Hybrid or Ambiguous, Asymmetric Warfare is Here to Stay

[As always, check the byline — this is Rayne with another minority report.]

After the hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, I wrote in early 2013 about asymmetric warfare. At the time I was puzzled by Americans’ surprise at such an extensive breach of a government asset by China.

We were warned in 1999 by the PRC in a white paper, Unrestricted Warfare, written by two Chinese military officers. They told us what they perceived about U.S.’ defense stance and where they were likely to press given their perception of our weaknesses and strengths.

Our own military processed this warning; it was incorporated into a number of military white papers. The U.S. intelligence community likewise digested the same white paper and military assessments of the same.

And yet the U.S. was not ready for an asymmetric attack.

More disturbingly, we were warned in 2013 — possibly earlier — that Russia was adopting asymmetric warfare. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, wrote a paper discussing the application of “hybrid warfare” or “ambiguous warfare,” partially exemplified in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Our Defense Department analyzed Gerasimov’s Doctrine, as it is now known. The CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization working for DOD, published a paper defining “ambiguous warfare” (pdf):

“Ambiguous warfare” is a term that has no proper definition and has been used within U.S. government circles since at least the 1980s. Generally speaking, the term applies in situations in which a state or non-state belligerent actor deploys troops and proxies in a deceptive and confusing manner—with the intent of achieving political and military effects while obscuring the belligerent’s direct participation. Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine clearly align with this concept, though numerous participants pointed out that it is not a new concept for Russia.

CNA even applied a term used by the U.S. to describe Russia’s military action in Crimea — and yet the U.S. was not ready for an asymmetric attack.

The earlier paper PRC paper, Unrestricted Warfare, elaborated,

War in the age of technological integration and globalization has eliminated the right of weapons to label war and, with regard to the new starting point, has realigned the relationship of weapons to war, while the appearance of weapons of new concepts, and particularly new concepts of weapons, has gradually blurred the face of war. Does a single “hacker” attack count as a hostile act or not? Can using financial instruments to destroy a country’s economy be seen as a battle? Did CNN’s broadcast of an exposed corpse of a U.S. soldier in the streets of Mogadishu shake the determination of the Americans to act as the world’s policeman, thereby altering the world’s strategic situation? And should an assessment of wartime actions look at the means or the results? Obviously, proceeding with the traditional definition of war in mind, there is no longer any way to answer the above questions. When we suddenly realize that all these non-war actions may be the new factors constituting future warfare, we have to come up with a new name for this new form of war: Warfare which transcends all boundaries and limits, in short: unrestricted warfare.

If this name becomes established, this kind of war means that all means will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent, and the battlefield will be everywhere. It means that all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will, it means that all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed, and it also means that many of the current principles of combat will be modified, and even that the rules of war may need to be rewritten.

In spite of this warning, the U.S. has not been adequately prepared for asymmetric warfare.

More importantly, the U.S. has not grasped what is meant that “all the boundaries lying between the worlds of war and non-war” no longer exist.

We are in a permanent state of non-war warfare.

And we were warned.

If the CNA’s paper is any indication, the U.S. has been blinded by the lens of traditional warfare. This is an unintended conclusion we can take away from this paper: we are smack in the middle of a debris field in which our entire democratic system has been rattled hard and our president and his dominant political party in thrall to at least one other country’s leader, without a single traditional combat weapon aimed and fired at our military. Yet the paper on “Russia’s ‘Ambiguous Warfare'” looked at the possible effect such war would have on traditional defense, making only the barest effort to include information warfare. The shoot-down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airline flight MH-17 carrying EU citizens offers an example — there is little mention in this paper of Russian and separatists’ efforts to mask the source of the shooting using information warfare, thereby managing to avoid an official invocation of NATO Article 5.

Perhaps the scale of our traditional defense spending and the commitment to sustaining this spending driven by both states’ economies and by corporatocracy locked us into an unwieldy and obstructive mindset unable to respond quickly to new threats. But PRC warned us in 1999 — we have no excuses save for a lack of imagination at national scale, combined with a detrimental perception of American exceptionalism.

