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The Emergence of Hybrid Threats: Towards a Different Transformation of War?

military-Earth thinking notebook
History & strategy
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A striking trend in recent years is the gradual blurring of traditional distinctions between war and peace, between state and non-state actors, but also between very different modes of action: conventional warfare, insurgency, cybercrime, terrorism and organised crime. These new threats, known as hybrid, multiple and adaptive threats, are bound to develop in the medium and long term. The possible consequences for our armed forces are numerous in terms of required capabilities, modes of action and technological investment.

"In the future, war will not be fought by armies, but by groups, today called terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, highway robbers, but they will undoubtedly seek more official titles. More charismatic than institutional, their organizations will rely more on loyalties cemented by fanaticism and ideology than on professionalism".

Martin Van Creveld,

«The transformation of war».


In attacking the foundations of our societies, hybrid threats are worrisome because of their multiple forms and elusiveness. Constantly adapting and taking advantage of technological developments, they develop insidiously by pursuing various objectives: power, profit, religion... Faced with such an adversary, often difficult to identify and predict, states find themselves particularly exposed and often powerless. Moreover, the blurring of borders as barriers to threats has increased the feeling of insecurity on national territory. The implications for our armed forces are numerous in terms of required capabilities, doctrine and technological investment.

A developing threat, covering several fields of application

  • Genesis of the concept

The concept of hybrid threats has emerged over the last decade among many American think-tanks. Derived from the concept of irregular threat,it describes an emerging form of threat, in which mainly non-state actors would implement a combination of both kinetic (conventional warfare, asymmetric warfare, organized crime) and non-kinetic (subversive, political, social actions) means. Since 2010, NATO has taken up the concept[1], with the aim of developing an effective strategy and concrete applications in terms of modes of action and required capabilities.

  • A hybrid adversary by its processes,...

The complexity of these threats lies first and foremost in the wide variety of their field of operation. While the diversity of situations encountered and current conflicts (terrorism, piracy, counter-insurgency, cybercrime) is not new in itself, the main threat lies in the possibility for an adversary to choose and combine actions (conventional, asymmetric, political, etc.) in pursuit of a medium- or long-term objective. These processes, used and chosen on purpose by the same actor, could have a multiplier effect on effectiveness, since they operate in very different fields (military, economic, social, industrial, etc.). For the concept of hybrid threats also covers actions that are not purely military, such as information or influence operations, cybercrime or economic pressure. Finally, the hybridisation of processes is reinforced by a capacity for permanent adaptation on the part of the adversary, who is not constrained by doctrinal or ethical considerations.

  • .... by its nature and its area of action,...

The sprawling nature of these threats also owes much to their transnational character, reinforcing their elusive aspect. Above all, the future enemy will be less a State than a group of individuals, breaking down borders and coordinating themselves thanks to the new means of communication. Indeed, the origin of threats, between state and non-state actors, is sometimes more complex to characterize. For example, cyber-attacks are typically located in a grey area between peace and war, and the difficulty of determining their origin with certainty blurs the lines between state and non-state actors. Compounding this is the fact that the conflict zones of tomorrow's "hybrid wars" will be predominantly urbanized, often coastal, areas with high levels of economic activity. These places of confrontation, called contested zones in the American doctrine, represent an ideal environment for the development of hybrid modes of action, while making a conventional response particularly complex, even with developed technology.

  • ...that intrudes at the heart of our societies.

Portraying a multi-faceted enemy is not without difficulty, especially when it attacks the foundations, values and defining characteristics of our societies: media coverage, individual freedoms, judicialization, interconnection and interdependence. By attacking the population and institutions, by targeting our centres of gravity, often through an indirect approach which is the hallmark of asymmetry, these groups are in a position to have a significant influence on public opinion and even on the political authorities targeted. In the face of an enemy that has broken all the rules of international law, there are limited responses and the level of vulnerability is, in fact, heightened. In this context, borders are no longer natural lines of protection, as our globalized societies are increasingly dependent on the flow of people, goods and information. This dependence makes us more exposed to threats to these flows, particularly in areas that are difficult to control: international maritime or air zones, space or cyberspace.

Hybridization of the threat: two concrete cases

  • Hezbollah, a quasi-state with multiple modes of action

As a non-State actor, Hezbollah has today achieved a capacity to coerce and influence close to that of States, acquiring military means and technologies that are now more accessible. This "State within the State" is asserting itself according to several characteristics: the control of a territory (South Lebanon), of inter-state relations (Syria and Iran), the control of civil life (social, educational and health), of military forces and operational control (armed and structured militia), all around a sacralization of its religious leaders. Acting in turn in the political, military and social spheres, it undeniably has a hybrid character. In the summer of 2006, it clearly demonstrated its ability to identify and target the vulnerabilities of the State of Israel, in particular by conducting a "techno-guerrilla warfare" and exceeding its capacity tos conventional combat capabilities (use of improvised explosive devices against the Merkava, fighters equipped with modern protection and night vision means, infrared signature reduction devices and reconnaissance by "Mirsad" drones). Its developed arsenal and adaptive capabilities have allowed it to evolve intelligently to maintain constant pressure on Israel [2]. By posing as the protector of an unjustly oppressed population, it has won the local support of the population and part of international public opinion. Moreover, the proven links with Iran and Syria have given this religious group an international dimension.

