Fighting in the shadows

The nature of war has changed forever. The West must adapt if it is to ward off threats to global stability.

A network server in New York City, 2014.
A network server in New York City, 2014. Credit: Getty Images.

The United States, still the dominant military power in the world, is immersed in a new era of warfare that it has not yet recognised as endemic and enduring. America is losing its wars to less powerful but more adaptable adversaries, while preparing inadequately for future inter-state conflicts. The international order that keeps the West prosperous and free is being rapidly undermined by a confluence of adversaries and enemies – from Russia and Iran to Isis and al-Qaeda – that share changing the world order as an interim objective, even as they differ on other long-term goals.

This new era of warfare and geopolitics has evolved rather than suddenly emerging. Discussions of the changing international order and new forms of conflict have been taking place since the Cold War. Scholars and practitioners alike have been wrestling with the ideas of failing and fragile states, the rise of non-state and sub-state actors and the emergence of hybrid warfare.

The environment forecasted by theory decades ago is concretely taking shape today. Cases of state failure are no longer hypothetical or isolated. They are common, even in large states and vitally located regions. One might dismiss these cases were they limited to the Middle East, although that would be incorrect. But they are not. The world has watched multiple states on three continents fail: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, part of Nigeria and Ukraine. There are ongoing armed conflicts in all of them simultaneously. These episodes of state failure are not controlled and shaped by organised international processes, as was the dissolution of empires after the First World War. They are, rather, symptoms of a violent devolution of the world order that is controlled by no one.

The post-Cold War battlefield has evolved in ways predicted by prescient theorists and keen observers. The emergent way of war is typified by several common elements, many of which have historical precedents, but which constitute a new and different operating environment when taken together. It is now possible to discern common ways of warfare that have manifested themselves, as well as to recognise the challenges posed to the United States and its allies by the volume, scope and scale of conflicts fought with the combination of these new means.


‘Future contingencies will more likely present unique combinational, or hybrid, threats that are specifically designed to target US vulnerabilities,’ theorist Frank Hoffman wrote in 2007. ‘Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular, or terrorist), we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously… It is not just that conventional warfare or interstate conflict is on the decline, there is a fusion of war forms emerging, one that blurs regular and irregular warfare.’ The adversary varies his means in order to achieve his objectives optimally.

Hybrid adversaries combine terrorist tactics, guerrilla tactics and conventional warfare within an otherwise conventional command and control structure. Hybridisation brings three benefits. First, it optimises many different capabilities and ways of fighting within a diverse force; second, it allows the adversary to create new forms of flexible and adapt- able response to conflict. Hybridised militaries, like Isis, Iranian proxy forces and Russian proxy forces, have the advantages of not only combined arms warfare and manoeuvre, but also low-profile configurations. They can even hibernate if the tactical or strategic situation warrants a pause in operations. Third, hybridisation challenges other conventional militaries, such as the US armed forces, that have distinct doctrines to counter terrorism, guerrilla warfare and conventional warfare, giving the hybridised force an advantage over strong and established militaries that do not adapt as quickly or operate seamlessly.

Grey Zones

The hybridisation of warfare benefits further by operating in the grey zone that many of its practitioners have adopted. According to a National Defense University definition, ‘The grey zone is characterised by intense political, economic, informational and military competition, more fer- vent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.’ States like Russia, China, and Iran carefully calibrate their activities to keep them below what they perceive to be ‘red lines’, the crossing of which would justify American conventional responses. Thus, Beijing’s activities in the western Pacific remain close to but below undertakings that could cause Japan or South Korea to invoke America’s treaty obligations to defend them. Russia violates the airspace and maritime zones of the Baltic States, but refrains from actions that would allow them to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Iran interferes with the free transit of neutral shipping through the Strait of Hormuz on occasion, but always with enough of a legal fig-leaf to prevent the US or other states from invoking statutory or customary laws of the sea to respond with force.

