“The mission of the United States Navy is to kill people and destroy things,” the senior chief declared with a wry smile. Fresh out of training, we had sheepishly answered that the Navy’s mission was “sea control” or “defending America’s interests overseas.” Later, I realized our answers were better than his. Violent action is one way to accomplish a mission; it is not the objective. Still, it was our first day on board and the senior chief wanted to give us a wake-up call about the realities and dangers of our chosen profession. That simple wisdom from an old salt reveals a fundamental truth. Military application of the instruments of war is a distinction that must be embraced when determining what “information warfare” is and what it is not.
The U.S. military is facing significant challenges, if not a crisis, in information warfare. The time for admiring the problem has long since passed. The Department of Defense (DoD) currently does not have an established definition for information warfare, nor does it have operational theories for information warfare that extend beyond narrowly defined concepts, like those for cyber or influence operations. More importantly, information warfare is an orphan in the Pentagon; no one is in charge. As first steps to address significant information warfare deficiencies, DoD should immediately: 1) define “information warfare,” 2) develop an information warfare operational concept, and 3) subordinate select organizations under a designated leader for information warfare.
Information warfare must be elevated to a level on par with air or naval warfare, advancing critical offensive and defensive capabilities in the operational battlespace. Information warfare functions are complementary to, not replacements for, firepower, maneuver, and protection functions. The Pentagon is entrenched in outmoded thinking on industrial-age warfare where information capabilities play a mere supporting role to mechanized warfare.
Meanwhile, potential adversaries are evolving warfare concepts for the information age. Russia and China are organizing and developing capabilities for military action around their respective concepts of “information confrontation” and “informationized warfare.” That these strategic competitors have embedded the term “information” in their warfare concepts seems lost on U.S. decision makers.
DoD’s status on information warfare was summed up by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, in September 2020 when he commented on the development of DoD’s new Joint Warfighting Concept: “[I]nformation advantage is going to be a critical piece. . . But as an activity right now, I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to document what information advantage really is.” For insights about an information warfare-enabled future, the Pentagon should examine its past. It has been here before.
Defining Information Warfare
A significant challenge surrounding any discussion of information warfare is that the term remains undefined by DoD, leading to any number of interpretations. Among the more problematic permutations of information warfare are those that describe it as a bloodless endeavor having everything to do with information but seemingly nothing to do with warfare. Meddling in elections may be a serious threat to national security, but it is not warfare.
“Warfare” may be defined broadly to include virtually any activity taken by one group to weaken or destroy another. However, applying the dramatic suffix of “warfare” to economics, politics, or social issues is distracting hyperbole. In any other domain—air, maritime, or ground—warfare is clearly defined as related to armed conflict, violence, and destruction. Information warfare should be no different.
Thomas Rona coined the term “information warfare” in 1976. He assessed that information warfare was emerging from information-reliant weapon systems and military operations controlled across a vast battlespace in real time. Rona’s study for DoD’s Office of Net Assessment, Weapon Systems and Information War, observes:
The need for systematically recognizing and exploiting this information warfare as superimposed on, and intertwined with, the more visible physical aspect of military preparedness and combat operations is perhaps the most important message of this study.
Rona’s predictions about information warfare 45 years ago have become reality. Information technologies that define and interpret the battlespace are intertwined and inextricably linked with physical space. Intelligent weapons feed on information to navigate the world and seek out targets. Battlespace information competitions overlap with operations in the ground, maritime, air, and space domains, just as those domains overlap with each other.
I propose definitions for information warfare and information advantage below, as they relate to armed conflict in physical space and the DoD’s established definition of “information superiority,” which is notably cast as an “operational advantage”:
Information Superiority: The operational advantage derived from the ability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary’s ability to do the same.
Information Warfare: Offensive and defensive actions in physical and virtual space that enable and protect the friendly force’s ability to access, process, and communicate information that also deny, exploit, corrupt or destroy an adversary force’s ability to use information.
Information Advantage: An advantage in which a military force exploits rapid access to more detailed and comprehensive information than that of an adversary for superior awareness, decision-making, and action at the strategic, operational, or tactical levels of warfare.
