Hybrid warfare is a planned, clandestine initiative launched by an interested party against the national vulnerabilities across the political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure spectrum with an aim to dilute the power of the targeted regime or subvert the authority of a chosen government. It deliberately maintains anonymity and ambiguity to avoid attribution. Hybrid Warfare usually remains undetected till late by which time it has become fully functional and inflicted harm.
By Col Pradeep Jaidka
In the 21st century, waging conventional wars has become passé. New variations like Low Intensity wars, Information Wars and Hybrid War, have emerged.
Waging Hybrid Warfare has become an attractive option for challenging or destabilizing established authorities. Since anonymity is maintained, attention to initiator’s involvement remains under the radar and deniability is ensured. In Hybrid Warfare, the lines between peacetime and wartime and between combatants and civilians are blurred. The targeted entity faces systemic aggression through gray zone wars, nonlinear wars, or undeclared wars.
During the past year, the Shaheen Bagh and the Kisan agitations captured most headlines in the country. Both created peculiar conditions impacting India’s internal security environment. An analysis would show that these events followed specific precepts of Hybrid Warfare wherein particular segments of population made certain (recent) executive orders the basis of their protests to challenge the nation State.
Characteristics of Hybrid Warfare
The presence and reality of Hybrid Warfare is globally recognised today. The irony is that no one understands it. Some salient characteristics are discussed below.
A commonly accepted definition is yet to emerge. Existing definitions of Hybrid Warfare revolve around actors, tactics, complexity, ambiguity, simultaneity, and the avoidance of attribution & retribution. It is accepted as a kind of warfare in which conventional and unconventional means, propaganda, misinformation, proxies, and psychological operations are employed against a target.
Hybrid Warfare employs a wide array of power tools including political, economic, military, civil aspects, non military, NGOs, non state actors, media, economic tools, cyber tools, information operations, intelligence agencies, sabotage, propaganda, terrorism, or rebel movements to influence and alter the power balance, or, change perceptions of the targeted domestic population, or, to divide societies.
At strategic levels, the initiator employs informational tools such as: diplomacy, terrorism, and economic attacks to secure its aims. The requirement to maintain anonymity (of the initiator), mandates that humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect target populations goes missing.
In the initial stages of hybrid warfare, psychological operations, information operations and propaganda are employed to convey a designed (usually anti-government) message to mass audiences. These usually are built upon: (1) Targeting the vulnerabilities of a society or state, (2) Developing networks (3) Establishing monopolies in the media and other information outlets to influence targeted masses (4) Support local separatist movements (5) Cultivating politicians and other key establishment actors (6) Inducing dissatisfaction with central authorities (7) Contracting lumpen elements for certain disruptive tasks (8) Designing and launching anti-state interest movements, marches, or protests (9) Targeting infrastructure and institutions (10) Provoking violence (11) Launching misinformation and perception management operations (12) Rendering the strength of domestic conventional forces (13) Erecting a parallel governance system.
The aim is to challenge and reduce the influence of policy and key decision makers by combining kinetic operations with subversive effort.
Currently, Hybrid Warfare is indicated by attempts at regime change, soft coups, issue based revolutions, raising anti-state rebels, insurgents, non-state actors penetrating the civilian population, spies, influence manipulation (propaganda) in main stream and social media and proxy fights.
The core philosophy employed by the initiator is to instigate matters and let other elements do its dirty work. Thus ‘Leading from Behind’, it can destabilize a target without committing many resources or disturbing their political relations. Participants are convinced to ‘fight’ against the system and protests are not escalated to the threshold of violence. This ensures that no attribution of intent or involvement becomes possible. Simultaneously, the initiator is shielded from any international sanctions or censures.
Having briefly captured the essence of Hybrid Warfare, the following section recapitulates the protests and analyses if they incorporated its characteristics.
The Shaheen Bagh protest: The protest was triggered by passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the police intervention against students at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Ostensibly led by (Muslim) women, the protest began on 11 December 2019 and ended on 24 March 2020. Later, the protests resonated in other states. The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak offered the opportunity to Delhi Police for getting the protest site vacated.
The Farmers protest: Farmers Unions (mainly from Punjab and Haryana) launched the protests against the three acts passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. They refused to negotiate anything short of total repeal of the laws as also reject the Supreme Court (SC) of India stay order on the farm laws and the committee appointed by the SC. Short, symbolic protests, were held in some other states too.
Few aspects are noteworthy. Both protests saw roads in/to the capital being blocked roads, causing inconvenience to general public – ostensibly projecting ‘genuine’ grievances. The protestors refused to heed appeals for reconciliation, indulged in propaganda, sabotage and violence to bring discredit to the government.
