Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Countering Hybrid Threats AAR

Lest anyone think we spent our whole time in Tallinn designing card games and hunting down local game stores, I thought I would offer an after action review of sorts of the recent NATO “Countering Hybrid Threats” conference. Given our focus here at PAXsims, I’ll primarily discuss the scenario-based experiment method that was adopted by the organizers, and its advantages and disadvantages compared with a more usual conference format. However, I’ll also offer some of my own take-away thoughts on what the five days of discussion suggested to me about NATO and the CHT issue.

One of the challenges in offering reflections on the process, of course, is that I came to the experiment as an interested participant but not as a client. As a consequence, I’m only a limited position to judge the institutional and conceptual needs of the organizers, and how the experiment outputs might play into both that and the broader politics of the NATO alliance. NATO ACT folks reading this post may well find it rather under-informed. Those who don’t follow alliance politics and doctrinal debate may find it confusing and complicated. If you’ve come to this page interested in CHT issues but not the scenario methodology, you can skip ahead to my “other observations” towards the end of this blog post.

Conceptual and Political Context

The concept of hybrid threats has been increasingly used in military discussion in recent years, although not without a degree of confusion and controversy. NATO has defined a hybrid threat as one “posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.” Insurgent groups, for example, might not only use firearms and  improvised explosive devices but also cyberhacking of government websites and local social welfare programs to win support from local populations. A criminal syndicate might use both armed violence and corruption. A state might pursue its objectives both through regular military means and open or covert alliances with criminal, political, and insurgent groups.

The main criticism of hybrid warfare would be that warfare has always been hybrid, involving not only military tools but also information operations and propaganda, economic pressures, alliances with nonstate actors, and so forth. In this view, hybrid threats and hybrid warfare are at best trendy jargon, and at worst a distraction from more important issues and challenges.

Treating the debate over hybrid warfare solely as an issue of definitional exactitude and conceptual utility misses much of what is going on, however. Clearly, Western militaries have found themselves doing all sorts of things in the post-Cold War era, things that are very different from the large-scale force-on-force warfare that they were designed for. This is especially true for the NATO alliance, built to deter a Soviet attack, or defend against such an attack if deterrence failed. In practice NATO has found itself involved first in complex operations in the Balkans in the 1990s (humanitarian protection, punitive strikes, and stabilization in Bosnia and later Kosovo), in COIN in Afghanistan since 2001, in anti-pirate operations, and now in the current intervention in civil war in Libya. The notion of hybrid threats is therefore also an attempt to help the alliance prepare for the likely diversity of future engagements. The notion of hybrid threats combines the element that NATO is comfortable with (conventional warfare) with those things with which it is less comfortable. It thus seems to serve as something of a sugar-coating to facilitate a shift of focus, and as a terminological lever intended to open up issues of preparation, training, capacity, analysis, and necessary partnerships for 21st century security challenges.

Further complicating matters, the debate over the “military contribution to countering hybrid threats” overlaps with several other simultaneous debates within NATO, such as the need to develop a “comprehensive approach” to security problems, as well as identification of emerging security challenges. Not all member states fully agree in these two areas either. In the former case, there are differences over what NATO (as opposed to other actors) should do, and whether new capabilities are needed. In the latter case, your sense of threat is rather different if you are large or small, adjacent to Russia, located in the Mediterranean, or far away in North America. Overlaying all of this are the additional complexities of potential synergy and potential competition between NATO and the EU (not to mention the differences among European states towards both institutions).

At this point, one thing should be clear: why after 5 days of discussion in Tallinn we invented Jargon Wars. It was either that, or some kind of game involving Powerpoint.

Experiment Methodology

The recent Tallinn conference “experiment” was intended to explore all of this. Specifically, it sought to “investigate the utility and feasibility of the CHT concept and develop with both military and civilian actors an understanding of potential NATO approaches in addressing the identified key challenge areas.” To do this, participants were provided with details of a fictional “Silver and Ivory Seas” region bordering Europe in the year 2016.

