The ubiquity of the information environment makes the cognitive domain one of the most available and vulnerable attack surfaces for belligerents. As a network-of-networks grows, connecting more devices and users to form a worldwide grid, so, too, does the amount, speed, and impact of the information it carries.
Recordings, images, and commentary about any event can be uploaded in real time—and go viral in moments. By the end of the hour, information can be echoed across the internet, television, and radio and become wedged in the minds of audiences and policy makers.
Especially if it isn’t true.1
Humans are storytelling animals subject to cognitive heuristics and biases. The human mind is fraught with shortcomings: It seeks to connect information to build a coherent explanation or appealing story where one may not exist. It inflates the significance of information that contributes to such narratives. It hones in on information that confirms preexisting biases or beliefs and discards information that challenges those same beliefs.2 And today, U.S. adversaries are exploiting these shortcomings to win without fighting, or at least at minimal cost.3
Cognitive biases are not new. What has changed is the interdependence of people and information and the consequences for competition and conflict. U.S. military leaders have grappled with this phenomenon, attempting to account for it in the planning and conduct of war: Information is now understood as a warfighting function; the aggregation of things related to information collection, processing, and use is defined as the information environment (IE); military operations in the IE are categorized as operations in the information environment (OIE); and personnel and capabilities that can conduct OIE increasingly are organized under the banner of information warfare.
While these steps take U.S. military thinking in the right direction, they fail to fully account for the accelerating significance of the IE. The idea that there are operations in the information environment implies that some operations are conducted outside it; this is not the case. The operational and information environments are one and the same; every operation is an information operation.
This new reality has implications for how the military approaches the art and science of war. Among them, one stands out for the Sea Services: Individuals’ susceptibility to attack in the IE optimizes this environment for a maneuver war-fare philosophy.
Maneuver warfare generally is thought of as a Marine Corps concept, but there is nothing that limits it to a particular service or domain. Indeed, some of the central principles of maneuver warfare—the prioritization of a defeat mechanism that is cognitive rather than physical; the exploitation of time; an orientation on the enemy that makes him complicit in his own defeat; and the employment of asymmetry—are uniquely suited to exploitation of the IE in competition and conflict.
The increasing interdependence of society and its reliance on the information environment make these principles—most notably, a cognitive defeat mechanism—more relevant than ever. Such an approach supports the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s central premises of competing with potential adversaries in the gray zone and deterring fait accompli strategies. If the Sea Services embrace the realities of the IE and apply maneuver warfare accordingly, they can ensure that U.S. national security interests are met below the threshold of conflict and, if necessary, during combat operations.
Understanding the IE
U.S. joint doctrine defines the information environment as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information” and includes the interrelated physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions.4 Information operations use information-related capabilities to “influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of a [targeted audience] to create a desired effect.”5 These capabilities include military deception, military information support operations, strategic communications, public affairs, and electromagnetic spectrum, space, cyber, and special technical operations, among others.6
Because the information and operational environments are inseparable, an information advantage can be gained through successful operations in the information environment. Information advantage is a temporal operational advantage gained by exploiting one’s understanding of an adversary in relation to the operational environment, while preventing the adversary from doing the same.7 Leveraged appropriately, it can be decisive.
The aim of OIE aligns with the maneuver warfare concept of orienting on one’s adversary, which necessarily requires a deep cultural understanding of both your opponent and yourself, to exploit him cognitively while protecting yourself from similar efforts. Unfortunately, most OIE in the U.S. military are disparate and stovepiped; information-related capabilities are applied piecemeal, often bolted on to parts of an operation after the scheme of maneuver has already been drafted. OIE usually are a supporting effort to other kinetic operations at best. There is little to no inclination among U.S. military planners to seek victory through a primarily cognitive defeat mechanism.
Comparing the U.S. military’s take on OIE with that of its adversaries is the first step in analyzing how the United States stacks up against its competitors in the IE. Adversaries pursue OIE to offset the conventional U.S. military advantage, making this analysis critical. Russia and China possess the most mature and competitive OIE models, and many of the principles of maneuver warfare are present, if not pursued explicitly, in their models.
The Russian Ministry of Defense describes its approach to OIE, or information warfare, as a confrontation in the information space. This confrontation aims to undermine political, economic, and social systems, conduct massive psychological manipulation of a population to destabilize the state and society, and coerce the state to make decisions for the benefit of the opposing force.8 What is particularly notable is Russia’s selection of the term “information confrontation” rather than “information warfare.”9 This implies information warfare is not a military action, but a cultural, social, and philosophical phenomenon.10
Examples of this approach in action range from Russian interference in U.S. elections to the disinformation campaign conducted alongside of and in support of the annexation of Crimea.11
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) operations in the information environment often are described as the “three warfares”: public opinion, psychological, and legal. Each one uses information and media to influence a targeted adversary.
Public opinion warfare uses media and propaganda to bolster the unity and resolve of one’s own side, while sapping the opponent’s will to fight or resist. Psychological warfare undermines the resolve and decision-making capabilities of adversaries by exploiting internal divisions. Legal warfare, commonly referred to as “lawfare” in the West, weaponizes the law to secure “legal principle superiority” and delegitimize adversary goals and legal positions.12 By employing each warfare judiciously, the PRC seeks to steer perceptions and discourse in ways that best support the interests of China, while simultaneously compromising competitors’ ability to respond.
China has used these mechanisms routinely in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, to oppose the placement of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense systems in South Korea, and to pressure Taiwan to avoid a more vocal position favoring independence from the PRC.13
Applying Maneuver Warfare in the IE
With an understanding of the information environment, how adversaries approach OIE, and the greater susceptibility of decision-makers to effects from OIE, it becomes apparent that maneuver warfare principles will allow U.S. military planners to pursue victory by weighting OIE as the main effort.
