2 March 2018

Cross Domain Concerns: Defeating a Hybrid State's Grand Strategy

By Victor Morris

The operational and strategic dilemmas associated with the contemporary operational environment, multinational alliances, and hybrid threat actors can be overcome. This article offers three recommendations designed to identify, mitigate and eventually overcome dilemmas which prevent NATO’s long-term mission success. Furthermore, this analysis offers a method for understanding a hybrid state’s grand strategy and its implications for NATO.


Hybrid states are states with a mix of autocratic and democratic features. This assessment uses the term “hybrid state” to describe a state that blurs the boundaries between organizations and institutions to develop a grand strategy. This type of state also has low competition in elections and low constraints on governmental power. These characteristics facilitate statecraft and unbounded policy to offset perceived disadvantages, deliver key narratives, and shape international norms. Hybrid states emphasize direct and indirect approaches across land, air, sea, space, and cyber domains to achieve geopolitical objectives. The objectives of the hybrid state are unbounded and accelerated policy to deter and influence relevant actors.

To develop resilience to both direct and indirect approaches to such strategies, targeted nations must understand the operational environment, its cross-domain effects, and the evolving character of war. It is imperative this comprehensive understanding of the operational environment encompasses planning considerations that include the adversary’s critical factors. Critical factors are the critical capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities associated with interrelated centers of gravity. In U.S. military doctrine, centers of gravity are the “doer,” or the physical entities which possess the ability to achieve objectives like joint force land component commands.


This assessment prioritizes an adversary’s indirect approach using proxy forces as a significant challenge for NATO and key partner nations. A hybrid war campaign means conducting political, lawfare, conventional, unconventional, asymmetric, proxy, and cyber warfare to both, directly and indirectly, influence objectives across all domains and instruments of national power.

The three following recommendations outline a method to conceptualize how a hybrid state builds its grand strategy and which critical factors it considers in offsetting its disadvantages. The recommendations also elucidate countermeasures to enable resilience to multi-domain drivers of conflict and effective methods to employ joint enablers. The goal of the assessment is to identify friendly and adversarial critical vulnerabilities.


The United States and its allies have significant advantages in precision air, ground, and naval fires, and intelligence collection in large-scale combat operations. The adversary’s grand strategy accounts for these advantages and innovative ways to avoid and counter them. Every strategy has ends, ways, and means that mirror critical factors. Because ends, ways, and means have limitations, indirect approaches reduce disadvantages and they allow innovative alternatives in relation to the opposition’s centers of gravity. A peer or near-peer competitor operationalizes a hybrid approach through mixed-threat actors operating across all domains to achieve the desired effects. Dense urban, information and electromagnetic environments are also critical spaces for adversary maneuver to deliver military and non-military impacts. To counter Western conventional dominance in the ground, air, and sea domains, hybrid states seek to flood those domains as well as space and cyberspace with multi-faceted, conventional, and non-conventional actors to overwhelm adversaries across the domain spectrum.

Therefore, shaping campaigns using deep operations with subversive actors prior to, or in concert with, conventional forces are critical strengths for hybrid actors. Deep operations refer to limited or major joint operations and employing multiple forms of warfare or multidimensional coordination across all domains to influence objectives. Manipulating national and international policy using fluctuating diplomatic, informational, and economic elements of national power supported by overt, covert and/or unattributable offensive options are also critical factors for deep operations.

Offensive options involve combined arms direct and indirect fires and electronic warfare capabilities. Cyber, electromagnetic, and information environmental effects are technologically accelerated in this type of strategy and are prioritized to affect the depth of the adversary’s operational environment. The threat of nuclear warfare and an adversary’s traditional military force capabilities reinforce deterrence, influence neighboring states, and the international community.

Furthermore, proxy organizations such as non-state paramilitary groups, insurgent networks, convergent terrorists, transnational organized crime, and international hacker organizations present significant dilemmas for joint and multinational alliances when hybrid states use them as a key component of an unbounded grand strategy. Proxy organizations, however, are not limited to asymmetric groups. Multinational companies, political parties, and civic groups also act as proxy organizations with access to high-end technologies and capabilities. These organizations tend to blend and cooperate or compete with other proxy actors based on motivations. Many of these groups may be enabled or incentivized by the hybrid state or local population providing sanctuaryfor them. Regardless, the need to deliberately expand sanctuaries over time is a critical requirement for hybrid actors and thus a potentially critical vulnerability.

Potential dilemmas for NATO involve asymmetric warfare operations in member states against borderless proxy actors, during or after an Article V territorial restoration campaign. The battlespace may also vary between contiguous and non-contiguous physical terrain. Un-attributable proxy forces with access to emerging and disruptive technologies support the hybrid state’s critical capability to accelerate both indirect and asymmetric campaigns, whilst assessing the effects of long-term lawfare and political warfare activities. Examples of emergent and disruptive technologies are artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, internet of things consisting of low-cost sensors and additive manufacturing (3D printing). Conventional limited military campaigns can also be accelerated under an unbounded policy to leverage vulnerabilities and manipulate non-military settlements.

