Editor’s note: This article is part of the Army Cyber Institute’s contribution to the series, “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
Imagine a future where moral and cognitive battles are waged with well-crafted narratives delivered and manipulated by an intricate web of simple and sophisticated cyber, information, electronic, and psychological warfare tools. The modern information environment, and how we interact with it, allows perceptions to be shaped in seconds with a retweet, a share, a like, or a download. With the internet, access to information is instantaneous—until it’s not—and autocratic rulers are increasingly taking advantage of their populations’ reliance on the internet and the information environment in times of unrest and upheaval by shutting off access. Most recently, internet traffic was cut off in Kazakhstan, as authorities in the petrostate tried to quell unrest over rising fuel prices and sow confusion among protestors by disrupting communications and popular messaging platforms (e.g., Telegram and Signal). What autocratic rulers clearly understand is the power of social connection and how the internet and information environment facilitate idea mobilization and narrative affinity across populations. Ultimately, we do not have to imagine a future war to recognize that the next conflict will include an information component, and the US military will need to contribute to perception and information management in the cognitive dimension as a core element of future battles.
However, what the US military struggles to understand is how the information environment is pervasive to modern strategic competition, and within the information environment and cyberspace, a myriad of roles remains underexplored and underutilized. Since its inception, the US military has conceived of a war-peace duality, but for our adversaries—Russia and China, since at least the time of Lenin and Mao—there has only been competition or open conflict. These powers recognize that this competition is principally nonkinetic and will largely (though by no means exclusively) play out in third countries (e.g., in Central Asia instead of in the US, Chinese, or Russian homelands) and they are quite comfortable with proxy engagements. Moreover, integrated nonkinetic approaches are central to their competition engagements strategies. For example, Russia’s concept of information warfare integrates cyber and information operations into military and nonmilitary activities, during both peace and war, and is aimed at eroding cohesion in target societies and undermining rival states’ leadership. China’s concept of “Three Warfares” emphasizes and integrates public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.
The US military, by contrast, is just starting to play catchup. While emphasis on operations in the information environment and the cyber domain are certainly increasing, the balance of the military’s attention remains focused on force-on-force engagements during declared conflicts. Much of the time, information and cyber are given supporting roles for kinetic operations but recently, US Army Cyber Command announced a shift in focus from information warfare to “information advantage” for “decision dominance,” and is working to bring the concepts to the forefront of how the Army fights. However, just what information is, and how it impacts the force, remains uncertain. To fully understand the threats posed by human interactions within and use of the information environment, the Army needs to demonstrate how those threats impact the Army’s legal warfighting responsibilities and DoD more broadly. A large chunk of these responsibilities come down to a simple formula: the Army must man, train, and equip a land force prepared to answer the nation’s call. This construct, it turns out, is extraordinarily useful in illustrating the Army’s—and, by extension, the US military’s—vulnerabilities in the information environment and the steps it should take toward building a cohesive and competitive information strategy.
The Army’s two primary manpower responsibilities are (1) attracting high-quality recruits and (2) retaining experienced and capable servicemembers. To effectively meet those mandates, the Army must consider the information environment and narratives about military service that shape perceptions of it. Currently, several narratives designed to degrade public trust in the military are circulating. Worryingly, these narratives may be working—as evidenced by recent polling data that shows only 56 percent of those surveyed (down from 70 percent in 2018) have “a great deal of trust and confidence” in the military. Distrust in an institution is easy to exploit—China, for example, has spread disinformation about the COVID-19 virus origins, falsely claiming that the virus was created for biological warfare purposes at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which is the same Army facility that a Russian disinformation campaign claimed created the AIDS virus back in the 1980s. Narratives surrounding sexual assault and the recent failures to protect soldiers experiencing harassment and abuse are also exploitable—the narratives may scare a person away from joining, shape his or her thought process on military service, or scare a mother so much that she convinces her child not to enlist or commission in the first place. Even narratives around the US military’s inability to win wars are shown to degrade recruiting and retention efforts.