Participants for the experiment were chosen from a wide variety of civilian (humanitarian, aid, business, technology, academics), government (police, diplomatic), and military backgrounds. Clear emphasis was placed on civilian and non-military participants, who comprised a clear majority of the 75 or so persons who formed the membership of three different panels. These panels were each teamed with senior advisors, as well as NATO ACT facilitators who worked hard to keep discussions focussed on a roadmap of questions and issues to be addressed.

The experiment was nota simulation or wargame, however. While a scene-setting “World News Network” video was presented at the outset, there was no scope for taking decisions or initiating actions in the fictional universe. There was no change in environmental or situational conditions as the experiment progressed. Participants each had particular subject matter expertise, but were not expected to role-play this in anyway (although one former American diplomat who shall remain nameless did an outstanding job of representing Blackland’s rather dubious interests). While the region contained a representative sampling of current and emerging real-world security problems, and the history of the area (“the break-up of the regional hegemon in the 1990s and the subsequent ethnic and religious wars resulted in the creation of a multitude of smaller nation-states”) was clearly reminiscent of the Balkans and Caucasus, fictional countries were not strongly modelled on particular real-world cases. The earlier planning documents for the experiment suggests that at first the scenario design was intended as a closer fit to NATO’s real geostrategic position and the characteristics of its specific neighbours, but I imagine that would have been far too politically sensitive to undertake, especially in a city a mere 200km away from the Russian border. (Picture, right: the representative of Blackland contemplates how best to foil the “International Friends Group” for the Silver and Ivory Seas.) By pushing the scenario out to the near future, the organizers could also suggest the heightening of such emerging threats as cybercrime and smuggled nuclear materials.

Overall, the scenario seemed to designed to give us all something semi-concrete to anchor our reflections in, and to test whether the notion of a hybrid threats (as well as a comprehensive approach) was a useful way of both thinking about things and organizing/informing responses. . At various points during the experiment the various subgroups of participants were asked to:

  • analyze the environment and identify threats (and their implications)
  • identify common goals and understandings
  • consider appropriate means for dealing with these (and determine who might to what)
  • determine what particular roles NATO and military contributions might make
  • identify partnerships and capabilities necessary for effective action; and reflect on the utility of CHT concept

Periodically the three different working groups (or panels) met in plenary to share insights, and at the end there was a brief-back and overall discussion with a number of senior NATO guests in attendance.

How Well Did It Work?

Inevitably, when one is given a fictional scenario participants quickly finds gaps or material missing—and yet the more material that is provided, the more overwhelmingly it can all be. It is a difficult balancing act.

In the case of the Silver and Ivory Seas, we were provided with background on the dozen or so states of the region, various contested regions and contested borders, paramilitary and extremist groups, and criminal syndicates in the area; additional description of the international context and the Silver and Ivory Seas Association; and a directive from the NATO North Atlantic Council on the situation—all of it running to more than 41+ pages of information. There were some strange omissions (we had detailed information on the size of each country’s labour force, for example but not its total population; there was no substantial information on relative military capabilities; and there was no scale to the map). In particular there was strikingly little information on local political dynamics, beyond a vague description of the national political system in each case. Similarly, there was virtually no information on the major ethnic and religious groups in the region, even though these cleavages were clearly major drivers of local conflict.

On the other hand, it was a lot to handle, and for the first few days there was considerable and obvious confusion among many in the groups as to who was who, and who was doing what to whom in the region. Adding additional length and complexity to the briefing materials would have only aggravated this. Overall, therefore, I think the experiment design team got the total volume of information about right. I do think, however, that they could have cut the number of countries in half, and added twice as much information on each, including a much more detailed assessment of political, governmental, and social conditions.

