Small Wars Journal

Winning the Ground Battles but Losing the Information War

Thu, 01/21/2010 - 9:28pm
Winning the Ground Battles but Losing the Information War

by Captain Gina Cairns-McFeeters, Captain John Shapiro, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Nettleton, Lieutenant Colonel Sonya Finely and Lieutenant Commander Daryk Zirkle

Download the full article: Winning the Ground Battles but Losing the Information War

In this era of persistent conflict, the US faces a myriad of challenges—conventional and irregular, with adversaries who increasingly take advantage of the information environment. Fundamentally, we must change our mindset and incorporate the human terrain—and the effects of information warfare—into our operational analysis and planning. While al Qaeda and its adherents try to frame current conflicts as a "clash of civilizations," in reality there is a struggle within Islam to determine the way ahead in the 21st century. Ambassador Holbrooke stated it best: "defining what this war is really about in the minds of the 1 billion Muslims in the world will be of decisive and historic importance." In order to achieve success, we must fully understand the power of information and the requirements for intelligence and influence—both being conducted in competition with the adversary's information campaign that complements their dynamic and flat networked organizations. The information components of counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies are the underlying foundation for all other COIN activities.

Download the full article: Winning the Ground Battles but Losing the Information War

Captain Gina Cairns-McFeeters, U.S. Navy, was the Chief, Multinational Force-Iraq IO Cell and led Strategic IO efforts for Iraq. Captain John Shapiro, U.S. Navy, was Multinational-West IO Liaison Officer to the MNF-I IO Cell. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Nettleton, U.S. Army, was the Officer in Charge, Cyber Support Element -- Iraq and provided computer network operations support to MNF-I. Lieutenant Colonel Sonya Finely, U.S. Army, was the Deputy Director, Commander's Initiative Group, MNF-I and assisted the director of the Commanding General's personal staff. Lieutenant Commander Daryk Zirkle, U.S. Navy, was the Information Operations Planner, MNF-I IO and provided planning and staff support to Strategic IO efforts.

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IOnian in Newport

Tue, 02/02/2010 - 1:46pm

The challenges confronting the operational commander in the information environment are significant and can directly compromise mission success. The use of the internet by the adversary is a persistent concern as described in "Winning the Ground Battles and Losing the Information War." But at the operational level, two aspects of the adversarys use of the internet deserve further consideration.

First, the adversarys use of the internet must be evaluated in the broader context of the commanders information environment. Not all internet postings are effective in achieving the adversarys intended goals and not all internet postings affect the operational commander in an equal manner. While some of the advantages of the internet were discussed in the article, the disadvantages were not considered. These can include: lack of access to the internet by the targeted population, competing internet sites (such as music, education, business or other interests), risk of exposure to legitimate authorities and an inability of the adversary to measure their success or effectiveness - yes, they need MOEs too! While it is imprudent to ignore the effects of internet activities, it would also be unwise to attribute unrealistic success rates to an adversarys activities in cyberspace. The tactical and operational commanders must be able to assess the impact of cyberspace activities in the context of their tactical/operational information environment which will also include local media, public sentiment, and adversary propaganda. Warfare commanders must continue to develop strategies that account for information, whether information is treated as an operational factor or an operational function. As part of mission analysis, the commander must identify strategic information concerns (whether they are propaganda on web sites, network hacking or dysfunctional strategic communication strategies by coalition governments) and request higher headquarters take action to support the operational "information" line of operation. Characterizing issues in the information environment in the context of the operational level of war assists the higher headquarters in prioritizing their efforts across the DIME and provides specific justification for their actions on behalf of the JTF. In the meantime, the operational commander must mitigate adversity in the information environment as part of the JTF operational plan.

Secondly, operational thinking regarding cyberspace (as a significant portion of the information environment) must be developed across the warfighting profession in order for there to be synchronized and integrated actions between cyberspace and other operational domains. Commanders and their staffs must be conversant with cyberspace issues across the joint planning and execution processes, from initial mission analysis to the development of courses of action and synchronization matrixes. In many cases, the terms of op art do not directly apply to issues in cyberspace; commanders can be key advocates in developing the thinking in this area, through guidance and intent which consider cyberspace issues.