‘By failing to understand that the space between war and peace is not an empty one,’ writes Nadia Schadlow, ‘but a landscape churning with political, economic and security competitions that require constant attention – American foreign policy risks being reduced to a reactive and tactical emphasis on the military instrument by default.’ Or, as we have seen in recent years, the US can be driven to a passive posture characterised more by demarches than by meaningful responses.

Hybrid and grey-zone warfare have become common as both state and non-state adversaries have sought to avoid American military strength and exploit American vulnerabilities at the grand strategic as well as tactical levels. Rivals have observed American paradigms about using force, the challenges of democratic decision-making and the time it takes to adapt a large military. They leverage predictable American behaviours and known weaknesses. State adversaries, such as Iran and Russia, have deliberately created doctrines for this environment and are executing these doctrines right now in places as diverse as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Moldova. The combination of hybridisation and grey-zone strategies has created a conundrum that the US has not yet begun seriously to fathom.

The Terrorist Army

Other actors are also increasingly using forms of hybrid warfare to pursue their objectives. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) forged a signature way of war in Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 that it is trying to adapt and export to other locations around the globe. Isis is neither a state nor a non-state actor; rather it is a counter-state that has set itself up in contradistinction to the international order around it. Isis is a terrorist army that conducts its campaign along a spectrum of operations, ranging from mechanised warfare to guerrilla actions and terrorist attacks. It controls territory for the purpose of governing it, rallying foreign fighters to de- fend its self-proclaimed caliphate and acquiring resources to use in further conquests and attacks.

Isis has raised the bar for organisations that participate in the global jihad: they must be an army as well as a terrorist group; control and de- fend terrain to establish a political entity; recruit and disseminate digit- ally; foster a social media echo chamber to create more resonance, even if there is less control over messaging. It deploys a carefully-tailored mix of all of these capabilities to pursue its objectives in Iraq and Syria and around the world.

Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has leveraged the revolutionary theory and corresponding style of warfare of Ayman al-Zawahiri, successor to Osama bin Laden, to establish itself as the leading opposition force in Syria. Brutality is not the fundamental difference between the ways of war of Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis. Rather, the two groups have pursued different visions about the relative timing and phasing of military force and governing. Jabhat al-Nusra has benefited from insinuating itself into the wider arc of Syrian rebels. This approach can be seen as a form of grey-zone strategy accessible to an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in an active war zone. Jabhat al-Nusra, partly on orders from al-Zawahiri, has deliberately shut down its efforts to attack the West directly for now. It works with a wide variety of opposition groups, many of which do not share its goals. It has entangled itself so thoroughly among many Syrian Sunni opposition groups with which the rest of the world will ultimately have to work that it has acquired the kind of circumstantial immunity that Russia, China and Iran enjoy by virtue of their grey-zone approaches. Jabhat al-Nusra intends to remain below the radar of the West, as it were, while it builds its strength and prepares for a larger and more serious fight.

Iran has effectively leveraged its ‘axis of resistance’, the umbrella term it uses for its allies and proxies to enhance its hybrid capabilities. Iran developed a model in Syria that leveraged the capabilities and man- power of the Syrian Arab Army, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, mobilisations of indigenous and foreign volunteers and elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It largely exported that model to Iraq as Isis collapsed the regime forces in much of the Sunni Arab areas. This conglomerate of forces conducts terrorist operations, guerrilla campaigns and modern mechanised warfare, supported by helicopters, planes and missiles as necessary. Iran is thus confronting the Isis and Jabhat al- Nusra hybrid forces with one of its own.

Iran’s coalition model has not been balanced by a rise in the force capability of other ethno-sectarian groups or regional powers, which raises the threat of a reactionary regional escalation by Sunni and Arab states that have relatively capable military institutions and the will to use them. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen in May 2015 is emblematic of this phenomenon. Riyadh faces a hybrid foe consisting of a tribal-sectarian force (the al-Houthi movement) allied with the remnants of the Yemeni military that remained loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. It has not tried, or been able, to build a rival hybrid force and has been relying therefore on airpower and limited ground engagements in support of a highly fragmented force opposed to the al-Houthis. The difficulties that military operation has encountered demonstrate, again, the challenges traditional militaries face when operating in this new environment.

