We need to deve­lop a com­mon and com­pre­hen­si­ve under­stan­ding of the impli­ca­tions of new tech­no­lo­gies in a hybrid threats/warfare context

By Ralph Thiele

Hybrid war­fa­re has beco­me a fami­liar phe­no­me­non. But at a time of cli­ma­te cata­stro­phes and pan­de­mics, booming tech­no­lo­gi­cal inno­va­tion, geo­po­li­ti­cal rival­ry and a glo­bal reor­ga­ni­za­tion of sup­ply cha­ins, hybrid sce­na­rios below the thre­shold of war have gained enor­mo­us importance.

Whi­le hybrid thre­ats used to be the weapon of the weak, new tech­no­lo­gies and the­ir disrup­ti­ve poten­tial have made such attacks an effec­ti­ve, hither­to low-risk instru­ment of power – one that will fore­se­eably evo­lve into the gold stan­dard in geo­po­li­ti­cal confrontation.


Nobo­dy has descri­bed hybrid war­fa­re as aptly as Gene­ral Vale­ry Gera­si­mov, the Rus­sian Chief of Defen­se Staff, who has cal­led it “a cle­ver com­bi­na­tion of eco­no­mic, secret servi­ce and many other non-mili­ta­ry and mili­ta­ry means [that] can trans­form a flo­uri­shing coun­try into a cha­otic tor­so in a short period of time.”

As we have lear­ned from Russia’s recent cam­pa­igns on NATO’s Eastern flank, hybrid aggres­sors employ the­ir capa­bi­li­ties in pur­su­it of hybrid objec­ti­ves both in and bey­ond tra­di­tio­nal doma­ins (i.e., air, land and sea) and new doma­ins (i.e., spa­ce, cyber and the elec­tro­ma­gne­tic spec­trum). The Krem­lin aims at people, assets, cri­ti­cal infra­struc­tu­re and, last but not least, the self-ima­ge and cohe­sion of enti­re sta­tes and societies.

New tech­no­lo­gies such as 5G, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gen­ce (AI), auto­no­mo­us sys­tems, cyber, quan­tum and spa­ce have had a cata­ly­tic effect on hybrid war­fa­re. They impro­ve the star­ting con­di­tions for hybrid action, expand the arse­nal of hybrid actors and thus help to incre­ase the sco­pe of the­ir acti­vi­ties as well as the­ir chan­ces of suc­cess. New tech­no­lo­gies offer offen­si­ve oppor­tu­ni­ties in particular.

At the same time, new tech­no­lo­gi­cal deve­lop­ments can pro­vi­de options to bet­ter detect, under­stand, defend aga­inst and coun­ter hybrid attacks. Most impor­tan­tly, new tech­no­lo­gi­cal trends incre­asin­gly make tech­no­lo­gy itself a “bat­tle­gro­und” for hybrid con­fron­ta­tion. Aga­inst this back­drop, tech­no­lo­gy repre­sents an addi­tio­nal doma­in and an oppor­tu­ni­ty for hybrid actors to expand the “bat­tle­field” hori­zon­tal­ly. The tech­no­lo­gi­cal doma­in can even beco­me the cen­tre of gra­vi­ty of a hybrid confrontation.

Here are a few examples:


In a mali­cio­us hybrid appro­ach, Rus­sia has tar­ge­ted libe­ral demo­cra­tic con­sti­tu­tio­nal sta­tes thro­ugh Bela­rus via an aggres­si­ve, arti­fi­cial­ly gene­ra­ted migra­tion flow across the Polish and Lithu­anian bor­ders. The fier­ce dispu­tes of the gre­at migra­tion cri­sis of 2015 are to be reani­ma­ted in a tar­ge­ted man­ner, and the Euro­pe­an Union’s poli­ti­cal sta­bi­li­ty is to be sha­ken. It can be seen how – fuel­led by social media – the seeds are gro­wing and the people who pull the cords in this cam­pa­ign are being for­got­ten in the public eye. This appro­ach also inc­lu­des sup­por­ting radi­cal poli­ti­cal gro­ups and fuel­ling unrest.

Infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion infrastructure

Hybrid thre­ats fuse indu­strial age tech­ni­qu­es with cyber ope­ra­tions. They use a sys­tem of selec­ted visi­ble and clan­de­sti­ne actions, inc­lu­ding social engi­ne­ering, in which the attac­kers are almost invi­si­ble and the tar­get is well-defi­ned. The num­ber and quali­ty of Rus­sian cyber-attacks have grown enor­mo­usly. One cyber­se­cu­ri­ty alarm fol­lows the next. The networks and servers of manu­fac­tu­rers, pro­fes­sio­nal and pri­va­te users, which are in par­ti­cu­lar dan­ger by Rus­sian attacks, are only the tip of the ice­berg. Spy softwa­re in natio­nal par­lia­ments and secu­ri­ty autho­ri­ties, in cri­ti­cal infra­struc­tu­res and weapon sys­tems, give Rus­sia enor­mo­us oppor­tu­ni­ties in eco­no­mic and poli­ti­cal dispu­tes. Sta­te, sta­te-spon­so­red and cri­mi­nal per­pe­tra­tors cavort in our networks. They explo­re, ste­al, fal­si­fy, coer­ce, and black­ma­il as they look for access to rese­arch, indu­strial and sta­te secrets, data­ba­ses and pri­va­te accounts.