If there is something we can still use in this permanent state of non-war warfare, it is one of the oldest lessons of warfare, transcending place, culture, and tradition:

All warfare is based on deception. … Keep him under strain and wear him down. When he is united, divide him. Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you. … 

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

What were we not expecting? For what were we not prepared? What form may the next ambiguous attack assume, and are we ready to defend ourselves?

More importantly, what does an effective, ambiguous offense look like?

21 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    While I agree with some stuff in this post, it’s worth reading this post, “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’; I was the first to write about Russia’s infamous high-tech military strategy. One small problem: it doesn’t exist.”

    The problems with this formulation are numerous, though. Gerasimov was actually talking about how the Kremlin understands what happened in the “Arab Spring” uprisings, the “color revolutions” against pro-Moscow regimes in Russia’s neighborhood, and in due course Ukraine’s “Maidan” revolt. The Russians honestly — however wrongly — believe that these were not genuine protests against brutal and corrupt governments, but regime changes orchestrated in Washington, or rather, Langley. This wasn’t a “doctrine” as the Russians understand it, for future adventures abroad: Gerasimov was trying to work out how to fight, not promote, such uprisings at home.

    But is this just a case of a pedantic scholar splitting hairs? There is no denying that the West is facing a multivectored, multi-agency campaign of subversion, division, and covert political “active measures” by Russia. Does it matter what we call it? Isn’t that “placeholder” term as good as anything else?

    But words have weight; they frame our understanding of that campaign, of how it works, and what it does. Without being aware of it, clinging to this inaccurate moniker also limits and misdirects us in our attempt to grasp and thus combat it.

    First of all, there is no single Russian “doctrine.” If anything, their campaign is dangerous precisely because it has no single organizing principle, let alone controlling agency. There is a broad political objective — to distract, divide, and demoralize — but otherwise it is largely opportunistic, fragmented, even sometimes contradictory. Some major operations are coordinated, largely through the presidential administration, but most are not. Rather, operations are conceived and generally carried out by a bewildering array of “political entrepreneurs” hoping that their success will win them the Kremlin’s favor: diplomats and spiescriminals and think-tankersoligarchs and journalists.

    Secondly, we should not be thinking of this primarily in military terms. What we call “hybrid war” in Russian thinking is actually two separate things. What Gerasimov was talking about was the use of subversion to prepare the battlefield before intervention, precisely the kind of operations used in Ukraine. Breaking the chain of command, stirring up local insurrections, jamming communications — these are all classic moves that hardly began in Crimea.

    However, if Gerasimov and the generals think of “active measures” as a prelude to armed operations, the Kremlin’s national security specialists also regard them as an alternative.

    • NorskieFlamethrower says:

      “However, if Gerasimov and the generals think of ‘active measures’ as a prelude to armed operations, the Kremlin’s national security specialists also regard them as an alternative.”

      Since the “generals” are in charge of administering this “prelude to armed operations” I am convinced that if Putin gets Trumpty Dumpty to withdraw our military presence in North Africa and splits us from NATO, Europe becomes a Kremlin satellite and we regress to a horrible caricature of the ante-bellum US. Maybe we actually are already. I have been saying for quite some time that the outcome in this country will depend upon where the military command comes down and the odds are not good.

      • DMM says:

        How would Russia make Europe into a Kremlin satellite? Even Italy alone has at least a 30% greater GDP than Russia, much less Germany and the UK. Moreover, in addition to those and the EU generally, I would think that both the US and China (and hell, India too) would have a keen interest — and, as importantly, the economic capability — to check Russian movement toward empire.

        Having this despicable toad in the White House has led liberals (I’m assuming you  are, based on your comment) to reflexively flip our positions and take hardline, bellicose stands merely because they are contra Trump. Meanwhile we’re choking, following the ancient pattern of all empires in consuming ourselves. If the Defense budget the Senate passed a few weeks ago goes thru as is, without any additional increase, we will have increased our already insanely high Defense budget some 31% over the last two years. It’s crowding out desperately needed domestic spending (not that this Trump’s vision of what to do, of course, but the point remains).

    • Rayne says:

      FP’s Mark Galeotti may backtrack all he wishes from labeling Gerasimov’s understanding as a “doctrine,” but Gerasimov compiled and published for Kremlin’s use his understanding of the non-military attempt at regime change. This collected understanding is little different from PRC’s Unrestricted Warfare.

