Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 4  /  

Future Threats and Strategic Thinking

Future Threats and Strategic Thinking Future Threats and Strategic Thinking
To cite this article: Hoffman, Frank G., “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 4, Fall 2011, pages 17-21.

This article explores the strategic utility of the hybrid threat construct. The original exploration of hybrid threats was developed after 9/11 by Marines at Quantico, Virginia, to examine how the character of conflict was evolving. It was designed to update the mid-1990’s concept of “Chaos in the Littorals” and the prediction by General Charles C. Krulak that future wars would resemble the “Stepchild of Chechnya”, instead of more conventional Desert Storm-style campaigns. The official tasking was to define with some granularity just how the character of conflict was evolving, and what the implications of that evolution would be to the Marines at the operational and tactical level.

Overall, the hybrid threat construct serves a number of useful purposes. At the strategic level, its most significant value is to raise awareness of potential risks and opportunity costs presented by the various options in the ongoing threat/force posture debate in Europe and the United States.[i]

Defining a Hybrid Threat

A number of analysts have suggested that future conflict will be multi-modal or multi-variant rather than a simple black or white characterization of one form of warfare. These scholars, soldiers and analysts (including Mike Evans, Max Boot, John Arquilla, Colin Gray, William Nemeth of the Marine Corps, Generals Casey and Dempsey from the US Army, and CENTCOM’s General James Mattis) conclude that there will be more blurring and the blending of war forms in combinations of increasing frequency and lethality. This construct is most frequently described as “hybrid warfare.”

This concept builds upon other noteworthy conceptions about conflict including compound, combinational and 4GW theory.[ii] This theory does not contend that it is either original or historically unique, or that hybrid threats are ten feet tall. Quite the contrary, the historical hybrid threats case studies show that properly trained, conventional forces employing combined arms usually win: see for instance the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, Chechnya in the 1990s, and Hezbollah vs. the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). However, they also tend to do so with far greater losses than expected; and by applying techniques and firepower that are anathema to today’s casualty-sensitive Post-Heroic Warfare advocates and COIN proponents.[iii]

Hybrid threats incorporate a full-range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations; terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. In my interpretation, hybrid wars can be conducted by separate units or kinds of forces – or even by the same unit – but are generally operationally and tactically directed and coordinated simultaneously within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict.

My own definition emphasizes modes of conflict in terms of capabilities and tactics, and incorporates criminality, which many military cultures do not define as a mode of conflict. My interest is in the adversary’s doctrine or theory of victory, which must be understood. The U.S. Army, in its recent adoption of the term in its doctrine emphasizes the character of the forces (traditional combat forces, irregular forces and criminal elements) working together for mutual benefit. This definition emphasizes actors themselves, over their modes of operation. It also has a strong historical basis, and discounts the idea that a single force might be able to apply multiple modes.

This is not an abstract exercise. Given the looming global economic crisis and the need to carefully husband defense resources in the next decade, it is important that the senior policymakers and strategists grasp the numerous modes of warfare that we face and explore a broader spectrum of options. Western governments, especially the United States, must carefully invest very scarce resources, avoid strategic overstretch in risky adventure; and make difficult decisions about where to prudently balance risk in the future.[iv] In a perfect world, our military forces would be robustly sized and we would build distinctive forces for discernably different missions along the entire conflict spectrum. We would have separate counter-terrorism forces, a corps of trainers/advisors for foreign internal defense, a larger Special Operations Force, a force for protracted counterinsurgencies, highly-ready expeditionary forces, more robust homeland security means, a new cyber force with battalions of cyber warriors; and heavy conventional forces for those rare but existential interstate conflagrations.

In a perfect world, the training and equipping of these forces would be well matched to their expected operating environments and threats. But we do not live in such a world. In fact, we are preparing for a future of great uncertainty with fewer resources then previously held. The post-9/11 funding spigot is about to be turned off, forcing military establishments in general – and the Pentagon in particular – to rethink priorities and make hard calls. We no longer have the resources to simply buy everything and eliminate every risk (if we ever did). The time for thinking anew and acting strategically has arrived.[v]

Alternative Schools of Thinking

Propelled by the combined effect of a severe fiscal crisis and an impatient if not war weary populace, America’s post-Afghanistan strategy, budget and forces debate is in full throttle inside the Pentagon.[vi] This debate is informed not only by current conflicts, but by projections of future challenges. There are a variety of schools on how to address this force posture problem. Other nations may have the same choices or face unique options, but the following categories are relevant to the United States and its political culture and defence posture.

