O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.
— Sun Tzu
In December 2018, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command published a document—The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations, 2028—outlining how the Army will “compete, penetrate, disintegrate, and exploit” adversaries in future conflict. The document predicts that in an era of great-power competition, where our enemies seek to avoid conventional military conflict, they will confront and challenge US power unconventionally and asymmetrically to fracture and erode our strategic advantages. The document also describes how adversaries are developing and deploying capabilities “in all domains—Space, Cyber, Air, Sea, and Land” to fight and defeat US forces.
There is a missing domain, however, and it will be decisive in modern war and the future strategic environment. The cognitive domain of war has been explored and contested for centuries. Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu believed that wars are won through intelligence, information, and deception; attacking enemies where they are least prepared; and breaking resistance and subduing adversaries indirectly without fighting.
Liberal democratic societies will have a cultural resistance to militarizing the cognitive domain. Despite this resistance, to achieve national security objectives, protect national security interests, and prevail in modern war requires achieving cognitive superiority. But, what does that mean? And more to the point, how is it achieved?
Cognitive superiority is achieved through technological advantage and augmentation.
We must be able to gather, decipher, process, and understand tremendous amounts of data and information faster than an adversary. This capability must be fused with advanced technological capabilities—such as cloud-enabled computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual or augmented reality—and the ability to communicate the knowledge we derive from the data internally and externally faster than our enemy. This is required in order to get inside an enemy’s decision cycle, influence the enemy’s perceived reality, and impose our will.
Collectively, we must understand the implications of information rapidly becoming a predominant form of national power, with three particular imperatives. First, we know we are in the “Information Age,” but we also need to fully explore and accept its implications for national security. Second, we must understand that conflict in the cognitive domain equates to persistent, unrestricted warfare in a gray zone between war and peace. It will target the entirety of a nation’s human capital. It will cause us to question our actions and responses to enemy provocations. Third, we must excel in deciphering fact from opinion, truth from falsehood, and science from conjecture. While Frederick the Great’s and Carl von Clauswitz’s coup d’oeil will always play a role in warfare, the ability to see things simply and innately is dramatically more challenged as information, disinformation, and both true and false knowledge grow at exponential rates.
Cognitive superiority is achieved through education.
Cognitive limitations come with being human. The ability to think rationally is limited or bounded. An example of bounded rationality is in how individuals instinctively use mental shortcuts to make decisions. Our emotions, belief systems, culture, education, and experience “assist” us in filtering the overwhelming information to which we are exposed. We filter information to create and reinforce perceptions of reality that conform to our values and beliefs.
To counter these limitations, the United States should re-evaluate domestic policy and investment related to public education. The public education system of the United States was once one of our greatest strengths. Ranked first in the world in the 1960s and 1970s for producing high school graduates, the United States now ranks tenth globally. High school graduation rates rank below the average of our closest allies and economic partners.
A failure to understand the long-term, national-security implications of public education policy cripples our human capital. On a societal level, for example, understanding science can counter against misinformation campaigns and opinion that disregards facts and data, and improve our ability to discern between true and false knowledge. From a national-security perspective, America’s public education system produces young men and women who will go on to serve in uniform in an increasingly complex and contested global operating environment—with clear implications for their preparedness to do so.
Cognitive superiority is achieved through organizational learning and adaptation.
Achieving cognitive superiority requires a tiered, multidimensional approach. These dimensions include the individual, group, and organizational; all levels of government; and all elements of national power. Coupling investments in technological advantage with investments in human capital enables comprehensive organizational learning and adaptation. Investment is not just about money, however. It is also about time.
Successful organizational learning and adaptation requires a healthy organizational culture. Healthy organizational culture emphasizes and reinforces professionalism, discipline, common values and ethos, and competitiveness. Studies suggest that organizations that reinforce these attributes are better prepared to cope with competitive, complex, and uncertain strategic environments.
