Diary of an Orphan: Information-Based Effects in the U.S. Military

Information Effects

“IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE INFORMATION, the word came later. The transition was achieved by the development of organisms with the capacity for selectively exploiting this information in order to survive and perpetuate their kind.”[1]

Tales of the demise of non-kinetic, information effects are greatly exaggerated, but that doesn't stop information operations from being controversial at best, and ineffective at worst. The reason is a matter of preference: deliver the emotional impact of a kinetic strike against a threat, or endure the statistical drudgery of sorting non-kinetic signal from noise. The US spends more on kinetic hardware than many militaries combined, so the Pentagon’s preferences are obvious. Yet information flows, their data generating processes, their interpretation and their implications for battlefield and non-battlefield environments are set to increase exponentially. The challenge in a national security context is not only to think all the way through the information effects of the structure behind the transmission of signal but also through how the signal is received, processed and acted upon by behavioral agents. The national security context has largely focused on the former, to the detriment of the latter.

If It Ain’t Broke

Frequently the messages have meaning; that is, they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.[2]

As early as 1949, engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon published a theory of information that began with dismissing meaning as “irrelevant to the engineering problem.” In doing so, he may have single-handedly muddied the the link between information-generating processes and their effect (aka “meaning”) in systemic thinking about information and communication. Roughly 30 years later on the eve of a new information revolution, Marshall McLuhan’s theory would counter that the engineering problem is the message.[3] Simply restated, the effect is a function of the system that delivered it.

Since World War 2, the US military has regularly organized around symmetric “order of battle” conflicts against states and argued for “hardware dominance.” The culmination of this mindset reached a peak during Desert Storm, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Initiated by air power focused on Command and Control Warfare, and concluded with a 100-hour ground war - hardware won the day.

Yet multi-domain battle...and countless other corpses cast against the acquisition and budget process all have one thing in common: primarily a focus on 20th century territorial war to the exclusion of 21st century connectedness.

In the early 1990s, without a real state-based threat, ideas about “net-centric” warfare became popular, with the claim that information effects would be the next Revolution in Military Affairs. In order to capture an advantage of increasing knowledge about the security environment, several pre-doctrinal planning constructs were considered by the Pentagon: Effects-Based Operations (EBO),[4] System-of-Systems Analysis (SOSA), Operational Net Assessment (ONA) and Systemic Operational Design (SOD). Each posited an effects-based focus with distinctions, but few differences. The panacea that all offered was that the engineering problem of automated data collection via sensors would more effectively translate the “meaning” of military activity into effects on the battlefield. However, the promise bore little fruit. It’s not a new challenge: the problem of attempting to “loop” tactical tasks into forward-leaning strategic impact has a long history.[5] The confusion led then-General James Mattis to eliminate effects-based language while commander of the now de-commissioned Joint Forces Command.[6]

Fast forward beyond the immediate post-Cold War defense waffling and onward to the emergence of non-state actors exploiting weak-state vacuums. The hardware dominance argument remains and the information wave prophesied by McLuhan and engineered by Shannon is here. Today, the US military continues to insist that “real” preparation for war is with an imaginary near-peer who can never be invaded, and whose territory can never be held. Yet multi-domain battle, the Army’s stumbling modernization program, and countless other corpses cast against the acquisition and budget process all have one thing in common: primarily a focus on 20th century territorial war to the exclusion of 21st century connectedness. There is a reason for this.

War is a Racket

The Napoleonic era defined the last great leap of warfare for the West in conceptual terms: largely rationalising it through a financial prism, dominated by the doctrine and tactics of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini, and considering the time and space of a conflict as limited by time and space (the more limited the better).”[7]

Let’s reduce war to what it ultimately is: killing and breaking things. Do information effects even matter? Two classical answers to this question are: information by way of signaling can prevent a war and signaling during warfare may reduce casualties through surrenders, peace negotiations and misdirection during maneuver. In the context of maneuver, intelligence about the enemy and deception are often opposite sides of the same coin. Accordingly, deception uses information to increase or decrease the perception of risk in a course of action. To that end, what utility does the military gain from information effects? The non-kinetic application of information by the US military, when not involved in areas of declared hostility, has a checkered past. And still, war is fundamentally preceded, ended, and carried out by flows of information. What is information?

The non-kinetic application of information by the U.S. military, when not involved in areas of declared hostility, has a checkered past.

