The rise and danger of hybrid threats
By Julian Lewis
Politics First – vol.9, issue 41, September/October 2019
In the April 2018 edition of Politics First, I referred to the fact that we
This led the Defence Committee to conclude that our expenditure on the Armed Forces was far too low – officially 2.1 per cent of GDP, but actually 1.8 per cent on the basis upon which such figures were formerly calculated. We believe that 3 per cent (as in the early to mid-1990s) should be our medium-term target.
As Prime Minister, Theresa May argued that:
"when we look at the threat picture that we face and the capabilities that we need in order to meet those threats, we recognise that some of those capabilities may come from what people may regard as more traditional defence, but some may come from other capabilities" [Liaison Committee evidence, 27 March 2018].
Unfortunately, these newer threats are additional to, not replacements for, those requiring more investment in sailors, soldiers and airmen, though the former PM was right to be concerned.
The term 'hybrid warfare' is often used to describe that mixture of unconventional techniques – involving espionage agents, agents provocateurs and agents of influence spreading black propaganda – which characterised the Cold War from beginning to end. Since all-out conflict between East and West would have spelt annihilation for both, more limited methods of subversion and creeping aggression had to be found; but, in recent years, the development of cyberspace has hugely augmented their potential.
There are today many more ways to undermine a state and a society without crossing the threshold of open conflict, and these are growing increasingly potent with every passing hour. Each transition from physical to electronic control systems opens up potential new vulnerabilities. As the 'internet of things' maximises remote access and connectivity, it also creates opportunities for interference by hostile third parties.
In an astonishing development over the past 15 years, a Communist Chinese telecommunications company has been granted a role in our critical national infrastructure, and is now seriously being considered as a key builder of our fifth-generation wireless broadband network. When the Intelligence and Security Committee published its (redacted) report on Huawei, in June 2013, it pointed out that one-fifth of all cyber attacks against UK interests were
"likely to be State-sponsored, or related to organised crime".
It added that:
"China is suspected of being one of the main perpetrators of State-sponsored attacks, which are focused on espionage and the acquisition of information".
Despite this inconvenient truth, David Cameron commercially courted China in general and Huawei in particular. His successor, Mrs May, swallowed whole the risible assertion that that enormous enterprise in a totalitarian Communist state
"is officially owned by its employees and is a private Chinese company" [Liaison Committee evidence, 1 May 2019].
Thankfully, the Johnson Government is now reconsidering the appropriateness of allowing a repressive adversarial regime – which in June 2017 passed a law demanding the "support, assistance and co-operation" of Chinese civilians and organisations with state intelligence agencies – to have a ringside role in our digital network. Our Five Eyes partners have been watching this process with increasing exasperation and alarm: they do not trust the glib reassurances about "management of risk", and neither should we.
Later this year, the Defence Committee will produce a report on
"the hybrid approach to warfare and confrontation below the threshold of armed aggression".
Already it is clear that the digital revolution has given rise to myriad opportunities to wreak havoc within societies which seem determined to build-in vulnerabilities and increase their own dependency on systems wide open to exploitation and disruption.
Long experience confirms that potential enemies can be deterred if shown that retaliation to their aggression will be both unacceptable and unavoidable. Nuclear retaliation makes the initiation of nuclear warfare improbable. Collective security under Article 5 makes the targeting of individual NATO member states impracticable. Warfare in the 'grey zone' is designed to make gains whilst triggering neither conventional nor nuclear retribution. So a new form of penalty must be developed to make 'hybrid' adventurism similarly unattractive. Our current Inquiry will focus firmly on how this major objective can be achieved.