Like many concepts before, it has been suggested that ‘hybrid war’ is now a thing for the Australian Army to prepare for. But is it really? At the recent Hybrid Warfare Symposium, co-hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Army’s 7th Brigade, this idea was robustly debated by key speakers including the  commander, Brigadier Anthony Rawlins, his commanding officers, Army Headquarters’ former modernisation lead Colonel Chris Smith, US expert Dr Phillip Karber, ASPI’s Peter Jennings and Malcolm Davis and contrarian, Professor Michael Evans. There were no clear winners to the debate but that was not the point – the point was to understand the current threats and learn how we can better prepare and respond through training and modernisation.

As the next ‘ready’ brigade commander in Army’s force generation cycle and the most recent opposing force commander in Army’s annual capstone exercise HAMEL, Brigadier Rawlins and two of his commanding officers hold a unique perspective. On the one hand they had free rein to adopt so-called hybrid tactics and adversary equipment such as self-propelled artillery coupled with extensive EW capabilities to defeat a conventional foe. On the other, they will use that experience to plan their own conventional scheme of manoeuvre as the friendly force in the next capstone exercise. Consequently, the most notable lessons were in the C2, ISR and fires domains. Accordingly, physical and virtual deception measures still matter whether achieved through believable decoy headquarters that are properly manned or through faked voice and data networks. Equally, the time-honoured principle of cover and concealment remains relevant – whether through radio silence and disciplined use of encrypted data communication only or through the use of a ‘Kenny the waste truck contractor’ reporting back on enemy dispositions as he goes about his business. Tied to a solid surveillance plan, these activities and capabilities often gave Brigadier Rawlins’ team decision-superiority over their foe with potentially devastating consequences for Army’s cumbersome C2 nodes and towed fires platforms. No doubt Brigadier Rawlins knows that it will be challenging to defeat such tactics when he is next back in the box as a conventional and arguably constrained commander during Exercise TALISMAN SABRE this year – but at least he and his team will be intellectually prepared for what might come.

Injecting the reality of the hybrid nature of the Ukraine conflict into this symposium was the Potomac Foundation’s Dr Karber. Listening to his presentation it was hard to dispute that what is happening between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukraine is cause for concern within our Army. Both sides constantly demonstrate innovation in equipment and tactics and incorporate all levers of state power both overt and covert. Whilst we have some way to go in the modernisation of our equipment, much of what he called innovation in tactics remains foundation lessons in warfare for us whether it be use of deception as the 7th Brigade learnt or the bold, manoeuvrist missions executed by Ukrainian commanders to halt separatist advances. However, our Army’s version of hybrid warfare is unlikely to include the widely reported contentious Russian tactic of using humanitarian convoys to deliver combat supplies. But as Major General Paul McLachlan (Commander 1st Division) argued, it is just a question of what our ethical threshold is when we are in a situation of total war. As a means to harm the German military effort, he pointed out that Bomber Command’s levelling of German industrial cities in World War 2 was considered acceptable to the Allies in a Machiavellian kind of way. And this idea of changeable ethics in a total war construct has similar overtones to what both sides are doing in the so-called hybrid warfare conflict in the Ukraine.

In this vein Professor Michael Evans and Colonel Chris Smith disputed that hybrid warfare was a ‘thing’ or even new. For Evans, the argument misses the point that the West has become strategically weak compared to Russia and China. He argued that the concept was as old as the Trojan wars and a conflated and undefined term.  Drawing on Antulio Echevarria’s article, Operating in the Grey Zone, he pointed out that the US DoD had rejected the term and instead pointed out that the terms ‘Wide Area Security’ and ‘Combined Arms Manoeuvre’ can just as easily cover off on the irregular/unconventional and regular aspects of warfare respectively. Instead of arguing over nothing, Evans pushed to ‘rediscover the art of warfare as armed diplomacy’ and reintroduce a ‘coercion-deterrence dynamic’ into planning frameworks for elements of national power. This would include the need to master combined arms manoeuvre first as other skills could be adapted more easily from this basis. Indeed, Army holds this view and since 2008 has pushed the mastery of foundation warfighting skills through the HAMEL series of exercises. More than this is required though - Evans insisted that the way officers are trained in strategy must evolve to ensure that a whole of government approach is always considered; echoing Clausewitz’s observation that war is merely an extension of politics.

The Russians might agree – as Colonel Smith noted, the ‘little green men’ operating in the Crimea were just unbadged Russian naval infantry. He saw more continuity in recent so-called hybrid wars than discontinuity, pointing for example to the United States’ annexation of Texas in the nineteenth century and the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland in the twentieth century. Deception, espionage and sabotage, he argued, are age-old crafts easily adapted to contemporary circumstances such as the cyber environment. He lamented the absence of historical perspective, which caused officers to perceive contemporary events as profoundly novel and revolutionary. He agreed with author Steven Biddle: the modern system of warfare has remained relatively unchanged since 1918. Dispersion, cover, concealment, small-unit manoeuvre, suppression and combined arms integration remain paramount. We should not be surprised nor alarmed that our Army is not profoundly different to its earlier forms. Unless the modern system of tactics undergoes a revolution, the Army’s relatively conventional form is still appropriate. He reminded the audience investment decisions made now are likely to inform future structures for decades – much like the US infantry fighting vehicle, the Bradley, conceived in the 1950s is still in service in the United States today. He suggested the critical thing to learn from the so-called hybrid war phenomenon is the importance of the right mindset – the importance of cunning, deception, novelty and creativity.

Peter Jennings recognised the sense in this perspective but argued the value in Australia developing a counter-hybrid strategy for the following reasons:

  • As a bumper sticker term, it is useful to engage politicians with
  • The threat is real to Australia
  • Hybrid can and has been copied in Asian land environments
  • It has relevance to the US alliance
  • It drives the operational cycle
  • Australia has a Regional Alliance leadership role
  • What if we don’t pursue hybrid, and it becomes a legitimate issue?

Along these lines, Malcolm Davis encouraged the ADF to exploit hybrid warfare as a concept in the same way that the US is developing their ‘third offset’ strategy to retain their technological edge. Such technologies include unmanned systems, autonomy, artificial intelligence, directed energy weapons, hypersonics, swarming, robotics, EW and cyber – all are areas that Army seeks to develop.

The arguments above are definitely food for thought. The threats are real, however defined, and we must think about how we train for them and respond – not just along military lines but linked up to the rest of government and the tools at its disposal.