An information “something” article that gets it right

A great, tightly written article over at MWI that looks at information through the “man, train, equip” construct of preparing the Army for war.

While emphasis on operations in the information environment and the cyber domain are certainly increasing, the balance of the military’s attention remains focused on force-on-force engagements during declared conflicts. Much of the time, information and cyber are given supporting roles for kinetic operations but recently, US Army Cyber Command announced a shift in focus from information warfare to “information advantage” for “decision dominance,” and is working to bring the concepts to the forefront of how the Army fights.

RETHINKING “MAN, TRAIN, AND EQUIP” FOR INFORMATION ADVANTAGE, Modern War Institute

Co-written by a PSYOP and Cyber officer, no less – folks in the game.

What I love about the article is that it’s not about the shiny stuff or promising some panacea through the right combination of “words and images.” The Army’s mission is to win land wars. Everything supports that. Instead of focusing on how this or that “information” tool can be used to support that, they focus on demonstrating how information already plays a key role in recruiting, training, and equipping the Army for war.

They talk about disinformation campaigns that target the military.

They talk about how lies spread faster than truth, the so-called ‘illusory truth’ effect.

How should the Army deal with this?

They write:

Specifically, to become proactive in the information environment, the Army needs to understand and predict how and what our competitors and adversaries are going to say, and be ready to deploy solutions ahead of, and in response to, competing and malicious narratives. One solution is teaching critical-thinking skills and inoculating the force by teaching soldiers to become more thoughtful consumers of media and information, especially regarding social media.

I love this.

Critical thinking is key. This isn’t going to be solved by artificial intelligence – at least not anytime soon. We need humans in the room who are astute across multiple domains and who understand the potential impacts of publishing that “edgy” Tweet or highlighting that training or social event.

This has application at both the individual and organizational levels.

Yes, we’re talking about “optics.” Optics are easy to dismiss, but they are actually important. What isn’t optics after all?

Doing the right thing is also important. We need critical thinkers who understand which way to lean at a given time. Is the juice worth the squeeze? What are the potential second and third-order effects?

That’s hard. That takes time.

On training, the authors write about how just about everything we do is now exploitable. Training is not just training anymore. It’s operations.

Specifically, they write about the Jade Helm exercise in 2015 which was the canary in the coal mine.

The information warfare tactics used against Jade Helm could be applied throughout the world, whenever and wherever the US military trains with partners and allies. In fact, we should assume those tactics will be used in the very locations that US servicemembers may be fighting the next war.

The idea of perfect secrecy is diminishing. If we want to compete, we need to recognize that now and start playing the actual game instead of the one we want to play.

Again, they offer a solution:

To gain and hold information advantage, the Army must assess the information environment before, during, and after domestic exercises—just as it does internationally—to understand the narratives surrounding the training and troop movements and to predict, preempt, and ultimately prevent false narratives from taking hold.

They close with the following:

Ultimately, the Army has taken the first steps toward recognizing the vulnerabilities inherent to the ubiquity of the information environment by pivoting away from information warfare—a term that preserves the peace-war dichotomy that is irrelevant in competition—toward achieving information advantage—a term that appreciates the information environment’s moral and cognitive aspects and its relevance to military readiness.

I’m growing to like the term “information advantage” as I get to understand it better. And couching it as they did – a term that “appreciates the information environment’s moral and cognitive aspects” – helps in understanding.

However, information advantage is such a big tent that it starts to lose some of its meaning. There are terms that we should lump and terms that we should split.

Information warfare is something that can be “done” – it’s an activity.

Information advantage – as I understand it – is a state, a confluence of things that puts a decision-maker in an advantageous position.

Information Advantage: A condition where a force holds the initiative in terms of relevant actor behavior, situational understanding, and decision-making through the use of all military capabilities.

What I’m saying is that I don’t think information advantage replaces information warfare (or psychological warfare). It’s something different, something bigger.

Kudos to the authors for a terrific, thought-provoking article.

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What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

I’ve been a long-time reader of the Army’s “Mad Scientist Blog,” but I’m fairly certain I’ve never shared anything of theirs before – at least not on this blog.

From the ‘about’ page:

The Mad Scientist Laboratory blog is a marketplace of ideas about the future of our society, work, and conflict.

There’s something about the old-school ‘Web 1.0’ style of the posts that gets me all kinds of nostalgic.

Anyway, they also have a podcast that I only recently discovered. I started with this episode on How China Fights.

