Hybrid warfare is the latest of the terms/concepts that have been used within the defence community in the last three decades to label contemporary warfare. It has been officially adopted in the core strategic documents of NATO, EU and national governments and has already inspired many articles, policy papers and books; however, this paper is unique in the sense that it approaches hybrid warfare from the perspective of strategic theory, which assumes that all wars throughout history have shared certain common characteristics. Analysing the hybrid warfare concept through the lens of strategic theory, this paper argues that hybrid warfare does not merit the adoption as a doctrinal concept. Strategic theory instead, which lies at the nexus of all dimensions of warfare, provides a better viewpoint to approach contemporary warfare. It concludes that efforts should be directed towards exploring warfare under the light of eternal principles instead of proving the emergence of new types of warfare.  


Keywords: Strategy, Strategic theory, grand strategy, military strategy, hybrid warfare, military concept, military doctrine, buzzwords.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of new terms and concepts within the defence community regarding the search for an understanding of contemporary warfare. Analysts, scholars raced to assign labels such as “fourth-generation warfare”, “compound wars”, “asymmetric conflict”, “revolution in military affairs (RMA)” etc. Some terms are adopted in the core documents of leading Western countries and international organisations, only to fade from use after a few years, even before they could understand the lessons learned. For this reason, such terms are often seen as buzzwords. “Hybrid warfare”, the latest term of this kind to gain a place in the official documents of the EU and NATO, carries the risk of becoming another buzzword as critiques of the concept have begun to increase. It is understandable, even commendable, that analysts endeavour to grasp and conceptualize contemporary warfare. The concepts shape our defence understanding, and thus our armed forces, doctrines and the way that armed forces fight. However, the opportunity cost of misconception is too high, as it creates confusion rather than clarity and obscures the strategic thought. The defence community clearly needs a litmus test for the validity of the terms that it has adopted.

Strategic theory, which assumes that all wars throughout history have shared certain common characteristics, could provide a valid viewpoint, if not a litmus test. This is because most of the concepts, doctrines or terms are rediscoveries of what has already been observed in the past. For instance, the “comprehensive approach”, which was initially developed by the UK Ministry of Defence at the beginning of the 2000s and later recognized by all NATO members, is not different in its essence form “the grand strategy”, which has been well known for more than a century. Interestingly, hybrid warfare, the next term to be adopted by NATO, which shares many common aspects with the grand strategy as well, has been compared increasingly with the comprehensive approach. A closer look on recently invented terms reveals that they tend to see the current problems as unique but fail to see historical continuities. They usually concentrate on some dimensions of strategy and suggest that the success can be gained through these particular dimensions. Strategic theory instead provides a holistic thinking that the defence community needs. As Milevski indicated, these attempts to categorize war usually discount the role of strategy which lies at the nexus of all dimensions of warfare and it is only through strategy that the character of warfare takes shape. [1]

This paper aims to analyse the “hybrid warfare” concept through the lens of strategic theory.

This paper aims to analyse the “hybrid warfare” concept through the lens of strategic theory. The hybrid warfare already has inspired many articles, policy papers and books; however, this study is unique in the sense that it approaches hybrid warfare from the perspective of strategic theory. The first part of the paper will discover the strategic theory and present a model. It is a challenge to summarise such a comprehensive theory in one part as it has a literature of more than a century. I would like to note that although this part reflects my own understanding from strategic theory, I benefited so much from Gray’s thoughts as it is the most comprehensive one, in quest to theorize strategy with its all dimensions. The second part will present the hybrid warfare concept to describe its evolution, its definitions by various stakeholders and common critiques on the concept. Finally, the third part will analyse the hybrid concept through the lens of strategic theory, particularly through discussing the controversial themes about the concept and later providing a general assessment.

Strategy and Strategic Theory

Strategic theory, which assumes that all wars in history share certain common characteristics, provides a holistic viewpoint to examine warfare. It is useful in understanding the validity and soundness of emerging concepts, albeit it is too comprehensive to grasp at first glance. To Osinga, strategic theory comprises thoughts about making effective strategy.[2] It is a system of interlocking concepts and principles pertained to strategy, which postulates that there exists a system of common attributes to all wars and that war belongs to a larger body of human relations and actions known as politics.[3] It provides guidance on how to manage the complexities of using force to achieve policy ends.[4] It is mind opening and it facilitates clarity of understanding as it is not linked to a particular historical context, which allows the strategist to extricate himself from situational bias. [5] In one respect, all explanations relevant to strategy that shall be presented in the rest of this part constitute the strategic theory.

