Trends in Hybrid and Irregular Warfare

September 27, 2012 10:59 AM - Updated: February 5, 2013 8:53 PM

Proceedings, September 2012
Savvy adversaries are more capable than ever of using high-tech gadgets and social media against the United States.

From Tunisia to Cairo, Sanaa, Bahrain, Benghazi, Damascus, London, Wall Street, Berkeley, and the University of California, Davis, 2011 was the year of the social-media revolution. Smartphones and social media have enabled groups of like-minded individuals to share information, spread their messages, and upend traditional relationships between the public and authorities. These developments are part of a continuing trend in the democratization of information: the empowerment of groups and individuals by information technology. Combined with the democratization of destruction, or the expansion of access to destructive technology and tactics, small groups and individuals will have greater ability to counter traditional security forces in hybrid and irregular conflicts, where force-on-force military engagements may be blended with other operations aimed at influencing key populations.1


The future operating environment will be one of contested domains—air, land, sea, space, cyber, the electromagnetic spectrum, and increasingly, the influence domain, where individuals and groups compete to spread their messages. U.S. military forces must be prepared for future challenges within these domains from nation-states as well as non-state groups or individuals. While the Department of Defense (DOD) is generally good at estimating and preparing for challenges from organized military forces, threats from non-state groups tend to be more diffuse and decentralized, more organic, and less predictable in nature.2 The continued diffusion of power to non-state groups will increase the challenges associated with irregular and hybrid warfare, with significant implications for U.S. forces.3

The Democratization of Information

The widespread availability of social media and Internet-capable smartphones has transformed relationships between the public and traditional authority. In the past few years, these technologies have helped non-state groups record and broadcast abuses of power, organize to form ad hoc collectives, and counter messages from authorities. In many cases, authorities have been slow to realize the implications of these changes. Even U.S. domestic agencies have repeatedly been embarrassed by incidents in which officials have been recorded using heavy-handed tactics. Images and video of peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, abused, or intimidated by law-enforcement officials in New York, Berkeley, UC Davis, the University of Maryland, and Washington, D.C., have led to outrage, suspension of offending officials, and in at least one case felony criminal charges.4

In general, trends in the democratization of information are likely to help further American values of openness, transparency, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Greater freedom of information empowers individuals. (At the same time, information technology can be incredibly empowering to state intelligence and security services that know how to use these tools. The result may be greater transparency for the citizen into state activities, along with greater visibility of the state into the lives of its citizens.)

These trends will also change the operating environment in ways for which U.S. forces must be prepared. Early observations about the implications of these technologies include:

Greater competition in the marketplace of ideas. Internet-connected smartphones have enabled “citizen journalists” to record abuses of power and spread their message of events, often counter to official sources. The emotional power of pictures and video of abuses by authority has been powerful in galvanizing popular discontent, both domestically and abroad.5

• In future operations, the U.S. military must be prepared for any action or statement by a service member to be recorded and broadcast on the Internet by host-nation citizens, posing the risk of incidents that undermine support for U.S. activities. Training on interacting with civilian populations must take into account the possibility of citizen journalists monitoring the actions of U.S. troops and emphasize the importance of maintaining the support of key populations.

• In the competition for influence over relevant populations, social media and the views of ordinary, Internet-empowered citizens will become increasingly relevant. The United States will need effective tools to observe and assess open-source social media in real time to maintain awareness of opinion trends among relevant populations and adjust accordingly.

• When potentially inflammatory incidents do occur, the U.S. military will be challenged to respond quickly to explain U.S. actions, especially accidents that result in civilian casualties. The United States will often be at a disadvantage in responding quickly to incidents relative to some adversaries because of the high standard of accuracy expected of official U.S. government statements, which will likely require some investigation before reaching final conclusions.6

Increased ability of the population to mobilize in ad hoc collectives. The past several years have demonstrated the ability of populations to mobilize for digitial (i.e., “hacktivism”) and real-world physical activism, at times with significant effects. While popular movements are not new, information technology has played a role in empowering populations. Examples range from the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous and flash mobs to the social-media-empowered movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for example, rioters used BlackBerry Messenger as an ad hoc command-and-control network to coordinate their actions to swarm and loot shops, then rapidly disperse away from police only to coalesce elsewhere later, complicating police counter-riot tactics.7

• In future operations, U.S. forces must be prepared to confront spontaneous mobs (peaceful or otherwise) who obstruct, deny, or otherwise hinder those forces. In such situations, it should be anticipated that any reactions by U.S. forces would be recorded and broadcast worldwide.

