EU steps up war games against a new breed of attack

Europe Letter: Hybrid war is never declared or ended. Countering it requires new tools

Europe is under attack. Reports from several capitals – Paris, Rome and Madrid – suggest concerted, crippling cyberattacks on key infrastructure. Source unknown. An Iranian dissident appears to have been abducted in Stockholm.

Russian jets have buzzed airports in the Baltic states, while intelligence reports suggest a build-up of heavily armed irregulars in Ukraine’s Dombass.

In London police have just intercepted another "home-grown" terrorist attack. There are indications of links with an al-Qaeda network in the Netherlands.

At the joint crisis centre in Brussels over the past few days, diplomats and military from the 28 member states and EU officials, in a parallel operation with Nato, have been war-gaming just such fictitious scenarios, devised and elaborated by the EU's diplomatic and security policy arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS).


All in what a briefing paper calls coyly a “safe-to-fail environment”. None of the scenarios are far-fetched, however – individually all of them have occurred in one form or another, though perhaps not yet together. EU officials are silent about the detailed scenarios – at the time of writing, I am told, however, “so far none involve an attack on Ireland”.

The exercise's purpose is to test readiness for and co-ordinate responses to multiple high-intensity "hybrid warfare" attacks from inside and outside the EU. It will be run across all critical areas that can be affected by hybrid attacks, including energy, cyber, health, maritime, consular, common security and defence policy, and strategic communication. Among them are Irish officials and members of the Defence Forces in direct contact with Dublin, relaying the latest, swapping intelligence assessments, offering to share what assets Ireland can contribute. Ambassador Noel White, Ireland's representative on the political and security committee, has been drawn in, as has our EU military representative Brig Gen Philip Brennan.

No European army

EU-HEX-ML 18 (PACE), as it is called – the military love acronyms – is the first major war-gaming civilian-military exercise conducted under EU auspices, and marks a significant development in the evolution of its defence co-operation.

Although both the French president and German chancellor have recently called for the establishment of a European army, in reality that is a far-off prospect.

But co-operation and joint operations involving the member states’ national armies and Nato is progressing apace – the union last year launched Pesco, a framework for some 34 common projects ranging from research and weapons interoperability to training. And the commission has proposed a major expansion of defence spending in the next EU budget.

The EU is involved in six military and 10 civilian missions under its common foreign and security policy.

Ireland is playing its full part in what officials insist is essential solidarity work with fellow member states – “mutual assistance” of partners under attack is required under the EU treaty. It does not, they insist, in any way compromise our military neutrality.

Hybrid warfare, the challenge of our time, is a difficult concept to define – what it is not, however, is conventional warfare, tanks rolling across central Europe, or battleships manoeuvring in convoy.

It is essentially an asymmetric form of warfare, involving a range of weapons from conventional to unconventional like cyber, biological and even economic, often involving non-state actors or state proxies who may be difficult to identify and thus to strike back at.

Attacking morale

Their intentions are largely political, destabilising and designed to attack civilian morale. Disinformation is an essential part of the armoury, and countering it will be a central part of the exercise.

But strategically such hybrid attacks do not pose a fundamental threat – no state is going to be brought down by such attacks. And, unlike traditional warfare, moreover, a hybrid war is never declared or ended. Countering it requires new tools and flexibility.

Among the challenges seen in recent times by the EU is evidence of Russian aggression whether in biological attacks or in sponsoring of far-right and far-left parties, and information warfare and "fake news" targeted at election campaigns. There is a particular concern for next year's European Parliament election.

Part of the response to such attacks is inevitably also political – the EU has set up its own counter-propaganda website – but the focus this week was on immediate responses, limiting damage and follow-on attacks, testing intelligence co-operation where the UK’s capabilities will be particularly important, and testing domestic institutional responsiveness.

The exercise was preceded by a two-week lead-in phase when the EEAS planned the deployment of a civilian and a military common security and defence policy mission to assist a fictitious third country that is facing a major security threat and has requested support from the EU.