The audience mix was excellent, in terms of the depth and range of experiences and expertise represented. This diversity clearly enhanced the quality of the discussions. Ironically, despite the experiment location there was surprisingly little discussion of Estonia’s own remarkable transition from Soviet-occupied satellite and $2000 GDP/capita command economy to vibrant, democratic member of the European Union. A few Estonian politicians, economists, civil society actors, minority representatives, and so forth in the room could have been quite helpful—especially given how many countries in the Silver and Ivory Seas region resembled the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans.

Once we were a day or so into the discussions within the panels, I felt the scenario did begin to work quite well as a catalyst for reflecting on the broader topics of concern. Participants (and possibly facilitators too) had learned when to use it to move issues forward, and when it was less necessary or even constraining. Comparisons with the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, various UN peace operations, and other cases of conflict prevention and resolution were increasingly integrated into the discussion. Although only one “devil’s advocate” was assigned to each group, many took on that role, challenging groups to refine their thinking and address possible weaknesses and contingencies in proposed courses of action.

Although not particularly related to the scenario-driven experiment methodology, there were several broader aspects of the conference that were positive too. Although I thought the very last plenary brief-back failed to capture some of the more interesting issues that had been raised in group discussions (perhaps because there were so many, or because of my own interests and biases), overall I did like the process of breaking down into smaller groups then assembling back in plenary to summarize discussions. There was lots of coffee and lots of flexible coffee breaks where side discussions and networking could occur. I’m not fond of starting at 0800 each morning, but that’s probably my own fault for doing my own work late each night. The conference staff were phenomenal. The hotel and hotel staff were excellent too.

One final take-away from the scenario perspective was how very useful a simulation exercise could be in developing NATO/everyone else contacts and understanding. No one does wargaming and political-military exercises better than Western militaries.However, while NATO members often insert a civilian/NGO/aid and development component to staff and field exercises, these are often relatively small parts of an overwhelmingly military picture. As one NGO participant noted, in some cases the civilian actors are played by… well, actors, or military personnel pressed into the role. It would be very useful to start running a  serious of regular of tabletop exercises involving a preponderant and diverse civilian component and a smaller military element, deliberately designed to explore the gaps, conflicts, and cultural misunderstandings that occur. Junior officers could even be assigned as junior members of NGO teams, to get a sense of a very different set of priorities, concerns, and capabilities. There was some discussion of doing this among participants at the Tallinn meeting: in the words of one NGO representative, “it would be awesome to wargame this.”