Retaining experienced soldiers also requires the Army to consider and assess the information environment to truly understand the context in which soldiers make decisions about their careers. Career choices are influenced by a soldier’s unit, family, and children, and the experiences of their peers. Therefore, narratives that hone in on and highlight the failures of the military leadership inevitably shape the command climate and general feeling about staying in or getting out of the military and may stop a servicemember from reenlisting. Additionally, location and broader social narratives matter too. For example, a soldier assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky has different contextual influencers than one stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. For the Army to achieve information advantage, it must acknowledge how external narratives influence the supply of ready and able recruits and the retention of its experienced soldiers.
However, addressing preexisting themes and narratives that impact the public perception of the military is insufficient. Our adversaries persistently use our social vulnerabilities to degrade military readiness by impacting the Army’s ability to recruit and retain qualified individuals. The Army’s reactive posture gives our adversaries first-mover advantage and impedes the Army’s ability to achieve information advantage—in part, because malign influence campaigns that spread mis- and disinformation can spread up to six times faster than any truth. To get out in front of malign narratives, the Army must devise better messaging and marketing tactics that account for and address the underlying issues and social cleavages that our adversaries exploit. Specifically, to become proactive in the information environment, the Army needs to understand and predict how and what our competitors and adversaries are going to say, and be ready to deploy solutions ahead of, and in response to, competing and malicious narratives. One solution is teaching critical-thinking skills and inoculating the force by teaching soldiers to become more thoughtful consumers of media and information, especially regarding social media. With respect to the general population of potential recruits, the training process is a long one, but given the Army’s investment in professional military education and training, the proposition is, in theory, feasible.
Manning is only one aspect of force readiness—soldiers must also be prepared for war. The Army training cycle requires its forces to “focus training on high-intensity conflict, with emphasis on operating in dense urban terrain, [in] electronically degraded environments, and under constant surveillance.” As such, traditional forms of training, and joint and partner exercises, are essential to long-term success on the battlefield. The secretary of the Army has already acknowledged that we will be contested from “fort to port,” identifying how logistics, and the Army’s ability to swiftly mobilize and deploy personnel and equipment around the world, is at risk. Ultimately, the Army needs to consider the effect of malign influence operations on all critical nodes—information and physical—to ensure relevant populations are receptive to a massive inflow of US military equipment and that the adversary will not be able to target local sentiments against US forces.
Examples of foreign operations in the information environment targeting training exercises already exist, and the 2015 Jade Helm exercise conducted by US Army special operations forces is one of the most startling. Jade Helm was a large, but routine, training exercise that took place in Texas and was designed to allow participants to practice “core special warfare tasks for use overseas to help protect our national security interests.” Despite being well coordinated at all echelons of the US government, the training exercise—which was held on military bases and private, state, and federal lands—was shrouded in multiple conspiracy theories about then President Barack Obama. A Russian disinformation campaign pushed false narratives that claimed the operation was in preparation for the president to declare martial law in Texas, eventually putting the entire exercise in jeopardy. The soldiers participating in the exercise were monitored with scrutiny and nearly prevented from conducting training, and participants were harassed by conspiracy theorists. To this day, Russia’s false narratives about Jade Helm persist and show how conspiracy theories take root, grow, and are difficult to counter once they enter public discourse.
The information warfare tactics used against Jade Helm could be applied throughout the world, whenever and wherever the US military trains with partners and allies. In fact, we should assume those tactics will be used in the very locations that US servicemembers may be fighting the next war. For example, recent disinformation spread by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and picked up by the Russian media, alleges a provocation plot in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that involves US private military companies and chemical weapons. Ultimately, training with partners and allies could become all but impossible if disinformation about the US military and its role in an ongoing conflict are effective and result in undue political pressure being applied to a host nation’s government. Domestically, the same concerns apply—any mobilization of military vehicles outside a military base already stirs conspiratorial conjecturing, and even when a National Guard unit moves from an armory to an installation for training, conversation and concern are visible on social media.