The Counterinsurgents

This school challenges the narrow orientation of traditionally-focused forces and argues for a transformation based on today’s fights. The advocates here believe that Iraq and Afghanistan represent far more than a passing blip in the evolution of conflict. They contend that massed formations comprised of traditional arms and large-scale conflict between conventional powers is not a realistic planning scenario or the focal point for shaping tomorrow’s military. They assess that the most likely challenges and greatest risks are posed by failing states, ungoverned territories, transnational threats and radical versions of Islam.

This school argues that irregular warfare is not only different and of greater priority, it cannot be successfully conducted by general purpose forces who only marginally prepare for it. Instead, they argue for a greater emphasis on ‘Wars Amongst the People’, and a force particularly shaped for sustained irregular warfare. The latest proponents of this school include Dr. Roy Godson from Georgetown and Richard Schultz from the Fletcher School, Tufts University.[vii] They assert that OSD is failing to plan for the most likely scenarios and committing a serious strategic error.

The Counterinsurgent school focuses on today’s fights and what could be tomorrow’s, but fails to acknowledge the sub-optimal importance of today’s conflicts in global strategic terms. Under their advice, the U.S. military could markedly improve readiness for stability operations and COIN tasks by improving individual cultural and language skills, small unit tactics and training/advisory missions. Yet at the same time, this focus would leave the United States less prepared for rare but demanding conventional or higher end conflicts. It would also leave the force sub-optimally ready for hybrid threats that would severely maul light forces unprepared for the ferocity of hybrid scenarios in failed state scenarios with large urban centers.

The Traditionalists

The Traditionalists sit at the opposing end of the spectrum of conflict. This school seeks to re-establish the conventional focus of the armed forces on “fighting and winning the Nation’s wars.” They focus on major, high-intensity interstate wars. They advocate against reorienting forces – especially ground forces – away from this conventional focus, viewing it as a distraction inconsistent with American culture, interests and requirements.

Traditionalists want to retain the Pentagon’s current procurement profile and its emphasis on “the Big Guns” for a future they predict will be conventional in nature, and for which a large military is strategically necessary.[viii]

This camp wishes to preserve today’s competitive advantages in large-scale conflicts, and avoids entanglements in messy protracted stability operations. They focus on traditional large-scale wars against nation states and abhor messy, ambiguous conflicts that do not fit the proverbial American Way of War. This school would concur with a key assessment in Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment that concludes “Competition and conflict among conventional powers will continue to be the primary strategic and operational context for the Joint Force over the next 25 years.”[ix] Clearly, this debate is inherently mixed with the strategic lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. To the Traditionalists our experiences in Iraq suggest that protracted COIN missions are not just expensive and manpower intensive: they are in fact an astrategic waste of resources that neither serve U.S. interests. Nor do they match up well with U.S. culture or priorities. Scholars, especially Professor Colin S. Gray, conclude that global security is better served by the United States serving as a Reluctant Sheriff focused on the preservation of the international system.

Utility Infielders

The third school, most prevalent among American ground force commanders, is the Utility Infielder school. This school recognizes the need to adequately deal with both strictly conventional tasks and irregular threats. Proponents seek to cover just about the entire spectrum of conflict, and avoid the risk of being optimized at either extreme. Flexibility and adaptability are the watch words for this approach, which manages risk across the range of military operations by investing in quality forces, educating its officers for complex problems and employing tough training programs.

The Utility Infielders school is officially represented in the Army’s new doctrinal manual FM 3-0, which declares that “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that must be given priority comparable to that of combat (offensive and defensive) operations.” This school is similarly reflected in the Marine Corps’ long-range vision and that extols the versatility of “multi-capable” Marine Air Ground Task Forces across the full range of military operations.[x]

The difficulty of this approach is the extensive risk being taken with the initial readiness of ground forces for so many tasks. Some challenge the ability of ground forces to execute Full Spectrum Operations with a general purpose force, given the widely varied conditions that the force might face. Additionally, this posture may assume that force size and resources will remain high, which is questionable.

Division of Labor

Finally, there are strategists and analysts who reject the fundamental premise of the Utility Infielders school. They argue that irregular and conventional warfare are markedly different modes of conflict that require distinctive forces with different training, equipment and force designs. They worry that too wide a range of skills will dilute readiness – especially for ground forces – and produce “jacks of all trades, masters of none.” As this school prioritizes, divides, and specializes roles and missions between the Services, it can be labeled the “division of labor” option.

