Ethics and Hybrid War

Ethics and Hybrid War

“Hybrid War is emerging as a new form of warfare which military doctrines are struggling to adjust to. Its combination of conventional and non-conventional threats blur the distinctions between civilian and combatant, and between peace and war. This increasingly complex and ambiguous environment presents operational challenges, but also ethical ones.”

by Keir Watt

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the term Hybrid War has become the latest buzzword for military experts explaining advancements in warfare. The central idea of Hybrid Warfare is that conflicts are evolving to include a ‘hybrid’ mix of conventional and non-conventional threats which are challenging current preconceptions of war. The inter-state wars of the past century centred around conventional warfare are being replaced by conflicts in which “there is no clear-cut distinction between soldiers and civilians and between organised violence, terror, crime, and war.“[i] This more complex strategic environment poses operational challenges to militaries, but also raises new ethical dilemmas.

According to Just War Theory, war must have a just cause; principally, in self-defence and the defence of innocents [ii]. War must also be carried out with just means; this asserts that there are certain constraints on conduct in war. Primarily, this excludes civilians from being targets of violence, but also advocates proportionality to limit the destructiveness of war. Throughout history these ethical principles have been applied inconsistently, but have to a great extent formed the basis for international norms and laws of war today.

Hybrid War undermines the distinction between combatants and civilians by deliberately placing irregular troops within civilian areas. Any opposing force consequently faces a choice between retreat or targeting enemies with a high chance of killing civilians. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah exploited this by stationing rockets within holy sites and schools to ensure Israeli airstrikes would inflict civilian casualties; Hezbollah subsequently used this to “intensify support for its ideology and recruitment” through its strategic use of media.[iii] If states and non-state actors continue to use hybrid warfare, wars will inevitably become less humane as civilians are exploited within the battlespace. Ironically, this tactic only remains effective when the opposing force continues to follow the established ethical norms of warfare. The biggest danger would arise, however, if the imperative of the just cause became so great that it overruled concerns for conducting the war within normal ethical limits at all.

As the concept of Hybrid War expands to include factors like crime, dis-information operations, and cyber hacking, the distinction between combatant and non-combatant could also become blurred in ways not yet encountered. When war becomes more interdisciplinary determining who can be lawfully killed becomes more ambiguous. Cyber-hackers could appear as civilians operating far outside the battlespace, attacking opponents with relative impunity. In this context Hybrid War not only makes it hard to determine an appropriate use of force, but also threatens to expand the battlespace globally.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Hybrid War is its ability to blur the boundaries between peace and war itself. Hybrid adversaries can attack in ways which make it hard to respond as we struggle to decide whether a military or non-military measure is required. This aspect remains contested as some hybrid war theorists like Frank Hoffman assert that this style of behaviour is better described as “political warfare” or “active measures” rather than true Hybrid War. Debating if the Hybrid War concept should encompass these measures will become immaterial, however, if politicians and military planners nonetheless continue to consider them to be part of war.

As Hybrid War makes acts of war and peace indistinguishable to decision makers, determining when there is a just cause for war will consequently become either impossible or meaningless. Leaders will be faced with the possibility of escalating a conflict unnecessarily or reacting too late to real dangers; consequently allowing aggressors to gradually increase their position unchecked. U.S. policy during the Cold War faced a similar dilemma.  Because it recognised “few intermediate points between total war and total peace” it struggled to address Soviet belligerency which fell somewhere in-between.[iv] Writing in 1957, Henry Kissinger bemoaned that this over-emphasis on total war failed to address the most likely security problem: “the attempt by the Soviet leaders to upset the strategic balance, not at one blow, but piecemeal.”[v]

Despite its apparent novelty, wars have involved hybrid threats throughout history.  European powers often used irregular troops to exploit civilians in the 17th and 18th centuries[vi]. The use of information, technological sabotage, and psychological operations was also as common during the Cold War as it is today. Addressing the moral conundrums these emerging technologies and tactics present has likewise persisted through history:  U.S. policy in the Cold War illustrates that determining a just cause in an ambiguous strategic environment is not a predicament unique to today’s Hybrid Wars.

In the past, deciding legitimate forms of warfare was settled through international treaties; guided as much by political expediency as moral principles. The 1907 Hague Regulations which criminalised irregular warfare, ostensibly to make war more humane, also did so because it suited the dominant European powers whose armies had suffered brutally against irregular militias in the previous century.[vii] Whilst history does not provide a perfect lesson for the ethical implications of Hybrid War, it does suggest they can be resolved through political agreements. Unfortunately, this means ethical interpretations may remain dependent upon political considerations as much as guiding them. Harmonising military doctrine with ethics has been an enduring quest throughout the history of armed conflict. Hybrid War is not the first challenge overcome, but the new threats and ambiguity it creates may make us assess our moral principles in ways not yet encountered.

[i] Hoffman, F.G., 2007. Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars. Arlington, V.A.: The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, p.11.
[ii]] Aquinas, T. 1911. The “Summa theologica” of St Thomas Aquinas/ literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London: T.Baker,  Ps.81:4.
[iii]Kreps, S.E., 2007. The 2006 Lebanon War: Lessons Learned. Parameters, (spring), p.72.
[iv] Kissinger, H., 1957. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. New York: Harper & Brothers, p.11.
[v] Kissinger, 1957, p.28.
[vi Bobbitt, P., 2008. Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century. London: Penguin Books, p.35; See also Scheipers, S., 2014. ‘Unlawful Combatants:’ The West’s Treatment of Irregular Fighters in the ‘War on Terror’. Orbis, 58(4), pp.517-571; Heauser, B., 2010. Small Wars in the Age of Clausewitz: The Watershed Between Partisan War and People’s War. Journal of Strategic Studies, 3391), p.142
[vii] Watkin, K., 2005. Warriors Without Rights? Combatants, Unprivileged Belligerents, and the Struggle Over Legitimacy. Harvard University Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research Occasional Papers, (Winter), p.20.

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