In the past year, tit-for-tat skirmishes have increased between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy and the United States and its allies. Iranian gunboats routinely taunt allied patrols, recklessly crisscrossing through formations and narrowly avoiding collisions, seeking to provoke an overly aggressive response. Allied restraint prevents disaster, but the trajectory points toward conflict.
Imagine this scenario: In a major escalation, a U.S. destroyer on patrol in the Persian Gulf suffers a series of strikes from a swarm of small, unmanned aircraft systems during the predawn hours. As the sun rises over the Gulf, images of thick black smoke billowing skyward from the destroyer’s deck appear on Iranian state television and subsequently flood social media and cable news programs back in the United States. Commander Harvey Jones, the destroyer’s commanding officer, films a statement during the effort to contain the flames, praising the resilience of his sailors and vowing to hold accountable those responsible for the attack. Released by the U.S. Fifth Fleet public affairs team, the short clip quickly goes viral, and Commander Jones becomes an overnight media sensation.
Following the attack, Fifth Fleet begins an operation designed to compel Iranian restraint through physical and psychological coercion. A massive allied fleet begins a slow, made-for-television movement toward an Iranian military shoreline installation. Encouraged by the newfound celebrity of Commander Jones, senior leaders make him the “face” of the operation. The damaged destroyer is profiled and shown as leading the naval response. Commander Jones conducts numerous media interviews praising the strength of regional partnerships and resilience in the face of cowardly attacks.
The operation is followed closely by regional and international media as speculation of a possible allied strike builds. Powerful imagery of the damaged destroyer in the foreground and a distant Iranian shoreline in the background are shared widely in the media, with militaristic commenters eagerly calling for revenge. Jones is heralded on the cable news networks as a “no-nonsense” hero whose sharp statements are made into memes and shared widely. Although uncomfortable with the attention, Jones understands his public role is for the greater good.
On board the ship the following morning, Commander Jones begins going through his email. He glances briefly at messages of congratulations and support, ignoring the death threats from anti-American stalkers. Skimming, he homes in on a subject line that reads “Heads up” from a Naval Academy classmate at the Pentagon—Harv, not sure if you’ve seen this, but this is starting to make waves back here.
Jones’s heart sinks as he clicks a link to a Twitter thread of a foreign journalist with nearly 100,000 followers. The thread contains “screenshots” of emails from Jones to his staff following the attack disparaging his higher headquarters and complaining about a lack of support. In one, Jones makes an insensitive comment about this “new generation of sailors” and contends the drone attack would not have happened 30 years ago in a tougher era. The thread has nearly 20,000 retweets, many from the Navy veteran community. Some are outraged at his apparent lack of empathy for his sailors, while others agree with the sentiment.
Jones knows the screenshots are not real—he never sent such emails. As a precaution though, he thinks it best to contact his boss. Just as he begins an email, his boss calls: Harvey, we need to talk. You know how things look right now, and it would be best if you were temporarily removed from command while we look into this.
This fictional vignette is not far-fetched. In the gray zone of warfare, competitors will exploit whatever opportunities exist short of war, especially in the information environment. And though it may be easy to imagine this particular situation being resolved amicably (no wrongdoing by Commander Jones) after an investigation, what happens when this type of smear attack occurs during high-intensity conflict? Do current policies and standard operating procedures make the Navy and military more generally vulnerable to being “canceled” during combat?1
Information warfare will play a decisive role in gray zone engagements and, more importantly, in the next high-intensity conflict. Commanders, their staffs, and senior leaders are critical nodes in this fight and can counter deceptive smear tactics by exercising narrative patience—understanding that what seems like an emergency now can be navigated successfully if patient.2
A confluence of factors makes the Jones scenario likely in the near-future. These include the growing prevalence of deception in the information environment, the pressures on commanders to “do something” in response to a crisis, and the interconnection of global media.
Military Deception, Deepfakes, and Hacks
To understand current and future information warfare threats, it is helpful to identify specific tactics that can be used and how they have been employed recently. The example of fake email screenshots is a form of military deception. Joint doctrine defines military deception as “actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary military, paramilitary, or violent extremist organization decision makers, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission.”3 In the Jones vignette, the target of the deception operation was the senior leaders with the authority to remove Jones from command, with the goal of sidelining a key public influencer.
While it may not be technically difficult to forge an email and distribute it online, future military deceptions may be much more sophisticated. We are now in the era of the “deepfake,” where amateurs have the ability to generate deceptive audio or video that is virtually undetectable as such.4 History shows the effectiveness of phony radio messages or communiqués (see the forged letters as part of Operation Mincemeat).5 Reading a deceptive letter or email is one thing, but what happens when audio or video appears of a Navy commanding officer making disparaging statements about his or her sailors or higher headquarters? People believe what they see, and these deepfakes take advantage of society’s bias toward imagery, especially video. Deepfakes already exist, and it would be naïve to think they will not be used in future battles.
