Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 2  /  

Why Hybrid Warfare is Tactics Not Strategy: A Rejoinder to “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking”

Why Hybrid Warfare is Tactics Not Strategy:  A Rejoinder to “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking” Why Hybrid Warfare is Tactics Not Strategy:  A Rejoinder to “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking”
To cite this article: Cox, Dan G., Bruscino, Thomas & Ryan, Alex, “Why Hybrid Warfare is Tactics Not Strategy: A Rejoinder to ‘Future Threats and Strategic Thinking’”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012, pages 25-29.


The Fall 2011 issue of Infinity Journal included an article called “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking,” which argued that the construct of “hybrid threats” is particularly useful for how the United States military prepares to fight in the future. We find it all-too-typical that an article about “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking” be associated with a concept like hybrid threats, because contemporary discussions of future warfare and strategy are littered with unclear, incomplete, or just plain bad ideas. The concept of hybrid threats (or hybrid warfare), as defined by its main proponents, is indeed unclear, incomplete, and often unhelpful. The concept is not unique in this regard, so while this article critiques the concept of hybrid threat, we see this specific idea as a telling individual case of a larger problem of muddled thinking about future warfare and strategic thinking.

To be clear, however, the proponents of hybrid threats make an important point. As American forces in the Middle East draw down, the budget wars within the beltway are heating up. The United States military does indeed need to think very hard about prioritizing resources for future contingencies, an essential task of strategic thinking. Funding priorities are determined in part on the basis of anticipated future threats, and so it is important that we get the threat right. That said, trendy concepts like hybrid threats might sound promising, but their conceptual weaknesses serve as an impediment to clear and productive strategy making. What we propose is that the hybrid warfare concept really comes down to a focus on tactics and techniques which is not a useful construct to guide policy and strategy makers.

Why Hybrid Warfare Does Not Make Sense

Frank G. Hoffman has been the most vocal proponent of the hybrid threats concept, introduced in his oft-cited 2007 monograph, and followed up by a series of writings of which the Infinity Journal essay is only the latest.[i] Hoffman has been joined by others, including Colin Gray, Max Boot, and John McCuen[ii], who maintain in Hoffman’s words “that future conflict will be multi-modal or multi-variant rather than a simple black or white characterization of one form of warfare.”[iii] Margaret Bond extends this notion by arguing that hybrid warfare is the paradigm for all future stability operations.[iv] To clarify, Hoffman describes hybrid threats as incorporating:

…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. Hybrid Wars can be conducted by both state and a variety of non-state actors. These multi-modal activities can be conducted by separate units – or even by the same unit – but are generally operationally and tactically directed and coordinated within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict.[v]

Critics have questioned the utility of such a definition, in that it appears to be a repackaging of any number of older concepts that described an enemy or scenarios that switch between ways of fighting, including compound warfare, three block war,[vi] or fourth generation warfare.[vii] For example, the Vietnamese communists used conventional, guerrilla, terrorist, and criminal activities in their war against South Vietnam and the United States.

In reply, Hoffman and his compatriots have emphasized that what makes hybrid threats different is that they will be characterized by “more blurring and blending of war forms in combinations of increasing frequency and lethality.”[viii] In other words, these “multi-modal” or “multi-variant” hybrid threats would individually be able to apply multiple modes of war either all at once or at nearly the same time, and at high rates of lethality. In this line of thinking, the Vietnam example does not really apply because, supposedly, the North Vietnamese Army handled most of the conventional fighting, while the Vietcong acted as guerrillas. Therefore, hybrid threats proponents see the wars in Chechnya over the last two decades and the 2006 Israeli Lebanon campaign as examples or harbingers of this emerging way of warfare. (Hoffman also recently added the 2nd Anglo Boer War as another example, which is hard to square with an emerging concept).[ix]

We see two related problems with this line of thinking. The first is that, despite some protestations to the contrary, hybrid threats imagine an enemy of nearly mystical powers. The second is that hybrid warfare is almost entirely tactically focused in its analysis and prescriptions.

As should be clear already, the thinking about hybrid threats is convoluted by its speculative nature. It imagines a threat that can only loosely be identified with any concrete examples. Hoffman argues, “[p]olicy makers and strategists need to define their assumptions about frequency, consequences, and risk far more carefully and analytically.”[x] Yet the hybrid threat construct applies a flawed logic of induction to predict future threats. In fact, the concept is induced and assumed from an exceedingly narrow selection of historical wars, many of which are oversimplified to fit the hybrid model. The problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to find anyone, ever, who could do all that the hybrid threats concept prescribes.

