Countering Hybrid Threats with Air Power?

Making True Sense of the ‘Hybrid Warfare’ Concept

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, GE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2014-2018)

 June 2018


Events of 2014 forced NATO member states to reconsider the international security environment. In the East, Russia’s annexation of Crimea took the world by surprise. Russia’s swift victory appeared especially impressive because it stood in stark contrast to the failures of its past military interventions, and it challenged the Western perception that its military was outdated and stuck in a Cold War mentality. Russia’s approach, which relied principally on armed yet non-military forces and techniques such as the use of information and disinformation, was particularly alarming.1

In the South, NATO faced a new era of protracted instability stretching from the Middle East via North Africa to the Sahel region. The most prominent threat emerging was the Daesh, who became a formidable opponent among non-state, armed groups through their successes in gaining and holding territory, employing a mix of terror and conventional tactics, and attracting thousands of fighters from all corners of the globe.2

‘Hybrid is the dark reflection of our comprehensive approach. We use a combination of military and non-military means to stabilize countries. Others use it to destabilize them.’3

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, May 2015

The earlier dismissed ‘Hybrid Warfare’ concept seemed to explain these two successes best. Both protagonists had something common in their tactics: the ability to use a ‘hybrid’ mix of activities, whose ambiguity makes it difficult to detect, identify, interpret, and attribute a threat accurately. This mix made it difficult to achieve the legal requirement of maximum certainty and determine appropriate countermeasures.4 From a Western perspective, such threats target our political, economic, and societal vulnerabilities, but remain concealed and below the threshold required for a conventional, collective response under the provisions of the North-Atlantic Treaty.5

‘Hybrid Warfare’ quickly re-emerged as a buzzword in politico-military circles as the Alliance realized the strategic implications of the current developments. However, since then the concept has not only been heavily debated but also often misunderstood and misused. As this article intends to show, the ‘Hybrid Warfare’ concept and its related terms must be used carefully and precisely when trying to deduce specific military capability requirements – particularly air power requirements – from it.

Prior to 2014 – Rise and Fall of ‘Countering Hybrid Threats’ in NATO

The popularization of the term ‘Hybrid Warfare’ can be attributed to the American military theorist Frank Hoffman, who in 2006, conceptualized an evolution of the battlefield environment that transcends the commonly accepted linear division between regular and irregular types of warfare.6 Within the Alliance, concerns about ‘Hybrid Threats’ were first reflected in the NATO Strategic Concept review of 2010 and incorporated in the Bilateral Strategic Command (Bi-SC) Capstone Concept for ‘Military Contribution to Countering Hybrid Threats (MCCHT)’. This document was developed based on operational experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. Here, adversaries were able to ‘conduct hostile actions through a broad array of conventional and non-conventional means and methods, and achieve a favourable outcome against a force that was superior, both technologically and militarily.’7 While ‘Hybrid Threat’ became an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of adverse circumstances and actions that may occur randomly and be driven by coincidental factors, the possibility of NATO facing the adaptive and systematic use of such means by adversaries in pursuit of long-term political objectives was seen to merit a ‘fresh and more conceptual approach from NATO’.8

One of the major conclusions of the Bi-SC Capstone Concept was that an effective response to such orchestrated ‘Hybrid Threat’ is unlikely to depend on new military hardware but factors outside the NATO military sphere.9 Countering Hybrid Threats (CHT) would require cooperation with non-military actors and a thorough understanding of civil-military interfaces to achieve unity of effort. This ‘Comprehensive Approach’, however, remained relatively undeveloped, since the necessary tools for governance and institution building, the rule of law and economic development, and other comprehensive activities, are usually not within the sphere of influence of NATO military staff and national military organizations.10 Therefore, despite the initial enthusiasm and the productive debate, there was an absence of political will among Alliance members to invest resources in developing the necessary capabilities. In 2012, NATO decided to halt its program of work on CHT, while acknowledging ‘hybrid threats will remain an important part of the dynamic and complex security environment and threat lexicon’.11

