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Hybrid War: Liger or Mule?

Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes : The term ‘Hybrid War’ probably originated in the mind of a strategic analyst, based upon an instinctive chunking of information, in his effort to make sense of an ambiguous variation of war

Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :

The international consensus on ‘hybrid warfare’ is clear: no one understands it,

but everyone, […] agrees it is a problem.

               ——— Understanding Hybrid Warfare[i]


The term ‘Hybrid War’ probably originated in the mind of a strategic analyst, based upon an instinctive chunking of information, in his effort to make sense of an ambiguous variation of war. In the West, the concept of hybrid warfare is most often associated with the US military theorist Lt Col Frank Hoffman, USMC (Retd)[ii]. He attempted to bridge the gap between the linear characterization of (regular or irregular) warfare in the context of the 21st century operational environment in a seminal paper published at the Potomac Institute[iii]. Hoffman in his own treatise credited the term to have originated in a thesis written at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey in 1998 by Robert. G. Walker[iv]. Walker defined war in this manner to bring out how the US Marine Corps was ideally suited to combine conventional warfare and Special Operations to achieve military aims, and not in the manner that contemporary thinking about it has evolved.

Defining the Undefinable

War, over a period of time, has seen blurring and merging of the forms in which it is prosecuted. As strategic thinkers thought about it and practitioners of war applied it — its character has changed in myriad and confusing ways. Definitions tend to be confusing as military strategists envelop more and more means and almost all aspects of coercion and warfighting into the fold of hybrid war. Some examples of the increasing complexity of deciphering hybrid war are evident from a few of its definitions given below:

“[c]overt and deniable activities, supported by the threat or use of conventional or nuclear forces, to influence the domestic politics of target countries.”[v]

“A wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures employed in a highly integrated design”[vi]

“Hybrid Warfare is a military strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare, cyber warfare and subversion, and blurs the formal distinction between war and peace”[vii]

“[c]oordinated military, political, economic, civilian and informational (MPECI) instruments of power that extend far beyond the military realm.”[viii]

Over a period of time the concept has been picked up by defence analysts all over the world, including the Russians and Chinese. The former applied the concept practically in Ukraine and Crimea; the studies by the latter are more theoretical as China has not really faced a situation where it had to apply the kinetic part of the concept. All these writings have created a greater ambiguity regarding Hybrid War.

Hybrid War

To revisit how the instinctive chunking of information must have taken place it is important to start with the dictionary meaning of the term “Hybrid”. And then see what the Robert Walker meant when he coined the term in context of war.

The Cambridge dictionary[ix] defines it as a noun which basically means ‘a mixture’. In the biology field it is:

“a plant or animal that has been produced from two different types of plant or animal, especially to get better characteristics” and:

“something that is a mixture of two very different things”.

The two constituents which combined to give birth to hybrid war are regular war and irregular war. The difference between them is based on the first being legitimate as it is regulated by the laws of war and the second one, illegitimate. Their offspring lies in the “Grey Zone”. It is neither regular war nor irregular war.

Liger or Mule?

The Liger is a cross between a lion and a tiger. This hybrid animal is larger than either of them, but in proportion to its body has a smaller heart. Besides this defect it (like most hybrids) suffers from a number of other genetic defects including inability to procreate. It also has a short life. Ligers are bred for being oddities in circuses or zoos. The cost of maintaining them is invariably not commensurate to what the exhibitor can earn. In other words, it is an unproductive hybrid.

The Mule has been a productive hybrid for thousands of years.[x] It combines the horse’s intellect and speed with the donkey’s perseverance, surefootedness, and hardiness. Mules have excelled in difficult mountainous areas in both commercial peacetime activities and in war. The mule combines the strength of the horse with the endurance and surefootedness of the ass and is extensively bred for certain employments for which it is more suited than either; it is ordinarily incapable of procreation. With no good grounds, the mule is a proverbial type of obstinacy.[xi] Its obstinacy is in fact its perseverance.

