Small Wars Journal

Tactical CEMA in Cognitive Spaces

Sun, 04/30/2017 - 5:34am

Tactical CEMA in Cognitive Spaces

Patrick Duggan

The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.[1]


-- B. H. Liddell Hart

Modern warfare is founded on networks and tactical cyber and electromagnetic activities (CEMA) provide critical keyholes to unlocking their cognitive spaces.  Over the last 16 years, advances in regional adversary technical capabilities have eroded the U.S. military’s multi-domain superiority and now pose sophisticated challenges that require the re-examination of all assumptions.  But more difficult doesn’t mean unwinnable.  Recent U.S. Army CEMA initiatives promise to be indispensable new means for commanders to gain tactical advantage, not just in the physical sense, but in the cognitive as well.  Spurred by the recent U.S. Army and Marine Corps concept of multi-domain battle,[2] this paper advances the notion of ‘window-chaining’ as a new cognitive term of art to help visualize its “temporary windows of advantage”[3] and use CEMA as the means to arrange their multi-simultaneity into cognitive networks at the tactical level.  Magnified by important corollaries of war, near-peer parity will force commanders to increasingly step-back from direct, tangible, and kinetic solutions, to examine indirect, invisible, and psychological ones instead.  In the end, to win a fight against a rival competitor isn’t about overpowering his technical capabilities, as much as overwhelming his mind.

A Tactical Example

Consider a hypothetical scenario where an Infantry Platoon Leader on a reconnaissance mission, spots two enemy tanks in an open desert.  While the tanks present ripe targets to destroy at the physical level, what would window-chaining do instead?  In lieu of destroying the two tanks with airpower, which depends upon air superiority, or attacking them with direct or indirect fires, which jeopardize his position, the Platoon Leader can use CEMA to detect and compromise a vulnerability in one of the tank’s communication access points.  Then, he could inject malware that spreads throughout the entire tank squadron which sends an urgent call for a quick reaction force (QRF) stating that the two tanks are under attack.  The Platoon Leader could then jam all follow on communication, leaving the tanks unwitting to their own compromise and QRF on the way.  Then, the Platoon Leader could link the abstract to the physical and send a false indirect fire mission to a previously compromised enemy artillery battery timed to land when the QRF arrives.

However, killing the maximum number of enemy was not the Platoon Leader’s aim.  Instead, it was killing the maximum amount of enemy will, and in order to do that, the Platoon Leader filmed the whole thing.  Now, armed with fresh footage of artillery explosions and burning tank hulks, he broadcasts the entire video across the enemy tank squadron for maximum psychological effect.  In essence, the Platoon Leader uses CEMA to create and exploit a new localized network of cognitive maneuver at the tactical level.  However, the Platoon Leader is not done.  He is also tethered[4] to a remote CEMA support cell which accesses larger cognitive networks specifically aimed to undermine adversary support for the war at home.  Using non-attributable means, the CEMA support cell employs Social Media platforms to target the adversary unit’s hometown and installations.  While still abiding by the law of armed conflict, the support cell can and does precisely target a wide range of actors sabotaging their will and weakening their resolve.

The Tactical CEMA Problem

The proliferation of smarter technology begets even smarter employment, and the inexorable pace of its advance has armed regional adversaries at the tactical level with new means and methods to leverage sophisticated capabilities across all domains.  Today, tactical commanders must seek, create, and exploit ‘windows of advantage’ not just in the physical, but across invisible battlefields extended across space and time.  No longer are there clear lines of maneuver or roadmaps to victory, but rather opaque windows of abstracted opportunities and vulnerabilities that open and close in every domain.  So while the need for the U.S. Army to push CEMA to the tactical edge has never been greater, it remains only part of a solution; just as important, are developing smarter concepts to use them. 


Window-chaining is a new cognitive term of art to help visualize CEMA as the means to better create discrete windows of advantage across every domain.  These windows can be based on data, applications, software, protocol, access points, endpoints, routers, gateways, or any infinite number of ever-growing technologies.  Once created, they are ‘chained’ into cognitive networks and can be actuated inside a flexible framework of tactical micro-strategies in cognitive spaces.  The logic of the concept follows that CEMA tools can be used multi-dimensionally to create new domain connections, and based off the particular friendly-adversary situation, lead to temporary yet inchoate windows of advantage.  These windows are then chained like mesh to serve as a new type of network, so that when an adversary counteracts a vector in one domain, he becomes mentally exposed in another.  Window-chaining is the art of visualizing multi-dimensional abstractions, designing new “sinews of maneuver,” [5] and then exploiting those new networks against human factors.

