Enhancing the Relevance of the MAF in the 21st Century: Hybrid Warfare in Perspective by Lt Col Ir. Suthan Venkatachalam


by Lt Col Ir. Suthan Venkatachalam

Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security, Ministry of Defence Malaysia

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            The dynamic nature of modern warfare due to fast evolving geostrategic environment has prompted a rethink of future strategic environments which are marked by “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA)” - debates amongst military practitioners and scholars are rife on the future dynamics of how warfare are maneuvered. In recent times, hybrid warfare has clearly emerged as the dominant form. The advent of conflicts in such hybrid means is neither novel nor conceptual. However, it is presumed that the resultant devastation and disruption to civility in recent conflicts (ie. Lebanon, Georgia and Ukraine conflicts) brought to light hybrid warfare’s prominence as potentially the dominant form in future battlegrounds. This paradigm shift towards the potential for convergence of various categories of warfare in the same battle environment is of tremendous concern to modern nations.


Hybrid warfare – in truth, the act of waging “war” without becoming entangled in the traditional web of complications associated with the act - strategic dominance are achieved without resorting to full scale open conventional military aggression. In essence, it is a category of warfare waged without formal declaration, but yet fervently and concurrently advertising the imminent use of military force, nevertheless may involve minimal combat or none at all. Direct and conventional armed military interventions are used only as a last resort. Modern geopolitical environments have blurred the lines between warfare modalities, time and space, and actors involved - the advancements in technology and mind sets have further diminished those lines, as such, hybrid warfare combines conventional and irregular warfare strategies conducted by state and non-state actors alike, in order to achieve associated political objectives.


Clausewitz’ stated that “war is a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”  Though Clausewitz’ statement suggests that when political dialogue stops and military contest begins, the encompassing approach of hybrid campaigns needs no such delineation. Whilst the goals are still political, hybrid campaigns do not restrict the use of force to times of declared or overt war. The emergence of hybrid warfare as the dominant trend of current and future conflicts does not bring the demise of conventional warfare. It merely suggests that future warfighting could employ the full gamut of strategies concurrently and coherently towards the adversary based on current and future geostrategic trends. This is envisaged to bring about a significant paradigm shift in future warfighting approaches if tactical advantages are to be sought. Factors driving the change of the strategic environment lay the conditions for the significant emergence of hybrid warfare are notably:


  1. Increasing Geostrategic Rivalry. With the end of the Cold War, the new global order has prompted towards a more liberal and democratic consensus-driven society. The Soviet Union’s breakup, widespread adoption of democratic governance from Eastern Europe to Latin America, in addition to Russia and China’s integration into the world’s economic system has initially led to the belief that rivalries for world dominance had become a forgone conclusion. However, recent events points to the potentially deteriorating US hegemon; propagating the thought that the current unipolar world would soon be replaced again, by a multi-polar order with various pockets of influences. Major powers (such as China, Russia, India etc.) are already jostling in some way or other for power and resources. Non-state actors as proxies of rivalling powers are observed to be completely instrumental in recent conflicts – indicating global trending towards the increased advent of hybrid warfare conducted for achieving intended strategic objectives of state actors. This is not surprising since the existence of nuclear weapons discourages the will of rivalling powers to risk direct hostile approaches (by way of declared conventional war) but rather through non-state proxies, in order to achieve tactical goals.


  1. Rapid Advancements in Technologies. In the past decade, the swift and remarkable development and innovation in technology, promotes shifts away from archaic processes and structures. The drivers of transformation and modernization of military tactical capabilities, support the trend in future battle environments to necessarily evolve towards the likes of the said hybrid form of military campaigns – the availability for technologically advanced tools and weaponry used for tactical advantages are of consequences.


  1. Immigration Concerns and Upsurge in Radicalism. Recent global issues and displacement of global citizens have seen the increase in immigration concerns. The consequential effect has escalated xenophobia, religious and racial intolerance. This resentment drives the victimised towards involvement in extremist groups, who in turn exploit the situation to radicalise these fringe elements of the society. The aggression propagated by the Islamic State (IS) for example, diversifies and decentralises the global jihadist landscape, leading to “racism, religious bigotry and Islamophobia” amongst various communities. This expansionism further polarises the world, creating safe havens and fuelling more regional instabilities. The complex nature of dealing with conflicts propagated by these stateless entities necessitates the evolution of warfighting approaches for effective handling of associated challenges.




