Hybrid Warfare: The Comprehensive Approach In The Offense

Hybrid Warfare:  The Comprehensive Approach In The Offense

The Comprehensive Approach (CA) is a way to achieve a common understanding and approach among all actors of the International Community through the coordination and de‐confliction of political, development and security efforts in solving an international crisis.


Through the use of broad spectrum techniques and pathways to destabilize and weaken neighboring nations, Russia and China have been using hybrid warfare to expand their influence and gain territory. Alliances and nations have been unable to respond effectively due to this aggression being exercised just below the threshold of open warfare, while the aggressors achieve their political aims at limited expense.

NATO and EU efforts to address hybrid warfare, while promising, are unlikely to succeed since they are neither broad enough in scope nor sufficiently integrated. This is because they see hybrid warfare as a new set of techniques for aggression rather than what it really is; the comprehensive approach in the offense.

The Comprehensive Approach

The Comprehensive Approach (CA) is a way to achieve a common understanding and approach among all actors of the International Community through the coordination and de‐confliction of political, development and security efforts in solving an international crisis.

A strategic and operational level process was needed to build coherency among these many actors and it has been called the Comprehensive Approach (CA).  CA focuses on building a shared understanding of the problem, developing a shared overarching vision of the solution and facilitating coordination of effort while respecting the roles and individual mandates of multiple entities.

At the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 and in its new Strategic Concept, the Alliance “…decided to enhance NATO’s contribution to a comprehensive approach to crisis management as part of the international community’s effort and to improve NATO’s ability to deliver stabilization and reconstruction effects”.

The effective implementation of a comprehensive approach requires all actors to work together with a shared sense of responsibility and openness, taking into account and respecting each other’s strengths, mandates and roles, not to mention their decision-making autonomy.  In other words, the Comprehensive Approach is not hierarchical but rather it is a collaborative effort among equals.

NATO’s experience from operations, including Afghanistan and in addressing piracy, has demonstrated that managing complex conflicts and crises requires a wide range of internal and external actors, including governments, civil society, the private sector and international agencies, to work together in a coherent and coordinated effort.

In a Comprehensive Approach, the security forces can provide a secure space to enable other actors to meet immediate humanitarian needs, build local trust, and address the root causes of problems causing the crisis.  It is the expansion of this space, the enabling of governance, and the building of trust in a society that is at the very heart of the Comprehensive Approach.

Hybrid Warfare:  The Comprehensive Approach in The Offense

The concept of hybrid warfare is broadly defined as the mix of conventional and unconventional, military and non-military, overt and covert actions employed in a coordinated manner to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare.

Since 2014, Russia has used these broad-spectrum tactics to wrest Crimea from Ukrainian control and subsequently annex it into the Russian federation.  More recently, China has been employing a similar approach in the South China Sea and to a lesser extent, Da’esh has used a similar approach in Syria and Iraq.

Looking through the military and security lens, Hybrid Warfare appears to target critical vulnerabilities and seeks to create ambiguity in order to hinder swift and effective decision-making. Taking a broader perspective, Hybrid Warfare is actually the comprehensive approach (CA) in the offense.  Where CA seeks to create space for friendly actors to strengthen governance, hybrid warfare seeks to shrink it.

Where CA strengthens and enables governance, hybrid warfare weakens it. Where CA seeks to build trust and societal cohesion, Hybrid Warfare seeks to sow mistrust and confusion between segments of the population as well as between the people and their government.

Where CA seeks to heal a society’s divisions and seek reconciliation, Hybrid Warfare targets a society’s deepest historical wounds to make them bleed again.

There are a wide range of measures applied as part of a hybrid campaign; from cyber-attacks on critical information systems, through the disruption of critical services, such as energy supplies or financial services, to undermining public trust in government institutions or exploiting social vulnerabilities.  Once a state is weakened sufficiently, the aggressor’s strategic aims can, if necessary, be consummated by the use of conventional or paramilitary forces.

Both Russia and China have employed hybrid warfare in recent years, often successfully achieving their political aims.  It was used by Russia against Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, and eastern Ukraine in 2014.  China has gradually expanded its control and influence in the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands, sending armed fishermen to patrol claimed territorial waters, and declaring and declaring an air identification zone in the same space. It is easy to surmise that their next steps will be to establish military bases on these islands, thus cementing their claim to the territory – without firing a shot.

In both cases, these states applied a full spectrum of economic, legal, information, cyber, and paramilitary means to achieve their objectives in a slow and ambiguous manner so as to not cross any threshold which would trigger collective military action in response.  As recent history tells us, hybrid warfare lowers the political price for aggression, making regime change and territorial annexation possible “on the cheap.”  Thus, building resilience against hybrid warfare is an effective deterrent because it raises the price for such aggression while reducing its chance for success.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the task of addressing hybrid warfare is more difficult given the lack of mature regional security structures nor a consensus among nations to multilaterally push back against Chinese revisionism.

