The Devil Is In the Details

By Lieutenant Commander Robert D Gourley, U.S. Navy

It may be time to widen the debate by encouraging constructive criticism on information warfare. We can better evaluate briefings, point papers, articles, or books-to identify strengths as well as to uncover weaknesses-by testing for seven items: (1) overreliance on metaphors; (2) overestimation of the threat; (3) overestimation of our own capabilities; (4) historical relevance and accuracy; (5) extraordinary attempts to avoid criticism; (6) unsupported assumptions; and (7) nonstandard definitions.

  • Test for an overreliance on metaphors. Metaphors are an important part of our language-especially for explaining new concepts or ideas-but sometimes they can be mistaken for reality. Test any concept explained by a metaphor to ensure the metaphor has not taken the place of the concept.

Some metaphors lead to restrictive thinking. In information warfare, for example, it is popular to talk of the "five pillars" of command-and-control warfare (C 2 W). Its advocates draw images of five columns labeled "operations security," "psychological operations," "electronic warfare," "deception," and "physical destruction" resting on a solid foundation labeled "intelligence." The pillars hold up a rooftop labeled "mission." Although useful to introduce the idea, the metaphor does not reflect how C 2 W should work in the field or fleet. C 2 W planners may contribute to military functions other than the five in the metaphor. The pillars also imply separation. C 2 W should not consist of stovepiped functions developed separately from each other or the mission. Support of the mission requires planning and executing each function together with other functions and planning efforts.

Expansive metaphors, on the other hand, can result in misleading interpretations. For example, another common information warfare metaphor is that of "cyberspace," the imaginary world behind the screen of your computer. Military versions even include the "cyberbattlespace." The metaphor has reached the point where people talk of "fighting in cyberspace" and of creating teams of "cyberwarriors" to lead those fights. What actually is behind a computer screen is the inner workings of a display device. Like the rest of the computer and every computer network, it is a physical construct of matter that moves energy according to the laws of physics. Strictly speaking, we cannot fight in cyberspace any more than we can walk inside a Picasso painting.

  • Test for an overestimation of the threat. Many information warfare experts describe computer-literate opponents linking into systems to reroute trains, crash stock markets, open drawbridges, cause midair collisions, and destroy birth records. Some experts paint a picture of computer terrorists crippling our nation by attacks on banking, business communications, power generation, law enforcement, and air-traffic control computers.

The threat is serious. Hackers attack private and government computer systems on a daily basis. Our economy loses billions of dollars a year to computer crime. The General Accounting Office estimates that up to 250,000 attacks were conducted on federal computers last year alone. But our most-sensitive networks are well protected, and new technology is making them even more secure. Leaders in government and industry recognize the problems and are devoting resources to protect them.

Incorrect threat estimates can result in a waste of resources that should be applied to our real weaknesses. If you suspect an information warfare concept is built to counter an unrealistic threat, you should inquire about the details of the threat assessment it is based on.

  • Test for an overestimation of our own capabilities. Because computers can do so many things, some people fall into the trap of thinking that we can build computers that can do anything. This is not quite true.

The military can and should expand its capabilities to attack enemy computers, but how can you tell if a briefer or a proposal is overestimating our capabilities? Even if you don't have a background in quantum mechanics and computer science you can make informed judgments-all you need is a good foundation in the performance of current C 4 I systems, coupled with an ability to ask probing questions. For example, if you are told that we could degrade an enemy's oil-producing capability by injecting a virus into a computer, your first question should be, How? If you are told that the same computer the enemy uses for oil production has been penetrated in labs, ask how the virus will be delivered in hostile territory. If the answer is by a spy, ask if he is in place or if we need to mount an operation to get him in place.

Like many other military operations, for information warfare, the devil is in the details.

  • Test for historical relevance and accuracy. Information warfare theorists frequently frame their ideas with historical references. This search for supporting historical tidbits sometimes results in erroneous interpretations. For example, to bolster arguments for organizational change, some information strategists quote General von Moltke's vision for reorganizing the German General Staff to make optimum use of telegraph systems. Historians tell us there is no record of von Moltke ever saying any such thing.

Many information warfare strategists draw parallels between the concept they support and concepts of the past and some are right on the mark. U.S. Army Major General David L. Grange and Colonel James A. Kelley, for example, highlight the information warfare strategies of Genghis Khan to remind their readers that "armies have conducted information operations throughout history." This is certainly true.