• U.S. forces may also confront cyber attacks from individuals and groups opposed to a U.S. action or sympathetic to a particular cause, similar to tactics used by the group Anonymous.8

• Monitoring social media and other information technology can help the United States anticipate or at least respond promptly and appropriately to potential disruptions, allowing commanders to avoid confrontations and improve force protection as necessary.

Reduced operational security for U.S. operations. When U.S. special-operations forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the presence of a helicopter over the town was broadcast in real time by way of Twitter. The growing prevalence of GPS-equipped smartphones will make it increasingly possible for individuals to access information about the movements and dispositions of U.S. troops. The accessibility of personal information online may also make it possible for individuals and groups to find and disseminate sensitive personal information of U.S. service members, such as their home addresses or names of family members, potentially posing security risks.9 Following an incident in New York City in which a police officer pepper-sprayed two female Occupy protestors, Anonymous released the officer’s home address and telephone number as well as the names of his family members.10

• U.S. troops will have to adapt to an environment where their location and disposition may be public knowledge, increasing risks for both regular and clandestine operations. These potential avenues for enemy information-gathering present opportunities for deception, but the interconnectedness of information raises problems with maintaining a firewall between information operations aimed at adversaries and public-affairs activities designed to communicate DOD activities to domestic audiences.

• Additional measures may be required to protect the identity and sensitive personal information of service members, particularly those involved in high-prolife operations. The heightened operational-security measures used by special-operations forces today may be appropriate for a wider set of general-purpose forces in the future.

Increased public transparency of U.S. operations and decision-making. WikiLeaks released more than a quarter of a million classified State Department cables, the largest breach of classified information in history. The digitization of knowledge makes data theft on a massive scale possible once security is breached. When this occurs, U.S. officials may have to respond publicly to justify U.S. decision-making or to explain information taken out of context. The WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder,” for example, showing a U.S. helicopter opening fire on suspected insurgents who were, in fact, unarmed journalists, caused significant controversy over the use of force and efforts to avoid civilian casualties. In other cases, public disclosure of classified documents may have a significant political impact. Some credit information contained in the WikiLeaks cables pertaining to corruption by the Tunisian government as a “catalyst” for accelerating popular discontent in Tunisia that “pushed people over the brink.”

Political and military decision-makers will have to adapt to increasing transparency of government activities and internal decision-making. Whereas previously, policymakers could assume that barring deliberate leaks or espionage, classified information would remain hidden from public view for at least 25 years, the digitization of data increases the risk of public disclosures. This could have a chilling effect on what government officials say and record, even in private, classified settings.

The Democratization of Destruction

The future security environment will also be shaped by expanded access to destructive technology and tactics by smaller non-state groups and individuals. Military weaponry will continue to proliferate to non-state groups through state sponsorship, looting after state collapse, or (in limited numbers) through black-market arms sales. Commercial technologies may also be appropriated for use as destructive weapons, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or crude weapons of mass destruction, such as chlorine bombs or radiological weapons. Finally, information-based technology can be used to produce cyber or bio weapons that have the potential to cause significant disruptions in future weapons. The spread of destructive technologies will challenge U.S. forces in future operating environments and will raise challenging public-policy issues regarding the accessibility of certain types of scientific knowledge.

Proliferation of military weaponry to non-state groups. Hezbollah’s 2006 vigorous defense against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) caught Israeli leaders by surprise and drew the attention of Western defense experts. With a combination of guerrilla tactics and attacks with rockets, antitank guided missiles (ATGMs), and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), Hezbollah was able to impose significant costs on the IDF for their advance into Lebanon. While Hezbollah suffered greater losses in military terms, their relative proficiency on the battlefield led to a propaganda victory as well as significant speculation about the military capabilities of non-state groups in future conflicts. Opponents using hybrid approaches to warfare, hiding among civilian populations and conducting guerrilla attacks with precision weaponry such as ASCMs, ATGMs, sophisticated man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs), or guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles (GRAMMs) represent qualitatively different threats from those posed by organized military forces.

Campaigns against adversaries using hybrid tactics combine a high degree of lethality along with the need to gain and sustain the support of key populations, conditions that also existed in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, the Battle of Sadr City in 2008, the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2009, and battles at isolated U.S. combat outposts in parts of eastern Afghanistan in 2008–9.11

• U.S. forces should anticipate facing non-state groups armed with weapons such as IEDs, ATGMs, ASCMs, MANPADs, GRAMMs, small UAVs, GPS jammers, night-vision devices, and cyber weapons.

