In our earlier piece Hybrid Warfare: The Killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour; we have elucidated on the nature of Hybrid Warfare and how America used it conventionally and non-conventionally to target the Taliban chief in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Quetta province. The use of Drone warfare in striking the convoy of Taliban chief Mullah Mansour and simultaneously hacking the social media accounts/websites of Taliban to prevent propaganda is a classic example of asymmetrical warfare techniques deployed by the US in tackling terrorism. The concept of Hybrid Warfare is not new and novel as the same subversive techniques and tools have been used in the past by states and their intelligence agencies. KGB used disinformation and propaganda as a tool of asymmetrical warfare in the Cold War over large swaths of its populace and regions that fell under its sphere of influence as did CIA to prevent the spread of communism in the US.
However, Hybrid Warfare has taken a whole new dimension with the advent of technology and the digital world where cyberspace can be manipulated to spread propaganda and weaponised in the form of cyber hacking. Hybrid Warfare; with the marriage of technology with conventional methods has become a next generation tool which the world is slowly catching up with. We shall further read on as to how the powers like Russia, China, US and even Pakistan are using Hybrid Warfare against their enemies.
Russia has been one of the best exponents of Hybrid Warfare since decades (under KGB and now FSB); using disinformation and propaganda with technology as part of asymmetrical warfare. One of the prime examples of this was Russia’s sudden manoeuvre in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea in March 2014 after the coup in Ukraine which deposed pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. Russia has vociferously claimed that it was the US and its Deep State who engineered the Euromaidan Coup in a bid to encroach upon the Russian sphere of influence by forcing Ukraine to sign an association accord with EU and become a part of NATO. President Putin being an ex-KGB man responded to what he called asymmetrical warfare by the US by launching the most potent technique from the Soviet playbook blended with modern technology in the form of Hybrid Warfare.
President Putin retaliated to the engineered Ukrainian Coloured Revolution by the US by swiftly moving into Crimea and annexing it via a referendum that justified its occupation. How did this happen? Russian forces and its backed armed militias took over the airport and parliament in the autonomous province of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and deployed information warfare that KGB was famous for during the Cold War. Russian-backed media carried out incessant propaganda in Crimea with ads, posters and billboards asking the majority Russian-dominated Crimean people to choose between the Neo-Nazis in Ukraine or the patriotic Russians who were touted as a liberators or saviours. The propaganda was carried out at a mass scale in Crimea to such an affect that in the Referendum that followed more than 90 percent of the local populace voted to join Russia; something that was viewed by the West as rigged and an illegal act of annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Thus, Russia carried out Hybrid Warfare most effectively by backing rebels in the provinces of Eastern Ukraine along with incessant information warfare blaming the West for the civil war in Ukraine.
Russia used multiple strategies as part of Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine like 1) Annexing Crimea after massive propaganda brandishing the Ukrainian Government as Neo-Nazis, 2) Backing the rebels in Donetsk and other provinces of Eastern Ukraine who were abetting the insurgency with the plausible deniability of Russian active backing, 3) Massive information warfare blaming the West for orchestrating unrest and civil war in Ukraine. Through all of this, Russia converted the Ukrainian conflict to its advantage; strengthening its position among the Normandy Four (a diplomatic group of senior representatives of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine formed to resolve the situation in East Ukraine) who acceded to granting greater autonomy to the rebel provinces in Eastern Ukraine while totally leaving the status of Crimea out of the purview of any settlement.
The Russian use of Hybrid Warfare also was exemplified in the aftermath of the MH-17 Malaysian Airlines shoot-down in Eastern Ukraine that killed more than 250 passengers in July 2015. While the western media drew the link of the crash to the Russian-backed rebels who had just days before shot down a Ukrainian Sukhoi military jet with a similar BUK missile; Russia countered the charges with a barrage of information warfare across the digital world, media and social media platforms suggesting that MH-17 was a Western conspiracy to blame Russia to divert and cover its role of backing the Neo-Nazis to power in Ukraine.
The information warfare carried by the US and its Deep State and the Russian counter to same provide apt examples of Hybrid Warfare where conventional methods are married with unconventional means such as disinformation, propaganda and subversive techniques using the digital world like Social Media, blogs, media outlets, etc. to propagate biased versions for the justification of actions. Russia has even blamed the Ukrainian Government of stopping the electrical supply to the Crimean Peninsula to target Russia’s control over the region.
