Professional Note - Use the Truth as a Weapon

By Michael Petersen and Richard Moss

In both episodes, U.S. and allied navies quickly and effectively exposed provocative Russian behavior in a manner that made it impossible for Moscow to deny that it was ignoring accepted rules for encounters at sea or in the air. Friendly governments established a truthful narrative that pointed out Russian malfeasance and undercut the common Russian assertion that NATO and the United States were to blame for any friction between Moscow and the West. In the gray zone struggle over strategic narratives, NATO scored two important wins.

These stand in contrast to an episode on 10 February 2017 in the Black Sea during NATO exercise Sea Shield 17. In that incident, three Russian Su-24s and an Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft subjected the USS Porter (DDG-78) to at least four close fly-bys that the Navy characterized as “unsafe and unprofessional.” At the time, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released no video or photographs of the intercepts. Almost immediately afterward, Major General Igor Konashenkov, the chief spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, claimed that “There were no incidents related to a fly-by of Russian military aircraft near the USS Porter destroyer in the Black Sea on February 10.” 1 It took three weeks for video and photographs of the fly-bys to appear in the news. By that point, however, Moscow already had injected skepticism into the narrative that the event had ever taken place. The relentless news cycle had moved on, and release of the video was more than a day late and a dollar short.

These contrasting incidents highlight the importance of including strategic communications as part of planning and executing military operations. While they often are overlooked for seemingly more pressing issues, strategic communications play an increasingly essential role in the international security environment. This is particularly true in the areas in which the U.S. and allied navies encounter Russian military forces. In addition to its significant operational and technological improvements, Moscow increasingly is seeking non-lethal means to sway international public opinion to revise the international security architecture in its favor. One key method for doing so is its effort to weaponize information. With the U.S. Navy on the front line of many encounters with Russia it must be prepared to make information publicly available to counter Russian efforts to cloud the truth.

 

Russian and U.S. Concepts of Information Operations

Russian strategic thinkers approach this challenge differently than the U.S. Navy. Moscow’s planners and strategists frame information operations as opportunities to achieve strategic advantage and tend to build information operations into their overall thinking about state conflict. Even as early as 2009, Russian thinkers were dissolving the differences between wartime and peacetime information operations, and considered them as essential parts of an overall strategy. They wrote, for example, that modern military conflict involved “information warfare measures undertaken in advance to achieve political aims without resort to armed force and then to cultivate a favorable response from the world community to the use of armed force.” 2 These operations feature psychological and cyber operations designed to condition audiences to narratives that undermine faith in, and assumptions about, existing international security architectures.

A 2012 article by S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov in the Russian journal Military Thought reinforced this thinking, contending that “The information struggle must be conducted to gain and retain information superiority and create conditions for the government to achieve its political objectives in peacetime, without using armed force.” 3 Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov was influenced heavily by and approved Bogdanov’s and Chekinov’s ideas. In a 2013 article in Military-Industrial Kurier, Gerasimov argued that, “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy. It is necessary to perfect activities in the information space, including the defense of our own objects.” 4

In contrast, the U.S. Navy has a different conception of these ideas. As Richard Mosier has pointed out, the Navy does not coherently define information warfare, information operations, or information operations warfare, though all three terms see wide use. Broadly speaking, these encompass command and control, intelligence, cryptology, cyber warfare, electronic attack, and other areas. Making matters worse, there are multiple, overlapping responsibilities for these areas. Thus, Russian and U.S. strategists largely define information operations differently. 5

A closer, though more limited, U.S. military analog to Russian concepts of information operations is strategic communications. There is little overarching guidance, unfortunately, for the use of strategic communications, and its practice has proven to be something of a lightning rod in the past decade, with high-level Defense Department officials either attacking or supporting it. Nonetheless, as a concept, it offers an important tool for preempting Russian attempts at misinformation. Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis wrote in 2007 that “the objective of strategic communication is to provide audiences with truthful and timely information that will influence them to support the objectives of the communicator.” 6 No matter how strategic communications are operationalized, the key is both truthfulness and timeliness. In the cases of the Evertsen and the Donald Cook, both elements were combined in a way that ensured that any potential Russian efforts to dissemble about the intercepts would be stillborn.

