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The binary idea of war and peace is increasingly being challenged by the notion that the current security environment reflects neither of these states. The acceleration and convergence of geopolitics, information, technology, data, and demographics has created a set of security challenges that increasingly blur the lines between these traditional concepts.[1] Competition is distorting the difference between war and peace, with states conducting military operations that employ blended tactics and operational approaches.[2] Attempts at explaining how militaries should operate in such an environment are not without controversy, exemplified by the term hybrid warfare. Advocates of hybrid warfare posit this concept explains the application of military force below the threshold of war to achieve political goals.[3] Those opposed to the concept argue hybrid warfare simply confuses the essential elements of what war is by introducing a troubled and imprecise concept that only serves to muddle strategic thinking.[4]

Portrait of Clausewitz painted by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)
A small contribution towards clarity is offered by going back to examine the nature of war and its relationship to hybrid war. To that end, Carl von Clausewitz and his articulation of the trinity—reason, passion, and chance–offers a useful framework for understanding the character of hybrid warfare.[5] The pillars of the trinity provide a foundation to understand how hybrid warfare employs irregular, unconventional, and conventional military power to balance against the risk of war trending towards absolute violence and open conflict. Consequently, hybrid warfare is an operational concept where military and non-military capabilities are optimised to distort reason, shape passion, and leverage chance to achieve strategic objectives and reduce the risk of escalation.

Hybrid Warfare and the Pursuit of Policy

Clausewitz’s most famous observation from On War—war as a continuation of policy by other means—provides a theoretical basis for the study for the convergence of conventional, irregular, and political operational methods that manifests in hybrid warfare.[6] Dr Frank Hoffman, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University and retired United States Marine Corps officer, offers a definition of hybrid warfare that states, “[hybrid warfare]...simultaneously employs a mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behaviour in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.”[7] Using this definition, hybrid warfare is fundamentally focussed on policy objectives and goals; with the other means being a co-ordinated and focussed set of military and non-military options designed to exploit a battlespace where the warfighting domains—the physical and psychological dimensions, kinetic and non-kinetic effects, and the combatants and non-combatants—are blurred.

Clausewitz frames all war as an instrument of policy, where statesmen and commanders are “choosing the kind of war they are embarking upon, not alien to its true nature.”[8] From this observation, war, and the predicted absolute manifestation of violence, is moderated by policy. Hybrid warfare offers an operational model that provides a deniable, undeclared, and cost effective means of achieving policy objectives. Hybrid warfare offers an operational concept to hold conflict below the threshold of declared war, where actions on the battlefield are moderated by policy. Hybrid war conforms to Clausewitz’s thoughts, insofar as violence is moderated by policy considerations and the relative worth of the desired political objective.

The Problem with Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid warfare as an extension of the Clausewitzian trinity is a neat frame that could be criticised for giving too much credit to a contested concept with vague origins. General of the Army Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, is recognised as articulating hybrid warfare as a new doctrine for the Russian way of war. However, some analysts have disputed this conclusion, stating to the contrary that it is Gerasimov accusing the West of employing indirect tactics to undermine regimes around the world.[9]

General Valery Gerasimov (Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik)

Considering the murky intellectual foundations of hybrid warfare, critics argue that grouping random, and sometimes ineffective, tactical actions under the hybrid banner gives the term too much cachet and is a disservice to thoughtful strategic and operational analysis.[10] This is a fair criticism, but it does not help explain how irregular warfare tactics and conventional military operations provide some of the ways and means for strategic competition between revisionist or rising powers and the West.

Clausewitz highlights that war will continue to change its character over time and that those changes will be governed by the paradoxical trinity of violence, chance, and reason:

“...war...slightly adjusts its characteristics to the given case…as a total phenomena its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…of the play of chance and probability…and of its element of subordination as an instrument of policy…subject to reason alone.”[11] 

Employing this logic, hybrid warfare should be considered on its merit as part of the character of war. Hybrid warfare reflects the current geopolitical environment and other influences on the conduct of war, where states seek to exploit passion, chance, and reason, and amplify friction and uncertainty.