A RAND study has recommended that the Pentagon consider focusing a much larger proportion of U.S. ground forces on stability operations, and “accept the risk of shifting some of the burden for deterring and defeating large-scale aggression to air and naval forces.”[xi] This study rationalizes roles and missions, and offers a means of guiding future defence investments. Its conclusion is that the most plausible regional wars that U.S. forces might be called on to fight — involving Iran, China (over Taiwan), and North Korea — call for heavy commitments of air and naval forces and fewer U.S. ground forces.

The Division of Labor school offers dedicated and separate forces or Services for discrete missions. Ground force investment would be reduced in this option, since ground forces are required principally for stability functions and one possible warfighting scenario. This approach exposes the United States to some risk, as U.S. forces would lack of depth/capacity for long-duration scenarios requiring ground forces prepared for combat conditions. As the specific options described above represent the two extremes of the conflict spectrum, this posture option produces forces sub-optimized for hybrid threats. This of course presents risks. The degree of risk depends on one’s assessment of the prevalence of stability operations, protracted or sharp clashes against hybrids, or major conventional operations.

This school realizes that the Services do not have to receive fixed shares of the budget, or that each Service plays equally in all modes of war. However, a critical strategic question is whether U.S. force planners agree with the Division of Labor’s strategic assumptions about the character of future conflict, and whether or not its emphasis on precision attack and missiles offers a decisive solution in future contests.

Assessment – A Question of Risk

Which school of thinking dominates the debate today? How should we think about these schools and assess them? Perhaps the best way would be to approach each in terms of what the American Joint Staff calls “operational risk.” Operational risk is a function of the combination of the frequency or probability of an event occurring — and its consequences. This risk is represented by the greater intensity of conflict and the greater frequency of occurrence, compared to the required resource commitment — or demand. (See Figure 1 below)

Part of the underlying argument about hybrid threats is the conclusion that the frequency of conflict will be increased, as well as its lethality, as non-state actors acquire the kind of capabilities previously monopolized by states. As presented in Figure 1, the convergence of the fervor and fanaticism of so-called irregular threats with the increased killing power of conventional capabilities combine to create demand scenarios in the middle of the conflict spectrum. Joint expeditionary forces will thus have to respond to this demand. This would seem to indicate that the character of these threats and attendant Western interests will require robust ground forces in order to achieve order and assigned political objectives.

Yet this approach is in direct contrast to the approach taken in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), where the US Department of Defence suggests diverging threats and at the lower and upper end of the spectrum. This reflects the underlying strategy emphasis on preventive efforts: such as building up partnership capacity via security force assistance at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, and the rise of High-End Asymmetric Threats (HEAT) at the other end. The HEAT construct offers justification for intensive investments in cyber warfare, missile defence, and prompt global strike assets by the U.S. military. This perspective reflects a growing consensus in the U.S. policy community, which notes significant increases in capabilities posed by possible Asian challengers.


Figure 1

Figure 1

Viewed through the lens of the major force design schools in the United States, these threat/scenario options present radically different risks and priorities. The “Counterinsurgent” school believes that threats are predominately irregular at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, and they would argue against the HEAT perspective and the investment in air and naval forces over ground forces adapted for persistent insurgencies. The Utility Infielders would also reject the HEAT perspective to a degree, but particularly find the Division of Labor argument risky, as they perceive the current era as one of persistent conflict with the potential for extensive applications of ground forces.

Clearly, a “Full Spectrum” option, by hedging against a wide array of scenarios and threats, begins to appear attractive in this formulation. If ground forces were particularly postured for hybrid threats (in terms of force protection and preparation for complex urban contingencies) the Full Spectrum school holds particular merit over the other investment and readiness options.

The Division of Labor school also reflects a divergence of threats into high and low-intensity scenarios, and favors investment in the technology and capital-intensive combat arms, especially air and space power. Yet if one accepts the rising salience and prevalence of the hybrid threat construct, the Division of Labor school offers the starkest options and the greatest risks. If, however, one needs to ensure that emerging challengers do not leap ahead of the United States in new technological areas such as cyberwarfare, the Division of Labor school has key points. This school offers the most strategic orientation, attempting to create priorities and hard tradeoffs, but its reliance on technological solutions and airpower could be contested.[xii]

As Colin Gray has frequently reminded us, strategic force planning has two cardinal rules: prudence and adaptability. Viewed through the lens of the hybrid threat construct, the Full Spectrum Operations school postures forces prudently for likely and messy challenges of the 21st century. However, the costs of sustaining large ground forces — which I define in today’s terms a force of about 18 U.S. Army and Guard divisions and 4 Marine divisions — and providing them the necessary training time and equipment to be proficient across the full spectrum of conflict is a daunting challenge.