Others, however, draw parallels that are less relevant. Consider those advocates who try to build support by referencing the German blitzkrieg. They describe blitzkrieg as a revolutionary concept that allowed the Germans to take French forces with similar technologies by surprise, and they emphasize that there were some in Germany who opposed Heinz Guderian's new ideas-the point being that we must accept the new information warfare idea being advocated or we will fail in war. Of course, the Maginot Line also was a new idea, as was the complex appeasement plan negotiated by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain prior to World War II. Both of these new ideas failed miserably. Concepts should never be endorsed just because they are new.

Some information warfare concepts use historical patterns to predict the future. One popular model in information warfare is the "Three Waves" theory proposed by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, which proposes that the way nations make war is tied to the way they make wealth, and that society has changed its economic and military systems in three waves. From 10,000 years ago until the l9th century, society and war were agriculturally based. When the Industrial Revolution swept through, the dominate war form switched to a mass-production foundation. Now that we are riding the crest of an informational wave, knowledge will be central to our way of war.

This is a good summary of the history of civilization, but, not surprisingly, there are many historical exceptions. This type of model also is just too general for short-term predictions. For developments over the next ten years, simple trend analysis will provide a better assessment of the security environment.

  • Test for extraordinary attempts to avoid criticism. This probably is a signal that the idea deserves more of your scrutiny. Avoiding criticism may come in the form of calling attention to the wisdom of the idea's developers. A briefer may tell you that a group of certified geniuses including a Nobel prize winner developed this idea. If you hear one like that, keep in mind that educated people are not immune from generating foolish ideas, especially if the subject is outside their area of expertise. Two noted Ph.D. criminologists recently published an article on information warfare threats that included references to computer viruses that do not exist. They had read some common computer jokes about fictitious viruses (such as the "Gingrich virus," which the joke says makes you sign a contract with your computer) and believed the information to be true.

You also might be told that the concept's supporters include some of the highest ranking officers in our military, perhaps a service chief or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This does not mean the idea no longer deserves your scrutiny. Our senior leaders encourage independent thought on national security issues and would welcome professional dialog on information warfare.

Criticism avoidance could take the form of a briefer skimming over key parts of a concept, insisting that "you wouldn't understand." There certainly are some complex information warfare issues, but there are few whose salient aspects cannot be described to today's well-educated military officers. Make it clear that you expect plain-language explanations. After all, Carl Sagan was able to explain the entire cosmos to the average American using nothing but plain English.

If a briefer can't answer your questions because of classification issues, you may want to ask if there is anything he can describe at your current level of classification. If the answer is no, you may wish to contact a member of the individual's parent command or a coworker who may be cleared to higher levels. Your objective should never be to gain access to information that you are not cleared for; classification can (and sometimes should) be used as a trump card that will not let you give some concepts your full scrutiny.

  • Test for unsupported assumptions. These can creep into any argument, but the only information warfare assumptions you should accept are those defended by good arguments. For example, a common assumption in information warfare is that it "will in and of itself relegate other more traditional forms of warfare to the sidelines." There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, "Joint Vision 2010" provides the assessment that solving future crises always will require an ability to put "boots on ground."

Another common assumption is that we must reorganize to use information warfare strategies. Many of our organizations can and should change, but information warfare strategies need not affect every organization. Efficient staffs long have been able to implement new ideas with current structures. Most unified command staffs and many of their subordinate staffs now are grappling with how best to reorganize to take advantage of information warfare. Often, they may need no substantial changes.

  • Test for nonstandard definitions. Almost every organization dealing with information warfare (including those in academia and industry) defines information warfare concepts differently. This may seem like a minor point, but words and how they are defined can have a significant impact on how we transform concepts into reality. Fortunately there is a "no haggle" solution to this issue. We in the military should insist on using the definition the Joint Chiefs of Staff promulgates to us as doctrine. This means the best source (at this writing) is Joint Publication 3-13.1: "Joint Doctrine for C2W." It defines information warfare as "actions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks while defending one's own."


The U.S. military must continue to develop strategic theories of information warfare, which, in turn, will drive joint doctrine, technologies, organizations, and procedures used by operators in the field and fleet. Currently, those with little military experience and senior officers removed from day-to-day operations are leading the debate. But the nation's real information warfare experts are officers in the field and fleet skilled in making assessments in a data rich environment. By taking a more active role in this debate and applying these seven tests to current concepts, operators can better the information warfare plans we will be expected to implement in crisis or war.



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