The Typologies of Modern Conflict and its Impact on State Security: Something New Under the Sun?

This article is part of the book Challenges and Threats to Security in Latin America.

Carlos Ojeda Bennett and Fabián Cabello Alfaro[1]


The expressions of contemporary conflict have encouraged the dissemination of various typologies within the academic community for understanding them. However, far from being a “new” phenomenon, there are indications of the presence of complex threats as the relationship between combatants and criminals blurs, as they threaten to harm the security of States and individuals. These challenges demand strategic alternatives to confront them, in which operational foresight is included as an integral approach to guide planning with a view to anticipating phenomena, either oriented toward preventing or provoking the desired future.

Keywords: Threats, Conflicts, Strategy, War, Prospective.


The international reality of the twenty-first century has posed a growing challenge for epistemic communities in addressing an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA). This reality extends to contemporary conflicts, which “fluctuate from classic inter-state struggle, through collective interventions against a state -a phenomenon of a recent type- to asymmetrical wars between an organized state and factions in a lawless area.”[2] Consequently, talking about new forms of armed conflict implies the identification of dynamics of change and continuity in how they develop and how the security of States is conducted against them, considering that such security is understood as the conditions that allow a country to preserve its national interests and advance its intended objectives with the least interference of risks and threats, and in which citizens are guaranteed the exercise of their constitutional rights and duties.[3]

One of the fundamental frameworks of change in the security of States is the shift from a state-centric to a human security approach, which places the individual as the “subject of study,” identifying a threshold at which human life is threatened by a wide range of diverse conditions,[4] which vary by geographical locations, and which include social problems (such as migration, poverty, and organized crime), food and health challenges.

In this sense, this article aims to contribute to the understanding of the so-called new forms of modern conflict (including the manifestation of multidimensional threats) and propose prospective work as a strategic solution to face them. To this end, (1) a definition of multidimensional threats and their development will be established in the literature, (2) the manifestations of these threats in the “new” forms of contemporary conflict will be established, (3) their urgency and novelty will be examined, as well as their theoretical development, and (4) the reader will be introduced to the field of operational foresight as a strategic alternative towards anticipating these threats.

What are Multidimensional Threats?

A threat is defined as the consequence of the premeditated action or intention of an adversary, perceived -given the capacity of this- as tending to harm one’s own interests. Consequently, the mechanisms that the State must deal with is in the area of national security.[5] The multidimensional nature is part of the consolidation of the human security approach, which interrelates different problems that go beyond a particular sector of public administration. Therefore, multidimensional threats are a combination of capacities for the development of illicit and transnational activities that affect the security of States, among which are: terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, and arms trafficking.[6]

The Latin American case of multidimensional threats is especially representative, identifying a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we speak of the most peaceful region on the planet due to the absence of inter-State armed conflict, but, on the other hand, we speak of a region characterized by increasing violence and crime, which directly affects the security of millions of people.[7]

The multidimensional approach to human security is incorporated regionally within the framework of the Declaration on Security of the Americas (DSA), ratified in 2003 in Mexico City, providing a notable contribution to the conception of new threats.[8] However, the DSA does not specify the concept of threat, risk or any phenomenon that causes them to mutate “as well as which phenomena were grouped in each category, since it indicates a long list of items of varied nature that would have the capacity to affect States transversally.”[9] Consequently, the formulation and implementation of a joint security policy is difficult, noting that there is still a barrier to the conceptual transition to true operability.[10] According to the above, the DSA has failed to overcome the declarative framework towards a true internationalization of policies that face multidimensional threats.

According to Pablo Celi, the absence of a clear and concise definition of multidimensional threats has limited the Organization of American States politically and institutionally to face them jointly, insofar as a plurality of understandings and definitions among the States of the region has prevailed, resulting in dissimilar perceptions and policies on threats and risk factors, reflected in the particularities of national defense policies.[11] Likewise, there is a risk of excessively securitizing social reality in the international context, as well as in national security agendas.[12]

Therefore, although the consolidation of the human security approach and multidimensional threats in the Latin American region are identified, the absence of standardization in response to the perceptions of the latter has generated difficulties for international cooperation and the development of joint policies.

