The Hybrid Nature of Future Wars and Armed Conflicts

Journal Title: Military Thought

Issue Edition: Vol. 28, No. 2

Author: A. V. Brychkov, V.L. Dorokhov, G.A. Nikonorov


Col. A. S. BRYCHKOV (Ret.), Doctor of Philosophical Sciences

Col. V. L. DOROKHOV, Doctor of Military Sciences

Lt. Col. G. A. NIKONOROV, Candidate of Philosophical Sciences


Source: Military Thought, Vol. 28, No.2 (2019), pp. 20-32



Abstract: Based on analysis of the military-political situation throughout the world, the US National Security Strategy and US military planning documents, the authors forecast some characteristics of future wars and armed conflicts. These factors relate to the proliferation of asymmetric and indirect actions, the shift of armed confrontation to cities and population centers, and the broader application of irregular formations.


Keywords: Hybrid war, irregular formations, asymmetric and indirect actions, direct defense, strategy of guerrilla warfare, cyber and counter-cyber weapons.


The geopolitical situation in the world remains unstable, as evidenced by numerous facts and circumstances of functioning social systems on the verge of balancing between peace and war. Many regional military conflicts, including at the borders of the Russian Federation are unresolved; the trend toward their forceful resolution continues. Moreover, world public opinion is presented with scientific, military doctrinal and legal justification of the necessity and inevitability in the system of geostrategic plans and aspirations of the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly the NATO countries, led by the United States. In our view, we also cannot rule out the probability of escalation of armed conflicts in a large-scale war with the participation of the leading states of the world.

It is difficult to say today what future wars and armed conflicts will be like, particularly in terms of the ratio of used military and non-military ways to achieve policy objectives. It can only be assumed that they will not be like the previous ones. This is evidenced by the nature of the local wars of recent decades and the analysis of United States military planning documents: The US national defense strategy (National Defense Strategy, NDS), US national military strategy, (National Military Strategy, NMC), and US Army Operating Concept 2020-2040: Winning in a Complex World.

Many military experts predict that future war will typically be carried out without front and rear, and the defending party may sometimes strike before the aggressor attacks. Will this aggressor really exist? After all, “Tough confrontations of the future will be in unfamiliar surroundings and in an unfamiliar place. Furthermore, armies will confront unknown enemies, belonging to unknown coalitions.”1. And where there are unknown enemies there are also strange wars: not only armed struggle on a traditional battlefield, but also confrontation in diplomacy, internal civil conflicts, behavioral, informational, financial and economic and technological confrontation. Everything now for Western civilization has become synonymous with the word "war.”

On land and at sea, in the air, space and cyberspace, the Pentagon intends to wage wars that are hybrid, asymmetric and counter-insurgent - which the mass media, also being a resource and tool for military action, will called "conflict", "confrontation" or "opposition." Indeed, the fact is that mankind is entering a new era of "world wars" and "shadow wars.”

Whereas through most of the 20th century, largely due to the existence of the socialist system, social differentiation within developed capitalist countries decreased, as did differences between developed and developing countries, for nearly 25 years the opposite trend has been observed. An increasingly large share of income, property, resources and power is concentrated in the hands of the richest segments of the population, particularly the upper 1%. The size of the middle class is gradually decreasing. The debt burden of the population is growing. A certain improvement of living standards has been accompanied by a decline in wealth and property truly belonging to the population. Living in debt has become widespread.

Moreover, the problem of masses of extra people is emerging. An additional dimension of this problem the fact that year by year, there are fewer incentives for moving production from Western countries to Asia, Africa and Latin America in pursuit of reduction in labor costs. Today robots produced in the United States and Japan, with little more than two years’ recoupment, are proving to be cheaper in assembly production than, for example, Chinese or Indonesian workers. It is quite obvious that the growth of wealth and social inequality, the lack of prospects for work and increasingly disconnected worldwide "social elevators" inevitably lead to a dramatic rise in social tensions and contradictions, which will continuously escalate, and their participants are becoming more radical. In this regard, the risks of unleashing throughout the world not only international, global and regional military conflicts, but also civil conflicts fraught with global civil war are increasing.

