The Power of Cognitive Maneuver: Don’t Underestimate its Value

The Power of Cognitive Maneuver: Don’t Underestimate its Value

Patricia DeGennaro

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory. – Sun Tzu

In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sailed the Great White Fleet around the world to demonstrate the military power of the United States of America. His intent was not to invade foreign lands or overthrow enemy leaders, it was instead to influence. Influence others to enforce treaties and foreign investments around the world. Roosevelt also wanted to influence maritime thieves who threatened to pirate ships and inhibit commerce. The actions he took were both physical and cognitive. The large fleet sailed to influence, deter, and change behaviors of those who might challenge him.  Roosevelt knew how to use US military prowess by pairing physical and cognitive actions so others would think twice about interfering in American interests.

This expose of US war ships was what some may call a Gray Zone activity today. [i]  More appropriately this example of statecraft would be better described as high level integrated cognitive maneuver or Cognitive Aspects of Military Operations (CAMO).[ii] President Roosevelt was sending a message to the world. His missions was clear, his narrative unyielding, and his naval actions directly aligned with his words. The world heard him quite clearly, behaviors changed, the waters became safer. Most notably, he did not fire a shot.

The Marine Corps and the Army understand that our troops are being outmaneuvered in the CAMO. Be it little green men in the Ukraine, rising islands in the South China Sea or violent extremist groups high jacking Internet sites and user account, the US is outdone by the adversaries use of information that is influencing the operational environment. To counter this “cognitive” overmatch, the ground force components formulated a new approach “to combat operations against a sophisticated enemy threat.” [iii]

Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century requires ready and resilient Army and Marine Corps combat forces capable of outmaneuvering adversaries physically and cognitively through the extension of combined arms across all domains and throughout the depth of the battlefield in order to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative; defeat enemies; and achieve military objectives.[iv]

Although the multi-domain concept importantly alludes to cognitive, it gives little guidance on what that means. The dictionary defines cognitive “as of or relating to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes”[v] more easily one might infer this to mean influence.

Traditional militaries are well versed in the display of physical maneuvers to influence. In cases like that of the Great White Fleet, the concrete display of moving the fleet allowed people to see the tangible evidence of US power, but it also instilled a cognitive effect meaning that peoples “will” to go to war with the US was quickly extinguished by the perception that there was no way to beat this giant force.

During the Cold War, the US had one message with many movements to encourage the rejection of communism and influence other peoples and nations to choose capitalism. Now with the Cold War ended, the US is challenged by using cognitive maneuver in more ways than one. It has many more adversaries, is dealing with the increasing speed of human interactions, and facing opponents who are playing by new rules of engagement in the information space.  To succeed in this environment, the US must up its cognitive game.  Strategic plans must include strategies to influence beliefs, behaviors, and perceptions as well as kinetically coercing them or risk loss. After all, war is won by the “will” of the people. US military leaders know this; now they must find ways to see that it is implemented.

A number of US adversarial countries, groups and proxies are already exploiting US cognitive vulnerabilities – refer to the example of the little green men. Despite this, US decision makers lack the desire to invest in the cognitive because it is seen by many to have less value. In fact, the cognitive is often the most significant part of an adversary’s military campaign. The US is often easy to exploit not because it does not have the skills to influence, but because it does not see the importance of influence operations.  America’s military might is not in question.  However a durable change is not won solely by applications of kinetic power, it is often won by aligning deeds and words with the application of military power.

Emotions rule action, reaction, and ultimately decision making.  Think about your emotional response to any particular intervention then plan your way around what you may similarly find once you’re in the operational environment, be it in disaster, small conflict or all-out war.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau liked to say that living next to the US was akin to sleeping with an elephant, No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Even small US intrusions cause tremors throughout the globe and directly affect people’s lives and, in turn, thoughts and behaviors. In some of the most remote villages in any developing country you can see American influence often with things as simple as a Superman poster on the wall. That poster, be it Superman or X-men gives people perceptions about who Americans are and what their intentions might be. Although both examples are fiction, the impression of what they represent leave a long lasting truth in the mind – until, that is, a cognitive inference can change it.

