Information Operations: The Hidden Key

December 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

From its start as an adjunct to warfighting to its expanded role in all forms of military activities, the discipline of information operations has steadily increased in importance to the modern force. The concept has grown in size and scope, and it now finds itself occupying an important seat at the table of force projection. Yet this evolution did not come about without difficulty, and challenges still remain before the true effectiveness of information operations can be realized.

Years ago, when the U.S. Defense Department looked at its networks and their vulnerabilities, it first assigned their protection to a mission area called computer network defense. About a year later, the department added computer network attack to the same combatant commander in charge of network defense. During that time frame, the intelligence community continued to have a mission known as computer network exploitation. Ultimately, all of these mission areas were combined into the collective term “information warfare.” In turn, information warfare evolved into information operations.

The evolution from separate mission areas to the rubric of information operations is exactly what the military needed. Information operations reaches far and wide across the entire spectrum of military operations, both in peace and in war.

Trying to find a joint definition, however, is difficult. The Defense Department is making enormous progress, especially through elements such as the Joint Forces Command and the Strategic Command. The Strategic Command, which has been assigned the mission area of information operations, includes functional components that perform daily information operations.

One definition that is easily understandable is the importance of information operations. Just take the U.S. Navy as an example. The Navy has reorganized information operations to fit the new mold of network-enabled operations. This represents an evolution from the original concept of network-centric warfare through network-centric operations. Formerly under the commander, Naval Security Group, information operations now falls under the Navy Network Warfare Command.

The Navy now is close to attaining the long-sought vision of an efficient network-centric force. And, information operations is a key to that realization. Simply, information operations will be playing an enormous role in every sea encounter that will take place in the foreseeable future. It is as important today as the surface-to-air missile was when it was introduced to the fleet.

The importance of information operations cannot be overstated. Before it became network-centric, the Navy was platform-centric. It had so many platforms that it projected brute force to overwhelm any enemy. In effect, the Navy was the big gorilla that could big-gorilla its way through any engagement.

Now, the United States is transitioning to a smaller Navy, but one that has the same mission set as its gargantuan predecessor. The only way that the smaller Navy can ensure success in every engagement—peaceful or hostile—is through the proper use of information operations in a network-enabled maritime environment.

Also, the enemy has changed. No one would have predicted that the biggest threat to the modern Navy would be an explosive-laden dinghy that blows itself up next to a combat ship taking on supplies in a neutral port. This change in enemies and tactics dovetails with the end of the brute force “gorilla” option.

In the absence of those tactics, the Navy must use the network to take advantage of its superior intelligence and information capabilities. This will enable the fleet to bring the collective power of a dispersed group of ships and aircraft to engage a problem and solve it favorably.

With information operations as an ally, a force can maximize its effect on an adversary in the most efficient way possible. Similarly, the force can minimize the threat that enemy forces pose to it and its allies. And, that force can significantly decrease the amount of collateral and unwanted damage that historically has occurred in hostile military operations.

However, that ideal environment has not been reached just yet. The major hurdle facing effective information operations is that the military continues to stovepipe-fund information technology and capabilities. This is similar to the way that it funds platforms—the Navy buys its service-specific platforms, the Army buys its own platforms, and the Air Force buys its platforms.

Although the services talk about implementing standards, each tends to want its own standards to serve as the designated joint standard for the other services. The biggest challenge to effective information operations may be to convince people that if they give up their perfect solution—their standards—and embrace common standards, then the collective might of a military or a coalition force can be significantly more than the sum of individual stovepipe systems. The solution would be not quite as perfect as each service wants, but the sum of the parts would be far greater.

The military understood the need to standardize ammunition years ago when it ran into logistical difficulties trying to keep the force armed. Now, as information is defined as the ammunition for 21st century military operations, it too must receive the benefits of standardization. Then, the network-enabled military can reap the true harvest promised by information operations.