THE BLOG

Hybrid War: Old Wine in a New Bottle?

03/10/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

It is seductive to conclude that "hybrid war" is a creature of the 21st century in which technology now offers an alternative and indeed, a reinforcement to the blunter use of military force. Based on successful Russian encroachment into Ukraine and occupation of Crimea with hybrid war tactics, it is fair to ask if that could happen to the Baltic States.

Consider Estonia as a candidate target for Moscow.

Suppose Estonia is subjected to attempts at subversion by its giant neighbor to the east. Russian propaganda accuses the Estonian government of repressing the Russian-speaking minorities legitimizing an incursion under the right to protect. Russian soldiers in mufti flow across the border. Tallinn's telecommunications center is target number one. Control communications and control the country. All this can be called hybrid war.

But the year is not 2015. It is 1924. Lenin had his sights set on swallowing the Soviet Union's tiny neighbor. In those days, cyber warfare meant occupying and controlling the telephone exchange. And so-called "little green men" who swarmed into eastern Ukraine and Crimea were the great grandchildren of those Lenin ordered into Estonia. Fortunately, Lenin failed.

Indeed, going back a decade earlier to World War I, hybrid war was very much in evidence. The cyber portion was waged in code breaking and either tapping into or disrupting the undersea telegraph cables that linked London, Paris and Berlin with their overseas bases and colonies. Economic sanctions were imposed by unrestricted submarine warfare and blockade. Propaganda labeled the enemy as barbarians committing countless atrocities against innocent civilians. And Zeppelins and Gotha bombers panicked Londoners with nighttime terror bombings.

Thus, hybrid war is as old as war in many ways. Yet, technology and globalization have transformed parts of hybrid war in the 21stcentury. First, in the past, military force was often the ultimate arbiter of victory or defeat. But when the enemy today lacks an army, navy or air force, even the most powerful militaries in the world are limited in what can be achieved.

Second, through globalization and economic interdependency, submarines and blockades no longer are needed to deprive states of basic needs. Shutting off the flow of oil or gas is a better way of imposing one's will. Similarly, closing down access to global markets and the ability to transfer money can be as economically devastating as dropping bombs and firing missiles against a state's infrastructure.

Third, because the world and people are so dependent on cyber from smart phones to providing basic goods and services such as electricity and water, cyber attacks can impose real damage through interruption or disruption. The Stuxnet virus that crippled Iranian centrifuges is a good example. Russian cyber attacks against Ukraine and the Baltic States, North Korea's assault on Sony pictures and China's electronic penetration of corporations to obtain trade secrets likewise demonstrate hybrid tactics.

But before the prospect of hybrid war overwhelms our capacity to respond, the use of a little brainpower can help identify the means to defeat it. This is especially important in neutralizing revolutionary movements such as the Islamic State (IS) who use the perversion of Islam to legitimize and justify political intent and objectives. Force is, of course, always present. In the Clausewitzian view, war is the admixture of policy with "other means." These other means constitute a force multiplier that may not be countered by powerful armies, navies and air forces.

One lesson is evident. Governments must be better prepared to deal with these "other means." Cyber is one area. Messaging and propaganda are another. In this latter case, IS is clearly winning the war of ideas. And, unlike waging war in which unconditional surrender is the objective, these other means that constitute hybrid war are the new strategic centers of gravity that could determine success or failure.

Because states too often rely excessively on military force as the key or main policy instrument, shifting focus is not easy. The prowess of America's military could not substitute for failed governance in Iraq and Afghanistan, another variant of hybrid war exploited by IS and al Qaeda. And, as is the case with battling IS, one unintended consequence is to attack the symptoms and not the causes of what ultimately mist be defeated.

Hence, a real revolution in military affairs for the United States is urgently needed. And that revolution must start with the civilian side of the government, not the Pentagon. Unless or until elected leaders understand they are dealing with old wine in new bottles, that wine could easily turn to geostrategic vinegar souring everyone's taste.