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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2017

Hybrid Impact on the Air Domain

By Brigadier General Luigi Del Bene, ITA Air Force


In the context of hybrid threats, up to now Air Power has been employed mainly in order to ensure adequate support to land forces to counter hybrid threats on the ground. However, it appears increasingly necessary to evolve this paradigm to a new approach that considers Air Power a guarantor of support against hybrid threats coming from the air. Those threats take advantage of modern technologies for purposes of espionage, sabotage, data collection, attacks on people or infrastructure, or the achievement of media effects.

In particular, one of the main challenges of hybrid warfare is the potential malicious use of technologies such as remotely piloted platforms, in both military operations and in peace time, in the opening moves of extremely complex scenarios.

Knowing how complex this challenge is, it is essential to synergize all intergovernmental capabilities and skills available to maintain the necessary Situational Awareness (SA) both at the tactical level, in terms of surveillance, and in a more general way through information activities that enable the creation of higher and better decision-making conditions.


‘Hybrid Warfare is underpinned by comprehensive strategies based on a broad, complex, adaptive and often highly integrated combination of conventional and unconventional means, overt and covert activities, by military, paramilitary, irregular and civilian actors, which aim to achieve (geo) political and strategic objectives.’1

In hybrid warfare, there is usually an emphasis on exploiting the vulnerabilities of the target and on generating ambiguity to hinder decision-making processes.

Because countering hybrid threats relates to national security and defence, the primary responsibility to counter these threats lies with NATO member states, as most national vulnerabilities are country-specific.

This evolving threat requires a change of mind-set from the ones commonly used in the post-Cold War era to a more dynamic approach, allowing nations to be able to counter hybrid threats rapidly and flexibly.

The Military Problem in the Evolving Threat Scenario

The air domain is being increasingly exploited to perpetrate illicit and terrorist attacks, posing a significant threat to Homeland Security and National Defense.

A broad range of flying devices are emerging as potential means to cause damage to human life and critical infrastructure or to produce significant cognitive effects, thus increasing the public’s sense of vulnerability. Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies have greatly improved non-state actors’ aerial warfare capabilities, broadening the threat spectrum with so called Low, Slow, Small (LSS) vehicles. The use of unmanned and manned LSS (e.g. balloons, ultralight aircraft and gliders) could expand the definition of, and employment against, what we already know as ‘Renegades’.

The proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, combined with increasingly available and inexpensive delivery methods provided by these new low-cost technologies, will increase the risk of malicious attacks to territory, population and critical infrastructures from the air.

Of note, cyberspace is a dimension that could be used to enable the hybrid threat evolution, especially considering the operational relevance of the network enabled approach in today’s operations. A particular aspect of today’s hybrid threat, which uses highly innovative technologies, is its invasiveness in national systems, even in peacetime. In this sense both the use of cyber capabilities and LSS may impact national interests without notice and under complete anonymity. An adaptive and faceless adversary, whose asymmetric aerial/digital capabilities may allow him to conduct hard to detect violations of national sovereignty, is the nature of the problem. Against this backdrop, airmen should investigate how Air Power can be adapted to counter such an array of threats, both at home and abroad.

The solution must consider the integration of key capabilities necessary to effectively defend national territory, domestic populations, and critical infrastructure from aerial asymmetric threats by combining Homeland Air Defense (HAD) with Homeland Security (HLS) resources. A successful HAD requires the ability to sense2 adversary activities, understand their potential impact and make timely and appropriate decisions to neutralize or mitigate adversary effects.


Conceptual Development

The NATO Military Committee (MC) is beginning work on a redraft of MC400 (MC Directive for Military Implementation of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept) in lieu of a new Strategic Concept. Two fundamental reasons undergird this approach:

  • The strategic environment has fundamentally changed since 2010.
  • The new US Administration will need to buy into NATO policies and NATO may need to re-adjust somewhat to possible changes in US support.

In this framework, NATO continues to place a greater focus on Air Power. For example, air missions are frequently the cutting edge of NATO responses for operations in the East and South, unmanned technologies are increasingly being used in all arenas and Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) and air and space technologies continue to be critical to feed the air picture for air operations. A new Joint Air Power Strategy is also under development in order to influence capability planning in NATO.

In this context, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO is conducting detailed studies on hybrid warfare aimed at developing new strategies favoring an enhanced resilience against hybrid war. From this standpoint, baseline national resilience requirements and guidelines have been developed for Allies at a national level. Undoubtedly, invasive effects on Homeland Security and the National Defense system, generated by hybrid threats in the Air Domain, require increased coordination and harmonization at a multinational level (NATO/EU cooperation) to achieve political, industrial/technological and procedural common results.