Sections of media went into overdrive to project concerns of the agitators. The motives and coverage of certain channels resulted in airing false news. This suggested extraneous influences at play.
The Shaheen Bagh protests were timed with US President’s impending visit to Delhi. Launching the farmers protest coincided with the invitation to British PM as Chief Guest for Republic Day Parade, which was declined citing Covid-19 situation in UK.
Politically, in initial stages, some political personalities supported both events, yet none became directly involved. The protest leaders, in both cases, were either local lightweights or political new comers. This automatically gave deniability to main political parties. In case of farmers’ protests, political parties renewed their open support after Republic Day, possibly with an eye on the Budget session. The Shaheen Bagh protest happened just before the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections; the farmers’ protests have happened while preparing for Bengal, Tamil Nadu elections.
Both saw attitudinal rigidity as protestors demanded total rollback of respective legislations. The arrangements to house and feed the protestors suggested well planned organising and (external?) funding. A mix of confusion and pro/anti sentiment (depending upon one’s political perceptions) prevailed amongst citizens.
The Farmers Protest was initiated when the country was battling Covid-19 and the Chinese. Communication towers were sabotaged in Punjab. Initially, the protest was peaceful but turned unmanageable and violent – that too on Republic Day.
The Government displayed extreme restraint in both cases even when the protestors tested its tolerance and the population subjected to extreme inconvenience. The Republic Day violence resulted in locals demanding vacation of protest sites and some farmer groups withdrawing their support on ideological differences. Initially, the authorities moved in to put an end to the protest, but a few unions refused to terminate the protest. The diminishing support in wake of Republic Day violence was reversed overnight after Tikait’s tearful statement.
Correlating the Protests with Hybrid War
Did both protests follow the precepts of Hybrid Warfare? Or is the suggestion some kind of paranoia? While it may be premature to link the two, ignoring the same is equally risky. It should be remembered that no formal announcement is discernable during initial stages of any divisive movement (insurgency, militancy). Such transition comes later.
The following prominent indicators/ingredients suggest link between the protests and Hybrid Warfare –the lavish provisioning of facilities to the protestors points to unexplained sources of funding; the Punjab CM statement that Pakistan engineered the Republic Day violence suggests deflecting allegations of his party involvement in the violence alternatively, it carries the potential of provoking a direct confrontation with Pakistan. Either way, it offers a difficult choice to the government.
Issue based alienation of Muslims and farmers sections is seen in the protests against legitimate bills approved by the Parliament. At a particular instant the government was seen as being on the back foot – helpless in dealing with either protest. Its offer to delay implementing the farmers’ bill by 18 months is an example. Thus the protests achieved desired results at least costs.
Political parties distanced themselves, at convenience, immunizing themselves against allegations of involvement with the protestors. Towards end January, they openly expressed support, possibly aiming to milk the movement for political gains especially around the Budget session.
External endorsements in support of the protests by the Canadian PM and unconcerned people like Rihanna, Mia Khalifa, Amanda Cerny, Lilly Singh and Greta Thunberg.
Protesting against a perceived wrong is a legitimate right of citizen(s). Solution finding and resolution through negotiation is equally established, unless absolute ‘Zero-One’ results are envisioned.
A key objective of hybrid warfare is to avoid direct confrontation, challenge the writ of or destabilize a targeted state. Identifying the initiator is difficult, thus he can keep violating established norms at ‘will’. Moreover, the inbuilt flexibility allows the originator to change its course of action; change targets or issues; escalate or de-escalate and time plans for achieving desired objectives.
A study of the protests will show that a wide spectrum of Hybrid Warfare tools have been employed to galvanise support against perceived wrongs, promote ambiguity to spread confusion and introduce chaos towards a showdown with authorities. Propaganda was employed to convey a designed anti government message, some established segments of media and other information outlets were employed to generate conflicting influences on large sections of the population.
The congregation of protestors in Delhi, marches, creation of infrastructure to house the protestors for long time periods, showcasing tools of violence, misinformation and speeches; posing open challenge to state law enforcement agencies are indicators.
Theoretically, if the Shaheen Bagh is considered as the first experiment to test official response, Farmers agitation is Act II of India facing a possible Hybrid War. The initiators employed unpredictability and flexibility in selecting issues carrying mass appeal for specific sections of society. These opportunities were exploited both horizontally and vertically. These protests timed with visits of foreign dignitaries, impact international standing.
On the other hand, authorities are constrained from generating appropriate response to such ’peaceful’ protests. Any regulatory measures like setting up barricades, using in modern monitoring and crowd control measures (e.g. facial recognition) will be criticized as ‘excessive and oppressive’.
Be that as it may, recurrence and increased frequency of protests, aim to erode the credibility and effectiveness of the government and need serious counter measures. Time alone will test this hypothesis and pronounce its judgement.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.