Perspective: Time for a Commission on Information Warfare
Information warfare continues to play a big role in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia continue to target and jam one another’s drones. They jam and intercept communications. Although cyber weapons have generated limited physical effects, it’s not for lack of trying. James Lewis—Director of CSIS’s Strategic Technology Program—notes that Ukraine mounted a strong cyber defense with support from allied nations that stymied Russian offenses. Russian hackers targeted satellite internet provider, Viasat, which knocked thousands of Ukrainians offline. But perhaps the largest game-changer is the strategic information environment—or narrative warfare. Ukraine’s unexpected strength has clearly won the sympathy of western Europe, and that—coupled with normal national interest—encouraged a broad range of military aid. Most notably: Lithuania crowd-sourced 5 million euros to buy Ukraine a Bayraktar TB-2 drone, which Turkey then donated for free.
Real-time cyber attacks monitored by 275th Cyberspace Squadron, Air National Guard, June 2017. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service: Public Domain.
The role of information warfare in the Ukraine conflict reflects a larger truth that warfare is increasingly dependent on information. And the United States must ensure the country is prepared. The United States through an act of Congress should commission a blue-ribbon panel to assess the state of American information warfare capabilities, organization, doctrine, training, and simply awareness across the armed services and supporting national security agencies. The commission should aim to critically assess the state of current information warfare capabilities, identify gaps in those capabilities, and chart a way-forward to closing the gaps and overall improving the ability of the United States to wage information conflict. A particular focus should be on how the United States national security apparatus should respond to the major shifts in the information environment from artificial intelligence-enabled disinformation to the disruption of local media and micro-targeting information. Given the tricky domestic politics of even defensive activities aimed at the US public, the commission may need to divide the work into two parts: a first volume of findings looking at strategic information operations, and the second looking at information management on the battlefield.
The Criticality of Information Warfare
Information warfare often is great power competition. American power depends on a network of alliances from Japan, Australia, South Korea, and other partners to the West to NATO on the East. Information operations may strengthen or weaken those relationships. Russian disinformation operations have aimed to exacerbate fractures in the NATO alliance and hopefully break the alliance apart; encourage Britain’s separation from the European Union; and inflame already fiery American political tensions. Information operations may also confound alliance decision-making, particularly in NATO with its requirements for consensus in the North Atlantic Council and Military Committee. Plus, imagine a hacked or deep-faked report of a horrific attack by a US military official on a host nation civilian. That could certainly foster opposition to military basing, the hosting of specific units, or broader relations with the country. The global Internet means the ill-will may spread to other countries too.
If and when major conventional war does break out, information management is increasingly critical to the battlefield. Weapon systems are increasingly dependent on cyber, space, and electronic warfare systems. GPS supports precision targeting; F-35s run on 8 million lines of, unfortunately sometimes buggy, code; and intelligence, signals, and reconnaissance capabilities often rely on the electromagnetic spectrum.
New technologies raise the importance of information warfare even more, particularly unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and developments in cybersecurity. The recent conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Ukraine and Russia have demonstrated the relevance—if not criticality—of unmanned systems, even in peer on peer conflict. With the United States and adversaries developing a wide range of ever more advanced unmanned aerial, surface, ground, and subsurface vehicles, the role of unmanned systems will likely grow even further. That matters because unmanned system—and particularly autonomous systems and drone swarms—have significant information warfare dependencies. Unmanned systems typically rely on electromagnetic spectrum-based communication for command and control, and use GPS satellites for navigation. As essentially flying computers, unmanned systems are also vulnerable to cyber attacks either in the field, or prior to engagement to degrade military effectiveness. If the growth of unmanned, and autonomous systems creates a future defined by small, distributed units (e.g., missile barges), then the links between those units are how those units integrate into a coherent whole becomes critical. That means communications are a requirement.
The State of Information Warfare
To many, American information warfare capabilities are in a bad way. The more optimistic might call information warfare increasingly contested. According to Major General John Morrison, Commanding General of the US Army Center for Excellence: “When it comes to electronic warfare, we are outgunned . . . We are plain outgunned by peer and near-peer competitors.” Likewise, a 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that from 2012 to 2017, “[Department of Defense] testers routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapon systems that were under development.” And in space, the Defense Intelligence Agency recently assessed: “As the number of spacefaring nations grows and space and counterspace capabilities become more integrated into military operations, the U.S space posture will be increasingly challenged and on orbit assets will face new risks.”
Often, it’s not even clear what information warfare even means. The Congressional Research Service has also noted there is no official definition of information warfare. Analysts use the term sometimes to refer exclusively to strategic-level information warfare aimed at, for example, shaping public opinion akin to Russian disinformation in the 2016 election. Other times the term focuses exclusively on tactical or operational information, such as command and control. Unlike the British government, the United States typically does not include space warfare in the scope of information warfare, yet communication satellites and satellites for position, navigation, and timing are clearly critical battlefield information.
Of course, the armed services are making new efforts and those should not be poo-pooed. US Army Cyber Command expanded its mission to include full-spectrum cyber operations, electronic warfare, and information operations writ large. Technologies are being developed that make guided weapons more resistant to jamming. Plus, research is ongoing to make unmanned systems less dependent on electromagnetic spectrum and GPS. But those activities do not appear guided by integrated strategy or organization. Plus adversaries are innovating too, like China's Strategic Support Force to combine different elements of information warfare into a single organization, along with supporting artificial intelligence capabilities.
The Need for a New Commission
Information warfare is critical to great power competition, before, during, and after bullets fly. Information influences the strategic environment, building, maintaining, and breaking alliances. On the battlefield, diffusing units and remotely operated weapons and platforms mean communication links are critical. New technologies, particularly autonomous systems, increase information dependencies even more. Unfortunately, the United States faces serious challenges on multiple dimensions of information warfare. A congressionally-appointed Commission on Information Warfare would aim to strengthen that capability. Specifically, the Commission should aim to:
- Define information warfare: Before the Commission can be started, a brief effort is required to better define information warfare, identify agencies involved in information warfare, and how those efforts interact across strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Clear definitions will also be necessary to establish a reasonable scope and timeline for completion of the commission.
- Assess information warfare challenges: The Commission should examine the information warfare challenges the United States faces from structural and technological trends in the information environment to adversary approaches to manipulate and exploit that environment.
- Conduct a fact-finding mission on the state of American information warfare: the Commission should inventory American platforms, systems, organizations, workforce, doctrine, concepts, and related information warfare capabilities across each armed service and supporting agencies.
- Identify gaps: the Commission should figure out where the United States is not doing as good a job as it could be, and, particularly, which gaps hold the United States back the most;
- Develop actionable policies: The United States must identify specific, concrete next steps on how to go about closing identified gaps; and
- Develop an integrated strategy: Specific policy, capability, and organizational capabilities need to be considered as part of an aggregate whole that sets out core values, principles, and ideas that animate information warfare across the joint service.
The need to manage, maintain, and manipulate information increasingly dominates the modern battlefield. The United States needs a concerted effort to make sure it maintains leadership.