Window-chaining is not fixated on killing threats, technical components, or dependent on end to end processes.  Unlike cyber kill-chains which are “a systematic process to target and engage an adversary to create desired effects,”[6] window-chaining is a cognitive term of art which focuses on correctly tying the multi-simultaneity of fleeting windows for maximum psychological effect.  Window-chaining is not an “integrated, end-to-end process described as a ‘chain’ because any one deficiency will interrupt the entire process,”[7] but rather, discrete windows which can and do execute independent of another, but when correctly chained like mesh can provide localized networks of cognitive maneuver at the tactical level.  Window-chaining is not a vector or threat based methodology, but rather a concept to help commanders engineer a rapidly growing zoo of technology and multi-domain connections into a more decisive design.  In short, window-chaining is about achieving cognitive lethality in the prospect of peer to peer war.    

New Practice

Near-peer parity will have profound impacts on tactical commanders.  No longer will they be assured the luxury of a QRF or emergency airpower when things go awry, but must increasingly step-back from every battlefield they see at the physical level, to visualize the invisible elements they don’t.  Since window-chaining is human-centric, killing the enemy and causing physical damage is subordinate and incidental to achieving longer-term cognitive effects.  As the U.S. Army loses multi-domain superiority, the concept of window-chaining can help commanders make the inevitable mental shift away from the direct and physical to the indirect and abstract.  Mobilizing tactical CEMA’s cognitive potency will create more energy and impact than kinetic effects. 

Near-peer parity will also magnify important corollaries of war, to wit the U.S. Army achieving decisive action ≠ killing the enemy ≠ winning the war.  Instead, as U.S. Army technical dominance declines so too will its prospects for decisive action, and even if decisive action is achieved, as adversary technical countermeasures continue to improve, that decisive action’s results will lead to diminishing returns.  Furthermore, even if countermeasures are thwarted and the enemy is killed, that certainly does not mean he is defeated or an enduring cognitive outcome is achieved.  If anything, the last 16 years of industrial-scale killing against non-technically advanced adversaries teaches us that killing the enemy is increasingly irrelevant.  Instead, to truly defeat the enemy, you must break his will. 

The U.S. Army’s Cyber Electromagnetic Activities Support to Corps and below (CSCB) has been a much needed catalyst for CEMA experimentations at the tactical level.  CSCB has made great strides at enabling Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to learn how to employ, develop, and refine CEMA’s practice at the National Training Centers.  CSCB is neither “a digital panacea, or a Pandora’s Box,”[8] but simply a first step in CEMA innovation at the tactical level.  Efforts to fuse CEMA have been extremely successful at creating new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for multi-domain battle, and have resulted in increased situational awareness, improved maneuver, and enhanced force protection.  However, as the increased availability of CEMA capabilities at the tactical level normalizes their potential and innovates TTPs, so too, will it spur new thinking.  Indeed, the application of tactical CEMA can enable significant cognitive outcomes with minimal kinetic action, “making it possible to influence different target groups immediately and with less effort needed to attain similar results than relying on efforts on the kinetic level alone.”[9]  Soon, instead of commanders asking how CEMA can support a BCT’s kinetic action, they will ask how a BCT can support CEMA’s cognitive action.

The diffusion of U.S. Army tactical CEMA can provide critical keyholes from which to unlock future cognitive attacks.  These attacks may borrow from a whole host of methods and approaches.  Whether cognitive hacking, which “refers to a computer or information system attack that relies on changing human users’ perceptions and corresponding behaviors,”[10] or borrowing from Martin Libicki’s semantic attacks, which manipulate information that is deliberately fed to an adversary,[11] or signature attacks, which exploit the vulnerabilities of adversary patterns of behavior, cognitive attacks are an umbrella term which easily captures them all.  Cognitive attacks can exploit human blind spots, biases, decision making heuristics, preferences, target the way adversaries assign meaning to content, exploit human machine interfaces, take covert or overt approaches, use misinformation, manipulate information, present unreal problems, and on and on.  The most important point about cognitive attacks is to be most effective, all they need are strategies to put them together.

Cognitive CEMA Micro-Strategies

Micro-strategies represent a commander’s intent for the design of tactical CEMA in cognitive spaces, and provide the organizing body for window-chaining the means, methods, and manners for how CEMA is employed.  All micro-strategies are inherently asymmetric and underpinned by the core elements of psychological, information, and special warfare, and are miniaturized versions of their larger counterparts, to include the strategies of preclusion, attacking will, and cultural stand-off.[12]  The key point to micro-strategies is that domain dominance is not required.  Instead, they “strive to see the world through the adversary’s eyes to understand his beliefs, motives, and mind,”[13] and use window-chaining to target that consciousness, whether projecting abstractly or in conjunction with actions in the physical world.  Micro-strategies use CEMA as the means to rapidly hop from domain to domain, to a specific point, or place, or time just long enough to chain a window of temporary advantage to another, and then into new cognitive networks that coerce, impair, or persuade adversary calculations.   