The duel between the US and Russia on Hybrid Warfare was exhibited in Syria as well. The Russian backing of the Assad Regime along with Iran throughout the Syrian Civil War has mired the conflict into a never-ending saga with significant human misery in the form of war crimes and the refugee crisis. Here, Russia deployed Hybrid Warfare by covertly arming and backing the Assad regime and its sponsored Shia Militias, terror groups like Hezbollah, etc. who were engaged in a battle with the Wahhabi/Salafi terror groups like ISIS and/or other radical jihadists groups like Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda affiliate), etc. In response to the US threat of bombing the Assad regime and facing the advancing rebel militias, Russia quickly mobilized its forces into Syria; deploying its advanced air power into bombing rebel-held areas to help fortify the Assad regime. Russia, during its brief bombing attack launched a massive information warfare campaign about ISIS being pulverized by it to the extent that even some western media outlets carried out the Russian propaganda which was a clear exaggeration as Russia had bombed the Rebel-held areas like Idlib and Hama in North Western Syria where there was hardly any ISIS presence. Russian media outlets and blogger sites also blamed the West for the human catastrophe that the Free Syrian Army, Jaish Al Fateh, Arhar Al Sham etc. have brought on the region while totally ignoring the grave war crimes Russia has committed by aiding the barrel bombing campaigns of the Assad Regime on schools, markets, hospitals, etc.; turning cities into mass ghost towns and graveyards.
While the blame for the conflict in Syria lies with the US and its allies and Russia, Iran and their sponsored militias; the information warfare carried out by both the sides like Belling Cat’s expose of the Russian strikes and Sputnik’s expose of the Western charade on terror is a clear marker of the war that is being fought in the digital world and cyberspace. Belling Cat is a pro-West open source investigative journalism platform while Sputnik is an online news and radio broadcast service established by the Russian government. After maintaining a hard stand, Russia has used Hybrid Warfare to its absolute advantage by now offering a ceasefire to soften the moderate opposition to the Assad Regime and achieved its objectives of maintaining its strategic foothold like the Black Sea fleet in Crimea or the Tartus naval base on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean.
Russia has further been able to weaponize cyberspace by hacking the DNC (Democratic National Convention) Server and looking into Hillary Clinton’s emails releasing them through Wikileaks and other platforms to influence the US elections in favour of Donald Trump. This is another example of marrying conventional war with asymmetrical weapons like Cyber Space, Internet and propaganda to gain an advantage over the opponent for your desired result. Russia has also been using Hybrid Warfare to target the EU states by first backing Assad and his bombings in Syria causing the refugee crisis in Europe and simultaneously backing the Anti-Refugee pro-right parties in Europe like Maria Le pen’s front in France and criticizing the EU refugee policy. This way Russia has been able to seed divisions within EU to maintain itself as a dominant power on the European Continent.
While Russia has been one of the best exponents of aggressive Hybrid Warfare, the Chinese play is more subtle but equally lethal. China also has a closed internet model where anti-China propaganda and access to anything western is blacked out. The Chinese have also mastered the art of Information Warfare by weaponising their populace by indoctrinating them with the CPC’s nationalistic version of history (the Patriot Education Program); claiming the Chinese people as victims of the Western Imperial powers over the last few centuries. The Chinese regularly violate human rights on the Tibetans, ethnic Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners, etc. by denying them basic freedom while professing a peaceful rise. We have explained the Chinese mindset and their psyche in our book The New Global Order and our earlier article on the MSS.
The Chinese have mastered the art of deception learnt from the Sun Tzu military doctrines. The Chinese deception is about pretending to be pacifist and a power that seeks a fair global order while in reality, it aims of being the sole hegemon, capable of replacing the United States as the sole super power of the world. The Chinese art of deception was craftily deployed in the early 1950’s and 60’s when China used the Panchsheel agreement with India to legitimize itself globally when it was considered a pariah to the international comity of nations. The Chinese deception strategy talks of biding its time and engaging with its rivals while quietly building capacities to ultimately overturn the apple cart of the Westphalian Order at the right time. China used the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union to open itself to the western capitals whilst legitimizing its claims of One China which includes the Autonomous region of Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The Chinese have also been using deception along with information warfare like relying on Qing dynasty maps to claim regions far across from Tawang in India to the Far East in Siberia and the South China Sea.
