Understanding Hybrid Warfare

U.S. Air Force cyber mission

There is no proper definition and laid basics to understand hybrid warfare. However, it is summarized as the synchronized use of multiple power instruments tailored to specific vulnerabilities across the full spectrum of social function to achieve synergistic effects. In layman language, it is a combined thrust put in by actors and non-state actors to achieve the desired objective using technology to exploit national vulnerabilities across the political, military, economic, social, informational, and infrastructural spectrum. The concept of hybrid warfare is not new, and its fundamental principle of utilizing a combination of conventional and irregular methods to achieve a political objective inconsistent with an older form of conflict. The core principle of hybrid warfare is to attack an opponent’s vulnerability with minimum visibility and full synchronization.

The relevance of hybrid warfare is increasing because conventional war is becoming quite expensive and dangerous to gain the desired objective. In the era of nuclear and sophisticated weapon systems, conventional warfare holds less possibility. Thus, to attain the same level, which comes after winning a conventional war, requires a concrete mechanism. This concrete mechanism is nothing but hybrid warfare. It merely means using non-military means to achieve a warlike end through cyberattacks, fake news campaigns, and espionage. The main objective is to create confusion among the masses and paralyze the ability to make a decision. The capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhman was propagated so that people in India forgot the very reason for the Balakot strike. The whole of India is suddenly talking about peace talk and saying no to war. However, the same people before the incident want revenge for the killing of CRPF personnel. Such is the nature and scope of this unconventional warfare, which we call hybrid warfare. China and Russia are the core proponent of this form of war, targeting the democratic institution and changing the global order. Their main targets are the areas with reliance on technology and freedom of speech and expression, and people governed by law rule. Here, we need to understand that a hybrid warfare agent will work like a termite means it will erode the institution’s foundation. The US Assistant general describes warfare as a method to “rob, replicate, and replace” means they will first erode institutions like governance bodies, academia, and diplomatic entities by eroding their capability and credibility. Then, they will replicate it and later finally will replace it. The boom in China’s technology is seen as the perfect example of the said theory where the Chinese first rob the American company of its intellectual property, replicate the technology and finally replace the American company in the Chinese market. The hybrid warfare agents do not believe in conventional warfare theories like “push to the utmost” and “massive retaliation” but believe in creating disorder among the masses by fake news, false propaganda by cyber means. The recent investigation by the Indian Express had revealed that a Shenzhen-based technology company Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co while working closely for the Chinese communist party, is monitoring over 10,000 Indian individuals and organizations in its global database. From President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to congress interim president Sonia Gandhi and their families and not just influential individuals in the political and official establishment, Indians being monitored cut across the discipline. The data is compiled to influence the vital position holder’s decisions, according to the People Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party.

It is the tactic of “hybrid warfare”- using non-military means like scraping information from the web and social media platform. Tracking research papers, articles, patents, recruitment positions to achieve dominance or influence the decisions. Indians Express defines this form of warfare in their word as “information pollution, perception management and propaganda.” A Canberra based cybersecurity, tech, and data expert, Robert potter said, “Every country does this in one way or the other, that’s the job of foreign intelligence. But using data science and technology, Beijing has, clearly, taken it to the next level,” Thus, tracking every movement of the individuals holding crucial positions which even includes the personal lifestyle, shows the seriousness and strategic value of hybrid warfare. Collecting data via different platforms does not possess and looks at an immediate threat to national security. However, data collected over a long period, processed and analysed with artificial intelligence, become powerful assets capable of changing the policies, decisions of leaders, and finally, people’s perception. During the 2016 US election and UK the Brexit vote, Russian influence will serve as the perfect example of hybrid warfare. Thus, hybrid warfare can be termed as ‘nonlinear warfare’ involving non-conventional tactics to induce social disharmony and political chaos and create a misinformation campaign that aims to weaken the conventional military structure of the opponent.