More specifically, a closer interaction between EU and NATO would enable both organizations to better prepare and respond effectively in a complementary and mutually supporting manner. This proposed interaction would be based on the principle of inclusiveness, while respecting each organization’s decision-making autonomy and data protection rules.

EU Member States and NATO Allies alike expect their respective organizations to support them, and to act swiftly, decisively and in a coordinated manner in the event of a crisis (or ideally to prevent the crisis from happening).

A number of areas for closer EU-NATO cooperation and coordination have been identified, including situational awareness, strategic communications, cyber-security and crisis prevention/response.

Hybrid threats represent a challenge not only for NATO but also for other major partner organizations including the UN and OSCE. An effective response calls for dialogue and coordination between organizations at both political and operational levels.

Legal Framework

NATO Posture: Air Policing and Air Defense

The NATO Integrated Defense System currently represents an effective reactive and defensive posture to traditional threats. However, the manifestation of the hybrid threat, potentially through civilian aerial platforms (e.g. Renegade) requires shared political agreements among European Nations to counteract threats in these unique scenarios.

A new, shared regulatory framework across the EU would represent a more coordinated approach that would allow entities to overcome current restrictions imposed by NATO Air Policing Rules of Engagement (ROE) for air intervention against civilian aircraft or against a hybrid threat. Some nations share bilateral agreements to address such scenarios, in order to better coordinate and to implement mutual procedures. Normally, though, procedures are diverse from nation to nation when, for example, a Renegade has to be managed.

In this case, the management of a Renegade falls under national responsibility and command and control is transferred from NATO to the respective nation.

To date, NATO postures for Air Policing and/or Air Defense are quite powerless against these kinds of threats, and normal escalation and de-escalation mechanisms are inhibited. This paradigm becomes even more complex in the case of use of small, remotely piloted platforms, where inhibited identification, to include the lack of a human onboard (attribution problem), can make intervention even harder. Obviously, as we move away from homeland into various theaters, complexity tends to fade away as ROE grow in responsiveness to mitigate risks of warlike situations. That is why it is paramount that future airspace regulations should always consider potential aerial hybrid threats, as well as a cyber menace, that could hinder security in third dimension.

Consequence Management

Another important aspect is consequence management following the identification and engagement (kinetic or non-kinetic) of a hybrid attacker.

There is a potential for high complexity in identifying liability when damage to people or property is created due to anti-hybrid threat actions. This aspect is of great importance, especially considering that the malicious use of LSS would be advantageous in densely attended public gatherings and in urban environments. Moreover, the lack of a consolidated legal approach and a specific legal protection indirectly represents a challenge to the concept of deterrence by a nation.

Another possible area of high complexity is represented by ‘thin lines’ of responsibility among several governmental agencies and departments. The effort needed for whole of government approach to problem solving can be quite high and not easy to address, especially when dealing with homeland security situations.

Therefore, the final solution to the military problem should be based on a set of materiel and non-materiel capabilities that, while extending current Air Defense system capabilities by enabling detection and engagement, would provide new policies and juridical frameworks to broaden its responsibilities and improve cooperation/integration with joint and interagency communities.

From a non-materiel standpoint, the solution should address the requirement for policy changes by highlighting the need for an overarching legal framework, to legitimize the Area Defense Commander (ADC) for the protection of domestic population, critical infrastructure and national interests, against all terrorist, illegal, hazardous and dangerous acts in the air domain.


The Warsaw summit listed up to ‘ten developments’ from the implementation of the Readiness Action Plan aimed to ensure deterrence, with one of them focused on a counter-hybrid warfare strategy. NATO recognizes that national resilience and the nations’ prevention and denial of threats represent a strong deterrent in the hybrid arena, given previously understood methods of deterrence are less effective against terrorists and criminals. While resilience is primarily a national responsibility, NATO support can be useful to asses and facilitate national progress in these areas.

The awareness that nuclear and missile threats could pose a high level of risk to the Alliance has led NATO to progressively structure capabilities to provide a sustainable integrated response in these threat areas.

Furthermore, policies, legal adjustments and industrial cooperation have generated a credible collective defence apparatus in NATO and, therefore, an appropriate deterrence level.

The question is now: How can NATO and NATO nations better deter possible hybrid aerial threats? Is the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense (NATINAMDS) strategic pillar still relevant and effective in this kind of scenario? How can NATO nations standardize procedures in order to fully empower Air Power to react to those threats?

In this sense there is a role for NATO to coordinate and to establish a new paradigm that transforms the traditional concept of AD by introducing a suitable level of flexibility in managing the spectrum of new aerial hybrid threats.

Technological Challenges and Gaps

One of the most noticeable hybrid warfare gaps is inherent to technology. Concerning these threats, the air domain can be threatened in the areas below:

  • Effects on air and space enablers:

Hybrid threats could target space infrastructure, thereby causing multi-sectorial consequences.

