Wargaming Hybrid Warfare
by Roger Mason PhD
What does a microcomputer, a backhoe, the Himalayas, and a motorcycle gang have in common? They were all part of hybrid warfare campaigns. Hybrid warfare employs traditional and non-conventional tactics to destabilize the adversary. The heart of the hybrid strategy is the synchronization of effects like cyber-attacks, propaganda, intimidation, and misinformation combined with conventional military operations. This blog article by Dr. Roger Mason will explore the topic and offer recommendations for designing hybrid wargames.
In the past 20 years, a new type of warfare has emerged. It is a form of warfare that offers threat actors, with limited resources, the opportunity to conduct disruptive military, political, economic, civilian, and informational (MPECI) activities. In 2007 defense analyst Frank Hoffman used the term hybrid warfare to describe the use of the technique of employing multiple attack vectors synchronized to amplify their effect.
Every form of warfare has been wargamed to understand its nature and effects. Wargaming is a useful tool to evaluate the nature of conflict. The development of realistic models provides the opportunity for manipulation through simulation. This article will explore the nature of hybrid warfare and offer some recommendations for wargaming this type of conflict
NATO’s Multinational Capability Development Campaign’s (MCDC) countering hybrid warfare project defines hybrid warfare as “the ability to synchronize multiple instruments of power simultaneously and intentionally exploit creativity, ambiguity, non-linearity, and the cognitive elements of warfare.” Hybrid warfare has developed into a potent weapon designed to destabilize and coerce while promoting uncertainty and instability.
Hybrid warfare offers several advantages. When an adversary does not possess the resources for a direct confrontation, hybrid warfare can still engage the enemy. The damage occurs in the gray area, which is the conflict space between peace and the outbreak of war. Another advantage is hybrid war can make attribution of hostile acts difficult. It robs an adversary the opportunity to identify their attacker and respond affirmatively.
Finally, hybrid war allows a threat actor the opportunity to maintain constant pressure on their adversaries. Because the nature of the confrontation is typically ill-defined the victim’s response is often disjointed and sluggish. The continuous pressure can also cause overreaction or strategic miscalculations. It can also open opportunities for other threat options as the victim of hybrid warfare struggles to respond effectively.
Characteristics of Hybrid Warfare
Dr. Patrick Cullen and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud authored a 2017 study for the Multinational Capability Development Campaign called Understanding Hybrid Warfare. The authors identified five characteristics of hybrid warfare. They include expansion of the MPECI toolset, widening target parameters, emphasis on attack synchronization to amplify effects, exploitation of uncertainty in attribution and nature of the attack, and the decreased visibility of the attack.
The expansion of the MPECI toolset means that a threat actor may combine traditional and non-conventional weapons and tactics to disrupt the enemy. Expansion of target parameters means non-traditional or targets typically off-limits are now in play. Hybrid warfare emphasizes greater synchronization of their threat combinations to achieve more pronounced effects.
The uncertainty of hybrid warfare offers the opportunity to generate secondary effects. Cullen and Reichborn-Kjennerud’s study included examples of effects mapping. The authors evaluated historic hybrid warfare events and mapped them, highlighting initial action and the effects they created on the enemy. The uncertainty made it difficult for the victim to respond, and the resulting confusion set up secondary effects. The impact of a hybrid warfare attack is amplified by its reduced visibility making it difficult to anticipate or defend.
The uncertainty and possibility of second-order or cascading effects can provide a socio-psychological element to hybrid attacks. In the Russian invasion of Georgia and Crimea, information warfare was used to cause panic. A typical example is co-opting trusted information sources to promote false information causing alarm. These techniques can make viable forces believe they are defeated, and otherwise safe civilians flee from non-existent enemy forces.
Theories like bounded rationality can explain the limitations of decision-makers. As the pressure of uncertainty grows and the number of decision variables increases, the decision-maker’s flexibility and confidence decreases. Hybrid warfare can take advantage of this by convincing adversaries the danger is amplifying, and the urgency for a decision is rising.
Examples of Hybrid Warfare
Here are some examples of hybrid warfare.
