American factions won’t be the only ones using AI and social media to generate attack content; our adversaries will too. In a haunting 2018 essay titled “The Digital Maginot Line,” DiResta described the state of affairs bluntly. “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality,” she wrote. The Soviets used to have to send over agents or cultivate Americans willing to do their bidding. But social media made it cheap and easy for Russia’s Internet Research Agency to invent fake events or distort real ones to stoke rage on both the left and the right, often over race.
In Episode 48 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, we discuss the historical motivations and modern methods behind Russia’s use of hybrid warfare on the international stage. Our guests begin today’s conversation discussing how significant historical events and Russian cultural memory shape the Russian worldview, with particular emphasis on the role that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on the psyche of Vladimir Putin himself. They explore Russian motivations and methods since the end of the twentieth century and then pivot to potential Western responses to an increasingly aggressive Russia. Our guests conclude with implications for both the public and the practitioner.
I’m going to take a look, but my gut tells me that it’s just another hodge-podge of sub-terms that gets lumped together to form a new, different, more confusing term.
In the episode, I particularly enjoyed this breakdown of Cold War tactics and the splitting of terms done here.
There is stuff we throw in the hybrid warfare bucket that I really don’t think belongs in that bucket. For example, a lot of Russian cyber activity is indeed routine espionage. Now, you don’t have to like it, but I’m afraid it is routine espionage that most major powers do against one another.
There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.
But the gist is on point.
Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.
This episode of the IWI podcast dives into the concept of competition between states in other places – specifically Russia, China, and Iran.
Here’s the question that had me listening more closely:
“What are the skill-sets and capabilities needed to implement integrated deterrence in the CENTCOM area of responsibility given the character of these threats?”
The answer? Language and culture.
If you don’t understand the language of the people you’re dealing with, if you don’t understand their culture, then you’re going to have a really hard time appreciating how a particular action plays out in that culture, or doesn’t play out.
Rear Admiral Mitch Bradley, ~44:15
The conversation goes on from there stressing the importance of education in developing leaders who can truly understand their environments and the implications of their actions or inactions.
This, of course, is refreshing to hear.
The challenge is two-fold. First, to truly develop the skills that we’re talking about (language proficiency beyond building rapport and cultural understanding beyond the surface level) we are talking about an immense investment of time. A short course on language or culture isn’t going to do it. This stuff takes years – decades even.
Which brings me to the second challenge: incentives. If we are saying that what we want is the above, are we incentivizing this? Are we promoting and rewarding those who have put in the work?
It goes back to the infinite competition episode and another 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?”
The desire is there. The need is there. Now it’s about aligning incentives to meet it.
Lastly, I love it anytime senior leaders talk about the need to develop our own “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“…not only a Lawrence of Arabia, but a Lawrence of Africa… and I would say, a Lawrence of southern Arabia, and all of these other places where the Chinese and the Iranians and the Russians are trying to compete…”
I appreciate the further parsing – knowledge that is useful has to be extremely granular. And developing that granular knowledge takes time.
Lawrence’s education began well before he stepped foot in Arabia as a military man.
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Read this yesterday afternoon about the ongoing “hybrid” war taking place in Ukraine.
Another new tactic, according to Ukrainian authorities, is bomb threats.
Ukrainian police said there were nearly 1,000 anonymous messages in January, mostly by email, falsely claiming bomb threats against nearly 10,000 locations, from schools to critical infrastructure.
Kateryna Morozova’s 7-year-old daughter called her last month asking to be collected from school as teachers had told her to leave quickly. A teacher soon said on a messenger group that there had been a bomb threat against the school. Children who had been swimming had to grab what clothes they could and rush outside into the cold and snow, she said.
Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered in the area near Russia’s border with Ukraine. But what does it signify?
Michael Kofman joins this episode of the MWI Podcast to discuss all of this and more. The director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, he is a longtime observer of Russia and specializes in the Russian military. You can listen to the full conversation below, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!
I’m not a Russia-guy, so this was a good episode to get me up to speed on what is (and isn’t) going on on the border with Ukraine.
The whole episode is good – and Michael Hoffman clearly has firm control over his material (Russia and Russian military capabilities).
I love this quote:
“Most of the cockamaney ideas about sending some more weapons or things to Ukraine – fine, if you want to increase military costs but you have to just appreciate that it’s going to make no difference in the calculus.”
And he goes on.
“Tactical things don’t matter for big picture deterrence. Javelins, drones, are completely irrelevant to political leaders. They don’t know and don’t care about the stuff.”
I appreciate this take, and I tend to agree. It’s what I was getting at the other day in regards to culture and other aspects of the human dynamics in strategy. These are interesting things to consider, but at the political and strategic level, they ultimately don’t matter.
Should they? I don’t think so.
Even when it comes to military strategy – the input of this or that tactic or weapon system may make a difference on the margins, but if they don’t alter the overall endstate, then it’s an exercise in futility.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are on the capability. There are limits to military power – and if you are using any of these “things” in service of the military, they are also limited – mostly by the strategy you’re operating under.
Then again, maybe it’s worth just rolling the dice? What’s there to lose?
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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.
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.
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.
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For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).
“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.
“Oh damn, really?”
Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?
What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?
I never figured that out.
Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.
It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”
I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.
Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.
Details about the referenced podcast below.
Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.
On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:
The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business.
On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:
Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric.
Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:
When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.
Influence operations are directly connected to political power:
The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.
Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:
The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.
Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.
Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).
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