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Bits and Bytes Save Lives

June 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Escalating use of information systems in missions shortens conflicts.

Information operations are coming of age, moving through the exploration stage of adolescence and forward toward a future that some experts believe should feature ubiquitous integration. Although computer systems have already proved their ability to influence the nature of warfare, the maturation of doctrine and technologies is likely to bring with it even more substantial changes in the way the military conducts operations.

The definition of information warfare is somewhat broad and continues to evolve. The U.S. Defense Department defines it as actions taken to influence, affect or defend information, information systems and decision making. Essentially, the term has come to encapsulate many areas—from protecting and defending networks to using information itself as a weapon.

Information operations’ purpose is twofold, according to Cmdr. Robert Gourley, USN (Ret.). On the protection side, the goal is to guard the United States’ ability to see, know, understand, decide and act. On the attack side, forces must be able to destroy, deny and disrupt an adversary’s abilities to decide and to act. “IW [information warfare] clearly is already saving lives on the battlefield today. It’s saving U.S. lives, and it’s saving lives of adversaries by ending wars earlier,” Cmdr. Gourley states.

In the information operations community, Cmdr. Gourley, the director of security technologies, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Reston, Virginia, is a Renaissance man of sorts. His master’s degree in computer science allows the commander to talk effortlessly about computer network defense. As a retired naval officer with more than 20 years of operational intelligence experience, he is just as comfortable discussing how information—or disinformation—can influence military operations. These dual perspectives reflect the nature of information operations today.

The commander views information operations as an integrated environment where information warfare and kinetic warfare are intrinsically linked. “You have to think about the big picture and what your contributions will be because to really maximize its contribution, you have to think the whole enchilada. It’s an integration of all the networks where you’re using computers to attack and defend and all of these softer skills like psychological operations. It’s also linked to these harder missions and traditional military missions like troop movements, fires on the battlefield, bombs dropping from aircraft. To really make IW a powerful thing, it has to be integrated into the full spectrum,” he says.

Although information warfare is a relatively new term, the commander notes that information operations have been a part of fighting from the very first battle. More recently, however, they are being viewed as a continuum. From the early 1980s until the first Gulf War, a period Cmdr. Gourley calls the formative stage, strategic concepts were refined.

During the next stage, or codification period, the military realized that the potential of information warfare was significant, and the services began creating programs and making organizational changes to maximize their use. However, while the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff were involved in joint efforts, doctrines and concepts were being codified differently at the service level.

“That leads to this third period that we see, and that’s this current era of transformation where we believe that information warfare will really be enhanced significantly, and we’re seeing evidence of that transformation right now. We believe we’re going to see the ability to synchronize information warfare with kinetic military operations to a degree that’s never been done before,” Cmdr. Gourley relates. End-to-end systems engineering has allowed the military to link systems in tanks, armed personnel carriers and high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles with encrypted communications links through satellites to command centers, then connect those to powerful computer systems and information warfare capabilities.

The ability to process and handle more information faster is part of this transformation, he relates. The Transformational Communications Office (SIGNAL, February, page 25), a new program office directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, will bring about significantly enhanced laser-based communications in space. “This will be huge. It provides a lot of challenges and possibly some opportunities in information warfare. The challenges come from the fact that any time you open up big pipes you have to think through the information security of it. But the benefits are that, if you can move that much information, you can coordinate and integrate better,” he says.

Cmdr. Gourley’s firm shares the Defense Department’s vision for information operations, he states. One piece is the synchronization of kinetic and nonkinetic effects, the integration of multiple command staffs and planning abilities, and enhanced coordination. Although it is hard to determine where on the integration continuum the military now stands, Cmdr. Gourley believes that, by establishing the U.S. Strategic Command, the Defense Department has delineated clear positions of authority in this area.

“The command has processes in place to get planning staff to all of the other regional combatant commanders. It has people in place that have increasing levels of training and familiarity with information warfare. So, we are really beginning to move out,” he states.

In addition to integration, Cmdr. Gourley says that computer system defense is, always has been and always must be a priority. If the highest goal of information warfare is to influence an adversary’s decisions, information security is essential because the military does not want the enemy to be able to influence its decisions, he points out.

Challenges in this area run the entire spectrum and will continue and increase. Penetration by a hostile nation-state’s intelligence service is a threat, and Cmdr. Gourley relates that the United States has already seen indications that a dedicated, deliberate effort was underway to extract large quantities of information between 1999 and 2000. Although the information was unclassified, it was nonetheless information that the United States would not want others to have, he emphasizes.

A little lower on the threat spectrum are terrorist organizations. “We have seen indications of a desire by several of these terrorist groups to be able to influence us via networks. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that any of them have successfully done that, but once you’ve seen a stated intent, it’s only a while before the capability will come,” Cmdr. Gourley shares.

Malicious code and distributed denial of service attempts as well as hackers still threaten networks, and the danger of attacks from people within an organization also is significant. One particular concern is Defense Department employees who may be controlled by a hostile nation-state’s intelligence service.

According to Cmdr. Gourley, a positive trend in the Defense Department is the move to bring network operation centers and security centers closer together. Although this has been done in the past, it occurred primarily at the higher levels of the department and only sporadically at other levels.

Although defense in information operations focuses on computer defense, the commander maintains that the United States must protect against other threats as well, such as perception management attacks and psychological warfare. The primary defense in this area is to publicize the truth. For example, if an adversary is broadcasting disinformation, the United States must prove, using imagery and on-the-scene reports, that the information is false.

To realize the full potential of information warfare, it must be integrated with concepts such as global effects-based operations, secure network-centric warfare, infrastructure protection, electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and  it must be part of the training process, the commander states. “All of that has to be integrated into an end-to-end system of systems. Now, this is a huge task. The nation has solved other huge tasks like this, and we use large systems integrators º to help accomplish these tasks,” he adds.

To help companies support Defense Department efforts, Cmdr. Gourley would like to see the government organize an information warfare strategic think tank. He likens this request to the thinking that occurred when nuclear weapons were first developed. As a result, the RAND organization was established using U.S. Air Force requirements, and it helped the nation define how it would handle this new form of war, he relates. Many academicians and some government personnel currently are discussing such an organization.

“As one guy out in industry, I’d have to tell you that, if there was some think tank to help the nation wrestle with how we do war in cyberspace, I think it would be a positive step. That think tank would need to involve the best and the brightest minds from academia, industry and the Department of Defense,” the commander says. Although many groups address the issues of defensive information warfare, only parts of organizations deal with strategic information warfare, he adds.

Cmdr. Gourley warns that offensive information warfare capabilities can be perishable if adversaries think they understand what the military will do. “Therefore, it’s extremely important to protect the security of those programs. Any details of any information warfare capability should really remain classified. Those who participate in those areas need to understand how to keep secrets and keep details to themselves,” he emphasizes.