Threats to Malaysia requiring military interventions are generally acknowledged to be of minimal level at present. Since the official end of the communist insurgency, major deployments of the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) are mainly to support border controls and UN peacekeeping efforts. Strict commitments to non alignment principles, in addition to positive diplomatic resolve are notably the nation’s foremost strategies for diffusing potential external concerns (if any). Malaysia’s universally good relations with the international community, specifically  through collective military cooperation have clearly been well maintained and are of strategic advantage for supporting the needs of national defence.


Nevertheless, recent concerns on threats from non-state actors such as in the case of the Lahad Datu incident (early 2013) clearly required the MAF to rethink its capability to face challenges in such form. Centrally located in the path of the global Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC), the waters surrounding Malaysia is also considered hotbeds for sea piracy and other transnational based crimes propagated by organized crime groups and terrorist groups. Threats by non-state actors cannot be possibly resolved through diplomatic means – effective enforcements with relevant strategies and hardware are crucial. Although the threats mentioned are traditionally considered to be within the scope of civilian based enforcement agencies’ responsibility, concerns are now critical about their capability to handle well equipped, well-funded criminal organizations.


The MAF is crucial for the nation’s defence against non-conventional security threats such as experienced during the Lahad Datu incident. Civilian enforcement agencies needed to be complemented by MAF support in order to deal with such level of threat. As a matter of fact, the close relationship of the Malaysian Royal Police (RMP) and the MAF in handling similar to such security threats dates back to the insurgency era. Note that the spread of extremist and violent IS ideology is also of obvious concern at present, with home-grown affiliates collaborating closely with foreign IS fighters, making Malaysia an important transit point or “safe haven” to base their operations in the region – currently manageable by civilian authorities, but may potentially escalate over the years to a level of threat such as observed in the Middle East. Similar form of threat (terrorists or extremists) from neighbouring countries is also of great concern to the nation.


In short, the multiple role of the MAF is in great need of upgrades to handle or assist other enforcement agencies in tackling military-like level of threats from non-state actors or non-traditional threats too. Thus, enhancing the MAF in consideration of requirements for the capability to conduct or counter hybrid warfare is a viable approach for ensuring its tactical advantage in a modern multidimensional battleground environment, which includes the provision of operational assistance to civilian enforcers.




Modern day threats to the interest of a state entity are multidimensional in form and no longer discernable or straightforward; it is necessary for the needs of national defence to always be relevant in accordance to these threats. Hence, as the primary agency deployed to handle frontline threats to the nation, the MAF need to consider the needs of evolving battleground environments in order to be effective when called upon to respond to current and future challenges. Enhancing the MAF’s capability based on the needs of hybrid warfare or conflict environments would provide tactical advantage in the field, be it to counter against traditional or non-traditional military adversaries. Hybrid warfare strategies would potentially be more effective on current forms of threats, which are of major concern to Malaysia – since current trend points to increasing possibility of conflicts initiated or resolved through tactical advantages brought about by campaigns of this form.      


The tactical advantage for waging war without waging war enables states, in essence, to bypass the complexity of conventional or transnational restrictions – the ends (interest of the state) justify the means. The current form of threats to Malaysia, requires the approaches and tools of hybrid warfare - cyber element of hybrid warfare for example, allows the bypass of complications associated with international legal norms regarding the use of force and territorial sovereignty. By careful combination of conventional and irregular warfare in the same battlespace, hybrid warfare operations facilitate the achievement of strategic objectives without the implications of conventional risks. The dynamic nature of threats to national security or defence, in addition to the unique multi-modal approaches of hybrid warfare facilitates states to react effectively in this environment, indicating its significance for the predictable future.


With the capability to conduct or counter hybrid conflict, the MAF is potentially enhanced in terms of capability and relevance to foreseeable challenges. Although its primary role is for defence rather than for the purpose of warmongering – the onus is on building a balanced MAF that can simultaneously be deployed across the full spectrum of operational requirements which are typical attributes of present day security threats and concerns (simultaneous counter conventional and unconventional threats). Reinventing the MAF by way of equipping (know how, technology and weaponry) in line with the needs for countering hybrid conflicts essentially conforms to the multiple role and responsibility of the modern MAF in the 21st century.


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