The format of the podcast is a bit different from many other national security podcasts I’ve listened to. There really isn’t a host that is driving the conversation – although they have a pretty intense announcer. Each episode has a main topic and then subtopics which are addressed by “subject matter experts.” It flows nicely.

There were a few things that struck me in this episode. The first is what gives this article its title:

What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

This was said in response to a common retort one may hear about what makes a good Army. They may have the tech, and they may have the numbers, but they might be missing something. In the US, we hold our NCO corps in high regard and assume that is one of the things that gives us a qualitative advantage.

What if our adversaries can find a way to function without that? Is that possible?

Probably – but it’s an assumption that doesn’t often get challenged.

Two other things: China’s establishment of the “Strategic Support Force” and the concept of “information superiority” (think “air superiority”) during a crisis. I’ve never really thought about information that way – but I think there can be some relevancy – as the guest stated, in a crisis.

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In future war, we’re all getting canceled

A great piece of #FICINT that captures what I think will be a defining element of future war – and competition – smear war.

“All this is very fascinating, general,” she said. “But I think we could benefit from some clarity on how else you plan to change the Corps. Is it your intention to keep female Marines dressing differently from males? Do you want to keep female Marines ‘in a box’, so to speak?”

#CANCELMOLLY

We already see this happening domestically. Our society is very comfortable weaponizing benign information.

Is it really a stretch to think our adversaries won’t do the same?

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Infinite Competition

Friend of the blog Cole Livieratos got there first.

As stated, another great episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative – this one on the role of special operations forces in great power competition – with SOCOM Commander GEN Richard Clarke and Linda Robinson (RAND) as guests.

As an aside, I read and wrote a quick review of Robinson’s book 100 Victories back in 2014 in preparation for an Afghanistan deployment.

Will the role and capabilities required of special operations forces change in a geopolitical context characterized by great power competition? How will SOF balance enduring counterterrorism missions with new requirements to deter great power rivals? Episode 39 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast brings together the commander of US Special Operations Command and a leading researcher of special operations to dig into these questions.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES AND GREAT POWER COMPETITION

If you’ve been paying close attention to the IWI podcasts, especially when it comes to SOF and competition, there is a steady drum beat extolling the importance of influence and information.

And if you listen even closer, you’ll hear that in this next phase, we need to be leading with influence.

I enjoyed Cole’s thread on this episode. It’s a succint history of where PSYOP has been in the past two decades. With a lot of the internal drama out there on display.

But I heard the episode a little differently. I might just be more optimistic, but I think our senior leaders – especially, but not exclusively in the SOF ranks – get it.

PSYOP is great, but they don’t have a monopoly on understanding the impact of information. And scoring “wins” might be desireable to influence professionals, but it’s the senior leader who has to accept the risk.

And as GEN Clarke states succinctly in the episode, in leading with influence, “…this is an area where senior leaders, I believe, have to be able to accept more risk in the future.”

But don’t take his word for it (or mine), listen for yourself.

Things that captured my attention:

We expect every mission to go well.” Isn’t that true? Leaders don’t like signing off on anything too risky because a loss “looks” so much worse than a win. In fact, in GPC, we’re not going to even see the wins all that often. The problem is, if we actually want to move the needle in a meaningful way, we’re going to have to accept more risk. That inevitably means operations (especially non-kinetic) are going to be marginally successful, ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive. Until we’re ready to start signing off on those types of operations, we’ll be stuck in a reactive, “how do we counter this,” posture.

“Where do you think special operations forces are best equipped to integrate into this competition space?”

“I think that one area that is quite critical, for which SOF and particularly Army SOF, is suited is the information and influence realm. And I think that can draw on this competence that they have, generally speaking in this field. And it is the Army psychological operations forces, but it’s also more broadly this cultural knowledge that they gain and the understanding what messaging is and how it is being employed by the competitor, the adversary, as well as the ability to work among the population with both PSYOP and Civil Affairs.”

Linda Robinson, ~11:00

Where do we compete?

“It is quite clear that the Middle East is a critical arena for China.”

Linda Robinson, ~13:00

Competition is not a “phase” that happens before we shift into conflict.

“We’re in perpetual competition. We always have been and we always will be. And it’s infinite.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~14:00

The return of political warfare.

“We are always struggling to find the right words to describe what we are talking about. Competition I think is an excellent, easily understood term. I understand the department may be working towards integrated deterrence as a term of art and to further enrich the word soup here I’ll just bring up the George Kennan term political warfare, which I think is an important term which shows our history with that.”

Linda Robinson, ~18:00

We don’t need no stinkin’ USIA.