The history of information since the Second World War is, essentially, Shannon information. Claude Shannon’s reduction of communication and information to an engineering problem was a first, and the ensuing discussion collapsed into two parts: communication versus data.[8] Shannon information is about the uncertainty of the flow of the next communication and how machines most efficiently process that uncertainty. Communication, classically, is concerned with “meaning”, and is conflated with data when Shannon says: “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” James Gleick writes about how the change was confusing once it was introduced, as it seemed to change the definition of communication itself:

Von Foerster, like Margaret Mead and others, felt uncomfortable with the notion of information without meaning. “I wanted to call the whole of what they called information theory signal theory,” he said later, “because information was not yet there. There were ‘beep beeps’ but that was all, no information. The moment one transforms that set of signals into other signals our brain can make an understanding of, then information is born— it’s not in the beeps.”[9]

Now imagine the confusion as the typical definition of war - the continuation of politics by other means - becomes confused with the amount of both data (information) and communication (the challenge of agreeing on ‘meaning’) across the globe. Unlike those planning constructs of the 90s and early 2000s (EBO, ONA, SOD), the present volume of information (signaling) itself can make communication difficult and rarely reproduces meaning exactly as it is intended at another point. So it is much easier to send a message with hardware - it’s an age-old, tried-and-tested method that has prompted “might makes right” arguments throughout history. Protests against legitimacy by force, viewed live at any point when they occur, demonstrate the challenge for states in maintaining a monopoly over the use of force. When the definition of force can be extended to the use of information in forcing changes to a social contract vis-a-vis the brute force of arms, then information effects matter for nation-states.

Measures Short of War

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.”[10]

Today’s nation-state is faced with a resourced-constrained prioritization problem of immeasurable order, where information and communication fatigue strains consistent prioritization. US military and political leaders can only make a decision once, under severe uncertainty. To that end, kinetic arguments make results easier to calculate, and since kinetic operations are more easily quantifiable, they are more justifiable. This is the rationale behind the overall preference for kinetic solutions and the pursuit of reduced uncertainty via bigger data.[11] It has not been enough.

People of Egypt.

People of Egypt.

Yet softer, non-kinetic “informational” effects are far more uncertain in terms of causal links between action and impact. Informational effects are also focused on the tasks of degrade, disrupt, and deny - which are defensive approaches, as opposed to modes of destruction and preventing something from happening is difficult to prove. When political victory over another state is not the objective, information effects via perception management in the “population domain” is the end, proof or not. Kinetics are just a means of balkanizing the security threats that interfere with that end.

Ironically, the intervention between a population and its self-determination is why the United States struggles with information warfare. Information warfare externally modifies the information flows. The United States has not developed a system, regardless of the volume of information available, for converting information flows into behaviors by those with both the ability and shared US interests on a strategic scale.[12] The United States must find an appropriate way to do this - many of its adversaries will, and are doing so.[13] Unlike those adversaries, the US military should not be the primary instrument to engage in information operations short of declared war without significant civilian support.

The United States has not developed a system...for converting information flows into behaviors by those with both the ability and shared US interests on a strategic scale.

Is the United States capable of establishing a system or an organization for understanding and ultimately mitigating adversarial information flows, short of war? It’s a natural role for the intelligence community, but the nature of the US intelligence community is overly threat-oriented and focused on collection, and activity tends toward the covert as a result... The logic of a public approach to strategic information effects, or soft power, leads to the Department of State. The Department of State (DoS) has been the traditional purveyor of peacetime economic, diplomatic and public influence. Yet DoS efforts against non-state actors among national populations have been mixed because the nature of information operations is a struggle for risk-averse diplomats and their inherent sensitivity to the national relationships that they manage.

A near-term stopgap might be national security-oriented “nudge units,” established separately from the security community, that is monitored and directed by a board representing US economic, national security, ethics and diplomatic interests. Typical nudge units consist of specialists who research and discover hacks that alter the behavioral and sociological patterns of target populations based on domestic government policy, or vice versa.[14] They typically alter aspects of the target audiences’ environment, from online forms to traffic signage, in order to shape the way a target audience decides and acts in a given context. Hence the term “nudge:” the goal is to stimulate small changes that lead to larger, cascading effects.[15] Ostensibly, this is what an embassy is, or is supposed to be, in a long-term sense. In practice, embassies tend toward a watch-and-wait mentality, with proactive measures varying from ambassador to ambassador. This is not a foolproof concept, nor even a true suggestion. It is only a beyond-the-battlefield example of how cross-functional teams can reframe meaning to improve a desired response - solely through information.

Information Asymmetry

It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”[16]

We have traveled far. Clearly, US defense policy is facing an information asymmetry that is unlikely to be solved by gathering more data, with more options to filter, and more precise kinetic targeting. The issue seems to be finding the balance between the oversimplified psychology of kinetic warfare and getting lost in the infinite space of perception and context. Now is the time to create counter-asymmetries, but doing so will require forward-looking information beyond just enemy-focused intelligence or diplomatic leverage. If the medium and the message are to be harnessed, then the United States and its partners need a new medium - one that isn’t stove-piped among intelligence, diplomatic, and military services.

In summary, the competition for populations was once a question of decisive geographical force, but that force is becoming increasingly insufficient for legitimacy. Cyber operations, unexplored here, succeed in embracing the communication medium by scale alone, but the expansive plurality of cyber tactics still isn’t an information strategy. Additionally and unsurprisingly, government communication via social networks have had limited success. Understanding strategic decisions and sociological interference via information has never been more critical, nor the asymmetry so great, but so far the focus is on mitigating the symptoms rather than treating niche cures. Nicheness, in the information environment is the order of the day. Niche ideas, properly cultivated, have a tendency to creep into the mainstream.

