Hybrid Threats and the Constabularization of Strategy

Ever since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the concept of “hybrid threats” has exploded into the strategic lexicon. Legions of articles were written about the various ways state actors could leverage unconventional tactics to compete without triggering a conventional confrontation, thus bleeding into the debate on the gray zone, which produced yet another deluge of articles.[1] Largely lost in this discussion, however, was the reality that hybridization specifies tactics, not the actor employing them. Not only states like Russia leverage hybrid tactics, but non-state actors do as well. How militaries address the challenges imposed by hybridized nonstate groups is a conceptual issue that would benefit from a deeper interrogation of the unique relationship between crime and war that such threats represent.[2]

Frank Hoffman’s definition of a hybrid threat offers a good illustration of what hybridization means, tactically. Hoffman writes that a hybrid threat is “any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.”[3] As we can see, while the discussion of hybrid warfare leads with an eye toward how national actors leverage unconventional tactics, the underlying definition does not require that focus alone. It should be clear how nonstate groups are equally capable of moving between threat categories, mixing terrorism, crime, insurgency, and the like in pursuit of their objectives. The types of groups likely to produce these threats are diverse—gangs, terrorists, vigilantes—and in a way our drive to categorize them as one or the other complicates seeing them for the complex actors they are. These groups all have at least one thing in common, however—they are not states.[4] This would suggest the types of responses employed to counteract them may look different than efforts to combat Russia’s so-called little green men.

When it comes to non-state threats operating across a spectrum of tactics, from criminal to terrorist to militant, we find a great deal of overlap and confusion between the spheres of crime and war, blurring police, constabulary, and military obligations.[5] One option is to take this convergence head on and engage seriously with how overlapping literatures can best meld to create a coherent strategy for hybrid, non-state threats. These connections are being increasingly posited, if not quite so readily taken to their logical ends. David Kilcullen asks in Out of the Mountains, his book on future littoral security threats, “What if we could combine what I learned in Baghdad about protecting urban populations from extreme violence with what law enforcement agencies know about community-based policing?”[6] This is a question I entertain in great depth with respect to maritime threats in a new book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity, but a few ideas can be readily teased out in brief.

Community policing requires policing, not against a community but alongside it, meeting communal equities and encouraging a belief that neighborhoods are agents in their own survival. Effectively combating hybrid threats therefore means meeting the needs of the communities from which they spring and on which these threats prey. Operating with a sole focus on the threat, and without regard for the wider community, can produce restrictive approaches that choke the life out of communities, a phenomenon sometimes called “urbicide” with respect to excessively violent approaches to security in cities.[7] Such a community may be pacified, but it neither serves nor enriches its inhabitants in the aftermath. Blunt force tactics can often produce “military urbanism,” which results when militarized enforcement “turns cities into fortresses and populations into denizens of occupied territory.”[8]

As hybrid threats grow in sophistication and challenge the state across types of conflict, it becomes more attractive to reach for the military as the ultimate dynamic force to retaliate. To achieve durable stability, however, non-state, hybrid threats require that states find a way to exploit the matériel, scale, and operational sophistication of military forces without losing the theoretical underpinnings of community policing approaches.

Peacekeeper and children (From the NATO Stability Policing Center or Excellence)

This concept is not alien in practice, though it is limited in scope. Australia, for example, fields an internationally deployable federal police unit, and the Italian Carabinieri host the NATO Stability Policing Center or Excellence, which trains students in community policing methods.[9] Israeli police conduct joint operations with the military to help close the gap between their operational requirements.[10] The U.S. military studies policing methods and has included police trainers on deployments abroad.[11] Focusing on community, however, is not always so clear-cut for militaries in practice.

Brazil’s military policing unit is singularly effective at combating cartels and gangs on a tactical level, for example. Yet the methods they have employed may alienate the poor or lock favelas into perpetual perceptions of conflict.[12] The Israel Defense Force has perfected a method of using the city as a medium for conflict, moving through walls by blasting holes between buildings to deny combatants a conventional theory of maneuver, even though such tactics terrify noncombatants and leave the urban space in tatters.[13]

While the Brazilian and Israeli forces are operationally adept, their adversaries persist in part because both neglect the community as a space that needs to be won in more than a strictly physical sense. As Sullivan and Elkus write, while these forces “may be masters at manipulating the city as fluid operational space, they have an overly materialistic conception of the city,” ignoring people in deference to surmounting tactical maneuver challenges. In other words, these forces “ignore the social spaces in their strategies.”[14] In the social arena, militaries have a great deal to learn from police.

