An important feature of the future security environment according to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will be something called “hybrid warfare.” This is the idea that states will use a variety of traditional and asymmetric tactics, techniques, and procedures including the use of surrogates in the event of a military confrontation with the West. Advocates of this vision also argue that what were once considered lesser threats — terrorists, insurgents, even criminal gangs — may now pose a greater danger due to their ability to access advanced weapons systems. Advocates of this idea point to Israel’s bungled 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. That terrorist group, backed by Syria and Iran, was able to employ a blend of conventional and unconventional tactics and weapons systems to fight the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill.
There is nothing new about hybrid warfare. Historically, most wars have demonstrated elements that are regular and irregular, symmetric and asymmetric. Saddam Hussein attempted to conduct a form of hybrid warfare. It is clear that he had plans in place before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom to employ paramilitary forces, the Fedayeen, as well as conduct an insurgency. In fact, he had a defense consisting of at least five layers: the regular army, the Republican Guard, the Fedayeen, the secret police and the insurgents. This was a natural way to exploit the variety of military formations and different security forces he had created largely to ensure control over the Iraqi people.
Nor are hybrid threats really the challenge that some in the administration — and now the QDR — want to make it out to be. Only a few states and not many non-state actors can really manage a successful hybrid warfare campaign. It is not easy for most of the world’s militaries to conduct even relatively simple conventional operations much less a complex hybrid strategy. It is equally difficult to take irregular forces much less terrorist groups and train them to effectively employ so-called high-end conventional capabilities. Hezbollah would not have been able to organize itself for hybrid warfare had it not had effective total control over southern Lebanon for years and the full aid and assistance of the radical regimes in Iran and Syria. The 2009 Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza was much more successful, in part because Hamas lacked access to the resources available to Hezbollah.
Moreover, a hybrid strategy is really only effective when those employing it are on the defense. Yes, in the event Israel or the United States were to come to blows, the regime in Teheran would exploit its control of Hezbollah and other radical groups to unleash attacks on its enemies. But Iran cannot defeat Israel nor dominate the Persian Gulf by means of a hybrid strategy. For that it would need a very competent conventional military which it lacks.
In fact, hybrid opponents are much more a political challenge than a military one. This is because of the difficulty Western security institutions, including those in the United States, have in dealing with non-traditional actors on the battlefield. Israel faced this problem in both 2006 and 2009. The Obama Administration has made this situation worse by its treatment of captured Al Qaeda terrorists as criminals rather than illegal combatants.
Ultimately, there are few states able to conduct hybrid wars and even fewer insurgent or terrorist groups able to “play this game.” In fact, were the Iranian axis to disappear so too would most of the world’s hybrid threat. The QDR would have been more useful if it had concentrated more attention on the threats posed by the Russian and Chinese militaries.
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