2014 and Beyond – Scholarly Opinions on ‘Russian Hybrid Warfare’

In the wake of Russia’s actions in the 2014 Ukraine Crises, a large volume of work has been published on Russian hybrid warfare.12 However, the general conclusion of strategists, civilian professors, military historians, and practitioners is that a hybrid approach to operations is not new. Many authors are sceptical of the concept, asserting indirect approaches and unconventional tactics, such as the use of proxy fighters, information warfare, psychological operations, or sabotage, have been part of most countries’ military toolbox for many years.13

Several experts question the relevance of the concept in the Russian case. Bettina Renz states the effectiveness of Russia’s operation in Crimea was not the result of applying a new war-winning formula. Instead, the seemingly effortless achievement of objectives in Crimea was the result of extremely favourable circumstances that are unlikely to work in a different scenario.14 Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojanski, offer a similar opinion saying the chances Russia could repeat a Crimea or Donbas scenario elsewhere are low. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine should instead be understood in terms of safeguarding vital national interests by applying the usual national instruments of power (diplomacy, information, military, economy) – a concept that should be well-known to the West.15

Other authors highlight the rapid politicization of the term ‘Hybrid Warfare’. Kofman and Rojanski reasoned the term has become a ‘catchall phrase’ and is ‘a poor descriptor having already led Western analysts and policymakers down an unhelpful path’.16 In a 2017 publication, Ofer Fridman argues ‘from a military tactical-operational concept intended to describe the evolving reality of the battlefield in the 21st century, the idea of “Russian Hybrid War” has been become a panacea to the identity crisis that the West has experienced since the end of the Cold War […] as it allows bringing any hostile action under the same conceptual umbrella, creating a continuity of a unified political message and allowing different internal political players to close the ranks against an external threat’.17

‘To respond appropriately to a hybrid threat, we must be able to promptly recognize and attribute hybrid actions and anticipate unconventional activity, as well as the conventional actions. Anticipation requires cooperation at all levels, across multiple ministries and throughout various lines of efforts, pursuing a comprehensive approach across the diplomatic/political, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal spectrum (DIMEFIL). National, bi-lateral, and collective Alliance efforts must be integrated and mutually reinforcing. We must develop resilience and readiness to resist hybrid actions and we must count on a quick decision-making process to enable our own actions. This is fundamental to our success.’18

General Philip M. Breedlove

Further critique is expressed about the misuse of the term ‘war’ when describing something that does not involve armed confrontation. Renz argues that discussing the centrality of non-military instruments, and in particular information, under the label of ‘hybrid warfare’ could be a misleading oversimplification.19 Fridman also says this could be very confusing since ‘conceptualizations of non-military confrontations as wars perplex the military leadership, simply because most of the required actions and counter-actions do not fall under military responsibility’.20

NATO’s New Strategic Approach to ‘Countering Hybrid Threats’

Despite these critical opinions, the 2014 developments quickly drove NATO to put CHT back on its main political and military agenda. Both the NATO Defence College and Allied Command Transformation organized several conferences and workshops, and the NATO Defence and Security Committee, as well as the Military Committee (MC), resumed their work on the subject.

At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO members agreed on the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) to ensure the Alliance will be ready to respond to perceived new security challenges. In December 2015, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs adopted a strategy on Hybrid Warfare, supplemented by the NATO Hybrid Warfare playbook, laying out who does what in dealing with complex security threat scenarios. While pursuing the readiness required for CHT as part of NATO’s collective defence and adopting the willingness to assist an ally at any stage of a hybrid campaign, the Alliance clearly assigned the primary responsibility for responding to ‘Hybrid Threats’ to the targeted nation.21

Recognizing the need for dialogue and coordination with like-minded partners, NATO and the EU are continuing to develop a ‘Comprehensive Approach’ that fuses all relevant actors and available instruments. CHT is about gaining an understanding of hybrid threats and the innovative use of existing capabilities, many of which reside in non-military governmental and intergovernmental agencies, the private sector, and international non-governmental organizations. In this sense, the NATO-EU joint declaration adopted during the Warsaw Summit in July 2016 outlines the new areas for related practical cooperation in particular through building resilience, situational awareness, and strategic communications.22

Hybrid Strategy. A strategy based on a broad, complex, adaptive and often highly integrated combination of conventional and/or unconventional means; with military, paramilitary and/or civilian actors; and both overt and covert activities conducted across the full spectrum of elements of power to target decision-making and complicating engagement.