Traditional activities that had previously been the prerogative solely of the state are in private hands. For example, few people know that 70% of the activities of the American intelligence community are done by private contractors. In addition, no one properly comprehends fact that in terms of firepower and combat capabilities, major private military companies (PMCs) currently surpass the national armed forces of 30% of the world’s countries. We are seeing an expansion of supranational governing bodies that come into conflict with the policies of nation-states, as a result of which new trouble spots are created.

Internet and communications change the awareness of political ideas more quickly and create a new reality. Whereas real life used to determine consciousness, now it is possible to use transformations of consciousness to build a new version of life, even an illusory one, and turn it into a reality that can be used to solve political problems. International law designed for the legal subjectivity of sovereign states, is becoming increasingly blurred as a result of the increasing scale of the use of nonstate actors, with the aid of which political tasks at the international level are being addressed.

The old world order, which was based on clear military and economic priorities, is increasingly more difficult to preserve. The new situation is being realized in many countries of the world. Recent decades have been unsuccessful for the United States in political and military terms. American Armed Forces by and large suffered tangible defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have failed to achieve their goals in North Africa and other regions of the world.2

In the US National Security Strategy adopted in 2017, the modern geopolitical situation is characterized as follows.

First, Russia and China are called revisionist, i.e., countries that want to revise the world order. In the description of the key challenges for the US, they occupy most of the space. The “current challenges to free societies” are portrayed in the 2017 Strategy as “just as serious, but more diverse” than “during the cold war, when there was a totalitarian threat from the Soviet Union.” The new Strategy emphasizes that China and Russia are seeking to shape a world that is contrary to American values and interests. It is noted that it is Russia’s goal to weaken the influence of the US in the world and to isolate America from its allies and partners, and that China is expanding its power “at the expense of the sovereignty of others" and “is building the most perfect military system in the world next to America’s.” On the basis of the provisions of the new National Security Strategy, the US, competing with such countries as China and Russia, will act independently to a greater extent, without regard to international organizations.3

Second, in accordance with the new Strategy, the policy of containment of Russia will now be conducted openly and even more fiercely, regardless of political change inside the US, no matter which group comes to power in America, as long as Russia remains an obstacle to the main American goal of preserving the position of the US as the sole global leader. By designating Russia and China as its main strategic opponents, Washington itself thus acknowledged that a unipolar world no longer exists.4

Third, most alarming in the document is the idea that America has the option to wage preventive wars against countries that pose a threat to its national interests. A preventive war is a willingness to deal a military blow before there is aggression. Preventive actions are usually conducted without tangible evidence of a threat and without relevant decisions by international organizations.

The following was written in the introduction to the previous Strategy-2015: "The question is not whether or not America should lead. The question is how we should lead... We are united by a national confidence that America’s global leadership remains immutable.”5 The motif of American global leadership also remains in the new Strategy: “The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership.”6

The provisions of the National Security Strategy are developed in the US National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy. The first, signed by the US Secretary of Defense, focuses on the role of defense in implementing the National Security Strategy. Next comes the US National Military Strategy (National Military Strategy, NMS), developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the governing body of the US Armed Forces. It formulates the role of the Armed Forces in accordance with the tasks set by the parent documents.

In the US National Defense Strategy, the US Department of Defense proposes to focus on three main directions to counter threats: increasing the combat readiness of the Army, strengthening existing alliances and reforming the department itself to increase the efficiency and speed of the bureaucratic process. It also proposes to upgrade weapons. “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win it,” reads the National Defense Srategy.7 The US plans to upgrade its Army, in particular, by modernizing the nuclear triad: strategic aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-missile submarines. In addition, the document says that the US is planning to work to strengthen alliances so that “no enemy can stand up to the joint fiorces of the US and its allies.” Key areas for strengthening partnership are the Indo-Pacific region, the Middle East and NATO.

The American ideology of modern warfare is set out in the US National Military Strategy-2015, where the scale of the Pentagon’s preparations is demonstrated. In essence, it is about turning “global disorder” into an “international order promoted by American leadership.” This "international order" is directly connected with "the promotion of universal values" and ensuring "security of a global open economic system."