By arguing that individual units (or even separate but aligned units) can somehow simultaneously (or easily and quickly) switch back and forth between conventional, irregular, and criminal activities elevates the enemy to mystical status. One comes away with the image of a single hybrid warrior simultaneously targeting and firing artillery, setting an ambush with an IED, hiding among the population to which he is selling drugs and setting up protection rackets, developing and deploying biological and/or nuclear weapons, and hacking into the Pentagon mainframe to insert a computer virus, all while conducting an interview on Al Jazeera specifically targeted to destroy morale among the civilian population in the American heartland.

We exaggerate in this hypo-ethical, but only a little. In order to execute all of their supposed tasks simultaneously or in close sequence, any hybrid threat would have to be highly proficient in a wide variety of modes of warfare, an idea that strains the bounds of reality. When one views the problem from the perspective of those groups or individuals who might adopt the hybrid model, the fallacy of a hybrid warrior becomes clear. The entire reason they fight in different ways is because they cannot match the conventional and irregular capabilities of the United States.[xi] They have to look for different ways to defeat superior American capabilities specifically because they do not have the wherewithal of the United States. Because of cultural impediments and highly restrictive materiel backing, they only have limited capabilities and time for training. For that reason, their efforts tend toward economy of force. They go for austerity, not complexity. If they could prepare troops simultaneously to engage in conventional, guerrilla, terrorist, and criminal activities, they would not have to use suicide bombers. More to the point, they would not dream of wasting such highly trained troops on suicide missions.

Even at the height of American economic doldrums, the American government invested almost as many resources into the doctrine, training, education, equipping, and development of our military as the rest of the world combined. An oil tanker’s worth of ink has been spilled on the question of how many instructional hours in professional military education are enough to prepare lifelong professional officers to be capable of doing counter-guerilla war, while not sacrificing the basic capability to call in a time on target artillery mission. Yet we are supposed to believe that Hezbollah, with a vastly smaller resource base, has somehow developed comparable skill-sets in every poor sap they have scraped off the street and run through their training program? That must be some annex class they are running at Beirut Terrorist Technical College.

Even more important, if we did face an enemy of such impressive powers, then we would see that the logical solution to such a problem leads in the exact opposite direction that hybrid warfare proponents suggest. If one enemy soldier or one enemy unit could really undertake all of the things hybrid theory says they can do, then the clear solution is not to try to match that skill set by becoming hybrid warriors of our own. The solution would be to become proficient at targeting and destroying those super soldiers or super units. If all that capability is located in one person or one unit, kill the person or unit, and one removes the awesome, multi-modal capabilities from the field of battle.

Hoffman seems to recognize this truth, which is why he writes that, “properly trained, conventional forces employing combined arms usually win.” However, he wishes this away, maintaining that conventional forces succeed with “far greater losses than expected” using historical techniques “that are anathema” in today’s casualty sensitive, population-centric counterinsurgency environment.[xii] This assertion is not backed by any evidence, and he does not elaborate, which is a telling omission in an article on strategic thinking about future threats. If well-trained conventional forces win against hybrid threats, but there are some other factors that complicate the winning, then we should at least entertain a discussion of those other factors before we dismiss winning tactics out of hand. That would be a strategic discussion. Which leads to the next point: most of the hybrid warfare literature is really about tactics, not strategy.

None of this is meant to underestimate potential enemies. Rather, the idea is to provide an accurate understanding of potential threats as part of an overall strategic picture. In that sense, there are deeper problems with the hybrid warfare/threats theory, which are revealed by an examination of its underlying assumptions. Hoffman reveals the flaw himself in his critique of how the U.S. Army has used the term “hybrid threats” in its doctrine, which he notes, “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.”[xiii] Hoffman argues that the modes are what really matter. But his focus on modalities of warfare is really just a focus on tactics and techniques—a mistake that would lead policy and strategy makers to focus on tactics and techniques, and as we have already pointed out, in unrealistic and ahistorical scenarios.