The article broadly describes a global (strategic) landscape of extremists using cyberspace (in this case, the internet) to achieve both broad and specific objectives. The extremists who use cyberspace do not operate exclusively in the MNF-I Joint Operations Area (JOA). Cyberspace enables global reach to sympathetic audiences for recruitment or financing; cyberspace provides a means to influence neutral audiences; cyberspace provides a soapbox for propaganda or misinformation. Hence, there are actions in cyberspace which potentially have direct consequences within the MNF-I JOA, where physical actions coalesce to create instability and undermine the Iraqi government. The challenge is implicit in the article -- it is clear that actions in cyberspace can directly affect the situation within a JOA, but all actions by the adversary are not necessarily equal in impact or even successful. Intelligence assessments are critical in helping the commander calculate risk, develop further intelligence requirements and assess the effectiveness of an operation, yet this level of intelligence support is not commonly available. As with warfare in the conventional domains, in cyberspace, the commander must make an assessment of the risk to mission, make a judgment on the proper course of action and develop a plan which may involve support and/or forces from outside the JOA. The commander cannot reasonably counter every adverse action in cyberspace nor can he rely on higher headquarters to cover all the cyberspace issues on behalf of the JTF. By developing operational thinking in his approach to cyberspace, demanding more fidelity from the intelligence community, and fully integrating cyberspace with "other" operational processes, the commander is better able to identify inside-JOA cyberspace issues and outside-JOA issues and formulate requirements accordingly.

Defining cyberspace requirements is not easy. Timely, multi-source intelligence is a significant challenge in order to properly characterize the cyberspace effect in the context of an operation. Furthermore, identifying the appropriate action to counteract adverse cyberspace effects does not necessarily mean the commander requires cyberspace action. In some cases, the appropriate action may be in cyberspace, such as whack a website or trail the money transfers from bank to bank. But, it could be more complicated -- assessing the broader effect of actions in cyberspace may lead to non-cyberspace actions. For example, downturn in public support for a government (as evidence in on-line surveys) may lead to a change in a host-nation policy; establishment of a new extremist cell (due to targeted recruitment on the internet) may lead to a intelligence gathering operation or a special operations strike; transfer of money for munitions (gained through intelligence collected on the internet) may lead to the boarding of a merchant ship; constant stream of false propaganda/deceptive photos (posted on an extremist web site) may lead to more participation by international media or non-governmental enterprises to counter the misinformation. Does the commander attack the "tool" (the website) or look more broadly to the propagandist? The course of action developed may not be within the commanders JOA, legal authority or capacity to execute. In such cases, the responsibility at the operational level is to clearly advocate actions requested of those higher up/outside of the chain of command and synchronize these desired actions with those of the operation.
The cyberspace challenge at the operational level is to conduct the best possible intelligence assessment and mission analysis, determine the most suitable course of action and articulate what is necessary to achieve mission success, without creating a "cyberspace stovepipe." In this fashion, the commander can provide focus, prioritization and a sense of urgency to cyberspace actions. Coalition forces and interagency participants at the operational level can assist in formulating a plan that can help the "whole of government" approach in support. While mindful that the political climate and other competing priorities at the strategic level may impact a "whole of government" approach to achieve information objectives, due diligence at the operational level is a critical foundation to the process.

The intersection of cyberspace issues and the information environment at the operational level will increasingly affect the commanders judgments. Defining "risk" to the mission, developing agile and appropriate actions to mitigate the cyberspace threat and establishing command responsibilities (supported/ supporting relationships) are only a few considerations facing commanders today. Planners, intelligence analysts, public affairs officers, counterinsurgency forces, information operations professionals - all need to look at cyberspace broadly and become conversant with this domain and its impact on the information environment in order to be effective. For this reason, the issues of operations in the global information environment as raised in "Winning the Ground Battles and Losing the Information War" should be studied as a key feature of future warfare.