Small Wars Journal

Connecting Local Crises Within Strategic Influence: How Embedded Small Teams With Local Allies And Partners Enhance The U.S. And Allies’ Competition In The Information Environment

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 7:15pm

Connecting Local Crises Within Strategic Influence:

How Embedded Small Teams With Local Allies And Partners Enhance The U.S. And Allies’ Competition In The Information Environment


By Corban Pierce, George Chkhikvadze, Trevor Davison, and Matt McGowan


Endangered Fishing Village: A fishing village located on an island in an archipelago in the Indo-Pacific about 200 nautical miles from a major straight and 50 nautical miles from a major shipping route.  The fisherman, many of whom are third or fourth-generation fishermen, who have worked these waters surrounding their home for decades, are under persistent harassment from strange foreign fishing vessels.  Local vessels are chased from legacy fisheries, while foreign vessels are overfishing the area and devastating the local economy.  Within the local village, outsiders have been placing pressure on local officials to sell land surrounding the village under the pretense of building an airport and the promise of building infrastructure.  Local officials are frustrated that they cannot protect their fishermen, despite the repeated calls for support from the overtaxed Coast Guard.  Concurrently, national officials are worried about territorial encroachment and predatory economic practices across multiple islands and districts.[1]

Though this scenario is hypothetical, similar events occur daily across the globe as great powers compete across the spectrum of Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence, and Law Enforcement (DIMEFIL).[2]  While in isolation these local critical events at the tactical level are mildly interesting to outside observers, in the aggregate they paint a compelling strategic narrative, revealing the constant struggle between geopolitical behemoths.  This struggle is often painful at the local level.[3]  Fisheries are ruined, family businesses destroyed, and governments are leveraged with predatory loans.  As great powers compete, local allies and partners at the edge of the geopolitical ‘tectonic plates’ often fall victim to critical events without recourse or the platform to voice their concerns.[4]

If the West and its allies are not able to capture these critical events and use them to shape the narrative through information operations / non-kinetic fires, then an opportunity is lost.  Worse, if the U.S. and its Allies are not able to tell the truth, and the whole story, then its adversaries will spin the narrative.[5]  In our previous article, we discussed the importance of integrating tactical actions with a strategic influence campaign.  In this article, we will outline how the information environment necessitates embedded small teams with local allies and partners can connect and enhance the U.S. and allies’ competition in the information environment.  By doing so, this strengthens the US’ “integrated deterrence” strategy within the region.  According to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, the US will “use existing capabilities, and build new ones, and use all of them in networked ways – hand in hand with our allies and partners.  Deterrence still rests on the same logic – but it now spans multiple realms, all of which must be mastered to ensure our security in the 21st century.”[6]  These embedded small Information Environment (OIE) teams must be capable of three fundamental tasks: enhancing local allies' and partners' capability to enable them with an array of options, integrating with the Five Eyes (FVEY) Intelligence Community, and employing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) tools to enable local allies and partners. 

The scenario outlined above highlights two pressing issues.  First, the local officials and fishermen likely have very little awareness of the location and movement of the foreign fishing vessels beyond local reporting.  This means that the local fishermen can lose valuable time by sailing out to a legacy fishing spot only to find it occupied by a foreign bully.[7]  Second, local officials and fishermen likely have little or no recourse other than reporting an incident to national officials who have limited resources and can do very little against a foreign behemoth.[8]  Although the harassment of fishermen and predatory business deals degrade the local economy, if an event does not escalate to the international news cycle, then there will be very little international interest in the plight of a small fishing village on a remote island as a victim of geopolitical competition.  But: an OIE team can directly assist local officials and fishermen with both issues. 

There are several actions that an OIE team on the ground to assist the local partners and strengthen not only the message of the information campaign, but also the strategic deterrence strategy against the behemoth adversary.  First, the OIE team can leverage the vast U.S. Intelligence Community to identify and track the movements of foreign fishing vessels and help the locals increase situational awareness.   While the team must be trained on the appropriate methods of sharing sensitive information, it is highly feasible that the OIE team could provide warnings to local fishermen and enable local officials to avoid confrontation.  In addition, the OIE team could work with local fishermen to develop a ‘neighborhood watch network’ to report the movements and activities of foreign fishing vessels.[9]  This would not only enhance local situational awareness but provide access to an untapped source of intelligence for the U.S. Intelligence, enabling corroboration and enhanced maritime domain awareness while mapping the maritime network in key maritime terrain.[10] Without exposing sources, methods, or assets, the OIE team could use COTs sensors such as gyrostabilized maritime cameras mounted on the local fishing vessels and share that unclassified information.[11]  Working with locals to provide them with maritime situational awareness, and using local vessels as sensor platforms for both the host nation and US Intelligence Community, can provide a strategic win for both and sets the stage for the second issue.