Other Observations

I filled pages with notes, thoughts, and reflections during the experiment, and it would take far too long to assemble them into a coherent narrative. I offer them instead as a simple list of observations and ideas, in no particular order:
  1. I’m not convinced that “hybrid threats” works very well as a military concept—it focuses too much on the idea of a clear and identifiable foe who is trying to hurt you, and not enough on contextual conditions, or harm done as a byproduct (rather than an intended effect) of local conflicts, which I think is often the case. I also agree that, historically, a great many threats have been hybrid, so this isn’t necessarily new.
  2. Despite my comments in #1, it may not matter if CHT meets the abstract standard of theoretical conceptual rigour. It seems to work fine as a shorthand for “all that messy, non-conventional war stuff NATO might do.” I’m not sure the alliance could agree on anything that would work any better.
  3. Ideas matter. Normative concerns matter (and indeed played important roles in driving the alliance into military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Libya.) The political and media environment in NATO countries matter. This is the unspoken “walrus in the room” in any discussion of NATO’s future, and we need to spend more time thinking about it. Goodness knows that NATO’s political masters do. 
  4. I have a sneaking feeling that many national politicians have a more inclusive and integrated sense of national and security interests than do some senior military personnel. Politics is not a bad word, even if it does mess up advance planning.
  5. Unity of command is impossible to achieve in complex peace and stabilization operations. Indeed, efforts to achieve it likely alienate important partners, and can be the very antithesis of partnership. Instead, one needs to strive for a modus vivendi that works, even if imperfectly.
  6. The “next” NATO operation is unknowable. No one would have predicted NATO’s involvement in Bosnia or Kosovo in 1987. No one would have predicted NATO’s operations in Afghanistan in 2000. Certainly no one—and I mean literally no one, of the 7 billion people on the planet—would have predicted NATO operations in Libya in November 2010. NATO has never in its history entered into a conflict as a matter of measured advanced planning. Rather it has fallen into them sideward, driven by unstable conditions and shifting politics. Much as it might want to be the “George C. Scott-as-Patton” of international alliances, its actual path to military engagement rather more resembles a Jim Carey comedy. There’s no point bemoaning this, moreover—it is probably unavoidable.
  7. Consequently, NATO needs to prepare against a very broad spectrum of things, rather than a particular thing. The flexibility of the CHT concept might actually be quite useful here, regardless of whatever quibbles one can raise about it.
  8. Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans can inform reflections, but they shouldn’t drive them. How likely is it that NATO would be doing industrial-strength COIN (Afghanistan-style) any time soon?
  9. The broader COINdinsita vs COINtra debate was largely absent from the Tallinn meeting. It shouldn’t have been, since not everyone is convinced that the primary contemporary COIN emphasis on non-kinetic elements is appropriate. Heretics and iconoclasts can be useful people to have in a room.
  10. Because of #6, NATO also needs to think more about changing the way it works and develops relationships rather than focussing on material capabilities. It needs to have established, rich, and enduring interactions with a  range of actors so that when a crisis occurs it has both a network of contacts and a degree of pre-established trust and understanding. It needs to strategize how it develops and sustains relationships. I think the experiment made major contributions in this respect.
  11. One needs to be careful of the top-down/command-and-control/campaign plan style of problem-solving. Some of the discussions in Tallinn seemed to imply that peacebuilding is like making a cake, with the cook or cooks deciding on the appropriate mix of steps and ingredients to “counter the cake problem.” This in turn led to a lot of discussion of how many cooks there should be, how they should decide on a CHT recipe, who brings the eggs, and so forth. However, in the real world of stabilization operations these are self-mixing cakes with minds of their own. Some of the ingredients hate some of the others. Some change as you stir. Sometimes stirring makes things worse if you aren’t careful. Indeed, occasionally the cake batter tries to kill you. We need to be appropriately humble about how much true understanding and leverage we have.
  12. On the subject of self-mixing cakes, never underestimate the ability of the locals to manipulate the outsiders. Increasingly from 1993 onwards, NATO became a military adjunct to Bosnia’s efforts to secure independence. In 1999, NATO found itself acting as the air force of the Kosovo Liberation Army (admitted largely due to Serbian miscalculations). In 2011, NATO is providing air cover for the Transitional National Council’s regime change efforts in Libya. I supported all three operations, so this isn’t a critique—rather, it underlines once again that the locals get a vote too.
  13. Lots of people have been doing (or trying to do) conflict prevention and stabilization a very long time, and usually doing it without any NATO presence. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but rather think partnership. In many cases NATO could be a very junior partner.
  14. Things can be made better, but the perfect can be the enemy of the good. A sort of cynical optimism is therefore important. Hubris is fatal (sometimes literally so). Be aware of the law of diminishing returns, and know when something is a “good enough” solution and we should move on to the next problem.
  15. Perhaps because they’re locked together in small steel cylinders for long periods of time, submariners can really tell jokes wickedly well.
  16. Think about emerging and hybrid opportunities too, not just the threats—the “Arab Spring” being a case in point. (This was a comment actually made by Jamie Shea in his excellent speech, but I thought it was worth repeating. He said a lot of very sensible things—it was a shame he didn’t open the conference.)

2 responses to “Countering Hybrid Threats AAR

  1. David Becker 16/05/2011 at 10:12 pm

    Rex, if you wanted me to twirl my mustache and laugh evilly for the camera, you merely had to ask. You did not have to substitute a jpg image for me!

  2. Rex Brynen 16/05/2011 at 10:19 pm

    Be careful of what you wish for, David—Gary and I have all those conference photos from Tallinn, Photoshop, and an endless number of blog posts to illustrate ;)

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