Hybrid Threats Pose New Challenge
The US military must be prepared to confront hybrid threats, best defined as non-state entities equipped with advanced weapons normally associated with conventional militaries. These non-state entities routinely co-locate command centers and other military targets in urban environments and deliberately endanger civilians to generate sympathy and support within the international community.
The goal of such hybrid entities is clear: Neutralize the overwhelming conventional military advantage of US military forces by exploiting civilian casualties and distorting the rules regulating armed conflict.
This scenario represents the new face of conflict in the 21st century, and the US must implement a comprehensive solution.
Both our morality and the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) demand the United States exercise restraint to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. But US decision-makers must decide how far restraint extends. Recently, I participated in a task force with retired senior US military officers, commissioned by the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs (JINSA), to analyze the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas. While issues of civilians in war zones have existed for millennia, this conflict stood out as an iconic example of the emerging face of wars against hybrid entities.
A hybrid, non-state entity — Hamas — made a strategic decision to exploit its own civilians as the basis of an international legal and information effort to degrade Israel’s conventional military superiority. The principal target for Hamas was not the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but Israeli civilians, demonstrating a complete disregard for the most basic obligations of the LOAC. However, Hamas also routinely subjected its own civilian population to unjustified risk by mingling its most vital military hardware and command centers among vulnerable civilian locations.
Our task force observed conclusive evidence Hamas placed rocket launchers and ammunition in residential apartment buildings, mosques, hospitals and even UN schools.
Hamas also directed, even reportedly forced, civilians into areas it knew could be attacked by the IDF. Hamas provided its own leaflets telling people to stay in place and paid “helpers” to remain in battle areas until fighting began. Hamas is also reported to have blocked the evacuations of certain neighborhoods in Gaza.
These tactics presented IDF commanders with dilemmas US commanders have and will continue to confront: either maximize the effect of our combat power against an enemy force to minimize our casualties, or forgo the military advantage to avoid civilian casualties.
Our task force reviewed a number of cases where the IDF limited or withheld attack against an important military target to mitigate risk to civilians, even when as a matter of law the attack would have been permissible.
Despite the IDF’s considerable restraint, Hamas successfully painted Israel as responsible for unnecessary civilian deaths. The accusations generated a UN investigation and focused international pressure on Israel to concede to Hamas’ demands.
Hybrid threats may not be new in the history of warfare, but their distortion of international law and use of modern media present challenges requiring innovation.
Greater attention must be devoted to understanding this dynamic. We must dedicate time and resources in our professional military education curricula to improve understanding and courses of action. Our military leaders must include consideration of these tactics in our own campaign planning. The US must continue to emphasize our commitment to the LOAC during armed conflicts.
We must clearly communicate the nature of complex missions, and operational environments may necessitate imposing policy-based constraints on US military operations. Those constraints represent policy choices, not requirements imposed by LOAC.
Furthermore, the departments of State and Defense must be effectively resourced and empowered to rapidly convey our messages with accuracy and context, and counter our adversaries’ distortions of law and fact. And finally, the US military should work closely with Israel and other allies to develop capabilities to address the adaptations employed by Hamas, especially in the areas of tunnel detection and counter-mortar/counter-artillery active protection systems.
Neglecting the challenge of hybrid threats will subject the US military to the same danger the IDF confronted in Gaza: ever-greater restraints on military operations that, unintentionally and perversely, encourage adversaries to instigate civilian casualties.
Retired LTG William Caldwell is president of Georgia Military College and former commander, NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan. The op-ed was written in collaboration with other retired US officers and JINSA.
Originally appeared in Defense News on March 23, 2015.