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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Neurowarfare

This is an interesting one that is kind of flying under the radar.

SOF operators do not currently receive any direct training on neurowarfare (indeed, most are unfamiliar with the concept entirely), and published research is strikingly limited. Of the small number of academic publications on the topic, only a handful directly address neurowarfare. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are uniquely positioned to confront the complex and dynamic threats neurowarfare poses but is currently under-prepared to take up the challenge. Part of the reason is a lack of general awareness. Although US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) prioritizes neuroscience research and innovation, especially for cognitive enhancement, comparatively less is known about neuroweapons that cause cognitive degradation.

CHANGING HEARTS AND BRAINS: SOF MUST PREPARE NOW FOR NEUROWARFARE

Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “neurowarfare” before, but I understand the concept. This is how the authors define it:

Neurowarfare is the strategic takedown of a competitor through the use of neuroweapons that remotely “target the brain or central nervous system to affect the targeted person’s mental state, mental capacity and ultimately the person’s behavior in a specific and predictable way.

Ok, but wait a minute, isn’t this kind of like psychological operations?

Psychological operations share similar goals but achieve them through communication, typically over the long-term. Neuroweapons physically manipulate the brain and achieve immediate effects.

Right – these are the things that physically affect the brain. This is tough stuff. Ouch.

It’s an interesting article and I agree with the authors that we need to be accounting for this. Our adversaries do not share the same ethical concerns regarding the use of new technology to gain advantage. This is not a domain that we want to show up blind in.

The authors make three key recommendations:

  1. Train and educate the SOF enterprise on neurowarfare
  2. Conduct research (cognitive degredation research)
  3. Develop doctrine

The authors rightfully acknowledge the biggest challenge we face in this realm regards the ethics of it all.

The most difficult—and likely to be the most contentious—are the serious moral and ethical concerns of whether the United States should consider pursuing offensive neuroweapons. Should the United States pursue an offensive capability, even if only discovered accidentally through private sector research? If so, what sort of weapons would be morally acceptable to use and how should they be employed? Should these weapons be reserved for high-priority targets or will we get to a point where neuroweapons are routinely employed in conjunction with more traditional forms of warfare?

I have two chief concerns with this. One, anything “neuro” will likely be thought similarly as “psychological,” which people tend to treat as a “dirty word.” Second, when we “split” instead of “lump” the work becomes so specialized so as to be difficult to explain – or use.

And as always, Small Wars Journal continues to publish interesting things that remain on the margins of debate. This is another one that deserves discussion.

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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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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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