Making Old Things New Again: Strategy, the Information Environment, and National Security

Seeing Old Things in New Ways

When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter released the Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment in June 2016, he was responding to an ancient reality—the creative use of information in all forms of conflict—while also challenging the men and women in his department to leverage it in new and important ways. To do so, he emphasized the following passage from the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review:

“The operating environment is increasingly enabled by technology, which provides the types of capabilities, once limited to major powers, to a broad range of actors. The rapidly accelerating spread of information is challenging the ability of some governments to control their populations and maintain civil order, while at the same time changing how wars are fought and aiding groups in mobilizing and organizing.”[1]

"Sun Tzu vs. Clausewitz" (via Sun Tzu France)

This reminder about the changing global context and the larger information-environment initiative are laudable because they transcend the DoD, challenging the entire Federal Government, along with America’s allies and associates, to employ information-environment concepts across the range of instruments of power. The aim is to achieve national security objectives short of armed conflict or, if this proves impossible, to win with maximum effectiveness and minimum loss. In this sense, Carter challenges all of us to look beyond the DoD for creative and deep thinkers who will work together, over sustained periods of time, to develop expertise relating to a particular national-security problem, get ahead of it as far as possible, and offer national decision makers more and better options than just armed conflict. As the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, war is the result of a failure to resolve differences peacefully. Similarly, Sun Tzu states that the greatest acme of skill is not to win 100 battles, but rather to win without fighting. These aphorisms, though often tossed aside as either obvious or irrelevant, are neither. An effective understanding of the information environment, and the employment of the full range of instruments of power within it, has already yielded many successes at the level of grand (national) strategy. While there is no substitute for preparing to achieve national-security objectives through armed conflict, doing so peacefully is far preferable. This is where an information-environment approach can yield significant advantages--from initial collection and analysis efforts to the development of a formal plan--in bringing conflicts to a conclusion short of war and to the advantage of the United States as well as its allies and associates.

Understanding the Information Environment

The Information Environment, FM 3-13, Inform and Influence Activities, 2013.

To help us build our understanding of the information environment, Carter’s strategy document notes that “The Information Environment (IE) is the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information. The IE is a heterogeneous global environment where humans and automated systems observe, orient, decide, and act on data, information, and knowledge.”[2] Understanding these basic realities helps analysts, planners, operators, and policymakers to determine the kinds of actions that will alter an adversary’s decision calculus in such a way that doing so furthers our own aims. Ideally, these actions will also give our target audience at least some of the things they want and reassure them about the things they fear, further reducing the likelihood of armed conflict. The degree to which we can use information to shape others’ decision making and actions without resorting to violent means or causing them to do so increases our opportunities for achieving strategic, operational, and tactical objectives at significantly lower human and fiscal costs. These efforts play themselves out across three intertwined dimensions: the physical, composed of command and control systems and their supporting infrastructure; the informational, comprised of the content itself; and the cognitive, comprising the attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of decision makers who transmit, receive, respond to, or act upon information. Ultimately, our aim is to leverage or exploit all three of these dimensions by engaging in actions or activities that create strategic effects stemming from the ways in which adversary decision makers choose to act. Doing so is difficult in practice, so if we wish to have any hope at all of succeeding here, we must first understand very clearly our grand (national) strategy and that of our adversary, and how our efforts in the information environment should relate to both.

Grand Strategy and the Information Environment

The point of departure for any effort within the information environment is therefore to ask, “What is the [grand-strategic] problem?” Only after we understand this clearly can we then begin discussing what to do in order to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical aims. This in turn prompts us to approach the problem and potential solutions within a whole-of-government effort. Even as DoD personnel plan for operations down to the tactical level, they must remember at every step of their journey that such efforts are ultimately designed to produce enduring changes at the level of grand strategy—in other words, to give the United States a continuing advantage over its state and non-state competitors, adversaries, and enemies. It does so by bringing together all elements of government and using all instruments of power in careful and properly sequenced ways to achieve strategic aims, through the use of subordinate policy actions. These will generally include DoD activities but transcend them and require a much broader set of players and actions.

One of the major challenges facing us in the information environment, and a key driver within it, is the dramatic and continuing diffusion of technology to both major powers and smaller, often non-state actors. Their ability to do everything from crafting and releasing narratives that preempt our policymakers and operators, to bringing entire peoples or groups to their side, has upended older and more traditional forms of conflict as well as the means for resolving it in a successful manner. The low cost of entry into IE-related operations, whether through social media, the formal press, cyber activities, or some other means, has given the nimbler players on the international stage advantages and policy options that they only have dreamed of even 20 years ago. Their willingness to use these new capabilities in ways unhindered by western ethical or moral considerations, such as the Laws of Armed Conflict, only adds to their comparative advantage.

Even a coordinated, whole of government(s) effort will not suffice if we invert the two questions: “What is the [grand-strategic] problem?” and “What do we do about it?”