Therefore, the Army needs revise how it thinks about training its forces, in both domestic and foreign settings, to account for the information environment. Just as the US government has long understood that multinational training exercises send signals to the global community about US interests, partnerships, and capabilities, those signals can also be manipulated by adversaries. Similarly, domestic exercises that mobilize military units and federal, state, and local authorities also send signals that can be misinterpreted and exploited to sow uncertainty and distrust at home. To gain and hold information advantage, the Army must assess the information environment before, during, and after domestic exercises—just as it does internationally—to understand the narratives surrounding the training and troop movements and to predict, preempt, and ultimately prevent false narratives from taking hold. Training the force takes place within the information environment and moving from the mindset that domestic troop movements are somehow different than mobilizations abroad is a key first step to conducting effective training in the new information environment.
While manning and training mostly fall within the purview of the individual service components, equipping America’s armed forces relies on heavy investment from outside entities—both public and private. Weighing in on defense acquisitions are a myriad of organizations, from the intelligence community and think tanks that identify risk and threats, to defense contractors that develop and build new systems, to the elected and appointed officials who determine the defense budget and provide oversight—and all are susceptible to foreign malign influence campaigns. For example, the intelligence community could unwittingly rely on false information planted by an adversary’s military deception campaign intended to misrepresent the amount they are investing in new technologies. More alarmingly, general confusion about research findings can be created and exploited to push procurement in the wrong direction, leaving the Army ready to fight the wrong war. Ultimately, the military must understand foreign operations in the information environment as ongoing and as not necessarily intended to have immediate effects. Instead, information operations are part of our adversaries’ strategic efforts to obfuscate, deceive, and sabotage the US military and to degrade US power over time.
Cyber-enabled information operations on critical information systems are another persistent risk that the Army must acknowledge. With advancements in machine learning and automation, and the Army’s adoption of such technologies, adversaries could lull the end user into a sense of security while utilizing model poisoning and contamination attacks to generate confusing and inaccurate predictions. Already, the defense systems used are taken for granted due to vast asymmetry of capabilities between US and enemy forces during the post-9/11 wars, and to fight the next war, the Army will have to relearn the fundamentals of intelligence for when those systems no longer work. The other, less likely avenue is a foreign adversary conducting influence operations that cause the end user to lose trust in the systems they rely on to do their jobs. Such an attack could render the time, money, and training spent on critical systems irrelevant and information advantage mandates an awareness of how adversaries can use the information environment to influence the lethality of the force.
Finally, even though much of the Army’s equipment is manufactured and assembled in the United States, military procurement remains reliant on foreign parts and production (including from competitors and adversaries) for subcomponents and materials. A 2016 report from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics highlighted how semiconductors and integrated circuits, and their availability, are at high risk. The component parts that rely on these items are also put at risk, including everything from weapons targeting systems to the computers military members use daily. Taiwan alone accounts for over 50 percent of the world’s manufacturing of the most advanced, ten-nanometer chips to both Chinese and American companies. And, when the United States is reliant on a specific foreign part or technology, the supplier is also at risk—our competitors and adversaries could use influence operations to manipulate the source country into shutting off the supply of key components the United States needs to fight.
In their book LikeWar, Peter W. Singer and Emerson Brooking ominously wrote that “there’s no historical analogue to the speed and totality with which social media platforms have conquered the planet.” Authoritarian governments around the globe have recognized the power inherent to information access—as depicted in the recent examples of Kazakhstan and Sudan—and America’s peer competitors, like China and Russia, spend vast resources on information and cyber operations targeting both their backyard neighbors—Ukraine and Lithuania, for example—and nations around the globe. The manipulation of the information environment and the cognitive impact of malign influence campaigns are now widely known, especially after Russia’s information and cyber operations targeting democratic elections and China’s government-sponsored disinformation about COVID-19. But, in the modern information environment, the United States is far behind our adversaries in appreciating the potential for information operations to undermine our military’s ability to man, train, and equip.
