POWs in the Digital Era

Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force

This is the second Cognitive Crucible episode I’ve heard that features Professor Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute. The first discussed the idea that service members are all very likely targets of foreign influence operations – regardless of whether or not there is active armed conflict.

In this recent episode, they go a step further and discuss the need to prepare for a future where our POWs (prisoners of war) will be further exploited through the use of enhanced deep-fake technology, deception, and instantaneous communication.

More importantly, they discuss how our own institutional structures can be exploited at home by the same.

During this episode, Prof. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute return to the Cognitive Crucible and discuss prisoner of war (POW) considerations in the digital world. After Jan recaps his recent article, In Great Power Wars, Americans Could Again Become POWs, the conversation covers the will to fight, cognitive preparation of the battlefield, and ways the enemy might harvest information about service members in advance to identify exploitable information. Both Jan and Stephen give some policy suggestions, as well.

Cognitive Crucible, #58 Kallberg and Hamilton on POWs in a Digital World

This is the type of warning that should scare you. It’s nightmare fuel.

Some things I found particularly interesting:

  • Our personal information is already out there

When social media started to emerge over a decade ago, general security guidance was to avoid putting personal information out there, be mindful of what you’re doing online, and increase your privacy settings.

Good advice, to be sure.

Further, some advised not having social media at all, while others warned that not having social media in an increasingly connected world seemed suspicious.

Well, now we’re at a place where whether you want your “stuff” to be out there or not, it’s out there. If an adversary (or a troll, or harasser) wants to scrape the internet for your stuff, it’s not hard to do.

And for the generation growing up in the shadow of all this, there will be even more “stuff” out there for the foreseeable future.

The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going back in.

My take – this is over. We’re moving toward a society where the ability to maintain pure privacy is ending. There is little we can do at the individual level to protect ourselves completely. When you combine the growing digital ecosystem with nefarious cyber activities of state and non-state actors, our default position should be that “our information is going to get out there.”

Accept it, plan for it, and move on.

We’re really starting to put this thing together. Researchers and practitioners are weaving a quilt of what information warfare is likely to look like in the near future. It’s already happening, but we haven’t quite got it all figured out yet.

Personally, I think it’s important that we start talking – and implementing policy – that will defend us from this. We can’t just warn that it’s going to happen. We will be caught off guard if we are not prepared.

  • POWs have congressional representatives

This was very spooky. The guests discuss the fact that in future-war, there may no longer be a need to have a POW make a public statement disparaging the United States or the war effort. A hyper-realistic fake could be easily created and beamed out to the world.

That captured service member has a congressional representative somewhere back home. What happens when these POWs are exploited with the intent of influencing domestic politics? What happens when a reporter asks Congressman X what she is doing about the captured soldier who comes from her district?

What is her statement when a dramatic video is released of that servicemember begging his congressional representative – by name – to end the war?

What happens when public pressure is placed on that same congressional representative – from her constituents – to “do something” about this?

  • Television is an instrument that can paralyze this country.” -General William Westmoreland

There was a quick discussion on how what we are seeing now in the information age is just an extension of what we started to experience during the Vietnam War. When there are pictures and images, we pay attention. As much as we like to think we are rational creatures, our decision-making process – even at the strategic level – is often guided by emotions, “optics,” and a burning desire to “control the narrative.” These are often not rational decisions, but decisions that seek to please some interest.

How would things be different if there were no dramatic images? No compelling video? If you had to read the results of overseas operations the next day in your local newspaper, splayed out dispassionately?

I think we would address things more rationally. But I’m not certain that our decisions would always be “better.”

Again, the genie is out of the bottle. There is a role for education. There is a very important role for leaders (at all levels) to be patient and take the longer view. But there is also the realization that words, images, and video matter.

” Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

Marshall McLuhan
  • A picture is worth a thousand words
1st Lt. Anthony Aguilar wears the ballistic protective eyewear that prevented a bomb-fragment from possibly damaging his eyes when an IED detonated near his Stryker vehicle while on patrol in Mosul. (Photo by Company C, Task Force 2-1, Feb. 2006.)

COL Hamilton discussed an anecdote from a deployment where he witnessed the rapid purchase of a particular type of eye protection after one of the Generals was shown a picture with a piece of shrapnel lodged in the eye protection that would have almost certainly caused tremendous damage to the soldier’s vision. All of the statistics and lab reports in the world might not move someone to action. But a single image that demonstrates the effect might do the trick.