“We no longer have a US Information Agency. Public diplomacy used to be a very strong discipline within our foreign service cadre.”

Linda Robinson, ~23:00

It’s not just Green Berets who can work with a partner force, you know.

“Most people when they think about this, they automatically go to ‘what’s the ODA Green Beret team that is going to be there or the SEAL team that is going to work in the maritime domain,’ but I think we have to think across all SOF functions. What is the best civil affairs team, and what does this country need and how can we train with their civil affairs, or potentially as Linda talked about, they also have information support teams.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~36:00

Do we/should we promote for political warfare acumen? (what a great question!)

“Do you think the system is promoting the right types of leaders and talent to engage in political warfare or great power competition?”

Kyle Atwell, ~42:00

I really liked the above question, and I’m not sure we got a good answer on it. For all of the good things that are happening in talent management (and I’m speaking mostly about the Army here), promotions are still tied to an archaic system of hitting wickets in key positions in order to move up. The types of attributes that would make a SOF soldier “good” at political warfare may have absolutely no bearing on their ability to get promoted within the system.

This is part of a much bigger discussion on how we could retool promotions. What if, for example, we didn’t have centralized promotion boards, and instead let each branch promote internally based on their own needs and understanding of skills required?

The future of SOF is not landing on the roof from a little bird.

“What I think the coin of the realm is in the future, are really those who want to work with populations, and those who truly understand the strategic impact of developing partners in other countries. Also, I think we have to have SOF leaders who are comfortable operating in the policy environment and in the diplomatic environemnt.”

Linda Robinson, ~46:00

I agree. The thing that brings a lot of folks to SOF is the idea of doing the “cool” job. Well, in this environment, winning requires a SOF operator who can do those jobs, but also has the cultural, linguistic, diplomatic, and policy chops to move things along. That’s a lot to ask. But it is completely doable.

And it is a “cool” job.

It’s about assessing, selecting, and training the right folks – and incentivizing the behaviors we want.

Fantastic episode.

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On Foreign Fighters

Good episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

In this fascinating discussion, our guests discuss what political, social, and economic circumstances create the conditions that enable the mass recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters. Their research on this topic represents a startling departure from conventional wisdom and, as such, offers opportunities to preempt this destructive process before it begins. There doesn’t have to be another wave of diaspora-fueled jihad, they argue, but prevention will require Western governments to take comprehensive and determined action now.

ON THE ROAD TO JIHAD: THE ROLE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN IRREGULAR WARFARE

A few things struck me as I listened to this one.

Foreign Fighters and Information Warfare. Early in the episode, the guests brought up the concept of foreign fighters supporting a cause remotely through information warfare. While the focus of the episode was primarily on foreign fighters who actually pick up and travel to a foreign land, there is so much more to know about what actively supporting the same movements looks like when done digitally. Propaganda support (creating/sharing memes), harassment, actual hacking – there’s a lot to be explored there. We saw a lot of this in the mid-2010s during the rise of ISIS. I’d love to learn more.

It’s our fault. Jasmine El-Gamal plants the flag on the things we’re not allowed to talk about – chiefly, that there are policy decisions that the US has made which may be the proximate causes for motivating foreign fighters in the first place. As she rightly indicates, having those conversations were (and are) rare – and it leads to us coming up with new strategies and magic to try to solve the problem. It’s what led to the GWOT effect.

Stanford Prison Experiment. There was a brief mention of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which despite all of its flaws and the continuing information that comes out on it which calls into question the validity of the results, it is still popularly understood to hold water. It is true, of course, for an experiment to be flawed but the results still valid.

Human Rights as Counter-Terror. I like this concept. We don’t really talk about human rights anymore. It used to be a driving force of policy. It has the benefit of allowing you to stand on the moral high ground, as well. It seems we’ve moved very deeply into the realm of states’ interests above all else.

Measures of effectiveness. There’s a conversation at the end discussing possible solutions to the problem of foreign fighters – dissuasion and de-radicalization. This led to the fact that many of these solutions appear to be ineffective because of how difficult they are to measure. If you’ve been reading my newsletters lately, you’ll know that I have an against the grain take on “MoEs” – that is, we don’t always need them. Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

We have an obsession with “showing” results – that’s how you get more money, get promoted, get more resources. Thus, we tend to enact policies and programs that are easy to measure instead of actually effective. If we truly want to win, we have to extend some trust. I don’t need to know how you did the magic trick – I just want to be amazed.

