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Both “sides” of Brussels moving rapidly to counter hybrid threats


BRUSSELS – Because hybrid warfare observes no rules, both the EU and NATO have necessarily had to play catch-up with Russia, a country that has a long history of not playing by the rules when it comes to sabotage – which is simply what the fancy term of hybrid warfare actually means.

Moscow’s obfuscating propaganda leading up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, its cat-and-mouse military tactics in eastern Ukraine and its cyber and informational interference in the media and electoral processes in Europe and elsewhere have been the defining examples.

While NATO and the EU cannot match the propaganda resource of Russia, they are finally starting to throw up the kind of defences and counter-responses needed to keep the threat at bay, if not contain it. Each is developing new capabilities to do this and both are modulating their annual crisis management scenarios to simulate cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure, for example.

More strategically, they are working on better situational awareness of the early indicators of possible cyber-blitzkriegs against government institutions and society at large. This requires not only better intelligence but new capabilities, most of which would be dual-use in nature and thus applicable to either Europe’s military or civil domains.

The European Defence Agency, for example, has been tasked by its 27 defence ministries (all but that of Denmark) to winkle out which counter-hybrid capabilities that need developing by its member states. The EDA held table-top exercises in April and June 2016, with the first focused on national procedures and the latter on cross-border hybrid challenges and how to organise support for an EU country under attack. The scenarios of both events included attacks on civil critical infrastructure such as energy and transport networks on which the military depends. Officials from the European Commission, Europol and NATO participated.

One of challenges participants had to grapple with was how to effectively and quickly “connect the dots” of ostensibly unrelated events that might actually be a coordinated hybrid attack. This demands better forensics and evidence to attribute the source of attacks, both in cyber space and, physically, on the ground.

Finland, for example, has organised its various government branches to pulse as one. This means that with the onset of a suspicious event its various ministries systematically exchange information to cross-check if isolated incidents are in fact linked.

Helsinki has shared this information with other EDA countries and that approach is now nourishing the agency’s capability development plan to give higher priority to hybrid situational awareness.  This will translate over time into new satellite, surveillance aircraft, drones and other intelligence-gather capabilities, according to EDA sources.

Across town at NATO where faster and more reliable situational awareness is also the goal, the alliance will soon put together a new intelligence production unit. The new “hybrid fusion cell” will fuse civil with military intelligence, with special emphasis on producing more civil intelligence. The reason? Non-military sources “usually pick up on the signals of hybrid propaganda and cyber attacks more quickly that the military,” a NATO official told SECURITY EUROPE.

The official also said that the 28 allies need to share more of that information with each other and with NATO headquarters, as the latter often gets more information from third-country partners than its own allies. “A culture change is needed here to get more real-time info from them,” admitted the official.

The new hybrid fusion cell should open its doors by the end of this summer. It will synthesize streams of open and closed intelligence, information from civil society actors such as NGOs, the alliance’s various commands and NATO-affiliated national centres of excellence such as Helsinki’s forthcoming centre of excellence to counter hybrid threats. Eight allies – Britain, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the United States – and EU country Finland agreed on 11 April to create the centre by the end of 2017 and other countries are expected to join before then as well.

     THE UPSHOT: Another sign of progress is the EU’s coordination with NATO on their respective ‘hybrid playbooks’ about what measures to take before and during a crisis.

     The two sides agreed during NATO’s July 2016 summit in Warsaw to synchronise their playbooks, and they’ll be doing tabletop exercises in the summer to identify which organisation should do what about a particular hybrid incident.

     Moreover Commission officials will, for the first time, be present as full-fledged participants in NATO’s next annual table top “CRX” crisis management exercise in October 2017. That will be a big step forward in coordinating civil vs military responses to hybrid threats in Europe. The EU should reciprocate, if it hasn’t already.


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