Inasmuch as the document is from the Pentagon, it envisions promoting the new order through war. To do so, the American Armed Forces should be “used globally" and be able to conduct "integrated operations," relying on their "global stabilizing presence" - i.e., their network of military bases and "global network of allies and partners."

In full accordance with the hierarchy of legal acts in state and military administration, the document designed to implement the provisions of the National Defense and National Military Strategies is the US Army Operational Concept "Victory in a Complex World 2020-2040.” It is not prescriptive in nature, but determines how the Army operates now and the way in which the US Army command can use future opportunities to reflect anticipated threats. The Concept proceeds from the assumption that on land, in the air, at sea, in space and in cyberspace, the military advantage of the Anglo-Saxons will be undeniable.

To enshrine the political and military trend for the short term, President Donald Trump signed a national defense budget for the year 2019 in the amount of $716 billion, which is 3% more than the previous year. The budget, whose passage is seen by analysts as a victory for US Defense Secretary James Mattis, provides the Pentagon $69 billion for current foreign operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, etc.), as well increasing Armed Forces salaries by 2.6%. Their numbers will grow by 16,000 troops in the near future.8 For comparison: In 2018, the military budget amounted to almost $700 billion, in 2017 it was about $619 billion, and $600 billion in 2016.9

Thus, it can be argued that the US is preparing for war, while constantly expressing the need for the preservation of peace. An analysis of the basic provisions of the US National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the US Army Operational Concept allows us to understand the nature of future wars and get a sense of the methods of conducting the combat operations for which the NATO Armed Forces are preparing out to the year 2040. On this basis, it is advisable to reverse-engineer a counteraction procedure: Knowledge of an attack strategy provides an opportunity to outline a strategy for protection.

Although advances in technology will continue to have an impact on the nature of wars of the future, it can be assumed that they will have less impact on ground forces (GF) than on other AF branches. The threats to the vital interests of states in air, sea, space and cyberspace are ultimately determined by the situation on the ground. Despite the fact that the ability to project power on Earth from the air, sea and cyberspace is very important when carrying out joint operations, the use of GF remains crucial for achieving political results.

GF in the wars of the future will face challenges not only to defeat enemy ground troops and hold territory, but also to create conditions for the organization of an interim military government in anticipation of the transition to civil authorities, which will require the availability of relevant experts in the army. In other words, GF must not only defeat the enemy on the battlefield, but also possess the ability to translate military victories into political results. At present and in the future, the significant influence on the conduct of operations by GF formations will provide a number of new factors (see Table).

GF should have the possibility to achieve their goals both through the use of special operations forces (SOF) with full support of their operations (simplified version carrying out their mission) and through broad-based operations using all available forces and assets. While military forces must work closely with GF, it is necessary to interact with forces and assets of other federal bodies of executive power, both when conducting combat operations as part of joint groupings of troops (forces) and in operational tasks to support vital activities of the population in areas of armed conflict, providing military support to the local self-government bodies, law-enforcement agencies, etc. In connection with this, general cultural training of GF personnel, aimed in particular at the study and understanding of national psychology and culture of the population in the likely field of operation, become increasingly important.

Currently, one can see an effort to develop super-complex technical innovations to replace high-quality training for troops waging firefights. Changes in the environment of armed confrontation and its forms are not always taken into account when, despite their technical and resource superiority, troops are unable to perform their assigned missions.

Currently there is a disparity between NATO’s general-purpose forces and those of the Russian Federation (with its allies). It will not disappear in the near future, for economic reasons. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on finding and developing asymmetric and indirect methods of waging war (Fig. 1).

As evidenced by the retrospective analysis of the 200-year history of military conflicts, power, strength and resources do not always guarantee victory in an armed confrontation. For instance, during this period the weaker side won nearly 30% of all asymmetric wars. Moreover, an interesting trend is observed: The more recent the conflict, the more often the weaker side has won. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the strong side in the conflict is less motivated to win, because its survival is not at stake. Conversely, a weak entity is increasingly ready to go all the way, demonstrating the utmost motivation for victory, because that is the only guarantee of its survival.