Instruments of Hybrid warfare

After having a basic understanding of hybrid warfare, we shall now be focusing on the instruments of hybrid war. It involves nonlinear tactics away from conventional tactics to achieve the desired objectives. The western strategy of gaining victories decisively and quickly holds less relevance in hybrid warfare. This form of war requires exceptional patience and perseverance that coincidently fits with the Chinese tactics to focus on long term positional advantage, avoiding defeat, and sustaining the campaign over a prolonged period. Thus, the instrument through which the hybrid warfare is carried is as follows-

Attacking critical functions and vulnerabilities

Critical function and vulnerabilities are those social, economic, political, constitutional institutions of nations on which the country’s very foundation exists. If disrupted, discontinued could lead to the collapse of the whole working system. This critical function involves actors (individuals and organizations), infrastructure (power grids, communication, and railway network), and process (judicial, elections, policing). In 2014, the Russian hacker group CyberBerkut exploited the Ukraine national election commission’s cyber vulnerability to undermine its credibility. Similarly, the profoundly religious, cultural, and ethnic divide of India vulnerability) can be utilized to create chaos within the Indian system. Mob lynching due to the circulation of fake videos, pictures, or fake Facebook post shows the Indian institutions’ vulnerability. Thus, all critical functions with exposure provide an opportunity to the opponent for possible exploitations. Therefore, countering hybrid warfare requires an in-depth analysis of the essential part and its vulnerabilities. Each critical function requires specific assessment and requires a unique mechanism to reduce exposures. Yemen and the Syrian crisis is serving as the perfect example to show the exploitation of vulnerabilities. The deep, sectarian, ethnic, and economic division of both the societies was exploited by Iran and terrorist outfits to achieve their strategic objective. 

It is no hidden fact that the art of Hybrid Warfare feeds on exploiting the fault lines of a country. In India’s case, these elements work to tear apart the country’s secular fabric, as has been evident in various instances. Exploiting an adversary’s socio-economic fault lines while propagating towards every effort leading to national cohesion is of utmost importance to counter such tactics.

The importance of Media is not to be ignored in this domain of warfare in an age where a news channel has the power to influence the narratives of crores of people. Prominent Media houses and platforms are often used by the adversary to paint a bleak picture of the nation’s economy and are often used to portray the adversary as more powerful to instil fear in the general populace’s minds. Though, undermined Media can hold considerable sway over a nation’s mood in the grand scheme of things and can also lead to anger and desperation within the country if corrupted. The aggressor can exploit established domestic fault lines like ethnic/religious extremism, crumbling economy, and insurgencies. The perpetrator could fuel political instability to escape the target state, formulating, and enforcing national policies.

Synchronization of means 

The hybrid warfare actor can synchronize all the means possible to create the desired effect in proper time and space. This includes the utilization of all military and non-military means simultaneously to achieve the objective. Synchronization of means allows hybrid actors to engage an opponent in multiple domains simultaneously with intense chaos and uncertainty. The synchronized effect of all possible hybrid warfare agents can have a paralyzing impact on the opponent. This synchronization of means keeps the hybrid actors in an advantageous position through various means; first, detection of hybrid agents will be a challenging task, and second, the hybrid agent sits on the driver seats while holding the key for escalation de-escalation of the chaos. For example, in 2013, Iran synchronized terrorist threats, cyber-attacks, and propaganda to influence the US and its allies’ calculation to deter external intervention in Syria. After exploiting fault lines, furtherance in the objectives can be achieved by systematically isolating the adversary on various international forums and platforms. Intense diplomatic lobbying can be used to achieve favourable outcomes, and the warring state can exploit the low diplomatic networks of the target state. This tool can also be used to effectively malign and tarnish the image of the targeted country on international platforms. International and Diplomatic isolation is an excellent tool because it works as a point of convergence and synchronization of all the means of hybrid warfare; it is as simple as the gradual exploitation of domestic fault lines ultimately leads to diplomatic maligning of the state; which can be accelerated by robust lobbying on various international forums. In turn, these result in strong ripple effects that are felt on the home turf of the targeted state, which ultimately causes unrest and chaos in that state. In addition to all this, if there are sanctions levied on the state due to robust lobbying, it works as a fuel to an already existing fire. Thus effectively bringing the very fabric of that country that holds it together in question without even firing a single bullet.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) confirmed that there was a cyberattack on the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu, India, in September 2019

Capitalizing on the effect

Once the hybrid actors have synchronized all the means to attack the vulnerability of critical function, then comes the time to capitalize on the anarchy to gain the defined objective. Since the outcome of the nonlinear attack on the opponent is unpredictable. The hybrid agent needs proper monitoring of the situation and designed the problem as per the need. Subversive acts can also be used within the target state by proxy powers and non-state actors to politically weaken law and order, turning the target into a dysfunctional community. Systematic capitalization on these cascading effects is necessary to have the desired effect, which can be achieved by channelizing the resources in an effective albeit careful manner.

