Book Review | Hybrid Warfare: The Changing Character Of Conflict

 By Medhansh Bhardwaj

Through centuries, key stakeholders in the defence and security arena have waged wars through multiple means against their respective adversaries. Various factors functioning in the larger framework of a state’s status quo can be attributed to a more accurate prediction of its outcome. The modality of warfare carried out can be located as one of the more imperative measures of that exercise. To that end, defence studies and related academia have strived to understand the war outlook beyond the lens of mere infantry and artillery. They went ahead to look at concepts operationalised in an unconventional, unprecedented and mixed sense – an approach that was/is not unique to the Occidental scholars. It is this irregular, non-conventional, grey or hybrid approach to warfare that the book attempts to coherently examine – as focused in the Oriental world. Through a conceptual approach towards the evolving character of conflict, the book attempts to deepen the understanding of the hybrid means of warfare. This etymological approach towards defining the important terms, notions and ideas surrounding such kind of warfare is further accentuated with the use of case studies that contextualise those concepts better.

The skilful experience of the author is very ardently brought out through the course of the book. It comes off as no surprise that Colonel Vikrant Suresh Deshpande served as an Army officer in the Infantry with profound experience in distinct military operations in violence-prone areas such as those in North East and Jammu & Kashmir. In addition, Colonel Deshpande had the prestigious opportunity to serve as an Assistant Military Attaché in the Indian Embassy located in Nepal. With a distinguished academic background of an MPhil in Defence and Strategic Studies from Devi Ahilyabai University, his academic prowess is reflected in the book. He contributed his services towards Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) as a Research Fellow (joined in September 2016). Conclusively, the questions pertaining to crucial gaps in the warfare research discourse – as relevant to India- are effectively dealt with through the course of this book.

The first section of the book is an epistemological exploratory into the domain of hybrid warfare; starting from a historical inquiry of the field, it goes on to characterize the evolving geo-political spectrum to the status quo as we witness today. Through the process of systemic categorization, it is able to dwell into the subject matter of taxonomy of modern conflict emerging into various contours grey zone, low-intensity conflict, new ‘terrorism’, small wars, non-conventional and hybrid conflict. Deductively, the author is able to observe that all such measures have distinct similarity in their planning, goals and operationalization, providing certain commonality to judge modern conflicts henceforth. This lays down the foundation to contextualize twenty-first-century conflicts in terms of its characteristics, as seen in the backdrop and hyper-mechanisation and nuclear overhang. There is a general consensus through the book on Frank Hoffman’s characterisation of hybrid conflict (as given in his seminal piece); prevailing notions of hybrid warfare make space in the book in terms of hybrid warfare and grey zone conflicts (US), non-linear warfare (Russia), unrestricted warfare (China) and hybrid warfare in Arthashastra (India). All of this, conclusively, provides the reader conceptual depth to approach and acclimatize themselves to the setting of the book.

Moving on from drawing out common definitions to study hybrid warfare, the book attempts to contextualise that understanding better through case studies as relevant to different constructs. The first case study is of Pakistan’s hybrid tactics as used against two of its neighbours – India and Afghanistan. The two countries are vastly distinct from each other as relevant to the Pakistani construct; while India is conventionally superior to Pakistan, Afghanistan significantly lacks behind it. Despite that, it has weaponized hybrid means in sensitive areas to accrue significant advantage – be it relative or normative. In Afghanistan, it has leveraged benefits to consistently maintain its influence, while Indian construct falls more on the offensive end of the conflict spectrum. The next chapter which deals with Russia’s effective use of hybrid tactics in three areas – Ukraine (Crimea), Estonia and Georgia – is premised around the Gerasimov Doctrine of 2013 on non-linear warfare. In accordance with its strategic and political aims, Russia has put into motion various techniques and means to exploit the kinetic and non-kinetic advantage. The control of the information operations along with the clarity and sophistication of modality has been discussed at length in the chapter.

The next three chapters dwell into West-Asian construct while engaging with the constantly transforming character of warfare through decades in the region. The first is an analysis of conditions in Iraq and Syria and ISIS, captured through the lens of American involvement and its effects on the changing geopolitics. The US presence has been long and sustained in the region, which has helped in carving out important contours of variable analyses, lessons from the engagement, etc.; the complex reality in which ISIS operates is also deeply explored in the chapter. Post this, the next chapter analyses the two conflicts in Lebanon (2006) and Yemen (post-2014) – focusing on the nuances of the geopolitical and regional contestations between Arab countries and Israel, and Iran and Syria (as propounded through hybrid means). The chapter analyses the engagements with multiple non-state actors and proxies such as Hezbollah and Houthi rebels. It provides insights into various methods of state-sponsorship and proxies and how that is being weaponized to make the scenario amicable to the self, rendering the region more complex and vulnerable. Through multiple layers of complexities, the reader is able to grasp and understand the multiple tactics of hybrid warfare in-depth as being operationalized in the constant state of unrest in the region. The next chapter is an actor-receiver analysis of Israel’s hybrid warfare experience as discussed through important and varying instances – the 2006 war with Hezbollah; the three Gaza conflicts post-2005; and challenges as faced against Iran. While its military operations against Hamas and Hezbollah were largely successful, it lacked in the information warfare domain which significantly impacted its political ambitions in Lebanon. This draws out important lessons for countries and militaries worldwide for better restructuring and reorganization, both in terms of doctrine and operations to meet the strategic demands of the changing outlook of war.

The next chapter is an analytic probe into China’s maritime hybrid operations as seen along two important frontiers – the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Driven by economic and strategic considerations, China’s ‘revisionist and expansionist’ approach has been recognized; the chapter analyses various techniques and means used by the Asian giant to culminate that strategy. While the threshold of the engagements doesn’t meet the metrics of overt conflict, China’s multiple tactics using its defence structures in addition to legal warfare or ‘lawfare’, psychological warfare and information warfare have enabled it to envisage a desirable end state for itself; all of which is also grounded in ancient Chinese thought. The last chapter is to conclusively derive important lessons as relevant to the Indian construct, along with its own operationalization of hybrid means. With the transforming dynamics, modifying strategies and evolving operational environment, the chapter effectively calls for a fundamental, doctrinal and operational rethinking of defence outlook to conceptualize our understanding of warfare.

While the book overall suggests future themes of engagement (further entailing research there), it highlights the importance of institution-building to move beyond silo-based thinking, necessitating changes in the capacity/ capability building. Therefore, the goal should be the longevity of mitigation and management of conflicts and the book attempts to move a step in that direction.