“Hybrid War” Throwdown (Updated)

Analyst Russell Glenn says the "Hybrid War" concept is not a useful addition to the discussion on future doctrine and should be relegated to a mere subset of irregular warfare. Frank Hoffman, who has written exensively on hybrid war, says Glenn has it all wrong, that hybrid war is a vital concept for understanding future enemies and the military ignores it at their peril.

RAND’s Russell Glenn, formerly with RAND, posted an article to the Small Wars Journal web site this week, titled “Thoughts on Hybrid Conflict,” questioning the utility of hybrid warfare as an intellectual construct. Glenn contends that while the term “hybrid conflict” may accurately describe certain modes of fighting at the tactical level, it should be thought of as a subset of irregular warfare, rather than a new operating concept or introduced into formal doctrine.

Frank Hoffman, the intellectual godfather of hybrid war, wrote a response on the same site, saying Glenn gets it wrong. Hybrid war is not, and was never intended to be, an operating concept, but rather is a way to conceptualize a new threat and mode of warfare and as such is intended to break the military community out of its too rigid and binary approach to thinking about either conventional or irregular warfare.

The potential impact both Glenn and Hoffman have on future force structure, organization, doctrine and strategy elevate this debate well above that of an interesting intellectual exercise. Glenn works for Gen. James Mattis at Joint Forces Command, specifically in the new Joint Irregular Warfare Center. Hoffman advises the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and his hybrid war concept has been publicly embraced by SecDef Gates and Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mullen as a way to think about future threats.

DoD Buzz readers should be familiar with the term hybrid war, as I’ve written about it a few times. Hybrid wars feature a blending of guerrilla and conventional war. Guerrilla wars feature elusive adversaries that blend into local populations, prefer hit-and-run ambushes to stand-up fights, sniper attacks, roadside and random car bombs, and battle to sway the local populace into their camp, or at least not the government’s camp. The guerrilla has a very long time horizon, hoping to wear down counterinsurgents and the populace by maintaining a demoralizing level of violence and instability kept at a low simmer for many years. The war in Iraq from summer 2003 to spring 2008 is a good example.

Conventional wars feature big battles between nation states, with armies organized along the hierarchical and rigid lines established way back in the Napoleonic era and largely unchanged since. Massing formations and fire, or maneuvering to a condition to enable superiority of fire, is considered the primary operational challenge. It is largely a war of machines operated by a crew of soldiers – tanks, artillery, helicopters, aircraft – as the weapons of conventional war, driven by the requirement for machines to kill other machines, are too heavy and cumbersome to be moved about by the individual.

Hybrid enemies take the most lethal and innovative features of each mode of fighting and adapt those for the modern battlefield to produce enhanced lethality and survivability. It is an adaptation of organization and tactics to counter traditional, conventionally organized and equipped armies. The most successful practitioners of the hybrid mode of fighting, the Chechens in Grozny mid-1990s and Hezbollah in South Lebanon 2006, went to school against their opponents and adapted their organization and tactics to exploit visible weaknesses. Organized into small fire teams, fighting dispersed, hybrid opponents are empowered by readily available, advanced weaponry, specifically, fire-and-forget, precision guided munitions, that give the individual soldier a readily portable weapon that can destroy the most heavily armored machine.

I spoke with Glenn some weeks back and his big concern is that we’re adding far too many new terms or concepts to the defense debate that do more to confuse and complicate rather than clarify. He had just returned from a conference in Israel where Israeli military officials said that the IDF’s failure in Lebanon in 2006 was attributable to an “intellectual virus” that had infected Israeli doctrine, passed along by the contagious American defense establishment. Much of their ire was directed at “Effects Based Operations,” a rather cloudy, airpower centric operating concept, considered by many as little more than an attempt to put a modern face on the tired Douhet-theory that airpower vanquishes all. Glenn, and Mattis at JFCOM, perform a valuable service by stripping away some of the more absurd concepts, such as EBO and Rapid Decisive Operations, that have entered the lexicon in recent years, and instead get back to basics when it comes to doctrine.

Glenn attributes the IDF’s failure in 2006 more to poor leadership and a strikingly unimaginative use of available forces than Hezbollah’s tactical innovation or unique way of fighting. “Hybrid warfare may not merit adoption as a doctrinal concept even if it proves sufficiently unique were Hezbollah’s success due more to Israel’s difficulties than its adversary’s performance,” he writes. From a doctrinal perspective, hybrid threats “seem at best a subset of irregular warfare.”

We’ll set aside whether the IDF’s rough handling by Hezbollah in 2006 was a result of their failures or Hezbollah’s ingenuity. I think where Glenn has it wrong is tucking hybrid threats under the irregular warfare category. Irregular warfare, as defined by DOD, is waged for the votes of the local populace. He broadens the hybrid war term to encompass more than either Hoffman or other proponents, such as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), so that it includes conflict at all levels using all elements of national power in a contest for the will of the people, more akin to the definition of counterinsurgency war.

But hybrid war is not armed nation building. The value of hybrid war or identification of hybrid threats is as a way of conceptualizing future opponents. It is not an operating concept, akin to EBO. It is a definition of new modes of warfare. While these new modes of fighting might have appeared in past wars as armies adapted to the opponent or terrain, with groups such as Hezbollah, the modes are a starting point, rather than a battlefield expediency.

Hoffman writes in his rejoinder that institutional biases and devotion to traditional modes of fighting have cost the military dearly over the past 7 years; too much of the defense establishment still fails to grasp the ever evolving character of war. The current model of irregular warfare, Hoffman writes, is little more than classic counterinsurgency warfare thinking restated and does a poor job of capturing the complexity of emerging challenges. If the Israelis had better understood the unique threat posed by Hezbollah, perhaps they would have better prepared and developed a better approach at the tactical and operational levels.

There is a vast difference between the threat U.S. troops faced while on patrol in the streets of Baghdad 2003-2007 and groups such as Hezbollah, the Chechens, or some of the insurgent outfits operating in Afghanistan. These hybrid threats are better armed, more lethal, and much more willing to slug it out in close battle, even if their opponent brings heavy armor to the fight. “It’s important that we properly frame our understanding of the future on a clear idea of what the enemy is doing, rather than simply “bin” a range of threats into a false, shallow “Conventional vs. Irregular” boxes,” Hoffman writes. “Hybrid threats, again, are the problem, not an operating concept that presents a solution.”

Hoffman provides a quote from Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasarallagh, “The resistance withstood the attack and fought back. It did not wage guerrilla war either… it was not a regular army but was not a guerrilla in the traditional sense either. It was something in between. This is the new model.”

I’m convinced this “New Model Army” is going to be encountered with more frequency on the world’s battlefields. The U.S. military would do well to study this new and adaptive threat and prepare accordingly.

Update: Over at the Small Wars Journal web site, retired Gen. Paul Van Riper is the latest to weigh in on the discusison over hybrid wars, arguing for maintaining a purity of terminology, as laid down by Clausewitz some three centuries ago.