2007 Cyber Attack on Estonia
In 2007 the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were demonstrating their interest in distancing themselves from Russian influence. A hybrid attack began after the Estonians removed a World War Two memorial to Soviet liberation of the Baltic states. The attack was in the form of a dedicated denial of service cyber-attack against the Estonian government.
Another attack vector involved targeting the Estonia financial ATM system preventing people from withdrawing money and disruptions of wireless service. False information and propaganda attacks bombarded the Estonian government. There was never any positive attribution, but analysts regarded the Russians as the most likely suspects.
2014 Annexation of Crimea
In February 2014, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea from Ukraine. An intense campaign of political pressure and information warfare against Ukraine preceded any movement by ground forces. Russian proxy forces organized anti-government demonstrations, blocked roads, and occupied government buildings. Some of these actions were organized and led by the Night Wolves. The Night Wolves are a Russian motorcycle gang. Russian special forces units provide many of the gang’s members. Military units with Russian equipment seized critical infrastructure. These troops were nicknamed “little green men.” They carried no insignia identifying their organization or country of origin.
2017 Doklam Plateau
India and China have been involved in a longstanding dispute regarding the border with Bhutan. Bhutan is in the Himalaya mountains bordering China and India. Since 1949 India has maintained a defense agreement guaranteeing Bhutan’s independence. China has claimed the area, arguing it is part of a historic region of China.
In June 2017 Chinese border guards suddenly crossed the border. The area was flooded with Chinese construction equipment. The Chinese built a new border checkpoint Inside Bhutan. They declared a new international boundary. The Chinese demanded the international community respect the new border.
2019 Saudi Oilfield Drone Attacks
In June 2019 rocket-firing drones attacked the Aramco oil plant in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. Houthi insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack. International observers noted the Houthis have never demonstrated any-ability to launch long-range drone strikes. The attack came after a series of attacks on Western oil tankers in The Persian Gulf. These attacks coincided with cyber-attacks against Saudi allies, confrontations with US Navy ships, shooting down of a US drone, firing rockets at US bases, an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and a propaganda/information warfare campaign by Iran.
There is a strong suspicion the attacks were part of an Iranian hybrid warfare campaign. The attacks employed proxies, a false flag effort to misdirect attribution efforts, and a variety of MPECI attacks on Saudi Arabia and their allies. The goal of the Iranians appeared to be constant provocation just below the United States’ threshold for a military response.
These attacks resulted in an unusual response. Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, was believed responsible for directing many of the Iranian hybrid war activities and coordinating terrorism throughout the Middle East. It is impossible to say which hybrid activities he was managing, but the commander was vocal in his support of the attacks. The US adopted an approach of indifferent attribution. The US killed him in a drone strike.
Wargaming Hybrid Warfare
There are definite differences between hybrid warfare and traditional armed conflict. Hybrid wargames must employ some original techniques to accurately model and simulate the problem. Some of those recommendations include how to set the game, combat, terrain and mapping, time management, establishing victory conditions, and alternative design schemas.
Setting the Game
One of the first issues in setting your hybrid warfare scenario is deciding what type of game. Setting the game means determining the objectives, developing the scenario, and establishing the operational level. Is the wargame exclusively about hybrid warfare operations? Is hybrid warfare, a critical adjunct in a conventional wargame? Are hybrid warfare capabilities a possible option during the game?
The next step is considering the objective. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you introducing players to the concept of hybrid warfare or testing their abilities to respond to a hybrid attack? This leads to the problem of developing the level of the game. Is this a tactical, operational, or strategic game?
The elements of the scenario must be authentic to the level of the game. Any force option included in the game must have sufficient game time to occur. An operational level game with Russian battalion tactical groups will probably not involve strategic economic warfare. Strategic economic attacks are an effect that requires longer than the simulated scenario time to transpire. In a strategic level game, simulating months of operations, economic warfare is quite realistic.
Another element is determining if the game will involve state actors, non-state actors or a combination of both. The practical capabilities of each group will help to establish the setting of the game. Strategic level actions may be unrealistic for non-state actors, but the employment of a strategic level effect may require non-state actors at a tactical level.