The micro-strategy of preclusion is aimed at preventing or limiting an adversary’s freedom of maneuver or deny him the ability to mass combat power at all.[14]  It is conceptually similar to Anti-Access/Anti-Denial, but differs in respect that instead of keeping an enemy out of an area, it emphasizes keeping him tied up inside.  Preclusion is meant to defeat or deny victory to a technologically-superior enemy,[15] and focuses efforts towards creating and presenting endless alternatives which exhaust adversaries and result in fruitless return.  Preclusion focuses on containing an adversary, not in the Westphalia sense of territorial or physical integrity, but in the hopelessness, isolation, and futility of his plight.  In short, preclusion isolates his mind and feeds his self-doubt.

Defeating enemy-will is the second example of a micro-strategy and is specifically designed to undermine and destroy the adversary’s will to fight.  It epitomizes the notion that “victory does not always go to the best-trained, best-equipped, and most technologically advanced force,”[16] but to the one who best understands and masters the cognitive fight.  Attacking enemy-will values psychological impact above all else, and employs CEMA to inflict highly-visible embarrassing losses, whether fabricated or real, shame the enemy, pit elements of an adversary against one another, and a host of other methods.  Emphasis is placed on flipping influential enemy leaders, undermining the legitimacy of their cause, and targeting based off morale rather than military necessity.

The last example of a micro-strategy is cultural standoff,[17] and is all about harnessing the abundant and underutilized invisible power of local socio-cultural information.  Cultural standoff specifically focuses CEMA on better understanding the context of people’s lives and cultures and then using that knowledge to transform indirect influence into coercive means.  CEMA provides tactical commanders new keyholes to better view and understand local human interactions, and is a strategy to convert sociocultural, political, and historical factors into sharper wedges to fracture ideological, ethnic, tribal, religious, and national factions.  Cultural stand-off is about finding points of leverage in the socio-cultural details and then using that understanding for cognitive objectives.     


The proliferation of smarter technology begets even smarter employment, and the inexorable pace of its advance has armed regional adversaries at the tactical level with new means and methods to leverage sophisticated capabilities across all domains.  While technology enhances a near-peer competitor’s kinetic lethality and precision, so too, does it offer the U.S. Army new potent opportunities in the cognitive realm.  Spurred by the recent U.S. Army and Marine Corps concept on multi-domain battle,[18] this paper advances the notion of ‘window-chaining’ as a new cognitive term of art to help visualize its “temporary windows of advantage” and use CEMA as the means to arrange their multi-simultaneity into cognitive networks at the tactical level.  These localized networks offer powerful new means to channel abstract and fleeting windows of opportunity into more enduring cognitive effects, and defeating a rival competitor not based off technical capabilities, but by dominating his mind.

End Notes

[1] B.H. Liddell Hart, “Sherman Soldier Realist American,” (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993), X.

[2] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command White Paper, “Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century,” February 24, 2017. 1. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Tethering tactical cyber back to national level agencies and authorities is an idea of LTG Edward Cardon, U.S. Army, in several articles and speeches.

[5] Chris Telley, “The Sinews of Multi-Domain Battle,” RealClearDefense, December 30, 2016. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[6] Eric M. Hutchins, Michael J. Clopper, and Rohan M. Amin, Intelligence-Driven Computer Network Defense Informed by Analysis of Adversary Campaigns and Intrusion Kill (Lockheed Martin Corporation) 4. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Michael Klipstein and Michael Senft, “Cyber Support to Corps and below: Digital Panacea or Pandora’s Box,”, October 19, 2016. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[9] Gabi Siboni, “The First Cognitive War,” Institute for National Security Studies Insight, 216. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[10] George Cybenko, Annarita Giani, Paul Thompson, “Cognitive Hacking,” in Advances in Computers (Dartmouth, NH: Dartmouth College) October 6, 2003.  1 (accessed April 26, 2017)

[11] Paul Thompson, “Utility-Theoretic Information Retrieval, Cognitive Hacking, and Intelligence and Security Informatics,” 1. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[12] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G-2, Operational Environments to 2028: The Strategic Environment for Unified Land Operations. August 20, 2012, 33-42. (accessed April 26, 2017)

[13]Sebastian J. Bae, “Cyberwarfare: Chinese and Russian Lessons for US Cyber Doctrine,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, entry posted May 7, 2015, 1.  (accessed April 26, 2017)

[14] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G-2, Operational Environments to 2028: The Strategic Environment for Unified Land Operations. August 20, 2012, 33.  (accessed April 26, 2017)

[15] Ibid.,33.

[16] Ibid., 35.

[17] Ibid., 42.

[18] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command White Pape, “Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century,” February 24, 2017, 1. (accessed April 26, 2017)


About the Author(s)

COL Patrick Duggan is a career Special Forces Officer, participating in both invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and commanding combat and operational deployments across the Middle East and Asia.  He is a designated Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Information Systems Security Management Professional (ISSMP), and has authored numerous articles about Cyber-Operations, to include the 2015 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Research and National Security Paper, "Strategic Development of Special Warfare in Cyberspace."