Cyber, spatial, informational war: is France ready to face a hybrid war?

It is another form of warfare, which now combines ambiguous means and actions, military or not, conventional or irregular forces, like the conflict in Crimea in 2014. Hybrid warfare is played out in gray areas such as oceans, space, cyber and informational fields. Gray areas whose control is essential to anticipate attacks and why not be able to respond. With information warfare, cyberattacks, spying on satellites, warfare has clearly changed form and is no longer confined to the three air-land-sea domains. These new fields of conflict force armies to adapt to these new kinds of threats.

“Hybridity is the combination of several modes of action in time and space. The particularity of hybrid warfare or hybridity is that it will mix purely military modes of action with modes of political, diplomatic, economic, social, cultural actions. All the difficulty in hybridity is to succeed in synchronizing and coordinating the effects produced in time and space to achieve the political objective which is fixed by the authority policy”, explains General Pascal Ianni, communication adviser and spokesperson for the Chief of the Defense Staff.

Information warfare, influence warfare

Informational warfare is emerging from the shadows: the French Armed Forces “inaugurated” recently, during its weekly press briefings, an update on this aspect in particular. “Today, it is an important, if not major, fact of all the operational commitments of the French armies”, explains General Pascal Ianni. Demonstrations hostile to France in West Africa, rumors on social networks… the general staff of the armies is structuring itself to deal with these new threats – described as “a steamroller, a ground swell, driven by interests that are rather close to Russia or even to Russia itself”, analyzes the spokesperson for the army staff. “It’s an everyday fight and a coordinated fight at all levels.”

This is also the case for cyber warfare. Colonel Thierry Bauer, head of the COMCYBER operations division, ordered “keep up the effort” in the field of defensive cyber warfare… but also offensive. “We are working to be in a position to carry out computer attacks on adversary systems ourselves.” Even if the military actions relate essentially to the defensive component. The gray matter”, specialists, are rare commodities, which is why the effort is also focused on human resources: “there is a real challenge to attract the brains we need”because these same profiles are also highly sought after by manufacturers.

Space, hybrid place par excellence

If the space is immense, it becomes more and more dense. For Colonel Guillaume Bourdeloux, Commander of Space Operations for the Air and Space Force, “we are in a new space age”. “We have to understand that now war in space is not a myth and that it takes place almost on a daily basis. We really need to operationalize this environment”, he believes. What makes this medium hybrid is its dual character, so it is “difficult to distinguish a civil action that could be of military range”.

A recent example: in February 2022, two Chinese satellites attached to each other, before one of the two was desorbed by the other. If the official pattern is experimental, “the military interest is absolutely obvious”, guesses the commander of space operations of the air force and space. If a French military satellite is subject to such an unfriendly approach, it will be moved. But this maneuver will cost, as Colonel Bourdeloux explains, “more than three months of life potential to an observation satellite, which is intended to live between seven and ten years. Three months of life potential on an evasive maneuver, it’s huge in fact”. The means of the French army are directed towards surveillance and if a space response is not on the agenda, it could on the other hand be done by other means, by mixing different types of capabilities.

France in the learning phase

Is France ready to face a hybrid war? “Today, in all honesty, no”, answers Colonel Guillaume Bourdeloux. But space command has “a capacity roadmap that will allow it”, he points out. This roadmap is part of the military programming law (LPM), which accompanies an improvement in the capabilities of the new space army, currently equipped with 290 soldiers (500 by 2025). In addition, French military space policy is naturally based on international partnerships, including with civilians. “We cannot cover the whole planet on our own. We are working with our allies, which are the Americans in the forefront, but also, to look on the other side of the planet, with Australia, Japan, and potentially South Korea”says Colonel Guillaume Bourdeloux.

In informational warfare, General Pascal Ianni also believes that armies are not “fully mature” despite some successes, such as that of Gossi in northern Mali, where the French army foiled a new attempt at pro-Russian destabilization. “We have understood that in the field of perceptions and in the informational field, what matters is to impose our narrative”, believes General Ianni. As a result, within hours, the French army decided to declassify drone videos showing Wagner mercenaries burying corpses near the former French camp. “We had to move very quickly to immediately nip the informational attack or the computer maneuver in the bud”he says.

In the cyber domain, France “is ready but we must constantly prepare ourselves, especially in these areas which are constantly evolving”, believes Colonel Thierry Bauer. For the head of the COMCYBER operations division, “We can never rest on our laurels”. Because the sword and the shield evolve constantly. “We are ready but we will still have to work and develop our operating methods to adapt to the shield and be able to pierce it when the day comes”he says. “The winner is the one who is flexible and able to innovate as the situation evolves”recalls General Pascal Ianni.