Before moving to the content, it is good to say that the strategy, hence the strategic theory, is an attempt to explain what has already been practiced throughout the history. It is a depiction of the universal and eternal features of strategy-making. Strategy, as a term we would understand today, was first utilised in 1770s[6], however, as Gray noted, the basic logic of strategy is to be found in all places and periods of human history, regardless of which term was used by distinct societies or cultures. Strategy is unavoidable because human, the common denominator between the past and the future, always needs security and it is in his/her nature to behave politically and strategically against potential dangers.[7]

Strategy is one word that is so widely used but hardly understood. It also became popular in many fields outside politics, such as economics and management. For Strachan, the term has acquired such universality that it has robbed it of meaning.[8] Despite their vital importance to the security of any nation, policy and strategy are not well understood, hence widely confused by many officials even in key positions of the governments.[9] Clausewitz provides a brilliant and very concise definition, -but narrow at the same time, “strategy is the use of the engagements for the purpose of the war.”[10] Building on this definition, Colin S. Gray defines strategy as “the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics”. [11] For Wylie, strategy is “a plan of action designed in order to achieve some end: a purpose together with system of measures for its accomplishment.”[12] Beatrice Heuser makes a similar definition with an emphasis on comprehensiveness and enemy’s will. “Strategy is a comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat or actual use of force, in a dialectic of wills.”[13] More definitions can be presented here as there are many, however, to keep it short, strategy can be summarised as the use of ways and means to achieve the desired ends, the link between policy and military. What is common in all definitions is its function of instrumentality.

Strategy is usually expressed by the magic formula of the retired U.S. Army Colonel Arthur Lykke. It consists of three simple phrases; policy ends, strategic ways, and military means (EWM) where policy end denotes the goals we aspire to get, strategic ways correspond to the alternative courses of action to follow, and military means are the resources that we could employ. Recently a fourth word, the assumption, was added to this construction. Since the strategy is a future-centric discipline and there are always unknowns about the future, planners have to make a presumption to enable their further planning. It is inevitable that the trinity (ends,ways,means) must be built upon some educated guess.

Built on the Clausewitzian definition of strategy, Lykke’s architecture is a powerful construct to explain the essence of strategy in a concise manner. However, it is rather a mechanistic explanation which is far from explaining the real nature of strategy where complexity, dynamism, uncertainty and chaos reigned.[14] It is not that we shouldn’t use the construct, but we should know that there is much more to strategy than this formula.

There has been a shift in the meaning of strategy since its first conceptualisation by the pioneers of strategic thought. Clausewitz and Jomini adopted a narrower definition of strategy, which was limited to the use of military. Contemporary interpretation is inclined to comprise other instruments of national power than military. Strategy with its broader meaning is called as “grand strategy”. It is more convenient to examine the strategy in the context of “levels of war” for a deeper understanding of its instrumental function and its evolution to grand strategy.

Levels of War and Strategy

There are four levels of war adopted by most of the armies, namely policy, strategy, operations and tactics. Traditionally, the construct has been discerned as three levels, but it became four levels with operational level’s introduction in 1980s. In theory; politics produces policy. Strategy connects policy with military assets. It determines military forces and their tasks that can achieve the desired aims of policy. Operational and tactical levels execute concrete tasks decided by the strategy. (Figure 1)

The levels are different in nature and they answer different questions. Policy answers to the question of “why and what”, while strategy seeks an answer for “how”; and tactics do it. Since there is no natural harmony between levels,[15] it is quite difficult to provide coherence, and this is what strategy does. Strategy fills the gap between political goals and military capabilities through the command performance. It requires all levels of command to function properly.

Hybrid Warfare through the Lens of Strategic Theory Figure 1- Levels of War and Strategy

Figure 1- Levels of War and Strategy

The main challenge in strategy is to convert military power into political effect. It is very difficult because it requires an exceptional talent to determine which military action provides what policy wants. Gray uses bridge metaphor to explain the instrumentality function of the strategy. The bridge must operate in both ways; therefore, strategist needs not just to translate policy intentions to operations but also to adjust policy in the light of operations.[16] This is done through negotiation. The strategies are developed in an ongoing process of negotiation among potent stakeholders, by a civilian-military partnership. Usually it is a committee process, but it is always driven by the character of key unique people’s performance and strategic inspiration is usually a product of a single person, not a committee. However, this person, no matter how genius he is, needs a staff and confident subordinate commanders to translate his ideas to actionable plans.[17]

It is important to discern that the strategy is not the use of forces itself. All forces of all kinds behave tactically-or operationally but produce strategic effect, whether it is special forces performing behind the lines of enemy or a Corps conducting a joint conventional attack against main body of enemy forces. In Gray’s words, strategy can only be practiced tactically. All strategy has to be done by tactics, and all tactical effort has some strategic effect.[18] Strategy is all about the consequences of tactical behaviours.

Despite their differences, all levels constitute a unity. If one level is absent, or not functioning well, this means all project is in jeopardy. When political guidance is weak or missing, the strategists cannot know the end-state to which they should lead their tactical enablers. If strategy is weak or absent despite the existence of a good political guidance, tactical forces might fight a wrong war however they are excellent in their fighting capabilities as there is no bridge converting political goals to actions. If there is no competent tactical ability, political and strategic endeavour becomes worthless.

Strategy summarized here represents the narrower understanding, which takes the military resources as main instruments to achieve policy goals and focuses on battlefield. Next section explains the shift in the meaning of strategy and its broader interpretation.