Hybrid Threat. A state or non-state actor that employs a Hybrid Strategy. (It is assessed that in order to employ a Hybrid Strategy a non-state actor would need the ability to exercise many or all the elements of power normally associated with a sovereign state).

Hybrid Warfare. Adversary employment of a Hybrid Strategy, which includes the threat or use of force. (Force can be used at a lower level than the term warfare may imply to pressure, influence and/or destabilize without necessarily involving the seizure of territory).

Hybrid Model. A specific manifestation of Hybrid Strategy as employed by a particular adversary. (Each Hybrid Strategy will be unique and therefore any response must be tailored to it.)

The Necessity of Clear and Concise Terminology

To minimize ambiguity caused by non-standardized terminology, NATO has worked since 2014 to develop clear vocabulary regarding hybrid conflict. While there is still no unanimously agreed-upon definition of ‘Hybrid Warfare’, the MC considered using the terminology shown in Figure 1.23 If properly used, these terms should provide consistency and help prevent misunderstanding. The essential word is indeed ‘hybrid’, where a state or non-state actor (the ‘hybrid threat’) fuses different multi-modal means and methods (employs a ‘hybrid strategy’) in a way that is tailor-made to the context at hand.

In the author’s opinion, NATO as well as EU officials and bodies largely succeeded in the consistent use of the proposed terminology in their subsequent protocols, memoranda, and declarations related to the subject. However, other NATO documents including pieces of work within the air and space power realm have not been so consistent. For example, the term ‘hybrid air threat’ was introduced in some publications to describe the potential use of unmanned aerial platforms especially if they are small in size and low and slow flying (LSS), and possibly networked through swarming technologies. In these cases, the label ‘hybrid air threat’ seems to be chosen simply because

  1. an adversary actor employs the most modern means available (probably as commercial-off-the-shelf), or
  2. the use of this particular technology leads to possible ambiguity in identification and attribution as well as presenting an asymmetric threat difficult do defeat with traditional military air defence assets.

However, none of those characteristics conforms to the ‘hybrid’ definitions as proposed by the MC and adopted in the Alliance, as no singular, isolated attack with conventional or non-conventional military means alone could be ‘hybrid’. Recognizing the overall aspect of ‘hybridity’ means there is no distinct ‘hybrid’ type of attack, but it will always be a comprehensive mix of threats requiring a comprehensive response.

As Christopher O. Bowers wrote, ‘It is only natural that every armed force will use any and every means available to it. […] One needs to be cautious in simply defining a hybrid adversary as any that engages in multiple forms of warfare, because this can include just about every type of organization. […] If everybody is hybrid, then nobody is.’24


‘Hybrid Warfare’ is not new. But the way it can be applied in the modern era has in fact changed. Globalization and the increased complexity of the geostrategic environment, enabled by advances in technology and the access to it, have allowed adversaries to blend sophisticated forms of asymmetry to conceal their role as a party to the conflict, with the aim of complicating and delaying decision making. ‘Hybrid Warfare’ rarely conforms to established laws of war, and its ambiguity poses challenges to our traditional legal and conceptual understanding of crises and warfare. CHT, therefore, requires a higher level of Alliance attention and cooperation through increased strategic awareness (shared intelligence), political will and preparedness (including decision making), strategic communications (countering propaganda), and defensible and resilient networks and economies (cyber defence, economic and societal solidarity).