Finally, setting the game must involve determining your audience. Is this game intended for experienced decision-makers, new staff learning about the topic, or senior leaders evaluating the current hybrid warfare response plan? The end user’s fluency with the topical details of the game should influence the design. You will be able to focus your game by considering and addressing these issues.
Combat in hybrid wargames must reflect the unique characteristic of this form of warfare. Hybrid warfare replaces traditional direct adversarial combat with multi-level effects that impact an opponent’s ability to defend itself. In many ways, hybrid warfare is like the development of enhanced radiation weapons or neutron bombs. The neutron bomb was a low yield nuclear weapon designed to maximize lethal radiation while restricting the physical destruction of the explosion. Infrastructure damage would be limited while enemy forces were destroyed. Friendly forces would find the enemy forces destroyed and target area basically intact.
Tactical hybrid operations offer the same advantage. A rolling cyber barrage can precede advancing forces. The cyber barrage will disrupt all wireless communications and Wi-Fi resources. Once the area has been overrun the barrage lifts. Area communications and Wi-Fi recover but under the control of the enemy.
Hybrid warfare deemphasizes direct destruction in favor of synchronized effects that suppress enemy systems. Smaller forces can disrupt larger conventional forces without the need for destroying them. The synchronization of effects serves as a force multiplier for a conventional combat unit. Larger units of well-equipped troops may find themselves in systemic collapse after a hybrid attack.
One of the trademarks is synchronized actions combined with effects. Your hybrid game design should include the opportunity for first and second levels of effects. (Ex: A mechanized column advances on town. The defenders where the defending forces are suddenly incapable of communicating. The inhabitants begin fleeing due to text messages saying they are about to be bombed. This impacts the ability of the defenders to move.)
In the example, the direct action is the enemy advance and a local cyber-attack. First level effects might be the suppression of the combat capabilities and movement of the defenders. The secondary effect might be the impact of the panic caused on the local population, further interfering with the defender’s effective combat operations.
A temporal valuation can provide an alternative approach for modeling effects. In a conventional wargame a unit typically has a combat strength. The combat strength can be used to destroy an enemy unit. Combat results may also offer the ability to disable or suppress enemy forces. Temporal valuation means a combat effect may have a varying degree of lethality or impact. Varying effects by temporal valuation allow you to change the impact of combat depending on the impact of a hybrid effect and emphasize real-world synchronization tactics.
Stakeholders in The Game
Determining the stakeholders in a conventional wargame is simple. One of the trademarks of the great wargame designers is the accuracy of their support material. Typically, there are orders of battle detailing the units involved and their size and organization. Designing hybrid wargames is a bit more complicated. It requires the historical and contemporary accuracy of a conventional wargame with some uncertain variables.
One of the objectives of hybrid warfare is to disrupt the adversary’s social order by undermining the population’s confidence and manipulating the flow of information and communications. This disruption to society limits the ability of leaders to govern and presents unique problems that require resolution. All of these factors impact the ability of military forces to operate effectively.
As the level of the hybrid game rises from tactical to strategic the number of stakeholders increases. A tactical-level wargame typically includes two individual or groups of force actors. A hybrid wargame tactical scenario should include some of the local population where the scenario occurs. This allows you to include specific hybrid tactics and weapons in the game. The stakeholders can be broken into subsets as the level of game setting rises.
Are stakeholders just people? In a hybrid war game, stakeholders can represent people, populations, organizations, and government. Hybrid wargame designers should also consider including the systems and infrastructure employed by stakeholders. These might include telecommunications, public utilities, information sources, and transportation.
The higher the level of the game setting the more stakeholder systems that should be considered. During gameplay it can become difficult to track numerous systems. A simple solution is to abstract their presence and the effects they have on player actions. This could include simple things like restricting or limiting unit movement.
If hybrid warfare is unconventional, how should this influence map design for hybrid warfare games? The setting of the game will be connected to the mapping. The level of the game (tactical, operational, strategic) will influence what types of maps should be used. The typical two-dimensional wargame map provides a decision and movement space where action/combat occurs. The difference between conventional wargames and hybrid games are the systems that should be mapped.