      This graf acknowledges the truth beneath the semantic variable:

      But is this just a case of a pedantic scholar splitting hairs? There is no denying that the West is facing a multivectored, multi-agency campaign of subversion, division, and covert political “active measures” by Russia. Does it matter what we call it? Isn’t that “placeholder” term as good as anything else?

      Like “binders of women” and “dossiers of intelligence,” the label doesn’t change the content.

      Sun Tzu’s The Art of War comes to mind again; we can call it a historical text, a collection of philsophies, or treatises on strategies and tactics. Whatever we name it won’t change these observations:

      Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning. (14, Dispositions)

      Perhaps most importantly,

      The doctrine of war is to follow the enemy situation in order to decide on battle. (60, The Nine Varieties of Ground)

      The act of following what is believed to be enemy behavior is the doctrine itself. One could say Galeotti really didn’t have a choice in label at all; what we are experiencing is asymmetric warfare, and its examination becomes doctrine.

  2. cfost says:

    “…That information will be omnipresent, and the battlefield will be everywhere.” (Unrestricted Warfare)

    Maybe we should call it the Marshall McLuhan Doctrine. He was the first to study and describe the radical effects of technology on human perception, and I think he is still the best. I remember being completely disoriented by McLuhan’s ideas when I was first exposed to them in the 1970s. This is hard stuff to get one’s head around; I think Rayne correctly points to an American failure of imagination in this regard.

    It is important to separate the technological effects from the weaponization of technological effects. Intention is the key. Otherwise, the “disruption” of a Silicon Valley startup, and the changes it causes, could be considered “warfare” one day.

    We are going to have to learn how to imagine our way through two of the most radical changes in our world today: 1) the world has “shrunk.” (McLuhan’s “global village.”) 2. The one who controls the data, controls everything. (McLuhan’s “Age of Information.”)

    • NorskieFlamethrower says:

      Precisely. I don’t think our institutions will survive to give us the space and time to re-imagine the world or will we have the resources to do anything in response.

  3. Palli says:

    Too bad we didn’t imagine a better nation/world before this moment in time. Too bad we didn’t value all the imaginations we could have considered. If we had worked with all Humanity had to offer, we may not have arrived at this place now.

  4. Curious says:

    I don’t intend to be rude, but hey I am sort of interested in language and philosophy, and so I just couldn’t help but finding the following phrase to be very problematic. As a type of metaphor the sentence “We are in a permanent state of non-war warfare.” is not meaningful to me for reasons which I shall explain, and as a type of argument I don’t find it convincing at all. I understand that I can’t expect this blog to entertain this kind of objection to every little thing I find disagreeable to I want to ask to indulge me this one time. Also, writing this below is kind of difficult, but also fun.

    This turned out to be tricky for me, and ending up being quite the twister at the end of editing, but I think I managed to bring some clarity to my initial objection to what I read above in the article. My apologies for the long sentences, but, without them, what I am trying to explain below would easily turn into a mess otherwise I suspect.

    I think it is a really bad idea to entertain the idea or notion, that there could be a reference to reality with phrases that resembles the following: “we are in a state of warfare”, as such an idea obviously allude to there actually being something which is going on in the world we all live in (the “we are in a state of” clause), and when ‘warfare’ as an idea in language is to my knowledge always used to be something ‘descriptive’ of war; and so surely it doesn’t make good sense that a notion of ‘warfare’ or ‘war’ is something that is be understood as being something that simply “we are in” as far as argumentation goes (one would expect real wars to start and then come to a stop), also,  given how there would be no difference between describing something in the world and by directly referencing ourselves in regard to the same act of wanting to describe the world in a sentence (as the “we” part would surely be intuitively understood anyway, making the inclusion of a “we” meaningless this way), and even if one entertained such a brief notion of such a sentence to have the meaning of something more concrete e.g that the world or some some part of the world is affected by a peculiar type of warfare, it would still not be, or, there is still no difference between the expression “there is a state of warfare” and “we are in a state of warfare” when knowing they mean the same thing. Because of how there, for ideas of ‘warfare’ (war), is not only a “we”, but also an adversary, the “we” could never be limited to a separate group of people when the whole thing would be in the context of war or warfare anyway. I suppose the gist of the phrase “We are in a permanent state of non-war warfare.” is that of it being suggestive and maybe even apologetic of a real or imaginary war being persistent (despite the directive indicator of there not being a war with the “non-war” clause), and also that this “non-war-but-still-war” taking on the quality of being eternal and something that couldn’t possibly be avoided or controlled, and thus with such a “war” which probably couldn’t be true, and I think such a notion will be deceiving as it has this fatalistic tang to it, being permanent.

