Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a short essay series on Future Warfare which asked what the dominant trend in warfare will be over the next 20 years.
By Major Nate Strickland
Krulak’s strategic corporal has arrived on the battlefield, just not on the side he expected. The confluence of demographic and technological trends that birthed hybrid warfare now shapes a generation of young, interconnected and fluid militants around the world. These new warriors, sitting on the spectrum between professional soldier and traditional guerrilla, will define conflict for the next generation through their unprecedented ability to coordinate decentralized operations, mass forces, and exploit gaps in their opponent’s operational framework in order to achieve strategic aims.
The hybrid combatant is agnostic in terms of creed, nationality and ideology. He is just as likely to be found in the ranks of ISIL as a pro-Russian separatist gang. Unlike the traditional guerilla, the hybrid combatant is both a consumer and creator of propaganda, building a continuously-evolving narrative through social media to persuade military fantasists and disaffected youth to join the cause. These causes by their nature are both strategic and tantalizingly immediate, whether the reclamation of a historic homeland, overthrow of a government, or simple revenge against perceived rivals. Juxtaposed with the esoteric objectives that drive the militaries of regional powers (stability, rule of law, international norms), the visceral appeal of these causes combined with the technological capability to create one’s own reality on the Internet makes the hybrid combatant resilient in the face of tactical defeat. The propensity for these individuals not just to self-select into militancy but also to self-organize allows for a rapid expansion of extremist groups and substate proxies of pariah states. The conflicts of the second Cold War will not be fought between professionals, but between professionals and devoted amateurs.
The implication for the United States is a need to develop a better-rounded warrior, one that retains the tactical edge of military discipline but breaks down the professional stovepipes of branch, service and even department. The transaction costs of having the professional intelligence officer coordinate with the professional maneuver officer and the professional diplomat cannot be afforded when faced with a jack-of-all trades opponent who can act in all three realms simultaneously.