The most common asymmetric strategies of a militarily weak side include direct active protection and guerrilla actions.

Direct active defense involves the use of armed forces to prevent capture by the enemy of territories with resident populations that possess businesses and strategic resources. Like a direct attack strategy, a direct defense strategy focuses exclusively on the military plane -- the application of regular armed forces. Paradoxically, active defense in practice can be implemented in preventive offensive actions aimed at advancing the destruction of the most dangerous groupings of a stronger opponent, in order to deprive it of an opportunity to unleash an all-out war, which the opponent would inevitably win because of its power and resource advantages.

Guerrilla warfare strategy involves achieving one’s own goals through constant attacks on the enemy by small detachments, distributed in space, causing losses in manpower, armament and military equipment and materiel, and destruction of logistical structures, thereby undermining the morale of personnel and weakening their will to win. The strategy of guerrilla warfare may be successfully implemented if two obligatory conditions are met. First, the terrain must be difficult, complicating the conduct of combat operations – for example, dense forest, jungles, swamps, mountains, major cities, etc. Second, one needs real support from the local population and continuous full supply of guerrillas.

Guerrilla warfare has never counted on the rapid, decisive defeat of the stronger side. It is almost always a war of attrition. The experience of the Great Patriotic War and struggles with various underground groups shows that, for the efficient organization of such asymmetric fighting, it is necessary to train personnel in advance during peacetime and to familiarize them with the upcoming operations area.

For manning of guerrilla groups and their relevant training, it is advisable to involve specialists from the Federal Security Service (FSB), the National Guard, the Internal Affairs Ministry, the SOF and Airborne Troops. In addition, a special entity responsible for the status of forces and assets for waging such operations, planning, and coordinating their actions should be created in advance within the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces; a system of depots and bases with arms and food should be set up, as well as a logistics chain to resupply them. If fighting becomes protracted due to the occupation of large parts of Russia, then without this kind of structure SOF and Spetsnaz units alone are not likely to be able to carry out their missions fully of disrupting enemy communications and destroying its infrastructure on the captured territory.

In our view, it is also necessary to consider training for military units of the Armed Forces, including the revision of their guidance documents, so that in unfavorable conditions they could transition to guerrilla warfare technique, either on the orders of superiors or in the event of disruption of centralized command and control.

History shows that the troops of the strong side have succeeded in the early stages of the war succeeds when acting against the regular armed forces of the weak side; but once the weak opponent moves to guerrilla warfare or insurgent actions, combined with terrorist attacks, the strong side often suffers defeat.

It should be noted that, judging by the nature of the expenditures on armaments, the leading states of the West have not drawn the proper conclusions from the lessons of history. They still fully rely on their technological, informational and resource superiority and believe that the weak side will act within their logic and linear strategy, embarking on conventional warfare. It is necessary to benefit from the situation and prepare to use asymmetric methods of armed struggle in forests and cities, all the more so because these same factors may impede combat operations in enemy territory.10

Analysis of warfare in military conflicts in the 21st century shows that cities and major metropolitan areas are increasingly becoming the arena of armed confrontation. Fighting in urban areas give the weak side the opportunity to equalize potentials due to limitations in the application of enemy aircraft, tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, tactical missile weapons, etc. The side observing the norms and rules of international humanitarian law will be forced to minimize its own superiority in forces and assets and conduct combat operations mainly using small arms in close combat, which always leads to large losses.

It must be noted that the ever-increasing flow of migrants into cities and urban agglomerations represents a certain threat. This is the main labor force engaged in essential services, such as public transport, food service, medical care, communications and utilities. Migrants are a hotbed of ethnic crime, causing discontent among the urban population. They will be among the first recruited for various kinds of illegal armed groups, terrorist organizations and nongovernmental structures, which at some point could disrupt or take control the urban infrastructure.

