03 April 2020

Our hybrid war against coronavirus

Sorin Butiri

Looking at the new coronavirus as to a hybrid war threat will help authorities in each state to deploy actions dedicated to stop the COVID-19 spread and the soldiers to develop new strategies if they will ever experience biological attacks within a hybrid conflict.

Image source: Profi Media

What is a hybrid war?

In nowadays’ literature, the term “hybrid” is associated to many expressions, such as: “hybrid war”, “hybrid conflict” and “hybrid threat”. The hybrid conflict defines a crisis situation or a confrontation, wherein at least one of the actors involved in the conflict used the confrontation’s physical dimension, but also the informational one, trying to influence the people in the conflict areas, through complex actions, to get its support. The hybrid war is more than that. It involves the simultaneous and combined used of conventional and unconventional methods, along with using political, diplomatic, economic, social and informational methods to reach the political-military purposes.

The hybrid war is a concept that emerged immediately after the 2006 Lebanon war, as a definition of the unseen threats the Israeli army experienced with Hezbollah’s defensive strategy.

Liviu Ionita has proposed, in his PhD thesis, another definition for hybrid conflict. Precisely, he was stating that we are actually dealing with “a conflict wherein one of the sides, through a detailed organization and coordination, used a combination of conventional and unconventional capabilities, to create a large series of threats to surprise and destroy enemy’s efforts and stopping him from using the conventional methods and forces”.

The hybrid war strategies allow each actor to simultaneously approach, within the same confrontational environment, different kinds of threats, along with keeping the freedom of movement and the initiative.

Could the “war” against the new coronavirus be a hybrid one?

Monday, 16th March, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was stating that “we are at war with an invisible enemy”, talking about the COVID-19 virus. As for the aforementioned definition, can we define this war as a hybrid one?

If we were to place the coronavirus on the hybrid war “actors’ map”, it could stay somewhere between the “armed militias” and the “guerrilla”. The reason for that is that the new coronavirus can be deployed through “conventional” methods (like militias), but the information about this virus is limited, and the “rules of the game” are still incomplete (like the guerrilla). Due to its high contamination level, the new “enemy” targets two elements of each society: the health systems and international transports (globalization). The pressures each of these fields experience are affecting the economy, as it negatively influence the global economic relations system. From this point of view, we can state that the coronavirus threats are unconventional.

In order to define the coronavirus as an unconventional threat of the hybrid war, we can firstly start by identifying its characteristics and the way it “acts against us”, and secondly by projecting the defensive and offensive mechanisms to neutralize the “invisible enemy”. Thirdly, classifying the virus as a hybrid war threat, we can adapt the armed forces strategies and the forces’ doctrines to answer to a possible biological attack, which could be launched by a state or non-state actor.

Adapting the fight actions with the “invisible enemy”- coronavirus

Militarily speaking, defeating the coronavirus means deploying mixed operations, aiming at exhausting, disrupting and destroying or neutralizing the enemy. The combined exhaustion military operations are developed by placing one’s own forces in advantageous places and moments, so that the enemy to be highly pressured and unable to regenerate its technical and human capabilities and to finally lead to its capabilities’ neutralization. As the infection is transmitted and spread by humans, an increasing attention should be paid to social distance. This can only be achieved through isolation and quarantine methods but, firstly, it is about a responsible approach, self-isolation. If social self-isolation is just a reaction, then mass isolation should be a pro-active measure against the spread of this viral infection. Besides social distance, dislocating forces and methods in strategic places and moments could now be made through guiding all forces combating coronavirus (doctors, armed forces, volunteers, NGOs) towards the medical or quarantine facilities and the provision of supply fluxes with medical equipment and materials and food.

The second type of operation is decomposition, which aims at the quick change of conditions in action zones, so that the enemy to be forced to decompose its forces and act on multiple plans and directions, losing the action initiative. This can now be achieved through closing schools and restricting the circulation. All social or economic activities affected by this restriction can be replaced with the increased access to modern communication technology, which offers the possibility to communicate via audio or video methods, but also to develop common projects or transfer documents signed electronically. Maybe this is the moment the online communication with local authorities and services providers will replace the institutions’ desks, and the digitalization of local authorities will advance. Also, the decomposition can be done through the localization of infected people in spaces that are well-delimited and do not allow the infection of other people.

The third operation is enemy’s neutralization. Militarily speaking, it refers to the destructive effects of weapons’ fire. As for the current pandemic, it refers to vaccination. This is the most effective methods to act in the “pre or post-conflict” period in order to protect the population. In the current phase of virus’s evolution, the elaboration and testing of a vaccine involves a financial and research resource that’s quite big.  But what shall be done if there is no vaccine yet? Getting back to the military examples, one must look at the methods used in fight actions when there was no enough ammunition or when that ammunition was not matching the goal of the strike. All available ammunition was unconventionally used to replace the temporarily unavailable ammunition. As for the coronavirus, the identification of a local or national treatment scheme, where are being used the available medicines, would help to “defeat the current enemy”, and the exchange of information on the successful treatment schemes should be made available.

Conclusions, also hybrid

The measures China took were logical and adequate, and the surveillance system of the population, along with the Confucian thinking, led to the identification of the infected people, to the establishment of proper conditions for isolation, to realities that made possible the localization and destruction of coronavirus’s spread. We cannot say the same about what is happening in the democratic states, where limiting some liberties and voluntarily giving up on freedom were not that welcomed.

The coronavirus crisis revealed nations’ different mentalities, aspects like solidarity and willingness to help (or the lack of such things). All these factors are essential in crisis situations and military conflicts, especially within alliances.

Therefore, there are enough reasons why viruses can be compared to unconventional threats, and the fights against epidemics or pandemics can be metaphorically called “wars”.

In the end, we can all make conclusions and learn from such experiences, whether we are policymakers, doctors, economists, policemen, soldiers or simple citizens. What’s essential is to learn and then, not forget what we have learned.

English version by Andreea Soare