First, maneuver warfare prioritizes a defeat mechanism that is mental or moral in nature, as opposed to one that is physical. Cognitively shattering the enemy is a more efficient path to victory than seeking to physically annihilate him. This is pursued through a series of unexpected actions, mentally overwhelming an adversary’s ability to process these events and prioritize a response. As confusion compounds, the enemy’s ability and willingness to deal with the increasingly elusive situation is broken.14
The information environment presents significant opportunities and attack points by which to employ a cognitive defeat mechanism. Contesting the electromagnetic spectrum can deny an adversary the ability to exert command and control of his forces. Psychological operations can present a false narrative regarding an adversary’s capabilities, while military deception can convince an enemy a force is landing on one beach when in reality it is landing on another. Day-to-day operations present another host of options: Using social media, public affairs, and coordinated actions with allies and partners to convey readiness, strength, and resolve can convince an adversary that victory is impossible, so he is best served by choosing not to escalate or fight at all.
Second, maneuver warfare requires the exploitation of time, such that the adversary’s dilemma is escalated into a crisis. This requires operating inside the enemy’s decision cycle, at a faster tempo than the enemy can, effectively compressing time and opportunity for the enemy.15
Rather than reacting to events after the fact, one can plan friendly narratives to be executed prior to and throughout operations, so the messages and themes of friendly actions benefit from the “Han Solo Effect,” or the disproportionate advantage of striking first.16 This robs an adversary of initiative in the IE, prevents his counternarrative from gaining traction, and denies him maneuver space.
An adversary can be further outpaced if presented with ambiguity. This renders an enemy incapable of generating the mental framework needed to deal with the situation with which he is faced.17 Manipulating signatures can allow a regiment to appear in the electromagnetic spectrum as small as a platoon, and vice versa. Increasing radio traffic can lead an adversary to believe one unit is doing communication checks and preparing for an attack, drawing his attention to its position, while in reality another unit is closing in and was not detected because it conducted final preparations long ago and outside the range of enemy signal detection.
Maneuver warfare also demands a fundamental orientation on the enemy, ideally making the enemy complicit in his own defeat. One is best able to defeat an adversary by understanding him on his own terms. One also must probe an enemy’s organization, to unmask his strengths, weaknesses, and intentions.18
This can be done through a broad and deep cultural understanding of the adversary, as well as the individual commanders of units one hopes to influence. The enemy’s courses of action likely will not be those U.S. forces would execute but those the enemy would execute. Operational plans must account for this. Further, psychological operations, military deception, and messaging must exploit detailed knowledge of enemy decision-makers on a personal level. By studying the writings and professional careers of enemy commanders, friendly commanders can better anticipate their potential actions at any phase of combat operations.
U.S. adversaries are susceptible to cognitive defeat mechanisms, and maneuver warfare principles can be employed by U.S. military planners to achieve victory through OIE. But this will occur only through direct and deliberate efforts by leaders at the highest levels investing in this approach.
To Win Without Fighting
To capitalize on the true promise of maneuver warfare and to fulfill their obligation to deliver on strategies of deterrence by denial, the Sea Services must implement changes that make the preceding recommendations matters of course. The current and future operating environment is primed for the successful application of maneuver warfare in the IE.
Concrete measures the Navy and Marine Corps could take to win without fighting through OIE include: making the information warfare commander the main effort during particular phases of a campaign; elevating Marine Corps’ information warfare capabilities to a distinct element of the Marine air-ground task force, a newly designated information combat element; conducting Fleet Problems, war games, and joint and combined exercises that focus primarily on OIE; ensuring professional military education and training emphasize the integral nature of the information environment to the operational one; transforming the Sea Service’s cyber components, including Marine Forces Cyber Command and Navy Cyber Command, to include all elements of information warfare; and others.
If perception is reality, then naval campaigns must create perceptions that deter adversaries and ensure victory. By leveraging maneuver warfare principles in the information environment, the Sea Services will have the best shot at competing and winning below the threshold of conflict.
1. Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral, “The Spread of True and False News Online,” Science 359, no. 6380 (March 2018).
2. Max Bazerman and Don Moore, Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, 8th ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013), 7–35.
3. Kathleen Hicks, “Russia in the Gray Zone,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 25 July 2019.
4. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations, incorporating change 1 (20 November 2014), ix.
5. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Information Operations, x.
6. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Information Operations, II-6.
7. Patrick Blannin and Robert Ehlers, “Making Sense of the Information Environment,” Small Wars Journal (3 March 2020).
8. Russian Federation Armed Forces’ Information Space Activities Concept (Moscow: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, 2000).
9. Olga Vartanova, Gerasimov Doctrine as an Active Measure of Russian IPb (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, 2017), 133.
10. Timothy L. Thomas, “Dialectical versus Empirical Thinking: Ten Key Elements of the Russian Understanding of Information Operations,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 11, no. 1 (March 1998): 40–62.
11. Sam Sokol, “Russian Disinformation Distorted Reality in Ukraine. Americans Should Take Note,” Foreign Policy, 2 August 2019.
12. Elsa B. Kania, “PLA’s Latest Strategic Thinking on the Three Warfares,” The Jamestown Foundation, 22 August 2016, 5.
13. Kania, “Three Warfares,” 1.
14. John Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” video lecture, Marine Corps University Archives, Boyd Collection.
15. Frans Osinga, “Getting a Discourse on Winning and Losing: A Primer on Boyd’s ‘Theory of Intellectual Evolution,’” Contemporary Security Policy 34, no. 3 (November 2013): 613.
16. As coined by Major Tyle Quinn, USMC.
17. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict.”
18. John Boyd, “Creation and Destruction,” video lecture, Marine Corps University Archives, Boyd Collection.