I don’t like it either – I wish we could be more Spock-like and make decisions based on the evidence.

But there it is.

This was a good episode – one that should have us thinking, and more importantly, moving towards crafting policies and procedures to prepare us for the kinds of deception and smear tactics we’re likely to see in both in the day-to-day operations of Great Power Competition and in the next shooting war.

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Stories versus Arguments

Good article up at Small Wars Journal on storytelling and narratives versus rational arguments.

This is a bit nerdy and in-house PSYOP stuff.

The Campfire v. the Podium: the Persuasive Power of Storytelling

The Campfire v. the Podium: the Persuasive Power of Storytelling | Small Wars Journal

I love the author’s use of a Ghostbuster’s scene to open the argument and drive the point.

I completely agree with the author – narratives and stories – are way more effective than rational arguments in getting people to move in a direction. It is tried and true. System 1 versus system 2.

Often, we tend to overthink things.

You want simplicity? Think Pedro running for president.

“If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true.”

All you have to do is fill in the rest.

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Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

This episode is for the SOF nerds who understand the importance of foreign language capability in special operations.

It is also for those who want to know a little more about the language and culture programs that make, train, and sustain Army SOF.

Language, regional expertise, and cross-cultural competency (LREC) don’t get the same attention as sniper teams in ghillie suits or a bunch of operators touching down on the roof of a house off of a little bird.

But have no doubt, as Special Forces officer Tim Ball says in the episode, it is language ability (and the cultural-competency that comes with it) that sets Army special operations forces (ARSOF) apart from its peers in the other services (Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders, etc).

The episode is a deep-dive on ARSOF language training, to include:

  • Language standards have increased over time (From 0+ -to 1+ on the Oral Proficiency Interview as a graduation requirement)
  • The numerous language programs inside of SOF beyond initial acquisition, including advanced unit training, foreign immersion, operational unit exchanges, and on-demand computer-based online training (with live instructors)
  • The use of virtual reality to enhance language ability and cross-cultural competency

I really appreciated some of the comments that Tim made. He highlights the fact that ARSOF traditionally works with a partner force, and that parternship inherently involves lots of face-to-face communication.

The ultimate aim of language training is to prepare the SOF soldier to instruct and communicate in the target language – to stand up in front of a tough, dedicated fighting force, and communicate to them what it is they need to do.

Tim admits this is hard – not everyone achieves that level of language fluency.

But some do. And in just about every SOF unit, there is “that one” who really gets the language and becomes the de facto communicator on the team.

At the very least, the fact that every SF/CA/PO soldier goes through significant language training provides them with the tools they need to exchange basic expressions and pleasantries. Like it or not, there is an “ugly American” stereotype that precedes us everywhere we go. If you can blast through that by demonstrating basic understanding of the language, it goes a long way.

Related, Tim also wrote a great article on War on the Rocks discussing the role of language in special operations – and the fact that we’ve gotten better.

If you’re not already a subscriber of the Indigenous Approach, you should be. It’s a must-listen for me and bumps my queue every single time.

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All the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare

Image Source: army.mil

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is back on its game and recently released episode 33 (AN UN-AMERICAN WAY OF WAR: WHY THE UNITED STATES FAILS AT IRREGULAR WARFARE).

Incidentally, they just released episode 34 as well (CHINA’S STRATEGICALLY IRREGULAR APPROACH: THE ART OF THE GRAY ZONE).

I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but I’m willing to bet it will feature a discussion about how sly and cunning the Chinese are at IW (as opposed to the US).

I’ll say up front that the reason our adversaries rely on irregular warfare is because they have to — they really don’t have many other options.

And the reason they’re “good” at it is because they are not constrained by the same moral/ethical/legal boundaries that we are.

They’ll weaponize anything.

They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.

This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.

On to the podcast.

There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:

  • We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
  • The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦‍♂️)
  • An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
  • How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
  • The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
  • The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict

Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.

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It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.

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We only know because there is video

Have you noticed that when you watch the news these days (if you watch the news at all) the most inane things will be presented as important enough to deliver to an audience of millions of people? Cars falling off bridges, close encounters with dangerous animals, fights at restaurants in cities far away, and on and on.

Why?

Because there is video.

This isn’t new. As humans, we have a bias towards imagery, especially video. We want to see it.

But with the proliferation of smartphones – just about everyone has a recording device in their pocket – the opportunity to capture excting events has ballooned.