Ultimately, the Army has taken the first steps toward recognizing the vulnerabilities inherent to the ubiquity of the information environment by pivoting away from information warfare—a term that preserves the peace-war dichotomy that is irrelevant in competition—toward achieving information advantage—a term that appreciates the information environment’s moral and cognitive aspects and its relevance to military readiness. But until all Army leaders—from maneuver to logistics to cyber—understand how information can be used to degrade military effectiveness, the Army is subject to the fates of the next conflict. China and Russia already view war as information-centric—and Iran is not far behind—where all other aspects serve to shape the information environment. Until the US military reconfigures how it mans, trains, and equips its forces to account for the information environment, the next war will be far more difficult than it needs to be.
Maj. Joe Littell is a US Army psychological operations officer and research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy.
Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, is a US Army cyber officer currently assigned to the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy where she is a scientific researcher, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences, and an affiliated faculty of the Modern War Institute. She is also the coeditor of this series and director of the Competition in Cyberspace Project.
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: Sgt. Dustin D. Biven, US Army
The idea that we must "rethink train, man and equip for information advantage;" this, I suggest, is the wrong concept.
The proper concept, I suggest, is one that states that we must "rethink train, man and equip;" this, so as to adequately acknowledge and defeat (a) our opponents'/our competitors'/our enemies' — common — "containment" and "roll back" strategies and (b) their related activities (for example: information warfare) employed in the service of same.
As to this latter "rethink train, man and equip" concept, the following "Unconventional Warfare Primer for Today" might prove useful:
Unconventional Warfare Primer for Today:
1. Post-the Cold War, the U.S./the West has been engaged in "revolutionary"/"global change" initiatives and activities; that is, engaged in "revolutionary"/"global change" initiatives and activities designed to bring about — both here at home and there abroad — political, economic, social and/or value change; this, so as to provide that the states and societies of the world (to include our own) might be made to better interact with, better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy.
2. These such "revolutionary"/"global change" initiatives and activities has placed the U.S/the West in much the same "revolutionary"/ "global change" position as the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War; wherein, back then, the Soviets/the communists sought to (a) "change the world," in that case, (b) so that same might be made to better interact, better provide for, etc., communism.
3. As we know from our Old Cold War experience, nations that are attempting to "change the world" these such nations are highly susceptible/highly vulnerable to "containment" strategies and "roll back" strategies which are (a) designed and implemented by their "resisting change" adversaries and which (b) prey upon the concerns and fears of those who commonly oppose "change," to wit: the more conservative/the more traditional elements of the states and societies of the world.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
The common goal — the common political objective — of such U.S./Western opponents/enemies/competitors as Russia, China, Iran and the Islamists today, this is to prevent the U.S./the West from transforming their states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.
It is so as to achieve this such "prevent" goal that these such opponents, etc., now employ (a) "containment" and "roll back" strategies and (b) such things as "information warfare" and an appeal to the conservative elements of the world's populations in the service of same.
Thus, if we are to properly "rethink train, man and equip" for today, then we must do this, I suggest, more from the "threat" perspective that I provide above?
In my initial comment above — toward the end of Item No 3 of my "Unconventional Warfare Primer for Today" — I tell how:
a. As part of our opponents/our competitors/our enemies common "containment" and "roll back" strategies,
b. How these such opponents, etc., must be expected to prey upon the concerns and fears of those who commonly oppose "change," to wit: the more conservative/the more traditional elements of the states and societies of the world.
In this regard, and as relates to "Man" section of our article by Maj. Joe Littell and Capt. Maggie Smith above, let us look at how:
a. Re: a current recruiting "change" initiative by the U.S. military,
b. How this has been viewed (and opposed) by many conservatives today:
"Conservatives, including Gorka, also pushed back this week on the new series of Army recruiting commercials designed to reach potential recruits from all backgrounds. One features Malonelord, the Army corporal, discussing her childhood in which she took ballet and marched for equality with her two moms; another ad shows a first lieutenant who immigrated to Florida from Haiti as a child. …
Heidi Urben, a retired Army colonel who specializes in civil-military relations, said Cruz's claims are damaging to the military's efforts to stay out of the political fray.