Aggregating the Ambiguity

This article intents to peel back ambiguity by aggregating three basic forms of war. The three basic forms of military conflict are Regular (conventional) War, Irregular (unconventional) War and Terrorism.

In the post Westphalian world, Regular War is fought between regular armed forces of nations, the connotation of regular is:

  • The armed forces wear distinctive uniforms.
  • They are in the regular employment of a nation and are citizens of that nation.
  • Their conduct is formally regulated by internationally agreed treaties and conventions and guided by norms which have become codified through custom.
  • It generally begins and takes place at the internationally recognized borders of a nation state.
  • Regular Wars are conducted (depending upon the level it has reached) with the heaviest of weapons and firepower, in all dimensions, with the upper threshold even at a nuclear weapon level.

Irregular War is that which is fought by an armed force with following characteristics:

  • The force engaging in it may not be a military force of a recognized sovereign nation.
  • The combatants may or may not wear a uniform.
  • The conduct of that force does not necessarily follow the accepted norms of regular war.
  • The treaties and conventions of war can be infringed by one or either of the belligerents.
  • It can take place on the borders or in the hinterland.
  • The irregular force generally will not have or be able to use the heaviest or most technologically advanced firepower.
  • A state using an irregular force may/ may not be able to defend its deniability.

Terrorism is form of strategy or tactics which can be employed in both regular war and irregular war. This article restricts the usage of this form to conflict where personal gain is not the motive. In other words, to inter-state or state/non-state conflict only. Within that definition terrorism could be characterised as irregular war. Its salient characteristics which imbue it with a different hue are:

  • As a conflict form it aims to induce a reaction based on fear to weaken the resolve of a nation and make it submit to its opponents will.
  • It targets the weakest part of a nation, its unprotected and unarmed population to create extreme insecurity within the population — weakening the resolve of a nation.
  • The terrorist is bound by no conventions.
  • Weapons are restricted only by ingenuity and can range from a knife, bullet, bomb, poison, mental degradation or even the threat of use of force.
  • Complete deniability.

War becomes Hybrid when a State uses the regular, irregular and terrorism forms of conflict all together to wage war to achieve its aim. The form and degree of application is decided based upon the stage of the war, relative asymmetry and success achieved.


As Hoffman states “Every age has its own conception of war”[xii]. Hybrid War is the war of our age. Why does it gain prominence? Because it enables conduct of war more economically and reduces the fetters of the laws of war in a globalised world. Sovereign states are equal in all respects in a globalised world except in their coercive ability. Hybrid war makes military power more equal and that is what makes it useful. So, is this hybrid of war a Liger or a Mule?

To the extent that this form of war has proved itself useful; it is a mule. It permits employment in any type of terrain; it uses the best of both species of war and it can be used for long running conflicts where its endurance and perseverance can wear out a regular opponent.

End Notes 

[i] MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project: MCDC January 2017. Accessed Apr 11, 2020 from

[ii] Ofer Fridman, Russian “Hybrid Warfare”: Resurgence and Politicization, (New York, Oxford University Press 2018), p.11

[iii] Frank Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Virginia, USA 2007’

[iv] Lt Robert.G. Walker, US Navy, “Spec Fi: The US Marine Corps and Special Operations”, unpublished Master’s Thesis submitted at the Naval Postgraduate School, 1998.

[v] Radin, Andrew, Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics: Threats and Potential Responses. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.

[vi] Jean-Christophe Boucher, Hybrid Warfare and Civil-Military Relations, Canadian Global Affairs Institute, December 2017

[vii] Global Strategies, “Hybrid Warfare in the Middle East” , London School of Economics Ideas, February 2017.

[viii] MCDC, p.4.

[ix] Cambridge Dictionary Online.

[x] Mules were known in Egypt since before 3000 BC. American Mule Museum.

[xi] Oxford English Dictionary

[xii] Frank Hoffman, p.11,


Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is an elected member of the Executive Council of the USI of India and the Head of the USI Editorial Team. He has two Master’s degrees in Defence & Strategic Studies, from Madras University, and Defence Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, with the speciality track of Irregular Warfare.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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