Video is engaging. Video is emotional.

Often, while watching the news, I’ll get sucked into whatever is being shown to me and have to remind myself that this is only news because someone captured it on their smartphone. The national news would not waste the precious seconds reporting to me the facts of a bear attack in Wisconsin without video of the encounter – no one cares.

It’s just something to think about if you find yourself getting charged up about something you see on television (or online). Would you actually care if someone told you about the event or you read about it in the newspaper? Or do you only care because you were able to see it?

And does that distinction matter?

I think it does.

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“Psychological” isn’t a dirty word

Really good thread on this the other day.

Friends of the blog Matt Armstrong and David Maxwell chimed in as well.

As a society (especially in the West), we have elevated anything having to do with the human brain to an almost sacred position. It is often said that it is easier to put a “warhead on a forehead” than it is to put an idea between someone’s ears.

My sense is that this aversion comes from a fear that attempting to influence using any kind of “technique” is somehow morally or ethically repugnant or dishonorable.

This, of course, is silly. We use these “techniques” every day. If we can use non-lethal methods to gain advantage in competition, change the tide in battle, or ultimately lessen suffering in war, shouldn’t we?

I also think there is an underlying fear born of conspiracy theory and pseudoscience that any form of influence is an attempt at ‘mind-control’ or ‘brain-washing’ – terms that have no basis in reality.

To Cole’s point, the constant word-shifting – psychological to informational – isn’t helpful. It’s an attempt to sanitize the effort, but only works to strip it of its essence. Everything we do is inherently a human endeavor. As such, there are psychological aspects at play and we should take them into account.

The more we try to avoid that, the less effective we will be.

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We don’t need no stinking USIA

From now on, this is my repsonse/reaction article to overly simplistic calls for a rejuvenation of the USIA.

The org chart is just fine.

And I continue to think that folks think bringing back the USIA will work because, you know, it has ‘information’ in the name.

We have the tools and we have the talent.

What we need is a clear vision, direction, and commander’s intent.

And then, a willingness to let subordinates go to town.

USIA was the manifestation of segregating information from policy; USIA’s authorities were less than the organization it replaced; and, USIA was not charged with nor did it conduct an anti-/counter-political warfare mission. Today, the organizational chart as-is has the potential to surpass the relevance, integration, and effectiveness of USIA if the White House and Secretary of State would appreciate this function, hire the right person, and support and hold accountable this office and its role.

The Irony of Misinformation and USIA, MountainRunner

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Warfare of the Mind

Fantastic two-part series from the Indigenous Approach podcast on the concept of resistance and unconventional warfare.

Part 1

Part 2

Links:
Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) Project
Resistance Operating Concept (ROC)
Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy”


The concept of resistance is foundational to Army Special Operations Forces, as our mission is generally to partner with forces to either support or defeat resistance movements. In this two-part series, we pair experts on resistance with our forward-stationed battalion commanders in Germany and Japan to discuss what resistance is and how it’s applied in today’s operational environment.

‎The Indigenous Approach: Concept of Resistance: Part 1 – Resistance in Europe on Apple Podcasts

Special operations is inundated with terms that define gradations of warfare: unconventional warfare, irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, information warfare, political warfare, and on and on. Some of these terms are written into doctrine, others are in popular use or academic and carted out to make a point.

The doctrinal terms have unique meanings, and those meanings are incredibly important to the planners and practicioners who see to their execution.

We’ve got squishier terms too, like resistance.

What does that mean in the context of warfare and special operations?


This was such an incredibly insightful two-part series which explains resistance in detail. And while this is a must-listen for folks in the special operations community, I think it is even more important for it to reach a wider national security audience to build an understanding of what special operations can do (and are supposed to do) in supporting resitance operations.

Future war is likely to feature conventional operations as the decisive operation and a resistance force as a shaping operation (or vice-versa, who knows?). It would be helpful for anyone who might have to participate in that future war to have a baseline understanding of resistance operations.

There are some real gems in this series, too.

Poor planning and friction can lead to “going with what you know.”

“When things get difficult, people tend to go with what they know. And what that ends up looking like, you have a defense capability that looks a lot like your military. If you find yourself with a resistance force or irregular defense force that looks exactly like your unit or exactly like your military, then you’ve probably lost your way.”