In Eastern Europe, Russia is leveraging its military power to regain suzerainty in Kiev, having lost its puppet, former president Viktor Yanukovich. Countering Western influence in Eastern Europe is a core element of Putin’s strategy. The Nato expansion in Eastern Europe in the 1990s was a clear sign of Russia’s declining influence. Moscow now seeks to reverse that decline and regain and consolidate its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. It also seeks to challenge the Western-dominated international system by countering the United States and Western Europe around the globe.

Russia has succeeded in applying military force to create defensible sub-states in eastern Ukraine, deliberately to corrode political order in Europe. The success of Russia’s military strategy rests on the inability of the West to react to Russian aggression in a timely and coordinated fashion. Russian military deception and the West’s poor understanding of Russian military strategy fuel this policy gap. Russia has applied maski­ rovka, or Soviet-style military deception, to disguise its operations in Ukraine and achieve political objectives before either Kiev or the West could form a coherent response. Russia has integrated elements of unconventional warfare with Soviet doctrinal art to create an adaptive military strategy.

Putin has, in particular, revived a Soviet theory known as ‘reflexive control’, in which a militarily weaker state shapes the information and decision-making environment of a stronger foe in such a way that the enemy does what the weaker state wants it to. Russian information operations have thus succeeded in creating confusion in the West about what Russia has been doing in Ukraine, as opposed to what local separatist forces and leaders have caused to occur. The ‘little green men’ of the early days of Russian intervention were a gauche attempt at sowing con- fusion, but the attempt succeeded, in that the US and some of its allies refused to respond directly to what was, after all, a straightforward invasion of the sovereign territory of an independent state by Russian forces. But the whole Russian approach has been to make every controversy seem far from straightforward. Since the decision-making environment in the West largely favours inaction, rendering issues complex and con- fusing is generally sufficient to ensure that little action will ensue – which is precisely what Putin seeks.

It will not be easy for any American leader to respond to this rising threat. The US has historically relied on state actors with conventional militaries guided by more or less formal treaty obligations and inter- national laws and norms in order to protect global order against aggressors. That model is inappropriate for the challenges of today and tomorrow. The global order is already so badly damaged that protecting it is both meaningless and insufficient. The global order must first be restored before it can be protected and the US and its partners have not had to contemplate such an activity since 1945.

The restored global order will have to include new norms for dealing with hybrid warfare and grey-zone strategies. The old notions of what constitutes hostilities, when treaty obligations can or should be invoked (or even how they should be written in the first place) and what is meant by ‘peace’ and ‘war’ must be redefined. States that continue to operate on the belief that there is a sharp dividing line between peacetime and wartime will remain at the mercy of opponents who skilfully dance along that line until they have blurred it to the point of meaninglessness.

The American military will also have to be reshaped to confront this new environment. Phasing of peacetime engagement, followed by mobilisation, deployment to a theatre, major military operations and then post-conflict operations will be defeated by enemies that create situations that force the US and its partners to conduct all such activities simultaneously.

The hindrance to making all of these intellectual, legal and organisational changes is the failure to recognise how great is the threat to American and Western interests, since the threat has masked itself so well. The fact that none of our hybridising enemies can destroy us militarily (apart from the Russian nuclear force) leads many to conclude that we do not face a challenge great enough to justify these changes.

This is the mindset, above all, that we must reject and defeat. The world order is far more fragile than our own states and it is being destroyed at this moment. The West is far more dependent on that order than it imagines and its interests and security are being undermined every moment that order is weakened. This threat is already great enough to demand change. We must recognise it and begin to act upon it.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘The United States and the New Way of War’ in ‘War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2015.


Kimberly Kagan