Second, the OIE team can use the information collected from the locals to provide that unclassified but highly relevant content to western news outlets through US Military OIE channels, giving the small fishing village in the scenario an international platform and a voice.[12]  Without the team, the local fisherman might take a video of foreign fishing vessel harassment and send it to his local or national news outlets.  While that video clip might significantly influence the locals, it will likely fail to reach the broader audience or create enough reaction to impose any social cost of the foreign bully.  In contrast, if the same fisherman can record a harassment event and work with the embedded OIE team, the team can take that content and disseminate it in the right method and relevant messaging strategy to create a targeted message.  The right message can capture the fickle attention of the western media, especially in a David and Goliath scenario, and quickly spread to international awareness in a few hours. This provides the local officials as well as host nation officials, in partnership with the US, with a rheostat of timely and relevant messaging that can be released to support objectives across the DIMEFIL to hold foreign adversaries socially accountable.

For the OIE team to be successful several requirements must be fulfilled:  they must be fully embedded to build trust with local allies and partners, have a clear communications architecture, and have effective and permissible COTS sensors.  

To effectively integrate with locals at a level that could achieve tangible success would require significant trust.  This means that OIEs teams would need to remain not only regionally aligned but aligned to specific islands.  To be trusted, the OIE teams would become known entities and have strong relationships with local officials, which takes time on the ground. The OIE team must also counter suspicion from both local and regional officials, as well as gain credibility with the local community.  This requires the team to live within the community, become a part of it, and contribute to the local community at a local level.  Once trust is established between the OIE Team and local partners, the team can work to find common interests between the local community and the US’s strategic objectives.  For example, a local fisherman must be convinced that taking a video of foreign vessel harassment and providing it to the OIE team is beneficial not only to his nation but directly beneficial to his village. This action must also be of benefit to the US.  

The secondary requirement is for a clear communications architecture between the tactical and strategic levels.[13] In the modern age, the information cycle between event, initial messaging, to counter-messaging is incredibly short, often measured in minutes vice days. To be legitimate within the information environment, Indo-Pacific Regional cells must be clearly nested within strategic influence campaign, with a clear communication architecture up the chain to the Nation Capital Region, laterally to the country teams, and down to the OIE team. To gain tempo, the regional cells must generate preapproved and laterally deconflicted concepts of operations (CONOPS) that enable the team to conduct messaging, information maneuver, and other OIE actions with speed.  To capture the local events within the strategic narrative, there must be an efficient and effective communication architecture from the host nation policy makers and regional cell down to the local officials and OIE team. This means that the embedded OIE team must be adept at executing the preapproved CONOPs as they work side by side with local officials influence the region against the adversary. 

The tertiary requirement is for viable and effective sensors that can be used by, with, and through locals. These sensors must be capable of collecting accurate and relevant information, but they also must be shareable with locals without the operational risk of compromising classified tools.  An effective method for this is to build a local sensor network with COTS tools to enable local maritime domain awareness.

The future of influence in an era of great power competition is the overlap of strategic narratives at the local level.  The combination of an OIE team working with and through local allies and partners at the local level provides the U.S. and its allies with a foothold on key maritime terrain intended to enable the US to shape the strategic narrative and combat the People’s Republic of China’s “informationized warfare” (信息化作).[14] The key to shaping the strategic narrative is highlighting local events in a method that enables both local and national interests.  The best way to highlight critical local events that can have a strategic impact is to embed with the locals and make their problems ours.


[1] Note: this scenario is fictional and for academic purposes only.

[2] Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon.

[3] “China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets.”

[4] Plapinger, “China’s Irregular Approach to War.”

[5] Knoll, “Story Telling and Strategy.”

[6] C. Todd Lopez, “Defense Secretary Says ‘Integrated Deterrence’ Is Cornerstone of U.S. Defense,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, May 3, 2021,

[7] Lendon, “Philippines Demands Chinese Fishing Flotilla Leave Disputed South China Sea Reef.”

[8] “China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets.”

[9] Poling et al., “Pulling Back the Curtain on China’s Maritime Militia.”

[10] “Mapping Gray Maritime Networks for Hybrid Warfare | Center for International Maritime Security.”

[11] “Gyro Stabilization.” n.d. Accessed February 24, 2023.

[12] Martinson, “Records Expose China’s Maritime Militia at Whitsun Reef.”

[13] “Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea « State of Affairs.”

[14] “Beyond ‘Conventional Wisdom.’”

About the Author(s)

George Chkhikvadze is the Deputy Head of the Division in the Policy and Development Department of the Ministry of Defense of Country Georgia. He is currently studying Information Strategy and Political Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School (CA, US). He also owns a master's degree in philosophy and has more than 15 years of experience in analytical and research work. His main research areas are hybrid warfare issues and economic security topics.

Major Matthew J. McGowan is an Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps since May 2011.  He is originally from outside of the Philadelphia, PA area.  Since joining the Marine Corps, he has deployed to both the Indo-Pacom AOR, and also to the Middle East with a Marine Expeditionary Unit.  He is currently a student at the Naval Postgraduate School studying Information Strategy and Political Warfare.   

Major Trevor Davison is a combat engineer officer in the Marine Corps from Baltimore, MD.  He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently in Helmand Province as a member of Task Force Southwest from 2019 to 2020.  He currently studies Information Strategy and Political Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.  

Major Corban Pierce is an active-duty Marine Corps Infantry Officer. He has had the honor of serving around the world; in major combat operations, crisis response missions, and dynamic force employment. He specializes in Operations in the Information Environment (OIE), multi-domain tactics, and Naval MAGTF employment.  



Tue, 05/09/2023 - 7:54am

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