President's Commentary: Information Warfare Sends a New Message

May 1, 2018
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Advances in technology and improvements in understanding cognitive science have led to a rediscovery of key elements of information warfare (IW). This once-arcane topic has re-emerged as a vital component of international security that must be closely considered and comprehended in the context of geopolitical objectives, military operations and the daily events of our lives.

Information warfare is an old concept often presented as new thought. Its origins date back centuries, but the modern form of IW manifests itself in the Cold War as the Soviet Union and the free world waged a battle of economic and political ideology fueled by propaganda and underwritten by military might. In many ways, it is “back to the future.” A preponderance of information is fueling IW. In today’s digital world, the amount of information available to anyone or any organization often far exceeds the ability to process the information effectively, let alone analyze or validate it.

Further, IW is underpinned by technology and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about the cognitive dimension of our thinking and decision-making processes. The ability to influence those processes, whether with new technologies or tried-and-true sociopsychological methods, is growing rapidly. IW is focused on instilling doubt, distrust, disinformation, deception or, in some cases, reinforcing beliefs in our thought processes and value systems. Researchers are hard at work exploring the manner in which we gather, absorb, process and act upon information across a broad range of scenarios.

From a strategic geopolitical perspective, information campaigns waged in recent years have shaped operations in the war on terror and influenced perceptions in the U.K.’s Brexit vote and in elections in Spain, Italy and the United States. Questions and doubts arising over election tampering strike at the heart and soul of a free and democratic society and create a lucrative target, as truth tends to succumb to repeated falsehoods.

At the operational level of military operations, IW has demonstrated its effectiveness, particularly when integrated with the effects of electronic warfare, cyber operations, kinetic fires, deception, psychological operations and other traditional methods of influence. We have seen the effect of IW demonstrated repeatedly by the Russians in Eastern Europe as they have used it to intimidate and gain a strategic advantage. Technological advances and increased reliance on technology, coupled with greater understanding of how people think and use information, have given IW a new method of delivery and targeting.

Effective IW can demoralize or even psychologically defeat a superior force. It can sow confusion among troops and cause a lack of confidence in vital systems, such as navigation and command and control. Disinformation or doubt inserted into networks can lead to less trust in the networks themselves and the C4ISR systems the networks support. It can create confusion and chaos. Negative effects could cascade across the entire force. As many examples show, actions at the tactical level have quickly developed into strategic challenges.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of IW comes down to this core issue: How does the quantity and quality of information ingested affect the decision-making process and subsequent action? This applies to government officials, military commanders, business leaders and even individual citizens dealing with life’s everyday concerns.

Prevailing in a strategic IW campaign will require an integrated, interagency, intergovernmental approach. This approach includes partnerships with academia and industry. New capabilities for information operations and new understanding of information warfare are needed, and some legacy approaches should be dusted off. The U.S. Information Agency, which promoted the values of the United States and shaped opinions during the Cold War, deserves a second look.

Promising technology that enables informed decision making can be an effective tool within the framework of information operations. The overwhelming mountain of data generated by countless information sources and media increasingly requires capabilities such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies to appropriately process it, then convert it to knowledge and ultimately to wisdom for effective decisions. The human brain typically cannot adequately process in real time the amount of information needed for timely decisions, so automated tools are essential. Yet those same enabling technologies and algorithms can be corrupted or misrepresented, intentionally misleading decision makers.

We are engaged in a war of culture, minds and consciousness with the proliferation and manipulation of information—a war that has strategic security implications. The time has come to up the ante and fully join that war.

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