Small Wars Journal

How the United States Will Lose the Next War

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 12:00pm

How the United States Will Lose the Next War

 “Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.”

Arnold Toynbee

By Andrew Straley

The next war will most likely take place in the information ‘cognitive’ battle-space, where the U.S. military is ill designed and ill equipped to fight.  This future war will take place in ways and places far beyond the conventional Western concepts of war.  The traditional ‘Western-way-of-war’ where society believes the nation is either ‘at-war’ or ‘at-peace, is a relic of the past.  U.S. national policy leaders are slow to recognize the international system has changed, making the United States more vulnerable to evolving forms of hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare and unrestricted warfare.  These approaches are not novel, but new technologies and methods within these strategies are designed to remain below the level-of-armed-conflict yet achieve wartime objectives.  Using these new methods and targeting the U.S. Center-of-Gravity, which is the will of the American people, may enable a less militarily capable adversary to force U.S. leaders to the negotiation table.  This is difficult for our collective conscience to grasp, but so were the 9-11 attacks, before they happened.

Disinformation and malign influence campaigns are nothing new between nation states.  Political groups have been trying to influence the internal politics and decisions of other countries before the ink was dry on Europe’s Westphalia Peace Agreement of 1648.  That agreement established what we know today as nation-state borders, international relations and the international norm of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries.  Advance technologies, however, offer something very new and very dangerous.  Adversaries can now use ‘convergence’ which combine these malign influence campaigns with new, powerful and ever evolving information and social media technologies.  New and low-cost technologies make the breadth and depth of their effects significant, posing existential danger to the targeted state.  Because Western democracies promote open societies, high-tolerance for free speech, ideas, media and the internet; they are particularly susceptible to information warfare through this dangerous marriage of new technologies and malign information warfare campaigns. 

The political process in open democracies is messy, loud and divisive by nature.  This is by design; this governance framework makes democracies resilient by being both flexible and stable.  The ‘messiness’ of democracies ensures all political groups are guaranteed a voice within the political process.  There is a downside however: vulnerability to exploitation of pre-existing, deep-rooted demographic fissures based on economics, societal class, history, ethnicity, political ideology, etc.  As traditional media companies lose their influence, more citizens receive their news and information from social media platforms that only reinforce confirmation-bias.  Internal political groups become more isolated within their own social media echo-chambers.  Adversaries exploit these divisions using campaigns designed to target societal vulnerabilities, sow discord, inflame the political divide, undermine confidence in public institutions, and increase tears in the social fabric.

As outlined in RAND’s report on Hostile Social Manipulation, “…hostile social manipulation employ[s] targeted social media campaigns, sophisticated forgeries, cyber-bullying and harassment of individuals, distribution of rumors and conspiracy theories, and other tools and approaches to cause damage to the target state.”  Adversaries can now leverage low-cost, but powerful social media technologies that have the capability to ‘micro’ target domestic factions in order to inflame and incite societal divisions.  Information Warfare campaigns are designed to overwhelm political leaders and suppress the targeted nation’s ability to counter the narratives through the noise levels.  This strategy is clearly explained in a book published by two People’s Liberation Army Colonels titled, Unrestricted Warfare.  What makes this strategy so effective is it’s designed to avoid the strengths of the adversary and exploit the vulnerabilities. 

As articulated in the Strategy Bridge article, A More Holistic Framework, “The next war won’t take place between missile silos of opposing nations, or carrier battle groups along the coast of China.”  That’s the brilliance of the Unrestricted Warfare strategy.  It avoids the strength of the U.S. military which is not designed, equipped or legally authorized within the framework of U.S. governance to defend against these unique vulnerabilities.  The goal of un-restricted warfare is to achieve the war’s objectives without the intended target nation even knowing it is taking place.  The authors of Unrestricted Warfare marveled at the United States use and ‘convergence’ of multiple forms of power: technological, information, diplomatic (soft) and military during the 1st Gulf War.  Their framework outlined the strategy of combining various methods of warfare (economic, law-fare, information, cyber) in order to subdue the enemy, ideally before the war even begins.  According to the authors, the convergence of specifically matched methods and capabilities will be the path to victory:

Multidimensional Coordination is the introduction of non-military and non-war factors into the sphere of war directly rather than indirectly.  ‘…since any sphere can become a battlefield, and any force can be used under combat conditions…’  It is not the case that in all wars military actions must be considered as the primary form of action.  ‘…coordination among the various dimensions [non-military, non-war factors] is absolutely necessary.