  • Mexico or the notion of "criminal insurgency" against a backdrop of transnational ramifications

There is no doubt that the multiple nature of the threats described above applies to the Mexican case. Anti-narcotics operations in Colombia and other areas of South and Central America have led to a displacement of criminal activity to Mexico, where many cartels have found a safe haven. The increase in such illicit activities has generated an estimated $19-29 billion in revenues, mostly focused on cross-border criminal activities with the United States [3]. With cartels fighting each other for control of territories on the one hand, and given the level of violence against the population and the authorities on the other, the threat is clearly at the confluence of crime, terrorism and insurgency. Local administrations, overwhelmed by the scale and violence of the phenomenon, have had to face pressure from these "criminal insurgents", eager to gain the upper hand over local jurisdictions (corruption, threats, etc.). Despite the 45,000 soldiers mobilized by President Calderon to fight this scourge, the toll is particularly heavy: 45,000 murders since December 2006, more than 3,600 kidnappings since 2009, and 120,000 people having fled their homes. Insecurity in Mexico has become a national problem and 50% of the territory and population are beyond the control of the government.

Why is it so difficult for Mexico, which is not a failed state, to respond to this threat? One element of reflection lies in the regional nature of Colombian criminal networks, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras and, of course, the United States, where a contagion of the phenomenon is to be feared. But another aspect of the threat is of concern to international actors: the links between the cartels and other international actors. Indeed, the connections of South American cartels with other non-state actors such as Hezbollah [4], or state actors such as Iran [5], have recently been uncovered. This aspect of the problem reveals all the complexity of the Mexican case: fighting an internal enemy, even though the latter can benefit from extensive support and channels for the development of trafficking, particularly because globalization has made it possible to increase financial flows. The sprawling nature of these networks and the hybridization of the enemy (a mixture of criminal and terrorist groups supported by third States) are particularly revealing of new types of threats, or even a transformation of war.

What are the impacts on armies?

  • Rediscovering the enemy: the relevance of the global approach

The emergence of hybrid threats is revolutionizing traditional ways of thinking while proving the proponents of the global approach right. Indeed, the broad spectrum of threats makes them difficult to predict and read, and countermeasures are complex to implement because they require the coordination of a wide variety of actors in many fields: economic, governance, rule of law... Threatanalysis must, moreover, consider the enemy as an organised system [6]. 6] One of the main lessons of the Afghan conflict was the need for cooperation between the civilian and military sectors and the establishment of better communication and mutual trust, especially between the different authorities. However, unity of effort, the only guarantee of success, ideally requires unity of command. The latter is often difficult to achieve because it is rejected by some actors, such as NGOs, who fear that their neutrality will be called into question. Ultimately, while the global approach is a possible response to counter hybrid threats, the variety of possible modes of action implies a convergence of views and the implementation of lines of operation encompassing all areas (security, political, economic, social, etc.). In carrying out his mission, tomorrow's military leader will, more than ever before, have to take account of these different aspects, be familiar with them and be able to integrate civilian and governmental actors in the planning of his actions. He will also have to be aware that he does not know everything, that a degree of uncertainty remains given the increasing complexity of the threats mentioned above, despite efforts to reduce the fog of war[7].

  • The necessary adaptation of the armed forces

Faced with an adversary with multiple modes of action, it is imperative to maintain our capacity to act in a very broad spectrum: high intensity combat, counter-insurgency, control of violence, while remaining ready to face terrorist, criminal or cyber-based actions. In other words, the flexibility and reversibility of our armed forces are essential to respond to an elusive and constantly adapting enemy. Armed forces' response to these new types of conflict must necessarily encompass many areas, such as the doctrinal corpus, training or education of forces, to Such as the initiatives taken by the Marine Corps to train its military leaders to "react to the unknown in a complex and hostile environment" [8]. 8] Success in dealing with hybrid threats also requires better intelligence and adaptation of our procedures, particularly during the planning phase. 9] Moreover, given the widespread use of technology, tomorrow's adversary will be able to operate with a level of sophistication that has not been seen before. The Afghan Taliban and its rudimentary means will be a distant memory: the insurgent of tomorrow will use jammers, drones and battlefield robots, while being supported and financed by criminal activities (kidnapping, trafficking) or third states. In this context, it will be necessary to maintain a significant technical lead, without falling into the illusion of technological supremacy[10]. 10] In this area, cooperation, or even mutualisation at the international level seems inevitable given the current budgetary context. Maintaining an efficient defence industry afloat, both at national and European level, is also essential to maintain this technological lead. Moreover, maintaining resources in degraded mode, which are less sophisticated but also less vulnerable, could make it possible to retain a form of resilience in the face of the threat of electronic attacks.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 revealed a complex reality: a situation straddling war and peace, in which technological supremacy is no longer a sufficient factor for success. Globalisation, the accessibility of technology and the permeability of borders have revealed the emergence of an enemy that is difficult to perceive and that uses multiple modes of action. This enemy has nothing to do with yesterday's traditional adversary, well-defined and operating according to a known doctrine. We should therefore review our interpretation of the enemy, in particular by continuing to develop systemic analysis and decision support tools[11]. 11] Taking into account the entire spectrum of threats also requires increased cooperation that goes beyond the framework of the armed forces, particularly in the field of intelligence. The gradual disappearance of borders as barriers to threats has increased the vulnerability of national territory. Efforts must therefore also be made to maintain a high level of flexibility and reversibility of the armed forces, while at the same time stepping up the development of appropriate modes of action.