Assessing information advantage is not unlike assessing advantage in any other warfare discipline at any other level of warfare. For example, one might assess a military advantage comparing the range of dueling artillery batteries, the capabilities of a missile salvo versus antimissile defenses, or the strike capabilities of a battle force against adversary antiaccess capabilities. In an example relevant to information warfare, if an enemy deploys decoys, information advantage goes to the friendly force if its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) can distinguish decoys from real equipment. In an operational-level engagement, information advantage goes to the commander with superior battlespace awareness from integrated ISR and a communications network that can effectively distribute battlespace awareness across the friendly force and direct decisive action against the enemy. Information advantage will be further compounded if enemy ISR and communications networks are degraded and battlespace awareness undermined through deception, electronic warfare, cyber operations, and kinetic attacks on information links and nodes.
Regarding Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s “observe-orient-decide-act” cycle (the “OODA loop”), information advantage goes to the OODA loop that ingests more information, makes better decisions, and takes faster actions. Invoking the OODA loop leads to a more involved discussion on cognitive warfare and a future in which perception, cognition, and the “D”—decide (decision-making)—become the ultimate targets in conflict. Setting that aside, offensive and defensive information warfare across the OODA continuum combined with more traditional warfare actions will ultimately provide the foundations for cognitive warfare concepts and capability development.
An Information Warfare Operational Concept
The U.S. military is on the edge of a future in which adaptive networks react to threats in real time while cognitive electronic warfare capabilities attack agile enemy waveforms. U.S. communications will dance through frequencies to account for both friendly and enemy actions in the electromagnetic spectrum. As intelligent, information-driven weapons hurl downrange, physical and virtual deception will have a significant impact on salvo competitions as decoys and ghost tracks consume expensive and scarce munitions. Despite an obvious need for a strategy to organize this complex information maelstrom, the U.S. military currently does not have an overarching strategy for information warfare against a near-peer competitor.
DoD should immediately develop a comprehensive information warfare operational concept that integrates communications and ISR capabilities with traditional elements of information warfare.1 Those traditional elements include computer network operations (“cyber”), electronic warfare (“electromagnetic spectrum operations”), operational security, military deception, psychological operations, and physical attacks on information processes. These elements are all acknowledged in current U.S. military doctrine, but they have become conceptually disaggregated.
The 2018 Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE) offers nothing to achieve meaningful information warfare effects in combat operations. The JCOIE is principally concerned with strategic communications—manipulating and leveraging information to control the narrative in conflict, ultimately generating strategic outcomes. Shaping perceptions and attitudes is a necessary undertaking in a media-driven world. However, such efforts are more akin to public or civil affairs and stand apart from a concept of information warfare as defined here that focuses on generating operational effects in battle.
As DoD refocuses on competition with Russia and China, it should carefully review a previous generation’s lessons in the wake of the last great power competition. Following the Cold War, the U.S. concept of command and control warfare (C2W) integrated traditional information warfare elements to “to deny information to, influence, degrade or destroy adversary C2 capabilities while protecting friendly C2 capabilities against such actions.” Mid-1990s C2W doctrine unifying information control to support decision-making superiority faded in the 2000s, largely because of DoD’s focus on counterterrorism operations in Southwest Asia and the emergence of prodigious, if not all-consuming, cyber doctrine.
The Pentagon has been fascinated with the virtual space—cyber, big data, and the promise of artificial intelligence. However, a cyber warrior on a keyboard is unlikely to generate decisive effects in the operational battlespace alone. Russia and China, in addition to meeting U.S. capabilities in the virtual space, have made equal or greater investments to control physical elements of information warfare—the electromagnetic spectrum; camouflage and decoys; robust, redundant networks; and significant kinetic capabilities to degrade fragile U.S. terrestrial and space-based navigation, communications, and ISR. Given the U.S. military’s lagging position in conceptualizing information warfare, it may benefit from adopting some aspects of its strategic competitors’ information-centric operational concepts. If the U.S. military expects to compete against near-peer challengers, it must have a comprehensive design for information warfare that brings together physical and virtual information capabilities under one conceptual umbrella.