The Shift in the Meaning Strategy and Grand Strategy

As Hew Strachan indicated, there has been a shift in the meaning of the term “strategy” since it was first conceptualized by classical theorists such as Clausewitz and Jomini. By 1900, strategy had been used to explain something done by generals to conduct the operations in a particular theatre.[19] It usually referred to a relationship below politics, between strategy and tactics. But after two World Wars, where all national resources were used, and the Cold War, during which the deterrence without actual fighting became the essence of strategy, the function of strategy shifted to higher levels. Operational level, with its introduction in 1980s, took the place of what classical theorists called strategy, whereas strategy in practice became much more concerned with the connection between strategy and policy. In fact, strategy is started to be used as a synonym for policy.[20]

Especially after First World War, more scholars such as Corbett, J.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart, Edward Mead Earle, André Beaufre discussed on the broader meaning of the strategy. It was Fuller who introduced the term “grand strategy” in 1923. Edward Mead Earle, remarked in his famous book, Makers of Modern Strategy (1943) that “Strategy has of necessity required increasing consideration of non-military factors, economic, psychological, moral, political, and technological. Strategy, therefore, is not merely a concept of wartime, but is an inherent element of statecraft at all times.[21]” Earle, writing in the middle of Second World War, emphasizes the importance of non-military factors and defines strategy as an inherent element of statecraft at all times, which implies that the strategy inevitably must be rendered as the grand strategy. Colin S. Gray, contemporary strategy theorist, mentions the same thought in different words.

All strategy is grand strategy. Military strategies must be nested in a more inclusive framework, if only in order to lighten the burden of support for policy they are required to bear. A security community cannot design and execute a strictly military strategy. No matter the character of a conflict, be it a total war for survival or a contest for limited stakes, even if military activity by far is the most prominent of official behaviours, there must still be political‐diplomatic, social‐cultural, and economic, inter alia, aspects to the war (…)Whether or not a state or other security community designs a grand strategy explicitly, all of its assets will be in play in a conflict. The only difference between having and not having an explicit grand strategy, lies in the degree of cohesion among official behaviours and, naturally as a consequence of poor cohesion, in the likelihood of success.[22]

As Gray eloquently stated, whether it is a limited conflict or a major war, all conflicts inherently include dimensions other than military. In a limited warfare, a smaller number of dimensions can be in play whereas in a major war, almost all national powers are mobilized. There might be cases that military plays no part. Instead of direct use of force, sometimes, only the threat of force can provide the desired effects. But whether it is the leading component or not, military is indispensable in designing and executing grand strategy. Figure-2 is a simple depiction of how grand strategy works.

Hybrid Warfare through the Lens of Strategic Theory Figure 2- Grand Strategy

Figure 2- Grand Strategy

Lonsdale & Kane grouped instruments of grand strategy in four categories: military, diplomacy, intelligence and economy.[23] I prefer the “intelligence” to be included under the broader term of “psychological” aspect, which includes propaganda and information warfare as well. Although these categories are the most relevant aspects to the national security, there can be more instruments based on the context and the characteristics of the state in question. For instance, if a state has a separate technology ministry, there is no doubt it is involved in developing grand strategy. Depending on the context, it would even be possible to add an agricultural aspect. Dotted boxes in Figure-2 refers to this fact.

Key Features of Strategy

This part so far explained what strategy and grand strategy is, how strategy function within the levels of war, how it is done and who does it. The remaining section will discuss some key aspects required in strategy-making. The following eight factors are eternal dimensions of the strategy, valid for all wars, whereas their relative weights depends on the context of specific war. Each factor plays its part, in every conflict. (Figure 3)

Hybrid Warfare through the Lens of Strategic Theory Figure 3- Grand Strategy and Key Features

Figure 3- Grand Strategy and Key Features


Strategy is carried out by properly aligning ends, ways, and means, but always against an intelligent enemy. As Carl von Clausewitz stated, “war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.”[24] Without an enemy there can be no duel, so without an enemy there can be no strategy. While it is central to the strategy, the role of the enemy is often overlooked by the strategists. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars showed once again that the enemy has a vote. The US expectation of being greeted as the liberators in Iraq, or George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement after the invasion are some recent examples of how the enemy is often neglected. Tactical actions are meaningful or can produce strategic effects only when impairing the opponent’s strategy making process.


The concept of chaos, disorder and confusion is dominant in strategic theory.[25] A country at war is an incredibly complex system of systems,[26] given that it requires the participation of thousands, or millions of people, organized by different parties. Beatrice Heuser suggests that one of the key features of war is that it is a function of interconnected variables, which makes it quite complicated.[27]

One of the best explanations on variables of war belongs to Clausewitz, who was the first to understand war as a nonlinear system. Clausewitz postulates that any war has three sets of variables, namely primordial violence and hostility, the play of chance and probability, and reason.[28] What makes war so complex is that it is suspended between these tendencies pulling different directions, “like an object suspended between three magnets.” As Van Riper noted, this analogy is a description of a nonlinear system, whose parts have freedom of movement and it is impossible to balance their tendencies.[29]

Friction is another reason why war and strategy are so complex. Clausewitz states that accumulation of all difficulties in the war causes a friction which impedes strategic performance. This makes the apparently easy so difficult. According to Clausewitz, the source of friction is “the climate of war” which is composed of “danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance.”[30] The future is not foreseeable due to friction and the intelligent enemy. All of these factors contribute to the complexity of strategy.