Hoffman’s overemphasis on the modes threats use begins to resemble a strategy of tactics. Colonel Gian Gentile has correctly observed that population-centric theorists took tactics that were developed to be used specifically as part of a strategy in Iraq in 2007-2008, and then argued that those tactics should be used in any even remotely similar circumstance. Since those tactics in Iraq served an explicit mission of armed nation- building, their application elsewhere would dictate that the mission was always armed nation building, regardless of the different strategic circumstances.[xiv] The hybrid warfare emphasis on matching and defeating modes is likewise tactically focused. Boiling war down to mixed modality threats focuses strategy squarely on tactics that potential enemies might employ. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of any enemy actually being able to be a hybrid threat in the way that Hoffman et al. described them, defeating a potential enemy’s tactical capabilities is only one part of strategic posturing. If the tactics employed to defeat supposed enemy tactics run counter to or unnecessarily complicate the purpose of the mission, then the tail is wagging the dog.

The fundamental problem with the hybrid warfare analysis is that it ignores the role of interaction in strategy. War “is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass… but always the collision of two living forces.”[xv] According to Clausewitz, interaction in war leads to extremes and divergence, not the convergence predicted by hybrid warfare. Interaction implies that there can be no good strategy without considering the reaction-counter-reaction dynamics of potential adversaries. The problem with arguing that the U.S. should prioritize resource allocation against hybrid threats because this minimizes risk (measured by the product of probability and magnitude of threat), is that the very act of resource allocation alters the probability of the threat. Enemies of the United States will always seek to attack our weaknesses rather than our strengths. If we focus scarce resources on countering hybrid threats, this immediately makes them less likely. The implication is that conflicts at the extremes become relatively more likely. Does the United States really want to be steering its enemies towards major combat operations and long, protracted insurgencies?

The weakness of the hybrid warfare model in addressing the entirety of the strategic context is perfectly evident in Hoffman’s assumptions and recommendations. As he writes, “In a perfect world, our military forces would be robustly sized and we would build distinctive forces for discernably (sic) different missions along the entire conflict spectrum.”[xvi] Yet Hoffman would have his perfect world: “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.”[xvii] Leaving aside the fact that the resources are not there to achieve such an ambitious agenda, apparently it needs pointing out that this is an odd definition of a perfect world. We do not imagine that war is going away anytime soon, but you do not have to be a starry-eyed utopian to believe that unconstrained military development is not particularly healthy for the American political system. As one American military thinker wrote over one hundred years ago “It is well for us to be familiar with the organization of the German forces, for example, and to understand their splendid system of recruitment and mobilization; but we can never hope for such in America, unless some great national catastrophe should befall to convince our people and their lawmakers of the necessity for them; which God forbid!”[xviii] The point is that strategic thinking must also account for more than the capabilities of the friendly force, it must account for the character of the friendly force. Who we are and why we fight is at least as important as how we fight.

Wars are fought by people; wars do not do not consist of just tactical systems squaring off against tactical systems. Proper strategic thinking must always keep that in mind. That is why the estimate of the situation—something professional militaries have been doing formally for over a century, and informally from time immemorial—includes mission, friendly forces, terrain, weather, technologies, and enemy. The estimate of just the enemy includes strength, intentions, morale, technologies, and tactical capabilities. Any strategic thinking should include, at a minimum, all of those factors. Hybrid warfare looks at just enemy tactical capabilities, disconnected from the enemy himself.

Worse still, concepts like hybrid threats actually get in the way of doing a full strategic estimate, because such concepts are confusing, incoherent, and ubiquitous. American doctrine writers and scholars have crammed so many pet theories into the military lexicon that no reasonable person who adheres to them could be expected to estimate anything anymore. The proliferation of unclear concepts such as hybrid warfare has made clear strategic thinking nearly impossible.

An Alternative Way to Look to the Future

Having roundly criticized hybrid warfare, we should emphasize those areas where we agree with Hoffman. We agree in the value of adaptability as an antidote to uncertainty and complexity. We agree that the simultaneous combination of means in novel combinations can produce surprising synergistic effects. We agree that the entrenched camps that have coalesced around the most likely (counterinsurgent) and most dangerous (major combat operations) future threats both provide an incomplete vision for future security strategy. We also find that the full spectrum operations concept is an unhappy compromise that tries to be strong everywhere and is therefore nowhere strong, and that resource constraints force difficult prioritization decisions that must be based on rational anticipation of future threats. We believe that black and white schemes for categorizing conflict create conceptual blind spots at the seams that will be exploited by an adaptive enemy. Our main disagreement is that a hybridized blend of those flawed categories of war does not provide a useful construct for strategic planning.

