For all the reports of battlefield setbacks along the front line, Ukraine is conducting a novel hybrid campaign combining long-range drone strikes and unconventional warfare. The question is: Could the United States similarly integrate conventional and unconventional operations in future campaigns?

Despite renewed interest in the 2020 National Defense Strategy, irregular warfare often remains focused on ideas linked to legacy Cold War constructs focused on overthrowing regimes using guerilla forces. Too often, analysts make a sharp distinction between conventional and unconventional conflict when in fact all war involves both forms working in tandem.

For Sun Tzu, it was the balance of the orthodox and unorthodox that kept an adversary off balance. Even Hannibal — the archetype at Cannae for conventional maneuver — actually used a mix of sabotage and political intrigue to set conditions for his seminal campaign.

French support to the American revolution involved both front companies supporting pirates attacking British shipping lanes as well as foreign material support.

During the Second World War, the British integrated the Special Operations Executive with its military campaigns while the Office of Strategic Services supported U.S. campaigns with morale operations designed to undermine enemy cohesion.

Faced with resource shortages and the brutal reality of 21st century trench warfare, Ukraine has found new asymmetries by combining elements of conventional and unconventional warfare. First, Ukraine is pioneering long-range, low-cost, one-way attack drones to strike strategic economic targets throughout the depth of Russia. The targets increasingly appear to be linked to critical infrastructure connected to Moscow’s oil and gas transit and processing facilities — a critical requirement for generating revenue for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

Over the month of March — and coinciding with the Russian presidential election — the Security Service of Ukraine has reportedly successfully attacked over 10 oil refineries, disrupting as much as 12% of Russia’s oil processing capacity, often using salvos of 35 drones each costing less than $100,000. In other words, Ukraine likely spent only $40 million to damage up to $40 billion worth of Russian critical infrastructure.

These conventional strikes focused on economic centers of gravity most likely to hold the regime at risk. The attacks also forced Russia to pull additional air defenses back to protect its critical infrastructure, setting conditions for front-line air operations by Ukraine as new equipment, like F-16 fighter jets, starts to arrive this summer. Of note, the activities coincide with increased targeting of Russian air defenses since the summer along the front. In other words, attacking Russian critical infrastructure achieves multiple objectives at low costs to Ukraine and sets conditions for future operations.

Second, Ukraine is combining unconventional warfare with these long-range precision strikes. In the lead-up to the election, there was been an increase in proxy raids into Russian border areas, cyberattacks and ballot sabotage, alongside calls for a wider symbolic uprising.

The surge of activity surrounding the election fits with broader trends in the conflict. Over the last two years these measures have included running deepfakes and disrupting Putin’s speeches. This approach reflects time-tested unconventional warfare campaigns that create conditions likely to foster local acts of sabotage, work stoppages and protests.

Ukraine isn’t just attacking the Kremlin’s wallet by hitting its economic center of gravity; Kyiv is attacking the mind of the Russian population and amplifying the stark contrasts between regime rhetoric and reality lived by ordinary people.

This approach stands in contrast to U.S. joint and service concepts that preface converging multidomain effects and downplay the role of people and perception. While space and cyber domains play critical roles, there is no discussion about a human domain or the contest of wills at the heart of every conflict. The focus instead is on disrupting enemy battle networks and destroying high-value targets at range, not on how to leverage discontent, compound morale issues or undermine cohesion.

As a result, special forces tends to overemphasize direct action and special reconnaissance. These conventional approaches tend to discount the utility of information warfare and cyber operations capable of setting conditions for protests and social unrest — which are more likely to threaten autocratic regimes than long-range precision strikes.

It is also unclear whether the United States has the necessary capabilities and concepts to defeat a hybrid campaign attacking its critical infrastructure and social cohesion. China has already demonstrated an interest in holding American critical infrastructure at risk through cyber operations.

Furthermore, most U.S. critical infrastructure nodes — from key telecommunications relays connecting sea cables and satellites to oil and gas — are not protected by air defenses capable of defeating a complex drone attack.

Lastly, Russia has shown the world a playbook for how to create discord online through a mix of computational propaganda and cyber operations. The United States still hasn’t found a sufficient defense against these influence operations.

As a result, the United States needs to revisit key military concepts — including future iterations of the joint warfighting concept — with an eye toward combining conventional and unconventional approaches to competitive strategy. The concepts should provide a blueprint for future campaigns, including defense operations, defending U.S. critical infrastructure and countering foreign influence operations. These concepts should think as much about will and perception as they do exquisite battle networks while keeping an eye on cost curves. The next war will not be won by a salvo of hypersonic missiles alone.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow in the Futures Lab at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. He is also a professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the U.S. government.

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