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Newsletter 11-34
June 2011

Chapter 4. Preparing for Hybrid Threats: Improving Force Preparation for Irregular Warfare

William Fleser

Reprinted with permission from the May-June 2010 issue of Special Warfare.

As the United States military transitions in Iraq and addresses new challenges in Afghanistan, a strategic question looms: "And then what?" The challenges of those two wars have consumed much of the strategic thinking over the past eight years, and while those operations retain priority, it is probably prudent at this point to think about what today's challenges tell us about the nature of future conflicts.

As Karl von Clausewitz noted, it is important to understand the nature of the war before engaging in it, but in some respects, we don't have that luxury.1 In February, the Department of Defense released its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, which provides a more-thanadequate discussion of the pre-eminent security challenge facing our nation today and into the future:

The continued dominance of America's armed forces in large-scale, force-on-force warfare provides powerful incentives for adversaries to employ methods designed to offset our strengths. From nonstate actors using highly advanced military technology to states employing unconventional technologies, our current adversaries have shown they can and will tailor their strategies and employ their capabilities in sophisticated ways.

Thus, the QDR moves away from its previous Long War strategic construct toward more flexibility: It recognizes the increased complexity of war, the multiplicity of actors involved and the resulting tendency to blur the lines between traditional forms of conflict. It recognizes that today's adversary may engage in "hybrid approaches" that demand preparation for a broad range of potential conflicts.2 Hybrid adversaries, including state-sponsored entities, independent individual actors with access to high technology, terror franchises and aligned criminal organizations, may use terror as a tactic, as an operational concept or as a strategic gambit. They often use international humanitarian organizations to raise funds, and they employ proxies where needed to accomplish their ends. Hybrid threats readily employ the technologies of the 21st century to provide security, perform operational planning, obtain lessons learned and provide safe havens. They often act like nation states with state foreign-policy objectives while simultaneously employing terror, paramilitary militia, humanitarian, political, criminal and even conventional military capabilities.3

The purpose of this paper is not to engage in another debate over a new military term. Let's simply start with the assertion that it does not matter what terminology we use, because, in the end, the enemy gets a vote. And although he routinely reads our doctrine, he doesn't care about our internal intellectual debates. This paper is intended only to advance some ideas on what can be done to better prepare "the force" (special operations forces, or SOF) to deal with irregular or hybrid threats. Given that our forces have been involved in nonstop combat operations since mid-October 2001, we have gained a great deal of operational experience. But our adversary has also learned. What can we expect to deal with in the future, and how do we deal with emerging hybrid threats?

The experiences of the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF, during the 2nd Lebanon War provide some examples of the challenges inherent to hybrid conflicts. This is not to say that what they learned automatically translates to our situation, because the adversary also learns by experience. In 2006, Hezbollah, operating in Lebanon, was simultaneously a state-sponsored terrorist group, a political movement, a humanitarian organization and a conventional military force. Hezbollah employed new technologies as force multipliers, including strategic rocket assaults, unmanned aerial vehicles, night-vision technology, IEDs and the latest antitank guided missiles. To combat Hezbollah, the IDF was forced into a type of hybrid warfare: warfare that goes beyond conflict between states and armed groups and includes multiple forms of combat simultaneously, including conventional maneuver warfare, irregular tactics, information warfare, terrorist acts and criminal disorder.4

Revisiting the 2nd Lebanon War in detail is also not the purpose of this paper (for an excellent discussion of the conflict, see Russell W. Glenn, All Glory is Fleeting: Insights from the 2nd Lebanon War (Suffolk, Va.: National Defense Research Institute, 2008). From a force-preparation perspective, i.e., "How do we get ready for this kind of warfare?," we can draw at least three insights from IDF experiences in Lebanon and Gaza.

The first insight is that there is a need to understand the nature of irregular or hybrid adversaries. The IDF noted that hybrid organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, which combine criminal and terror activities along with political, religious and civic roles, seek victory through non-defeat and "disappearance" into the local population. That strategy has inherent weaknesses that can be exploited. The organization's need to hide within the population makes that population vulnerable to the kind of retaliation visited on the region of southern Lebanon in 2006. Simultaneously, there is a need to protect that host population, to the greatest extent possible, from the ravages of war and to ensure that the people understand where the real problem lies. That was Hezbollah's strategic paradox: By inviting open warfare with Israel, they also put at risk the support of the population on which their continued legitimacy depended.5 By not exploiting that weakness, the IDF enabled the international press and biased information outlets to praise Hezbollah for "standing up" to Israel, while locally, Hezbollah was able to win hearts and minds through the distribution of humanitarian aid, gaining a victory by information.6

During a rigorous self-examination following the war, the Israelis noted their unpreparedness for that kind of conflict. They recognized that military power alone is insufficient for dealing with the complex problem sets posed by the geopolitical situation unfolding during the summer of 2006.7 The IDF's military-heavy approach left it unable to capitalize on the inherent contradictions between Hezbollah's hybrid nature (a terrorist organization with conventional capabilities masquerading as a humanitarian governing agent), and thus the IDF lost the strategic narrative, both at home and abroad.