I saw this first hand in Albania in 1993. I was one of the first Americans to enter the country after the demise of its leader Enver Hoxha. The people where told all kinds of deplorable narratives about Americans. To Hoxha, American’s were tyrants out to influence the thinking, impair people’s health or just spy in order to undermine the other - mind you I was a Peace Corps Small Business Volunteer so to me this held no truth whatsoever. That, however, was not the point. If I were to succeed, I need to understand how to work with, around, and influence.  It was less than easy, remember you are talking about a country that built some 750,000 concrete bunkers scattered throughout to defend against Americans. Albanians were scared to death of US citizens because of a reputation we acquired through Hoxha’ s cognitive influence. I lived with Albanians for four years, spoke the language, and helped build several businesses that remain today and many were still suspicious of my intensions.

It is eye-opening to see how others view you. It is also very enlightening to consider at the dichotomy between how they see us and how we see ourselves. One challenge to consider when planning activities in the cognitive space centers on the importance of developing understanding the reason, and truth, in how populations see others then addressing those perceived inconsistencies. Force may subdue, but it will not alter the belief structure of the population.

The military views “maneuver” as a physical action, moving ships, tanks and aircraft, however if you enhance the physical with the cognitive, critical thinking, creativity and mental adaptability, you can influence actions without force or while feigning it. Influence operations must no longer be deemed support activities.[vi] As Dr. Allison Astorino-Courtois, Chief Analytics Officer & Executive Vice President at NSI informs, “There is no disputing the fact that every military action is also an information operation, and that its ultimate measures of effectiveness (MOE) are a function of how foreign audiences and forces perceive and react to it. In other words, military courses of action cannot be fairly evaluated separate from their effect on others’ threat perceptions, worldviews, beliefs and intent, i.e., cognitive constructs with no physical reality that are governed by human knowledge, emotion, will, and desire. The upshot is that military doctrine, planning, and acquisitions that support only physical effects are insufficient to achieve national security objectives.”

The good news is that the Joint Staff is developing joint concepts to address strategic and operational cognitive gaps. The new and soon to be released Joint Concept for Operating on the Information Environment (JCOIE) will provide a framework that can be used to guide cognitive planning and activities. The central idea of the JCOIE is that in order to, “… achieve enduring strategic outcomes, the Joint Force must build information into operational art to design operations that deliberately leverage the inherent informational (i.e. cognitive) aspects of military activities.”[vii]

Correspondingly, the Strategic Multi-layer Assessment (SMA) team, led by Dr. Hriar Cabayan in the JS J39, has brought together numerous experts to discuss execution of the joint concepts. In the SMA’s most recent White Paper, A Cognitive Capabilities Agenda: A Multi-step Approach for Closing the Cognitive Capability Gap, the SMA authors provide a detailed approach for the forces to begin to align and implement cognitive activities with physical maneuver. The SMA team together with USG agencies, think tanks, academia, and industry has identified four reinforcing steps to begin the iterative process of systematically enhancing US capabilities in the cognitive domain by advancing doctrine, leveraging cognitive research, developing analytic tools, and training the force.[viii]

After all, our commitments to support US interests do not begin nor end with dominance. They include the ability to shape, sustain, coerce, deter and stabilize. Furthermore, plans are not terminal, they are fluid and adaptable.

The US is at war. It is spending billions to dominate the landscape. Our nation’s people are certainly not opposed to a fight. Though if I have learned anything in my long career of service to my country, it is that there are many fights that can be better fought non-lethally than lethally. In those situations, making the right choice (non-lethal approaches) leads to better outcomes with much lower cost. It is exceedingly important to pick your physical and psychological fights not look for them or let them pick you. Bottom line, it is also important to build relationships and engage relevant actors in human networks comprehensively while increasing our understanding of the operational environment and the human dynamics so that we can choose the most effective type of operation, whether physical, cognitive, or both, to achieve enduring success.

End Notes

[i] The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) defines gray zone challenges as competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality. (United States Special Operations Command, White Paper, The Gray Zone, 9 September 2015).

[ii] CAMO refers to the three key mental functions impacting formation of perception, intent, decision making, and behavior. These are: cognition which refers to modes of knowledge and information processing, affect which refers to emotion and feeling; and conation which refers to impulse, yearning and striving to carry out an act.  CAMO is the sum of these governances. Strategic Multi-layer Assessment team White Paper, A Cognitive Capabilities Agenda: A Multi-step Approach for Closing the Cognitive Capability Gap,  September 2017, p. 3

[iii] Multi-Domain Battle: Frequently Asked Questions

[iv] U.S. Army, Training and Doctrine Command, “Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21t Century.


[vi] Military information support operations (MISO) is defined as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives. (JP 3-13.2

[vii] The Joint Concept for Operating on the Information Environment (JCOIE), Draft Version 0.70, 10 July 2017.