At the end of the day, this is about war and its chameleon-like character. Over the long term, I would contend we must maintain the ability to wage successful campaigns against both large conventionally-armed states and their militaries and against widely dispersed terrorists — and against everything in between. Advocates of the rising salience of hybrid threats suggest that we will see more of the multi-modal approach rather than classical armed rebellions or HEAT cases. I concur with that view and the conclusion that the hybrid threat is a good focal point for designing/training expeditionary forces for the 21st century. This focal point is especially relevant for our ground forces, as it will minimize risks and maximize readiness demands within constrained resources. It also serves as a valuable justification for SOF forces, which are critical to reducing the hybrid threat’s command networks and key leadership infrastructure.

Figure 2


Figure 2


Strategy is about making choices and creating coherence between policy ends, ways and means. Making wise choices require us to think prudently about the future and the past. Policy makers and strategists need to define their assumptions about frequency, consequences, and risk far more carefully and analytically. Since we have fewer resources available, these decisions will pose more critical distinctions and possibly greater risk for our societies without analytical rigor. The hybrid threat construct, and its theoretical adversary doctrine, suggests that the choices are more complicated than some schools of thought are considering. The choice is not simply one of preparing for long-term Stability Operations or high-intensity conflict. We must be able to do both and do them simultaneously against enemies far more ruthless than today’s, as predicted more than 15 years ago by General Krulak.

Accordingly, force planners must be smart about future decisions regarding force design and lean towards agile, rigorously trained, multi-purpose forces capable of being adaptive in approach to the unique conditions each conflict poses. This posture is best suited for the increased risk produced by the convergence in the battlespace (See Figure 1 above), a battlespace that will entail intimate contact with both adversaries and noncombatants. Thus, with respect to ground forces, this author is in the Utility Infielders camp. Some degree of specialization might be necessary. Some forces should be postured for just one end of the spectrum or the other. Surely we need some training and advisors, just as much as we need the vaunted F-22 to slice through the defences of a modern anti-access system.

Yet the cardinal principles of prudence and adaptability strongly suggest that Western military forces that must deploy globally for expeditionary missions should be postured for the greater lethality and complexity of hybrid threats in urban terrain and complex operating environments in order to be successful.[xiii]



[i] This article builds on an earlier effort presented at a Joint Forces Command-sponsored conference conducted by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Fort McNair, Washington, DC in 2009. See Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict,” Strategic Forum 240. April 2009.
[ii] Thomas Huber, ed., Compound Wars: The Fatal Knot, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff College, 1996; T. X. Hammes, “Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves Into a Fourth Generation,” Strategic Forum No. 214, January, 2005.
[iii] The Viet Minh against France might be the exception.
[iv] Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, “The Defense Inheritance: Challenges and Choices for the Next Pentagon Team,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2008.
[v] For additional insights, see Michael Aaronson, Sverre Diessen, Yves de Kermabon and Mary Beth Long, “NATO Countering the Hybrid Threat,” Prism, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2011 (forthcoming).
[vi] An example of the debate can be found in Dr. John A. Nagl, “Let’s Win the Wars We’re In,” Joint Force Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2009, pp. 20-33; Gian Gentile, “Let’s Build An Army to Win All Wars,” Joint Force Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2009, pp. 20-33.
[vii] Roy Godson and Richard Schultz,”Pentagon Fails to Plan for Most Likely Scenarios,” Joint Force Quarterly, Oct. 2010.
[viii] Retired Major General Charles A. Dunlap, “We Still Need the Big Guns,” New York Times, Jan 9, 2008 accessed at
[ix] James N. Mattis, Joint Operating Environment, Norfolk, VA: U.S. Joint Forces Command, Dec. 2008, p. 23.
[x] James Conway, Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, Quantico. VA, June 2008.
[xi] Andrew R. Hoehn, et al, A New Division of Labor: Meeting America’s Security Challenges Beyond Iraq, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007, p. 75.
[xii] Martin van Creveld, “The Rise and Fall of Air Power,” RUSI Journal, June/July 2011, Vol. 156, No. 3, pp. 48-55.
[xiii] I am indebted to Professor Colin Gray on this point.