Air Commodore (ret) Bill Boothby during his presentation. The event brought together senior legal advisors and experts from across the UK and NATO.

Strategy and Security Institute hosts high-level workshop on legal aspects of 'Hybrid Warfare'

The University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute hosted a high-level workshop on 16–17 September 2015 to examine the legal implications of ‘hybrid warfare’.

The event, convened in collaboration with the NATO Office of Legal Affairs and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, brought together senior legal advisors and experts from across the UK and NATO for a two-day seminar, held in Exeter.

The expansion of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and Russia’s intervention into Ukraine has prompted renewed interest in the concept of hybrid warfare – a strategy which blends conventional and irregular means of warfare. So far, the legal challenges posed by this strategy have received only limited attention. The aim of the Exeter workshop was to address this gap.

Dr Aurel Sari, the convenor of the workshop, said: “Law and legal considerations are at the very heart of hybrid warfare. Hybrid threats are designed to exploit the gray areas and fault-lines in the law. They thrive on legal ambiguity and uncertainty. This threatens to undermine the rule of law. It is therefore imperative that we gain a better understanding of the legal dimension of hybrid warfare.”

The workshop combined individual presentations with in-depth group discussions. The proceedings focused on key branches of the applicable law, including the law of armed conflict, and also covered specific points of interest, such as the question of attribution in deception operations. The event triggered a lively exchange of ideas, setting the direction of future work and inspiring further collaboration among the participants.

Speaking after the event, Steven Hill, Legal Adviser and Director of the Office of Legal Affairs at NATO, said “Allies count on us, the whole NATO machinery, to be able to address every dimension of hybrid warfare, including the legal aspects. As legal practitioners, thinking alongside colleagues from academia helps us identify legal issues and questions that we can develop further back at NATO.”

While commentators remain divided as to whether hybrid warfare represents a truly novel form of conflict, what is clear is that it poses very significant conceptual and practical challenges. In their Wales Summit Declaration issued in September 2014, the Heads of State and Government of NATO’s member countries therefore declared that it is “essential that the Alliance possesses the necessary tools and procedures required to deter and respond effectively to hybrid warfare threats”. The Exeter workshop has highlighted how an effective response must also address an appropriate set of legal tools and procedures.

Developing these tools and procedures will require further research to develop our understanding of hybrid warfare. Research currently being undertaken at the University of Exeter on this subject includes a project on the origins, principles and methods of ambiguous warfare as employed by Russia and China, sponsored by the US Office of Naval Research.


Date: 1 October 2015

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