Today, state and non-state actors are challenging nations, institutions and private companies through a wide range of overt and covert activities targeted at their vulnerabilities. Both NATO and the European Union refer to these as hybrid threats
There are a wide range of measures in hybrid campaigns, ranging from cyber-attacks and disinformation to the disruption of critical services, such as energy supplies or financial services; the undermining of public trust in governmental institutions; and exploiting social vulnerabilities. Once a state is weakened sufficiently, the aggressor’s strategic aims can be consummated by the use of conventional or paramilitary forces.
As we have seen recently in Crimea and the South China Sea, a hybrid approach lowers the political price for aggression, making regime change and territorial annexation possible ‘on the cheap’.
Many refer to this phenomenon as ‘hybrid warfare’ and in the process ‘militarise’ the concept, which is actually much broader and more complex in nature. A whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is needed to access the necessary means and authorities to address this phenomenon. Thus, hybrid threats are best understood as an attack on governance – specifically democratic governance.
Such threats have always existed, of course, but what makes them different are the new vulnerabilities presented by a globalised and more interconnected world; instant global communications; a globally connected system of finance and commerce; and interconnectivity of gas and electricity distribution grids across borders. Hybrid threats represent the weaponisation of globalisation.
In Crimea and the South China Sea, a hybrid approach lowers the political price for aggression
In the South China Sea, Beijing seeks to establish its own governance over the territory. The rest of the international community endeavours to maintain the recognition of international waters, while Vietnam and the Philippines seek to maintain governance over their own territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
The governance which is challenged by hybrid threats is not just public but private as well. The majority of the world’s supply chain, communication providers, financial systems and media outlets, operate in the private sector. They are the first targets of a hybrid campaign and even when they are not the main target, their vulnerabilities can quickly threaten global governance.
For example, a cyber-attack on the government of Ukraine in 2017 inadvertently impacted Danish global shipping giant Maersk. As a result, Maersk’s global operations came to a halt as they temporarily lost the ability to govern their fleet and numerous other industries were also impacted as the global supply chain was disrupted.
In many western countries, 80?90% of all critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and it is widely recognised that these private entities are often the first targets of a hybrid campaign. Given NATO’s heavy reliance on the private sector to provide logistics and communications capabilities during a crisis, these vulnerabilities can have far-reaching political and economic effects.
Transnational threats are similar to hybrid threats in that they are also a threat to governance, Defined as threats such as organised crime, terrorism, illicit trafficking in humans, drugs, weapons and cybercrime, this broad group of challenges can also take the form of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Transnational organised crime refers to self-sustaining groups that operate transnationally to obtain power, influence and commercial gains. This is usually completely or partly illegal in nature. They seek to weaken governance to enable them to act with impunity ? moving materials, people, and money in and around governing regimes in order to conduct illicit commerce.
In building, maintaining and growing this system of impunity, transnational threats manage to corrupt government officials, computer systems, financial institutions, and deny governments the ability to control their sovereign borders and EEZ’s. This in turn weakens their ability to collect taxes and customs fees to fund the execution of governmental functions and services.
Private entities are often the first targets of a hybrid campaign
Terrorists require the same system of impunity outside of governing frameworks to move people, weapons, and to coordinate their activities. Additionally, terrorists also require the ability to get their message out in order to recruit new members and gain the maximum attention for their actions.
Terrorists also present a challenge to governance as they stress the system to respond. This often results in harsh responses, disrupted economic activity and reduced freedom of movement for citizens. All these outcomes can drive a wedge between the people and their government.
Governments and public and private institutions with weak governance, are more susceptible to hybrid and transnational threats. They are subjected to corruption; low levels of public trust; weak public and private accountability; ineffective law enforcement; weak security protocols for critical infrastructure; and a lack of cooperation between ministries, institutions, and the private sector.
The answer to both hybrid and transnational threats is simple: building and maintaining resilient, credible and capable governance. This requires cooperation from all entities to achieve success. Strong public and private governance presents a credible deterrence to both hybrid and transnational threats.
In order for this to be achieved, many components are necessary. For example, these include participatory, representative and inclusive political processes and government institutions; accountability of leaders and institutions to citizens and the rule of law; competent, capable, and trusted law enforcement and justice systems; continuing efforts to build greater social cohesion and mutual trust; a free and accountable media sector; respect for universally recognised human rights; sound corporate governance, security, and accounting standards; strong inter-ministerial cooperation and information sharing; public-private partnership; cooperation; and information sharing to thwart, detect, attribute, respond, and recover from hybrid and transnational threats.
Beyond these, there are three levels of cooperation and collaboration that enable governments and societies to better deter hybrid and transnational threats:
First, a ‘whole-of-government’ approach, in which all agencies and ministries from national to local level cooperate and share information.
Second, a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, which is similar to the first, but also includes engagement with the private sector, academia and civil society.
And lastly, the ‘comprehensive approach’ that means like-minded groups or states working together with international organisations and entities such as NATO, the EU, OSCE, the UN, the World Bank, ICRC, the private sector and civil society. Each collaborate and coordinate to face challenges together.
Close civil-military cooperation and interoperability is necessary to ensure an appropriate response
By focusing on governance, instead of looking at hybrid and transnational threats through a military lens, one gains the perspective which more closely aligns with each nation’s own legal authorities and frameworks and does not necessarily exclude a role for military capabilities. Given the nature of these threats, the first to detect and respond are most likely to be civilian government or private entities. In turn, this may require varying degrees of military capabilities to provide support. This cooperation is vital because no government wants to pay for the same capabilities twice.
In the event of a possibly escalating situation, close civil-military cooperation and interoperability is necessary to ensure an appropriate response, accompanied with all necessary and available instruments of national and international power and influence. For this reason, comprehensive and whole-of-society approaches are vital to building trust and interoperability, while any gaps and vulnerabilities in our legal and procedural frameworks need to also be identified and closed. This can be best achieved through scenario-based discussions and table top exercises among various stakeholders.
Through strengthening public and private governance, and seeking deeper and broader cooperation among institutions, nations, and civil society, we can turn globalisation and our greater interconnectedness from vulnerability into an advantage.
*Multilateral Cooperative Engagement Coordinator at US European Command