Students from Team Research Raccoons and Team Her Majesty's Smurfs show off their awards.


Hybrid Warfare Student Competition team share how thinking outside the box secured win

February 13, 2024

Back in November, two groups of phenomenal students from the School for International Studies showcased their critical thinking skills and adaptability in the Hybrid Warfare Student Competition, earning them first and third place in the rankings. We connected with Pranjali Mann, Natasha Cusworth, Anne Ibasco and Arjun Shahi from Team Research Raccoons and Christopher Merpaw of Team Her Majesty's Smurfs to learn about their experience in this year’s competition.

For our curious readers out there, what is the competition about? 

The SFU Hybrid Warfare Competition was organized by Dr. Elis Vllasi with support from SFU’s Department of Political Science, Canada’s Department of National Defence, and several private companies and NGOs such as the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS). The event involved undergraduate and graduate students from Canadian universities and professional military educational institutions. Teams played the role of advisors to the prime minister's office in an evolving fictional scenario in which Canada and its NATO allies' security became increasingly challenged by geopolitical events and an array of hybrid challenges instigated by foreign, transnational and domestic actors operating in the ‘gray zone’ between peace and war. The competition was a great opportunity for us to meet with, learn from, and make connections with, academics and professionals in the field of security, policymaking and governance who attended the three-day event, gave talks and acted as judges.

What inspired your team to take on the challenge, and how did this experience contribute to your personal or professional development?

Christopher: As an International Studies student interested in conflict and security, the Hybrid Warfare Competition provided an excellent opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios. The event challenged our team to critically engage with global issues and swiftly collaborate to devise actionable solutions. I found the competition’s content fascinating, as it included hypothetical scenarios that stretched current relations between Canada and Russia and other states, presenting threats that are legitimate possibilities in an evolving multipolar world. I enjoyed the group effort required to effectively brainstorm solutions and successfully deliver a presentation summarizing a response strategy.

Research Raccoons: The competition’s focus on hybrid warfare was of central interest to the group. There are a few courses offered in different departments, like POL 443 and IS 365 which look at emerging grey zone technologies and their possible implications. There is also IS 402 on Global Security Governance which examines hybrid challenges, disinformation and cyber. IS 304 on Russian foreign policy examines Russian involvement in a range of hybrid/grey zone challenges. The competition gave us a chance to hone crucial skills essential to the workforce, such as policy writing, presentation and critical thinking. The scenarios emulated complex world scenarios where the international landscape was affected by multiple actors, radical uncertainty and rapidly moving events. Providing policy responses to constantly evolving scenarios in a short period of time (including overnight!) was a great learning experience. Interacting with other teams at SFU and across Canada gave us chance to connect with like-minded students interested in foreign policy, as well as defence and security policy programs across Canada. 

Were there specific instances that highlighted the effectiveness of teamwork or challenged you to come up with creative solutions? 

Research Raccoons: The strength of our team of four students – Pranjali, Natasha, Arjun and Anne – was largely due to our interdisciplinary expertise in international studies, communication and political science. Our intersectional and humanitarian approach to the issues of disinformation, cyberwarfare, domestic polarization, and international conventional war proved useful in addressing their many complexities. Each team member contributed to the development of policy options. Through our interactions with experts and our own research we increased our knowledge on information warfare, domestic and international policymaking and gray-zone conflict communication. Also, a big shout out to our team supervisor, Professor Nicole Jackson, for her wonderful insights and continued support!

The fact that the team was made up of students from diverse and interdisciplinary skill sets and theoretical backgrounds also helped us to effectively engage with the evolving scenarios in a balanced, well-rounded and dynamic fashion. From their studies, some of our members were more familiar with diplomatic and legal frameworks relating to, for example, just war theory, internet theory, information economics and strategic communications. Others were more familiar with technical and strategic aspects relating to, for example, NATO doctrine and military hardware. 

What key insights or lessons did you gain that you believe will be valuable in the field of hybrid warfare or beyond? 

Research Raccoons: From the three-day policy-case competition and guest speaker presentations, we gathered the importance of human infrastructure in hybrid warfare. Also, the idea that policy responses should address “impacts of impact” and not just the current/ foreseeable impact of ‘external’ attacks. The ever-changing scenario model was very intensive as we were all simultaneously trying to excel in demanding upper-division courses. Early on, time management was difficult for our team. However, we persevered, and we mapped out our expectations and commitments to better execute a clear action plan. Ultimately, our perseverance proved rewarding as we finished with the third prize!  

Our key takeaway is how fundamental it is to stay creative, to think multidimensionally and contextually, and to consider a range of civilian, government and private policy tools when addressing today’s conflicts, many of which occur in (and through) networked and transnational forms. We highly recommend this competition for students interested in international security. It was a definite highlight of our university experience as we got a chance to connect with excellent professionals, faculty and students who are working in this ever-important field. 

Christopher: The guest speakers, including Candyce Kelshall’s insights on hybrid warfare threats to Canada and Calvin Chrustie’s examination of their deep entrenchment in our communities, provided new perspectives that furthered my understanding of security. The panel of judges offered feedback that was constructive in the context of the competition but also valuable to my professional development.

I hope Dr. Vllasi and Dr. Jackson can continue this event in future years and manage to secure a comparable panel of esteemed speakers and judges. I would highly recommend the event to any students interested in conflict, security, and international relations who wish to practice group problem solving while networking with field representatives. 

For this year's competitors, this is only the beginning of their careers. For Pranjali Mann who is finishing up her undergraduate requirements for her accelerated master's degree in communications, she is looking forward to exploring what policy and security questions remain relevant to Canadian international affairs (and its intersection with new technologies)! For others in the team, Anne Ibasco is pursuing an internship in Southeast Asian policymaking, while Natasha Cusworth is a research assistant with CASIS. For Christopher Merpaw, the IS degree and opportunities such as the hybrid warfare competition have deepened his understanding of conflict, including how it precipitates and evolves. This knowledge will expand his potential to positively impact beneficiaries in his future work with Doctors Without Borders and other organizations he joins.