Hybrid warfare does not explain the history of war, nor is there compelling evidence that it predicts its future. Indeed, “hybrid warfare” is a misnomer, since it is not actually a type of warfare. A more accurate, but substantially less marketable label would be ‘convergent trends in tactics.’ Convergence is a trend that has been heralded before in other fields, notably information and communications technology. However, surely reality follows a more subtle and complex trajectory than a deterministic arc of convergence. As some boundaries blur and previously distinct categories merge, new boundaries are created and reinforced. Convergence and divergence coexist and coevolve. So too, modalities or tactics continually evolve and are recombined, but a strategy focused on means is a strategy of tactics. To prepare for the future of conflict, the concept of hybrid warfare is not required.

Current U.S. Army doctrine offers just one alternative example of how to look at future threats and strategic thinking. Hoffman is critical of the U. S. Army’s definition of hybrid threats in doctrine. Hoffman is correct in noting that recent U. S. Army doctrine uses hybrid threat to describe the character of forces (traditional, irregular, and criminal elements), and not simply modes of fighting.[xix] As should be evident by now, we agree that this more general approach is better than focusing on specific tactical capabilities. For example, in U.S. Army Doctrine Publication 3-0, Operations, hybrid threats are defined as “the diverse and dynamic combination of these forces, irregular forces, terrorist forces, criminal elements, or a combination of these forces and elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects.” Like Hoffman’s definition, ADP 3-0 agrees both state and non-state actors can present hybrid threats, and that emerging technologies and the employment of proxy forces blurs lines between threats that simplistic categorization schemes portray as distinct, ideal types of conflict. But unlike Hoffman, ADP 3-0 does not focus on hybrid threats as modes of tactics, nor does the manual focus solely on hybrid threats. The manual explicitly identifies non-state entities wielding weapons of mass destruction and coalitions of nation-states and ideological actors as potential threats.[xx]

Such a broad understanding of potential enemies might seem to push the military back into the trap of preparing to fight everything everywhere. But there is an essential difference in the new doctrine. Unified Land Operations, the operating concept in which Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 is based, emphasizes commanders and planners need to understand the character of the friendly force, and the character of the threat. Based on this perspective, the operating concept guides adaptive leaders and planners in developing operations that will not simply encompass a reaction to the threat but will leapfrog to seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative, thus helping set the conditions for favorable conflict resolution. By transcending specific tactics, this approach allows leaders to be proactive instead of reactive, because they are not focused solely on responding to specific enemy tactics.

When it comes to looking to the future, if you prepare military leaders to understand that potential enemies, collectively but not individually, have the potential of using multiple strategies and tactics, and that individually they may use some clever but not infinite combinations of strategies and tactics, then they will truly be prepared to face any future threat. The point is to prepare and enable our forces to fight and win wars, not give them bogeymen to chase into the night.


[i] Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington, Virginia, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007).
[ii] Frank Hoffman references Colin Gray and Max Boot as asserting there will be a multi-modal or multi-variant trend in future conflict. John McCuen also argued this in “Hybrid Wars,” Military Review, 88 (March/April 2008), 107.
[iii] Frank G. Hoffman, “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal, 4 (Fall 2011), 17.
[iv] Margaret Bond, Hybrid War: A New Paradigm For Stability Operations in Failing States, USAWC Strategy Project (Carlisle Barracks, PA, U. S. Army War College Press, 2007).
[v] Frank G. Hoffman, “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal, 4 (Fall 2011).
[vi] General Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” Marines Magazine (January 1999).
[vii] Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (St. Paul, Minnesota, Zenith Press, 2004).
[viii] Ibid., 17.
[ix] Hoffman, 2007 and Hoffman, 2011, 17.
[x] Ibid, 21.
[xi] Jason A. Curl and Brian J. Dolan, “Training a ‘Hybrid’ Warrior,” Marine Corps Gazette, 92 (February 2008).
[xii] Hoffman, 2011, 17.
[xiii] Hoffman, 2011, 17.
[xiv] Gian P. Gentile, Colonel, United States Army, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-Centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, 39 (Autumn 2009).
[xv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984, 77.
[xvi] Hoffman, 2011, 18.
[xvii] Hoffman, 2011, 20.
[xviii] Mathew F. Steele, “The Conduct of War,” Journal of the Military Service Institute of the United States, 42 (January-February 1908), 25.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Focusing on the character of potential threats for the preparation of war dates at least to Carl von Clausewitz’ On War. This also mirrors the prescription Bard O’Neill recommends in his book on insurgency and terrorism when he argues there are nine distinct insurgent characters each demanding a different military and policy responses. Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2005).

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