In a tactical game a conventional map is appropriate to track the movement of the various units and possible stakeholders like groups of civilians. Other systems may need to be tracked based on the effects in the scenario. Strategic level game may require abstract systems to track the groups and organizations instead of conventional terrain. A network of interconnected nodes might entirely represent a strategic level hybrid game.
Time, Movement, and Actions
Traditional wargames divide decision making and actions into uniform segments to track the passage of simulated time. Conventional wargame designers have followed Immanuel Kant’s theory of the intuition of objective time. Kant said it is possible to present the sequence of time using the spatial analogy of a line. Every wargame has a timeline.
A linear approach to time works well in conventional wargames. The nature of time in hybrid warfare is less conventional. A useful effect of hybrid operations is its influence on socio-psychological factors. Hybrid warfare is designed to instill a belief that the defender has been overwhelmed. Clausewitz said that giving up the contest is often the surest indication of victory. How can we build this possibility of effect and results into the black box of the game design?
Warfare involves decision-making. Decision theory can provide understanding for hybrid game design. Researcher Herbert Simon noted that decision makers are limited by three things: the complexity of the problem, the limitations of the decision-maker, and the time available for decision. This fits perfectly with the objectives of hybrid warfare. Hybrid attacks make defense’ problems more complex. They limit the decision-makers and reduce or alter the perception of the time available to make decisions.
Designers should consider game techniques that allow for the manipulation of decision space and time during the game. The goal is not to replace the linear representation of time in the conventional timeline. Rather, the objective should be to manipulate the amount of movement and actions that can occur during each segment of game time.
In 1991 Decision Games designer Joseph Miranda developed a randomized command and control system using a chit draw. The individual chits represent possible actions or movements by the two players. By drawing the correct chit the player was able to move their forces or take action.
This technique can work for hybrid games. It is possible to manipulate the number of actions or movement available to each side. The more chits you have the more action and movement you can take. The impact of various effects can be used increase or limit the number of chits. (Ex: the attacker player conducts a specific hybrid attack which is successful. The next turn the player will receive additional action chits which are introduced into the random chit pool.) The impact of the hybrid effects can determine the chit mix amplifying or retarding a player’s capabilities.
A common issue in wargame design is the balance of play. Balance is especially important to commercial games where the interest of the player/consumer is paramount. Balance is not a priority in games designed for professional training, evaluation, or analysis purposes. Hybrid warfare offers an interesting variety of force and coercion options. It is easy to overload a game design with too many hybrid options. Keeping the game focused will limit the exploration of the topic. It also helps to improve the quality of the results.
Establishing Victory Conditions
Hybrid warfare is different than traditional adversarial combat. In wargaming terms this involves two forces attempting to gain mastery over their opponent. Destruction of the enemy force or the occupation of a terrain feature is a conventional standard for victory. Hybrid warfare is designed to offer coercive effects that are often difficult to assess. Synchronizing direct combat with first and second level MPECI effects is much different than simply destroying an adjacent enemy unit. Traditional victory conditions are not the best fit for hybrid wargames.
In the US Army War College’s 2008 study of war and strategy, J. Boone Bartholomee authored a paper called A Theory of Victory. Bartholomee proposed replacing finite definitions of victory with scales of evaluation as a more accurate determination of contemporary military success.
Commercial wargames have used similar techniques for years. Commercial games often include varying levels of victory from marginal to decisive. Two of Bartholomee’s recommendations include developing a decisiveness scale and an achievement scale. The ability of a defender to mitigate the effects of a hybrid attack can be evaluated using a decisiveness scale.
The scale of achievement can be useful in determining the success of a hybrid operation. Bartholomee’s achievement scale assesses operational effects. This can be modified to fit a hybrid wargame.
Alternative Design Schemas
There are several alternative design schemas that can be used for hybrid wargame designs. The first is concurrent scenario development. Van Lieburg, Petiet, and Le Grand of the TNO Research Center for Defense, Safety, and Security in the Hague have been studying warfare as a complex adaptive system. One of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system is emergent behavior.
The TNO researchers have experimented with opening a wargame with players making environmental selections that will impact the design of the game scenario. The initial moves include guessing the actions and decisions of their adversary. The facilitator takes the two proposed actions and determines what the starting environment will become. The players then move into an action phase where they begin functioning under the prevailing conditions. This technique introduces uncertainty into the design.