The Chinese have long used information warfare like espionage, hacking and stealing Intellectual Property of the critical US weapon systems like Predator Drones, F-22 Stealth Jets, developing their jets based on these technologies and providing cutting-edge technology to their armed forces. Along with this China has also been engaged in developing asymmetrical weapons that can take down critical communication satellites in Asia-Pacific and is developing systems that could jam GPS in the event of warfare, and laser-guided weapons that could provide more high-tech weaponry to an already advanced military in the world. China’s marriage of Asymmetrical warfare techniques along with Russian style propaganda makes its version of Hybrid Warfare even more lethal given the economic might China enjoys in the world after the United States.
China’s used of Hybrid Warfare can be best measured in the context of the battle of South China Sea. Just like Russia, China has deployed a multi-layered strategy of Hybrid Warfare to legitimize its claims over the entire region of South China Sea. China first used the Qing Dynasty maps for its 9 Dash Line to claim the entire area, then used its fishing militias as a low level subversive operation to stake claim to the region while keeping an eye on the international naval activities and finally used land reclamation as a tool to build artificial islands like the Spratly; operating civilian and military jets from a landing strip thereon. With this China can now impose an ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) over almost the whole of South China Sea. Moreover, China fully anticipating the UN verdict going against it went on an extensive propaganda with campaigns advocating its claims in the South China Sea. It splashed out on full page ads in an Indian daily and even released a small video film in Times Square in New York revealing the depth of the Chinese propaganda machinery!
In addition, China has also used deception as a component of Hybrid Warfare. Examples are its offering Philippines a dialogue in wake of the UN Tribunal verdict i to assuage tempers and buy time before it is in a position to decisively tilt the scales in its favour or the Panchsheel agreement with India while quietly building on in the region of Aksai China which it claims to be its part based on its historical claims. The Chinese version of Hybrid Warfare is emboldened by China’s economic might and with the entry of its Yuan in SDR that paves the way for a potential challenger to the US, the world will need to wake up to the masterful treachery that China seeks to carry out through the effective use of Hybrid Warfare. China is using Hybrid Warfare by keeping tensions below the point of escalation or conflict while gaining strategically. China’s strength comes from its military might, and it is fully aware that in the current situation of a dull economy and weak growth, it can ill afford a war, and this is where asymmetrical warfare becomes very important.
While Russia, China and the United States have been the best exponents of Hybrid Warfare, there are other countries like Pakistan who have taken a leaf out of Afghan Jihad and used proxy war and propaganda as tools to validate their claims. Pakistan has for long funded terror groups operating from its soil in a proxy war against India to bleed it by thousand cuts and to wrest control of the region of Jammu & Kashmir. It has also been funding the separatists in the Kashmir valley who toe its line; decrying the Indian state as an occupying force. With the calibrated used of terrorists and separatists backed by an ecosystem nurtured over the decades through the Track II circuit; the Pakistani military intelligence has been able to build a vocal section of society in India that even questions the Indian claims on Jammu & Kashmir.
A section of the Indian Intellectual elite is a tool of Pakistan’s Hybrid Warfare as we have covered in our earlier article. In response to Pakistan, India has now upped its game in Hybrid Warfare by backing the Baloch Movement and the suppression of human rights in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir through media, cyberspace and diplomacy to isolate Pakistan; causing flutters in the region as the Hybrid Warfare between two countries reaches to a new level and the curfew in Jammu & Kashmir continues.
As time changes so will, the nature of warfare; and India and other countries across the world will have to wake to the new reality of the 21st century where wars are no longer fought on conventional battlefields alone but also asymmetrically over the digital world, cyberspace, social media, etc. The technology revolution has brought in a completely new dimension to warfare i.e. the battle of mind space or ideological subversion which we have extensively covered in our book “The New Global Order”. This form of Hybrid Warfare is lethal and potent. Moreover, it’s not just the countries and their intelligence agencies but also a host of terror groups that are using ideological subversion for their gains. The bloody nose that Israel received at the hands of Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War and the use of cyberspace and graphic videos by terror groups like ISIS further underscore the importance of not only understanding the nature of Hybrid Warfare but also developing a credible deterrent and counter to the same.