Conversely, in 2008 the IDF successfully adapted and exploited the contradictions and friction between the various factions within Hamas, achieving a favorable strategic outcome. IDF operations against Hamas were characterized by precision air strikes, a skillful combination of ground maneuver and special operations - synchronized with the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population - and homeland defense measures, all reinforced by an active information campaign. In short, the IDF successfully applied the lessons of 2006 to achieve victory.8

This is useful information for the theorist and the strategist, but it does not provide any actionable conclusions or templates that can be used to prepare the joint force to deal with hybrid threats. There were no templates generated from the 2nd Lebanon War, because the adversary also adapted after the conflict. That the IDF learned and adapted from its 2006 experiences was obvious by the results of the 2008 conflict. In the case of our current hybrid adversaries, they also learn from their mistakes and successes, and they adapt. In preparing for the next hybrid conflict, teaching U.S. and partner-nation organizations how to deal with complex problems and to find unique, adaptive and innovative solutions is as important as teaching them to perform tasks to doctrinally acceptable standards during a training exercise.

All that leads to the second insight, namely, that preparation for hybrid warfare necessitates that we teach staffs and leaders how to think, not what to think. Prior to 2006, the IDF had been immersed in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, or COIN, including an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. During that time, the IDF lost much of its proficiency in high-end joint operations of the type that characterized its rapid victories in the Yom Kippur and Six Day wars. It was essentially not prepared for a new emerging scenario in 2006.9

Engagement in long-term COIN did not prepare the IDF for the incursion into Lebanon, leading to the conclusion that operational activity is no substitute for training against emerging scenarios. The lesson to a force that has constantly been in conflict since October 2001 is obvious but painful: All that operational experience is potentially negated if we do not develop opportunities for "thinking through" hypothetical but realistic scenarios of what a hybrid adversary might throw at us.

The third insight on hybrid warfare comes from the author's personal interview with an IDF officer in 2006.10 While discussing the relationship between close cooperation and interoperability between SOF and conventional forces and success against hybrid adversaries such as Hezbollah, the author asked an Israeli colleague for his views on the role of leadership in operations involving conventional forces and SOF. The Israeli officer stated that in the IDF, it is common for conventional units to be subordinated to or directly support a special-operations unit, regardless of the rank of the SOF commander. This was particularly true when the SOF unit had been operating in the area and knew the population and terrain better than its conventional counterpart. In the IDF, experience and combat perspective outweighed considerations of rank as deciding factors in determining supporting/supported relationships. The Israeli colleague also stated that IDF special-operations forces were well-versed in employing conventional units as part of their operations. It seems that successful leadership against hybrid threats is more a function of experience and knowledge, both cultural and geographic knowledge, than it is a matter of rank.

So what can be gleaned from these insights and turned into actionable recommendations? It would be easy at this point to dismiss some of these observations by noting the differences between the IDF and the U.S. Department of Defense. The IDF is smaller, with different strategic considerations that come from being surrounded by enemies and having a lack of strategic depth, a reliance on its reserves for major operations, etc. Conventional wisdom might say that there is nothing to be learned from the IDF because of its inherent differences in size, make-up and strategic focus. However, if there is genuine concern over "what next after Afghanistan," there is one potential challenge in the SOF community that can be addressed, based on the IDF's experiences.

Current joint-training programs do not adequately train leaders and teams to think adaptively under pressure in regard to dealing with future hybrid threats and adversaries. Joint training is often focused on the process, not on problem-solving. As a result, the joint force could lack the kind of agile command and control necessary to combat adaptive adversaries, if it is not offered the opportunity to think about the problem set.

"The experiences of the IDF in Lebanon are an instructive example of the challenges of dealing with a hybrid or irregular enemy."

Additionally, SOF are rarely the supported elements in joint operations and are more often than not seen as enablers instead of as the main effort - a fact somewhat inconsistent with the nature of hybrid threats. U.S. conventional forces sometimes have cultural difficulty supporting SOF. Also, SOF organizations, with very few exceptions, do not consistently train to be the supported command. The 2010 QDR notes the need for more supporting and enabling capabilities for SOF, but absent creative thinking on how to employ them and effective command and control, employment of "enablers, support and sustainment" capabilities could be sub-optimal in future conflicts.

