Hybrid warfare and centre of gravity by Dr Shireen M Mazari December 27, 2018

This year (2018), we heard the word ‘hybrid warfare’ ad nauseum within Pakistan and also in many Western strategic and leadership circles – as if this were a new discovery, a new type of warfare confronting states.

So those who in the course of normal democratic politics would have been regarded as mere critics of a state’s policies and actions were now, under the framework of ‘hybrid warfare’, often being seen as anti-state or even as threats to the state – and this seems to be the thinking evolving in many democratic states, both developed and developing.

What exactly is ‘hybrid warfare’? Google the term and one of the definitions that show up states: “Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that employs political warfare and blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyber warfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy, lawfare and foreign electoral intervention.” This seems to cover all aspects of this warfare but the question arises: is it really new?

Ever since warfare moved beyond a clash between two armies and the Clausewitzian concept of ‘Centre of Gravity’ – the point where if the enemy is successfully attacked it will collapse – became more complicated, it has involved more than just battles being fought between two conventional armies. Civilians have become part of the targeting by an enemy – especially with the emergence of the air force during World War I and the tactic of targeting population and industrial centres that followed. It was in World War II that air power really came into its own and we saw ‘carpet’ bombings of cities where clearly the targets were civilians and industrial centers. Effectively hybrid warfare came into existence when the battlefield expanded from direct militaries fighting each other to a more expansive war theater including civilians and industrial targeting. After all, ‘hybrid’ simply means a fusion or a mix.

As warfare evolved, so did strategic thinking. Perhaps one of the most relevant strategies that evolved as warfare gained a hybrid nature was Liddell Hart’s strategy of the Indirect Approach: “frontal assaults and massive showdowns are to be avoided; rather one should aim at the enemy’s line of least expectation”, and therefore least resistance. This strategy was especially critical to the concept of unconventional or guerrilla warfare.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, we actually saw the development of notions of counter-force and counter-value targeting – the former referring to the military and the latter referring to population and industrial centres. The late Robert McNamara, US defence secretary under Kennedy and Johnson, actually worked out what he thought would be acceptable and unacceptable damage for the Soviets in terms of counter-value losses, including civilians killed.

The cold war between the US bloc including Nato and the Soviet bloc including the Warsaw Pact really brought out the concept of Hybrid warfare in its multiple forms . From economic warfare to psy-ops to black propaganda to proxy wars, to political interventions in developing countries – everything was part of the cold war, except direct military confrontation between the two superpowers. As technology has altered qualitatively so has the scope of what was known as ‘cold war’ and is now referred to as ‘hybrid war’. US strategists enjoy evolving new terms for what is an old evolving concept. Since the cold war was associated with the capitalist-communist bipolar world, once that world died a different nomenclature for what is essentially a cold war had to evolve.

So we now have hybrid warfare being fought on multiple levels simultaneously, with Liddell Hart’s strategy of the Indirect Approach as an underlying principle. Be it the Russian role in the American elections or the hacking of government systems, especially defence organisations’ systems in different countries, or the use of INGOs to use aid as a means of disseminating an external narrative, or the use of non-state actors for proxy wars or low intensity conflicts – the list is endless – hybrid warfare has shifted the ‘centre of gravity’ notion. Terms like ‘operational’, ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ cannot be distinguished when focusing on the enemy’s centre of gravity. Instead, the concept has to now be within the context of viewing the enemy holistically. In fact, Clausewitz did not refer to differing levels – tactical or strategic – of centre of gravity but viewed this concept in an all-encompassing fashion.

By definition then, hybrid warfare requires a central focus on propaganda and a strong political narrative to accompany doctrine and strategy. After all, if the war is being fought on multiple levels with no formal declaration of a state of war; and if war is focusing on multiple layers of targeting; and if war is focused on civilians and centres of economic strength, then use of direct force is not the main tool. Instead, a critical component of hybrid warfare is the dissemination of a viable narrative – be it against terrorism, extremism, and for the rightness of one’s cause, peace, stability, justice or democracy.

It follows that ever since war moved into different hybrid forms, it really did become, in the words of George Clemenceau (French president during World War I), “too important to be left to the generals”. Especially in the context of nuclear weapons, where the non-military dimension of war becomes ever more relevant, civilian expertise and inputs into doctrines and strategy become extremely critical.

In our own region, we can see hybrid warfare becoming increasingly relevant especially after the checkmating of the Indian Cold Start Doctrine by Pakistan. There is a need for a strong national narrative as well but that narrative will gain coinage when there is unity of purpose. The nation has to be on the same page, especially the vulnerable and marginalised sections of the polity. This cannot be done by force but by persuasion – when everyone has a stake in the system. ‘Wrong’ narratives born of hatred are bred when societies become polarised and some segments feel marginalised or deprived of their rights. The answer lies in embracing diversity and dissent within the rule of law. Citizens cannot be whisked away with no trace; individuals cannot be denied their rights under opaque rules well hidden in bureaucratic ‘security’ double speak. Hybrid warfare by the enemy preys on the space that is created for it by a polarized state that has failed to strengthen itself by embracing its diversity.

Hybrid warfare is not new; the means of waging it have evolved and simply expanded into all dimensions of state and society. Hence, the compulsion to deal with hybrid warfare holistically. That is a task that goes beyond the mere military dimensions of war and beyond the scope of military decision-making. If we want to strengthen our hybrid warfare capabilities then we need to recognise the need to redefine war and strategy.

The centre of gravity of warfare has shifted; what is needed is a holistic shift in the centre of gravity of decision-making. Never was civilian supremacy more relevant in the conduct of war than it is in the context of hybrid warfare, including within the overarching nuclear framework. Clemenceau’s words have a chilling relevancy today.

The writer is the federal minister for human rights.
Twitter: @ShireenMazari1

The article was originally published in The News


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