Manifestation of Multidimensional Threats

The understanding of multifunctional threats, in their impact on the security of States and people, requires a deeper understanding of their dynamics and manifestations. In this sense, the “new” typologies of armed conflict as opposed to traditional warfare will then be addressed here, expanding the range of actors beyond States with respect to the realization of objectives by violent means, where the characteristics of multidimensional threats make a substantial contribution. To this end, the relationship between war, technology and traditional conflicts will be established, as well as their evolution towards the concepts of irregular warfare, asymmetric warfare, hybrid warfare and gray zone conflicts, respectively.

Modern warfare began with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, establishing warfare as an exclusive competence of nation-states, now known as the “monopoly of violence,” involving all traditional instruments of power: diplomatic, information, military and economic (DIME). This has expanded in the literature with the inclusion of financial elements, intelligence, and legal (DIME-FIL).[13]

The literature deals with the evolution of modern warfare in generations, the first three generations being traditional, while the fourth encompasses new modern conflicts. In this context, William Lind’s proposal helps to determine the main and distinctive characteristics of these generations. According to Lind, the first generation emphasizes the formalization of battles between states, distinguishing military from civilians; The second generation identifies with the consolidation of a culture of military obedience; the third generation stands out for its maximum expression: the Blitz-krieg or “blitzkrieg”, while the fourth generation corresponds to the loss of the monopoly of war by the State to “minor” organizations of a non-State character,[14] giving room to expressions of international crime, a generally distinctive feature of multidimensional threats, as an instrument of action.

The key element in this transition is attributed to technological progress. However, traditional warfare and its theoretical development, according to Colon, fail to grasp the complexity, motivations, and implications of the modes of struggle characteristic of non-state groups.[15] It leaves aside that during World War II (the most traditional of wars) there was an intensive and coordinated use at the highest level of irregular forces, of disinformation actions, and of what we could assimilate today to cyberwar. In this way, the emergence of multiple concepts that have been consolidated in the first decades of the XXI century is identified, in support of the establishment of solid theoretical frameworks when addressing contemporary conflicts in a VUCA world, overcoming the limitations of the traditional conception of war.

Irregular Warfare

The theoretical conception of the new forms of warfare has its origins in the unconventional realm, with the creation of the Office of Strategic Services of the United States during World War II, studying guerrilla actions and covert operations in territories controlled or influenced by the enemy.[16] After the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, however, this concept took a back seat to irregular warfare, defined by the United States Department of Defense as the struggle between state and non-state actors for the legitimacy of their actions in a population of interest.[17] This theoretical conception, thus recognizes that non-State actors may present threats in the twenty-first century. Its distinctive element, however, is its focus on the person as the center of gravity of an armed conflict.[18]

Although the concept of irregular warfare establishes a break with the traditional conception and expands what has been developed around unconventional warfare, its use is simplified to the modus operandi employed by one or all the belligerents through surprise attacks, guerrilla tactics and terrorism, which favor the counterparts considered weaker, in the achievement of their political objectives.[19] Likewise, this limitation gives irregular warfare a matrix character, since by describing a series of strategies and tactics it lays the foundations for the development of new definitions and concepts that deepen the contribution of this approach.

Asymmetric warfare

The concept of asymmetric warfare is attributed to Van Creveld who, in 1991, stressed that in a conflict whose warring sides present great differences, victory can be achieved by the one considered weaker.[20] As early as 1975, however, Andrew Mack pointed out that military capabilities were irrelevant in determining military victory.[21] Taking the case of the Vietnam War as an example, Mack pointed out that governments – since they were not conflicts that meant a military defeat on their own soil – underestimated these wars categorized under the term “limited,” this in the framework of the Cold War.[22]

Lind’s concept of fourth-generation warfare, as noted above, focuses on the “minor actors” of an armed conflict, establishing a synonymy with the concept of asymmetric warfare. Lind, however, highlights the influence of public opinion,[23] where cultural, ethnic, and religious claims can be motivators of conflict.[24] In this way, such narratives acquire a leading role info urth-generation wars.