Part 1, ~29:30

Often, this comes down to equipment and logistics. The “tail” that makes our forces what they are is long (and expensive). Trying to replicate that in a partner force – especially a resistance force – just isn’t going to work. This is also true for tactics. The way we do things works for us – it might not work for them. There is a level of embracing this that is necessary to be effective.

Or to put it another way – it’s not going to feel great.

What does SOF do in a bar fight? They’re in the parking lot, pulling wires and cutting tires.

“I use this analogy of what SOF was created to do – of a bar fight. There’s a large bar, there’s a bar fight, the military decides they’re going to go in. The Marine Corps is there to punch the bouncer in the face and get us inside and the Army is supposed to run inside and plug the zone and make sure that the bar fight goes our way. What does SOF do? We’re in the parking lot, pulling wires, cutting tires, ambushing your reinforcements, and influencing the population to come join the fight who are friendly, and dealing with the ones who want to come and reinforce them.”

Part 1, ~38:00

On the role of PSYOP through the continuum of resistance operations:

“PSYOP has the role to assist with the strategic messaging – to assist with the messaging during peacetime now to increase the resiliency of the population and perhaps to warn them, to some degree, against the adversary, and then they also have a role to play if there is a takeover of a nation.”

Part 1, ~41:00

Have you ever heard the term ‘digital standoff’ before? I haven’t.

“If you look at the Jedburghs back in WWII, they show up in a village, and there’s a parade, and people celebrating their arrival because they know they’re going to assist the resistance. That played pretty well back then. But if you did that today, a picture of that would be around the world in three seconds. So I think what that causes is a belief that maybe you can achieve far enough standoff from a digital means or achieve a digital safe haven where the human-to-human piece of this is no longer necessary, or at least that that connection can be made digitally…”

Part 1, ~45:00

The above was super-insightful. Resistance and support to resistance is going to look a lot different in the future. America is not the same. The world is not the same. Additionally, the fact that the picture would make it around the world in three seconds, to me, isn’t a bad thing. It is going to be nearly impossible to prevent that – so you have to embrace it. This is incredibly uncomfortable for a force that is accustomed to operating in the shadows.

GPC and LSCO are not the same.

“Most people when they talk Great Power Competition (GPC) – at least most of the stuff I’ve read – people have a tendency to equate it to Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). So, is that a piece of competition? Is it the most of competition? How does LSCO fit into GPC?”

Part 2, ~8:00

Say it once, say it twice, third time’s the charm.

“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

Part 2, ~13:00

It’s just true – SOF NCOs are the ones who maintain the long term relationships. Much of this has to do with the fact that officers don’t spend as much time on teams as NCOs do. This isn’t a bad thing – this is the way it is and should be exploited.

“The Philippine generals, three or four of them said ‘Joe how are you doing? It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen you! How’s everything going?’ More general officers knew him as Joe the Sergeant First Class Special Forces NCO than they knew the PACOM staff senior officers. And that’s really a testament to the relationships that our NCOs have.”

Part 2, ~21:00

The below is a good recruiting line.

“The meme is the new PSYOP leaflet.”

Part 2, ~27:00

I cannot stress the below enough. Our risk aversion in the IE stems mostly from fear of embarressment. How silly is that? No one wants to be dragged through the mud digitally – but it happens all the time, and it’s fine. The day moves on. We’re unwilling to try because we’ve see what happens when someone makes a mistake. We should be making many, many more mistakes and living with it. That’s how we achieve success. Frequency of a theme over time. Not by crafting one, super-polished message.

“The tragedy is if we make a mistake in a kinetic operation, you know, it is unrecoverable. Somebody dies. But if we make a mistake in the information environment, in today’s world, the news cycle is going to move on. And yeah, it might me embarrassing, it might have an effect for a short term, but we can recover from information mistakes, so we should be aggressive and allow our teams to seize the initiative in the information space.”

Part 2, ~28:00

We keep hearing it – PSYOP and influence operations as the desicive operation. The more we embrace this, the more successful we’re going to be.

“It’s a little bit of a culture shift for an ODA to be like ” Hey MIST (Military Information Support Team), how can I help you?”

Part 2, ~35:00

What are we really assessing/selecting for?

“One common trait of special operations is, I think, we select for life-long learners.”

Part 2, ~41:45

This is so true. After assessment, selection, and qualification, you have not arrived. You have just begun. The continuing education – both through PME, unit training, and I think more importantly, self-development, is critical to actually getting good at this stuff.

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