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The Network: Where Hybrid War Meets AirSea Battle

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: In the budget wars between the services, “hybrid threats” and “AirSea Battle” have become rallying buzzwords of two opposing camps.

On one side, Army leaders talk of hybrid threats, whose blend of guerrilla tactics and high-tech weapons pose the greatest plausible threat on land, now that Soviet-style tank armies are extinct and the nation has largely sworn off large-scale counterinsurgency. On the other, Air Force and Navy leaders speak of AirSea Battle as a way to coordinate their expensive hardware in a high-tech war with regional powers like China or Iran.

[Since there has to be a middle way, of course, there is also the threat posed to ships by land-based missiles, such as those Hamas used against the Israeli ship Hanit in 2006. A Chinese-built missile is believed to have heavily damaged the ship and killed four sailors.]

While the services tend to use these concepts to justify their budgets, one of the fathers of the hybrid war idea, retired Marine Frank Hoffman, tells Breaking Defense they are less contradictory than complementary, especially in a potential conflict with Iran.

AirSea Battle and hybrid war theory address two parts of the same strategic problem, Hoffman said: how to project American power around the globe when potential adversaries from militia groups to the Middle Kingdom are developing new tactics and new weaponry to stop us. (The painfully awkward term of art for such an enemy strategy is “anti-access/area denial”). “AirSea Battle is basically the outer half of the problem: how do you get into a region,” he said. “The inner half [is] once you get inside a region, how can you operate” in the face of hybrid threats.

Hoffman has street cred as a strategist. He was a lead staffer for the famous Hart-Rudman Commission that warned of large-scale terrorist attacks on the US homeland years before 2001, wrote some of the seminal works on hybrid warfare, and frequently writes, speaks, and wargames on military concepts. Now retired from the Marine Corps Reserve, Hoffman is a senior fellow at National Defense University, although he emphasizes that he speaks only for himself, not NDU.

The strategic problem will take the efforts of all the services to crack, Hoffman emphasized. The Air Force and Navy will take the lead in the long-range fight; the Army and Marines will bear the brunt close-in, but each has a role to play in both halves of the problem. The ground forces need ships and planes to get to the war zone in the first place, and once they’re in the fight they depend on air support, from drones to jets to satellites, to help them spot and strike the enemy. Conversely, the Air Force and Navy need the Army and Marines to protect – or to seize – key forward bases.

Those forward bases are critical and increasingly vulnerable. The Air Force has a few intercontinental bombers that can strike targets around the world from bases in the United States, but the rest of its planes need to operate from airfields closer to their targets. Likewise the Navy needs access to ports around the world to refuel and resupply the fleet. The most obvious threat to US bases is enemy missiles: Even Saddam Hussein’s Scuds got a lucky hit in 1991 that killed 28 US troops outside Dhahran, and modern adversaries such as China field far more accurate guided weapons. But bases also need defense against cyber-attack, sabotage, and suicide bombers, and for that matter the simple threat of enemy ground troops invading the allied nation hosting the base. The Army and Marines provide crucial counters against all those threats, from Patriot missile batteries to foot troops with a decade’s experience fighting guerrillas.

Nowhere is this need for all the services to work together more urgent than in the tight spaces of the Persian Gulf. Iran is the country that seems closest to war with the United States right now, with mysterious cyber-attacks on the Iranian nuclear program, speculation about Israeli airstrikes, F-22s deployed to an air base in the United Arab Emirates and the Navy actively reinforcing the region to protect the oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz. (The prospect of war with China, while terrifying, seems mercifully remote by contrast). America’s forward sea- and air-bases in the region, and its local allies, are so close to Iran that, in any conflict, the long-range Navy and Air Force AirSea Battle would blur into the short-range Army and Marine Corps fight against hybrid threats.

Iran is a nation-state, and its 1980-1988 war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was so brutally conventional that the battles looked like something out of World War I. Since then, though, Iran has a long and lethal track record of sponsoring guerrilla forces: Hezbollah used Iranian rockets, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles against Israel in 2006; the Mahdi Army used Iranian explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) as roadside bombs against the US in 2008, and both have used suicide truck bombs to deadly effect, starting with the Beirut barracks

At home, the Iranian arsenal ranges from high-tech anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles to low-tech swarms of fast attack boats manned by Revolutionary Guard fanatics with shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Most of the EFPs and RPGs won’t get through, but each shot costs Iran just a few hundred dollars, while one lucky hit can destroy millions of dollars of American equipment, not to mention lives, said Hoffman: “You get a lot of bang for your buck.”

The Iranians call this combination of methods their “mosaic doctrine,” Hoffman went on: It’s a regular military “that operates in a very irregular way,” he said, “hard to target, hard to hit, [with] a lot of small cheap things that are easy to do.”

America can’t counter Iran’s “mosaic” by throwing high-cost technology at each individual danger, the way it did with roadside bombs in Iraq: That way, “we need to spend $20 billion to defeat somebody’s $200 strike system,” said Hoffman. While we could (barely) afford that approach against Iraqi insurgents, it would be ruinously expensive against a more capable foe, especially with today’s weaker economy and tighter budgets. Instead, said Hoffman, the US needs to exploit its unique advantages in the information age.

“Warfare’s all about asymmetries, trying to find a competitive advantage, hopefully enduring,” said Hoffman. For the US, that edge may be the ability to link its own forces together in an all-service network of systems – especially unmanned ones, not just in the air but on the water and the ground – while attacking the enemy’s less-sophisticated network with both new cyber-weapons and traditional electronic warfare tools like jamming.

Today, “it’s definitely networks and linkages that are missing,” said Hoffman, especially between the services and between such traditionally unconnected combat arms as aircraft and submarines. In the future, “we’re going to probably have fewer platforms” – ships, planes, tanks – “but they’re going to be better networked, better integrated,” Hoffman said. “That’s where the greatest investment should probably go.”

What do you think?