The Russian military is developing the doctrine and capabilities for gaining and contesting battlefield awareness that will pose a significant challenge to U.S. forces in any future conflict with Russia. The military’s focus on information dominance extends from a broader belief among Russian leadership that information confrontation is one of the fundamental ways in which states compete. While the Russian military has always been adept at bringing tremendous firepower to bear during combat operations, it has also been a brawler, needing to get in contact with its opponent before being able to fight.
Although the vehicle of social media has certainly increased the speed by which disinformation reaches its recipients, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to sow internal division among his adversaries is in no way a novel undertaking, and western leaders should be hesitant to paint Russian propaganda as an earth-shaking revelation in the 21st century. This isn’t a reinvention of Russia’s unconventional warfare paradigm; it’s a continuation of it.
All the instruments of U.S. informational power must become stronger because of the surge of non-state actors in international affairs, the need to integrate advocacy and influence with more coercive tools of statecraft, and the urgency of again considering the war of ideas. The information environment of the 21st century will feature contested narratives, information blocking, Islamist social media, Russia’s hybrid warfare, and China’s three warfares.
The United States needs a unifying information strategy. America’s adversaries gain political and military advantages every day the U.S. goes without clear priorities in the current information war. To succeed, American military leaders and political scientists emphasize prioritizing the use of resources. The prioritization of these resources requires a comprehensive strategy.
Weaponizing a narrative resembles weaponizing a disease in several ways. One similarity is that neither is kinetic, yet both can have immense effects. Both are dangerous and chaotic, but are less dangerous to the faction prepared for the risks—or with less to lose. Like viruses, narratives can combine to create overwhelming effects, and can appear and propagate with unnerving rapidity. Unlike viruses, though, the narrative is so inexpensive that almost anyone can weaponize and deploy it. Also unlike viruses, the weaponized narrative targets our minds.
As the U.S. and China compete to innovate in this domain, the relative trajectories of U.S. and Chinese advances in artificial intelligence will impact the future military and strategic balance. China’s ability to leverage these national strategies, extensive funding, massive amounts of data, and ample human resources could result in rapid future progress. In some cases, these advances will be enabled by technology transfer, overseas investments, and acquisitions focused on cutting-edge strategic technologies.
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.
Strategic performance is strongly affected by the state’s information management capabilities. Top policymakers must have the ability to understand the environment in which they are acting (outside information) and how their national security organizations are behaving in that strategic environment (inside information). Strategic risk assessment is based on an understanding of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the challenges and opportunities present in the international environment, and the capability of the state to act in a purposeful way along multiple lines. Without sound outside and inside information, risk assessments will suffer, as will the quality of strategy.
In the Information Institution Approach, Bakich gives critical importance to whether or not key decision makers have access to multi-sourced information and whether the information institutions themselves have the ability to communicate laterally. When information is multi-sourced and there is good coordination across the diplomatic and military lines of effort, Bakich predicts success. When information is stove piped and there is poor coordination, he predicts failure. Where the systems are moderately truncated, Bakich expects various degrees of failure depending on the scope and location within the state’s information institutions.
War is won with information. This is no new phenomenon; since there has been war, there has been military intelligence, and generally, those with the most information have been the most successful. Protecting important information and learning about the enemy and his plans are imperative to winning war.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the character of war changed dramatically, and not in the way America believed it would. While spell-binding CNN footage sold us on the value of precision attack, our adversaries across-the-board learned two very different lessons. First, if it matters, it has to move and hide. Second, reclaiming the initiative from the US is always possible, as Iraqi SCUDS nearly proved. Their new playbook was clear — absorb, re-form, and reengage. Shock and Awe had its moment, but is gone for good. That is, unless we shift away from the idea we can take down a resilient, adaptive system by attacking centers of gravity, and instead harness our ability to observe and affect a system’s centers of activity.