Smart people can make the complex sound really simple. A professor at the National Defense University once captured the essence of irregular or hybrid warfare: "Put your best plan in place and then play for the breaks." The problem is, without aggressive training against complex scenarios, staffs and leaders will lack the kind of agility necessary to effectively "play for the breaks." There may be a trend in the SOF community similar to one the IDF experienced leading up to 2006: specifically, viewing operational activity as a substitute for training and wargaming against future scenarios. At the same time, that operational activity constrains SOF from participating in training exercises. Given the cycle times between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no room for new training programs. Also, programs like joint mission-readiness exercises do not provide optimum training experiences for SOF leaders and staff teams. SOF presence in those programs normally consists of "response cells" focused on the integration of SOF and conventional forces. A force-preparation experience that builds staff proficiency in complex problem solving is missing. Finally, exercising SOF as a supported command may sound like a minor consideration, but if in future conflicts SOF are called into a lead role, they may be poorly prepared to employ the wide array of joint enablers available and needed for victory. That will likely require cultural as well as operational innovation. "Who's in charge" makes a difference.

While this problem is in itself complex, the following recommended actions could be undertaken now to help improve force preparation for hybrid threats.

The first recommendation is that we develop a joint training working group as part of the Global Synchronization Conference, or GSC, hosted by the U.S. Special Operations Command approximately every six months. It is a true global forum, during which participants discuss strategies for dealing with current problem areas and formulate solutions. The GSC audience includes combatant commands, or COCOMs; theater special-operations commands, or TSOCs; other government agencies; and allied partners. A GSC joint-training working group could be focused on identifying best training practices and opportunities, and on developing a broad community approach to training.

A second recommendation is to add wargaming to the force-preparation toolbox, particularly for the TSOCs. As the operational SOF entity in each COCOM, TSOCs have an inordinately high operational tempo. While training exercises provide some means for gaining proficiency in problem-solving, rarely do TSOCs have the ability to "wargame" their potential strategies and test assumptions about their own theater and operational plans. As we move into the realm of steady-state irregular warfare, TSOC theater plans need to be wargamed to determine a potential steady-state demand signal for both SOF and conventional forces. In recognition of the fact that conventional-force capabilities are needed for steady-state IW, TSOC wargames would be better identified as "subordinate unified command" wargames. The intent would be to provide the TSOCs with a forum, prepared and executed by an outside supporting agency, in which they could build proficiency in complex problem-solving while also building an understanding of the joint functional requirements necessary for addressing hybrid-warfare contingencies.

A related recommendation would be to pursue development of immersive training simulations that would enable TSOC and SOF-unit staffs to take advantage of available training time in small blocks in order to build proficiency. These simulations could be configured to push staffs to the limit against "virtual" adversaries, providing the kind of stresses that are not practical in larger exercises. This capability would be intended to provide training capabilities "to the edge," for use when and where unit leaders find time available. The U.S. Joint Forces Command's Small Group Scenario Trainer is an example of this kind of emerging technology.

We know that we are engaged in a protracted conflict and that our adversaries will continue to adapt and find new ways of exploiting our weaknesses. The experiences of the IDF in Lebanon are an instructive example of the challenges of dealing with a hybrid or irregular enemy. What is perhaps more instructive are the improvements the IDF made between Lebanon and Gaza to institutionalize advancements in its capabilities: rigorous analysis, application of lessons learned, wargaming of new approaches and the addition of new training programs. As a result, they out-adapted Hamas in Gaza. Making institutional changes to force-preparation turns out to be one of the key ways to out-think, out-adapt and out-fight our hybrid adversaries.


1. Karl von Clausewitz, On War, (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88.

2. U.S.Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, February 2010 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2010), 8.

3. Frank Hoffman, "Hybrid Warfare and Challenges," Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 52, 1st Quarter 2009, 34, available at "http://www.ndu.oou/inss/Press/jfq_p3.ges/editions/IS2/9.pdf".

4. Hoffman, 34.

5. The initial IDF invasion into Lebenon was in retaliation for the ambushing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. See "2nd Lebanon War": " html".

6. Max Boot, "The Second Lebanon War," Council on Foreign Relations, at " html".

7. Haartz Staff: "The main findings of the Winoqrad report on the 2nd Lebanon War," at "".

8. Toni O'Laughlin, "Israel mounts PR campaign to blame Hamas for Gaza destruction" in The Guardian, at "".

9. Boot and Haartz Staff.

10. Author interview with IDF officer, 12 October 2006.


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