For The Military, a Future of ‘Hybrid’ Wars

By Matthew Rusling
Pentagon planners often are criticized for being locked in perpetual preparation for the last war.

At the Defense Department, there is much pressure to figure out what’s next after Iraq and Afghanistan. Will it be another counterinsurgency campaign? Or a conventional war against a modern industrialized nation?

The future, according to military strategists and scholars, is likely to be somewhere in between. Opponents may not fall into the predictable categories of low-tech “irregular” combatants or technologically advanced military powers. A consensus is emerging that U.S. forces should prepare for “hybrid” wars where they may face unconventional fighters or insurgents, who are likely to be equipped with modern weapons and information technology.

“Typically when you think of insurgents or non-regulated combatants, they will primarily be armed with small arms — explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, rifles, machine guns,” said Army Maj. Gen. David A. Fastabend, director of strategy, plans and policy.

“In a hybrid threat, your adversaries might also be armed with some high-end weapons systems,” he said in an interview.

A militia such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah is an oft-cited example of the type of enemy the United States will confront in the coming decades. Hezbollah is a paramilitary political organization but has access to the same advanced weapons that are typically acquired by conventional armies. This could include anti-armor missiles, sophisticated air
defense capabilities, anti-ship missiles and short- and-medium range rocket systems, Fastabend said. They also could have rudimentary unmanned aerial vehicles rigged with weapons, he added.

“You’ve got folks who aren’t organized in patterns you’re familiar with, yet they have some pretty potent weapons,” Fastabend said. “That’s already happening and can happen even more.”

For U.S. forces, this means they may not have control of the skies, which would dramatically affect war planning. “I may be denied use of the air space,” said Fastabend. “I may not have the autonomy against these guys that I would normally have because they’ve got a precision rocket system.”

Indeed, with weapons systems becoming cheaper and more accessible, a non-state force needs only cash to morph into a de facto army. Advanced weapons can be produced anywhere in the world, experts said.

The Marine Corps has officially acknowledged hybrid war as a potential scenario and has weaved the concept into its long-term strategy. In a document entitled Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, the Corps predicted that the lines between conventional and irregular war will blur.

Hybrid wars can be created by states, proxy forces or armed groups, the
document said.

To counter these enemies, U.S. forces should prepare to be flexible, experts said. They also should buy “multifunctional” equipment that is adaptable to various forms of combat, such as unmanned air vehicles that are armed with strike weapons, Fastabend said.

“When you are there watching the UAV feed and you see the rocket launcher being backed into the maintenance garage of a hospital, you do not have time to pass that reconnaissance information into a targeting system,” Fastabend said. But if the UAV is outfitted with a precision-guided weapons system, it can strike that rocket launcher
much faster, Fastabend said.

Irregular fighters will rarely present wide-open, stationary targets, he added. “An irregular combatant using an advanced weapons system is only going to expose himself for very brief periods before he hides back in the clutter.”

While it is important for the military to adapt to evolving enemies, that does not mean that drastic alterations are required, Fastabend said. “We are very cautious about making changes that are so severe and so irreversible that we won’t be prepared for different kinds of war,” he said.

For the future, the Pentagon is preparing to fight Iraq-like conflicts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been outspoken about the need to bulk up the Army and the Marine Corps in anticipation of a “long war” against Islamic terrorists.

That mindset puts Gates at odds with those who think the military has to begin preparing for other forms of combat. “Gates’ implication is that the most dangerous adversary soldiers and Marines will have to fight in the foreseeable future is a weakly armed Muslim Arab rebel whose only hope of inflicting damage on U.S. forces is to engage in an insurgency directed against an unwanted military occupation,” wrote
retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor in an editorial published by the Center for Defense Information.

“Many in the senior ranks of the Army and the Marines privately ask why the United States would ever willingly seize control of another Muslim country (again), occupy it (again), and then fight a rebellion (insurgency) against the U.S. military’s unwanted presence in that country (again)?” Macgregor said.

Many more senior officers wonder why, if the future is not a replay of Iraq, they should retool the Army and Marines to repeat the folly of that war, Macgregor said.

This especially when it would come at the expense of those branches’ ability and readiness for future conflicts against far more potent foes than insurgents armed with AK-47s and improvised explosive devices, Macgregor said.

“Why not consider preparations to fight forces from future rising regional powers in Asia or known problems like North Korea?” Macgregor asked. “Why not prepare for future operations to facilitate, and if necessary guarantee, U.S. access to energy resources instead?”

The next administration will have to define what it sees as threats and devise modernization plans to deal with them, Macgregor said.

But even if future wars are not Iraq-like counterinsurgencies, the military should not make the same mistake it made after Vietnam, when the Army ditched its counterinsurgency doctrine and manuals in the belief that such a war would never be fought again, experts have noted.

“If you look at the history of war since 1945, it’s fairly clear that every decade had to deal with one kind of counterinsurgency or another,” said Carter Malkasian, director of the stability and development program at CNA, a think tank funded by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

“The idea that it is going to disappear entirely doesn’t pass the sniff
test,” he told a CNA conference in Washington, D.C.

“But there’s also a chance we might have to face an opponent with
greater capabilities,” he said. For that reason, the United States has
to continue to emphasize combined-arms warfare. As a result of the
lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military will likely increase its
ranks of “advisors” who train foreign troops so they can fight their
own insurgencies.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Urban Warfare, Expeditionary Warfare, Marine Corps News

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