The episode ends with a short story of a stunning encounter between one of the guests and a soldier deployed to Iraq. It’s sad, and it captures the absurdity of war and violence neatly. You can do all the planning and training you want, but when war requires men and women to enact violence on behalf of some cause, it will always be nasty and brutish. There will always be trauma. There will always be psychological scarring.

There is no clinical war.

Lastly, as an exercise in self-awareness it’s helpful to ask yourself (or others) in a given country, where do the majority of foreign fighters come from?

The answer will indicate how close they are paying attention.

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PRC Info-Ops – in their own words

Wow.

Written by the PRC’s National Defense University (NDU) faculty, with assistance from the General Staff Operations Department and the Academy of Military Sciences, this text contains instructional material for NDU Commander’s Course, Staff Officer, and PLA-wide Information Operations Advanced Studies Courses. Forward looking, and deliberately very comprehensive on concepts of information operations at the campaign level in the joint form, the 2009 edition contains extensive review/revisions from its previous publications.

In Their Own Words: Lectures on Joint Campaign Information Operations

What a great project. This stuff is out there and available. This is professional development. It’s not necessarily going to be a “fun” read or one that you need to do.

But if you’re a professional, it’s one that you absolutely should do.

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Lumpers and Splitters

Good episode from the Cognitive Crucible featuring Mike Vickers.

During this episode, the Honorable Dr. Mike Vickers provides his thoughts on a wide range of strategic issues–all of which have connections with the information environment. Mike makes the case that America is like the cyclops in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Like the cyclops, the United States is being blinded and deceived by clever adversaries. Mike also discusses China, India, Estonian technology implementation, the authoritarian-democracy trade off, and international relations theory. He also gives a nuanced examination regarding “whole-of-nation” sloganeering. On one hand, Mike discourages simple phrases that might promote inadequate solutions; on the other, he does agree that we are at a point where we need to cohere around a national strategy and direct our instruments of power productively–including our citizenry.

#63 VICKERS ON IO AND THE CYCLOPS

As I wrote about in my most recent newsletter, there are a lot of hucksters out there when it comes to the information space. Just because you use the internet (too) doesn’t mean you understand how all of this stuff works. It’s great to hear an episode (like this one) where it is clear the guest completely gets it.

I especially enjoyed Mr. Vickers punctuating the fact that there is a difference between “cyber” and “information operations.” He correctly points out that many people – commanders especially (my thoughts, not his) – tend to lump these two things together.

And they are not the same.

Cyber is more tech-based.

Information operations are more people-based.

Sometimes it is good to “lump” things together, as we seem to be doing right now with the whole “information advantage” concept.

Sometimes it is better to “split” things apart.

On this topic (cyber/IO), we should be splitting, because the expertise required to do either is vastly different.

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The Information Operations Episode

I’ll be honest.

I didn’t want to like this episode. I was hoping there would be something in there that just turned me off completely or gave me an opportunity to stand on my soapbox and rant.

When information can travel globally at the tap of a finger, irregular warfare professionals must contend with an ever-changing environment. How does strategic messaging tie into operations on the battlefield? How can we build a more information-savvy force? And how can information act as both weapon and warfighting space?

INFORMATION OPERATIONS FOR THE INFORMATION AGE: IO IN IRREGULAR WARFARE, Irregular Warfare Podcast

Too bad.

It was a great episode and it’s clear the guests Dr. Rafi Cohen and Brent Colburn know what they’re talking about.

They didn’t sing the praises of information warfare as a panacea to all of our problems.

Nor did they cast it aside as a silly distraction.

If you’re interested in information warfare, where it’s currently at, and where it might be going, this episode is worth the listen.

You might also want to consider signing up for the CTG newsletter. The next one goes out tomorrow and it is on this very topic.

There were so many great discussion points in this episode, but the below are the ones that stood out to me.