Hybrid Warfare and the Trinity

The examination of hybrid warfare through the elements of the trinity provides some of the answers for how military power is employed below the threshold of war. In the trinity, passion—better thought of as public sentiment—is represented by the people of a nation state. Through a variety of operational methods, such as information operations or disruption of public infrastructure via cyber operations, hybrid warfare seeks to exploit cultural, ethnic, and political divisions.[12] Furthemore, it amplifies narratives that support strategic objectives and create uncertainty among the people in support of the operational design.[13]

Clausewitz’s next aspect of the trinity is chance and probability, which he describes as the space “within which the creative spirit is free to roam” and attributes to the commander and their army.[14] Of note is Clausewitz’s emphasis on the character of the commander and their army, suggesting culture, psychology, and ethos are critical to the way an army will behave.[15] The operational objective of hybrid warfare is directed towards creating uncertainty and inaction in the mind of the adversary to complicate their capacity to accurately assess risk and probability associated with a considered military response.

Lastly, Clausewitz connects reason with policy. The logic for pursuing war is the sole purview of the government.[16] The design of hybrid warfare is ideally optimised to create maximum confusion and uncertainty to prevent adequate policy responses from an adversary through the exploitation of international laws, norms, and treaty obligations. Furthermore, it exploits the lack of certainty in the conventional, binary view of states being either at war or at peace.

Hybrid War and the Tendency Towards Absolute Violence

Viewed through the trinity, hybrid warfare demonstrates how a calibrated and blended set of military actions amplify friction and uncertainty, which leads to inaction in an adversary. The lack of action, or a corresponding response to military action, created the strategic and operational space to achieve policy objectives within acceptable risk levels. Reducing risk in the pursuit of policy objectives is an important aspect of hybrid warfare. Clausewitz holds that war’s nature will always trend towards the extremes of violence, but that statesmen and commanders exercise moderation in the context of their policy objectives:

“Warfare thus eludes the strict theoretical requirement that the extremes of force be applied. Once the extreme is no longer feared or aimed at, it becomes a matter of judgement what degree of effort should be applied.”[17]

Hybrid warfare seeks to impose moderation upon the true nature of war and limit shock to the international system that would otherwise undermine any win on the battlefield. Hybrid warfare limits those risks and preserves battlefield gains, because the consequences of unrestricted inter-state war will unleash the most destructive aspects of war and generate significant economic impacts and drastic loss of life and destruction.

Using Clausewitz and his study of war to examine hybrid warfare, it is unavoidable to address the application of violence and the notion of an interaction between two opposing forces. With hybrid warfare offering a means to avoid this direct interaction where possible, there is legitimate criticism of the concept. For instance, George Kennan’s definition of political warfare, considered a forerunner of hybrid warfare, is the “employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”[18] Using this definition, the avoidance of conflict, or violence would fail Clausewitz’s requirement for the duel between two forces, imposing one’s will over the other.[19] Under this definition, if there is no physical interaction between adversaries, then there is no war and the notion of hybrid warfare fails to meet the threshold as a trend in the changing character of war.

However, hybrid war is not the absence of violence. In fact, as seen in Crimea and Ukraine, the employment of armoured manoeuvre forces and massed fires has been a feature of those hybrid conflicts.[20] The difference is that hybrid war seeks to calibrate the unconventional, the irregular, and the conventional military operations for limited objectives. Hybrid warfare is an acknowledgement that war remains a useful means to achieve policy objectives, but that its natural tendency towards extreme violence must be managed for it to be a useful policy tool.