If the medium and the message are to be harnessed, then the United States and its partners need a new medium - one that isn’t stove-piped among intelligence, diplomatic, and military services.

How can niche information be converted to mainstream decisions? One medium-term solution lies in the field of quantum decision theory. The critical benefit is that it allows for decisions to be modeled in pre-behavioral superposition, jointly in context with the subjects’ perception(s) of an environment. Field experiments can offer the possibility of escaping an either/or Boolean logic of decisions for the open terrain of analyzing both/and outcomes. The subject is highly technical, but the theory has demonstrated success in predicting loss-aversion decisions in prospecting theory. Major US security cooperation plans organized around modeling perceptions prior to external interference on a collective decision are critical. Understanding populations in their context, prior to action and across the spectrum of security is an essential element of strategy in this era of “all measures short of war.”

The relatively clear relationship of kinetic battlefield effects to expenditures will continue to capture budget attention over that of information operations and the uncertainty of their effects. Additionally, nation-states committed to a high degree of both internal and external systems of accountability will continue to struggle with operationalizing information effects, especially in conditions short of warfare. Greater technology can only assist with solutions, it cannot directly solve the challenges of a world where the battle is shifting toward the security considerations of international connectedness irrespective of nation-state borders. 21st century hyper-connectivity may seem to intensify risk of high-intensity military conflict, but hyper-connectivity is also a context that significantly restrains the traditional territory-occupying disposition of foreign militaries, post-invasion. Our hyperconnected mediums contain the message: absent a 21st century logic for territorial empire, long-term investments in cultivating long-distance information effects may be the shortest path to security in the near-term. The traditional approach requires that policymakers remain committed to killing adversaries rather than influencing them. That’s an asymmetric imbalance that the world can live without.

Mitchell White is a Contributing Analyst with Wikistrat, graduate of the National Defense University, and a former U.S. Army Psychological Operations officer. He is currently in reflection mode, curating @geoeconomics, and pursuing an MSc in Financial Economics from Handelshøyskolen BI in Oslo, Norway.

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Header image: Illustration by Ben Wiseman | TIME.


[1] Fred Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1981), vii.

[2] Claude M. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," The Bell System Technical Journal 27, no. 3 (July 1948): 379(1),  http://math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf, accessed 12 November 2017.

[3] “The medium is the message” from Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 2-10.

[4] Paul K. Davis and James P. Kahan, Theory and Methods for Supporting High Level Military Decisionmaking (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Project Air Force, 2007), 29-58, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2007/RAND_TR422.pdf, accessed 12 November 2017.

[5] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), 95-307.

[6] James Mattis, “Assessment of Effects Based Operations,” Memoradum dated 14 August 2008, http://smallwarsjournal.com/documents/usjfcomebomemo.pdf, accessed 12 November 2017.

[7] Peter Roberts, "Designing Conceptual Failure in Warfare," The RUSI Journal 162, no. 1 (2017): 14, doi:10.1080/03071847.2017.1301512, accessed 15 May 2017.

[8] Olimpia Lombardi, Federico Holik, and Leonardo Vanni, "Shannon-Wiener Information," Synthese 193, no. 7 (July 17, 2015): 1988-1990, http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10911/1/What_is_Shannon_Information.pdf, accessed 12 October 2016.

[9] James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), Kindle Edition, 248.

[10] Marshall Mcluhan, Culture Is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 66.

[11] So why is it difficult to reduce the disorder by assuming a set of finite probabilities for every outcome? The actors are not static and do not submit easily to normalized probabilities due to constant adaptation. The more actors, the more adaptations. The increasing number of adaptations decreases the ability to fix consistent results for any preconceived effect to a near infinite effect. It’s a permanent loop that EBO seemed to be trying to fix by coopting collinearity in the independent variables to cause a biased effect in the result of the conflict. Except they couldn’t measure the correlation between the independent variables, especially during planning, because the construction had no methodology for obtaining or incorporating unstructured data for those independent variables.

[12] Carnes Lord and John Hughes, Losing Hearts and Minds?: Public Diplomacy and Strategic Influence in the Age of Terror (Westport, CN: Praeger Security International, 2006).

[13] Ben Connable, Jason H. Campbell, and Dan Madden, Stretching and Exploiting Thresholds for High-Order War: How Russia, China, and Iran Are Eroding American Influence Using Time-Tested Measures Short of War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), 17-19, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1000/RR1003/RAND_RR1003.pdf, accessed 7 June 2017. Also, Jamil Anderlini and Jamie Smyth, "Financial Times West Grows Wary of China's Influence Game," Financial Times, 19 December 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/d3ac306a-e188-11e7-8f9f-de1c2175f5ce, accessed 31 December 2017.

[14] This is not without controversy, see Cass R. Sunstein, The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[15] Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).

[16] Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect (Cambridge: University Press, 1927), 88.