Warfare of annihilation, where one side completely destroys their opponent’s army and occupies their territory essentially ended in 1945. Even the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not see the U.S. completely destroy the Iraqi army and government, one of the major psychological and military reasons the subsequent insurgency was able to take root. Modern sensibilities and aversion to casualties and destruction will also introduce a new element into the strategic and operational equation of warfare—time. Future combat, or at least periods of intense fighting, will be severely shortened in hybrid wars as the weaker side will likely appeal to sympathetic media outlets and international organizations to end the complete destruction of their forces at the hand of their better equipped foes by decrying collateral damage and civilian casualties. These media organizations, international bodies and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will practically become co-belligerents on the battlefield, wielding disproportionate influence on the operational and political outcome of the battle.
Operationally, hybrid warfare will present two significant challenges to conventional militaries. First, the weaker side does not need to achieve any major battlefield victories to achieve their political goals. As the case study on the 2006 Lebanon War will show, merely being able to fight and survive against the superior military allows the hybrid warrior to claim some measure of ‘victory’ even after suffering significant casualties.
Second, the weaker power is likely to operate in a loose network of fighters that will not present a significant target for conventional firepower. Moreover, the growing urbanization of many Third-world countries, combined with the deliberate decision to wage war in densely populated areas will make the operational and tactical problems more difficult for Western militaries. The USMC is already grappling with this issue in their discussion of a ‘three-block war,’ where Western military forces may be conducting assistance, security, and combat operations in close proximity and nearly simultaneously. Hybrid warriors will not be faced with his problem and will be singularly focused on inflicting casualties on their enemies.
Given the new nature of hybrid warfare and its close nexus of political, diplomatic and information influences on combat, what lessons should militaries such as Israel and the United States learn at the tactical and operational level?
• Hybrid warfare is already shaping not only how insurgents and non-state actors fight, but countries as well. Incorporating the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War, Iran has begun to completely reshape their strategy for dealing with a ground invasion by foreign forces that are assumed to be technologically superior, more mobile, and enjoy air superiority over the Iranian military, presumably the United States.
• Technology will not be a panacea, and in fact, may hinder the ability to defeat hybrid opponents. As both the U.S. and Israel learned, enemies like Hezbollah that cannot match Western firepower will simply neutralize that firepower politically by fighting from urban areas and concealing weapons and supplies in schools, homes, and mosques. Although there will be a continuing role for technology in warfare, particularly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools, hybrid warfare cannot be waged by airpower at 10,000 feet.
• Hybrid warfare must be waged beyond merely military considerations. Although tactical and operational capability is necessary, as all three case studies show, military action, diplomatic and political efforts, and information operations must be tightly woven into the “strategic narrative” that not only defeats the enemy militarily, but wins in the arena of public opinion. In hybrid warfare, the internet and television news are weapons no less than tanks and airplanes.
• The prospect of fighting hybrid warfare will require fundamental operational and tactical decisions for the U.S. military-particularly the Army and Marine Corps. Although the strategic level of war will remain basically unchanged, the balance between the light infantry/special operations forces component and the heavy armor/combined arms will create significant changes to future weapons systems acquisitions as the Army and Marine Corps decide on the types and numbers of tanks, mine-resistant vehicles, and other equipment needed to fight and win against an opponent armed with increasing numbers of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The future ground forces of the U.S. Army will very much be affected by hybrid warfare. The current debate on light versus heavy brigades, conventional versus COIN warfare, and which type of opponent the U.S. should be prepared to fight will have a significant long-term effect on not only force structure and procurement strategies, but training, doctrine and the overall concept of employing military force.
Hybrid warfare will present immense challenges to high-tech conventional militaries in the 21st century. How well the militaries and their political masters adapt to the new strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare will go a long way in determining how useful military power will be in the years to come.