For an example of what that learning might look like, my own research has explored some specific themes we can extract from a progenitor of community policing popularized in the 1990s known as Broken Windows.[15] As a theory, broken windows holds that our actions are subconsciously influenced by our environment, that we are constantly in dialogue with and responding to subtle stimuli from our context. The theory gets its name from this type of signal, of which a broken window is representative. When an abandoned building has a window smashed, and it is not promptly fixed, other windows are likely to be broken as well. This is not because window smashers are concentrated in one part of town and not the other, but because the broken window serves as a signal that the community is not taken care of, which becomes a self-reinforcing condition.

When operationalized, broken windows would suggest that police focus on signal crimes, the highly visible crimes that shape the context of people’s lives; the presence of graffiti is one  example. In practice, when police tried to focus on environmental signals, they found something interesting. As it turns out, low-level criminality is highly multidimensional. In other words, policing small-scale disorder, like graffiti, has an outsized and somewhat direct impact on declines in more violent crimes.[16] This approach can, of course, drive police to unhelpful extremes, criminalizing acts of petty crime beyond sensibility—what is known as zero tolerance policing. But in measured implementation, police found that when they try to alleviate crime by tackling the signals of disorder—for example, real broken windows—doing so tackles crime along a wider continuum of violence.[17]

There are two salient themes this brief exploration of just one theory of community policing might offer for military forces wrestling with hybrid challengers. The first theme is that crime is multidimensional. That is, crime exists in an ecosystem, where affecting conditions for one type of crime has effects across the community. One implication for U.S. forces would therefore be the relative importance, or lack thereof, of pursuing U.S. priorities versus those of partner nations when operating abroad. We have often considered strategic prioritization to be zero-sum—“Europe First” in World War II being an extreme example.

In the realm of crime and hybrid threats, however, that may not be the case. Even if communities or nations have different first-order concerns than those of the U.S., the multidimensional nature of crime reinforces the notion that nothing is isolated. Combating one challenge—illegal fishing, for example—may precipitate declines in another—such as piracy, in this case—even if it is the latter that is of greater importance to the United States. The point for strategists is that focusing on placing local communities in the driver’s seat helps breed greater stability across a spectrum of issues, mobilizing communities in pursuit of their own security. Partnership is not zero-sum, and pursuing a local agenda helps ensure long-term buy-in from authorities and the people they will rely on to help keep communities safe.

Military police patrol in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro. (Rodrigo Lobo/International Blvd)

The second theme is the pervasive role of context and shaping the environment in which people live and work. Unlike the traditional great power battlefield, forces combating hybrid, non-state threats will routinely find themselves operating with and around real communities. Reconsider the examples above from the Brazilian favelas or Gaza: without a clear understanding of how actions at the communal level shape disorder, security forces will likely fail to achieve long-term strategic success. In planning such operations, strategists could prioritize understanding and positively impacting local perceptions and material conditions. This is, ultimately, at the root of any community policing objective—the endeavor to help communities feel as if they have a stake in their neighborhoods. That objective is as consequential to rooting out hybrid threats as it is to urban crime control.


It is logical to conclude that hybrid threats are best met with a hybrid approach, one that blends the capabilities of military forces with theories of policing. The move to integrate community policing lessons into operational forces is a clear recognition of this belief, the idea that non-state hybrid threats are distinct enough to require the constabularization of forces that combat them. These forces will almost certainly lack the full scope of conceptual resources until strategists think about constabularization at the strategic level as well. This is evident in the examples cited in Gaza and Brazil, where an overly materialist conception of the operating space may befit tactical superiority but fails to create long-term security. Such tactical proficiency represents a core strength of military forces, while the struggle to identify larger human security challenges represents a key arena where police experience can add significant value.

