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.
As dramatic changes in society are redefining the role of communication in organizational leadership across civil industry in the democratized world, a similar topic of professionalism is inspiring new conversations among U.S. military leaders. Public affairs officers and military researchers have identified challenges that complicate the best use of communication talent in the military. Insufficient training, how and where many public affairs officers are placed within unit organizational staffs, and unit cultures have historically marginalized the career field, inhibiting the inculcation of a professional ethos across the public affairs community.
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.
Students of the Afghan conflict, information operations officers, public affairs professionals, diplomats, relief workers, and those working in the intelligence and psychological operations arenas would all be well served to have this reference close at hand. One can only hope the failures Johnson cites are not repeated, and, if the war cannot be won by the West, perhaps this book can help the Afghans find an honorable and enduring conclusion.
Ultimately, the best defense in information warfare is resilience—the ability to critically assess a dynamic information environment where everything is not always what it seems and manage the identified risks to ensure mission success. In a military context, this could include adapting basic and advanced levels of training to include fostering a deeper understanding for how information warfare is changing the nature of conflict, and how every service member’s actions can and will be used against them in a digital age.
In a hyper-connected world, one can no longer just put messaging out there. Once a message is pushed out, control of it is lost, and an adversary can and will subvert and shatter it into myriad distortions that ricochet back and hurt the sender. Likewise, any actions on the ground contradicting the messaging, will also be used to attack the sender aiming to erode public faith at home by exploiting hypocrisy, creating ambiguity and, ideally, disrupting decision-making.
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.
Traditional warfare has long used information and technology to gain a competitive advantage over opponents. The shift is that more of these activities are now occurring in a place visible to the public –– online –– and is now being directed at civilians. As the ever-growing volume of literature on this topic illustrates, we are currently observing the great value in sustained disinformation campaigns. The low cost and high effectiveness of these non-military measures combined with few counter-measures as well as strong drivers of change (such as automation) increasing their effectiveness, indicate their use will continue to increase. This has significant implications for policy makers, analysts, and defence personnel.
The international system is at the onset of a new period of transformation brought about by the interaction of two forces: increased democratization and the revolution in information technologies. There are more democracies than ever before, and there are more tools to easily influence public opinion. Even beyond Russia, there is little doubt other states will see its success and seek to mimic its capabilities. This will be true particularly in authoritarian states, whose bastioned societies ensure asymmetry and shield them from reciprocity. The more that democracies spread and the more their citizens connect online, the more vulnerable they will become to outside influence, subtly shifting international competition into the theater of public opinion.
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.
We should encourage those not familiar with information operations to see it as a vital component of planning in an information environment that is much more important to military planning and operations with each passing day. Focus on capabilities does more to confuse than enlighten, and simple alternatives are available.
The good news about China’s anti-access/area denial actions in the South China Sea and beyond may be that in apparently selecting a hybrid strategy, China has chosen to operate in the Phase 0/Gray Zone/Shaping area, thus avoiding activity that generates an overt military response. That said, the strategy involves brinksmanship, so proper use of information operations is critical to communicate intentions and avoid miscommunications leading to miscalculations and overt military conflict. Information operations can also cloud Chinese calculations to make preemptive strikes less appealing and more fraught with risk.
Russia showed the world the effectiveness of social media as a weapon system in the cyber domain. By leveraging the population against one another, it successfully took ground from another sovereign nation without the employment of massed conventional forces. Future conflicts will involve civilian populations as connected, or more connected, as those in Crimea, and the employment of social media will be essential to shaping the narrative of U.S. Army operations. As the Russian government proved, through proper timing, messaging, and population targeting, social media has the potential to manipulate the outcome of a conflict and win a complex engagement.
While we do not expect to settle the debate over what information operations is, we do hope to contribute valuable insights to the discussion by building awareness and empathy in their partner’s roles and methods, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about information operations and how they might employ them for the benefit of their own organizations.
Looking to Putin’s intelligence apparatus is not to witness the genesis of political information warfare. In fact, the United States was birthed in a stew of information, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda projected by competing entities both internally and externally. Thus, instead of looking at the apparent success of Russian intelligence in the recent election as the perfected form of information warfare, it is worth considering colonial and revolutionary America to appreciate the historical precedent and perspective.
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.
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.