Unrestricted Warfare combines or ‘converges’ non-warfare methods such as information (information warfare), cyber (offensive cyberspace operations), economic (industrial and technological espionage), law (law-fare) into a coordinated, un-attributable campaign.  Finding methods or capabilities to exploit an adversary’s economic, political, societal or legal vulnerabilities is far greater in importance than vulnerabilities in military capabilities.  The modern technological weapons used to control this ‘high-ground’ are cyberspace, mainstream and social media platforms, search engines, big-data and machine learning (ML).  The Hostile Social Manipulation report by RAND states, “The goal is to gain competitive advantage by manipulating political, social, and economic conditions in the target countries by various informational means-range across a variety of partly overlapping categories.” The report goes on to state, “…the marriage of the hostile intent of several leading powers and the evolution of several interrelated areas of information technology has the potential to vastly increase the effectiveness and reach of these techniques over time.”

The success of these methods will only embolden adversaries to continue to improve and exploit these approaches, setting dangerous conditions for U.S. sovereignty.  Current and future technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), deep fakes, computational propaganda, generative adversarial networks, adversarial machine learning, and search engine manipulation will only amplify the effects of malign information campaigns.  Looking through the prism of a “military problem-set” the War On The Rocks article articulates the challenge through, “New technologies related to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous systems may provide the PLA with necessary tools to realize its long-standing goals of controlling the information domain, manipulating perception and paralyzing adversary decision-making.”  Just as oil fueled the land armies and naval armadas in the last century, data will fuel the war capabilities in this century. 

The global commodity of data in the future will be far greater in fueling AI and ML than what oil is to the war machines of today.  Data gatekeepers, leveraging cyberspace technologies, will be the battleground of the Global Information Domain.  These emerging, low-cost tools will amplify and spread misinformation campaigns on a massive scale.  A case can be made that we’re now seeing the initial salvos of this war where it’s migrating from cyberspace/online to the physical world within U.S. cities.  As stated in the DHS report on countering foreign influence, current and rapidly evolving technologies make it possible to revitalize Cold War ‘active measures’ that were once used to advance the cause of communism. Once considered punitively expensive and extremely time-consuming for a very limited return, these tactics – which include propaganda and influence efforts – have now been streamlined by technology, facilitating rapid, remote manipulation, and low-cost targeting by simply using a smart phone and a social media account.  The convergence of information warfare campaigns with low-cost information technologies is where adversaries will exploit advantages within free and open societies.  This insidious marriage is where the gaps and seams appear in U.S. military national defense and is how adversaries will avoid U.S. military within the physical domain.

The marriage or ‘convergence’ of information warfare with low-cost technologies can amplify the effect of malign objectives.  The battleground of the future war will be over the dominance of the global narrative. It will take place in cyberspace and Big Tech data banks.  Whoever controls the narrative controls the fight.  Dr. Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June of 2019 that Google LLC presents a serious threat through search data manipulation, suppression, surveillance, censorship and their ability to manipulate the thoughts and behavior of more than 2.4 billion people worldwide.  As detailed in the 2018 Foreign Policy article Google was so attracted to the profit of the vast market in China, like so many profit hungry U.S. Big Tech firms, it capitulated to Chinese government demands of handing over user data and algorithm search technology methods.  Google’s decision allowed the autocratic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government to control content and opinion. 

Under political and media scrutiny, Google ultimately canceled Project Dragonfly, which enabled the censoring of search engine data within the Chinese market for the Chinese government.  This technology goes far beyond influencing news cycles; this is influencing what information goes to the top of search engine results.  Those who control big-data search results will control population perceptions.  Those who control perceptions, control the global narrative.  Those who control the global narrative control what’s discussed at the negotiation table.  The West is losing this fight for the narrative through the previously mentioned technological methods and others such as weaponized social media, manufactured realities, the corruption of critical data and the disruption of key military sensors and nodes.  All of these are vulnerabilities to the security of the future information environment but have roots in traditional U.S. instruments of power.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has leveraged four key elements of power to maintain the international order and remain the world’s superpower.  Maintaining the strength of Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic (DIME) power, has ensured a stable global order for the last 70 years.  Futurist Peter Zeihan explains that since the end of WWII the international system of mutually beneficial free trade, open diplomatic dialog, trust between nations and relative peace, is rarely seen throughout the arch of world history.  He argues that the last 70 years compared to the last 700 years, the world has been at relative peace, mainly due to security guarantees backed by the United States.  The military supremacy of the United States, supported by diplomatic, information and economic superiority has stabilized the international order.  U.S. negotiators were able to negotiate from positions of superiority by having the tools of superior information, economic prowess and unprecedented military strength.  The IM&E of DIME has enabled the diplomatic or “soft power” of U.S. foreign policy. 

