Many Western politicians, especially in the United States, are calling on the U.S. Department of Defense to pay more attention to the new “hybrid warfare” that Russia is practicing in Ukraine and that Islamic terrorists seem to be using worldwide to further their goals. Calling more attention to hybrid warfare is a good thing but assuming that the Department of Defense doesn’t know about it is a dangerous misunderstanding of the situation. Since the 1970s, when the Department of Defense finally listened to its own internal critics, much more attention was paid to the lessons of the past. Not just the general history of warfare but to the American military experience during the past three centuries. This revealed the United States was born through the use of hybrid warfare and has successfully used it many times since. But this debate about “new military developments” has also taken place before, more than once. The missing link was an institutional effort to study, remember and use past experience.
For example in the last two decades of the 20th century the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) was the next big thing but it glimmered in the distance, always just out of reach. To many pundits and military analysts all the new technology of the last few decades of the 20th century was seen as capable of causing a fundamental change in how wars are fought. Then came the end of the Cold War, the disappearance of the enormous Soviet army and the sudden appearance of a new military landscape. This meant there would be no clash of huge mechanized armies in Europe, or anywhere else anytime soon. Then, unexpectedly, came the 1991 Gulf War which showed that many of the American military technologies worked quite well. U.S. troops could now see more of the battlefield, communicate better, fight faster and roll over the Russian equipped and trained Iraqi army in record time. This was a true RMA because in the past American troops had rarely done that in the openly stages of a war against a well-armed opponent.
But the RMA that developed over the next decade had less to do with technology and more to do with the nature of future wars. With "The Big One" (in Europe against the Soviet Union) out of the picture after 1991 new kinds of wars became more common. That’s because there have been three major changes since the Cold War days. First, there is a lot of neat new technology that allowed for quicker, less bloody conflicts via the use of better sensors and precision weapons that actually work. Second, the current and future wars were smaller than what NATO and the Soviet Union were planning for nearly half a century. These 21st century wars also involved a lot more civilians getting in the way in addition to lots of politics, diplomacy and other complications. Then there is the growing media angle. Mass media has been around since the early 19th century, but has grown enormously in presence and volume since the 1990s. News is now a 24 hour a day operation and reporters are everywhere. Moreover, the Internet makes is easy for anyone with a camera, or a way with words, to join the media stream and get their story out. All of this has changed the battlefield atmosphere enormously since the Cold War.
The New Wars involved smaller forces fighting more complicated (by political, diplomatic and media issues) battles. While better sensors and communications gear give troops a better view of the battlefield, the greater presence of civilians and media actually make it a more complicated place. As a result, RMA went to places its first boosters never imagined. And no one knows exactly where the final destination is.
Military analysts and planners in the major countries (especially the United States and China) agree that brute force is still important in a major war, and new technology makes the troops of major powers far more effective than in the past. But most of the wars since 1991 have involved irregular forces or nuclear armed nations confronting each other indirectly so as to not trigger a mutually destructive nuclear war. Thus intelligence, special operations forces and precision weapons become the primary tools that nations use regularly. This in itself is not revolutionary as “great powers” have for thousands of years used special operations troops, diplomacy, subterfuge and all manner of deceptions and feints to get their way. Noted military analysts from Shen Tzu to Machiavelli, Clausewitz and a dazzling array of late 20th and early 21st century pundits have recognized that “operations other than war” (OOTW) are the way to go if you can pull it off. It still is and it’s not RMA or Hybrid Warfare. A lot of what is proclaimed as new is just another case of old wine in new bottles. If you want solutions, look to the ones that worked in the past. Many still work, or will with a few tweaks to account for new technology.