To Counter Hybrid Threats, U.S. Must Redefine Conception of Warfare

The United States perceives warfare in a fundamentally different way than its adversaries—that needs to change.

The status of U.S.-Russia relations is often explained by commentators as a “second Cold War.” This, however, is a misstatement. The Soviet Union and the United States were nowhere near as interconnected as Russia and the U.S. today. Even despite Western sanctions, Russia remains deeply integrated into the global trading, financial, and political systems—and it has exploited them.

American (and European) institutions, civil society, and social discourse—at all levels—have been caught almost entirely off-guard by the Kremlin’s strategic exploitation of a rigid military taxonomy.

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Failure to accurately conceptualize war threatens national security and risks destabilizing the rules-based global order. Changing the perception that cyber and traditional warfare are distinct—or even mutually exclusive—entities is a prime example of a necessary step forward.

21st Century Wars Are Fought in all Domains

U.S. leaders have struggled to conceptualize asymmetric measures of influence-projection,  like the Russian concept of nonlinear warfare. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, Russian military planners recognized that—a considerable nuclear arsenal notwithstanding—Russia’s conventional forces would have no means of matching NATO in terms of conventional force parity.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the U.S. military underwent a restructuring based on its experience fighting mostly insurgents and other non-state actors in the Middle East. Meanwhile, an increasingly emboldened Russia embarked an multi-domain campaign to counter what it perceives as the threat of NATO encirclement.

First and foremost, the U.S. must restructure the civilian and military components of its national security apparatus. Accordingly, the core notions of national security and warfare as legal, practical, and existential concepts that have been maintained for over seven decades are no longer applicable. Policymakers and strategists must regard warfare in an entirely new light.

Western military strategists over-rely on a rigid structure of categories or taxonomies in their effort to build a useful model for various types of conflict. Cyber operations have been treated as a distinct domain—a domain of lower strategic importance than warfare in the traditional sense.

Changing the perception that cyber and traditional warfare are distinct entities is a prime example of a necessary step forward.

In contrast—to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests—adversarial powers have learned to rely on a nuanced mixture of conventional forces, cyber warfare, and the dissemination of strategic communications (propaganda) through traditional, digital, and social media outlets to deliberately sow confusion and dissent within a target territory or state.

Agile Warfare

With a perpetual “innovation-cycle,” Russian nonlinear tactics are strikingly similar to the Agile development methodology used by engineering teams in the technology sector.

The iterative cycle of establishing a hypothesis, experimentation (also known as a/b testing), analysis, and iterative review, repeated endlessly, has been a remarkably efficient way of creating disorder.

Such chaos makes it difficult for dissenters both outside and inside the country to effectively mobilize their compatriots, overloading social media and data streams with information and traffic from botnets and trolls.

The Age of Nonlinear Combat

Nonlinear warfare has been described by some “the Gerasimov doctrine”—following the publication of an essay by General Valeriy Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff —this is a misnomer. In contemporary parlance, nonlinear warfare is synonymous with hybrid warfare. The U.S. Department of Defense uses the term “hybrid threat.”

The notion of hybrid or nonlinear warfare is also incorrectly associated with the concept of asymmetric warfare, which originated following the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the insurgencies that arose in the aftermath.

The U.S. had limited experience with long-term combat against non-state actors and lengthy counter-insurgency campaigns prior to the 2001 and 2003 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. The term asymmetric warfare was used to define this new paradigm.

However, the system of classification has, yet again, proved to be the United States’ achilles heel. Without a doubt, the United States possesses insurmountable conventional military strength and continues to pose an undoubtedly credible threat of mutually assured destruction through its strategic nuclear arsenal.

Both Russia and China realized early that technological advancements in the fields of information technology and population or market research and analysis could be effectively weaponized and integrated into a multichannel offensive military strategy that would have far-reaching advantages when it came to confrontations with the less-agile policies pursued by U.S. military planners.

Moscow’s success stems from its total or “all-in” conception of war. The Kremlin has been heavily investing in modernizing its outdated soviet-equipped military. This model depends on the blurring of lines between state and non-state actors, alliances and adversaries; even war and peace.

Starting in 2008, Russian special and conventional forces were assisted by political subversion, information warfare, and other active measures in simultaneous and complementary assault on Georgian infrastructure and territory. As a result, the Georgian state was paralyzed and unable to act to prevent the de-facto secession of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) in Crimea, Ukraine in 2014. Labeled “little green men” by Ukrainians, they lacked any identifying insignia which provided Moscow with a degree of plausible deniability.

A similar scenario occurred in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, with an executed apparatus of plausible deniability using information warfare, insurgent funding, and economic warfare to utilize proxy “local actors” to achieve individual goals. In the Crimean campaign, Russia’s non-kinetic operations—information, economic, and cyber attacks—laid the groundwork for a complementary military operation.

Nonlinear Thought and Military Planning

Linear thinking has long-dominated military planning and has dominated Western military strategy until the end of the twentieth century. In a linear thought model, a strategy is laid out through detailed planning, established processes, step by step detail management tips, and stakeholder expectations.

To combat foreign influence operations, all levels of the private and public sectors must develop and implement strategic plans to protect intellectual property, secure sensitive information, and deter acts of aggression. This requires a substantial degree of nonlinear thought. Nonlinear thought is less constrictive than linear thinking. A nonlinear combatant employs a range of tactics and measures across domains to gauge what is effective and what isn’t.

The ability to project force through a multitude of mediums is tantamount to U.S. national security interests—particularly if those means are utilized by a foreign adversary to subvert or threaten the interests of the United States.

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