In connection with the language barrier, the insularity of ethnic groups, and other factors, it is quite difficult for law-enforcement authorities to monitor the situation with respect to this category of the urban population. And the availability of accessible information networks makes sabotage or rebellion quite possible. Measures to counteract this process need to be developed, and the factor of migrants should be taken into account in the organization of upcoming combat actions.

Attention should be paid to the ever-increasing role played in military conflicts by irregular formations supported by state structures; some even include SOF subunits. In this regard, in our view, combined conflicts will become widespread in which both state-run armed forces and irregular armed formations take part in combat operations, as well as small SOF units and reconnaissance groups. Some of these will be from sponsor countries that, while formally not party to the conflict, actively supply one or several of its participants with everything necessary. Despite the fact that the use of asymmetric methods of fighting is usually the prerogative of the weaker side, in the future all warring parties will use them.

It must be borne in mind that nonstate armed groups will largely be manned by representatives of the civilian population, with increasing access to advanced technology. Today almost any civilian technology can find a military application. For example, remote control devices of various consumer electronics or car access can easily be repurposed as triggers to remotely control explosive devices; household and industrial chemicals can be used to manufacture explosive devices; automobiles can serve as mobile mines and battering rams; and drones can be used for reconnaissance or delivery of ammunition to the target.

Military conflicts that involve asymmetric and indirect actions, irregular armed groups supported by interested countries, and subsequently state armed forces are commonly referred to as hybrid wars (Fig. 2).

It appears that the international criminal network, which engages simultaneously in military, political and business activities, will play a significant role in such wars. It is not ruled out that criminal groups, taking advantage of the weakened state during armed conflicts of varying intensity, will seek to seize power in certain regions and take control over part of the country’s territory and resources. This factor will also have to be considered in order to achieve victory over the enemy.

In future hybrid wars, we should expect an ever-greater combination of the lethality of interstate conflict with the fanaticism and rage of guerrilla warfare. The warring parties, including interested state-sponsored irregular groups and volunteers, will be equipped with modern arms and communication equipment, including encryption systems, man-portable air systems and other systems, as well as engineering ammunition and improvised explosive devices. They often will begin to practice mass killings of local residents who refuse to support them.

When waging hybrid wars, they may also use the resources of interested states: weapons to incapacitate satellites, cyberweapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, state terrorism and provocations, such as the simulated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government army. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to equate the state solely with a regular army, and nongovernmental organizations and forces only with irregular groups.

The armed forces and law-enforcement authorities of most states were formed in the era of classical wars, and so they are focused on combating specific internal and external enemies. However, the nature of threats has changed, and for their neutralization it is necessary to establish integrated teams involving combined-arms formations and special units trained to operate in such situations. It is quite possible to involve representatives of PMCs as well.

Wars and armed conflicts will be increasingly difficult to classify in accordance with national and international legal systems, because their participants will belong to many sectors: public and private, domestic and international, volunteer and salaried, religious and criminal.

In our view, the experience of fighting in Syria and in other armed conflicts has shown that from traditional types of military forces it is advisable to move to expeditionary, specially trained small subunits that are able to operate autonomously on urbanized terrain with the support of aviation and high-precision weapons. Traditional regiments, brigades and divisions must be built on a modular principle from such units, which would be staffed by fighters who are well trained individually and also trained to operate in concert in the most difficult situations. In keeping with the modular structure, these units would be expected (after completing their own missions, or upon order) to quickly assemble into powerful unified special combined-arms units to deliver strikes on important targets and perform missions in accordance with the general plan.

Holding territory and controlling it cannot be fully guaranteed with only forces from GF military formations. Liberated territory must be quickly integrated into the nationwide space; therefore, serious consideration should be given to the application of these combined groupings, among which it is advisable to include groups of professionals capable of infrastructural support to operations and, if necessary, restoration of fuel, energy and utilities to populated areas.

The procedure for the establishment of a military-civilian administration in areas seized by combat operations should also be thought out. In the event of repelling aggression against Russia, it is advisable to create -- in all major populated areas where battles are expected -- a rapid-response system for infrastructure crises to restore essential public services, including supplies of food and water. This issue requires careful consideration and detailed planning.