 

Sowing the Seeds of Doubt

Unfortunately, just as in the Porter incident, sometimes the United States fails on both counts and loses a round in the competition for global public opinion. On 17 June 2016, the Russian frigate Jaroslav Mudry encountered the destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107) in the Mediterranean Sea. Video recorded from the Russian frigate shows the Jaroslav Mudry approximately 60 meters off the Gravely’s starboard side, and the relative motion of the two ships appears to offer evidence of the destroyer’s unsafe maneuvering. Subsequently, the Russian Defense Ministry accused the Gravely ’s crew of committing “a gross violation of international rules on the prevention of collisions at sea (ColRegs).” 7

In response, DOD countered that the Gravely placed itself between the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) and the Jaroslav Mudry, which was maneuvering in a provocative way around the U.S. carrier. A Defense Department spokesman reported that “777 [the Jaroslav Mudry] had raised day shapes ‘ball-diamond-ball,’ which is the international signal a ship displays when restricted in her ability to maneuver, when she took position two nautical miles off Gravely ’s starboard quarter. Then, 777 repeatedly asked Gravely over VHF radio to maintain a safe distance, while 777 continued to maneuver to get closer to Gravely .” When the Gravely changed course and speed, the Jaroslav Mudry likewise changed course and speed. “The maneuvering demonstrates,” claimed DOD, “that 777 was not in fact restricted in her ability to maneuver, and was thus intentionally displaying a false international signal.” 8

Unfortunately, DOD never offered any evidence to support its claims. The U.S. Navy released no video, photos, or audio of the exchanges, and the event dissolved into a “he said, she said.” A U.S. video or photographs of the Jaroslav Mudry maneuvering with full capability while hoisting the ball-diamond-ball shapes would have been a powerful counter to this case of Russian mendacity. It is almost certainly the case that the Jaroslav Mudry was the ship maneuvering in a dangerous fashion (it attempted the same trick with the cruiser USS San Jacinto [CG-56] the following month), but without evidence showing otherwise, Moscow was able to assert, however implausibly, that it was the responsible actor in the encounter. The Russian video allowed Moscow to claim an advantage in the struggle over the information narrative.

The Russians demonstrated a similar ability to obscure the truth in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat Airfield in Syria on 7 April 2017. Despite the U.S. Navy’s almost-immediate release of videos showing the launch of Tomahawks from the USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) in the eastern Mediterranean, the Russians attempted to sow doubt about the efficacy of the strike. The Russians posted video from a drone overflying Shayrat that showed a few explosions, but largely focused on the unscathed runway, hardened aircraft shelters, and aircraft. Careful editing—cutting out any video of targets that were obliterated—gave the impression that few missiles hit their mark. The Russian Ministry of Defense reinforced the impression with its consistent claim that only 23 of 59 missiles hit Shayrat. 9

As with the Jaroslav Mudry’s encounter with the Gravely , the Department of Defense did not make a concerted effort to prove the strike’s efficiency until 11 April, when Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Commander, U.S. Central Command, Army General Joseph Votel gave some details and answered questions about the strike during a press conference. By this point, however, the Russian media claims had taken root in some quarters of social media, probably enhanced by Russian bots and trolls suggesting that Russian and Syrian air defense had degraded the missiles; that Russia had employed sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities; that U.S. systems were unreliable; or other theories.

Likewise, despite the insistence of U.S. policymakers that the Syrian ability to launch chemical weapons from Shayrat had been degraded significantly by the strike, Russian and Syrian television showed aircraft taking off from the undamaged runway soon after the attack.

The efforts to counter the false Russian narrative seem to have defaulted to Western media and think tanks. For example, ImageSat International, an Israeli commercial satellite provider, showed 44 different targets that Tomahawks hit at Shayrat Airfield shortly after the strike. Similarly, Roger McDermott of the Jamestown Foundation debunked the Russian assertions about the purported ineffectiveness of the Tomahawks. 10

While the Russian propaganda may ring hollow, the effect of Russia’s first response should not be discounted. Once the Russians have put out the false narrative, it takes additional time to analyze and separate the real from the manufactured facts. Incorporating strategic messaging into the planning process could help control the narrative from the outset. For example, the early release of commercial satellite imagery showing Shayrat before and after the strike would have demonstrated the extent of the damage and undercut the Russian attempt to control the information space.

 

Ensuring a Truthful and Timely Message

To ensure that truthful and timely reporting of encounters at sea takes place, several steps can be taken at the national, fleet, and platform levels.