[viii] SMA, White Paper, A Cognitive Capabilities Agenda: A Multi-step Approach for Closing the Cognitive Capability Gap,  September 2017


Your rating: None


The above article discusses various generalities. To make the issues and the problems relating to this discussion more understandable and more meaningful however -- this would seem to require that we, shall we say, "get down to cases." Here is my attempt to do just that:

Question 1: Re: influence operations (etc., etc., etc.), in our conflict with the Soviets/the communists of yesterday, what underlying factor gave the U.S./the West (et al.), back then, such a huge strategic advantage?

Answer 1: What the Soviets/the communists were seeking to do, then, was to "develop" (i.e., to "transform") the entire Rest of the World; this, more along their -- alien and profane (think "modern") -- communist political, economic, social and value lines.

(A daunting task indeed; this, given that this such task -- clearly -- put the Soviets/the communists "at odds" with [a] the much more individual and unique -- and the often much more traditional -- ways of life, ways of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs of the entire Rest of the World and with [b] the state and non-state actors who, back then, were willing to fight, and to die, to defend, preserve and protect their such unique ways of life, etc. The U.S./the West, realizing this such central underlying problem of the Soviet/the communists' agenda, often making great "influence operations" [etc., etc., etc.] use of this such "natural resistance" component/these such "natural resistance" enemies; this, re: our, then, "containment" and "roll back" strategies and campaigns.)

Question 2: Re: influence operations (etc., etc., etc.) -- in this case, re: the U.S./the West's conflict with the Rest of the World today -- what underlying factor gives our state and non-state actor opponents a (similar) huge strategic advantage?

Answer 2: What the U.S./the West is seeking to do today (much as was the case of the Soviets/the communists back in the Old Cold War) is to "develop" (i.e., to "transform") the entire Rest of the World; in this case of course, more along our -- equally alien and profane (again think "modern") -- western political, economic, social and value lines.

(Again, a daunting task; this, given that this such task [minus such things as "universal western values"] -- clearly -- now puts the U.S./the West "at odds" with [a] the much more individual and unique -- and often much more traditional -- ways of life, ways of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs of the entire Rest of the World and with [b] the state and non-state actors who, likewise today, are willing to fight, and to die; this, to defend, to preserve and to protect their unique ways of life, etc. The U.S./the West's state and non-state actor enemies today, thus, realizing this such central underlying problem re: the U.S./the Wests' such political objective -- and, indeed, understanding that "turn-about is fair play" -- often today making great "influence operations" [etc., etc., etc.] use of this such "natural resistance" component/these such "natural resistance" enemies; this, now as a critical component of their "containment" and "roll back" strategies and campaigns.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Re: "The Power of Cognitive Maneuver," do not underestimate:

a. The "human terrain" -- within which we have chosen to operate -- to wit: the power of alternative ways of life, alternative ways of governance, traditional values, etc. (And, indeed, our enemies' ability to use this such "human terrain," with great effectiveness, against us.) And, as to this exact such "human terrain,"

b. The general lack of utility (or, indeed, actual incompatibility?); this, re: the "vehicle" that we have chosen to maneuver within this such terrain.

("Old days" discussion of this general lack of utility/actual incompatibility of our such chosen "vehicle?" See the following: In the "summary," see the bottom of Page vii and the top of Page viii; in the main text, see the part beginning at Page 43.)

Patricia is a dear friend, and upon reading her paper I engaged her directly, and we had a great conversation.

For the SWJ community I will simply add, that all of this talk of "cognitive" domains, maneuver, etc., are clumsy, artless ways of saying we need to be competitive in the art of influence operations and psychological warfare. We need to recognize that in most of the peacetime conflicts we meddle and muddle our way into, that it is the messages our actions send that are far more important than the actions themselves.

We love to invent names to put on big baskets ("Irregular warfare," "Salafi Jihad," "Hybrid-Asymmetric," "Multi-Domain Battle," etc.) that we can then throw the problems into that share common characteristics; but that are often very different in nature. How things look is interesting. What things are is critical. We can't seem to get past looks.

It is no surprise that this strategy of "naming and blaming" is not working. At some point we need to simply seek to understand the world as it actually is, and get out their and compete. Our current approach is more like the Stanford marching band running out on the field and getting in the way of others who are trying to play the game.

There is, ironically, very little that is smart about this brain-focused concept as it is currently framed.