Is It Time to Abandon the Term Information Operations?

The current groundswell of interest in and attention on information within the U.S. Department of Defense is unprecedented. Information has been elevated to the status of a joint function, joining the six traditional functions of command and control, intelligence, fires, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. The Marine Corps has created a Deputy Commandant for Information, and established information groups within the Marine Expeditionary Forces. The 2016 Department of Defense Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment led to the Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment and a formal, capabilities-based assessment. We have seen repeated acknowledgment of the importance of information in military operations by Department of Defense senior leaders. In the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, information must be baked into joint force thinking “from the ground up.”

Members of the Texas Air National Guard’s 273rd Information Operations Squadron support Exercise Cyber Shield 17. (Wayde Minami/Air National Guard Photo)

The codification of information as a joint function in Joint Doctrine through Joint Publication 1 Change 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, Joint Publication 3-0 Change 1, Joint Operations, and the change recommendations resulting from the Operating in the Information Environment Capabilities-Based Assessment, have laid out a path toward changing how the joint force thinks about the role of information in operations and how it plans the use of information in operations. These advances also create an opportunity to change how the joint force talks about information—a chance to remove some of the ambiguity from the information-related lexicon and get it closer to right. In the future, information concepts and terms should be clearly understood across the joint force, and information should become a fully valued and routinely employed tool in commanders’ combined arms toolboxes.

Operations in the information environment are the sequence of actions with the common purpose of affecting the perceptions, attitudes, and decision making of relevant actors.

The new joint function, new strategy, and new concept have brought new terms, and that is good. The new joint function, information, provides the fundamental principles and guidance for the management, application, and integration of information with other joint functions. Operations in the information environment are the sequence of actions with the common purpose of affecting the perceptions, attitudes, and decision making of relevant actors. This is the new way to talk about the tasks, activities, and actions the joint force undertakes to set conditions and seek advantage in and through the information environment.

Some elements of the lexicon remain strong: Joint Operations updates the description of the information environment to note that it “comprises and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and impact knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization.”

However, some familiar terms are absent from revised doctrine and new concepts. Most notably absent is information operations. Doctrine appears to have moved away from the term without formally removing it or explicitly replacing it.

The term information operations has long been beset by ambiguity. There is sufficient confusion surrounding the term and the overall function to prompt a string of articles on it here at The Strategy Bridge in the #WhatIsIO series. The common-sense and colloquial understanding of information operations takes the term at face value, assuming information operations are those that have something to do with information. This common-sense understanding further suggests information operations personnel are therefore operators who engage in these operations by employing information in some manner. This makes perfect sense and is an easy way to use the term, but it is not how the Department of Defense defined it, and therein lies the problem.

Information operations as formally described and practiced is a planning, coordinating, and integrating function. It is a staff function, done by a staff officer. Information operations officers are staff officers, planners and integrators, not operators. However, the activities planned and coordinated as part of information operations also get mistakenly and incorrectly called “information operations.” This conflates planning and staffing with activities and actions, and can lead to confusion about roles and expectations. Someone who does not understand information operations might well expect a staff officer whose responsibility is planning and integrating to lay out a storyboard for leaflets, get on a computer and do some cyber reconnaissance, or otherwise execute information activities. These are all activities that would be undertaken by capability specialists, not by staff officers.

Worse, a 2017 report by Facebook on false news and disinformation, which likely has a much larger readership than most Department of Defense doctrinal publications, defined information operations as “actions taken by organized actors (governments or non-state actors) to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome.” This definition promotes an understanding of information operations that is inconsistent with both the colloquial and the formal Department of Defense usage—and one that is quite pejorative. The general public’s understanding of information operations is much closer to the Facebook definition than to the Department of Defense definition—yet another reason for the department to move away from the term.

One step toward improving the way the joint force talks and thinks about information is simple: change the lexicon. The Department of Defense could do away with information operations as a formal term and allow it to fall to its colloquial meaning. The subsequent steps are more complicated, and there are several possible ways forward.

The Department of Defense could relabel the planning and integrating task currently called information operations with a term more clearly bounding it as a staff function. However, other than reducing opportunities for confusion, this would not change much. Changing what the planning and integrating of information activities is called would not drive progress toward meeting General Dunford’s requirement that information be baked into joint force thinking from the ground up. The Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment and the addition of information as a joint function both require bigger changes to joint thinking and processes than just adjusting some of the relevant terminology. The joint force must consider bigger changes.

In the defense information community of interest, there are ongoing conversations on the need for and possible shape of future information forces. Under this notion, no longer would the various tribes of capabilities for leveraging information be diverse, independent, and isolated from each other by different chains of command; they would be unified and centralized as information forces, belonging to a centralized structure and sharing certain core knowledge, skills, and abilities. In such a model, capability-specific specialist knowledge and expertise would remain, and the planners and integrators of operations in the information environment would be drawn from this community. Further, they would  not only share the same baseline knowledge and skills, but would also be in the same chain of command as the capabilities providing formal authority to task information forces. This would differ from the current structure where one of the challenges facing information integrators is integrating through “askers” rather than “taskers,” since traditional information operations staffs do not own or assert direct authority over most of the capabilities they are called upon to integrate.

While planning and integrating information activities would be more straightforward if done by leaders and staff officers drawn from a clear information forces community, other changes might be desirable, too. Information was elevated to the status of joint function in part to increase its emphasis. The Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment calls for the routine leveraging of the inherent informational aspects of all military activities and the integration of physical and informational power as part of all operations. If information is to become a fully valued and routinely employed tool in the commander’s combined arms toolbox, then maybe the planning and integration of operations in the information environment need to become synonymous with planning and integration writ large.

Under this approach, no longer would operations in the information environment be planned in isolation by a separate staff subsection and then bolted on to a pre-existing plan; operations in the information environment would become a core part of the work and responsibility of the J5 (plans), J3 (operations), and J2 (intelligence) staffs. Certainly, individuals with an understanding of the information environment and the capability to leverage information-related expertise would be needed to help with those processes, and those individuals might come from what is now the information operations career field, from capability specialties, or from future information forces. And, these personnel might still be collected within staff subsections to support the principal staff. However, these processes would be part of the core work of the staff and should be planned as an integrated part of operations. The Marine Corps’ development of information groups within the Marine Expeditionary Forces is an example of an effort to elevate the prominence of information in military planning and execution.  (There are, of course, a number of other options for the command and control of operations in the information environment.)

If the Department of Defense moves toward doing away with information operations as a defined term, it is also an opportunity to reconsider the way in which—by what processes, and by whom—operations in the information environment are planned and integrated with each other and with other activities. Operations in the information environment will be a critical part of future joint force operations and should be baked in to those operations as a fully valued tool in commanders’ combined arms toolboxes. Reaching that goal will require greater acceptance and understanding of information across the joint force, new structures for information forces, and the evolution of how operations in the information environment are handled within the staff.

Christopher Paul is a senior social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the author of Information Operations Doctrine and Practice: A Reference Handbook and several other works on what may or may not be called information operations in the future.

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Header Image: Information Operations (I3)