President Trump recently announced a war against cartels seeking to send drugs across the Mexican border and terrorize citizens on both sides. This is almost getting swamped by the news of coronavirus and will likely lead to insincere accusations that Trump is trying to distract America. But the move still shows the importance of responding to recent events, the multifaceted nature of the border conflict, and sharply contrasts with the supposed Russian superiority in hybrid war.

The Dangerous Mexico Border Region

The history of the US-Mexico border region includes a recent massacre of dual citizen families. Back in November of 2019 nine family members, including three mothers and six children, were brutally massacred by a Mexican cartel. The family members felt safe in this province because they were nominally off limits. The thinking for this immunity goes all the way back to the American mob and the St. Valentine’s day massacre. There were many in the mob that thought high profile attacks and massacres alerted the authorities and were bad for business. That business worked better, as Bugsy Siegel said, when they only killed each other, and the authorities were less focused on them as a result.

These new attacks then were apparently from a faction that disregarded the old rules and struck American women and children which Trump is now proving will very much be bad for business. It is excellent news that America is finally acting against the cartel. Still, one can’t help but feel that any potential strikes might be more successful if the cartels didn’t know US strikes were coming. Everybody knows the US has amazing intelligence capabilities and drones that can surveil targets 24 hours a day. But a massive surprise strike could kill key leaders, destroy important buildings, and strike terror in the hearts of our enemies when they realize that we can unleash great havoc with no warning. The only apparent advantage of announcing the program is that it’s possible alerting drug gangs of an increased readiness to fight might act as a deterrent to cartel members trying to take advantage of a distracted America.

How Can America Crush the Cartels?

Yet beyond a vague concept of drones and some talk about coast guard and Navy ships it’s important to discuss what those assets will do. As mentioned, American drones already provide ready surveillance and can transmit data to attack drones. But there is much more to a drug war than launching missiles.

Additional US Coast Guard ships will provide increased reconnaissance patrols in the Pacific and Caribbean. The Navy is also supplying P8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft, destroyers, and littoral combat ships. All of these specialize in shipping interdiction. The littoral combat ships and Coast Guard Cutters are smaller vessels designed to operate closer to shore. The littoral ships are also stealthy so they can better track and follow drug smugglers than the cutters and the navy’s destroyers. The bigger ships like the destroyers bring have impressive radar and carry a compliment of helicopters. Mexico has been relying on its helicopters to track down smugglers for years.

At the same time America is putting warships and planes along travel routes from Mexico, which is not a strictly war time scenario. They can’t simply attack any target in Mexico. What they can do is use the gathered data to assist the Mexican police in their operations to seize drug shipments, arrest cartel leaders, and confiscate drug shipments in international waters. Thus it requires a great deal of sensitivity to wage what newspapers are calling “war” but what actually involves carefully supporting legal operations against a shadow Mexican regime without violating Mexican sovereignty.

The Complexity of Hybrid Warfare

Having to fight something that is both warlike and a legal battle at the same time shows the difficulty of actual hybrid warfare. The army chief of staff defines it as a “diverse and dynamic combinations of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal capabilities.”  Russia has been cited as a bogeyman for their use of so-called hybrid warfare in seizing the Crimea and their destabilizing of Ukraine. Russia seems more similar to meddling and sometimes opportunist bad actors from the past that use these limited new concepts in supported of traditional goals and methods. In contrast, the US faces a tougher and more thorough hybrid war in that they must use military assets and various intelligence gathering methods across different services and 22 different countries. The operation will also have to utilize law enforcement officials in what are both military and legal operations against a powerful shadow state. The latter actually looks more difficult than anything Russia has done in the last decade and shows that US hybrid war capabilities should not be underestimated.

As you can see this is not simply a diversionary exercise during the coronavirus, but a much-needed — if complicated — effort to stop the cartels from exporting drugs and violence. Trump is finally taking extra action against barbaric cartels that killed American citizens in Mexico and make money off of drugs that kill many more. This is a largely intelligence-driven effort to aid interdiction and law enforcement efforts that also uses many military methods and tactics. It shows that America shouldn’t be intimidated by buzzwords like hybrid warfare being used by foreign adversaries since in actual practice Washington displays much more capability at it than any other actor.