Disruptive by Design: Every Operation Is an Information Operation

December 1, 2020
By Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC

As the capabilities of networked technologies continue to increase exponentially, so too does the speed and impact of the narrative. Recordings, images and commentary about an event can be uploaded within seconds. Based on how visceral any event might be, it could go viral within moments. By the end of the hour, a dominant narrative about that event could be echoed across the Internet, television and radio, and remain wedged in the minds of the audience for weeks, months or years.

Especially if it isn’t true.

Humans are storytelling animals that are simultaneously subject to cognitive heuristics and biases. These tendencies cause us to home in on and echo versions of events that resonate with our personal worldview. Leaders and salesmen of every stripe have leveraged such characteristics since time immemorial, but the advent and availability of networked recording technologies and social media is creating a vastly widening attack vector for adversaries. And when it comes to conducting operations in the information environment, America’s competitors are in the lead by a wide margin.

Russian and Chinese approaches to operations in the information environment are holistic, whole of government and whole of society. They employ psychological manipulation, targeting states and societies, achieving effects in the minds and decision-making processes of key individuals so that the interests and goals of Russia and China are coercively advanced. Of note, they view and employ their military not simply as an instrument of state power by which to fight and win wars, but as a tool to change the strategic calculus and outlooks of civilian populations and their leaders. In this way, military operations are fully integrated into informational power—even becoming a form of information fires.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military strictly stovepipes those professionals it trains and employs to conduct operations in the information environment. While recent doctrine and certain leaders bang the drum insisting that information operations must be baked into planning and operations from the start, rare is the command that means this, and rarer still is the command that does this. Rather, most leaders still understand and plan for operations in the information environment using a hodge-podge of information-related capabilities. If you want electronic warfare, find the electronic warfare subject matter expert and shake him down for effects. If you want psychological operations, find the psychological operations subject matter expert and ask her what she can do for you. Taught that this is how they will be employed, these same information environment professionals largely aim to find where they can bolt their effects on to a given plan and hope for the best.

If the United States hopes to go toe-to-toe with its adversaries in the information environment, this dynamic must change now.

Rather, leaders and planners must understand that there is no such thing as an information environment specialist. All leaders and planners are information environment operators. Exercises and operations must be viewed instead as an opportunity to send a message and set the narrative from the start to strike first, put adversaries on the back foot and dominate the news cycle with the American narrative.

When a brigade commander plans a maneuver exercise in Europe, she should first ask her staff, “What is the story we want to tell?” When a Marine Expeditionary Unit commander begins planning humanitarian assistance operations, he should first ask his team, “What do we want to show the world?” When a fleet commander sets out to sail through the Taiwan Strait, she should first think, “Who do I want to influence, and how do I want to influence them?” Such questions and guidance should be constant throughout planning and execution.

If leaders truly plan and execute every military action as an information action, the United States can leverage the human storytelling tendency and the ubiquity of social media to ensure the American story is the one that shapes the world to best suit the interests of America, its allies and partners.

Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC, is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently serving as the fleet amphibious communications officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.

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