Skip navigation

"Hybrid Warfare": A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?

"Hybrid warfare" – a concept of little value

Ever since the notion of “hybrid warfare” entered the American strategic debate almost ten years ago, in 2006, as a description of Hezbollah’s tactics against Israel in the Second Lebanon War (Frank G. Hoffmann), the attribute “hybrid” has served as a generic term for the methods used by opposing parties against the US military in scenarios as diverse as Afghanistan and Iraq. Hybrid warfare in the US discourse focuses on military adversaries that make use of conventional as well as unconventional instruments, regular and irregular actors, and overt or covert means across the entire available spectrum in order to undermine the West’s conventional superiority. However, irregular non-state actors were the point of reference in the US debate at that time.

With Russia’s activities in its conflict with Ukraine, the term has been taken up in the NATO discourse since 2014 and has also fueled the debate in Germany since then. In the wake of events in East Ukraine, further nuances of hybrid warfare have been emphasized: the particular importance of the information factor and the use of social networks in the virtual space, the systematic control (or destruction) of economic and social infrastructure, and the special role of civil society. Unnoticed, the point of reference in the discussion of hybrid warfare has shifted from irregular actors to its deployment by a state actor.

The US understanding of hybrid warfare assumes that it is characterized by a combination of the elements outlined above. In NATO and German discussions, on the other hand, it is mainly the specific case of Russia’s methods in Ukraine that is referred to as hybrid warfare. Accordingly, one state pursues its interests against another state by using force, with partly covert, partly overt assistance from irregular actors. There is no direct clash between the armed forces of the two states. Military force may be applied in the form of terrorist attacks, guerrilla tactics, or also conventional confrontations (Hans-Georg Erhardt). This narrow definition has recently been replaced in Germany, too, by a wider concept that comes closer to the US terminology (cf. Veronika Bock at a zebis conference on this topic in July 2015).

The broader understanding of the term is problematic, however, as it is too generic. What distinguishes hybrid warfare from the methods of opposing parties in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in Mali, Yemen or Syria, to whom this label was not previously applied? From this point of view, the concept – without any discernible analytical value – joins a string of equally vague terms such as “asymmetric” or “irregular” warfare, and is more of a collective term for all actions in the context of violent conflicts that cannot be clearly categorized, and for which, so far, only insufficient counter-strategies exist.

Even in its narrow definition, hybrid warfare is not an analytically useful category because it relates only to the specific case of Russia. The term should rather be read as an expression of the political and military challenges that Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have confronted the NATO countries with. In this capacity, it mainly demonstrates the surprise that Russia so blatantly undermined the construct of the “pan-European security architecture,” and associated notions of order and expectations of abiding by international rules. The term further suggests that the NATO states have not yet found an adequate answer to the question of Russia’s role in Europe and in the transatlantic context – neither in terms of security policy, nor politically or economically. It is furthermore an indicator of the heightened awareness of our societies’ vulnerability and lack of resilience to hybrid forms of warfare, not only with regard to Russia. The term points to the growing importance of perceptions and interpretations, and the accompanying decision-making uncertainty in security policy, since one characteristic of hybrid warfare is the lack of clarity concerning the nature of aggression, and the blurring of boundaries between conflict and war, with all of its implications for international law. Finally, hybrid warfare in a broad sense points to a deficit in comprehensive national strategies and approaches in foreign and security policy among the NATO states.

"Hybrid warfare" as an indicator for our own lack of coherence

This aspect deserves particular attention and is the main focus of the following considerations. In the recent debate in Germany about the comprehensive approach as part of the ongoing process to develop a new security policy white paper, Russian methods in East Ukraine were on various occasions ironically described as “perfectly comprehensive action.” This means that Russia proved it was capable of using all available civilian and military instruments purposefully together. It will remain for more detailed studies to assess the extent to which Russian tactics are actually backed up by a systematic strategy, or are rather responding to situations and circumstances. However, this provocative statement does identify a weakness in Western-style democracies.

Authoritarian systems can quickly make use of regular- and irregular instruments, without significant restrictions imposed by a decentralized distribution of power and democratic consensus-building processes. Western-style democracies, on the other hand, tend to have more cumbersome decision-making processes as a result of various power-control mechanisms, and they face a greater need for explanation and legitimacy in defining their political objectives and choice of means. Institutional identities and self-interests, including on the part of executive institutions, and the competitive nature of political processes, make it more difficult for centralized policy-making.

Intense discussions about comprehensive approach that have been ongoing for more than a decade in Germany, and the in the NATO and EU context, are based on the perception of a lack of coherence in strategies and modes of implementation in foreign and security policy, and thus a resulting loss of effectiveness and efficiency. Threats from hybrid warfare of all shades particularly bring to light those shortcomings which the comprehensive approach attempts to address.

Despite all the rhetoric about comprehensive approaches, the mainstream of security policy thought in Germany is only slowly beginning to move away from patterns that rely primarily on military instruments. There is practically no integrated problem or situation as assessment. Problem analyses and strategies are usually developed only at departmental level, while consultation and coordination processes are mainly shifted to the operational and tactical level in the country of deployment, as there is a lack of coherent political and strategic guidance. Systematic evaluations, if they take place at all, rarely encompass multiple departments.

Faced with current challenges such as Russia’s continuing activities in East Ukraine below the level of open warfare, the erosion of functioning statehood in Syria, Iraq, or Libya and the expansion of IS, and the surging flow of refugees into Europe, we are largely perplexed as to what to do. There is a lack of clear political will and aims, and an absence of suitable holistic strategies that put humanitarian and development aid policy instruments into effect with a complementary role for the police and military, while at the same time tying in with economic, social policy, and information policy instruments.