'I found Sen. Cruz's follow-on tweet, where he tried to claim he wasn't attacking the military, just as problematic as his original one, when he claimed that Dem politicians & woke media are trying to turn [the military] into pansies,' said Urben, who now teaches at Georgetown University.
'By labeling the Army recruitment videos as Dem videos, he is following a trend of politicians using the military as a partisan football — attacking the military when it's perceived to be in opposition to their partisan stance and praising it when it appears to be a co-partisan,' she said. 'Such comments aim to divide the military — a nonpartisan institution — and the public's perception of its military.'
Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, director of Army marketing, defended the video series, saying the Army’s success 'hinges on our ability to attract the best and brightest our country has to offer, which includes Soldiers from all walks of life.'
'Our new campaign "The Calling" takes an important step in appealing to the next generation — Gen Z — and closing the relatability gap that exists today by offering a rare look at the lives and motivations of those who serve,' Fick said. 'We are proud of all five Soldiers who volunteered to tell their stories as part of this campaign, and the Army is proud to have them in its ranks.' "
(See the "Politico" article "Conservatives Lash Out at the Military Over ‘woke’ policies" by Lara Seligman and Connor O'Brien.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
We must come to understand that — as common opponents/competitors/enemies of "change" —
a. The conservative elements of the states and societies of the world (for example, today, those conservative elements here in the U.S.)
b. How these folks can become the (witting and/or unwitting) "natural allies" of our state and non-state enemies/opponents/competitors (for example, today, Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists).
As to this such suggestion, from an "information advantage"/"information warfare" perspective, what exactly do we think that the Russians (etc.) will think of — and will do with — the following information presented at my quoted item from "Politico" above?
"Such comments aim to divide the military — a nonpartisan institution — and the public's perception of its military."
To sum up my thoughts above, to "Compete and Win in the Twenty-First Century," we must, first and foremost,
a. Acknowledge our opponents'/our competitors'/our enemies' "containment" and "roll back" strategies and
b. Their use of such things as (a) information warfare and (b) an appeal to the conservative elements of the world's populations in the service of same.
Thus, for example, from a "manning" perspective —
a. When the U.S. Army determines that it can "compete and win in the twenty-first century" only by "recruiting from all backgrounds," by "attracting the best and brightest that our country has to offer and which includes individuals from all walks of life" and by "appealing to Generation Z" today,
b. Then these such efforts are now often undermined by conservatives — who, whether they know it or not — now appear to working for our opponents/our opponents/our competitors/our enemies.
To better illustrate this — if not unholy then certain unhealthy — alliance/relationship, consider the following:
“In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’
(See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the "National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Russian efforts to weaken the West through a relentless campaign of information warfare may be starting to pay off, cracking a key bastion of the U.S. line of defense: the military. While most Americans still see Moscow as a key U.S. adversary, new polling suggests that view is changing, most notably among the households of military members.”
(See the “Voice of America” item entitled: “Pentagon Concerned Russia Cultivating Sympathy Among U.S. Troops” by Jeff Seldin.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
From the information I have provided above, it seems clear that what we must do, this is to man, train and equip our troops — not for information advantage — but, rather, so as to:
a. Overcome the "containment" and "roll back" strategies of our opponents/our competitors/our enemies and
b. Their use of such things as (a) information warfare and (b) the exploitation of the more conservative elements of the world's populations in the service of same.
As we all know, this ("containment," "roll back" and [a] the use of information warfare and [b] the exploitation of the more conservative elements of the world's populations in the service of same); this is EXACTLY what we did versus Soviets/communists in the Old Cold War.
Given the amazing success of our such approach in the Old Cold War (the Soviet Union ceases to exist), now our opponents/our competitors/our enemies have determined to (a) "return the favor;" this, given that (b) "turnabout" — in competition and in war — is considered "fair play?"