Asymmetries are not limited to the realm of capabilities but become multifaceted given the differentiated perceptions of opposing counterparts. For example, while for the stronger party, war is presented as a “limited war,” for the weaker party war is a total war, insofar as it is perceived that the survival of its community is at stake. In view of the above, it is not difficult to conceive of aspects far from internationally accepted norms as valid instruments in the actions of the weaker parties.[25]

In short, the concept of asymmetric warfare deepens the understanding of contemporary conflicts, consolidating the importance of the perceptions of populations as strategic objectives for groups with lower military capabilities (generally of a non-state nature), as well as breaking with traditional limits when it comes to concretizing these “new” forms of struggle with the inclusion of the expressions of multidimensional threats.

Hybrid warfare

The concept of asymmetric warfare, as well as its benefits when explaining the dynamics of contemporary conflicts, encouraged the use of various alternative terms to address the same phenomenon. In this context, the concept of hybrid warfare was first introduced by Frank Hoffman, with the aim of bringing about a change in the way the US Army perceived military forces and their usefulness after the end of the Cold War. From this perspective, hybrid warfare proposes an analytical framework to explain the success of a relatively “weak” opponent against military forces that are vastly superior numerically and technologically. Thus, from the beginning, hybrid warfare was a new label for asymmetric warfare.[26]

According to Guillem Colom, given the need to differentiate this concept from its predecessors, the use of the concept of hybrid war has a double objective. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the complex nature of contemporary and future conflicts, where traditional and multidimensional threats have repercussions on national defense planning. On the other hand, it seeks to warn about the danger of maintaining a traditional orientation of the armed forces in the face of these “new” forms of war.[27] In this sense, the concept of the “hybrid” has emerged as a way of understanding the evolution of military confrontations towards more ambiguous and uncertain forms,[28] in such a way that the threats associated with this logic of war are considered in the defense strategies of States. The foregoing allows us to infer that this type of conflict manifests itself after the point of no return of a crisis, and that within it there is a profuse use of all of both legal and illegal elements, constituting the power of a State, including. This includes the use of regular, non-regular and special forces, as well as disinformation operations and the different variants that consider multidimensional threats.

Grey Zone Conflicts

The concept of grey zone conflicts are the most recent development within epistemic communities concerned with the national defense sector. Its distinguishing aspect is its location within the framework of an unstable peace; that is, the absence of a conflict as such, and focusing on a time even prior to the crisis, made important by the risk of activating a response mechanism by third parties.[29] Consequently, according to Josep Baqués, the emergence of the gray zone has the potential to render conceptually obsolete the new typologies of armed conflicts, insofar as that many of them will not even become wars.[30]

Likewise, being a distinctive form of the use of legal and illegal violence for the realization of specific objectives, the gray zone has a series of defining elements that allow a better understanding of the phenomenon from different contributions in the literature. According to Javier Jordán, these defining elements are: (1) the ambiguity in the distinction between a peaceful relationship and an armed conflict, (2) the multidimensional strategies referring to the integrated use of various instruments of power (political, economic, social, etc., (3) the substantial interests at stake or of high strategic value around which the conflict in question revolves, and (4) the gradualism reflected in the adaptation and strategic readaptation to obtain progress in the use of this form of conflict,[31] being able to link this last element to the popular “moral of the frog.”

From the defining characteristics on the gray area, by presenting interests of high strategic value, it is identified that the actions extend to revisionist states (which seek to alter the status quo),[32] taking advantage of the ambiguities of the international legal framework, as well as the “good faith” of international community. This allows them to avoid an armed response from opponents. In this context, narrative and the capacity for deterrence provide a special contribution to this type of approach. Consequently, grey zone conflicts present challenges for their users, one of them being the impossibility of defining a victory since there is no explicit surrender of the adversary or signatures of documents that account for it.

Something New Under the Sun?