The gap between tactical capability and conceptual implementation sketched throughout this discussion is not new. Indeed, it has now been reflected at the highest levels of command. The Chief of Naval Operations, in his revised 2018 Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, notes the challenges facing the Navy and the nation at the lower end of the threat spectrum are fundamentally conceptual in nature.[18] Inherent in this framing is the belief that the United States has the right hardware to get the job done. The software—the strategies, the ways force is applied or withheld, the understanding of the physical and social operating space—is where the hard work is yet to be done. As America pivots to a greater focus on great power competition it risks ignoring the difficult intellectual work necessary to successfully counter hybrid non-state threats.

The Competition-Conflict Spectrum for the Military Dimension of Power. Navy concepts and capabilities should improve the ability to respond to an adversary across the spectrum from day-to-day operations to escalation and lethal combat. (Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority)

As proposed in this article, community policing offers a clear point of departure for the theoretical effort yet to be done to build this conceptual space. The work in criminology on that subject, as expounded briefly above with respect to the Broken Windows argument, offers a vehicle for thinking about the application of force in a tempered manner that places people and context at the heart of the conversation. As Kilcullen similarly concludes with respect to counterinsurgency, the primary project is not defeating combatants—instead, the project is the community itself. What better way to ensure the community remains central to strategies of securing them than to find mechanisms to directly adopt precepts of community policing when countering hybrid threats—to constabularize America’s approach to security.

Joshua Tallis is the author of The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity, from which the above is adapted. He is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St Andrews. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A Kosovo Security Force member stands guard in the town of Prizren on October 3, 2018 (AFP)


[1] See for example, James Stavridis, “Maritime Hybrid Warfare is Coming,” Proceedings, December 2016; Nadia Schadlow, “The Problem with Hybrid Warfare,” War on the Rocks, April 2, 2015; Michael Kofman, “Russian Hybrid Warfare and Other Dark Arts,” War on the Rocks, March 11, 2016; Gary Anderson, “Counter-Hybrid Warfare: Winning in the Gray Zone,” Small Wars Journal; and Frank Hoffman, “Examining Complex Forms of Conflict: Gray Zone and Hybrid Challenges,” PRISM, November 8, 2018.

[2] Crime is an activity committed typically by private (i.e. non-governmental) actors mainly for private (i.e. financial) gain. War is an activity that can be waged by both private and state forces and has its primary objective public (i.e. political) ends.

[3] Frank Hoffman, “Hybrid vs. Compound War,” Armed Forces Journal, October 1, 2009.

[4] Hezbollah is perhaps the archetypal example. The group is a terrorist organization but also provides a wide variety of social services for communities in southern Lebanon and has evolved into a proto-state in a de facto power sharing arrangement with the Lebanese state. The Taliban and the FARC offer examples from other corners of the globe in recent history. In all cases, these groups leveraged criminal activities to finance their acquisition of arms (often through the sale of drugs) which they utilized to exert physical control over a local population in pursuit of political interests. The delivery of some semblance of predictable “justice” and the provision of social goods added a complicating dynamic that made it difficult to fully extract these groups from the communities they simultaneously terrorized and served.

[5] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), 287.

[6] Ibid., 19–20.

[7] Ibid., 76, 110-112.

[8] Ibid., 111.

[9] Ibid., 287.

[10] John Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege,” Small Wars Journal, February 16, 2009, 12.

[11] Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, 287.

[12] Sullivan and Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai,” 6.

[13] Eyal Weizman, “The Art of War,” Frieze 99 (May 2006).

[14] Sullivan and Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai,” 7–8.

[15] There is a very wide body of broken windows research. To start, the foundational work is an article published in the Atlantic in 1982: James Wilson and George Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Atlantic, March 1, 1982. A longer elucidation came in 1996 with: George Kelling and Catherine Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (New York: Touchstone, 1996). A popularized account of the theory was described as the “power of context” in: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002). In the security arena, one concept that has been referred to as a natural successor to broken windows is a concept known as “everyday security,” described here: Adam Crawford and Steven Hutchinson, “Mapping the Contours of ‘Everyday Security’: Time, Space and Emotion,” British Journal of Criminology, December 12, 2015.

[16] Kelling and Coles, Fixing Broken Windows, 115.

[17] Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 141-145.

[18] See Figure 1 below.