Human and Culture

Human is the best evidence of eternal fundamentals of war. Despite the continuous progress in technology and social life, human with its inherent characteristics stays at the center of war. Increasing connectivity allows us to do all sorts of things, from commerce to education, differently. But as a human, actions we do are all the same. We still buy and sell, teach and learn or get angry when we are ill-treated.[31] The strategy is devised, executed, and maintained by people. As Gray indicated, in most cases, historians mention “France decided…” or “2nd Brigade invaded…”, however, it is humans but not governments or military units performing in reality. The fact that the main role of humans will not change in the future makes humans an important aspect of war.

Since the human is indispensable for strategy, so the culture in which human was born is. Culture has an impact on strategy as the strategists are encultured by their own nations’ beliefs, habits or customs. Its impact could be both on the strategic and tactical levels. For instance, the leaders at the strategic level can make imprudent and biased decisions just because of their culture. Soldiers at the tactical level could become fierce warriors with the emotions that their culture imposed on them. As Bernard Brodie noted: “Good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology. Some of the greatest military blunders of all time have resulted from juvenile evaluations in this department. Napoleon despised the Russians as somewhat subhuman, as did Hitler after him, and in each case, fate exacted a terrible penalty for that judgment.”[32]


Almost in all historical cases, it is not the weapons themselves that provide strategic advantage. It is the ability of using technology in conjunction with other dimensions of war to achieve the desired policy end state. It requires the combination of significant other resources. Consider that there are oil rich countries today that have state of the art military technologies, but it is hard to see their effect on the battlefield. Germany’s use of tanks in masse in Second World War was an organizational innovation rather than technological.

David Betz gives us a good criterion to understand the point where the influence of technology changes the nature of war. “War will remain as it ever was until the humanity comes to the point of ‘The Singularity’, at which human intelligence is surpassed by machine intelligence.”[33] As long as wars are conducted by people, technology stays as a key feature, but does not become a final arbiter.


Geography has always influence, and will always be, on planning, executing and maintaining strategies. That’s why the ideas of two geopolitical theorists, Mackinder and Spykman, are still relevant today.[34] For instance, it has always been vital for Russia to have access to warm water, to the Mediterranean Sea. This means that Russia has always had a conflicting interest with the country between Russia and Mediterranean Sea, no matter which country it is. It was Ottoman Empire in the past, today it is Turkey. Russia would never prefer a strong country in that region as long as it exists as a robust power. This is all about location. Geography is the destiny.

In some cases, geography becomes very important just because of its constraining features, such as rugged terrain, extreme distance or bad weather conditions as it was experienced in Both Napoleon and Hitler’s campaigns against Russia.  It is true that advances in technology decreased the relative effect of geography in terms of its limitations, but never to the degree to ignore it totally.


As it is stated in US Joint Logistics Publication 4.0 [35], “The relative combat power that military forces can generate against an adversary is constrained by a nation’s capability to plan for, gain access to, and deliver forces and materiel to required points of application.” It is so basic but a vital fact that armies cannot fight no matter how capable they are unless they can move to operation area and they are continued to be supplied. General Omar Bradley indicated this simple fact with a bit of exaggeration when he said, “amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics”[36] Logistics is one of the eternal dimensions of the strategy that needs to be considered. It is essential to strategy at all levels and for every type of warfare. Great developments in technology, whether in transportation or in IT, have not yet reached to the point that we can assume the logistic challenges are no longer is a main concern.


Military doctrine is a product of intellectual activity to determine how military force should be applied [37] and what methods to use to carry out a military objective.[38] It includes a set of prescriptions about how military forces should be structured and employed to respond to recognized threats and opportunities, and the modes of cooperation between different types of forces.[39] It is the best military practice of the day and it is usually derived from the past experience.

So, why is it so important to include doctrine as a key feature of strategy? Because employed correctly, it is one of the key enablers of strategy, by greatly enhancing fighting power. In Gray’s words, “it is an important transmission belt connecting strategic theory with tactical performance.”[40] In a sense, it is the concretization of the strategy, based on the circumstances of the day. However, it could become very dangerous if it is applied dogmatically, which would mean that you use your combat arm in a completely wrong manner. Therefore, doctrine should be revised periodically.

Strategy is a Whole

None of the aspects of strategic theory can be omitted in the conduct of war or strategy. War and strategy are interactively complex systems, a nonlinear phenomenon, where all parts in flux and play their role. Technology has a huge impact on war, but human, ethics, geography and logistics etc. do as well. It is so complex in its working parts that it is not possible to approach war through one or two perspectives. Clausewitz stated, “in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”[41] Therefore, as Paul Van Riper indicated, it is useless to insist on approaching war with linear methods as Americans do.[42]

All the dimensions of strategy explained here are valid for all wars. However, every war is a different combination of them which were articulated by the strategists and commanders based on the conditions of the day. The war is “a function of interconnected variables”[43] whose weights differs by the context and circumstances. The purpose or the intensity of the war could vary from one war to the next, or even multiple times within the same war. Therefore, dimensions of war are dynamic, both influence the outcome of war and are influenced by one another. Strategy must be considered as a whole and in any given moment, an effective strategy requires careful analysis on weighing up the options where many variables must be considered to decide whether tactical deeds can be converted into political capital, in a continuously fluid and context-dependent environment.