Scope and relevance of hybrid warfare

After having a thorough knowledge of hybrid warfare, we need to understand this form of warfare’s scope and relevance in the present scenario. In 2019, a study by the US centre for strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) argued that hybrid warfare has profoundly historical and cultural roots in China. As mentioned earlier, China’s philosophy of fighting is inspired by Sun Tzu. China has used this technique in Tibet before ultimately annexing it in 1950 and used the same method to again the island in the south china sea without firing a single bullet. They considered deception, surprise, and chaos as the core principle of war. In the 21st century, when fighting direct war seems impossible, the concept of hybrid warfare has become prevalent. When the objective or desired national interest can be achieved through non-military means, fighting bloody war seems futile. The gallantry and valour of the Indian Armed Forces are unquestionable beyond doubt, but these and even the most advanced arsenal is not enough to effectively win a battle in these times, since the war isn’t being fought on conventional battlefields; the fact remains that we are clearly behind Pakistan’s ISPR in the domain of information warfare. From discrediting the Indian Armed Forces’ actual accomplishments on their social Media handles to citing human rights violations by the Indian Armed Forces. The Kashmir situation as a roadblock to South-East Asia’s regional stability, the ISPR has come a long way in ‘getting their act together’ as has been pointed out by Lt Gen Rajesh Pant (retd) and gaining an upper hand in the information warfare against India. Admittedly, Pakistan’s ISPR has trumped the Indian Armed Forces’ PR Arms by playing a proactive role in effective communication and has done “outstanding work for Pakistan,” as has been said by the respected Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd). The blurred lines between Pakistan’s polity administration and its Armed Forces have been a blessing in disguise for them as it has resulted in effective communication, which leaves no stones unturned in engaging in information warfare, which is what needs to be countered effectively.

  Thus, the scope of hybrid warfare can be

  • Political and economic coercion – In this, the nation can interfere in the targeted nation’s domestic policy. Especially in the democratic country, where the election is a crucial institution. For example, Russia is accused in the middle in the US election for its interest, and China is using ‘debt trap’ diplomacy as the means to gain the support of the small nation to shape opinion at the international platform. 
  • Cyber and space operations – In this, the nation tries to paralyze the targeted nation’s working system. In liberalized countries, where freedom of speech is a fundamental right, it is used as a tool to spread fake news, propaganda to create chaos and clamour. For example – countries like Iran, Russia, China, and now Pakistan through ISPR targeting the nation’s online data. They are currently involved in cyber-attacks, GPS jamming, website hacking, etc. The objective of the joint efforts from Islamabad and Beijing has always been to destabilize the Indian state by creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in the minds of the people residing in sensitive areas, mainly through direct attacks which intend to develop a sense of insecurity through deftly crafted tactics of fear-mongering.
  • Proxies and state-controlled forces – Here, the nation tries to gain the support of unsatisfied people of the country and support them with money and arms to create the situation of insurgency. Here, the government will not be fighting but will be using non-state actors to gain a national objective. For example- Pakistan is trying to create a considerable insurgent movement in India through infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir. 
The unmanned aerial vehicle MQ-8B Firescout prepares to land on the flight deck of littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released)


In the 21st century, when the world is globalized and deeply interconnected. The race for resources has intensified beyond limits, and gaining national interest is like cut-throat competition among the nation-state. To achieve the best, the conflict and collusion among these states are bound to happen, but these collusion’s nature has changed drastically in the last 2-3 decades. The governments are finding it hard to fight conventional warfare to gain the required objective. Thus, the nation-state had acquired various techniques to achieve the aim without actually fighting the war. Therefore, in simple terms, it means using the no coercive method to gain the desired goal. The renowned professor of international relations, Hedley Norman Bull, argued that “war is nothing but organised violence carried by political units against each other.” In hybrid warfare, the term ‘organised violence’ can be replaced with ‘non-coercive methods.’ Today, information is considered the new oil because data can be used to shape people’s opinion according to their need. If the information is not regulated correctly can cause severe damage to national security. Thus, the state needs to have a proper system to manage the changing dynamics of warfare. 

*With additional inputs from Vaibhav Kullashri – Research Associate at The Kootneeti

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Swaraj Kariya

Swaraj Kariya is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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