Cognitive superiority is achieved through strong leadership.
Liberal democratic societies will resist the perceived militarization of the cognitive domain. To diminish resistance to a national imperative requires leaders with the intellectual curiosity, political will, and courage to understand the national security implications of the cognitive domain. With that understanding, they must possess legitimacy and credibility to coordinate efforts across institutions, levels of government, and all domains of national power to ensure the United States retains advantage over its adversaries.
The US military is nearing a tipping point in its acceptance and understanding of the importance of achieving cognitive superiority. The Joint Staff currently has a publicly available draft document entitled, “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War.” The document appears to be pre-decisional and pending approval. Regardless, it recognizes that “the evolving and dynamic security environment, which includes disruptive changes in the character and conduct of warfare, demands immediate changes to the identification, education, preparation, and development of our joint warfighters.” The document goes on to state that this “intellectual overmatch . . . cannot be achieved without substantially enhancing the cognitive capacities” of our military.
At present, pundits, professors, and potential adversaries recognize that we are in a race to achieve cognitive superiority. It is a race the United States is at risk of losing. Indeed, our adversaries have foraged through and stolen our intellectual property for decades unhindered and unpunished. Yet, the United States has distinct advantages that it must leverage, including American entrepreneurial spirit, productivity, and business practices. However, to achieve cognitive superiority requires an unprecedented level of public-private partnership between government and industry.
If our adversaries intend to attack us where we are least prepared in an effort to break our will to resist, we must anticipate great-power competition, and conflict, in the cognitive domain. The keys to achieving superiority in the cognitive domain are in our possession. Comprehensive investment, public-private partnership, and effective leadership will help us win. Shortsightedness, parochialism, and divisiveness can make us lose.
Col. Todd A. Schmidt, Ph.D., is a US Army Goodpaster Scholar and SAMS alumni. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Jamal Wilson, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs
"Cognitive superiority is achieved through technological advantage and augmentation."
I respectfully disagree. "Cognitive superiority" — to the extent this exists at all — is not being the smartest, best educated, or fastest thinker in the battlespace…it's having a clear view of one's own objectives and related capabilities, a correspondingly clear view of the adversary's objectives and related capabilities, and the ability to discern opportunities and means to maximize our advantages. Even then, it's worth nothing without decision to pursue those opportunities. Information processing speed and volume is a factor, but not THE factor — this takes a particular slice of targeting and elevates it to a general principal of war.
Dear Warlock, I do not think we disagree. I don't find your observation to be mutually exclusive to mine. I think you do a great job of defining coup d'oeil (which will "always play a role in warfare"). It is a somewhat innate skill that comes with experience, education, and professional development. Thank you for taking the time to read this piece and engage in this important dialogue!
"Cognitive superiority is achieved through strong leadership"
Thanks for the link to "Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War". There is much good to the realization that we collectively need to be smarter at the bigger parts of nation state competition/warfighting; however, I don't see much changing if we continue to operate a personnel system along the principles of March Madness which effectively eliminates the majority of officers prior to O-4 based on observed performance at the tactical level.
Dear luddite4change, Thank you for your comment. Talent Management will always be challenging and we'll never get it quite right.
I don't think its that we never get it quite right, it's that the conditions change and we don't stop to consider the assumptions which informed our original decisions over the entire career life cycle. When we had an active Army of 800K to 1 Million, there was significantly more room for intellectual maneuver.
"Liberal democratic societies will have a cultural resistance to militarizing the cognitive domain."