Hybrid Warfare Concept

Hybrid Warfare has gradually gained traction in defence community since its first use in 2005. Even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it was widely referred as a model for contemporary warfare in defence communities. But after 2014, it gained a new momentum to the degree that it was frequently cited as a new kind of warfare. The term frequently circulated in distinct fora ranging from newspapers to official strategic documents. In the rest of the paper, I will use the term “Hoffman’s hybrid concept” to refer the military-dominant notion that permeated before 2014. Therefore, it is more helpful to discuss hybrid warfare in two phases, before and after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Hybrid Warfare has gradually gained traction in defence community since its first use in 2005.

Hybrid Warfare as a Military Concept        

It was Frank Hoffman who developed the hybrid warfare concept in a series of articles and books. He refined the “hybrid warfare concept” as part of a research program, through examining a number of past theories, mainly 4th Generation Warfare, Compound War and Unrestricted Warfare. Then he explained the concept in detail in his seminal paper, “Conflict in 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”, in 2007.

He projected that future wars will be a convergence of distinct challengers into multi-modal wars which blends the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical fervour of irregular warfare, both in terms of organizations and the means. In the context of the research program, he studied on a number of historical examples, but he couldn’t find the multi-dimensionality, operational integration or the exploitation of information domain to the degree that they expected from hybrid wars. It was Hezbollah, who fought against Israel in 2006, that he found as the clearest example of a modern hybrid challenger.[44]

He defined hybrid threats as “incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.” For Hoffman, hybrid wars can be conducted by both states and a variety of non-state actors, by separate units, or even by the same unit, but operationally and tactically directed within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects both in the physical and psychological dimension of conflict.

To Hoffman, what makes hybrid wars different from previous wars is its blurring even at lower levels. He acknowledges that many wars in the past had regular and irregular components, but they were rather combined at the strategic level and were conducted in different theatres or in distinct formations. Hybrid wars in contrast, blended those forces into the same force in the same battlespace even at operational and tactical levels.[45] If one is to summarize the study of Hoffman at one word, it would be “blurring”.

Despite some early critiques, hybrid warfare, popularized by Hoffman, has become as common as to appear like new orthodoxy in military thought.[46] As Hoffman noted himself, hybrid threats found traction in official documents of various US defence circles and many high-level officials cited it in their speeches as a sound concept.[47]

Hybrid Warfare After Russia’s War in Ukraine     

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the use of the term got out of control after Russia’s war in Crimea and Ukraine. As Galeotti suggested, Western authorities perceived that a “new kind of war” is being employed by Russia[48] and they almost unanimously referred to Russia’s war as a model for hybrid warfare. Its use in distinct fora gained a huge momentum. It permeated the doctrines and military concepts of NATO, EU and their member countries.[49] NATO and the EU officially agreed to collaborate against hybrid threats. However, few analysts used the actual concept of Hoffman, they rather loosely referred to the hybridity, but usually implying very different meanings.

NATO’s adoption had a huge effect on the popularity of the term because of its critical role as an international security actor and its influence on many of western nations. NATO agreed on a strategy about countering hybrid warfare at the end of 2015.[50] as a continuation of its decision at Wales Summit in 2014. At Warsaw Summit in 2016, the Alliance announced its determination to address the challenges posed by hybrid threats.[51] It established a Hybrid Analysis Branch at NATO HQ in Brussels.

The EU, on the other hand, just a few months later after NATO announced its strategy, developed a “joint framework” focusing on the EU’s response to hybrid threats. Based on this framework, it established a Hybrid Fusion Cell within Intelligence and Situation Centre (INTCEN) and created two Strategic Communication Task Forces against misinformation. Additionally, “European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats” was established in Finland in 2017. EU Global Strategy projected a close cooperation with NATO on countering hybrid threats. A recent report on NATO-EU Cooperation, prepared based on interviews with NATO-EU officials, identifies hybrid threats as one of the major challenges in common between two organizations.[52]

NATO’s definition of hybrid threats seems similar to the definition permeating academic circles. NATO members agreed in 2015 that “Hybrid warfare and its supporting tactics can include broad, complex, adaptive, opportunistic and often integrated combinations of conventional and unconventional methods. These activities could be overt or covert, involving military, paramilitary, organized criminal networks and civilian actors across all elements of power.”[53] The EU has broadly defined hybrid threats as a “mixture of coercive and subversive activity, conventional and nonconventional methods (i.e. diplomatic, military, economic, technological), which can be used in a coordinated manner by state or non-state actors to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare”.[54] Although both definitions are similar to Hoffman’s definition, there is an increasing emphasis on the broader aspects of strategy other than military, such as diplomacy, economics, technology, etc. This is more obvious in Military Balance-2015’s description of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare; “the use of military and non-military tools in an integrated campaign designed to achieve surprise, seize the initiative and gain psychological as well as physical advantages utilizing diplomatic means; sophisticated and rapid information, electronic and cyber operations; covert and occasionally overt military and intelligence action; and economic pressure.”[55]

One can figure out that with Russia’s War in Ukraine, the definition of the concept became more inclusive and tends to focus more on non-military factors while Hofmann’s definition was military-dominant.