  • We blame DoD for being poor at responding when this is often way outside of their lane. I’ve seen this over and over again. Some adversarial spokesperson says something that gets picked up and amplified. The response (in DoD circles) is often “how are we countering this?” Well, the answer might have to be – “we’re not.” It may be something way outside the lane of DoD. I’ve been in situations where the person asking me this question is the actual person who has the power and authority to “do” the countering – they often don’t realize it.
  • No one (that we care about) is reading that press release or article in the New York Times. Just because it’s hot in the United States does not mean it’s hot somewhere overseas. In fact, it’s probably a non-story.
  • DoD information warfare is inherently tactical. Before anything else, these efforts should be focused on achieving battlefield effects. How many enemy soldiers surrendered? How many civilians moved to safety? There is a role at the operational strategic level, sure. But that is the realm of political warfare
  • Reinforcing beliefs is easier than changing them. It’s really not even worth the effort.
  • Firehose of falsehoods. I never heard this term before. But it refers to just spouting lies all over the place. This is something that our adversaries do. It’s a tactic, sure. But as the guests say, it ultimately fails. It’s flashy. It’s messy. But it’s not what we do. Truth is our best tactic. (Update: here is a link to a RAND paper on the “Firehose of Falsehoods” Russian propaganda model)
  • Mission Command. Yes! They discussed that our biggest problem is we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish. Readers of this blog will know that this is Matt Armstrong’s thesis.
  • We need to further professionalize. Yes, agree. Beyond PSYOP. When commanders look at the IW professional in the room, there is an expectation of expertise. This comes in many domains. We need to keep professionalizing. This is a bigger topic, but this professional really needs to be a lot of things. Language. Culture. Media. Psychology. Political-acumen. It’s that important.
  • The importance of language and culture. “We need to be able to do all of this simultaneously in multiple different languages.” Yes, agreed. You know who does that really well?
  • The age of secrecy is over. I’m so glad that they made this a point. Whatever it is we’re up to is going to become public knoweldge. There is no way we’re going to keep everything a secret. It’s going to become public. Recognize it, plan for it, and move on.
  • “Black hole” words. We’re full of them. Buzzy words that are devoid of meaning – “strategic communications.”
  • It’s not about the tweets. It’s not about the platform.  
    “The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer-oriented.”
  • Authorities need a revamp. The space moves fast. Push the approval authority down lower. How low? Well, how low can you go?

They ended the episode with this warning: “Don’t trust anyone who says they have this space figured out.

This reminds me of something I once heard about advanced education.

“What did you learn in graduate school?”

I learned how much I don’t know.”

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How low can you go?

I was pleased to see this short article on the need to empower “low-level commanders” to counter information operations.

It leads off which that oft-repeated mantra “we’re getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

“I think we’re getting, and I’m on the record, I think we’re getting our rear end handed to us in the information space because we’re so risk-averse in the environment that we operate in today,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck said yesterday, during a presentation with the Air Force Association.

I actually don’t think that is true (that we’re getting our asses kicked). I think it’s much more complicated than that. Which information environment? Billboards in X Middle Eastern country? Facebook in India? The nightly news in the US? The front page of the New York Times?

When you are the United States, there is going to be bad press. That can make it “feel” like we’re losing.

But when you look at things from the other perspective, we’re actually a behemoth.

Beyond that, the article discusses the need to push the authority to “do things” in the information environment lower.

“I think we need to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “I think, right now, we should change the paradigm [for] the way we do information operations.”

100% agree. Push it down lower. Give left and right limits. Accept risk

“That is a very slow process, and in the environment we’re operating in right now … in about 12 hours to 24 hours in the information space, you’re irrelevant. It has moved on,” he said. “I believe we need to flip that paradigm and push down, use mission command — the lanes in the road, the rules of the road — and allow commanders of the lower level to be able to execute within the mission environment that we’re operating in to be more effective in real time.”

Yes. I really do think that senior leaders get it. They know that things need to change.

How low should we go?

I think we should go pretty darn low.

Validate teams who are trained and educated, give them left and right limits, and let them go.

When they mess up, back them up.

Until we start embracing failure in the IE (instead of waiting for the perfect alignment of words and images), we will continue to “feel” like we are getting our asses kicked.

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Smear War

It’s coming.

Faster and faster.

When you combine our open society, the deluge of information that exists about us and that is already out there – whether we like it or not – and good old-fashioned hacking, we have to get ready for smear war.

Add the weaponization of benign activity/information, a little AI and micro-targeting, and we’ve reached nightmare territory.

Our administrative systems and standard operating procedures are not suited for it. We will be paralyzed.

It’s not new. It’s been done before.

In the next “hot war,” it won’t be loudspeaker operations claiming the “statue of liberty is kaput.” It will be messages directly to your phone about your “sick” dog back home. Along with an AI-generated picture.

There is a way to defend against it. And it’s not hard to do, but it’s easy to mess up.

Patience and trust.

Patience. What looks like an emergency right now will likely dissipate with a little time. Don’t take rash action.

As Colin Powell famously said, “It ain’t as bad as you think. It’ll look better in the morning.”

Trust. We know this is coming, so we have to be ready. When it happens inside of your organization, you have to extend trust. It has to flow up and down.

This takes courage. Courage to push back against the aggressive calls to “do something.”

Be patient. Trust your team.

Don’t scratch the itch.

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