In contrast, actors who make use of “hybrid” methods have a utilitarian attitude to the available instruments and combine them without reservation. This blurs the lines separating civilian and military instruments; in particular, they are not held back by normative considerations. The confrontation with “hybrid warfare” takes us to the limits of our political systems’ capability for fast and effective international action. The regulatory and normative bases of our societies and their free and democratic decision-making processes are among the highest goods, yet in some ways they conflict with the need for a systematic combination of the instruments of state power and their rapid deployment to achieve a better capacity for international action. Any decision in favor of greater centralization of foreign and security policy action could only be taken on the basis of a social consensus. This, however, would require a wider perception of the threat, which at the present time does not exist in the case of hybrid warfare threats.

The role of civil society as a subject with its own legitimate interests, specific functions, and special forms of action continues to be neglected in the international crisis management strategies of the EU and NATO. The dangerous potential for radicalization of large sections of the population, the vulnerability of societies with weak social and economic infrastructures, and the need for preventive work on the causes of conflict are fully recognized, yet so far none of this has has been reflected in appropriate strategies. Packages of mea­sures to prevent radicalization tendencies, the strengthening of institutions and governability in fragile states, the use of economic policy instruments to improve infrastructure and employment opportunities, and the systematic mainstreaming of conflict prevention approaches currently remain the domain of specialized communities and particular department strategies. They have not become part of overarching strategies that combine policing and military activities with development-policy and private-sector instruments in a complementary and systematic way.

In contrast, civil society plays a central role in hybrid warfare as a recruitment and financing base, a reservoir of resources, a subject of power and refuge, a legitimizer, and often also as a social base. The comprehensive approach needs to be considered as something more than simply supporting the military with civilian means, or replacing military measures with civilian means due to a declining willingness to deploy the military. Contrary to popular rhetoric, comprehensive national approaches to solving security-policy challenges are still in their early stages in EU and NATO countries.

Are "hybrid warfare" threats a potential trigger for advances in the Comprehensive Approach?

Despite all the weaknesses, the attention given to threats posed by hybrid warfare presents an opportunity to promote interdepartmental policy concepts. However, as indicated above, so far the perception of the threat is limited to specialist circles. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that neither networked security nor the comprehensive approach has ever been satisfactorily defined.

The understanding of Comprehensive Security in Germany today ranges from better co­operation between civilian and military actors at operational and tactical level to coordinated crisis management strategies at international level. Early on in the debate, the concept had a system-reforming connotation. In this sense, Comprehensive Security  was understood as a quality of security policy, characterized by: (1) a comprehensive and systemic understanding of the situation that is shared across departments; (2) integrated, outcome-oriented foreign and security policy thinking that also takes interdependencies, cascades of effects, and unintended consequences into account; (3) systematic, interdepartmental and interorganizational decision-making, planning, and implementation processes; and (4) interdepartmental, and interorganizational progress reviews and impact assessments as an integral part of international crisis management.

The current discussion about Comprehensive Security has largely lost this reformative impetus. Conceptual inflation has set in, with the result that “talking together” is allready stylized as a comprehensive approach. At EU and NATO level, there has been no consistent development of coherent strategies thus far, due to diverging national and institutional interests among the member states. While Germany has seen some considerable improvements in modes of communication and cooperation between departments and subordinate authorities, they have remained incremental in approach and lacked significant advances in quality, especially with regard to strategic policy coordination between departments.

There has been sufficient occasion and need for action to improve the coherence of crisis management in recent years – in Afghanistan, in the Near/Middle East, in the Maghreb, and in connection with the threat of Islamic terrorism; not to mention the crises and conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America which have been lost out of sight. The progress that has been made in terms of improved interdepartmental and interorganizational cooperation at national level and within the NATO and the EU shows that awareness of the problem exists. However, the improvements fall short of what is required. To meet the challenges described above in the long term without harming the normative and regulatory foundations of our societies, there is a need for consistent further development of integrated national policy and implementation strategies.

In this context, it is to be hoped that the ongoing process to develop a new security policy white paper will result, in 2016, in a document from the German federal government that takes into account not only the German armed forces but also the entire spectrum of instruments of other departments that are relevant to foreign and security policy. It is also desirable that the impetus provided by the German Federal Foreign Office’s review process to reorientate German foreign and security policy toward taking on greater international responsibility should be actively taken up by other departments, and that their instruments should be systematically combined to shape integrated German strategies in international crisis management.

The discussion on hybrid warfare can make a positive contribution here if it addresses those areas of need for which it is a problem indicator.



Fouzieh Melanie Alamir is a political scientist. She began her career as a research associate at the University of the Federal Armed Forces (in Hamburg, and as a lecturer at the German Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff College  in 1997. In 2001, she moved to the German Federal Ministry of Defense as an desk officer in the military policy department. As head of the sector program “Security Sector Reform”, she worked at the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) from 2004 to 2006. This was followed by a position as “Comprehensive Security” program manager at IABG mbH from 2006 to 2011. After a period as an independent consultant, from 2013 to 2015 Ms. Alamir ran the “Security Sector” center of competence at the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). Since October 2015, she has been working as portfolio manager for GIZ in Pakistan. Her engagements have taken her to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Ghana, Kenya, Indonesia and Sudan, among others. At the end of 2006, she worked as a political adviser to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF HQ in Kabul.