    A similar type of problem which also takes on the power of being something immediately suggestive, I think would be Rumsfeld’s alluding to there possibly *being* so called “unknown, unknowns”, other than being simply suggestive of there being something unknowable which one doesn’t know, which is not only literally absurd, but also something tautological (meaning: saying the same thing). It goes without saying that if you don’t know what you could be ignorant of, there is really nothing to be said in that regard, other than maybe being superstitious (expanding on the concept of not knowing something, which obviously turns into fear mongering or perhaps wishful thinking), superstition which thus would be an imaginary position with regard to the status of ‘knowledge’ in a modern culture, academia and philosophy. More importantly, I would have to say that whatever Rumsfeld would think he could be referencing could really only be practically perceived as vaguely concrete when imagining it himself on his very own (and this is important, because intuition is something to be taken seriously for a variety of reasons that ought to be obvious), and thus, it doesn’t make good sense to create a reference that only he alone ever could possibly find stimulating in regard to say so called ‘national security’. I don’t like the phrase national security, as it probably tend to be be given such a broad meaning so as to make it nearly pointless, I mean, how much ‘security’ does one really need? Knowing that ‘security’ commonly doesn’t mean anything like total control, I think ‘security’ is a term that can easily be abused in politics having little concrete meaning.

    • Rayne says:

      Refer to the excerpted graf from PRC’s Unrestricted Warfare:

      …When we suddenly realize that all these non-war actions may be the new factors constituting future warfare, we have to come up with a new name for this new form of war: Warfare which transcends all boundaries and limits, in short: unrestricted warfare. …(emphasis mine)

      Non-war warfare = warfare without the use of traditional military force by way of “non-war actions”

      You want to use a different phrase? Knock yourself out, write your own essay. Stay hung up on the words instead of the deeds and results. But I’m not changing my wording or my point: we are mired in cognitive dissonance, unable to see contemporary warfare for what it is, because American culture is hung up on “warfare” = “traditional military conduct of war” versus “warfare” = “non-war actions to effect warfare’s objectives.”

      Example: Trump demanded NATO’s EU member states each cough up 4% toward defense spending, nearly doubling what NATO had agreed to pre-Trump; US+UK+EU states perceived this as just Trump having yet another ignorant narcissistic tantrum. However his demand both serves the Kremlin’s aim to weaken NATO’s EU members (by disrupting their economic planning while creating tension within each state about social priorities) while fobbing off the US-based military-industrial complex (which now sees new market opportunities instead of the threat of Russian hostility). Instability created right under our noses without a single traditional weapon raised.

  5. Kick the darkness says:

    Irrespective of what transpires with Trump, this seems a crucial topic.   I’ve been trying to parse out what exactly Galeotti was trying to clarify in his mea culpa of his prior Gerasimov Doctrine piece.  Its clear he did not think it was just semantics.  But I think I just don’t know enough yet to get what he’s saying.  About the same time I came upon EW I started Timothy Snyder’s Road to Unfreedom book.  He argues  (below) Russia knows it operates in a state of comparative weakness, so its information warfare exploits real, pre-existing socio-political flaws, inequalities and divisions.  No big surprise perhaps.  But if so the hard thing is that it seems like these operations are in some senses like satire.  It only works if there is an element of truth.

    “The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be gained by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skillful player will lose less than everyone else.”

  6. Kick the darkness says:

    And then there’s Without Sky…

    “This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.

    And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state – took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.

    The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.”