With this conundrum in mind, how do we turn an adversary’s position of advantage to our own advantage? Although a clear and achievable grand strategy, which by definition exists independent of a specific presidential administration, is the ideal point of departure for analysis related to the information environment, planning, and operations, we rarely have such a luxury. In fact, the most recent grand strategy that was clear, actionable, and persisted for as long as required to defeat an adversary was the Cold War effort, based originally on National Security Council Memorandum 68 and moving forward from there.[3] However, even if there is no formal or actionable grand strategy, we nonetheless understand—or should as military professionals—what the key elements of any such strategy would contain, and to work with our bosses to make each as strong as possible. National survival is a given here, as are the safety and prosperity of the American people. These in turn call for access to and proper use of vital resources such as fossil fuels—something that our allies and associates remain terribly dependent on even as the United States becomes progressively less so.[4] This requires not only close cooperation with allies and associates to deal with this problem and many others, but also a whole-of-government approach within which to do so. The DoD cannot and must not try to act alone in the information environment, and it must not give other departments and agencies—including those of allies and associates—a “pass” in terms of their contributions to the larger effort. Every member of the DoD is therefore both an emissary for and a practitioner within the information environment.

However, even a coordinated, whole of government(s) effort will not suffice if we invert the two questions posed earlier: “What is the [grand-strategic] problem?” and “What do we do about it?” Doing so will all but guarantee an unsuccessful or even disastrous effort to deal with the problem at hand. The very nature of the information environment compels us to act in this way given the great risk involved in acting before we understand the many complexities, nuances, and mysteries inherent within the larger problem set and the adversary’s own approach to it. This imperative to understand the adversary, and to think like him to the degree that we can, is also fundamental to any success in the IE, and any resolution of a crisis to our advantage and short of armed conflict. This requires time and expertise among the teams working IE-related plans and operations. Their bosses must fight for the cognitive, organizational, and procedural “maneuver space” required to allow these teams to develop depth of understanding, over time, in given problem sets. Achieving grand-strategic, military-strategic, operational, and tactical objectives short of armed conflict is the “gold standard” in IE efforts, and even if it is not always possible, we must never think of it as a mere bonus. It is at the very heart of what we try to achieve by the effective use of IE concepts and techniques. Without these proper “maneuver spaces” within which to develop the understanding, plans, and operations required to achieve these objectives, war and the failure to achieve our aims are correspondingly more likely.

Putting the Information Environment to Work

Just as technologies are, in effect, extensions of the human body (think of a spear, bullet, or guided missile), the cognitive and procedural approaches we bring to the IE are extensions of the human mind. And because, as the Japanese proverb says, “all of us are smarter than one of us,” information-sharing groups become the most fundamental and important basis for all IE-related efforts. These may be formal or informal, but both should include the full range of people with expertise relating to a given problem and the willingness to contribute to its resolution in ways advantageous to the United States. Academe, business, NGOS and IGOs, expatriate groupings, and a range of other organizations and individuals are available to assist with the increasingly complex problems associated with the IE. We must find the right ones and bring them into our efforts, even if at the unclassified and general level.

This active and continuous search for the right players to include in a given information-environment effort is just one aspect of what we might call “IE thinking.” What does it mean to be an “IE thinker”? Far beyond seeking out and building information-sharing groups to analyze and plan against various problems, it also requires a clear definition of the problem (a problem statement in DoD parlance); vetted and achievable strategic aims; and a well-articulated and achievable desired end state that envisions the situation at different points during the execution of a given plan. The approach in all cases must be to place favorable resolution of the problem short of armed conflict at the center while also planning for military action should the initial effort fail. This flexibility of mind and planning is crucial to working within the information environment. To become “IE thinkers,” analysts, planners, and operators must move out of their cubicles and respective “tribes” into their counterparts’ physical and intellectual spaces, working a problem set together from the outset and not just passing products along to one another. Finally, “IE thinkers” must go a step further than understanding the problem and how to go about solving it. There are actions we can or cannot take, those we should or should not take, and those we must or must not take. This hierarchy of the prioritization of actions, and of determining which ones are both right and possible, is of basic importance to any IE effort. The individuals and teams in our information-sharing networks will help us to understand which ideas and actions fall into which of these categories. So will our national-level and other decision makers through policy and planning guidance.

Understanding what we can, should, and must do also relies on a deep understanding of what the adversary will likely do, how he conceptualizes and justifies it, and how he will then try to undermine what we do. Understanding this requires proficiency in working with what the German philosopher Georg Hegel called the dialectic—development of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—to determine how we can preempt, prevent, or respond to adversary efforts with maximum effectiveness.[5] We also refer to this as the “action-reaction-counteraction dynamic” because the iterative and highly complex nature of interactions with the adversary requires us to “get ahead” of him in both our thinking and our actions.  This effort includes wargaming and red-teaming but also transcends them. The degree to which we understand, preempt, and control an adversary––and thus seize and hold the initiative in the information and operational environments––will determine in large part whether or not we achieve our strategic aims as they relate to that adversary.

Whether or not we approve, our adversaries have also become quite good at operations in the Information Environment.

Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)

The post-World War II period is replete with examples of information-environment successes that in turn produced major and enduring grand-strategic advantages. The long conflict we call the Cold War was in itself a case of effective operations within the information environment during a 45-year period. There were many errors, to be sure, but the larger success of the effort involved a deep understanding of the grand-strategic problem and a series of activities designed to solve it. The Berlin Airlift is one case in point, during which the USAF and RAF provided enough food, coal and other goods to keep West Berlin’s people healthy and increasingly defiant of Joseph Stalin’s plans for them. Not a shot was fired during this year-long effort or in the case of the concurrent and subsequent nuclear-deterrence effort, which was based precisely on the proposition that nuclear weapons not be used. Despite the near failure of that approach during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s efforts yielded another sweeping American victory in the information environment and short of war—and in this case a war that would have killed tens or hundreds of millions. More modest efforts such as the British Special Air Service campaign in Oman to help defeat the communist insurgents while bringing the bulk of the Arab Bedouin population back to the side of the young Sultan Qaboos is another case in point, as is the very successful British effort against the ethnic Chinese insurgents who sought to conquer and rule what is now Malaysia. Both countries remain close friends of the British and the Americans, and they stand with us in nearly all matters of regional and global strategy. More recently, the younger Bush administration’s successful turning of Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi away from his confrontational WMD efforts and support of terrorism and to a role as an important intelligence source was an important IE-related victory. Subsequent efforts regarding Qaddafi and Libya have proven notably less effective for reasons that become obvious when viewed through an information-environment lens.

"Battling ISIS on Social Media," CNN (March 12, 2015)

And whether or not we approve, our adversaries have also become quite good at operations in the IE. ISIS and before it Al Qaeda proved masterful at building a broad and deep allegiance among disaffected Muslims. Russian and Chinese leaders have also played brilliantly on the nationalist, revanchist, and irredentist platforms that continue to resonate with the majority of Russians and Chinese. Tensions in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and the South China Sea are on the rise, and whether or not these crises end or at least stabilize short of armed conflict will depend in large measure on how well we understand, plan against, and outwit these dangerous opponents. If we are to succeed here, the first thing we must do is understand the problem deeply and only then consider how to use an all-of-government and all-IOPs approach, in coordination with our many allies and associates, to seize the initiative and gain a continuing advantage in both the IE and the OE. Saying so is one thing; doing it is quite another. 

Developing the depth and flexibility of mind and understanding to work effectively within the information environment, in addition to the operational environment, is challenging. However, given the systemic changes in virtually every field of human activity during the new century, and the threats they may pose to our country’s security and prosperity, this is a challenge we must accept. There are number of ways to develop our individual and collective understanding of––and effective efforts within––the information environment. Reading about past uses of information-environment techniques and tools to achieve grand-strategic and other aims is one example. Building enduring and properly staffed and focused information-sharing groups is another. Senior leaders with applicable mission sets should also send subordinates to the DoD (USD/I) Information Environment Advanced Analysis (IEAA) Course, which gives participants a deep dive into IE-related techniques within the framework of real-world practical exercises on Iran, the South China Sea, the Baltics, and (soon) Africa while conferring 1.5 hours of joint credit on military officer graduates. As every great military theorist and virtually every great statesman and military commander has emphasized, understanding past events and using them as analogous cases for addressing current crises is of particular importance if we do it carefully and are measured in the kinds of comparisons and reasoning we draw from them. We must move well beyond DoD-only approaches, interservice rivalries, compartmented analytical and planning efforts, and the misguided notion that the US is better than its allies and associates at various forms of conflict resolution—especially those short of armed conflict. Doing so is the first collective step toward wisdom and effectiveness in the IE and, as a result, a more secure and prosperous United States.

Robert S. Ehlers, Jr., is a former professor of airpower history at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and former associate professor of history at the Air Force Academy. Dr. Ehlers is the author of Targeting the Third Reich: Air Intelligence and the Allied Bombing Campaigns (2009) and Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II (2015). He is presently a mentor for the Information Environment Advanced Analysis Course. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Seffers, George I. "Making Progress Every Single Day on JIE." Signal Magazine, AFCEA, (May 1, 2015)


[1] Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, p. 3.  Located at  Accessed 11-27-16.

[2] Department of Defense, DoD Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment, June 2016, p. 3.  Located at  Accessed 11-27-16.

[3] For an excellent review of the entire NSC-68 development process, including the various iterations of the document leading to its publication, and the ways in which it drove Cold War grand strategy, see S. Nelson Drew, ed., NSC-68: Forging the Strategy of Containment (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1994), passim.  Located at Accessed 11-27-16.

[4] See the U.S. Energy Information Administration report, current as of 10-13-16, at The U.S. imports 24 percent of its petroleum products––the lowest level since 1970. This compares to between 60 and 95 percent for other developed countries.  See the World Bank report at Both documents accessed on 11-27-16.

[5] For additional insights on Hegel and his ideas, see  Accessed on 11-27-16.