There is also a need to continue to improve the system of territorial defense and regularly conduct training and exercises with the involvement of relevant military and law-enforcement manpower and resources, the Emergency Situations Ministry and local administrations to practice guarding and defending important installations, fighting enemy SOF and illegal armed groups, as well as eliminating the consequences of hostilities in urbanized territories.

Thus, future wars and armed conflicts will usually be of a hybrid nature. The main strikes will very likely be directed at state and military administration sites and at cities. Military action will take place using methods of asymmetric confrontation in hard-to-reach areas, as well as major cities and agglomerations with their huge masses of population, social inequalities, densely built-up areas, and in most cases poor infrastructure and inconsistently effective governance systems.

Conflicts would include battle confrontations on various scales, combining the activities of military formations of conventional armed forces, PMCs and other nonstate actors and criminal organizations. In addition to combined-arms battles and operations, forms of combat will include urban riots caused by hopelessness, well-prepared uprisings, terrorist acts and shadow wars inspired from abroad. The warring parties will use various highly sophisticated methods, tactics and modern technology.

In this connection, the military-political leadership of Russia must improve the military organization of the state to reduce the risks that the country might face in the future, and take measures to redistribute scarce economic resources to neutralize hybrid threats and implement the strategic objectives of the Russian Federation and its allies. It is expedient, in our view, to pay particular attention to creating within our military structure flexible, multi-purpose forces capable of acting in the unique circumstances of any particular conflict, including a hybrid war. A certain level of specialization is necessary, of course, but in the long run troops and forces should be prepared to conduct successful campaigns against not only the armies of the leading states of the world and against international terrorist organizations, but also against a combination of both simultaneously, in urbanized areas and in other very difficult situations. This will minimize risks and maximize the potential to meet the needs of the Armed Forces with limited resources.

Today, more than ever, we must not forget the ever-changing threats and challenges to the security of Russia and its allies. The President of the Russian Federation has pointed out a number of times that throughout the world new regional and local wars keep cropping up right before our eyes, as well as zones of instability and artificially stoked “managed chaos.” Moreover, we are witnessing conscious attempts to provoke such conflicts in close proximity to the borders of Russia and its allies. The Supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation has stated: “Under these circumstances, Russia cannot rely only on diplomatic and economic methods of removing discord and resolving conflicts. Our country faces the challenge of developing military capabilities as part of a strategy of deterrence and defense sufficiency. And the Armed Forces, intelligence services and other security agencies must be prepared to respond rapidly and effectively to new challenges.”11


1 Ye.S. Larina and V.S. Ovchinskiy, Mirovoyna. Vse protiv vsekh. Noveyshiye kontseptsiyi boyevykh deystviy anglosaksov [World War: All Against All. Latest Concepts of Anglo-Saxon Combat Operations]. Moscow: Knizhniy mir, 2015, p. 35.     

2 Ye.S. Larina. Umnozhayushchiye skorb. Kak vyzhit’ v epokhu voyny elit [Increasing Grief: How to Survive in the Age of the War of Elites.] URL: = (Retrieved March 5, 2018).

3 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017. URL: (Retrieved April 2, 2018).

4 Report to Congress on US 2017 National Security Strategy. URL: (Retrieved May 5, 2018).

5 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017. URL: (Retrieved May 16, 2018).

6 Report to Congress on US 2017 National Security Strategy. URL: (Retrieved May 16, 2018).

7 URL: (Retrieved May 16, 2018).

8 Rossiyskaya gazeta. URL: (Retrieved Aug. 15, 2018).

9 Rossiya v novoy Strategii natsionalnoy bezopastnosti SSHA [Russia in the New US National Security Strategy.] URL: (Retrieved March 3, 2018).

10 Ye.S. Larina and V.S. Ovchinsky, Mirovojna..., p. 235.   

11 V.V. Putin, “Byt’ sil’nymi: garantiyi natsionalnoy bezopasnosti dlya Rossiyskoy Federatsiyi” [Be strong: Safeguards for national security of the Russian Federation]. Rossiyskaya gazeta, 2016, No. 5709 (35). February 20, 2012.

 Translated by Dean Benson

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