This would be due to the subordination of the military to the civilian in our constitutional order, so we needn't consider liberal democratic societies in general. Our republic was formed with the understanding that militarization is dangerous to the health of that republic. Sadly, in the post-WWII world, with the transition from War Department to Defense, and the rubric of national security and despite Eisenhower's warning about it, we see the conflation of national interest, national security and war – failing to clearly distinguish one thing from another. Our interests (and those range from vital to trivial) form the outermost shell, but it is debatable that those truly encompass the entire globe and every person in it. Our security emanates first from our actual territory – the protection of our sovereignty – outward, reducing in intensity (non-homogeneously) as it expands. And war, the actual acute intersection between the most vital of interests and threats to security has been relegated to a constitutional atavism. If you want to talk about cognitive issues, this would be fertile ground for such a discussion. This would be very useful in addressing the three elements identified as imperatives (information age, grayzone war, and the nature of our responses).
I enjoyed the article and you express many fine sentiments. Unfortunately, the only time you come close to the heart of the problem is when you say "Liberal democratic societies will have a cultural resistance to militarizing the cognitive domain." And even there you are not quite on the money. A more accurate statement might be that our liberal democratic society has an aversion to considering the cognitive domain as a contested domain where, for example, we as a society are constantly under attack. It is not about us militarizing the cognitive domain. It is facing up to the reality that this domain has been militarized for us and is constantly under attack by a variety of foreign as well as domestic actors.
Ignoring domestic actors is, by the way, an extremely serious mistake. Especially when you consider that there is a very large industry in the US that is mercenary and will push ideas and agendas for anybody willing to pay their fees. For example, there is an issue made about the Russians spending $100K on Facebook adds to try to influence the last election. But you don't hear much about the Russians having spent on the order of $100M with the American "public relations" firm Ketchum in the first 14 years or so of this century. When that story came out, it last basically a few days and then disappeared. When I asked the Chairman of Ketchum about this at a meeting last year, he simply replied that after the little bad publicity they got over their representing the Russians, they dropped them as a client. That might or might not be true – I only have his word. Do you believe that a Russian sitting in the infamous Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg could ever be as effective at messaging the American public as an American operator sitting on K St in downtown DC? I don't believe so. And neither do the Russians, the Chinese or any number of actors internationally and domestically. That is why the Russians as well as anybody else would hire an American firm. I know many of these firms and I know people who work for them. The heart of the problem is that our government – all branches of it – have basically decided to leave the population completely undefended in the information environment. But I digress.
I was a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2010-15 where I ran the largest research program in the social media space ever funded by the US government. The program was called Social Media in Strategic Communications. This was a 6.1 program and all results were published in the open literature – over 200 papers of the highest quality and much groundbreaking work. And while I am confident that all those papers were devoured by the Russians, the Chinese, and all of our other competitors as well as private enterprise like Google, Facebook etc., I am equally confident that they generated little to no interest by any element of our government – the same government that provided me with the $50M of US Taxpayers' money that I invested in the research. I was not able to get anybody interested in the work. Nobody wanted to hear it. It became clear that nobody was willing to face up the issues involved in applying that work to the defense of our citizens and of our liberal democratic society. There are too many problems with authorities, policies, legalities and a general fear of bad optics that our adversaries simply don't have to deal with. As a military officer, you know as well as I do that if you show up to fight armed with a stick in one hand and the other tied behind your back and your opponent has a machine gun, you lose. I have lectured extensively around the world on this topic during the last couple of years since my time at DARPA was up. During my time at DARPA, nobody wanted to listen. Now people are at least are willing to listen. But I see no appetite to take any real action. It is just talk. You say we have come to a tipping point. I just don't believe it. I have seen no real evidence. The only thing I see are attempts to convince I am not sure who that there is a will to act. But it is no more than an exercise in perception management. There is no will other than to create the illusion that there is a will.
If you ever want to discuss the, feel free to email me. I am currently Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the RAND Corporation (the name is purely coincidental!).
I would like to correct a statement I made about Ketchum in my reply. I stated that the Russians spent $100M with Ketchum. ProPublica reports a total of $45.6M. I quote from a ProPublica article:
"Russia, often criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, paid handsomely for the public-relations work. From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, according to foreign agent filings."
See: https://www.propublica.org/article/from-russia-with-pr-ketchum-cnbc for more detail.