactics or unconventional warfare. Those terms describe indirect actions taken by an actor to undermine the legitimacy, influence, or position of an occupying power or government.4 Because they may be employed in the service of nation-states and their interests, hybrid threats should not be confused with the irregular use of forces or capabilities that is commonly, but not exclusively, observed during insurgencies. …

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