Several combinations mitigate critical factors not translating across all institutions and levels of policy. For instance, supranational, supra-domain, and supra-means combinations, as well as non-linear dynamic systems behavior, are all effective mitigation methods. Nonlinear systems behavior involves non-linear escalation and unpredictable effects. First, supra-national combinations are a synthesis of national, international, and non-state organizations. Next, supra-domain combinations involve employing or merging combinations beyond the domains of the traditional battlefield. Lastly, supra-means combinations unite aspects of military and non-military means to reach desired objectives.

To summarize, a hybrid state’s critical factors are contained in a “campaign level entity capable of delivering synchronized attack packages across all domains. Operational and tactical level configurations are like the multi-domain task force concept, while others correlate to specific vulnerabilities. The system of systems are entities that possess distinctive ways to achieve ends. They include 1) conventional joint and irregular forces with integrated air, ground, and sea defense systems, 2) disruptive and emergent technological networks and 3) super-empowered individuals, client states and proxy networks. Subversive and information systems cooperate in all domains to exploit vulnerabilities of targeted states.


Understanding multinational systems is a key aspect of critical factors analysis. Early and recurring collaborative planning is crucial to joint operations and assessment processes that fuel multi-level shaping activities. Equally important for political level operations and contingency planning is understanding an adversary’s strategy associated with indirect approaches and use of asymmetric proxies to reach objectives. These objectives extend beyond the major joint operation plan and hinge on limited warfare activities and frozen conflicts as desired end states. Reaching these objectives within a NATO member state or region presents even more complex dilemmas and lasting effects for the international community and alliance cohesion. An indirect or gray-zone approach is more immune to NATO collective defense and strategic deterrence planning.

The hybrid state’s ultimate objectives are to discredit and degrade the target’s governance and societal cohesion. The objective can be obtained through lawfare and other indirect activities and operations. Lawfare misuses or manipulates the law for political or military objectives, thus effectively using the legal system against an adversary to delegitimize it. Therefore, primary counter hybrid operations and anti-lawfare activities must focus on maintaining and communicating host nation rule of law. Moreover, successful primary countermeasures must also include effective government penetration or the provision of security, infrastructure, and economic capacities. Finally, fortifying legitimacy through phased indirect as well as direct support complete the primary anti-lawfare lines of effort under the counter hybrid war strategy.

Additionally, every citizen needs to be educated and prepared for resistance and role in hybrid defense which includes deliberate planning and cumulative innovation. Citizens must enable inter-organizational resilience across the continuum of government and conflict spectrums.

Next, collective defense treaties and joint security cooperation consist of both foreign internal defense and security force assistance to shape and prevent conflict. Foreign internal defense when approved involves combat operations during a state of war, where offensive or counter attacks enable forces to regain the initiative. Defensive tasks are a counter to the enemy offense, while protection determines which potential threats disrupt operations and then counters or mitigates those threats. Examples of specific threats include explosive hazards, improvised weapons, unmanned aerial and ground systems, and weapons of mass destruction.

Defeating the enemy and consolidating gains inherently involves more forces and is an operational headquarters planning requirement. Specific requirements include joint force assignment, apportionment, contingency, and execution sourcing. Additionally, adversary related anti-access area denial integrated multi-domain defense systems associated with territorial defense and coercive activities are a joint problem. They require joint capabilities to exploit windows of superiority, freedom of action, and gains consolidation to revise, maintain, or cancel the plan.


World-class intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities should not overshadow critical capabilities and requirements for national security services, law enforcement, and indigenous population intelligence development. Sharing intelligence is equally as important and inevitably involves interoperable intelligence functional services and shared databases. To adequately ensure that relevant intelligence disciplines are processed and disseminated in a timely manner, multinational counterintelligence, human intelligence and identity intelligence sharing agreements must be refined and validated down to the tactical level.

Furthermore, mission command through human-machine teaming is inevitable and will undoubtedly leverage human adaptability, automated speed and precision as future critical factors. The global competition for machine intelligence dominance will also become a key element of both the changing character of war and a technical threat to strategic stability.


Scenarios and wargames designed to force multi-national critical factor analysis, decision making, and assessments are essential to understanding human and technologically enabled 21st-century conflict. The joint operational area must be assessed as one interconnected domain. It also must be put in the correct context to assess the level of military effort and, where required, service targets in domains that enable the land component to reach mission objectives. The interconnected domain is where conventional, asymmetric, criminal, and cyber activities occur at the same time in the same spaces with predictable and unpredictable effects. An unconventional, indirect, and proxy-led military approach within the hybrid state’s grand strategy offers innovative, inexpensive, and unbounded opportunities to reach geopolitical objectives below the threshold of armed conflict.

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