Panel: Russia and China Practicing More Hybrid, Information Warfare

March 22, 2017 4:39 PM
So-called ‘little green men’ in Crimea in 2014. Reuters Photo

Russia and China are effectively using tools as old as propaganda and as current as viral social media messaging to sow distrust abroad and split alliances to gain their way, three expert witnesses in a new age of conflict told the House Armed Services Committee.

Frank Hoffman of National Defense University said Wednesday these “gray zone measures” and also called hybrid warfare, would include aircraft buzzing warships and turning reefs into militarized islands was in a way “a return to Cold War tactics.”

Other autocratic regimes employing these measures include Iran and North Korea.

“We’re prepared for the violence” of conventional and nuclear warfare, but “not ready for the indirect” attacks that can undermine alliances and partnerships. Russia’s efforts to split Sweden and Finland from working with NATO and cyber attacks on NATO members such as Estonia and Latvia would be examples of that.

Another would be the hybrid use of special forces, light armor and artillery fires across a border; backing separatists with equipment and trainers; increasing economic coercion and information operations to destabilize Ukraine’s government. A third would be Moscow’s meddling in the upcoming German and French national elections that both countries’ intelligence services have publicly disclosed.

“Moscow has deployed its whole of government approach … to weaken NATO,” Christopher Chivvis of the RAND Corporation added. The approach, s linked to Moscow’s military modernization, is population-centric, persistent and works from a premise of not getting into outright conflict the United States and NATO.

“Putin’s got a lot of checkers games going on simultaneously,” Hoffman said in answer to a question.

China also is not seeking outright conflict with the United States in this struggle, but under President Xi Jin-ping, it uses a “salami-slicing approach” aimed at what it believes are weak spots to get its way in the Asia-Pacific, Andrew Shearer of the Center for International and Strategic Studies said.

An example of that would be China’s sending unarmed fishing boats but escorted by its Coast Guard into disputed waters. If there was a response by another nation sending out its Coast Guard to block the fishing fleet, China would send in its largest Coast Guard vessels, about the size of United States’ cruisers, occasionally bumping other vessels. It also would have its navy positioned just over the horizon to meet any further escalation.

Yet compared to Russia’s actions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, “China has been a little more restrained.” It prefers to use “lawfare,” he said by creating air identification zones, cutting off major trade flows with South Korea in response to the deployment of a missile defense system and trying to influence Australia’s political parties.

“Secrecy and deniability is part of China’s strategy.”

North Korea, with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and “very advanced cyber capability,” posses “the most acute threat facing us in the Asia-Pacific,” Shearer said. He also cited Pyongyang’s use of a nerve agent to assassinate the half-brother of its leader Kim Jung-un to illustrate how far North Korea is willing to go in non-traditional warfare.

Hoffman said Iran in its maritime operations has adopted this hybrid approach. Instead of buying large capital ships, it has invested in fast attack boats that can swarm on larger vessels, shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines and mines from China.

On the apparent shift of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte away from Washington diplomatically and militarily, Hoffman said, “I do believe China is trying to abet that change.”

Shearer added that it was important that the United States state clearly that it views Scarborough Shoals, about 200 miles from Manila, as strategically important to its interests and how it views territorial claims there.

Speaking clearly to allies and partners in Europe and the Asia-Pacific and reassuring them that the United States remains engaged as a global power economically and militarily was mentioned by all three in meet these “measures short of war” steps taken by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. They also said this means building allies’ and partners’ capacities to counter these move and strengthen their political institutions.

“I don’t believe we are imposing costs” on Beijing for its deliberate strategy of militarizing the South China Sea, Hoffman said.

How Russia and China view American moves such as the European Reassurance Initiative and the deployment of a missile defense system on the Korean peninsula is very different from the American view of these steps.

Chivvis said, “Russia sees many things the U.S. does as hybrid warfare.” Shearer said the Chinese “feel they are encircled” by American alliances and want to return to the 19th century “sphere of influence” view of the world.

Hoffman added, “We think we’re stabilizing” a nation or region by taking those steps.

“Ultimately this is a normative contest” of setting rules of international behavior, Shearer said.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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