Hybrid warfare considered: a US perspective.
By Tim Nodar, the CyberWire staff
May 4, 2022

At the Joint Service Academy Cybersecurity Summit (JSAC), hosted by Palo Alto Networks on April 20th, US military leaders discussed the role of cyber operations in hybrid warfare, particularly as it relates to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Here's what we heard from the experts.

Hybrid warfare considered: a US perspective.

Lieutenant General Charles Moore, Deputy Commander, US Cyber Command, began by giving a general explanation of what hybrid warfare is.

Moore said, “I think everybody recognizes there's no real doctrinal definition of hybrid or gray zone activities, but generally what we're talking about are the synchronization, the mixture of conventional traditional military activities with irregular or non-traditional activities conducted below the use of force or below the spectrum of conflict with some level of deniability or non-attribution obviously meant to achieve some type of military objectives.”

Moore added that cyber operations typically fall under this definition of hybrid warfare.

“Now, if you think about what I just said – operations below the use of force with deniability to achieve some type of military objective – sounds a whole lot like I'm describing cyberspace operations and...that's exactly how we describe what we're doing from a day-to-day perspective and fulfilling our strategy of defending forward, which is all about getting out of blue space and into red and in gray space to take on adversaries and potential adversaries to go track down and find the archers before they can shoot the arrows,” Moore said. “And the way that we implement that strategy is through what we call ‘persistent engagement,’ which is finding the adversary and then maintaining constant contact with them so that we can accomplish our missions to defend the nation.”

Look at Ukraine.

Looking at the war in Ukraine, Moore noted that the variety of different actors involved in cyber operations has significant consequences for attribution and misattribution.

“What we really have seen is this crowdsourcing approach, if you will, in the cyber domain,” Moore said. “Everybody's coming to the fight. So, we've got the nation-states that are in play, we've got the proxies for those nation-states in play, we've got criminal organizations in play, we have lone wolves, we have political organizations. And they're all looking to try and weigh into the fight, and of course that makes attribution even more difficult, but it also increases our risks. It increases the risks of misattribution on our part, on the part of the Russians, on the part of one of our allied nations, and what that could do to some type of escalation. It also presents potential opportunities from an adversary standpoint if someone wanted to purposely misattribute something because they wanted to do something like escalate, de-escalate the situation.”

But the definition is less important than the recognition that it’s happening.

Vice Admiral Ross Myers, Commander, US Fleet Cyber Command and Commander, US Tenth Fleet, emphasized that finding a precise definition of hybrid or gray-zone conflict isn’t as important as accepting the fact that this type of conflict is already ongoing.

“No matter how you define it, the five domain conflict is the new norm,” Myers said. “So, offering a definition of layering of activities to erode the competition's advantage without enticing armed conflict.... It's not a new concept, but technology adds a dimension that changes the platforms, scope, and speed in which we must defend and engage. And I will emphasize again, speed. We used to think that speed, air was the ultimate. No, cyber and space are a whole lot faster now. The Russian invasion of Ukraine reinforces the importance of cyberspace in today's global five domain warfare construct. Lastly, I'll say the world is watching to gauge US capabilities and resolve, as well as define our tolerances, because the United States, in my opinion, abdicated our responsibility decades ago when cyber came about in setting the international norms. Now we must.”

And how do you prepare for gray-zone conflict?

Lieutenant General Timothy D. Haugh (Commander, 16th Air Force; Commander, Air Force Cyber, and Commander, Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber), said that hybrid warfare requires a shift in thinking.

“Many of us on the screen have really been characterized by services that were responding to 9/11 and what it looked like to be able to engage in that portion of conflict,” Haugh said. “Our military services are really comfortable with the idea of conflict, that's really what we were built for. And now our nation is asking us to think about, what does it look like short of armed conflict and how do we prepare and posture for it? And so I think, for our cadets, we're going to need those new ideas as to how we begin to make this part of our normal approach to how we organize, train, and equip our forces.”

Haugh added that the Department of Defense is looking at how adversaries are using cyber operations to gain an advantage.

“Within our service, we have spent time trying to break that down,” Haugh said. “Our Chief of Staff of the Air Force has published a document called Action Order Competition, and in there what he talks about is this idea of ‘strategic competition.’ It’s really about nations trying to create an advantage to meet their national interests. And in this case, what we have seen from China and Russia is them doing each of the things that the senior leaders have described: use of cyberspace, use of the information environment, use of proxies to gain advantage. And then, what's the role of the Department of Defense to help counter that. I think that’s an area that we have experience, certainly the work that General Hartman leads in terms of election security, and then for each of our roles in support of the geographic combatant commands, that partnership to be able to counter those activities in cyberspace and information is just such a critical area that we continue to refine as we look forward into what warfare will look like in the future.”