Social networks and media

The use of onli­ne servi­ces such as social media, mes­sen­ger servi­ces or cryp­to­cur­ren­cies are an inte­gral part of Rus­sian hybrid cam­pa­igns and are also used to finan­ce acti­vi­sts. The focus is on the misu­se of Inter­net plat­forms for com­mu­ni­ca­tion pur­po­ses, the dis­se­mi­na­tion of pro­pa­gan­da, recru­it­ment and know­led­ge trans­fer. Social networks and media can be mani­pu­la­ted for hybrid pur­po­ses – from voting beha­vio­ur to ter­ro­rist mobi­li­za­tion. The instru­ments Rus­sia uses inc­lu­de sta­te-con­trol­led media at home and abro­ad. Social media, in par­ti­cu­lar, are suscep­ti­ble to fake news, meant to under­mi­ne the trust of Western socie­ties in the­ir own insti­tu­tions and poli­ti­cal eli­tes. Migra­tion and the ongo­ing COVID-19 pan­de­mic offer ample oppor­tu­ni­ties for such fake news. Indi­ca­tors of malign acti­vi­ty can be found across the board, inc­lu­ding micro­tar­ge­ting, deep fakes, and tech­no­lo­gy-sha­ring betwe­en hybrid actors.

Empo­we­red intel­li­gen­ce services

In hybrid war­fa­re, intel­li­gen­ce servi­ces are in demand like never befo­re. To respond to hybrid thre­ats, we need deep, bro­ad and com­pre­hen­si­ve ana­ly­ses over exten­ded time­sca­les and across actors, regions and issu­es. Tech­no­lo­gies such as Big Data and AI have enor­mo­us poten­tial to ena­ble a new depth in iden­ti­fy­ing, trac­king and coun­te­ring hybrid thre­ats. At the same time, the­se very tech­no­lo­gies ena­ble new hybrid chal­len­ges from tech­no­lo­gi­cal­ly advan­ced opponents.

Mul­ti-doma­in ope­ra­tions effec­ti­ve­ly requ­ire a feed­back loop betwe­en poli­ti­cal objec­ti­ves and ope­ra­tions. Intel­li­gen­ce per­ma­nen­tly feeds this loop, ensu­ring deci­sion-makers and ope­ra­tors have the infor­ma­tion they need to adjust nim­bly. Vir­tu­al­ly eve­ry form of tech­ni­cal intel­li­gen­ce pro­fits from new tech­no­lo­gies, inc­lu­ding the emer­ging fields of cyber and social media intel­li­gen­ce, to name a few. Moscow uses its secret servi­ces vir­tu­al­ly in cyber­spa­ce, inc­lu­ding thro­ugh the sup­port of hac­ker networks, but also incre­asin­gly aga­in in real spa­ce: poli­ti­cal mur­der has retur­ned as a form of Rus­sian action.

Armed for­ces

Armed for­ces have beco­me ano­ther part of the hybrid port­fo­lio. Mili­ta­ry strength pro­vi­des addi­tio­nal oppor­tu­ni­ties to explo­it hybrid methods, even witho­ut the acti­ve use of for­ce. Moscow’s aggres­si­ve mili­ta­ry measu­res and pro­vo­ca­tions on land, air and sea, and in spa­ce and cyber­spa­ce have reached alar­ming pro­por­tions, invo­lving mili­ta­ry mano­eu­vres, simu­la­ted attacks and lar­ge-sca­le light­ning exer­ci­ses near its neigh­bo­urs’ bor­ders, among other actions. The com­bi­na­tion of new tech­no­lo­gies and atten­dant ope­ra­tio­nal con­cepts have been the key to the suc­cess­ful rise of Rus­sian mili­ta­ry capa­bi­li­ties over the past decade.

Mul­ti-doma­in ope­ra­tions in hybrid cam­pa­igns invo­lve out­ma­no­eu­vring an oppo­nent, in which the opponent’s cohe­sion is disrup­ted. This invo­lves skil­ful­ly chal­len­ging the oppo­nent simul­ta­ne­ously with an unso­lva­ble varie­ty of pro­blems in dif­fe­rent doma­ins, the­re­by over­bur­de­ning and final­ly out­ma­no­eu­vring him.

At pre­sent, Rus­sia is the grand­ma­ster of hybrid war­fa­re, tho­ugh Chi­na is esta­bli­shing itself as the coming world cham­pion, and the­re are a num­ber of other rising actors. To pre­vent, defend aga­inst and – if neces­sa­ry – coun­ter and out­ma­no­eu­vre hybrid oppo­nents, it is the­re­fo­re impor­tant for poli­ti­cal, civi­lian and mili­ta­ry deci­sion-makers, as well as for indu­stry and aca­de­mia, to deve­lop a com­mon and com­pre­hen­si­ve under­stan­ding of the impli­ca­tions of new tech­no­lo­gies in a hybrid threats/warfare context.

NATO, the EU and mem­ber nations sho­uld deve­lop robust mul­ti-doma­in instru­ments for achie­ving advan­ta­ge in hybrid cam­pa­igns whi­le pre­ven­ting esca­la­tion into lar­ger armed con­flict. Out­ma­no­eu­vring oppo­nents requ­ires the back­bo­ne of resi­lient infra­struc­tu­re that can with­stand attacks from cyber­spa­ce, outer spa­ce, and the elec­tro­ma­gne­tic spectrum.

Ralph Thie­le, reti­red Colo­nel, is Pre­si­dent of Euro­De­fen­se (Ger­ma­ny), Cha­ir­man of the Ber­lin-based Poli­ti­cal-Mili­ta­ry Socie­ty, and Mana­ging Direc­tor at Strat­Byrd Con­sul­ting. In his 40-year mili­ta­ry care­er in the Ger­man Armed For­ces, he has held key natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal posi­tions. He also offers advi­ce in his hono­ra­ry and busi­ness func­tions on defen­ce inno­va­tion in times of digi­tal trans­for­ma­tion. He has most recen­tly publi­shed the book “Hybrid War­fa­re. Futu­re and Tech­no­lo­gies.”

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