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In an era of hybrid warfare, departments must work together to protect Britain

Exercises on cyberwarfare and security are seen taking place during the NATO CWIX interoperability exercise in Poland| PA Images

5 min read

The Integrated Review demands innovation and forward thinking – and it must focus on keeping our people safe.

It might be cliché to say that we live in an ever more complex world, but in terms of foreign, security and defence policy, the cliché reflects reality. The days are gone when we could easily distinguish wartime and peace-time, offensive and defensive capabilities, state and non-state actors. Indeed our adversaries have steadily built their capacity to blend these categories together. Now, for example, the Russian state uses the same information tactics to keep itself in power as to sow disinformation abroad. Conflicts today are far more likely to be fought by non-state proxies than they are to be fought between states – as we see currently in Syria and Ukraine. It is becoming harder and harder to complete the first task of any government: to keep our people safe.

In the years ahead our ability to force project in the interests of national security will require us to rethink the categories that have been the mainstay of foreign policy analysis for centuries. It will demand innovation and forward thinking as we engage in the Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development.

The threats we face are uniformly hybrid. I define hybrid warfare as the sustained and persistent deployment of all potential instruments of influence: economic, cultural, informational, diplomatic, cyber, criminal, and civil society – at all levels – to achieve a strategic intent or world order. So this isn’t simply a matter of adding cyber warfare to our artillery, indeed cyber is a more ‘traditional’ method by which hostile states threaten British security. Rather, there are a plethora of ways by which antagonists seek to disrupt and influence the UK – and soft power can have hard consequences.

In the digital age terrorist and non-state groups have been emancipated by the democratisation of information

Equally in defining hybrid warfare I make no attempt to define a battle space – because with true hybrid warfare no space is off-limits. It is also not defined as part of an overt, or declared, war – it is deployed concurrently in peace and war time. And crucially the actors are not defined since the most effective enemy is one who deploys forces against you without your realising you are under attack and who is attacking you. In the digital age terrorist and non-state groups have been emancipated by the democratisation of information which enables them to deploy hybrid warfare methods almost as effectively as any government. And it allows even niche and poorly-resourced groups to force project and create mass disruption.

Our enemies use every possible tool and technique to attack us, at all levels, unrestrained by government bureaucracy. To recognise that to protect ourselves, we must bolster and defend all levels of our society – not just military infrastructure and capabilities. In return, we must be ready to deploy fully hybrid attack and defensive mechanisms and be strategic in how we direct and deploy our resources to keep our people safe.

This requires a pivot away from seeing hybrid warfare as an add-on, but instead recognising that traditional kinetic warfare is simply a constituent part of a much broader, multi-faceted strategy of influence. The discussion must focus on what do we need to achieve to keep our people safe. All policy, equipment and investment should follow from that question. We must properly examine non-state and state threats, undertake to identify where future threats will come from, but most importantly invest in fully understanding the battlegrounds on which current and future threats are being fought and identify what gaps we have both defensively and offensively. For example, soft power has become a key battleground through which our antagonists seek to exert influence. Likewise our international development spend supports resilience in communities to violent extremism – but hostile states use it to entrap other nations. Many may wish to suggest that aid should be a pure form of support, free of geopolitical wrangling, but that is frankly naive. Hybrid warfare involves the whole of society, and the whole of society needs the FCO, MoD and DfID to protect it at home and defend our interests abroad.

As hybrid warfare makes the whole of society a potential battlefield, we need a whole of government response. One of the key goals of the review must be to find better ways of engaging across government to coordinate our foreign, defence and development policies. This means making sure that our departments aren’t siloed and that our foreign policy responses aren’t hampered by a lack of co-ordination or forward planning. Crucially that when we deploy our levers of influence offensively or defensively to protect us – or secure our interests – that it is genuinely department agnostic. It must be focused on deploying all the levers we have available to us to achieve a specific outcome rather than overt, kinetic, and department-specific efforts. As a former civil servant at the MoD, and FCO, I know how hard our men and women work in our defence and how often our own responses are hampered by turf wars and a silo mentality. Accusations of tanks on lawns must be a thing of the past. Our enemies don’t make these distinctions – and neither should we. Bureaucracy and siloes should not hold up the defence of our people.

Together, then, we need to recognise that the battlefield has been overhauled and our battles rarely fought where the public most expect it. We must invest in hybrid offensive and defensive capabilities and focus ruthlessly on how we protect our people. In defining our objectives, we should consider the widest possible methods of achieving them, within the rule of law, and commit to a whole of government approach.

Hybrid warfare is no longer an esoteric afterthought – rather the whole lens through which influence and counter-influence must be focused, organised and fought. The review must pay heed to that fact.


Alicia Kearns is Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton

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