British Military Playing Catch-up on Sub-Threshold Conflict


    British Military Hybrid Warfare

    The British Military and Government are attempting to catch up to Russia and Hybrid Warfare Tactics, but a significant gap still exists.

    While this gap is being closed, Russia is operating with an advantage and has gained a strategic edge.

    As a previous Grey Dynamics Intelligence Article has noted, Hybrid Warfare, or “Sub-Threshold Conflict”, is not a new feature to Russian strategy when it comes to the West. As far back as during the Russian Civil War, Russian operatives were in Paris, finding and eliminating White Russians. The targeting of Alexander Litvinenko and the Skripals in the UK is simply a continuation of these tactics.

    The toolbox of Russian options is far from limited to targeting individuals in other countries. Hybrid warfare involves the exploitation of every area of the battlespace, be it through the internet, social media, economic pressure and more. Across Africa, Russian influence is extending, attempting to undermine Western influence, obtaining mineral concessions and interfering in elections. Certainly, whether it is new or not, the scope and effectiveness of Sub-Threshold conflict have grown tremendously over the past ten years; consequently, its importance in the media and public awareness of it have grown substantially.

    Sub-Threshold Conflict
    Figure 1: Suspected Wagner Group Instructors in the Central African Republic

    The question therefore arises: What doctrine and options are available to the British Military to counter Hybrid Warfare tactics? Though much of this response is shrouded in secrecy, it seems clear that is an area in which the West, and Britain, is playing catch-up. Russia seems adept at winning in conflicts near or less than the threshold of violence.

    In Syria, at relatively low cost, it has successfully supported a regime in the face of rebels that were (for a time) backed by the West. In Libya, Russia has backed General Haftar, who seems to be on the winning side, recent developments concerning Turkey notwithstanding. In Ukraine, Russia has gained territory and destabilised its neighbour with relative impunity. In the United States Presidential Elections of 2016, Russia was able to slightly delegitimise the results of the election, with stories about alleged Russian influence being almost as important as the alleged influence and troll farms themselves.

    The response of the British Military has been somewhat slow. In 2019, the British Military re-established the 6th Division (6 (UK) Div), which is geared towards sub-threshold conflict.

    6 (UK) Div contains three important elements.

    • 1ISR Brigade, which contains much of the intelligence capability of the British Army;
    • The Specialist Infantry Group, a force-multiplier specifically intended to train and support friendly foreign forces;
    • 77 Brigade, intended explicitly to counter hybrid warfare and engage in information warfare.

    These three elements of 6th Division are key to the British Military strategy to counter Sub-Threshold conflict. However, and despite promises to spend £22 million on upgrading offensive cyber capabilities, 77 Brigade is still under strength by nearly a third of its soldiers and officers. This is a trend seen across the army, as a result of the wider recruiting crisis. However, the longer the UK continues to under-man and under-fund elements like 77 Brigade, the bigger the capability and experience gap will be between the UK and Russia. In this area and others, the UK is being forced to react to Russian actions rather than having pre-emptively planned for it.

    The British establishment and more broadly, NATO, is forced into reacting to Russian actions that are below the threshold of blatant violence and too insignificant to trigger article 5 of the NATO treaty (“an attack on one is an attack on all”).

     It also seems that aside from a capability gap, there is a responsibility gap within the British government – it is difficult to say which government entity should have responsibility for countering different aspects of hybrid war. There should be no doubt that doctrine and established ways of dealing with sub-threshold war are now being developed, but hybrid warfare is by nature, a difficult, unpredictable and mercurial approach that exploits the weaknesses of other nations inherent in open, democratic societies with internet access.

    While these capabilities and doctrines are being developed, however, the Russians and whoever else wishes to engage in such warfare does so with an advantage that Britain, and to some extent, NATO, have not yet settled on the best way to respond to such strategies.

    Image: British Army (link)

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