In the conception of modern conflict, the Vietnam War has been a turning point toward discussions of “new forms of conflict,” positing a “war without limitations,” which is fought outside conventions or not entirely within them. That is, the ideal conditions are created to conceive a scenario without a beginning, without fronts, without soldiers, without decisive battles and, above all, without victories. [33] The use of irregular warfare is not an exclusive feature of non-State actors in the twenty-first century, since both States and political, strategic, or military considerations may resort to non-conventional methodologies for the use of violence. The identification and exploitation of all one’s own advantages (material, technical and/or moral) constitute the instrument by which the military factor creates superiority in the strategic field.[34]

The terms irregular, asymmetric, and hybrid warfare are relatively synonymous, characterizing phenomena as old as history itself, but under new labels.[35] However, according to Weissmann, even though it is “old wine in new bottles” it is still a “good wine.” Therefore, while there is nothing new about these typologies per se, they are a useful tool for thinking about past, present, and future wars.[36] In this sense, “the first barrier that seems to be blurred is the traditional separation between military actions and organized crime activities,”[37] in associating the new typologies of conflicts to multidimensional threats, insofar as illicit activities affect the national security of a State.[38]

In the novel “The Lost World,” Dr. Jack Thorne, who taught applied engineering at Stanford University, notes that “academia is moving toward increasingly specialized knowledge, expressed in increasingly opaque jargon.”[39] This famous phrase in the work of Michael Crichton, is particularly revealing about the typologies of modern conflict, highlighting the importance of understanding the proper use of all available means by the strategist, beyond idealizing the most recently created term.

How to Deal with Multidimensional Threats?

From the undeniable coexistence of different systems organized in a logic of “systems of systems,” where an action in each context can produce consequences in others,[40] a VUCA world characterized by a deep interdependence demands the adaptation of organizations responsible for addressing multidimensional threats in their various fields. In this context, operational foresight and systemic analysis of reality are presented as a comprehensive and unavoidable approach to strategic planning, since prospective work is a tool to help in a decision-making process for the present context, which aims to define an attitude (either the prevention or the provocation of a desired change), in order to adopt actions against threats and / or opportunities in the future.[41]

Foresight -through strategic anticipation- seeks “the ability to detect what may happen in the future, before it happens,”[42] so that decision making allows the organization to build the most favorable scenario for the mission and vision of the same, in this case, national and human security. Operational foresight is a mandatory approach, continuous and that offers an increasingly reduced time horizon, given the VUCA characterization of the world in which the organization operates.


This article has addressed multidimensional threats in a general fashion, as a derivation of the human security approach, as well as examining their manifestations through the “new” types of conflict, whether in their asymmetric, hybrid or gray zone variants. In addition, the usefulness of these concepts to address contemporary conflicting phenomena has been reflected, establishing that these typologies are not new and can complicate the analysis of the international reality.

Similarly, this work has been established how multidimensional threats are closely related to the blurring between armed conflicts and illegal activities, thereby affecting the security of States, individuals, and armed forces. In the context of the fight against this scourge, the main components of operational foresight have been introduced, as a systemic approach for continuous anticipation in support of prevention or pro-action, as a guide for strategic planning of organizations.

Finally, this work has been made clear that the use of unconventional and multidimensional elements, according to their time, have been an ever-present phenomenon in the history of human conflict and political, strategic, and military leadership, therefore, “nothing new under the sun.”