• Operations against these types of adversaries require extremely accurate intelligence, precision fire support, enhanced force protection, and effective information operations and civil affairs, and in this respect combine capabilities required for both conventional and irregular warfare.

Commercially available “off-the-shelf” destructive technologies. In September 2011, Rezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen from Massachusetts, was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the Pentagon with a remote-controlled model airplane filled with explosives. While such an attack would likely not have proven particularly effective from a purely military perspective, inexpensive and innovative attacks can have significant propaganda value in drawing attention to a cause or a particular tactic. Relatively inexpensive drones can be easily purchased off the shelf today for tactical surveillance.12 Cheap drones capable of carrying payloads could be modified to function as “flying IEDs” in future attacks.

Commercially available technologies have often been appropriated by insurgents and terrorists to launch attacks, from car bombs to IEDs. In Iraq in 2006–7, insurgents launched a spate of (largely ineffective) homemade chemical-weapon attacks using chlorine acquired from industrial facilities. Radiological weapons (aka “dirty bombs”) have long been a potential terrorism threat. In the case of cyber, robotic, or bio-weapons, future advances in information technology have the potential to increase their destructive potential. Further proliferation of commercially available robotics may increase the risk that they could be used for attacks, while future capabilities, such as GPS-guided programmable robotics, could increase their effectiveness. Similarly, as dependence on information technology increases, the consequences of a successful major cyber attack will only increase.

• U.S. forces should expect to continue to face attacks from insurgent and terrorist groups using increasingly potent improvised weapons, such as IEDs or crude chemical, biological, or radiological weapons.

• As information technology advances, the capabilities of commercially available robotics, cyber weapons, GPS jammers, and night-vision devices may increase, as well as access to these technologies.13

Potentially radically disruptive future technologies. In 2011, for the first time in its 111-year history, Science magazine withheld publication of a scholarly research article for public safety reasons. At the request of a U.S. government biosecurity panel, the article, which detailed modifications made to the H5N1 avian influenza virus to increase its transmissibility among mammals, was not published in order to restrict availability of this information.14 Regardless, the basic science needed to create designer pathogens, such as modified strains of influenza with heightened virulence or transmissibility, exists today. The genomes for both the unmodified H5N1 bird flu virus as well as the 1918 influenza virus are readily available online. Synthetic bacteria with fully artificially designed genomes have successfully been replicated in a laboratory environment. Future advances in bioinformatics and genetic engineering will likely only further improve the ability of researchers to manipulate biology, for good or ill. While the technology and know-how to modify and spread pathogens are not widely available today, plummeting prices for gene sequencing are expected to lower barriers to “garage biotech” over the next decade, a trend that has caught the attention of biosecurity experts.15

• At the nexus of trends in the democratization of information and destruction lies the specter of information-based weaponry, such as cyber attacks, robotics, or synthetic biological weapons.16 While nation-states have clear advantages in developing these weapons, crude forms are already within the reach of educated individuals or groups with moderate resources. Potential long-term future advances in information technology could lead to dramatic improvements in the destructive potential of self-replicating information-based weapons.

• These technologies, sometimes called knowledge-enabled weapons of mass destruction, differ from traditional weapons of mass destruction in that they generally do not require major industrial facilities to produce, but rather individuals with sufficient scientific knowledge and relatively modest resources.

• As these technologies advance, the degree of openness and transparency appropriate for them will be a significant source of debate, with even some leading scientific pioneers calling for restriction of certain technologies.17 Managing and potentially limiting the proliferation of this knowledge, to the extent that such an endeavor is even possible, will be a difficult challenge.

Traditional military capabilities (e.g., tanks, ships, airplanes) are not generally well-suited to countering these threats. Consequence management will be a requirement for military forces, while prevention will require accurate and timely intelligence of possible threats. As the destructive potential available to individuals and groups grows, governments may be pushed to adapt ever more sophisticated means of monitoring potential threats, raising challenging issues regarding civil liberties and public safety.

Future U.S. Capabilities for Hybrid and Irregular Conflicts

These trends point to a future operating environment that blends greater lethality with greater importance on gaining and maintaining the support of key populations. Low-tech approaches, such as proliferated military weaponry, improvised off-the-shelf commercial capabilities, and indirect population-centric tactics will remain extremely effective counters to U.S. military dominance. U.S. forces have to be able to operate in congested areas, where enemy forces will seek to enmesh themselves with the population, requiring a high degree of precision, discrimination, and proportionality in the use of force.