A man holds a portrait of Vladimir Putin during celebrations of the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea in Simferopol, Crimea on March 15, 2019 (Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters)

At the same time, hybrid warfare moderates the use of violence because it creates uncertainty that denies the adversary the ability to assess risk and make informed decisions based on their own interests. The three elements of the Clausewitzian trinity highlight that amplifying uncertainty and friction produces indecision and paralysis in an adversary. This indecision and friction make risk calculations uncertain and deny the ability to calibrate an adequate response, while trying to avoid escalation.[21]


Hybrid war viewed through the Clausewitzian trinity provides the means to debate how military power can be applied across a continuum of co-operation, competition, and conflict. Hybrid warfare nests within the Clausewitzian trinity, with the calibrated employment of unconventional, irregular, and conventional military force designed to amplify uncertainty and friction and undermine the will of an adversary. Hybrid warfare provides an asymmetric means to compete against established powers, achieve limited strategic objectives, assess success, and either press the advantage or re-invest in another line of effort.

That it is possible to frame hybrid war through Clausewitz suggests that this form of warfare is not new. Generating confusion in an adversary is fundamental to war. The unique aspect of hybrid warfare is the context—the geopolitics of revisionist powers, challenges to the liberal international order, the pervasiveness of advanced technology, and the aspiration of continued economic security. In choosing hybrid war, policy makers and strategists are demonstrating that war is still a useful tool for achieving national interests, but recognise that the risk of escalation must be mitigated.

The application of military force in an era of competition says much for strengths resident within western nations. Each protagonist can influence the character of conflict and the way force is applied—war “is never an isolated act.”[22] Hybrid warfare is a response to the strength of overwhelming collective and conventional military overmatch possessed by western liberal democracies. The challenge for western armies is to convert this conventional strength into an effective operational response to hybrid challenges to the international order.

Jarrod Brook is an infantry officer in the Australian Army. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Australian Army, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Australian Army, Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy (Australia: Department of Defence, 2019), 18, https://www.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/armyscontributiontodefencestrategy-screen.pdf

[2] Hoffman, Frank. “Hybrid warfare and challenges.” Joint Forces Quarterly, first quarter 2009. p 36.

[3] Hoffman, Frank. “On not-so-new warfare: political warfare vs hybrid threats.” War on the rocks, July 28, 2014. https://warontherocks.com/2014/07/on-not-so-new-warfare-political-warfare-vs-hybrid-threats/.

[4] Stoker, Donald and Craig Whiteside. “Blurred Lines: Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War – Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking,” Naval War College Review 73, No 1, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol73/iss1/4. 

[5] Clausewitz, Carl, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1989. p 89.

[6] Clausewitz, p 87.

[7] Hoffman, “On not-so-new warfare.”

[8] Clausewitz, On War, 88.

[9] Michael Kofman, “Russian hybrid warfare and other dark arts.” War on the rocks, March 11, 2016. https://warontherocks.com/2016/03/russian-hybrid-warfare-and-other-dark-arts/. Mark Galeotti “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.” Foreign Policy, March 5, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/.

[10] Nadia Schadlow, “The problem with hybrid warfare.” War on the rocks, April 2, 2015. https://warontherocks.com/2015/04/the-problem-with-hybrid-warfare/.

[11] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[12] David Carment, Dani Belo, War’s future: The Risks and Rewards of Grey Zone Conflict and Hybrid Warfare (Calgary: Canadian Global Affairs Institute), p 7-8.

[13] Rod Thornton, “The changing nature of modern warfare”, The RUSI Journal, 106:4: 42 – 43.

[14] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[15] Peter Paret, ‘Clausewitz’, in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Pinceton: Princeton University Press) 204.

[16] Clausewitz, On war, 89.

[17] Clausewitz, On war, 88.

[18] Hoffman, Frank. “On not-so-new warfare’.

[19] Clausewitz, On War, 75.

[20] Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser, Competing in the gray zone (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation), 29.

[21] Thornton, “Changing nature of modern warfare”, 45.

[22] Clausewitz, On war, 78.

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