Satellite communications are key assets for crisis management, disaster response, police, border and coastal surveillance: they are the backbone of large-scale infrastructure, such as transport, space or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

Relating to the air domain, space enablers today provide a range of services and functions (satellite communication, navigation position/time, remote sensing and ISR/weather) to support operations. A partial or total degradation of these services could have a substantial impact on the ability to conduct military air operations and activities.

  • Effects on critical infrastructure (networks/services) to support the Air Domain:

By way of example, there are studies focused on the identification of cyber-attacks that can impact a nation’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system.

In this respect, there is a tendency to make classes of information related to flight activity available to a wide spectrum of stakeholders (civil and military), in order to manage an ever more global and harmonized approach to the ‘resource airspace’. As a result this could be a particularly critical node. The processing of this information through networks, and the progressive increase of web based/cloud solutions, could represent a key vulnerability to cyber threats.

This aspect is highly significant considering that the surveillance and identification processes carried out by the actual AD systems are heavily dependent on data fusion processes provided by the ATM sector.

Although the cyber component represents only one aspect of ‘hybrid’, in these two macro reference areas, NATO is steering towards a (partial) solution through a greater boost to cyber resilience of individual nations3.

  • Effect on the responsibility to ensure the sovereignty of national airspace during peacetime:

The level of physical threat, starting from today’s single Renegade, can scale up to the use of LSS RPAS, eventually in swarms. The technological gap consists of basic enabling functions that should contribute to building a reference model to cope with LSS. Therefore, it is necessary to look for a ‘system of systems’ approach that, using a joint and interagency perspective, will focus on the detection, assessment and engagement phases, including:

LSS multi-layered JISR fully integrated into a C2 operational architecture. LSS detection capability provided by existing or new sensors with specific signal processing that is able to overcome current limits in terms of low Radar Cross Section (RCS). LSS multi-sensor fusion and tracking capability provided by ad-hoc sensors. This relates to the ability to handle large amounts of data and to also enable non-traditional ISR (NTISR) tools. Fusion Post (FP) and HAD C2 tracking functions might also require implementation of threat prediction models. LSS Engagement tools (kinetic and less than kinetic options).

Besides the opportunity to address the technological gaps in the development and preparation of specific actuators belonging to the aforementioned steps, it seems appropriate to stress the importance of providing funding for the testing and validation of new technologies, through a wide use of risk reduction tools and technological experimentation.

Today’s technology can support, through appropriate data fusion processes, the appropriate management of large amounts of data, through a wide use of intelligence, to mitigate and prevent the use of hybrid threats.


Alongside a broad definition of ‘hybrid warfare’, we have seen how new small, low and slow threats in the aerial dimension, perhaps coupled with a cyberspace menace, could endanger and challenge the concept of traditional homeland security.

NATO is spending little effort on reinforcing IAMD capabilities, policies and ROE as they represent a success story in terms of deterrence and defence pillars against peer and near-peer opponents. Nevertheless, hybrid aerial threats (both manned and unmanned) can play in a rather grey turf, where NATO has little or no freedom of maneuver, and where responsibilities are in the sole hands of member nations.

Disparities in handling such scenarios can weaken national resilience and the capacity of consequence management efforts resulting from a hybrid attack. Effects should not only be considered in the physical domain, but also in the cognitive and morale domains of NATO member nations.

NATO therefore must consider these issues in the upcoming Joint Air Power Strategy, since air power can play a rejuvenated and pivotal role in such a paradigm.

Some issues stand as challenges:

  • The comprehensive, multi-dimensional and interagency nature of hybrid warfare scenarios and how to coordinate consequence management.
  • Technology solutions for surveillance and engagement.
  • How to fuse large amounts of data from NTISR sources.
  • How to harmonize procedures and develop a common vision.
  • Legal frameworks and ROE evolution.
  • Multinational cooperation.
  • The role of NATO as coordinator, facilitator and procedural/doctrinal benchmark.
1. Source: PO(2015)0673, ‘Strategy on NATO’s role in countering Hybrid Warfare’.
2. The ability to monitor, understand, decide and execute represents the cornerstone of success.
3. Many critical infrastructures rely on exact timing information to synchronize their networks (e.g. telecommunication) or timestamp transactions (e.g. financial markets). The dependency on a single Global Navigation Satellite System time synchronization signal does not offer the resilience required to counter hybrid threats. Galileo, the European global navigation satellite system, would offer a second reliable timing source.

Brigadier General Del Bene is the Chief of 3rd Division – Plans and Policy – at the Italian Air Staff. He has accrued years of operational flying experience on multiple aircraft, including the F-104, Tornado, T-38 and MB339CD. He served at Joint Staff level and at Air Staff level for General Planning, Concept Development and Transformation posts. While he was Commander of the 6th Wing he took part in Operation Unified Protector.