There is no doubt that in modern warfare the adversary may employ innovative unmanned air threats (such as LSS) whose detection, identification and engagement with air defence and air policing involve new technical and procedural capabilities as well as legal provisions probably not yet available to Alliance members. It is, however, modern technology and employment modes, not ‘hybridity’, which defines the novelty in this formidable military threat.

Improving NATO’s defence and deterrence posture towards emerging security challenges must start with accurately expressing existing capability gaps to the relevant decision makers. Using ‘Hybrid Warfare’ parlance and related buzzwords to portray a sense of urgency may be ineffective, or even counterproductive. This may particularly be true when it comes to air power, which has a different set of modern challenges and may have limited ability to counter any hybrid lines of attack. Military professionals and specialists should refrain from the inappropriate use of the term ‘hybrid’ as a prefix, since the all-inclusiveness of the ‘Hybrid Warfare’ theory may rather confuse and blur the debates the decision makers need to understand regarding the airpower problem in question. The ‘hybrid strategist’ on the opponent side, though, might consider a lack of such understanding a success.

Bettina Renz. ‘Russia and Hybrid Warfare’. In Contemporary Politics, 22; 3, 283–300. 25 Jun., 2016. DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2016.1201316.
NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Defence and Security Committee. ‘Hybrid Warfare: NATO’s New Strategic Challenge?’. 166 DSC 15 E bis. 10 October, 2015. Par. 8–9.
Online at:
European Parliament. ‘Countering hybrid threats: EU-NATO cooperation’. Mar. 2017. Online at
Ibid. 2, Par. 19.
Dr. Ofer Fridman. ‘The Danger of “Russian Hybrid Warfare”’. In Cicero Foundation Great Debate Paper No.17, 5 Jul. 2017. Online at:,
NATO. ‘Bi-SC Input to a New Capstone Concept for the Military Contribution to Countering Hybrid Threats’. 25 Aug., 2010. Par. 9. Online at:
NATO Allied Command Operations. ‘NATO Countering the Hybrid Threat’. Online at:
Ibid. 6. Par. 38.
Ibid. 7.
North Atlantic Military Committee. ‘Countering Hybrid Threats – Military Committee Advice (MCM-0074-2012)’. 12 Jul., 2012. The information herewith extracted is considered non-sensitive.
Visit the NATO Multimedia Library at:
Guillaume Lasconjarias and Jeffrey A. Larsen. ‘Introduction: A new Way of Warfare’. In NATO Defence College Forum Paper 24 ‘NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threat’, p. 1–2. Rome, 2015.
Ibid. 1.
Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky. ‘A Closer Look at Russia’s “Hybrid War”’. In Kennan Cable No. 7. Apr. 2015. Online at:
Ibid. 5.
Foreword in ‘NATO Response to Hybrid Threats’, NDC Forum Papers 2015.
Ibid. 1.
Ibid. 5.
Ibid 3., p. 4.
Ibid 3., p. 6.
North Atlantic Military Committee. ‘NATO Military Authorities’ Advice on the Hybrid Warfare Complementary Assessment – Follow-on Tasking from the Wales Summit (MCM-0022-2015)’. 27 Mar., 2015. The information herewith extracted is considered non-sensitive.
Christopher O. Bowers. ‘Identifying Emerging Hybrid Adversaries’. In Parameters, Spring 2012, p. 40.
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2014-2018)

Lieutenant Colonel MBA Martin Menzel began his military carrier in 1985, spending several years in the German Army Engineer branch, including positions as Company Commander and as Chief Instructor at the German Army NCO School. In 1999, he stepped over into the Military Intelligence branch. With a broad range of intelligence positions and functions held at Headquarters 1st German/Netherlands Corps, Joint Force Command Brunssum, SFOR, and ISAF, he became a highly experienced staff officer with regard to the conduct of military intelligence at the operational level in NATO or multinational staff environments. From May 2014 to September 2018, Lieutenant Colonel Menzel served as the JAPCC’s Subject Matter Expert for Research, Analysis and Intelligence Support, and he also was the Assistant Editor of this journal.

Information provided is current as of December 2018

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