Critiques of Hybrid Warfare

On the one hand, NATO, EU, or Western nations have officially adopted the hybrid warfare concept in their core documents. Many politicians, analysts, military practitioners or journalists continue to use the term widely. On the other hand, there is an increasing number of critiques about the validity and the use of the concept. Critiques can be grouped into five themes. 1- Hybrid Warfare is about Tactics, 2- Hybrid Warfare is not New, 3- It is An Ambiguous Definition and A Weak Concept, 4- Hybrid Warfare Creates an Unnecessary Category, 5- Hybrid Warfare is Under the Threshold of Article 5. Next chapter will analyse hybrid warfare through the lens of strategic theory, first by focusing on the main critics mentioned above, then making a general assessment.

An Assessment of Hybrid Warfare Through the Lens of Strategic Theory

Hybrid Warfare is about Tactics

Hoffman claims that new type of warfare he introduces is consistent with Clausewitz’s strategic theory but makes no further explanations about “how”.[56] Implicit in his studies that Hoffman attempts to conceptualize the contemporary warfare. However, by boiling-down the war to the convergence of distinct modalities of war, organizations, and actors, this concept just focuses on operational and tactical levels.

“Hybrid” as an adjective which precedes “warfare” requires more than Hoffman’s concept because warfare includes much more than the blurring of the modes, forces, or actors. Figure 4 shows where hybrid warfare falls in the realm of strategic theory. The idea that new approaches such as “hybrid warfare” can lead to repeatable military victories is an astrategic approach that overemphasizes operational capabilities and doctrine at the expense of strategy.[57] Focusing too much on tactics, hybrid warfare becomes counter-productive to strategy by ruling out key features. Hoffman himself confessed that his theory fails to capture non-violent actions, such as economic, financial, subversive acts or information operations.[58] The concept in it is original form as Hoffman postulated could be the topic of a military doctrine at best. In fact, the name that Cox et al. proposed, “convergent trends in tactics” would perfectly fit to Hoffman’s concept.[59]

It is only after Russia’s annexation of Crimea that non-military factors more frequently began to be incorporated to the definition. However, these factors were comprised in an arbitrary rather than in a systemic way. The term has usually been associated with propaganda, information warfare, or cyber-attacks, which constitute only some aspects of warfare, thereby lacking a holistic view.

Hybrid Warfare through the Lens of Strategic Theory Figure 4- Hoffman’s Hybrid Warfare in the Realm of Strategy

Figure 4- Hoffman’s Hybrid Warfare in the Realm of Strategy

It is interesting and ironic that the defence community rediscovers “grand strategy” with each new term coined. As Galeotti noted, Military Balance-2015’s description of hybrid warfare is not different from the corollary of the Clausewitzian doctrine.[60] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated in 2015 that Russia’s hybrid warfare can be seen as a “dark reflection” of comprehensive approach, which is not different from grand strategy in essence. One cannot keep himself from asking, “why then we keep coining new labels just to rediscover grand strategy in the end?”

Hybrid Warfare is not New

Not only the use of a new term such as “hybrid” suggests that it is a new kind of warfare, but also many analysts, journalists, and Hoffman himself claimed that a new way of warfare had emerged. In fact, hybridization is an inherent nature of all wars because sole conventional or irregular war can only be expected to exist on paper.[61] As Echevarria noted, from a historical standpoint, hybrid war has been the norm, but conventional war has been the illusion.[62] For instance, Second World War, known as a prominent example of the conventional war, included many irregular aspects from the use of propaganda to the subversion.[63] if the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 and Russia’s wars in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 are regarded as hybrid wars, then a great number of wars in the past are nothing than hybrid war.[64] However, with the lack of historical experience, many experts believe that so-called hybrid wars are a new kind of warfare.

Going back to Hoffman’s concept, one can see the evolution in the thought of Hoffman regarding the novelty of the concept. While he argued that the convergence of different modes of war at lower levels is new,[65] two years later, he stated, “The combination of irregular and conventional force capabilities, either operationally or tactically integrated, is quite challenging, but historically it is not necessarily a unique phenomenon.”[66] This was an important divergence from his previous thought.

It doesn’t seem logical to assume that the Vietnam War does not present an example of hybrid warfare, just by supposing that it is not blurred enough at operational or tactical levels while Boer War does.[67] One should understand that while strategic thought has fundamentals that don’t change, warfare is context-dependent and at the tactical level can take infinite forms on the continuum of hybridity.

An Ambiguous Definition and A Weak Concept

Hybrid warfare is too inclusive to be analytically useful.[68] It includes almost every type of warfare in its definition. Any violence can be labelled “hybrid” as long as it doesn’t have the characteristics of a single form of warfare. This broadness allows both Russia’s war in Ukraine and ISIL’s war in Syria to be referred as a model for hybrid warfare. Causing a good deal of qualifications to be associated with hybrid threats, this broadness creates a perfect enemy with magical powers and strategic prowess[69] as it had been in the case of West’s perception of enemy image of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It evolved to such an inclusive term that even the public statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can be labelled as hybrid warfare when he criticized the German police for the lack of transparency with regards to the alleged rape of a 13-year old Russian girl in Berlin.[70]

Hoffman’s concept is also criticized as too narrow. Glenn suggests that the concept has a narrow view and he proposes “comprehensive approach” as a better construct to address the breadth of the challenges.[71] Probably, because of this shortcoming, later definitions of the concept by NATO, the EU, and others included broader aspects of warfare. However, this has been done by arbitrary additions to the original form, which creates confusion and ambiguity. For this reason, it has frequently been referred for non-military factors whereas the original form had military basis. The concept evolved to a term that generally refers to any malicious influence short of war.[72] Had the defence community looked through the lens of strategic theory from the beginning, probably it wouldn’t have needed a new term to explain contemporary warfare.

