In the late 1990s, China’s leaders understood that to successfully promote the country’s global interests, direct military engagement with the U.S and its allies would not be an option. Today, China is engaged in unconventional operations to dilute American influence.  Russia too rejects American hegemony though for different reasons. While China is seeking to revise the international order, Russia is reacting to post-Cold War changes in its security environment and what it regards as NATO encroachment. Collectively, the two countries’ military tactics pose a formidable challenge to the west. There are several reasons for that.

First, the relatively unregulated international order has allowed China and Russia to normalize and internalize new practices for engagement against opponents through hybrid warfare. Highly centralized, and thus procedurally flexible, China and Russia use state run propaganda, weak domestic legal structures, economic pressure and support for non-state proxies more readily than their more democratic adversaries. The lethality of hybrid warfare emanates from the combination of high tech capabilities and the pursuit of unconventional,unrestricted and often illegal tactics. It is the civilian element that distinguishes hybrid from regular warfare to the extent that civilians are explicitly involved in the political, informational and economic components of war fighting.

Second, there are limits to what democratic states can do against hybrid warfare because they are constrained by their decentralized decision-making, domestic laws and complex bureaucracies. Preference for hybrid warfare will emerge when military decision makers are able to largely circumvent the weak international legal regimes governing unconventional warfare tactics, especially when there is a belief that conventional military tactics will not achieve a desired outcome.

We are not suggesting that by itself hybrid warfare makes states less democratic, but there is the potential for civilian oversight to be compromised leading to an erosion of democratic structures and norms. The problem is double edged. Elected leaders may be unwilling (for political reasons) or incapable (for institutional reasons) of holding their military accountable and have to function with incomplete information or become reliant on defence staff who may reveal only partial or false information about their activities. The unwillingness of the military to share information is partly motivated by a desire to disguise their true goals in order to avoid the label of an enabler to conflict or to ensure that opponents are not given that information.

Cyber warfare for example, utilized by both democratic and authoritarian states, is a grey area for international law. Cyber operations can seldom be considered an ‘armed attack’ that warrants an immediate military response by the target as deaths and infrastructure destruction is rarely immediate, reliably measurable or directly attributable to state actors.

In Eastern Ukraine, Russia draws on economic tools and cyber space to harm the energy sector and infrastructure of its adversary as well as non-state actors to fight against Ukraine’s conventional forces. In December 2015, Russia was accused of attacking the power gird of Ukraine through cyber space, thereby disabling a large portion of the country’s infrastructure.

In January 2010, Chinese cyber attacks focused on 34 U.S companies, including military contractors. Another instance was the breach of Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation in 2013.  Both the U.S and Australia attributed the attacks to the Chinese state but no sanctions were applied against the country.

Third, as we learned in Afghanistan and Iraq western military operations are highly susceptible to exploitation through hybrid warfare due in part to policy incoherence among allies. This fatal flaw in the  hands of an adversary like  Russia or China  is  one of the main  strengths of hybrid warfare. With its wide reaching societal impact, its ability to destabilise conventional statecraft and its weakening of political resolve and economic capacity, there is no effective military solution against hybrid warfare. That is because to make vulnerable states resistant to hybrid influence is to render them closed societies. Indeed, democratic states cannot guarantee immunity from hybrid warfare without becoming the enemies of their own open societies. Hybrid warfare begets more hybrid warfare and the race to the bottom begins.

The solution to hybrid challenges from Russia and China is ultimately not a military one but a political and collective one,based on baseline requirements for building state resilience.Success in building resilience, depends on the ability to forecast a desired end-state that prioritises long term political and economic goals, buttressed by stronger and enforceable international legal structures. In the Canadian context an important pre-requisite is a fully accountable and open military command structure. Unless the Canadian public understand the scope and intent of our military operations politicians should not be authorising them.



David Carment is a professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Dani Belo is a doctoral student at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia

This article was originally published on iPolitics

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