In the light of these developments, a major challenge lies in anticipating these new threats in the medium and long term. For example, in 2009 the Atlantic Alliance published a major study on four possible future scenarios[12]:

  • the first of them, the dark side of exclusivity, describes a situation where the internal balance of nations and the international order itself are compromised by poorly controlled globalisation;
  • in the second, deceptive stability, demographic concerns capture the internal attention of states, making them vulnerable to geopolitical surprise;
  • the third scenario, the clash of modernity, imagines the continued globalization of an interconnected developed world, threatened at its margins by regimes that do not share its values;
  • finally, the new politics of power , with its emphasis on the emergence of new leading players, imagines the uncertain quest for a new international balance against a backdrop of competition for resources.

Such a model, based on the logical consequences of developments that are often already under way, must be considered in the light of the new international economic order.Such modelling, based on the logical consequences of developments that are often already underway, must be considered as a step towards the development of tools that are supposed to "respond to the broadest spectrum of future challenges" [13]. The Arab revolutions of 2011, a strategic surprise no less predictable a posteriori than that of 2001, show that these tools have not yet reached their threshold of effectiveness or are inadequate. The efforts of both states and international organizations should focus on this anticipatory function, which is a sine qua non for our ability to adapt to hybrid threats.

Indicative bibliography related to the article:

  • "NATO's strategic context up to 2030", by General Stéphane ABRIAL
  • "The Hybrid threat: crime, terrorism and Insurgency in Mexico", Center for Strategic Leadership (US ARMY WAR COLLEGE), Dec 2011
  • "Irregular warfare and hybrid threats," Joint Irregular Warfare Center...
  • Training Circular 7-100: Hybrid threat, US ARMY
  • "Conflict in the 21st Century: the rise of hybrid wars", Frank Hoffman, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

1] ACT (Allied Command Transformation) initiated the Countering Hybrid Threat (CHT) project.

2] Le Hezbollah face aux forces armées, cahier de la Recherche, CDEF, March 2009.

. La guerre de juillet, RETEX booklet, CDEF, Sept 2006

3] Source: Centre for Strategic Leadership (US ARMY WAR COLLEGE), Dec 2011

4] According to several experts, Hezbollah has forged a partnership with certain drug cartels in Mexico. The group would receive financial support and protection from the cartels in exchange for Hezbollah's expertise.

5] In October 2011, the American justice system arrested two Iranian nationals accused of the attempted assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The Iranians allegedly attempted to act through a group of Mexican drug traffickers.

6] As in theComprehensive Preparation of the Operational Environment(CPOE) phase,which initiates the NATO Planning Sequence (COPD),[6] the Iranian government has also been involved in the CPOE phase.

7] Especially in the field ofInformation Dominance.

8] In the United States, the Joint Irregular Warfare Center (JIWC) was created to respond to this doctrinal vacuum.

9] In 2011, a NATO conference met in Tallinn to study and develop a common civil-military approach to hybrid threats.

10] Since the Iraq war in 2003, many American strategists consider that the impact of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RAM) has been clearly overestimated (Ref: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies).

11] Notably through operational research type tools.

12] ACT: Multiple Futures Project: navigating towards 2030

[13] « NATO's strategic context to 2030", by General ABRIAL

Saint-cyrien of the promotion of "La France combattante" (1997-2000), Battalion Commander Cédric LE BIGOT served in the 785th Electronic Warfare Company, then in the 54th Signal Regiment. He then served as head of the electronic warfare operations centre and as a dealing officer within the G2 of the French Rapid Reaction Corps. After being a trainee of the 125th promotion of the higher staff course, he is currently attending the War School.

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Title : The Emergence of Hybrid Threats: Towards a Different Transformation of War?
Author (s) : le Chef de bataillon Cédric LE BIGOT
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