At the national level, the Chief of Naval Operations can revise OpNavInst 5711.96C (November 2008) which provides background and guidance on the Incidents at Sea (IncSea) Agreement and the prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (DMA) with the Russian Federation. Presently, reported violations of IncSea or DMA require detailed written reports within 15 working days through the operational chain of command to the CNO. Suggested documentation includes a written timeline, narrated video, motion pictures, a sequence of photographs, or a geographic reconstruction of events. Fifteen working days is a long time in today’s world of instantaneous Tweets or uploads to YouTube; in addition to devolving authority to numbered fleet commanders, the revised order could truncate the timeline. This instruction also should include guidance for Navy aviators who have been subjected to unsafe air intercepts.

At the numbered fleet level, commanders should receive authority to release evidence of interactions at sea. Such authority drastically would shorten the time it takes to get this information into the public’s hands. Granting release authority to the vice admiral in charge of a numbered fleet also would streamline what can be a slow, burdensome, and bureaucratic process of coordinating the release of information inside the Pentagon.

Finally, all Navy ships, submarines, and aviation squadrons have standing orders to document and report potentially dangerous encounters at sea and in the air. Likewise, fleet public affairs officers (PAOs) should have standing orders to report these incidents to the public. If it does not already exist, perhaps a community of practice comprised of PAOs and ship-board officers with collateral PAO duties could be established to standardize documentation of dangerous encounters, share templates, and shorten the time it takes to disseminate thorough and accurate information about such encounters. Again, the keys are truthfulness and timeliness. Standardizing reporting methods could improve both.

The U.S. Navy will continue to operate in international waters within easy reach of Russian military forces, and it will continue to encounter Russian ships and aircraft face-to-face in sometimes dangerous ways. Whether it is labeled “information operations,” “strategic communications,” or any other term, in an environment in which Russia consistently tries to weaponize information to its strategic benefit, the U.S. Navy requires clear tactics, techniques, and procedures for dealing with Russian attempts to deny or obfuscate the truth. An approach that improves transparency and is based on the principles of truthfulness and timeliness is a good place to start.

 



1. RT, February 15, 2017, “‘No Incidents over Black Sea’ Russian MoD Denies ‘Unprofessional and Unsafe’ Flyby of USS Porter,” rt.com/news/377363-russia-black-sea-flyby-porter/.

2. A. V. Serzhantov, Ap.P. Martoflyak, “Modern Military Conflicts: Analysis of Major Features,” Military Thought, vol. 18, no. 2 (2009), 88, dlib/eastview.com/browse/doc/25743809.

3. S. G. Chekinov and Lt. Gen. S.A. Bogdanov, “Initial Periods of Wars and Their Impact on a Country’s Preparations for a Future War,” Military Thought, vol. 21, no. 4 (2012), 27, dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/43183950.

4. Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” Military-Industrial Kurier, 27 February 2013, translated from Russian by Robert Coalson,

usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20160228_art008.pdf.

5. Richard Mosier, “Navy Information Warfare—What Is It?” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 13 September 2016, cimsec.org/navy-information-warfare/27542.

6. James G. Stavridis, “Strategic Communication and National Security,” Joint Forces Quarterly 46, 3d quarter 2007, dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a575204.pdf.

7. Igor Zarembo, “U.S. Destroyer Committed ‘Gross Violation’ in Encounter with Russian Ship,” Sputnik News, 28 June 2016, sputniknews.com/military/201606281042078009-russia-us-sea-destroyer/.

8. Christopher P. Cavas, “Latest Warship Encounter Brings Russian Protest,” DefenseNews, 28 June 2016, defensenews.com/pentagon/2016/06/28/latest-warship-encounter-brings-russian-protest/.

9. Russian Ministry of Defense, “Statement of the Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman on the Missile Strike Carried Out by the U.S. Navy against the Shayrat Air Base in Syria,” 7 April 2017, eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/[email protected]

10. Roger McDermott, “Russian Air Defense and the U.S. Strike on Al-Shayrat,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 14, no. 60, 11 April 2017, jamestown.org/program/russian-air-defense-us-strike-al-shayrat/.

 

Dr. Petersen is an associate professor and director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Dr. Moss is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente (University Press of Kentucky, 2017).

 

 

 
 

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