The global information environment is the emerging the critical battleground of the future.  The balance of DIME is fundamentally changing and the U.S. is rapidly losing the information supremacy that enabled U.S. negotiators to operate from positions of diplomatic, military and economic supremacy.  Adversaries have studied U.S. instruments of power and know not to face the U.S. military head-on.  To do this, their strategies now focus on manipulating and controlling the information environment.  The Global Futures Report, The Future of Malign Influence Campaigns states:

Geopolitical competition and disinformation is no longer limited exclusively to Russia, China, Iran or Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs). Rather, we are more likely to see a congruence of these actors either jointly or independently waging simultaneous, multi-faceted influence campaigns on targeted populations at a global scale.  These campaigns will continue to target all facets of our society.  This will be compounded by the use of offensive cyber operations on targeted populations.

What must be understood by U.S. policy makers and the general public, is that the goal of cyberspace attacks on information systems is not necessarily to damage, destroy or exploit the targeted system.  The goal is to ‘undermine confidence’ in the public institutions supported by these systems.  As outlined in the RAND report Brandishing Cyberattack Capabilities, “The target of the attack is not the system itself but confidence in that system and any other system an adversary depends on.”  As 5th Generation Internet of Things evolves, the ubiquity of the future cyberspace environment will be limitless.  Today we understand cyberspace as being “online”.  If you’re on your computer or phone, you’re operating in the cyberspace domain.  In the very near future the “cyberspace” environment will be all around you.  In the 5G world you will no longer need a device to operate in cyberspace.  In the new hyper-connected world of 5G, you will be able to walk outside and simply say, “Uber” and audio and video feeds will pick up who you are, where you are, what you want, and the Uber ride will be on its way.  You will automatically be serviced and billed, without ever needing a device.  This new world will no longer be the Internet-of-Things, it will just be “cyberspace” and it will be all around you.  As articulated by Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding in his book Stealth Wars, you won’t have the option to “opt-out” of this new world by simply refraining from going online or staying off your phone.  The cyberspace 5G world promises to be so pervasive and omnipresent, that simply living within 5G network areas; will literally place you “in” cyberspace. 

The security of the future information environment goes well beyond the recommendations in the national cyberspace security Solarium Commission Report.  While the recommendations are all necessary to protect the U.S. critical infrastructure from cyberspace attack, it falls short in protecting the “cognitive security” of the U.S. population.  Douglas Murray’s recent book, The Madness of Crowds, quotes Charles MacKay, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”  Perception IS reality. Individuals, communities, geographic regions and nation states all have collective perspectives.  In the past, when various groups obtained their information, they received it through generally similar methods such as major news organizations.  This gave everyone a basic level of similar understanding. As stated, the future social media information environment will be much more fragmented and disconnected where confirmation bias is the norm. 

Through the convergence of these new technologies and malign adversarial influences, the ‘collective’ understanding will be highly inflamed and fractured into much smaller, narrower realities.  This creates fertile ground for adversaries that have the means to influence or manipulate those perspectives.  Whether that perception is reality or not means very little if the individual or micro-faction believes it to be reality.  The future of the republic does not depend on U.S. military superiority and the physical war-fighting capability.  It depends on the United States’ ability to defend and counter the information and cognitive war that will take place in the collective shared understanding of every U.S. citizen.  The United States is an amateur going up against seasoned experts in this future fight. Without a dramatic change in how the U.S. understands and defends in this new battleground, it will lose.


LtCol Andrew Straley USMC (Ret) transitioned in 2017 and works at Command Post Technologies in Southeast Virginia.  He is currently providing cyberspace warfare and information operations consulting services to the Joint Staff. 

About the Author(s)

LtCol Andrew Straley USMC (Ret) transitioned in 2017 and works at Command Post Technologies in Southeast Virginia.  He is currently providing cyberspace warfare and information operations consulting services to the Joint Staff.  



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:18am

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