What is hybrid warfare?

“In Putin’s mind, America is the country that has been waging hybrid warfare, political warfare, irregular warfare, against Russia for decades.”

That line from a recent IWI episode buried itself into my head where it has been sitting ever since.

I only recently took the time to dig into defining irregular warfare, and that was a slog.

These terms get thrown around so cavalierly and while I can’t be certain, my sense is that most folks who are using them don’t exactly know what they’re saying.

So what is ‘hybrid warfare?’

The first place to start is always the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms – for which there is no definition.

Just because there isn’t a definition doesn’t mean it’s not real. Our doctrine could just be lagging behind the current reality.

Digging a little further, it becomes apparent that the biggest problem with hybrid warfare is the fact that no one can agree on what it is – or if it’s even anything at all.

There is a good article in SWJ from February that takes this on – ‘Hybrid Warfare: One Term, Many Meanings.’

Even better, after a bunch of senior defense officials began using the term in congressional testimony, there was a Government Accountability Office examination into the term (back in 2010!).

Check out the summary of their findings:

  • DOD has not officially defined “hybrid warfare” at this time and has no plans to do so because DOD does not consider it a new form of warfare.
  • DOD officials from the majority of organizations we visited agreed that “hybrid warfare” encompasses all elements of warfare across the spectrum. Therefore, to define hybrid warfare risks omitting key and unforeseen elements.
  • DOD officials use the term “hybrid” to describe the increasing complexity of conflict that will require a highly adaptable and resilient response from U.S. forces, and not to articulate a new form of warfare.
  • The term “hybrid” and hybrid-related concepts appear in DOD overarching strategic planning documents (e.g., 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report); however, “hybrid warfare” has not been incorporated into DOD doctrine.

I found myself feeling refreshed having read this. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much there when we use the term hybrid warfare.

As the report states, when people use the term, they are likely referring to the increasing complexity of modern warfare, as opposed to some new form of warfare that we are only now discovering.

If we really want to use the term, though, we might be able to say that hybrid warfare is a blending of traditional warfare (state-on-state conflict using traditional armies) and irregular warfare (state and non-state actors vying for legitimacy and influence over a population).

Maybe sprinkle in some ideas about criminals and you’ve got yourself a Venn diagram.

Now, all of this is looking at the concept of hybrid warfare from a Western perspective. That is, what does it mean for “us?” 

As I’ve gone further down this rabbit hole, there’s another detour that looks at how others define it. How do the Russians define hybrid warfare? Or the Chinese? Or the Iranians?

Another post for another day…


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