U.S. forces will need intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to identify and discriminate targets and to establish patterns of life, precision fires to avoid collateral damage, and increased force-protection measures, such as unmanned systems that can increase standoff from threats. Operations against hybrid threats will require the United States to reinvigorate some combined-arms capabilities that may have atrophied during recent conflicts, such as battalion- and brigade-level fire and maneuver. At the same time, critical organization innovations to support population-centric warfare at the small-unit level will still be needed, such as company-level intelligence cells and battalion-level civil affairs, human intelligence, and information-operations detachments. Brigade and below units must have the ability to fight autonomously at levels of violence once associated only with conventional conflicts, but also with a nuanced, counterinsurgency-style understanding of the population they are operating among. This will require continued evolution in doctrine and training. Small-unit tactics and in particular critical decision-making skills by small unit leaders—who will often find themselves faced with not only tactical but moral dilemmas—will remain as important to success in future operations as they are in counterinsurgency environments today.

Above all else, sound judgment will be essential. Leaders at all levels, from four-star generals to privates, will face greater transparency and greater accountability for their decisions. On the battlefield, troops will continue to face adversaries who exploit U.S. values and concern for civilian casualties with asymmetric tactics, all under the watchful eye of ubiquitous camera phones. Building lieutenants, corporals, and privates who are prepared for this environment must encompass not only training, but also education, selective recruitment, careful promotions, and deliberate career development.

The ideas offered here are not meant to represent a definitive statement on the evolution of conflict, a problem that hinges on not only the evolution of technology but also human nature and individual choice, and is inherently nonlinear and unpredictable. Instead, these are merely a sampling of observations and possible relevant trends. When designing future military forces, the DOD will need to take into account conventional as well as irregular and hybrid challenges across the expanse of operations, a process that will require continual attention to emerging trends in technology and human society.

1. For a brief primer on hybrid warfare, see Frank Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Threats (Washington, DC: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007).

2. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 2010).

3. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Future of Power, (New York: Perseus Books, 2011); Andy Krepinevich, “Get ready for the democratization of destruction,” Foreign Policy, September/October 2011.

4. These include: video of Anthony Bologna, a New York City police officer, pepper-spraying two female Occupy protestors; photo of an 84-year-old woman (Dorli Rainey) who was pepper-sprayed during a Berkley Occupy protest; video of a UC Davis campus police officer casually pepper-spraying sitting students; video of the 2010 beating of a University of Maryland college student by Prince George’s County police officers captured on video; and video of an off-duty Washington, D.C., detective admitting to drawing his gun during a snowball fight in 2009.

5. The videotaped beating of the “blue bra woman” in Cairo by security forces in December 2011 and the videotaped death of Iranian protestor Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009 became focal points for Egyptian and Iranian opposition movements.

6. Incidents in Afghanistan like the accidental burning of Korans in February and the March shooting of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army soldier underscore these challenges. The impact was further aggravated by rumors and public perceptions that the incidents may have been intentional. Although the U.S. military probably responded as aggressively and swiftly as possible, getting ahead of rumors and hearsay will always be a challenge.

7. See Bill Wasik, “Riot: self-organized, hyper-networked revolts—coming to a city near you,” Wired, 16 December 2011.

8. Cassandra Vinograd, “’Anonymous’ hackers target U.S. security think tank,” Associated Press, 25 December 2011.

9. Following the March shooting of 16 Afghan civilians the Army refrained from releasing the soldier’s name until the family could be moved onto a military installation for their protection.

10. Adam Martin, “Anonymous goes after the pepper spray cop’s personal info,” The Atlantic Wire, 26 September 2011.

11. See David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, (The RAND Corporation, 2011); David E. Johnson, et. al., The 2008 Battle of Sadr City, (The RAND Corporation, 2011).

12. For example, the Parrot A. R. drone can be controlled via a smartphone or tablet app, features front-facing and vertical cameras and an ultrasound altimeter, and can be purchased for $299.99. It does not have the capability to carry a payload.

13. J. Gabriel Kaigham, deputy director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Testimony to the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, 29 February 2012.

14. Natasha Khan, “Research on Lethal Bird Flu May Be Censored on Concern at Terrorism Risk,” Bloomberg News, 21 December 2011.

15. Heidi Ledford, “Garage biotech: life hackers,” Nature, Number 467 (2010), 650–52.

16. Genetics, robotics, and information technologies are sometimes lumped with nanotechnology under the acronym GRIN, referring to information-based technologies.

17. Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” Wired, April 2000.

Mr. Scharre currently works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He was an infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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