Hybrid Warfare Creates an Unnecessary Category

Hoffman is right when he criticizes the West’s binary view of war as traditional and irregular for being oversimplified and when he claims that war is a continuum. Wars could take any form in the continuum that is framed by irregular warfare at the one end and the conventional warfare on the other. However, he made the exact same mistake when he restricted the warfare somewhere in the middle of the continuum, for a foreseeable future, to the mixture of multi-modes. Instead, we need to understand that every war is unique and any alternative within the continuum is possible at any time. This point of view not only excludes broader elements of strategic theory, but also urges people to expect future conflicts to be hybrid in character. As Strachan warned, it has the fatal risk of becoming another category.[73] If we stick to a standard description (like hybrid warfare), we might have difficulty in understanding the potential for change as each war is waged.

From the point of strategic theory, categories are too exclusive to capture the complexity and richness of strategic historical experience. For example, Russia, as a regular actor, employs irregular means and methods as many state actors did in history.  Should we name its war as irregular? Actors do not necessarily need to employ the means and methods described in one category. In some cases, it may require switching the kind of warfare even within the same war, as it occurred in US-Iraq War. Categorization privileges specialization at the expense of adaptability.[74] Gray maintained in his insightful monograph on categorization;

the well-intentioned quest after a better grasp on the ever-changing characteristics of conflict misled our strategic theoretical entomologists. What they claim to have done is to discover new species of strategic or strategically relevant behaviour, when what they have done is to erect conceptual constructions that, in their empirically better evidenced aspects, really are only subspecies, or variants of the one species that is war.[75]

This is a very good explanation for what has been experienced with hybrid warfare concept. Both Hoffman’s concept or its later construct explains only some part while claiming to describe the whole. Categorization could be helpful to some extent in understanding different characteristics in war and warfare, however, by familiarizing too much, often time they cause to decontextualize and to lose holistic view.[76]

Hybrid Warfare is Under the Threshold of Article 5

There is a perception that hybrid warfare is conducted under the threshold of international law, such as Article 51 of UN Charter and Article 5 of NATO, even though the concept does not postulate such a specific understanding. This perception stems from the defence community’s preference to label Russia’s all covert actions as hybrid warfare, not necessarily from the concept itself. The practice of operating under the threshold of law is not new or something pertaining to hybrid warfare, it had been undertaken frequently during the Cold War, much before hybrid warfare concept emerged.

The real problem lies in our perspective that sees current events through the lens of the so-called hybrid warfare concept. If the defence community can succeed to give up the habit of labelling every malicious event short of war as a hybrid threat, it would be easier to see what really happens. For instance, Echevarria proposes a classic coercive-deterrence construct as a way to approach so-called “grey-zone wars” or “hybrid wars” such as Russia’s in Ukraine or China’s in South China Sea. For Echevarria, these types of wars which takes place under Article-5 threshold, can be reduced to the core dynamic of coercive-deterrence strategies, which is usually conducted before almost every war. [77]

Additionally, it is a mistake to see NATO’s Article 5 as a rigid, unchangeable border. One should not forget that if aggressive actions of Russia and China reach the point that NATO members and their allies cannot tolerate any more, it is only a matter of days to amend the interpretation of Article-5. For example, subversive means that Russia has been using within neighbours could be interpreted as an armed attack if those means cause violence within the state.

A General Assessment

In his seminal paper about hybrid wars, Hoffman wrote the following assessment on Fourth Generation Warfare;

Whether this really is something entirely new, “visible and distinctly different from the forms of war that preceded it,” has emerged as challengeable. What has occurred is simply part of war’s evolution, a shift in degree rather than kind, and a return to older and horrific cases. 4GW advocates do not deny the existence of irregular warfare techniques and the return to medieval warfare. But they do tend to overlook Clausewitz, who noted that war is “more than a chameleon,” with continuous adaptation in character in every age. Very little in what is described as fundamentally different in the 4GW literature is all that inconsistent with a Clausewitzian understanding of war as a contest of human wills.[78]

It is ironic that I use his own words to criticize Hoffman’s concept. This assessment by Hofmann applies to his hybrid warfare concept. What is described as fundamentally different in hybrid warfare, whether the convergence of the modes of warfare or “further complexity,” are all consistent with strategic theory. What has occurred is simply part of war’s evolution, as Hoffman eloquently summarized, there is a change in degree, but not in kind. In Gray’s words, “war is essentially more of the same.”[79]

Echevarria compares “hybrid warfare” with “blitzkrieg” of the 1940s, a label that was never an official term in German military doctrine, but polished by media and commentators.[80] In fact, a closer look on the transformation of Russia’s military since 2008 shows that Russia does not place the hybrid warfare at the centre of its military policy.[81] What makes Germans successful in the beginning of 1940s and Russians in 2014-2015 was not the labels attached to their operations, it was skilful direction of statecraft, leveraging the principles of war; knowing the enemy and itself very well. Russia has been using the best means at his toolbox to achieve its policy goals, whether it is hard power as it was in the east, of Ukraine or soft power against Western populations.

