The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

A Cold War, fought with information and espionage

As we move further and further into this new thing – great power competition – I’m struck by how much more difficult this is going to be than anything we’ve done before.

Counter-insurgency was supposed to be the “graduate level of war.

If that’s the case, then great power competition and political warfare must be the doctorate level of war.

We are going to have to do more planning, more work, and more activity just to slightly move the dial.

And that is what winning looks like.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.