While not often thought of as information operations, classic hacking can easily be weaponized. Everyone, including senior military leaders, is susceptible to hacking. Over the past decade, numerous hacks of individuals and organizations have led to the public release of sensitive material. The Sony hack of 2014 is perhaps one of the most prominent examples. Private data from the Sony Corporation was accessed and released publicly, with real-world consequences, including Sony deciding to cancel the theatrical release of the movie The Interview after the alleged North Korean hackers made violent threats.6
The combination of state and nonstate adversaries’ ability to hack critical nodes and the increased ability to produce realistic deepfakes makes the scenario in the Jones vignette plausible. Deception and cyber warfare are already being used by U.S. adversaries. During the height of the conflict against the Islamic State, the so-called Cyber Caliphate collated and released lists of service members and their families, along with personal information, including telephone numbers and email and home addresses. The alleged Islamic State actors also threatened military spouses over social media. These threats came while videos were circulating online depicting Islamic State atrocities in the Middle East and beyond, terrifying military families. Only in the past couple of years has the United States learned these threats were actually coming from Russian operatives posing as Islamic State hackers.7
Russia has used a similar information warfare tactic in Ukraine, targeting family members of soldiers with text messages claiming their soldiers had been killed to gather electronic signatures.8 U.S. adversaries have no qualms about layering their deception to meet their objectives and have already proven willing to target traditional noncombatants.
The Internal Threat
While U.S. adversaries apply pressure externally, the U.S. military faces internal pressures that dampen its ability to respond adequately to deceptive personal attacks. First, the United States is an open society that prizes freedom of expression, widening its exposure to foreign deception and manipulation. Second, when it comes to social media and public relations, military leaders tend to take a cautious and risk-averse approach. Senior military leaders who curate too-careful press or online coverage may be accused of being self-serving. Last, commanders at all levels may feel compelled to make decisions rapidly based on the current information environment or real or perceived expectations from higher headquarters. Together, these are characteristics that adversaries can exploit to achieve strategic advantage.
Freedom of expression is one of several things that makes U.S. society great, and while the government should always endeavor to prevent foreign influence activities, a free society must preserve free expression. In the past, however, military leaders have not had to contend with such an all-encompassing and politically fraught information environment. Like it or not, many people—including service members—are media platforms themselves. Problematic statements or tweets can be scooped up and elevated to international importance within minutes, demanding immediate response from senior military leaders. In addition, leaders who grew up in a military reluctant to engage with the media or the public are now routinely encouraged to do so, despite the pitfalls.9
In the aggregate, the military’s embrace of new media—public Twitter accounts, blogs, and unit podcasts, etc.—is positive and a seemingly inevitable extension of the unit formation speech and scripted media interviews of the past. However, there has been little discussion of the second- and third-order effects of this embrace, aside from operational security concerns. Adversaries are already harvesting the personal information of U.S. service members from these social media outlets, and it would be foolish to think they would not weaponize this to meet their military and political objectives.
Senior leaders are likely to feel immense pressure to do something in response to an emerging crisis, especially one that calls a service member’s character into question. An adversary’s attempt to smear a serving commander would be followed by questions from citizens, pundits, and political leaders and calls for a response. If an adversary were able to introduce derogatory information in the form of deception, a deepfake, or a hack, leaders at all levels may feel compelled to do something, which in this scenario may mean removing commanders or personnel from key positions at critical times.
Our Competitive Advantage—Trust
The winning element in defending against smear warfare is trust. Trust between teammates, trust in the system, and trust in the country. Future conflict will be personally nasty on a level not witnessed before. The Navy must be prepared for a scenario in which junior sailors and senior commanders alike are slandered in the information environment using a combination of deception, deepfake technology, and hacks. Navy leaders must recognize that the stakes are high and the competition space is everywhere. Expect adversaries to use every tool available to undermine U.S. efforts, at even the pettiest level. Only trust up and down the chain of command can prepare service members for digital smear attacks.
Even well-meaning leaders will make mistakes in this endeavor. They may find themselves in situations where what appears to be a subversive information operation targeting key U.S. leaders turns out to be real. Transparency is paramount. The U.S. public must have faith in the military to hold accountable those who commit real transgressions. With this trust, military leaders can assume more risk when adversaries lie and attempt to deceive.
Smear tactics are coming. Today’s relative ease in gathering information about individuals makes this inevitable. Coupled with adversaries’ growing cyber capabilities and demonstrated willingness to engage in deceptive warfare, the future battlefield becomes nastier. U.S. military leaders have no qualms accepting that adversaries are willing to kill service members to meet their objectives. It should be no surprise that they would be willing to smear them to do the same.
1. To be “canceled” refers to the sudden termination of a person’s job or status because of a real or perceived transgression, often during a period when such transgressions are under enhanced scrutiny.
2. There is no joint definition of narrative. I define narrative as a dominant idea at a given moment. It is a collection of inputs that capture the collective attention and imagination of a society. Recent examples of dominant narratives are the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. Events that happen during a dominant narrative will likely be processed through the lens of that narrative.
3. Department of Defense, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (January 2021).
4. Joe Littell, “Don’t Believe Your Eyes (or Ears): The Weaponization of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deepfakes,” War on the Rocks, 7 October 2019.
5. Operation Mincemeat was the successful World War II British deception operation that used forged documents to mislead the Axis on Allied 1943 Mediterranean invasion plans.
6. Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Hack, Explained,” The Washington Post, 18 December 2014.
7. Raphael Satter, “Russian Hackers Posed as IS to Threaten Military Wives,” The Associated Press, 8 May 2018.
8. Lucas Scarasso, “Text Messages from Hell: Restraining and Information Warfare,” War on the Rocks, 21 April 2020.
9. Robert Abrams, “Social Media: Senior Leaders Need to Get on the Bus,” From the Green Notebook, 8 October 2019; Patrick Donahue, Mick Ryan, and Tammy Smith, “Why We Tweet: General Officer Use of Social Media to Engage, Influence, and Lead,” The Strategy Bridge, 7 September 2020.