  7. BG says:

    One of the first things I learned at college was that I was not as smart as I had believed myself to be. Apropos of what I understand of the unpreparedness described, I would make these observations. Pre-Wen Ho Lee, the budget of the Los Alamos National Lab as managed by the University of California was at that point, $25-30 million. The “breeches of security” as then defined led the USG to demand a public private partnership to manage the Lab. Bechtel came on and the cost of the management contract increased to $100 million. Bechtel’s involvement led to a disastrous “culture of safety” (perhaps unsafety is appropriate) that caused the only underground nuclear disposal site in the nation to have been shut down for three years, the cleanup of which cost taxpayers hundreds of million$. There were other breeches of safety including an event that nearly caused a disaster of nuclear criticality. This has now led to a new contract just let for the management of the Lab to be set at $2.2 BILLION with new partners. At the same time the private prison industry is now receiving billion$ for the lockups for immigrants, and SECURUS, the phone and camera industry for all prisons in the US including federal (where I see Manafort’s phone communications also pass), is collecting data of all communications for anyone who comes in contact with these facilities; visitors and etc. If you are looking for the faces of the war we are fighting and how unprepared we are, it seems these are signposts to follow.

  8. tjallen says:

    One result of broadening the general understanding of the word “war” to include almost all actions between nations, and all actions between individuals of different nations, is a permanent and comprehensive Official state of war.  By the broadened definition, the US (and all nations) are always officially at war, the president is always in his most powerful role as Commander in Chief, and any action whatsoever can be justified by National Security.

    The US will be in a position of permanent wartime ethics; all those laws and ethical constraints that begin, “Except in time of war…” are loosened or overridden. This has been somewhat true since the end of WW2, but in a more limited sense – the never thawed Cold War with Russia, the unresolved Korean conflict (still at war), the never ending Vietnam War, and especially GWOT, loosened most restrictions by keeping the US on a semi-permanent war footing. But the acceptance of a definition of war where any international act is warfare completely erases the distinction. There will never again be a time of peace; the presidential role gives way to the commander in chief role, the military gets first and primary consideration, and the field of national action presents a complete lack of ethical restrictions (“even rewriting the rules of war.”) No restraints, Imperial America decloaked by redefining everything as war.

  9. Kick the darkness says:

    I’m not sure why I keep gravitating back to this thread….guess I’ve always been predisposed to a good minority report.  I appreciate those who have posted. Rayne, it occurred to me that someone did in fact take your advice from Sun Tzu and in fact utilized it to devastating effect.  But unfortunately, that would be our adversaries in this case.  What do you think an “effective, ambiguous” offense might look like?

  10. Kick the darkness says:

    The Snyder book I mentioned earlier deals with the inter-relationship between history, ideas and politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Its constructed on a compare/contrast between what Snyder calls the politics of eternity versus the politics of inevitability (BTW, it’s dedicated to “reporters-the heroes of our time”).  The politics of eternity is easy-its the structures that underlie authoritarian regimes.  Figuring out what’s he’s talking about with the politics of inevitability has been tougher for me.  In light of the remarkably muted response to Trump’s obvious display of fealty in Helsinki, I went back and reread the epilogue to Colin Woodward’s “American Nations” book.  Back awhile, I remember reading his projections for American history and thinking that while they sounded plausible in some ways, that in a larger sense they seemed completely improbable.  In re-reading them, they didn’t sound quite so improbable anymore.  I’m thinking that sense of being buffered from radical social change is what Synder means by the politics of inevitability.    Here’s a blurb from the end of the Woodward book that has an eerie feel relative to the current moment.

    “Instead, the “red” and “blue” nations (here he means the separate enthno-geographic political alliances that form the topic of the book) will continue to wrestle with one another for control over federal policy, each doing what it can to woo the “purple” ones to their cause, just as they have since they gathered at the First Continental Congress.  An outside possibility is that, faced   with a major crisis, the federation’s leaders will betray their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the primary adhesive holding the union together. In the midst of, say, a deadly pandemic outbreak or the destruction of several cities by terrorists, a fearful public might condone the suspension of civil rights, the dissolution of Congress, or the incarceration of Supreme Court justices. One can easily imagine circumstances in which some nations are happy with the new order and others deeply opposed to it. With the Constitution abandoned, the federation could well disintegrate, forming one or more confederations of like-minded regions. Chances are these new sovereign entities would be based on state boundaries, because state governors and legislators would be the most politically legitimate actors in such a scenario. ”

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