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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“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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Curiouser and Curiouser

A deep-dive on where we’ve been and where we are in regards to big-picture political warfare/public diplomacy.

I appreciate Matt’s insistence that it’s not about pulling the right “info-ops” lever or restructuring organizations, but having a clear strategic vision of where we’re going – a “commander’s intent.” With that, everyone can move in the right direction. We have the tools and we have the talent – we just need to know where to go.

If there is a strategy or something resembling a strategic vision, in other words, the president knows what we want tomorrow to look like and has a baseline understanding of the costs we are willing to pay and the costs we are willing to extract from adversaries (and allies), then there is a “page” for everyone to get on to (ie “commander’s intent”). Centralized orchestration breaks down quickly as the buck is passed and sign-offs are required. Along with a commonly understood goal (or goals), we need to tolerate risk so risk avoidance does not continue to have the priority. These are all products of leadership, or lack of leadership.

Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion – MountainRunner.us

The post features an extended question and answer portion at the bottom. Worth reading if you are confused (and you are – I know I am) about the Smith-Mundt Act, the US Agency for Global Media (formerly BBG), and what the heck we’re even doing anymore.

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“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it”

Another great episode from the Irregular Warfare podcast on SOF and civilian oversight. A wonky topic, for sure, but incredibly important.

In this episode, our guests argue that SOF is uniquely suited to address irregular warfare challenges in the era of great power competition. However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve. According to our guests, civilian leadership and oversight can help overcome these challenges.

The View from Washington: Sen. Joni Ernst and Former Asst. Sec. of Defense Owen West on Civilian Oversight of SOF – Modern War Institute

There’s lots of great stuff in this one, but I especially appreciated the short conversation on information warfare and the role of Army psychological operations. It starts around the 22 minute mark. Some choice excerpts below.

If we looked around the armed forces, [it’s] the Army’s psychological warfare wing, which really is the repository of our original talent and experience in information operations. And yet, when I visited a couple of times, it was apparent that structurally, this had not received the money, or let’s just call it prestige that others had…

Owen West

Very true. The talent and ambition is there, but the branch is so small and the issues incredibly wonky. Part of the conversation here is about the struggle to adequately explain to a non-IW/PSYOP person what the heck it is that you’re trying to do – as they mention in the podcast “in two senteces.”

And the explosion of information warfare challenges has lead to a “catching up” phase where structures and authorities are being rewritten to match the times. This is a slow process.

To put things in perspective, PSYOP didn’t become an official branch of the Army until October 2006. Special Forces, on the other hand, became a branch in April 1987. A colleague of mine once reminded me that PSYOP is today where SF was in the late 1990s / early 2000s. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there is something there.

In regards to prestige, there’s no surprise there. Over the past twenty years, SOF – jointly – was very much focused on direct action. There is a shift occuring now, and there’s no question that the weather is changing on the current fight (influence, GPC, etc.). It’s not going to be easy to point to the hard wins in IW when we’re really just moving the dial or changing the temperature of the water.

Also, it’s hard to make a Call of Duty video game or 12 Strong movie for information warfare.

And part of the problem, of course, is RULES:

But I don’t know that your audience knows the limitations on them [PSYOP] were pretty astonishing… I felt pretty much like the opponent was playing by different rules.

Owen West

Yup. Part of living a free country.

Moving way from PSYOP. On the comparitive advantage of the US military due to the NCO corps:

…what people haven’t pointed to is the comparitive advantage, if we level-set armies around the world and their special operations forces, and that is our NCO corps, and our senior NCO corps. No one can match the NCO corps of the United States.

Owen West

This is so true, and it is something that we don’t highlight enough. Our SOF NCOs are really that good.

I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek quip on what civilan shops at the highest levels in DoD should not be doing:

“Part of my shop was too operational… really this was about policy making, and not helicopter bump plans.”

Owen West

Defense folks love being ‘operational’ and focusing on the tactical elements of things. There are some jobs, however, where this is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, this is a system which lauds tactical expertise and it is often those small skills that makes for a successful career.

And a quote to kind of wrap up the whole point, stated perfectly:

“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it.”

Senator Joni Ernst

And since we’re talking about irregular warfare, a quick remeinder: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

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PSYOP, PSYOP, everywhere

Just a quick post to point out that I’ve seen PSYOP leaders making the rounds this past week on at least two separate podcasts.

First, from the Cognitive Crucible / PSYWAR Podcast:

This is a very special dual release episode of the Cognitive Crucible. Our friends over at the PSYWAR podcast are also releasing this via their channel. During this episode, IPA founding member, Austin Branch, is joined by COL Jeremy Mushtare, who commands the US Army’s 8th Psychological Operations Group. Jeremy discusses PSYOP manpower matters and then Austin contrasts roles and responsibilities between PSYOP soldiers and FA30s who tend to be more on the staff integration side of information operations. Then, the discussion turns to cognitive security partnerships, competition below the level of armed conflict, and initiatives.

About the PSYWAR Podcast: Cognitive Crucible listeners can follow this link and check out the PSYWAR podcast. The PSYWAR podcast demystifies psychological operations, informs soldiers about how they can join the PSYOP regiment, discusses the future of Information Warfare, and sprinkles in some cool war stories.

And then, quite boldly, COL Jason Smith and COL Jeremy Mushtare (4th and 8th PSYOP Group Commanders) joined US Army WFT Nation radio for a discussion on PSYOP. I haven’t listened to this one yet, but looking forward to it.

It is refreshing to see this increased appetite for getting out there and telling the story. There’s a lot of good work being done and there’s no reason to be shy.

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