The occupation of the Crimea in 2014 sparked international condemnation as the world responded to renewed Russian aggression, however, it wasn’t the might of the Russian Army that led the invasion and occupation, rather it was a combination of special forces, local insurgents acting as a fifth column and a collection of international mercenaries giving rise to a dangerous new form of proxy conflict and power projection.
While asymmetric combat operations have typically been the realm of guerrilla forces like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic State, the Viet Cong and Narco-terrorists, the successful deployment of asymmetric forces by Russia to annex strategic locations in the Ukrainian-held Crimea dramatically reshaped the world of asymmetric warfare.
Like traditional guerrilla warfare, hybrid warfare has evolved to leverage irregular methods of combat to counter a conventionally superior fighting force, negating a number of tactical and strategic advantages ranging from precision fire, air support, armoured vehicles and overwhelming infantry.
The US Joint Forces Command defines a hybrid threat as "any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a tailored mix of conventional, irregular, terrorism and criminal means or activities in the operational battle space. Rather than a single entity, a hybrid threat or challenger may be a combination of state and non-state actors".
To counter these traditional conventional advantages, hybrid warfare incorporates a range of aspects, including:
- A non-conventional, complex and fluid adversary - A hybrid adversary can constitute both state or non-state actors. Typically non-state forces operate as a proxy for larger countries with independent agendas. There are two recent examples of such actors, with Hezbollah acting as a proxy of Iran in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and Russian forces in Ukraine acting as a traditional state actor conducing hybrid warfare.
- A hybrid adversary will use a combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics - This includes leveraging conventional state craft like conventional combat doctrines, diplomacy and tactics, while also leveraging force multiplying techniques including guerrilla warfare, acts of terror, indiscriminate violence and organised criminal activity.
- A hybrid adversary is flexible and adapts quickly - In order to counter traditional conventional strengths like signals intelligence, surveillance, space-based geospatial imagery and the like, hybrid forces will evolve tactics rapidly, blending in with local communities to maximise civilian collateral damage to act as an effective recruiting and publicity tool.
- A hybrid adversary may use advanced weapons systems as force multipliers - The proliferation of advanced weapons systems following the fall of the Soviet Union, combined with the increasing proliferation of advanced systems by state actors, has enabled hybrid forces to minimise the effectiveness of advanced weapons systems and doctrines that incorporate combined arms platforms like attack helicopters, armoured units and infantry.
Interestingly, in the era of 'fake news' hybrid forces have sought to leverage the power of the internet and social media to serve as a powerful force multiplier, enabling the spread of propaganda, terror, influencing political outcomes and, as Islamic State successfully demonstrated, recruitment in an increasingly globalised world.
As an increasingly powerful tool of modern statecraft, hybrid warfare has been used successfully by both the US and one of its major rivals, Russia, to effectively influence and occupy territories or conduct proxy wars in order to further broaden national interests in geo-strategically important parts of the world.
The implementation of such doctrines has resulted in both American and Russian authorities accusing one another of conducting such operations to hinder the influence and effectiveness of their significant conventional capabilities as well as undermining the security of both nations.
Indeed, hybrid warfare's focus on leveraging global communications, media and social media outlets combined with the increasing prominence of political influence peddling served as the basis for claims of Russian collusion against US President Donald Trump.
Shifting the focus towards the Indo-Pacific, extremist groups like Salafi jihadist-group Jemaah Islamiyah in the Philippines and the growing prominence of highly organised, well armed and resourced, trans-national organised crime organisations and people smugglers are all learning from the successful implementation of hybrid warfare concepts including the extensive use of counter intelligence and counter surveillance, combined with aggressive guerrilla tactics to overpower traditional police and military forces.
Australia's support of the Philippines and ongoing commitments to countering the spread of violent extremism at home and abroad, particularly throughout south-east Asia is forcing the nation to dramatically rethink the way it engages with these asymmetric threats.
Australia is not immune to cases of foreign political tempering and influence peddling, with growing concerns about the role of Chinese money in Australia's political system, largely as a result of the growing power of lobbyists at both state and federal levels of government, which has resulted in the scalp of a high-profile senator and thrown open concerns about Chinese interference in the nation's political system.
This growing concern is also supported by a number of recent cyber attacks that breached the defences of Parliament House and have also seen a breach of defence industry, with a series of high-profile breaches affecting programs including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Western Australia-based naval shipbuilder Austal.
Special Operations Forces, combined with increasingly clandestine intelligence operations, are serving as powerful tools in countering the effectiveness of non-state supported hybrid warfare opponents, however, should a hostile state-based actor wish to influence and support such actors in the region, the response of both Australia and its regional and global allies would be significantly hindered.
Hybrid warfare is serving as a potent tool for both traditional state and non-state actors seeking to blur the distinctions between traditional concepts of 'hard' and 'soft' power, enabling such actors to dramatically influence regional and global events in an increasingly cost-effective and timely manner.
While traditional 'hard' power methods of power projection form a key component of contemporary hybrid warfare, the growing prominence of cyber warfare capabilities, combined with political influence peddling and lobbying, are all serving to raise questions about the strength of democracy and the walls that protect it both in Australia and across the world.