This essay, at the time of writing, does not have the benefit of knowing how DoD’s new Joint Warfighting Concept will address “information advantage.”. Requirements for the four components designated within the concept are due to be published in late-spring 2021. The Army took the lead on logistics, the Navy addressed joint fires, and the Air Force led on joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), which ostensibly connects distributed sensors, shooters, and data from all domains to all forces. The services abandoned information advantage to the Joint Staff, which, as mentioned earlier, was having trouble even defining the concept. However, if one considers leveraging all-domain information in all-domain warfare, information advantage should not be separated from JADC2, which is arguably the defensive side of information control. The Joint Warfighting Concept should integrate offensive and defensive information capabilities into a singular component—information warfare.
Leading on Information Warfare
DoD should create or designate an organization to be responsible for information warfare development and resource management. One solution would be an undersecretary of defense for information, an office fusing the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security with communications and network organizations scattered across DoD. Assigning operational command of comprehensive information warfare capabilities would be a next logical step. However, overcoming bureaucratic inertia to shift the Pentagon’s thinking on information warfare will be a significant challenge. The creation of Cyber Command and, later, the Space Force will likely hamper yet another reorganization around a new warfare concept, necessary as it may be.
When considering the need for leadership on information warfare, DoD should again revisit its past. Twenty-five years ago, the Defense Science Board (DSB) issued a comprehensive report on information warfare. The 200-page treatise observed that information warfare was an important new warfare area that was neither intelligence nor command and control. The 1996 report’s top-line recommendation was to “designate an accountable IW focal point” for “oversight of both offensive and defensive information warfare planning, technology development, and resources.” The recommended focal point was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence—ASD(C3I).
Twenty-five years later, the Pentagon has effectively moved in the opposite direction of the DSB’s recommendations. Information warfare capabilities are scattered across DoD with no effective top-level management. ASD(C3I) was eliminated in the early-2000s, its portfolio effectively split to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the DoD Chief Information Officer. However, the DSB report concluded, “The long view suggests the eventual need for an Under Secretary of Defense for Information.” That eventual need is now pressing on the Pentagon.
That DoD has not yet created a comprehensive information warfare portfolio is perplexing in light of the apparent demand signal from the military services. For example, in 2019, the Air Force created an information warfare numbered air force—the 16th Air Force—that integrates multisource ISR, cyber, electronic warfare, and information operations capabilities. The Navy probably has the most mature information warfare organization among the services, integrating functional areas of assured command and control, battlespace awareness, and integrated fires under three-star management.2 Similarly, the Marine Corps has subordinated intelligence and information-related capabilities under a Deputy Commandant for Information.
In terms of roles and responsibilities, military limitations in information operations should be codified for DoD. Military operations other than war, such as humanitarian/disaster relief or military diplomacy, yield demonstrable benefits for U.S. national security. In this way, military operations in the information space need not be limited to information warfare. However, information efforts to achieve political, economic, or even social ends should be secondary priorities, even if they are complementary to the U.S. military’s focus on information warfare as an integral element of armed conflict.
Making War with Information
Information warfare capabilities, both offensive and defensive, must be integrated with traditional warfare areas to realize success in the modern battlespace. Information warfare’s power to enable and drive offensive operations while denying or manipulating enemy perceptions of the battlespace is unlikely to conjure victories in isolation. Information warfare capabilities defined as combat capabilities will only be effective in the context of consequences. As a weathered senior chief once pointed out, when all is said and done, those real-world consequences involve killing people and destroying things. It is an unpleasant reality, but one that must be acknowledged when giving priority to information warfare in the information environment. For all the information challenges facing the U.S. military—from data management to winning foreign hearts and minds to recruiting the next generation of warriors through social media—information warfare will be a critical core competency in future armed conflict. DoD should define its terms, develop operational concepts for information warfare, and shift leadership and resources to enable its forces to fight and win in the information age.
- An operational concept is simply a method for employing military capabilities. Operational concepts reflect the assumptions and intent of military leadership and form the basis for operational planning and force development. This term is distinct from “concept of operations,” which describes how specific resources may be employed to accomplish a particular mission.
- The Navy’s information warfare community is led by the Navy Staff N2/N6. For an overview of service efforts to consolidate information warfare-related capabilities, see Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Design for Great Power Competition, CRS Report No. R46389 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2020), 13–30.