Another technique is the use of agent-based models in an artificial life game. Agent based modeling involves the interactions of autonomous agents who have behavioral preferences activated by a certain set of conditions. Artificial life systems are useful in solitaire games and multidimensional games combining live and automated players.
A constant question about wargames is the issue of validation. In a strictly scientific sense wargames cannot be validated. Attempts at validation take many forms from a subjective gut feeling to scientifically repeatable tests. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published clear guidelines for establishing scientific validation. Their recommendations are difficult to apply to a wargame. In a recent War on the Rocks article RAND analyst Ellie Bartel discussed the difficulty of validating human decision making and wargaming.
What can be done ff we cannot scientifically validate a wargame? I think it is important to make the game scenario as accurate as possible based on a broad foundation of sources. There are numerous sources listed in the “more information” section at the end of this article. The NATO Multi-national Capability Development Campaign has produced some of the best materials on hybrid warfare. . Another valuable resource is the US Special Operations Command report called Little Green Men: A primer on modern Russian unconventional warfare.
What else can be done to improve scenario accuracy of hybrid warfare wargames? Wargames cannot predict the future, but they can stimulate predictive speculation.
Predictive speculation is not merely guessing about the future but developing hypothetical outcomes based on the best information. Wargames can help to focus the evaluation process.
Designers developing hybrid warfare games should consider threat actor assessments, technology related to hybrid warfare effects, and trends related to hybrid warfare operations. There are several data sources that are available. Since your scenario models activities of real-world actors, it is valuable to assess what the real actors are saying about hybrid warfare. A good example is the 2003 Chinese military paper called Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army. The paper describes a version of hybrid warfare combining psychological, information, and legal warfare tactics into a strategy they call “the three warfares.”
The second area of consideration are advances in technology and how it is being used. A recent development is the use of microcomputers sometimes known as a Raspberry Pi. This item is a low-cost microcomputer. It can be used as a hacking tool, to track devices connected to a local network, and can be employed to crash a WIFI network. This type of detail provides accuracy to the scenario and demonstrates the authenticity of your model.
Finally, you should assess the trends. A good example is the development of Russian proxy forces like the Night Wolves motorcycle club. Their activities have spread from Crimea and to Syria. Analysts have speculated proxies could ride motorcycles into an area carrying micro-computers in backpacks to crash local WIFI networks.
Summary: Was hybrid warfare predicted by Clausewitz?
In book four of Carl Von Clausewitz’ study On War the strategist discusses the nature of combat. Clausewitz describes the moral effect of combat which, in 21st century terms, are the psychological factors of warfare. Clausewitz wrote,
“In the combat the loss of moral force is the chief cause of the decision; after that is given, this loss continues to increase until it reaches its culminating point at the close of the whole act. This is the opportunity the victor should seize to reap his harvest by the utmost possible restrictions of his enemy’s forces, the real object of engaging in combat.”
Nearly 200 years after Clausewitz, the difference between 19th and 21st century warfare is not the destruction but the nature of it. Hybrid warfare is not just about destroying enemy units but crippling enemy forces and the stakeholder community they are defending.
To achieve a satisfactory hybrid design the game must be set at whatever operations level the scenario will depict. The level and nature of the combatants must be carefully determined. A hybrid warfare game calls for non-traditional approaches to modeling combat, movement, and establishing victory conditions based on its effects-based nature.
Scientific validation of a hybrid or conventional wargame is impossible. A useful measure of predictive speculation is possible by developing your game on the broadest informational foundation. This foundation should be based on the assessments of real-world threat actors, the technology used for hybrid warfare effects, and trends in the employment of hybrid warfare.
A final thought from Clausewitz may be useful in designing your hybrid game.
“In point of fact, the lost balance of moral power must not be treated lightly because it has no absolute value, and because it does not by necessity appear in all cases in the amount of the results at the final close; it may become of such excessive weight as to bring everything thing down with irresistible force. On that account it may often become the great aim of the operations of which we shall speak elsewhere.”