Countering hybrid threats: a new NATO core task?
What is the purpose and fundamental security task of NATO? The leaders of the Alliance have updated its Strategic Concept in June 2022; the first revision of this key NATO document since 2010. In this Clingendael Spectator series, 11 international experts answer 5 key questions on NATO’s future. This final episode raises the question whether NATO should add countering hybrid threats as a fourth core task to its mission. Ranging from cyber to disinformation and climate change, hybrid threats are also a core issue to the EU. What would be the impact on NATO-EU relations if the Alliance would focus on hybrid threats as well?
Definitely, yes: NATO should add countering hybrid threats as a fourth core task to its mission. As a pre-requisite of doing that, the Alliance would need to develop the strategic cultural basis first. Hybrid threats usually emerge below the threshold of armed conflict. This area has not been well digested by the bulk of NATO nations’ post-Westphalian distinction between peace time and war time. To be more specific, in the eyes of the contemporary Russian military and intelligence apparatus, war begins well before the armed bonanza does.
NATO and the European Union can develop a better cooperative framework on a case-by-case basis. Digital resiliency and infosphere security are good starters, I would say.
Countering hybrid threats should be a crosscutting priority for NATO rather than a separate core task. The next Strategic Concept must prepare the Alliance for the whole range of threats and challenges NATO might face in the coming decade. In this regard, hybrid threats add to an increasingly complex security environment. From malicious cyber activities targeting NATO networks and operations to climate change multiplying conflict drivers and disinformation campaigns undermining political cohesion. Hybrid threats affect NATO’s ability to fulfil all three of its existing core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.
Viewing the impact of hybrid threats through the lens of these core tasks, NATO can consider where it can make the most meaningful contribution to Euro-Atlantic security as a politico-military alliance. Building resilience to hybrid threats has a politico-military component, but also a societal and an economic dimension. In the latter two areas, the EU has a much broader toolbox and NATO may wish to focus on enhancing existing cooperation mechanisms rather than duplicating structures.
To address threats that are hybrid in nature, a whole-of-government approach (and in essence, a whole of society approach) is required. NATO will be part of the solution to countering hybrid threats, but will not be the sole institution involved. Making use of civil and military instruments in complementarity would increase NATO’s preparedness and widen its toolkit. It is therefore paramount to effectively enhance, coordinate and utilise cooperation with the EU.
Instrumentalising the capabilities of both institutions and their respective member states will be key. The joint EU-NATO European Centre for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats1 , building the capabilities of its 31 participants to counter hybrid threats, is an important example. In general, conducting more joint exercises and experimentation will be the next step.2
There is little doubt that of NATO’s three main tasks, collective defence stands out as much heavier than the others. It is therefore a bit odd that this 2010 model is to be retained. Back in 2010 crisis management and partnerships were more equal to collective defence, but now SHAPE spends 95 per cent of its time on collective defence. So, if there was willingness to revise the tasks, hybrid threats could have been an idea.
Thus far, it is my understanding that the EU-NATO dialogue on this topic goes well, but there is little doubt that the EU toolbox is much bigger than the Alliance’s when it comes to such threats. Still, having the United States and Canada involved in these processes is often necessary and useful, because of intelligence, attribution and the coordination of responses, so there is a role for NATO as well. Additionally, there are overlaps and grey-zones between non-military threats and military ones. So it cannot be left to the European Union alone.
NATO is already countering hybrid threats, so no, I do not think adding it as a core task is that important.
The concept of hybrid threats is far too vague and broad to serve as a denominator of NATO’s core task. Hybrid threats need to be seen as part of a comprehensive set of instruments that adversaries may apply against allies; importantly this set of tools includes potential military aggression for which cyberattacks and disinformation may prepare the ground. While NATO has to take hybrid threats seriously, it should not shift its focus on hybrid at the cost of ensuring military defence and deterrence.
Cyber is already an important element of defence and deterrence and its importance is likely to grow further with the development of new technologies and advancing digitalisation of our societies. Cybersecurity is the most important and promising area of EU-NATO cooperation, as the EU can take a much broader approach in this field and complement NATO.
Introducing the fourth core task (which may also be conceptualised as ‘strengthening resilience’) can be worth considering as a way to tie together different lines of efforts and initiatives already being implemented by the Alliance. Still, there are important arguments against such a decision.
First, this may weaken and complicate efforts in the deterrence and defence area, which remains the primary core task of the Alliance, by artificially dividing the preparations for and response to actions which are specifically aimed to exploit ‘grey zones’ between war and peace. Second, it would necessitate major expansion of NATO’s agenda and activities into political, economic, ecological and social domains – including areas within the remit of the EU. The preferable solution would be to integrate response to hybrid threats into activities withing the three core tasks, and substantially step up cooperation with the European Union – using the planned NATO-EU declaration as the basis.
NATO should add a fourth task, but it should be ‘resilience’. This already has the benefit of NATO consensus (see the Strengthened Resilience Commitment of June 2021). Resilience is sufficiently flexible to include the ill-defined notion of hybrid threats, as well as climate, public health, cyber, disinformation, etcetera.
Using this umbrella concept also avoids debate about a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh – and so on – core task. The EU has already made strides here; see, for example, the Recovery and Resilience Facility. Resilience is also referred to frequently in NATO-EU reports on joint activities.3 So, adding resilience as a NATO core purpose is neither controversial nor an obstacle to effective working with the EU.
Hybrid threats mainly refer to a strategy adopted by Russia which integrates information operations, cyberattacks, energy blackmail and use of special forces with the deployment of armed forces. As such, it relates to collective defence when it is waged against allies, and to cooperative security or even crisis management when it targets NATO’s partners. In conceptual and operational terms, it is better to address hybrid threats as a transversal element to three solid and clear existing core tasks. A fourth core task on hybrid threats would create complexity and overlaps, and this would also complicate NATO-EU cooperation by decreasing its effectiveness and efficiency.
Ideally, NATO should be in a position where it can agree to a focused and prioritised Strategic Concept—coming up in mid-2022. Collective defence should be the top priority, and the Strategic Concept should guide collective thinking on its modern-day implications. Hybrid threats, or cyber, climate or other security-related dynamics, should be pulled in if they directly threaten NATO or threaten to impair its collective defence capacity.
NATO’s current Strategic Concept – containing three core tasks – is already a loose framework better suited to corral unruly governments than to guide politico-strategic planning. Adding more core tasks is to say that NATO needs a bigger and looser framework to shut in its allies. That may be the case, but it is not much of an ambition.
Core tasks are important insofar as they inform – internally and externally – what NATO is fundamentally about. However, they are also political in the sense that they signify what allies agree on.
From this perspective, the past years have reinforced the centrality of collective defence and weakened that of crisis management and cooperative security. For the ten upcoming years, NATO will be about collective defence and resilience building. The latter includes activities critical to the allies’ security, both within the Alliance and at its periphery, and aimed at enabling NATO (or partners’) societies to effectively respond to evolving threats, be they hybrid, cyber, in space or cognitive.
The forthcoming Strategic Concept will no doubt reflect on these resilience-related issues, yet it might not make them one of NATO’s core tasks, due to a lack of consensus; and it will most likely keep crisis management and cooperative security (or merge them?) as core tasks
- 1See the website of Hybrid CoE - Hybrid CoE - The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats
- 2The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in her personal capacity and do not in any way express the views of the Dutch Ministry of Defence, or any other entity.
- 3‘Sixth progress report on the implementation of the common set of proposals endorsed by EU and NATO Councils on 6 December 2016 and 5 December 2017’, 3 June 2021.