While Russian hybrid warfare does present a new challenge to NATO, the EU, and their member states, unlike nations in the Asia-Pacific region, they are in a much better position to address it if they work together effectively.

NATO and EU Responses to Hybrid Warfare

In response to Russian hybrid warfare in 2014, NATO adopted the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) as a means of responding rapidly to new threats as they present themselves along the eastern and southern flanks.

More recently, NATO adopted a Hybrid Warfare Strategy in December 2015 and the European Union adopted its Joint Framework for Addressing Hybrid Threats in April 2016.  Both documents speak to working in conjunction with a variety of actors in order to improve resiliency, security, and continuity of governance in the face of hybrid threats. At the same time, both documents call for greater NATO-EU cooperation in addressing hybrid threats and the staffs of both organizations have worked together to agree upon a number of areas where they can focus their cooperative efforts.

Both NATO and the EU are applying some (but not all) of the principles of the Comprehensive Approach as they address the challenges of hybrid warfare.  But even these efforts are not likely to prove sufficient in dealing with the broader challenge of hybrid warfare since they do not address the full spectrum of possible pathways used by an aggressor nor do they integrate both vertically and horizontally across nations, organizations, and potentially supporting sister agencies in other nations.

A Comprehensive Approach in Response to A Comprehensive Approach

So far, the Kremlin’s short term gains since 2014 have led to crippling EU economic sanctions, a robust counter-messaging effort, and NATO returning to its collective defense roots. But even these efforts can trigger an increase in efforts to erode Alliance cohesion, break EU unity on economic sanctions, and create more unrest among Russian minority populations in Central and Eastern Europe.

So, what would a Comprehensive Approach to addressing Hybrid Warfare look like?  In order to know for certain, it would require the actors to come together to work through the stages of conducting a common assessment of the challenges, developing common approaches to address them, and planning for coordinated actions among nations and organizations. Until then, there are some indications of what their results may look like.

Building on the previous work within NATO, the EU, and their members states in addressing Hybrid Warfare, a comprehensive approach could seek to more coherently restrict the Russian use of organized crime as an instrument of state power.

A comprehensive approach would address how to prevent them from moving money and buying influence within European nations.  It would identify how to use many of the same techniques used to contain and disrupt organized crime since the Kremlin, like organized criminal groups, relies on the use of the legitimate economy to move money to achieve many of its aggressive aims.

The inclusion of real estate, business law, and transparency expertise could help to identify ways to thwart the Russian use of front companies and real estate holdings in major European capitals which launder money and support destabilizing elements.  In many cases, transparency can prove to be a helpful offset.

To be prepared for extreme cases, contingency plans could be formulated to ban Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT network, which processes global secure financial transactions.

Good progress has already been made on addressing Russia’s ability to use of energy as a weapon but it remains unmoored from a broader comprehensive approach which includes how to convince Russia to abandon aggression and reintegrate into the international community as a trusted partner.

Recommendations for A Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Hybrid Warfare

Taking into account the increasing recognition of the Comprehensive Approach as an essential process to improving coordination among various actors in solving major security challenges, the following recommendations are offered.

First, a comprehensive approach to address Russian hybrid warfare will require a more extensive assessment phase than when conducting this process.  In this case, the common assessment also requires a ‘red-teaming’ effort from a CA perspective. This involves a brutally honest self-assessment (at the national and multilateral levels) of government and societal weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and historical grievances. By seeing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses through our adversaries’ eyes, we’ll be more able to target our resilience efforts with far fewer blind spots.

Secondly, the effort must truly be a whole of government, whole of system comprehensive approach.  This will require a higher level of NATO, EU, private sector, and national government trust and collaboration with less focus on defending institutional roles and more effort on establishing supported and supporting relationships among nations and international organizations.

Thirdly, it is important to recognize the vital role of law enforcement, private sector (to include banks and financial institutions), cyber, strategic communications and media, and energy sector collaboration but also to integrate their efforts with broader economic, communications, and security measures.  These same efforts should also be integrated into global efforts to combat illicit finance and trade.

Finally, while these efforts can produce a coherent full spectrum regional effort to address Russian hybrid warfare, a similar comprehensive approach effort is urgently needed for the Asia-Pacific region.


European Commission (2016), Joint Framework on Countering Hybrid Threats. http://ec.europa.eu/DocsRoom/documents/16201

Guptill, Murray “Sandy,” Course Designer, NATO Comprehensive Approach Awareness Seminar, Interviews Sept 2015-April 2016

NATO (2010), “NATO’s Strategic Concept 2010”, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf

NATO Defense College (2011), NATO Comprehensive Approach Awareness Seminar, Course Guide