  1. Work carried out from the presentation “The typologies of the modern conflict and its impact on the security of the States” dictated by Dr. Carlos Ojeda Bennet, at the Naval School of Cadets “Almirante Padilla” on February 18, 2022, in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
  2. Carlos Ojeda, “Multidimensional Threats: A Reality in South America”, in ANEPE Research Collection N° 30, National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (Chile: December 2013), 15-16,
  3. Ibid., 43.
  4. UNTFHS, “Teoría y práctica de la Seguridad Humana”, Inter-American Institute of Human Rights IIHR (Costa Rica: 2009), 7,
  5. Carlos Ojeda, “Amenazas Multidimensionales…”, 44.
  6. Ibid., 99.
  7. Hugo Palma, “Retos e implicancias de la adopción de un concepto multidimensional en la región”, in The multidimensionality of national security: challenges and challenges of the region for its implementation, (Spain: 2015), 234,
  8. Aracely Banegas, “Estrategias para combatir las amenazas multidimensionales en la región”, in ANEPE Research Collection N° 40, National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (Chile: April 2017), 28,
  9. Carlos Ojeda, “Amenazas Multidimensionales…”, 32.
  10. Aracely Banegas, “Estrategias para combatir las amenazas…”, 12.
  11. Hugo Palma, “Retos e implicancias de la adopción…”, 17.
  12. Carlos Ojeda, “Amenazas Multidimensionales…”, 17.
  13. Department of the Army, “Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare” Intelligence Resource Program-Federation of American Scientists (September 2008), 1-1,
  14. William S. Lind, “Understanding Fourth Generation War”, Homeland Security Digital Library (September 2004), 12,
  15. Guillem Colom, “Vigencia y limitaciones de la guerra híbrida”, in Revista Colombiana de Estudios Militares y Estratégicos 10, (Colombia: June 2012),
  16. Department of the Army, “Field Manual (FM) 3-05.130, Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare”, (September 2008), 1-2,
  17. U.S. Department of Defense, “Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy” (2020), 2,
  18. “Department of the Army”, “Field Manual (FM) 3-05.130…”, 1-5.
  19. Marine Miron, “La guerra irregular, insurgencias y cómo contrarrestarlas: Una perspectiva comparativa entre los enfoques centrados en el enemigo y en la población”, in Revista Colombiana de Estudios Militares y Estratégicos 17, (Colombia: July 2019),
  20. Manfred E. Grautoff, “De Clausewitz a La Guerra Asimétrica: Una Aproximación Empírica”, in Journal of International Relations, Strategy and Security 2, Nueva Granada Military University (Colombia: July 2007),
  21. Andrew Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict,” in World Politics, Vol. 27, Cambridge University Press (July 18, 2011): 177,
  22. Ibid., 184.
  23. Manfred E. Grautoff, ” De Clausewitz a La Guerra Asimétrica…”, 134.
  24. Juan R. Sánchez et al., “Discusión epistemológica de la Guerra Asimétrica: Adopción contemporánea de la asimetría interestatal”, in Revista Colombiana de Estudios Militares y Estratégicas, Estudios Militares 10, (Colombia: June 2012),
  25. Federico Aznar Fernández-Montesinos, “Repensando la guerra asimétrica”, in analysis paper, Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies IEEE (November 2018),
  26. Mikael Weissmann, “Hybrid warfare and hybrid threats today and tomorrow: towards an analytical framework”, in Journal on Baltic Security 5, (June 2019), file:///C:/Users/51988/Downloads/Hybridwarfareandhybridthreatstodayandtomorrow_towardsananalyticalframework_WEISSMANN.pdf
  27. Guillem Colom, “Vigencia y limitaciones de la guerra híbrida”, 132
  28. Román D. Ortiz, “El concepto de guerra híbrida y su relevancia para América Latina” in Revista de Ensayos Militares 1, Chilean Army War Academy (November 2015),
  29. Josep Baqués, “Hacia una definición del concepto Gray Zone (GZ)”, GESI International Security Study Group (April 26, 2017), a-definition-of-the-concept-gray-zone-gz
  30. Ibid., 8.
  31. Javier Jordán, “El conflicto internacional en la zona gris: una propuesta teórica desde la perspectiva del realismo ofensivo”, Spanish Journal of Political Science (2018),
  32. Julio Soto, “La zona gris. Un desafío para la conducción política y estratégica”, in Cuaderno de Trabajo N° 6, Center for Research and Strategic Studies CIEE (November 2021),
  33. Juan R. Sánchez et al., “Discusión epistemológica de la Guerra Asimétrica…”, 96.
  34. Manuel Montt Martínez, “La guerra: Su dirección política y estratégica”, in Colección de Investigaciones ANEPE N° 23, National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies ANEPE (Chile: August 2010), 138,
  35. Mikael Weissmann, “Hybrid warfare and hybrid threats today and tomorrow…”, 19.
  36. Ibid., 19.
  37. Román D. Ortiz, “El concepto de guerra híbrida…”, 134.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Michael Crichton, “El Mundo Perdido”, 1st edition (Argentina: Emecé Editores S.A, 1996), 52,—El-mundo-perdido-1-150.pdf
  40. Jay Forrester, “World Dynamics”, 2nd Edition (England: Wright-Allen Press, 1973), 1,
  41. Carlos Ojeda, “Los trabajos prospectivos: Una herramienta para la toma de decisiones”, (April 25, 2011), 1,
  42. Eduardo Balbi, “Construyendo el Futuro: Metodología Prospectiva. Método MEYEP de Prospectiva Estratégica” Network Scenarios and Strategy in Latin America EyE (May 2014), 2,


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The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

Image: CEEEP