It is crucial to understand that war is context-dependent. It is a function of interconnected variables where all variables are in flux. There are myriad possibilities that enemy, friendly forces or the environment can take different forms. Before, during, and at the end of each war, governments must develop and adjust their strategy accordingly. They must be ready to apply a different combination of tools from their capability toolbox, as it occurred in three consecutive wars of Russia, in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria. Specific conditions require distinct countermeasures, which could range from subversive means, socio-economic measures to the direct use of military forces. Russia had a swift and surprising success in Crimea thanks to some enablers, such as the presence of Russian base and forces, the presence of pro-Russian civil population, and a weak government control of Ukraine. In Eastern Ukraine, used proxy forces-pro-Russian rebels without any evidence of direct linkage, though it had to step in at some stage with its sophisticated fire power. In Syria, it supported the regime forces mainly by assisting in air power, air defence systems and military consultation. Under the broader goal of being a great power again, Russia has different aims in three consequent wars, hence three different strategies. As Galeotti points out, Russia wanted to annex Crimea and to create a new order, whereas its aim was to create controlled chaos and to force Kiev to acknowledge Moscow’s regional hegemony in Eastern Ukraine.[82] In Syria, if we take the words of Alexander Dugin, the Russian philosopher and nationalist who has influence on the Kremlin, Russia’s ultimate aim is to show the world that “a Middle East without Western presence is possible”.[83] Russia has chosen three different sets of ways and means in its three-consequent warfare. They were not all necessarily hybrid wars by definition. What Russia is doing is to pursue its policy goals by the best combination of the instruments of grand strategy.

Instead of putting the warfare into the categories, the best way is to understand the lines of evolution in different perspectives such as technology, economy, sociology etc. and their impact on warfare. Understanding the nature of war, we need to focus on the change in degree rather than the kinds of warfare. For instance, if we take Russia as the case, we should determine the areas where Russia shows progress.  Galeotti lists three areas where the Russians are distinctive in degree; 1) Giving primacy to non-kinetic operations, especially information warfare 2) Increasing connections with non-state actors 3) Single command structure coheres and coordinates political and military operations.[84] This is a good summary of where we need to focus our efforts on.


Strategic theory is a depiction of the eternal principles of strategy, which has a literature centuries long. There are indeed very few things that haven’t been discussed in the history of strategic theory. Looking through strategic theory, we can keep ourselves from rediscovering old ideas. It provides us with an unbiased approach to modern warfare.

This paper has demonstrated that hybrid warfare does not merit the adoption as a doctrinal concept and strategic theory provides a robust viewpoint to approach contemporary warfare. In fact, there is only one war with some more or less active warfare. What is required is to have a holistic vision of the strategic context and the adaptability to meet unique challenges of the day through the use of all instruments of grand strategy. Given that every challenge is unique in many important details, whether it is regular, irregular, or hybrid, they must be approached as political challenges in the first instance, then as grand strategic challenges. If it is decided that the challenge requires a military reaction, then grand strategy must employ the military instrument tailored against that specific challenge. One should note that it may not require a purely military option. As we have been experienced in Russia’s hybrid warfare, the categorization encourages tactical thinking focused upon enemy’s fighting methods, rather than upon strategic effectiveness in the conflict as a whole.[85] As Renz pointed out, we oversimplify Russian Foreign Policy by narrowing down our vision to hybrid theory.[86] The hybrid concept becomes counter-productive to strategy.

I would like to conclude with the words of former Danish Chief of Defence, General Knud Bartels, who presided over the NATO Military Committee between 2012-2015. He experienced Crimea crisis first-hand as the Chairman in 2014. His words are a good summary of this paper’s the main theme.

Hybrid warfare is a fancy term to name what we have always known as “war”. Life is very complicated and many of our nations love simple clear-cut definitions when they face complicated issues. War is war that you can conduct in many different ways. It doesn’t always need to be main battle tanks, self-propelled artillery, mechanized infantry, frigates, destroyer, aircraft carriers etc. It can also be subversive operations. But war has no purpose other than to achieve a political goal. Hybrid warfare is just a way of fighting a war which has a political purpose… It doesn’t change the fact that as military personnel, in our commands, we make an assessment, we try to understand our adversary, we try to find what are his strong sides, what are his weak sides, and we try of course to focus on the weak sides and to shield off his strong sides. Military strategy is how you are going to fight the war, operations is how you want to fight the battle and tactics is how you fight in the battle. When I define how I want to fight war that’s where, as a military commander, I will make a decision whether I want to use hybrid warfare or not. It’s very relevant to study hybrid warfare now, but to elevate it as a new type of warfare, that’s wrong.[87]




* This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Defense & Security Analysis, 2019, available online 17th January 2019 at https://doi.org/




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